The term identifies an individual or collective group of people who consume (read, watch, listen etc.) a media text.
The audience is still an essential element for understanding the demographic oscillations of the narrative ecosystem, as it is taken in great consideration by media industries. However, technological changes are fragmenting the audiences. The traditional concept of broadcast (or mass) audience is more and more substituted by the one of niche audience: a much smaller but very influential group of people with a very unique interest, experienced on a great variety of media outlets.
Audience is hence an abiotic component of the system that allows us to evaluate and make predictions about ecosystems trends, giving us the opportunity to register the variations of the users’ experiences, and consequently design a more immersive and useful information architecture.
Because of the complex mingling of the many layers involved in the mediascape [see Complexity], the architecture of a narrative ecosystem is partially able to perpetuate itself autonomously: it does not have any central intelligence coordinating its growth.
Its designers establish its policies, and all the biotic and abiotic elements contribute through their interaction to the persistence of the narrative ecosystem. Its structures change according to external influences and internal adjustments, restoring the balance without the intervention of a singular intentionality [see Intentionality].
Each part of the system can be considered autonomous as well, according to the idea of “perceptual autonomy”: the ability to recognize, articulate, and effectively communicate the form of a storyworld from a specific point of view inside it.
The deep interconnection between each part, however, is a guarantee of the persistence of a coherence and a coordination within the system itself: the consequences of each change and external stimulus are unpredictable, but still comprehended in a range of possibilities, with the aim of maintaining the balance with all the other parts of the system [see Equilibrium; see Consistency].
Natural ecosystems are a network of interactions among biotic and abiotic elements, working together and setting osmotic connections between organisms and environment.
In the same fashion, narrative ecosystems are formed by an abiotic component made up by the media context, and a biotic one composed by the narrative structures.
The narrative material (i.e. plot blocks and the characters) can be considered alive, since it undergoes through processes of competition, adaptation, change and evolution. Because of these changes in the living material, the ecosystem has to be particularly elastic and resilient, in order to absorb the pressures and be in balance.
The abiotic element is provided by the mediascape, where the living parts are nested. On one side we can define it as the sum of different medial products such television series, movies, games, books and websites. On the other, it comprehends the mechanisms by which they are created and preformed as well. These instruments, which change from country to country, are cultural, but also economical and legal. The users’ choice about the devices depends on both industrial factors (bottom up and top down dynamics) and legal ones, like copyright and local licences.
The lowest common denominator of both the products and the apparatuses, is of course the technological framework that shapes them. Actually, even if each level seems to predetermine the next one (the technologies form the mechanisms and the mechanisms create specific devices and so on), each piece of the supply chain is interconnected, mixed and merged with others.
In exploring a narrative ecosystem, we face an “organized complexity” (Weaver 1948), a non-random but correlated interaction between parts which create a differentiated structure (a system), where the partially connected micro-structures adapt themselves to the changing environment and increase their survivability as a macro-structure.
Hence, complexity describes a dynamic network of interactions among different elements (both biotic and abiotic).
On the biotic point of view, the narrative complexity is a multifaceted concept that includes many features; among them:
- a focus on the running plot rather than the anthology one (a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration—not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms, but a shifting balance);
- an extended depth of main characters;
- different but merged storylines;
- an audience who actively watch the show by the application of a collective intelligence;
- interactions with participative fans.
On the abiotic side, the complexity is generated by the interconnection and interaction of the many layers within the mediascape, each one influencing the production of media objects through their logics, and at the same time being influenced by the processes of all the others.
As a consequence, the idea of complexity moulds a cross-media scenario, where the narrative process is scattered through many channels and devices, or extended in time and dispersed in space.[Warren Weaver, Science and Complexity, American Scientist, 36, 1948]
Henry Jenkins (2006:3) defines convergence as ‘flow of content across multiple media platforms’, suggesting that media audiences nowadays play a crucial role in creating and distributing content. Convergence has therefore to be examined in terms of social, as well as technological changes within the society.
According to Jenkins, media convergence is an ongoing process that should not be viewed as a displacement of the old media, but rather as interaction between different media forms and platforms. In these terms, media convergence makes previously unconnected media forms and platforms to cooperate and collaborate: the boundaries between different media blend and blur.
The convergence also represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.[Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York University Press, New York 2006]
The term defines the practice of sharing a story (content, information) across multiple channels, often already intertwined with one another in multiple forms.
On the one side, crossmediality takes advantage of the existing media convergence, reaching different audiences because it spreads its content on the many coexistent platforms. On the other side, it contributes to create new links among media, and to enhance creative uses of both the content and the devices transmitting it.
In a crossmedia environment, content is repurposed, diversified and distributed across multiple devices in order to enhance, engage and reach as many users/viewers as possible. One, main content is spread across different media, and its various versions do not necessarily add new information to the story. However, the declination of the content through new media and their relations with many devices, produce a diversification of its variables and articulations, and a different use from its audiences.
Divergence in media studies refers to the deviation of the user experience from the standard, set by the producers of a media object. It is a process that opens to multiplicity and possibility, generating a tension against the intended effects of a media product and its actual perception from its users.
