Frank Rose Tracks New Narratives

Question: What impact is technology having on storytelling?

Frank Rose: I’ve spent the last several years at “Wired” writing about different kinds of entertainment, marketing and so forth and how they are being impacted by technology. So, I’ve literally covered everything from Hollywood to cellophones and, in particular, I’ve done a couple of stories in the last couple of years that started me thinking in a new direction.

I did a story about a year and a half ago on alternate reality games; the idea that people could go out and take part of a kind of communal experience that certainly is driven by the web but takes place in the real world and off and end on the web and all sorts of places. So these kinds of games have been used to promote everything from Halo 2 to Trent Reznor’s “Zero” album, which was the focus of the story that I did. Around that time it began to occur to me that we’re really seeing the emergence of a new kind of narrative, a kind of narrative that’s made it to the internet in the same way that the sitcom is native to television or the feature film is native to the movie camera. But, in each of those cases it took 30 to 40 years from the invention of the medium to the point where people created a narrative form that was native to that medium.

The early films, films a hundred years ago, were about ten to twelve minutes long because that’s how long a reel of film was, and they were silent of course. Many of them were not a narrative at all and certainly they didn’t employ the conventions—the grammar—of cinema as we know it today; things like swoops and pans and cuts and you know all of these things that we now take for granted as part of movie making. So, I think something like that is beginning to happen with the web. I think we’re now about twenty-five years since the internet went civilian. About twenty years from the invention of the World Wide Web itself, and a little more than fifteen years or so from the time that web browsers began to be popular.

What we’re finding is that the internet has been incredibly disruptive to media businesses—whether they’re newspapers, the music business, we’re beginning to see it now with television—but it hasn’t really been disruptive to media forms until now. And, what we are beginning to see though is sort of tentative, I think halting steps toward finding a new grammar of storytelling that is really native to the web. And, we see it…in things, like, for example, Battlestar Galactica, which takes place not only on TV but, online through webisodes (as they’re called), but also through sort of game like experiences where you can go online and, for example, choose whether you want to be a human or a Cylon –and you end up sort of playing this game.

And Wikies, there is Battlestar Galactica Wiki, which tells you everything you can conceivably want to know about the series and it’s various antecedents, but which you can also take part in. Like other Wikies you can go there and add to it, and whatever you feel like doing. This is becoming increasingly common and I think what’s happening is that we’re seeing the emergence of a new kind of narrative that is participatory—that’s nonlinear in the same way that the web is nonlinear and that is often game-like. The result of that is essentially that media is becoming entertainment--or for that matter marketing—is becoming something that you can go into in various levels of depth. If you want to sit back and watch the TV show, you can do that. If it’s a property that really engages you and captures your imagination you can interact with it in all sorts of other ways. I think the times when –certainly the ‘couch potato’ is over—and the times when all you would really do is sit back and watch something on TV, that’s pretty much over as well.

Question: What is Deep Media?

Frank Rose: The idea is really that you can explore something in depth. You can explore, whether it’s a brand, whether it’s an entertainment property—anything that has a story in it. You can go into it at various levels of depth. If you want to just sit back and watch the TV show, for example, you can do that…watch a video clip on the internet, whatever. But, if it’s something that really seizes your imagination, you can go into it much farther, much deeper.

One of the first things that this happened with was Star Wars. It happened almost by accident. The first movie, of course, came out in 1977 (long before the internet) and like other properties—the comic books and that sort of thing—but the comics, for example, had nothing to do with the story of the movies. And it was only years later that they began to realize—that the people at Lucas Films began to realize—what they had here, that they have a property that people were so engaged with that they started creating fan fiction and fan films and that sort of thing.

At first, they didn’t know how to deal with it. You know, it’s a little bit scary to have your creation appropriated, but eventually they realized –and other, big media conglomerates, it’s taken them much longer to do this—but they started to realize that this was an incredibly powerful thing and what they needed to do was to channel it and leverage it and let people become involved. And so that’s what they’ve really done; I mean they have a contest now and it’s become, in a way, a kind of a template for what you do with a giant overarching story like this.

Recorded on: May 21, 2009

The Internet has created a way to tell stories that is uniquely suited to the medium.

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