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Seeing SCP as a Narrative Protocol
Also: The Unreasonable Creator, AIs Impact on Freelancing, and Scavenger's Reign
This week I was fortunate to do a guest talk with the Protocol Town Hall series.
In it, I detailed my thoughts on why the collaborative creative fiction project, “Secure. Contain. Protect” thrives. I tried to distill it down to seeing it with a protocol lens and then trying to take away some advice from its success. Thought it would be meaningful to distill this down into a post for this weekly newsletter.
“Secure. Contain. Protect.” (SCP) is a wiki that details a fictional Foundation’s attempt at containing and documenting anomalies in our real world. Most of the content takes the form of wiki pages that describe containment procedures, class, and descriptions of fictional anomalies. Since its origin in 2007/2008, its gone on to make a big impact in the horror/paranormal space and is a definitive example of a successful media franchise that uses open IP & creative collaboration. From its kernel of wiki pages, people have gone on to create successful video games, films, books, and many YouTube videos from it.
At minimum, each SCP wiki page contains a number, containment procedures, a class (such as Safe, Euclid, or Keter), and a description. Here’s some examples:
SCP-173. The first one. A line of sight concrete monster.
SCP-055. The Anti-Meme.
SCP-087. The Infinite Basement Staircase.
SCP-3008. The Alternate Reality Massive IKEA (probably my favourite).
There has been many offshoots and derivatives. People enjoy writing longer-form stories basing it off of an SCP.
A popular book is from qntm (Sam Hughes), called: There Is No Anti-Memetics Division. Based on the anti-meme SCP (also written by qntm).
Then you have games, one popular one being SCP: Containment Breach which led a lot of YouTubers to play it.
There’s a ton of YouTube content, some even just videos detailing various SCPs.
And then, people even made short films. This one is based off SCP-96.
SCP as Protocol
Anyone can write an SCP as long as it receives and keeps more than -10 votes from the community. All the IP is CC-BY-SA 3.0, which means that you can use it however you wish, even commercially. And derivatives need to also share the same license.
There is no canon, but there are many canons. Reports can and do link to each other, forming a canon of its own. In some cases, there are reports from different “Groups of Interest” on the same anomaly and not just from the perspective of the Foundation. For example, the “Serpent’s Hand” advocates that some non-destructive SCPs should not be locked up and contained.
In the background, the wiki is entirely run by a volunteer staff that has teams that deal with things like Licensing issues, Discipline, Anti-Harassment, Critique, etc. It’s hosted on WikiDot (wiki-as-a-service platform), with WikiDot also displaying ads on the wiki.
Why It Works
The true cornerstone of its success comes from the marriage of its medium (the wiki), its theme (paranormal reports) and open IP (creative commons). The wiki is an established medium which in turns reduces the confusion on how to contribute. The primary method is through editing a wiki page and the scale of such contribution can on the lower end potentially take a day to write.
What’s often difficult in collaborative creative works is that contributors doing the work must find inspiration. A passive theme helps a lot. It’s always “on”. We did not just grow up as kids fearing the dark or being attracted or repulsed by horror/paranormal, but even as adults we might see snippets of things in the every day that re-triggers our association with SCP. For example, you ride in the subway and the power suddenly cycles. What if it’s an SCP that did it? It’s a creature that steals electricity from underground and sometimes it makes a mistake, tripping its own circuit breaker? Or, see a strange cloud? What if the cloud itself is anomaly? This is in contrast to an active theme where the expectation on contributors is to actively escape to the fictional world in order to think about what to write about (eg, high fantasy, because we don’t really think about or see orcs and elves in the day to day).
There is also a well defined center to where contributors and readers can participate. A wiki, once established takes on a strong memetic center that serves as a foundation to build on top of.
Finally, it doesn’t focus too heavily on curation. It’s a fine line in general, but the goal is only to avoid poor quality contributions and that’s it. There’s no canonisation process or top-down direction. Curation is useful, but too much of it and causes too much friction for contributors.
Designing a Narrative Protocol
In SCPs success, it can give clues as to how to design collaborative narrative protocols for success.
Open IP. Your highest chance of success is if it isn’t bogged down by restrictive licensing.
Clear Medium. The primary mode of contributions need to be clear and ideally static. Mixed-medium contributions are ideally served as derivatives, not the primary contributions.
*Some* Center. Too decentralized and it doesn’t stick together.
Scale of Contributions: Ensure that a contribution can scale based on interest. It could be that the medium slightly differs, but a wiki page can take a few hours to several weeks to do, depending on the goal.
Passive Theme: Inspiration can come from anywhere and it feeds into the meme of the projects.
Thin curation: Probably the least certain about this one. In this context, yes, it helps. But, a process of curation and canon can be meaningful if the ritual of canonisation plays into the theme. eg, a yearly event where contributors get together and socialise to define canon.
Narrative Protocols Elsewhere
Last month I wrote up on what eventually happens to mega IP. Inspired by a post from VGR on Oozification, I detailed how IP franchises eventually protocolises itself in order to tell more stories. The world becomes more rigid and containerised.
SCP, in turn, started very close to a protocol by revolving itself around the immutable container of a wiki page (and report).
