I kicked off this week with a big, messy post about, basically, fan fiction. Now that I’ve talked it through a bit with my incredible fellow seminarians, I think my questions boil down to: What are the aspects of a creative text that are most conducive to fostering fan fiction? and How do those attributes translate to nonfictional domains?
Here are the boundaries I’ll draw around my curiosity:
- I’m more interested in creative responses to discrete creative works (e.g. this in response to this) than I am in creative stuff made with creative tools (e.g. this built with this). That is to say, I’m less interested in the general phenomenon of people building things with games or tools that are about building things (e.g. what makes Legos so conducive to worldbuilding?).
- I’m more interested in the wealth (in all dimensions) of responses a work produces than in the inherent creativity of the work itself — the world built on top of or in response to a thing, rather than the world of the thing.
- I’m (ultimately) most interested in how these attributes of creative works apply outside the most familiar domains of fan fiction such as fantasy fiction, Star Wars, etc. I’m curious, for example, how one makes nonfiction that produces fan-nonfiction.
Some of the more unfamiliar examples that strike me as possibly alike enough to cluster with these things are:
- An interplay of visual artworks, like the Picasso and American Art exhibit, and particularly the range of artistic extensions of / responses to “The Studio.” (Including Picasso’s own extensions of that artwork.)
- Op-eds and punditry in major national newspapers and the sort of mirror-world that pundits fashion in concert with one another. (Thanks, Robin!)
- Parody Twitter accounts, like @MayorEmanuel.
Lastly, here are some of the nascent hypotheses I’m forming about aspects of a work that can help bring about world-extending:
- Expansiveness and/or continuity: The world should feel big and open enough that folks feel there’s room to play with it.
- Strong, recognizable systems: The rules and boundaries of the world should feel solid enough to provide a common structure to any world-extensions.
- Focus and blurriness: It seems important that there are areas of the world drawn in fairly vivid detail, but also aspects of the world presented only suggestively. Things to grab onto, and things to fill in.
- Fandom: This kinda goes without saying, but the work needs to have enough attractions that a critical mass of folks will fall in love with it.
There are a few other dimensions I haven’t reached the hypothesis stage for:
- What’s the effect of otherworldliness? Are works of fantasy more conducive to world-extending than works based more solidly in reality?
- How much of world-extension is related to things such as age and gender? We all seem particularly interested in extending worlds when we’re young; does the desire dissipate as we get older and busier?
- What about the degree of user/reader/watcher/listener investment in the text? To inspire fan-fiction, is there possibly a sort of attentional summit that, once ascended, begins to tunnel the person deeper and deeper into the world of the text?
Today and tomorrow, I’ll be crashing the #worldbuilding tag on Twitter to explore some of these questions. Do join me!
I had an eclectic but perhaps extra-fulfilling day using Twitter today. First, I wrote a lot of tweets: I hand-counted 165, including @-replies but excluding DMs. But it didn’t strike me as all that atypical a day, which might be all the more striking. It was Twitter at its best. I was reading and writing all day, just having a great time carrying on half-overheard conversations in public.
I wanted to hang on to just a few of those conversation nodes here, inspired partly by two tweets in particular:
Today was almost entirely a flow day for me. Call it navel-gazing if you want, but I want to hang onto it, mostly for the following reason:
When I was 7–10 years old, if you’d told me there’d be a machine that would let me read new things all day, I’d have fainted from happiness.
So here’s a little of what was flowing in my Twitter stream today.
Read the rest of this entry »
The Poke is a UK satirical site, a little bit like Chicago’s The Onion. Thursday, they published a fake news article about a version of Monopoly — complete with a fully-imagined and –illustrated fake gameboard — branded on the beloved HBO series The Wire:
“The Wire is all about corners,” says Hasbro spokesperson Jane McDougall, “and the Monopoly board is all about corners. It was a natural fit.”
Based around the journey a young gangster might take through the fictionalised Baltimore of the show, players move from corner to stoop, past institutions featured in successive series like the school system and the stevedores union, acquiring real estate, money and power before ending up at the waterfront developments and City Hall itself.
