By Vanessa Garcia
Posted by admin on September 10th, 2012
The internet has always sewn contradiction and grown paradox — it’s a place where going “viral” is a good thing, and where the world folds flat against a screen. It’s the omnivorous creature that devoured sound in a way that changed the music world. For a long time, the web caught everything — except for literature. Literature, capital L, wouldn’t budge. Literary gatekeepers, it seemed, still believed their destiny remained in paper, far from the underground currents of broadband. “They were in denial,” says Dana Goodyear.
Goodyear is a poet, journalist, and the co-founder of Figment.com, an online platform where young writers can post their work, workshop, read original material by people their same age, and e-meet some of their favorite literary idols. Recently, Figment was awarded the LA Times 2011 Innovator’s Award. An award that, according to its mission statement is meant to “recognize the people and institutions that are doing cutting edge work to bring books, publishing and storytelling into the future.”
Launched in December 2010, Goodyear wasn’t sure how the site would be received. “When we started [conceptualizing] the project, people still found it strange to read on their phones, now everybody is reading their iPads on the subway,” says Goodyear.
Today, the site has 230,000 registered users; 400,000 pieces of original writing in its library, and 1,000 stories a day. The average age of its users is 13-25, with the majority clustering around the 13-18 year-old age bracket. Who said kids aren’t reading and writing? They just needed a place to do it in; a place they wanted to go to, and stay for a while.
“Dana had a notion that there was an empty space for teen creativity,” says Jacob Lewis, Figment’s other co-founder.
This notion began to take form two years before Figment’s launch, in 2008, when Goodyear took a trip to Japan and encountered a 21-year old cell phone novelist who’d written a novel on her cell phone and published it online as she wrote, becoming a new kind of literary sensation.
Here was Japan, a place where literature had reigned longer and higher than in the U.S. “Literature is so well-established there, it makes New York publishing look like a flash in the pan, and the idea that there were these young women, without literary training, that were not connected or established in any way and had the ability to invigorate writing…” Well, it was an idea that got Goodyear thinking. Not only did she write a piece for The New Yorker called I ♥ Novels — a piece about the Japanese cell phone novel phenomenon, a piece that itself garnered a large following — but she joined forces with her friend and fellow New Yorker colleague, Jacob Lewis, to start creating Figment.
Publishing wasn’t dying. “You just have to be nimble,” says Goodyear. “We became a bridge, and were never perceived as a threat to publishing.” In fact, Figment not only works with young writers, but it also works with publishers to help promote books that interest Figment’s users. “It’s not just a site for girls and vampire books,” says Goodyear, “we just had a young 17 year old boy win a poetry contest.”
When you do visit the site, it’s seemingly gender neutral. Doodles and bright colors, but no bells and whistles. Young, but nowhere does it mention a specific age group. This is intentional. Goodyear and Lewis wanted to make sure they did not exclude anyone who wanted to be a part of the Figment writing community. “We wanted it to be a place that gathered around a common obsession, where young writers talked about craft,” says Goodyear. “They also talk about TV shows, but these are serious young writers.”
Perhaps the most surprising and organically grown aspect of the site has been the way teachers and professors have embraced it as a tool. “We always wanted to have an educational element,” says Lewis, “we’d been talking to librarians.” But it was the teachers that reached out to Figment in droves, writing and telling Figment they were using the site for class workshops. High school teachers, and even college professors with overwhelmingly large 300-member creative writing classes that were using Figment to branch off into smaller workshopping groups. So Figment upped the ante and created privacy settings and “groups” teachers and students could create and join.
Sarah Mulhern Gross, who teaches at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey, uses the site with her freshman and seniors. “I’m still a traditional English teacher who loves to read and write,” says Gross, “but I want to meet my students where they are and push them farther.” Gross grew up online and can’t imagine teaching without social media or the web. “I also teach at a school that heavily depends on technology, so it’s important for my students to use it often,” she says. And that doesn’t mean the technology has to be limited to Math and Science class.
“That was the idea,” says Lewis, “to expand creative expression so that it was not limited by medium.”
About Vanessa Garcia
Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist