Interactive Stories: Writing Public Literature
in an Evolving Internet Environment

by Judy Malloy

an updated draft of an article published in Heide Hagebolling, ed,
Interactive Dramaturgies: New Approaches in Multimedia Content and Design, Springer, 2004.


In the rapidly changing Internet environment, which has evolved in the past decade from small text-based experimental community to commercially driven graphic interfaced media, writers of electronic literature must adapt not only to the intertwined processes of writing and interface (how the writer shapes the user's communication with the work) but also to radical changes in the audience and environment.

Written (usually) in seclusion, a print work is then published and distributed to readers whose contact with either the author or the author's process is traditionally minimal. In contrast, Internet-based electronic narrative is potentially a public literature which may integrally involve the reader/user/participant in its creation and use. ("Participants", "users" -- the changed nature of the relationship between writer and reader is reflected in the vocabulary.)

How the participant is involved, the extent of audience involvement in the process, varies. The writer may be using the Internet as a public storytelling forum; and/or the writer may be offering the reader a multiplicity of choices; and/or the writer may be offering the audience the opportunity to be co-creators of the work. Sometimes (as they are in the sections of this paper) these strategies are intertwined.


Telling a story in the Homeric tradition, while situated in a contemporary electronic community, the interactive and community centered aspects of public literature performance as well as the idea of "live" writing and immediate publication, have been at the heart of my work for many years.

Uncle Roger - Telling Stories in a BBS Community

When I began working this way, publicly telling UNCLE ROGER [1] in 1986 on Arts Com Electronic Network on the WELL, [2] it was in a conferencing system similar to what are now called "threads" or "forums" on web systems. At that time, the members of the audience were "known" -- not personally but virtually. Each login represented a familiar personality who surfaced and resurfaced with some regularity. This community/audience was united by a common interest in computer culture, and UNCLE ROGER, with its Silicon Valley setting, [Fig 1] was written with that audience in mind.

UNCLE ROGER was a "narrabase" or combination of narrative and database. It was designed to be told as an online serial (I believe it was one of the first, if not the first online serial) in a sequential serial manner, using the conferencing system's "topic" structure. But at the same time each lexia (the roughly computer screen sized unit of text which is the basic building block of hypernarrative) was uploaded with a series of keywords which would eventually enable the reader to navigate the story in what is now considered a hypertextual manner. The lexias in Uncle Roger were written to both stand by themselves and to be combined in different ways, depending on the choices of the reader.

As is common in any community storytelling situation, the audience reacted. I was aware of their presence and the telling of the story was in itself somewhat interactive because audience members made comments and sometimes even contributed to the story. Howard Rheingold, the host of the "Mind" conference on the WELL,[3] responded by setting up a separate topic to discuss UNCLE ROGER. Howard's introduction to "Topic 15: Feedback re: Uncle Roger was: "Yow! What else can we say about Uncle Roger as he unfolds:"

The Roar of Destiny Emanated from the Refrigerator - Writing Stories for the Global City

A decade later, in 1995, when I began writing THE ROAR OF DESTINY EMANATED FROM THE REFRIGERATOR, [4] the instantaneous audience reaction and the small town feeling of knowing who your audience is, of sometimes playing to that audience in a performance sense was gone. This sense of enclosed community lingers still in MOOS [5] and in some conferencing systems. (Such as The WELL) However, the user of the contemporary Internet -- with its information dense newspaper pages and massive link-intensive media sites -- has become accustomed to navigating global complex information structures.

THE ROAR OF DESTINY is a hypernarrative -- navigated almost entirely by following hyperlinks native to the web. It consists of hundreds of lexias Because the reader was now skilled in the concept of following hypertextual paths, it was possible in THE ROAR OF DESTINY to utilize a complex information dense structure in order to stimulate information overload and resultant mental interference. In a way which would not have been possible in the old Internet environment, a state of mind induced either by ten to twelve hours on the net a day and/or by a vulnerability to "flesh time" was emulated.

