Fictional blogging – fascinating, and just a bit terrifying

I caught a couple of disappointing panels at SXSW, as well as a couple that gave me lots of new thinking to chew on. My favorite was Liz Henry and Oden Soli‘s panel on Fictional Blogging. Liz presented an excellent and thorough outline of some of the different ways blogs can be a space for fiction: presenting chapters of novels being written, promoting a work by blogging from the point of view of a character, blogging as characters that are obviously ficticious (like the wonderful Mars Rover livejournal) and writing less transparent “hoaxes” as fiction.

“Good fiction is thick and messy,” building worlds that can be extended by other storytellers through fan fiction, or that have the possibility to cross over into the real world. Whether it’s group projects like Lonelygirl15 or solo efforts, taking on another identity to write fiction has a long path, including my friend Ben Franklin, who wrote many of his works under psuedonyms, sometimes posing as a woman which might have given his words a credibility to female readers that they might have lacked if they’d seen his bald pate. Fiction, Liz points out, is lying as an art form – how does writing fiction in a form that is often used as a journaling or citizen media form complicate that line between lying and storytelling?

Odin Soli is a good person to put this question to. He was the author of a prominent web fiction (or hoax, depending on who you’re asking), Plain Layne. Layne was a bisexual twenty-something “infowaif” who wrote about her thoughts, feelings, romantic life and process of self discovery from 2001-4. Crucially, she answered comments from readers, which helped build a community of 250 or so regular Layne followers, who sometimes tried to intervene and advise Layne on her decisions.

Soli maintained the deception until he was “outed on the front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press,” his home newspaper, which forced him to explain his authorship to his wife, amongst others… (“Hi honey, probably should have told you that I’ve spent the last three years writing interactive fiction online, pretending to be a twenty-something girl.”) Layne wasn’t his first experiment with online fiction – he began years ago, writing fiction in his .plan files (if you know what those are, you’re officially old, even if you’re young.)

The Layne community reacted with a great deal of anger to the revelation of the hoax – some members felt betrayed by the fact that they’d invested emotional energy in a character they thought was real. Others were charmed by the “soap opera” that Soli had put together. Soli makes it clear that he learned a great deal from the readers of the blog, using questions they’d raised as inspirations for future plot twists. By the end, he felt, “very Layne-like. I think I learned a great deal about young women.”

Soli believes that “fiction is moving towards ludology, towards an interactive game.” We expect to be able to talk to our characters and influence their direction. But there’s an open question about our expectations – “when we open a book, we’re expecting a lie.” What can we expect when we look at a blog?

The conversation beyond Layne touches on some of the interesting questions this sort of fiction raises for the internet as a whole. Soli wonders whether there’s a way to monetize long-form online fiction beyond Google ads. (Amazon wishlists for fictional characters, I suppose.) There’s a discussion about corporations’ ability to use these tools to influence purchasing behavior, including a dismissal of the PSP2 blog as “amazingly lame” and evidence that the marketers needed to hire a better firm to write the hoax.

The former art school student in me loves this idea and wants to go out and create some compelling online fiction. And the human rights activist in me wants to pick a fight with Soli out in the hall and rough him up a bit. So I ask a question instead: “What are the implications of this form of art for people who are forced to blog under psuedonyms, like ‘Sleepless in Sudan‘? Will the rise of blog fiction endanger citizen media, as repressive governments dismiss critical blogs as works of fiction?”

Soli had confronted the issue before on an earlier project, “The Sex Pistols are Alive and Well and Living in Sohatsenango”, in which he masqueraded as an Arab-American news reporter, taking time off and travelling by land in Africa and writing under the psuedonym “Acanit”. Post 9/11, he decided that particular fiction was not sustainable:

After 9/11 Acanit suddenly became a pointless and unbelievable and even dangerous experiment. I found her — myself, really — embroiled in discussions about the Middle East and Islam and American policy that I couldn’t honestly represent. So I let her fade away.

