Category Archives: wiki

fail again fail better have fun

A new research paper by Bruce Mason and Sue Thomas on A Million Penguins, the controversial wiki novel created last year by Penguin Books makes fascinating reading.
It includes amongst other delights an analysis of the activities of the contributor known as YellowBanana and whether s/he was vandal, genius or troll, and the report concludes:
“The final product itself, now frozen in time, is more akin to something produced by the wild,untrammelled creativity of the folk imagination. The contributors to A Million Penguins, like the
ordinary folk of Bakhtin’s carnivals, have produced something excessive. It is rude, chaotic, grotesque, sporadically brilliant, anti-authoritarian and, in places, devastatingly funny. As a cultural text it is unique, and it demonstrates the tremendous potential of this form to provide a stimulating social setting for writing, editing and publishing. The contributors may not have written one single novel but they did create something quite remarkable, an outstanding body of work that can be found both in the main sections as well as through the dramas and conversations lacing the backstage pages. And they had a damned good time while doing so.
As the user Crtrue writes.
“Hi hi hi hi hi!
Seriously. This is going to fail horribly. It’s still fun.””
Read more at:

edit the galaxy

Galaxiki is “a new kind of wiki based community portal that allows its members to edit stars, planets and moons in a virtual galaxy, creating an entire fictional world online.” The site uses primarily public domain NASA photography.

Millions of stars, planets, moons, pulsars and black holes can be explored using an intuitive 2D map. The site software manages most of the physical properties and behaviours of the solar systems, from orbits to the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres. Some planets offer conditions that may allow life – the idea behind Galaxiki is that community members can create fictional life forms and write about their histories on their planets….For only USD 12.- (or EUR 10.-) you can purchase your own solar system that only you can edit.

the open library

openLibrary.jpg A little while back I was musing on the possibility of a People’s Card Catalog, a public access clearinghouse of information on all the world’s books to rival Google’s gated preserve. Well thanks to the Internet Archive and its offshoot the Open Content Alliance, it looks like we might now have it – ?or at least the initial building blocks. On Monday they launched a demo version of the Open Library, a grand project that aims to build a universally accessible and publicly editable directory of all books: one wiki page per book, integrating publisher and library catalogs, metadata, reader reviews, links to retailers and relevant Web content, and a menu of editions in multiple formats, both digital and print.

Imagine a library that collected all the world’s information about all the world’s books and made it available for everyone to view and update. We’re building that library.

The official opening of Open Library isn’t scheduled till October, but they’ve put out the demo now to prove this is more than vaporware and to solicit feedback and rally support. If all goes well, it’s conceivable that this could become the main destination on the Web for people looking for information in and about books: a Wikipedia for libraries. On presentation of public domain texts, they already have Google beat, even with recent upgrades to the GBS system including a plain text viewing option. The Open Library provides TXT, PDF, DjVu (a high-res visual document browser), and its own custom-built Book Viewer tool, a digital page-flip interface that presents scanned public domain books in facing pages that the reader can leaf through, search and (eventually) magnify.
Page turning interfaces have been something of a fad recently, appearing first in the British Library’s Turning the Pages manuscript preservation program (specifically cited as inspiration for the OL Book Viewer) and later proliferating across all manner of digital magazines, comics and brochures (often through companies that you can pay to convert a PDF into a sexy virtual object complete with drag-able page corners that writhe when tickled with a mouse, and a paper-like rustling sound every time a page is turned).
This sort of reenactment of paper functionality is perhaps too literal, opting for imitation rather than innovation, but it does offer some advantages. Having a fixed frame for reading is a relief in the constantly scrolling space of the Web browser, and there are some decent navigation tools that gesture toward the ways we browse paper. To either side of the open area of a book are thin vertical lines denoting the edges of the surrounding pages. Dragging the mouse over the edges brings up scrolling page numbers in a small pop-up. Clicking on any of these takes you quickly and directly to that part of the book. Searching is also neat. Type a query and the book is suddenly interleaved with yellow tabs, with keywords highlighted on the page, like so:
But nice as this looks, functionality is sacrificed for the sake of fetishism. Sticky tabs are certainly a cool feature, but not when they’re at the expense of a straightforward list of search returns showing keywords in their sentence context. These sorts of references to the feel and functionality of the paper book are no doubt comforting to readers stepping tentatively into the digital library, but there’s something that feels disjointed about reading this way: that this is a representation of a book but not a book itself. It is a book avatar. I’ve never understood the appeal of those Second Life libraries where you must guide your virtual self to a virtual shelf, take hold of the virtual book, and then open it up on a virtual table. This strikes me as a failure of imagination, not to mention tedious. Each action is in a sense done twice: you operate a browser within which you operate a book; you move the hand that moves the hand that moves the page. Is this perhaps one too many layers of mediation to actually be able to process the book’s contents? Don’t get me wrong, the Book Viewer and everything the Open Library is doing is a laudable start (cause for celebration in fact), but in the long run we need interfaces that deal with texts as native digital objects while respecting the originals.
What may be more interesting than any of the technology previews is a longish development document outlining ambitious plans for building the Open Library user interface. This covers everything from metadata standards and wiki templates to tagging and OCR proofreading to search and browsing strategies, plus a well thought-out list of user scenarios. Clearly, they’re thinking very hard about every conceivable element of this project, including the sorts of things we frequently focus on here such as the networked aspects of texts. Acolytes of Ted Nelson will be excited to learn that a transclusion feature is in the works: a tool for embedding passages from texts into other texts that automatically track back to the source (hypertext copy-and-pasting). They’re also thinking about collaborative filtering tools like shared annotations, bookmarking and user-defined collections. All very very good, but it will take time.
Building an open source library catalog is a mammoth undertaking and will rely on millions of hours of volunteer labor, and like Wikipedia it has its fair share of built-in contradictions. Jessamyn West of put it succinctly:

