When you go to a bookstore to buy a book you expect a number of things that the publisher – and the author – readily provide you with. You expect quality content – a good story or a good idea argued well, perhaps – but you also expect a number of things so rudimentary nobody actually thinks about them anymore. Consider the following:
- you expect a cover
- you expect soft pages you can flip
- you expect binding of some sort
- you expect book-smell (and this is a personal favourite of mine – I really really like the smell of new books) –
- in short, you expect a standardised reading experience.
Compare this experience with that of online fiction. Granted, one of the main draws of the medium right now is that it is new, experimental, and that it doesn’t come with a set of preconceptions or constraints that may bind you if you so choose to write a dead-tree novel. But if you think about similar mediums that have matured, over the past few years, you’d realize that there exists a very particular growth pattern to which all these mediums follow before they became mainstream, one that we haven’t gotten to yet.
Clay Shirky best summed it up in his June 2009 TED talk:
What matters here isn’t technical capital. It’s social capital. These tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It isn’t when the shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society. It’s when everybody is able to take them for granted.
And this is the truth. Nobody really paid attention to blogging until WordPress and Blogger came along and made the technology – or, more importantly, the concept – boring. But it’s interesting to note that while blogging is staple to us now, in 1997 it was chaotic, and less of a movement than a collection of fringe geeks. Early blogs were literally ‘web-logs’ – records of links found on a person’s travels throughout the world wide web (and, yes, I am aware of how old-fashioned that sentence just sounded) and there really was no defined idea of what – and how – a blog should look like.
This has, of course, changed, in so far that even fringe communities like ours now write our fiction in the blog format. We know what blogs look like. We know how they work, and we know how to read them. Somewhere in between 1997 and 2001 the blog morphed from a collection of links to a reverse-chronological order of posts, with comments, trackbacks, RSS feeds and what have you … and this change enabled the mass adoption and acceptance of blogs and blogging. The blog became standardized. When you go to a blog now, you expect a number of things that all blogs provide you with – things that are by now so rudimentary that nobody thinks about them anymore. And in this way blogs resemble books: they deliver content in exactly the way you expect them to.
The same cannot be said for the blook. Or blog fiction. Think about it: when we publish fiction on WordPress/Blogger/Drupal, we are taking a system that was designed for something else entirely, and adapting that for the delivery of fiction. There is a difference between text and prose, and I believe that WordPress, and Blogger, and Drupal fail to make this distinction. How the author displays the work is up to him or her. Sometimes this works. Most of the time it doesn’t.
And you don’t have to look very far for evidence of this! Take two random works, any of the 300+ you can find on Web Fiction Guide, and compare their presentation styles. Some will have their chapter listings on the right, some will have it in the footer. Some display a splash page, some just hit you with a reverse-chronological order of posts; still others give you a link to the first episode in the sidebar. Whenever you read web fiction you are literally taking a dive into the dark – you don’t know what you’ll find, and you don’t know the context you’ll find it presented in. Imagine going to a bookstore to see books of all possible formats – some read right to left, some packaged in scrolls, others propped up and sold in ring files. This is terrible. It is already a huge challenge to find good content within the confines of the book as we know it. Likewise for online fiction – the diversity of presentation styles is is a huge mental block, particularly for the reader, and it’s one that I think we should do away with.
So Who Should Do It?
Let’s go back to the story of the blog. I told you that somewhere along the way – around 1997 to 2001 – the blog was transformed from a ‘web-log’ to the written format we accept and know today. Now I believe that this change did not happen via collective community movement. Nobody decided anything together. And so I’m not going to suggest some cliched ‘let’s decide now, together, what we’re going to change about this’ as a solution to this problem. If we look at blogging, we see that the change happened not because of the old-timers, it happened in spite of them. A bunch of newcomers – programmers – came together and wrote b2, cafelog, and then later on Movable Type and WordPress. This changed the nature of the blog. WordPress and Movable Type were easy-to-install platforms that lowered the bar to entry for many. More importantly, however, it put blogging on the map. The more bloggers started using WordPress/Movable Type (and it didn’t matter which, for the format was essentially the same) the more people read them; the more people read them, the more they started clicking these interesting little ‘powered by blogging engine‘ links; the more they knew blogging, the more they were inclined to blog; the more bloggers there were using that particular blogging format … and on the cycle went.
I believe that the easiest way to have a standardized online fiction format is for somebody to actually sit down and develop the system himself. And yes, that does sound rather difficult (!) but note that blogs are actually rather simple applications to write – ask any programmer if this is so and he’s likely to go d’oh at you. So while WordPress and Drupal are too bloated for our purposes, the former – being open source – is actually a good starting point on which to built a system on. The crux of the change is this: this app – whatever it is, or how it looks like (and I’ve got quite a few ideas on how it should look like), it should be good enough, and simple enough, and intuitive enough to meet all possible online fiction needs. And if it is all these things, mass adoption should follow, sooner or later, allowing writers to do what they do best in an environment that currently throws so many obstacles in the good writer’s way.
I’d like to close now, but in case this sounds like a lot of charity work, here’s something to think about: there is now a large publishing industry shift across the digital divide, particularly where authors and novels are concerned. Consider how beneficial – and how desirable – designing a system for writers to tell their stories would be … not only for the community, but for whoever so decides to be a developer of just such an app. WordPress, is, after all, making more than enough money to survive.