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Critical Mass

Making webfiction explode

Monday, January 28, 2008Filed in Articles

No Uncertain Terms


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Abstract

This article deals with the terms used to discuss online fiction, particularly serialized fiction. It briefly describes four critical concepts: media, physical structure, logical structure, and serialization. It then uses those concepts to define “online fiction” and three sub-categories, “internet fiction,” “blooks,” and “webfiction.” Finally, it discusses two problem terms, “webserial” and “internet soap opera,” and the problem schemas—formal organizations and category descriptions—or lack thereof used by Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project.

[Sidebar: Priming the Pump]

Background: Media, physical and logical structure, and serialization

The concepts used in this article and others include media, physical structure, logical structure, and serialization. In case the reader is not familiar with these and their importance, what follows are brief descriptions of each.

Media (singular “medium”), broadly speaking, are the materials that a work is made out of. One work may incorporate several media. For online fiction, the media are not only “prose” but also “screen” and, presumably, “website.” For most if not all internet fiction, “hypertext”—a medium in which navigation to related items is primarily performed through the use of hyperlinks—may be truthfully included in a comprehensive list of media, but care must be taken to avoid any confusion with the genre known as hypertext fiction.

Physical structure is the physical organization of a work. For the medium of a print book, the physical structure would normally be based on the page: Each page contains words at various points on it, a certain range of pages makes up the body of the book, and the body pages plus the front matter pages and back matter pages make up the volume. Online, physical structure is generally thought of as being defined by the webpage, although this is not an absolute. Physical structure is not normally meant to have any meaning and thus can freely change between editions. (Exceptions to the “no meaning” assumption include such items as concrete poetry.) However, physical structure can be used to aid in transmitting elements of logical structure, as when chapters begin at the start of a new page.

Logical structure is the theoretical, semantic organization of a work. In other words, it is the organization of a work intended to convey meaning. For a novel, this may include such items as chapters. If an author changes the placement of the chapter breaks between printings, they are considered to have revised their work, as this may alter some readers’ interpretations of it; anything with a similar importance is part of the logical structure.

Serialization is the process of releasing a single work (a serial) in multiple sections (referred to here as “episodes” for lack of a standard term) across a period of time. Newspaper comic strips, comic books, and some movie series are good examples, although serialization does not require the episodes to be distinct entities that are part of the logical structure or to maintain their separation in the physical structure when collected. (In other words, the episode breaks could be arbitrary divisions that are completely removed when the complete work is put together.) Serialization has historically been a common method of publishing fiction.

(Mostly) Certain Terms: Online and internet fiction, blooks, and webfiction

A variety of categorical terms are used when discussing online prose. Some of them have different meanings depending on who is using them. While this article does not pretend to be capable of settling those debates once and for all, some uniformity is necessary to ensure that when one person uses a term, everyone else understands at least the basic concept. Here, therefore, are several terms with generally understood definitions:

Online fiction is prose fiction that uses an online medium. It should be noted that “online fiction” generally does not include e-books or other works that, while possibly distributed online, are not designed for online viewing, but it does include digitized print works intended to be viewed online.

“Online fiction” is not really a term with a meaning greater than the sum of its parts, merely a phrase with a meaning made by combining those of its component words. Its meaning should therefore be universally understood.

Internet fiction is online fiction that is written for online viewing and takes advantage of or is otherwise significantly influenced by that medium. Using this definition, internet fiction does not include works of print fiction that have been digitized and put online unless significant effort has been made to give them a physical (display) structure that they could not easily approximate using their original medium, and possibly not even those. (Whether it is ethical or even possible to alter their structure significantly enough to make them count as internet fiction when they were not written for that purpose is a separate issue.)

While the phrase is only occasionally used, this article supports it. Linguistically, the phrase “internet fiction” seems to mean “fiction that belongs to the internet,” indicating the necessity of the influence of the medium, as opposed to “online fiction,” which merely means “fiction that is online.” However, while many people may grasp this distinction instinctively, it is by no means guaranteed that they will do so, so care must be taken to ensure that the audience understands the meaning intended when using this term.

Blooks (also used as a gerund, “blooking”) are either or both of two things: (1) blogs or functionally equivalent sites where each post is part of a serialized work and (2) print books that collect the contents of a blog. The first meaning seems to be restricted to works that, like internet fiction, are originally published in that way rather than digitized from a print publication, although that restriction occurs in actual usage more than in any written definition of the term.

The word “blook” used here—there are two other words with the same spelling—is a portmanteau of “blog book,” a phrase that can have either meaning as well, although it is mostly used with the second meaning. Furthermore, both meanings of “blook” are relevant to online fiction; the first may be used for a type of online fiction itself, while the second can come up when considering whether internet fiction always loses something when converted to another medium, such as print. Which meaning of “blook” or “blooking” is meant may often be figured out from the context in which it is used, but best practices should always include specifying which meaning will be intended in an article or other work and finding an alternative term for the other if it also comes up.

Webfiction is fiction blooking (first meaning) that has a logical structure based around the episode. It is possible for a fiction work to be a blook and not webfiction if the episode breaks do not match major logical divisions. (For example, a serialization service may break a work down into 1500-word episodes that do not match any divisions of the text more important than paragraphs.) Whether or not webfiction must also be internet fiction, either by definition or by necessity, is presently debatable.

The word “webfiction” is derived from “webcomic” and implies a similar nature and structure. It is not widely in use but has a clear relation to a word that is, so only a brief definition should normally be needed when it is used in places where it may not be known.

Uncertain Terms: Webserials, internet soap operas, and problem schemas

There are also a number of terms for online fiction which do not have generally accepted or acceptable definitions. On top of this, two major information sources have poorly-functioning schemas (formal organizations and category descriptions). These terms and schemas present the following problems:

A “webserial” is defined by Wikipedia as a “written work of literature available primarily or solely on the Internet” that is “released on the Internet in chapters as they are finished.”[1]

The problems with this are as follows: Nothing in the word itself implies that it is limited to textual works, it is used outside of Wikipedia for non-textual works such as video, and it is not in widespread use with that meaning even on Wikipedia. Instead, the word seems to normally mean a work of any sort, not just text, that is serialized online. As this would cover all current uses and not duplicate the meaning of any existing word, that definition is supported by this article. However, any use of “webserial” must be accompanied by a definition due to the potential for confusion.

“Internet soap operas” are defined by the Open Directory Project (ODP) as “Web-based entertainment series [that] usually feature continuing storylines and audience interaction, and are often patterened [sic] after television soap operas.”[2] This is differentiated from most “series stories” as follows: “Most series stories just contain basic character info and a collection of stories about those characters. If you’re [sic] pages have more in depth character descriptions, message boards, and lots of interactive activities, you may want to add your page to the Internet Cartoon or Internet Soap Opera Category instead.”[3]

Simply put, this does not provide a useful or clear distinction between an “internet soap opera” and any other type of serialized fiction. While the term could be useful in discussions that need a way to refer to stories intended to run indefinitely, as soap operas do, that distinction does not occur in the ODP’s definition. Furthermore, the category falls within the Online Writing section of the ODP, restricting it to textual works, whereas elsewhere on the internet it can refer to videos. For all of these reasons, this article does not support using the term until a clear, useful, and generally acceptable definition is found.

Returning for a moment to Wikipedia, it seems that the site does not have any clear concept of what terms to use or how to organize its thoughts on online serial fiction. Besides “blook” and “webserial,” there is also an entry for “blog fiction” that covers the same concept without any indication that either it or the other two entries are aware of each other’s existence. There may be more such, but Wikipedia also lacks a comprehensive listing of such entries—they generally are not even filed in the same categories—so it is impossible to determine whether or not there even are any.

The Open Directory Project, on the other hand, is entirely about categorization. It is possibly even worse than Wikipedia, however, in that there is no easy way to fix its problems. Structurally, the ODP employs a straightforward, strictly hierarchical organization that not only restricts a category from having multiple parents (although there is cross-referencing) but forbids a site from belonging to more than one category. This means that many sites have to settle for finding a category that represents the plurality (the largest minority) of its content or fits loosely at best rather than having a comprehensive listing of the categories to which it properly belongs. The Open Directory Project thus becomes much more difficult to use as a research tool, as a variety of categories must be explored to ensure that every site related to a single category has been found. On top of this, category definitions are too strict and seemingly arbitrary, and some sites do not appear to fit into any of the categories at all. While a listing in the ODP is still recommended as a way of improving a Google ranking, it cannot be considered an accurate or comprehensive index of the internet.

Conclusion

It is impossible to discuss any subject without first agreeing on what that subject is and what the terms used when discussing it mean; that is a basic requirement of all communication. Unfortunately, the subjects within online fiction are currently very ill-defined. Despite this, several terms may be defined well enough to serve as a reasonable starting point for further discussion. The use of these terms in just such a manner is highly encouraged, as further discussion and definition is absolutely necessary for any useful critical thought and advancement in the state of the art to occur.

Footnotes

All of the following footnotes are from the “uncertain terms” section of the article and are not only subject to change but hopefully will change. The quotations that they act as citations for were present at the URLs given as of 15 January 2008.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webserial
[2] http://www.dmoz.org/Arts/Online_Writing/Fiction/Series_Stories/Internet_Soap_Operas/desc.html
[3] http://www.dmoz.org/Arts/Online_Writing/Fiction/Series_Stories/desc.html

posted by CrazyDreamer  

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