The Great Chain of Narrative

This is a loose transcript of a talk I gave at Tools of Change, Frankfurt, October 9, 2012, leading into the Frankfurt Book Fair. Its purpose was to demonstrate how the dynamics of metadata for stories are changing both in real life and at Small Demons. Yes, that sounds mighty dry. But like my audience, you might find it compelling. —Valla

Hi, I’m Valla, the cofounder and CEO of Small Demons, a Los Angeles based startup. I’ll tell you more about what Small Demons does later, if you’re not familiar with us already.

First I want to dive into a specific use case for books and the kinds of metadata and supply chain requirements that grow out of that use case. The use case I’m interested in is the person who wants to make the book a part of their world. She or he wants to take the story out from the pages of the book and into the world. Maybe they want to visit a place from the book, maybe they want to dress like a character from the book, maybe they want to listen to the music or read the same books that the characters in the book are listening to and reading. It’s an interesting use case and one that has a broad but disaggregated audience, right now. Lots of people do this sort of thing but in lots of different places.

So the minimum use case here is—I want to take the narrative and make it part of my world. But there’s also a maximum use case, at the other end of the spectrum—I want to take the narrative and use it to remake the world.

Now we have these two use cases that are different in degree but similar in kind. And because it’s always more interesting to look at extremes, we’re going to focus on the second one today—the person for whom the book and its story are the means to remaking the world. And then what we need to provide that person by way of metadata and a supply chain. Because that’s where the magic is happening.

I’ll use a specific story to illustrate this use case. And I’ll start with a very standard approach to book metadata to introduce this story. Here we go:


So here we have one way of looking at the metadata and supply chain about a book. It’s ISBN, which I will use as short hand for any metadata that thinks about a book as a product. This is useful for helping people—well, not really people, but machines—find a book and tell us a bit about the book as a product. A lot of effort goes into creating, maintaining and distributing this kind of metadata and supporting the supply chain that relies upon it.

But that’s not the use case we’re talking about.

This is the use case we’re talking about.

Here we have Egyptians protesters marching against the now deposed President Mubarak wearing masks popularized by the hacker group Anonymous, taken from the graphic novel V for Vendetta which was influenced by the historical figure Guy Fawkes.

Here we have one narrative being used to undo another. There are no revolutions without new stories—we need new symbols to replace the old—and here we have the extreme case we’ve talked about.

Here we have the world of the book come to life. It has stepped out of the story and into the world and completely changed the world.

So what kind of metadata requirements does this have?

Well, you need to know what’s in the story. In this case, the character, V, and his role, anarchist/rebel. Moving past that, we’re also looking at his fashion sense—what does he wear. A mask. And who was that mask inspired by? Guy Fawkes. 

Ok so now we know all these new things about the story. Things not part of the ISBN construct or its world. We know:


The Character in Book

The Character’s Role/Anarchist, Rebel, Revolutionary

The Character’s Fashion/Mask

The Character’s Fashion/Mask Was Inspired By Historical Figure Guy Fawkes

What else do we need to know? Because we are not dealing with a passive reader. We’re dealing with someone for whom elements of the story have become internalized and live beyond the page. In this case, we need to know how to get to those elements. So here, specifically, we need to know:

Where do I find a V for Vendetta mask?

So now we have a chain that looks like this:

The Book

The Character in Book

The Character’s Role/Anarchist, Rebel, Revolutionary

The Character’s Fashion/Mask

The Character’s Fashion/Mask Was Inspired By Historical Figure Guy Fawkes

Where to Get Character’s Fashion/Mask

So at this point I want to pause and think, for a second, not about the data but about the supply chain.

Over the course of the Egyptian protests, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, also known as 978-0446391900 was part of a Narrative Supply Chain that led to a new Egypt. V for Vendetta was everywhere. The world of the story took to the streets and had a life of its own. This wasn’t about selling more 978-0446391900s. This was about people en masse taking parts of 978-0446391900, parts you cannot get to when all you know about V for Vendetta is what 978-0446391900 tells you, and changing the world around them with it.

