An Internet of Attractions

As of late my two year old son, very soon to be three, has eschewed all forms of narrative video on YouTube. He’s dispensed with the Thomas the Tank Engine scam (that series is all about being a useful worker, akin to 19th century British imperial labor propaganda), and has opted for simple videos people have posted of trains passing by while they’re waiting to cross the tracks. One of his favorites is this minute-long video of a train crossing in Roberts, Oregon:

I’m often sitting right next to him while he spends time whipping around YouTube looking for trains, and what struck me about the above video is the number of views it has: 21.5 million. Let me say that again: 21.5 million views. Insane! What it got me thinking about is how many people might be doing just what my son is, cruising around to watch these videos that are non-narrative. In fact, it reminds me of this post I wrote back in 2008 when I was describing the magic of Ray Harryhausen’s animations in the original (and in my heart onlyClash of the Titans (1981) as attractions in and of themselves, almost extra-narrative. It was a riff on film historian Tom Gunning’s idea of a “Cinema of Attractions.” His theory suggests there were myriad non-narrative forms of cinema from 1895-1908, but as the dominant Hollywood narrative began to congeal from 1910 to 1917 (famously cemented in 1917 with the cinematic grammar of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation) the almost constant state of transformation of the medium for its first twenty years began to ossify into a much more linear and delimited narrative style. To quote Gunning:

[Cinema prior to 1908] did not see its main task as the presentation of narratives. This does not mean that there were not early films that told stories, but that this task was secondary, at least until about 1904. That transformation that occurs in films around 1908 derives from reorienting film style to a clear focus on the task of storytelling and characterization.

Rather than using film for outright entertainment purpose, the “cinema of attractions” offers the viewer something different: “the chance to take a journey somewhere else-a place to which he will likely never physically travel…films sought to transport the viewer through space and time, rather than to simply tell a story,” as Lila E. Stevens points out in her discussion of documentary film here. This idea strikes me as akin to a way of understanding the emergence of the visual vernacular and minimalistic design impulse of the web more recently. The web is in many ways an internet of attractions more than it is a medium germane to more traditional narrative forms that we have come to expect given our immersion in 20th century film, television and radio.

Some of the criticism about ds106 I’ve heard over the last three years as a course has been it doesn’t spend enough time on the the actual storytelling—which I read as more traditional ideas of digital storytelling. When I started preparing the first ds106 course in 2009 the idea of digital storytelling was often associated with the slideshow made in iMovie featuring the Ken Burns effect set to your favorite song about a moment that’s “changed your life.” I know this is an over simplification, but at the same time that’s still the model set forth as digital storytelling. I pretty consciously wanted to eschew that like my son began avoiding Thomas the Tank Engine videos. I wanted to explore the internet of attractions:  the idea of digital representation, experimental sound, video essays, movie posters, animated GIFs, etc, as the non-narrative forms that we are communicating with on the web.

Heretofore I’ve been arguing around this point suggesting that these are stories too, but in many ways that was a cop out. They aren’t stories in the same way we have come to expect narrative from television, film, and radio—and in many ways that is why I was attracted to them and why ds106 moved further and further away from the idea of storytelling as we’ve known it. The internet of attractions is a compelling frame to start understanding the emergence of a web-based vernacular that isn’t “digital storytelling” per se. I haven’t even begun to discuss how this is also dependent upon a much larger context of interacting and playing within pop culture allusions. This idea of the Internet of Attractions is obviously still quite raw in my mind, but it is the first useful quasi-theoretical frame I’ve come up with to start understanding how what we are doing when we communicate on the web with pictures, GIFs, design assignment, quick photoshops, sounds, etc. is not exactly digital storytelling as it is currently being understood.

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10 Responses to An Internet of Attractions

  1. I think what makes that train video an important (21 million times viewed) attraction is that it exists in the context of a carnival of other train videos (with probably hundreds of million views collectively). The internet attraction as you call it needs it’s carny friends to amplify its ‘attractiveness.’ And that’s where the greater ‘narrative’ exists in these collections right?

