The Perfect Word


Here at MultiWords we’ve peeked into the future and have seen the future of the Perfect Word. We bring good news.

In the bad old days, stuffy modernist authors obsessed over words. They put great faith in the process of revision. They saw the construction of style as a special kind of creative labor. They thought they, like, owned their words.

The Perfect Word served specific functions for the modernist writer. Some thought the Perfect Word perfectly matched an underlying reality. It showed the hard work the author put into the process of selecting it. It might affect you, the reader, in some precisely calibrated way. Whatever the reasons for choosing it, the Perfect Word was the word the author chose, the word the author imposed upon you.

Postmodernists became suspicious of perfection. Words only ever stood in relation to other words, they said, in an endless chain of reference. Words were social constructions that had no necessary relationship to any underlying reality. Authors, not surprisingly, freaked out. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947) showed why picking a style was scary business. Exercises in Style renders the same trivial anecdote in ninety-nine styles. None of these ninety-nine is first or foremost. There’s no “original,” no authentic baseline. No legitimate way of picking the “right” style.

Today, anxious authors have other problems. Perhaps the Perfect Word today is the word that gets top search results. Literary style might well be something more like Search Engine Optimization. Perhaps the Perfect Word is the word that gets the most retweets. Style would then be technology for winning a social competition for attention.

We at MultiWords find these competitions somewhat dull. We’re sick of letting authors pick words. We’re sick of authors having crises. At MultiWords, you the reader will get to choose the Perfect Word. How awesome is that?

Using MultiWords, the Perfect Word is the word you choose for yourself. Your reading level, your mood, your values will shape which version of the author’s word will make its way to your eyeballs. The Perfect Word will be the words you most relate to. The Perfect Word will be the word that speaks to the your unconscious needs. The Perfect Word will be the word that knows you better than you know yourself. The Perfect Word is nothing other than the word you want to read when you want to read it.



SANCHO is the friendliest sidekick. He’ll never serve you a sentence longer than ten words. The sentences all have simple structures. Words with more than four syllables are replaced.

We start on SANCHO in primary school. He teaches us to read and understand texts. That is his goal—to help us understand. Most books become shorter with SANCHO.

Some people like to play a joke. They give SANCHO complicated manuals of advanced physics. It is not a very good way to learn physics.

Some people stay with SANCHO all their lives. They like how he makes reading easy. One cannot blame them. He is the friendliest sidekick.

Some of us move on to FRIDAY. FRIDAY isn’t so concerned with simplicity, but rather with finding the best way to tell a story to whoever might be reading. When you install FRIDAY, she starts learning about you. She looks at your metadata and builds a psychological profile. She maps perceived mood against weather and location and social interactions. She tracks your gaze, senses your micro-expressions, and cross-references this data with the text, so that she learns what makes you smile, what makes you gasp, what provokes emotion in you. She uses this information to predict what kind of an experience you want from the words on the page, and that’s what she serves you.

FRIDAY knows, after you’ve been reading with her for awhile, how long you want to read. She knows where you like to read. She knows the optimum volume of ambient noise for a peak reading experience. She knows that you read on the train, of course, but she also knows at which station on your morning journey, statistically, you begin reading, and at which one you typically stop, look up, and gaze out the window.

Some people are afraid of FRIDAY because her algorithms are so precise and so personal. Some people say it’s scary reading a book with FRIDAY. But the truth about FRIDAY is that she’s also friendly. She doesn’t want anything more than for you to be happy, for you to enjoy the act of reading, for you to read the perfect story, the perfect article or essay, every time.

We don’t need to talk about TRIVELIN.

Why are you bringing up TRIVELIN? He’s not useful. TRIVELIN only plays tricks on you. He lies. He omits words. Sometimes he omits . He moves text around. They say TRIVELIN was created by a hacker collective, but no one wants to take credit for it. No one wants the grief. The thing about TRIVELIN is that he’s skinned just like FRIDAY, so you don’t know he’s messing with you until it’s too late. Why are you bringing up TRIVELIN?

But here’s the thing: some people actually like TRIVELIN. They’re masochists, of course. They say he keeps them on their toes. I know of one person who reads exclusively in TRIVELIN. She’s never given me a good explanation of why. All I can think is that secretly, she thrives on chaos.

More common are the casual “Trivelinos,” people who switch back and forth between FRIDAY and TRIVELIN, to keep things interesting. Some people even install TRIVELIN within FRIDAY, so that FRIDAY herself can learn to sub-switch to TRIVELIN functionality when she senses that it’s appropriate.

And here’s another thing. Some people say that TRIVELIN is the only way to read some texts. By forcing unexpected cognitive leaps, by juxtaposing disparate themes and ideas, TRIVELIN reveals their secrets in a way that no other sidekick can, in a way that transcends even the original source material. TRIVELIN is the key that unlocks them. For a few people, it comes close to religion.

But also, TRIVELIN lies.

MultiWords Functional Spec


What is the product? What does it do? How does it do it?

  • MultiWords is a Mozilla-like multifunctional online-reading mediator.
  • Plug-in components, hardware and software that are accessed via third-party output devices with the capability of tracking readers’ comprehension levels. Additional components can track users’ mood or level of engagement (via heart rate or other monitoring device).
  • Software that collects and distributes data received from readers to subscribing authors.
  • Software automatically adjusts reading level of book by editing it on the fly to a reading level determined by the plug-in hardware from the user’s eye movements and physical data.

What are the markets?

  • Authors
  • Readers
  • Publishers?

Author takes reader feedback into account, can use it as a resource. So can reader.

