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What’s the buzz? Monkeying with story in the hive mind

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We have to start with the monkeys. The infinite number of monkeys that, given their own personal typewriters and an infinite amount of time, would produce the works of William Shakespeare. But even thought-experiments involving infinity have their limits.

The idea is not that some monkeys, or maybe even the entire infinity of them, would get together in an infinitely large conference room and compose the works together in an infinitely long meeting. Nor is it that one monkey, at one point, would manage to type “to be,” while another monkey, infinitely far away, would eke out “not to be,” and the whole corpus would somehow get cobbled together by an editor monkey, whom we must introduce for the purposes of this example as, “William Shakespeare.” No – the idea is that within these nested infinities there would occur a span of time during which the whole thing would be typed out, with a very little wiggle room; “Romeo and Juliet” might appear before “Titus Andronicus” this time, but if the “Quality of Mercy” speech were assigned to The Dane by mistake, the monkeys would have to start over.

This is the situation we’re in now, in terms of global thought-experiments. We’re the monkeys, many with access to more than one keyboard, on which we spend, if not an infinite amount of time, then far too much (as the current complaint goes). And our numbers, while not infinite either, are certainly greater than one single genius. And if none of us can be said to be the definitive next William Shakespeare, certainly the coherent production of even the most casual blogger far outstrips our cousins Bill, Willy, Skip, and the Shakester over there on the other branch of the family tree.

The hive mind—really?

Although within the heart of many a blogger beats a hope: the hope that one can be, if not Shakespeare 2.0, then maybe something better, something more. Maybe we can’t all go it alone? Maybe we should consider getting a conference room to host one of those infinitely long meetings?

And of course that’s exactly what we’ve done with the Internet.

Or so we say; sometimes in awe, sometimes in fear. We don’t usually phrase it in those terms; we tend to use a different biological metaphor, that of bees, and the hive. We’re all part of the hive mind now, the buzz of individual thoughts and signals the world over finally collected in one place, in cyberspace; the activity and speed of information and noise forming new patterns against old; the dances of innovation performed atop the accumulated hexagons of knowledge; the bees conducting their bee-activities in such a way that patterns are seeming to form at the hive-level. It is – almost – as if the hive itself has started to think. Some say it has. Some say not yet, but soon; or at least, inevitably.

The hive mind, we are sure, won’t need an infinite amount of time to rewrite Shakespeare. It will post “Hamlet” as a casual comment to a news feed, it will collate “Richard III” out of Twitter; the sonnets will be a moment’s distracted multitasking while it composes works the magnitude and significance of which we can hardly guess at: “To infinity, and beyond!” And we’ll all be a part of it. Because we already are.

That’s one story, anyway. But we live in an era of multiple narratives; one is not enough. Let’s listen to the buzz about some of the others.

The idea of the hive is both terrifying and compelling – terrifying in that we don’t want to lose our individuality, yet compelling in that we often yearn to be a part of something larger than ourselves. These contradictory desires are both old and deep in us. Different eras may have striven for one over the other, or have had different levels of awareness about the pushes and pulls, but the struggle predates the biological metaphors we use to explain it, and it certainly predates any informational metaphors we’ve come up with since.

The new frontier: private publishing and public conversation

I don’t think the hive is minded. I’ve sat in enough meetings to know that fruitful collaboration is the exception, not the rule. But – something is happening; something is different about our era, and that something hinges directly on our technologies of storytelling.

Much digital and real ink has been spilled about the implosion of traditional publishing and the explosion of online publishing. Our options to get the word out are more numerous than ever. No longer must we storm an imposing, mystifying bastion with linguistic slings and arrows; now we have but to open a browser to post our views to the world. Long or short, as graphic novel or in serial commentary, through avatars or on a family Facebook page, we can publish almost anything to the digital world, where it may slouch off in search of its eventual audience. Or, more likely, where it may wait patiently in the corner, an unfading figure of 1’s and 0’s, seldom found, rarely missed.

What we’re seeing is actually a little bee-like. It’s a collapse of the boundaries between public and private storytelling, not only in publishing formats, but in the nature of the discourse in both spheres. Conversations, largely the realm of private life, have tended to be exploratory, sometimes trivial, often open-ended: an ad hoc space comprised of any number of participants, and often no audience. Whereas publications, inhabiting the public sphere, have tended to be consistent, thematic, and longer, meant for distribution at a distance or through time, resistant to dialogue (you can write your glosses in the margins, but the primary text doesn’t usually write back) – and packaged to sell.  “Tend to be:” of course some conversations form neat rhetorical packages, and some literature is as open-ended as it can manage – but overall these two sets contain enough members for the general comparison to hold.

