a million penguins: a wiki-novelty 02.07.2007, 7:03 AM
posted by ben vershbow
You may by now have heard about A Million Penguins, the wiki-novel experiment currently underway at Penguin Books. They're trying to find out if a self-organizing collective of writers can produce a credible novel on a live website. A dubious idea if you believe a novel is almost by definition the product of a singular inspiration, but praiseworthy nonetheless for its experimental bravado.
Already, they've run into trouble. Knowing a thing or two about publicity, Penguin managed to get a huge amount of attention to the site -- probably too much -- almost immediately. Hundreds of contributors have signed up: mostly earnest, some benignly mischievous, others bent wholly on disruption. I was reminded naturally of the LA Times' ill-fated "wikitorial" experiment in June of '05 in which readers were invited to rewrite the paper's editorials. Within the first few hours, the LAT had its windshield wipers going at full speed and yet still they couldn't keep up with the shit storm of vandalism that was unleashed -- particularly one cyber-hooligan's repeated posting of the notorious "goatse" image that has haunted many a dream. They canceled the experiment just two days after launch.
All signs indicate that Penguin will not be so easily deterred, though they are making various adjustments to the system as they go. In response to general frustration at the relentless pace of edits, they're currently trying out a new policy of freezing the wiki for several hours each afternoon in order to create a stable "reading window" to help participants and the Penguin editors who are chronicling the process to get oriented. This seems like a good idea (flexibility is definitely the right editorial MO in a project like this). And unlike the LA Times they seem to have kept the spam and vandalism to within tolerable limits, in part with the help of students in the MA program in creative writing and new media at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, who are official partners in the project.
When I heard the De Montfort folks would be helping to steer the project I was excited. It's hard to start a wiki project with no previously established community in the hot glare of a media spotlight . Having a group of experienced writers at the helm, or at least gently nudging the tiller -- writers like Kate Pullinger, author of the Inanimate Alice series, who are tapped into the new forms and rhythms of the Net -- seemed like a smart move that might lend the project some direction. But digging a bit through the talk pages and revision histories, I've found little discernible contribution from De Montfort other than spam cleanup and general housekeeping. A pity not to utilize them more. It would be great to hear their thoughts about all of this on the blog.
So anyway, the novel.
Not surprisingly it's incoherent. You might get something similar if you took a stack of supermarket checkout lane potboilers and some Mad Libs and threw them in a blender. Far more interesting is the discussion page behind the novel where one can read the valiant efforts of participants to communicate with one another and to instill some semblance of order. Here are the battle wounded from the wiki fray... characters staggering about in search of an author. Writers in search of an editor. One person, obviously dismayed at the narrative's dogged refusal to make sense, suggests building separate pages devoted exclusively to plotting out story arcs. Another exclaims: "THE STORY AS OF THIS MOMENT IS THE STORY - you are permitted to make slight changes in past, but concentrate on where we are now and move forward." Another proceeds to forcefully disagree. Others, even more exasperated, propose forking the project into alternative novels and leaving the chaotic front page to the buzzards. How ironic it would be if each user ended up just creating their own page and writing the novel they wanted to write -- alone.
Reading through these paratexts, I couldn't help thinking that this was in fact the real story being written. Might the discussion page contain the seeds of a Tristram Shandyesque tale about a collaborative novel-writing experiment gone horribly awry, in which the much vaunted "novel" exists only in its total inability to be written?
* * * * *
The problem with A Million Penguins in a nutshell is that the concept of a "wiki-novel" is an oxymoron. A novel is probably as un-collaborative a literary form as you can get, while a wiki is inherently collaborative. Wikipedia works because encyclopedias were always in a sense collective works -- distillations of collective knowledge -- so the wiki was the right tool for reinventing that form. Here that tool is misapplied. Or maybe it's the scale of participation that is the problem here. Too many penguins. I can see a wiki possibly working for a smaller narrative community.
