On Units of Meaning in DF

What’s the proper atomic unit of DF?

In last week’s post Towards a Technical Infrastructure, we worked from a model of an Episode, made up of a number of Scenes (a term with deep dramaturgical roots), where the majority of web-infrastructural things pertain—URL, content management hooks, media file associations, etc. But Scenes are made up of what? At this finer grained level, the more minute details of rhetoric, pacing, and media layers take hold; this is where a good deal of the “user experience” considerations are grounded. In our provisional model, we called these Shots, a term taken from cinema, but none of us were particularly happy with that term.

Kate suggested Clips as an alternative, a term which is similar enough to Shots, perhaps more of the era of YouTube than of 8mm film. As Kate pointed out, Clip “still has the weaponry association, but less so.” Haig noted that the CYOA platform Twinery.org uses the much more active term “Passages,” which evoeks both a section of text and a way through it.

We’re also aware of the resurgence of the term “cards” in the past year or two; from Twitter to Inkling, the card metaphor again finds its place, more than two decades after Apple’s unparalleled hypermedia toolkit, HyperCard. Indeed, the card metaphor has deep roots; Haig and I wrote a paper last year that looked into the substantial history and possible futures of cards and cardplay

Does Card make sense for the unit of immediate engagement in digital fiction? It certainly is more friendly and concrete in comparison with analytical language like “lexia” or “actemes,” or Aarseth’s “scriptons and textons”  And yet, a card is a static piece; the card metaphor denies any flux or dynamic play in the reader’s engagement. It is all about the node, and not about the link. By contrast, Clip, as Kate pointed out to me the other day, is also a verb; things can be clipped, and clipped together.

Sponsors and Scholarships

We’re excited to announce that we’ve added the University of Victoria’s Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, home of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, as a sponsor and supporter of the Pathways workshop.

Between the ETCL and the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing (CCSP), we are pleased to be able to offer a limited number of scholarships to offset the tuition cost of the Pathways workshop.

As of May 15th, our scholarship applications are now closed. Registration for the workshop is still open

Towards a technical infrastructure

In planning for the Pathways workshop and the technical infrastructure required, we’ve been looking to a few historical precedents for guidance. We’ve taken stock of Kate Pullinger’s digital fiction projects, Inanimate Alice & Flight Paths, and also the original CBCRadio3 Digital Magazine circa 2002–2005, which Haig Armen was a part of.

All these publications were created in Flash—state of the art at the time—and have a good deal in common, architecturally. In particular, all three examples make use of the strategic layering imgtxtaudioof text, image (often animated), and audio to tell a story. All three play with the reader’s relative attention to these three modes; to what extent does the work direct or orchestrate the reader’s attention to one or other layer; and to what extent does it leave the reader free to attend as she likes.


We want first and foremost to create an HTML5-based environment capable of providing a platform like Flight Paths or a CBCR3 story, with that same weaving of media layers. To that end, Haig and I whiteboarded a provisional ‘object model’ for the environment, like so:

EPISODE, composed of one or more:

    - SCENE, which has the following:
        - straightforward URL
        - master audio track
        - and is composed of one or more

        - SHOT, which can have the following:
            - transitions in and out
            - triggers (for audio, for nav buttons to show, etc.)
            - maximum duration
            - text
            - image/animation
            - audio track
            - nav elements (buttons, game elements)

SHOTwbSo, a SHOT (of all the terminology we’ve used, I’m least happy with that one) has 3 visual layers: fg, mid, bg – each of which may be populated or not – as well as access to a SCENE-level background and audio for a 4th layer.

This chunking and layering of media elements is designed to allow a fair bit of flexibility in assembling orchestrated pieces. In many cases, not all the layers would be used; allowing a background image or soundtrack to simply flow across a sequence of shots.

The design of this will evolve over the next few weeks, and as we scaffold it into existence. So far, this isn’t terribly different than what HTML5 slideshow frameworks allow, but with more flexibility for bringing things in and out of focus.

Managing collaboration

The Pathways workshop is to be a collaborative experience; participants, supporting faculty, and creative director/digital dramaturge Kate Pullinger to conceive, author, and produce a work of networked fiction.

But how, in such an environment, are we to value and recognize intellectual contributions and intellectual property? If everyone involved is an “author,” then are we to be left with a tangle of competing IP claims for the resulting work?

Back in the 1980s, free software pioneer Richard Stallman famously confronted this problem, faced with managing the contributions of hundreds of contributors to the code for the Emacs text editor. Stallman’s solution to the problem was to turn copyright on its ear and create a ‘copyleft’ license, consigning the work itself to the commons, and putting the rights to reuse, rework, remix, and redistribute ahead of the right to control copying or use. The result was the GPL1.

That worked very well for software projects. But the same idea has been employed to good effect in Wikipedia—where an indeterminate number of contributors labour to make the entries there better and better over time. Rather than a tangle of IP claims from competing contributors, Wikipedia begins with a blanket CC-By-SA licence: essentially a ‘copyleft’ license like Stallman’s GPL.

But can this work in the world of fiction and creative writing? Examples are few and far between? Is a copyleft approach necessary to manage collaboration at scale, or are a number of networked private IP claims workable?

