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Hypertext Now: Span of Attention  9/16/04 - Article by Mark Bernstein

I think this made some good points, but I couldn't get through it... I kept getting distracted. (kidding) Briefly: when critics complain that current (visual or digital) media are debasing our storytelling talents with 30 minute episodes or sound-bites or music videos, they're conflating a few issues and not really giving the authors (or we readers) proper credit for the epic narratives that are out there.

I think an enduring point the article makes is that a short presentation format does not equal a short narrative, either for the author or the reader. If we can be swept up in the multi-year arc of Babylon 5, or Hill Street Blues, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer despite receiving those stories in 40-minute segments, then perhaps we're getting ready for sweeping literary or multimedia arcs composed of short disconnected segments. Readers are keeping up (or expanding) the skills necessary to perceive and maintain large narratives over many small 'readings'.

Do web texts work like Babylon 5?

Mark argues that serial publication of larger narratives (Dickens, for one) is one argument against the claim that the short presentation formats of current media are debasing storytelling. I think that's an excellent point in general, but when applied to the web or hypertext I wonder how often it applies. How many readers follow enough of a digital text to get the full sweep and scope?

Someone who stops in for an arc of Fans! or It's Walky! is missing out on much of what the series do. It's particularly easy to do with the neatly-packaged story arcs that those two comics provide, but the question applies even to 'punchline'-style comics that have a satisfying resolution at the end of every day or week. A reader can, by virtue of the format and medium, slip into and out of the story, get a bit of a thrill on the way, and never engage the larger narrative. Closure is reached within the short episode as well as the longer series. The medium facilitates those with short attention spans in a way that even Dickens didn't when he published his Great Works in serial form.

Sure, it's always been possible for a reader to ignore the upper levels of what they're reading, but I do think the medium makes that ignorance easier to maintain at the same time as it encourages some people to read on.

Large stories from small scattered texts

I think the article misses some good examples, if only because they've sprung up in the five years since it seems to have been published. First, there's Cloudmakers and its ilk... massive "web games" that are a) presented primarily through websites and web pages, b) are puzzles, in that each site or page is furthermore a puzzle rather than a clear narrative to follow, and c) nevertheless create fairly extensive narratives and participate in larger ones. As I write this, current speculation is that I Love Bees is a part of the Halo story which spans two video games and has correspondences (if not clear connections) to Marathon, a series of three video games whose story occupied readers for five to seven years of sporadic narrative analysis.

Isn't a DVD boxed set a single text?

The growing interest (and supply) of DVD sets are another great example I'd put into the article. When I encounter a new webcomic that looks promising, I dig through it's archive-- and in the case of Fans! I actually bought a subscription so that I could follow the archive. I think people approach DVDs like I do my webcomics-- people are going out to get the 'archives' of television and cinematic series in order to follow the larger sweep... and to revisit the same narrative from the different angle of a single presentation.

We're developing our skills, really.

I think an enduring point the article makes is that a short presentation format does not equal a short narrative, either for the author or the reader. If we can be swept up in the multi-year arc of Babylon 5, or Hill Street Blues, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer despite receiving those stories in 40-minute segments, then perhaps we're getting ready for sweeping literary or multimedia arcs composed of short disconnected segments. Readers are keeping up (or expanding) the skills necessary to perceive and maintain large narratives over many small 'readings'.