Saturday February 27, 2010
Excited that they’re making a documentary about Memphis’ Antenna Club, if just a tiny bit concerned that it will wind up including footage of me throwing up. Those were good times. I think.
Earlier this week, Alexandra wrote about here recent trash-picking exploits—and philosophy—at EverydayTrash.com. But we took even more photos of beach debris when we were on vacation. Here are some of them.
Friday February 26, 2010
The final installment of "Why They Cried" and its associated object—a charming wire basket—are up for auction at Significant Objects. Bid early and often, since proceeds benefit Girls Write Now. If you missed the previous installments, you can find them all here.
Thursday February 25, 2010
“Why They Cried: Roy,” the penultimate installment of my Significant Objects series is now up at Fictionaut. The final installment, “Why They Cried: Jacqueline,” will appear tomorrow at SignificantObjects.com, paired with an object, which will then be auctioned off with the proceeds going to Girls Write Now. (Somewhat tantalizing hint: My object is in this grid if you want to try to guess what it is.) Here are the installments that have appeared so far, if you want to catch up.
And here are my blog posts from this week about the project, objects, meaning, and why I chose to do a serial.
Look for the auction announcement tomorrow.
Wednesday February 24, 2010
A few years ago, I did an interview with Sean Stewart—sf novelist and pioneering writer behind the Alternate Reality Games “The Beast” and “I Love Bees.” (This would make him a pioneer in so-called “transmedia,” I suppose, although that word wasn’t in common circulation then.) Stewart had at that point—and probably still has—done more hard thinking about online storytelling than most of us, and I turn back to that interview from time to time for reference and inspiration. (It also makes the stray syllabus and bibliography, like this one I found the other day.) Here’s what Stewart saw in his crystal ball in 2006:
Another part of that art form that I think is going to really stay with people is that sense of the collective or collaborative audience—that it exists in what we were talking about as porch space or blog space: A connected group of people who are interested in talking to one another about things and are even willing to be moved by those things. And it will be a little bit interactive, I think. This is where my crystal ball gets murky, because obviously you look at really passive forms of entertainment like TV and say, “Wow, that’s a model that works.”
I bring this up now—in the middle of a weeklong discussion of “Why They Cried” and Significant Objects—for two reasons. First, as I was saying yesterday, I think a lot of the value created by Significant Objects auctions comes from the participatory element or, if you will, the community. The site itself is a sort of community and, of course, eBay is one of the biggest online communities around. I did want to experiment with this element a little further with “Why They Cried,” which is why I decided to post the preliminary installments to Fictionaut and Facebook—a specialist and generalist community, respectively—rather than to my own site. Will this increase the significance created? Who knows.
But the part of this quote that’s really been hollering at me this week is the last part. “You look at really passive forms of entertainment like TV and say, ‘Wow, that’s a model that works.’” Except, in this case, the model that really seems to be working to me is Twitter—or the real-time web or ambient awareness or whatever you’d like to call it. Our interview took place before Twitter even launched, and I wonder what Stewart would say about its influence—I should ask him—but here’s my take, which has to do with why I decided to do a serial leading up to my Significant Objects contribution.
With the rise of blogs ten years ago—and the attendant explosion of content—persistence has become one of the single biggest factors in connecting with audiences. And I don’t mean this in the sense of stick-to-it-iveness (which has its points). Instead I mean it in the sense of persistence over time. It’s a common experience for a first-time blogger to craft their first post, put it up, and then be immediately disappointed when no one shows up. But the fact is that a single blog post is practically meaningless when it comes to connecting with audiences. What engages audiences (and builds communities?) is persistence over time.
This effect has been exaggerated, I think, by the rise of social networks. If blogs expanded information 10-fold, then Facebook and Twitter have expanded it at least 100-fold on top of that. Yet as individual blips become even shorter and less consequential, the overall effect of this ambient awareness is more intimacy, not less. (The great divide between people who get Twitter and those who don’t is between people who have experienced this overall effect and those who can’t get past the disposability of the individual blips.) If newspapers are concerts, blogs are lectures, and social networks are coffeehouses. But as a result, storytelling and authorship is going to change. An individual story floated on the social stream is whisked away by the current and forgotten almost immediately. The same thing with books, I’m afraid, which are punctuated events, whatever their length. But a story that unfolds over time—like our awareness of one another via social networks—strikes me as more native to this sort of casual awareness. I’m not saying that stories should simulate social network interactions via online “characters”—plenty of people do this—but that persistence and elongation of a story over time makes more sense for how we read now, which is why I’ve been playing around with serials, including “Why They Cried.”
