Tempspence: an Internet improv, on Twitter, with a reality TV star's account

Mark Marino and Rob Wittig say,

For the first 3 weeks of January, the verified Twitter account of reality TV star Spencer Pratt (of MTV's The Hills) became the site for a literary performance art project. The framing story held that Spencer had lost his phone while in England before a stint on Celebrity Big Brother, and the phone was found by an unknown British poet.

Over the next several weeks @tempspence, as he came to be known, played a variety of poetry games and recounted the story of his courtship of his dual love interests Una & Duessa, named for the characters from Book 1 of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. The project was designed and performed by collaborators Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig. Mark and Rob have been developing netprov, a kind of catfish lit. Some of the exchanges and games have been archived here.

Reality: Being @spencerpratt (a netprov) (Thanks, Mark!)


    1. I hear what you’re saying, but the folks I know who make and study ARGs frame the goals differently.  Our sense of netprov relies much more heavily on collaborative performance than on gameplay — although we use both the words “game” and “play” just as actors do when they talk about traditional stage improv. 

      I guess I feel like netprov has ARG elements but is not contained by the idea of ARGs.

      For example, we did one called The Last 5 Days of Sight & Sound that had a lot of ARG components including challenges to the players that could rescue them from their situation if they performed a particular task.  You can see more about that one here: http://l5dosas.blogspot.com/

    1. Understanding it is the least important part.

      Some time ago (nobody is quite sure when, but certainly in the last ten or twenty years) we all started living in the future. All the stuff that used to seem impossibly futuristic is passé (you’re carrying a multi-touch computer in your pocket, right?) and the way forward is to accept the weirdness of now (of which much is weird behaviour, as this art-spectacle is. What is Lady Gaga wearing today?).

      There are multiple robots driving around Mars right now. We can take a heart out of one person and put it into another and they’ll live. Your mother has tattoos and piercings these days and it’s no big deal. Torture and gulags are SOP in The Land of the Free™. There’s wrestling on the SciFi channel and aliens on the History channel. When did this all become normal?

      Spencer Pratt’s twitter (itself a retro-futuristic product that is successful in a way that makes no sense at all) is being ghost-written before Pratt goes into a celebrity fishbowl event named after a book about a totalitarian nightmare to which the majority of the audience thereof are completely ignorant. And this is normal.

      The weird future is now, and has been for some time. Understanding it is the least important part.

  1. Don’t get distracted by terminology. It’s less important what you call it, “netprov,” “ARG,” or *gulp* “transmedia” than what it achieves as an experience.

    1.  Good point, Jay. I don’t want to get mired in terms.

      BTW, Jay’s being too modest to promote his own works here. He’s been pioneering in this area for a long time.  Take a look at SxStarwars http://jaybushman.com/post/36563060583/sxstarwars-characters-from-the-star-wars

      But do you feel like some of these are more or less gamelike? Where the emphasis is more on performing together rather than collectively solving puzzles, for example?

      If there was a puzzle game in @tempspence (other than the literary games), it was in the way we tried to tip off the twitter followers that the character was not Spencer, especially early on, by sprinkling in British slang and British spellings (with more or less authenticity depending on the Tweet).

      1. The more I work in this space, the more I veer away from anything that feels like a puzzle. Even game language or framing feels restrictive to me – it smacks too much of strategy and goals. I’m getting much more from collaborative storytelling concepts, where the goal isn’t to solve anything so much as it is to experience a story, interact with a set of characters, experience a world.

        These are the principles that have been guiding (OK, here’s some immodesty) my work as a writer and Transmedia Producer on the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a multiplatform modernization of Pride and Prejudice. We’ve been going for almost 10 months now, with 2 episodes on YouTube every week, multiple off-shoot video series and major plot arcs occurring on twitter, tumblr, facebook, get glue, lookbook, this is my jam, etc. Start from the beginning at http://www.lizziebennet.com/story/ (end plug)

        There are no puzzles in the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. We’re not interactive in the sense that the audience is going to be able to affect the outcome. But the audience talks to the characters, and the characters talk back. And this interaction isn’t just used for marketing or ancillary purposes, like how most other shows do it. I sit in the writer’s room, I break story with the rest of the team, I write episodes of the show, as well as overseeing the transmedia. It’s fully integrated and not treated at an afterthought.

        I’m trying to bring this model to more traditional TV projects now. It’s not the easiest sell in the world. But our transmedia plan is a big reason why our show has more viewers that some programs on the CW. So something’s working.

        1. Jay, that’s an amazing project. Truly groundbreaking (which will no doubt invite someone to reply with a did-it-first example).

          It’s interesting what you say about affecting the plot.  In two recent projects, Rob & I have used a form of audience voting related to plot.  In “Reality,” this project, the participants could vote for which of the two loves  tempspence would pursue by RT-ing.  In another project, F.A.I.L. http://robwit.net/fail/ we used Twitter “follows” as a way of allowing participants to vote for the final outcome. I suspect allowing an audience to vote at pivotal moments has a long, long history.

          Rob also has an idea about levels of involvement.  That netprovs should have one realm of story-level players and then a realm of general participation where participants can interact with but not interrupt or derail the story-level players. That sounds a lot like your situation. The trick, from my point of view, is to make their interaction as meaningful as possible.

          Given the creative setup you’re describing, I bet the viewer/participants have lots of indirect influence, too, that goes beyond the usual fan and ratings influence. I know they did in ours.

          In this project, the tempspence poets emerged while we were writing.  They set up the Tumblr (http://tempspencepoets.tumblr.com) and the Twitter account. They not only became a regular group of participants, they named e and now collaboratively run his Twitter account with Rob and me.

