February 19, 2009

Will The Crowdsourced Novel AirBorne Take Flight?

By Eric Berlin of Online Media Cultist (FriendFeed/Twitter)

It's always fun to watch new creative experiments on the Internet play out. When it comes to novelists dabbling in the electronic realm, I fondly recall Stephen King's The Plant, "a serial novel published in 2000 as an e-book."

King wanted to see if people would voluntarily pay $1.00 for each installment versus the option to download for free. Perhaps an early sign of things to come, many people chose not to pay, resulting in the story -- a rather fascinating one if you're interested in how the publishing world worked in the New York City of the 1980s, before the age of the Internet -- never being completed in full.

Now we have AirBorne, "the world's first chain novel inspired by James Patterson." The concept is that best selling thriller writer Patterson will write the first and last chapter of this "crowdsourced" novel. The 28 of 30 "middle chapters" will be written by selected writers, who get the honor of writing one chapter apiece. Presumably, the writer of chapter 14 has to wait until the first 13 chapters are completed, or have a strong idea of what's going on in the story, to pick things up. That fact alone must have made this project a logistically challenging one.

In the 2000 online world that The Plant was released into, distribution options were relatively limited (a Web site destination and viral means limited to things like e-mail and IM), whereas AirBorne will be rolled out a chapter per day starting on March 20th through such "web 2.0" channels as Facebook, Twitter, and RSS.

It will be interesting to see how viral and popular (and airborne?) a project such as AirBorne can get. While chapters are limited to a lean 750 words a pop, will people be keen to churn through it for 30 straight days -- a lifetime in the online realm? And that's to say nothing for the editorial challenge of maintaining some form of stylistic and storytelling consistency through a cavalcade of 29 writers (including one battle-hardened pro) telling one tale.

More than anything, the concept behind AirBorne reminds me of a game that my friends and I used to play. A person would start a story by stating one sentence aloud (usually it was as goofy and bizarre as possible, of course). Then the next person would pick up the thread, and around the circle we'd go. I'm sure that many others have done the same, and I can infer that collaborative storytelling is a tradition that many people can appreciate and potentially participate in, as reader or author.

And as ReadWriteWeb notes:
The roots of the collaborative writing movement can be found in many web startups, including those like Novlet, Potrayl, Ficlets, Unblokt, Protagonize, and others we profiled here. A popular activity for creative writers, these communities offer various takes on how a co-written story should be developed, some focused more on "choose your own adventure"-style stories while others focus more on linear narratives.
I like the idea behind AirBorne, and think it's a worthy project for a well known author to participate in. That said, I think things could have been made really interesting if the non-author part of the crowd -- the online public -- were let into the process somehow. Or what if the group of authors were entitled to vote to move the story in one direction or another after each chapter was finished. For example, maybe after Chapter 15 was completed, the author of Chapter 15 asks a question, such as: Do you think Mike should drop the gun and give himself up, take a hostage and hole up in the control room, or start shooting and try to make a break for it? And the group of authors vote and dictate where Chapter 16 begins.

And, finally, speaking of AirBorne, I'm pounding the medicinal variety today to fight off the onslaught of a cold!

Read more by Eric Berlin at Online Media Cultist