you’re a blockhead, @charliebrown

In 2007, I gave a presentation at The Aesthetics of Trash: Reassessing Animation and the Comic at MMU about the internet and comics.

I
was less concerned with 'webcomics', which are essentially the
reproduction of print comics or panels on the web, but with the idea of
comics populating the web, using the unique qualities of both forms to
create new stories and engage the reader in new ways. I was interested
in the use of comics graphical style and character design as a way to
link a number of media together to create an expanded 'universe'
through using a mix of blogs, flickr sets, websites, tweets, video and
print to tell their stories, develop characters and create worlds.

In Understanding Comics,
Scott McCloud uses the term 'closure' to describe the way a reader is
guided from panel to panel on a comics page, hopping the gaps or
gutters between images
. Like a film editor or writer, McCloud suggests that the spaces
between the panels are as important as the panels themselves, the
spaces being where we as readers take the conceptual leap from one
moment to the next, fill in gaps and reach a better understanding of
the story and characters we are encountering.

I decided to look at McCloud's six types of closure and to expand
on them to attempt to create a possible framework for telling stories
online.



site to site
What
happens when we go from site to site as we surf the net? How do
elements like design, layout, tone of voice, usability etc. change the
our reading of the page? If a character discovers a shady corporation
online, how do their sites tell us who they are or suggest their
motives? The character we follow may have a myspace page, whereas the
shady corporation will likely have a professionally constructed site,
with controlled levels of access, and a less than shady public face.
Which site are we more likely to trust, which appears most authentic?

We
can break this down further into the types of sites characters may use;
a blogspot blog, facebook profile, a flickr set, an online store, a
corporately run CMS site. The character in my story may be a web
designer, so may create a fully featured site with fancy Flash elements
and navigation. Or she may be a blogger, using standard off the peg
tools as part of her site.

Sites can add a layer of reality to
the story; that is, characters will use or make the sites they would in
real life. As in the example above, if a character has a site which
appears out of context, it has the potential to make the story less
believable.

This is problematic in some ways – what if we are
dealing with a historical character or character who wouldn't use or
have access to the internet? I'm not assuming or suggesting that all
sites made and stories told should be first person, but site design (as
comic design) can be used set a mood, suggest a feeling or a space.

device to device
As more of our data is stored
on and moved through the cloud and made to be accessible across a range
of devices, layouts change and the reader is able to configure their
experience. RSS feeds enable the reader to receive and organise their
experience the way they want and even to reconfigure and re-present the
content through tumblr sites, pageflakes etc.

How do we move a
story through a number of devices, eg, from print comic to website to
mobile phone to games console, and how can we make use of the different
qualities of each? The linear reading experience and tactile quality of
the printed comic is different to the clickable interface of the
webpage, with numerous links inviting us to jump to the next page, and
is different again to the movement sensitive interfaces of new mobile
phones and games consoles.

time to time
As we
stumble upon or discover stories online, we are more likely to land
somewhere in the middle, rather than right at the beginning. Unlike a
novel or a film though, there is a traceable history we can follow,
through links, tags, datestamps etc. From that point, we are more likely to
skip through individual links or tags rather than find the point of
origin and read forward chronologically. As we read through expanded
narratives we jump time frames, piecing together the stories and
chronology from fragments.

Another aspect of time – time is
the gaps between our encountering of one story fragment and another.
For example, we might receive an email alerting us to a piece of story
through a link. Because the email is stored in our account, we might
decide to follow the link later in the day. In that gap, the story
keeps moving, with new elements being added, linked together and
tagged. We might be distracted by other things, preventing us from
returning to the story for some time, or we might choose to set time
aside to read it at a particular time. We are not immersed in the story
in the same way we might be with a book or DVD, but we are continuously
aware of it taking place, in real time, and we are in control of our
engagement with it.

media to media

The
way we read online is not restricted to text and images. We may
encounter parts of a story through video, interactive flash interfaces,
audio files, annotated slideshows, or virtual worlds.

We might
meet the characters from a story in a virtual world, see some grainy
footage of a key moment of the story posted on YouTube, add them as a
neighbour in Farmville. The different kinds of media enable a new set
of ways to engage with the story. The chat room or virtual world
enables direct communication in a live environment, the potential for
improvisation and collaboration, games potentially allow the reader to
embody the character to solve a puzzle or undertake a journey,
annotation in Flickr allows readers to add notes, links and hints to
other readers. Each opens up the possibility for new kinds of
engagement, moving between synchronous and asynchronous, one-to-one,
one-to-many and many-to-many.

author to author
If
a character blogs, adds videos to YouTube or photos to flickr, we are
able to comment directly on the story and interact with them. Fans may
take a character they like and write new stories for them, place them
in real world events or create a mashup with other stories and
characters. There is potential that the story becomes opened up to new
authors, as the readers rewrite the characters or stories themselves.
In an environment where any content is accessible and searchable, what
do we consider canon? More importantly, how can an author manage the
interaction of fans?

