Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Story of a Transmedia Revolution: (Part 3) The Rise of The Unbook

The Unbook: A digital narrative that's more than meets the eye...
"When we think about digital's effect on storytelling, we tend to grasp for the lowest hanging fruits: words will move, pictures become movies, every story will be a choose-your-own-adventure. While digital does make all of this possible, these are the changes of least radical importance..."
        --Craig Mod, Storytelling 2.0: The digital death of the author
In an age of digital storytelling, the distance between author and reader is rapidly shrinking, and the roles those parties play are rapidly changing. One of the most radical concepts that I've come across during my research of transmedia storytelling is the "unbook."

Instead of viewing books as the cold, static, and lifeless byproduct of creativity--an unbook sees the creation of a narrative as a continuing creative process. It views the book as a living thing, one that continuously changes and evolves over time. Thanks to updated research, feedback (and in some cases even the active participation of its audience), an unbook has the potential to bridge the gap between writer and reader, creator and participant...

A New Kind of Storytelling

During the last decade, I've had a number of ideas about the possibilities of creating a collaborative fictional narrative. In the traditional model, a number of writers will take turns writing chapters or scenes. Integrated techniques, where authors work together from the beginning until the end (taking control of writing specific characters as they appear) is another more time consuming method.

However, other than beta-readers or writing circles (where an unedited story is edited, critiqued, and remolded), story consumers are left at the very end of the assembly process with a finished product--and little or no input, or control of the process that created it.

Other then sharing their opinions about the book with other potential readers; sending a letter or e-mail directly to the authors; or re-writing the story to better fit their expectations (fan-fiction).

A vast chasm separates the author and her audience. But thanks to social media like Facebook, blogs, and twitter; that chasm is getting narrower.

In traditional methods of oral storytelling, this third wall is nonexistent. The story exists in the present. The storyteller knows how his audience reacts, and if he is holding their interests

The unbook is a concept that was originally developed by Jay Cross (and it continued to evolve based on discussions between Jay and Dave Gray in the summer of 2008).

The unbook

View more PowerPoint from Dave Gray
(the following is an excerpt from the unbook website)

What is an unbook?

A traditional book is released in editions.  When a work is revised or updated, a new edition is released. These revised or updated editions usually offer small, incremental changes, such as a new preface or introduction, a new chapter, or small changes to the content.
An unbook is more like software:
The unbook process, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.
1. An unbook is never finished, but rather continually updated, based on feedback from users and their evolving needs.
2. An unbook is released in versions. As in open source software, version 1.0 of anunbook is a significant milestone, indicating that it is stable and reliable enough for use by the general public. The significance of a new release is indicated by the size of the gap: For example, the difference between 1.1 and 1.1.3 is minor, while the difference between 1.1 and 2.0 is major.

3. An unbook is supported by a community of users who share their experiences and best practices with each other, and help each other troubleshoot problems encountered in their practice areas. An unbook’s community is a very real part of the unbook’s development team.

An unbook is mindware: software for the mind...

Jay Cross discusses the key elements of the Unbook
and how he puts them into practice...
(Video via Youtube)

Collaborative Storytelling

Thanks to the release of iBooks author (which I blogged about here), writers are now able to distribute narratives that continually update themselves...just like the "mindware" that Mr. Cross mentions above. Thanks to the ability to imbed HTML widgets, pull data from the internet, post shared notes, and send messages directly to the author...these digital platforms are enabling an unprecedented level of collaboration between content creators, and content consumers.

An example of this new kind of storytelling is the collaborative graphic novel being created for an Ax body spray marketing campaign:

While Unbooks might seem like collaborative wiki-narratives, according to Craig Mod, they have a number of significant differences:
The biggest change is not in the form stories take but in the writing process. Digital media changes books by changing the nature of authorship. Stories no longer have to arrive fully actualised. On the simplest level, books can be pushed to e-readers in a Dickensian chapter-by-chapter format - as author Max Barry did with his latest book, Machine Man. Beyond that, authorship becomes a collaboration between writers and readers. Readers can edit and update stories, either passively in comments on blogs or actively via wiki-style interfaces. Authors can gauge reader interest as the story unfolds and decide whether certain narrative threads are worth exploring. 
For better or for worse, live iteration frees authors from their private writing cells; the audience becomes directly engaged with the process. Writers no longer have to hold their breath for years as their work is written, edited and finally published to find out if their book has legs. In turn they can be more brazen and spelunk down literary caves that would have hitherto been too risky. The vast exposure brought by digital media also means that those risky niche topics can find their niche audiences. 
The impact on storytelling is subtle. It may not change the writing's core ethos. And the final form of the output (paragraphs, chapters, etc) may not feel so different from digitised editions of printed books. What does change, however, is the very process of creation: the movement from idea to text to reader. It may not be as overt as flying text, embedded movies and interactive chapters, but it is having a far more profound impact on the words we read.

The Unbook:  A New Kind of Never-ending Story

Educational textbooks and technical manuals aren't the only kinds of narratives that can benefit from being released as unbooks. Fiction can also take advantage of this incremental release and update method.
What do you want to experience in a transmedia story?  Vote today!
In fact, I have some personal experience with it. It's only through participant engagement that my transmedia story Legends of Eden is even theoretically possible. Thanks to input from my audience, instead of being a traditionally mono-active form of storytelling, it's crossing into a new interactive storytelling frontier. And you can help with the exploration...

The next chapter in transmedia storytelling is here...
Head over to Legend of Eden's Face Book page, read some of the questions I ask. Let your opinion be heard. If you "like" the page, you'll be kept up to date on project milestones, and get exclusive information on how you can participate....

Bi-Monthly Topics Are Here!

Check Modern Mythology often...during the months of March and April, we'll be discussing storytelling in the digital age. On the horizon: we've got posts on the dismal future of book publishing; collaborative story gaming; a contemporary heroes journey; and of course, the continuing search for a modern mythology.

- Peter Usagi
Transmedia Storyteller

[Check out some of the books, albums, and soon movies produced by Mythos Media and our various media partners.]


  1. Great post! You may be interested in checking out this project at the MIT Media Lab:

    and here's a link to Stephen Fry playing with the same bit of technology:


  2. Wow! Thanks for the post. This is some really interesting tech...



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