Electronic Narratives and Reader Response

I can’t think of a more appropriate time to discuss technological craftsmanship and storytelling than right now. My computer is about a day away from grafting itself as an extra appendage onto my body, my ears have molded themselves around my AirPods, and my fingers are now permanently curled to trace the path of my keyboard. I’ve played more Animal Crossing than I’d like to admit. And, hey, the streaming-powers-that-be finally put Community on Netflix, so I can now rewatch yet another show.

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In maneuvering through the related articles and resources in this module, I returned to another piece of media that I originally discovered years ago, and began to consider it through the lens that Punday provides on the position of the reader in digital narratives. The piece is titled “To This Day Project,” written and read by Canadian spoken-word poet Shane Koyczan (content warnings for self-harm, mention of suicide, and mental illness):

 

 

This project began as a spoken-word poem, and grew into something much larger. Used in part to help define and promote an anti-bullying campaign, the video features dozens of animators and an original score to move with the poetry. The poet, Shane Koyczan, performs the audio as he normally would, but adds more dimension and intensity to match the rise and swell of the words and music.

Typically, spoken word poetry is performance–the poet at the microphone. The poem is listened to with its intended tones, emphasis, and inflections, straight from the creator’s mouth. This tends to position readers as the “narrative audience” that Punday explains, as the readers focus on content ┬ámore than form. Occasionally, the poem has been transferred onto paper or into another form of text. The poem is read like other forms of poetry, with readers adding their own tones, emphasis, and inflection, which means the reader fall into both of Punday’s categories: “narrative audience,” focusing on content, and “authorial audience,” focusing on artificial form and rhetorical intent.

That makes me wonder–how are readers positioned in a spoken word poem with these added, digital elements? The narrator still exists in this form, as Punday points out (28). But the added elements change the context of the narration itself.┬áThere is little choice to be made by any readers–there are no hyperlinks, no interactive elements. This is not a video game or a linked text.

However, the rules and options for the implied reader do still differ from those of a (theoretical) printed version of the “To This Day Project.” For one, there is an inherent inquiry created through the title and collaborative aspects of this piece. The word “project” is important in implying there is more to this piece than just the piece itself–that it is merely an artifact within a larger purpose. Many readers/viewers go on to finding the website for the project, which contains a variety of other content (mostly blog posts from various authors). Interestingly, the website is not linked in this video’s description, but there are links to other resources for victims of bullying.

The piece also emphasizes its collaborative nature: while the poet is front-and-center, there is an obvious, larger group of authors involved in the electronic narrative. Many artists, animators, and musicians crafted the overall piece, as evidenced in the credits and video description. The most obvious point of collaboration is the artifact itself, as the animation blends seamlessly from one style and voice to another, moving with music that starts and stops and climaxes with deliberation.

The music is without words and the imagery in the animation tends to lean towards the abstract when it comes to representing the poetry itself. The piece is less about the poet than it would be when performed traditionally. Arguably, it becomes less about the poem itself as well and more about the idea. In this case, I would argue that readers fall into an almost “narrative” position, but perhaps go even more deeply into an immersive empathetic or emotive position.

To demonstrate the emotions invoked by this piece, I would encourage anyone to look at the comments below the video (content warnings as well for self-harm, mental illness, and bullying). Though it was released in early 2013, many readers are still discovering it for the first time or simply returning to it years later. Many posting comments are survivors of bullying and/or mental health issues. It seems like this digital narrative became an important token for many people going through similar experiences to those of the author, and that the platform itself (Youtube) has become a sort of communal place to contribute personal histories in relation to the digital narrative. There seem to be few actual replies between the commentators, implying the digital rhetoric is simply allowing readers a platform to add their own experiences, to speak them out to other readers.

For most of these readers, and for myself, I think that piece is most effective in how it has been presented. I do not know that mere text could organically illicit the same reader response that this multimodal representation has, or that it could better reach the intended purpose:

“My experiences with violence in schools still echo throughout my life but standing to face the problem has helped me in immeasurable ways.

Schools and families are in desperate need of proper tools to confront this problem. This piece is a starting point.” – Shane

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