R. Lyle Skains • Dissonant Fabulation: Online Narrative Defined by Subversion

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.


The participatory and interactive spaces of the Internet afford producer-users the opportunity to subvert online spaces whose genre conventions do not encompass fictional narrative. This is sometimes done for the purposes of social discourse and criticism and may take the form of satirical personal narratives. Recognition of these texts as a mode of written communication allows for recognition and evaluation of the social discourse that occurs in either unexpected spaces (such as e-commerce), or through unexpected means (such as fictional characters on social media). The juxtaposition of these fictions in non-fictional spaces creates a socio-cognitive dissonance that can lead to further digital intertextual discourse.

This post looks at two examples of this juxtaposition, or dissonant fabulation (Skains 2018):  Amazon’s BIC for Her pen reviews, and the Target “Customer Service” troll. These texts build upon artistic traditions of parody and satire in creating either fictional representations of real people or narrating stylistically exaggerated fictional events.

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Dissonant fabulations are defined as fictional narratives emerging in online spaces where generic conventions construct expectations of realism. They contribute to the social activist tradition of “culture jamming”, the practice of using media hoaxes, corporate sabotage, billboard liberation, and trademark infringement to create parodies of corporate marketing rhetoric (Harold 2004). Unlike activist “pranks”, dissonant fabulations are often created initially for the sole purpose of entertainment rather than activism or social discourse. Of course, even texts written solely for laughs can generate social discourse; whether or not the original intent was to contribute to social discourse, dissonant fabulations nonetheless participate in and inspire it.

In order for the message of any text to be communicated, it generally conforms, reproduces, or subverts its genre. The concept of dissonant fabulations draws from Berkenkotter and Huckin’s (1995) genre framework, primarily their notions of situatedness (in that communicators’ knowledge of their genre is derived from everyday immersion within it) and form and content (acknowledging that communicators know how the structures of the genre influence its efficacy), which is often used interchangeably with the term conventions. Situatedness creates expectations on behalf of the receiver; by subverting these expectations, the composer creates a cognitive dissonance in the reader leading to particular effects, such as humor and social commentary.

Anywhere online that commercial entities come into contact in official capacities with their clients or consumers can be defined as “e-commerce”, whether on the company’s own pages or on social media. It is uncommon for commercial spaces to be used for narrative or discursive purposes, though the participatory functions of Web 2.0 have blurred the boundaries between marketing rhetoric and consumer-generated comments.

Social media is predicated almost entirely upon the notion of shared personal experiences, which generally fall into the category of “natural narrative” (Fludernik 1996). These online social spaces establish conventions that seek to remediate face-to-face interactions, and thus carry with them certain expectations of veracity and authenticity. The use of fictional personas or narratives therefore presents subtle, sometimes undetectable, subversions.

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The 2012-2014 Amazon.com reviews of BIC Cristal for Her pens created a trend for Internet users playing with the conventions of product reviews. As of 3 August 2017, these products differentiated as “for her” by their pastel coloring, “elegant design—just for her!”, and “thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand”1 had garnered 2,162 customer reviews and 118 answered questions, most of which are satirical responses to the perceived innate sexism of the product. The reviews include variations on misogynistic themes of women as girlish, weak, math- and science-averse, subservient to men, overly body conscious, and even hysterical. The reviews were widely shared in both online and traditional media, and prompted similar feminist and satirical responses to other products online (see Ray 2016).

The genre conventions of Amazon.com’s Q&As and user reviews include the poster’s Amazon.com profile handle (often an actual name); annotation as to whether the review is based on a “Verified Purchase” (confirming the reviewer bought the item from Amazon) and whether the reviewer is ranked as a “Top Reviewer” (a status symbol denoting authority); use of the first-person autobiographical perspective detailing the reviewer’s experience with the item; and even reviewer-contributed photographs to support their written narrative. The purpose of these reviews is in sharing actual product-related experiences, not in entertainment or discourse.

The reviewers on the BIC Cristal for Her pens do not simply use Amazon.com’s reviewing environment to construct rants, direct protests or complaints, or even well-researched opinion pieces. Rather, the reviewers demonstrate a clear awareness of generic conventions for reviews even as they are subverting them: the reviews comply with the expectations of the genre in length, narrative perspective, and content, varying only in terms of tone and fictionality.