But with the rise of Web 2.0 technologies like blogging, IM, Facebook, and Twitter, we have experienced not so much an explosion of traditionally-formatted “publications” from everyone (although we have experienced some of that) so much as the public promulgation of conversations – exploratory, sometimes trivial, often open-ended – with the caveat that those conversations now have stronger imperative and broadcast components than the term has previously implied.

In other words, the attributes of publishing, its public and exhortative nature, have become distributed and more accessible to individuals; while the private pursuits of flexible, wide-ranging and exploratory dialogues (amongst any number of real or potential participants) have become correspondingly unbounded and public. This publicly private behavior would not, perhaps, be out of place in a hive, should bees speak as they dance.

The spider plant as a story model

But as the previously private becomes public, it dresses up for the camera. Because they are recorded in some way, Web 2.0 conversations are accessible across distance and time. And this relative permanence brings other public pressures to bear – the pressure to not only say what you mean, but say it well: to perform, as well as to speak. The well-crafted repartee of the 18th century has become the well-typed tweet of the 21st. Our socially-networked storytelling resembles not so much earnest pamphleteering as interlocking, animated, virtual salons. With the added benefit that unlike the salons of old, our virtual salons are open to everyone, not just the elite, and they are everywhere, not just corralled together in the fashionable end of town.

Maybe you think you don’t have time for a salon – you have your family, your job, the kids have sports, etc.  But actually, you are already in one, and probably several. Whether in the grocery line or on the sidelines, you are making time for our virtual salons every time you log on to Facebook or Twitter, or check your favorite blogs, online news sites or RSS feeds. You’re making time every time you comment, you’re making time every time you post. You are making time every time you read or skim or even just “check in.”

Stories in these new spaces don’t necessarily look conversational, while conversations in these new spaces don’t necessarily look like dialogue. For example, a Twitter list may be used to compile first-person reports from trouble spots. As happened in Iran last year, in Mexico Twitter is functioning as both a reporting strategy and a collection of first-person accounts, gathered and published in a way that neither limits the reporters’ access, nor endangers them or their sources.

An idea might be taken up and elaborated, a point might be argued, an assumption might be identified and supported (or undermined and mocked). The “Hitler meme” videos repurpose a clip from the German film “Downfall” as light (or heavy) social commentary, by altering the subtitles on the scene where Hitler realizes he has lost the war, to reflect current complaints, such as getting blocked from XBox, or pizza delivery. Many of these videos, despite the public approval of the director of “Downfall,” have been recently blocked by Constantin Films. The blocking in its turn has been challenged under terms of Fair Use. As of this post, “Hitler Plans Burning Man” is still viewable on YouTube.

Andy Rehfeldt’s music videos, by comparison, function as both gentle mocking and digital stage, repurposing existing material by combining it with original work into a piece that’s both art and critique, musical performance and media commentary. Danger Mouse’s “The Grey Album” inhabited a similarly doubled space, but in that instance the originality was in the editing.

With each of these changes the story transforms into many stories, each capable of spawning their own many, like a spider plant; each one a potential many in its turn.

As well there are some activities that were designated as “housekeeping” in the old model, that move forward to become an essential part of storytelling in the new. Things like cultivating relationships, posting to these conversational spaces as well as to deadline, growing and feeding your networks, are no longer just the realm of the marketing department, but an essential part of the stories we tell.

One recent example is Tim Maly’s “50 Posts About Cyborgs” anthology, timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the term “cyborg.” For this collection Maly asked disparate bloggers to cross-post to his blog during the month of September 2010, on any interpretation of the theme that they wished. In addition to collating a substantial body of interrelated work, the project also brought far-flung writers into closer contact, providing a possible stage for future community and collaboration.

Another way of integrating reader engagement into the creative and editorial process is used by Longshot Magazine (profiled recently on the Storyboard) an occasional publication that solicits submissions from its potential readership via Twitter and the web.

The shift to more conversational models is not without its perils. When everything is a potential topic it’s easy to drift; when everyone is a potential author it’s difficult to know who to read. Perhaps the most glaring issue, though, is the money. Or lack thereof. Most of these examples depend on providing content for free. How do you package a conversation? How do you charge for it? Attempts made to monetize the conversational platforms instead – selling ads on Facebook and Twitter; charging for previously-free online news sites – have met with varying degrees of success, mostly not very much. It is here that the private and interactive nature of conversations reasserts itself — we may accept being “sold” on TV, magazines, or even parts of the internet where we are more used to passive consumption, but we don’t want to be sold in conversation. It is increasingly urgent that we find a solution that values authors. However, potential solutions, almost certain to be different from what we’ve been used to, may yet be revealed by further analysis of and experience with the current storytelling landscape.