The consumer has access to a wide range of information, and any content is available through many different media channels. The stimulation of interactivity and the multiplication of niches encourage the audience divergence, based on many public types and consumption models.
Audiences’ divergence is hence incentivized by the conglomerates’ marketing strategies, since it enhances the media spreadability. The industries encourage the audiences to join them in the production chain, and to customize the products.
Entropy is defined as the number of ways a system can be arranged. The higher the entropy (i.e., the more ways the system can be arranged), the more the system is disordered, because it is impossible to predict its actual development. Hence, entropy is a measure of the “disorder” of a system.
Given that the system has a balanced state (resilient and in equilibrium), what the idea of ‘disorder’ refers to is really the number of different components that interact with each other, producing a constant reframing of the system’s setting.
If we consider entropy from the point of view of data transmission and information theory, it can be defined as a measure of the loss of information in a transmitted signal or message, or the loss of information in the passage from one medium to another [see Transmediality].
In the perspective of narrative ecosystem, their entropy is a measure of the complexity and wideness of the elements involved in their evolution, and the tendency to produce more and more unpredictable narrative solutions [see Extension; see Forecasting].
Jenkins defines a balanced transmedia production as a structure in equilibrium, with no one medium or text serving a primary role over others. In this model, there is no more a master-text and an overflow of correlated but subordinated text.
According to Mittel, the situation described by Jenkins is far from being the norm. Instead of a system in a state of equilibrium (resilient and basically homeostatic), we would have the more common model of the unbalanced transmedia structure, with a clearly identifiable core text and a number of peripheral transmedia extensions that might be more or less integrated into the narrative whole, acknowledging that most examples fall somewhere on a spectrum between balance and unbalance.
Aim of a narrative ecosystem, however, is always to maintain the balance among its parts, therefore producing a continuous movement to obtain the result. If one of the narrative elements (e.g. one character, one storyline, a narrative device, etc.) is missing, the ecosystem shifts in order to substitute that element or to create a new equilibrium among the remaining parts, demonstrating its resilience to internal or external shocks [see Resilience as Heuristic in Information Architecture].[Jason Mittel, Complex TV. The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, New York University Press, New York-London 2015]
Narrative ecosystems distinguish themselves for their ability to reach, stretch, continue, add elements, in order to ensure their growth and became bigger or larger. Ivan Askwith (2007) individuates 2 main types of extension:
- One textual extension (both narrative and diegetic), which describes secondary narrative forms that extend the main core of a property (be it a film, a TV series, a book and so on), provide a deeper consciousness of the story, and multiply the interfaces for the users to access the universe (storylines and characters).
- One extra-textual extension, concerning an extra-diegetic level and providing information about contexts (and paratexts) of the main core narration.
The extension of a narrative ecosystem depends on its balance and mainly on the coherence of the information’s architecture that designs it: if the system follows all the five heuristics of the architecture, it can extend itself potentially endlessly, without losing its unity and compactness.[Ivan D. Askwith, Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium, MA Thesis, MIT 2007, available at http://cmsw.mit.edu/television-2-0-tv-as-an-engagement-medium/, last access February 24, 2016]
A fan, sometimes also called aficionado or supporter, is a person who is enthusiastically devoted to something or somebody, such as a band, a sports team, a fiction genre, a book, a movie, an entertainer, etc. S/he invests time, emotions, and money to be in touch with the media object of his/her passion. Collectively, the fans of a particular object or person constitute its fanbase (fandom), a social structure created by the cultural practices of the most engaged consumers of mass media properties.
According to Jenkins (1992), fans are “textual poachers” that “steal” from their beloved texts to create new ones, to fill-out further details not originally explained. Poaching blurs the line between producer and consumer (fans can be defined as “prosumers”) as by giving users the power to produce their own work based upon their own interpretation. It also offers a form of escapism from reality through the subcultures and fan communities.
For these reasons, fans and fandom are considered one of the most important components of ecosystem’s biotic sphere.[Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Routledge, New York-London 1992]
Forecasting is a planning tool, relying mainly on data from the past and present and analysis of trends, that helps to make hypothesis of predictability through computational models.
Forecasting starts with certain assumptions based on experience, knowledge and judgement. Using historic data to determine the future’s trends, it allows to allocate resources in order to obtain a more functional and ergonomic interface and reduce errors in distribution of information in the ecosystem. The prognostic strategy permits to avoid unnecessary turbulences that could destabilize the system.
In narrative ecosystem, forecasting is particularly difficult, because of the complexity and multiplicity of elements involved. Neither it can use the mathematical methods based on the collection of big data, because the narrative ecosystem involves too many elements, mathematically incomparable with one another; either it can avail of the traditional theories about the texts’ evolution, developed by narratology and cognitivism, unable to explain the narrative processes activated to maintain the balance among the system’s elements.
One of the main theoretical issues raised by considering vast narratives as ecosystem is therefore the necessity to produce a specific set of tools to interpret and predict the evolution of the system.
