Voices: A Case Study in Failure

Roughly two years ago, I began a short-lived independent wiki fiction project called Voices. About a year later, it was dusty with neglect and overgrown with spam. I took it down, and it remains down

I've been encouraged to speak about the project directly and indirectly by several people, most notably Brooke Thompson, who wrote a thoughtful post on the need for more critical scrutiny in our field. I learned a lot of important lessons from the Voices experience, and even though the project is definitely not one of the gleaming highlights of my career, I thought it might be interesting and helpful to others to take a careful look at it and see what I was trying to do, and why it was ultimately a failure.

Intent

One of my core creative touchpoints is the idea of net-native literature. I am obsessed with the idea of making works that are inextricably native to the medium or media in which they reside. How do you make works or experiences that are so utterly net-native that they simply couldn't exist in another form? (My experiments along those lines also include Circular Logic, a super-short experimental time travel story told via Google calendar.)

With Voices, I was attempting to use the wiki as a fiction vehicle. There have been other works of wiki fiction before mine, of course; prior art includes Ghyll and at least a handful of Choose Your Own Adventure experiments. For a different spin on it, I wanted to incorporate talk pages as part of an emerging and collaborative experience, and see if I could come up with a work of fiction that had a single author, but was also shaped by the influence and input of audience/participants.

Concept

The idea I settled on was simple enough. I would make a wiki where the first-person narrative thread would unspool on the main pages, and the comments on talk pages would be "heard" by the character, as though they were voices in her head. Those voices could affect her thinking and decisions. 

Further activity on talk pages might even cause branching moments, where the story split off in multiple directions. And as the story progressed, the character would begin to talk back to the voices in her head silently, by posting on the talk pages of the wiki herself. This way the character and the players would develop a relationship that would affect the progress of the narrative.

With some technical and logistical help from the talented and generous Tom Bridge, I set up a wiki where only I could edit the wiki pages, but anyone could edit the talk pages. We soon learned that it was better and wiser to require registration to have any input at all, in order to prevent spam; but this immediately created a barrier to entry for participation, which proved to be unfortunate. It was, however, one of many, many elements of the project plan that proved to be unfortunate, as you will soon discover.

Utter Failure

I announced the project here at Deus Ex Machinatio and on Twitter; I announced updates almost exclusively on Twitter. This was a very poor method for accruing audience, because at the time, I had a readership that amounted to a couple of dozen on a good day, and about two people on a bad day (and one of those people was probably my mom). It's no surprise, then, that participation was very low. 

Ultimately, perhaps a half a dozen people, almost all good friends and a majority of them probably humoring me, went as far as registering for a user account and posting comments. I posted updates sporadically, aiming for a couple of times a week, but ultimately hitting once a week, and then once a month, before quitting entirely.

I still adore the core concept of Voices, but there's no question it wasn't a success. In fact, it might be the most failingest project I have ever done. So what went wrong?

Commitment and Participation

There was a vicious circle between commitment and participation for me. Participation was low, so I didn't get the buzzy jabs of egoboo I craved to keep me working on it; and as my commitment levels dropped off, my audience members didn't get enough payoff or frequency to keep them coming back routinely. So they... didn't. And who can blame 'em?

Look, commitment is a hard thing on a personal project. Paying work will always take first dibs on your time. And so will birthdays, grocery shopping, and general slackery. That's why we writers talk so much about butt-in-chair and discipline.

Building an audience is most often a long, hard slog. I knew it at the time, but I'd envisioned my audience numbers starting slow, but gradually increasing over time. This is the opposite of what happened. If I had it to do over, these are the things I'd think long and hard about doing:


  • Don't expect instant gratification, duh

  • --and make your personal project a high priority, so it gets done at all

  • Provide more incentive and reward for audience participation (at least in terms of fiero or enjoyment)

  • Update on a consistent and predictable schedule

  • Continue to find more ways to bring in audience, or make the project more visible, even post-launch


Secrecy

But participation is, in a way, a red herring. Here's what I think is the most fundamental reason for the failure of Voices (and the reason it would be a failure if I did it in exactly the same way now, even though I have a much wider potential playerbase now): 

I didn't let my audience in on the joke. 

I was so busy being coy about my plan -- so wrapped up in the idea of surprises and emergent behaviors -- that I simply never made it clear what I was trying to do, or what made it special. 

At ARGfest last year, Elan Lee told me some words of advice that I have taken very much to heart. "If you want the players to know something, tell it to them." I didn't tell them, and they had no way to read my mind or guess what I'd planned to do.

How to fix this for another time?


  • Write an artist's statement putting it all on the line straightaway

  • Provide models of the kinds of behavior I anticipated or desired via alternate accounts on the wiki


Planning

Another big problem with Voices was that I simply didn't have a clear enough idea of where I wanted the story to go. I set it up with a lot of potentially juicy hooks; a woman stumbling half-drugged across a field in the middle of the night, immediately postpartum, and unsure of where she was or what she was escaping from. 

Did I know where I was going? Heck, no! I wasn't sure if it was going to be an alien abduction story, or about a secret insane asylum, or about conspiracy-style government experimentation on the innocent, or about genetic manipulation. No freaking clue.

I expected my audience to fill in the blanks for me by making suggestions! But the audience didn't have any idea what to expect, and certainly had no idea that's what they were supposed to be doing, because I'd never given them enough information about what was going on. They simply didn't have the tools they needed to fully engage with the story.

So the story staggered along until I'd painted myself into a corner. Players posted helpful, supportive comments encouraging the main character to keep her cool, and promising her it would all be OK, but not so much with the concrete ideas on where to go next. Which proves they were a sweet bunch of good human beings.

When I closed the doors on Voices, I hadn't updated for months, and I had no idea where the heck I was supposed to go next, because I'd never had a sufficiently clear core concept of where I was going.

Lessons learned?


  • Always know what's going on behind the scenes, even if you aren't telling your audience, duh

  • Have a clear plan of action; don't rely on your audience to do all the heavy lifting for you

  • Have a Plan B, and a Plan C, too


Conclusions

There's a lot of water under the bridge since Voices. If you're familiar with my work, you may even see some of the ways I've applied these lessons learned to later projects. I'm still proud of the concept, but definitely not proud of my shameful dedication to the project. I let myself down, and I let down the (admittedly few) people who came into my sandbox to play with me. Sorry, guys. I hope I can make it up to you someday.

I'm also open to the idea that the project failed for other reasons than those I've outlined above; was the content too outre or graphic, the writing sloppy? Was the whole thing simply embarrassingly bad in execution? If you participated in Voices (or even if you didn't) and you have an opinion on why it ultimately didn't work out, I'd love to hear it.

The nice thing about failing is that you can always learn to do better. Every project is worthwhile, provided you learn from your failures. And I did learn a lot from Voices; so now, hopefully I've moved into new and different categories of mistake. Onward and upward.