There’s a classic scene in the first season of The Wire where D’Angelo (nephew of the drug boss Avon Barksdale and one of the series’s many unlikely protagonists) tries to teach two young dealers who work for him (Bodie and Wallace) how to play chess. Chess quickly turns into an elaborate metaphor to describe the violent realities and unreal ideals of the drug world they all live in:
But of course, it turns out not just to describe the drug world, but any world seen through the lens of The Wire. The two sides of the chess board could be one drug gang warring against another — Avon vs Marlo Stansfield. It could be the police detail trying to catch and trap the leader of one of the gangs. In the world of the police, too, pawns are expendable, and the people at the top fall under a completely different logic. (Every so often, a pawn will be transformed — like Prez, the hapless street cop who becomes first an invaluable decoder and data-miner and eventually, a middle school math teacher.)
But the single-plane, A vs B world of chess is really only an adequate metaphor for the narrow world of The Wire’s first season, the immediate objectives that eventually get unravelled. As Stringer Bell tries to tell his partner Avon, “there are games beyond the game.”
That’s the world Stringer tries to navigate. You begin with drugs, fighting for corners. Then you step back, build institutions — other people work for you. Eventually, you transcend the street level and become a power broker, directing traffic but never touching the street. Then you take your ill-gotten capital — your Monopoly money — and turn it into real capital, by investing in (get this) real estate, political connections, legitimate businesses. Stringer Bell’s dream is Michael Corleone’s dream (which was Joe Kennedy’s dream). Power into wealth and back into power again. But it’s all just business.
That’s where Monopoly comes in. Like chess, Monopoly is about controlling territory. Unlike chess, it’s not neofeudal combat, with handed-down traditions and ideologies of strategy and honor — the illusion that everything is perfectly under the player’s control, that all the pieces in the game are visible.
Monopoly is transparently about money and greed. It lays bare the multiple, adjacent worlds and the interlocking systems that tie them together. (In The Wire, the worlds adjacent to drugs and cops include the ports, politics, the schools, and the media.) You gain territory and choose how you build on it, but you also roll dice and overturn hidden cards that can send you in a completely different direction. It’s actually absurdly easy for players to cheat — especially if you let them control the bank. And every time you pass Go, the game — at least in part — starts over again.
The Wire is about a lot of things — the decline of the American city, the futility of the war on drugs, the corruption of our institutions. It’s also about the gap between our ideologies of how things ought to be as opposed to the way they actually are. “You want it to be one way,” drug kingpin Marlo tells a worn-out security guard who tries to stop him from shoplifting. “But it’s the other way.”
Overwhelmingly, that gap plays out in the field of work. The second season, about the blue-collar port workers, is transparently about work — but really, every season is about workers, bosses, money, promotions, recognition. The innovation of The Wire with respect to its representation of drug gangs and cops is to present them as the mundane, kind of screwed-up workplaces that they are.
And capitalism has always been screwed-up about work. On the one hand, we’ve got Weber: the Protestant idea that work has an ethical value, that everybody has a calling and that we prove ourselves through our success. On the other, we’ve got Marx: the only way the system works is by extracting value from its workers, and the more value it can extract for less investment, the better the people at the top make out. “Do more with less,” as the newspaper editor, mayor, and police bosses say over and over again.
I think this is how I finally came to terms with The Wire’s last season, which added journalism to the mix. It’s about that disillusionment — the idea that the work of journalism has an intrinsic value, and the corruption of that through cost-cutting and self-serving behavior. And maybe that disillusionment is extra bitter for Simon, who couldn’t stand what capitalism did to his newspaper, his city, its employers, its politics. The gall is too thick.
Simon’s collaborator Ed Burns had a more reconciled view of it; he’d worked as a cop, as a teacher, then a screenwriter/producer, and seemed to find satisfaction in different parts of each of them. It’s Burns’s wisdom we get when Lester Freamon tells Jimmy McNulty — who (like Simon) unleashes his anger on anyone who tries to get between him and his work — “the job will not save you.”
A Wire-themed Monopoly board might have begun as a joke, but let me tell you, Hasbro: you definitely think about it. I posted the link on Twitter, and it was picked up by Kottke and then by Slate, who both attributed me. You wouldn’t believe the reaction people had to this. Just like the series itself, it struck a chord. Also, just think of all the quotes from the series you can use to talk trash while you play:
We sampled six cheeses, drank wine and champagne, and learned that cheese was invented in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C., when travelers carrying milk around in the sun in dried-out sheep stomachs noticed that it had begun to curdle and become delicious (this story sounded suspiciously Wiki to me, and indeed here it is, given as one possible explanation).
