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Digital Storytelling Apps get Short(y).

For many of us, the short story is a genre of writing that we equate with our post-secondary school days, often on the syllabus in literature studies courses. I am applying my own bias here, yes, but, I myself have never sought out short fiction in particular for pleasure reading, though I can’t precisely explain why. However, hand me a short non-fiction article and I’m happy to devour it. It’s interesting how in some ways, we yearn for longer form content when it is fiction and we demand shorter, bite-sized content when it’s informational/ non-fiction. Again, I’m generalizing here, drawing from the evolution of my own habits in this digital age.

I wanted to look at two different ways that technology is changing how we write, share and enjoy stories so for the purposes of this post, I will look at two dramatically different “short story” innovations that the digital app revolution hath borne.

The first is Wattpad.

Wattpad is a digital platform that defines itself as a ‘community of readers and writers’ and hey- it was founded in my hometown, Toronto, in 2006! Its initial content came out of a deal to offer 17 000 ebooks of cultural works available immediately via “Project Gutenberg” in 2007. Since 2009, the app has been downloaded over 5 million times. Other notable stats include 35 million unique visitors per month, on average there are 100, 000 story uploads per day and over over 2 million writers have contributed content to date (Wikipedia contributors. “Wattpad.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.).

The idea behind Wattpad is to offer a platform where anyone who writes, be it short genre fiction, poetry, comics, articles, or even fan fiction, can share his or her own content and build an audience. It appeals to both new and undiscovered talent as well as seasoned pros (Margaret Atwood being the most well-known literary force to partner with the app). Geared more towards shorter-length fiction, contributors can upload stories in a serialized format and can respond to feedback from readers- thus allowing for a unique relationship (and a far more immediate one). Readers can access the content they want, when they want, often in short installments to suit our modern digital media consumption habits. Responding to the success of Fifty Shades of Grey as well as its own popular Romance category, Wattpad recently launched an initiative called “Wattpad After Dark.” The program focuses on romantic fiction for the 17+ set. And the 17+ set is hungry for it; even Cosmopolitan magazine offers a new excerpt from a hot Wattpad story weekly on its website.

I have not yet ventured into Wattpad, neither as a consumer nor a potential contributor. In truth, it’s because I know I will get (happily) lost in the vast amount of content. I can see this an incredible exercise for a middle schol creative writing class: all of the students are tasked with creating characters and a storyline and take turns contributing (to learn how about ‘voice’ and writing style first hand). I can also see this appealing to much younger writers and readers as a way to experience storytelling that speaks to their ‘participatory’ sensibilities. I know my tween self would have definitely tried my hand at contributing, rather than putting my hand-written stories in a box under my bed! I certainly would have been more motivated to continue with stories I had started and never finished, if I knew I had an audience waiting.

But let’s turn our attention to another short story app/initiative. It’s a project in Grenoble, France by Short Edition, a French publisher that specializes in content optimized for mobile screens.

The team recently unveiled a digital ‘experience’ that reintroduces the joy of short-fiction in the most unlikely, yet brilliant, of locations.

The unnamed project consists of 8 ‘ATM’ style machines located at high traffic areas like libraries, the town hall and the tourist centre. The city participated in the development of this project, which spits out receipt-size paper with stories printed on them- the option to select a one, three, or five minute story is user-driven- as an enjoyable way to ‘kill time’ waiting.

Co-founder Christophe Sibieude says the idea was born while standing in front of a junk food vending machine: “We said to ourselves that we could do the same thing with good quality popular literature to occupy these little unproductive moments.” (“This Vending Machine in France Dispenses Short Stories Instead of Snacks.” Digital Trends. 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.). The stories come from users who already contribute to his app Short Edition, which appears to be similar to Wattpad, but for the French market.

Is this a trend or just a one-off experiment that has found a rare way to use modern technology to encourage a throwback to a simpler time? The City mayor and Green Party member Eric Piolle was elemental in pushing this project along: “We are trying to re-imagine the city center as a place of shared experiences. We are trying to launch a revolution, and the objective to build a wider and calmer downtown area” (Digital Trends, 2015).

It’s definitely too early to tell how this project will fare, who will end up using it most, will people use it more than once, etc. But it’s an interesting way to demonstrate that technology doesn’t have to lock us into a perpetual rhythm of looking ‘down’ (at our phones). How is looking down at a slip of paper any different? The brightly-coloured machines are meant to be noticed- to make us take pause in our busy days, hopefully pique our curiosity to investigate what they do, and then take a moment to indulge in a great, short story.

Whether we need to be reminded to experience a fictional story or we regularly and actively seek it out, the scientific evidence exists. According to this Psychology Today article, fiction readers have higher-functioning brains, are more empathetic, and are better at interacting with people… among other great benefits.

So, fictional stories are GOOD for you… and short ones fit nicely into a busy schedule thanks to the digital apps that make it possible… so, pssst! Pass this (short) story news on!

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