The internet and the social web have transformed almost every pursuit that humans can engage in, and writing is clearly high on that list. But despite all of the advancements in distribution and publishing we’ve seen over the years, from blogging to Twitter and Tumblr, some believe that there is still a need for truly networked storytelling or interactive, “iterative” writing. Former Flipboard designer Craig Mod is one of those people, and that’s why he started Hi, a new writing platform/community that just opened to the public this week.
In a post about the thinking behind the site, Mod — who spent a year at Flipboard designing the company’s iOS app, and is also an author and publisher of physical books — says that it is intended to be a “community of writers, journalists, journalers, illustrators, photographers, travelers, poets, and musicians exploring the world, and sharing those explorations through images and text.” But it is also what he calls a “full stack” writing and publishing platform.
The term “full stack” comes from the world of technology, where the stack usually refers to software and hardware layers or products that when combined create a single unit. When it comes to companies, Apple is often described as a “full stack” company because it controls both the hardware and the software, as well as the services associated with them, as do some other companies.
Making community part of the process
Mod says that for Hi, the elements of the writing stack are the initial inspiration or spark of an idea, the capturing of that idea and related info, the drafting of a piece of writing, the publishing of that writing and the conversation that occurs during the creation of the product and/or after it is published.
Some other platforms or companies provide tools for parts of this “stack,” Mod says (and while he doesn’t name them, that group might include platform/publishers like Medium and interactive writing services like Wattpad) but Hi wants to provide all of them. And the main benefit to doing this, the founder says, is that it’s easier to make the community or audience — and more importantly, the interaction with that community — part of the writing process from the beginning.
“What advantages come from having all of your pancakes in one place? The biggest advantage is that it’s easy to weave community into each stage of the writing process. This creates a unique intimacy with an audience. It also makes building an audience feel accessible. In fact, writing on Hi feels less like using a set of tools and more like having an increasingly deepening, extended conversation.”
A powerful feedback loop
As Mod points out, some kinds of writing probably don’t lend themselves to this kind of interactive and public approach (although I would argue that more of what we call journalism could benefit from doing so) but there are other kinds that do, including travel writing — something that the Hi founder is particularly interested in because of his love of travelling, which he spoke about in an interview with Om Malik when Hi first launched in beta mode last year.
So writers post what Mod calls “sketches” — short snippets that might turn into longer stories — and then readers encourage them to write more about specific aspects of the place or topic, and then say thanks when they have done so. This may not sound like much, Mod says, but “those two simple actions create a powerful feedback loop predicated on guidance and optimism.” All this back-and-forth can be seen in a single stream for each user called “Conversations.”
What this reminds me of more than anything is the approach that Wattpad, another collaborative writing community/platform, takes to content: it encourages authors and would-be authors to post paragraphs or chunks of things they are working on — something even famous authors like Margaret Atwood have done as an experiment — in order to get feedback from readers on what they want to see more of. Wattpad has about 18 million users and is backed by Khosla Ventures.
Real-time, iterative journalism
Mod focuses on travel writing because of the way that Hi connects a piece of writing with a specific place (a service called Findery does something similar), but he also suggests that the Hi model of iterative writing could be useful for journalism as well.
“Real-time, iterative journalism (the covering of protests, emerging and evolving stories, etc) benefits from full stack tools wrapped in community.”
I think Mod is right — the kind of real-time, iterative process he describes is exactly what occurs with the best live-blogs on breaking news, whether it’s the New York Times blog The Lede or Storyful’s Open Newsroom, or the way Andy Carvin of NPR used Twitter during the Arab Spring uprisings. That iterative process might even have saved Newsweek from embarrassment over its unveiling of the supposed creator of Bitcoin, if the magazine had looked at the story as a process instead of a product and tried to engage with its audience more.
That kind of vision of the future of journalism or media is arguably what Gawker Media founder Nick Denton is interested in accelerating with his Kinja discussion platform, which turns every commenter into a blogger and is at its best when it allows writers and readers to collectively advance a story, as it did with one about the Malaysian Airlines flight that vanished into the Indian Ocean.
In the end, while it may feel as though the internet and the social web have transformed writing and journalism already, I agree with Mod that there is still more work to be done. Too much online writing is just print-style production in different clothing, with little or no interaction except for a few comments or responses on Twitter after the fact. Whether Hi or something like it can help that occur remains to be seen, but it is an interesting experiment.