I believe many books are capable of this, and that the Next Great Supply Chain is all the connections that allow a reader to explore the world of a book and then make that world part of their ownassuming they want to. And increasingly they do.

And that’s what we let readers do at Small Demons. Every data point listed above—the book, the character, the character’s role, the character’s fashion, the inspiration of that fashion, and where to get it—all of this matters to us and we have built the capability to identify, structure, and relate all of those data points. And we do this for many categories. 

At a high level, the people, places and things in a book, but at a more granular level, the music, the food, the fashion, the neighborhoods. Some we are further along than others, but all of this matters to us because all of this is part of a future supply chain where the story matters most.

We do all this in service of the reader for whom the story is just too compelling, too meaningful, too much a part of her or his world for it to end on the last page. And we call all this, all these data points, the Storyverse. Which while many of the elements come from fiction, they are anything but. They are the building blocks for remaking the world through narrative.

Thank you.
Co-Founder and CEO, Small Demons
At bottom, this is all a very old story. When he grew old, Aristotle, who is not generally considered exactly a tightrope dancer, liked to lose himself in the most labyrinthine and subtle of discourses. He had then arrived at the age of metis: “The more solitary and isolated I become, the more I come to like stories.” He had explained the reason admirably: as in the older Freud, it was a connoisseur’s admiration for the tact that composed harmonies and for its art of doing it by surprise: “The lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for myth is composed of wonders.”
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. One of the four of five books that influenced me the most in grad school (and ever after).

England Made Me

On December 3rd I’m headed to London with my colleague Richard Nash for the FutureBook 2011 Conference. I’m presenting Small Demons in a session chaired by Peter Collingridge, on discoverability.

I’m excited. England is where Small Demons started for me.

In the mid 1990s I passed a few years at Oxford, first as a visiting undergrad reading PPE at Keble (1993-94), and then as a grad student at St Antony’s (1995-97).

From Blackwell’s to the Bodelain, there’s no shortage of places to find books in Oxford. While I was up at Keble my favorite was at the antiques fair held every Thursday at the Gloucester Green bus terminal. Every week I went there empty handed and returned with a backpack full of second hand novels. A lot of well worn orange Penguin editions, many interesting finds.

Every other week or so I’d visit my girlfriend at LSE, which meant hours lost at Forbidden Planet, the center of all good things in London. 

As an undergrad, stories were about discovery and escape. When I returned to Oxford as a grad student, that changed.

In the DPhil program at St Antony’s, my focus was on the symbolism of revolutionary politics—specifically, why revolutions never happen without the destruction of old symbols and the creation of new ones. And just how much this matters in the outcome when weighed against other factors. The sort of work Lynn Hunt set the standard for with her Politics, Culture & Class in the French Revolution.

I read broadly in the literature on this and eventually wandered further afield. To writers who also wrote about symbolism, but now within the context of narrative. Critics like Kenneth Burke, whose dramatistic pentad had a huge and permanent influence on me.

At Keble I trekked about in search of interesting stories. At St Antony’s I started to think deeply about what makes stories interesting. And I never really stopped.

I’ve kept all my notes from Oxford, and unpacked them today as I was thinking about the FutureBook conference. As it turns out, on December 3, 1996—exactly fifteen years before I head back over to London—I had just finished Hayden White’s The Content of the Form

I’m going to quote a portion of a sentence from his first chapter, "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality", and use it out of context. Because I just love these twelve words:

to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story

With Small Demons, we’re doing one part of revealing and connecting the world that openly and always speaks itself as a story.


An afterthought: I brought all the books I found in Gloucester Green back home with me. I never finished my DPhil. To this day, I have a recurring dream that I’m headed home from Oxford, almost to Heathrow, only to realize I’ve left all my books behind. I never make it home.