Douglas Rushkoff
July 9, 2001 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Douglas Rushkoff is writing an open source novel that readers are encouraged to leave footnotes on. These footnotes can contain comments, suggestions or discussion about other footnotes. Is this the future of publishing or a cheap gimmick?
posted by mathowie (23 comments total)
Cheap gimmick.
posted by TiggleTaggleTiger at 8:43 AM on July 9, 2001

lil' from column 'a', lil' from column 'b'.

I think the active Metafilter sort of experience and the passive experience of reading fiction are separate enough that they will probably always stay that way.

Remember those pick your own ending books? Do they still even make those?
posted by dong_resin at 8:47 AM on July 9, 2001

For people who want to read ahead, the book (called "Bull") has already been released in the UK as a normal novel.
posted by timothompson at 8:53 AM on July 9, 2001

"Open source" doesn't seem a very accurate description. I wouldn't even call it "collaborative," since the readers can't modify the text of the novel. It's just a book with message boards attached to each chapter.

Does anyone want to try redistributing the "open source" novel in its entirety, and see if Yahoo Internet Life challenges it?
posted by waxpancake at 9:02 AM on July 9, 2001

Does anyone want to try redistributing the "open source" novel in its entirety, and see if Yahoo Internet Life challenges it? That would be worthwhile indeed. What would be better is to revise and redistribute it. I think opensource or not, people will still pay for certain branches in published form. That is if they want to read that kind of thing.

At first I thought it was a cheap gimmick, but I can see how people are using the message boards to contribute their knowledge. It makes research a lot swifter.
posted by rschram at 9:16 AM on July 9, 2001

waxy, according to the site, they'll republish 100 of the best footnotes in print along with the book, and I suppose the rest will simply be duly noted or incorporated into the text.
posted by mathowie at 9:20 AM on July 9, 2001

Remember those pick your own ending books? Do they still even make those?

Yes! I loved choose your own adventure and the like... "time machine" was my favorite series - and oddly enough a friend of my parents wrote one of them! I had a signed copy and everything.

Come to think of it, they were kinda like a ghetto low-tech version of hypertext, weren't they? Someone with a lot of time on their hands should HTMLize them! yeah!
posted by chrisege at 9:20 AM on July 9, 2001

Someone with a lot of time on their hands should
HTMLize them! yeah!
. This is actually more popular than you think. Never underestimate the number of people on the internet with too much time on their hands.
posted by rschram at 9:28 AM on July 9, 2001

Um, I'd like to rescind my previous comment about Exit Strategy. It seems there's only one active poster to the footnote boards, and he's only occasionally interesting. Footnotes are a weak strategy to improve this book, and that's the whole benefit of open source.
posted by rschram at 9:32 AM on July 9, 2001

Interesting concept, though the novel is preachy. And why should a print version be the ultimate goal here?

I'd like to see an already published novel - Updike or Wolfe, maybe - opened up to footnotes from the peanut gallery. And the commentators wouldn't have to pretend to be "anthropologists from the future" (which would make a good name for a rock band).
posted by chino at 9:47 AM on July 9, 2001

Since this book is 'open source', I can publish and distribute my own edition, right?
posted by swipe66 at 10:07 AM on July 9, 2001

According to the Open Source Initiative's official definition, "open source" implies free redistribution and allows for modifications and derived works. I think there's a strong case for the legality of slightly modifying and republishing Rushkoff's book. Binding the modification and selling it in bookstores would also be legal under the "open source" license.
posted by waxpancake at 10:27 AM on July 9, 2001

I e-mailed Douglas Rushkoff to let him know about this thread, and here's his well thought-out response. Everyone should read this:

Douglas Rushkoff <> writes:

I'll admit that the ability to add footnotes to a novel is only about as 'open source' as the Talmud - which was much more my original vision for the project. I wanted the commentary to become more important than the original text, though.

And yes, in the first few hours it has been up, the footnote-writing has been somewhat dominated by one or two people. Hopefully, in another few hours, or even if we give the project a whole week or two before judging it's ultimate success, we'll have a better idea of whether it's working. The main participants will be Yahoo Internet Life readers, presumably, when they receive the excerpt in the next issue of the magazine.

It's certainly not about the money or the 'gimmick,' though. Releasing the book online, and experimenting in this way, has cost me my print book deal in the US (and, money-wise, that's the only deal that really matters). I figured I can let a book go out for free to see what happens. Publishers are not so sanguine about what will happen.

I can't imagine it would be too difficult for someone to reformat the online files, print them out, and sell them -- with or without substantive changes to the main body of the text or the footnotes. I'll be interested to see if someone is interested in doing that. If it generates conflict in the publishing industry, or an interesting conversation about intellectual rights or copyrights, then the whole project will have been worth doing.

The reason why I'm only including 100 user-generated footnotes in the final version of the print-on-demand book is space. And I thought it would be fun for people who have contributed good footnotes to get free copies of the book with their own contributions. I'm paying for those 100 print-on-demand copies. So far, most print-on-demand books don't even sell that many copies in total.

Yes, I released something very close to the Exit Strategy manuscript in the UK as a novel called BULL. UK people are welcome to join in the footnote-writing process, but I really saw this more as a way for Americans to critique and satirize their own culture -- not a way for UK people to rag on us.

Really, it's meant as a fun, creative way to get some distance from our own silly obsession with market. If you see it as a market or money-motivated effort, then I challenge you to consider whether it's my underlying intentions you are seeing, or your own presumptions.

Here's a piece I'm publishing next week about the experience:

Amateurs Once More
Douglas Rushkoff

The internet is for amateurs. No -- that's not an insult, but high praise. "Amateurs," by definition, do what they do for the love of it. Because it's fun, social, enriching, transformational, evolutionary, or even just beautiful. Now that the investment community sees the net is seen as more of a lame duck than a cash cow, the only ones left out here (or the only ones that should be) are us amateurs.

How dare I raise myself to the same level as amateurs? I get paid for most of what I do online. Doesn¹t this make me a lowly professional? I say "no." The point is to do what we do online because we love it -- whether or not someone agrees to pay us. Anything done in this very transparent medium for any other reason gets exposed. It's as if the more active mindset we use to navigate internet allows us to detect the intentions of its many posters and publishers. If there's no real passion for anything but revenue, we know it. We can smell it.

But maybe some of us have our BS detectors on too high. So much of the online space is basically a business plan of one kind or another, that we don't expect any "professional" effort to have amateur roots. This is a shame. And I've gotten a taste of it, first-hand.

I'm in the process of releasing my book, "Exit Strategy," online as an open source novel. (It"s already been published as printed novel, "Bull," in the UK.) It's going up on Yahoo Internet Life's web site in 14 weekly installments. The story I wrote is merely the starting place for what I hope will be a lively interaction between everyone.

The premise is that the entire text was written in present day, but then hidden online and only discovered 200 years from now. Because society has changed so much, an anthropologist has annotated the text for his 23rd Century contemporaries. They are no longer familiar with notions such as venture capital or advertising, much less Microsoft or NASDAQ.

The project is "open source" in that all the online participants get to add their own footnotes to anything in the book -- even footnotes to the footnotes. It's a way to pretend how people from the future will relate to our current obsessions. Instead of describing that future, though, we get to suggest what it will be like by highlighting the facts and ideas that future readers *won't* understand. We'll all be part of the annotation process, and comment on one another's work. Then next year, I'll release an open source edition of the text -- an e-book and print-on-demand -- with 100 of the most compelling footnotes added by readers. I'll buy the authors copies of the book, and throw them a party in New York.

But how do you feel right now reading about this? Are you thinking, "Rushkoff's got a good idea, there," or are you thinking "how dare Rushkoff promote his online scam in his column!" And there's the problem. It's why I wrote the book, actually, and it's the challenge I'm facing in talking about it with the press.

The journalists who have interviewed me about the open source project, with very few exceptions, can't see it as anything but a covert business plan. They find it hard to believe that no one is paying me for the web project, or that people will really be able to read the entire book, online, for free. They think there must be a catch. Why would a successful author bother to distribute his work online for free when he could get real money for it in print? Even Stephen King charged money for his online works (and then quit before he was done).

It's precisely because I'm a successful author that I can release a book for free. I've got a roof over my head and another proposal under my arm. I can make a living even if I give away a book or two along the way. And, if we really want to play "name my business plan," my guess is that the final print-on-demand version of the open source book will do just fine, thank you (even though, so far, no traditional US publisher has dared to make an offer on a book that will be released, for free, online before it is released in print.)

So, if you need a market justification for what I'm doing ­ with my book or with this column -- use that one. But you'll be missing the point of both.

The interactive mediaspace is offering us something so much more precious than profit, and more authentic than authorship. It's an opportunity to play and collaborate. That's the theme of my book, the reason it's going online, and the reason I'm telling you about it here: because people are so trained to associate the internet with business plans that they can't think of the internet any other way, even though the speculators have all set sail. Alas, it's a troubling legacy they've left in their wake.

We've forgotten what made this medium so truly sexy to begin with. But don't worry, we still have it in our power to be reborn as unqualified amateurs. Then we can fall in love all over again.
posted by waxpancake at 12:05 PM on July 9, 2001

wait a minute; is it okay to publish that article before it gets published?
posted by rebeccablood at 1:24 PM on July 9, 2001

What I'm thinking now is that I want to wait until a couple weeks from now to see the results. The one problem I see with the project at the moment is that it's not self-evident on first glance, which might not make it compelling to the average user. Now something like Am I Hot Or Not? is very contagious because it's so simple. This adds layers of difficulty such as the looking-back angle, the footnotes, etc. However, that may also mean it becomes a more intellectual thing. We shall see...
posted by timothompson at 1:29 PM on July 9, 2001

I know copyright infringement when I see it. I have trouble with this myself.

Zippity BOP™!
posted by Zippity BOT at 1:41 PM on July 9, 2001

Write your own ending? Add to a story while it's being written? Collaborative writing?

Sounds like StoryFuck to me... :-)

Seriously tho, this sounds really cool...
posted by fooljay at 3:49 PM on July 9, 2001

Douglas Rushkoff also spoke at the Danish Reboot web conference. His 66-minute talk (and those from the other speakers) is available as streaming video at

I saw him speaking at a Dutch university a day or two after Reboot. Very interesting talk, so go listen!
posted by willem at 4:10 PM on July 9, 2001

i gotta give the thumbs up to douglas, myself... he's always been one to try things out and experiment, and giving up a book deal to carry on an experiment that could leave some people talking about its results for quite a while is, to me, a really respectable thing to do...

oh, and i agree with willem - if you can see douglas talk anywhere, about anything, go do it. he is an absolutely fabulous public speaker.
posted by cadence at 5:24 PM on July 9, 2001

Messages 2 through 3 of 3 were Deleted

Hmmm, looks like some of the anthropologists of the future are too much for this project. So who gets scrapped? Did anyone see what was there before they took it down?

posted by thijsk at 1:21 AM on July 10, 2001

Why are they deleting footnotes if it's an open forum? For a magazine called Internet Life, they know surprisingly little about how online communities function.
posted by waxpancake at 7:01 AM on July 10, 2001

Scott Alexander, the Senior Online Editor for Yahoo! Internet Life, writes:
There was a poster (userid: Thomtim), who had added several footnotes to the project, which had a jokey, offbeat flavor, playing on misunderstandings in the future (e.g. an Armani suit was described as being so named because it came from the country of Armani). Douglas Rushkoff commented in the discussion section of the board that these footnotes undermined the concept somewhat, in that they weren't all that likely for a future anthropologist with access to historical records to have made (see here).

Note, however, that Y-Life did not (and has not to date) removed any posts, nor did we ask Thomtim to remove them. Thomtim removed his posts himself, voluntarily, without being asked to. I know that it looks dubious, and we're not saying that we would never remove a post under any circumstances (we reserve the right to trash scrolling posts, pointlessly scatalogical posts, etc.), but please know that we are attempting to act on good faith, and in the spirit of inclusion. Bear in mind as the project unfolds that users have the right to delete their own posts, and that moving a post from an incorrect location to a correct one, may cause a "delete" to appear in the old location.
posted by waxpancake at 11:48 AM on July 10, 2001

Has anyone here read the book "Cosmic Banditos" by A.C. Weisbecker? Speaking of footnotes and all...
posted by BoatMeme at 9:55 PM on July 10, 2001

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