Networked Narratives: Digital Alchemy of Storytelling

More than enough books, TED Talks, and blog posts have described the potential of storytelling. Stories often enhance our endeavors, whether in business communication or in learning, in political rhetoric or in our overall understanding of the world. The emphasis on the special essence of the story suggests an existence of a certain kind of magic. Could a story work like an elixir?

For us, this notion of the magic in stories paved the way for our “digital alchemy” effort co-teaching Networked Narratives — a 2017 open course based on a digital storytelling class at Kean University that extended to participants across the country as well as Mexico, Australia, and Egypt. Spread across blogs, twitter, web annotation, “hacked videos,” bots, memes, gifs, and padlets, the experience aimed to not only push participants to create digital media, but to build capabilities in collaborative storytelling which aspire to transformation and social change for the better.

In this DML Central series of posts, we will share the emergent practices and results of our Networked Narratives experience. Our design is at once loose and improvised. Here we reveal via a screenplay how the weave of our design was spun.

Designing for Emergence

A screenplay by Mia Zamora and Alan Levine

Act 1: Scene 1

(It’s the summer of 2016. The camera view over Alan’s shoulder shows a computer screen, a google video chat with Mia on screen in her home in New Jersey. Camera cuts to view over Mia’s shoulder looking at her own hangout screen, where she sees Alan sitting in his kitchen in Arizona. The camera continues to cut back and forth with the flow of conversation).

Alan: Thanks for your email Mia, I am very intrigued about your idea of an open connected course that mixes the ideas and platform of the DS106 digital storytelling course with your electronic literature course.

Mia: I am so so glad you are interested, Alan! DML is asking for a few weeks of visits with experts in August, and then we can run some activities that will lead up to the DML conference in October. I already have some colleagues lined up, like Leonardo Flores, who curated the recent Electronic Literature Collection plus Mark Marino and Rob Wittig, who will talk about #netprov.

Alan: That sounds good — as long as we don’t just have professors sitting in front of bookshelves! Can we frame these more like visiting an artist studio, so we can talk to them from the places they do their creative work.

Mia: Great idea! Yeah, let’s try to shun that usual authoritative stance of the erudite professor with the requisite bookshelves. Let’s try to set a tone for creative connecting instead. And for the hangouts, let’s try to catch our planned guests in action. I am thinking about an ambiance of familiar authenticity. You know…we can catch our guests in their own workshops, whipping up something special.

Hey! That makes me think of a laboratory-collaboratory concept. What if we set up a framework for collaboration that felt like we were in a Hogwart’s potions class (…but not taught by snotty Snape). We can test formulations for certain kinds of magic together. What do you think? You know, there is definitely a kind of magic that exists in good storytelling. What if we set out to distill that essence?

Alan: Exactly, like a modern version of alchemy, the idea of people tinkering, mixing, remixing elements in their digital laboratory, keeping notes in journals, developing and testing hypotheses of what conventionally is considered far-fetched.

Act 1: Scene 2

(Camera fade with dissolve transition to suggest passage of time. Alan and Mia are wearing different clothes, and the background light is brighter to indicate a different time of day.)

Mia: So Alan, DML is asking us to run this in the next year. I’m thinking what we could do is offer this as a digital storytelling course at Kean, and we bring you in as an adjunct professor.

Alan: Okay, but can I do that remotely from home? Will Kean go for that?

Mia: Come on Alan, it is the 21st century, of course we can do this! We will have a face-to-face prof (me) and a virtual prof (you). We will also have an open course (on the interwebs) and a face-to-face course (with Kean University students who meet on campus). We will set up the course as a co-learning collaboratory. It will be the perfect bridge from old school learning to networked open learning. I can totally see it working. As a matter of fact, I think we will discover some key insights about the differences in these styles for learning along the way.

Alan: I like the sound of this. The political chatter around this election cycle is draining already. I think it will be pretty timely to interface our questions about creativity and networked narratives with the receding backdrop of all this election rhetoric. I can’t wait for it to be over so we can just move on from all this gratuitous amplification and polarization.