It is regrettable that the "rural" community structures inherent in early BBS systems are not more centrally retained in out current "urban" Internet system. Nevertheless, there is enormous energy in this global city. Like the energy which spawned an era of action painting in populous and diverse New York City, the intensity of the new Internet is a fertile breeding ground for writers and readers of information intensive electronic literature.

THE ROAR OF DESTINY combines "flooding" of memory flashbacks with a heightened awareness of background noises and an inappropriate intertwining of significant and insignificant life details. The primary structural device is a dissolving and reassembling interface which was derived from a combination of too many hours on the net and the narrator's experience of mental breakdown. It is composed of relevant words, which sometimes run rigidly, under control down the sides and across the bottom of the primary text and sometimes fragment or are merged with the primary text. [6]

Beginning in 1995, every week I wrote 3 or 4 lexias of THE ROAR OF DESTINY. Shortly after it was written on the World Wide web, I "published" this "set", usually in the form of a three or 4 lexias which were connected to each other in a "loop" structure". I also continuously rewrote and replaced earlier screens.

Each lexia was woven onto the existing ones with a complex system of links. Forinstance, in a lexia titled "At the mercy of the mechanics", [Fig 2] the narrator, Gweneth, is in a garage waiting for her car to be repaired. Five lexias are situated in the garage, and the final screen loops back to the strange noise that Gwen's car made -- "the noise, intensifying with every bump, was unbearable."

These five lexias were written during the course of a week, threaded into the work as a whole and then published/made public the following week. During the unfolding of the story, these lexias were edited and reposted several times. Somewhat like the process a composer goes through in composing four different streams of music that will eventually be heard together by the listener, when writing individual lexias, I kept in mind the many ways in which a reader might combine them.

For many years, before I began constructing narratives with computers, I used this method of composition -- which is more similar to the process music composers use than it is to the composition processes used by writers of sequential fiction -- to construct visual books which simulated our fragmented, non-sequential memory patterns. [7]

Like the changes in continually tended and planted public garden, the changes and additions that I made in THE ROAR OF DESTINY were not always obvious to the observer. New sets of lexias were threaded into the existing body of work, rather than added in an obvious and sequential way. Readers did not clamor for the next installment the way they did during the telling of UNCLE ROGER, but rather were aware of a changing environment.

Although public web writing is less "immediate" than writing within a conferencing system, because the goal is hypertext, web told public literature can evolve in a more natural way -- ie the work can grow without the sequential constraints inherent in posting to a conference.

Writing on the web, I think of my words as "public literature". I am also aware of the work's existence in the wider whole of the web. There is a powerful consciousness of the audience -- as if the energy generated by instaneous availability and by those unseen (unless one chooses to track them) hits is inseparable from the work. The audience may not be there in the old community sense, but they are accessing the work night and day around the world. Perhaps because there is often no middleman (publisher) in Internet based electronic literature, the continual presence of this unseen audience seems palpable, sometimes even invasive.


The unseen audience is constantly in my mind as I follow the tandem and inseparable processes of writing and interface, and the knowledge of the audience's evolving familiarity with hypertextual navigation, has to a certain degree shaped my works of electronic literature.

When I began UNCLE ROGER in the mid-eighties, I was working with a database strategy which evolved from the coming together of experiments with non-sequential artists books, of a background which included database programming, and of the growing availability of personal computers. I wanted the reader to step into the narrator's mind, to experience the emerging/submerging of her memories. I thought of the work as a pool of information into which the reader would plunge repeatedly, emerging with a cumulative and individual picture. Rather than provide alternate plot turns and endings, I wanted to build up levels of meaning and to show many aspects of the story and characters.

