Dan's Metablog
Writing about blogging, identity, and narrative

Notes on Walker's "Distributed Narrative"   Sunday, October 23   5:51 PM

Just finished reading Distributed Narrative: Telling Stories Across Networks [.pdf] by Prof. Jill Walker at the University of Bergen. Her interests seem a bit broader than mine — the essay talks about stickers, flickr, and various other forms of "distributed narrative," which she presents as the next evolutionary step after "intertexuality."

Walker translates Aristotle's unities into modern Unities of Distribution, so that we have:

Distribution in Time: The reader, player or viewer experiences the narrative in bits and pieces over a period of time.

Distribution in Space: There is no single place in which the whole narrative can be experienced.

Distribution of Authorship: No single author or group of authors has complete contol of the narrative.

The most interesting bits, for me, came near the end of the essay, where she talks about how the story of one person (blogger Justin Hall) forms a distributed narrative spread out all over the internet:

Distributed in Time and Space

Tracking these distributed narratives is what fascinates us about reading weblogs from day to day, week to week, year to year. We follow Justin Hall's story as he publishes it, but we not only read his self-narration on his own website, we also come across his name elsewhere. When he links to an article he has written or the website of a place or event that he has visited, we can read these as a background or extension of the main story. More striking, though, are the links to the narratives of other people in his life. We can read about Justin on his friends' blogs as well as on his own. When a blogger breaks up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, readers often get to follow the story from both peoples' perspective. Justin himself may comment on other peoples' sites, narrating bits of the story that may not be explicit on his own site. Others may narrate parts of the story that he has not told himself. The story splits, spreads, continues.

This distribution of narration is typical of weblogs. In closeknit communites, like LiveJournal, the narration of weblogs sometimes seems like a group autobiography. In clusters of academic weblogs, which my blog belongs to, narrators sometimes visit each other, or visit the same conferences, and so new constellations of narratives grow forth. (15)

She's also on target in describing why novels written as blogs fail where the superficially similar genre of epistolary fiction succeeded. (I tried to write a story centered around blogs and blogging last year, but even faking plausible yet interesting blog posts proved too difficult.)

Blog novels miss out on links, of course, but just as importantly, they miss out on the blogrolls of links to related blogs, they miss out on the RSS feeds of other bloggers who were at the same event and wrote about the hero of the first blog, they miss out on the temporality of only being able to read a blog in the tempo that it is written, they miss out on the active searching for a distributed narrative. (15)

The remainder of that section is likewise fascinating. She revisited many of the same themes in the next section, which also/again expands her focus to narratives not related to blogs. Folksonomic tags as distributed authorship?

Distribution of Authorship

One of the ways in which the story of a weblogger is distributed is by the story being told by several different narrators, on their independent sites. An even more radical distribution of authorship is that which is automated, where an algorithm or search is the only thing that draws the narrative together.


These emergent narratives, or self-organising narratives, perhaps, require algorithms and interfaces designed by humans for us to see them. (17)

Walker is modest about her categories, noting that "to write about these works that I claim are not unified, not things, not even, really, works, I've succumbed to traditional attempts at definition and categorisation" (19), but they seem pretty useful for framing a discussion of blogs.

I should also mention her interesting thoughts on blogs in the conclusion, which though rhetorically posed as an irritating failure to assert argument, are interesting nonetheless.

Or imagine a single blog. All alone. There are no other blogs. There may be readers, but there are no commenters, nobody discussing the same issues for the blogger to link to. No links leading to the blog. Is it still a blog? Or can blogs only exist as one of many, as part of a crowd? I want to read blogs closely and write their connections, tracing the ways in which narratives evolve. I want to think about how this connects with ideas of emergence, of memes and of viral or contagious media. (20)

I don't agree, personally. This hapax blogomenon that Walker posits would still be a blog. It seems like this is a clear-cut case of definition-by-research-interest. Let's ask Hobbes and Plato to define philosophy, shall we? Have you heard the one about Plato's blog?

Cite for the article:

Walker, J. "Distributed Narrative: Telling Stories Across Networks." in Consalvo, M., Hunsinger, J. and Baym, N. eds. The 2005 Association of Internet Researchers Annual, Peter Lang, New York, Forthcoming.

Interesting citations to follow up on:

Himmer, Steve. 2004. "The Labyrinth Unbound: Weblogs as Literature." In Into the Blogosphere, edited by L. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff and J. Reyman: University of Minnesota.

Which pops up everywhere. And there was also:

Ulmer, Gregory. 2003. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New
York: Longman.

Which didn't seem that interesting blog-wise but did have a link to this nice Amazon reading list.

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