‘A New Genre for the WhatsApp Generation’

It’s not news that digital media are presenting countless new ways to produce, disseminate, and interact with texts. Think about the Twitter fiction that floods your feed day after day, and what about David Mitchell’s 2014 Twitter mini-novel? Then there are those Japanese cell phone novels that were all over the news a few years ago. And don’t even get me started on all the weird-but-wonderful interactive fiction that’s out there.

So, while new genres of fiction are on the rise, I’ve decided to write about my latest experience with a mobile app that touts an entirely new experience. Introducing Last Seen Online: ‘an immersive chat story told in real-time over 7 days’.

Last Seen is a free app by UNRD LTD, available for iPhones and Google Phones. It tells the story of an almost-26-year-old woman called Amy Morris, who goes missing the night of her birthday party. Over the course of seven days, readers receive text, voice, video, and picture messages through which the story unfolds, as well as news updates and links to Amy’s Instagram and Twitter profiles. It’s a modern-day murder mystery that capitalizes on time to build suspense.

Indeed, as one of the app’s developers has said: ‘You wait for the story to develop over the seven days, just like you would in real life. This makes fiction more believable, and challenges the binge culture we have all become accustomed to. It reintroduces tension and emotion in a new way. We want people to go to bed not knowing what’s going to happen the next day. By using a variety of media such as audio, imagery and video, Last Seen Online brings fiction to life to make the reader feel like they’re living the story with the characters as it happens.’

I’d never before consumed a story via my phone in this way. Sure, I’ve read some articles online using my mobile web browser, but I’d never even heard of this ‘real-time chat story’ stuff. So I gave it a shot. For science, y’all. So I could report back to you.

The story itself was alright. The video messages in particular were convincing – the actors looked like they were having a good time as they pre-drank while waiting for the others to arrive, and the videos’ shoddy quality contributed to their sense of legitimacy. While I had read in some of the app’s reviews that the voice messages seemed a bit too scripted for some, I thought they sounded fine. The texts themselves seemed a bit cheesy sometimes, but there was nothing that made me pooh-pooh the app completely. After day one of receiving real-time story messages to my phone, beginning around 8am and going until around 10pm, I figured this is something I could learn to like.

I regret to say that I did not learn to like this kind of story consumption, y’all.

Look. I have many friends who like to get in touch with me throughout the day. A lot of texts, emails, calls, and general notifications light up my phone throughout the day. Having another app to contribute to this already-too-high number of notifications was going to give me an aneurysm.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the app’s icon didn’t look exactly like the WhatsApp icon. See for yourself below. Last Seen is on the left; WhatsApp on the right.

 

Throughout the day, I would see messages accompanied by a little green square light up my phone. Oh, thought I, someone is trying to get in touch. Let me see if this is important. No. It wasn’t important. It was Craig, the most frustrating character from Last Seen, sending me breaking news that included things like ‘Lollllll’ and ‘Falafel?’ Go away, Craig. I don’t need this right now. I have deadlines to meet.

But the real-time messages just continued, and I couldn’t check my phone frequently enough to keep up with the story in real-time. Then, when I went into the app to read all the messages I’d missed, I would accidentally read them out of order, thereby hindering my ability to follow the narrative as per its intended course. Confused, I’d have to scroll through numerous conversations (individual and group chats) to eventually get a sense of what was going on.

What Last Seen made me realize was that one the things I like about reading is my ability to do it in my own time. With a conventional book, I am in control of when and where I read, and how much I read at any given point. I don’t have to worry about disturbing other people when I am required to listen to voice messages to view video messages. And, most important, I don’t have to stress about the story moving on without me.

That said, when I did have time (and was in an appropriate space) to go through the text messages, I found myself appreciating how much effort the developers had put into developing Amy Morris as a character. Her Instagram and Twitter profiles, both with thousands of follows, had months of content to sift through. The news updates were hosted on a website that looked genuine. Within one of the news articles, there was even a link to M Bar’s professional-looking website – M Bar being the entirely fictional venue in Brixton where Amy and her friends celebrated her birthday. These kinds of additions did contribute to a believable narrative within which I felt myself becoming immersed. It was neat.

Public feedback since Last Seen‘s release in December 2016 appears to have been mostly positive, possibly because the notion of a real-time chat story is still quite novel. On Apple’s App Store, the app is currently rated 4.7/5, as per 422 ratings. One article touted Last Seen‘s revolutionary approach, stating that it exemplifies ‘a new genre for the WhatsApp generation’. Another article declared that the app had a ‘hyper-realistic feel’ that resulted in ‘a creepy story to captivate readers’. Downloader viewers are overwhelmingly chipper, with only a few comments about slight glitches and annoyance at having to pay for access to additional text conversations (none of which are necessary to understand the story). In short, it’s doing well.

So maybe it’s just me who isn’t sold on this, then.

In all seriousness, I think this genre is a really cool concept. I think it has a lot of potential that hasn’t yet been realized. UNRD LTD is scheduled to release another story of this genre later in 2018, though – what new features will this new story include? Despite my occasional annoyance with Last Seen, I will definitely be downloading their next release to find out.

For science, y’all. So I can report back to you.

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Sunday Book-Thought 73

The revolution of the electronic text will also be a revolution in reading. To read on a screen is not to read in a codex. The electronic representation of texts completely changes the text’s status; for the materiality of the book, it substitutes the immateriality of texts without a unique location; against the relations of contiguity established in the print objects, it opposes the free composition of infinitely manipulable fragments; in place of the immediate apprehension of the whole work, made visible by the object that embodies it, it introduces a lengthy navigation in textual archipelagos that have neither shores nor borders. Such changes inevitably, imperatively require new ways of reading, new relationships to the written word, new intellectual techniques. While earlier revolutions in reading took place without changing the fundamental structure of the book, such will not be the case in our own world. The revolution that has begun is, above all, a revolution in the media and forms that transmit the written word. In this sense, the present revolution has only one precedent in the West: the substitution of the codex for the volumen – of the book composed of quires for the book in the form of a roll – during the first centuries of the Christian era.
Roger Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 18.