A franchise is a type of license that a party (franchisee) acquires, by paying a fee, with the purpose to have access to a business’s (the franchiser) proprietary knowledge, processes and trademarks in order to sell a product or provide a service under the same trade name.
The franchise is a typical tool used in scope economies, where the goal is to generate gain lowering the average cost by producing more types of products, using a joined production or the same factors for different achievements.
The examples of the use of franchise in the production of media content are multiplying in the last years, with the continuous acquisition of brands and the creation of crossmedia conglomerates. A media franchise of great impact for its results at the box office and the proliferation of its texts is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, generated by a series of films, based on the characters presented in the Marvel Comics. It is extending, and includes new comic books, television series, and other media products [see Extension].
The concept of information architecture was developed in the 1970s by the architect R.S. Wurman, who was concerned with what today is defined as information design or information visualization. Nevertheless, the label “information architecture” became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the first edition of the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Rosenfeld and Morville. At this stage the practice of information architecture was essentially related to the design of web sites, and it was conceived as the reproduction of the librarianship principles and paradigms to the digital landscape, in order to ensure findability, usability and a comfortable user experience.
A new idea of information architecture spread along with the rise of web 2.0 and of phenomena such as the ubiquitous computing, the internet of things, and cross-media. The boundaries between the physical and the digital fade away until they disappear, and information architecture becomes pervasive. Most of all, using the technology of embedded processors, it does not proceed from identifiable supports, but proliferate within everyday life in all its aspects.
Nowadays, information architecture draws itself as a multidisciplinary area, which borrows its paradigms and methodologies from architecture, library and information science, industrial design, and the social and cognitive sciences to design information spaces. It concerns the rules of the logic and semantic flow which organizes and orders the information, as well as the modes of the content design.
Notwithstanding the evolution of the discipline, information architecture addresses three main issues:
- It is the structural design of the environments based on shared information.
- It is the art and science of organizing and labelling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.
- It is an emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.
Information architecture relies on principles largely independent from any specific medium or practice. It hence provides a flexible but solid conceptual frame for the design of cross-context interaction models, which cross different media and environments. As a consequence, it is capable to provide a constant cognitive framework throughout the whole interaction process.
Information architecture mainly produces five heuristic strategies within a system (information or media space):
- Place making
Place making one of the five heuristics of the pervasive information architecture. It can be defined as the ability to reduce users’ disorientation and to construct a sense of space, in order to increase legibility and wayfinding in digital, physical, and mixed reality.
In a pervasive information architecture, is actual the risk of getting lost since the crossmedia contents are spread out in different platforms. In addition to this, the sense of loss is amplified by the increasingly blurred boundaries between the real space and the digital one, and between the physical aspects of the experience and the emotional and narrative ones. Considering users’ difficulties in entering such a universe, in designing this type of architecture we need to build a sense of space – inside the ecosystem – by creating suggested paths of fruition and consumption. These devices, as for instance recaps, digital city maps and interactive guides (Mandelli, Resmini e Rosati, 2010) have the function of a compass by which orientating ourselves in the ecosystem’s exploration.[Mandelli E., Resmini A. e Rosati L., Architettura dell’informazione e design museale, in “Tafterjournal” n. 37, july 2010, URL http://www.tafterjournal.it/2011/07/01/architettura-dell’informazione-e-design-museale/ accessed 10 november 2015]
Consistency is one of the five heuristics of the pervasive information architecture. In can be firstly described as the ability of a system to suit the purposes, the contexts, and the people it is designed for (internal consistency). Secondly, it is the skill to maintain the same logic and recognizability among different media, environments, and times in which it acts (external consistency).
The internal consistency is about the ability of create instalments able to maintain a relevance and the mutual connections, in order to pursue the purposes pre-determined by the architects. The architects also have to consider the specific public for whom the system has been created when they establish the links among its elements.
On the other hand, the external consistency refers to the architecture’s capability to perpetuate the same logics individuated by the internal consistency. The same pattern has to be replicated in the relations among different media channels and systems. Thanks to consistency we are able to recognize the set’s previously established characteristics (e.g. contents, narrative patterns, formal configurations) even in a different media background.
Resilience is one of the five heuristics of the pervasive information architecture and it can be defined as the ability of the system to shape and adapt itself to different users, needs and experiential strategies. The structure constantly implements its information architecture as a dynamic process where people are active players and an integral part of the design.
The system is elastic enough to absorb shocks derived from alterations (even the disturbing ones, as for instance the users’ operations, added contents and structural drifts), and to restore its own equilibrium. This flexibility allows a customized consumption, making the architecture able to adjust itself to a variety of behaviours of exploration or research performed by the audience.
Resilience permits to the architecture to adapt itself to different publics, uses, purposes, and styles of research and information’s navigation, with a minimum effort from its users.
Reduction is one of the five heuristics of the pervasive information architecture, and it can be described as the ability to process a huge amount of information without damaging the usability.
As the architecture becomes more and more complicated, with big data cluster stored at different levels, we need structural devices that allow a rapid and fluid experience. These devices, working as interfaces, have to be provided with the purpose of hide a huge volume of interconnected information behind a surface of usability.
Correlation is one of the five heuristics of the pervasive information architecture and it can be portrayed as the ability of the system to suggest relevant logical-semantic connections among pieces of information, in order to help users to achieve explicit goals. Each fragment of information, on any media channel, can easily reconnect itself to the others, through meaningful and functional links. For this reason we can begin a task or a research on any channel and seamlessly continue it on another one.
In order to facilitate the correlation function the informative objects are designed as a cluster. Users can access the information through a “berry picking” strategy, a seeking model where the quest is continually shifting, and users may move among a variety of sources, yielding new ideas and new directions. Searching through correlation improves the serendipity and more generally facilitates the concept of experience as transit.
In a broad sense, intentionality can be defined as the “aboutness” or “directedness” of one’s mental states. In these terms, intentionality concerns the relation between the content or the object of the thought (what it is about) and the act or subjectivity of thinking.
In a narratology perspective, intentionality means a “structure ordering” (Brooks 1984) for the forms of consciousness by which people enter the history of the diegetic world.
Narrative ecosystems programmatically are non-intentional systems, i.e. entities “whose behaviour can [not] be predicted by the method of attributing belief, desires and rational acumen” (Dennett 1987). Though the system has a certain organization, it is not oriented or directed, and consequently its level of intentionality is very low.
The narrative ecosystems undergo continuous changes and evolutions, due to a vast amount of factors, both external and internal. Because of the number of elements at stake, it is difficult – almost impossible – to predict the exact evolution of each system; the researchers can only hypothesize a few models and main trends for this change [see Forecasting].
Moreover, the ecosystems are subjected to a low level of intentionality: narrative ecosystems can be mildly regulated by their producers and the most parts of its singular elements is produced through institutional decisional processes. However, in its wideness it cannot be considered as directed by intentionality, originating from a unique point of input and access [see Autonomy].[Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1984] [Daniel C. Dennett, The Intentional Stance, MIT Press, Cambridge 1987]
An interface is a shared boundary, across which two separate components of a system exchange information. The interface has to be the most easy (self explanatory), efficient, and enjoyable (user friendly) as possible. This generally means that the operator needs to provide minimal input to achieve the desired output, and the interface helps the users not only to achieve their goals, but also to find new ways in the ecosystem, by suggesting new paths among interconnected elements.
The design of the user interface is relevant for the user’s understanding (also called the mental model) of the system, and thus for the system’s usability or user-friendliness: it has hence to be ergonomic.
Intermediality refers to the interconnectedness of media, and designates those configurations which have to do with a crossing of borders between media.
As means of expression and exchange, the different media depend on and refer to each other, both explicitly and implicitly:
- Implicitly: because there could be internal references to the structures, the codes or the strategies of the medium itself.
- Explicitly: because there could be external references to other media and expressive forms.
Under this umbrella-term, we can individuate three broad meanings:
- Intermediality as medial transposition: the intermedia quality has to do with the way in which a media product comes into being, and with the transformation of a given media product (a text, a film, etc.) or of its substratum into another medium.
- Intermediality as media combination: the media constellation constitutes a given media product – in other words, it is the result or the very process of combining at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation (in their own materiality), both of them contributing to the constitution and signification of the entire product in their own specific way.
- Intermediality as intermedia reference: it is constituted by the strategies to produce meaning that contribute to the media product’s overall signification. The media product uses its own media-specific tools, either to refer to a specific work produced in another medium, or to refer to a specific medial subsystem.
The study of narrative ecosystems has been related to media ecology, even if the two approaches have substantial differences in their philosophy and in the interpretation of the media environments.
The changes in the mediascape produced in the last 30 years transformed the media products (i.e., the texts) in a complex network, generating an environment which can be inhabited and manipulated by its users. Media are assimilated to a biological ecosystem, made of stratified and interdependent organisms, interacting with abiotic structures.
In such a perspective, media ecology studies the interactions between people and their communication technology, how the media inform and affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value. At its origin there is the idea of “human ecology” developed in sociology by the Chicago School during the 1910s and 1920s: They first pursued the idea that urban environments might function in certain respects like ecological communities, and attributed an important role to technologies of transportation and communication in shaping such ecologies.
In the 1960s, the metaphor of ecology has been used by Marshall McLuhan and other representatives of the Toronto School in order to emphasize the connections between synchronous phenomena, and it leaded to a perception of social and cultural processes as a unified totality. The information network is assimilated to the nervous system, and the mediascape is an holistic environment where such communications take place.
In this way, the mediascape is generated by the interconnections among different media, more than by their various texts; it involves the apparatuses more than their products: “Through the metaphor of ecology, then, media theorists have tended to foreground three aspects of information and communications technologies: first, the way in which such technologies form a cultural environment that most of its inhabitants take for granted, but that nevertheless shapes their cognitive possibilities and social behavior in significant ways; second, the ways in which changes in one individual technology change the media configuration and its manner of operation as a whole; and third, the ways in which such technologies function as systems with a logic of their own” (Heise 2002).
