Friday, February 2, 2007

Penguins on Parade: 'A Million Penguins' Debuts a Crowdsourced Novel

I grabbed the domain name a while back with the idea that I'd put out a group-authored novel, but had to put it on the "one day I'll get around to this" pile. Well, Penguin has a bit more focus on this than I do (understatement) and has taken a decent first stab at a crowdsourced novel. A Million Penguins went live yesterday with a few first tentative chapters and a great deal of technical confusion. AMP uses the popular MediaWiki software that forms the underpinnings of Wikipedia, a software package that has a number of virtues but plenty of vices as well. Judging by some of the discussion notes in AMP's Wiki pages chapters have been disappearing and reappearing and, due to overwhelming traffic, going away altogether at times. Not the smoothest of debuts.

But the content itself is doing some interesting things. It's kind of a tacky novel by most standards, but there is dialog, character development and more than a small amount of effort being put into coming up with something that just may work as a piece of literature at some point. The greatest limitation I see at this point besides the technological limits of MediaWiki is the lack of vision in creating narrative fiction online. So far, it's just classic storytelling. That's not a bad thing altogether, but with hyperlinks, multimedia and open-standards functionality available it's a little like pretending that only the tones of expression available from a harpsichord matter in the era of pianos and electronic keyboards.

Kenneth Patchen presaged the possibilities of a novel unhinged from linear storytelling in his revolutionary Journal of Albion Moonlight back in 1941. Patchen's Journal has story lines that go forward, backwards and sidewards through time, with parallel plot lines, abandoned plots, the author's comments on the novel in the body of the novel and the characters and illustrations and typesettings inspired by his concrete poetry experiments. Patchen's techniques presaged not only many of the 1950's beats use of text as a graphic element but as well the hyperlinking and dynamic editing that forms the basis of Wiki authoring. It's odd, therefore, that this experiment in online editing sticks to plain text and linear storytelling.

I think that AMP will be a good test bed for the book industry to get an inkling as to how to manage crowdsourcing a novel, but I suspect that it will be a fairly limited experiment based on its contents to date. It's been nearly four centures since Daniel Defoe penned Robinson Crusoe and yet for the most part book publishers still formulate books in the exact same formula as that first modern novel. You'd think with a few centuries of new media forms we'd get to the point where we could establish a new baseline for how to tell stories that will make sense for the next four centuries. Wikis show some promise to provide a basis for those efforts, but I suspect that it's only the beginning of the evolution of books into a new form of story-based entertainment.
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