I’d be interested in continuing the conversation with Odin Soli and with Liz Henry on this topic. It seems impractical to beg people not to engage in this sort of fiction – clearly it’s going to happen, and it’s only a matter of time before someone claims to be living in a refugee camp or trying to overthrow the Zimbabwean government in the course of writing fiction. And that fiction, if it becomes popular like Layne, is going to radically complicate the efforts of Global Voices to cover the world via weblogs – we’re in a tough spot if we amplify those posts, and probably in an equally tough spot if we choose to challenge that author’s legitimacy and reality.

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5 Responses to Fictional blogging – fascinating, and just a bit terrifying

  1. ellinor says:

    Wow, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately (see my most recent Livejournal post) — what makes a fictional blog effective, what the differences are between a fictional blog and a blog from a real person working pseudonymously (or a fake person working under their real name) — and what it means that bloggers break the “fifth wall” of audience communication and community. This is good stuff.

  2. quixote says:

    I don’t know about this. I don’t want to be lied to, and I bet most people feel the same way. There’s nothing wrong with fiction. It can be pure escapism or all about the deepest of truths, but we KNOW it’s fiction. That’s the essential element. I don’t see how writing in any part of cyberspace suddenly removes the responsibility to be honest with your readers.

    If it’s fiction say so. Nobody has to say, “Hey, I’m really Ben Franklin pretending to be Huckleberry Finn.” The author could be anonymous, or make it clear that s/he’s not Ben Franklin without saying who s/he really is.

    No deception. That’s just plain wrong.

  3. Rob Hopcott says:

    Hi Ethan

    Many thanks for a most interesting analysis.

    I wonder if the drive to increase security with identity cards (big issue in the UK currently) will impact the use of pseudonyms by authors?

    Will governments, who increasingly collect centralised data about individuals from an growing range of sources, also include names of authors who may be using pseudonyms? Taxation authorities could have a particular interest.

    An author’s name or pseudonym can act as a useful trademark enabling readers to search for named work by the author online. Writing under a unique name which may require a pseudonym is probably web wise very important for an author trying to buiilt a name on the Internet.

    Imagination is fun. It allows the spirit to soar and become free. The world will be the poorer if author’s ability to create is diminished.

    Bye for now

    Rob

    (Rob Hopcott – online author and laissez faire liberal)

  4. Liz Henry says:

    I appreciated the complicated political and ethical questions you brought up at the panel!

    Another complicated example to consider – La lesbiana argentina (http://lalesbianaargentina.blogspot.com/), another soap-opera-like young woman’s story. I think it pulled in many new readers through tagging entries “erotica”, “lesbiana” and things like that. So, in addition to attracting spanish-speaking lesbian readers, it pulled in a significant amount of guys looking for porn who would end up reading the site because the characters were fascinating as well as from prurient interest. Whether you think that this humanized women for the porn-seekers or whether you think it served to further commodify and exploit women in their eyes, it was an interesting result.

    The author was actually a lesbian from Argentina, so it’s not like she was going too far afield to represent identity. I wonder too whether if Layne’s creator had been someone in a similar demographic, if objections to her fictionality would have been as strong? The gender-crossing aspect was more of a big deal than I would have at first thought.

    I have often wondered “What if I suddenly found out that Riverbend’s blog was fictional?” and in fact I’ve had that argument with many people and I find that I believe in her based pretty much on the consistent voice of her identity, what I think of as her “canonicity” and from the level of detail she includes.

    I find myself surprised (cynically) that more governments have not used blogs for disinformation.

    Still, I suspect anyone’s identity with extreme caution. I hear too many people disbelieve in bloggers for bad reasons; namely that they themselves are ignorant and can’t imagine such a person existing. I’m sure a lot of people can’t imagine *me* existing either.

    I end up thinking that the people most likely to be heard by a dominant culture are the ones in between cultures, whose authenticity and identity will always be under fire.

  5. Pingback: Idiotprogrammer » Archive » Keeping a pseudonym hidden: possible?

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