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What Happened to Non-linear Narrative on the Web?

What Happened to Non-linear Narrative on the Web?

by Jason McCabe Calcanis

Panels at South by Southwest (SXSW) are casual and loosely moderated, with hit-or-miss speakers. Fifty people in a small room with six panelists makes for a nice, intimate setting. For the first panel, “Online Narrative Production,” I had a vision of the discussion focusing on what’s happened since TheSpot tanked and everyone started building e-commerce sites instead. Perhaps now that Web tools are robust, I thought someone might demo a non-linear project that worked and made me say “Wow!” No such luck. The conversation steered towards short films, which I wrote about last week (see

Rob Campanell and Tara Veneruso showed their alternative lifestyle linear video program, Chemical Generation, featured on their site They essentially use the Internet as a distribution tool for content they feel is not being accurately represented on traditional TV. Veneruso showed clips from South Park and Troops, the famous Star Wars and COPS parody–short, funny clips that work well on the Internet. These things are very important, but shorts generally use the Net as a friction-free distribution system and that’s it. Right now I’m searching for the made-for-the-medium project. I’m searching for the Martin Scorsese of the Internet world.

Jason Wishnow, who runs the New Venue site (, was one of the most interesting panelists. He talked about “made-for-the-Net” videos and shorts that overcome the limitations of the medium, things like low frame rate and small video window size. I asked him what he thought film production in this anemic bandwidth world will look like when everyone has high bandwidth. He believes there is a distinct esthetic to the current limitations, postulating that some experimental filmmakers might actually embrace things like dropped frames in video. Now that I doubt. Regardless, he is pioneering the made-for-the Net shorts space, and the D.FILM site he collaborates on has a great FAQ on how to create video for the Net.

The only person who had anything to say about non-linear narrative was Mark Meadows, who is working on non-linear graphic novels at Xerox Parc. He postulated that there was room for online narrative, and that it was just going to take time and experimentation. He made a nice analogy to how these stories might work. He explained that existing in a non-linear graphic novel would be like driving a car in a city. You would be free to go wherever you like, but there were some rules: you have to stay on your side of the road, you have to stop at the corner. Great, I get it. Now can someone show me something that works?

What makes SXSW unique, is a strong belief that content creation and content creators are still important, and that there is innovation left in the space. However, when you’re hanging out with the new media content creators, you have this sense that everyone feels the Internet has taken a turn for the worse, and that everything thinks the Internet is about banner ads, e-commerce and IPOs. In his talk, Douglas Rushkoff reminded people to “have fun.” The Internet was created by fun people, and people who focus on creating things of value will be safe after the ponzi scheme of the Internet stocks collapses. The people who were chasing the IPO, he said, will be left holding the bag. The audience still seemed down.

For some people in the industry, the Internet is still about creating “cool stuff” that makes people take notice. These people are not making money doing it, but they are making an impact. They may not IPO, but as the bandwidth opens up and the tools become more robust, they will take their place in the world that is now only about data and not entertainment. At least that is my sincere belief and hope. This industry can’t just be about e-commerce solutions, business-to business, and banner click-throughs…can it?

[Jason McCabe Calacanis is the editor and founder of the
Silicon Alley Reporter and Silicon Alley Daily. In his role
as Editor, Calacanis frequently comments on topics ranging
from the music industry to intelligent agents to the stock market.
Sign up for the free daily]

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