It’s a weird juxtaposition, the idea of authority and the idea of a collaborative project that anyone can work on and modify.

But the only realistic alternative may well be the library that Google is building, a proprietary database full of low-quality digital copies, a semi-accessible public domain prohibitively difficult to use or repurpose outside the Google reading room, a balkanized landscape of partner libraries and institutions left in its wake, each clutching their small slice of the digitized pie while the whole belongs only to Google, all of it geared ultimately not to readers, researchers and citizens but to consumers. Construed more broadly to include not just books but web pages, videos, images, maps etc., the Google library is a place built by us but not owned by us. We create and upload much of the content, we hand-make the links and run the search queries that program the Google brain. But all of this is captured and funneled into Google dollars and AdSense. If passive labor can build something so powerful, what might active, voluntary labor be able to achieve? Open Library aims to find out.

time machine

The other day, a bunch of us were looking at this new feature promised for Leopard, the next iteration of the Mac operating system, and thinking about it as a possible interface for document versioning.

I’ve yet to find something that does this well. Wikis and and Google Docs give you chronological version lists. In Microsoft Word, “track changes” integrates editing history within the surface of the text, but it’s ugly and clunky. Wikipedia has a version comparison feature, which is nice, but it’s only really useful for scrutinizing two specific passages.
If a document could be seen to have layers, perhaps in a similar fashion to Apple’s Time Machine, or more like Gamer Theory‘s stacks of cards, it would immediately give the reader or writer a visual sense of how far back the text’s history goes – not so much a 3-D interface as 2.5-D. Sifting through the layers would need to be easy and tactile. You’d want ways to mark, annotate or reference specific versions, to highlight or suppress areas where text has been altered, to pull sections into a comparison view. Perhaps there could be a “fade” option for toggling between versions, slowing down the transition so you could see precisely where the text becomes liquid, the page in effect becoming a semi-transparent membrane between two versions. Or “heat maps” that highlight, through hot and cool hues, the more contested or agonized-over sections of the text (as in the Free Software Foundations commentable drafts of the GNU General Public License).
And of course you’d need to figure out comments. When the text is a moving target, which comments stay anchored to a specific version, and which ones get carried with you further through the process? What do you bring with you and what do you leave behind?

the people’s card catalog (a thought)

