SSNA on collaborative improvisation project outline

Using theater as ethnography blurs the line between what is and what could be; in others words, between what is and what ought to be.
Barbara Dennis


Induce a semantic social network from a collective improvisational writing process. A group of 10-20 people will engage in a month-long online collective writing process where each act in a character of their choosing, similar to live role playing or improvisation theatre. No specific background or theme is provided, but the story emerges from the collective effort of their characters. A second group of people acts collaboratively in the role of ethnographer, continuously analysing the produced content to distinguish emerging patterns as codes.


SSNA has so far not been made on an autotelic or non-instrumental social network, i.e. a conversation or group without a specific purpose tied to real life issues. We believe it would be interesting to see what concepts and conceptual maps emerge from a non-instrumental process. There is several reasons we think this research might be interesting:

SSNA as an artform

The resulting SSNA becomes an artwork in itself, as an abstracted concept map of an improvised process. We believe there is potential to exhibit this project as a freestanding artwork, explaining the process and telling the story.

How do we display this artwork? A book? Website?

Mapping collective narrative evolution

Understand the evolution of narratives in collective processes. Could potentially be relevant research for other collective creative processes such as participatory events.

SSNA and performance ethnography

Improvisation theatre has been used as a tool for ethnography in the past, and ‘performance ethnography’ seem to be somewhat of a discipline in itself. Norman Denzin has written extensively on the topic and an example of it being used is Dara Culhane’s use of improv in her “Stories and Plays” project. SSNA is itself a form of experimental ethnography so it makes sense to test combining it with other forms.

Improvisation is also in itself a basis for all culture making. In intentional ways as in example Theatre of the Oppressed (which has been used extensively in ethnographic research, for example Barbara Dennis Unityville project) or the use of improvised poetry as political discourse in Yemeni tribes, but also in every act of procreating and manifesting any culture. “We are all expert improvisers of the quotidian,” as Bourdieu would have it.

Testing the limits of ethnographic coding

A sort of stress-test of the SSNA process in itself, by using it on an autotelic / non-instrumental process the functioning of the coding process becomes more apparent. E.g. in a community conversation about say water management the coding of keywords might be somewhat apparent. Specific techniques, regulations and tools gets codified into keywords. However, there might be certain qualities in the way things are said, formulated and presented that gets lost in the focus on the specifics of the topic - water management. This risks loosing the vital information about how this community works, their flavour or vibe so to say.

In this experiment the codes will not be limited to specific objects, but extended to also include vaguer concepts such as vibes, writing styles, and more broader general themes. Examples: “gloomy” - includes pieces of content that fits this specific vibe, “linguistically playful” - includes pieces of content that plays with the language itself, “polemic” - includes pieces of content that goes into polemic against other pieces of content.

Letting the SSNA influence the improvsation process

Lather (1991) developed the phrase catalytic validity to refer to research projects whose
validity rests, in part, on the effects they inspire for those involved in the study.


We have a number of different ideas around the processes, listed here. Nothing set in stone of course.

Character - a contributor of content to the story.

A group of people willing to commit a portion of their time during one month.

How do we select these people? They need to be both good writers and comfortable improvisers. Actors, writers, etc.
Is there a need for a vetting process? (Regarding the artwork-potential of the project a vetting process might be necessary to ensure some sort of quality.)

Story - Writing process
Story - the full selection of content produced by the characters.

The writing occur on a forum, most probably a sectioned off branch of Edgeryders. The writing occur continuously, and every participant is encouraged to engage with and produce content as often as they like.

The content might be posts or comments to post (is there other types of content?). The content need to be of a minimum size to be codeable, so dialogue-style interaction is discouraged. There ought probably also be a maximum size and volume of each writer to not risk creating unanalysable amounts of data.

The only rule is yes-and which means that each contributor must assume previous contributions as true and valid. This is a common tool within improvisation theatre to keep the creative energy flowing whatever direction it takes, reducing the risk of creative stalling and competing ideas.

This is not a pass-the-paragrah game since each contributer acts as a character, and the story is continuously unfolding without specific turns.

Analysers - Ethnographers
Analysers - the group of people acting as the ethnographer doing the coding

A group of committed people that are willing to put in time to analyse and code the resulting text. This group will work collectively as one ethnographer, using a group chat to collectively decide coding.

This ethnographer can potentially also act as a character in the story, presenting their result at specific moments, thus also influencing the direction the story is taking and introducing a level of catalytic validity (A phrase developed by social theorist Patti Lather to refer to research projects whose validity rests, in part, on the effects they inspire for those involved in the study.)

This group will be trained in ethnographical coding techniques, training payed for by Participio (see project plan.)

