wikipoetry and the wikinovel

[WARNING: very long post]

On TUF, there’s a forum called Morning Electroshock where someone starts a story and other people can come along and add to it. Basically it’s intended as a bit of fun. But Scavella mentioned on her blog that the other day it had, pretty much uniquely, actually created a complete story which with some polishing might stand up on its own merits. You can read the result here.

I have a residual interest in this kind of thing because I once set up a site called The Poetry Wiki. Technically I suppose I still run it, but it never really attracted enough interest to need any running. I never even look at it anymore, especially since I moved this blog to a new hosting service. Checking the Recent Changes page, it seems someone last edited it only 6 days ago – but the changes are coming at 2-month intervals. Presumably any edits are by people who wander across it via Google.

Anyway, the point of the Poetry Wiki was to experiment with collaborative poetry writing. Most people have encountered Wikipedia, I imagine, so the idea is fairly familiar. Wikipedia is created collaboratively – anyone who wants to take part can just dive in and start editing the content. It may not be the perfect encyclopedia, but it’s at least successful enough to demonstrate that the process can work. The idea of the Poetry Wiki was that anyone would be able to edit any of the poems, and that (aided by some discussion) something would emerge – who knows what. In the event, it didn’t catch on.

I really started it just out of curiosity and because I could, in the purest spirit of experiment. But I do find idea of collaborative literature is intriguing. People’s usual reaction to the idea is negative – in fact, we talk about something being ‘designed by committee’ when we mean it’s mediocre, damaged by compromise and a bit of a mess. There’s certainly no great tradition of it being done; whether that’s because it can’t be done or because it hasn’t been tried, I don’t know. There are a few examples of collaborative arts, though. Some forms – opera, film-making, TV – are intrinsically collaborative. But as well as being collaborative by necessity (the actors can’t operate the cameras) they are usually more collaborative than is minimally possible. It would be theoretically possible for one person to do the script, score, costume and set design, casting, directing and production, but it’s not the norm. With lots of specialist roles, division of labour becomes an obvious idea.

Poetry-writing doesn’t involve lots of specialist roles, of course. The closest parallel I can think of is the teams of writers who work on US TV comedies (and other series? I don’t know). Friends may not be poetry, but it’s still good of its kind. Would twenty poets sitting around a table be able to work together in the same way? If they were being paid enough, of course they could, but would the result be better than any one of them would be able to produce alone? I don’t know. But I don’t think you can dismiss the idea out of hand.

There is one form of literature which is (sort of) collaborative: oral literature. It’s collaborative in the sense that each scop/storyteller builds on the tradition which has gone before, and each telling inherits material from all the thousands of tellings which have gone before. But each telling is still the work of one individual. And there’s renga, but that still doesn’t involve people editing each other’s work.

Really, the only way to find out whether writing collaborative literature would be possible or desirable is to try it. The real point, perhaps, is that it is easier now than ever before. The internet is the most profound change in the way we present and receive writing since the invention of the printing press. Sooner or later, it’s going to produce a new form of literature, just as printing eventually made the novel possible. Someone has to try out the possibilities – why not me?

I’ve been considering some of the issues as they apply specifically to using a wiki to write poetry and novels. There would be other ways of organising the process, of course; any software which allows people to post text and others to comment would be just about usable. The advantage of a wiki is that it is designed to allow repeated editing of the original text by multiple users; most of the other kinds of online community (blog, forum, mailing list) involve threaded discussions, which means that much of the action would happen a long way down the thread. With a wiki, the latest version would be the first thing a visitor would encounter.

Even using a wiki, there are a range of different possibilities. Most of them emerge from the conflict between two perspectives on wikidom. Is the wiki just a tool for achieving an end, or the manifestation of a whole philosophy?

Wikis are designed to be democratic (anarchic, in fact), open-access, non-hierarchical, intertextual and dynamic. For some people, this is not simply the way that wikis happen to work; it is an ethos which the wiki embodies. As a comparison, Wikipedia is actually quite heavily structured compared to the original wiki software, and there are people who feel that the hierarchy of users with different powers and, for example, the ability to lock pages, is a betrayal of the WikiWay. Despite this, if you spend some time editing Wikipedia, you’ll still encounter plenty of wikienthusiasts who feel that wikiness is actually a positive virtue in itself.

