To mark the opening of Life Online, we invited a selection of people involved in the project to contribute to this blog. Adrian Slatcher is on the Life Online Advisory Panel, and in answer to our question “how has the internet changed your life?”, he told us about his early experience of publishing fiction and literary criticism online, and how that has developed throughout his literary life.
In 1998 I had just completed an M.A. in creative writing at the University of Manchester. I had a decent computer running Windows 3.11 and had invested one hundred and fifty quid in a modem which necessitated running a second phone line into the bedroom of my shared house, taking care only to go online when the rest of the house didn’t need the phone. If you wanted to get in touch with me (I gave out my email address on the photocopied short story magazine I gave out to friends), then firstname.lastname@example.org was all you needed to remember.
It would be a couple of years before I watched live TV on the internet (on September 11th 2001 to be accurate), and downloading a photograph or an MP3 file was painfully slow. However, text was different. I’d not yet made my own web-page, but I knew you could, and besides, there were plenty of great online resources for writers.
I can’t remember how I found out about the online writers’ group run by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios, but when I did I became addicted to it. Years before Web 2.0 and social media, here was a user-generated lit-crit site, free to join, and with an active, vociferous user base of real writers, albeit mostly in the USA and Canada. Coppola’s films have regularly come from books (S.E. Hinton, Mario Puzo and Joseph Conrad amongst them) and his support for the short form, via this and the All-Story magazine were not without self-interest.
For the writers it was great. You critiqued a few stories with a few lines, and that gave you enough credit to upload your own story. I must have read two hundred stories during my few months on the site. Every month there was a competition, with the top rated stories going through to be read by an agent or something. Yet, years before Klout and record-breaking headcounts of Facebook friends or Twitter followers, the group dynamics of the web were already in play.
Some writers were vociferous joiners, frienders, whatever. They had their own clique who extravagantly praised everything they wrote, and they presumably returned the compliment. Around these Ashton Kutcher-like stars of the late 20th century online world, little satellites of like minded writers buzzed in there own mini-ecosystems. If only Google+ circles had been available to us then! I had my own little coterie, writers I liked and who liked my work – and I’d get home from work to see if anyone had responded to the story I’d put online late the night before.
Occasionally, in the forum someone would set a challenge, such as “let’s all write a story with a character named Marvin in the title.” At some point – perhaps around having read 200 stories – I lost a bit of interest in my online writers groups. There were new cliques on the island, and going through all that “making friends” thing again seemed a little tiresome. One of those friends, the English novelist Laura Denham, was based in San Francisco, and in a nice twist, when she moved back to London to live, she was the first person I’d met online that I later met in real life. We’re still in touch.
The possibility of the web, as a writer, was there from almost the first time I logged in. A year or so before Blogger, I was posting my own online writers diary (using Frontpage Express), and had some of my stories online. The web also inspired my work. I wrote an ongoing satire about this new culture, called “Where do you want to go today?” purloining Microsoft’s current advertising campaign, which today reads like a list of dot com memes.
I’ve blogged about literature online for best part of a decade; have seen how online magazines are now as respected as print ones (and with a much wider readership); and have replaced photocopying my magazine with perfect bound books from Lulu.com.
Strangely though, despite the internet’s present ubiquity, and the move to mobile, it was that first wonderfully communal experience of the Zoetrope online writers’ group that I still remember so fondly. The possibilities were there from the start, and we’re only just beginning to come to grips with them.
Adrian Slatcher blogs about literature at artoffiction.blogspot.com and his website is www.adrianslatcher.com. He works for Manchester Digital Development Agency managing European projects, and frequently advises the arts about how best to use technology.