Analysis process
Coding of the content

In this experiment the codes will not be limited to the specific objects, but extended to also include vaguer concepts such as vibes, writing styles, and more broader general themes. Examples:
Gloomy - includes pieces of content that fits this specific vibe
Linguistically playful - includes pieces of content that plays with the language itself
Polemic - includes pieces of content that goes into polemic against other pieces of content.

Project Plan

Hugi has suggested to put a small portion of Participio money towards this, that would go to training the group doing analysis in ethnographic techniques.


How do we present this as an art project?

What would be a good title of the project?
Should preferably include ‘edge’ somehow.

How do we select the contributors?
They need to be both good writers and comfortable improvisers. Actors, writers, etc.
Is there a need for a vetting process? (Regarding the artwork-potential of the project a vetting process might be necessary to ensure some sort of quality.)

Somewhat relevant sources:

Article exploring the improvisational aspects of ethnography

Ethnographic use of Theatre of the Oppressed (improv tool) for research purposes

Research into the ontology/performativity/doing of ethnographic fieldwork

Yemeni culture use improvised poetry as their main tool for discussion and ritual, in everything from weddings, to war mediations and state politics.


Nice one @jakobskote, this is very exciting from what I can tell with a super quick skim. Quick response then until I have time to read the whole offering, but you may be interested in the work of a close collaborator of mine - Aaron Finbloom - from The School of Making Thinking who’s doing his PHD on dialogical techniques. With him and others I also love getting my hands dirty with collective textual processes (for example this social poesis), and now I think of it a forthcoming book chapter I’ve co-authored was written through such experimental collaborative writing methods. Please keep me in the loop as I’d be up for potentially playing as a writer on this :herb:


Hugi showed me this and it seems like a really novel and promising idea. I’d love to see how it develops. If I can contribute in any way that would be really exciting.


I like it. It’s a clever hack of SSNA, and it shows its potential is quite broad – much more, indeed, than I thought. it would be. Go for it! We have a free online course on ethographic coding for SSNA on


Hi, thanks for your supportive comments! We have continued to think about the project and propose we do a small and somewhat informal test this winter, and then apply for money from Kulturbryggan (Mars 25) to do a large scale version this spring. The reason for the initial test is both to get the ball rolling and to test the waters before going large scale, since this is a novel concept in many ways. To make sure we can ask people to participate without compensation, it’s quite scaled down in comparison to what we’ll do later.

Initial test

  • The initial test will consist of max 20 writers, sourced through an online invitation with an application form. This invitation will be sent around to interesting people, groups and fora. We should have a couple-three people “on the inside” in the writing group to make sure it flows once it’s started, hopefully the people here who have already expressed their interest.
  • We aim to send this invitation in the beginning of January, I’ll post the text and application form as a wiki here so we can collaborate on it.
  • The writing will run during two weeks in the middle of February, and each participant is asked to contribute at least two contents a day. This will leave us with a minimum of ~500 contents, which is not enough to do a proper SSNA but enough for a proof of concept.
  • A small group of people acting as the ethnographer will go through the online course in the SSNA ethnography process (link?) and start with the coding as soon as there is enough content. Currently this group only consist of me.
  • This version will be published in some way, and be used as a basis for the application to Kulturbryggan for the larger experiment.

Hugi will take on setting up a sectioned off bit of Edgeryders where the writing process can happen, and to setup graphryder for the SSNA when we need it later.

What are your thoughts?

Proposed text for invitation:

PROJECT NAME is an experimental collective world-making effort, utilising tools from automatic writing, improvisation theatre, performance ethnography and network analysis to explore new forms of art and research, situated on the overlap between science and play, fact and fiction.

The experiment is composed of three parts: Part one consist of a group of around twenty contributors who partake in a month long collective writing process based in an online forum. Each contributor posts as often as they like, as one (or several) characters of their choosing.

No starting point or setting for the creative process is provided. The only rule of participation is to follow the “Yes-And” principle, in short to never shoot down another participants contribution but instead build upon it and transform it as one wishes. The large body of content amassed during these weeks forms our “Story” - a collective dream world based on the whims and ideas of the contributors.

Anyone is welcome to apply to be a contributor, writers, artists, actors, playwrites, and others. We will select a group that we think will work well together. Apply below.

Part two consist of a small group of people doing a semantic social network analysis on the previously amassed body of content. A semantic social network analysis (SSNA) is in short an ethnographic analysis that identify key concepts in the communication of a group, and then utilise network science to display it in a navigable concept map. This allow anyone without an in depth understanding of ethnography or experience from the specific group to quickly get a grasp of their concept structure and relational network. More info on SSNA here.

Part three consist of a presentation of the resulting SSNA as an artwork in itself. The exact form of this will be decided by the resulting shape of the research but will probably include an navigable map visualising how concepts and narratives arise through the collective writing process, which can be explored and read in a non-linear fashion like a sort of abstracted collaborative hypertext metafiction.

