January 28, 2012
Books have always been networked; it is us who are becoming networked now.
— James Bridle, BookTwo.org (2011c)
Web startup Small Demons, launched to much buzz at TOC Frankfurt in October 2011, conceptualizes books in terms of the people, places, and things that populate them. Using a combination of algorithm and human intelligence to mine books for these proper nouns, Small Demons invites readers to explore—and eventually, help create—a book’s “storyverse,” an interactive catalogue of the intersections between the book’s world and our world. This results in a new layer of metadata; call it “meta-metadata.” With the involvement of publishing visionary Richard Nash and a lofty ambition of “seeking a better path to book discovery” (Small Demons, n.d., “About”), the site has secured $3 million in Series A funding (Breland, 2011) and captured imaginations with its slick promotional video.
Although Small Demons is currently in beta, with only about 150 books (fiction and narrative non-fiction, for now) indexed as of December 2011 (Thanki, 2011), and many features still to be rolled out, I believe the site’s potential goes well beyond book discovery. However, with the prominence it gives to “things,” and the planned affiliate links (from the website, within e-books, and via apps) to purchase the featured items on Amazon, Audible, B&N, and iTunes, there is also the potential Small Demons will be gamed into disrepute by product placement. To avoid this fate, Small Demons should seize on the opportunity it has to reinvent the hypertext book—a genre that never quite took off—and facilitate collaborative modes of authorship and transmedia storytelling.
You can go your own way
Small Demons seeks to harness “the Wikipedia effect”: the inquiring user follows a reference down the rabbit hole and jumps through a series of hyperlinks, only to emerge several hours later, bleary eyed and not quite sure what just happened. A few clicks will take you from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” to Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. (At present, many of the references are linked via books by pop culture commentator Chuck Klosterman. Possibilities for trivia games spring to mind: Six Degrees of Chuck Klosterman, anyone?) Small Demons appeals less to good taste than it does to our insatiable (some might call it “compulsive”) desire to collect and classify esoteric knowledge.
In the world of online bookselling, where “shelf space may be unlimited but visibility is scarce” (Caravan, 2011), it would seem that Small Demons holds an advantage over personal recommendation algorithms such as those employed by Amazon and GoodReads, which are susceptible to the dreaded “filter bubble,” a term Eli Pariser uses to describe the phenomenon whereby Google aggregates our online behaviour and preferences, and reflects these prejudices back in our search results (cited in Farrell, 2011). Unwittingly, and much like Narcissus before us, we grow increasingly convinced and enamoured of our own good taste. Small Demons founder Valla Valkili argues that the sort of “contextual discovery” that his site accommodates “is much more powerful because, by nature, it’s not siloed” (Webb, 2011); his colleague, Nash, expresses this idea as freeing the user from the “tyranny of the ‘like’” (Thanki, 2011). In fact, you might not like what you find at all, and perhaps that’s as it should be. Valkili has stated that Small Demons is not intended as a recommendation mechanism, but rather as a means of sending a reader on a clickabout of self-guided discovery (Webb, 2011). Similarly, the author is emancipated from the taxonomy of the bookstore shelf and publisher-generated metadata into the realm of meta-metadata—a shift Nash describes as enabling “writer-powered serendipity” (van den Berg, 2011).
This is not to say we have achieved book discovery nirvana. A reader intrigued by a mention of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” in Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs biography can quickly learn that the ubiquitous song was name-checked in Annie Proux’s That Old Ace In the Hole…or was it? According to the excerpt provided, it was just an instance of a character crying out “Hallelujah!” Currently, the algorithm is refined by human intelligence, with further disambiguation to be eventually supplied by the wisdom of the crowd (Small Demons, n.d., “What’s Coming Next”). There are also at least two other filtering systems in the works: Nash notes that SD will rely on librarians, authors, and “gifted amateurs” to help evaluate the data so references with more “emotional resonances” for the work appear first (Boog, 2011; Small Demons, n.d., “Contribute”). Furthermore, users can achieve points and unlock badges, with the incentive of becoming a Topic Curator who is responsible for overseeing the quality of contributions for a given person, place, or thing (Small Demons, n.d., “Contribute”).