“This story sounded suspiciously wiki.” The obvious colloquial analogue would be “the story seemed fishy.” But note the distinction. A “fishy” story, like a “fish story,” is a farfetched story that is probably a lie or exaggeration that in some way redounds to the teller’s benefit. A “wiki” story, on the other hand, is a story, perhaps farfetched, that is probably backed up by no authority other than a Wikipedia article, or perhaps just a random web site. The only advantage it yields to the user is that one appears knowledgeable while having done only the absolute minimum amount of research.
While a fishy story is pseudo-reportage, a wiki story is usually either pseudo-scientific or pseudo-historical. Otherwise, wiki-ness is characterized by unverifiable details, back-of-the-envelope calculations, and/or conclusions that seem wildly incomensurate with the so-called facts presented.
Have folks heard this phrase in the wild? Is it unfair to Wikipedia, or to those who use it as a research source? Do we already have a better word to describe this phenomenon? (And: this phenomenon is all too real, and deserves a name, doesn’t it?)
Darkness at night is such an obvious and easily-neglected thing, probably because it’s no longer a problem. Our cities, even our houses, are made safe and accessible by electric light (and before that, gas lamps, candles, etc.).
But remember your experience of night as a child, the confounding absoluteness of darkness, and you begin to understand a fraction of what night was like prior to modern conveniences. The conquering of night might be the greatest event that wasn’t one in human history, certainly of the past 200 years — right up there with the massive declines in infant/mother death in childbirth or the emergence of professional sports.
Geoff Managh at BLDGBLOG lays it down with a tidy piece of paleoblogging by proxy:
Writing about the human experience of night before electricity, A. Roger Ekirch points out that almost all internal architectural environments took on a murky, otherworldy lack of detail after the sun had gone down. It was not uncommon to find oneself in a room that was both spatially unfamiliar and even possibly dangerous; to avoid damage to physical property as well as personal injury to oneself, several easy techniques of architectural self-location would be required.
Citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book Émile, Ekirch suggests that echolocation was one of the best methods: a portable, sonic tool for finding your way through unfamiliar towns or buildings. And it could all be as simple as clapping. From Émile: “You will perceive by the resonance of the place whether the area is large or small, whether you are in the middle or in a corner.” You could then move about that space with a knowledge, however vague, of your surroundings, avoiding the painful edge where space gives way to object. And if you get lost, you can simply clap again.
Managh also thrills at Ekirch’s other discovery: “Entire, community-wide children’s games were also devised so that everyone growing up in a village could become intimately familiar with the local landscape.” Not only would you know your house in the dark, you would learn to know the architecture of your entire town. Managh asks:
But this idea, so incredibly basic, that children’s games could actually function as pedagogic tools—immersive geographic lessons—so that kids might learn how to prepare for the coming night, is an amazing one, and I have to wonder what games today might serve a similar function. Earthquake-preparedness drills?
Having spent most of the morning singing songs like “clean it up, clean it up, pick up the trash now” and “It’s more fun to share, it’s more fun to share,” I don’t see kids’ games as pedagogic tools as such a leap, although the collectivity of the game and the bleakness of the intent give me a chill. “If the French come to try to burn this village at night, the children must know exactly where they are before they begin to run.” Cold-blooded! They probably all learned songs about how kitchen knives and pitchforks could be used against an enemy, too. “Every tool can kill, every tool can kill…”
It’s probably also a good idea, if you’ve got kids, to teach them a thing or two about their neighborhoods. Not to get all grumpy and old, but in the absence of the random-packs-of-children-roaming-the-town-alone parenting style I grew up with, kids are probably not picking up the landmarks by osmosis. What will they do when the zombies attack? Use GPS? Call a cab?
This Halloween story from Fake Steve Jobs reads like the lost script to the funniest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that never got made. (And there’s already a pretty funny one about Halloween.)