          1. I am skeptical of any setup that allows audience voting to affect story outcome.  One of my former colleagues at Fourth Wall Studios, ARG pioneer Sean Stewart, was fond of asking the following question:

            “Go to your bookshelves at home and look at how many books you own.  Now count how many of those are Choose-Your-Own-Adventures. Zero, right?”

            I fear that audience voting is the sort of thing that appeals to creators and narrative experimenters.  But once the novelty runs out. it doesn’t really provide much of an enjoyable experience for the audience. 

          2.  Uh, oh, you realize you’re talking to someone who writes CYOAs, right?  Also, there’s been a huge resurgence in CYOAs now that they’ve been ported to eBook formats. UC Santa Barbara just acquired one of the largest (if not the largest) collections of CYOA (and related titles) for their library. Just saying…

            But regarding netprovs:
            I see “voting” as continuous with lots of other viewer participation, including “voting with their feet” and saving shows through email and other online campaigns.

            Voting gives participants a more explicit sense of what their participation is effecting, so it’s something I want to experiment with.

            What makes it smell foul to you?

  2. As an audience member, to me voting feels to me like an abdication of the storytellers responsibility. I want a master storyteller to guide me through a storyworld of their creation. Its a form of interaction that I find unsatisfying.

    Part of it, I think, it the collective nature of it. Audience majority determines the path. Well screw the majority. They tell shitty stories.

    Contrast that with something like, say, Sleep No More, which is my current obsession. You could say that the audience votes with that, in that they vote with their feet who to follow, where to go, what to give their attention to. But each person gets to choose for themselves, and each person’s experience is unique. Unique, and non-repeatable.

    Now that I think about this — and this may be a bit of a leap – but there’s one variation of the choose-which-way-to-go that I think I like. But it’s a very limited use of it. I guess you could call it Schroedinger’s Ending – a story with a seemingly ambiguous ending, but where the possible outcomes are really very few, and those options are clearly defined, allowing you as the audience to choose which one you believe happened. In this case, all of these ending exist simultaneously, all are valid, all have been clearly articulated by they author, and if I choose to believe one ending it has no effect on your ability to believe the other one.

    The example I’d use of a Schroedinger’s Ending is for the great Hal Hartley movie Henry Fool. (For purposes of this discussion, we must pretend that the sequel Fay Grim never existed). At the end of Henry Fool, Henry runs across an airport tarmac. Is he running towards the plane that will help him flee the country? Is he running back home to finally accept the family he’s tried to escape for years. The film doesn’t tell us. We get to choose. But the imagined possibilities of both outcomes are so clear, that both can exist at the same time and feel satisfying.

  3. Jay, your insights on all of this are great! As Mark Marino said, you’ve been working in this same territory for a long time now!

    On the voting/participation issue: it’s not something I’ve done in a #netprov before, but it seemed appropriate for this one because Mark and I were wanting to create a (hopefully) eerie parallel to the Celebrity Big Brother process.

    What’s intriguing me these days is the possibility of netprov projects that have “players,” who get to use their full range of creativity in any possible direction without derailing the story, and “featured players” — writers, actors, (and writer/actors in the Second City or Groundlings mode) who get to use their full range of creativity and tell a story to their own tastes like your wonderful Lizzie Bennet Diaries project. 

    My hypothesis is that it’s possible to have it both ways. We’re testing it out. I think it worked well in the Spencer Pratt “Reality” piece, where Mark and I got to write the lead character Tempspence as we liked, and others got to join in and play. The vote over which romance Tempspence pursued was, strangely, not really a major element for us, so we were willing to go where our readers wanted. More important to us was the meditation on reality, identity, celebrity as expressed in words.

    In my mind the most successful balance between the “featured players” and the “players” was in the first performance of Chicago Soul Exchange, a blog-based netprov from 2010.  http://robwit.net/?project=chicago-soul-exchange 

    Chicago Soul Exchange is based on the proposition that there are more human beings alive now than the sum total of human beings who have lived in the past — meaning that not everyone can have a past life. We posited an E-bay style re-sale market in past lives run by the cheerful and homespun Past Life Maven. My cast of writer/actors played the main characters, but the creation of the catalog of past lives was open to all. The meme-style game for the players was the task of summing up a human life in two sentences or less. 

    “Debtor 54898882 ‘Risk Taker’ An early career as a gambler was succeeded by a meaningful pursuit as an activist for prisoner’s rights.”

    “Agricultural Worker 9930201 ‘Ninety-Nine Percent’ Reliable, once he understood; you came to notice if he was missing. 99.9% of his span of existence was dedicated to the proposition ‘Never say die.’ ”

    The two styles of creativity harmonized well.

  4. I found this netprov very interesting. I first noticed the haiku tweets and wondered why the hell Spencer was tweeting about haikus. When I saw more about this poet later I knew it wasnt real. It was intriguing and fun so I played along.

    I think the main reason it worked so well is the amount of interaction with the public. Everyone enjoys being noticed , even more so when it comes from someone with a higher status in society.

    I am happy to be writing again because of “tempspence” and look forward to the new adventures that will come from taking part.

  5. Another thought on Jay’s excellent comments. I, too, tend away from puzzles. I’ll use the word “game” sometimes, especially with netprov audiences, as a one-syllable indicator that the mode we’re after is playful. It’s not a task or a job or a mission . . . it’s goofing around creatively. Netprov is make believe.

    The kinds of games that I find feed the projects we do are games of mimicry (“Let’s do a fake newscast here in our basement!”) and poetry-like games with 1) a semantic purpose (“Let’s think together about reality show celebrities and the various levels of “reality” of their, and their fans’, online self-presentation”) and 2) structural rules that celebrate the weird material randomness of language (rhymes, rhythms, alliteration, “let’s pretend to describe an image,” and so on.

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