The intent with this project is both to investigate digital means of collaborative creative processes with the hope to form unexpected synergies and serendipities, as well as to explore how instrumental scientific research and autotelic or “purposeless” art can feedback and strengthen each other.

Please edit as you like

Proposed questions in application:

What questions should we ask? I guess we want a creatively diverse group that is open for experimentation.

Please edit as you like

We also need a good name for the project. Any ideas?

Yes, excited to get this experiment started. Looking forward to writing some collaborative fiction here on Edgeryders. Perhaps @alex_levene, @alberto or @bob know some science fiction writers who might enjoy being involved in this? This could generally be an interesting experiment for the culture squad.

So with the complete understanding that we are starting two massive ethnography projects, maybe we could borrow the attention of @amelia here for moment? Ethnography of improvised fictional character interactions, how does this strike you? This is obviously very different from what we usually do, but it could be a fascinating project. As the ethnography will be an effort to understand an emerging fictional universe, the ethnographer will in reality be equal parts an author of the fiction and a researcher of the emerging collective consciousness of the group of authors. Do you know any graduate students who might find this an interesting exercise?

I’m thinking to just set up a separate workspace. Perhaps open, but not visible from the front page while the content is being created, since it might be a very confusing experience to stumble upon. Do you have any opinions on this @matthias?

I’d love to hear what @r_o thinks about this!

I think “confusing” is the one thing you don’t have to worry about on this platform. There’s not a single person for whom all of the visible workspaces on the frontpage are not confusing :slight_smile: And I think it’s much better to have a confusing category than the first invisible category, which would be really confusing. (Ok, the Biofabforum categories are also invisible on the frontpage, but only until they are migrated to their own whitelabel website soon.)

We had the problem on the old Drupal based platform that nobody could get an overview of the site’s structure even after browsing it for 30 minutes. That’s the total opposite now with a concise frontpage that lists all of the categories.

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Ooh, I love this idea. I’m really interested in imaginative processes/materialisations and in affect, so this very much floats my boat. I think it could be a great way of visualising a lot of different things — an analytical tool (like when lit scholars do literary analysis), a way of mapping collective feeling (do pieces of literature affect us the same way? Why do some parts cause similar emotional resonances across different people?), and, as is mentioned, an art project in and of itself. Writing this on the fly on my phone, but will follow up with more coherent thoughts soon.


Black Mirror just released a Christmas special interactive episode made with something called Twine. It’s an open source tool for easily creating interactive stories, like this one.

Perhaps we could programmatically create a Twine story based on an SSNA co-occurrence network? An implementation of this could be that the “story” starts at some post, and the user is then presented with a list of other posts that share a tag with this post, but only one chronologically later post per tag or combination of tags. I think this could be even more interesting if participants and ethnographers know that the content will be produced this way, as it might make you think of cool ways in which to weave concepts together.


I love this idea! Combining hypertext fiction and SSNA, interesting both as a narrative structure and for research purposes.

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I’m happy you find it interesting! Since you are the expert on the ethnographic aspect of this - how difficult do you think it will be to do the analysis part, and how much training / expertise do we need from the group acting as ethnographer?

Hey! Heads up on that the initial reaction from Kulturbryggan to this project was very positive, and we’re turning an application for a 100k EUR project next week.

In addition to the writing and the ethnography, we’d also be producing some novel artistic visualization software based on the SSNA data, as well as some sort of final exhibition in a physical space.

Hello guys, any news on this? Is the application in? When do you expect a response? Is there anything we can do from here to support you?

Application is in. Since I still have the Participio project, Jakob has another project with Kulturbryggan and there has te be a Swedish entity applying, we teamed up with our friend Ola Cleasson. He sent in the application a couple of weeks ago, and we expect an answer in May or June. During our dialogue with Kulturbryggan, and amongst ourselves, our focus shifted slightly. Application is in Swedish, but this is the abstract:

“Babel between us” is a cartographic visualization of a collectively created fiction. A group of authors improvises a collective story on an online forum. The resulting text is then analyzed by ethnographers and presented as an interactive web-based map. The map is also the basis for an exhibition, with text extracts, artifacts and actors.

This ‘cartographic visualization’ isn’t Graphryder, but a secondary more artistic visualization. Graphryder will be used in the ethnography and made available for those wanting to dive deeper into the content. A substantial part of the budget would go towards developing these artistic presentations of the ethnographic layer. Some budget would also go towards Graphryder.

If the project gets the go-ahead, we’d be bringing together 16-20 authors to write in a closed group (open to read for anyone, but only they can post), and getting an ethnographer involved.


Looking forward to that visualization, too!

We’re getting started, and looking for people to join the team!