The use of the ecology metaphor has been of great relevance because of its implying of a spatial perception and experience of media (in particular of the electronic ones: Parikka 2011). However, it risks expanding the border of media in order to include every phenomenon in their definition; and it tends to overlook the agency of the users which actually inhabits and manipulate such an environment. Moreover, media ecology diminishes the central role of the products and of their narratives, and often discards their integration within a complex economic, cultural, political system. In other words, it considers the networks within media, but not their relations with their specific contexts.
Quite the opposite, the approach that considers the narrative ecosystem as the center of the vast media system, focuses on all the aspects of each vast narrative, addressing issues such as the economy of its production, its marketing strategies, the creation of a fandom or the role of the users in molding its trajectories, its negotiation of cultural landscapes and political positions, and so on.[Ursula K. Heise, “Unnatural Ecologies: The Metaphor of the Environment in Media Theory”, «Configurations», 10:1, 2002, pp. 149-168] [Jussi Parikka, “Media Ecologies and Imaginary Media: Transversal Expansions, Contractions, and Foldings”, «The Fibreculture Journal», 17, 2011, pp. 34-50, fibreculturejournal.org]
The narrative ecosystem is a cross-disciplinar paradigm used to describe contemporary vast narratives (both scripted and non-scripted). Such approach focuses on the complex network between the products generating and hence belonging to the same narrative, studying their links and the balance between the living narrative material and the abiotic mediascape in which it is included. The narrative environment is hence open, inhabited by both the characters and the audiences, and evolves according to the principles of selection and evolution; in particular, it is regulated by modularity, interoperability, scalarity, expandability, resilience.
Metadata is structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource. Narrowly, they are data that provides information about other data. We can define two types of metadata:
- Structural metadata, which are data about the containers of data (aimed at providing information on the structural properties).
- Descriptive metadata, which describes a resource for purposes such as discovery and identification.
Describing the contents and context of data, and helping in the organization of knowledge, metadata increase data usefulness and facilitate the discovery of relevant information.
Modularity describes the degree to which a system is made up of relatively independent but interlocking components or parts. It presumes a semiotic and economic dependence from the recurrence of a matrix, recursively replicated across a variety of media and products, but it supposes also a narrative independence of the multimedia descendants, with an autonomous existence and a self-sufficient textual structure [see Autonomy; see Extension].
A fictional universe is defined as modular, and then subdivided, in two senses:
- the narrative storylines are deconstructed in several modules (each following one character’s story, and hence creating spin-off crossovers, etc.,), implementing and fostering cross-media storytelling processes;
- modularity allows the creation of cross-media franchises through licensing agreements, in order to expand profits.
The narrative ecosystem is a cross-disciplinar paradigm used to describe contemporary vast narratives (both scripted and non-scripted). Such approach focuses on the complex network between the products generating and hence belonging to the same narrative, studying their links and the balance between the living narrative material and the abiotic mediascape in which it is included.
The narrative environment is hence open, inhabited by both the characters and the audiences, and evolves according to the principles of selection and evolution; in particular, it is regulated by modularity, interoperability, scalarity, expandability, resilience.
Each narrative ecosystem is continuously open to the relations with the external environments, contexts, and apparatuses – both biotic and abiotic [see Biotic/Abiotic].
The narrative modules composing a vast narrative are interconnected to each other in a complex network. In order to have a narrative ecosystem, none of the modules can be indispensable per se; however, it has a specific role in the network, hence generating a vast relational structure [see Modularity].
Each system is completely porous, open both to the entrance of new elements and to events which change its assets and evolutionary patterns. It always reacts to external solicitations, and such alterations are most of the time unpredictable, because of the complex relations among involved elements [see Complexity, see Forecasting].
The relations between the narrative ecosystem and its external environment are regulated through the exchange of feedbacks: the system processes the inputs proposed by the external organizations and consequently produces outputs (tangible results involving its products) and outcomes (benefits for its users) [see Information Architecture].
Narrative Evolution and Selection
Contemporary serial narratives are comparable to natural environments, and work like open and resilient ecosystems. The combined inputs by production and the users generate continuous change in the narrative ecosystems, which conforms to the laws of natural evolution.
It is particularly evident in the distribution of the set of characters in complex narratives: narrative ecosystems evolve according to the principles of natural selection in a population, and the selection of their characters’ populations mainly responds to three typologies:
- Stabilizing selection: diversity within a population decreases and the population tends to stabilize on the stronger trait value. For instance, the narrative gives most space to the most favorite character.
- Directional selection: one extreme of the trait distribution is favored, resulting into an increasing of the population with that characteristic. In a choral television series, the shifting in the audience’s tastes can produce a movement in the characters’ population, favoring a group because of its correspondence to that tastes.
- Diversifying selection: the two extremes of a trait dominant are selected at the expenses of the intermediate values, resulting in a splitting of the population in two groups. In television series, this is the phenomenon leading to the spin-off (a new and independent series based on one or more characters from an existing series).
