A Conversation with Rob Wittig, author of Netprov
ACP interns Liz Tran ('23) and Priscilla Lee ('25) sit down with ACP author Rob Wittig
This conversation was conducted over Zoom on February 3, 2022 between ACP interns and Rob Wittig, author of Netprov: Networked Improvised Literature for the Classroom and Beyond. The video and transcript have been shortened and edited for clarity.
ACP: Could you explain netprov in the simplest way possible for anyone who’s never heard of it?
RW: Netprov is networked improved literature that happens in available media, electronic media. One of my favorite examples was when one of the NASA probes landed on the surface of Mars. All of a sudden there was a Twitter account called The Surface of Mars. The first post was something like, “What the heck just happened?” And it began narrating what it was like to have a Nasa vehicle on its surface.
Whoa! What the hell just happened?— The Surface of Mars (@surfaceofmars) August 6, 2012
The ‘prov’ in netprov is improv, stage improv, which is the wonderful practice coming out of Chicago and spreading around the world of doing improvised theater games that became an art form in itself. Our idea about netprov is that these wonderful, creative games that people play all the time anyway are actually the seeds of literature. If you know about the history of literature, you realize that the contemporary forms of poetry started with free play and experimentation. The form that we call the novel started very shakily with experimenting, getting up and running, and false starts. We know these established literary forms in their maturity, so all the rough edges have been filed off and it’s all running smoothly. But the fun thing for me is—I’ve always been interested in the origins of art forms and literary forms, and just how tentative and experimental [they are]. People are just trying things, and then, for their own amusement and because it pleases them, they start to do them—often with groups of friends—and share them. Then they later blossom into fully-formed art forms.
The question we ask about neprov is: how good can it get? Again, it’s not something that I invented. It's something that I observed and saw the outlines of; there are certain ways that people are being creative on social media. My question is: how good can it get? Let’s take this form and see if we can make it really good.
Some of the earlier netprovs that I did—along with people we call the featured players—had the result of… At the end people would say, “Oh, when it ended I was crying!” And it sounds mean, but that’s a victory in literature, if you can hook people [in that way]. Very often the netprovs I’ve done start as comedies and then get deep. You want to get people relaxed and playful, then they start making their own characters, then their relationship with their character gets deeper, and then all of a sudden… There’s a real sweet nostalgia at the end of netprovs.
ACP: My next question is: On the spectrum (I suppose) from playful experimentation to established literary genre, where do you see netprov being right now?
RW: I think netprov as an art form is still in its early days, although there are projects that have had real dimension and real shape. The next stage I would wish for in the development of netprov is where people have done two or three or four of them and start to become self-aware. Like, “Here’s things that work when you’re playing creative games, creating fiction together in social media. Here’s things that are less successful.” I’ve seen it happen with a lot of people, where they all of a sudden become—and not in a scholarly way—they just start to think, “I want to get good at this. I’ve had some successes. I want to get better at it.” As more and more people turn that corner and start to be aware of their own creativity, and of creative writing as a skill that they want to hone—particularly if they don’t think of themselves primarily as writers—that’s what’s going to help netprov get to the next level.
ACP: In your last chapter you talk a little bit about your dream of a netprov studio. Could you explain a little more about that?
RW: Yes, my dream about a netprov studio: I would love to have a place with just enough funding to have a very small group of paid folks. And every calendar month, there would be a new netprov project that gets announced to the world, kind of Wordle-style, like “Here’s a game to play for a month. Here are the basic rules to the game, some guiding principles. Have fun with your friends and see what you can create.” And I think, based on our prototypes, a decade of wonderful fun, of prototype projects…I think there’s a ton of fun to be had, and a ton of creativity to happen.
ACP: My next question is about netprov and platforms. You talk about how the web doesn't save anything, but also that platforms and the look of them is integral to the feel of a netprov. How do you negotiate between that?
RW: I have a twin background in graphic design and literature, so I love writing and the actual, physical, materiality of writing. What the platform does with words, how the platform allows people to interact—those are all really important factors, and they give a character to projects.
One of our stalwart netprov projects is a thing that we have done several times called#1wknotech. It happens on Twitter, and you put the abbreviated hashtag #1wknotech and pretend to go without technology for a week, and then you just tweet the hell out of it. “Here I am getting away from it all in the woods.” “Oh, I miss my phone.” And as soon as people see one or two of those posts, they kind of get the joke and catch on. So Twitter is perfect for that.
