Metadrama and Computer-Mediated Communication


This project seeks to enhance the pioneering work of Brenda Laurel. Her work draws on analogies between computers and theatre. She defines the criteria for good interface design through a reading of Aristotle's Poetics. Her analysis is focused upon the plotting of complete sessions with clearly demarcated beginnings and endings to the human-computer interaction. She sets a standard: software is to create mimetic experiences that mask means, i.e. the user is to forget the presence of the machine, is to achieve some form of seamless interaction. The mimetic experience is successful when the interaction follows the contours of a well-formed plot.

Laurel's model is particularly well-suited to situations involving a single human user and a single application. But how useful is Aristotle's unity of action for situations where user attention is allocated over several plots involving various combinations of multitasking and communication with other users? Since the advent of Laurel's ground breaking work in the mid 80s computer-mediated communication has become more widespread especially with the development of the World Wide Web and the commercialization of Internet service provision. A greater number of users, now, not only interact with the medium but also increasingly engage other interlocutors both on and off line. As users make decisions about which interactions to pursue and do so over a wider range of ongoing plots, a place needs to be made in our theorizing for non-mimetic moments. Modernist metadrama can provide a model.

Witness this transcription from a MUD (Multi-User Domain) session:

John says: Hello
Jack says: Hello
John waves.
Jack says: Waves.
Pat asks: Waves?
John exclaims: Surfs up!

On purpose or by accident, gesture restated as speech brings a twist. Consider how very complicated such self-reflexive interventions can become as the replies and responses of concurrent exchanges cross the screen often intercutting each other. A very modernist text is produced which is quite similar to the operas and plays of Gertrude Stein. In both the non-mimetic modernist drama and the multi-user environments of computer-mediated communication instructions become moves in a game. As well, instructions about the giving of instructions enter into the game. In a metamoment, attention is called to the act of construction.

Aristotle's unities of time, place and action may seem unconnected to such games and theatres. However, it can be argued that their violation provides the ground for what Jerome Bruner calls "going meta", discussion about discussions, stories about stories, but also for Bruner, any entry into storytelling mode in order to make sense of a situation. Metamoments uncover the possibilites for negotiation and co-construction. It remains to be seen if every metamoment depends upon transgression.


Identify the triggers and sustainers of metamoments (discussions about discussions and self-reflexive interventions) in online exchanges.

Part I

Review the literature on MUDs and MOOs in recreational and educational settings. The purpose of the review is to catalogue anecdotes that report any level of "going meta".

Part II

Online observations of MUD participants and informants. This phase will be conducted with the aid of research assistants. The purpose of logging these observations is twofold. First: to supplement the catalogue developed from the Phase I review. Second: to gather a corpus of examples.

Part III

Publication online of catalogue of strategies used by MUD participants to induce and sustain metamoments. Invite and moderate an online evaluation of identified strategies.


Bowers, Jane Palatini. "They watch me as they watch this" : Gertrude Stein's metadrama. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Bruner, Jerome. Acts of meaning. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Laurel, Brenda. Computers as theatre. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1991.

copyright © François Lachance 1998
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