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Zombies Ate My Networked Novel: the Flight Paths Experiment

Page history last edited by Alan Liu 1 year, 12 months ago

Group Members:

Anne Cong-Huyen

Amanda Phillips




In 2001, The Guardian published an article, "The man who fell to earth," that describes in terrible and heartbreaking detail how the body of a young Pakistani man, Mohammed Ayaz, was seen falling from the underbelly of an airplane and landing in a parking lot of a chain home improvement store, several feet away from a major highway in London.


In 2002, writer Amitava Kumar, published a brief essay, "Flight," in his essay collection Bombay, London, New York in which he reflects upon the story of Ayaz, and the difficult realities of escape, flight, and falling for the South Asian itinerant worker.


In 2007, Kate Pullinger and  Chris Joseph launched the "Flight Paths" blog with the intention of creating a "networked novel." Their blog served as a platform where they worked through their writing process and solicited feedback and contributions from others. In 2009, they relaunched the site with an electronic story "Flight Paths," which narrates the story of the migrant Yacub, his attempt to enter the UK through the undercarriage of an airplane, and an Englishwoman, Harriet, whose life intersects with Yacub when his body lands on her car.



Screenshot of "Flight Paths" electronic novel introductory page, with links to different chapters, and to the Flight Paths Universe



Screenshot from Chapter 2 of "Flight Paths," "Yacub at the Airport"



Screenshot from Chapter 4 of "Flight Paths," "Dark Mass"


The story of Yacub and Harriet, though fascinating in itself, is only one part of the Flight Paths Universe, as Pullinger and Joseph term it, in which other contributors are invited to submit and share their own additions to this network of narrative constructed through various media (digital video, photographs, poems, short stories, websites, etc.)



Screen Shot of front page to the Fight Paths Universe



Screenshot with sample past contributions to the Flight Paths Universe




This project will attempt to look at how various texts have inspired and contributed in this resulting "universe." By looking at the various processes present in this example of "transmedia storytelling" (Jenkins, Convergence Culture) or "vast narrative" (Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan, Third Person) we propose to examine how varied perspectives from different individuals and organizations have led to a very divergent and troubling, though potentially very powerful, practice of storytelling. 


"Transmedia storytelling" serves as a fruitful foundation for some of the underlying notions that motivate those individuals and institutions that have invested in the Flight Paths Universe, namely the concepts of collaboration and exchange in the narrative process. As Henry Jenkins writes, "Transmedia storytelling is the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels...these grassroots artists are finding themselves in conflict with commercial media producers who want to exert greater control over their intellectual property" (21).


This statement leads to one particular concern: the various parts of these narratives, especially as they are manifest in "Flight Paths," often egregiously elide issues of (mis)representation, privilege, and agency on the part of both the artist and the object/subject. How can this be addressed and how can it be reconciled with the potentialities of this form of narrative?


A second potential component of this project is the narrative mapping of the Flight Paths universe. Flight Paths begins with a split in narration: Harriet the housewife and Yacub the laborer. In the fifth segment of the "official" text, these two paths cross, and the resulting collision is supposed to inspire the user-driven production that follows. However, there is a disturbing split in the contributions to Flight Paths: narrative segments deal with travel and flight or immigrant labor, but they rarely cross. We would like to trace the paths of these narratives to see how a more productive critique of the tragedy of Mohammed Ayaz and the circumstances that led to his death.


One approach to visualizing the development of Flight Paths as a Networked Novel will be to analyze textual relationships between the source text (the original Guardian article), the "official" text of the Flightpaths main page, and the secondary texts created by contributing users. Using ManyEyes and Juxta, we intend to develop data of the most frequently used words in the Networked Novel. This data will allow us to visualize which aspects of the source story are most generative of imaginative text. We will also attempt to visualize the contextual changes of the keywords as they move from fact to fiction. 


Since this Networked Novel seeks to encompass visual and aural components in addition to the textual, we will also attempt to analyze the intersections (or lack thereof) between these mediums. 




Juxta Analysis Results


This particular image shows the most dense occurrences of common words between the story's text and that of the original Guardian

article. Words in common are in white and divergent words are highlighted in green. The large green bar in the histogram at the bottom of the image shows where these occurrences appear within the whole collation. Vertical lines in the histogram show other examples of shared words between the two texts.


Through the Juxta analysis, we observe that the words most common between the two texts are those generic ones pertaining to details of stowing away on the plane (i.e. cargo, engine, airport) and to work (i.e. earn, work, paid). Specifics covered in the article about the South Asian man's background and the labor conditions in Dubai that prompt the attempted journey are not among those that also appear in the resulting electronic story.


What Juxta cannot analyze, which is significant for examination of multimedia texts like "Flight Paths," are the representations that appear in sound and images. Where the text does not detail the work conditions of Yacub in Dubai, the images do present various two-dimensional representations of these situations.






Comparison of the story's text with the blog, which, according to Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, was an opportunity of "opening up the research process to the outside world, inviting discussion of the large array of issues the project touches on," shows much less similarity between the two texts. The majority of similarity comes in the entries where the authors posted excerpts from the final story into the blog. This image suggests that very little of the contributions and discussion that occurred in the CommentPress blog went into the actual story that was eventually published in chapter form as "Flight Paths."




