Peggy Nelson on new media narratives: “Every Twitter account is a character”
We talked this week with Peggy Nelson, a new media artist who has spent the last several years doing digital and virtual storytelling. While Nelson’s work is rooted in conceptual art rather than journalism, she has created stories in nearly every medium, including some we hadn’t thought of (like PowerPoint and iPhone Apps). Nelson came to our attention when she presented in January at the Boston Bookfuturists Meetup. In these excerpts from our talk, she discusses Twitter novels, the core elements of story, and how journalists can most effectively use social media.
How would you describe what you do?
I do new media art with a focus on decentralized, episodic storytelling—I’m thinking of the things I’ve done very recently, which are the Twitter projects @adelehugo and @enoch_soames. And I’ve done some what I guess you would call walking tours with augmented reality that either involved sound pieces or 2D barcodes, where you take a picture with your phone and then it brings up a web page depending on where you are. It weaves itself together into a kind of a narrative. I’ve done that in Boston and Nevada and a couple of different places. So they’re all stories told in little bits at a time, with a lot of gaps.
You’ve worked on stories in just about every medium—even PowerPoint. How do you think about the idea of story?
I’ve always been a lover of anecdote and telling a good tale at a cocktail party or family Thanksgiving. I’m attentive to oral tradition, making that as good as it can be. But that feeds into the fact that I’m the kind of person who walks around, and in my head, I’m captioning things. I see a funny thing, and I come up with a one-liner to describe it.
If I had worked at a newspaper back in the day, my ideal job would have been to write the comments under the pictures. I don’t know if it even was a separate job, but I would have been a caption writer. So these two strains appear in my life and my personality: the raconteur/tale-teller and the captioning person. The reason I’m drawn to experimental storytelling is that it brings those two things together.
The augmented reality stuff and the Twitter stuff, and the PowerPoint, and the animation that I did at SXSW in 2006, which was an old-style slide show—those are all telling stories in a list of captions or sentences. I find that appeals to me when I do it in these media, but I don’t want to read a book that’s all lists.
I know some authors do that quite well. But for myself, I’d rather use all this other stuff than just see a list printed on a page. I guess because I want to play with the rhythm. There’s a strong comic strain in my work, and comedy is often very dependent on the pauses you take. Maybe that’s the appeal to me—but then also I’m attracted to what’s new.
Tell me a little about the two Twitter feeds.
@adelehugo is what I’m calling a Twitter movie, but it could also a Twitter novel or a re-enactment. It’s based on a true story. Adele Hugo was the youngest daughter of Victor Hugo and was also a very talented writer and musician, very popular, and a proto-feminist. At a crucial point in her mid- 20s, she met a guy who was a kind of a player, and she really fell for him, and she never lost that obsession that he was the one. She spent the rest of her life hatching these very creative, elaborate schemes to get him back.
She essentially lived a very virtual life. So I thought I’d bring her back to the 21st century and see how she fares here. My idea was that I would open a Twitter account in her name and essentially tell her story from her point of view, as if she was Twittering it. I expected the project to go for about a year, and it looks on track to do that.
What about @enoch_soames?
Adele Hugo is “history” history. Enoch Soames is kind of intellectual history. He was a character in a short story written in 1919 by Max Beerbohm, in which Max Beerbohm is also a character in the story. He meets this guy Enoch Soames. Enoch is upset because he’s a writer and no one is paying attention to him—he thinks he’s a genius, and he’s not recognized. A lot of the famous people of the day are woven into the story as ignoring Enoch.
Enoch decides that he’s going to make a deal with the devil. He’s going to go 100 years into the future, read all about himself in the reference materials at the British Library. He’ll get that five minutes of satisfaction that people are paying attention. He makes the deal, and off he goes. He comes back, and just before the devil whisks him off, he says that he’s very upset with Max because the only reference to himself that he found in the British Library was as a character in a fictional short story written by a guy named Max Beerbohm.
So I thought I’d bring Enoch back as a Twitter character, and that way he gets a little more reality than he had before. He was a real fictional character, and now he’s going to be a real virtual character. He’s kind of an ongoing project. He’s going to tell his story, but he might continue on. Whereas Adele is going to finish her story and then she’ll be done.
Most newspaper and magazine readers are comfortable with narratives that follow a very traditional path. In my head, it’s kind of a 19th century construct: a print piece with a classic, chronological, single major narrative arc—I’m generalizing here. Your work seems to take that apart, blowing up that traditional narrative. Do you worry about readers or viewers being able to follow the narrative? Do you worry about accessibility?
That’s been something that we’ve been talking about a lot in my artistic circle. I have not solved the problem for myself. I wonder how much to explain, and how to get people to really follow it. There’s a lot to be said for the traditional 19th-century narrative, and I enjoy that as well. I don’t see my work as trying to replace that, I see it more as accompanying that for the new media.