So despite a concerted attempt to move away from the social biases of the current tools for book discovery, it would seem that this is where Small Demons inevitably must return. In line with James Bridle’s belief in the inherently networked state of the book, Kathleen Fitzpatrick points out that “the ends of information are always human ends, and thus the communication of that information must always follow social purposes” (2011, p. 30). This is especially true if Small Demons is to resist being overrun by product placement.
Is the devil in the details?
Cultural references in fiction serve as a type of shorthand, grounding stories in a version of reality and advancing the narrative or characterization in an efficient manner. For instance, knowing that Lisbeth Salander, of Stieg Larrson’s Millennium trilogy, uses a MacBook Pro and shops at IKEA establishes her as a creative type with a modern aesthetic sensibility.
But given the link economy that Small Demons operates on, it’s easy to imagine that enterprising authors could take product placement to extremes. Currently, the ten most referenced “things” in the database are as follows:
- World War II
- New York Times
- Los Angeles Times
- Washington Post
Freelance writer Gregory Pellechi describes the dilemma that pits popularity against ethics:
The addition of extraneous elements in literature could have two effects on Small Demons. The first: a book would have an increased number of connections on the website and thus a greater chance of being discovered, which would result in more sales—a good thing for the author, undoubtedly. The second: the amount of items for sale would increase—a fine thing for Small Demons as that’s likely to be their source of income. But it could turn books into nothing more than the spam that arrives with the weekend edition of the newspaper. (2011)
The site’s human intelligence would not necessarily be able to suss out an author who could skillfully weave a reference into the narrative in a natural, even meaningful way. Gawker contributor Hamilton Nolan recently wrote about how a marketing firm called 43a had offered him money if he quietly inserted links to various companies’ websites into his articles for Gawker without his editors noticing (Nolan, 2011). Though this scenario clearly violates the journalistic code of ethics, one can understand how a cash-strapped book author might be swayed by a similar proposition. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time trade books became entangled in the knotty world of commercial tie-ins. In 2000, established British author Fay Weldon was privately commissioned by the Italian jeweler Bulgari to write The Bulgari Connection; the book was later republished commercially by the Atlantic Monthly Press to much controversy (Rose, 2001). There are also the movie tie-in editions of books, which many pre-existing fans won’t be caught dead holding. And as James Bridle points out, the first use of a book, before it delivers the information contained therein, is to serve as its own advertisement (2011b). Pellechi concedes that payola may be fair play: “Authors are going to mention brands unabated for the foreseeable future, so shouldn’t they get paid for doing so?” (2011)
Publishers must be ever-vigilant of the division of church and state or risk losing their credibility; to this end, guidelines on advertising in editorial exist such as the Canadian Magazine Industry Code of Reader and Advertiser Engagement and the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising for bloggers. If the popularity of Small Demons spurs the creation of a similar set of best practices for book publishers, this could be a welcome outcome. While some readers may be alienated by product placement—even when it is disclosed—the opportunities for authors and publishers to develop new revenue streams may allow them to experiment with lower price points and to gain access to new audiences.
There is also to consider the value Small Demons adds for publishers: after working from the EPUBs provided by publishers, they return “dynamic feeds and EPUBs marked up with newly sourced metadata” (Boog, 2011). This is a significant service, when one considers that commonplace paratextual elements such as indexes, footnotes, and tables of contents are disappearing in the switch to digital and POD book publishing (Bridle, 2011a); if Small Demons works as it is supposed to, site users will carry out much of the work. As Jonathan Zittrain points out in his talk “Minds for Sale,” the “workforce in the cloud” that crowdsourcing exploits is often unaware of how their (unregulated) labour will be used (2009). At this early stage, it’s hard to know whether the Small Demons community would be comfortable knowing that their meticulous work of tagging content is being used to entice advertisers. Perhaps the “nofollow” markup used on the web to discourage influencing a site’s search engine ranking (a tactic Zittrain mentions in his talk) could be adapted to EPUB for publishers or authors who want to have their work appear on Small Demons but don’t want to participate in a stealth marketing campaign.
For Small Demons’ part, Valkili claims that the site does not stand to earn a lot from affiliate links—and besides that, is “not in the business of being a retailer” (Morais, 2011). So what better purpose could the site serve, then?
Everything is illuminated
Small Demons is compelling evidence for Jacques Derrida’s famous assertion that “There is nothing outside the text [Il n'y a pas de hors-texte],” (1976, p. 158), an idea closely related to Clifford Geertz’s notion of culture as an “acted document”—a kind of a living text that can be interpreted (1973, p. 10). Indeed, we are a product of our culture, and we produce culture; the books we read are good jumping-off points for exploring this mutually constitutive relationship. Following this, I submit that Small Demons could be the next step in hypertextual, transmedia storytelling, in that it offers an opportunity for both textual consumers and textual purveyors to redefine the boundaries of a given book in order to create an intertextual paradise. Small Demons is both progressive and utterly retro: a type of choose-your-own adventure book with a virtually infinite number of pages.
Of course, the notion of endlessly deferred meaning echoing into the expanse of the universe is a lot to take in. According to Robert Coover, this is why the hypertext novel, never really took off: “How does one resolve the conflict between the reader’s desire for coherence and closure and the text’s desire for continuance, its fear of death? Indeed, what is closure in such an environment?” (1993). Hypertext, a term coined by Ted Nelson, was heralded as the darling of the postmodern turn in literature, facilitating a non-linear, non-hierarchical means of organization that better reflected the way we engage with the world and “elevated the reader to full participation in the production of the text’s meaning” (Fitzpatrick, 2009, p. 30). But this requires a significant commitment on the reader’s part, and the payoff needs to be worth the effort. I’m not convinced that clicking between the largely one-off, inconsequential links between people, places, and things found on Small Demons is enough to sustain users’ longer-term interest and keep them on the site for more than a few bemused clicks.
The most interesting application of Small Demons, then, could be to allow users to create bespoke transmedia stories, curating packages of books, films, songs, and images (or excerpts thereof) to share or download: a multimedia version of BookRiff. This sort of use case does seem to be up Nash’s sleeve, as he has indicated that at some point site users will be able to hear to the same songs an author did while writing: “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes” (Steel, 2012). I will let the irony of a book discovery site advocating closing one’s eyes to stop reading pass, and say that Nash’s comment does speak to the larger possibilities for Small Demons to innovate in the type of database-driven publishing Kathleen Fitzpatrick envisions:
Curated texts produced in such a platform might resemble edited volumes, whether by single or multiple authors, or they might take as yet unimagined forms, but they would share the ability to access and manipulate a multiplicity of objects contained in a variable, extensible database, that could then be processed in a wide range of ways, as well as allowing users the ability to add to the database and to create their own texts from its materials. (2009, p. 31)
Such a platform might also inspire collaborations between authors (contracted at the same publishing house or even at competing houses), where their storyverses feature intentional crossovers, and multimedia work with emerging musicians and filmmakers that go beyond the standard book-to-movie deal. Valkili is wise not to limit Small Demons to the business of affiliate links.
More than the sum of its parts
Is atomizing a book into its constituent cultural references doing it a disservice? Or does it make a case for the book’s ongoing relevance in a saturated media environment? Speaking at Books in Browsers 2011, James Bridle said that he believed the text was inviolable and could not be broken: “However much we do to it, the text stands for itself.” Furthermore, he urged developers to “create things around it that enhance our experience of it, because our own experience is the most important” (2011b). Now that Small Demons has piqued our curiousity with an intriguing concept, it needs to avoid falling prey to link-bait by embracing the opportunities to connect the nodes of people, places, and things in a meaningful, social, and tangible way.
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Breland, A. (2011, November 16). Small Demons Website Catalogues Details in Books. The Daily Texan. Retrieved from http://www.dailytexanonline.com/life-and-arts/2011/11/16/small-demons-website-catalogues-details-books
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