Monday, May 12, 2014

May: Executive Summary

Some recent posts:

Online collaborative publishing

Sometimes you sit on the floor covered in ink and staples. Sometimes you email a file to a copyshop and turn up a week later to carry a box of books too heavy for humans to carry. Sometimes you use Lulu or CreateSpace or Lightning Source or the ship replicators.

Anyway, there are choices to make and conversations to have along the way, and at the end of it, hopefully, are some people reading some books.

We are still living through an era of experiments into the possibilities of online crowds and the IRL populations attached to them. We have Wikipedia. We have TaskRabbit and we have Tinder (or they have us).

In some respects, the book has been a major locus of such transformative energies. You know the stuff: the rise of the ebook, of print-on-demand, the transformation of vanity and boutique publishing into indie authorship, the spillover of authorship onto online platforms, various ginormous digitisation projects, crowdfunding patronage, a few intriguing examples of automated authorship and/or publication.

But in other respects, books have yet to receive the full "online collaborative production" treatment (see note 1). There is no online tool which breaks down book production, at a very fine grain, into its various stakeholders and their various capacities and rapacious desires.

Maybe things will stay that way, and maybe it's great that they will.

But, as usual, I'm going to imagine what it could be like if things were to change. (Part of what's interesting about this is extrapolating to production more generally. But I'll stick with publishing, for now anyway).

The Future of Publishing (or whatever)

(1) First the lite version. Imagine you've seen a link; you've taken the bait; you've logged in.

Now you're on the Project Page, where you are invited to participate: as an author, a chief editor, a slushpile reader, a fan, a designer, a typesetter, a copyeditor, a proofreader, a reviewer, a printer, a publicist, a reader, as something else, as several or all of the above. You also have capacity to invite people in your networks onto the project, in a particular capacity if you like.

Maybe some of these options are greyed out. For simplicity, let's say the project is a short story anthology, and you're invited to contribute either as a reader or as an author.

Selecting these options opens an array of other options. If you come in as a reader, you can pledge money, and in return of course you'll get your copy or copies (and perhaps you'll get your Unbound/Kickstarter-style prizes: a signed limited edition, a few pages of the handwritten MS, a freshly-worn item of authorial garb, etc.).

But now it gets interesting. Designers and coaxers have been crafty, so you also get a say in what the book might contain, its format and appearance, its production timescale, etc. I picture there being slider bars: you don't pledge an amount, you pledge a spread.

If you like, you tick a bunch of "nice to have" boxes, and perhaps arrange them in some kind of order of priority. If production goes ahead in a way which conforms closely to your preferences, you'll pay near the top of the spread. If it wasn't quite what you're looking for, you'll pay the cheaper price. That part of the display might be a bit like this:

. . . only different. Everything is accompanied by fruitful bloopy noises, making quantifying and tinkering your consumer preferences, whilst sporting the mingled air of financier, impresario and artistic genius, entirely irresistible.

An "advanced" tab allows you to create preference dependency trees and weight and interrelate your preferences in complex ways. The realm of professional and quasi-professional intermediaries and their bots, perhaps, looking for a way to scoop a few cents out of the process.

In the "advanced" tab you're also exercising your discretion over the project as a whole. Perhaps it is important to you not merely that you get a particular object in the post, but that said object makes a bid for a particular cultural standing: in other words, it's important to you that a certain print run is established, that certain distribution channels are used, and so on. You don't want a book nobody else has read.

What about prospective authors? There's a similar glittering control panel awaiting them. The key dynamic to be captured here is risk (see note 2) and return. What texts and what rights to them are you offering? What value are you placing on editorial feedback, or on receiving reviews or scholarly commentary, or having your work illustrated or responded to in some other way? How many copies of your text do you want to be out there in the world? What royalties are you looking for? Are you willing to support the project financially, or do you perhaps expect upfront financial compensation? Set your sliders and pray for the best!

Obviously, any stakeholder can originate a project: it might be a prospective reader who has a very OTM hankering. Quasi-divine editors and authors may vie to realise the vision implicit in that prospective reader's pang. The site constantly analyses the pledges and preferences of the various stakeholders, trying to figure out a form in which the project can go ahead.

Any function can also subsidise or tax any other function. For instance, as an author, using a bolt-on third party app, your Goodreads tastes could be reflected in the kinds of bids you offer: you automatically reduce the royalties / advances you require, or increase the backing you offer, whenever you might appear alongside your literary heroes. Or you may be willing to sign up to write a certain something on the proviso that a specific person signs up to read it. Or your willingness to write a review may give you a free book and/or influence in the project, unlocking funding streams from other stakeholders' author and editor tabs.

