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The Demons In the Medium: Serials, Sufficient Velocity, and Extremism

Discussion in 'Forum News and Staff Communication' started by LordSquishy, Dec 2, 2016.

  1. LordSquishy

    LordSquishy Probably Not A Producer

    There's something in particular that endlessly fascinates me about studying history. I don't claim it's any particularly great insight, really, but there's something so very interesting to me about how history tends to echo. It's not that things reoccur; I think that's a significant oversimplification. Fundamental concepts, though... fundamental concepts come back, again and again, in different guises. If something's good enough to succeed once, it's probably good enough to succeed more than once.

    Yesterday, the library was having a sale. I picked up a couple of books - well, fifty-two books, actually, but who's counting - and one of them was about 19th century literature. Specifically, it talked about the serial.

    Bit of history: the literary serial was very popular in the latter half of the 19th century. Magazines or periodicals would publish stories piece by piece, monthly, weekly, biweekly, or whatever. Eventually, if the writer's work was successful, it might be edited and published as a single volume. The serial format had some advantages. Books were expensive to publish, but they were also expensive to write. A successful novel commands a significant about of writer attention, for a long time, and then it's an all-or-nothing gamble. With a serial, the initial commitment can be smaller; and the writer can respond to feedback on each installment of the serial, on audience interest, on the discussion, by changing the next installment.

    Serials were very popular. The format was much more economical for readers, both in terms of time and money. Moreover, because the story could be tailored toward what the readers wanted, and because readers could read a single installment and decide whether to continue, the audience and the author created a synergistic feedback loop.

    The thing is, though, serials had some well-known.. 'flaws'. Because authors were often paid by the installment, there was, as you might expect, a real pressure to simply keep producing installments. Moreover, because the cost to the reader - both in money and time - of each installment is lower than it would be to a single-volume novel, it was, some have said, more difficult to hold the attention of readers; so writers have to be more aggressive in responding to what the readers want to see, to turn out more of what their loudest readers wanted to read.

    Online interactive fiction (OIF) - whether it's fanfiction, questing, or other kinds of user installment fiction here- have a lot in common with serialization of the 19th century. They are installments; the cost to the reader is low; there is a great motivation to produce constant installments rather than simply wrap up a work; there is incentive to respond to what the reader wants to see.

    History does not repeat itself. Modern internet installment fiction is not the reincarnation of the serial. There are fundamental differences. But it does echo, and it's those echoes that have been on my mind of late - particularly, some of the reports that I've seen out of our OIF forums over the last couple of weeks, and specifically the last day or so.

    When it comes to OIF, I think that we tend to see a particular kind of pattern in reported content. An author will create a theme that they think will draw in readers. Usually, though not always, it will be risque in some way - involving a sensitive topic, like rape; or a salacious one, like drug use, or gore, or sex; or controversial ones, like libertarianism or Ayn-Rand-esque ideas.

    Readers will flock to this content. People love low-cost-of-entry risque content, it's why HBO is the shit. It's totally understandable.

    And then something else happens.

    One hundred and fifty years ago, the feedback cycle was slow and one-way. An installment would be published. Readers would write letters to the editor. Occasionally literary commentary might be published. The author - and publishers - would review that commentary, and work on the next installment, hopefully fulfilling the desire of the readers. It's published, and the cycle repeats.

    In our OIF community, the cycle's a little bit different. An installment is published, but readers don't just write letters to the editor. They interact. There's a no-holds-barred brawl between the author and the readers over the content of the installment. And I think something happens in that brawl that didn't drive the serials of old: a kind of literary polarization.

    What we have is not just a situation where the author writes what the readers want to read. That happens, of course; sometimes explicitly so, in the case of a quest. But more than that: within the literary brawl, within the colander of ideas, I think a binarism takes place. The battle of ideas encourages extremism, rather than moderation. Slight differences of opinion form Napoleonic battle lines at fifty paces. Dissenting opinions are driven off. The author is forced to choose a side. The next installment is written, but rather than flowing from a broad base of criticism, some moderate, some extreme, it's forged in the fires of an extreme clash of ideas.

    And so there is a descending cycle of extremism: stories that cater, to a greater and greater extent, to one side of the binarism in their audience. They dive further and further into the original premise, and they wallow in it.

