A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Immersive Writing Lab. I talked about how we might apply the principles of Linked Data and the Semantic Web to drama. How we could use URLs to represent characters and plot events, and then use hyperlinks to string them together in a way that represents the story as a web. One thing that gets brought up time and again, though, when discussing stories online, is the issue of spoilers. In traditional storytelling, the author has almost complete control over the way in which the story is told. They can control what information the audience knows about various characters and events, and when certain pieces of information are revealed. Indeed, this is, in a lot of ways, part of (but by no means all) the joy of reading/watching/listening to a story. The way things are revealed, twisted and so on. I’m not going to discuss here whether spoilers are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – personally I avoid spoilers, but even if I do see them, there’s still great fun to be had in seeing how something is told, not just what happens. So I’m not a vehement member of the anti-spoiler brigade, but I don’t actively go looking for them.
Of course, one of the main things the Web has done is to almost shatter the author’s control completely. Firstly, once a story, or part of a story, has been revealed to some people, then the very nature of the Internet means that this information will be shared. Of course, this is nothing new, people have been sharing stories forever, but the global nature of the Internet means that this information can be distributed far, far more widely and quickly than ever before. What is a blessing for news, is a nightmare for drama. Secondly, the disparity between the publication of information, and the audience’s knowledge of that information, is highlighted, and potentially widened. As Marcus Brown has pointed out, in a very effective way, this disparity is also nothing new – six people in the same carriage on a train might be reading the same book, but they can all be at different points in the story – there’s no direct link between the author releasing the information, and the consumption of that information. Whereas on TV, radio, and online, the time element is a factor. If you imagine a six part TV drama, where one audience member has been watching from the beginning, but another has started watching the first part only after the third part has been released, then the danger is plain. If the information contained within the second and third part is available (and particularly if it has affected the state of characters or events from the first part), then if you ask your browser to find ‘the current state of knowledge about X’ (which is essentially what a browser is doing when you request a web page, or find something on Wikipedia), you’ll be ‘spoiled’. Put simply, the issue is as follows – as an author, I want to publish information about my story, but I still want my audience to experience the story being told. The desire to preserve the incremental revelation of information, as it were.
But it’s not just drama where this is the case. Part of the frustration with news coverage online, as I’ve mentioned in the past, is that it’s always in the ‘now’. You can never get anything apart from the state of the world now. When it’s the backstory that will really give you context. Similarly, archivists want to preserve what the state of knowledge was about a thing at a particular moment in time. And it’s these sorts of considerations we’ll have to bear in mind if we’re really going to develop not just storyworlds online, but the ‘telling’ part too. I think we need to develop a more fine-grained approach to finding information on the Web – rather than a binary choice between not knowing anything about a thing and knowing everything (and/or only the latest version of information about a thing), I think we need to learn to ask questions, and that includes a question of time. More thoughts on how we might achieve that, soon.