Lessons from the creator of Planetarium, the 20-year-old web story still going strong

Lessons from the creator of Planetarium, the 20-year-old web story still going strong

If you've ever encountered one of Beholder's storytelling projects, odds are it's still lingering deep in your mind. Creator Dave Whiteland is particularly interested in ways that the delivery of a story — be it on paper or online — can be used to engender a subtle or even subliminal sensation in the reader that isn't there in the words.

"Obviously, illustrations have been doing this for centuries, but I'm interested in how format or interface or even structure can be used too," he says. "I’ve been on the web since 1995, and I come at this from the intersection of art and computer science."

Whiteland is a writer, illustrator and programmer who alternates stints of pure creativity with periods of work for organisations such as the civic charity mySociety. Back in 1999, his first project, Planetarium, combined features of the web to deliver a story in a way that hadn't been done before, including tracking each reader's progress, embedding a small amount of interaction, future-linking, and automatically deleting readers' accounts at the end of the experience.

Planetarium

"Planetarium is a story about time, so it deliberately slows you down and says, 'no, really, I'm going to force you to take this slowly, and tell you about a future you can't see yet'", says Whiteland. "It releases its narrative in instalments from the moment you start, in a way which you might even find frustrating (especially at first); but as you work through it you begin to appreciate that actually it's part of the experience.

"Of course that could also be done on paper, but it works much better in this digital format. As a storyteller, I can both prevent and later encourage you to investigate it, because that is the nature of hypertext. And, at the end, in the thirteenth week, Planetarium deletes your account. The story is over, and you're done, and you can't see it any more. That's not quite the same sensation you have when you close a book. Of course, you can start again... but you need thirteen more weeks."

So far, so esoteric digital storytelling experiment. But the twist in the tale is that Planetarium is still going strong. Many readers still revisit the story every few years, both to relive the dream-like experience and to leave messages to their future selves, via the forum that is unlocked at the end of the story.

"Planetarium's longevity is very gratifying," Whiteland says. "That is a success. It's been quietly online since 1999 and has outlasted all sorts of projects that much bigger publishers have dreamt up, launched, and abandoned. I love how people still discover Planetarium for the first time all these years on, and that it entertains and intrigues them just as it did for the first readers."

Whiteland believes this is partly down to the long-term goals he had when creating the story two decades ago. "Maybe it's innovative to run a digital project with the expectation that it would still be going 20 years later," he suggests wryly. "Lots of the big publishing houses that are trying to be enthusiastic about digital certainly aren't thinking about that sort of commitment."

Perhaps, too, the slowing down of time - the "measured release" of the story - also has lasting resonance for readers in an ever-accelerating digital world. And Whiteland also believes that his commitment to privacy is key. "Since 1999, the idea of tracking readers on the web has grown increasingly problematic, so almost twenty years on that aspect of Planetarium now seems rather significant," he says. "It's been using this idea of 'personal' reading with the lightest of touches: it's doing this without any adverts, with no collection of personal data (it's wholly anonymous), without even any analytics tracking."

In 2009, Whiteland celebrated Planetarium's ten-year anniversary with The Knot-Shop Man, an entirely paper-based project. It's four books can be read in any order, and the four routes of the protagonists work in and around each other to form a knot which ties the stories together both narratively and physically. "I produced these books as sets of four casebound books, tied together by around 10' of ¼-inch three-lay rope using the same knot in the story," Whiteland says. "That is as fiddly as it sounds."

The Knot-Shop Man books

Another project was the martial arts book Fudebakudo: the Way of the Exploding Pen, which capitalised on the explosion of interest in traditional martial arts back in 2003. "Unfortunately, the martial arts market has shifted since our success with that, but it was an opening, we did market research, and we delivered a product," he says. "The slight trick there was a seeing Fudebakudo as a martial arts product, not a book, thereby competing — at least initially — with people selling boxing gloves or karate suits rather than other publishers selling books."

Whiteland is a traditionally published author, too - Book of Pages, his graphic novel, was published in 2000 by Ringpull - but he remains evangelical about the possibilities that self-publishing affords.

"There's no doubt that self-publishing is both harder and much more satisfying. But if you use self-publishing as an excuse to avoid the critical processes of editing and rejection that being published entails, you're doing it wrong. Critics of self-publishing can rightly point to endless examples of poor quality output that would never have got through the rigorous publishing pipeline, so you need to be honest about that. I think that's a challenge people need to face. On the other hand I'm a little skeptical about believing that publishing automatically affords any credibility, because I've met more than enough proper chumps who work in the industry to know it's not without its problems too."

So if this veteran of online experimentation had one piece of advice to other publishing entrepreneurs, what would it be?

"Focus on quality of production. Digital has made it easier than ever to put your project together — a book, or ebook, or online story, or video blog — badly. But you can choose to be better than that. If you have to learn about typesetting, learn about typesetting. If you need to understand paper stock, study paper. If you need to research your story, go deeper than just reading Wikipedia. The fact of the matter is that the barrier to entry to producing something is much lower than it ever was — which on the face of it is a good thing — but instead of just seeing that as an opportunity, see it as the risk."