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Net-driven collaborative fiction

By rongen in Media
Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 08:33:37 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

Some friends and I recently created a site called Prosebush designed to let people write collaborative fiction. The contributions we have so far are about 10% serious and 90% "silly". Has (or will) open, unmoderated collaborative fiction ever produce anything worth reading?

It's been a few weeks and our site is chugging along, with a little less than 30 regular contributors. We wanted to put up a site where anyone could join in the fun reading and writing original collaborative fiction. We thought many people would come to our site to be silly and have some fun, and that we could attract some serious writers as well. So far the silly guys are winning (hey, that's OK!). :)

The site is in its first iteration so it is not as full featured as we intend it to be (we are going to add wordNet stuff, mad-libs-like story starters--for fun, and additional tools to make the creative act easier) but it is currently quite usable. There are other CF sites on the web, to be sure, but our intention is to provide a more full-featured and user-friendly place complete with discussion forums, interviews, etc. In short we want to build a community.

As the new comp. sci. term starts now and my free time is stolen by assignments, research, and the Fall reading of "Lord of the Rings" I am wondering if all the work we have done and intend to continue is worth it? Can a bunch of people who don't know each other get together on the net and write fiction? Is it possible to come up with plots, characters, and scenes that are coherent and believable when anyone can take any story in any direction? What mechanisms need to be in place before this happens?

These are the questions we would like to answer before we re-evaluate Prosebush and decide where to take it next. We feel our system of determining a contribution's popularity automatically will go a long way to keeping the good contributions and stories at the top of people's screens while the silliness drops out of sight (visit the site to see what I mean) but will this be enough to convince "real" writers to lay down their words alongside writers like me (or the even sillier BWS)?


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Net-driven collaborative fiction | 36 comments (31 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
snurf gun thread on User Friendly (2.20 / 5) (#4)
by Notromda on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 08:46:16 PM EST

I remember once on User Friendly a thread in the message boards about snurf guns, etc... as everyone posted, you had to include and accept what those before had written. The action seemed similar to the Calvin and Hobbes game where they made up the rules as they went along. It was really pretty funny... Anyone else see that?

Don't hold your breath :) (2.80 / 5) (#5)
by Greyjack on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 08:52:54 PM EST

I imagine an entertaining thread or three will pop up from time to time, but I wouldn't count on anything with much depth being written there anytime soon.

Writing a quality piece is hard enough with only one person trying to keep a coherent vision; it doesn't get any easier with more.

The vast bulk of fiction is written by individuals; I suspect there's a reason ;)

Here is my philosophy: Everything changes (the word "everything" has just changed as the word "change" has: it now means "no change") --Ron Padgett

Addventure (3.60 / 5) (#6)
by damien on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 08:54:25 PM EST

A much older project in a similar vein is Addventure.

The main problem with this kind of fiction is a lack of consistency. Different people go in different directions at the same time. A couple people spend a week putting together an interesting and coherent storyline, and another person jumps in and blows up the planet.

I'll take an old-fashioned book any day. (Current read: Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle. An excellent book, and highly recommended.)


Re: Addventure (2.00 / 1) (#9)
by rongen on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 09:01:14 PM EST

Well the thing that we are doing (I'm Scott from Prosebush) is letting anyone add any number of contributions to any other contribution. This way a funny post need not screw up a serious story. Also, the readers of the site contribute to the popularity (or not) of contributions by reading through the stories so we hope that contributions not pertinent to the story will just "drift down" leaving good stuff (whatever that will be) at the top of the pile.
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]

that darned human naure... (3.00 / 5) (#8)
by 31: on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 08:57:30 PM EST

Sounds like a neat idea, but having it be unmoderated is asking for a bit more trouble than i think you could reasonably deal with (slashdot being the primary example, k5's recent probs a second). Then you have the problem of new users... if it starts out big, fitering out the silly or troll contributions gets harder... but if it gets established first, new people might have a hard time contributing...
hmm, maybe a site with a bunch of different, rotating stories... so new people coming on can see what's happening, and more actively conribute to newer stories...

Re: that darned human naure... (2.50 / 2) (#14)
by Mr. Lunch on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 09:49:12 PM EST

This is probably the best, if not the only way to do things: break them up into smaller groups. Artistic creativity is often an act of arrogance; it does not flourish collaboratively. Total control leads to a coherent creation. Ideas can be collaborative, indeed, they are often better if bounced around between several people. But when it comes to the actual act of writing, I don't think you could ever get beyond three or four people (who are, moreover, comfortable working with each other) before the project becomes diluted to the point of uselessness. Although, perhaps I'm just being a misanthrope again...
"Highly Professional."
[ Parent ]
Re: that darned human naure... (none / 0) (#27)
by asn on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 03:27:47 PM EST

The site has as many stories going on as you want under all kinds of different genres. Any user can start a new story under any genre. So you can contribute to new stories to get a feel for things if you like.

Any way you want it, that's the way you read it.
[ Parent ]

snoot (1.75 / 4) (#11)
by Mr_44 on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 09:10:04 PM EST

the old snoot.com had good interactive fiction.

But now it's in a state of partial existence as snoot.org.

We'll have to wait and see if it gets the old magic back.

Re: snoot (2.00 / 1) (#12)
by rongen on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 09:25:31 PM EST

Yeah, I looked at snoot.org before. One thing about it that I don't like is the fact that once someone contributes something to a story that becomes the only thing anyone else can follow from. What is to stop someone from posting "twelfth post!" and wrecking the story? (probably moderators, I guess)

I think you should be able to have many branches of a story... Lot's of bends and turns.
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]

Worth reading != worth writing (3.50 / 8) (#13)
by zaugg on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 09:43:00 PM EST

How do you measure success in an endeavour like collab fiction? If you're intent on producing prose to rival (or mirror) traditional fiction, you might be getting a bit ahead of yourselves.

Let it grow organically from a community that enjoys writing the stuff. Chances are you won't be able to control the direction the community takes, but if you want control you write alone :)

Focus on the user experience of the writer. Then see where the community takes itself.

.sig free for eight months!

Re: Worth reading != worth writing (none / 0) (#30)
by rongen on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 06:12:32 AM EST

I think our intent is to form a community, have some fun, and create some interesting reading within that community... Here is a snippet that may catch your eye: Excuse Me But. It's one of the first stories to show some unique promise on our site... Thanks for your comments. For the most part I agree with what you are saying... Control is the LAST thing we want to impose on Prosebush. Ideally our auto-moderation will allow the community members to control everything by true common consent (there will not be "human" moderation---we use various metrics to score each story and contribution depending on how readers navigate through the site).
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]
90% of everything is crap (2.77 / 9) (#15)
by trust_no_one on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 10:06:51 PM EST

I forget where I read that, but it's true. Whether you're talking about fiction, music, movies, software or anything else, the truly great stuff will always be a small percentage of the total output. So you shouldn't be surprised that most of what will be generated in a project such as this will be "silly."

That said, I don't believe that any great work of fiction will ever be written collaboratively. I think that all great works of art are the result of a single vision. I don't think you'll ever find that coherence from a group effort.
I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused

major counterexample (2.00 / 1) (#24)
by dash2 on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 04:17:46 AM EST

The Iliad and the Odyssey are thought to be the work of generations of illiterate poets who memorised the story and added their own revisions before passing it on, although more recent scholarship suggests they received their final form from a single court poet. It's a defensible judgment that the Iliad is the world's greatest work of literature. (But, question: is oral tradition really the same as simultaneous collaboration?)
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
[ Parent ]
That's Sturgeon's Law (none / 0) (#29)
by Anonymous 242 on Wed Sep 20, 2000 at 01:47:11 PM EST

Sci Fi author Theodore Sturgeon is the author of the 90% of everything is crap quote. I don't know if he was the first to express the sentiment, but he certainly made it popular.

[ Parent ]

Wishful thinking. (3.66 / 6) (#16)
by domesticat on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 10:12:14 PM EST

I highly doubt that we'll ever see much in the way of worthy reading coming from something like this. Why is this so, when open-sourcing code works?

Because these aren't the same beasts.

There are some similarities, of course - there are stylistic elements in coding, but those elements don't have the paramount importance that style and form have in non-code prose. Yes, I realize that coding, when done correctly, can be an art form, but it is more functional an art than an ornamental one (as is prose writing).

Generally, code from different people can be standardized so that it creates a cohesive, functioning whole. However, I don't believe the same can be said for open-collaboration prose, simply because once you get past the grammar/spelling/punctuation rules of standardization, there aren't any rules.

It is not impossible to collaborate and create readable, entertaining works of fiction. But it's going to become more difficult, the more people are added into the mix. There's an adage in the film industry that says that a movie's artistic quality is inversely proportional to the number of producers and directors it has. Why? Because visions and ideas are hard to communicate; by the time they're communicated adequately so that others can understand and expound upon them, they've lost the freshness and clarity that made them visions in the first place.

It's the difference between an novel and a review of that novel. It's the same general idea, but its essence of originality is lost in the process.
[ boring .sig here ]
The mechanics of collaborative fiction (3.90 / 11) (#17)
by Tatarigami on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 10:21:53 PM EST

I've written some collaborative fiction, and had a lot of fun doing it. One of the best things about it is being able to watch some writers who are vastly more talented than I am go through their creative process.

I'd suggest that you have several possible formats, to make things as flexible as possible. Constraining people too badly is a recipe for instant writer's block, or a good way to scare them off before they even try it.

One mechanism I've seen work is to give one person editorial control over one particular plotline or area. Generally, the person who comes up with the background the writers are using will be happiest to do it, as he or she will already have an idea of what kind of story is right for that setting. Let them weed out the posts which don't contribute to the plot, and make whatever alterations they feel are necessary to keep a coherent story flowing.

Or let people submit proposals they would have control over -- eg, "looking for a few serious SF fans to write a story in the <whatever> universe, email for plot synopsis".

You could have a separate area for people who just want to be silly. I remember one of the most fun projects I took part in was something called 'Word War', where our only objective was to kill each other's characters and save our own, and the only rules were that no event previously written about could un-happen, and no plot device could be repeated...

RPG message boards (2.33 / 6) (#18)
by mezzo on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 10:22:02 PM EST

have you looked at RPG that is done online through message boards?
they involve telling a story, and fits in the collaborative fiction category.
one that google found for me is roleplayinggames.net

"The avalanche has started, it is too late for the pebbles to vote."-- Kosh
Another thought... (1.80 / 5) (#19)
by GandalfGreyhame on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 01:16:47 AM EST

What are you trying to achieve through this site? Just something fun to do, another interesting way to use Scoop? Or are you hoping that something "great" or substancial will come of it? I hope its the former, as if you're hoping for the latter I think you're going to be disappointed. Most people don't have the skills for deep writing (I happen to be one of them =P ).

As I said before, I think a wise idea would be to let the author choose how he wants his idea added to, if it be simply providing ideas, writing tangents, continuing linearly, whatever. But, whatever you do, don't make immediate decisions without trying everything. And even if you do settle on a default, I think it would still be a wise idea to let the authors have complete control


Re: Another thought... (2.66 / 3) (#23)
by kraant on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 04:04:40 AM EST

Well perhaps a better way to handle collaborative creation of fiction would be to use a WikiWikiWeb style interface. Combined with a CVS like way of keeping track of versions and an advogato like trust metric.

This would most definetly raise the signal to noise ratio. Albeit at a cost of a risk of some people who do have some signal to contribute being left out.

If you desperatly have an aim in mind then that would a small cost to pay...

"kraant, open source guru" -- tumeric
Never In Our Names...
[ Parent ]

Notes from my BBS days... (3.60 / 5) (#20)
by shinybeast on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 01:23:04 AM EST

I used to participate in collaborative fiction on a BBS I frequented back in the early 80's.

Here's what worked for us.

Because the BBS was small, not many people contributed. However, those that did were dedicated to the storyline and, in general, were pretty good writers.

Occasionally somebody wandered in and "blew up the world" but, hey, a little judicious use of the editorial delete key fixed that right up.

I haven't checked out Prosebush yet, but I would recommend this.

Allow the originator of a storyline to establish:

1) Guidelines for the story. Guidelines can be as simple (ex: four sentences max per post) or as complex as desired (ex: outline of story, suggested style, etc).

2) Either a maximum number of authors per story or "named" authors. Some stories might best evolve with a maximum of seven participants. An inactive participant would "lose their slot" freeing it up for somebody else to fill. Some stories might be written by three "named" writers who have agreed to work together beforehand.

There's always a place for silliness, but it's the serious work that requires a framework of control.

Collaborative fiction on MUSHes (4.60 / 5) (#21)
by ravenskana on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 01:35:45 AM EST

My best experience with collabrorative fiction was a couple of years roleplaying on a MUSH. Not hack and slash, actual roleplaying. There was a similar problem in that 90 percent of it what went on in the MUSH was not really worthwhile, but there was a small percentage that was. After several months, this percentage got higher as a small circle of people focused on storylines that had fairly complex plots, some nice characterization, and relatively good pacing.

At its best, there were shining moments that made it all worthwhile. One of the most enjoyable creative writing experiences I've had. Among the negatives: collaborating in real-time can fall apart when one party gets dropped connection/lag, most scenes were not logged so the reread value got lost, and the stuff that did get logged never got around to proper editing.

And the unavoidable, perhaps: getting into the 'story circle' meant that the collaborators could play to each other's strengths, but made it difficult to include new characters who could have been worthy contributors. When plots were opened to allow new people, many of them were either immature or just not looking for the same experiences the rest of the group had; thus, time needed to be spend wisely to separate the more seriously inclined writers from those that were wanting to disrupt the process.

Re: Collaborative fiction on IRC (3.00 / 1) (#26)
by Stargazer on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 08:27:28 AM EST

I had a very similar experience on a role-playing IRC channel a few years back, and had very similar experiences. Here are some differences I note:

  • On IRC, you are not restricted to the MUD structure, so unique things can be done without having to refer to help pages and slow down the action. It also makes for pleasant reading: you can embellish a get command with an emote, but it reads awkwardly: "Cyrrc slowly picks up the holy staff with great reverence. Cyrrc gets the staff," is somewhat bulky.
  • It is easier to accomodate newbies who are passive. They only have one command to learn (/me), and need only to watch the role-playing progress to learn it -- there are no game mechanics to worry about.
  • It is more difficult to accomodate aggressive newbies. Since they're so eager without having the requisite background, they make for awkward plot twists which somehow have to be worked into the story.
  • I'm on IRC 100% of the time anyway, so it's easier for me. :P

I wonder if anyone else can offer insight into other, similar forms of realtime collaborative fiction, and offer more comparisons like this. It would be interesting to see how they all stack up against each other.

-- Brett

[ Parent ]

It can work: email simming (3.66 / 3) (#22)
by dorward on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 02:59:19 AM EST

I've have good experiences with Net-driven collaborative fiction in the form of email RPGs (technically email SIMS, but the terms are often, and incorrectly, used interchangeably).

An email sim is usually run by one person who keeps things on track, with up to around 15 other people involved. New writers are usually checked out first and must agree to write a certain amount every so often to avoid the story grinding to a halt.

This system prevents, or at least heavily reduces, the number of sillys and helps keep the sim on track.

There are several groups of sims out there, but I've found <a href="http://www.ufed.org/">hrefhttp://www.ufed.org/"UFED to be very good and encourage anybody looking to get in to simming to take a look.

There's a working example (2.66 / 3) (#25)
by meadows_p on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 08:20:47 AM EST

There's already a sort of similar site, the only difference being that it's a collaborative manga comic style site. Impromanga I suppose this is more likely to get serious contributers as they have to go to the effort of drawing the pictures. Also, when you've only got a few speech bubbles it's a bit easier to keep consistency of style between the different authors.

Re: There's a working example (none / 0) (#28)
by rongen on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 05:22:15 PM EST

WOW! I just checked out that site you mentioned! It's very cool, there is some major talent being shown there. Thanks for the link....
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]
collab. fiction: notes on process (none / 0) (#31)
by undhyr on Sat Sep 23, 2000 at 04:04:46 PM EST

certainly if you're looking for a multi-authorial mailing list to read like a novel you're asking for trouble, but just as collab. fiction isn't open-source code, it's not a novel either, and comparisons on both ends are equally lacking. i've been part of an ongoing collab. netbased fiction group called scrytch since 1995 (the group has been online since '93), so i'm hoping what we've learned might be helpful to you. expecting your project to be as large as slashdot is ludicrous; the methods of writing are a pretty specific taste. you're better off developing a rapport among people on the list and let people come in and out on their own, rather than making efforts to expand too quickly. while moderating sounds like it would help sift wheat from chaff (which, imho, is a crap idea, but anyway), what ends up happening is more conversations about list politics and people feeling snubbed than actual writing. better to let people handle their own killfiles and spend your time writing. as teh responses to this show, collaborative writing isn't for everybody: it's not for people who feel art is some divine expression of the deepest human emotion and anything else is crap, just as it's not for people who want to be constantly entertained. often things will sit for months before they're followed up on and developed; many things never get developed at all (but as you have a log, nothing's wasted, and things from years ago can find new uses in new storylines). sometimes, after a long series of story-posts, individual authors will take the material and mold it into specific stories, while other storylines remain as a kind of palimpsest, with multiple viewpoints and fractured plotlines. to me, this is part of why writing in this way is so interesting, as well as the ability to directly effect what's happening, to take the ball and run, which is certainly different (and in many ways more satisfying) than the "good ol' novel". which is, of course, a misnomer; consider the multiple authoring and literary experiments of the OuLiPo, consider the episodic writing of thomas wolfe, william burroughs and jack kerouac; consider the number of medieval manuscripts written before the advent of the singular authorial voice. there's a long and vibrant history to multiple authored works, and to open-ended layered plotlines. don't worry too much about whether some false audience thinks it's great art. start small, have fun, and leave decisions of greatness to history. -d. bauler: the journal of speculative disease

Re: collab. fiction: notes on process (none / 0) (#32)
by rongen on Sat Sep 23, 2000 at 05:59:03 PM EST

I was just looking at Scrytch. Seems to be a link to Prosebush there for which we are grateful... :)

That's a pretty rich set of documents. I wasn't poking around long enough to see much but from what I did see you are really doing things in a freeform way which is very interesting. Scrytch seems really organic and non-linear. Over at Prosebush we are aiming for a little more structure but the branching factor is definitely there.

I think the commonalities between the two projects are interesting and I will definitely be combing through the archives a bit! The encouraging thing is that there are communities on the net doing this stuff and it really is working.

One thing I am interested in is the fight against un-original content in entertainment media. "There is nothing new under the sun" (EC 1:9) has been said time and again and maybe it's true. But as entertainment gets dispensed to us like pablum (with rare exceptions) I like to think that there is some hope in a return, in spirit, to a time when people sat around a fire at night listening to and telling stories, maybe changing them a bit to seem more relevant or whatever. This type of thing (sharing in the telling of stories) should prove to be a good counter-balance to the mass-media grind... :) Anyway, thanks for your interest and your comments!
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]

How much should you water a prosebush? (none / 0) (#33)
by Tatarigami on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 08:43:51 PM EST

I've been glancing at the site every so often for a while now, but one thing has kept me from getting very deep into any of the stories you have: short posts. I battle net congestion quite a bit, and it's discouraging when each 'chapter' takes longer to load than it does to read.

Most of what I've seen appear to be two or three lines and that's it. Have you considered 'baiting' serious story tellers by planting story seeds that are a few paragraphs or more? I also think you might get a few more serious posters if there's more to build on.

The way I see it, the major advantage a weblog site has for multi-threaded fiction is the engine to organize it, and the major disadvantage is the time it takes to move from one post to the next.

Re: How much should you water a prosebush? (none / 0) (#34)
by rongen on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 09:01:01 PM EST

Thanks for this comment... It's something we discussed a lot while designing the site. We were thinking that short posts mean more branches to the story, but make it much harder to read. One way to combat this is to use the "story so far" link but you need to be at a contribution that is far down in the story to make it worth using. Meanwhile we have no way of enforcing content length (nor would we want to---it's all about the freedom to write what you want).

We are going to implement the discussion forums for the contributions, etc., as nested comments (so you can see the entire discussion on page load)... It might be worth doing the stories like this as well. We are a new site so we are constantly re-evaluating our interface. Comments like yours are really helpful.

There is one story, Temple of Klos, that is maintaining a pretty good post length but again this is subject to the whim of the individual authors.

One thing we are considering is an algorithm that will choose the "best" story so far from a given story bush and deliver it to you as a flat page. You could read this then if you didn't like how it was going (our algorithm won't be that good 100% of the time) you could branch off from with that view... Does this sound like it would make browsing the site easier? Basically our algorithm will pick a path down through the story and show it to you all at once.

We think that one of the main drivers of collaborative fiction on the net will be the interface the writers share, it has to be easy to use and not limit the view of the content or somehow obfuscate it. We also want to be able to deliver good content despite the fact that we have no control over what people are writing. It's a challenge but if the Prosebush community can come up with some good stories it will be worthwhile!

Thanks again for your interest.
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]

Re: How much should you water a prosebush? (none / 0) (#35)
by Tatarigami on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 06:49:02 PM EST

That algorithm is an interesting idea, but how do you choose the best story? The number of follow-up posts people have made?

My suggestion would be to allow whoever started the story by making the first post could choose the best, or you could have people vote on their favourites. This might be a good way to get the non-writer visitors to join in and take part in the process.

I'd like to see a 'hall of fame' area too, where the best stories are posted on the main page for everyone to see. Also, maybe some kind of back-cover blurb for each story, just to give an idea of what it's about. (Of course, with so many people contributing, you may not know until it's finished... maybe at the end of the story, then?)

[ Parent ]
Re: How much should you water a prosebush? (none / 0) (#36)
by rongen on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 08:31:53 PM EST

Well there is another debate raging on moderation :) here at kuro5hin! I explain a little more about how we would do the algorithm there (link) but basically it is too complicated and resource intensive for anyone to implement in real time right now. There is research being done along these lines though.

About letting users score story contributions, we really want to keep the human moderation out of it. We have an automatic method for doing this that seems to work well. We want to avoid making someone work to get the site they want (i.e. filter out all the lame posts, etc). We think this can all happen behind the scenes. Our ranking algorithms are still in active development, though.

As for the hall of fame... we were just talking about that today! :) See eventually a story gets too popular (we call this a Microsoft story---just kidding--he hee) and it becomes impossible to dislodge it from the top 5 (which seems like the place most people go to find a story to read). We think when this happens we will move the story to a permanent home. It will still be added to and read, etc., but it will have achieved enough exposure that the community will have bookmarked it or be really familiar with it if they are interested. That's the plan anyhow.

Thanks for your interest! I hope I answered your question!
read/write http://www.prosebush.com
[ Parent ]

Net-driven collaborative fiction | 36 comments (31 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
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