Sunday, March 3, 2013

Week 8: Born Digital Fictions

UPDATE: It seems that A Million Penguins (the wiki novel), one of our required readings for this week, has been taken offline...

How are web platforms leveraged for the telling of compelling narratives? Jeremy Ettinghausen wonders what will happen to the novel: “is the novel immune from being swept up into the fashion for collaborative activity? Well, this is what we are going to try and discover with A Million Penguins, a collaborative, wiki-based creative writing exercise.”

Some key ideas to consider this week:

Real time
twitter stories
flickr stories
rss feeds and narrative
Inanimate Alice
episodic fiction
how to maintain readerly interest

This Week: Blog question and answer with digital creator Chris Joseph!

"You will see--very, very soon--authors become publishers. You will see publishers become booksellers. You will see booksellers become publishers, and you will see authors become booksellers." ~ Stephen Riggio

According to Kate Pullinger, there are seven aspects that we (readers, writers and creators of new media texts) MUST acknowledge:
  1. Writers need to talk about money
  2. Writers, publishers and teachers need to get their heads out of the sand: the digital future is already here
  3. E-books are boring.
  4. We better keep talking about e-books.
  5. Be afraid of e-books.
  6. Always remember that human culture is highly visual.
  7. Good writing.

Read Pullinger’s entire manifesto here:

We'll also be exploring the wiki-novel A Million Penguins.

Bruce Mason says this about the project:

"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 the Million Penguins' Report here.

Discussion Questions:
Q1. Although publishing might seem easier in some senses, what about copyright issues? Think of Apple’s DRM movement.
Q2. Read “A Million Penguins.” How different from a traditional book is this wikinovel? How would you describe it (is it really a “novel”)?
Q3. Digital publishing is in a constant state of evolution. In August 2010, Oxford University Press has decided to relaunch the online version of the OED. They have chosen iFactory as the online
publishing platform. What changes in functionality, access and personalisation do you think might occur from such a shift (offline & static to online & evolving)? Read and article on the change here:


  1. Please note below how you can access the wiki-novel 1000 Penguins. Note: no spoiler alert required as you read on :-) ha ha

    The 1000 Penguins website is no longer being hosted by Penguin – but you can still access it via the Wayback Machine at []-- when you get there just drop the url in
    to the search engine [] and then you can pick the year and date to see a snapshot of what existed – I looked at a couple of different years/dates.

    It is built on the same platform as Wikipedia – hence not surprisingly it will look familiar – some déjà vu in terms of design and layout.

    It is not at all like a traditional book – based on my review it is more like a compilation of random short stories – with no connection to each other. If there is a traditional plot line and connected characters – it is not readily apparent – and it didn’t hold me long enough to want to find out. The 2008, March 2nd archive starts with a lead paragraph and then ventures into several different stories about a writer, a whale, a fluffy cat… I did check out a couple of editor posts in 2007, February where Jon (10 days into the project) uses a metaphor to describe what he is seeing from the Wiki-novel:

    “I’ve started thinking of the site as a giant, ever-expanding sandbox - anyone can build there, but there is always the possibility of getting your sandcastle kicked over or incorporated into someone else’s project. Whether one huge, ornate and architecturally coherent sandcastle will ever take shape I don’t know, but there are some fine and interesting smaller constructions going on . . ."

    He notes in this blog post that feedback has been varied, for example one point was that “the discussion pages and list of edits are as interesting if not more so, than the novels themselves. Fay Weldon (British author) called it “writing without responsibility”.

    At least Wikipedia is a process of collective intelligence that is based on facts. This wiki-novel is dealing with random writing styles and ideas – all subjective. I think Douglas Rushkoff was polite in saying it was “fun” but noting it was disjointed and that “every book needs its author”.

    1. Thank for posting the tip about the way back machine! Amazing that nothing is ever really removed from the Internet...

  2. Thanks for the path to the archives, Teresa. (Here is a shortcut, Gail-Ann:

    Q2. I'm intrigued by the process of a collaborative novel. The product at the end however, is not like a traditional book at all. I found A Million Penguins challenging to follow myself - the transitions are not strong enough to carry the reader deeper into the story. It is challenging to develop the characters in a way that makes us empathetic (there's Tony, Artie, Fred, Larry, Fluffy, Mark, Gina, Artie's friend Kim, etc.).

    I enjoyed this debrief article by the project supervors (, who argue that we can't compare a wiki and a novel as they are inherently different things. "It's a wayward wiki narrative with a wiki-wicked sense of humour: to judge it in terms of a conventional novel (or even an unconventional one) is to do it a disservice - and to somehow miss what the experiment taught us."