    DS106 serves as a lovely incubator of internet attraction ideas. The community doesn’t hang it’s hat on any set of numbers, instead we love to build around our micro-carnivals. Say it like peanut butter was the inaugural internet attraction, and I’m personally proud of the MacGuffin attraction. And let’s not even get started with the origin story of ds106 radio turned carnival!

    What I wonder though in the context of pre hollywood styled cinema storytelling, how much collective ‘storytelling’ occurred in the work created at that time. It would be cool to think about how much remixing and riffing I’m imagining (hoping) might have occurred then.

  2. Reverend says:

    Thanks for riffing on this idea, it is half-baked, but you start to flesh it out. The vision of a web of nodes of a kind of attraction that are not linear like a story but still relate a sense of connection is an interesting frame here. You’re right, there are potentially millions of train videos—and the idea is the sense of adding your own to that collection. Entering a conversation which is not necessarily a story per se. ds106 as some frame for this is interesting, and the gravitation towards assignments as attraction is an interesting move that many think divorces the idea from a more traditional sense of narrative, but when it hits like Say it Like Peanut Butter or the MacGuffin a different sense of exploration and connection happens that is not linear or storytelling per se, but interaction around a series of interconnected, often pop culturally inspired, response. The vernacular conversation through a medium that is not simply text or verbal response. The idea of “Shining” — “we could entire conversations without ever opening our mouths—she called it Shining.”

    That is what we are doing, we are Shining 😉

  3. Hunh. I like slideshows and Ken Burnsey effects and little personal stories told with DIY media! I don’t find gifs or pop culture mashups interesting or fun, BUT I understand some people do; they are running narratives in their heads that a few other people share, and that generates camaraderie, and that is a good thing. There are stories that have words and stories like the wind that have no words. The internet of attractions concept is creating something that reminds both you and a network of viewers referentially to a shared cultural event? So the “story” is, like, a meme? Or is it the shared rush of watching a train go by that is the internet of attractions? The charm of DS 106 is the deep and deepening diversity of assignments and technologies…it can grow toward sentimental slideshows and grow toward trainspotting and send a robo branch of current cool to gif out.

  4. Reverend says:

    I think the assumption that the attractions are more headspace that few others share versus a formative narrative as being more accessible when it comes to the web might be part of what I am trying to work through. In fact. I have quite the opposite reaction to the Ken Burnsey effect than you, but I’m not saying all cats are gray and whatever is clever on the web. I think the medium itself is allowing for a lot less hermeneutically sealed narratives. In fact, I think the idea of the folding in of space and time in the web as real implications on our sense of narrative. I’m not trying to discount one at the expense of the other, rather I am wondering what the web means for the evolution of narrative beyond the assumptions we bring to it. One of the most interesting part sof early film, if I can stretch that analogy a bit more, is that the early emergence of narratives were often filmed theater. There was no sense of the grammar of film yet—there was no really sense of shots and cross-cutting, and montage in any complex way. I wonder if that is still the case for the concept of digital storytelling we inhabit. I still feel like it is grafted from TV or Film onto the web and very much restrained by a common toolset. I’m just thinking here, but the criticisms I’ve heard often suggest the longer narratives as somehow more complex and sophisticated in terms of thinking through storytelling, and I am just wondering if those assumptions are fair. Does making students at the end of ds106 create a narrative make the evidence of their work and knowledge that much richer? In some ways it seems that much more forced to me.

  5. Alan Levine says:

    I love how this was launched from how you observed Tommy being immersed in media, without any overhead of what story or narrative is. As Michael suggests, its not that this clip itself is the best “story” or even tells of something of its own, but more that it exists among these other elements of traininess, its about this time, its about motion, its about the intense sound- it’s almost more like texture.

    I watch it and top into my own memories of trains, of seeing the model trains at the Pikesville Fire Department every Christmas with my Dad, of building my own sets, of seeing so many trains just going about their business as I traveled this year. I watched a long freight train snake across a wide open Valley in New Mexico and felt it trigger all these connections.

    Stories are not contained in a single arc of a story, of a video, of a film. Real stories transcend across media, in that weird device we call a brain, in the ways we share parts (and tap into the experiences) of others. They cannot be bound in one media.