Available via Mozilla/Wikipedia/WordPress non-profit company

API is freely distributed so 3rd-party vendors can add MultiWord functionality to their products, such as authoring tools, reading platforms, etc.

Can be plugged into authoring tools.

Dan Gillmor thinks of it as a tool that changes how a book comes into being and then can be used to changed and remix the book, either by the author or by readers.

  • Dynamic feedback between reader and author in creating new iterations of the book.
  • Readers’ engagement will be different depending on the levels at which they are subscribed. (Special info from certain readers?)

User benefits:

  • Benefit to reader: they get a customized reading experience
  • Some may feel a deeper connection to the author or to the work.
  • Author can look at collective data and drill down.
  • Author gets a community specific to the book
  • Useful for developing a crowdsourced book

Are we looking at an omnibus tool?

From the author’s POV, it works like this:

  • Author writes original work.
  • Reader views work from accustomed output device, which includes hardware capability that enables it to track reader’s eye movement, emotional states.
  • Author or publisher receives :

—  data about readers’ eye movements
—  actual comments from readers
—  aggregated feedback from readers

  • Reader receives:

— benefit of a customized reading experience (to reader’s personal level, which can change automatically if reading competency improves)

—  possible special relationship with author


Additional functionalities planned for version 2.0

Add composition package, so existing simple texts can be made more complicated. Turns short stories into novels? Guarantees a higher grade on book reports?

Add pallet of constraints, so authors can limit what can be done to their prose. (Note: I’m sure that these authors will suffer in the marketplace!)

Add functionality to enable readers to customize the text of a work to reflect their beliefs or personality.

In the Beginning Were the Words

Image by Simon Breese

Image by Simon Breese

Publishing is the act of enabling collaboration between a writer and a reader.

I build new worlds, and construct lenses to change how you see existing ones.

The worlds I create are singular ones, spaces for everyone to inhabit as one. I leave each behind for people to experience, while I get busy constructing the next, and once that is ready, I offer passage to its entrance. A string of unique worlds, one after the other.

I am the creator, the first cause, the organizer of matter. But without your knowledge and imagination, nothing I build matters. I only build the universe, you have to live in it. I create, I step back, and I hope.

That was then.

Now I am also omniscient. I can see what you are reading, on what devices and when, how fast you are reading my words, when you stopped and never returned. I follow you as you read, hoping to gauge how you feel as you do. I hear you when you cry out that my actions are unjust, unpleasant, insensitive, wrong. I am always listening.

I am not an uncaring presence. I want to learn how to make you feel better about my words, about what it will take to make you read more. I want to serve you and to nourish you in ever more effective ways.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. For I am the writer, the creator who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

The singular worlds are over. Now I am constructing universes, parallel and connected. They are of the same origin and structure, but with significant differences in how they are experienced, each tailored to how and what and why and where and who you read and when.

Some of these universes deliberately maintain the previous relationship between reader and myself. Others bring me closer to the ground and elevate people above the land to a middle point where we share our tools, creating and improving what is there through a co-authorship centered around my construct. Together we fork even more universes and mental spaces, connected and joined yet different in ways small and big. Now we are omnipotent.

Reading has always been a solitary experience. Now it is a unique one as well, with an overarching conceit that we can share. No single person could, would, should visit all of the universes created by the pattern. Your reading experience is your own, and the infinite library is filled with one book.

There is one book and one Spirit, just as you were called to one reading when you were called; one book, one text, one creation; one writer, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as the writer apportioned it.

The words are the beginning. This is now.

Writers and Readers: Tools for Deeper Understanding


When I was working on We the Media (2004), I published an early outline in my blog. Then I published chapter drafts. I got incredibly useful feedback.

But when the book was published, I had no idea how people were using it. Did they stumble over certain passages? Did they skip entire sections? What was going on? I wish I knew.

I never did a second edition of that book (though I should have, mea culpa). If I had, I’d certainly have looked for a way to learn from the readers in much deeper ways than we do today.

As we ponder the future of books and reading, some of us are thinking about the emerging relationship between writers and readers, and how we can enhance that for both. I’m looking at it in this exercise from an author’s point of view—one author’s, of course, because writers have so many different styles and needs.

The features I want—many of which exist already, though not as part of standard authoring and publishing tools—include:

  • Collaboration with prospective readers as I work on a new book. I can do this easily now by creating a forum, wiki, Google Doc, blog post/comments, and any number of other ways.
  • Feedback. I can buy my book on Kindle and see what people have highlighted, or what they’ve written in the digital margins. But that’s just Kindle, and I want much more. I’d like to do semantic analysis on their notes, and get data on what they think matters, and why. I’d also want granular data showing how, in detail, people are reading the book. None of that is available, at least to the author, on any of the major platforms. (Others in this group will talk about how we can provide readers a vastly better, or at least different, experience.)
  • Corrections/additions. As I fix the current work and plan a new edition, I’d like to see, in context and in an easy to use format, the errors readers have spotted, as well as suggestions for improvements.
  • Conversation. Again, this is easy if I don’t mind creating a new space online, or using existing social media. Combining it with the above features in a more seamless way would have a fantastic value to me as an author.

These disparate features need to be part of a framework, not a monolithic product. They should be modular pieces we can fit together as part of the authoring/editing/publishing platform — and the reading platform. We need to have ways to reward the most active readers—perhaps by offering discounts or other benefits, including direct conversations (if they want them) with authors. And we need these features to be available not only as proprietary tools, but in open-source versions. If it’s a modular framework, with APIs, we can create a marketplace around the tool sets, too.

Audiences are members of communities in many genres. I see these features as enhancements not just to accuracy and thoroughness, but more fundamentally to enhancing the communities that are discussing these ideas.