The open-sided, many-voiced nature of the Web lends itself easily to talk of free, collaborative, open-source, open-access. Suddenly a brave new world of open knowledge seems just around the corner. But understandings of how to make this world work practically for imaginative work – I mean written stories – are still in their infancy. It’s tempting to see a clash of paradigms – open-source versus proprietary content – that is threatening the fundamental terms within which all writers are encouraged to think of themselves – not to mention the established business model for survival as such.
The idea that ‘high art’ requires a business model at all has been obscured for some time (in literature at least) by a rhetoric of cultural value. This is the argument offered by many within the print publishing industry to justify its continued existence. Good work is vital to culture; it’s always the creation of a single organising consciousness; and it deserves remuneration. But the Web undermines this: if every word online is infinitely reproducible and editable, putting words in a particular order and expecting to make your living by charging access to them is considerably less effective than it was in a print universe as a model for making a living.
But while the Web erodes the opportunities to make a living as an artist producing patented content, it’s not yet clear how it proposes to feed writers who don’t copyright their work. A few are experimenting with new balances between royalty sales and other kinds of income: Cory Doctorow gives away his books online for free, and makes money of the sale of print copies. Nonfiction writers such as Chris Anderson often treat the book as a trailer for their idea, and make their actual money from consultancy and public speaking. But it’s far from clear how this could work in a widespread way for net-native content, and particularly for imaginative work.
This quality of the networked space also has implications for ideas of what constitutes ‘good work’. Ultimately, when people talk of ‘cultural value’, they usually mean the role that narratives play in shaping our sense of who and what we are. Arguably this is independent of delivery mechanisms, theories of authorship, and the practical economics of survival as an artist: it’s a function of human culture to tell stories about ourselves. And even if they end up writing chick-lit or porn to pay the bills, most writers start out recognising this and wanting to change the world through stories. But how is one to pursue this in the networked environment, where you can’t patent your words, and where collaboration is indispensable to others’ engagement with your work? What if you don’t want anyone else interfering in your story? What if others’ contributions are rubbish?
Because the truth is that some kinds of participation really don’t produce shining work. The terms on which open-source technology is beginning to make inroads into the mainstream – ie that it works – don’t hold so well for open-source writing to date. The World Without Oil ARG in some ways illustrates this problem. When I heard about the game I wrote enthusiastically about the potential I saw in it for and imaginative engagement with huge issues through a kind of distributed creativity. But Ben and I were discussing this earlier, and concluded that it’s just not working. For all I know it’s having a powerful impact on its players; but to my mind the power of stories lies in their ability to distil and heighten our sense of what’s real into an imaginative shorthand. And on that level I’ve been underwhelmed by WWO. The mass-writing experiment going on there tends less towards distillation into memorable chunks of meme and more towards a kind of issues-driven proliferation of micro-stories that’s all but abandoned the drive of narrative in favour of a rather heavy didactic exercise.
So open-sourcing your fictional world can create quality issues. Abandoning the idea of a single author can likewise leave your story a little flat. Ficlets is another experiment that foregrounds collaboration at the expense of quality. The site allows anyone to write a story of no more than (for some reason) 1,024 characters, and publish it through the site. Users can then write a prequel or sequel, and those visiting the site can rate the stories as they develop. It’s a sweetly egalitarian concept, and I’m intrigued by the idea of using Web2 ‘Hot Or Not?’ technology to drive good writing up the chart. But – perhaps because there’s not a vast amount of traffic – I find it hard to spend more than a few minutes at a time there browsing what on the whole feels like a game of Consequences, just without the joyful silliness.
In a similar vein, I’ve been involved in a collaborative writing experiment with OpenDemocracy in the last few weeks, in which a set of writers were given a theme and invited to contribute one paragraph each, in turn, to a story with a common them. It’s been interesting, but the result is sorely missing the attentions of at the very least a patient and despotic editor.
This is visible in a more extreme form in the wiki-novel experiment A Million Penguins. Ben’s already said plenty about this, so I won’t elaborate; but the attempt, in a blank wiki, to invite ‘collective intelligence’ to write a novel failed so spectacularly to create an intelligible story that there are no doubt many for whom it proves the unviability of collaborative creativity in general and, by extension, the necessity of protecting existing notions of authorship simply for the sake of culture.
So if the Web invites us to explore other methods of creating and sharing memetic code, it hasn’t figured out the right practice for creating really absorbing stuff yet. It’s likely there’s no one magic recipe; my hunch is that there’s a meta-code of social structures around collaborative writing that are emerging gradually, but that haven’t formalised yet because the space is still so young. But while a million (Linux) penguins haven’t yet written the works of Shakespeare, it’s too early to declare that participative creativity can only happen at the expense of quality .
As is doubtless plain, I’m squarely on the side of open-source, both in technological terms and in terms of memetic or cultural code. Enclosure of cultural code (archetypes, story forms, characters etc) ultimately impoverishes the creative culture as much as enclosure of software code hampers technological development. But that comes with reservations. I don’t want to see open-source creativity becoming a sweatshop for writers who can’t get published elsewhere than online, but can’t make a living from their work. Nor do I look forward with relish to a culture composed entirely of the top links on Fark, lolcats and tedious self-published doggerel, and devoid of big, powerful stories we can get our teeth into.
But though the way forwards may be a vision of the writer not as single creating consciousness but something more like a curator or editor, I haven’t yet seen anything successful emerge in this form, unless you count H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos – which was first created pre-internet. And while the open-source technology movement has evolved practices for navigating the tricky space around individual development and collective ownership, the Million Penguins debacle shows that there are far fewer practices for negotiating the relationship between individual and collective authorship of stories. They don’t teach collaborative imaginative writing in school.
Should they? The popularity of fanfic demonstrates that even if most of the fanfic fictional universes are created by one person before they are reappropriated, yet there is a demand for code that can be played with, added to, mutated and redeployed in this way. The fanfic universe is also beginning to develop interesting practices for peer-to-peer quality control. And the Web encourages this kind of activity. So how might we open-source the whole process? Is there anything that could be learned from OS coding about how to do stories in ways that acknowledge the networked, collaborative, open-sided and mutable nature of the Web?
Maybe memetic code is too different from the technical sort to let me stretch the metaphor that far. To put it another way: what social structures do writing collaborations need in order to produce great work in a way that’s both rigorous and open-sided? I think a mixture of lessons from bards, storytellers, improv theatre troupes, scriptwriting teams, open-source hacker practices, game development, Web2 business models and wiki etiquette may yet succeed in routing round the false dichotomy between proprietary quality and open-source memetic dross. And perhaps a practice developed in this way will figure out a way of enabling imaginative work (and its creators) to emerge through the Web without throwing the baby of cultural value out with the bathwater of proprietary content.