The first two files of UNCLE ROGER, "A Party in Woodside" and "The Blue Notebook", used this strategy which was based on the idea of following keywords (links) through a series of "records.". (database terminology for what are now called lexias) Essentially, it was hypertext, but at the time I was not aware of the work of Bush, [8] Nelson, [9] Englebart, [9a] and others in developing nonfiction hypertext strategies. I called UNCLE ROGER a "narrabase". (narrative + database)

But I found -- in those days before the web when readers weren't as comfortable with the idea of following links -- that navigating the first two Files of UNCLE ROGER was difficult for readers. The intellectual concentration required to navigate the work detracted from the feeling of being inside the narrator's memory. Therefore, in the third File "Terminals", the interface utilized the computer's pseudo-random number generator, so that narrative information was shuffled, continuously changed order, submerged, resurfaced, repeated.

This strategy which I used in "Terminals" and then later in ITS NAME WAS PENELOPE [10] used what are now called "implicit links". Because of a time intensive writing and testing process, all the lexias are related. Otherwise, the random process would not be effective. Ideally, on some level, the reader intuitively perceives these links, but they are not didactively delineated by the writer.

"so that the reader is like a traveler in a forest," I wrote in a paper delivered to the Modern Language Association in 1992.
"where fallen leaves from many trees
rustle intermingled on the October ground.
He or she remembers the way the woods looked in July
or anticipates the way the woods will look in April,
and it is not necessary to draw lines
between dead oak leaves and the bare oak trees
or between the horse shit on the path
and the horse that walked there in the morning." [11]

At the time, before the web became the dominant interface, I felt that the result was a more natural reading process which produced the radically nonsequential work which I was seeking to write.

However, in L0VE0NE, [12] begun in 1994, the year that the World Wide Web began to take hold, I returned to using to explicit links. In this transition year, rather than designating each linked word in the conventional underlined way which I felt focused the reader too much on the one word, I inserted an "___" before each linked word. [Fig 3] so that the reader followed links in the text but the links did not dominate the flow of the work.

L0V0NE also marked a consciousness that in the web environment -- as opposed to in disk-based hyperfiction or in early BBS-based works, where, as in a reading a book, the reader is moving within one work -- a user's session is likely to encompass several web sites of different origin. The hyper-real L0VE0NE, with it's emphasis on software and hardware, its vocabulary of journey and interfaced intimacy, was designed to integrate in this diffuse environment as well as to look both backward and forward in a time of rapid and unsettling change. The two reviews of L0VE0NE below, which I found on the net, reflect this:

"..... Initially, there's this sense of loss - old computers are like toys that have never been played with. Then there's this feeling of nostalgia....Where do all the 9800 modems go when they die?....everything is really advanced and really mechanized, but also old, breaking down"......Todd Andrew Pontius [13]

"Computers are ubiquitous and accepted, part of the life of this person, important, but secondary to the story, no social commentary, no fear of technology. One interesting scene, a marriage proposal, the couple is face to face, yet they use a computer to propose and accept marriage, an intimate moment, yet mediated by a machine, it could have been on a piece of paper, or by word, a need for a protected distant between two people, a distance that never closes.....One scene, in a barn full of old computers and parts, really struck me........William Beaver, "Commentaries on Reading Hyperfiction." [14]

A few years later, as I began to write THE ROAR OF DESTINY, in late 1995, both the web and audience were increasingly sophisticated. As newspapers replicated offline structures in an environment which used to be driven by the old interface idea that more than 10 choices would be confusing to the audience, the audience learned to anticipate multiple embedded choices described earlier in this paper.


In the eighties, in the text-based cyberspace created by electronic conferencing systems, cohesive stories could be cohesively written and read by virtual communities of diverse individuals connected by a computer network. Roy Ascott's LA PLISSURE DU TEXTE, [15] Jennifer Hall's NETDRAMA [16] and my BAD INFORMATION [17] and YOU![18] are examples of works that were created collaboratively on telecommunications systems. Fortner Anderson's ODYSSEY collected information from readers and writers as it travelled around the world in disk form. [19]

Unlike participating in a generally forms driven web work -- where the user is apt to feel like an outsider as he or she submits/pastes in words-- in the text-based conferencing systems, participating in the creation of an online work more like being a member of a jazz ensemble. There was a shared energy in the experience which in the best of cases was transmitted to the work.