Take the question of open-access. The classic wiki model allows any visitor to edit any page anonymously without even registering with the site. Wikipedia allows this, and is successful because there is a sufficient mass of well-meaning users to compensate for the casual vandalism of passing idiots. Partially this is because the site appeals to exactly the kind of people who are best suited to it – geeks. That’s not intended as an insult, btw; I’m enough of a geek myself to have accumulated a few hundred edits on Wikipedia (and to have started a poetry wiki, for that matter). That geekiness, which is so well suited to painstakingly arguing over fine points of detail, works well for fact-checking. Attention to detail is also important to writing poetry and literary prose. The question is whether you’d ever get a critical mass of people who were not just well-intentioned, but had the literary judgement to know whether an edit was improving or killing a sentence. The bulk of poetry posted on the internet doesn’t give much cause for optimism. Nor does most of the prose style on Wikipedia. The obvious but unwikilike alternative is to restrict membership to people who you trust.

Another question to consider is whether the process has an end in sight. The nature of a wiki is that it is intrinsically dynamic and unstable. There is no point where it is ‘finished’. On the other hand, most people engaged on writing a novel would probably want to produce a finished piece at the end of the process. I tend to think a dynamic model would work better with short pieces – poems or short prose – where one could absorb the whole piece relatively quickly and then start digging into the history to see how it has changed in the past. It would be much easier to get a sense of the dynamic quality because one could compare diffferent versions more easily. A dynamic 700 page novel makes less sense because few people would be willing to read through several versions from beginning to end. It might be interesting, mind you, to produce a book with four or five versions of a 100-page novella, though; that would provide some compromise between the idea of a work in a finished state and the dynamic possibilities. The different versions could either be different stages in a history or different forks of a tree.

Wikis also have a distinctive structure; they’re modular, distributed and accretive. They have no centre, no hierarchy, and they grow a bit at a time in no particular direction. That structure is perfect for an encyclopedia, because encyclopedias are inherently modular; if the article on Dickens is crap, it doesn’t affect the article on Thackeray. Although Wikipedia’s category system imposes a kind of hierarchy for the purposes of navigation, the site is basically an accumulation of independent articles. By comparison, a novel is (arguably?) more holistic. If something is wrong in chapter 4, it can kill chapter 5; if there’s something distinctive about the characterisation in chapter 1, it can affect the way people will read chapter 20. The wiki structure doesn’t naturally provide for the kind of over-arching commentary that would be needed to deal with those kinds of issues. Something could no doubt be improvised, but there is a natural fit between encyclopedia and wiki which doesn’t apply to the novel.

Even more profound as a change from printed literature is that wikis are not normally linear. They make use of links between articles in the way which has become familiar for anyone who uses the internet. There have been various internet attempts to accomodate hyperlinks in literary forms; none of the ones I’ve seen have been very convincing. But to use a wiki to compose a novel or a selection of poems without linking would be to eliminate a major part of the functionality of the software.

All these possible conflicts – open access vs. membership, dynamic vs. convergent, modular vs. holistic, linear vs. hyperlinked – are conflicts between whether to just use a wiki as convenient software for collaborative authoring, or to embrace the wiki as a way to do something new.

If we imagined literature that embraced the full possibilities of the wiki, it would be a radical vision indeed – the wiki as one big hyper-poem or hyper-novel, openly authored, non-linear, hyperlinked, associative, evolving, mixing traditional narrative prose with poetry and who knows what else, and with a thousand routes through the text. It’s a sexy idea; radical, progressive and dramatic. And if you’re interested in the ways that new technologies shape our art, it makes more sense to produce art that is shaped by the technology available, rather than using the new technology as a way of slightly extending our ways of making traditional forms. None of which is worth much if the result is an unreadable mess. Would it ever offer anything beyond novelty value, let alone any kind of advantage over traditional forms? It’s one thing blurring the line between writer and reader, another to produce a text which is only any fun if you edit it yourself.

For once, I’m not claiming I know what the answer is (there could be several answers). Perhaps the very idea of collaborative literature is stupid; perhaps a wiki is the wrong software to produce it in any case. But I find it interesting to consider the possibilities.
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A link: writehere.net is another wiki where people are playing with these ideas.

One Comment

  1. 31 December 2005 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Harry,

    I found this post by turning on Blogger Webcomments in Firefox, so forgive the late comment.

    Gabriel and I have done a couple of collaborative poems, and they’ve ended up pretty entertaining. Like you, I find the idea interesting. It’s one of the reasons I like to play around with things like poetry telephone or blind poet’s bluff or anything else that mucks around with identity and voice and rewriting.

    I’m going to go poke at the wiki now.

    Julie

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