By Robert Kalm
What is interactivity?
When I was hired to teach the writing course in the graduate interactive program at Quinnipiac, I was struck by the word interactive immediately. We use it as a modifier in terms like interactive communications and interactive media. It seemed redundant to me at the time, like saying “wet water.” I assumed that communication and media had always been the exchange that interactivity suggests.
But I came to realize that communication and media were rarely interactive for much of our past. Interactivity implies a balanced conversation or collaboration, acts that are still more exceptional in our world than we care to admit. When was the last time you had a conversation in which you were truly engaged? Where you not only spoke, but also listened, and responded, and both came away different than when you began?
Two-way engagement is a rare event.
Correspondence was our most interactive form of media before the Internet, depending on the speed of the postman and the persistence of the writers. The word “letters” makes me think of the phrase “men of letters” as in Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The dialogue about young America they held in correspondence for their entire lives served not only as a dynamic interaction, but also as a record of history.
Adams told Jefferson, “intimate Correspondence with you . . . is one of the most agreable [sic] Events in my Life.” Our forefathers, constantly debating the underlying words of their new nation, were engaged.
The Constitution was interactive.
Books however, as well as photographs, movies, and music, were never interactive. Their conversation was always one-sided. Their message went one-way. Media, until very recently, turned one half of communication into the audience and the other half into a show.
Interactive communication is “an exchange of ideas where both participants, whether human, machine, or art form, are active and can have an effect on one another. It is a dynamic, two-way flow of information.” I wrote that definition in Wikipedia when I was first designing the course. You can look it up. My definition still stands.
If you can write a better one, you can go change it.
This is what is new about communication in the 21st century: Through the immediacy of the Internet, everyone has the ability to contribute to the conversation. It is one of the most profound changes in humanity’s long struggle to connect with one another.
Media is suddenly interactive. The audience can respond to books, music, and movies instantly. I can contribute to Wikipedia. I can publish this essay. You can edit my Wikipedia entry. You can respond to this essay with a short film and someone else can take your short film and reedit that too.
Interactivity injects conversation into everything we know. It puts all media and all knowledge up for debate. It makes us think of knowledge in the same way that Jefferson and Adams and great minds all the way back to the ancient Greeks viewed knowledge. Knowledge is a dialogue.
Knowledge is something alive.
The best practices of communication have not changed. But our relationship to one another has been transformed. And the terminology surrounding this transformation is still evolving. Call it new media or digital communications or interactive technology; all of these modified terms address this revolution in human relationship.
Whatever name you give it, interactivity gives all of us an equal opportunity to be heard. It forces communication and it forces change.
In the beginning was the word.
The word “writing” is in the Bible. The word writing must have appeared in some form at the birth of writing. Words were first etched in stone — think Hammurabi’s Code and The Ten Commandments. Then they were hand-written or pressed in ink.
All mediums struggle at their beginnings. The first words, like the first photographs, took tremendous labor and skill to achieve, not to mention creativity. When a text took months to print or one picture took hours to develop, their authors labored over each decision, so they became masters of a complicated process. An author was an authority, not just of a subject, but also on how to deliver that knowledge.
The 15th-century word “author” has authoritarian implications.
The most effective form of sharing knowledge is storytelling. It is the most primary primary source. How we start our day and how we finish it are stories. Our life story helps us navigate the chaos of our lives. A new job interview changes our story. When we don’t get the job, we edit the story again.
There is the story of what we believe, where we have been, and where we are going. This essay is my sharing a part of my narrative of writing.
When authorship was exclusive, and knowledge took on the appearance of texts, fewer narratives ruled more lives. There was the narrative of six days and the Sabbath. There was the story of the collared shirt, the Windsor knot, and the time clock. There was the sitcom that was Dad, Mom, two point five kids, and a dog.
After Johann Gutenberg invented moveable type and modern book printing, his Gutenberg Bible became the first mass-produced book. Mass-production of books and their translation in the vernacular gave commoners the ability to interpret text and challenge authority. For much of history, civilizations existed and civilians lived according to a few texts handed down from on high. Questioning those texts could get you, literally, in hot water.
