NetDrifter2000 - The Net as a Medium for Storytelling
Quick disclaimer, this is an opinion piece that I've written simply because it's an idea I am obsessed with. This will probably be rewritten and added to over time so it will probably change a lot, but the idea will still be the same!
The Evolution of Storytelling
Present in every culture across space and time, storytelling is a practice intrinsic to being human. Every time we come up with a new form of media, we figure out how to use it to tell stories. Maybe this sounds obvious, like movies and books, but I'm talking further than that. We find ways to tell 140-character stories in tweets, short series on youtube, interactive stories through videogames, and more!
In my sophomore year of college I read an essay by David Byrne (If I can ever find it again I'll include it here, but unfortunately I don't remember the name! This also means I might be extrapolating a bit, but this is what I got from it) where he said that we make music for the environments we have at our disposal. For example, if we only ever played music outside, we would only ever make music that sounded good outside, when given access to a concert hall, we make music that sounds good with the accoustics of a concert hall. It's the reason arena rock is its own genre! I think storytelling is like this too. Sometimes you might see a movie based on a book and find that it translates poorly- the story was suited best for the "enviornment" of a book. One easy example is video games, where we're able to tell stories through a lived experience, with the option to make choices that affect the stories outcome. This brings me to my big point: the internet has allowed for the creation of new genres of storytelling.
Telling a Story Online
One majorly important aspect of online storytelling is that it's open for anyone to view, share, and discuss. Literally anyone who has access to the internet can read or view the story. On most platforms, people can follow or subscribe, and thanks to the creation of the comments section, anyone can provide feedback. If a piece of media gets popular enough, fans might even take to another platform like reddit or discord for more in-depth discussion. Because of this, the stories become somewhat interactive. Theories can be speculated about and serialized pieces may even be influenced by their fans due to the author's interaction with them. Because of how connected the internet keeps us, people can get really really close to their favorite media. And if you're using the internet as your storytelling medium, you can use this to your advantage.
Unfiction and ARGs
If I'm being honest, this subject is the entire reason I wrote this essay. The reason I didn't make it the main subject, however, is because unfiction and ARGs fit really perfectly into my overall theories of storytelling, and that's mostly the direction I want to take us in. For starters, lets make sure we understand what this is all about. I think computer hope defines them best: " An ARG, or alternate reality game, is a type of game that mixes real-world elements with gameplay. Most of these games are based on the idea that there's something bigger happening in the world that nobody but the players realize. To play an ARG, the player must stumble upon hidden messages leading them to a website or other locations with further clues, riddles, and puzzles that help explain the story. In many ways, an ARG is like a complex scavenger hunt with complex puzzles." Basically, the creator will begin with a video, a website, a social media post, some form of online media, that presents itself as a real-life situation, drawing people in and getting them to ask the question "what is going on here?" Viewers will continue to follow along and often form a comunity revolving around solving the mystery. Unfiction is similar, save for the fact that it doesn't require the scavenger hunt aspect, it simply uses the internet to present a story as if it's real. The kicker here, the reason that these stories work so well, is that they come across as something that one would actually upload on the internet anyways, like found footage, vlogs, and blog or forum posts.
The most classic example of unfiction I can think of is lonelygirl15, a youtube channel that appeared to be the video blog of a small town teen. As time went on, secrets were revealed about her personal life which lead viewers to believe her family was part of a religious cult. I learned about lonelygirl15 from this podcast episode which details the story of the youtube acount as well as the aftermath. This piece of unfiction demonstrates the genre perfectly and shows exactly why it works so well, because 1. the internet is a place where content like this already gets posted and 2. internet users love to gossip and speculate!
My personal favorite example of unfiction is Diminish, a youtube series in which a man named Will plays through a videogame made for him by his dying twin sister. As the series continues, we learn more about who Will is, who his sister was, and the process of greiving someone close. It works well because video game playthroughs are a huge genre on youtube, and while on the account the story is presented entirely as fact, on their personal accounts the creator Seirea doesn't shy away from talking about it as a piece of unfiction. In fact, Seirea said something I think is really important about the genre of unfiction in a youtube video they made about Diminish:
(from about 2:50 to 3:50 is the important bit)
When I spoke earlier about telling stories for the mediums we have available to us, things like lonelygirl15 and Diminish are exactly what I meant. Sure you could write a story about a girl whos family is involved in a cult, but the medium of vlogging is why it worked so well. And sure you could write a story about a guy whos dead sister programs him a videogame, but the fact that we can watch Will actually play the game is what makes the entire thing.
More ARGs and Unfiction to Satisfy Your New Craving
When I discovered this genre I could not (and still can't) get enough of it. It's fascinating on so many levels and I think it's incredible to witness a new genre of storytelling form. Because the genre is so new, people are still inovating and taking it to different places with different themes and methods. Assuming you are now also obsessed, here are some other stories to get into. Quick warning, many of these feature dark themes and horror elements. It's pretty characteristic of the genre, so I'll note which ones are spooky and which ones aren't
The Walten Files
This one revolves around a kids resturant featuring animatronic characters. Not sure if it's inspired by Five Nights at Freddie's, but if you got into the lore of that game you'll probably enjoy this. It is significantly spooky and features some disturbing imagery. You can find the original videos here and a good explainer video here.
