Thanks to Twitter, Kathryn Yu just earned an A. She’s currently finishing an interactive media MFA at the University of Southern California, and the professor of her Advanced Storytelling for Interactive Media class, Maureen McHugh, made a promise: If any student could create an interactive narrative on social media and get 500 followers, they’d ace the course. Yu put up @MetaverseNoir last Saturday. As of this writing, its follower count is up to 523.
That may not seem like much, but getting the attention of 500 people on the internet is no easy task for a grad student/non-celeb/non-influencer. In fact, no other student in McHugh’s class has ever done it before. It’s a study in virality, and what it takes to achieve virality at a time when the Quirky Internet (a title I just made up) is giving way to the Serious Internet (That Is Also Full of Petty Fighting and Misinformation).
There’s a reason @MetaverseNoir got the eyeballs it did: It’s good. The gist is simple. You click on the first tweet—labeled “START HERE”—and immediately begin reading a thread from the POV of a semi-washed-up detective trying to solve a murder in the metaverse. There are digital brothels and jazz clubs, sex worker avatars, a mafia known as the 16-Bit Family. (The feed’s handle isn’t kidding about the metaverse part, or the noir.) To find out what happens, you simply read each thread until the end and then pick which thread you want to jump to next, just like the Choose Your Own Adventure books of old. Fun!
WIRED emailed Yu to ask about the stroke of genius that led to her A-worthy project.
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WIRED: So, what’s the backstory on @MetaverseNoir?
Kathryn Yu: In Professor McHugh’s course we tackle creating stories in a variety of mediums, including virtual reality, tabletop role-playing games, social media, and more. A lot of the focus is on tying together interactivity and narrative, as well as interactivity’s effect on narrative and character. Interactivity can, in the words of Professor McHugh, “work on narrative like acid on metal.”
So what was the assignment that led you to tell a noir story in a Twitter thread?
The assignment was to create an interactive narrative that lives on a social media platform and post it within the span of a week. We were asked to consider the affordances of each particular platform as well as the demographics and how difficult it is to “go viral.” How do you hook the audience in the very first post? What’s your call to action? Can you leverage an existing online community? What’s your “high concept”? How does the mechanic work with or against the story?
Did everyone use Twitter?
Some of my classmates are creating comics, TikTok videos, or Instagram posts. Several students are also using Twitter but unfolding their narratives in real time based upon audience engagement (like using polls and monitoring replies). It’s been a blast to watch.
What was the inspiration for the story itself? Why do a metaverse noir?
A lot of times when we’re talking about virtual worlds, we tend to visualize a cartoony or cyberpunk aesthetic. I wanted to do something that was more unexpected and the opposite of that, while also giving the audience a compelling reason to be reading. One of the things we discuss in class is allowing the players to feel like they can “touch the story,” and a murder mystery framing seemed perfect for that.
What are the challenges of telling that kind of story on Twitter?
There isn’t a lot of space for nuance in 280 characters. So Professor McHugh’s advice was to make sure that each individual tweet felt like it could be interesting on its own or provide enough intrigue that someone might feel compelled to explore further. I knew that I could use existing film and TV archetypes and tropes to help scaffold the world I wanted to build and let the player fill in the gaps. I’m a huge fan of shows like Law & Order, and I immediately zeroed in on a character finding a “dead avatar” as a way to hook someone in as quickly as possible. That’s usually what happens in the first five minutes of a crime procedural.
Your past work has focused on VR/AR. Was doing a Twitter thread a bit of a departure?
Part of the approach to the course is making sure that students can learn to adapt to future formats and platforms. We don’t know what the next gaming console or social media platform is going to look like, so we’d better be prepared to tackle anything.
What do you think of all the metaverse buzz—particularly the stuff coming out of Facebook—right now?
I'm impressed by the amount of resources that Facebook wants to put into “metaverse projects,” as well as their stance on cross-compatibility—ensuring that users can have access via mobile devices or PCs or the web.
But as smarter folks than I have pointed out, Ready Player One and Snow Crash are pretty terrible dystopian futures; I wouldn’t want to actually live in any of those worlds. Heck, I’m not even sure I’d want to live in the world I made up. Fiction isn’t meant to be an instructional manual, after all. And I would hate for the metaverse—whatever that ends up being—to be controlled by a single company.
Related to that, was it a conscious choice to tell a metaverse story in a non-metaverse place like Twitter?
It’s a little bit ironic, isn’t it? I have found that the AR and VR community is very active on Twitter, despite it being a mostly text platform. The types of folks who are active in metaverse and AR/VR discussions on Twitter were a key part of my target audience for this assignment.
So are you literally going to get an A now that you’ve hit 500 followers?
This is literally true! Professor McHugh says that in all her time teaching this course, no one has ever met that threshold. Plus, this is likely to be the last time she’s teaching the class, so I figured I’d go for broke.