Interactivity is a 19th-century word. It grows in use and practice alongside the ideas of personal freedom and questioning authority. It could not become mainstream until technology gave the average individual the ability to publish.
The word interactivity has egalitarian connotations.
From the printing revolution right up to the appearance of the ebook, a text was still an object. Facts were sealed in the articles and photographs of the Britannica. Giving an author feedback meant writing in the margins of your copy of a text, and for many people, even that was a form of vandalism.
Now text is a verb.
We text one another. Typing and publishing text is something everyone with a smartphone can do while waiting in line. We can juggle the acts of texting, emailing, posting, commenting, tweeting, and Skyping as many conversations as our brain can discern. If we put one conversation aside, more will keep us occupied.
Text moves like a fluid.
We used to read an article, watch a movie, or listen to a composition, essentially one account or narrative, from beginning to end. Now we are bombarded with endings, beginnings, and middles all day long, in any order. “Surfing the Internet” involves examining the texts of authors, selecting from them, and putting them together to form, not just conclusions, but new compositions.
The personal settings page of Google News lets you adjust the frequency of sources. Every member of the audience is an active news desk editor, assembling facts about every story from the variety of witnesses and accounts. The audience reads a few paragraphs from different articles in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, a few more paragraphs from the HuffPo and Reddit, and watches a few clips from Fox News, NPR, or “The Colbert Report.”
Readers construct new articles in their mind, from the parts and pieces of others.
Every member of the audience is also a source. When a natural or unnatural disaster occurs, a local personal Tumblr or Facebook or Twitter feed can scoop the networks and newswires for days. Everyone is a resident investigative reporter and photojournalist too.
A Times reporter, Stephen Colbert, and a Facebook friend are only as different as the reader categorizes them. The fallibility of a single source and the importance of getting multiple sources are high school history lessons, but they were never so immediate in our daily lives.
In the past, legislators, reporters, entrepreneurs, ministers, and authors were a select group of specialists who dealt individually with the sausage making that was writing law, or the news, or our mission statements, dogma, and the books that changed our lives.
Now we understand the ambiguity of all of those institutions. Now we are all potential editors and authors of every narrative we have ever known.
It is a difficult time for anyone who sticks with one narrative, whether the narrative is entertainment or news, about country, creed, or self. There have never been so many narratives interacting with other narratives, their authors, and audiences.
The possibilities have never been so endless and the ground has never seemed so unstable.
Narratives have never been this much of a game.
The history of interactivity usually begins with the “gamebook.” Game is another trendy word and modifier to consider. We have game changers. We can game the system. Players say, “don’t hate us; hate the game.” We equate life with a game.
To “gamify” something is to make it interactive.
The most famous gamebooks are the Choose Your Own Adventure children’s book series from the 1980s. Written in the rare second person, each book told “you” what you were doing and at regular intervals gave you a choice on how to proceed. “If you go in the haunted house, go to page 10. If you walk around the haunted house, go to page 15.” You could not read the books straight through and there were multiple possible endings.
Sticking to familiar western, horror, and science fiction genres, the CYOA gamebooks were uncomplicated while introducing the radical idea of choice into text. They injected conversation into narratives. Gamebooks were an early form of hypertext, the interlaced links and texts that are the foundation of the Internet.
Choosing your own adventure came back to mind for my entire generation when the Web first appeared. We were raised on role-playing games, which took characters through narratives based on the role of dice. And television remote controls, which juxtaposed the narratives of hundreds of different cable channels. And video games, which turned us into the characters of our favorite narratives. We were raised on texts and narratives that were ours to manipulate. Everything was made user-friendly, thus we were turned into users.
George Lucas, innovator of both narrative films and interactive games in the 1980s, was once asked when he thought his two worlds would finally unite. He said they never would, that narratives and games were two different animals. Watching Luke Skywalker turn away from the dark side is fundamentally different from playing Luke in a game and making the choice on your own.
An audience member cannot surrender to an author’s text and take control of it at the same time. This is a fundamental tension within interactivity and Lucas is a major example. His Star Wars universe became one of the most omnipresent narratives of our time because it was essentially a gamebook. He was one of the first artists to create a narrative that involved an interactive world and then mass-produce it on an industrial scale.
