The Things That Go Bump On The Web

Explaining the power of collaborative fiction on the web—particularly the extremely compelling work of the SCP Foundation.

Today in Tedium: The increasingly anachronistic phrase “College of Arts and Science” adorns institutions of higher education across the world. Not too long ago the phrase made a lot of sense. Without science, most art would be impossible to experience. Without art, the achievements of science would ring hollow. But today, art and science feel divorced, increasingly removed from the knowledge and experience of the other. This has led society to view the workings of art and science differently. Though we laud brilliant scientists, it is understood their achievements were only possible via collaboration, i.e. Newton “standing on the shoulders of giants.” With art, our focus is on individual brilliance. The achievements of Mozart, da Vinci, and Shakespeare are often described in such isolation you could be forgiven for thinking each created music, visual arts, and drama respectively. The truth, of course, is that art, like science, is a collaborative effort. Artists follow trailblazers who advance form, technique, and even human understanding. Today’s Tedium dives into an interesting, not-so-little phenomenon that is enrapturing millions daily by imaging new horrors for humanity to fret over. Yes, we’re talking about web-based collaborative fiction, as demonstrated by the SCP Foundation. — Andrew @ Tedium

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260M

The number of books sold by Jan and Stan Berenstain, perhaps the best selling collaborative fiction partnership of all time. While any given book is unlikely to have been written in isolation, collaborative fiction is surprisingly sparse in modern fiction and literature. Why collaborative fiction isn’t taken as seriously has less to do with writers and more to do with the hangups of critics and readers.

Writing Collaboration

(Fredrik Rubensson/Unsplash)

Collaborative fiction and you, a primer

People collaborating on works of fiction is nothing new. (Without meaning to cause an uproar, collaborative fiction is probably the best way to describe most religious texts. Maybe Shakespeare too.) But modern literary and fiction writers tend to eschew collaboration outside of occasional experiments. One such recent example: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a mystery written by William Burroughs and Jack Keruac and published posthumously in 2008, years after both had died. Loosely based on the events surrounding the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucian Carr, ATHWBITT (as no one calls it since it’s a mediocre mystery and book in general) wasn’t published in either author’s lifetimes. And like too many works of collaborative fiction, it is more interesting for reasons other than the joy of reading it.

Canadian literary historian Lorraine York explains the difficulty facing collaborative works: “Twentieth-century bibliographical and editorial practices have been particularly susceptible to this fixation on parsing collaboration because of what [literary historian] Jerome McGann calls their fascination with the singular author.” Scholarship on collaborative texts does have an obsession with attributing specific passages to individual authors with scrutiny of handwriting being particularly common.

Squabbling over who wrote what isn’t limited just to literary critics, of course. Tensions arose between the various screenwriting teams behind Jurassic World. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the duo behind the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes, were hired to write “Jurassic Park 4,” but their efforts were put aside when Colin Treverow took over the project. Eventually the WGA ruled that Jaffa and Silver would receive “Story by” credits, much to Trevorow’s dismay. According to the director, he and his writing partner provided the final script with little being taken from the original team’s efforts. At least now we know who to blame for the uber-dinosaur and German shepherd like velociraptors.

With all this squabbling over attribution in collaboration, is it really worth it? Famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung would argue yes and no. His work defining individuation, or the process of differentiating oneself from others, has been foundational in the study of psychoanalysis. From this perspective, it is understandable that Jung was also concerned with the nature and role of the artist, saying, “As a human being, the artist may have many moods, and a will, and personal aims, but as an artist he is ‘man’ in a higher sense—he is ‘collective man’—one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realise its purpose through him.”

Collaboration, according to Jung, is part and parcel of art as it reflects the collective experience of humanity. Yet as an individual, an artist seeks to become their own person distinct from the collective. Perhaps this conflict is the root of an artist’s style, perspective, and motivation. It might also help explain the existentially terrifying creations at the heart of the SCP Foundation.

9.6M

The number of views for the short film Overlord, based on the SCP Foundation series of online “reports” and stories, in the first eight months following release on YouTube. Despite widespread acclaim for Overlord and many other SCP Foundation inspired media, much of it has yet to hit the mainstream. One of the main reasons for keeping the Foundation out of the mainstream is figuring out exactly who owns it.

SCP Foundation

A verision of the SCP Foundation logo. (Wikimedia Commons)

Who comes up with this stuff?

Explaining the SCP Foundation to the uninitiated can be strange with no small amount of assurances that you don’t actually believe it’s real. To explain it quickly, the SCP Foundation is a fictional multi-national organization tasked with protecting humanity from any number of supernatural threats.

