‘Inanimate Alice’ and Her Other Lives

16 March 2011 in Inanimate Alice

I came across this yesterday and was amazed by it:  it’s a fcitional podcast in the style of a radio interview.  In it, Alice, the character we created for our online episodic multimedia digital novel (gasp)  ‘Inanimate Alice’, is interviewed by the host of a show called ‘The Daily Dose’ about a ‘giga pet’ she’s created, ‘the Brad Bud’. 

It’s just over three minutes long but I’m amazed by it on many levels, but mainly on the level of ‘wow’.  These students have taken the Alice stories far beyond what exists online, developed Alice’s character into young adulthood, created a business for Alice that includes a piece of tech kit that Alice has designed herself, the Brad bud.  Then they’ve gone one step further and created a talk show for Alice to appear in, with its own host, and they’ve recorded the talk show interview, and broadcast it, along with the transcript, online. 

There’s very little information on the podcast webpage itself, but I can see from the url that it comes out of ‘pitt.edu’ which is the University of Pittsburgh in the US.  A few tweets later, I’d figured out that these students are working with Jamie Skye Bianco, who is Professor of Digital Media at Pittsburgh (also known online as @spikenlilli).  Jamie teaches both ‘Inanimate Alice’ and ‘Flight Paths’ to students on her ‘Narrative & Technology’ class; her students wrote a series of interesting blogposts about Alice and FP earlier this year. 

It’s been nearly two years since new episodes of Inanimate Alice, created by readers, first started appearing online, and these new episodes continue to proliferate.  The pedagogical community around the project continues to grow; if you are interested in it, a good place to start is the Facebook Inanimate Alice group page.  Recent developments include a Scottish teacher, Hilery Williams, who has written a series of wonderful blog posts about using ‘Inanimate Alice’ with dyslexic teenaged readers; the post linked to here is number four in a series on Alice.  As well as that, another Scottish teacher, Kenny Pieper, has been using Alice in his secondary school classroom and, again, blogging about it in a way that I’ve found both useful and inspiring.  Both groups of students are working on their own episodes of Alice. 

For writers who work in the genre of science fiction, this kind of reader-story interaction is fairly commonplace - ‘fanfic’, or fan fiction.  But for a writer like me, working in both the genre of literary fiction, and with new forms of digital fiction, having readers talk back to my story in this way is an extraordinary experience.  Every time I see a new episode, or a new blog post from people working with ‘Inanimate Alice’ I feel absolutely amazed.  To me it seems a very meaningful form of interactivity and I’m thrilled that these stories are being used by students and teachers around the world to find new ways of talking and thinking about storytelling in the 21st Century. 

I was interviewed recently for an article called ‘Are Midlist Authors An Endangered Species?’ that appeared in the Globe & Mail newspaper yesterday - somehow I’ve become one of the go-to-girls for journalists who want to talk about the future of the book and the future of stories.  My conversation with the journalist was, of course, vastly reduced in the context of the article, and I ended up being quoted in the final paragraph, given this as a not-very-bright-sounding last word:  “Writers will make a living in a lot of different ways, only some of which are writing,”  Uh-huh.  I was described in the article as a writer who “publishes both conventionally and online, where she posts fiction for free.”  While, strictly speaking, when it comes to ‘Inanimate Alice’ and ‘Flight Paths’, this is true - these works are available online for free - to see the vast interactive community project that Alice in particular has become reduced to ‘fiction for free’ is infuriating.  This is not to fault the journalist;  my point here is that at the moment the argument about the future of publishing seems to be focussing on self-publishers vs real publishers, on ‘free’ versus ‘paid’ content.  To me this feels like I’m watching a couple of mice argue over a tiny piece of cheese while around the corner a big fat cat (representing the vast potential for multimedia, interactivity, mobile delivery, etc etc etc that digital platforms offer to writers) sits calmly licking her paw. 

This post is getting long and I need a cup of tea.  We live in interesting times.


's avatar

Hilery Williams, 16 March 2011, 08:44 PM

Hi Kate
Thanks for your generous mention - especially generous considering the ‘loathing’ I expressed some weeks ago before I embarked on exploring your story with a group of 11 year olds here in Scotland.
Inanimate Alice is truly a remarkable phenomenon, not least because of the global connections. But, for me learning together with children who have significant literacy diffiulties, it is a revelation.
We are crossing boundaries other than geographical too as we develop a much broader sense of what it is to be literate in the 21st century.
This is exciting for me in the latter years of my career; but extraordinarily empowering for the youngsters whose journey is just beginning!
So thank you!

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