“Sootfall” by Arianna Gass, Reed Gaines, et. al.

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Screen capture of “Sootfall” by Arianna Gass, Reed Gaines, et. al. A picture of the night sky. No stars are visible and the sun is still shining from its final setting stage. Night overcomes day, but the sun has still not fully setted. The text is at the middle, at the top of the picture in white letters. Text: “#SOOTFALL”.
Open “Sootfall” by Arianna Gass, Reed Gaines, et. al.

On February 4, 2013 as the eastern seaboard of the United States was blanketed in a snowstorm (and the Twittersphere with weather reports), another kind of precipitation started to accumulate around the fictional town of Troy. As its inhabitants tweeted about this odd weather, this mysterious black substance began to be identified in their streams as #sootfall, providing readers a way to identify tweets related to this phenomenon and begin to follow narrative threads around this curious event.

This literary work created on Twitter could be labelled in different ways— twitfic (or twiction), alternate reality game, netprov, e-lit, e-poetry, or performance— and each label would contribute to an understanding of what this is without wholly capturing what it is. Launched on February 4, 2013, this month-long creative event is now complete, though I can imagine some of the characters and performances may live on beyond the original vision for the work, as described by Gaines:

One night, I imagined a place. A small, rural town covered in heaps of ash. With the help of my partner, Arianna Gass, a dedicated development team, and all of you, I was able to make this town real. At least, as real as it could be.

I want to emphasize how little I knew about Troy, the town’s landscape, its inhabitants, or what would happen there at the start of this project. I knew nothing. I trusted in the game’s user-base to decide what this soot was, what it would do, and how people would react. I have been astounded by your productivity, creativity, and dedication to this little world. Together, you made something truly beautiful.

From what I can reconstruct, Gaines, Gass, and the rest of the development team conceptualized the setting, plotted out a timeline, created Twitter accounts for its main characters and launched “Sootfall.” As people found out about the event through social networks, they were able to follow its characters or read the stories as they unfolded around the #sootfall hashtag, a means to identify tweets used in many, but not all entries, because one of the challenges was to make the characters seem real— and why would someone randomly tag their Twitter entries without a plausible reason? Eventually the tag became a tacitly agreed upon way for the characters to refer to the event which was to change their lives so substantially. Readers who wanted to learn more about a character who first used the hashtag could follow the characters and read the tweets previously sent from their accounts.

Part of the fun in this fictional narrative was its collaborative authorship. Gaines refers to it as a game and with good reason, since each collaborator wrote tweets in character, much as is done in alternate reality games and role-playing games.

As can be seen in the tweets above, the narrative became science-fictional (by design or improvisationally?) as the netprov progressed, leading to visual and poetic creativity from its participants. Here’s a summary of the story posted on Facebook on Feb. 25, 2013 by Arianna Gass:

The first few days pre-sootfall consisted of DickLindy tweeting the weather, Gmendlz and TrojanAdrastus talking about school and students like MellySchwartz, OwenRinks, and graduate GreysonMeyer talking amongst themselves.

Eventually, Troy grew in population, attracting AbarisBraughtigan, a Neitzche-obsessed preofessor of Heuretics and former teacher of GreysonMeyer, FSynchronicity, an action-driven investigator from a mysterious organization called “Pattern Recognition,” and SaturdayStrange, a sinister arbiter of chaos and intrigue. As town librarian ttliblenore attempted to organize important informational meetings, the soot began to fall.

Along with the soot came the magical discoveries of gmendlz and NellieMaeK; that the soot was an organic and living substance, and also that it inspired hallucinogenic or multi-dimensional experiences when ingested or smoked. AbarisBraughtigan got lost in the stacks, gmendlz and KassyRich went on long multi-dimensional trips. But, most intriguingly, DickLindy went missing for a week, and the soot was cleaned up by mysterious men in yellow jumpsuits.

DickLindy’s body was eventually recovered by KassyRich and gmendlz (with some help from son, GreysonMeyer). His profile images became inverted, his tweets became cryptic and convoluted. White noise. It is unclear what his condition is, though recent theories include a symbiosis between DickLindy and the soot, which had taken over his computer to create a kind of cyborg.

Troy is also home to a few budding romances: KassyRich and GreysonMeyer and AbarisBrautigan and VanessaChurhi1 are publicly engaged in twitter-flirting.

More has happened in the week since this was posted, though you can follow the link in the title of this posting to get to the #sootfall feed on Twitter and backtrack to get the whole narrative. This is cumbersome, and will necessarily present the story in reverse chronological order, potentially spoiling any suspense generated by this narrative. This is one of the challenges of creating art using cloud-based services: it can be difficult to retrieve the past. For example, some of the characters’ profile pictures changed over the course of the narrative, eventually disappearing. To go back and read what was written by a character in Twitter would be to do so under the context of their current profile picture, which would be a kind of retroactive continuity causing discontinuity, ironically enough. For those interested in seeking out the characters and reading their postings, see Gaines’ credits list:

I understand Gass and Gaines are producing an archive or at least thoroughly document “Sootfall,” which I will link to when ready. It should be a fascinating read because it will lay bare the scope of the whole project, which we could only apprehend a portion of through Twitter and which leak into reality through other services for images, video, and even other people’s blogs. And who knows if the story will continue, what will happen to the surviving characters (will the role-playing continue?), and whether they may return in future netprovs. For now, it is good to see the performance come to a close in a way that resolves its conflicts yet leaves us wanting more without having to resort to two words that the Bard itself tweeted just a few hours after the last official #sootfall tweet: