Recently, 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. Ficlets.com 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 ficlets.com 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.
Ficlets.com 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.