afaqs!

Crowd-sourced, Facebook-authored e-novel released

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Digital | December 13, 2012
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Emmanuel Upputuru, founder and chief innovation officer, ITSA, has released an e-book that has been authored by a group of strangers from around the globe, on Facebook, over the past few months.

First there was papyrus. Then there were books. Then there were e-books, downloadable books and simulation books. And now, thanks to adman Emmanuel Upputuru, we have a crowd-sourced, social media e-book.

Called 'Once', it is an e-novel that has been co-written on Facebook, over a span of around eight months by 23 people from different places around the world, including Paris, Singapore, Mumbai, Chennai and Orissa. The book resembles a physical book and appears on one's screen just as an image of a book would. Readers can virtually flip the pages by clicking on strategically placed arrows.

Emmanuel Upputuru

The text inside the book appears in Facebook format, that is, each paragraph looks like a Facebook post (which is pretty much what it is), with the author's photograph to the left. Towards the end of the book, the names and pictures of all 23 contributing authors are listed, again, in Facebook format.

Paul Kemp-Robertson, co-founder and editorial director, Contagious Communications, London and New York, has written the foreword and the preface is by Upputuru. The 28-page e-book is available for download at www.issuu.com/itsapublishing.

How it all began

It started as a social experiment by Upputuru last year. One fine day (March 25, 2011) he created a page on Facebook called 'People like you and me' and put up the first post, which is the first sentence of the novel. It starts with a man who gives a Pumpkin-faced lady a lift outside his house one morning, something Upputuru claims is a true incident from his life.

The original idea, he tells afaqs!, came from his son. "I used to play this game with my son where I'd start a story with one sentence and he'd add to it and then I'd build on it and this would go on. One afternoon I decided to try it on Facebook. It felt like the most natural thing to do on a platform like Facebook; surely much better than just uploading your vacation pictures," he adds with candour.

Front cover

Preface by Emmanuel Upputuru

Foreword by Kemp Robertson

A page inside the book

A page towards the end lists the authors in Facebook style

Back cover

So, after his first post, the first few people who took the story forward were his friends and acquaintances, people on his Facebook friends list. However, over time, since the page is a public one, friends of friends and later, complete strangers, from different geographies, began contributing. And one author could contribute with more than one post.

As more and more text trickled in, Upputuru realised that he had to start playing curator (he prefers the term to editor or moderator) to avoid confusion. If someone wrote something unfavourable, strayed too much from the plot, or used unwarranted profanity, he'd at once either delete it or drop the person a Facebook post asking him/her to consider changing it. Nevertheless, he maintained the authenticity of the matter; say, if someone posted something relevant but grammatically incorrect, he'd let it remain that way and resist the temptation to clean the copy.

While the intention was never to specifically attract ad-media professionals, it just so happens that a few of the authors are from this field, such as Nima Namchu, executive creative director, Cheil and Shubho Sengupta, independent digital consultant. "I didn't want it to be a copywriters' thing," clarifies Upputuru.

Virtual chaos

With time, the contributions increased. Upputuru also created some Facebook ads to popularise the page. Of course, there were a few long spells, spanning days, during which the posts dried up. He shrugs it off and likens it to writers' block, albeit a more collective one. Barring these bad days, the book took off and after it reached a certain threshold of popularity, it went out of control. "Soon, there was mayhem. People gate-crashed the process (virtually, of course), posts came in by the hundreds and I couldn't control it. It became difficult to curate the contributions," he recalls.

For instance, at one juncture of the story, there'd be multiple 'what happens next' scenarios as contributors would take the story to the next level from that point, without refreshing the page to see if they'd missed the bus. Since so many around the globe were typing out their scenes simultaneously, the chances of one person hitting 'enter' while another was still typing his contribution for the exact same scene were very high.

Also, as the story gained length, the responsibility of each subsequent contributor increased as he/she had to read the story right from the beginning to that point, before taking it ahead.

This is when Upputuru decided to stop the process and end the story. "I faced a strange dilemma. The more popularity it gained, the number of contributing authors increased and it got that much tougher to moderate," he admits.

The book ends with a post from November 12, 2011. Though this was the last post used in the novel, contributions kept pouring in. While these additional posts are not part of the book, the unabridged version has 121 posts with contributions from 57 people and is available for reading on the Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/peoplelikeyouandme/notes.

What next?

Much to the dismay of digital purists, Upputuru is keen on publishing nominally-priced hardcopies of the e-book and is currently in conversation with publishers. "Usually people post physical material online as a soft copy. This will be the opposite. I'll hold in my hand something that was created virtually."

Activation plans, to take this initiative to schools, are also in the offing. The idea is to contact 50 schools across the nation, select around 10 contributors per school, then give them a starting point and urge them to co-create a book online.

ITSA has also created a Facebook app called 'Cowrite' through which it attempts to make such crowd-sourced initiatives easy in the future. The app provides tips for social media authors, for instance, 'always read what has happened in the story so far before posting' and 'refresh the page before posting, as the story may have gone ahead while you were typing your scene'. The app is still in its beta phase and is being tested through another such online story at the moment.

In a move to fine-tune the pool of contributing authors, there's the possibility of launching variations of 'People like you and me' such as 'CEOs like you and me', 'Girls like you and me', 'Teachers like you and me', and 'Journalists like you and me'. This way, only people from that particular segment of society will be asked to contribute to that particular story. The downside to this, of course, is that there's no way to verify if the contributors actually belong to the segment they claim to belong to. If an 80 year old man posts on the 'Adolescents like you and me' page, no one will ever know!

What's more, the ITSA team contacted the Guinness Book of Records authorities, who said it will be deemed a record if the agency managed to co-create fifty such books.

"Maybe we can create a story that goes on forever,"

Upputuru speculates.

For the record, ITSA is a Mumbai-based agency that, in collaboration with Concept Communications, offers advertising, PR, digital and sports marketing capabilities. ITSA was founded last year by Emmanuel Upputuru, ex-national creative director, Publicis; Anirban Mozumdar, ex-national planning director, Publicis and Daniel Upputuru, ex-head of TAG McCann Delhi.

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