Going beyond the specific series, one can consider how the evolution laws influence the overall production of television series, with particular reference to narrative genres and aesthetic choices. The wider television landscape produces series according to two main principles:
- Convergent evolution: is consisting of different species that, though inhabiting different niches and still basically different from one another, become, over time, more similar in structure and function. In the television industry, this kind of evolution accounts for the contemporary trend of duplication: given different markets based on different kind of production and targets, producers tend to align their programming in order to carve up the majority-taste audience.
Divergent evolution: occurs whenever, within the same ecological niche and species, diversity arises. In our case, we can see how a broadcaster operating within one particular market tends to diversify its offer in order to cover all of its possible subsets.
Network analysis is the study of recurrences and relations among a high number of elements pertaining to the same system. Such a methodology does not address the single elements composing a system, but considers their relations as qualifying the system itself.
It is easily understood how the social systems are the most powerful examples of networks, and their analysis is aimed at individuating their functioning models.
Social network analysis (SNA) is hence the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows between people, groups, organizations, computers, URLs, and other connected information/knowledge entities. Every social phenomenon can be read in relational and structural terms, as long as the structure of the phenomenon can be expressed in terms of social actors, and it includes various types of interconnections between those same actors.
This model of analysis is based on a mathematical system which creates a representation of the real network, a model to study the network’s functioning principles. Because of the quantity of data it usually considers to understand such principles, and because of the complexity of the system it studies, the discipline has seen a huge development after the introduction of digital computing. With the diffusion of internet and of the use of social networks on the web, the discipline has become more and more present, and proposes a comprehension of phenomena pervasive of everyday life.
To consider a narrative ecosystem through the lens of SNA implies that it is generated by a complex interweaving of variously structured social relations, and that such a process constitute the central focus of the analysis. The SNA is a methodologically and technically specific approach, and hence it adds hermeneutical value when reading an ecosystem.
Among the main concept involved in SNA applied to the narrative ecosystem, there are:
- the idea of degree (the number of direct connections each node has);
- the individuation of clusters (a cluster is a set of nodes mostly related to each other);
- the importance of the hub (a node sorting the traffic from one cluster to another).
The networks are regulated by a few main principles:
- The power law distribution states that social networks are made by numerous small nodes, which coexist with very few highly connected nodes (namely, hubs). This principle produces a scale-free network, which is robust when faces random failure, but it is still fragile: if there is an attack against the hubs, the network is easily destroyed.
- The small world principle, according to which the networks are regulated by an economic principle, developing the shorter way to connect two nodes (i.e., the average number of nodes between them is small). The “small world network” is hence connoted by an ecologic and economically logic distribution of energetic resources. They respond to “the need for information to travel quickly within the system”, and avoid “the high cost of creating and maintaining reliable long-distance connections” (Mitchell 2009:239)
- The ever-expanding nature of real networks produces hubs: in other words, the hubs emerge via growth and preferential attachment.
- Small communities are highly interconnected; largest communities are proportionally less dense. The individuals are connected by strong and repeated ties, while the communities are related by fewer and weaker ties to one another. Because of the weakness of the ties, information spread slower among communities than among individuals.
Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A guided tour, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009.
Non-Procedural Systems and Declarative Elements
We can define a narrative ecosystem as declarative and non-procedural system. Declarative and non-procedural is the system that finds a path toward the events that its programmer wants to happen, without the necessity of explicitly listing the commands or steps that must be performed.
Usually, the procedural (or imperative) system needs someone to detail how to obtain a result, and hence it follows the steps until the event unfold itself. In the non-procedural (non-imperative) system, the biotic and abiotic elements (e.g. fans, narrative storylines, characters, etc.) interacts generating unpredictable results; all these elements are defined as declarative [see Biotic/Abiotic; see Intentionality].
Narrative ecosystems are necessarily non-procedural, since there is not a central intelligence creating each and every aspects of the system; quite the opposite, the relations between the many elements generates environments and new elements, making the system alive [see Autonomy; see Complexity].
According to Gerard Genette’s definition, paratexts are those liminal devices and conventions, both within and outside the text, that form part of the complex mediation between different instances (text itself, author, users), suggesting strategies for reading and consumption. The paratext includes all those elements (textual but also iconographical) that create the material and pragmatic framework of the text and lengthen it in space and time. As Genette states, “More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, […] a zone between text and off-text” (Genette 1987), where the mutual relation among elements is based on subordination and dependence [see Interface].
The definition of transmedia storytelling (see) problematizes the hierarchy between text and paratext, because, in the most ideally balanced example, all texts would be equally weighted, rather than one be privileged as “text”, while others serve as supporting “paratexts.”
If we consider the paratext of a single episode, we can identify it in the so-called “serial frame”, which is not really part of the episode’s narrative, but rather functions as a marker to keep the episodes apart: intro, open credits, cold teaser, etc.
If we think to the paratext in a broader way, we have to consider also the overflows produced by the text-master in the narrative ecosystem (Carini 2008). Here, according to the balance of the system, the cross-media texts may be more or less hierarchical with one another (from a pecking order to a blurring of the elements’ boundaries), but the notion of paratext remains meaningful for define the relation among components.
