Narbs and the Future of Narrative

By Beth Ann Williams (’11) and Carrie Stokes (’12)

In September 2011, Wordspy, a Web-based vocabulary service identified “narb” as the word of the day.  On December 13 of that year, Ben Zimmer wrote in the Visual Thesaurus that “narb” was one of the important new words of 2011.  “Narb” is an abbreviation for “narrative bits,” a concept invented by Wake Forest Professor of Communication Ananda Mitra.

Mitra’s work in the realm of social media use and his theory of narbs are at the forefront of the increasingly relevant discourses surrounding the use of online data, access to personal information posted on the internet and representations of self as they are presented online.  His research shows that the collection of various pieces of a person’s online life can provide important insights into who they are, what they believe and how they behave.  By mining the “narrative bits” an individual posts online, Mitra can construct individual profiles of media users.

A narb can be almost anything, from a Facebook post to a picture to a link. The viability of Mitra’s narb mining strategy comes from the sheer volume of data people share.  The constant barrage of pictures, posts and links results in a very rich data field, perfect fodder for discerning patterns and performing analysis.

Despite the recent explosion in technology and internet communications, there have been relatively few scholarly explorations into the role of online narratives.  Mitra hopes to address this gap with his research.  Throughout AY 2012-2013 Mitra will conduct a pilot project, with support from the Humanities Institute and ORSP, to examine the so-called Arab Spring.  Mitra will scrape or mine textual narbs from a number of blogs recounting the uprising in the Middle East and use the accumulated data to construct narratives of the events from the bloggers’ perspectives.  While the Arab Spring was extensively documented in the news media, he anticipates that the voices of these individual bloggers will present a valuable counter-narrative to mainstream and institutional perspectives on the uprisings.

In addition to its narrative and counter-narrative possibilities, Mitra’s research raises important ethical questions.  With more people posting on social media sites and “narbbing” daily, the work Mitra is pursuing in the online realm is truly on the cutting edge of what will likely be one of the largest ethical debates of this generation.

One of many controversies gaining recent media attention is the subpoena handed to the social media site Twitter by a Manhattan Criminal Court Judge demanding the site turn over the tweets of an arrested Occupy protestor, Malcom Harris, for the prosecution to use in his trial.  While Twitter’s Terms agreement states that individuals who tweet are the “owners” of their personally-generated content, the material is published on a public platform, and there is currently no protocol for access and use by other parties.

Findings from Mitra’s research on this issue will be detailed in his upcoming book; Manage Your Narbs.  In addition to offering insight into the formation of identity and workings of the human mind through narrative maps on the internet, Mitra also hopes to present an option for standardized protocols in narb harvesting and analysis.

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