All of this is not to imply that collaborative fiction is a pipe dream or that no viable new forms have yet been devised. Just read Sebastian Mary's fascinating survey, published here a couple of weeks back, of emergent net-native literary forms and you'll see that there's plenty going on in other channels. In addition to some interesting reflections on YouTube, Mary talks about ARGs, or alternative reality games, a new participatory form in which communities of readers write the story as they go, blending fact and fiction, pulling in multiple media, and employing a range of collaborative tools. Perhaps most pertinent to Penguin's novel experiment, Mary points out that the ARG typically is not a form in which stories are created out of whole cloth, rather they are patchworks, woven from the rich fragmentary litter of popular culture and the Web:
Participants know that someone is orchestrating a storyline, but that it will not unfold without the active contribution of the decoders, web-surfers, inveterate Googlers and avid readers tracking leads, clues, possible hints and unfolding events through the chaos of the Web. Rather than striving for that uber-modernist concept, 'originality', an ARG is predicated on the pre-existence of the rest of the Net, and works like a DJ with the content already present. In this, it has more in common with the magpie techniques of Montaigne (1533-92), or the copious 'authoritative' quotations of Chaucer than contemporary notions of the author-as-originator.
Penguin too had the whole wide Web to work with, not to mention the immense body of literature in its own publishing vault, which seems ripe for a remix or a collaborative cut-up session. But instead they chose the form that is probably most resistant to these new social forms of creativity. The result is a well intentioned but confused attempt at innovation. A novelty, yes. But a novel, not quite.
Gary Frost on February 7, 2007 7:34 AM:
The chaos of the web and collaborative web writing is real. Try any kind of physics based on innumerable observers. The secret of print is the direction of innumerable observers to a fixed array. Another secret of print is the presentation of the conceptual work in a physical object. The physical object acts as a karaoke cursor and each reader appears to be in possession of the conceptual work. Its the wave of the future of the book.
andrew s. on February 7, 2007 9:33 AM:
A novel is probably as un-collaborative a literary form as you can get
Oh, that doesn't sound quite right. Maybe most notably, a very large number of successful novels are the result of collaboration between an author and an editor. And a proof reader, and a copy editor, and maybe the author's spouse, or the people in his or her workshop, or... But even if it's just limited to "literary form", I think you'd probably generally see much less collaboration in the average poem, for one.
ben vershbow on February 7, 2007 10:31 AM:
Good point, but workshopping and editing are different than full-on collaborative writing, which is what we're trying to puzzle out in this experiment. The processes you describe are about honing or refining an inherently single-author work.
But most fiction does, as you say, bear the subtle imprints of a number of helping hands, as does I'm sure a fair amount of poetry (Ezra Pound's work-over of "The Waste Land" would be a more obvious case). And it's certainly true in a deeper sense that almost no form of creativity is done in isolation. All culture is collaborative, whether passively, directly or somewhere in between.
Jeff Drouin on February 7, 2007 10:53 AM:
You're right in saying the wiki is probably not the right vehicle for a large-scale, networked collaboration on a novel. My hunch is that such a group would need to be smaller and the project begun with a more controlled focus -- if it's to be a novel.
It's a fascinating textual and artistic experiment, though. While we should wait for the finished product before judging its worth, I'm most anticipating the collaborators' assessment discussion, which I hope will be done online. How will they decide (or will they decide?) when it's "finished". More interestingly, how will they determine its success?
Experiments like this could lead to better net-native collaborative fiction projects and tools.
Another interesting experiment -- I'm sure this has been tried but I'm just not aware of it -- would be a wiki-native artwork.
dan visel on February 7, 2007 11:31 AM:
I think Andrew has an important point: collaboration is not new. Look at the Bible for example - how many hundreds, thousands of people were involved in writing it, editing it, translating it? And there's a long history of collaborative writing. What's interesting to me are the structures that enable collaboration - for example, in contemporary print publishing, you have the writer, editor, copy editors, proofreaders, designer . . . But more importantly for the end product, there's an established system for collaboration. Everyone knows what their role is because they've been hired for a specific job. This sort of structure isn't impossible through something like a wiki - Wikipedia works because the majority of the people involved know exactly what they're trying to do & a systematics has evolved, but it seems that Penguin, like many other experiments in this vein, hasn't thought that far. You can't have content without form.
sebastian mary on February 7, 2007 1:45 PM:
If I was being uncharitable, I'd say Penguin didn't really want their wiki novel to succeed. Given that much of their business comes from selling books written the usual way, it's hard to see how they would benefit from undermining their own enabling premises. And the sheer lack of attention to structure, organisation and the necessary social elements in setting the experiment up recalls an anti-suffragist campaigner inviting some woman who's never left her small village to come and debate in Parliament, and then taking her stammering as proof that women shouldn't be involved in politics.
But let's assume that (to borrow Dan's metaphor elsewhere) it's more a case of trying to spooge the members of a classical symphony orchestra into a jam session, forgetting that they're trained to read music off a page while watching the guy at the front with the little stick. And not realising that the reason they're confused is not because they're rubbish musicians, or because jam sessions are a bad idea, but because you're asking them to do something without giving them a set of rules that works for the context.
If it was in fact ignorance rather than malice, what might have made it work better?
From my experience of collaboration (written and otherwise), the one thing that doesn't work is structurelessness. It leads inevitably to power-play, mediocrity and chaos. But that doesn't mean the only alternative is top-down organisation.
First of all you need clearly defined roles: editor, arbitrator, brainstormer or whatever, and some system for ensuring that while anyone can volunteer for any of them, that any apprenticeship (training, handover) for a given role is carried out. Then you need practice, deadlines,a willingess to embrace some chaos but not disappear into it, a system for conflict resolution, a clear group intent, and an atmosphere of shared endeavour.
Some of the above can be delivered in technological form. The rest is better described as social algorithms. I say 'algorithm' rather than 'rule' because what I'm talking about is structures that should enable rather than restrict. In my humble opinion it's actually the latter which are the most important. And it's the element that seemed most glaringly missing from this rather abstract and technology-driven experiment. No wonder the actual story got a bit left behind.
dave davison on February 7, 2007 2:20 PM:
Penguin should have known better.The "networked book"is an emerging phenomenon in the non-fiction area, particularly from thought leading authors in business.
Here are two examples (1) PERMANENT INNOVATION authored by my friend Langdon Morris who accepted my challenge to publish in the Creative Commons in both online and LuLu modes, establish a companion blog and position the book as a platform for conversation and a aggregation center for case studies of innovation.
(2)WIKINOMICS, by Don Tapscott which I review here:
joanna howard on February 8, 2007 4:45 AM:
As one of the DMU party, I'd say that since the start of the wiki, I've done through all the opinions expressed above. Having some experience of hosting discussion boards, I was aware of the possible issues (which happened.)
Now, though, I'm pleased that we started with as little structure as we did. The necessary forms have evolved/are evolving and the experience, skill and goodwill of the serious contributors is impressive.
I went through the pages last night, copy-editing mainly, and came across a reference to Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveller" - a book I'm continually reminded of while working on the Wiki.
Yes, there are some silly and ego-inflated people out there. And as well there are people (including the DMU group) who are enjoying the process and interested to see what happens.
Kate Pullinger on February 8, 2007 6:54 AM:
As another member of the DMU team, I should tell you that Ben Vershbow's post made us realise that we needed to find a way to make clear our view of the wiki-novel and our experience in helping set it up and run it. So we've started a group blog (just what the world needs, but even so...) at
Alison Norrington on February 8, 2007 8:05 AM:
Like Joanna, I am part of the DMU group and have found the wiki-novel frustrating and yet frenetic, addictive whilst also extremely annoying. But maybe the dust is settling now. We seem to now have a few 'alternative' novels going on in the penguin wiki. It's no longer just black and white (ha ha - geddit? - penguin? - OK, forget it.)
There are now interesting options - an erotic novel, a fantasy option, contemporary fiction, historical and ethical too. And each additional 'thread' gives extra opportunities for choice - which, let's face it, is what Web2.0 is all about - collaboration, choice, interactivity! I'm very interested to see how this will develop now - and it looks as if Penguin may come out of this experiment with at least 4 novels. Wonder whether they'll be publishable?
Jesse Wilbur on February 8, 2007 1:20 PM:
Just an observation: ethical guidelines provide a rule-set (a social algorithm, if you prefer) upon which to build what seems like a fantastic community. But, on the other hand, they're just guidelines. The actual rules rules are in the Terms and Conditions. I realize that enforcing the rules falls squarely within the practice of writing the novel (and within the practice of following the guidelines - mostly), but I find the contrasts to be somehow indicative of the tensions in the project.
Paolo Mazzarello on May 19, 2007 5:02 PM:
Wiki-novel is a bird's eye on the intimate life of all the world. A fantastical work has been made in an absolutely new way. As one of the 1,500 Co-authors, I can't judge its value but can tell about my sensations. So thinking about Penguin Books, DMU and Media Wiki together I would like to remember the importance of their contributions. We sure learned something.
Spencer on February 29, 2008 9:27 PM:
While this Penguin book may be done, the idea seems to have caught on. WikiAuthor http://wikiauthor.wetpaint.com/ seems to be an updated version of this, with multiple stories being written at once. Because this Wiki is so new, it remains uncertain whether the wiki-novel concept can work on the mass scale.
Saulat Pervez on August 20, 2009 12:23 AM:
I mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative novel. We titled it Shades of Prey. It is available on Amazon.com. Do check it out!
tubejay on September 3, 2009 11:24 PM:
i think it's probably true that the story of the story is bigger than the story itself. if you look at the internet you can see that open source is capable of amazing things, and that over time things sort out into a kind of peaceful, productive anarchy, but that anarchy is abstracted with ordered methods.
i'm not saying that underneath it all is order. underneath it all is chaos. but it takes a long time for any semblance of order to establish itself on top of that, and i'm certain that's the goal of the book.
difference open source projects have different methods of organizing. wikipedia has its own methods, with its own strengths and weaknesses that (often) work for wikipedia. it gains a lot of attention, praise (some warranted,) and criticism (some warranted) for the outcome.
other projects have their own strengths. but the bottom line is that there are methods, they develop over time, and they're not all the same. it sounds like penguin is as far from finding those methods as they are from a novel, i don't think that's a coincidence. the best thing to learn from this though is the obvious ways of establishing order aren't necessarily the best.
that's what makes the experiment so interesting. maybe a new method of collaboration will come from it. if you think about it, pretty much all good novels are collaborations, if only between author and editor.
henry swanson on November 7, 2009 1:05 PM:
I like this. Some semi-random thoughts arising;
1. The ancient and highly self-limiting notion that a 'novel' or indeed any creative act is the product of a singular inspiration, springing forth complete from The AuthorTM like Athena from the forehead of Zeus is itself a dubious idea. Both do admittedly make for a good spun Myth, however. (Note also the interesting observation that Hephaestus used technology to do the job - a golden axe - and himself was the god of creative endeavor.)
2. Goatse is a highly literary phenomenon. (Well, at least Bataille would have thought so ;-)
3. "Far more interesting is the discussion page behind the novel" - are the two in any way truly separate? Perhaps the question is how the two could have been more fully integrated, overlapped & Mashed Up in a conscious manner, in keeping with the boundary-dissolving nature of teh Interwebs itselves..
4. "Dismayed at the narrative's dogged refusal to make [/traditional] sense" - sounds like fun. But then I think Burroughs rocks.
5. "How ironic it would be if each user ended up just creating their own page and writing the novel they wanted to write - alone." Not really. The whole event felt like a flash mob on roller skates, spray-canning a quick fan fiction on the side of a fast-moving virtual train to andor from anywhere-nowhere. Saying you did or did not like what they wrote doesn't really encompass the whole strange nature of the event itself.. or how fun it was to be on skates. "What a lock of old Jackson"* say some.. but they can go read vampire novels.
6. "The problem with A Million Penguins in a nutshell is that the concept of a 'wiki-novel' is an oxymoron [..]"
So they could of meta-tagged it better.. so what? As the boundaries between types of online art and means of expression melt and mutate even further, that is (in classic MTV terms) become "Liquid Television" - the dynamically-interactive nature of such events / processes like these will come to the forefront. Speaking in terms of chaos theory, these collective transmedia events are 'emergent'.
7. Both the concept of The Author and The Reader are themselves an Alternative Reality Gaming, played inside a self-sustaining ludic space, together generating what I call 'sandbox fictions'.
8. "The result is a well intentioned but confused attempt at innovation" - innovation is a process, not a result, and as such is always confused..
9. Speaking somewhat cynically, we might well assume that Penguin has no true interest in 'The Future Of The Book' at all, and is performing this public experiment as part of its ongoing brainstorming effort to Enhance Shareholder Value in the future. (No surprises there, then.)
10. The working image-metaphors of 'a million penguins' and of 'monkeys-with-typewriters' (see Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem) both semi-neglect to emphasize two things;
a. As has already been noted, "Shakespeare was a monkey himself." (See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_authorship_question)
b. Both monkeys and penguins are both part of an entire living 'Ecology of Ideas'
Right I'm off to wait for the Fedor / Rogers fight to appear online. Laters,