Jill Walker’s encounter with a participatory, and vaguely sinister, online narrative.
How I Was Played by Online Caroline
How I Was Played by Online Caroline
My hair is still wet from the shower when I connect my computer to the network, sipping my morning coffee. I check my e-mail and find it there in between other messages: an e-mail from Caroline. I read it quickly and then visit her web site. She’s waiting for me. She holds up a shirt she’s bought to the webcam, asking me afterwards by e-mail whether I’d like her to send it to me. “Yes,” I answer, clicking and typing my responses into a web form and giving her my physical address. Caroline and I are friends.
Of course, Caroline isn’t actually real. She’s the fictional protagonist in a 24-part online drama called Online Caroline (see sidebar images). The web site and e-mails are written and designed by Rob Bevan and Tim Wright, and Mira Dovreni acts Caroline’s part in the prerecorded webcam sequences. You can be Caroline’s friend too if you go to her web site: http://www.onlinecaroline.com.
This essay is about my relationship with Caroline. Caroline permeates my everyday life in a way that is unlike other fictional characters. I don’t have to switch on the TV or pick up a book and start reading to engage in this fiction. Once I’ve signed up for it, it comes to me. If I don’t visit for a few days, Caroline complains. I’m bound to this narrative.
Caroline is a young woman who reminds me of Bridget Jones: she’s worried about her boyfriend David, her friends, her weight and her job. David is away on research in New Guinea, and his employers, XPT, have provided Caroline with the web site and equipment so she can find online friends to keep her company while David’s away. A week into our friendship, David returns and the story becomes more sinister. He coerces Caroline into following an outlandish diet, making her the guinea pig in an experiment that appears to be connected to XPT and to David’s own research. Within days, Caroline is feeble and ill. In the final week of the serial, David takes over the web site bit-by-bit, until Caroline’s only voice is in her ever-shortening e-mails. The story ends as Caroline is silenced, and can send me no more e-mails. Instead, I receive an e-mail from XPT, thanking me for my assistance.
This synopsis doesn’t say much about how the story is told, and it is this telling that makes reading (or playing) Online Caroline a very new experience. Online Caroline is a story told to and, importantly, with its reader. It’s built around a database that collects the information I feed it as I read. I answer questions about myself and the program uses that information to generate personalised e-mails from Caroline to me. When I visit Caroline’s web site the version I see depends on how much of the story I’ve read. Each day I’m limited to one episode, consisting of an e-mail and the appropriate version of the web site. In addition to the daily webcam segment, the web site regularly updates a diary section, similar to a web diary or personal home page. It takes me a minimum of 24 days to experience the drama, though I’ll take longer if I visit the site less than daily.
The personalization that’s generated by the database that backs this system is a major narrative technique in Online Caroline. Though this kind of seamless adjustment to the user’s behaviour is used a lot in marketing, it’s rarely used in art, narratives, or games. Companies harvest information about us and target ads to our demographic information. Epinions.com arranges articles so the ones I see first are ones similar to others I’ve liked, or are highly rated by people whose writing I’ve rated highly. Amazon.com shows me “The page that you made” full of books and kitchen gadgets they think I’ll like based on the last books I’ve viewed, or based on books my friends think I might like, as well as on my own deliberate ratings and preferences. Games and electronic narratives, on the other hand, will react to my deliberate choices (I type “kill troll with sword” or click on a door to show I want to open it), but they rarely track my behavior in this insidious and unasked-for manner.
Viewer and Viewed
Caroline watches me as much as I watch her in this fiction. I have a clear role in the story, as I would in a computer game and yet not as in a computer game. There is no space for me to act on my own initiative in Online Caroline. I can only speak when spoken to, and the allowed responses are few. My role is that of the confidante. My function is simply to allow the heroine to speak. As the story progresses, however, I realize that the program knows more about me than I have deliberately told it.
In the first episodes of the story, Caroline asks me to tell her more about myself, “so that we can really be friends,” and she provides me with a handy web form to fill out my details. I answer truthfully or not as I please, though I’m often limited to set options – I can only choose to call Caroline funny, sad, or boring; I can’t type my own word.
