Julia Grove

CAP Presentation: Jill Walker’s “How I was Played by Online Caroline”

In this essay, Walker teases out the larger implications of what she describes as a “24-part online drama,” Online Caroline (302). In this program a user interacts with the protagonist, Caroline, as her story unfolds and shares information with her not only deliberately through direct question forms, but also unintentionally simply by how the user navigates the site. In return, Caroline sends the user daily emails and provides access to a new webcam episode each day. The goal of this kind of seemingly personalized interaction on Caroline’s part is to get the user to see her as a real, responsive friend. Walker cleverly created two different personas to test just how personalized Caroline’s messages were, however, and discovered that she runs on basically the same script with only minor alterations that have no affect on the larger story.

The basic plot of this drama centers around Caroline’s questionable relationship with her boyfriend, David. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that David has been using Caroline as an experimental test subject for his employers, XPT. In fact, all of the people in Caroline’s life, which is admittedly a small number, turn out to be employed by the sinister XPT—including, by association, the user. Walker notes her own sense of complicity in Caroline’s captivity, stating simply “If I hadn’t read, she'd have lived. Reading, in Online Caroline, is being an accomplice to murder” (308). For a narrative that deliberately encourages the user to form a friendship with the protagonist, this is obviously a troubling result.

The question is, however, exactly how much agency does the user actually have. Walker herself points out that “[t]here is no space for me to act on my own initiative in Online Caroline. I can only speak when spoken to and the allowed responses are few. My function is merely to allow the heroine to speak” (304). The story unfolds basically the same way, no matter what the user’s input is, yet the user still feels a responsibility for Caroline’s assumed demise.

I was really interested in Walker’s description of how Caroline tracks the user’s browsing and how “deliberate responses are presented as having less influence on the plot than the movements that [she] had thought were unseen” (307). Anyone who has browsed online has probably noticed that advertisers do the same thing (suddenly that waffle iron you looked at on Williams-Sonoma appears in a Facebook sidebar). Walker also notes this use of tracking, but points out that it’s rarely used in narrative form. This got me to thinking about all the information we deliberately and unintentionally give away with our web habits, browsing, and searching. Paired with the psychological component of ELIZA, I simply wondered how far this could be taken. Not to sound like one of the technophobes Weizenbaum discusses, but I’m curious if someone could eventually be diagnosed by how and what they browse or if a story could be created that, rather than following the same basic script for each user (like Caroline or Galatea) adapts to users to form their perfect stories. And if so, would such a story be literature or just a very smart database?

For Discussion
Walker draws a comparison to the work Emanuel Vigeland’s mausoleum in that he “designed the space to direct visitors’ movements” (307). How have our movements in other pieces been regulated or guided by design? What effect, if any, do you think this has on a user’s sense of agency? Does this type of design add to or detract from a piece’s ‘literariness’?

Walker felt guilty for participating in Caroline’s captivity because she viewed her almost as a friend, and she believed that Caroline would have lived if she hadn’t read the serial. Couldn’t the same thing be said of any novel or short story where the well liked protagonist meets a nasty end? Why does Online Caroline or any other narrative digital lit piece feel different? How do you think this accomplished?

The essay ends with with the statements “You don’t play a simulation. It plays you.” What do you think Walker means by this? What merit do you think such an experience such as this has?

Walker, Jill. “How I was Played by Online Caroline.First Person: New Meda as Story, Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Print.