When I joined Twitter, I realized that the people who use it are checking it pretty consistently throughout the day. So I want to make an art project specifically for this medium that these people are checking anyway. I wasn’t thinking, “Okay, no one is reading The Atlantic anymore, so I’m going to substitute with something like this.” I was thinking, “Okay, people are using this a lot. It’s creeping up to be a bigger part of their day and more of what they’re thinking about.”
So I want to put art in there as well, so they’re not just getting another link to BoingBoing. To make a scripted narrative for this space. So in a way, it’s kind of shoehorning the 19th century story idea into the new medium, one in which people are so fractured and they only have 15 seconds to look at something anyway.
Accessibility is a challenge, and I’m going to continue to work on that issue. When Adele is done, my next Twitter project involves a pretty well-known story that I hope will be another step toward comprehension and also people enjoying it. I want them to enjoy the experience itself and not just say “Well, it’s an intellectual project, and isn’t that interesting.”
Adele Hugo is a real person you’ve fictionalized. Enoch Soames is a fictional character you’ve treated as real. Journalists can’t be that free in inventing content for their narratives. Do you have thoughts on how to keep the dynamic nature of the narratives you’ve created while hewing to what an editor would see as the facts?
News is already episodic. We can’t have all the news from everywhere and everyone all the time. There’s info overload and there’s compassion fatigue. We had been doing is corralling it into the daily or twice-daily paper or the nightly news or modes like that. Now, with Twitter and live blog posting, you can see it in a way as just faster episodes. But we still need the filter. We still need someone to construct the stories out of all the information coming in.
A lot has been made of the crowdsourcing of Twitter, with the airplane in the Hudson, the people standing on the wing, and the recent political upheaval in Iran—people posting their thoughts from being on the ground. And it’s great raw material, but it still needs to be made into a story.
All stories or narratives have aesthetic components. The beginning, the middle, the end. A climax in there. You don’t want to bury the lede. You want things in the correct proportion so you’re not making something more sensational than it already is. So the reporter, the writer, has a really strong role in constructing this artistic object that’s completely based in fact. He or she wants to make that construction so that the story is accessible and exciting but completely truthful. The structure of the story should be enhancing the truthfulness.
There’s also a thing with Twitter in particular. Say you’re on the street, and you’re posting to your Twitter feed as well as developing your stories for a news paper or your blog. Every Twitter account is a character, every Twitter account is a performance. Some people are less scripted: “I’m here. This is what I had for breakfast. This is what I’m doing now. Now I’m bored.” Even then, all of those things are not really the person; they’re a part of the person. They’re emphasizing certain things and deemphasizing others, whether or not they’re fully reworking it or directing it.
There’s a quality of performance involved in a Twitter feed that may be mirrored a bit by the news anchor, or Barbara Walters doing a special show, but not so much by the person writing an article with just a byline. The responsibility for the reporter using these new forms is not only to do a fast, coherent narrative on the back end and then Tweet from that perspective, so that you’re actually telling a story rather than just whatever comes in whenever it comes in. Reporters also have to build their characters so that people know what they’re getting.
There are a lot of different stances for reporters to take. You can be the voice of authority. You can be a kind of Hunter S. Thompson. You can be embedded. You can be the more emotional, in-depth “I’m going to go interview this one person or this one family that will be a metaphor for the whole story” kind of reporter.
You can establish an identity for your character in Twitter really fast—I’d say in maybe 10 posts, you can sort of be that person. I think the reporter who uses Twitter needs to do that in a quite conscious way, so that you’re not deconstructing yourself or confusing people’s expectations.
It’s also the way you draw readers. If someone is on there and I think they know everything about this topic, and they say it well, then I’m going to follow them. But if they’re sometimes really excited and sometimes really distant, I’m going to get confused about their voice. And I might not be so into it.
You can even see that on TV. Anderson Cooper has his fans, Morley Safer has his fans, and Diane Sawyer has hers. They develop an emotional connection to a character and a voice. You need to be very aware of voice in new media and use it to your advantage.
It gives a lot more responsibility to the reporter and less to the structure of the news organization that’s grown up around reporting. But in a way it replaces it with a new structure, one technology for another. Right now, it’s really foregrounding reportage.
Any other thoughts on where storytelling is headed?
This is a really exciting time to be a writer. You can still do so-called traditional formats. But then there are so many just-barely explored opportunities to tell interesting stories in new ways. These new experiments can sometimes just be experiments, and there are going to be a lot of stuff out there that’s not so good, that tries and fails, like anything else.
But I think these new experiments offer us a way to bring in additional voices and work the underlying journey that a reader is going to go through. Ideally, in the best possible world, we’ll help readers make the connections from what they’re reading online to real connections in their lives. Increasing information awareness and increasing compassion—that would be my ideal. I won’t get there, but you’ve got to have an ideal really far off, so you can push the work that much further.
[For more on new media approaches to narrative, see our post on January's Bookfuturists Meetup.]