NEW YORK — It started with a story for a magazine. In 2008, during a trip to Japan, New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear decided to write about cellphone novels, a phenomenon — involving young women writing largely for young women, posting fiction from their phones to media-sharing websites — that was then shaking up Japanese publishing.
"It seemed like a great way to explore the literary culture," she remembers, although by the time she got home, the parameters had shifted, with the effects of the global economic crisis rippling through the American book industry. "I began to wonder whether this might offer a sliver of hope for American publishers, although more interesting was the notion that these young women were creating an independent literary community. What would the features of an American version be? What would that have been like for me?"
These questions — along with the related issue of how we engage as writers and readers in a digital culture — reside at the heart of Figment, a literary site for teens that Goodyear and former New Yorker and Portfolio managing editor Jacob Lewis launched in December 2010. The idea is simple: to create a space for young writers to share work and get feedback, all as part of a community. "Figment," explains Lewis, "is a user-generated platform. It's essential that our users feel a sense of ownership." Such a sensibility begins with the site's slogan, which can be read as both an invitation and a gentle challenge: "Write yourself in."
I visited Lewis on a blustery March morning in Manhattan, not long after he'd been notified that Figment would receive the Innovator's Award at this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prizes on April 20 at USC. As CEO, Lewis handles the day-to-day running of the operation, keeping track of an increasingly widespread network of young writers as they seek to participate in a conversation that appears quite literally to have no bounds.
It's been a heady 15 months since Figment launched its website, and its offices reflect this; a basement floor-through in an East Side brownstone, the space is open, active and comfortably cluttered, a hive of activity, virtual and otherwise. It feels like the center of an expanding universe — which, in fact, is what it is. In February 2011, Figment was selected as a winning start-up at the O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. Three months later, it received $1 million in angel funding. In December, the site marked its first anniversary by publishing a print book, words on paper: Blake Nelson's "Dream School," a sequel to his 1990s novel "Girl," and a project initially developed as a Figment serial.
"It's been a whirlwind," Lewis says over a cup of coffee as his face stretches into a grin behind a salt and pepper beard. "We have more than 200,000 users, 350,000 pieces on the site. That's probably too much content. We add 1,000 new pieces a day."
"Too much content" is a good problem to have, the kind that means Figment is working, that its primary message — this is a literary outlet — has been received. "Young writers want a place to experiment, to take a risk and get a response," observes Goodyear, "to have that daring feeling of putting themselves out there." Because of this, she adds, it's key that Figment function as part of "their creative lives" — a telling choice of phrase that suggests the credit the site gives its users, the faith that they are serious about their work. This in itself is a radical concept, in a culture that tends to think of teenagers in terms of market share.
That's not to say everyone on Figment will grow up to be a writer or even wants to. The point is to engage users in a conversation, to build relationships around what they read. Every piece is open to comments, which vary from "Awesome. Cannot wait for more" to nuanced critiques of craft and form. There are thousands of groups — from "College Essay Swap" to "The Critics" to "Covers," a group for people who make book covers — some with hundreds of members, others with as few as one. The minimum age is 13 and the general range is 13-17, but there are some older users in their late teens and early 20s.
What this means is that Figment is eclectic; you're as likely to find a reference to Tom Waits or William S. Burroughs as to "Harry Potter" or "The Hunger Games." The community is so large, so endlessly looping, there is no way for any one thread or set of voices to dominate. Some 45% of Figment's users have posted their own writing; more than 55% have weighed in on a story or in a group. The average visit lasts 17 minutes — a digital eternity — and 21 page views, so there are a lot of people in the mix. "To me," Lewis says, "that's important. It's a matter of engagement. We're creating a community of readers, and as our users grow, so does the platform. Their interest determines where we go."
And yet Figment also means to steer some of the action, to engage its users in a larger world. From the outset, the site has sought alliances with publishers, forging partnerships that showcase a variety of authors and books. This is, Lewis acknowledges, the most delicate part of the process, for if Figment depends on anything, it's trust. The kids have to trust that the site is theirs, that it has their interests at heart. They have to trust that it's a safe space, that their work, their expression, is primary.
Still, how better to stimulate young writers and readers than to give them a chance to interact? Currently on Figment, you can read the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," a tie-in for the film. You can do the same with Rachel Hawkins' third "Hex Hall" novel, "Spell Bound" — and when you're done, you can click over to a feature in which designer Tanya Ross-Hughes describes how she created the cover of the book. It's the kind of thing adults take for granted, but for a young reader, especially one who wants to be involved with writing, it can be a way of making publishing accessible, a way to be drawn in. "It's an opportunity for publishers," Lewis says, "but it's also an opportunity for us to create a home for larger conversations about books."
Recently, that conversational landscape grew again — first with the creation of new groups for librarians and teachers, who can now teach virtual classes and workshops on Figment, and then with the acquisition, in early March, of Inkpop, an interactive teen literary site launched by HarperCollins in 2009. In the short term this means a bigger user pool, but even more, it suggests that what we're seeing may be a kind of critical mass.
Figment stands for the connection between reader and writer, whether professional or peer. Its success, then, simply reaffirms what readers everywhere have always known: that literature and reading aren't going anywhere. "What we've built here," Goodyear says, "is a way to get people reading and writing, rather than a way to distract them from reading and writing." Lewis agrees. "Figment is a place for creation and consumption," he says. "The more the community develops, the more we can do."