Illustration from "Cocky the Fox"

One approach is demonstrated by James Parker’s serialized novel “Cocky the Fox” on HiLobrow.com, which tweaks a 19th century literary format to show us the money, or at least some of it. The cost was crowdsourced to its potential audience using Kickstarter, thus both funding the project and pre-testing the commitment of the readership. Sixty-five backers contributed over $4,000 to make the project happen, before a single chapter had been published. These virtual “shareholders” may have a more acute interest in following the narrative, their investment, to its conclusion.

Money questions aside, the current storytelling space itself may look like a mad scramble overall, but it is possible to start to trace themes and variations through posts and social networks, and identify new insights as they emerge and mature. Themes and variations, that is, with the caveat that none of these is the ultimate theme or the “real” story: all are variations, and all are real; each one more like skips of a stone, with every touch of the surface sending out its own ripples and promulgating its own stones and leaps. Each one can be both primary text and a gloss on something else, switching roles in the navigation as another point is hit.

The round robin of author to audience

Like the spheres of public and private, and the categories of primary and gloss, the roles of author and audience also blur and shift. Authors and readers aren’t types of people, they are behaviors, which we all manifest at some point or another, sometimes together. And these behaviors become performative, as conversations involve a wider social sphere – a text in social networking is in part a performance, with authors and text sharing the stage. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century writer, wit, and author of the famous Dictionary, has been reincarnated as a Twitter feed, in which he reacts to current events in the written style of his day. Slightly more recently, Al Capone’s trial was reenacted in Miami on its 100-year anniversary as a combination of performance piece, live documentary, and historical interpretation. And readers easily gain the spotlight in their turn. There’s nothing about uploading a video mashup, or planning a reenactment with your local community theater, or starting a virtual magazine with content submitted from your thousands of friends on Twitter, that bars anyone from assuming the mantle of authorship.

Though we’re buzzing about interactivity, both as a measure of popularity and as a potential indicator of the hive mind, it is not the answer to everything. The new openness of the system does not mean that every aspect of storytelling has opened up to the crowd, nor that it should. Just because we can all be authors of something, does not mean that we should all be authors of everything. By which I mean, we take turns. We tend to do this, but it is also very beneficial to storytelling that we do. I write something, you read it; you write something, I read it. She performs something, we applaud. We form a band, they listen. There is an essential role performed by listening, by receiving, by appreciating and critiquing; we should not be in a hurry to discard the receptive half of the equation. If we’re all yelling all the time then no one is listening, no fact or artistry is conveyed; it is bedlam, or perhaps its opposite, as all the noise cancels out the possibility of communication. A message not received is no message at all. We need to maintain our flexibility in this dance, to lead sometimes, and then to follow. We can all be each for each other without opening up the authorship of every piece, to everyone; without condemning every flower to be swarmed by every bee.

But if that’s the case, aren’t there some people who just have more to offer, while others seem to mostly enjoy listening? The old publishing model at least gives lip service to this idea – despite the many, many, many books printed every year, the idea is that the creative genuises will explain it all to us, and we’ll kick back and read about it. Or watch it on TV. (And actually it’s not so important that we read or watch as that we buy the package containing the ideas.) But this model does us all a disservice. Many people have something significant or insightful or quirky or interesting to say, and there is plenty of space that needs to be filled by their saying it.

Let’s head back to the TV. Here in the land of cable we have hundreds of channels – we need all those individual stories. If we only designate a few as worth broadcasting, then most of the time, “nothing” will be on. The internet, of course, is even more vast. In the early days of TV, they used to point the camera at the studio clock once they ran out of news and comedy. And they did run out. Do we want to be staring at that clock for an eternity, hoping not to blink and miss the minute a genius pops in to deliver a soundbite? Do we want to sit in endless committee, arguing over whether “to be or not to be” is actually a question? Or would we rather get busy with some typewriters, and inform and entertain each other with our stories in turn?




One comment

  1. Carmen
    posted October 4, 2010 at 10:23 pm | permalink

    What a wonderfully crafted essay. I think the hive we are creating online is the earliest form of what might become a global consciousness or virtual government. It is certainly incredibly tolerant and creative. Given the additional functionality that will change the Web in the coming decades, who knows what else its will empower us to do?

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