Online writing communities aren’t exactly a common type of social network on the web, but they’re one of the oldest: fanfiction.net has been around since 1998! They’re also surprisingly popular for their relative anonymity; Wattpad alone boasts millions of members, and looking at the community forums I’m willing to believe it.
Given the age of these communities, you’d expect the software they rely on to be very mature by now, covering every need of the writers who use them. Surprisingly enough, that’s far from true. And there isn’t even an open source option that could be improved by any interested party (apart from a WordPress plugin called WriteShare that, to be honest, didn’t make a good impression on me). A recent discussion with my friends from the Shifti.org transformation fiction site, about the failings of our particular platform, reminded me of the most often requested features on the aforementioned Wattpad, and that snowballed into a long list of desirable features. (Chris Meadows interviewed Daniel Hazelton, Shifti’s administrator, a few years ago, and also wrote about one of the story settings hosted there.)
Obviously, any such community needs to provide the ability to upload and/or type in your stories. DeviantArt for example is alone in providing both — though it could be argued that you can always copy-paste. Still, they have an explicit upload option nobody else does, for what it’s worth. They also have an excellent rich text editor, which should go without saying, except the one in Wattpad lacks absolutely essential formatting options such as quotations, section separators and bullet points, while the one in Shifti is based on wiki markup. Enough said.
Another necessity is the ability to divide stories into multiple parts, and chain together stories into series. Amazingly, the latter is the single most requested feature on Wattpad! Why is it still missing, after so many years? (Then again, Smashwords and Scribd were also late in adding a book series feature. It’s as unpopular with developers as it is obvious, seemingly.) At least both they and fanfiction.net support multipart stories directly. On Shifti you have to make do with a template that lets you chain wiki articles together, which you can use for either parts or series — it would be awkward to do both at the same time. As for DeviantArt, I’m sorry, but multiple submissions called “Chapter 1 of…” and so on, grouped into folders, simply don’t cut it. Then again, they’re optimizing for stand-alone art pieces. But still.
One more oft-requested feature on Wattpad is the ability to let multiple authors work on the same story. This is where Shifti wins out, by virtue of being a wiki. Trouble is, if you let other people edit your story at all, anyone can; it’s all or nothing. Though in practice that’s seldom abused, I can see why some authors might be loathe to do it. As for the ability to organize one’s own private reading list, at least Wattpad offers one in the first place: DeviantArt collections are public by definition, while on Shifti the best you can do is manually type in a list of favorites on your profile page.
Last but not least, something I’ve seen requested both in conversation and on the Wattpad support site is the ability to download a whole (multi-part) story at once in one of the popular e-book formats. That’s something nobody has, and while I’ll be the first to point out it’s technically non-trivial, it’s also a necessity in this age of mobile devices with intermittent connectivity. I think Wattpad’s mobile app allows you to cache a story locally, but walled gardens don’t count. Just give me an EPUB file or whatever, and be done with it.
By now I already mentioned several times that Shifti is a wiki. If you’re thinking Wikipedia, you’re on the right track; Shifti even uses the same software, which to be honest is a clunker, and terribly unfriendly. Doubly so to writers who don’t have technical inclinations! But replacing it with something else — the idea that inspired this whole write-up — wouldn’t be easy either. Writing such an app from scratch would take more patience and energy than I have these days, and who else can I ask for help? But let an old programmer dream. Assuming one could wave a magic wand and make the software appear, what features would it need to be the best option on the market?
For one thing, of course, all of the above. But there are more things to look out for:
- Ways to visibly flag certain aspects, such as story updates being on hold, or the presence of a same-sex relationship. Seeing how many Wattpad users feel the need to mark such things in the story title, in addition to or instead of using a tag, it’s clear that tags aren’t visible enough, and an indiscriminate “mature” flag doesn’t cut it either.
- Lists of characters, locations, events, terms. Wattpad provides the first one, and Shifti has setting pages — unavoidably, when most of your content is speculative fiction. I don’t need that kind of thing when working alone (though other writers do), but when writing in a shared setting you just can’t do without. Especially once there are 100+ stories to trawl for details every time you’re trying to add something. Besides, worldbuilding is a thing, too.
- A field for filling in author’s notes, so you don’t have to clutter the main text with them.
- A way to help new authors and new stories get noticed. DeviantArt has it, Shifti has it. Wattpad… had it and removed the feature. And now that everyone is complaining, they have to consider re-adding it. Good job there…
- Stronger privacy options: in addition to private reading lists, I’ve seen several Wattpad users complain that all their activity is visible to everyone by default. You can delete the notifications you generate, but that’s not obvious, and it’s all-or-nothing. The ability to choose whether to bookmark something privately or publicly is something I often wish for. Interestingly, on Smashwords your reading library is always private, while on Tumblr you can choose whether to make your whole list of likes public or private. That’s just not enough options.
- Last but not least, a pet peeve of mine: formats and genres are orthogonal! A short story, for example, can be in any genre. Wattpad, I’m looking at you here. Again. Not to mention that a story can belong to multiple genres. All of Isaac Asimov’s novels, for example, are detective mysteries in a science-fictional disguise. And don’t even get me started about romance. Clearly we need much richer categorization options. By the way: if you’re offering free-form tags at all, make sure to also offer an autocomplete feature, or at least some sort of tag cloud, so people can pick useful tags. It’s a lesson most online platforms have learned for a while now. Why not Wattpad?
Funny how many of the above points apply to any kind of online community. Not that I can expect a commercial enterprise to care much about privacy — this is the kind of thing you need open source for. But remember, for example, how Twitter users literally invented hashtags and @-mentions, that are now ubiquitous. How else are you going to figure out what people need if not by looking at what they do? Even asking them doesn’t work as well.
Oh my, this write-up is getting long already. I’d love to hear what my readers think of it all, and if there’s enough interest, who knows. Either way, thank you for reading.