    Platform aside, I do think multiple people can co-author a narrative. It takes an equal amount of dedication and investment in the front end to brainstorm and map out the characters and plot. It requires clear roles and responsibilities including the identification of who makes the decisions if there are different opinions, who edits, who adds the flare.... I imagine that movie and television scripts are worked on in this manner.

    On a separate note, I really enjoyed Jonathan Harris' Whale Hunting project that was one of our readings this week. It is a fantastic visual narrative of that journey executed in such a creative and refreshing way.

    1. Thanks so much for the link Sylvia! I agree with your comments on co-authoring narratives. I believe there is tremendous opportunity to open up narratives that include multiple contributors, even by expanding the digital format and creating multilinear works. Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph work on "Inanimate Alice", clearly defines the boundaries you are talking about. I think an essential element of co-authorship in this format has to be in developing a community. The article you referenced also mentioned this. Authors/contributors have to share a linear vision (which appeared absent in "A Million Penguins"), if the narrative is intended to look like a novel or a story versus a collection of works.

    2. I agree that Whale Hunting is a lovely visual story.

    3. And yes Sylvia, successful collaborative writing does take place. I often think that the platform throws people off. Most tv, film and play scripts are collaborative pieces which (often make sense

  3. Q3. When is the last time you reached for a hard copy version of a dictionary? It’s kind of like reaching for the white or yellow pages. We just don’t. It’s about speed and convenience. It’s about the online medium being able to provide massive increased functionality over the old-fashioned hard copy version.

    For example, how about searching when you know the meaning but have forgotten the word? Or being able to use a wildcard to search if you are a sketchy speller? The online OED has amazing options including the ability to browse by subject, region, usage, or language of origin (including pronunciation using the International Phonetic Alphabet), showing search results in timeline form and even the ability to save searches and entries to a personal profile. This version adds 1000 new and revised words every quarter as new scholarship improves entries and language is constantly evolving both with new words, and when the meanings of existing words change.

    OED show how they continue to evolve with technology and social trends with this prominently displayed quote on their website from Chief Editor, John Simpson 
“I would like to invite readers to contribute to the development of the OED. Everyone can play a part in recording the history of the language by helping in the creation of the Dictionary.” (”

    Perhaps the only disadvantage is that the online version is available by subscription, which is not cheap for an individual ($295/year or $29.95 month to month). Another disadvantage can be the dependence on the source. Plus, sometimes all you really need is a quick, free Google search. Which may not be scholarly but even timelier than OED online. There was no listing in OED for “Grenade” a slang term used today by young people, made famous by its description of an unflattering female character in Jersey Shore – but it did have lots of responses to the question of what it meant on Yahoo Answers.

    I went to the U of A library, which of course has access to this online dictionary, and it was interesting to cruise around in the site. From their “crowd source” approach – I enjoyed looking at the OED Appeals –“help record the history of our language”. I noted their search to find earlier evidence/historic use of the term “mochacchino”. Sorry Starbucks – apparently it was a cold desert with evidence dating back to 1971 ( Also of note to me was the request for historic reference to the term “Ironman” the sporting event before 1979. It is always interesting to see the comments from the participants too.

  4. Apple's iTunes store launched in 2003 and was hugely successfully. The music industry came to embrace online distribution, as it discouraged illegal sharing. Apple made further progress on January 6, 2009 ( with the announcement that their music would now be DRM free (with a new 3- tier price point approach to satisfy the music industry). Jobb’s had laid down this vision 2 years prior in an open letter ( Good things take time, innovative thinking and proof that new business models can work – 6 years in this case.

    Copyright issues lag behind rapid technology innovation and contrast the ease of publishing on new SM platforms. Complex copyright laws result in confusion and unintentional legal violations as the average consumer has to navigate tricky laws and loopholes. The result is that the simplest of online activity can result in copyright infringement. For example, users caught downloading a television episode can lose Internet service, pay a fine, or even incur jail time, depending on how big the offense is. But making a mix tape or CD of favorite songs and distributing it to 25 friends, while technically illegal, is a widely tolerated practice ( I found two new examples that reinforce how dynamic copyright issues are – one with respect to Pinterest and also with recent moves into the Digital resale space.

    If you are using Pinterest and want to find out where a particular photograph originated, it could take you multiple clicks until you get there. You may find yourself ultimately at Blogspot, Google Images, or Tumblr. How easily the original source gets lost is the concern resulting in unintended copyright violation. “From a technical perspective, Pinterest is hosting full-size, full-resolution images on its servers without the rights holders’ permission, while also removing reference to the source. It’s how the entire repinning, reposting model works. And it’s legal – under current legislation. At the moment, Pinterest is following the letter of the Internet law by giving the public a way to report copyright infringements. According to the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Pinterest simply needs to pull a reported image that has been published without proper citation (”.

    Another example is Redigi who launched an online market in 2011 for the resale of pre-owned digital -- think of a used record store – but for digital music files. They only accept music from iTunes or ReDigi not from your CD collection. So, if you have iTunes tracks you aren’t listening to you can store it for free with ReDigi’s cloud service and listen to it when you want to and/or sell the songs you no longer want. ReDigi has an application that identifies which tracks are eligible to be resold. When ownership transfers to the buyer, the seller can no longer access the track and no copies are made. The copyright question is whether doing this requires approval from the content owners, or whether users have a legal right to resell their digital content without permission. Apparently the law is not clear on this point, ongoing litigation will help to clarify this – Capitol Records’ is currently suing ReDigi on this matter ( Amazon is moving into this digital resale market as well. In a recent press release ReDigi clarifies the difference in the Amazon and ReDigi business model ( They endorse Amazon’s move to the digital resale space but differentiate themselves in recognizing their model is superior in that they are “the first company in history to provide artists and authors a recurring revenue stream by offering Artist/Author Syndication as part of the secondary marketplace”.

    Publishing is easier with all the new platforms – but the copyright piece is messy and lags behind.

  5. I found it very difficult to describe "A Million Penguins" as a novel. I would identify it as collaborative writing - a term I found defined on Wikipedia as, "a form of writing by a group of authors who share creative control of a story". I found it to lack the authentic characteristics of a novel based also on a Wikipedia definition ( The multiple contributions in the wiki style format created an absence of a narrative voice that grounded the story line. The lack of character development was confusing, as characters would temporarily appear from anywhere, and go no where. It was extremely random as the plot was scattered or altogether appeared missing. Although some people appreciate the artistic merit "A Million Penguins" brings, I found it to be frustrating and uncomfortable to read. It was like reading with a strobe light flashing on and off. Wikipedia proved to be a great resource for me this week in analyzing "A Million Penguins" as a novel. Contributions on collaborative fiction found at provided some good information on how this experimental wiki novel was to work. Most interesting to me were the findings of the research team behind the project from the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University which concluded that it remained unclear whether this experiment was successful or not. It stated that it appeared to be the wrong way to answer the question of whether a community could collectively write a novel.

    The Canadian site Protagonize which is an online creative writing community and self publishing platform (launched around the same time as the Million Penguins experiment), has become very successful for writers working in a participatory collaborative medium. It seems to have a sensible and successful approach to collaborative writing, although it does not entirely mimic the wiki novel format. Thank God for that!!!

    1. Gail, thank you for introducing me to Protagonize – what a fabulous way for writers to hone their craft and find a community who share their passion. It made me wonder if any *successful* writers have this type of collaborative experience behind them? I honestly thought about Justin Beiber being discovered on YouTube. Could we discover great writers in some sort of similar way? Perhaps there is more of a chance with digital literacies due to their visual nature – but for text-based writing it doesn’t seem as likely. Protagonize could be the same type of opportunity for the next successful writers of the day – an opportunity to find “their people”, gain confidence and a launch point in terms of developing a portfolio. With the ability to now publish online easily and economically (I’m reminded of PressBooks from week 3 of the course when we examined e-Books). I can recommend this site to students who want to develop a portfolio of creative writing, which is not the type of writing we focus on in Business School – but which is sometimes an interest area (I teach a Promotional Management course).

      I think it is cool that teachers they can actually use this site to make a private group for their own class – hence enabling the collaboration – but also being able to filter and monitor to the level their school administration may insist on. The group feature enables writers with niche interests the ability to find each other and collaborate. Very cool.

  6. I think that an online platform for the OED is necessary in a web 2.0/3.0 environment. The iFactory article provided a description of how a user might personalize their search using OED by subject, region, usage, or language of origin. Other functional uses included saving searches and entries to a personal profile. The traditional model of the OED did not allow the user to personalize their search, resulting in each search being an independent and isolated query. The functionality of this new platform partnered with iFactory supports users to navigate through the OED site as they would across the web, with links threading common searches and information, creating a digital trail. I read a comparison of OED and at, and I was able to see the specific niche OED has carved for itself as resource, and how it will manage to maintain authenticity as a world renowned accurate and historic resource. reflects a pattern of our online search behavior today, resulting in information that is trending and adaptable taking precedent over information that is historic and researched. Although the OED does not prescribe to sorting, and classifying inquiries based on what's trending, I think the OUP is wise to maintain a similar competitive approach to reflect consumer usage of the OED. Sites like Wikipedia have created a community of contributors that may lack scholarly accuracy, but maintain popularity and frequency of use. The OED is maintaining its relevance online. The OED website states, "The world wide web is a natural medium for the publication of revised entries as work in progress.", and describes itself as, "A medium in which continuous revision can take place". The OED as a resource is well established, and not going anywhere as a major reference, but adopting changes in functionality to reflect the personal practices of online users today is definitely wise.

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