Perhaps the editorial function, rather than accepting or rejecting submissions outright, involves -- that's right -- another slider. You, obscure author, have submitted your terrible story to this high-profile anthology of luminaries, all of them writing at the top of their game. It's not that you've been rejected exactly. It's just that, well, you'd need to be supporting the project to the tune of $20,000 before the effect of your terrible writing and your vague face can be balanced out.

There arise some interesting questions about transparency. Are such editorial rankings public? Are author financial contributions public?

Perhaps the whole system is integrated into a collaborative desktop publishing system too: InDesign meets Google Docs.

(2) Let's take this a little further. In trying to fit a project to a variety of preferences, there's an issue about how bespoke these books should be able to be. A funding threshold may be reached more quickly if multiple versions are produced: reader bloc A wants cover A, reader bloc B wants cover B, so why not make both? If you want to print an anthology of the year's best genre fiction, why not give every reader an anthology of their personal favourite genre authors? Where do we draw the line between a book which exists in several different versions, and a whole range of diverse objects that are grouped together primarily by the finance which underpins them?

There are centripetal and centrifugal forces, and these will partly be expressed in the positions taken by various stakeholders. For instance, an author may set a minimum print run thresholds. They may not be satisfied to have their work dribble out in two copies here, three copies there. A critic or a reviewer also needs a copy of a book which is materially similar to somebody else's copy. So does a fan, in fact! Perhaps the fan stakeholder is partly distinguished from the reader stakeholder insofar as the fan wants a social experience: it's important to the fan that these books don't get too bespoke.

Perhaps there's even an overall slider for project homogeneity per se, that is, a slider for acceptable levels of diffusion from Platonic essence to family resemblance. Interesting questions arise for librarians.

But then again ... we're getting used to the highly bespoke -- or at least highly individuated -- interlaced palimpsests of Twitter and Facebook. Maybe it's enough that we read the same authors, or feeds, or brands, to satisfy the desire to feel part of something larger. Maybe we don't need to also read the same books, or to back the same projects.

So maybe the idea of the "project" can go out the window. And what can come in the window is an Amazon drone bearing an "anthology," in a codex print run of two, that contains two stories by two authors you like, plus another story by an author your neighbour likes (your neighbour just got the other half of the print run), plus another story by a self-appointed (and self-funded) up-and-coming author convinced they're about to hook you, plus a whole bunch of spam and marketing and advertising and stuff, some of it disguised as other stories.

Of course, you are more discerning. You require an originator, a custodian. You would never give your attention, let alone your financial support, to that kind of cheap algorithmic palimpsest, whose entire existence is owed to its mariginal economic feasibility, whose totality has never been sanctioned by human eyes, hands, hearts.

Don't worry, there's a slider for you too.


Note 1: In some ways, "collaborative" is a misnomer, because it carries implications of getting to know your collaborators, working through differences together, persuading your collaborators or allowing yourself to be persuaded, reaching compromises or transcending problems, building solidarity, trust and respect, etc. The kinds of online environments I'm thinking of typically try to minimise this kind of collaboration; they let people collectively contribute to a project without collaborating in the sense just described. They are liberalisations more than democratizations. They develop a particular kind of rule of law which helps to orient liberalised behaviour towards a particular task, architecturally imposing a particular kind of wisdom on the flow of the crowd. They have a close relationship with gamification. Often numerical reputation / experience rankings substitute for more intuitive, informal patterns of trust and obligation. The system outlined above certain implies this Top Trumps reductivism. While the deck of authors, critics, reviewers, editors etc. must of course evolve automatically, I nominate myself to establish the seed values.

Note 2: On some projects, all sales may be advance subscriptions, and opportunities for investment may be negligible. On other projects, financial support could be conditional on opportunities for financial return. Here's one possible model, a kind of tiered structure establishing priority in dividends. Say there are four tiers of investor. Profits are split 50% / 25% / 12.5% / 12.5% until all platinum investors have recouped their costs. Profits are then split 12.5% / 50% / 25% / 12.5% until all gold investors have recouped their costs (although this may have already happened, of course). Profits are then split 12.5% / 12.5% / 50% / 25% until all silver investors have recouped their costs; profits are then split 12.5% / 12.5% / 12.5% / 82.5% until all investors have recouped their costs. Profits thereafter are split in proportion to the amount pledged, and are no longer weighted according to the tiered investment levels. (See note 3). You might set your sliders to specify that you'd be willing to pledge $100 as a platinum level investor, $75 as a gold level investor, $50 as a silver investor, or $25 as a bronze investor.

