MacGuffin: A jukebox for fiction and poetry

Jim Hinks, Digital Editor, Comma Press

At Comma Press, we’re building a big jukebox for fiction and poetry. Not a physical jukebox (though wouldn’t that be fun?), but a website and app to host user-generated literature. It’ll be free to use, and all content will be in both text and audio form, so users can stream readings on the go, by smartphone or tablet.

It’s called MacGuffin, and it aims to solve a fundamental discoverability problem: readers want to find writing that chimes with their particular interests and tastes; writers want to find a readership that gets their work. Matching them up is the tricky part.

To do this, we’re going to apply the ‘broad folksonomy’ end-user hash-tagging behaviours of social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, and bookmarking tools like Delicious (and latterly, the excellent Archive of Our Own). On MacGuffin, readers themselves will participate in content curation by adding hashtags to other people’s work, grouping it into genres (e.g. #spec-fic), memes (e.g. #sundaysonnets), reading lists (e.g. #claireskafkaesquereads); or simply adding tags to describe the content (#bears #porridge #woods #dangerousblondes). A writer can use multiple tags to target work at readers with specific interests (e.g. #post-colonial #apocalyptic #antarctic) and a writing group can use a tag to share work-in-progress (e.g. #leedsuniwritersyear3).

Using tags to describe content is a blunt tool if only a few readers participate. But when a whole community tags, this ought to accrue into a detailed and searchable list of attributes, and as more content is uploaded and tagged, readers will be able to find stuff using ever-more specific search terms; for example, a crime-fiction fan on a 20-minute bus ride in south London could search #20minutestories #crime #lambeth to find a story suited to her journey.

It feels like the right time for this, from a technological point of view. With 3G coverage in 99.5% of properties the UK, and 4G in 73%, and with wifi increasingly available on the tube, decent audio-streaming is becoming the norm for commuters. Meanwhile, barriers to entry for writers are falling away. Amateur podcasters have proved you don’t need a professional studio – just a quiet space, some good ideas, and a half-decent mic (most smartphones now have audio recording hardware and software of near broadcast standard). I believe self-publishing writers can follow suit.

Most writers of fiction and poetry are motivated by the urge to communicate, above all else; to reach out to someone with their words, and know that person was reached. That’s why we’re building powerful analytics into MacGuffin. From the analytics panel, a writer will be able to use data visualizations to see where in the world people read or listened to their story, plotted on a time-lapse map. They’ll be able to see which tags readers used to find their story, which tags they added, and how those tags spread the story to yet more readers. They’ll even be able to see where people stopped reading or listening; whether they need to go back and tighten that tricky third scene that’s losing them readers. We hope this analytics function will be a pull factor in terms of take-up (writers will be able to share data visualizations as images on social media, e.g. “X number of people in X countries read my story this week”).

But to generate analytics, readers must consent to us collecting data, and in an age of privacy wars – with frequent skirmishes and moving frontlines – they’re understandably concerned about relinquishing it. We began the MacGuffin project by hosting a design jam with writers. It generated loads of useful functionality ideas, but a paradox soon emerged: we asked them if they’d find it useful to know who’s reading their work on MacGuffin, and where? Overwhelmingly: ‘yes’. Would you be happy for us to record what stories you read on MacGuffin, and where? Overwhelmingly: ‘no’. Therein lies the problem, and we’re spending a lot of time trying to strike the right balance between privacy and useful analytics functionality: reigning back on the data we collect and make public, and giving readers the option to use MacGuffin anonymously.

The project is supported by the Digital R&D fund for the Arts – a partnership between Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and Nesta. The fund encourages projects that use digital technology to enhance audience reach and/or develop new business models for the arts sector. With a dedicated researcher as part of the three-way collaboration, each project captures and disseminates learning insights to the wider arts community.

We’re collaborating with Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Computing, Mathematics and Digital Technology (research partner) and fffunction.co (tech partner), a design company specializing in user experience. Both partners have embraced the concept whole-heartedly, cheerfully throwing themselves into solving the multifarious technical challenges that attend a project like MacGuffin. And as they don’t come from a publishing background, they have none of the preconceptions that tend to encumber bricks-and-mortar publishing projects transitioning to digital; projects which often needlessly cling to old processes and signifiers, with results that are neither fish nor foul.

MacGuffin launches in June 2015, and between now and then we’ll be devoting a lot of time and energy to iterative building and testing. You can follow our progress on the blog. We’ll be looking for legions of volunteer testers between now and launch (we’re beta testing from April 2015), so if you’re a writer or reader and you fancy being one of the first to give MacGuffin a try, please do get in touch (email me at jim.hinks [at] commapress.co.uk).

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