ManyEyes Visualizations


Using IBM's ManyEyes visualization programs, we ran several text comparisons to compliment the Juxta analyses by creating word count comparisons in the form of tag clouds. These visualizations show the occurrences of in each text (the larger the words, the more often they are repeated in each text, respectively) and compares them with a second text. Perhaps most the significant detail in these tag clouds is that the word comparisons are relative to their respective texts. For example. The word "found" in the following image reflects the fact that it appears in the blog seven times, which is .05%   of the entire blog, compared to the three times "found" appears in the electronic story, which is .29% of the entire story. Though the word appears more times in the blog than it does in the story, it constitutes a much larger percentage of the text in the story than it does the blog, making it that much more or less significant to its respective text. 


The following is a comparison of the electronic story with the original Guardian article. The original can be found here. From this visualization, we can see that between these two texts, there are several paths of convergence in terms of thematic vocabulary that are common between both texts: these revolve around themes of work and labor (e.g. "workers," "working," "work," "money," "earn," "paid," etc.), and around travel and mobility (e.g. "sky," "airport," "air," "Dubai," "earth," "wheels," "plane," etc.). The specific narrative details, especially those pertaining to individual situations (e.g. the "trolley" or "jars" of Harriet's supermarket trip or Mohammed Ayaz's background in Pakistan) are not shared, pointing to a relative lack of detail in the language of the story, compared to that of the news article.




The following is a comparison of the blog (including commments by participants in the Flight Paths network) and the electronic novel. The original interactive version can be found here. This visual comparison may prove more helpful than the Juxta comparison in that it provides side by side comparisons of commom words shared between the texts along with contexts and relative importance within each text. Between the blog and the story, the words that share the most similar relative importance and substantive relevance to the texts is the word "work," which appears in the blog 21 times (0.15% of text) and twice in the story (0.25% of text). From a quick glance between the above visualization and this one, it can be observed that there is much more discrepancy between the story and the blog than between the story and the article, though this could be explained by the sheer volume of the blog, which spanned several months between the winter of 2007 and summer of 2008.



Both of these visualization show a relative lack of detail commensurate with the smaller word count of the story in comparison to both the article and the blog. This lack of verbal detail was supplemented, as mentioned above, by photos and music, which is an added affordance of the digital medium.


Mapping the Flight Paths Blog


While the original proposal envisioned mapping the entire Flight Paths universe, this task proved too much for the time allotted. Applying network mapping and analysis to the blog had mixed results, but some significant conclusions of the textual analysis are corroborated by the network diagrams. However, the method needs significant revisions before becoming a viable means of analysis.


Benefits of using Flight Paths:

- boxed pages make determining nodes easy

- conversations alongside texts create useful social connections

- Small enough conversations to not overwhelm the experiment

- Only text of its kind? First "networked" "novel"? (A Million Penguins)


Disadvantages of Flight Paths:

- Too few blog participants to draw significant conclusions

- mixed media creates difficulties in drawing links between nodes




The blog was divided into nodes consisting of each paragraph or comment in the text, with each of the five chapters created by Pullinger and Joseph also represented as nodes.


All nodes were linked by virtue of proximity on the pages - ergo, all paragraph-nodes of the "About" section are automatically linked to each other. Comments are linked to their respective paragraphs, or all paragraphs in a page if the comments were left in the "Entire Page" section. These spatial links are bidirectional.


For nodes or comment that have an influence on the text (a character's name, for example), to the best of the mapper's ability a directional link was made from the "source" node to the "receiver" node. Comments that refer to other parts of the text or other conversations in the blogs were also linked directionally.


Network centralities with some suggested meanings:


In-degree: This metric refers to the number of links coming into the node. We may see this as an indicator of referentiality or derivativeness.

Out-Degree: Number of links outgoing from the node. Higher value might indicate productivity of an individual node.

Betweenness: This is a measurement of how often a node lies between two other nodes.

Stress: How often a node lies on a path among any nodes

Graph Centrality: The higher this value is, the shorter the greatest distance between this node and any other node in the network. Might indicate a particularly productive site of conversation or ideas.


Graph Centrality map of Flight Paths Blog

Graph centrality map of Flight Paths.


When graphed according to these centralities, some odd features emerge:

- Mohammad Ayaz's story is not very central to the network

- About 3 (methodological problem - paragraph covers a lot of ground); however, most of what links here does so because of its reference to mundane life and the grocery.

- Text 4/Ideas 1.3/Icarus nodes - Icarus becomes a central feature of this story

- Zombies and Mad scientists


Methodological problems:

- Wide-ranging paragraphs.

- Difficulty attributing source and recipient nodes

- Epic software battles (time investment)


Future Methodological Implementations:

- "Abstract" nodes embodying themes, key terms, objects etc

- Nodes within nodes?

- more rigorous examination of directionality and value of links

- separate network maps charting different concepts?

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