Note 3: Alternative. There could be a fancier incentive structure, involving reversing the weighting once all investments have been recouped: say, 50% / 75% / 125% / 150% (multiplied of course by the amount you've pledged). So platinum investors recoup their investment more quickly but make less the project proves long-term profitable. Bronze investors risk losing everything, but start to make more serious money once everyone has been paid off. (Under such a system the tiers should probably be labeled differently: bronze just doesn't do justice to the kind of sexy book gambler you are).

Friday, May 9, 2014

Invocation: Dramatis Personae

Contains spoilers. All the spoilers. Pretty much the whole plot.

Achelois. AKA Ache. Veil touchless muse. Wounded by Jasper Robin during the raid on Veil HQ.
Adika. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Aglet. Veil [caster] muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Akifemwe, Patrick. AKA Paddy. Close friend of Myfanwy. Blazon muse. Chancelhouse callsong Merlin, Veil callsong Fisher King.
Ameonna. Veil [caster] muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Anu. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Asphyxia Noir. Veil [caster] muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Atë. Chancelhouse caster muse.
Bee. Chancelhouse caster muse, loyal to Jasper Robin. Borrowed Moth’s havering talent for the raid on Veil HQ.
Bigwig. Veil [skiller] muse.
Bit. Chancelhouse [caster] muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Black, Sophie. Chancelhouse callsong Melpomene. One of the nine Apollonian elder muses in the first era of Chancelhouse. Sophie Black fled Scotland following the Chancelhouse-Veil split, and was hunted down and killed by Jasper Robin. Blake claimed, untruthfully, that Sophie was the sitter for the portrait in the Chancelhouse library.
Blake. See Quaker, Haduken.
Brocken. Veil decrypt muse. Non-canon.
Buckerton, Simon. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School. Currently the first boy Myfanwy ever kissed.
Bullock, Simedelay. AKA Simi. Callsong Aoide. Arch-Chancellor, Master Mystagogue, Head of Development, Chair of Senatus Acadetmicus, and High Balneator of Chancelhouse. Co-convener, with Blake, of the Chancelhouse All-Ball Tournament. Before the Chancelhouse-Veil split, Aoide was one of the three Boeotian elder muses, along with Meletē and the first Mnemosyne. A lifelong friend of Blake.
Caddy. Chancelhouse caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Calliope. One of the nine Apollonian elder muses in the first era of Chancelhouse. She left Chancelhouse and founded Veil, adopting the callsong Germ. She remains the closest Veil comes to having a leader. Originally a mirror muse, she has collected many muse talents.
Cameron, Sarah. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Cithara. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Clio. AKA Chloe. Close friend to Genevieve Blake. One of the nine Apollonian elder muses in the first era of Chancelhouse. Killed shortly before Chancelhouse-Veil split.
Clone. Veil mirror.
Copycat. Veil mirror.
Cracks. See Yuri.
Cria. Veil muse. A close friend of Scan. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Cricetid. Chancelhouse caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Cricket. Veil doolittle muse. It is likely that she and/or Not Cricket convened the flock which attacked Kitty’s rescue party on the beach near Veil HQ.
Croque, Francis. Celebrated Edinburgh-based author.
Crypt. Veil shrouder muse.
Cui. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Dopple. Veil mirror muse.
Dora JayJay. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Down. Veil [taker-driver] muse.
Drago-Ferrante, Tamara. AKA Mara. Before the founding of Chancelhouse she was a friend of Blake. She was one of the nine Apollinian elder muses in the first era of Chancelhouse, under the callsong Polyhymnia. Following the Chancelhouse-Veil split she joined Veil, adopting the callsong Gaga. She lost her caster talent to Kitty. It was later passed through several muses, embedded in Kitty’s Hegemony Dog, finally winding up with Tallulah. It is unknown whether she has acquired a replacement caster talent, although one of Myfanwy’s comments seems to assume that she has.
Dribble. Veil caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Eft. Chancelhouse dryad muse. Shared a corridor with Myfanwy and Kitty.
Egg. See Quaker, Haduken.
Enenra. Veil caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Erato. AKA Toby. Caster muse. One of the nine Apollonian elder muses in the first era of Chancelhouse. Fled after the Chancelhouse-Veil split. Whereabouts unknown.
