Net Narratives: How writing, physics and the Internet are bringing about the End of the World

Dimitris Giannakis, by Ellis Calvin

“I was vacationing in Greece with an old high school friend. We woke up around 1pm, and I started thinking about the end of the world.” The Adriatic doesn’t seem like the kind of place to foster apocalyptic thoughts, and Dimitris Giannakis doesn’t look like someone who would indulge in them; with a small frame dressed in an olive-green jacket, close-cropped haircut and broad smile, he looks more like a Boy Scout than a dabbler in the End of Days. But his thoughts turn out to be more interesting than just wrath-of-God boilerplate: “I was thinking that instead of a highly advertised global threat, like diseases or war and so forth, it could be something small that escalates into a catastrophe. I wake up in the morning, spill coffee on my shirt, yell at somebody at work, and everything escalates into this ridiculous mess because of some stupid little thing.”

Everybody contemplates the Earth ending in fire or ice at one time or another, but Giannakis is actually doing something about his apocalyptic vision. EndOfThisWorld is a collaboration set up by him and two friends to tell the story he envisioned. The catch is that the writing process is more interesting than the story itself. Neither Giannakis nor his partners are writing one word of the story. They provide only a few stipulations about the overall shape of the tale: it must start with an innocuous event, and when it ends the world must, too. There are twenty-five chapters. That’s it.

The actual story gets crafted by whoever wants to spend time writing it. Anyone can create a profile on the website, www.endofthisworld.com, and write a submission for a chapter. Submissions are posted on the website and rated from one to five by whoever happens to stop by. After about three weeks, the submission period ends and the top-five rated stories are voted on for two weeks. The winner of the vote becomes part of the story.

It sounds simple. It is not. The project weds technological acumen, collective action and authorial independence; Giannakis and his partners, Costas Dimas and Michael Printzos, have had to think through the tangle of issues that surrounds those areas. They communicate via Skype to maintain and improve their website, whose slickness rivals any commercial production. They are not so vain as to think that this will turn a profit. In case it does, however, they have taken the trouble to create a copyright arrangement whereby each contributor will be entitled to a share of whatever revenue the story generates. Even their voting process has been well-reasoned. Instead of a winner-take-all system there is instant run-off voting, where each voter gives a ranked list of preferences; if there is not a clear majority among first-place votes, the submission with the least votes is eliminated, and the second-place preferences of those voters who voted first place for that submission get distributed. This merry-go-round spins until there is a submission with over fifty percent of the vote.

Some of this meticulousness stems from Giannakis’ physics background. After studying engineering in Cambridge, pure science wimpled its way into his bloodstream; he’s now close to getting his doctorate in fluid dynamics. The content of EndOfThisWorld doesn’t interest him so much as the dynamic process which creates it: “We’ve created an interesting way in which writers can interact. It’s interesting to see a different person’s take on the same inputs. At the same time there’s an atmosphere of collaboration and competition.” Giannakis also describes the story as being a metaphor of the process which created it: three people had a small idea, and now hundreds of people are affected by it. “I think the first two chapters seem to fit the metaphor nicely.”

The first two chapters are the only ones to have survived the voting process so far (in about a week, the submission period will close for the third chapter). It’s not clear yet whether the characters from the first (a yuppie couple who make love before going to work) have an effect on those of the second (a thirty-year-old hippie “with no job prospects. No husband prospects. No prospects”). The work so far is strewn with metaphors and sentences artificially lengthened with commas, though not so much as to be distracting–only enough to be bland.

What are interesting are the submissions for the third chapter. They are much more engaging, in both style and plot, than the two which begin the story. In the end, Giannakis will probably be right: the most interesting part of the website will probably not be the content of the story, but the way in which a dynamic community of writers affects the way the story is told. A discussion forum, with a fair number of posts, already promises to help shape submissions and craft the story as a whole.

Although more narrow in scope and with a longer timeline, EndOfThisWorld is just one of a number of web-based stories which are twisting how narratives are manufactured. Publishing giant Penguin alone has put on several experiments, including hosting eight writers working in shifts of three hours each to continuously create a story, 24/7; melding a story with Google Earth so that the reader must look at maps to continue reading; and hosting a live webchat where two authors create a story through their instant messages to each other. There are already a multitude of projects despite the slim profitability. Imagine the forms of fiction, the bold leaps narrative can take, once there is sound financial backing behind the attempts.

Jonathan Franzen is right: the novel is dead. But it’s not the end of the world.