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The Wunderkammer

A Digital Alchemy Lab

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netnarr

Final Reflection

Well, I made it to the end of the semester…  Overall, I think I fell short of my goal for this class, as I missed several assignments and blog posts, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t gained something valuable from the Spring 2018 Networked Narratives experience.  If I had to condense it into one statement, I’d say that I gained a deeper understanding of the Twitter platform. Hosting a Twitter chat about empathy games and learning to create simple Twitter bots allowed me to experiment with different types of expression and participation. I am particularly proud of my bots.  This is reflected in my blog, where one of my personal favorite posts discusses the first bot I made for class, and all I associated with its creation. My bot pride is also reflected in my choice of final project, where I created an entirely new generative literature bot using the set-up tool we were given in class.

I also gained a lot from taking part in the virtual studio visit with Emilio Vavarella.  Though I had some technical difficulties, I learned a great deal about digital art and I was able to ask a couple really good questions, which prompted rich responses from Mr. Vavarella.  My preparation for the studio visit brought me to Vavarella’s work, and I was amazed at the way he interpreted the concept of digital art. It definitely broadened my own personal definitions.  

I wasn’t as diligent with my DDAs as I could have been, but I still had a great time creating them this go around.  My favorite DDA was DDA #174 “Conjure Up a Rainbow.” I was able to play with the theme of conjuration and share a piece of art from my weird, morbid etsy surfing.  That’s a win-win!

Despite not doing as well as I’d hoped, I feel pretty satisfied with my NetNarr experience.  I learned, and I had fun, and really that’s all one could ask of a class. Plus, now there’s a bot of my creation wreaking automated nounjective havoc on the Internet.  NounjectiveBot shall be my NetNarr legacy!

 

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Bot-ulism

Last week in class we ventured into the world of bots.  We started by looking at some exemplary bots, from the famous experiment ELIZA to the works of poetry-generating bots.  We concluded with an exercise where we created our own Twitter bots to tweet about a given topic.  I found the topic of bots both fascinating and challenging, even a little nostalgia-inducing.

I’ve had a soft spot for robots and artificial intelligence ever since I saw a documentary about real-life robots as a child.  The documentary showed robots completing puzzles, toddling down hallways, and using early digital cameras to “see.”  As a teenager I read all of Isaac Asimov’s robot-related short stories, and I became enamored with the Sony AIBO (which was discontinued for a while, but is apparently back!).  My first published story was a piece of flash fiction about a robot.  So, yeah, I’ve got some history with bots.

When we tried out ELIZA in class, I was reminded of an old DOS computer program I played as a kid.  Luckily for me, my dad was a huge nerd with an MS in Computer Science, so we always had personal computers in the house.  I must have been about 3 or 4 years old when my dad let me play with a program called Doctor Spatzo.  From what I remember, it was an ELIZA clone with early voice simulation so it could talk to its user in text as well as audibly.  Like ELIZA, Doctor Spatzo was meant to be an automated therapist to whom users could tell their problems.  I remember asking it questions and saying stuff to it, but my most vivid memory of the program comes from a time that I antagonized it.  I forget exactly what I said, but it was continuous strings of little kid nonsense, probably about poop and farts.  I remember Doctor Spatzo’s response perfectly, however.  It told me to “Shut up and go fly a kite.”  I was awe struck, and a little scared.  I thought that Doctor Spatzo was actually angry at me.

Using the Bot or Not Poetry Turing Test reminded me of the fascination I had, perhaps about 5 years ago, with historic automatons.  The images on the Bot or Not site are, I believe, of the Mechanical Turk.  The Mechanical Turk was an 18th century illusion masquerading as an automaton.  It was a box with a mannequin of a Turkish man connected to it that could play chess.  Eventually, the Turk was revealed to be an elaborate trick instead of a brilliant automaton.  There was actually a live human squished inside the box playing chess for the mannequin!  Even though the Turk was a fake, the 18th century was the golden age of automatons.  Many times, clock makers would create automatons as a way to show off their skills or gain favor from royalty.  Some of them were downright amazing, even by today’s mechanical standards.  There was a duck that actually pooped, dolls that were able to write, and countless singing birds.  If anyone is looking to read about these 18th century automatons, I recommend the book Androids in the Enlightenment by Adelheid Voskuhl.

Lastly, the bot creation exercise was difficult, frustrating, and incredibly rewarding upon completion.  It brought me back to the Quick BASIC and Visual BASIC programming classes I took in high school, though it was obviously not as in-depth thanks to the setup tool (Thank goodness!  I don’t think that part of my brain works anymore!)  Once I got things working right on my Twitter bot, I really enjoyed inputing word combinations and seeing them randomized and broadcast out to the world.  I actually have ideas for two more bots that would utilize the same setup, and I’m hoping I can make one of them for our electronic literature project.