Mia: Yep. Hopefully our work on networked narratives and collaborative storytelling will be a refreshing distraction from the political banter that is taking over. This is sounding great, Alan. We will both be in Irvine in October, so we can solidify details then, ok?

Alan: It’s a plan. When we see each other in October, we will put our heads together and map this thing out for Spring 2017. And when we are there, it will be one month to go before Election Day. I can’t wait for all this drama to be over. It is definitely stressing everyone out.

Mia: (sighs)

Act 1: Scene 3

(It’s a sunny day in October on the modern campus of the University of California, Irvine. A drone camera shot does long zooms across the campus buildings, descending slowly to show Alan and Mia sitting at an outdoor table outside the conference center where the DML Conference is hosted. They are both animated, almost shouting with excitement. Other people nearby turn their heads to see the commotion).

Alan (pointing at laptop screen): So, first of all I found this a great hashtag for our course. Because before we do anything, we should have a hashtag!

Mia: What is it?

Alan: I cannot believe it’s available; no one is using #netnarr

Mia: That’s perfect, it’s short.

Alan: But even better. I am thinking about our digital storytelling and world-building plan, and how we want to build a “mirror world” at the close of the course. Students can create an alternative networked community to our #netnarr course environment. I want to introduce them to this simple language encoding called “ROT13.” It’s one of the ways the Romans used to encode messages; each letter is replaced by the one that is 13 letters after it in the alphabet.

Mia: That sound neat. It’s easy to use?

Alan: Oh yes. It’s not super secure, but it lets us talk in public in a hidden language. You can use this website (points)  to encode and decode text. But, get this… when I put “#netnarr” in as the source (typing), look at the word we get.

Mia: #arganee

Alan: And that should be the name of the mirror world.

Mia: Wow. That is so cool. Sounds like a magical mirror world to me.

Alan: Yeah, and the first three letters are ARG which often stands for “alternate reality game!”

Mia: It is meant to be! Imagine what could be possible if they discovered shared purpose by the time the storytelling community really gelled. What if they discovered ways to flex their civic imagination? If our students made alternative identities, and could improvise their interactions with each other in a shared mirror world that they help build themselves, what would they want to address? Would they try to tackle what is wrong about this world in their mirror world? (Sounds of campus protest start to amplify as a Black Lives Matter protest marches by in the background.)

Alan: (His voice raised over the protest din.) You said it, the discontent and anger is definitely rising. It’s inspiring to see students publicly voice their opposition to the police chief being here today.

Mia: (The protest moves by and the background has quieted back down to normal passage of students and staff.) You know, I was thinking, what if we made our course all about alchemy? We started thinking about the magic of stories. Alchemy is the quest to make something precious out of something that is base. It is also about breathing life into the inanimate. Isn’t that what good stories do? What if our course was all about digital alchemy, and we let everyone define what digital alchemy might be?

Alan: I love that idea.

Act 1: Scene 4

(It is early January, and again Alan and Mia are conversing via Google hangout from their homes. The light should be softer to suggest winter, and they both wear winter clothing. Yes, there is winter in parts of Arizona).

Alan: That was a fantastic discussion we had yesterday with Geoff Gevalt. It triggered some ideas for me since I am struggling with how we create a way for our students to take on big issues.

Mia: Say more.

Alan: It was that part where he talked about the kids he worked with in the Newark urban schools sharing simple things about the place they lived, what they liked, didn’t like, with the kids he works with in rural Vermont. That idea of sharing where we live, and how we see our own world, through media and shared stories.

Mia: … maybe we can even get to talk about what is missing, or what is problematic for us.

Alan: Yes. It’s a better starting spot for people to share. And, I also like the ideas we developed in the planning document about creating a course “spine” rather than a rigid syllabus, it gives us a framework to design the activities, but looseness to adjust as we go.

Mia: Yes, and it gives a pace, so the course will have a different modality every month. But it also provides a “looseness” that we can be flexible with. We can only imagine what the impact of this new administration will be?

Alan: Do not get me started! I am making gifs and memes daily, as this is looking more surreal every day.