My responses to the questions in these web forms affect the e-mails she writes to me. In one of my first visits, I told the database that I have a daughter. The next morning I found an e-mail from Caroline where she wrote:
There was me banging on about not liking children, and then discovering you’re already a parent. Ah well, you still came back for more. [E-mail no. 4 to “Jill”]
She knew I had a daughter! I felt as though the fiction was adjusting to me, changing itself according to my input and qualities. I decided to see how Caroline would react to a different kind of reader. I started over, using a different e-mail address and inventing a reader I called Jack, making him the opposite of my original character, who had been an honest rendition of my real self.
But the e-mails barely changed, and Caroline’s response to Jack, the childless bachelor, shows how changing a phrase needn’t change the story at all:
There was me banging on about children, when you don’t have any. Ah well, you still came back for more. [E-mail no. 4 to “Jack”]
Another place I can speak up is in the “You decide” box that appears underneath the webcam image each day. On the eighth day of the serial Caroline is anguishing over how upset David will be when he discovers that some parcels of his have been stolen. The title for the day’s “You decide” section is “The great parcel crisis.” Caroline wants advice on what to do about the stolen parcels. I can choose between three options by clicking in the appropriate box: “Tell David,” “Avoid David,” or “Leave David.” Caroline doesn’t necessarily take my advice though, whether I’m Jill who thinks she should leave David, or Jack, who thinks she should tell him. Whatever choice I make, the web page refreshes to show me the same sentence: “You need to know more about David, I think.” Next morning my characters Jack and Jill receive almost identical e-mails. Although Jack told Caroline to tell David about the stolen parcels while Jill told her to leave the brute, only a few words in the e-mail are different:
I do love David. And I want to be straight with him about that parcel business, as you suggested.
I do love David. And I want to be straight with him about that parcel business. (So I won’t be leaving him as you suggested!).
As the plot advances, it becomes clear that Online Caroline ‘s system is watching me in more than these explicit ways. It’s not only reacting to my deliberate responses and answers, but also to my silent wanderings around the web site itself. In e-mail no. 14, Caroline writes:
You’ve convinced him that you’re interested in his theories, because you took a look at the “My Boyfriend” section again last time you came. You shouldn’t encourage him.
My actions as a reader don’t just evoke a response from the text, they seem to affect the story, even to make me complicit in what happens. Interestingly, my deliberate responses are presented as having less influence on the plot than movements that I had thought were unseen. By the very act of reading, I’m encouraging David in his imprisonment of Caroline. Following this serial doesn’t feel like “just watching” or “just reading.” It feels as though I may be partially responsible for what’s happening in this simulated world.
Emanuel Vigeland is the little-known younger brother of the famous Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. While Gustav filled a huge park with sculptures, creating a monumental Oslo tourist attraction that still bears his name, Emanuel spent decades designing and building his own mausoleum. He designed the space to direct visitors’ movements in several ways. The door is so low that I have to bow my head to enter. Inside the light is dim, and it takes several minutes for my eyes to adjust. The acoustics are peculiar, making my slightest sound reverberate in echoes. I walk quietly to avoid making a din. The architecture makes it physically impossible to enter or view his work without showing it respect (Wadell 1999, 41-42). Online Caroline reminds me of this manipulation of the audience: it forces me to act in certain ways. The program behind Online Caroline doesn’t just track my movements; it also makes me move. Each e-mail needs to be opened. Then I have to click a link in the e-mail to visit the web site. To follow the narrative I have to move around the web site to find changes, and I have to answer questions. If I don’t do this, the story doesn’t move on and Caroline complains.
I perform these movements and others whenever I use my computer, but I’m used to ignoring them, assuming they’re invisible. Online Caroline encourages this at first by emphasising my deliberate responses and by frustrating my attempts at independent actions, then turning on me to show me that my invisible, unconscious, forced motions have a greater impact on the plot.