One top-ranked review waxes poetic about the pens: “I use it when I’m swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach, and doing yoga”2, referencing oft-parodied advertising for feminine products that portray menstruating women performing such activities. Another review reads, “I used one of these pens post-hysterectomy, and my uterus grew back. Thanks a lot, Bic”3; clearly this is a fictional narrative, yet it maintains the review genre conventions in its portrayal of a negative experience with the product.

A review by username gobananas bounces off the misogynistic notion that men are smarter than women: “finally, a pen that helps me do math and other difficult man-tasks! until BIC Cristal for Her, I couldn’t write anything down at all!”4, and an anonymous reviewer laments that they were “Disappointed to find that these pens did not actually cost $.72 of the $1.00 cost for man pens”5. These reviews – and hundreds of others like them – specifically draw on feminist satirical rhetoric to amplify the inherent sexism of this product needlessly marketed at women.

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Faux Facebook customer service accounts may convey similar messages through their activities. In the more nebulous online commercial spaces of the social media, such messages are usually supporting the company and mocking individual users. While Facebook is ostensibly a sharing platform, commercial entities commonly use its “pages” as sites of customer feedback and interaction, thus falling under the definition of e-commerce.

Facebook profiles and pages establish genre conventions that raise expectations of veracity in their content. Facebook requires users to use their “authentic name” and permits only “authorized representatives” to manage pages for companies, brands, or public figures. Facebook users cannot participate in any element of Facebook without linking their activities to their authentic identity.

On 7 August 2015, Target issued a press release stating that they would be phasing out gender-based signage in their stores wherever feasible. Customers responded on Target’s official Facebook page from both supportive and negative perspectives. The negative comments received humorous and sarcastic responses from a Facebook user named “Ask ForHelp”. Ask ForHelp was a fake Facebook account, and true to Facebook’s pledge to “authentic identities”, the account was quickly shut down.

Ask ForHelp’s replies complied with the conventions of customer service in terms of structure and reference. The profile name “Ask ForHelp”, while in retrospect clearly a hurried attempt to circumnavigate Facebook’s first-name last-name only profile standards, referenced a common customer service function of asking for help. The profile image matched the bullseye logo on Target’s Facebook page.  At a quick glance, the combination of the profile name and image strongly suggested affiliation with Target customer service.

The negative posts reflected similar themes: outrage at Target’s announcement, belief that gender differentiation in consumer goods is important, and a desire to cease shopping at Target. Dana Greer “can’t believe that [Target] have decided to pander to the ‘Politically Correct’ nonsense” and comments that their family “of both sexes, by the way … Boys and Girls… will shop elsewhere”. Ask ForHelp applauded Dana for their “bravery in admitting your family has both sexes. It’s customers like you who give us a sense of purpose.”

Almost every one of Ask ForHelp’s responses used the original poster’s first name, a common customer service tactic: “Jewel, we’re sorry that you feel that way…”; “Well, Deanna. We’re sorry to hear that…”; “Actually, Gary, you’re wrong…” The use of the first person plural further aligned Ask ForHelp with the “we” used by Target and its customer service in their messages.

It was Ask ForHelp’s compliance with both Facebook’s posting conventions and those of customer service, coupled with his subversion of them in the actual tone and content of the replies, that elevated his responses into satire. Facebook user “Lisa Marie” was “EXTREMELY OUTRAGED at [Target’s] stupidity for doing away with gender separation”, announcing “You lost my business@!!” [sic]; Ask ForHelp’s response implied that perhaps she just needed some sugar, and invited her down to purchase candy bars in store.

The author behind “Ask ForHelp” stated he did not intend to offer any particular social commentary with his activities; he simply thought it would be funny (Nudd 2015). Yet his Ask ForHelp persona only responded to those who reacted negatively to Target’s announcement; those supporting Target’s decision received no sarcastic responses from Ask ForHelp. Whether he intended his “trolling” as an act of social activism or not, his perspective led to a clear commentary denouncing those who opposed the company’s move toward gender-neutrality.

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Product reviews and social media feeds are ubiquitous. The situatedness in the common spaces of the Internet and the acknowledgment of their conventions and expectations allows the texts discussed here to achieve subversive and satirical effects. The producers and consumers of these texts must share an understanding of both the generic situation and the social issues being commented upon; the lack of awareness of gender stereotypes would render the satirical use of the Amazon reviews and faux Facebook profiles ineffectual.