Questions on Funding and Incentives
SCP, like most wikis, works from predominantly altruistic contributors. Any creative fiction projects gets altered when you add financial incentives into it. It can derail it by crowding out non-market incentives and creating too much overhead. I think many NFT projects that tried to bolster their project and community through unique economic experiments ran into this problem: once the financial tide recedes, there’s much less left and stagnation sets in.
That being said, I don’t think narrative protocols like SCP is the final version of how it interfaces with financial incentives. For example, does it seem fair that the writers get nothing if a YouTuber just makes a video of the SCP and monetizes it? Maybe, but perhaps there are ways still to improve how it all fits together.
If you study collaborative creative fiction, SCP is such a wonderful and great example to learn from! It really leans into using its medium well and thrives on a passive theme and open IP.
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To Be Unreasonable in Creating
One of my continued gut feelings of how AI in general might impact art and culture, is that it will push people to want to experience more human, more unreasonable, more connected, more human, more local, more touch grass culture.
If you can’t go offline and physical, then you have to become unreasonable in the culture you create. This sentiment resonated again with me this week when I read‘s piece on Moby Dick and its whale facts in the middle of the book.
And why shouldn’t we mix it up? Why shouldn’t writers follow their obsessions and interests and strange ideas? The result is almost always going to be more memorable than an unthinking devotion to plot beats and character arcs.
As common as it is to say that anything that doesn’t move the plot forward is “unnecessary” or “getting in the way,” the argument is silly. What book could even last 10 pages if all description, interiority, digression, atmosphere, and other literary pleasures were stripped away to leave us only with “necessary” plot beats? Just read a Wikipedia plot summary if that’s what you’re after.
In turn, in his piece on the unnecessary in art.
Yet I would like to humbly suggest this thinking is entirely wrong. The unnecessary is most necessary part of art. Art is exactly the place to let your eye linger on what fascinates it. Art isn’t an SEO optimized app or a rubric for overworked teachers to grade five-paragraph essays. Art is exactly the space—perhaps the last space left—where we can indulge, explore, and expand ourselves. If we can’t be weird, extraneous, over-the-top, discursive, and hedonistic in our art, where can we be?
To become so unapologetically unique in your creative works that you bend the world (and AI) towards you. In a sense, it’s a feeling of wanting to carve out a sense of control in a world of impending deepfakes, content mills, and culture in 2023. I can’t compete against a mega-corp in producing mass market media. But a mega-corp can’t compete with what makes my unique perspective interesting.
In being unreasonable in your creations you do trade-off distribution. If this newsletter was 5 separate newsletters then maybe it would be read by more people, but then I’d have to feed that demon that creates to be read, not to create to find meaning. This trade-off unfortunately only really makes sense if you are able to be unreasonable over a long enough time.
What’s your thoughts on this?
AI Impacting Freelance Writing
While this was to be expected in some sense, a further study from the thread is the more interesting part. Management consultants were split into being allowed to use ChatGPT or not and their productivity was assessed.
Productivity shot up. And not only did AI-assisted consultants carry out tasks 25 per cent faster and complete 12 per cent more tasks overall, their work was assessed to be 40 per cent higher in quality than their unassisted peers.
The productivity gains was most pronounced with lower skilled workers. To me, it confirms a belief I have where automation tech doesn’t lead to less work and more leisure, but rather just that productivity increases. Each worker is expected to be able to do more. Or, in another domain, aswrites: each fan will be able to enjoy more of what the AI understands.
This might seem paradoxical to previous points I’ve made: that AI Art will result in big media becoming even bigger. As we’ve seen with variations of Harry Potter and Wes Andersonification, it’s because people have a shared past of engaging with this media. And the result of what they create/remix is niche to their cohort. Fan fiction is this already. It’s just more fan fiction of everything, putting themselves (emotionally and actually, sometimes, physically) into it.
In all honestly, it’s hard to serve moral judgement of these impacts. One the one hand, allowing instant up-skilling of lower skilled workers is amazing. But, we’re all ultimately going to have to compete more in the market. The latter is probably a large unspoken fear of people who spent years and decades skilling themselves up in a specific niche. More people would perhaps be more willing to accept this up-skilling and competition if our livelihoods didn’t depend on it. In general, it’s why I’m glad that unions in the US has had a good year: winning amazing contracts for their workers against a growing lopsided market.
I watched Scavenger’s Reign this week. A really, really magical animated sci-fi show about survivors on an alien planet. There’s so many odd and wonderful moments.
It really reminded me of Raised By Wolves. I love sci-fi that explores our own biology through a novel alien environment. In a strange twist, it made me more attuned to the nature we have here on our planet: the strange, the mundane, and the wonderful. We just have to tune in and pay attention to see the wonder that exists.
Weekly Zora Mint
This photo immediately caught my eye. Yes, it was the sunset energy from it, but I hadn’t realised this multi exposure photography. An art form I’m not familiar with at all. Really enjoy it. :)
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Plini - Ember
It’s Plini season again as he launches new songs for a new EP (coming soon). Loving this track a lot!
Have a good sunset.