We can generally distinguish between:
- some paratexts that function primarily to hype, promote, and introduce a text;
- those that function as ongoing sites of narrative expansion;
- the orienting paratexts that serve to help viewers make sense of a narrative.
On one side, the idea of persistence refers to the characteristic of a state that outlives the process that created it. This means that a narrative ecosystem is able to grow and continue to live as an autonomous system, independently from the process that designed it.
On an another side, persistence refers to the capacity of the narrative structure (intended as a modular construction made by multi-stand storylines experienced through different media, according to the logic of the transmedia storytelling) to last in the audience’s memory. In this way, the system becomes a long-seller, able to endure over time and space.
A (digital) medium is pervasive when it is delivered into the fabric of real life and based on the situational context at the moment of delivery. There are two defining features of pervasive media:
- it uses technology to understand something about the situation and responds according to that information;
- it uses digital media to augment (bridge) the physical environment, and vice versa.
The embeddedness passes through a process of ‘naturalization’ of artefacts, which renders them invisible and transparent to the user’s attention and sight.
The policies are the set of basic principles and guidelines, formulated and enforced by the designers of the ecosystem in order to direct and limit its actions, establish its boundaries and pursuit its long-term goals. Policies are designed to influence and determine all major actions, and all activities take place within the boundaries set by them [see Intentionality].
These guidance lines arrange a normative structure that constitutes the regulatory plan for the actions of living elements, creating the framework where the biotic elements can interact and collaborate.
The term, coined by Marshall McLuhan, means that every medium transforms and recombines, in a more or less original and transparent way, the rules of the already existing ones. According to Bolter & Grusin (1999), remediation denotes a particular kind of intermedia relationships in which, through processes of medial refashioning, “both newer and older [media] forms are involved in a struggle for culture recognition” (Bolter: 2006). Hence, new media achieve their cultural significance precisely by paying homage to, rivalling with, and reshaping earlier media.
The remediation oscillates between two different logics:
- Immediacy: the aim is the transparency of the interface, perceived as a device representing itself without any mediation of sort.
- Hypermediacy: the aim is to multiply the medial mediation’s signs, by building a space that claims itself as “constructed”.
This oscillation between these poles is the key to understand how a medium fashions its predecessors and the other contemporary media.
[Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge 1999]
[Jay David Bolter, “The Desire for Transparency in an Era of Hybridity”, Leonardo 39, n. 2, 2006, pp. 109-111]
In general, the term seriality describes the quality of some elements of being put together by some sort of order. The serial narrative, made by instalments or episodes, has three main features (Casetti, 1984):
- repetition: the content’s elements or formal schemata return unchanged in several different texts;
- serialization: the texts organize themselves in an orderly succession, under a common thematic/formal denominator;
- dilation: the reunited texts create a potentially infinite length structure.
Contemporary serial narrative is a storytelling model which consists of a “developing story divided into several parts. […] The series form denotes programmes in which the setting and characters do not change or develop, but where new stories involving the continuing characters and settings are presented in each episode.” (Bignell & Orlebar 2005: 100).
On the two poles to this continuum, we have:
- serials, containing serially organized plots; and
- series, often featuring serially independent stories.
The taxonomy of contemporary television series is wide; however, most of the shows mingle these two poles, and its narrative includes both a running plot (an extended narrative arc, which can be included in few episodes, one season, many seasons…), and an anthology plot (a narrative which conclude itself within one or two episodes).[Francesco Casetti, L’immagine al plurale: serialità e ripetizione nel cinema e nella televisione, Marsilio, Venzia 1984] [Jonathan Bignell and Jeremy Orlebar, The Television Handbook, Routledge, New York – London 2005]
A social network is a social structure made up of a set of social actors (such as individuals or organizations), sets of dyadic ties, and other social interactions between actors. Networks are therefore relational structures between actors and as such constitute a significant social form that defines the context in which these same actors move. The network is composed by two different type of elements: the nodes, aka the actors, and the links, connections which link different actors in relationships or flows.
A vast narrative, as it is a wide cross-narrative system that provide the collaboration and the merging of different elements (biotic and abiotic), creates a social network, readable through the social network analysis tools and methods [see Network Analysis].
A text is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message – according to Eco (1984), the text is a fabric woven from signs. It is open and interpretable, but it must be viewed as a coherent whole. The text is essentially “a lazy machine that demands the bold cooperation of the reader to fill in a whole series of gaps” of unsaid or already said missing elements. According to Jean-Marie Floch (1990), the text is all that is circumscribed by limits that define it as a relatively autonomous totality and can set its structural organization.
As stated in Lotman (1980), three features are required for speaking of text:
- a clear definition of the boundaries, dividing what is text from what is out of it (see Paratext);
- a decomposability in discrete units;
- these units have to be structured and organized according to objectifiable criteria.
This notion of text perceived as a “work” which is culturally (conventionally) conceived as closed and achieved (the “text-as-object” thought by Genette) is now deeply challenged by new medial phenomena as transmedia storytelling, serialization and intermediality (see Intermediality; see Seriality; see Transmediality).