Fans came to hate Lucas over the years for tinkering with his “original” films or adding new “prequels” to his cosmos. Likewise, Lucas tried to copyright and control Star Wars authenticity and authority until he gave up entirely. This illustrates the complexity of mixing text with interactivity and audience with author. Once the audience becomes invested in an established narrative, tampering with it can rapidly become emotional.
This is true for every narrative in our lives, from the Bible to the Britannica. Yet we build our life narratives in exactly this way. We follow narratives handed down to us by some authors, we alter others, and we write and live out our own. Life was always interactive, but many of our narratives were not, or did not seem to be.
The comic Louis C.K. defines our situation well in his stand up act. “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” True interactivity is a relatively new phenomenon. We now have the freedom we have always wanted to make the narratives within our lives our own.
And lo and behold, it is a tremendous responsibility and burden.
Writing is not user-friendly.
This interactivity that has “gamified” every concept, narrative, and institution on Earth is matched by our immaturity as players.
Just because everyone can produce and publish, does not mean they know how to craft their work or take control of their creative voice. A lot of people throw rotten tomatoes or snark online. Others disappear into Neverlands from Hogwarts to Halos. Still others write poorly, creating a glut of thoughtless expression and rants.
The mass audience, with the sudden means to express itself but little of the discipline, is restless. No one feels in control of this amazing, new, interactive world.
This is going to change, too.
For any conversation to be truly interactive – truly a conversation – it must be between two authors. Neither individual should take complete control of the dialogue. The participants need to have their own credibility, passion, and logic for ideas. They must have command of rhetoric and their own voice.
If we live according to narratives, and now anyone can affect those narratives, we will need to maintain, create, and believe in our own individual stories more than ever before.
Interactivity doesn’t want users. It wants authors.
David Denby, the present New Yorker film critic, recently commented on the lack of writing in many of the independent films he sees at festivals. The YouTube generation prefers improvised scripts and cinema-verite photography. Of course they do. Making it up as you go along does not take as much work. And that, Denby admits, is why you never hear from most of these filmmakers again. It is why we do not have a revolution in filmmaking — yet.
The scripted and performed work of Hollywood past holds far more truths than all of the reality shows put together. Craft has always been king.
When I was asked to design my interactive writing course, I was told to make it practical. Nothing is more practical in our present situation than an author who can craft his or her own path. People need to believe again that their future lies, not in technology, but in their individual capacity to use technology to communicate clearly.
People need to believe, not in the reality they are given, but in the one they build.
This begins with honest writing, what you know, what you fear, and what you hope.
The first student who came up to me after my very first lecture said two sentences I will never forget. “Do you mean I can write about whatever I want? I have never been allowed to do that before.” This was a graduate communications science major and he was not alone in his wonder at being given control. We do not teach authorship and we never have.
When people lament for a past when people could “write better,” they are talking about penmanship. They are lamenting a past that did not exist. The average colonist in the 18th century did not correspond with the interactivity of Jefferson and Adams. They were not writing the Constitution. The farmers and tradesmen of the time were lucky to be literate. The idea that every person can and should be an author is as new as the concept of interactivity itself.
You can see the interest in the amount of memes passed around on Facebook that are grammar-based and the amount of ebooks that are self-published. People want to say something relevant and say it better than ever before. Every time they write a status that does not get noticed, they are figuring out why. The audience is writing, then writing clever, and finally writing ideas.
No one has to become a George Lucas; individuals simply need to gain control of the narratives of their lives and the confidence to maintain their voice in conversation.
The Internet is a new literacy that will overwhelm any previous generation’s thoughtful output. It may not be delivered in the King’s English, but the better ideas will find their audience, and the words will improve.
Interactivity is the great commotion of the world let loose with amplifiers. And interactivity is the authors and ideas that will rise above with interactive voices.
Robert Kalm, MFA, teaches interactivity at Quinnipiac University. He is an Emmy award-winning producer sponsored by the artist collective Fractured Atlas. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book on interactive writing.