New partners and new features. Google has been busy lately building up Book Search. On the institutional end, Ghent, Lausanne and Mysore are among the most recent universities to hitch their wagons to the Google library project. On the user end, the GBS feature set continues to expand, with new discovery tools and more extensive “about” pages gathering a range of contextual resources for each individual volume.
Recently, they extended this coverage to books that haven’t yet been digitized, substantially increasing the findability, if not yet the searchability, of thousands of new titles. The about pages are similar to Amazon’s, which supply book browsers with things like concordances, “statistically improbably phrases” (tags generated automatically from distinct phrasings in a text), textual statistics, and, best of all, hot-linked lists of references to and from other titles in the catalog: a rich bibliographic network of interconnected texts (Bob wrote about this fairly recently). Google’s pages do much the same thing but add other valuable links to retailers, library catalogues, reviews, blogs, scholarly resources, Wikipedia entries, and other relevant sites around the net (an example). Again, many of these books are not yet full-text searchable, but collecting these resources in one place is highly useful.
It makes me think, though, how sorely an open source alternative to this is needed. Wikipedia already has reasonably extensive articles about various works of literature. Library Thing has built a terrific social architecture for sharing books. There are a great number of other freely accessible resources around the web, scholarly database projects, public domain e-libraries, CC-licensed collections, library catalogs.
Could this be stitched together into a public, non-proprietary book directory, a People’s Card Catalog? A web page for every book, perhaps in wiki format, wtih detailed bibliographic profiles, history, links, citation indices, social tools, visualizations, and ideally a smart graphical interface for browsing it. In a network of books, each title ought to have a stable node to which resources can be attached and from which discussions can branch. So far Google is leading the way in building this modern bibliographic system, and stands to turn the card catalogue of the future into a major advertising cash nexus. Let them do it. But couldn’t we build something better?

of babies and bathwater

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.

“spring_alpha” and networked games

Jesse’s post yesterday pondering the possibility of networked comics reminded me of an interesting little piece I came across last month on the Guardian Gamesblog by Aleks Krotoski on networked collaboration — or rather, the conspicuous lack thereof — in games. The post was a lament really, sparked by Krotoski’s admiration of the Million Penguins project, which for her threw into stark relief the game industry’s troubling retentiveness regarding the means of game production:

Meanwhile in gameland, where non-linearity is the ideal, we’re at odds with the power of games as the world’s most compelling medium and the industry’s desperate attempts to integrate with the so-called worthy (yet linear) media. And ironically, we’ve been lapped by books. How embarrassing. If anyone should have pushed the user-generated boat out, it should have been the games industry.
…Sure, there are a few new outlets for budding designers to reap the kudos or the ridicule of their peers, but there’s not a WikiGame in sight. Until platform owners have the courage to open their consoles to players, a million penguins will go elsewhere. And so will gamers.

springalpha.jpg Well I just came across a very intriguing UK-based project that might qualify as a wiki-game, or more or less the equivalent. It’s called “spring_alpha” and is by all indications a game world that is openly rewritable on both the narrative and code level. What’s particularly interesting is that the participatory element is deeply entwined with the game’s political impulses — it’s an experiment in rewriting the rules of a repressive society. As described by the organizers:

“spring_alpha” is a networked game system set in an industrialised council estate whose inhabitants are attempting to create their own autonomous society in contrast to that of the regime in which they live. The game serves as a “sketch pad” for testing out alternative forms of social practice at both the “narrative” level, in terms of the game story, and at a “code” level, as players are able to re-write the code that runs the simulated world.
…’spring_alpha’ is a game in permanent alpha state, always open to revision and re-versioning. Re-writing spring_alpha is not only an option available to coders however. Much of the focus of the project lies in using game development itself as a vehicle for social enquiry and speculation; the issues involved in re-designing the game draw parallels with those involved in re-thinking social structures.

My first thought is that, unlike A Million Penguins, “spring_alpha” provides a robust armature for collaboration: a fully developed backstory/setting as well as an established visual aesthetic (both derived from artist Chad McCail’s 1998 work “Spring”). That strikes me as a recipe for success. In the graphics, sound and controls department, “spring_alpha” doesn’t appear particularly cutting edge (it looks a bit like Google SketchUp, though that may have just been in the development modules I saw), but its sense of distributed creativity and of the political possibilities of games seem quite advanced.
Can anyone point to other examples of collaboratively built games? Does Second Life count?