Erratas falls more under the genre of ARG or internet mystery and it's probably my favorite. It revolves around a supposed piece of surveilence and censorship software and while it's a confirmed ARG, I find most of the situation to be entirely plausible. It's a bit spooky but in more of ~mysterious secrets of bureaucracy~ way rather than violence or paranormal stuff. In my opinion, this is the best video on the subject.
Horse Ebooks/Pronunciation Book
This was the first ARG I ever came into contact with and I remember being fascinated with it until it sort of just dropped off my radar. The ARG actually culminated in a rather silly video game, but the coolest part was definitely how much time the creators spent on the buildup. Here is a video that explains it pretty well.
Possibly the most classic and well known internet mystery. I hesitate to call it an ARG because we still don't know what Cicada 3301 truly is. It's not spooky, just very mysterious. The Wikipedia page is actually the best source for info on it, but if you're a video watcher like myself here is a good one.
Petscop is a suposed found videogame and it's a fan favorite (as evidenced by the fact that someone made a petscop stamp, which you can see on my collections page!) It's pretty intense as it covers themes of childhood trauma and abuse, but it doesn't feature jumpscares or gore. There are a TON of videos about Petscop but I think this one is the best and most complete. However since the series is so vast and up for interpretation, you might want to see other's takes on the story. The original Petscop videos can be found here.
Another found videogame, Catastrophy Crow was supposedly uncompleted due to the disapearance of its creator. However, youtuber Adam Butcher was able to find a demo of the game for sale on ebay. It covers themes of mental illness and suicide and there is a scream jumpscare at the very end as well as some loud and glitchy audio and unsettling visuals throughout. The original video is pretty short, so you should check that out, but if you want to completely avoid the spooks here is a great explainer video.
Valle Verde is a NEW found footage/video game story in which a tape featuring footage from the game is found. The game appears to interface with the user's brain and the footage shown features the player attempting to recover earlier playtesters trapped inside the game. It is very spooky and involves animated gore, unsettling audio, and religious themes. Since there is only one video out so far, I highly recomend checking out the original account first and this explanation video after (although if you're too spooked to get through the original, the explainer does a good job of covering everything.)
Additional thoughts from April 2023
Since I originally wrote this I've come back to it a few times. I've started to feel a little silly about the fact that most of the recomendations I've given are video game based. There are so so many good args and unfictions out there, but the ones I recomend, because I tend to prefer them, are the game ones. Insted of feeling like I have to add more and watch through stuff I'm not that interested in to do so, I decided instead to lean into it. And do a little bit of examining why myself and so many others get so into this.
I was prompted to finally make this addition after watching the first few minutes of the Sagan Hawkes video below.
This was fascinating to me because I love the storytelling in petscop, but I had no idea what a sensation it was when it was coming out.
Putting togther the fact that I felt a little silly about my love for this genre and the fact that so many other people love it too, I realized that this genre and things like it actually tend to be popular with younger people. And okay sure, that makes sense. Young people tend to be the most involved in video games and the internet. I also think this genre speaks to my own and younger generations because it touches a really specific element of horror that we're really familiar with. Returning to my whole idea about how a story's medium can influence it's content, I think age/generation also have a lot to do with what stories we create and become interested in.
For myself at least, spooky lost video game and internet secrets-type horror really apppeals to me because I have grown up alongside the tech boom. Being born in 2000 I often have felt that technology and myslef are growing at the same rate. It's a really unique position to be in and it definitely influences my knowledge and interests. At the same time, I grew up learning to fear strange tech glitches. For whatever reason, things that go bump in the night easily translated to things that power up your desktop even though it's not plugged in. In fact, even non-internet tech scared and fascinated me. One of my earliest memories is of a toy that was a robot baby, which cried and crawled around on the floor when you turned it on. It scared me so much that I made my mom take the batteries out and hide it in our basement. Then when we sold it at a mom to mom sale I almost cried becuase I thought it was cool and wanted to keep it.
I guess what I'm building to here is that if you played in the woods as a child, the scariest thing would be for a monster to come out of those woods. So naturally if you played minecraft as a child, the scariest thing would be for herobrine to show up on your server.
Returning to the original prompt for this article, I think about the ways in which the internet is neccesary not just as the subject for these scary stories and urban legends, but as the desemination tool as well. As cool and meta as this is, it's also a little dangerous as we start to get into misinformation territory. Let me show you what I mean with another really great video.
I actually took an entire class on misinformation in college and used this video as part of one of my projects to discuss the line between misinformation and storytelling, and whether or not the responsibility of disclosing that something is "fake" falls on the storyteller. If you ask me, it doesn't. We all have a responsibility to be media literate and understand that people have no obligation to tell us the truth. Is it a little mean if we ask for the truth and we're denied? Sure, but a stranger on the internet trying to create art doesn't owe us that.