By Jill Walker
This is an annotated overview of email narratives. Please let me know if you know of any that I've missed.
This essay is published as part of jill/txt and is written by Jill Walker.
Written and published with Tinderbox.
There is an increasing number of online narratives that use emails extensively. Some give you access to a fictional email account where you can read sent and received emails, some are sent to you as real emails, others have been sent out as a performance of sorts, but are now only browsable as archives. Here are links to the ones I've encountered, with some brief comments. I haven't seen any other sites about email narratives, so I'd love to hear about it if you write anything on this, or know of any work discussing the genre.
My current research on distributed narratives also discusses email narratives.
Jill Walker: Epostpoesi og epostfortellinger, Kunstnett, June 2002. This essay discusses some of the works below as well as narrative spam and mailing list art.
Currently available online
Michael Betcherman and David Diamond: The Daughters of Freya (2004)
A murder mystery about a journalist who writes a feature article on a sex cult and begins to think there may be something criminal going on. The story consists of emails sent to your inbox, with some web content that's all built into the story and linked from the emails. You pay US$ 7.49 to read the full story, and can receive the first three emails as a free preview. I've linked some of the reviews of Daughters of Freya in my blog.
Rob Bevan and Tim Wright: Planet Jemma (2003)
This piece is designed by the people who made Online Caroline, and is similarly constructed. It's specifically targeted at teenaged girls and the aim is to get the audience interested in studying science. Jemma is a 19 year old science student writing emails, SMSes and posting video diaries about her life, love and studies.
Scott Rettberg: Kind of Blue (2002)
A sequel of sorts to Rob Wittig's Blue Company, first sent as emails to a small group of friends in 2002, as a response to Blue Company, and published on the web in August 2003. There's a discussion of Kind of Blue at Grandtextauto and a little at jill/txt too.
Rob Wittig: Blue Company (2001)
Blue Company first ran in July 2001, and each email was mailed out to anyone who'd signed up. There was a second round in 2002, with William Gillespie and Nick Montford as co-authors. Now you can read the emails in an archive, although they're not sent out as real emails anymore. The story consists of emails from a man who has been sent back in time and who writes to his beloved, who forwards the emails to friends of theirs (that means you).
Rob Bevan and Tim Wright: Online Caroline (2000)
I highly recommend this. Uses a webcam, a kind of web diary, photos, web forms you fill in as well as personalised emails that are sent you each day as the serial unfolds. Lasts for 24 days, or 24 visits. Takes 5-10 minutes a day. Won the BAFTA award for the Interactive category in 2000.
Yael Kanerek: World of Awe (ongoing)
I don't quite get this one. Weird web site, kind of cool, maybe I'm just not patient enough. I signed up for emails and now I get love letters now and then. Nice love letters. Not often. Not sure what the deal is. Maybe that's the point.
Carl Steadman: Two Solitudes (1994)
Quite a few email narratives are no longer extant on the web. Here are descriptions of some of them, with links to archives in the Wayback Machine where possible.
Anonymous: Two Minutes (1999)
(My old notes: This is rather a cool one - set up as a mockumentary - a (fictional) website documenting a (fictional) tv crew who are making a documentary about the solar eclipse in 1999 - remember that? Or was it only visible in Europe? This is a British piece. Anyway, if you'd signed up THEN (which I didn't cos I hadn't heard of it) you'd have been able to see the web site develop from day to day, you'd "by mistake" be signed up to receive private emails between the characters, and as the eclipse approached it'd get more and more mysterious and scary. Murders happened and you got to join in the detective work. From the archives, this looks really rather good. But it's so annoying not to be able to experience it in real time! To get to the emails here, you have to click the "admin only" link which lets you into mock unix accounts for the tv crew.)
Jerry Pinto: Inbox Outbox (2001)
This is set up as a fake hotmail account you've kind of sneakily got access to. I mean, you're meant to see it, but that's the feeling: that you're peeking into someone else's email account. So you see all the emails that person sends and receives. The story is a soap opera about love and sex, set in India.
Interacta: Love, life & email (2001)
Archive has been removed. Pity, really. I read the archives in September 2001, and thought it would have been quite good fun to follow "live". If only they could build a simple little program to automatically send them out to you at a set rate - so and so many a day, you know. Shouldn't be too hard. And if someone built one such engine, you could feed as many stories into it as you liked. Hm... Know any programmers?
Checking the site again in April 2002, the content's all gone. A google search reveals that the firm who made the story have given up their domain. There's a very negative response to the story at syberfood (scroll down). A sentence at the bottom of this PR page for handbag.com says that Love, Life & Emails was written "under the creative direction of the writer of The Full Monty". This article about the piece confirms this, saying the writer was Simon Beaufoy.
-- then there are the commercial efforts that failed:
2000-2002, became Metamailshows, now also dead and gone. My comments in 2002: Trashy, unfortunately. Supposed to be lots of soap-operaish emails getting sent out but after signing up, I've only had a handful of very irregular emails. Looks like they had intended it to be really cool, and to make lots of money off it in advertising upcoming movies and so on, but maybe the dotcom market collapsed on them?
Jesse Kornbluth: Dark Nile
Ran in May 2002. "For 40 days you will receive one thrilling episode of the show each day. Many of the e-mails actually come from the characters themselves, so don't accidentally delete them." I subscribed, but didn't seem to get the whole story.
Commercial email version of those choose-your-own-adventure stories that were popular in the 80s. You pay 5 US dollars or so for a story. They send you emails with decision points at the end of each (do this? do that? do something else?) and you chooose one by clicking it if you're online or sending an email in reply with the appropriate decision. Then you get another email with the next bit of the story. There are a few free sample stories if you want to have a go but don't want to spend your money.
Email narratives in print
These have become increasingly popular, especially in slightly - or very - trashy forms. I've seen this done as serials with a group of emails published each week in the weekly French womens magazine Elle ("Courrier électronique: chaque semaine, le feuilleton par e-mail de Fonelle et ses amies", July 2003) and in the Saturday editions of the Danish newspaper Politiken for some period in 2002 ("@skepost").
This isn't an email narrative, but a place that sells books as Word documents and distributes them as email attachments. Noting it here just as an example of a not-email narrative.