The Great Forking Paths of the Wonderworld

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

As a single-word construction, maybe (may + be) has been around at least since the 15th century.  So has mayhap, a beautiful little word that lost the race to maybe and perhaps.  According to the etymology, the latter’s meaning is more derived from a ‘might happen by chance’ vibe.  Hap was a 13th century word for chance or fate – as in “those hapless inhabitants of 14th century Europe happened to live when and where the black plague happened. Maybe, on the other hand, is more akin to informed hope – a hypothesis is a fancy maybe.

And maybe is on the rise.  According to the Ngram machine, we are in the golden age of maybe:


The Maybecene Era

I’ve been asked to provide a hypothesis about the evolving status of content and reading in 2014.  So here is a list of maybes informed by my hopes as much as my observations of the current state of affairs in digital content delivery.  Here goes.

Content Flow
Perchance the appearance of a platform that leverages easy-to-operate code like HTML/CSS to deliver non-disruptive access to alternative just-in-time content.  User-centered stretchtext inclusion could do the trick. So could reading systems that offer tailored menus of content that could augment or alter the reading experience.  Imagine this – you are reading Moby Dick.  The device knows you are interested in boat building, or whale recipes.  At relevant moments in the text, the device offers content relevant to you. Choices appear for alternative narratives, fan fiction forking paths, related scholarship, multimedia.  The reading experience becomes a user-centered exploration based on and starting from the main narrative.  Readers can hop from a narrative to alternative paths and beyond.

Authority Flow
The situation described above offers authors a variety of forms.  One could endeavor to produce content meant to accompany specific narratives and texts.  Alternatively, an author could offer a storyverse with characters, rules, and backstory.  She then leaves the rest to the long tail of potential co-authors, all of whom are generating their own salable forks in the road.  Analytics and direct feedback may inform authors’ foci and forms.  Perhaps this works for a serious history of the Civil War as much as it does for a Brony storyverse.  Either way, in this scenario, each reader’s path through a narrative may be different.  And sharable.

Manicule Flow
I’ve written elsewhere about the richness of shared marginalia in early days of print.  Maybe in 2014 we will see the rise of robust and seamless shared commentary associated with digital reading.  Readers forming discrete groups to share and discuss multimedia annotations.  Such groups could travel the forking paths together, or perhaps gather to share what they’ve learned from their own singular journeys through the content flow.  Groups could convene, have guests over – be marketed to.

Cash Flow
In 2014, the emergence of these flows will be accompanied by, if not instigated by, business models set up to capture backgrounded micropayments as users seamlessly explore, curate, and share. Or, perhaps, a model more like a ‘reading utility’ will emerge – a subscription to a service with unlimited forking and grouping.  This is an interesting opportunity for publishers.  OK – here’s a prediction.  A startup in Brooklyn will set up a batch of initial non-fictional and fictional storyverses. They will offer a sweet subscription deal for users to access, curate, explore, and share.  They provide authors with editorial, in-situ marketing and profit-share.  And, naturally, they hire Exprima Media to work out the whole strategy.  Maybe.

It Is Time
It is time for us to make true on the promise of digital and engineer robust steps towards storytelling methodologies that allow user-centered, non-disruptive content flow.  And there’s no reason this shouldn’t be wildly profitable.  Hypertext was envisioned by Ted Nelson in 1963.  We’ve had 50 years to get used to the idea.  It’s transformed shoe shopping, showing off, and pornography. Now let’s put it to use for innovating the core aptitude and greatest achievement of humanity – storytelling.

Expert Publishing Blog
Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

About Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

Corey is an anthropologist, futurist, author, and speaker. He is busy imagining and enacting our digital future as Director of Experience Strategy at Neologic, a Portland-based agency and imagination lab. A Fellow of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, Corey regularly publishes and presents on the past, present, and future of media. He recently contributed the closing chapter to the book Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture.

6 thoughts on “The Great Forking Paths of the Wonderworld

  1. Pingback: Publishing Opinions | The Great Forking Paths of the Wonderworld

  2. Christopher Burd (@christopherburd)

    “those hapless inhabitants of 13th-century Europe happened to live when and where the black plague happened. ”

    14th-century Europe.

  3. Pingback: Flashback Jan. 13

  4. Brett Sandusky


    As always this is great, and I appreciate your scholarship in deconstructing these issues.

    One major assumption here, however, is that users WANT any of the “features” that you suggest. I’d certainly be interested in empirical research showing that user behavior is such that there is a demonstrated need and desire for this kind of reading experience.

    While we certainly can imagine a world where reading Moby Dick can lead to offering the reader an Alaskan whale watching cruise vacation to purchase, where’s the data that supports the position that readers want this?

    Maybe advertising is a bit much, and more would be open to the inclusion of, say, fan fiction or the like. But this is, yet again, a distractor from the original content and it is unclear to me that there is truly a case for this type of thing.

    In fact, that there have been a number of start-ups attempting to do just thing and have not succeeded could be evidence that there is simply not critical mass to sustain such a model.

    I’d actually love to see some scholarship in that area of this question, as well. We’re all sold on what CAN be done… but what SHOULD be done is a different question that, at least in my opinion, is not yet clear.

    1. Corey Pressman (@cspressman)Corey Pressman (@exprima) Post author

      I agree that market research/ ethnography is in order. This would be best positioned as part of a UX workflow before launching an experiment. Research-driven experimental experiences could go a long way towards elucidating what features turn folks on.

      Much of this ‘new reading’ behavior may be driven by brave early adopters, of course. But we don’t want to just make faster horses when we can do so much more.

      Maybe this isn’t the game for startups, which can be fragile. Maybe larger content providers (publishers, hollywood) should invest in more R&D…



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