    And their audiences, by the nature of the cycle, don't see a problem with it. After all, that's the nature of the beast: the audience is being given what it wants. People are driven away over the minor things made large, not the large things that they already appreciate.

    That doesn't always mean hydraulic presses and eleven year old drug dealers (though sometimes it does). Sometimes it just means indulging in an endless white-wolf style conspiracy-game power fantasy.

    And I think that kind of wish fulfillment - or call it wish embrasure - isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it's harmless, like sitting back on the couch and eating a full tub of Ben and Jerrys. But sometimes... it's not harmless. Sometimes it leads to a memetic inspiral, the same kind of ideological and methodological feedback loop you find in terrorists with limited connections to the broader world. They normalize their extremism. They can no longer place it in the context of the world around them.

    What's the solution?

    Dunno yet. But I'm working on it.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 2, 2016
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  2. Biigoh

    Biigoh Purveyor of Fine Fanfiction Councillor

    Tanuki Land
    I would have to say that... it helps to be able to tell what is real and what is fiction.
  3. Van Ropen

    Van Ropen Angry, angry about elves.

    Squishy SolutionsTM

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  4. NonSequtur

    NonSequtur Inaccessible Executive On Leave

    The Stratosphere
    Should I be expecting some Instrumentality or Helios ending type plot, here? :V 'No more barriers, no more bubbles'?

    More relevantly, I find the idea that the increase in polarization is partly due to an increase in the amount of interconnectedness interesting. Do forum based stories go off the deep end or not end in a greater proportion than serials published to mediums like FF.net, where the authour is seperated by the structure of the site from readers?

    What's the real benefit to forum serials, if any, relative to other online fiction methods - better incentive structures to produce content even if they warp it?
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  5. CV12Hornet

    CV12Hornet Riter.

    Tacoma, Washington
    There is another major difference between OIF and serials, one which I think is relevant: OIF authors aren't getting paid, generally. They're writing for fun, to hone their skills, or just to get attention. They don't need to cater to the whims of their readers, though most do, because as you said, getting readers is basically the point of writing anything. And one of the points I think a good OIF author needs to develop is the ability to judge when and how you need to tell your readers "Sod off, this is how I'm writing this thing."

    On second thought, this isn't as relevant as I thought it was, because it implies a great deal more thought put into story planning than I think most authors apply, particularly for quests, where the voters can sink your plans with one vote. I think a lot of what you've described is unconscious on the part of the authors in question, folded into a more commanding thought of "More readers!".

    Really, the best solution is to get people to be better authors, but that's unrealistic, and I'll be interested to see what comes out of this. Sorry for the rambling above.
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  6. LordSquishy

    LordSquishy Probably Not A Producer

    I would definitely agree. I don't believe that it's a conscious mental pattern.
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  7. Dark Ness

    Dark Ness Rises Where Silence Dies

    I don't think it needs a solution. And any solution does fix it, will create larger problems. I think one just must accept that SV is not a place that tends toward moderate stories intended to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Otherwise, we would not have worm fanfiction here.

    I think that authors write stories that they enjoy, and want readers who want what they want. But other readers, ones that say "this doesn't make sense" or "this arc is dragging on too long and making me lose interest," authors don't want them. In fact, I have noticed that many authors don't want any kind of criticism, with the exception of grammer, at all. This is the nature of the beast. Authors are not getting paid, so they don't want things that they don't enjoy, which includes criticism.
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  8. I'm curious as to how much of this is audience participation versus lack of planning. There are still a shit ton of rapidly serialized things (as opposed to slow serialization with one yearly installment) other than OIF in modern culture, and and I think you can see some of the same trends in those (whether it be long running manga, a comic, a Soap, or just a regular TV show).

    I think a lot of the issues arise not so much from interaction with the audience, but from when that interaction replaces planning and plotting. It seems like a lot of stories start wallowing when the author(s) either run out of planned plot, or don't have a good way of connecting the sections of planned plot. It seems like people are much more prone to catering to the audience when they don't actually have anything else to do, than when they're actually writing to tell a story.

    But a lot of our stories do exactly that. Certainly not all of them, but I'd argue that most stories with large readership do. And that that readership tends to nosedive when it starts getting more into wallowing-filler than actual plot.
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2016
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