For example, if the character in my story has a blog, and someone adds a comment like "Hey
Bob! Just found your blog! It's Wendy, we went to school together!
Remember that time we found that tramps body out by the old factory?"
,
how do I as an author deal with that? Does Bob remember that? Does
Wendy become a character in the story, even if just for that single
revealing moment?

It was recently revealed that the twitter
profiles created for the key characters from C4's Peep Show were not
actually an official part of the series, but were created by a fan, Tom
Davenport
.
C4 and the writers of the show didn't block the tweets or even allude
to the fact that they weren't official. The tweets ran from the end of
series 5 up to and through series 6, often updating during broadcast
and providing commentary to the show in character(s). The tweets gave
another dimension to the characters and fleshed out the relationships
between them while maintaining the inner dialogue quality of the
original. This example of interaction demonstrates the potential for
fan material to enhance and add to the Peep Show universe, but what
would happen if the fan decided to kill one of the key characters off,
or to introduce new characters and situations?

We engage
in expanded narratives all the time. TV shows and films increasingly
offer us the possibility of interaction, through accompanying websites
and character profiles on social networks (The recent horror film Grace
had characters on twitter and facebook, as well as a fake site for the
midwifery clinic in the film). Others develop the idea further through
Alternate Reality Games. The TV series LOST built a conspiracy game
around the series, populated through websites, flashmobs and real life
interventions. The way we follow real world stories works in similar
ways. For example, our understanding of the Football Premiership is
developed through TV, attending games, following (and contributing to)
the gossip about the clubs and players in newspapers and online forums,
radio phone-ins, or nattering in the pub. Expanding 'closure' is an
attempt to understand the gaps we cross as we read, write and inhabit
online spaces.

Note: To accompany my original talk, I created
some mashup images of Love and Rockets Comics as webpages, posted in
the Transliteracy Notes Forum.

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4 thoughts on “you’re a blockhead, @charliebrown

  1. Hi Gareth, thanks for a really useful post with lots of questions to consider when thinking about story presentation online. This line caught my attention: “site design (as comic design) can be used set a mood, suggest a feeling or a space.” I find that I am often (90% of the time) put off reading or attempting to find my way through a poem or narrative online because I find the aesthetics so poor on many sites. I do sometimes persist, because of a recommendation or because I’m particularly interested in something other than the aesthetics, but it’s sometimes through gritted teeth! I know I am in a minority, but I believe it is a significant minority as I have met others who have a similar response. This also leads me to question whether your use of “we” is appropriate in all cases, e.g. when you say “we are more likely to skip through individual links or tags rather than find the point of origin and read forward chronologically”, which is the demographic that makes up your “we”? Isn’t it possible that people from a. different reading backgrounds and b. different personality types read online differently?

  2. Hi Tia
    Thanks for the response. I agree that aesthetics affect our reading of sites, and I don’t think you’re in the minority! It’s interesting that as people personalise their online experience more and more, through RSS feeds or iGoogle homepages for example, the designer is less in control of the visual aspects of their sites.
    I should have been more specific with the ‘we’, you’re right! People do read online in different ways, but I do think that the web tends to lead us to ‘skipping’, whether through content or time. For example, if I read an article on any news site, before I even get to the article, I’m presented with links inviting me to sign in or register, look at this offer, go to this section and so on. The page is more than likely split into columns, one containing the article, the other containing more ads, related articles, most read stories links. Even the article will be filled with links, again inviting me to click on them. So while the ‘we’ (perhaps wrongly) assumes we all do that, I do think that it is a general tendency in online reading.

  3. Hi Gareth, it strikes me that your description of reading online news sites could equally apply to reading print newspapers and magazines – flicking through pages, skipping from headline to subhead to pull-quote to caption… That’s the way they’re *designed* to be read. For the most part online news sites are aping their print counterparts/forebears. And the purpose of adverts in any media and any context is to distract us, to pull our attention away from whatever it was we were doing or thinking. Design is certainly a key element of transliteracy – visual design, interaction design, user experience design, etc.

  4. Hi Christine
    I agree with you. That’s what led me to McCloud and Understanding Comics in the first place I think.
    Here’s an advert from The Sun newspaper which spoofs the iPhone, which illustrates your point!

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