Saturday, September 23, 2006

The geek shall inherit

Back in the bad old days before I let blogging into my life (let me hear you say "Amen!"), I used to hover around the Guardian Talk site. I remember one day, a regular poster mentioned that another poster was ill, and might appreciate good wishes. Good wishes were forthcoming, as they generally were on that site provided you stayed off any subject relating to the Middle East. It transpired that the poster's illness was more severe than was at first suspected; she had cancer; she had good days and bad days; over the next few months, the bad outnumbered the good, and she died.

Sometimes she would post, keeping us in touch with her victories and setbacks; as time went on, she became too tired, and updates came from her daughter, partner, and other people who knew her in the real world. Two things were interesting about the thread: apart from those irregular updates, it needed very little input from the real world, as I reckon at least 90% of the volume came from people who never knew the woman, or even her real name; and, after she died, there was a great deal of pressure on the administrators to keep the thread up in perpetuity. When this was refused (it had swelled to over 10,000 posts, and was slowing down the server), a number of posters archived the whole thing, and circulated it to whoever wanted it.

This is a constant theme when anyone's contrasting web-specific content with old media, and I've had polite disagreements with Patroclus about it in the past. People love the interactivity, the immediacy, the sense of community, the [insert your own Web 2.0 buzzword] in blogs, message boards and the like; but when a particular fragment of the web gets serious or significant or famous or infamous, there's immediate pressure to turn it into a book or a film or some other facet of the BBL (Before Berners-Lee) universe. Part of the reason is that it's still disproportionately difficult to make cash out of a Web product that doesn't involve the sweatier regions of human anatomy; but there's also a sense that a website isn't quite appropriate enough, permanent enough to mark what really matters.

This appears to be the story behind Train Man (Densha Otoko). Apparently, the story began in March, 2004, when a young man in Tokyo posted on a chat forum. He'd tussled with a drunk who'd been annoying some women on a train. One of the women sent him some posh teacups as a thank-you present. The young man wondered if this might be a sign that his existence as a virginal otaku might be coming to an end. He asked the other posters, most of them similarly inexperienced in life beyond manga and IT, for help; and kept them in touch with his slowly (they don't snog until page 334) developing relationship.

It's not a great book, although it does remind us that, however much some East Asian urban cultures have adopted the trappings of the West, Nice Girls still Don't (or, more precisely, if they do, they don't talk about it). The format is fun, with some extraordinary ASCII pics apparently lifted from the forum; but there's very little that wasn't done by, say, Matt Beaumont's E, or even the 18th-century epistolary novels of Richardson and Laclos.

What is interesting is the way the original thread ballooned into a book, a TV show, a play, several manga and a movie. (The latter, in gloriously metafictional move, has the girl, Hermès, played by the actress that she is supposed to resemble in the book.) It's as if a good story would be wasted if it were left to languish online. Only when it's between covers (of a book or a DVD case) is it worthwhile. The fact that this means somebody's making money out of it apparently adds to the validity of the whole thing.

And the fact that somebody's doing that (the nominal author, Nakano Hitori, translates as "one of us") raises a few more questions. Who holds the copyright on the content of chat forums? Is it jointly owned by the posters, or sucked up by the hosts. The mystery of the whole tale (the protagonists have not come forward) and of the people who nursemaided its transition into other media, add to the confusion.

And then, of course, there's the whole issue of veracity. The James Frey controversy has raised a number of questions about the intersection between non-fiction, fiction and "based on a true story"; but again, this one has been rumbling at least since Truman Capote unleashed the non-fiction novel on us. Whatever the reality, the author (Compiler? Editor? Transcriber? Collector? Cutter-and-paster? Do we need a new terminology for this? I know "the author" is dead, but...) makes the distinction all but irrelevant, by making the characters so bland and two-dimensional that their own mothers wouldn't recognise them.

So, despite all the precedents, maybe "one of us" has managed to create a new form of literature. It's something so bland, so undefined, that anybody can take it and apply it to his or her own life. It's the raw material of a fiction, that can be cooked up into something interesting by the participants. Get him to do this, do that. Tell her you love her. Don't tell her. Has she got a sister? Oh no she isn't! Behind you!

In short, it's got all the potential to be a fully interactive narrative. Which is what it was to start with (whether it was "real" or not), until someone had the bright idea of fixing it into a fairly ordinary book, like a mediocre mosquito, immortalised in amber. What was the point of that?


orange anubis said...

My technophobe mum stared in a baffled fashion at Matt Beaumont's E every time I recommended it, until I brought up epistolary novels.

Interactive events being 'flattened' into print: I remember the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books in the early 80s, and the more role-playing, dice-throwing 'Fighting Fantasy' series (and imitators) that they spawned. Granted, the only interaction was between reader and the direction of the narrative, but possibly some sort of pre-cursor?

Molly Bloom said...