 

Red-Onlining

In class last week we learned about the concept of digital redlining (see Dr. Chris Gilliard’s work on the topic), and we were asked to create an interactive map of Newark that compared its historical redlining zones and something tech-related.  I chose to compare the redlining zones with free Wi-fi points, and my interactive map can be found here.

It was hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from my map comparison because it seems there aren’t many free Wi-Fi points in the Newark area, at least according to the source I used.  I find that hard to believe, since many hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops boast free Wi-Fi, not to mention libraries and schools. In the interest of getting the map done within class time, I chose to continue working with the source, but if I were to do this project again, I would definitely use something else.

Although I wasn’t able to draw conclusions from my project, I still found it very valuable.  I was naive to the whole idea of digital redlining, so I felt privileged to learn about it.  The topic is relevant to both my thesis work, and to another class I’m taking this semester, Race and Ethnicity in Writing.  In that class, we talk a lot about ways that language conventions, and the use thereof, reflect institutionalized racism.  With digital redlining, it’s clear that new media literacies are subject to that same kind of subtle racism.  As far as my thesis is concerned, I’m looking at online participatory cultures, and one of the biggest criticisms people tend to have about them is the inequality in access.  Although participatory cultures allow great opportunity for expression and informal learning, it’s not fair if some parts of the population aren’t able to participate in them.  Learning about digital redlining really hammered that point home for me.  I also found it valuable to learn the basics of the h5p platform.  There’s so many different things it allows one to make, and I can see possibilities for creating tutoring and teaching materials with it.

 

One of my Favorite Things!

Hello all!  The previous week was a good one for digital alchemy, what with all our Twitter adventures and in-class research.

During our Twitter Chat, I got the chance to talk, or tweet…, about one of my favorite things: digital art!  I was tickled to see other users talking about DeviantArt (for those that don’t know, my thesis is focused on DeviantArt communities), and I loved that I could share a bit about my activities there and some of my favorite digital art.  I wanted to talk about the ways that Twitter has become an extended part of certain online art communities, particularly (you guessed it!) my beloved closed species (CS) communities, but I figured it might go off topic, so I’ll just settle for sharing a few examples here.  I’ll save the rest for my thesis blog.  As a bit of context, those two examples are Twitter profiles members of the Griffia closed species community have made for their characters.  It allows them to explore social media through their characters’ eyes, thus bridging fantasy and reality.  At times these Twitter accounts are also used as places of practice for civic imagination.  As an endcap to this little digital-art-themed ramble, I’ll share a piece of digital art I made, of which I am particularly proud.  Yes, this was for a CS community thing on DeviantArt:

Terradragon fly 4

Artwork by me, Terradragon species and design by griffsnuff@DeviantArt

Now let’s get to the next (related, but different) topic: the Twitter Safari!  I really had a great time with this activity, and it had some extra, behind-the-scenes meaning for me as well.  As can be seen in my Safari entries, each one includes a little snippet of lyrical prose.  That sort of writing was on the tip of my brain last Tuesday because I had just been struck by a bolt of writing inspiration on the way to school.  Well yeah, you might say, you’re in an English Master’s program; that’s no big deal.  Big news: IT IS.  I had some major health issues last semester, and those issues had been bubbling for a while.  My mind was in an awful place, and it had been at least a year since I had experienced genuine inspiration to write.  I’m not talking about “Oh, okay, I’ll write about this for this assignment; I’ve got ideas about how to do that”; I’m talking about true creative writing inspiration, the type where the words just smack you out of nowhere, pre-packaged in tasteful statements, and demand to be written.  It’s like artistic diarrhea.  A few years ago, that sort of inspiration was commonplace for me.  I wrote like I breathed.  I had artistic diarrhea enough that I had to carry a fucking pen-and-paper diaper to catch all my words and ideas.  I thought I had lost that ability; I thought life had beaten it out of me.  But I was wonderfully wrong!  Before class last week, I was feverishly writing a short creative nonfiction piece on a yellow legal pad with an unsharpened pencil.  The residual creative thought was used to make the comments on my Twitter Safari photos, and now they’re markers of the moment when inspiration finally came back to me, when I really started feeling like myself again for the first time in a while.

The Twitter Safari itself was a fun activity, and I can see it being a useful teaching tool (for those of us that intend to teach).  I liked the urgency of it, and I definitely would not change it to a longer assignment.  I think that would allow students to ignore it.  There’s something special about being told “Here’s 15 minutes; go find art in your boring-ass surroundings.”  It’s like a warm-up jog for the brain, or at least that’s how I’d use the Safari activity if I were to use it in my future teaching career.  One day the students could do a Safari instead of free-writing; I think they serve similar purposes, but in totally different ways.