  1. The story of Stallman’s predicament and the solution that came out of it is retold nicely in Chris Kelty’s excellent book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008)

CBC Radio3 Digital Magazine

CBC Radio3 was originally a magazine, long before it was a podcast or radio show. The project was an innovative Flash-based multimedia publication, published weekly in Vancouver. Pathways faculty member Haig Armen was a producer on the project.

According to its official archive (which features 105 issues!) at http://archive.cbcradio3.com/,

The CBC Radio 3 digital magazine ran from November 2002 until March 2005, garnering numerous accolades in Canada and abroad with its unique blend of music, journalism, literature and photography.

Over the course of its brief run, the magazine won over 20 awards, including one Art Directors Club award, two New York Festival Awards and three Communication Arts Awards, and was featured in several web and design books. In 2003, the groundbreaking website won three Webby Awards in a single year: Best Broadband Site, Best Radio Site and the People’s Voice Award for Best Broadband Site.

Digital fiction — what’s in a name?

When we were working on the initial descriptions of this workshop, we went back and forth over what to call it. Interactive fiction was used early on, but that term has come to be associated with the “twisty little passages” style of immersive text-game worlds — the Wikipedia article on IF gives some good detail. But as much as this is near and dear to my heart (I was a MUDder back in the day), it’s not what we’re doing this summer.

Kate Pullinger’s existing digital works—notably Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths—are ‘interactive,’ and ‘fiction,’ but they’re not immersive gameworlds in the sense of IF. They’re also multimedia fiction, though that buzzword has seen better days as well. So we’ve gone with “digital fiction,” which perhaps is ambiguous enough to provide a pretty big tent for us to work in.

Is there a better term?

UPDATE: just after I wrote this post, I discovered Kate’s 2006 piece in The Guardian, “Fact is, We need a better name for Digital Fiction

Flight Paths

Flight Paths: A Networked Novel was the second major digital fiction project from Kate Pullinger & Chris Joseph. Like Inanimate Alice, Flight Paths is episodic; Episode 1 was published online in 2007, and a sixth episode appeared in 2012. It orchestrates text, image, and audio in the delivery of the story of Yacub, a young Pakistani man who stows away in the landing gear of an airliner bound for London. He falls from the plane as it approaches Heathrow and crashes into Harriet’s car in a Sainsbury’s lot. Pullinger’s 2014 novel Landing Gear takes Yacub’s and Harriet’s stories—and their intersections—forward.

See http://flightpaths.net/

Inanimate Alice

Inanimate Alice, says Wikipedia, is “an interactive multimodal fiction,”  written and directed by Kate Pullinger and digital artist Chris Joseph. The first episode was released in 2005, and there are now four ‘official’ episodes on the Inanimate Alice website. The work has been extensively used in teaching digital literacy, inspiring students worldwide to create their own digital fiction and as such there are many more episodes out there.

The core story, which traces the experiences of Alice, who is an 8yr-old girl in Episode 1, as she moves with her parents to a variety of places around the world. The story is told via a combination of text, sound and image, with the reader controlling the pacing and direction of the story at various points.

A Guardian interview with Kate Pullinger in 2006 provides some context: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/dec/07/technology.internet

Announcing: Creating Digital Fiction with Kate Pullinger

A week-long digital fiction workshop from Publishing@SFU

MONDAY – FRIDAY, June 9-13, 2014

Join us for this special week-long immersive writing/authoring workshop with award-winning author and digital fiction pioneer Kate Pullinger. This workshops is a unique learning opportunity aimed at writers who wish to explore digital fiction, developers who want to explore literary works, and publishers interested in new models for writing, reading, and collaborating in fiction.

Over the five days, participants will work together to collaboratively author a work of interactive, multimedia literature, which will subsequently be available online inviting further participation from a wider public.

Participants will work collaboratively with faculty to plan, compose, design, assemble, and promote the work over the course of the week. A series of short morning seminars with faculty will elaborate the dynamics, opportunities, and challenges of composing and producing for networked digital media. Afternoons will be devoted to collaborative work on writing, design and graphic production, audio and video production, and technical development. The goal for the week is the production of a prototype work which forms the basis for an ongoing, collaborative work which gathers an online audience.


Kate Pullinger writes for both print and digital platforms.  Her new novel, Landing Gear, published in the spring of 2014,  takes the story told in Pullinger’s collaborative multimedia digital work, co-created with Chris Joseph, Flight Paths: A Networked Novel, and develops it further.  Her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes.  Her prize-winning digital fiction projects Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel have reached audiences around the world. Pullinger’s other books include A Little StrangerWeird Sister, The Last Time I Saw Jane, Where Does Kissing End?, which are all being published in new ebook editions in the spring of 2014.

John Maxwell is Associate Professor in the Publishing Program at SFU. His research & teaching focus is on the impact of digital technologies in the cultural sector (and particularly books and magazines), the history of digital media, and the emergence of digital genres and mythologies.

Haig Armen is one of Canada’s most respected and innovative digital designers. He is a faculty member in Design & Dynamic Media at Emily Carr University.

Ryan Nadel, with his company 8 Leaf Digital Productions, produces and designs digital media experiences in a broad range of sectors including education, graphic novels, and TV franchises, including the interactive companion to Art Spiegelman’s recent book MetaMaus and the transmedia campaign for the TV show Continuum.

Register here: