Dan Hon is building a radical new future for one of humanity's oldest activities - the telling of stories. The modest young UK CEO's design company Six to Start won Best in Show at this week's SXSW Web Awards. The company's project, called Telling Stories, is a six part experiment with the book publisher Penguin.
Hon's vision of the future is sci-fi influenced, cross-platform and web-native. He mocks the "urban games" of online hipsters but believes there will soon be a layer of "Harry Potter ether" that we can dip in and out of while we're walking to work.
I talked with Hon on a plane ride away from SXSW. He was on his way to the Canadian equivalent, Interactive '09.
Making Books a Different Animal
The Telling Stories project transformed the work of six UK book authors into six different web experiences. Hon said the authors were mainstream writers whose reactions ranged from indifferent to bemused when they were first approached. After participating, all six are now enthusiastic to do more on the web, he said.
Hon's favorite of the six parts was a mystery thriller written about the streets of London that his company transformed into a Google Maps overlay; the map marker became a flying first-person narrator for the bird's-eye readers. Book chapters unfolded as map annotations.
Another section of Telling Stories put a husband and wife team of novelists on a website where visitors could watch their keystrokes in real time, including the delete key.
Another author's book was serialized into 140 character abridged lines and delivered over months to followers on Twitter.
The whole Telling Stories project has been applauded as a great example of book publisher Penguin boldly stepping into a new medium. Hon says the authors were assured that visiting emissaries from the internet had not come to destroy them.
The project has brought the authors creative opportunity and substantial exposure. Personalized social serendipity service StumbleUpon has brought in half of the traffic to Telling Stories, Hon says; sometimes up to 10,000 people will Stumble on to the site on a seemingly random day.
Those visitors are encouraged to jump media and buy the full dead-tree version of the web-ified stories. Hon says though that he thinks the division between media types will become much less clear in the near future.
The Future of Stories
This CEO and I didn't talk much about monetization - emergent forms of creativity shaking up the old are more exciting. We didn't tackle the debasement of literature by Twitter because Twitter's awesome potential is more interesting.
We talked just hours after the iPhone OS 3.0 announcement was made and Hon was excited that the new Bluetooth connectivity could mean a vastly improved interface for glucose monitors, for example. He said that developments like this could be the stepping stones toward a future of ubiquitous computing.
"Soon people will realize that there is no 'mobile internet' - there is only the Internet," he says. "And stories are everywhere." Hon says web content today is like the early days of TV, when all anyone could think to do was broadcast actors from the theater in the new medium. But new types of media enable fundamentally new types of content and experiences.
For example, we're just beginning to learn how to leverage the web's social connections, Hon says. He points to the first iteration of "urban games" as something rudimentary that won't last: groups of people organizing online to meet in person dressed, let's say, as Pac-man characters, running through city streets and posting videos of their adventures on YouTube. "Those games ask people to get up and do something they don't really want to do," Hon says.
Instead, he believes that the future of interactive story telling will be pervasive - it will be available throughout your typical day. Walking to work, even while at work.
"I have no idea what we can produce in this medium," he said, "but I think it's going to be like turning the whole world into Disney Land."
Just remember, Dan, how much free time you said you discovered when you quit playing World of Warcraft. Turning the whole world into Disney Land is nothing to take lightly. That said, I'll see you when we meet up in the Harry Potter ether. I won't be surprised if you and your team help build it.