Dr. Federico Pianzola, associate professor of computational humanities, has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant for his project GOLEM: Graphs and Ontologies for Literary Evolution Models. The €1.2 million European grant will allow him to spend the next five years conducting large-scale research on changes in how people write fiction and how it affects readers. Pianzola will begin his research in January.
The study of literature is often done on the basis of case studies of limited extent, such as looking at a writer's oeuvre or comparing a few authors. Pianzola's research is not only on a larger scale than the traditional approach, he is also making use of stories that are not considered classic literature: the millions of stories available on fanfiction websites and online publishing platforms. Here (amateur) writers publish their work and readers respond to the stories leaving comments and reviews.
An example of such a website is Wattpad, a website of Canadian origin founded in 2006, now owned by the Korean tech company Naver. The site has tens of millions of visitors a month. Some of the stories are fanfiction: stories inspired by, and featuring, the main characters from books, movies or series. More than 100,000 new texts are published daily. The stories are mostly written by amateur writers, but well-known writers such as Margaret Atwood, Felicia Day and Brandon Sanderson have also published on Wattpad.
The social interaction that occurs on these websites is important to Pianzola's research. "Reading has always had a social aspect in the past," he explains. "In the 18th century, reading was also a social activity: people sat together in a room and read stories to each other. And even long before printing was invented, people told stories to each other." The internet enables a similar interaction over reading fiction on a much larger scale. "As a result, reading is more than ever a social activity”, Pianzola says. “The millions of stories shared on these websites combined with readers' reactions and comments on the stories give us a lot of information about how fiction is read, and what readers find important in a story."
For his research, Pianzola will use artificial intelligence to analyze millions of stories and their responses, from sites in five different languages -, English, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Indonesian - collected from countries on all continents. That analysis provides a wealth of information about the characters in a story, the genre, what a story is about, how a story is constructed, what themes are covered, as well as what readers from different countries and cultures find important in a story.
"What elements in a story are meaningful to the reader? What makes a story get read, and what do readers value in a story? The information we collect with this research makes it possible, with the help of computer models, to find answers to these kinds of questions. We can thus develop a methodology that we can also apply to books from other periods in history. In this way, we can study the evolution of fiction over the centuries, and gain unprecedented insight into something as old as humanity itself: storytelling," Pianzola said.
The first step in the research is to create a database containing information about the texts analyzed, such as the authors, genre and characters featured in the story, as well as other information related to style and themes. Pianzola will also make this database available to other researchers to enable them to find specific stories for their research.
An ERC Starting Grant is a European grant intended for promising scientifically talented doctoral researchers with 2 to 7 years of research experience. The scheme is administered by the European Research Council (ERC).
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