Telling stories online (an analysis)

So last night I posted a log of my story telling experience in an IM chatroom last night. This morning I figured I might as well do some analysis.

One of the first things that stands out to me (and justifies my obsessive time-stamping) is the fact that the set up and storytelling took twenty-five minutes, and the story itself took just over twelve. Since the story probably took about three or four minutes to related in class (maybe five or six if you include discussion time), this is a rather significant slow-down. Not that this is particularly surprising since there’s always a slow-down when moving from a high-bandwidth mode of communication, like face-to-face discussion, to a low-bandwidth mode like instant messaging.

But the slow-down isn’t entirely tool-based. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s not tied to the technical aspects of the tools. Because while I do type slower than I talk, I can type extremely quickly. Combined with the way that we tend to distill things when they shift to text (elaborating less in order to make things more compact and coherent) I probably could have whipped the story out in a minute or two. Just looking at the content of my story-telling shows how little there actually is there. The story may be a hundred and fifty words, but it’s probably less than that, and it still took significant time to compose and transmit.

So there’s clearly more at work here than text being slower than speech, and I think it has a lot to do with the social conventions of IM, which are quite deeply drilled into my head. IM is a give-and-take medium. Turn taking is indicated by message submission, so the conversation tends to pause slightly after every line in an implicit offer to everyone else to respond. Only if there is no response for a while does the thread of the story get picked back up, which provides for a sort of stilted feeling if you were to read it aloud in real-time, but seems to be a natural expression of the IM medium.

Further, IM is generally considered to be a conversational medium rather than a performer-audience one. People are expected to interject and comment, and when they do the discussion is briefly derailed as people respond to that response. We don’t really have, or at least I and the people I spend time with online don’t really have, a set of norms for non-conversational story-telling. That means that most of our stories tend to come out looking like conversations rather than a more formal sort of presenter-audience interaction.

I don’t know if there’s much more to say than that. It’s not something that bothers me, after all. In fact, I think I rather like it. It does, however, highlight two important things:

1) Various mediums lend themselves to various uses. Picking a medium that is unsuited to your intended use may be a bad idea, or it may just result in something interestingly unexpected. After all, while it doesn’t look much at all like the in-class presentation of my story, I rather enjoyed the online telling of it too.

2) Computer-mediated interactions are about more than just the technological tools being used. While there’s nothing inherent in the technology of instant messaging that prevents a story from being told in a much more traditional form (what one might call a “wall of text”), there are cultural norms about the use of instant messaging that would make that feel weird, almost like a violation.

And so, I feel that the exercise was well worth undertaking, and that it was fun, to boot.

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