Erinaceine. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Esi. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Esterhase, Catherine. AKA Kitty. Chancelhouse callsong Nessus. Also briefly went by Anastasia von Enigmengera. Before learning to develop her own, perhaps innate, patterner talent, she acquired a caster talent from Tamara Drago-Ferrante.
Euterpe. See Tar.
Fairfax, Sid. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School. In Myfanwy’s A-Level art class. Friend of Kevin Thomas.
Farmer, Dorothy. Veil muse, callsong Foreigner. A close friend of Scan. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Fisher King. See Akifemwe, Patrick.
Fletcher, Corina. Police officer. Responsible for the death of the activist Molly Miller during the eviction of Bridge Croft.
Flux. Cat. Friend of Rook.
Fontleroy, Detective Inspector. Police officer who tried to interview Myfanwy about Jasper Robin's attempted murder of Mara Drago-Ferrante.
Frances. Friend of Kitty Esterhase.
Frog. Chancelhouse caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Gaga. See Drago-Ferrante, Tamara.
Geist. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Gid. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Glass. Veil mirror muse.
Golem. Chancelhouse driver muse.
Grimalkin. Chancelhouse cloister muse. Shared a corridor with Myfanwy and Kitty. Previously worked in Haduken Blake’s bindery.
Haecceity. Veil [haverer] muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Heptapora. Veil touchless muse.
Hick. Veil [doolittle-caster] muse.
Horae. Chancelhouse cutter muse.
Hypnos. Chancelhouse caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Jamie. Cloister muse. Chancelhouse callsong Triffid, Veil callsong Ghoul. Arrived at Chancelhouse not long before Myfanwy and Kitty. Besides Yuri, he was the only Chancelhouse muse known to have known that a conspiracy existed between Blake and Germ.
Jemima. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School. Member of a clique called the Cool Kids AKA the Asians.
Kaiou. Veil caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Kermitcrab. Chancelhouse caster muse.
Kojo. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Ladybird. Veil mirror muse.
Lake, Stacy. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School. In Myfanwy’s A-Level art class.
Lap. Chancelhouse caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Leech. Veil taker muse.
Lego. Chancelhouse cloister muse.
Lucia. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School. Member of a clique dubbed the Cool Kids or the Asians. Myfanwy has semi-deliberate difficulty remembering her name, thinking of her as Lucinda, Lala, Logan, Cecil, Samphire and Lucy.
MacAonghas, Professor. Kitty’s therapist.
Macleod, Abbas. Veil callsong Vertical. As Thalia, he was one of the nine Apollonian elder muses in the first era of Chancelhouse. Originally a skiller muse. It is possible he has now acquired a doolittle talent: Meletē theorised that he has absorbed significant beast skills.
Mara. See Drago-Ferrante, Tamara.
Marcus. Veil callsong Engrailed. Self-taught muse with skiller and other capabilities. Lends his skateboard to Jasper Robin and his ability to skate to Myfanwy.
Marienbad, Duke. See Quaker, Haduken.
Marinade. See Yuri.
Meletē. A skiller muse. Praetor and Chief Arms Officer at Chancelhouse. Before the Chancelhouse-Veil split, Meletē was one of the three Boeotian elder muses, along with Aoide and the first Mnemosyne.
Melpomeme. Callsong used by approximately two different muses. See Morris, Myfanwy and Black, Sophie.
Merely-Pointy, Valerie. AKA MP. Art teacher at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Merlin. See Akifemwe, Patrick.
Metis. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Miller, Molly. Activist, killed during an action at Bridge Croft to resist the eviction of a community of travelers.
Mimesis. Veil mirror muse.
Mnemosyne. Callsong used by approximately two different muses. See Morris, Myfanwy and Quaker, Genevieve.
Moo. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Morris, Myfanwy. Caster muse. AKA Myffy, Myffed, Mnemosyne, Melpomeme, Poem.
Morris, Peter. Myfanwy’s father.
Moth. Chancelhouse haverer muse. Arrived at Chancelhouse not long before Myfanwy and Kitty. Lent her talent to Bee during the raid on Veil HQ.
Namond. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Neilo. Chancelhouse caster muse.
Not Cricket. Veil doolittle-caster muse. It is likely that she and/or Cricket convened the flock which attacked Kitty’s rescue party on the beach near Veil HQ.
Nova. Chancelhouse caster muse.
Oni. Veil caster muse.
Oscar. Close friend of Jasper Robin and Genevieve Blake. Previously a worker in Haduken Quaker’s bindery. Present at Bridge Croft. Later swapped bodies with Jasper Robin. Killed by Static during Operation Terpsichore.
Ouzo. Chancelhouse skiller-taker muse.
Paddy. See Akifemwe, Patrick.
Pest. Veil [cloister] muse. Wounded by Jasper Robin during the raid on Veil HQ.
Phan, Bella. A person invented by Haduken Blake. Supposedly the daughter of Mrs Phan.
Phan, Mrs. A person invented by Haduken Blake. Supposedly a neighbour of Chancelhouse.
Polyhymnia. See Drago-Ferrante, Tamara.
Porteous, Lewis. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School. Briefly the boyfriend of Kitty.
Puck. Chancelhouse dryad muse.
Quaker, Genevieve. Fountainhead muse. Chancelhouse callsong Mnemosyne. Daughter of Haduken Quaker. In the first era of Chancelhouse, she was one of the three Boeotian elder muses, along with Aoide and Meletē. Static and Paddy theorised that the first muse in this world may have been the accidental recipient of a hypothetical master taker talent, soon complemented by a master caster talent.
Quaker, Haduken. AKA Blake AKA Duke Marienbad. Founder of Chancelhouse. Father of Genevieve Quaker. Adopted the name Haduken Blake and the callsong Zeus during the first era of Chancelhouse. Following the Chancelhouse-Veil split he changed his Chancelhouse callsong to Seuss. Later he adopted the Veil callsong Egg. Currently occupying the body that was once Yuri’s, whereabouts unknown.
Robin, Jasper. Worker in Haduken Quaker’s bindery. Lover of Genevieve Quaker and Myfanwy Morris. As Terpsichore, he was one of the nine Apollonian elder muses in the first era of Chancelhouse. Also adopted the name Martin Forjacks as a brief and unsuccessful disguise.
Romanoff, Susan. Veil muse, callsong Season. Close friend of Scan. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Rook. Chancelhouse doolittle-caster muse. Several times champion of the Chancelhouse Annual Murder Game.
Rune. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Scan. Veil blazon muse. Scan was Paddy’s main point of contact within Veil. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Sean. Friend of Kitty Esterhase.
Sequin. Veil caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Session. Veil skiller muse. Wounded by Jasper Robin during the raid on Veil HQ.
Seuss. See Quaker, Haduken.
Snow. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Souphanouvong, Umberto. Taker muse. Chancelhouse callsong Urania. Friend of Blake before the founding of Chancelhouse. One of the nine Apollonian elder muses in the first era of Chancelhouse. Together with Calliope, he founded Veil, adopting the callsong Undine.
Squab. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Static. Chancelhouse caster muse.
Struct. Veil caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Surd. Veil cutter muse.
Surfeit. Veil muse. Whereabouts unknown, perhaps killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Swat. Veil muse. A close friend of Scan. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Sylph. Chancelhouse caster muse.
Tallulah. AKA Looly. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School. Member of a clique dubbed the Cool Kids or the Asians. In Myfanwy’s art class. Wore snails at Kitty’s eighteenth birthday party. Acquired a muse talent and adopted the callsong Tall Order.
Tapas. Veil cutter muse.
Tar. Chancelhouse callsong Euterpe. Tar is a shortening and corruption of Euterpe. She was a friend of Blake before the founding of Chancelhouse. In the first era of Chancelhouse, as Euterpe, she was one of the nine Apollonian elder muses. Following the Chancelhouse-Veil split, she was less centrally involved in Chancelhouse affairs than Blake, Aoide, and Meletē, and gradually became regarded as only an honorary elder. Co-convener, with Blake, of the Chancelhouse Annual Murder Game.
Tase. Chancelhouse haverer muse.
Tax. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Tea. Veil caster muse.
Te-No-Me. Veil muse. A close friend of Scan. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Thomas, Kevin. Pupil at St Jerome’s Senior School.
Thorn. Chancelhouse driver muse.
Toal. Friend of Kitty Esterhase.
Triceratops. AKA Trice. Chancelhouse cutter muse. In pre-Chancelhouse days he worked in Blake’s bindery.
Triffid. See Jamie.
Turturle. Chancelhouse caster muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Undine. See Souphanouvong, Umberto.
Vaguerat. Veil muse. Killed in the Chancelhouse-Veil purges.
Veitch. Police officer. Constable at the time of the Bridge Croft eviction, risen to Inspector when encountered by Myfanwy. Veitch testified in the trial of Sergeant Corina Fletcher. Despite absorbing Genevieve’s eye-witness memory of the event, Veitch refused to implicate Sergeant Fletcher in Molly Miller’s death.
Yuri. Chancelhouse callsong Marinade. Veil callsong Cracks. Secret Personal Assistant to Haduken Blake. Shrouder muse, posing as a taker muse as per Blake’s instruction.
Zeus. See Quaker, Haduken.