Letter to my Alchemist/Course Reflection

Dear Tycho,

It was a pleasure to host you during your visit to New Jersey.  I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting person to share my home and academic life with, as much as you may refuse to believe it.  I’m not sure how bad the racism was back in Arganee, but for someone like me, the opportunity to make friends with a Chimera alchemist has been a dream-come-true.  I’d also like to thank you for your kindness and understanding toward me.  This semester was a difficult one, especially around the time you arrived, but you never became impatient with me, or with this strange world.  You’d just smile, flutter those little wings of yours, and make cups of tea for us both.  That takes a special kind of person, Tycho, and it was an inspiration to me.  I’d even venture to say that during the course of this semester you’ve taught me to become more patient with myself.  Like your “clumsy poetic” (as Prof. Levine called them) words, perfect things are not always perfect in the ways we expect them to be.

You weren’t with me for the first half of this semester, but that was the time when things were going very well.  I participated in two webinars during that time, for one of which I developed questions to guide the next day’s class discussion.  These were about electronic literature and netprov.  I did a blog a week, and I did 2 Daily Digital Alchemies a week, sometimes more.  I also submitted two ideas for Daily Digital Alchemies, one of which involved finding faces in inanimate objects, and the other of which asked participants to make up a new word.  Sometimes my blogs were responses to specific prompts we had been assigned, but sometimes (with the permission of Dr. Zamora) I did my own thing.  It was actually those blogs, where I took advantage of the freedom I had been granted, that were the most meaningful to me.  Unsure if I was doing something “wrong,” I wrote about original species communities on the online art/social network site DeviantArt.  Thanks to the overwhelmingly positive responses of Dr. Zamora and Prof. Levine, I was able to realize that these virtual communities really were a valid and unique subject of research.  After this realization, I decided that I would make original species communities the topic of my Master’s thesis.  If I had never written those blog posts, I think I would still be floundering and grasping for a thesis topic I felt was “perfect,” or in other words “scholarly enough.”

It was around the middle of the semester that things started to go downhill.  First, I learned that the two core pillars of my academic support system, Dr. Zamora and Dr. Inskeep, would both be leaving for sabbatical and a new job respectively.  I became very anxious and depressed about the coming year.  Shortly after this, I was hospitalized for an instance of acute colitis.  I spent two-and-a-half days in the hospital receiving antibiotics, fluids, and painkillers.  After I was released from the hospital, I was required to stay out of school for another week to rest and work myself from a clear fluid diet back to solid foods.  During this time, I was feeling pretty awful and I did no schoolwork at all.  It was around the time that I returned to school that you arrived, Tycho.  You taught me to drink tea since I could no longer have coffee.

Communicating with the world of Arganee was like a new beginning.  Teaching you to blog, tweet, and participate in the “Cooking with Anger” netprov rejuvenated me.  I loved watching you take to Twitter to communicate and share your thoughts with other alchemists and the #netnarr community, even though you had a bad habit of forgetting to use the #arganee hashtag.  I think ultimately less than half of your tweets had the hashtag, but all of them were interesting and beautiful in their own way.  You shared a lot of gifs, and even made a meme.  I let you take over in the Twitter department instead of doing Daily Digital Alchemies, as I’m pretty sure I was supposed to for that leg of the course… Except for that one fiasco we had when you left yourself logged in and I accidentally tweeted from your account.  We laughed about it in the end, but man was I steamed at the time!  It’s a shame we never could figure out the audio software for you to share samples of the Chimera language.

My “rebirth” was stunted when I fell ill again, and you even participated less in tweeting and blogging as you took care of me.  You didn’t need to do that, but you told me, “Twitter-hunger will not be world-death-make! You need health-make, not stress-make!”  How powerful that was, considering Arganee needed that kind of participation to help achieve balance again!  You put importance on my health, and I realized I had to do that as well.

Well, Tycho, we made it to the end of the semester, even if there were some instances when our participation slowed to a trickle.  Because of those instances, I think I deserve a B by the grading contract’s standards, but I’m hoping my professors will take mercy on me and grant me a B+ or A-.  Most of the times that I missed assignments or was absent were for valid illness, for which I was able to provide documentation.  I think there was one blog that I missed just because I was sad over Drs. Zamora and Inskeep’s departures.

