Davin Heckman on how his penchant for pranks got him to appreciate netprov and how he turned it into a versatile pedagogic tool that helps to broaden his students’ social sensibilities.
SUMMARY KEYWORDS: people, character, write, create, idea, real, problem, good, social, thought, play, space, students, bit, geese, explore, twitter, practice, jump, involved
SPEAKERS: Davin Heckman, Rob Wittig
What is your background? Maybe, particularly, your creative background? And how did you get into Netprov?
My creative background generally consists of a lot of prank phone calls when I was a teenager. Honestly, it started with goofing off with friends, and then kind of slipping into the ‘zine world. In high school I was starting to write and draw, and I was reading a lot of ‘zines, and then I met up with some people that were running a ‘zine. So, I started writing and drawing and for them. Getting involved with that turned me on to the idea of that you can make the world whatever you want it to be if you put some time into production, right? You can create something from the most minimal resources, and it can develop into something. As long as the other people who are playing with it take it seriously, it's a real thing.
I guess my creative background was very much DIY (Do It Yourself), coming out of ‘zines and then going to a lot of punk music shows and stuff like that. Always with the idea that, “Well, if you don't like what's happening, you can make something.” Then I got a job when I was at the University of San Diego, working in their PR department. I was just a student, but eventually they had me writing press releases. Then I encountered a different kind of make believe, which was: the first time I wrote a press release and it was essentially reprinted in the newspaper verbatim. And, you know, I'm in school, learning about plagiarism and all that. So, I went to my boss and I said: “Look at this!” and she said to me “Well, now you've arrived as a PR person! That's the goal: you write your press releases, and you're hoping that they're too busy to actually do anything other than reprint your words, as news, in the newspaper. That's the sign of a job well done, when someone steals your work!” And that turned me on this idea that, wow, you can send anything out as a press release, and it seems real! So, I started making things. I was using whatever at the time — photocopiers. I would send prank letters to my friends on university letterhead and stuff like that, to try to convince them of things that the school was or wasn't doing. Nothing too devious, just fun jokes, and then use the campus mail system because then it seems more official. It's not the official US Postal Service, but it still comes to their campus mailbox in an envelope, on letterhead, it looks like the university's reaching out to them, trying to get them to take fen-phen diet pills or whatever, trying to create imaginary programs that the university is offering for students. And this was back then, of course. Like, now, they probably would give you fen-phen if it wasn't known to kill you. But back then, it was a weird idea that your university would try to get you to lose weight so that you'd look better for promotional purposes.
I was always taken by the idea that you can make something seem real just by believing in it. From there, in grad school, I started working on some online journals so I started getting into building web pages. And it was like — oh my gosh — taking it to a whole ‘nother level that you can just put something on the internet! People don't even know what it is! So, we started a journal, we're just a bunch of grad students, really. But we got all these people to join the editorial board, and published for years and years what I think is really good product: Reconstruction.But the reality is: all that we had going for us was that we wanted to read articles about these things, and other people wanted to read articles about these things. And then it became a real thing, a real journal. And that’s been really useful for me, because what is the difference between a real thing and a fake? Well, when you're talking about culture, it depends on how much energy a person is willing to commit to it. That's what makes it real or not, when it starts as play. So that's the journey, I guess. And then along the way, meeting people that got me involved in different stuff after that . . . but unstructured.
What were the first Netprovs you participated in?
Getting into Netprov was a whole different thing. You’re probably familiar with the Fall of the Site of Marsha1More on the project: http://www.robwit.net/MARSHA/ , but which was the first, sort of… So, I had gotten involved in electronic literature because I was living in Bowling Green at the time. And when I started building web pages, the person who was supposed to help me learn Flash was Jason Nelson2Jason Nelson is a digital artist and creator of surrealist art games, currently working as Associate Professor at the University of Bergen and a member of the team of the Center for Digital Narrative CDN. More on Jason’s art projects: http://www.secrettechnology.com , the net artist and hypermedia poet. He was doing his own work. He's building all these weird projects, and some of them kind of hover on the edge of hoaxes, and, you know, mysteries. He’s got many works that are known to be his works, but there are lot of other things that just kind of float around on the web, that I don't know if people connect him to them. Kind of fun little mysterious projects. I got involved in e-lit through that kind of work.
I started grad school thinking I would be an Americanist. I really like Poe and Twain, both of whom are known for their hoaxes as well. That's always been something that’s attracted me: that kind of bullshitty, end of American storytelling, global storytelling, really. Everywhere you go you find a kind of storyteller that knows how to spin yarns, tell tall tales. Then I started seeing this same kind of work on the web and started exploring it and that’s how I discovered The Fall of the Site of Marsha. It was the first work where I thought, “Oh man, this is wild!” Because it is. You read it and even knowing it's not real you really start to worry about these characters. You think about what it would have been like to encounter it raw, find the site as a sort of raw accident. That got me engaged with Netprov. I got to know Mark Marino, I met you. Just by sheer luck I saw these different projects bubbling up here and there.
