I wrote a text message thriller, and so should you

I wrote a text message thriller, and so should you

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The more time we spend on our phones, the more text messaging seems like a natural artistic medium, a modern outgrowth of the epistolary novel. You can see it in the fake text message web fiction genre, in games like Sarah is Missing and in the silly quasi-interactive thriller that a smartphone writing app has somehow seduced me into creating.

The app I’m talking about is called Tap, a recent extension of the existing trend of text messaging fiction platforms. It’s following on the heels of a very similar service called Hooked, and less directly, the kid-focused Amazon Rapids. On both Tap and Hooked, you get what looks like a text message interface, with messages advancing as you tap a box at the bottom of the screen. It’s not like a video game with different choices; it’s more like a play or radio drama that happens to take place on your phone.

But while both these apps are supposed to let you write your own stories as well as read them, I can’t find Hooked’s writing tools. And to be honest, the majority of chat stories leave me cold. A combination of Sturgeon’s Law and so-so curation guarantees lots of bland setups, meandering dialogue, and dramatic tension that amounts to “Hello, I am currently texting you while being eaten by a bear.” You can’t just wade through lots of dreck to find the few pearls, either, because Tap and Hooked work on a per-message freemium model, with a subscription fee for unlimited reading.

Tap (left) and Hooked (right).

While I might be ambivalent about these apps as reading platforms, though, writing on them is awesome. The format offers the intriguing limitation of making you craft pure dialogue that fits with the baked-in “setting” of a written conversation. (Although I’ve seen one person giving stage directions via text message, which is both fascinating and sort of cheating.) It’s not as complicated as writing a choose your own adventure story, but at the same time, Tap’s editor is surprisingly full-featured. You can attach images to texts or set fake phone wallpapers in the background, put multiple scenes with several named characters in a single work, and even add a short “typing” delay.

Wattpad Tap

Wattpad Tap

There’s another, more embarrassing reason I like writing on Tap: it feels safe, because I can’t succeed or fail at it. I tend to start fiction projects and become paralyzed with the worry that whatever I’m writing isn’t good enough, because there’s a mature literary establishment with a million amazing novel and short story authors. There’s no such thing as a text messaging “classic” or critical darling, and I don’t feel pressured to compete in a popularity contest that would be impossible to win. Wattpad, the mobile-friendly fiction platform that makes Tap, says the app has drawn 430 million “taps” (i.e., individual message reads) since its February launch. A quarter of those are concentrated in the top 10 stories.

Nobody is going to give me a book deal or put me in a magazine for my great text message conversations. For all practical career- and ego-related purposes, crafting a good Tap story and a bad one are equal wastes of my time. So if I want to write a 24-part near-future thriller about two socially awkward women failing to flirt with each other while uncovering a conspiracy involving sentient reactionary self-help chatbots, its ultimate quality isn’t a referendum on my writing capabilities. If nobody reads it, I can pretend I’m an underappreciated genius, and nobody is going to bother to prove me wrong.

Tap seems like a nightmare in terms of archival or open access. You can share clips from stories as HTML pages, but readers have to download the app to read whole works. There’s no clear way to take your story somewhere else, or write outside the app and upload it. As far as I’m aware, you aren’t remunerated for writing a popular story, although you can select your own copyright policy (including Creative Commons) when you publish. But the walled garden aspect also makes it feel less like “real,” stressful writing. I may have spent more time on the Chatpocalypse trilogy (yes, trilogy) than some people put into actual published stories, but it still feels like playing with a toy, not making capital-L Literature.

And even if you don’t want to spend much time with it, it’s a very fun toy. I showed Tap to my Verge colleagues while we were at SXSW, and I ended up getting a passive-aggressive text-message-story request to buy somebody’s Nintendo Switch, a late-night chat between Vin Diesel and The Rock, and the first taps on my debut experiment Warren Spector is at GDC, which was in fact written while I was in line to see Warren Spector at GDC. If you let Tap send you notifications about stories, you’ll feel like some kind of amnesiac or phone thief, being messaged by people you don’t remember. It’s great.

Oh, and if you’re using Tap and want to read my story for some reason, you can reach Eliza Underground (Chatpocalypse #1), Geodesica (Chatpocalypse #2), and Futurespeak (Chatpocalypse #3) through their respective links. I may be insecure, but for crying out loud, I’m not shy.

#gadgetbingo

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