Setting the Demons Loose

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Many of the interventions offered to book culture or to what you could call the reading-writing economy are currently coming from start-ups, entities described by one entrepreneur-cum-academic as organizations formed to search for a business model. As such, they may fail to find that business model even though they succeed at finding outcomes. One that I worked with closely, Small Demons, found that fate. What we did find, while not a business model, is a tacit cultural map, one formed by the culturally resonant details set jewel-like within books, one which, when illuminated by a kind of UV light, glows so as to allow one to navigate through the storyverse—our term at Small Demons for the universe that exists parallel to the “In Real Life” one in which we live. A Borgesian world, then, a planet-like library with paths that may be traversed to allow a richer life for us humans.

The company created a taxonomy of keywords grouped as persons (fictional and/or real), places (fictional and/or real), and things (encompassing songs, movies, other books, events, sports, drugs, foodstuffs, cars, and so forth) and managed to use entity extraction software  to highlight those words in books, collect useful information about them, and link them to one another. One might then travel from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity to Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore via Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” Unlike the typical recommendation engines explored by C. Max Magee, these paths are not designed to lead from one recommended cultural artifact to the next but merely to offer an alternative mode of browsing. However, much like those services, it does offer signal amidst the noise, a heat map that offers clues to those artifacts, much like how surveying the restaurants in a urban plaza allows a prospective diner to gauge the vibe of each restaurant, see how the diners are dressed, the music playing, check out the decor.

In this respect, what Small Demons envisioned is books not just referring to one another but to entire cultural tapestries, situating these narratives within and around all other narratives, actual and imagined. From a commercial standpoint books transcend their ghetto, without abandoning their edges, they become permeable—which is in fact what they’ve always been. As such, the books become more truly themselves. As Rick Joyce, Chief Marketing Officer at Perseus, a consumer books company, likes to remark: “There are lots of books about shoes, but no shoes about books.” Books, by their very nature, contain worlds.

Now, how might Small Demons live on, not as a business but as a vision? During our existence what became clear was that there was an intense appetite amongst some (though by no means all) of the people who visited the site to actively participate, not just marvel (or frown). All the data we generated was generated in-house via automated entity extraction and a small group of editors tweaking the data. Users wanted to add data, both stuff that the computers missed and stuff the computers couldn’t ascertain. We could tell you that Dewar’s appeared in a book, but not who drank it, and what the role of the whiskey-drinking was in the plot. Was the protagonist drowning his sorrows? Was it spiked? Did she order Glenmorangie and was told nope, all we’ve got is Dewar’s? And so forth. As Erin Walker wrote, books are props in people’s lives, and so are the details within books, and people want to share those details, just as they like to share the books that contain them.

So if we are going to create tools to foster and support that impulse, the key thing will be to build into the system from the beginning the ability for users to add, amend, clarify, correct, and connect details they themselves see. We were not unaware of this need, we just didn’t move quickly enough to respond to it, and ran out of resources before we could deploy those tools.

Further to this principle, this data—from both an output and input standpoint—should live on the entire web, not just within the site or app. In other words, a read-write API. Again, this was something we were aware of, as there was a real appetite from web media companies large and small to integrate our data into their user experience, interest from libraries, interest from geo-location apps, interest from e-commerce retailers, from textbook publishers. But we ran out of time, in part because we didn’t prioritize it early enough. From a revenue-generating standpoint, this appetite for the API is clearly a major opportunity, if not the major opportunity, and would apply both to a for-profit or nonprofit entity.

That said, if it were a nonprofit it would be particularly wise to be aware of the larger context of linked open data. In other words, it should play well with others. Just like books do.

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