Friends Without Benefits: Cell Phone Novel Publisher Figment On Building Social Networks

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

By Jacob Lewis

This is the story of how one Internet startup decided not to be a social network.

It begins with the phenomenon of Japanese cell phone novels, where teens, by the millions, are reading, writing, and sharing fiction on their cell phones. Their stories are tangled tales of love triangles — the kids who write these stories often use pseudonyms — and tend to be autobiographical. Take Eternal Dream by Mone, published in 2006 over a three-week period. Saki, her narrator, falls in love, learns she is not her father’s daughter, then discovers her boyfriend is actually her half-brother. Readers obsessively followed and commented as each chapter was sent out. Mone felt connected and supported by her followers, and her readers felt an allegiance to Mone. Stories like Eternal Dream were published on sites that became de facto social networks, with readers and writers sharing the stories as they unfolded.

Teenagers in the US are as hungry for stories as they are in Japan, and together with Dana Goodyear, who wrote about this phenomenon in The New Yorker, we decided bring teen cell phone novels to the American market by creating Figment. We imagined it as a social network where fans of young-adult literature would read, write, and share fiction. It would have the clichéd structure of a social network: profiles, messaging, news feeds, and friends. We would be Facebook for teen fiction.

We launched a beta site in June, but the social part didn’t take off with it. Some users friended one another with trepidation. Some chose to friend everyone new on the site. Others didn’t even acknowledge requests. We couldn’t tell how people were picking friends, or why they were connecting. Our clearly marked tools for engaging seemed forced, like a nametag at a party where you don’t feel like mingling.

Our networks on Facebook are made up of our real world friends. Those relationships have already been tested and defined: by a high school kiss, a former colleague, or a family member. There’s an implicit understanding that we’re just reintroducing ourselves online. But the teens on Figment aren’t friends. They don’t have pre-existing relationships. Their interest in each other is fleeting or non-existent.

On Figment, users, much like the Japanese teens, come simply to read and write. Karra, from Chicago, writes multi-chaptered books in an abbreviated style, some of which she dashes off while in class; Eden, from Oregon, comments regularly on stories as they unfold; Victoria, from New York, and Margaret, from Los Angeles, are two of the first members of our site. They read and review regularly.

Many Internet startups think they need to be social networks. We talk about online communities as if their mere presence guarantees success. We all want to build a network to reinvent a dying market. Communities of readers and writers, we hear, will save the publishing industry. After all, there are networks for people who love kimchi, have asthma, ice climb in the Antarctic. There are even rumors Google is (for the 3rd time!) trying to launch a social network. But we don’t live in a social network world — we live in a social network post-apocalypse, where one behemoth stands alone.

Facebook is its own ecosystem. It doesn’t control the market; it defines it. If you’re trying to build a social network, it would be impossible to compete without mimicking it. That’s what we built Figment to do for teen fiction. But we were wrong to think that model set the parameters for our own market. Figment users may have fumbled with friends, but they embraced the pleasure of the Japanese model: they wrote; they shared; they read; they commented; they followed. They’re there for their passion, not for their friendship.

Figment is not a site based on common interests or real life connections, it is built on creation. To accommodate that creative side, we had to dismantle many of the social components. We’ll admit to being a little disillusioned. We thought we would be the Facebook for young-adult fiction. But better yet, we’ll just be Figment.

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.