My last few minutes on the computer before they come and take it away...who owns voices at the end of the day? Who owns a conversation. It is there for a moment and then lost in the air. But with the Web...we share and it is saved. Funnily enough..I was just looking back over some of the conversations and thinking...they make memories. And sometimes they reveal different viewpoints, sometimes relationships, sometimes even desperate pleas for help. I suppose we could all make a book/film out of the interchanges.

Oh Timster...I shall try and come back and look at your site when I can. I have to do a seventeen hour day on Monday...I'm not sure how I shall get through it. Oh poopster. I've enjoyed reading your stuff so much.

As Orange says:
*Choose page 17 if you want to get published.
*Choose page 21 if you want to go off with the Minotaur
*Choose page 33 if you want to drive off in a Ferrari
*Choose page 2 if you want to save the heroine

I just like to interact. I wonder who watches us? I wonder if anyone is conscious of being watched and changes their thoughts in the light of this. Changes their interchanges as it were.

Oooh, there's a big question to leave you with. Take care Timsterxxxx Be safe.

Tim Footman said...

Those adventure books were great OA. But I always used to draw up big charts of all the various alternatives, so I'd win/escape/deliver the baddies to justice. Just as I always dismantled Rubik Cubes. God I was a foul child.

Molly, I see you like La Gish in Broken Blossoms, desperately trying to force a smile. But do. Even if you need to do the interweb equivalent of watching the footy through the windows of Rumbelows.

patroclus said...

Bloody hell, there's a lot of interesting stuff in here, Tim. I've only got 25mins of battery life left and I'm supposed to be writing a brochure, but will come back with appropriate comments when I've sourced a UK to European electricity adapter (which is proving difficult in Helsinki on a Sunday), grrrr.

First Nations said...

it is much too early in the morning here for me to be thinking and now you've made me go and do it.
outstanding post, tim.

be advised that when you are in the middle of a polital upheaval you need to POST REALLY REGULARLY so that people don't worry you've 'been dissappeared', ok?? even though the volatility factor there seems to be on the 'birthday party at the old folks' home' level. still. we worry.

Tim Footman said...

Still here. On Friday night, had dinner 26 floors above the city, and couldn't see a tank anywhere.

Gotta go to Immigration Dept next week - routine, haven't been summonsed - so I'll let you know if it's all gone Kafkaesque.

Awaiting a post by Patroclus about the shortcomings of Finnish hardware stores (which are probably called something like haärdwäariisstuüvvviiiiimmmnnn).

Billy said...

What is quite interesting is the differences that would result in publishing a book based on a forum thread (many "authors") and making up a book meant to resemble a forum thread (only one)

corin said...

There's a lot to be said about the ephemeral nature of forums/threads. Even with the sort of thing we do here, where things get archived, they are effectively lost just as much as last week's tv.

It's definitely something you get used to in theatre: When a performance is over that's it and there's no way of changing that. Even the same play the next night is a different performance. It's just like conversation in that respect, and there, I suppose is a parallel with blogs' comments which always have the feel of a conference telephone call.

As for why people feel the need to transfer things to different media, that isn't only true of this kind of thing. As Alan Moore said in the run-up to the recent release of V for Vendetta, he and David Lloyd wrote it to be a comic. Why can't people leave it at that? And yet, I'm as guilty of the impulse to change format as anyone. I read Diary by Chuck Palahniuk and couldn't help thinking how well it would work as a short film.

Robert A. Swipe said...


The art exists somewhere between the viewer and the viewed.

So what's the difference*

*apart from the price, obviously

Tim Footman said...

Billy: It's as much to do with the reader's perception of whether it's real or not. At the very least, it's clear there's been some smart editing going on with Train Man, because the central character is very clearly defined, and the others are pretty much undifferentiated voices. This is a standard set-up for narrative fiction (lead and supporting actors, basically) but doesn't happen in a normal forum - different voices dominate at different times. Oddly, it's more characteristic of a blog, which can have a single authorial voice, plus commenters whose profile varies in intensity.

Corin: The question is, does something become important because it's permanent, or are only permanent things important. Folk music, for example, only became respectable when Cecil Sharp wrote it all down. Loads of BBC tv classics were wiped in the 70s, because no-one would believe they'd have any interest for future generations. Was that simply because, in a pre-VHS environment, nobody knew how they could be brought to a wider audience?

Bob: Your punchline is crucial. If art happens between the viewer and the viewed, surely the price happens somewhere in a Venn diagram between the rival blobs of buyer, seller and commodity? Adam Smith or Yves Klein?

patroclus said...

When my mind recovers from the amoebic mush it's become recently, I have stuff to say about this. Mainly about what happens if blogging turns out *not* to be impermanent - if everything is preserved for posterity in Google's archives. It'll be like a 1:1 scale map of the human psyche in the early 21st century! Well, it might be.