Evidently, I wasn’t the only one who, when I saw what hypertext could do, thought the technology was perfect for Choose Your Own Adventure stories. The books, which let readers decide what happens in the narrative, were part of the inspiration for Nick Bouton’s Protagonize ( www.protagonize.com/ ), a finalist in the social-media websites category of the 2008 Canadian New Media Awards, to be presented in October.
But Bouton’s site does much more than provide an opportunity for readers to decide whether a story’s protagonist will climb the stairs to the dark, cobwebbed attic or open the mouldy door to the dank basement. Site users actually write the stories. Or, more accurately, they write additions to the stories that appear on the site, what Bouton calls “addventures”. Over coffee in Gastown, the Vancouver programmer explained that the term refers to stories that contributors can branch at any point.
Those familiar with writing workshops will find in Protagonize an echo of the “exquisite corpse” exercise created by the surrealists, in which one person writes a line of text, folds the paper to hide that contribution, and passes it to the next person to contribute a line. While Protagonize participants are able to read what’s come before, some stories take a decidedly surreal path.
For example, the line “What’s with all the feathers?” turns the protagonist into a chicken and then introduces wolves armed with laser pistols. Another story, “Locked Doors”, starts simply enough, discussing the possibilities presented by doors, and ends with three choices: the front door, the back door, or the cellar door. Each branch results in a different tale.
Bouton, who described himself as a closet writing geek, has been surprised by the quality of the writing participants have been submitting. “I’ve had very little crap coming in,” he said. “I was totally expecting a deluge of bad stuff.” Why? “I’m really jaded about the Internet,” he admitted.
Such cynicism is common among those who spend their lives working on and around the Web. “You get a lot of crap in places where it’s a lot easier to contribute crap,” Bouton said. Although it’s a simple matter to sign up at Protagonize, posting a story segment requires some thought and consideration.
There’s a great deal of ego tied up in writing, after all, and most people find it difficult enough to have confidence in their writing without opening themselves up to the scrutiny of a community.
In Bouton’s view, Protagonize is as much a community Web site as it is a writing site. “You can’t have one without the other in this case,” he said. “It could be a writing site without a community, but it would be a one-sided affair. I think you need the community to keep driving it forward.”
He is supporting the community aspects of the site by adding features that users have asked for, like “friendly” URLs that conform to a standard and don’t use symbols or code.
But most of the enhancements that Bouton works into the site will be aimed at encouraging participation. “I’m just adding other types of collaborative writing to broaden the audience a bit,” he said. He’s added an option that allows writers to collaborate on linear stories instead of branching tales, and he recently enabled participants to create their own private clubs where they can write and share within their group.
Bouton said several ESL teachers contacted him about being able to control group membership within Protagonize, both to protect the privacy of their students and to guard against mature content that might violate school rules. So now, Bouton said, “ESL teachers can make private groups where they can filter content and moderate what’s going on.”
That functionality will also allow groups with niche interests to find each other more easily. Writers interested in creating tales about ancient Rome can meet in that corner of Protagonize, while the slash-fiction writers can craft stories about the homosexual exploits of Kirk and Spock in another corner.
Bouton likens this to metacommunities existing within the main site. “It’s a way of getting people who don’t want to take part in the main conversation if they don’t want to,” he said.
Bouton launched Protagonize last December; it now has around 2,000 registered authors. In the beginning the only outlays were his time and server costs, so he wasn’t worried about funding the project; since then, he’s secured sponsorships and is soliciting advertising.
He also expects to be able to reuse the programming that’s gone into developing Protagonize. In fact, developing the site was a way for Bouton to create a prototype for another site he was planning to build.
That other project is on hold, though, because according to Bouton, Protagonize “took over my life”. At some point, he expects to be able to step back a bit, “but at the beginning of any community site, you need to be involved without being overbearing.”
It’s a way of demonstrating to the burgeoning group that you have an interest in the thing you’ve created, he explained.
“The idea is that it’s self-sustaining. I don’t want anyone sitting there and judging what’s going in there. They should be judging themselves.”