The first Netprov I got heavily involved in was the SpeidiShow.3More on SpeidiShow: http://meanwhilenetprov.com/index.php/project/speidishow/ That hit all my happy spots, because it's so audacious and the scale of it is so ambitious. And the uptake — having media gossip picking it up and writing about it as if it were a real thing. And the way in which befuddled people will try to track down the story. Some people, you imagine, would tune in and quickly leave, never to come back. But some people would stick around. And all these people became involved in in all these little collaborative subplots. I just love the way in which it sprawled. I thought: “this is a really great way to work! This is a really nice way to write, and a totally wonderful kind of practice for the 21st century.” It resonates with a lot of tricks you see people playing with older media forms, but done in a totally new way that's tuned in to the sensibilities of our time and current problems. I think it has a possibility of busting open people's thinking about what's true and what's not true. And why do we stress as much as we do about those things? And what can we do with this space that's essentially unreliable and will continue to be unreliable? I think I've found a practice that really speaks to me. Probably more than most to the sort of current e-lit practices that I see.
In your time as a featured player in several Netprovs, are there any passages of play that you remember or characters that you were particularly fond of?
One of the things that I really, really enjoyed, — I know it sounds terrible, because it’s a character I created — but I first jumped in with this character who I thought: “Well, I'll make him what I might have become if I took a wrong turn somewhere.” So I created this character, Brutus, who lived with his mother and was trying hard to think of himself having a career in academia, but was basically spinning his wheels and getting depressed and cynical and sort of angry. I was trying this and trying that with the character. But then I finally decided, well, his mom, needs to get after him. And that was one of my happiest moments was when I discovered that it needed his mother as a character to complete it. Setting up that dynamic was one of the best times I had writing because whenever he was interacting with other characters, I also had in reserve this mother character who could like jump in and try to fix things up for her son, but simultaneously insult him, too. That's not like my real mother, that's like if I had an evil mother, maybe. That mismatch, that experience I had with those characters was tons of fun!
They were two different Twitter accounts that you would write both of them and have them interact, right?
Yeah. Having the two of them pulled out a lot of different interactions with other characters, because I could kind of squish people between my two characters when one disagreed with the other. And then, when my grumpy character would go off on somebody, then I could always jump in with my other character and support the other person — but support them in a totally wrong way! It’s one of the big things I discovered and I’ve never stopped. It’s generally my go-to move in a Netprov space. Running with somebody else's feelings — but off in your own direction. It’s a funny thing. It’s a big part of social media where people share something and then everybody feels kind of compelled: “Oh, this message you put out there, now, I have to elaborate on your message… with my own thing.” A lot of times it's really weird and uncomfortable. So, I thought: when you play this character, do that all the time. Make that your way of being in the world, where you derail everything constantly, while being 110% validating.
[laughs] Validating and derailing.
In terms of pure pieces of writing, I really, really enjoyed Monstrous Weather.4More on Monstrous Weather: http://meanwhilenetprov.com/index.php/project/monstrous-weather/ There were some pieces by the late Jeremy Hight,5More on Jeremy Hight: Lichty, Patrick. “A Loving Screed for Jeremy Hight”, Electronic Book Review, December 4, 2022, https://doi.org/10.7273/0x3k-1x66. whom we all miss. For people reading this interview, Jeremy was a phenomenal, phenomenal writer, a really good improvisational writer who could take what you just wrote and transform it. And I don't want to say it was all without any ego because, you know, he was an artist, he wanted you to read his stuff. He was proud of his work. But he could jump into a collaborative situation like that and maintain a tone of playful humility while always upping the stakes. I would think: “Ah, here I'm writing pretty good lines…” And then Jeremy jumps in and he’s fantastic!
Claire Donato6Check the interview with Claire: https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/claire-donato-netprov-interview-dec-2022/ in All Time High7More on All Time High: http://meanwhilenetprov.com/ath15/index.php/about/press/ had some amazing tricks — rabbits she pulled out of her hat. She showed us a way to do a gentle satire of your own youth that captures the affection you feel for those bygone times but at the same time exposes them in a light way. She made it fun to look back and laugh. I enjoyed her contribution so much in that Netprov. She's very good.
How would you reflect on the different kinds of platforms that have been used in Netprovs in the last decade? Has that changed over time?