Online Caroline and Emanuel Vigeland’s mausoleum are examples of what Lev Manovich (2001) calls simulations. Manovich sets simulations as an alternative tradition to representative art, giving frescos and goggles-and-gloves virtual reality as examples of simulations. A simulation is characterised by blurred boundaries between the viewer’s proximate space and the virtual space of the simulation, as well as by the scale being the same in both spaces. Manovich argues that while representations force immobility, simulations force movement (Manovich 2001, 103-115). Both Emanuel’s mausoleum and Online Caroline force their audiences to perform certain actions in order to access them. In the mausoleum I must bow low to enter and wait respectfully while my eyes adjust to the dim light; in Online Caroline I must revisit the site, type in responses, move the mouse and find the e-mails. Rather than sit still in a cinema or lock my eyes to the page of a book, I am trapped in constant motion.
Captivity and forced movement are also dominant themes in Caroline’s story. Caroline has few friends and little contact with the world. She’s a freelance writer, but doesn’t seem to work much. Her editor Simon, who takes her to Paris and then nags her for an article about the trip (that she never actually writes), is the only contact she seems to have with that world. Finally I am told that all Caroline’s friends were in fact XPT agents: Sophie, David, and even Simon. Caroline has been kept hostage by her friends and used as a guinea pig in a mysterious experiment. Her only link to a possible freedom is through the online friendships she has with characters like Jack and Jill. And of course, Jack and Jill are as unreal and unhelpful in relation to Caroline’s world as she is in relation to ours.
The most poignant symbol of Caroline’s captivity is the budgie cage she places in front of the webcam to show that she’s not got anything more to say. There’s often no bird in the cage, and “Bluebird” is a nickname she uses to refer to her online friends (or readers). Inside the cage a heart-shaped mirror is sometimes visible, possibly reflecting part of a face, though the image is too unclear to see clearly. Perhaps that’s my face I imagine I see reflected in the trapped mirror. I see myself as a captive of the narrative, of the screen and of the computer.
Impotence and Guilt
My relationship to Caroline is defined by its impotence. She can ask me for help but there’s no way I can do anything that will really change her story. And yet I’m left feeling responsible for her fate.
Don’t think I haven’t noticed how oddly David is behaving, by the way. The question is: what can I do about it? I mean, what can WE do about it? What I’m trying to say is – don’t just sit there. HELP ME OUT HERE!! [E-mail no. 19]
I’ve distracted her by being her friend and reading her story. If I hadn’t read, she’d have lived. Reading, in Online Caroline, is being an accomplice to murder.
When the story is finally over, Caroline is unable to send more e-mails. Instead, as mentioned above, I receive a “thank you” e-mail from the president of XPT, the company David works for. The e-mail seals my guilt, leaving me feeling that perhaps I could have saved Caroline from her fate had I made different choices in what sounds more and more like a game.
Thanks to you, our operatives were allowed to carry out their tasks without hindrance, and Caroline’s life was irrevocably changed. We were particularly grateful to you for preventing Caroline from developing complicated and distracting relationships with Simon and Sophie. She did not want them. [Final e-mail from Sir Gerald Inomynte, President and CEO, XPT]
I’m not in charge of reading Online Caroline. I’m not a disinterested reader or viewer. I’m involved. This is a simulation, and simulations make their audience participants: I bow my head as I enter, speak with a hushed voice, feel guilty at letting Caroline down. I’m the raw material for a simulation: it’s carving itself into my flesh and my emotions. I’m being played.
My explorations through the text make me feel as though I have choices and as though I am in control. The narrative seems to adjust itself to my actions and responses. Then I see that the system is paying as much attention to the details of the way I read as it is to my deliberate responses.
I’m told what happens in this story, I don’t discover it. I’m not active. I’m not in control. The text I’m reading is the active party here. It reveals my secrets, and tells me so.
You don’t play a simulation. It plays you.
Manovich, Lev (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Turing, Alan (1950). “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind 59, no. 236 (1950): 433-460.
Wadell, Maj-Brit (1999). “Tomba Emmanuelle: et Allkunstverk om Livet og Menneskets Predestinasjon.” In Emanuel Vigeland, edited by Nils Messel. Oslo: Emanuel Vigeland Museum.
Online Caroline. R. Bevan and T. Wright. 2000/2001. http://www.onlinecaroline.com.