Category Archives: citizenjournalism

why is ‘world without oil’ such a bore?

I just had the following email exchange with Sebastian Mary about the World Without Oil alternate reality game (covered previously on if:book here and here). It seemed interesting enough to repost here.
BEN – Mon, May 14, 2007 at 4:59 PM EST
Hi there,
You found anything interesting yet going on at WWO?
I keep meaning to dig deeper, but nothing I’ve turned up is much good. Maudlin postcards from a pretty generic-feeling apocalypse is what most of it feels like to me. Perhaps I haven’t been looking in the right places, but my instinct at the moment is that the citizen journalist conceit was not the way to go. It’s “participatory” all right, but in that bland, superficial way that characterizes so many traditional media efforts at “interactivity.” Honestly, I’m surprised something like this got through the filter of folks as sophisticated as Jane McGonigal and co.
I think players need smaller pieces and hooks, elements of mystery to get their wheels turning — a story. As far as I can tell, this is the closest to intrigue there’s yet been, and it turned out to be nothing.
Would love to be shown something that suggests otherwise. Got anything?
SEB MARY – Mon, May 14, 2007 at 5:25 PM
Haven’t been following it closely to be honest. Up to the eyeballs with other work and don’t really have time to trawl acres of second-rate ‘What if…’. Plus, if I’m honest, despite my fetish for collaborative and distributed creativity I’m fussy about good prose, and amateur ‘creative writing’ doesn’t really grip me unless it’s so far from tradition (eg lolcats and the like) as to be good on its own terms. So though the idea intrigued me, I’ve not been hooked. I think it probably needs more story.
Which problem actually resonates with something else I’ve been pondering recently around collaborative writing. It bothers me that because people aren’t very good at setting up social structures within which more than one person can work on the same story (the total lack of anything of that sort in Million Penguins for example), you end up with this false dichotomy between quality products of one mind, and second-rate products of many, that ends up reinforcing the privileged position of the Author simply because people haven’t worked out an effective practice for any alternative. I think there’s something to be learned from the open-source coders about how you can be rigorous as well as collaborative.
BEN – Tue, May 15, 2007 at 12:50 AM
I don’t see why an ARG aimed at a social mobilization has to be so goddamn earnest. It feels right now like a middle school social studies assignment. But it could be subversive, dangerous and still highly instructive. Instead of asking players to make YouTube vids by candlelight, or Live Journal diaries reporting gloomily on around-the-block gas lines or the promise of local agriculture, why not orchestrate some real-world mischief, as is done in other ARGs.
This game should be generating memorable incursions of the hypothetical into the traffic of daily life, gnawing at the edges of people’s false security about energy. Create a car flash mob at a filling station and tie up several blocks of traffic in a cacophony of horns, maybe even make it onto the evening news. Or re-appropriate public green spaces for the planting of organic crops, like those California agrarian radicals with their “conspiracies of soil” in People’s Park back in the 60s. WWO’s worst offense, I think, is that it lacks a sense of humor. To sort of quote Oscar Wilde, the issues here are too important to take so seriously.
SEB MARY – Tue, May 15, 2007 at 5:34 AM
I totally agree that a sense of humour would make all the difference. There’s a flavour about it of top-down didactically-oriented pseudo-‘participation’, which in itself is enough to scupper something networked, even before you consider the fact that very few people like being lectured at in story form.
The trouble is, that humour around topics like this would index the PMs squarely to an activist agenda that includes people like the Reverend Billy, the Clown Army and their ilk. That’d be ace in my view; but it’s a risky strategy for anyone who’s reluctant to nail their political colours firmly to the anti-capitalist mast, which – I’d imagine – rules out most of Silicon Valley. It’s hard to see how you could address an issue like climate change in an infectious and mischievous way without rubbing a lot of people up the wrong way; I totally don’t blame McGonigal for having a go, but I think school-assignment-type pretend ‘citizen journalism’ is no substitute for playful subversiveness and – as you say – story hooks.
The other issue in play is as old as literary theory: the question of whether you dig ideas-based narrative or not. If the Hide & Seek Fest last weekend is anything to go by, the gaming/ARG community, young as it is, is already debating this. What place does ‘messaging’ have in games? Some see gaming as a good vehicle for inspiring, radical, even revolutionary messages, and some maintain that this misses the point.
Certainly, I think you have to be careful: games and stories have their own internal logic, and often don’t take kindly to being loaded with predetermined arguments. Even if I like the message, I think that it only works if it’s at the service of the experience (read story, game or both), and not the other way round. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how much interactivity you add, or how laudable your aim, it’s still boring.

recommended podcast: “information as news”

Katrina blew through the news business just as furiously as it tore through the Gulf Coast. For a good discussion of this, I highly recommend last night’s podcast of Open Source, a great new program on public radio that is of, by and through the web, generating story ideas and discussion on its blog. The show operates in an exciting border zone, dealing with general interest stories while always keeping an eye on the changing communication practices that are affecting/chanelling them. Last night’s show – “Craigslist and Information as News” – deals with citizen coverage of Katrina and the big changes underfoot for professional journalism.
Host Christopher Lydon speaks, with the breathless excitement of a man watching his profession change before his eyes, about “changing terms of authority in the news business” after Hurricane Katrina. He has on as guests Craig Newmark of craigslist (New Orleans site), editor Jon Donley, and media critic/blogger/citizen journalism guru Jeff Jarvis. From the intro:

The best reporting in the world — no hyperbole, the best reporting in the world — this week came from the web division of the New Orleans Times Picayune, Information — missing person reports, safe and alive person reports — became news. And it became a source, even, for rescue teams, more accurate than anything else they had to go on.
Craigslist, after Katrina, became a forum for finding the missing and housing the saved, and what you find on Craigslist are stories as compelling as anything on CNN. Maybe what communities want in a time of crisis is good information, and maybe detailed, accurate information makes the best story. Craig and Jeff helped invent two new ways of collecting and distributing information; Jon is perfecting it right now in the Crescent City.