Another netprov, Destination Wedding 2070, which is secretly a meditation on climate change, asks people to tell the story—through various people’s diaries—of a destination wedding that happens in 2070. So for that the platform of Reddit is perfect, because you need a little bit more quiet. You don’t want to be coexisting [with other content] like on Twitter and Instagram, in the mix of other things. You want your own separate area, and you want to be able to develop your characters and stories throughout the hilarious and disastrous events of the wedding.
The point of Destination Wedding 2070 is that Grandma has paid for everybody to be there; she left it in her will [for the wedding] to be in this beautiful place that’s now underwater or inhabitable because of climate change. And so people are struggling both with the usual interpersonal dynamics of a big wedding and with climate change.
ACP: Could you explain more about archives? Once [a netprov] becomes an archive, is it like a recorded live performance, or how do you see that?
RW: One of the most interesting things about netprov is that it draws from different fields. It draws from theater in the improv sense; it draws from literary tradition, obviously; it also draws from popular culture like movies, TV; it draws from things that are on the internet; and it draws a lot from games and what people do in games, especially storytelling games like Dungeons & Dragons.
The archiving part is really important to people from the writing tradition. From the theater tradition, on the other hand, it’s a big no-no to even record a live performance. It’s considered to be totally ephemeral—you had to be there to experience it, and now it’s done. Netprovs have a bit of that too.
We have to be conscious of archiving. The practical answer is that we just make our own archives, because we can’t count on the platforms that we use to keep one. So we just try to keep our own copy. With a team of graphic designers, there are beautiful ways of designing an archive of Twitter posts, or an archive of Instagram posts, in a recorded form that gives some sense of how it unfolded over time—but it’s difficult.
ACP: To bring it from just talking about netprov to netprov in the classroom, I wanted to ask: What are your favorite parts of teaching it, and how do you find students respond to it when it’s their first interaction with netprov?
RW: Students love netprov, and they love it right away.
The first things that I usually do in a class are things that come out of the social media world, so they're like social media posts. It makes this connection that people sometimes don’t make between all the writing that they do with their friends every day, and then literary writing over here, which can be a little constrained and feel a little formal and feel like it’s rule-bound. And I think, over history, the writers who feel the least rule-bound are often the ones that we love the most—who can find that space of relaxation, creativity, playfulness… And then, yeah of course, you edit later; you make sure that it’s in its best shape for the final presentation. But so much comes out of that flow of just being relaxed and writing.
ACP: Just two more questions about the book—the first one is: How did you develop or create the Q&A, conversational style of the book?
RW: So yeah, the book has a very netprov-y thing… The subheads—the classic academic subheadings—start to take on their own personality. For me that’s just an example of this thing that so many people do, where when you’re writing… Writing is kind of magic, you know? It’s words left behind by somebody, and you can still hear their voice or communicate with them [through it]. It’s very powerful.
In drafting the book, I found myself getting too serious. The subheads literally just came alive as a character and started teasing me, or reprimanding me. And I went, “Okay, that’s a perfect example of netprov!” For a standard academic book, I would edit that out—“Oh you can’t do that.” But this book is about netprov. This book is about doing new things that you’re “not supposed to do” or that aren't “traditionally done in writing,” and finding new ways of creative writing, of writing fiction. And when I say fiction—we do deal with stories. But there’s a nice blend between the pigeon holes of poetry and fiction. As one of my mentors, Philip Wohlstetter ofInvisible Seattlewould say, “Who declared that all we have to play with is the holy trinity of poems, short stories, novels?” Back in the 18th century, there were millions of forms, and there are always new forms of literature—if you could just recognize them—that are happening in the margins of the mainstream forms. That’s where new forms come from, that’s where new literature comes from.
ACP: This last question is just about how the project came into being, and also: why did you want it to be published open access?
RW: I love that the netprov book is open access, because netprov is fundamentally collaborative. I consider myself to be a curator, a collector, a fan, a lover of netprov. I do my best in my own netprovs, but I just love all these projects—whether they call themselves netprov or not. And even on the projects that I've helped facilitate, there are a lot of participants—people we never know who they are. So open access is perfect for that because it’s not… I can’t really claim it, it’s not my idea. I’m not sort of the old-style, you know, 19th century… author… brand name… where everything is original (even though it’s not, it never is). But it’s really a collaborative thing, so I just consider myself a steward, a caretaker, a lover, a fan of netprov, who just wants to share. So open access is perfect. To me, the more people playing netprov, the better.