The Future of the Book

Frankenstein’s Crowdsourced Monster: hitRECord’s Tiny Book of Tiny Stories

By posted at 6:00 am on January 26, 2012 1

Joking and hand-wringing about the future of books aside, is it really possible that a book could be written and illustrated collaboratively on some kind of social media platform and then edited by hundreds or thousands of online contributors? Even if it were possible, is it desirable? Common sense and a decent respect for the creative process suggest that a novel or short story, even a book-length work of nonfiction produced by such means would be a ghastly thing — a Frankenstein’s monster that, though animated, could not be given life; it might resemble a book, but it would not live and breathe.

coverSo much for common sense. Now comes hitRECord.org, an online, experimental, collaborative production company founded by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to prove that at least one kind of book can be produced precisely in this way and that it can claim some artistic merit. In December, HarperCollins published The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1, the first of the site’s collaboratively-produced works to be mass-distributed by a major publisher. It’s essentially a children’s book for adults, with each story consisting of nothing more than a few lines of text and an accompanying illustration. One story, for example, features a drawing of a boy carrying an armload of books and the lines, “His hands were weak and shaking from carrying far too many books from the bookshop. It was the best feeling.” Like the Six-Word Memoirs project at Smith Magazine, these stories are short fiction taken to the extreme, meant to evoke something poignant or humorous but necessarily limited. For its slogan, the collection takes Muriel Rukeyser’s famous line and tweaks it: “The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories.”

Like much of what hitRECord has produced, Tiny Stories is a whimsical mixture of earnest emotion, good humor, and hipster snark, which is as much an observation about the tastes of the site’s directors (Gordon-Levitt, et al.) as a reflection of the anonymous artists who created the book. The reason Tiny Stories is compelling, both as a concept and as a finished work, is because it has been curated, like everything hitRECord releases, and curated rather well. Every story that was uploaded, edited, re-uploaded, illustrated, and selected for the book was evaluated on its own merits, with only the very best making the final cut. This sifting process, though undoubtedly tedious for the site’s directors, was absolutely necessary. In the end, only 67 stories were included in the published version of the book, culled from submissions and edits numbering more than 8,500.

Aesthetically, Tiny Stories is a victory for the enduring power and allure of physical, bound books. Although produced collaboratively and online, the epitome of futurism in book publishing, the slim volume is exceedingly handsome and altogether nostalgic in its design, meant to evoke memories in the reader of a time when all we had were bound books, and the best-made of them were a pleasure both to handle and to see on one’s shelf. It’s not the kind of thing you can fully appreciate electronically; if ever there were a Kindle-proof book, this is it. That said, this month hitRECord released Tiny Stories as an e-book on iTunes that includes video versions of six stories. Nevertheless, the print version is far more compelling and will likely prove more popular in the long run.

Beyond the obvious merits of its great design and the debatable merits of the stories themselves (it should be noted that these tiny stories, being somewhat twee, will not appeal to everyone), the most remarkable thing about Tiny Stories is the experimental, collaborative process behind its creation and the high quality of work that’s resulted from it. This is not what one would expect from a site where anyone can upload whatever they want and everyone can remix everyone else’s work and use it to make whatever. That sounds like a recipe for a bunch of crap, for the crowdsourced Frankenstein’s monster novel of the future, for bad writing and bad storytelling. But the opposite has somehow happened. The site has in fact attracted extremely talented writers, illustrators, musicians, animators, photographers, and video editors, all of whom are collaborating online — and getting paid for it. In the case of hitRECord, incredibly, the cream really is rising to the top.

No doubt some of the site’s visibility and momentum thus far is due to the fame of its founder, but if the works themselves — whether music, short films, music videos, comics, or tiny stories — were not of a considerably high quality then no one would care that a celebrity actor came up with the idea for the site. Gordon-Levitt launched a primitive version of hitRECord back in 2005 but re-launched it as a professional online production company in 2010 that allows users to upload their writings, drawings, photos, and videos, and to download the work of others to serve as raw material for various ongoing projects. The idea is to collaborate, remix, refine, make something better or different, and in the end produce a final version, or several different final versions, to publish or screen or press to vinyl or CD, all of which hitRECord has done in the past two years.

