Round-robin writing, Web 2.0-style logoRecently, SF writer John Scalzi had an idea for a Web 2.0 site centered around round-robin writing—writing where people take turns telling parts of the story. is a content-management system that deals in "ficlets"—segments of text that are between 64 and 1024 bytes long. Once a ficlet is written, another writer may choose to write another ficlet as a sequel or prequel to it. Multiple writers may choose to write sequels or prequels to any given ficlet, so stories may branch into multiple paths, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. If writers are having trouble coming up with a subject, they can look at the "Inspiration" section, which allows them to search Flickr photos by keyword and write about whatever picture they choose. Ficlets are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.

The 1024 character limit forces brevity; much as with drabbles (a recent blog meme in which writers must craft stories of exactly 100 words), writers are forced to be economical with words and phrases in order to fit as much story as possible into the available space. It also means that they can be written very quickly. However, it can sometimes be hard to find interactivity, since many more people choose to start new ficlets than to continue others’.

While is a clever idea, the site is still in what amounts to a beta phase; there are several key user interface elements that are not yet present. Most annoyingly, there is currently no way to see ficlets older than the most recent 20 other than to find them by keywords or on their author’s ficlet listing. [EDIT: It is now possible to browse entire days’ worth of ficlets.] There are listings for the “most popular” and “most active” 20 ficlets, as well, though the criteria for their selection is not explained, but these lists tend to remain largely static because the sheer act of getting listed in these sections means that those ficlets will be more “popular” or “active” than ones that appear and then pass unnoticed from the recent ficlets listing.

These issues mean that it can sometimes be hard to find readers for one’s ficlets, as they might have vanished altogether by the time a potential reader might come along—and there are considerably more new ficlets than sequels or prequels. But new interface elements are being added frequently, and hopefully this will improve soon.

As a collaborative multi-user fiction project, this brings to mind Penguin Books’s “Million Penguin Wiki” novel project, as covered earlier here. But it has several key differences. Unlike the wiki project, each writer is limited to 1024 characters at a time. They can, of course, write sequels to their own material, but this still means there are significant breakpoints where someone can choose to fork the story in a different direction—another thing that the novel wiki project wouldn’t allow. Also, ficlet users do not have the ability to edit other users’ work, as they would in a wiki—they must either build on what the person before them wrote, or else write an alternative version. is probably not going to produce the next great novel—but it is not meant to. It is meant to be an entertaining and social diversion, and at this it succeeds very well. If the interface continues to improve, before long it should work even better.

My own ficlets may be found here.

5 Comments on Round-robin writing, Web 2.0-style

  1. Tried it, could not log in. Tried to send the webmaster a message about this, but I had to log in to do so. Tried to leave a message at the blog, but had to log in to do so too.

    The only way so far in which I could log in would be to register as an AOL user. I am an old-school netizen, so you can imagine I’d rather have my nipples torn off. This Ficlets thing could work if it were not an AOL project — now all it does is attract people who are dumb enough to be AOL members. I cannot begin to imagine that such people could write anything worthwhile. I am probably wrong, but I’d rather be wrong than be an AOL member. Yes, that’s a stupid prejudice.

    The least they should do is make it so that people can send messages about having problems logging in without having to log in.

  2. a little background. The developer (a friend of mine actually who I run into at SXSW every year) works for AOL and started this little thing as a side project. I seriously doubt it has much to do with AOL.

    I wouldn’t fret too much about AOL login. Hey, doesn’t every single bulletin board and CMS under the sun require a login? The infrastructure is not yet in place for OpenID, but you better believe that when it comes, WordPress and bulletin boards will adopt it in a heartbeat.

  3. You can get a free non-AOL login via All you need is an email address to receive the confirmation. (And if you don’t have one you feel comfortable exposing, then you can go to GMail and make one.)

  4. I’ve already got an OpenID. It doesn’t work with Ficlets. I tested my OpenID both with a Livejournal blog (OpenID was invented by a Livejournal developer) and with the official test tool, and it worked with both. Just not with Ficlets.

    Anyway, that’s not the main part of my complaint. The main part is just about horrible usability: the system is broken, but in order to tell the major stakeholder that the system is broken, the system needs to be unbroken. That’s just stupid. The (sub)system to report problems should be independent from the (sub)system that is afflicted by these problems, and it isn’t.

  5. Branko, we do have some problems with OpenID at the moment, and I’d love to help you out. I found your e-mail address on your homepage and will reach out with an e-mail in a couple minutes. And yes, sometimes I do stupid things – thanks for pointing them out.

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