The future of online text

Eoin Purcell

A million undirected penguins
What do Wikipedia and A Million Penguins have in common? At first glance little. But on thinking it through there is one feature that makes them almost identical. They are created by a distributed authorship model. One is one of the most useful sites on the internet (its scale is huge admittedly but a million penguin’s is not tiny either), the other to all intents and purposes was much more interesting for the journey it involved then the destination. From the blog:

But clearly opening this experiment up to ‘the whole world’ caused problems – we had vandals, pornographers, spammers and any number of people who had such differing ideas about what would make a good novel that a real sense of cohesiveness was always going to be hard to achieve.

Don’t get me wrong this is by no means an attack on that project, on the contrary I think it was inspired, exciting and necessary, not to mention a very brave act by a mainstream publisher. But what is behind the different outcomes in these projects. After all Wikipedia opens itself to the world to write and edit much like the Wikinovel experiment. From About Wikipedia:

Wikipedia (IPA: /ˌwikiˈpiːdi.ə/ or /ˌwɪkiˈpiːdi.ə/) is a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopaedia project. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. With rare exceptions, its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet, simply by clicking the edit this page link.

Could it be that limitation works?
Perhaps the reason why Wikepedia is useful and relevant is because it recognises the limitations necessary to make collaboration useful. It may sound stupid and very basic but there is a reason why we have rules and limitations. For instance in a group discussion it is vital to ensure that only one person speaks at a time even though everyone is capable of speaking at the same time. If everyone speaks no-one is heard and discussion descends to mere shouting. You might say that another reason why Wikipedia works is that it is Non-Fiction, or more accurately FACT (though this is something constantly monitored and policed and with just cause).

The people behind 37signals have an interesting perspective on the value of limits. In their book Getting Real* they say:

Let limitations guide you to creative solutions

There’s never enough to go around. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough people.

That’s a good thing.

Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.

Another example of using limits to enhance usefulness and effect is Ficlets which has really caught my attention recently. It is structured and rule based but the creativity displayed there is superior to the mish mash of A Million Penguins. Some of the stories demonstrate exciting imagination, skilful use of the 1024 characters that the format limits authors to and the sequels and prequels allow others to add ideas or themes that the original author had not intended. All in all it works much more effectively than an undirected effort.

Where are we then?
Online text authoring and editing has enormous advantages and offers incredible possibilities. Not least of these is collaboration amongst co-workers but most interesting for our purposes is artistic and creative uses. One just has watch the video below to be converted. It is important to test and experiment the limits of text in a digital age when nearly anything you can think of can be done to text. Sometimes the edge will be interesting but sometimes too it will show us the importance of self-limitation. I think that is why A Million Penguins is important, perhaps more so than Wikipedia in some ways. The bravery to risk and fail is so rare and yet the lesson learned so rich that we need people to make those crazy attempts.

Suitably impressed

* I have highlighted this book before encourage everyone to read it (even non software/web/geek types).

6 thoughts on “The future of online text

  1. Thanks Eoin for your nice words about the Million Penguins project – it was fun to work on and fascinating to observe at this end also.

    I think the other thing it has achieved is given us ideas as to how we might proceed if we wanted to try and produce some successful collaborative fiction, as oppossed to this less structured experiment designed to see if a novel would somehow emerge through collective endeavour.Perhaps we, or others, might be inspired down this direction in the future.


  2. Eoin,

    I read this post with interest, as I hadn’t followed the Million Penguins project. It struck me that the idea of a wikinovel is very similar in many ways to that of an online text based role playing game. I don’t know if you’ve come across any of these (or even if I’ve mentioned them before, which I may have done). They tend to be fandom based, so for example there’s a huge number of Harry Potter games, but there are also original games such as this one, based on supernatural shenanigans in an art deco apartment complex. You’re right about limitations too – most of these games are heavily moderated to keep the writers in order, and the list of rules about what you can and cannot do can be long, depending on the game.

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