I’m recently back from the Mix: Digital conference, which was full of inspiring people and projects that I’ll blog about soon.  First, though, I want to quickly post something I should have mentioned much earlier.  I’ve not had a lot of time to keep up with forums lately, so apologies to the wonderful people at EpiGuide for only just noticing the inclusion of Bad influences in their June podcast, Epicast #12.  This is a great resource for web serials of all kinds and I’m very grateful for the mention and the in-depth discussion on the podcast.  I’m going to try and answer a few of the questions that Kira and Mike raised.

One of the comments  concerned the technical terms used in the text (W4, handsets/worksets/homesets, SkIMp, Blink).  They’re right that I wasn’t too explicit about the meaning of these, partly because I didn’t want to have characters explaining terms that are commonplace to them, but also because I felt they were (or should be) sufficiently explained by their context, while perhaps leaving a little wiggle room for reader speculation.  However, Kira asks for a glossary in the behind the scenes blog, so I’m happy to oblige.

The W4 is the WorldWide Wireless Web – the network of geosynched, low-orbit satellites that ensure the internet can be picked up from any W4-ready device at any point on the globe at any time.  This is a fundamental piece of background for the story, but one the characters don’t really think about until access is blocked in the “silent provinces”.  I wanted to use the shock and disbelief at anybody being unable to use communications technology to show just how ubiquitous it’s become, and how reliant people are on its constant availability.  Naturally, I also need there to be a network that will remain in place so that blogs will continue to be available throughout the collapse of society.

Access to this network is provided not by ISPs or phone companies but by Socnets, a development of the social network.  Instead of having one Service Provider, you can be registered with has many Socnets as you like.  In fact, it may be compulsory to register with your national socnet, or at least very difficult to get essential local services if you don’t.  However, you don’t have to use that socnet for your browsing – there’s a whole market range, from corporate ones that offer rewards and discounts while getting revenue from data mining and advertising, to independent, open source ones that won’t track you or sell your data (but are probably a bit clunky and can’t access certain official sites).  In some places, some socnets may be illegal, but since the network is global there’s no way to stop people using whatever socnet they like – as Mei says, it’s like an illegal download, they can’t prosecute everybody.  However, this does present a danger – if the police want to get you for something unrelated but have nothing on you, then using an illegal socnet gives them an easy excuse to for arrest.  This is why Mei mentions an app to remove all traces of your Indy socnets from all your sets on the entering of an alternative passcode (this is no doubt the one you tell the police when they’re asking for the code to access your handset.)

I’m surprised the term “handset” caused any confusion, as this is pretty much the standard term here in the UK for the part of a mobile phone purchase that isn’t the sim card or the contract.  Once we’re using it, we’d normally call it a “mobile” or just a “phone” (and that difference is generational – only the over 30s use the distinctions of “mobile” and “landline” – for teens and most twenty-somethings, “phone” has never meant anything else).  From here, it was a short extrapolation to see that TVs are becoming more like computers, computers are becoming more like tablets – they’ll soon all be much the same thing, with minor variations.  A handset, as used in BI, is the evolution of the smart phone, recognising that its primary purpose is no longer for speaking and listening to people but for a wide variety of communications and entertainment in small, ultra-portable form.  A workset is larger – probably coming in a variety of sizes and with a plethora of attachments and docking stations so that it can replace desktop PC, laptop computer and tablet in one device.  A homeset is larger and non-portable, designed for communal viewing and use while seated at a distance, essentially a Smart TV that is no longer only or even primarily for watching entertainment media, but also browsing, gaming and SkIMping.

SkIMp is an evolution of Skype, a pun on Skype with IM (Instant Messaging) and a low-cost replacement for both texting and audio phone calls.

That just leaves Blink, and I’m fascinated by the speculation on this – in fact, Kira’s idea is much better than mine!  Blink was going to be some kind of link-sharing social network, like reddit or stumbleupon, that automatically saves and categorises your browsing, and gives you options to quickly and securely share particular finds with friends.  I was going to have another behind the scenes blog called “Blink”, and all the things the characters mention Blinking to one another would have had some further explanation there, but  I abandoned this idea because it didn’t add a lot to the story.  The explanations weren’t of much interest and wouldn’t have included anything a reader couldn’t easily google for themselves.  Webcam glasses as a device to directly SkIMp real-time experience would be much better!  You’re free to interpret it as you want.

To answer the point about BI being  difficult to read as anything other than an experiment, I agree in a sense, but I think this owes less to the fact that I’m getting a Ph.D. out of it than it does to the fact that the form is experimental.   I’m again confused by the perception that the characters don’t talk about their everyday lives or anything outside of the epidemic – in the early entries, everybody but Mei talks a lot more about work, family and the little things that are bothering them, only mentioning the flu in passing.  I don’t know if this perception is due to the fact that the flu is the major plot point, so it perhaps stands out more than other details on a skim read.  I did try to keep the flu on the radar, and use aspects of the characters’ lives that would be affected by it, because – well, that’s how plot and character development work, in any medium.  Character development should happen through relevant events, not stand out as a separate story.  Perhaps there’s something about the brevity and focused nature of the blog post – as opposed to the novel chapter – that makes any slightest mention of a plot-relevant topic seem to be the topic of the whole post, and all else seem peripheral.  I was afraid that, if anything, the flu was too peripheral for Elaine, Jack and Ash in the first month or two of the story, but a number of readers have interpreted the beginning this way, so it’s definitely something to investigate further.

Kira and Mike are right that it’s difficult to just “stumble upon” BI without the full explanation, and I’m afraid that is something that was necessary due to the academic connection.  Ethics committees are pretty serious about anything that invites participation and blurs the lines of reality.  Strange as it may seem, I had to write a full-on risk assessment before putting this story on the internet, with one of the major concerns being readers not realising that it’s fiction.  Perhaps if Blog Fiction were a well-known phenomenon and people were used to seeing and reading it, it wouldn’t require nearly so much explanation in its premise and navigation, it would follow established conventions which readers would already understand, and this site would be simply a portal for the story.  As it is, those things do get in the way of full immersion.

As Dave Addey was pointing out in his keynote for Mix: Digital, new forms of engagement with text are always a barrier to achieving the kind of immersion readers are used to expecting from a book, and I’d posit that that goes as much for narrative forms as the devices we read them on.  Perhaps early readers of written fiction complained that the need to turn pages and keep a place in the text made it difficult to see a book as truly containing a story.  Bound pages were a medium better suited to recording holy, unchanging scriptures, legal and historical documents and financial accounts.  The idea of using these fixed words on paper, rather than a human orator who could respond to the audience at the hearth, must have taken some getting used to.  People are still complaining that reading novels on screen – even a paper-like screen – lacks an important tactile element.  Even some of those used to reading serialised web fiction, who are fine with single character blogfics that are rigidly linear, are put off by the complexity of multiple character blogfic.  That’s understandable – I’ve tried to make the reading options as clear and navigable as possible, but it’s still another convention to get used to, like chapters or the limited third-person viewpoint.  Some have taken to it and found it exciting.  Some don’t get what I’m trying to do.  Some do get it but have found it not to their taste, or difficult to keep up with.  That’s all fine.  What I’m really gratified about is that those who’ve had strong reactions for or against it have explained why.   As a writer there is nothing more exciting than seeing how readers have responded to the text, and as a researcher there’s nothing more interesting than finding out the reasons why people respond positively and negatively to new forms, how they establish reading conventions, and how this affects my writing process.

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Bad Influences by Emma Pooka is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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