Collaborative fiction? Wikis and the novel

OK, just a quick thought experiment here; I’m sure someone has thought of it before, but it’s a new idea to me. I saw this Wired article on wikis (which was itself a fully editable wiki) the other day, and read it through (without adding or amending anything). But I failed to make the leap of thought that Nova Spivak did, and to consider the notion of entire online magazines being operated in a wiki format:

“There would be an editorial group among the readers that would decide what to write articles about for the next issue of the magazine, and then the community would work to write the articles. To get into the editorial group, remain there, and have a vote as an editor, a community member would have to make a certain number of (non-spurrious) contributions to articles on an ongoing basis (and/or maintain a certain reputation in the community as measured in some other manner).”

An intriguiging idea. Especially considering the fact that a lot of teen-orientated magazines are heading online and abandoning print altogether…it’s very web2.0, very community / crowd-wisdom, very zeitgeist and so on. But I think it might really work, especially in small and precise subject areas where the community that accreted wouldn’t be to large to handle – as the real world demonstrates, democratic consensus seems to struggle with big numbers.

So I made sort of a leap-frog maneuver from Mr. Spivak’s idea, and started thinking about collaborative fiction. Sure, people have tried collaborative blogs where they attempt to write a story sequentially, and I saw somewhere (the bookmark to which is lost in the clogged tubes of the intarwebs) a very extensive wiki site devoted to creating Creative Commons-licenced settings for fiction. But what about a story that could be altered at any point, by anybody?

In the same way as the wiki-mag, there would be a close-knit editorial core who would prevent any serious vandalism and hijacking. But there would be the opportunity for new people to discover the story, read it through, assimilate it, and start making little polishing amendments.

There’s that old theory that there are only seven (or twentythree, or four, or ‘n+1’) story plots in the history of literature, so one could assume the central story arc would stay essentially the same. But unnecessary frills could be dropped to make the prose leaner, or embellishments and pseudo-gothic descriptive passages could be added, depending on the current fashions of narrative – the story could change its style with the times, while retaining its essential core.

Well-loved bit-part characters could grow into heroes and villains worthy of a full-length plot-thread; less popular personas would attenuate into the background. In the case of science fiction, the technological trappings could be adjusted to keep the backdrop fresh and relevant – for example, the only bit of Neuromancer that jars for a modern reader is the amount of computer memory in one of Case’s early deals; kilobytes, FFS?

In fact, because of the way that wikis work, you could all of a sudden get new stories growing off of the trunk of the original one; minor characters wandering off into what ever they did once their part in the original plot was done. You could grow an entire world, an entire timeline, an entire philosophy and culture!

Obviously, the actual creation of the original piece of work would be a hard thing to finesse using the peer-to-peer content creation model – you’d probably have to start with a kernel story, perhaps something donated from a known writer with an appetite for experimentation and a love of copyleft and social collaboration…

…anyone fancy dropping Cory Doctorow a line?

Strangely, this idea doesn’t seem so ridiculous after all. Then again, I do have a serious head-cold at the moment. What do you people think? Am I fever-crazy, or could this be a worthwhile experiment?

2 thoughts on “Collaborative fiction? Wikis and the novel”

  1. So maybe one step ahead of this is a circular collaborative fiction that is also a game that can be written and played by many people taking the treads in different directions. Forget the ‘editorial board’ Let it live.

  2. That’s exactly the idea, my friend! Once you set free some C.C. stuff like that, there’d be no control over a new bunch of editors cloning the original and re-hacking it their own way.

    Then, of course, the teams of the two different versions could resort to flame wars and drive-by spam edits to settle their artistic differences…

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