In 1990, I produced THIRTY MINUTES IN THE LATE AFTERNOON, [20] a collaboratively created narrative data structure on Art Com Electronic Network on the WELL.

Narrative data structures utilize the computer's capabilities for fluid, animated and/or structured text display rather than its capabilities of manipulating information. The structure I used in THIRTY MINUTES evolved from a dream I had in which information about waste streams. (I worked for a company that dealt with environmental technology at that time) was displayed in three separate but parallel streams of text that spewed side by side in readable type size from overhead printers on an auditorium stage.

THIRTY MINUTES utilized The WELL's topic system in which users exchanged information in "topics". During the course of the work, three separate characters were written simultaneously by 15 writers in 3 parallel topics. The group-written thoughts and actions of the 3 characters were then displayed in 3 parallel columns of text.

I set the story in the San Francisco Bay area during the 30 minutes preceding the Loma Prieta Earthquake. John and Mary were preparing (separately) for their first date. The third character was a street person known as Rubber Duck for his habit of constantly muttering the words "rubber duck". John was in his apartment shaving. Rubber Duck was sitting on the steps of the Museum of Modern Art. Mary's route involved a freeway and a bridge that would both break when the earthquake hit. I asked participants to choose a character, enter the topic and speak/think as that character. Since this was the group mind taking the persona of the characters, the emphasis was on the character's thoughts and memories.

In the final work, I put the 3 topics in a narrative data structure in which the thought streams of the 3 characters were simultaneously displayed in 3 parallel columns. The writers included: Anna Couey, Abbe Don, Matisse Enzer, Carole Gould, Eleanor Kent, Carl Loeffler, Tom Mandel, Gil MinaMora, Harold Poskanzer, Howard Rheingold, The Normals, Fred Truck, and Kathleen Watkins. Their unedited words formed a surprisingly seamless 7 page narrative in which the thoughts of men and women about each other were openly expressed - interspersed with Rubber Duck's sometimes appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) words, thoughts and memories.

Four years later, in 1994, NAME IS SCIBE [21, Fig 4] bridged the gap between then text-based conferencing systems (both Arts Wire and the WELL added web interfaces to their conferencing systems in the ensuing years) and the encroaching web. NAME IS SCIBE was written by 8 writers on Arts Wire and the WELL. They were (in order of appearance) Judy Malloy, Tom Igoe, Chris Abraham, Tim Collins, Anna Couey, Valerie Gardiner, Joseph Wilson, and Doug Cohen.

The work was begun while I lay in bed in Tempe, Arizona recovering from a serious accident. I could not go out, and sometimes days went by when there was no human contact. The first narrator was "scibe" -- a character I'd used before when I was working in LambdaMOO at Xerox Parc. [22] scibe reached out to the wider virtual world -- the only world I had continual access to at the time. The collaboration (hoped for but not asked for) was spontaneous. Other writers added words about the details of their lives -- providing windows on the world for scibe. After the work was finished, I designed for the web an unobtrusive interface which enabled the reader to relive the creation of the narrative.

Because the early Internet sense of community -- which was there when SCIBE was begun but was eroding during the year of its writing -- has been overwhelmed by information delivery, SCIBE was the last multi-writer collaborative narrative which I produced on the web. (Cathy Marshall and I began working on the collaborative hypernarrative FORWARD ANYWHERE [23] before NAME OF SCIBE was begun)

Although since SCIBE I have used collaborative strategies in web-based information art works of nonfiction, such as FLAMEWAR [24] and GENID/NEME, [25] and although others have created notable collaborative information works in this environment, such as Abbe Don's BUBBE'S BACK PORCH [26] Carolyn Guyer's MOTHER MILLENIA, [27] for my vision, the web interface did not seem hospitable to the creation of cohesive *fictional* narratives.