The BIC Cristal for Her texts were all fashioned as if they were actual reviews from users who have purchased and used the product; it is their hyperbole that demarcates them as fiction and satire. Ask ForHelp adopts the placating rhetoric of customer service, while his tone and dressing-down of customers convey an opposition to their perspectives. Through compliance with the form of the genre and fabulation within the content, these writers create dissonance that inspires humour and ignites discourse.

These texts thus fit within a framework of a genre as a mode, and can be categorized together as dissonant fabulations. The distinction between dissonant fabulations and other fictional or deceptive texts lies in their purposeful subversion, and that subversion’s contribution to discourse.

In terms of narrative, the techniques used are not novel nor necessarily of a significant linguistic quality; nonetheless the situated playful subversion of non-fictional generic forms and the reach that these texts achieve in their communities identifies them as a form of discursive narrative fiction. The authors recombine familiar cultural resources in novel ways, using fabulation, humor, sarcasm, satire, hyperbole, and stylized exaggeration to make a statement about current socio-cultural issues.

This modal genre is not restricted to any one type of space, site, or platform, nor any one form of narrative. Rather, it is identified by its effects: subversion of its genre to call attention to and question the topics and spaces it engages. Given this functional quality, it is inevitable that these fabulations will continue to appear in the prolific spaces of the Web, communicating creatively through novelty, dissonance, and the subversion of expectations.


Notes:

[1] BIC, n.d., “BIC Cristal For Her Ball Pen, 1.0mm, Black, 16ct (MSLP16-Blk)”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/BIC-Cristal-1-0mm-Black-MSLP16-Blk/dp/B004F9QBE6 (accessed 16 June 2016).

[2] Hamilton, Tracy, 2012, “FINALLY!”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/review/R19XO9PS38WRWO (accessed 16 June 2016).

[3] TK, 2013, “Thanks a lot, Bic.”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/review/R33SE932117JNH (accessed 16 June 2016).

[4] gobananas, 2013, “easy enough for a woman to use!”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/RL36A91QV5BIT (accessed 7 Apr 2020).

[5] Anonymous, 2012, “One Star”, Amazon.com, available from: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R37F4Y7FZD345S (accessed 7 Apr 2020).


 

References:

Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T. N. 1995. Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/Culture/Power. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Fludernik, Monika. 1996. Towards a “Natural” Narratology, Routledge, London.

Harold, Christine. 2004. “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21 (3), pp. 189–211.

Nudd, Tim. 2015. “Man Poses as Target on Facebook, Trolls Haters of Its Gender-Neutral Move With Epic Replies”, AdWeek, 13th August available from: http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/man-poses-target-facebook-trolls-haters-its-gender-neutral-move-epic-replies-166364 (accessed 17 June 2016).

Ray, B. 2016. “Stylizing Genderlect Online for Social Action: A Corpus Analysis of ‘BIC Cristal for Her’ Reviews”, Written Communication, SAGE Publications 33 (1), pp. 42–67.

Skains, R. Lyle. 2018. Dissonant Fabulation: Subverting Online Genres to Effect Socio-Cognitive Dissonance. Textus 2018 (2), pp. 41-57.

Target. 2015. “What’s in Store: Moving Away from Gender-based Signs”, A Bullseye View, 7th August available from: https://corporate.target.com/article/2015/08/gender-based-signs-corporate (accessed 17 June 2016).


 

Skains Lyle (3) square.jpegLyle researches and teaches Creative Writing and Digital Media, exploring multimodal creativity, genre fiction, and writing and reading/playing transmedia narratives, and writing and publishing in the 21st century. Her research is largely practice-based, stemming from her work in creative writing (speculative fiction) and digital writing. She is the founder of Wonderbox Publishing, which publishes speculative fiction and digital fiction, aiming to explore innovations in digital and online publishing and creativity. Her digital fiction can be found at lyleskains.com; articles in Convergence, Digital Creativity, and Computers and Composition. Her book Digital Authorship: Publishing in an Attention Economy is now out with Cambridge UP, and she has two books forthcoming from Emerald and Bloomsbury.

 

 

 

 

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