The Collaborative Book

The effect of realtime and time on the writing process

Originally published by: New Scientist

The image of a book is a physical one: the thick cover, the heft of the interior block, the feel of a page’s edge. A permanent thing, immutable.

Publishers, writers, readers and software makers are busy trying to shoehorn this old idea of the book into new media. They ask, “How do we change books to read them digitally?” But the more interesting question is, “How does digital media change books?”

With digital media, that immutibility is subverted. Text can change it continuously and in real time. As a result, time itself becomes an active element in the crafting of stories.

Wikipedia is a fully realised example of this. The core editorial ethos of the physical encyclopedia still informs Wikipedia, but the ways in which content is created, shared and expanded on are entirely digital constructs. When you take a set of encyclopedias and ask, “How do I make this digital?” you get a Microsoft Encarta CD. When you take the philosophy of an encyclopedia and ask, “How does digital change our engagement with this?” you get Wikipedia.

When we think about digital’s effect on storytelling, we tend to grasp for the lowest hanging fruits: words will move, pictures become movies, every story will be a choose-your-own-adventure. While digital does make all of this possible, these are the changes of least radical importance.

The biggest change is not in the form stories take but in the writing process. Digital media changes books by changing the nature of authorship. Stories no longer have to arrive fully actualised. On the simplest level, books can be pushed to e-readers in a Dickensian chapter-by-chapter format - as author Max Barry did with his latest book, Machine Man. Beyond that, authorship becomes a collaboration between writers and readers. Readers can edit and update stories, either passively in comments on blogs or actively via wiki-style interfaces. Authors can gauge reader interest as the story unfolds and decide whether certain narrative threads are worth exploring.

For better or for worse, live iteration frees authors from their private writing cells; the audience becomes directly engaged with the process. Writers no longer have to hold their breath for years as their work is written, edited and finally published to find out if their book has legs. In turn they can be more brazen and spelunk down literary caves that would have hitherto been too risky. The vast exposure brought by digital media also means that those risky niche topics can find their niche audiences.

The core ethos of why someone writes does not necessarily change. And the final form of the output (paragraphs, chapters, etc) may not feel so different from digitized editions of printed books. But what does change is the very process of creation: the movement from idea to text to reader. It may not be as flashy as flying text, embedded movies and interactive chapters, but it is having a far more profound impact on the words we read.

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