Thing is, I don’t give out candy. I know that’s what the kids want, but I’m sorry. Candy is poison. Would you hand out little capsules of strychnine? No, you would not. So why give out candy? It’s nothing but chemicals. Anyway, this has become this huge deal in Palo Alto. Big bad Mr. Jobs doesn’t give out candy. He gives out healthy pieces of fruit instead. Like apples. (Get it?) And at some point, many years ago, this became a problem. The spoiled little brats didn’t like getting apples. So they started to complain. Then one kid went a step further. He got his apple and walked down the walk and then turned and whipped it at the front door, splattering apple guts everywhere.
The next year, this became the cool thing to do. Go to the Jobs house, get your apple, walk a few feet, then turn and fire. The front of house looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. We had to hire a bunch of guys to come over with water guns and blast it clean. So the next year we shut down. No treats. No candy. Lights off. Stay away. You know what? The little fuckers went out and bought bags of apples on their own, and they came and fired them at our house anyway. Plus eggs. And bags of shit that I just pray was dog shit and not, well, you know.
So, okay, it’s war. I get it. The next year, I get a bunch of guys from Pixar to come over and we make the most amazing Halloween lawn you’ve ever seen, with shitloads of stupid coffins and ghosts and a skeleton playing the piano. We have music, and lights, the whole works. Meanwhile, Larry comes over and brings a bunch of Navy SEAL type guys that he knows. In addition to all the stupid Halloween decorations, we rig up water cannons on the perimeter of the yard and up in the trees, loaded with a mixture of water, bleach and gasoline. We plant IEDs in the lawn, loaded with rock salt, and at each corner we put a dispenser that blasts pepper gel. We lay exposed wires across the lawn carrying enough current to knock you out, but not kill you. Then we put on our black commando outfits, and blacken our faces, and we wait.
It’s been fascinating to me to watch the circulation of this clip of Louie CK on Conan O’Brien, loosely titled “Everything Is Amazing And No One Is Happy.” The appearance is
about eight months old (if anyone can track down an exact date, please let me know) over a year old, but I still regularly get links, embeds, forwards of it. What’s more, each highlights a different aspect — for some people, the clip is about the importance of thankfulness; for others, it marks generational change; it’s a good riff about the magic of new tech; and for still others, it’s a great attack on spoiled jerks.
Something about this resonates with people. It hit a sweet spot, and it’s on its way to becoming a modern classic.
You’re taking the “safety” part of “safety razor” too literally, grandma. Cut the strings and soar. Let’s hit it. Let’s roll. This is our chance to make razor history. Let’s dream big. All you have to do is say that five blades can happen, and it will happen. If you aren’t on board, then fuck you. And if you’re on the board, then fuck you and your father. Hey, if I’m the only one who’ll take risks, I’m sure as hell happy to hog all the glory when the five-blade razor becomes the shaving tool for the U.S. of “this is how we shave now” A…
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we should just ride in Bic’s wake and make pens. Ha! Not on your fucking life! The day I shadow a penny-ante outfit like Bic is the day I leave the razor game for good, and that won’t happen until the day I die!
We’ve been talking a lot about the future of digitization, about how much digitization needs to improve, about the severe limits that digitization still imposes on many things—books, for instance.
So, here’s a change of pace. Here is the almost perfectly digitizable object, almost perfectly digitized.
Small objects, easy to photograph in their entirety? Check.
Defined number of important views? Check. (Obviously two.)
Standard set of metadata? Check. (And click on one of the images above to see an example.)
So, given the ideal material for a digital archive, the American Numismatic Society delivers. There’s a powerful search engine but their collection is pretty browsable, too. And, listen, I only collect coins that I intend to spend on the train, but I defy you not to get a little lost in these pages.
And every coin has its own stable permalink! Swoon!
The only thing missing is that you can’t heft the coins, feel their contours. Fair enough. But I’ll bet you could even generate 3D models from these images, using the depth information implied by the shadows. When I finally have a home 3D printer I’ll crank out some of these guys and send ‘em around.
And you know, ancient coins are perfect tokens of historical imagination, especially when captured so crisply. They’re totally familiar but deeply strange. You can imagine keeping one in your pocket, feeling it in your hand.
Check these off the list. Now we just gotta get those books right.