Do I have any evidence for this, or am I just making it up? Well, I’m sort of making it up, but I do have some anecdotal evidence. One of the bigger stories in literary fiction in the last few months was Electric Literature’s Twitter experiment with Rick Moody, for example. Short fiction, meted out over time, becomes a big mainstream story. Could be the Radiohead effect, but it’s interesting. On a smaller scale, the fastest growing e-book download I’ve seen on Feedbooks is Scott Douglas’s Dispatches from a Public Librarian, a collection of his columns from McSweeneys.net. Again, a narrative with persistence over time, which—I’m suggesting—is what it takes to build an audience (and create significance?) in the post-Twitter world. So that’s the twist I’m hoping to add to the Significant Objects experiment this week with “Why They Cried.” We’ll see how it turns out.
Click here for more information about Significant Objects and my contribution, “Why They Cried.”
Tuesday February 23, 2010
Yesterday, I was wondering what people pay for when they purchase a Significant Object and why, it seems, stories have more value when they are attached to an object. As often happens, I started to see shadows of these questions everywhere. Rob and Josh, of course, have initiated (or pointed to) more ways to parse this than I could ever imagine, from the concept of “story shadows” to classifications of which sorts of stories create the most significance. (In the latter case, it turns out that “sequences” embue objects with more value than “classifications” or “descriptions.” This seems to make a case for plot and/or scene, which suits me fine.)
But the container problem—why people are more likely to pay for intangible things when they are attached to objects—is for real. Over at Digital Book World, for example, there’s been spirited discussion about whether or not publishers have devalued their own content—a discussion that quickly turns to container talk. And Jaron Lanier, in You Are Not a Gadget, proposes something called a “songle”—a “song” in a “dongle”—as a way of re-montetizing incorporeal content. Lanier has some good points about the devaluation of creative works in the digital age, but the songle idea seems nostalgic and, frankly, absurd. Untethering may make content difficult to price and police, but it also makes it incredibly convenient. The Digital Book World discussion, on the other hand, focuses on things like the elimination of DRM, which will make it easier to pay for intangible content. If people can’t have an object, at least they can have convenience and reliability. (This is, in fact, the proposition that helped the iTunes store slow the still significant bleeding of the music industry.)
But there’s nothing particularly convenient about bidding on and purchasing a Significant Object for 30-times the original purchase price. So why do people do it? Some possible factors:
NOVELTY: Call this the Radiohead effect. The band famously offered fans a pay-what-you-wish plan for purchasing their music. It was a huge success, of course, but then Radiohead is already famous and they were the first to do it. There’s reason to believe that this strategy might stop working once the novelty wears off. Interestingly, the average object price actually went up during the second flight of Significant Objects, which suggests that the novelty effect might not have been so significant. But there were mitigating factors. First, the project earned press and gained steam over time. Second, SO 2.0 benefited from …
CHARITY EFFECTS: In the so-called “experimental phase,” the proceeds from Significant Objects auctions went directly to the writers. In the second—and now, the third—phase, they went to charity, which could explain the jump in value. (Rob also suggests that the “upcycling” effects of the project might be a factor, and I think he could be onto something, since repurposing is all the rage.) But I find it amazing that even when the writers were pocketing the loot, objects generated 28-times their purchase price. This is in stark contrast to the perception, in the publishing world at least, that consumers are fantatical about not paying for things. It might just be, instead, that consumers feel justified ripping off corporations, while they would actually like to support writers.
FANDOM: While I can assure you this will have no effect on the sale price of my object, some objects no doubt do well because of the prominence of the author. The same thing that would motivate a reader to go to a book signing might also motivate him or her to pay a premium for an ordinary object associated with a work by a favorite author.
PARTICIPATION: Now I think we’re getting somewhere. The fact is, bidding in—and winning—a Significant Objects auction is not just a transaction, it’s an activity. You do something, over a sustained period of time, and you participate in a community. This has something to with why I chose to do a serial leading up to my Significant Objects contribution. More about that tomorrow.
Click here for more information about Significant Objects and my contribution, “Why They Cried.”
Monday February 22, 2010
I want to take the chance this week to write a little bit about the Significant Objects project and why it seems particular interesting (to me, anyway) at this historical moment, when producers of all kinds are struggling to find ways to get people to pay anything for content. That’s not to say that SO-style auctions represent an alternative business model. Rather, they present a working model of meaning—and value—being created in a setting where we can ask, what the hell is going on here? What are people paying for when they purchase a Significant Object, and why is it missing (or is it actually missing?) from an MP3 or an e-book or an article in the New York Times.
