The fact that e-book sales have declined over recent years says less about the popularity of printed books than it does about a younger generation’s dissatisfaction with current reading formats and fascination with new ones. “Chat fiction” is the new kid on the block, offering an alternative to digital books by presenting stories as an exchange of text messages between two or more people.
Hooked, a chat fiction app launched in the fall of 2015, stands in the vanguard of this frenzy, which founder Prerna Gupta calls “fiction for the Snapchat generation.” The app delivers novels to your smartphone though text message-like transmissions. You tap the screen to read more messages and progress through the story, not unlike turning a page for a new chapter. To the potential dismay of highbrow writers everywhere, Hooked pushes the envelope by turning texting into a literary genre.
Be it a harbinger of a new type of storytelling or just another form of lightweight entertainment, the truth is a single app got 20 million teens to read more than 10 billion fictional text messages so far this year. Genre or not, texting is here to stay. So we looked into why chat fiction is all the rage right now.
Except perhaps for the e-book, the reading experience hasn’t really seen big innovations since the days of Gutenberg. This, despite research showing that a staggering 92% of people aged 18-29 use a smartphone as their main source of internet connection. In what many would call a lost battle, traditional books are competing with Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — the big four FANGs — for our attention spans with the drab type of 300-page novels. People are still reading, but just not as much in libraries or on e-readers. The plain fact is, book publishing needs to be disrupted and molded to fit our modern habits.
The notion of dialogue-based storytelling goes all the way back to the 18th Century, when epistolary fiction became popular and writers began to use letters and diary entries to write entire narratives. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a classic vampire tale told through journal entries, letters and newspaper clippings. Not surprisingly, it even served as inspiration for Gupta, whose goal with Hooked is to create quick, satisfying story arcs that feel like natural extensions of the epistolary novel. Another similar format that captivated people for generations is radio drama. Suspense and horror seem better suited to radio and texting because both media can effectively simulate the sensation of being watched or getting the silent treatment. “Cellphone novels” also enjoyed an early start in Japan, where sentences would be typed into phones’ tiny keypads one by one.
My gut tells me that Marshall McLuhan, who pronounced, “The medium is the message,” would wholly approve of the recent flurry of chat fiction novels. While TV shows like Sherlock and House of Cards have integrated floating texts into their visuals, SMS demands its own style of writing. To make the storyline believable, some apps let you set a fake chat background and add human quirks like ellipses and typing delays. Even the push notifications reminding you to revisit the app appear like text messages from a friend. The back-and-forth chatting heavily influences how the message is perceived, so much so that, in a McLuhanesque twist, the “messaging” has truly become the medium.
We’re standing on the brink of another post-Gutenberg era where technology once again is helping construct new literary forms. For now, writers who use the texting medium to play with unconventional story arcs are limited to messages, images and emojis. But I foresee teenagers being able to consume multi-media stories that aren’t just films or books or songs but an exciting fusion. Imagine future versions that will even allow users to publish their own narrative.
Chat fiction is not unlike people just talking to each other. But the quick retorts, clickbait cliffhangers and addictive reading make this kind of literature stranger than fiction. As a branding professional I couldn’t help but ask, Now that we have a new medium, do agencies also have a new marketing channel? What does it mean for brands that want to reach younger audiences? Could chat fiction evolve into choose-your-own-adventure formats? How will these apps financially support aspiring writers? If TV shows can produce branded merchandise, how can chat stories hijack pop culture?
All good questions, but BRB, Tiffany from “Where Is She?!” on Hooked is home alone and texting her mom about a weird noise in the basement.