I've drafted this appendix some time after writing the book. It should go in the second edition but I'm a bit scared. If anyone notices any mistakes, there could be some kind of prize.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Followback indies

Quick summary: the way Twitter works, following someone doesn't mean you'll see their tweets. It means that there's a chance you will see their tweets, a chance which grows smaller the more people you follow. But we could imagine various alternative systems, where the principle of chance is replaced by (or hybridised with) the principle of taking turns. I'm focusing on Twitter in this post, but I'm intrigued by extrapolations across other social media platforms. Facebook certainly uses some kind of popularity algorithm to keep certain posts near the top; what if social media were to introduce (and apologies for this mock heroic terminology, but) a principle of social justice into the attention economy?


I'm one of those followback indie writers.

On Twitter, when I follow someone, I'm usually hoping they'll follow back. When I'm eyeballing someone for a possible unfollow, I put a lot of weight on whether they're following me. It doesn't count for everything, but it counts for a lot.

Our plumage is very distinctive. The number of people we follow, and the number of people who follow us, are similar numbers. On close examination, that's because they're mostly the same people. We typically follow, and are followed by, a few thousand accounts.

Ensconcing myself in this followback flock has been a function of a certain kind of online behaviour over time. Your number of followers has more to do with who you do or don't follow than with what you do or don't tweet. This grind could have happened very gradually and entirely manually, or it could have been fully automated, but in my case it's happening fairly slowly, mostly manually, but with sporadic help from bolt-on bells and whistles. Sometimes it's a bit embarrassing. But mostly I just radiate weird swarm node pride.

Why do we act so strangely? Well, we have our reasons. Or at least I have mine. Exploring those reasons is not really the purpose of this post. But in short, joining the followback flock is not primarily about sharking up a vast host of fiercely loyal Twitter accounts with lust for blood in their eyes. It's not about treating a follower count as a game stat with a transparent meaning. It's not even about participating in a community or building an audience.

It is sort of about building a public from which audiences might be drawn. It is sort of about building a public in which little mutually attentive cohorts and gaggles may temporarily coalesce, and the most tenaciously recurring of those could just about be called little communities. And nested within that is some personal digital sociality and even a few weird Twitter friendships (?), although the infrastructure for those is really biological memory -- Twitter is not (unlike Facebook) bursting with digital aides memoire; it's not like the guy whose job it is to murmur in a politician's ear how they're supposed to know the people around them. But for the most part, in this way of using Twitter, a "follow" is just not a big deal -- it's a tentative, minimal contact on which other things might be built, probably only intermittently -- and reciprocity seems like an okay norm to attach to it.

In short, following thousands of people is more a microblogging thing than a social networking thing -- it's probably good not to get too invested in it either: at any time a tweak in the Twitter architecture might mangle those microblogging aspirations (in a way I suspect the Mute function is already doing this).

I hope that's all true. If you were to translate followback indie writer behaviour to IRL it might look pretty obscene -- so fingers crossed something was lost in the translation.


Obviously it's also swell to do the social networking thing instead of the microblogging thing. And in practice the two get very blurred and tangled.



The real purpose of this post is to talk about what it's like to follow so many people, and imagine an app which might transform the experience.

I can get a few hundred tweets a minute on my main timeline. I look at it, but me seeing what you've tweeted is like you winning the lottery, OK buster? Exactly.

On the main timeline, spamming looks less and less like spamming, more and more like talking at a reasonable volume, given the background noise.

Twitter's lists become more and more important the more people you follow.

For people who follow a few dozen or a few hundred accounts, you can get a pretty good idea of whose tweets they're reading. When that number is a few thousand, you no longer know that, because they're probably using lists -- which are often private.