First of all, let me say it’s a pleasure to, like, jam with Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. I used to read Glenn’s Hermenaut when I was failing to get a Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Memphis in the mid-’90s—I didn’t know I was failing at the time, but that was just how it worked out—and I read Walker’s ad column at Slate when I was running the ad industry site AdCritic.com a decade later. That these two guys (the semiotician and the marketing critic) would get together might seem odd, until you realize how profoundly the rise of the Internet has re-raised fundamental questions of meaning and value—questions which philosophers and marketers alike are trying to solve. Don’t believe me? Pick up Chris Anderson’s Free, or its opposite number, Jaron Lanier’s new You Are Not a Gadget, and you’ll find books that cover material from Adam Smith to Amazon.com, from machinima to Marx. And as someone who has spent time contemplating both Derrida and DDB, I’m interested in these questions from both angles.
It was a few months ago when I really got it. I was eavesdropping on MediaBistro.com’s eBook Summit—via Tweetdeck, of course, for free—when it hit me how deeply publishing (widely construed, including books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) had lost the thread of its own survival. I say this not because I have the answers. (Yes, I’m one of those.) I say it, instead, because it’s breathtaking how quickly and completely the rug has been pulled out from under publishing. The rug cliché is apt here, too, since it really is an object that has been snatched out from underneath publishing, or—rather—objects in general have been snatched out from underneath it, throwing its entire market value into question. Which is funny, since it was never quite true that the value was contained in the objects in the first place. For physical newspapers and magazines, their cost is, at best, a usage fee or a circulation-control device, and for books, it has always been understood that the object itself is merely a container for the work, which itself is intangible. And, what’s more, we pay for intangibles all the time in form of brands and their cultural auras, the cost of which far exceed the value of the objects themselves. (One of the reasons I am a PC—not a Mac—is that while it might be true that Macs have more utility value than PCs, they also have more brand value tacked on. In other words, a far greater percentage of the cost of a Mac goes toward its aura, and I like to control aura expenditures. That said, I am an iPhone convert, which—at this point—has no rivals when it comes to utility.)
So although consumers pay for intangible values all the time—provided they inhere in objects—it has turned out to be difficult to persuade people to pay for these same values when they are freed from objects entirely. (When they are all bits and no atoms, to use Anderson’s formulation.) It’s as if you can’t charge anything if you don’t have an object to stick a price tag on.
Which is why I think Significant Objects is interesting. You won’t find many sites that pay $100 to $200 for flash fiction stories. But that’s what SO stories fetch once they’ve been attached, as it were, to objects. And it doesn’t much matter what the object is, it seems, as long as there is one, as though objects were the containers in which we still expect all meaning to be traded. Of course it’s somewhat more complicated than that. More tomorrow.
Click here for more information about Significant Objects and my contribution, “Why They Cried.”
Friday February 19, 2010
A week from today, I’ll be participating in the Significant Objects project, an idea cooked up by NYT Magazine columnist Rob Walker and writer Joshua Glenn. The basic idea? They buy an object for next to nothing, ask a writer to write a story about it, then post the object and the story on eBay and see what happens. And what does happen? Well, people pay more (often a lot more) for the newly narrativized (?) object than they would have before. This touches on so many of my interests I can hardly count—I’ll try to write about few of them here in the next week—and gets to the heart of how significance (and meaning and value) are created. Because that’s what we, the humans, do when it comes to meaning. We create it.
Rob and Josh have been at this for awhile. Mine will be the 155th object to be auctioned, so I wanted to put some sort of spin on the idea. Ben Greenman recently wrote a description for a “mystery object,” for example. This Borgesian project yielded $103.50. Designer Debbie Millman, meanwhile, submitted a handwritten story, which embued her object—a paperweight—with $197.50 of significance. And since I’ve been experimenting with serials, I decided to do a series.
My object and story will go up on eBay a week from today, but it will be the fifth installment in a series called “Why They Cried,” which will start on Monday. (Don’t worry, the series isn’t as maudlin as it sounds, although—okay—it is somewhat maudlin in patches.) The first four “episodes”—the series is a collection of short vignettes unified by the common theme—will appear next Monday through Thursday on both Facebook and Fictionaut.
If you’re not familiar with Fictionaut, it’s a social network for writers and readers created by Carson Baker and Jürgen Fauth. I think I admire it because I attempted something similar (very badly) in 2006, with a Digg clone I cobbled together called the The Lit List. It quickly became a spam trap—and I later pulled the plug—so I understand how much care and time it takes to tend to a community like this and make it grow in a sensible way. These guys have taken the time. (Anyone can read stories there, but if you’re a writer and would like to comment and/or post your own work at Fictionaut, send me an e-mail. I have a few invites to give.)