    And that we have these ill-defined spaces on the web for people to gather and watch together (not at the same time)– it is community than anything that is “built” as community (a concept I do not believe in, communities happen).

    You are definitely on to something here. I’ve been doing that stretch to with out students, always asking them as they respond to an assignment, “what is the story?” (which does not always feel like a fair question) but also, “what does this relate to?”- and maybe its a misplaced notion (sometimes our part sometimes theirs) to consider the creation of things people do in ds106 as an endpoint- whats more important is their thinking behind it, their vision of it, their own connections, which hopefully come out in their writing about it, or re-using a theme in a later exercise. Or maybe it is an end point.

    I’ve spent a lot of commenting attention this semester probing students to do the unexpected, or put thing in contexts we do not expect, or to creak down the walls of the assignments.

    It’s texture. It’s pattern. It’s not a thing of its own but in relation to the other creations happening in and out of ds106.

    The place I like to think we are at is that we are questioning digital storytelling, not asserting it. We do not claim to put bounds of definitions and expectations around digital storytelling (“In this course we will teach you what digital storytelling is” like we know it) but we are together **questioning** what the very concept is- maybe it is both full blown narratives, but also these bits of patterns, textures, and attractions.

    It’s almost like that McLuhan-esque concept of what happens when a new media emerges, the first wave of web-based storytelling was to replicated what was done before (in hollywood film form) in this new space, but that it explodes into something new.

    And of course its a messy space, it’s not neat and bound. I thumbed back to your Clash of the Titan’s post (BTW the link in today’s post goes to the train video) — just as an aside, a clear demonstration of the importance we suggest in ds106 of keeping your own web space as your own narrative of ideas– and both of the embedded videos have been slashed from YouTube for copyright. Rather than hope our students do not deal with tech hurdles, I relish the moments when they bash into the same wall on their own work, and ask “Why?” Why can’t I re-use media in a new form? These are moments that are parts of this question.

    And that is where ds106 feels like it is placed, right on the precipice.

    We do not know exactly what digital storytelling is- but we are full immersed in asking people to try answering through acts of creation.

    Holy cow, a comment turns into a blog post, thanks for the space. This has me thinking a lot about the course for the Spring.

  6. Jim, et al,
    Ha! I think I’m getting the hang of this now! (Jim, I know you guys hate Ken Burnsey just as I dislike gifs and pop culture refs to geeky games I know nothing about–I just throw that in to tease you because I’m probably a humorist first and foremost.) But okay! I’m remembering how excited I was the first time I read a hypertext novel, circa 1994 (Douglas Cooper’s “Delirium,” I believe). I loved the IDEA of it…but I wasn’t able to get lost in the dream of the story.

    However, I love surrealism and magic realism, and lately I have been seeing some wonderful little films that explore wordless connections; rather, they are suggested with visual repetends. A lot of people love surrealism, perhaps because it is suggestive of a part of the brain we have not yet fully expressed because we haven’t had a full arsenal of tools to do so.

    I am remembering a gathering I was at in the 80s with Buckminster Fuller. He was saying that we should abolish the word “sunset” because it was left over from a medieval understanding of exactly what was happening when “the sun went down.” He suggested “sun-clipse” as being more scientifically accurate and without losing, as he thought, any of the poetry of the moment.

    To parse, I believe you’re saying something similar in that we have a medieval sense of the word “story” or “narrative” left over from prehistoric technologies of oral tradition, then paper and typographical traditions; you’re saying early film launched from that platform out to a visual vocabulary, and, while it initially borrowed traditional plot structures, for example, it is now maturing into more sophisticated plot structures such as we see in “Memento” or “Cloud Atlas.”

    Now you are wondering about the web and how much our imagination about what is possible is bound by our own learned preconceptions of how narratives are shaped–by story element, time sequencing, visual and cultural reference, and so on.

    Have I got the gist of it? Because I don’t want to get excited about your idea if I’m not even close! 🙂

    That was a smiley face emoticon, just for you!

  7. Alan Levine says:

    Yes, attractive!

    [cogdogcxpile] (ignore this, I am experimenting with a bit of blog comment tracking)

    Back to your regularly scheduled commenting… if anyone really does that anymore.

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