There was a time when, like, Twitter seemed perfect. Some of the things that they've done since then have been frustrating. For instance, they’ve really tried to crack down on certain kinds of malicious behavior, which I understand. But it’s hard — the semester that my students and I started rolling on a Netprov and then instantly, every single account was locked, and that killed it. We had to start over. It wasn't the end of the world. But it was a challenge. Twitter being a free and easy space has changed. I don't know if you can have dozens of Twitter accounts anymore. I never would use a bunch of Twitter accounts to like spam some celebrity. But for Netprov — you want to have a few, you want to have a couple of identities so that you can use them. So, Twitter was great. Especially for SpeidiShow and All Time High.
Monstrous Weather worked very well as a threaded discussion using Google Groups. In principle, I love the idea of Google Docs. But in practice it's hard to track, depending on the size of the group that you're working with. I love that Google Docs is so wide open. You can radically alter the aesthetics of the writing space itself, which adds a whole different level. Lately, I've been using Reddit a lot with students, I like it, because it's easy to create accounts. There you can bracket space by creating a subReddit. And you can define norms for play within that space. You can kind of do your own thing unobstructed for periods of time. And then you can send your tendrils out horizontally to find adjacent communities that may have some overlap, so you can cross post text. That can work well. And I liked the idea of creating and keeping threaded discussions. You can go back and read it a little bit more easily than going back to read Twitter. I like something that you can go back and read. So I've been doing that more and more.
What was the Netprov with the strange recipes? Cooking with Anger.8More on Cooking with Anger: https://recipes.hypotheses.org/9547 That was fun! A unique experience in a threaded discussion. But I wish there was more possibility for unsuspecting engagement. That's the one thing I like about Netprov done in platforms that many other people are using. You get people who kind of straggle in and encounter it and have no idea what's going on. I like that. I don't ever try to alarm people or scare people. But I do want to create mystery and wonder for people. I want, somebody to show up and think, “What the hell did I just find? This is bonkers!” and enjoy it. It’s like the pleasure of stumbling through the park and seeing a bunch of people doing a live action roleplaying game from out of nowhere. It's like, “what’s going on?” It's good.
What would be your thoughts about the potential of Netprov for social good?
I think that people can do Netprovs that are organized around specific issues. Like a spontaneous game. Like the Kralovec project with Poland and Czechia.9Check the story of #Kralovec: Nacher, Anna. “United Forces of Meme in Spontaneous Netprov (or how many tweets it takes to transform #Kaliningrad into #Kralovec)”, Electronic Book Review, November 6, 2022, https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/united-forces-of-meme-in-spontaneous-netprov-or-how-many-tweets-it-takes-to-transform-kaliningrad-into-kralovec/.That sounds great, right? I like when somebody comes up with an idea and then decides, well, let's keep running with this. Let's take it as far as we can take it! When it happens organically, I think it's incredibly good. It’s good for any kind of community to develop a culture of play among its own members. It's very healthy for a group of people to have their own jokes and develop an idiom and to play with each other. Sometimes it can feel a little bit exclusive. So, I suppose there's a danger there. But I think that kind of play opens opportunities to criticize the sillier elements or the more ghoulish turns that your social movement might take. Because they all do, you know. Every time you get a group of people together to do something serious, somebody always gets carried away. And finding a way to modulate that and say “hey, can we make fun of this a little bit?”
I think it's really corrective and nurturing for people who are involved in serious things to take the time to make fun of themselves, laugh at themselves a little bit. It's an exercise in empathy. “How do other people see us?” It’s good for groups to play together and explore the potentials and limits of their community. But I wouldn’t want the satire to be forced. It might seem like you’re stuck in an after school special or something like that, that doesn't sound appealing to me. You’d have to be careful with it because it could descend into a kind of false satirical play. There would be a chance … it’s just a hop skip and a jump away from bullying people and harassing people, which, whether you agree with them, or not, is not an effective way to advocate for your cause. So, I guess if it's organic and playful and reflexive, then it's good, and should be encouraged. But, you know, not to be taken too seriously.
I think we learn about other people and what matters to them through play. Especially things that people are hesitant to talk about, but they actually do want to talk about them. I think this kind of play can contribute to the social good when we get to learn about each other in a way that takes the stakes down a bit. People want to, need to, build a feeling and belonging wherever they are. A lot of good stories, hang on a — not necessarily the achievement of a social cause — but the observation of a social problem or social irregularity. They could be taken back to wherever people live, and how they get fleshed out in context is going to be revealing of the dimensions of that social space. I had some students do a Netprov. They came up with a project they thought was going to just be a ton of fun about a disease, a virus, that would overtake you unless you maintained a certain blood alcohol content.
This was before COVID, right?.