So, next Monday through Thursday, I’ll post the first four installments of “Why They Cried” on Fictionaut and Facebook, which will serve as the lead up to the fifth installment, which will appear on the Significant Objects site and, of course, on eBay. If you are now saying to yourself, “I cannot miss a single moment of this,” here’s what you can do, in order, from the cleanest to the noisiest, signal-wise.
1. You can join my Facebook group, which I use to announce projects like this. I’ll send alerts about the new installments to that list next week.
2. Follow my blog. Same deal, although you might get posts about other things as well.
3. Follow me on Twitter. Get the alerts plus a bunch of other Twitter business. Consider this the “Getting to Know Me” package.
4. If you only like to use the newest and shiniest, you can also follow me on Google Buzz, which I like—whatever the FTC says.
That’s it. Hope you’ll follow along, then bid early and often.
Wednesday February 17, 2010
An old story of mine, “July 4: Easter,” is featured today at CellStories.net. You can read it on your cellphone, but not on your computer, since CellStories (as the name suggests) is a cellphone-only story-delivery system, which I think is pretty neat.
There are a lot of literary websites around these days—and I mean a lot—so deciding where to send work (for me, at least) has become about going with my gut. If I see a site that is doing something unusual or interesting, it goes on the list. (I don’t need a long list. I’m not very prolific.) In fact, “July 4: Easter” was first published in Twelve Stories, where I submitted it because I liked the concept of publishing when (and only when) the editors had amassed 12 stories they liked.
CellStories first appeared on my radar in August, when its founder—Daniel Sinker, a professor and founding editor of Punk Planet magazine—posted a call at Kickstarter to defray server costs for the not-yet-launched project. In September, I attended an event about e-books and digital publishing thrown by the Toronto-based lit site Joyland—I have a new story appearing there in April—and CellStories, in absentia. Sinker wasn’t there, but Joyland’s Brian Joseph Davis read from his manifesto, “Here Be Monsters: Thoughts on the future of words on a page.” You can (and should) read it in its entirety here, but here’s a sample:
Today, as we ponder the future of fiction, the future of journalism, the future of words on pages, there are two types of people: the cartographers and the badass Krakens.
The cartographers will do what they’ve always done: steer you toward the known. Those are the people that want you to spend $300 to buy a device that emulates as much of the old system as possible — locked in distribution, publishers, the works. They want you (and the money folks, especially the money folks) to know that everything that you’ve learned doesn’t have to be unlearned. The Krakens? Well, we’re swimming around your boat for all kinds of reasons.
These are the sort of people I want to hang with as the future of digital publishing emerges. Krakens, not cartographers. Or that’s what my gut tells me.
Enjoy the story. Today is Ash Wednesday, which couldn’t be more appropriate. You’ll see what I mean.
Friday February 05, 2010
Beast Books will be longer than conventional long-form magazine articles but shorter than conventional nonfiction books. They will be published digitally and distributed on multiple platforms, and will soon thereafter be available as handy paperbacks. They’ll provide megabyte edification—and high-voltage provocation—with the ambition of enlarging our understanding of the complexities we chronicle every day at the fast and furious pace of breaking news on The Daily Beast. [via thedailybeast.com]
I was just having a conversation with some tech-savvy friends last night about how the Internet has taken over practically every form of content, except long-form writing—and how the e-reader revolution is coming for that now, too. For that reason, I think the idea behind Beast Books—stories too long for the browser being offered as digital-first e-books—is incredibly smart. E-books, at this point in time, are sort of a middle way. Less substantial than actual books, releasing one still has more gravitas than just posting something on the web in HTML. And you can charge for them. (Maybe.)
That said, Beast Books’ first outing, “Wingnuts,” demonstrates how confused (and confusing) this nascent market still is. Brown says the books “will be published digitally and distributed on multiple platforms, and will soon thereafter be available as handy paperbacks.”
Okay. Which platforms and for how much? The call-outs on the site say $15.95, but the link takes you to Amazon, where the book is available for the now famous price-point of $9.99 for Kindle and $10.85 for the paperback, which will be released on February 23. So the book starts digital and then ladders up to the premium in-store price of $15.95? Does the business plan call for anyone to actually acquire the book this way and for this price, or is this a phantom product meant only to justify the price of the digital download? Alternatively, perhaps Brown will go all the way, and ladder up to a hardcover release, $27.95, for the spring. (I seriously doubt this.)
In any case, I like a model that suggests that a print book is an enhanced e-book, rather than looking at e-books as degraded print books.