Right now I have a few theme-type lists -- "Scottish hip-hop people," "carefuckers," "Tweeps Included In The Present Classification," etc. -- and it's obvious from other people's public lists that this is a pretty common approach. There's some overlap between using theme-type lists and using hashtags.

But some of my lists aren't really themed, they're just prioritised: the one I check a lot, the one I check when the one I check a lot isn't giving me my fix, the Plan C, the one I only check when there is some important work I desperately need to be doing, etc.

(Other lists aggressively interpellate obviously: "@jolwalton just added you to PEOPLE WHO CORRECTLY ASSUME THAT I ONLY EVER USE ESSENCE OF BECKHAM BODYWASH-34").

The current Twitter list functionality is a little clunky, so list membership tends to be a bit sticky -- I don't move people around as much as I'd really like to. Overall what I know about who I'd like to hear more or less from is very imperfectly reflected in the structure of my lists and my habits in navigating them.

So imagine this app, which could change all that.


Here's how it would work. Say you're following 5,000 accounts. You run the app, and it creates you five lists, assigning the people you follow -- perhaps randomly, perhaps based on your history of interaction -- across the five lists. There's a small, a medium, a large, an extra-large, and a supersize:

Confidants: 145
Buddies: 290
Chums: 580
Pals: 1160
Comrades: 2825

For this example, I chose 145 as a seed number in honour of Robin Dunbar's work on the cognitive limits of stable social relationships. (I left slots for approximately five friends IRL -- my own experience tells me five is the maximum tolerable). However, obviously all parameters should be adjustable. For instance, you might feel you would like to check more or fewer than five lists. You might want the size of the lists to rise less steeply. You might want to adjust the settings depending on whether you follow 5,000 people or 50,000. You would probably want to name the lists yourself, since the names influence what each list means and how you might use it.

So that would be the first important feature. The second would be the ability to promote or relegate an account with a quick click. "More from this user," move up to a less populous list. "Less from this user," shift down into the throngs.

Maybe "favs" could add up to automatic promotions, or to automatic relegation-shields.

One bonus feature could be a setting that keeps the list sizes stable, despite your promotions and relegations. So every time you relegate someone from "confidants," the app randomly chooses someone from "buddies" to swap places with them.

A particularly useful bonus feature would be something which automatically rotated people through the lists. Perhaps there could be a top-up of 40 confidants, freshly picked each day, ten delegates from each of the other lists. Perhaps you would have a slider to adjust the intensity of the rotation.

A particularly clever bonus feature would analyse the frequency with which these people tweet, and the times at which they tweet, and organise the lists according to the speed at which they'll fill up your timeline, rather than the raw number of accounts. Pretty amazing!

Perhaps another bonus feature could even cycle your default display in Twitter -- your "home page" -- through these lists, to make sure you give them all a pretty even eyeballing.


OK, finally, here's a variation, which loses the stratification aspect. I'll stop calling it an app. Call it an alt history Twitter, named, I don't know, Cawer. Valorising the crow. Correctly. The crow.

In this shadow universe, Cawer recognises that it's just impossible to meaningfully follow thousands of accounts without some extensive individual filtering and sorting admin, and yet also recognises it's not just creepy and/or insane to want to follow thousands of accounts, on the basis of a kind of quid pro quo, "let's slightly thicken the connection between us, against the day we may find some real reason for talking"-type basis. Cawer compensates by generating a timeline which is never more than a few hundred users -- a different few hundred, if you click "refresh" -- chosen at random, but weighted according to how you've strewn your secret online karma: chiefly, weighted by you clicking "more from this user" or "less from this user," and also perhaps a little weighted according to your retweets and favs, and perhaps with a kind of inbuilt shake-up tendency.

Cawer never expects you to read a boiling screed of inassimilable others. But it also makes sure that when you follow someone, you've really given them a little bit of your attention -- at least enough to have a chance at gaining more of it.


I feel there's more I could add (for instance, about independent publishing specifically; about prizes; about crows; about social media and wearable computing; about the permeability of the envisioned systems to marketing and monetisation; about how they would compare with various existing algorithmically personalised experiences; about how the "flock" or "horde" metaphors can mislead about the complex networked structures involved; about e-democracy; about violently being forced into cupboards; about the game theory of segregation; about the implicit life-cycles of the followback flocks: the newer inductees, less reliant on lists, supplying proportionately more attention), & I may keep tweaking this thing, so who knows?