March 2, 2007

What do you get with a million penguins?

Author: Michael Stutz

If a million monkeys typing might eventually produce the collected works of Shakespeare, wouldn't a million penguins do just as well? A major book publisher is hoping so with a FOSS-powered online project to create a collaborative novel -- and appropriately, that publisher is Penguin.

Called "a global experiment in new media writing," A Million Penguins is Penguin UK's public experiment in taking what it says are the "social values" seen at work in open source software and applying them to the act of imaginative fiction.

Penguin editor Jon Elek says that his company is working in collaboration with De Montfort University, where students who are enrolled in the school's Online Master of Arts in Creative Writing and New Media program receive credit towards their degree by working on the project, which is also open to the public. The site solicits pseudonymous contributions from anyone. Only a valid email address is required for registration, and any contributed text or edits are immediately applied to the online manuscript. According to Elek, the response has been strong.

"I'm so surprised in a way that all these people have been contributing to it," he says. "I'd love to know who they are!"

Elek says that the mass of contributors includes a few well-known authors, including Fay Weldon, the grande dame of Brit lit. "I know that [publisher Jeremy Ettingausen] ran into Nick Hornby in a park a little while ago, and told him that he should go have a look, but who knows if he did," Elek adds.

The project started a few weeks ago, and a finished product is expected soon -- it's only scheduled to remain live until mid-March.

"The Internet really has been a tremendous help for people who are looking to get terrifying, large projects completed in a timely manner," says Chris Baty, founder and director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which had nearly 80,000 online participants last year. Baty says that the Internet -- and the collaborative software such as what's behind Penguin's wikinovel -- "has ushered in this new potential for tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people to work at the same project at the same time."

A Million Penguins is a standard Web-based free software operation -- the server's running Apache and PHP5, and the MySQL-backed wiki software is MediaWiki, the same GPLed software used to make Wikipedia.

Elek says that the project was easy to implement because the costs were pretty low -- it was just a matter of maintaining the server -- so it was easy for them to take the concept and go live with it. And the software has held up to high demand.

"Since the first of February we've had 75,000 visitors from more than 120 countries, 1,300 accounts created, 8,500 edits, and more than 400 content pages created," says Jeremy Ettinghausen, Penguin's digital publisher.

Problems have been minimal. "At one point we were getting 10 hits a second and the server was not coping," he says. "We moved it over to a dedicated server that day without losing any content, but for a few hours there were intermittent problems accessing the site."

MediaWiki has built-in controls for handling content vandalism, but both Ettingausen and Elek say that hasn't been that big of a problem.

"Generally we have found the software pretty easy to use and reliable and vandalism has not been as huge an issue as we thought it might be initially," says Ettinghausen.

When it does happen, Elek says the fix is trivial. "The wiki software makes it pretty easy to just revert to how the page was before the vandalism," he says.

Both agree that the project wouldn't even be possible without this open source software behind it. Elek says that they're already thinking of other ways to use it, such as by inviting several well-known writers to work together on a collaborative book.

"[O]ne of the things that has been most interesting to me is seeing how people are using the software in their writing," says Ettinghausen, who cites for example one of his favorite things in the wiki, a single line of hypertext whose many links are threaded with quotations from Sun Tzu. "I only noticed it by looking at the list of changes," he says, "and as far as I can tell this is the writer's only contribution to the wikinovel."

Despite the obvious penguins motif, and the fact that Linus Torvalds shows up as a character in the novel itself, the text of the wikinovel isn't really open source -- users retain copyright for their contributions, but they grant Penguin a non-exclusive license to use, modify, and publish their works.

"Penguin owns the site and technically owns the content that has been created," Ettinghausen says, "but there is no DRM on the site and we're not making any money from it. I can't see how we'd be able to publish the wikinovel in a print format, but I am thinking about how we could create an ebook out of it at the end, which we'd distribute freely."

Ettinghausen adds that their sister company in the US published Laurence Lessig's Free Culture, and that it's "entirely possible" that certain projects will be published in such a fashion in the future.

Penguins is not the first open source novel; experiments in this area have been going on for well over a decade. One high-profile example came in 2002 by author Douglas Rushkoff, who used the Web to solicit footnotes and annotations for his novel Exit Strategy.

"A Million Penguins looks like fun, but it's still likely to remain more a million penguins than a cohesive or coherent bird," says Rushkoff, who points out that every book needs its author.

And so far, nothing even close to Shakespeare has yet to be authored by monkeys or penguins -- not even a million of them working together.

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