It has been predicted that as the web becomes more of a "push" medium, large entities will throw huge streams of multimedia at docile users who visit their sites and remain there as television viewers do. Indeed, the contemporary Internet's potential to be a truly participatory medium has been partially smothered by one way information delivery. A multitude of "Forms" driven opportunities for response exist on major web sites, but they are seldom integral to the site as a whole. Ebook publishers are using Internet delivery for sequential print works rather than for works that take advantage of the medium's capability.

Nevertheless, opportunities for many kind of public literature will emerge and evolve as web users become accustomed to wandering interactively -- discovering unusual, unexpected information in a globally distributed medium where many kinds of writing that take advantage of the computer's ability to manipulate narrative data, continue to thrive.


1.UNCLE ROGER, 1986 - 1988, originally ran on UNIX shell scripts and on the Apple II. Parts of it are were re-interfaced for the web at
The paper: Malloy, Judy. "Uncle Roger, an online narrabase". LEONARDO 24(2):195-202, 1991 gives screen shots of Uncle Roger and of reader interaction with the work. The paper also describes the construction of the work in detail.

2. Carl Loeffler, "The Art Com Electronic Network", LEONARDO 21: 320-321, 1988.

3. Howard Rheingold's extensive writings on virtual community on the Internet are available at


5. Judy Malloy, "Public Literature: Narratives and Narrative Structures in LambdaMOO," in: IN SEARCH OF INNOVATION - THE XEROX PARC PAIR EXPERIMENT, edited by Craig Harris (Cambridge, MA, MIT PRESS, 1999) pp. 103-114

6. Judy Malloy, "Hypernarrative in the Age of the Web" NEA, National Endowment for the Arts Web Site, 1998 --

This paper details structural and navigational components of THE ROAR OF DESTINY EMANATED FROM THE REFRIGERATOR.

7. See description of THE WOODPILE (1979) in Malloy, Judy. "Uncle Roger, an online narrabase". LEONARDO 24(2):195-202, 1991

8. Vannevar Bush, "As We may Think." ATLANTIC MONTHLY July, 1945, pp. 101-8

9. Theodore Nelson, XANADU, 1960.

9a. Douglas Englebart, "A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man's Intellect," in: VISTAS IN INFORMATION HANDLING, edited by Paul W. Howerton and Donald C. Weeks, (Washington, DC: Spartan Books, 1963) pp. 1-29

10. Judy Malloy, ITS NAME WAS PENELOPE. for both Macintosh and MS-DOS computers. (Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1993)

11. Judy Malloy, "Between the Narrator and the Narrative," talk presented at the Modern Language Association Conference, NYC, December 29, 1992 --

12. Judy Malloy, L0V0NE, An Eastgate Web Workshop hyperfiction, 1995 --

13. Todd Pontius' review of L0V0NE, found thru an Internet search, appears to be no longer available on the Internet

14. William Beaver, "Commentaries on Reading Hyperfiction."

15. Roy Ascott, "Art and Education in the telematic culture." LEONARDO Supplemental issue: (electronic Art) 7-11, 1988.

16. Jennifer Hall, "Netdrama: an online environmental scheme" LEONARDO 24(2), 1991

17. Judy Malloy, "OK research, OK Genetic Engineering, Bad Information: Information Art Describes Technology." LEONARDO 21: 371-376, 1988.

18. Judy Malloy, YOU! --

19. Michael Miller, A Brave New World: Streams of 1s and 0s. The Wall Street Journal Centennial Edition, A15, 1989.

20. Judy Malloy, "Thirty Minutes in the Late Afternoon, a collaborative narrative." ART COM MAGAZINE 10 (8)

21. Judy Malloy, Tom Igoe, Chris Abraham, Tim Collins, Anna Couey, Valerie Gardiner, Joseph Wilson, and Doug Cohen, NAME IS SCIBE, 1994 --

22. see 5

23. Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall, FORWARD ANYWHERE, 1995 --

24. Judy Malloy, FLAMEWAR, 1997

25. Judy Malloy, producer, GENID/NEME, 1999

26. Abbe Don, BUBBE'S BACK PORCH --

27. Carolyn Guyer, MOTHER MILLENIA ---