Created in 2007 by an anonymous 4chan user, the Secure. Contain. Protect. (SCP) Foundation has been described by The Daily Dot as “Part wiki, part roleplaying game, part storytelling community”. The foundational entries in the SCP canon are “scientific reports” describing all manner of horrors such as a murderous statue, a never-ending staircase, or an inescapable Ikea.

The entry for “SCP-173”, the very first in the series, reads:

Initially, entries into SCP canon retained a dry scientific style intended to heighten realism. In short order, others joined in and started creating their own entries. The community evolved over time to include more traditional stories set within the SCP-verse. These have developed counter organizations to the SCP Foundation while also detailing the daily lives of those who work for the foundation, willingly or otherwise.

As a type of open sourced intellectual property, the SCP Foundation is understandably appealing to a number of independent creators. In the fifteen years or so since emerging from an anonymous writer in one of the darkest corners of the Internet, the SCP Foundation has become a coordinated effort and bona fide global phenomenon. YouTube videos recounting favorite SCP creations routinely hit millions of views.

And numerous video games have been created around the concept.

Fans of SCP Foundation stories are known to treat the subject with earnest solemnity. It is fairly common for those unfamiliar with the concept to ask in forums whether or not the stories are real. Unlike maintaining the ruse behind Santa or New Zealand, SCP followers let the veneer of reality slip when directly asked. Mostly. One area where this can get sort of screwy is with the issue of ownership of the IP behind the SCP Foundation, which is often attributed to the fictional foundation itself. Individual creators do, however, maintain ownership of their SCP creations under the Creative Commons license.

So what happens if a major studio wants to make a movie or series based on the SCP Foundation? Who do they license the IP from?

It depends. If fans want to see incarnations of the SCP Foundation not limited to the Internet, they would have to do something almost antithetical to the project and decide who created it. As a weak analogy, this would be a little like figuring out who the creator of unicorns is before getting a greenlight on a My Little Pony movie. And despite being the creation of thousands (maybe millions) of people spread across the world, web-based collaborative fiction like the SCP Foundation is doomed to suffer the attribution desire that afflicts more traditional literature.

And again, does that attribution matter let alone make sense? The horrors populating the SCP Foundation might come from individuals but the fear they inspire is collectively shared. In a very real sense, the writers crafting SCP monsters and oddities are doing exactly what Jung described by giving shape to the “unconscious, psychic life of mankind”. That this shape takes the form of an infinite Ikea or an “anti-meme/self-keeping secret” or a shadowy organization keeping us safe from existential crisis makes a lot of sense. The crises of our era (take your pick from pandemics and climate change to politics and inflation) are just as existential but no longer abstract. Believing that an organization like the SCP Foundation could exist is almost reassuring. At least someone has a plan in the face of annihilation. Could you imagine the alternative?

Deep in lower Manhattan, where streets have real names rather than numbers, is a bookshop known to a particular type of person. It isn’t a secret and almost anyone with the time and inclination can become engrossed in obscure stories before finding themselves on the sidewalk with significantly less money than they had before.

Mysterious Bookshop

(Garrett Ziegler/Unsplash)

The Mysterious Bookshop is America’s oldest crime and mystery bookshop. The store’s ability to separate me from my money (as well as others like it) has always seemed like voodoo. I assume whatever compels me to choose an anthology of golden age detective stories over a filling dinner has to be some type of sorcery. But the store’s real magic is the ability to give me a book that seems to directly speak to events in my life. (It really is a lot like the ‘Coincidental Broadcast’ trope.)

Earlier this week, while perusing their inhouse editions of American mystery classics, I stumbled upon The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich, one of America’s now forgotten but once incredibly successful pulp writers. Eddie Muller, an expert in film noir, noted in the book’s introduction that Woolrich’s rightful place as one of the 20th century masters of suspense despite a reputation for “credulity-stretching coincidences”. Literary critics of the time disdained Woolrich, in part because of his inelegant writing but also that “his stories were not conducive to analysis or interpretation.”

The mechanics of fear are always worthy of analysis and Woolrich, like the next generation creating collaborative monsters, knows that fear doesn’t always make sense. In the closing lines of an introduction to a largely forgotten mystery novel, I found the words that can most readily describe the collaborative fear and motivations inspired by the SCP Foundation.

“To which I say, since when was a nightmare supposed to be logical?”

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Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! Thanks Andrew for uncovering this unusual angle.

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Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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