[For full disclosure, and to illustrate how hitRECord works, or sometimes works, my on-again-off-again indie rock band participated in hitRECord's SXSW 2010 screening in Austin, Texas. We wrote and recorded a song on very short notice and sent it to the hitRECord team, who then went around SXSW with a video camera recording people making percussive sounds and edited them all together to replicate our drum track. That night at the screening, we played our song live while the drum track/video played behind us on a giant screen and people from the audience came up on stage to sing along and record everything. It was an experimental, ramshackle affair that probably sounds better in writing than it did live.]

That was in March, 2010. Since then, hitRECord has gotten better at collaborating. Tiny Stories is the first of three volumes to be published by HarperCollins, all of which were written and illustrated entirely by hitRECord users. One reason for the high quality of work in Tiny Stories, and on hitRECord overall, is that a comparatively small number of users exert a huge amount of artistic influence on the site and set an aesthetic tone for most hitRECord projects. The Tiny Stories collaboration, for example, was begun by a particularly prominent yet anonymous hitRECord user who goes by the moniker Wirrow and whose simple but evocative illustrations, music, and writings appear in collaborations throughout the site. Over time, the Tiny Stories project organically grew into a massive collaboration that has now produced thousands of stories, a growing number of which have been made into short videos that will likely be screened at Sundance this year as part of hitRECord’s showcase there.

If this is all surprising, it’s only because the Internet has not quite lived up to its promise. We have more news and information and many more outlets for artists, musicians, and writers than before, but the Internet has not brought about a radical realignment of how we produce news and writing and art. Most of what is shared online, whether on Facebook or Twitter or some other social media outlet, are articles that were produced the old way, by a news organization or a magazine.

In contrast, hitRECord’s collaborative experiment seems thus far to be working, albeit with some important caveats, mostly around the question of copyright. The site eschews, even forbids, the uploading of copyrighted material, and asks contributing artists to relinquish copyright claims to any work they upload, which becomes the de facto property of hitRECord. Whatever profits are made, whether from live shows or sales of books or other merchandise, are split 50-50 between hitRECord and the contributing artists; half the profits go back to hitRECord and the other half is divvied up between artists based on how much each one contributed to the final version.  The newly-published Tiny Stories volume contains, as all HarperCollins books do, a copyright page that reads like any other. One question that arises, then, is whether hitRECord’s re-use/remix ethos extends to its own offerings. If a freelance writer wanted to adapt a tiny story into a short story, or a novel, would hitRECord try to stop them? Would it be able to? Should it?

And what are the limits of hitRECord’s method? Some art forms are of course more amenable to collaboration than others, and hitRECord has naturally gravitated toward these: short films, live and recorded music, tiny stories. It’s difficult, however, to imagine how a site like this could produce works of art that require the sustained and focused vision of a single artist. One is hard-pressed, for example, to imagine hitRECord producing a novel of any coherence or quality. One is hard-pressed even to imagine how it could produce a screenplay or a feature film without side-stepping its own principles, although Gordon-Levitt has said this is one of his ambitions for hitRECord.

One could imagine, on the other hand, Gordon-Levitt leveraging the resources of this vast online community in producing a feature film, perhaps even in writing or editing a screenplay, by simply employing select hitRECord users for certain tasks. In this lies the promise not so much of the Internet as a democratizing force where everyone can be heard or published, but of the Internet as a means of connecting talented people that might not otherwise know about each other.

This of course has happened already, although perhaps not in so dramatic and explicitly art-focused way as on hitRECord. But insofar as it must be discriminating in what it chooses to screen or publish, simply because of the sheer volume of submissions and collaborations, hitRECord is partially cast in the old media model, despite its efforts to break away. Relying on the time and talents of artists and writers willing to work on spec is, after all, nothing new, and in this respect hitRECord is perhaps not quite as progressive as its founders believe it to be.

That said, with the publication of its first book, hitRECord has accomplished something remarkable and important for writers and artists of the internet age. Here is a highly developed platform for online collaboration, in which unknown writers and musicians can get involved in as many projects as they like, prove their talent, network with other users, and maybe get their own story or song edited or remixed and eventually published or released. The site affords creative and ambitious people a chance not only for exposure but also for monetary compensation; here in fact is the original promise of the Internet, only qualified and modified and limited — and therefore within reach.

It seems clear now, after a decade and a half of maturation, that the Internet will not in fact change everything about how we produce news and fiction and art. But it might change some things, and ambitious undertakings like hitRECord are giving us the first glimpses of how things might change and how we might be able to harness at least some of the Internet’s immense reach and power, and at last put them to good use.





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