Yes, yes, before COVID. The joke of the thing was set up to think about these comedy characters who are drunk all the time. At first, we explored the novelty, like, oh, the bars in town are going to have these gangs, and there'll be frats that get elected to public office and sort of rule the town, you know. The homecoming parade is going to be the biggest event of the year and it'll be like a nonstop spring break or something. But once we got that part of it out of our system, students were starting to think about real issues. Some of them began to write about characters with problems with alcohol, or, you know, growing up in a house with an alcoholic parent and what would it be like to have to help them choose between going insane and dying a miserable death from the disease or starting drinking again… knowing that it's gonna make you get in fights with everyone, you know? We got into stuff that was very, very real. And you want to get into those spaces in literature, right?
The current Netprov that we're doing right now is about geese. Because there's a lot of geese in our town! And there was a letter to the editor about the goose problem in Winona. What are they going to do and to stop the gangs of geese? So, the students got rolling and thinking about: Are the geese more aggressive than usual? What would be the cause? And they got to talk about different things like: Who uses the park? How do we feel about the relationship between nature and human recreation? Is it bad to kill animals that are threatening you? Well, we don't want to encourage cruelty to animals unless, of course, you have hunting license that allows you to kill animals. Then, what’s the difference between hunting for sport and hunting for food? And where does animal cruelty fit into food? But we don't really like to talk about these things, you know. So I can’t tell where the Netprov will head, but I always find it's interesting because eventually it leads to something more serious. Even SpeidiShow, as fun as it was, was essentially a critique of what have become the culture influencers — people whose job it is just to be famous and followed. I think, SpeidiShow did a lot of good in building an understanding of that. I think the social causes can be found everywhere.
I’d love to hear you talk a little more about playing multiple characters in the same Netprov. You’re so good at that.
My students love the idea of being able to create multiple characters. I always tell them if you want to create a really funny character start with yourself. If you want to really skewer a character, if you want a character that's the butt of a joke, start with yourself, right? It’s less fun picking on other people than it is picking on yourself, once you get used to it. Everybody has some aspect of themselves that they hate, right? So, let’s expose ourselves to that and write a character that does some of that work, but then create other characters who explore different aspects of your identity. These different characters and their interactions can be your own internal dialogue, or whatever it is you have going on. You don't have to tell people this internal process, but you can ask yourself what are the different voices inside that are telling you do this or do that? What would this person do? What would that person do? It’s an enjoyable way to explore the complexity of your own being in the world. I think it’s therapeutic. And that tension can be really fun.
I tell my students, if you have a character that you want to see, say, get beat up, create an antagonist for that character and go after your own character. And then invite everyone else to if they want to. I encourage them eventually to try to get into tension between your characters as a way of learning how to write better. It’s very good for anyone who wants to write, but also good for exploring social issues. What are the dimensions of this issue? What are the feelings that you would like to express that you don't express? That you modulate? What if there were three different characters or four different characters for those emotions?
That's great. Helpful. Big hearted. Do you have any more tips for Netprov players?
I notice there's character that I like to write. It’s kind of a sad guy who keeps coming up. In a past Netprov he was jilted by a squirrel that he believes is a woman that he knows. And now he’s back for the current Netprov with the geese. He's not a mean guy, he's generally a very nice guy. But he always wants to steer the conversation towards where he wants it to go — back to his own problems and his own kind of sour view of things, right? He does this thing that a lot of people do — that I myself do — where I’m in a conversation, and if I'm not a good boy, I will just try to wait through the conversation until I get to the turn where I get to talk. So that’s one of the things my character does.
But I think if you really want to write well, you have to tune in very closely to what other people are saying. This character does that. Because he has to be always eliciting the next step of the conversation. If you start out with a set idea of what your character is going to talk about, you’re not going to get other characters to come further and further down the path. So the character has to do whatever it takes to engage with what’s happening. And it has a motive, it's not unmotivated. But as a writer, to make these things work, you have to tune into what are other people writing. Where do you think they're trying to go? When you understand that, then whatever you’re trying to do with your character has to start from there. It can’t go from where you thought you’d start.
I try to always try to have my characters stay in character. What makes a good Netprov is listening to what people are writing, and staying true to your character in a way that's consistent with the story. Then you can develop relationships between characters. If you’re writing with a group of people that you know — maybe we have a back channel of communication outside the Netprov. There's some trust there. When nobody knows each other at all, it's really hard for people to jump in with both feet because it's kind of daunting. You don't know what people are going to think, what they're going to say. Will you hurt somebody's feelings? Obviously, you are not trying to ruin anybody's real day. You’re trying to make somebody have a good laugh and smile and encourage them to write a bunch! Try to entice them into spending more creative time. Nurture the work that they gotta do.