Tuesday, December 9, 2008

web fiction

I came across two stories on the web last night that made me think about the blurring of fact and fiction and the way we know the difference.

The first story was about the strange circumstances of the suicide of Ronald Opus. The second story was about a pair of twins into extreme body modification. Both stories have been around the web for years. Both stories are false. The Ronald Opus story is on Snopes. The twins' story has the big hint of being published on April Fool's day.

Fiction is almost always presented as true. Nowhere in Moby Dick does Melville announce that he's making it up. Shakespeare's plays, both those based on historical characters and those based on romantic stories, are presented as though they really happened. And yet, even without Snopes, we know that Moby Dick and MacBeth are fiction.

We know this because the genre of novels and plays (and movies also) are assumed to be fiction unless labeled otherwise. But the default assumption for the internet is that what we read is true. We don't expect the internet to tell us stories. But slowly we're beginning to learn to doubt what we read and sites like Snopes have emerged to help us confirm our hunches.

The situation of internet fiction is much like the current status of photography. We had learned to assume that photographs accurately captured reality. Photography was a recording medium, by nature, not a storytelling medium. Now we're beginning to become familiar with photoshop and we're learning to question that assumption. Soon perhaps we'll learn to do that with the Internet as well bringing us to question our assumption that internet journalism for instance is really journalism, or that internet experts really have the facts.

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