an encyclopedia of arguments

I just came across this though apparently it’s been up and running since last summer. Debatepedia is a free, wiki-based encyclopedia where people can collaboratively research and write outlines of arguments on contentious subjects — stem cell reseach, same-sex marriage, how and when to withdraw from Iraq (it appears to be focused in practice if not in policy on US issues) — assembling what are essentially roadmaps to important debates of the moment. Articles are organized in “logic trees,” a two-column layout in which pros and cons, fors and againsts, yeas and neas are placed side by side for each argument and its attendant sub-questions. A fairly strict citations policy ensures that each article also serves as a link repository on its given topic.
Debatepedia.jpg This is an intriguing adaptation of the Wikipedia model — an inversion you could say, in that it effectively raises the “talk” pages (discussion areas behind an article) to the fore. Instead of “neutral point of view,” with debates submerged, you have an emphasis on the many-sidedness of things. The problem of course is that Debatepedia’s format suggests that all arguments are binary. The so-called “logic trees” are more like logic switches, flipped on or off, left or right — a crude reduction of what an argument really is.
I imagine they used the two column format for simplicity’s sake — to create a consistent and accessible form throughout the site. It’s true that representing the full complexity of a subject on a two-dimensional screen lies well beyond present human capabilities, but still there has to be some way to present a more shaded spectrum of thought — to triangulate multiple perspectives and still make the thing readable and useful (David Weinberger has an inchoate thought along similar lines w/r/t to NPR stories and research projects for listeners — taken up by Doc Searls).
I’m curious to hear what people think. Pros? Cons? Logic tree anyone?