The narrative ecosystem cannot be considered anymore as a sum of texts, with defined boundaries and an internal coherence; the policies and processes regulating its existence follow a different logic, and narrative ecosystems need new theories to be investigated.[Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of the Text, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1984] [Jean-Marie Floch, Sémiotique, marketing et communication, Puf, Paris 1990] [Yuri M. Lotman, Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture,I. B. Tauris & Co, London-New York 1990]
Transmediality implies the diffusion of one content through several different media platforms. Usually, such a content configures a story, narrated simultaneously or asynchronously on multiple media.
Transmedia storytelling specifically uses stories designed to be experienced fragmentarily, and hence it takes advantage of the properties of every single media, in order to guarantee a better experience for the users. It represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience thanks to the convergent mediascape.
However, this does not mean that the story is ‘displaced’ from one platform to the next (as in most crossmedia practices – see Crossmedia). Transmedia stories use each platform to add something new to the overall narrative, be it by offering background stories, changing the perspective on an event or character through different viewpoints, or continuing a story arch that was left off in another medium.
Each media piece, whether it is a comic, novels, video games, mobile apps, spin-off or a film, functions as a standalone story experience, complete and satisfying. These items (e.g. character’s backstories or secondary plotlines) constitutes a system where each part/channel is deliberately designed to allow only a partial experience of the whole, with constant and more or less explicit references, and is linked to the other channels. Although users can enjoy every fragment for itself (because each narrative block is an entry point for different audience segments), the process is cumulative, and each piece adds richness and detail to the story world.
Transmedia storytelling is fully participatory, and the audience is actively involved in the contents’ creation, as social and creative collaborator. The unfolding story design creates the motivation to engage with other participants, seek out other parts of the story, and contribute to the narrative by adding contents, migrating from one channel to another. Transmedia storytelling has been hence considered the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence.
The 7 principles of transmedia storytelling according to Jenkins are:
- Spreadability/Drillability: the importance of the digital platforms (especially social media) for expanding the narrative, and the penetration into the targeted audience.
- Continuity/Multiplicity: the substitution of a unified experience with the alternative readings, enhancing the pleasure.
- Immersion/Extractability: the purpose is to immerse users in the world it creates; it allows as well to bring elements out of the fictional world, in the users’ real life.
- World building: aim of the media objects is not to produce a linear narrative, but to build a complex, wide world for the users to inhabit.
- Seriality: all the elements composing the story can be ordered according to serial logic.
- Subjectivity: the story relies on secondary characters and multiple subjectivities involved (meaning it usually produces a choral narrative).
- Performativity: the combination of the action of cultural attractors and cultural activators provides a set of roles and goals which users can assume, as they enact aspects of the story in their ordinary life.
Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy interfaces are to use.
Usability is defined by 5 quality components:
- Learnability: the easiness for the users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design.
- Efficiency: the time needed for the users, once they have learned the design, to perform tasks.
- Memorability: the time requested to users to re-establish proficiency after a non-using period of the design.
- Errors: the count of errors made by users, how much severe they are, and how easy it is to recover.
- Satisfaction: the pleasantness of using the design.
The usability is a necessity for the survival of the system, because its lack could lead users to leave. Projecting the media objects related to a narrative ecosystem, it is therefore essential to place the user experience in the centre of the design (user-centered-design).
User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the system, its services, and its products. The most important factors that have to be considered in order to ensure the users’ satisfaction are accessibility, usability, utility, ergonomics and the system’s performance.
Among these, particularly relevant for narrative ecosystems is ergonomics, which can be defined as the practice concerned with understanding the interactions among the elements of a system and humans. The profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance are part of the ergonomics as well. Ergonomics is hence about transforming the competence (needed to use an object) in knowledge (part of the used object).
The narrative design of the ecosystem is more and more dynamic, and its narrativization is generated by a wide array of elements (Eugeni & Bellavita: 2006). Users must then be enabled to handle and set information and factual data. By measuring the human-computer interface (emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses), the user experience becomes one of the guidelines of narrative ecosystems’ design.[Ruggero Eugeni and Andrea Bellavita, Semiotica e cinema: percorsi, nodi, deviazioni, in Semiotiche al cinema: esercizi di simulazione, ed. By Gian Paolo Caprettini and Andrea Valle, Mondadori, Milan 2006, pp. 256-277]
Vast narratives are cultural products that overstep the physical, temporal and narrative boundaries usually associated with their medium, exceeding its traditional patterns. They hence cross different media, platforms and uses, and their meaning has not defined edges. These products are not conveyed by traditional texts: they are instead the effect of generative frameworks, which allow for many reconfigurations of narrative objects (e.g. characters, settings, plots) over several arrangements and incarnations in different media.
In these wide cross-narrative projects, the world’s and characters’ continuity is ensured by practices of collaborative authorship, even including authors working in different time and spaces, and involving multiplayer audience interaction as a way of expand the narrative universe.
The transmedia networks and interactions are facilitated by the massive use of computational systems (on the hardware side) and by the using and sharing of multiple contents by the users (on the software one). All the contents assume the form of modules, produced according to principles of scalability, whose configuration processes are at the core of the vast narrative.