A couple weeks ago, I reviewed a work of fan fiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I wanted to make one more point about this piece, not about the story itself, but about how powerful and sometimes weird crowdsourcing on the Internet can be.
Mr. Yudkowsky ended Chapter 113 (out of 122) of his story with a challenge to the readers. In the story, Harry has sixty seconds to escape death at the hands of Voldemort, against seemingly insurmountable odds. In the real world, Mr. Yudkowsky gave his readership of thousands sixty hours to find a solution to this problem, or Harry would die.
This plan went horribly right. In the sixty hours of the challenge, fans posted 1,812 reviews to Chapter 113, offering solutions, far too many for him to sift through himself. (On average, the previous 112 chapters received only 235 reviews each.) The final length of the story was 661,000 words. This is roughly the length of the first five Harry Potter books put together and is longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, including the appendices (although it is still shorter than the Bible). However, the 1,812 reviews posted with solutions to the story totaled 724,000 words, longer than the story itself. That’s the power of the Internet for you.
And here’s the kicker: the fans had already guessed and posted most of the solution (though not all the details) before the challenge was even made. Mr. Yudkowsky just wanted to see if they could come up with a better one. And while they didn’t come up with anything significantly more optimal, he did make a few last minute revisions to Chapter 114 before he posted it.
That’s another good thing about fiction on the Internet. Instant feedback means that a serial novel can be rewritten and improved on the fly. While it’s still mostly author-controlled, it’s a more participatory for of fiction that results in a better product, and I call that a plus.