incunabula of the week

Last month, when I met the if:book crew for the first time, Ben described the net-native literary forms that have emerged to date as ‘incunabula’. I didn’t know what the word meant. He explained that, in the Middle Ages, when they first started printing books, there were all kinds of experiments which explored print technologies but hadn’t yet settled into a form that made full use of them. Ben suggested that forms of Web writing today are at an equivalent stage.
The word ‘incunabulum’ stuck with me. There’s something endearlingly fragile and tentative about it, as though Net-based forms of writing were a new species of winged things, freshly-hatched and still a bit soggy and crumpled. Since abandoning the notion of writing for print (paper) publication some time ago, though, I find myself reluctant to reinvent the wheel. So I’m very interested in what is emerging on the Net around the axis of technology and (used here in its classical sense, for want of a better word) poetry.
Top of my list at the moment as the Web’s finest emerging art form is alternate reality gaming. I wrote about that here not long ago; since then, I’ve vanished into a currently-playing ARG and will write more on the experience when I can. Meanwhile, this week I’ve stumbled across an interesting cross-section of Web-based stuff and thought I’d do a roundup here.
Disclaimer time. Ben’s already admirably dissected the problems with the Million Penguins project, so I won’t go into that. I also know there is a whole tranche of early experiments with hypertext writing which I’ve ignored. My reason for doing so is that a) I can’t be exhaustive – that’s what your search engine is for. Also, in my experience, hypertext fiction tends to be somewhat sterile and frustrating, recalling the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a child. That said, if anyone knows of any that buck this trend, please send them my way.
Anyway, incunabula. The first is some years old, and is actually an event rather than a single piece of writing: the delightfully geeky Perl Poetry Contest of 2000. In the words of the Perl Journal that reviewed it:
The Perl Poetry Contest is sort of a kinder, less migraine inducing sibling of the Obfuscation Contest. The Obfuscation Contest promotes the creation of vile looking scripts. The Perl Poetry Contest is the other end of the spectrum, promoting the generation of flowing verse, and Perl, to make something beautiful.
Here’s the winner, by Angie Winterbottom:
if ((light eq dark) && (dark eq light)
&& ($blaze_of_night{moon} == black_hole)
&& ($ravens_wing{bright} == $tin{bright})){
my $love = $you = $sin{darkness} + 1;
It’s derived from a verse from the Pandora’s Box album ‘Original Sin’:
If light were dark and dark were light
The moon a black hole in the blaze of night
A raven’s wing as bright as tin
Then you, my love, would be darker than sin.
This is only just within my personal geek:lit frame of reference, as I don’t program Perl. But I include it in memory of the first time I heard a techie use the phrase ‘elegant code’, as I remember how struck I was then by the idea that there could be an aesthetics of machine code. I’d imagined that coding was purely functional and as such more about engineering than art; lately, I’m beginning to suspect that coders play an equivalent role in the online space to the one print authors play/ed in the literary canon. Poetry written in machine code sits elegantly across the literary/aesthetic and technical spaces in a way very suggestive of this accession of coding to the status of meta-literature.
My second incunabulum of the week comes from Everything2, a relatively open-access online writing space (see the Wikipedia entry for more info). The structures of this site merit further examination, particularly in contrast with the Million Penguins fiasco. But in the interests of brevity, for the time being here’s an entry from user “allseeingeye”: a poem about online gaming with the glorious title “im in ur base killin ur d00dz“.
I won’t go into the layers of memetic accretion around this phrase (try Encyclopedia Dramatica or urbandictionary if you really need to know). What enchanted me about the piece is that it uses a mixture of Everything2’s hard links, geek and gaming slang, and relatively traditional free verse to create something in which form and function, tradition and new technologies, “high” and “low” cultures merge most intriguingly. The writer’s genderless username addes extra ambiguity to the elision of gaming and eroticism in a way that’s very evocative of how of heightened emotion plays out in disembodied online spaces.
There’s also something thought-provoking about the fact that Everything2’s hard links are, like Wikipedia, often unfinished. If you click on one and find it incomplete, the page invites you to create an account and then add the page. When you read a poem that’s full of these sometimes-unfinished links, it’s a bit like a reverse version of The Waste Land. The difference is that where Eliot’s piece functions as an accretion of quotations that refer backwards through the history of the canon, this functions as a speculative accretion of things that may become quotations, and refers forwards to a canon not yet created.
Incunabulum number three is Batan City, a MediaWiki-based imaginary city. It was started by Paul Youlten, founder of the site formerly known as Yellowikis, a wiki-based business listings directory that sparked a legal challenge from the yellow pages industry, and now at SocialText. When Paul sent a story to a friend of his, she responded not with a commentary but with another story. The result is starting to accumulate online. There isn’t much there yet, but the convention appears to be that the “city” accumulates individually-authored stories around a central fictional place. I’m very interested in what works and does not work in wiki-based fiction (providing no structure at all, for instance, really doesn’t, as Ben pointed out a few days ago; here we have some basic structure and an invitation first to submit a story and then to spread the word to other writers. I look forward to seeing how it evolves.
Incunabulum number four is Troped, a blog-based ongoing narrative. I came across this when its author commented here in if:book, and have been dropping by there every few days to try and get a feel for what it’s up to. The format is short, not always obviously interrelated stories, usually updated every day or so. I’ll admit I haven’t been following it for long or in depth, but so far what leaps out is not a strong story, but the sense of an experiment in time and form. Individual entries, each with the feel of a mini-short-story, read down the page; but because it’s posted in blog software the chronology of the whole reads in the opposite direction. That is, the first entry in narrative terms is the last you come to in formal terms, but the direction of the entries themselves goes the other way. In addition, the author/s (perhaps unconsciously) echo/es this temporal paradox with a slightly odd use of tenses within the stories (“Jameson laughs. He preferred to just use the shop as a place to dicker around–someplace other than his house“), which adds a layer of temporal confusion. So to date I haven’t got into this one. But as a piece testing the limits and possibilities and mute formal insinuations of net-native writing delivery mechanisms, it’s certainly worth a look.
So, a mixed bag. Perl poetry experiments with the constraints of language, flirting with machine code in a way that subverts the usually functionalist preconceptions that lay non-coders such as myself tend to have about computer languages. The killin ur d00dz piece hard links within its writing community to foreground the dynamic and collaborative emergence of Web-specific jargons, even as it captures the intense experience of one individual. Batan City is a tentative (though, perhaps luckily for its creators, less populated than the Penguin effort) attempt to reconcile open editing with individual authorship of story elements, that uses the twin structures of a fictional place and an alphabetised list to structure the entries it invites. And Troped tests the interrelation between online self-publishing software and narrative temporality.
What all these pieces have in common is a concerted attempt to do more than upload the conventions of print text (boundedness, single authorship, linearity) into an environment that encourages in many ways the inverse of these traditions. They all have limitations, but all are pushing at the boundaries of what the new technologies make possible: multiple or anonymous authoring, new languages, strange temporalities and explicit acknowledgement of the intertext.