Anyway, thank you so much for coming into my life, Tycho.  You are a kind, patient, creative young Chimera, and a wonderful alchemist.  I’m glad I was able to help Arganee heal itself, and I’m even happier I got the chance to meet you.  It was a privilege and a delight to see how your mind works, and to hear the way you expressed yourself.  I’m grateful for your invitation to visit Arganee, and I hope to take you up on it someday.  For now, though, I think I’d like you to come back to New Jersey.  I have an idea for a project, and I think your voice would be perfect for it…

Original Species: A Colorful Kind of Transmedia Generative Literature

Since we talked about netprov this week, and we’ll be talking about fan fiction next week, I figured this would be the perfect time to share a passion of mine, which kind of exists in the juncture between those two genres: original species.  Original species communities tend to crop up in online visual art communities, most notably DeviantArt, but the generative literature they engender spans a variety of mediums.  Just to clarify, when I use the term “generative” here, I am using it in the way for which electronic literature scholar Dr. Mia Zamora advocates: a collaborative, nonlinear sort of networked narrative.  Although the computer is necessary to facilitate the community network, it is people who do the creating, not computers.

First off, I should probably explain what original species are.  Basically, an artist creates a fictional species, usually with lore and a world built around them.  The creator then provides information about the species’s morphology (usually in the form of pre-made character designs and features sheets), social habits, intelligence level, etc. If others are interested in the species, they can create, buy, or otherwise obtain a species character.  This is where things get a little complicated.

A closed species is a species that people must obtain explicit permission to create a character of.  Often this involves the exchange of actual or digital currency to buy a pre-made character design or a MYO (make your own) slot.  Other methods of obtaining a closed species character include: raffles, trading of services (art, design, or writing commissions), DTA (draw to adopt) or WTA (write to adopt) contests, and trading character designs of other species.    Most closed species creators tend to be art students or emerging artists, and some of them even make a living entirely off of their closed species.  Because these species are a sort of business for their creators, there are usually records kept of users who own designs, and which designs they own.  If someone who doesn’t officially own a design tries to steal another user’s design and claim it as their own, the species creator or administrators react to reprimand or ban the dishonest user.  A handful of closed species creators have even trademarked their species.  This may seem harsh and exclusionary, but most closed species communities do offer ways for people who don’t own a design to participate.  These include mascot or NPCs (non-player characters), who are free for anyone to draw or write about, and the option to create art or writing of other users’ characters as gift art.  Many times, closed species communities make use of some kind of rewards system; if a user creates enough gift art/writing for other users in the community, they can earn a MYO slot.

An open species is a species that anyone can create a character of at any time without contacting the creator.  This includes making and selling character designs.  A semi-open species is a species that allows users to create their own character for personal use, but they must contact the creator and have the creator approve their character design.  Other users are not allowed to make and sell designs of a semi-open species.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can move on to the species communities.  The real magic of original species comes from the multifaceted worlds that users contribute to create.  A wonderful example of this is the GremCorps community. The creator of the Grem2 species, who goes by the username MrGremble, started the Grem2 networked narrative with their own rich lore and art, as can be seen on the linked website.  Members of the community build off this lore by creating their own characters, stories, relationships, artwork, and writing.

lil_gremcorps_site_sneakpeek_by_mrgremble-d8kme0s

Artwork and species concept by MrGremble on DeviantArt

To facilitate the creation of art and literature, GremCorps provides its users with prompts.  Like our class’s Daily Digital Alchemy, these prompts are interpreted by users in a variety of creative ways.  Here is a sample of a prompt and the literature it generates:

Prompt    –     Writing Entry    Visual Art Entry 

Even though I have only provided links to writing and two-dimensional visual art, other responses to prompts have included: sculpture, video game/computer program design, crafts, and custom plush toys.

In addition to being networked by the fact that all Grem2 characters exist within the same species and world, some users specifically seek out other users’ characters to incorporate into their stories and art.  This means finding friends, enemies, rivals, mates, etc. for their Grem2.  This is often accomplished by advertising within the group with what is known as a “tracker.”

Example of a tracker

Finally, many original species communities have their own Skype or Discord groups where members can chat, share ideas, or RP(roleplay).  RPing is very much like netprov in that two or more users write collaboratively on the fly.  The term RP is a bit of a misnomer because users don’t actually assume the identities of their characters; instead they usually write in third person about the actions, words, etc. of one or more of their characters in response to the actions/words of the other user’s character or characters.  Some communities also have ARPGs, which incorporate extra elements such as item collection, breeding, competitions, and more numerous prompts.

This post is by no means an exhaustive analysis of original species communities; there’s a lot of species, each with their own communities and quirks.  Two other notable ones are Chittercida and Pillowings.  Rather, this was intended as an introduction to the genre, and why I think it would be considered generative literature.  I hope I’ve done a decent job explaining things.  If I haven’t, though, or you have any further questions, feel free to ask in the comments!

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