Mia: It keeps me awake at night, too. But, this also is the kind of backdrop that reinforces our idea for this course. So, January is “moving in,” getting set up with their blogs, twitter, doing some basic media making.

Alan: And, in January, we run weekly hangouts with visits to your colleagues as “studio tours.” We can have some general topics for each, but I think we should let the Kean students and open participants who join drive the conversations with questions. I am also going to start up next week, even before our students arrive, a version of the DS106 Daily Create that we can have our students do regular creative activities.

Mia: Oh that’s great. Can we call them Daily Digital Alchemies?dda

Alan: That’s perfect! Maybe people will call them “DDAs” like a code language.

Mia: I already have scheduled Leonardo Flores for the first week, to discuss the E-Literature collection; then the second studio is #NetProv with Mark Marino and Rob Wittig. Those guys will be dynamic. I also have a commitment from Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel to do fan fiction. I am thinking, for the last one, we might ask Howard Rheingold to join us; and maybe his daughter Mamie who has been working on a storytelling app.

Alan: Then, in March, we can shift to the “virtual bus tour” visits…

Mia: I can see that bus! Can you and I wear uniforms? But, seriously, it gets at the shift in our thinking from the conversation with Geoff. That we start conversations between our students here in New Jersey and ones elsewhere to share their school and community environments, and it should open up to some larger questions.

Alan: That’s why I’d like to start with a visit to one of the colleagues I met on my project last year in Mexico. I’m thinking of asking Laura Aguilar who teaches tourism at the University of Guadalajara in Puerta Vallarta. She has a love of food, too — so maybe food, cooking, can be a common starting point. But, I’d really like to see our students ask the students in Mexico what it’s like to hear the political rhetoric from our country.

Mia: That would be good if it goes there. What if they don’t want to get into that?

Alan: I’d be surprised, as with all this talk of building walls, it’s on everybody’s mind. It’s such a brutal symbol that does not represent us all.

Mia: So, we should also try to visit the youth that Geoff works with on the Young Writers Project.

Alan: Absolutely; I know Geoff well and I’m sure he will do it. And, I think we can plan two more, maybe with Kate Bowles in Australia and Maha Bali in Egypt.

Mia: Those will be great. I love what Kate writes about the metaphor of “desire paths.” The big unknown, of course, is what we do in April for our “immersive” game experience.

Alan: Well, we do have time. I think we could talk to Keegan Long-Wheeler and Johns Stewart from University of Oklahoma; they did some neat stuff at the Open Education conference with this Goblin model for a gamified faculty development experience.

Mia: They are awesome and, thankfully, we have time to figure it out.

Alan: I’m starting to build out the website. It’s going to have hub syndication system to connect the posts of Kean and open participants. Guess what I found for a domain?

Mia: I can only guess it’s good…

Alan: I bought the domain arganee.world!

Mia: That’s wild!

Alan: I’m going to leave the main URL for something weird and mysterious and build the course site at netnarr.arganee.world

Mia: You know, that’s all alchemy in action.

Alan: And… I have another crazy idea…

Mia: Do tell, I am curious.

Alan: Each week, I’d like to do a fun video that hints at what’s to come, but not talking heads. I was thinking we introduce some mystery elements, like each week we are having these private video chats, but somehow unnamed entities “hack” our private hangout meetings and post them online.

Mia: Hah! And, maybe we can be talking back and forth in twitter like we don’t know what’s going on.

Alan: I can see it as a growing subplot that maybe will develop over time.

Mia: This hacking theme is perfect Alan. And, we don’t even need to bring up the Russians to create timely intrigue! I love it because the whole story doesn’t have to be scripted beforehand. It can be something we create each week together as the course is unfolding, and can be improvised based on how we respond to what is happening overall in our great course experiment. I think we might be creating a fun new genre — it is a bit of #teachprov, no?

Alan: Yes!

Mia: I am excited see our students next week.

Alan: Me too, although I will just be peering in via a screen.

Mia: Oh no, you will be very present with us.

…Stay tuned for Act 2 in which Alan and Mia discuss the role of improvisation in collaborative writing and collaborative teaching (i.e. #netprov & #teachprov).

Banner image credit: ilovebutter