The Goldilocks Curve – Umberto Tosi

From an article about the inception of digital publishing. Link to full article here: https://authorselectric.blogspot.com/2019/08/the-goldilocks-curve-umberto-tosi.html

“The creative energy of Mightywords’ self-publishers exceeded the technological innovation of the enterprise. Some of it raised eyebrows among those looking for profit curves, not necessarily cultural ones, and had envisioned MightyWords as more of a business-to-business enterprise than a retail portal — B2B being Wall Streets flavor-of-the-month at the time. (Remember, this was just prior to the current era of social media whose business model thrived on clicks and user-supplied content.

I’d give author game-creator Joseph Matheny first prize for sweepingly imaginative use of the medium to play with an entirely new literary form beyond what we concieved — or, at first, knew what to make of. To this day, Matheny declines to state whether he intended his novel-length work (Ong’s Hat: The Beginning, first offered for sale in as a book form through Mightywords), as fiction or nonfiction. Its narrative structure allows it to be enjoyed as a speculative fiction. Through hyperlinks that invite readers to various online sites in which they can interact with content, it also invites readers on an immerrsive, interactive adventure. Internet scholars and critics tag it as the first of many Alternate Reality Games (ARG), a transmedia form that has evolved in complexity and popularity over the past twenty years since Ong’s Hat was first released. (This interactivity was a stretch given the limitations of supporting digital platforms at the time – but nevertheless clearly and breathtakingly feasible in terms of its promise.)

The author spun his tale around a nontoxic, benign (Remember those?) conspiracy theory that had been floating around chat-rooms for years. The conspiracy stories purported that the real ghost town of Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, had been the site of secret experiments by rogue scientists from the underground “Institute of Chaos” who opened an interdimensional portal – using a machine dubbed “The Egg” – through which of the town’s former resident’s had disappeared. This led to a loosely structured, Internet game in which participants traded information about sighting of Ong’s Hat evidence and former residents.

Matheny’s work expanded on this plot twist. It follows characters who had used the portal to escape the town after a deadly, toxic spill from a nearby chemical factory. Instead of using roads, the characters travel inter-dimensionally. Readers are invited to use hyperlinks to track the characters’ appearances in verious other locals, as well as report their own sightings, adding to the narrative. The work remains available through Matheny’s website and other venues, including Amazon.

Regrettably, unlike the myths of Ong’s Hat, Mightywords proved ephemeral. One minute it was poised for an ISP that would made even staffers like myself who had been given founders’ stock incredibly rich overnight. The next minute it fell burning like Icarus from the Silicon Valley sun. The high tech bubble burst in 2001, taking lots of startups with it. Our backers pulled away and pressured MacAskill to close down and sell the tecchnology – sans its creative content, which was owned after all by the authors. Barnes & Noble, which had also invested in the venture, stepped forward and took away what was left of both Fatbrain and Mightywords. Ironically, this could have given B&N a competitive advantage over the then still fledgling Amazon. But B&N remained wedded to its brick-and-mortar, trad-publishing business model and let Jeff Bezos eat its lunch, as we all know now.”

Later

“One can be too far ahead of the curve. Timing is everything when it comes to technological innovation. Your new idea has to appeal to Goldilocks and be neither too hot and nor too cold. It might be different for creative ideas like Matheny’s opus. Often the greatest ideas show up in the early days of a form — like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which remains unchallenged as the first major Western European novel and still among its greatest. Maybe if I had read Matheny’s instructions carefully enough, I could have found that interdimensional egg machine back to the some alternative future where things would have worked out differently.

There is a parallel between the mythical interdimensional disappearence of Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, and of the now vanished Mightywords, of which hardly a wisp remains onlinr. The enterprise – which had taken up two floors of a large, Silicon Valley office park building, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared all shiny and bright with its millions in venture capital loose change. I nearly forgot the plac myself as I continued on my quotidian path meanwhile, using my vaunted founder’s stock certificates as birdcage liners. Nonetheless, I’m happy to be able to say that I was there at the birth of indie digital publishing in any case. It’s also worth noting, that as far as we have come since Mightywords’ early, online book delivery system, we’ve yet to equal the creative scope of how digital storytelling could evolve online. The current platforms, however efficient, don’t allow for much Ong’s-Hat-style interdimensionality, or for inserting a modest hyperlink, or a video clip, or sound, or such that is available to me right now in writing this modest blog, even. Perhaps moving forward will involve checking back for stuff we’ve left along the curve we’re always trying to get ahead of.”

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