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Muser: Blockchain Storytelling

By Jade Mkparu

It’s 2014. You’re excited to wear your new flower crown, which assures you is absolutely pointless to wear unless paired with a red flannel shirt tied ‘round some high-waisted, acid-wash shorts. The glare from your iPod Touch as you scroll through makes the sequined lettering on your tank top shimmer (it spells out the age-old mantra “PIZZA IS BAE 😍🍕!”). It’s a Friday afternoon and you’re on Wattpad to read a couple of stories. Your library is an eclectic mix of YA fiction tropes, and as you hover your mouse over your favourite story, it reveals the author hasn’t updated it since the last time you read it. Now, years later, you return to your library but the situation remains the same. What was once an eagerly anticipated serial novel is now (like your beloved flower crown) a relic of the past, collecting digital dust and waiting for an author who has long since forgotten their password.

The above scenario (though fictional and perhaps readable to only a small niche of now-young-adults) is not uncommon, nor is it in any danger of ceasing to be so as things stand. The advent of online story-sharing platforms like Wattpad meant that people all over the world had a way to both circumvent the traditional publishing industry and publish their original stories. Though, admittedly, the quality of said stories varied, I and many other readers enjoyed searching for our next read and shared a sense of satisfaction in finding a real gem. Many other stories were also immensely enjoyable even if they’d be considered amateur work by those who impose their judgement on others professional critics. It also didn’t matter to us in those halcyon, middle-school days because we were still awe-struck at being able to enjoy original stories ad-free, for free (though my recent research reveals that this has changed somewhat). What’s particularly interesting to me about websites like Wattpad is that they take full advantage of the serialised publishing format, giving writers the opportunity to customise their work schedule and gradually amass a legion of constructively critical and loyally following fans. But what tends to happen is that, as always, life gets in the way of a good book and authors simply don’t have the time or lose the desire to continue a particular story.

Storytelling has been an important aspect of human life for millennia. It is a major way in which we socialise with one another and engage our imaginations. Over time, our methods of doing so have evolved: from cave paintings to oral stories and written documentation, people have long used advances in available technology to enhance the ways we “create and consume narratives” (as put by Maxwell, Speed and Pschetz in their 2017 research paper ‘Story Blocks: Reimagining narratives through the blockchain’). Digital writing formats are the most recent evolution of human storytelling, challenging the dominance of printed and handwritten texts in our society. These formats include e-books, online blogs and online communities of authors and readers, such as Wattpad and China Literature (a Chinese platform similar to Wattpad but it also allows authors to monetise stories, as does the recent ‘Premium Story’ feature on Wattpad). If we assume this evolutionary trend to be ongoing, a progression from these internet-based storytelling methods to a more secure and permanent technology such as blockchain would be a natural next step. This line of reasoning informed my Extended Project Qualification topic (on which this article is based): “Is blockchain the future of the shared storytelling experience?”

Originally purposed and widely known for transactional purposes (and cryptocurrencies), blockchain technology can be simply described as a system for multiple parties to have access to a centralised ledger or database. Let’s say, for example, your local library sends the receipts for all overdue books to all its members via email. This gives each member their own copy: they could make alterations to their copy that don’t affect anyone else’s, and the library would need to send updated receipts as the fees increase. Blockchain, however, would allow all members to access and share ownership of the original list, which, thanks to the cryptographic complexity of blockchain technology, is virtually tamper-proof and all updated versions are visible to all parties. But beyond the realm of cryptocurrencies and transactional or supply chain transparency, I, along with several other literary enthusiasts such as the teams behind start-ups Cellarius and StoryBlocks, believe that blockchain could be central to 21st-century storytelling.

Blockchain is a technology that could take the collaboration of Google Docs and turn it to eleven. If you and I were co-writing a novel on Google Docs, we would be able to work on the same chapter simultaneously. Any edits I make would be visible to you in real-time, and every chapter would evolve as a blend of both our styles. With blockchain, however, it would be different. We’d each write one chapter at a time, à la Wattpad. You could write the first chapter and I the next one, then you on the third and so on. We’d both contribute to the overall story one instalment (called a “block”) at a time. Here’s where it gets really interesting: readers would still be able to follow our story in real-time, but instead of being confined to the “Comments” section of each chapter (as on Wattpad) as a way of offering praise or suggestions, they’d be able to contribute to the story as well. It would also allow readers to interact with the writers of the stories they love, and to add their own voices to the narrative as well. The blurring of the liens between author and reader is an exciting new frontier that has never been easier to achieve (in theory) than in our current digital age and the relatively low barriers to entry, thanks to widespread literacy and Internet access. On this blockchain storytelling platform, a user could occupy both roles at once, as all authors on the blockchain story are readers by default. This fluid relationship makes the process of consuming and collaboratively, creating a single narrative through blockchain technology, unique. Seeing how one’s original idea evolves as it passes through different writing styles (a blockchain keeps the previous “blocks” with each new addition to the story) reveals just how malleable the art of storytelling is. It could potentially allow one to enjoy the spontaneity of the narrative they started, and later jump back in and add their own elements to what seems like a fresh but vaguely familiar and highly compelling story.

The revolutionary nature of such a prospect is testament to the untapped potential of the technology we have at our fingertips in the midst of the fourth Industrial Revolution. Following a story as it develops is an experience characteristic of both the Internet and Dickensian stories in a Victorian periodical, but it is enhanced by the possibility of multiple reader-writers constructing said story. Though the widespread adoption of blockchain technology is somewhat stilted by the aforementioned cryptographic complexity (casual authors aren’t likely to have the powerful computers needed to do the computation that allow for new “blocks” to be created), some minor adjustments and compromises could be made to a blockchain system designated for collaborative storytelling. Elements such as the absolute tamper-proof nature of blockchain could be foregone to allow authors the chance to make corrections and revisions to published chapters, which would eliminate the need for cryptographic hashing (the “complexity”) and make blockchain storytelling more accessible.

So, next time you fall in love with an abandoned Wattpad book, or you personally feel betrayed and frustrated by the latest plot-twist, find solace in the fact that the future may be brighter still. It could involve you!


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