That gum you like is going to come back in style

I don’t look at the TV much these days, and I very rarely find myself following an episodic drama series. The last time I even partially got into a show was when I caught most of the first season of The Wire, which I quite liked, but the effort of committing myself to regular appointments with the box was too much, and I never made it past the first episode of season two.

I was thinking about this the other day when I read an article at the AV Club which considered the cultural impact of David Lynch’s cult 90’s series Twin Peaks. It reminded me not just of how slavishly I had followed that programme, but of the way that even left-field shows like Lynch‘s unsettling masterpiece could attract mass audiences at that time.

Compared with today it was both easier and harder for a show to be a big hit back then; easier because there was less competition for the audience’s attention – the UK had only four terrestrial channels to choose from, satellite and cable were niche products, and there was no internet – and harder because there was no way to see things other than by sitting down in front of the TV at a set time – no DVD box-sets, no Tivo, and no internet TV. We did have VHS recorders I guess, though the elderly model I had at the time was much too unreliable to trust with an unmissable event like that week’s Twin Peaks.

I had been a big David Lynch fan since I saw Eraserhead late one night on TV, and I’ve liked everything he’s done since (even Dune), especially Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive (the latter is in the running for my favourite film of all time), so it was always likely I was going to be a Twin Peaks devotee, but what confirmed my addiction was the community that grew up around the show on campus. I was already hanging out with most of what became the Twin Peaks crowd, but we certainly bonded that little bit more over long evenings of coffee and cherry pie (actually, “coffee” and “cherry pie”) discussing our various theories of what the story was about. I’d like to say that we still get together every year to reminisce, but, with a couple of exceptions, I haven’t talked to any of those people in the best part of twenty years. Probably best to leave the memories undisturbed.

Anyway, the point that I’m meandering towards is that often what sticks with you about a cultural experience is not so much the event itself, but more the social connections that surrounded it. What’s changed since my Twin Peaks days is that, thanks to the wonder of the interwebs, it’s no longer necessary to be geographically co-located with your fellow fanatics to feel part of a community.

Certainly my experience over the last three years has been that, while it was the virtual eye-candy that initially pulled me into Second Life, what’s kept me around is the narrative that unfolds in the relationships between residents, played out partly in-world, but mostly in the SL blogosphere.

I don’t want to overstate the profundity of the SL storyline – it’s more potboiler than classic literature – but it’s diverting, harmless, and, best of all, it creates a pleasing illusion of interactivity. I can tell myself that I am involved in writing this tale, in my own small way, and that makes me just committed enough to stick with it through the many, many dull patches.

There’s an interesting paper by Wanenchak in the latest edition of Game Studies entitled Tags, Threads, and Frames: Toward a Synthesis of Interaction Ritual and Livejournal Roleplaying. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but the part pertinent to this discussion is the brief review of Goffman‘s frame analysis as it applies to a collaborative online narrative:

… frames allow players to engage with the gameworld in such a way that their narrative construction and interactions become sensible to themselves and to each other.

What I find most fascinating about the Second Life narrative (and what I think gives it a claim to being a unique cultural phenomenon) is the fact that the frames that people are using are often unclear, shifting and overlapping. To put it in different terms, although they are operating in the same “gameworld”, which includes not just the SL grid but also the associated blogs, tweets and what have you, people are engaged with often wildly differing levels of immersion.

The effect of this is, more often than not, to render the meta-story unintelligible, but occasionally it all comes together to produce an instant of dream-like clarity that makes the whole project seem worthwhile. I would give some examples of this, but I suspect that, like real dreams, the beauty of these moments is highly subjective, and that any description I attempted would sound hopelessly prosaic.

Which brings us back to David Lynch. What I think he does better than any other director is capture the fractured reality of dreams and nightmares, in a way that is at once unsettling and beguiling. Sometimes – just sometimes – being part of the world of Second Life is like living in Twin Peaks.

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