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A Million Penguins

Created by Bruce Mason. Last edited by Bruce Mason, 3 years and 290 days ago. Viewed 1,473 times. #5
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wikisym07 poster.pdf (105805)

A Million Penguins: Exploring the Stories Behind Penguin’s WikiNovel

To facilitate discussion I've pasted the poster description in here and I've also added a PDF of the poster (it exists on two A3 pages).


On February 1st, 2007, Penguin Books working in partnership with De Montfort University launched “A Million Penguins” (AMP) – a wiki in which the public would be invited to write a novel collaboratively.1 The wiki was scheduled to be open for submissions throughout February 2007. The results, to date, have staggering; as of February 23rd, the wiki had received around 250 000 page views and 9000 edits.2 Clearly there is a significant interest in this form of mass collaboration. This poster presents an outline for a short research project based on AMP that will run from 1st October 2007 to 31st March 2008.

The object of this research project is to perform an analysis of the cultural text that is “A Million Penguins” in order to derive some guidelines for future attempts at mass, collaborative authoring. The main focus of the research will be on the people who contributed to AMP: not just the staff of Penguin but a wide range of those involved. I want to know how they got involved, why they got involved, what they did and how, looking back, they feel about it.


The research project that this poster outlines will consist of two main activities. The first will be to identify and interview a range of contributors to AMP. These will include people from Penguin Books, De Montfort University, some of the students who acted as editors, and a range of external contributors. I do not plan to interview only those people who acted cooperatively; I hope also to be able to track down those who made controversial edits and those who actively attempted to cause problems.

The second activity will take advantage of the wiki’s database in order to track the evolution of story elements over the period that the wiki was live and to investigate the discussion around the story. A wiki gives us a unique chance to look at the history of every single edit to a page and to engage with resultant text diachronically. AMP as a whole is, however, massive and it will clearly not be possible to conduct a textual analysis in general. Furthermore, AMP consists also of the discussion pages for each page in the wiki and there is likely to be as much, if not more, of interest embedded in the discussion about AMP. Therefore I aim to investigate both the novel pages and the conversation around the novel pages.

I hope to be able to address the following research questions.

  • What was the role of the discussion around the writing?
  • What patterns of social behaviour occurred? For example, did some contributors gain status and, if so, how? Did groups form around certain plot points, variant stories or characters? Did groups form around certain styles or genres?
The research will apply virtual ethnographic methods to a wiki environment and will be informed by the nascent interest in transliteracy. AMP can be seen as a web2.0 version of a contested domain in which the participants struggled, via various means, to realise their desires. The main methods used will consist of online qualitative interviews combined with a, necessarily brief, virtual textual ethnography 3 of the various pages (both story and discussion) within AMP.


The project will feature a close reading of the wikinovel as a text and an analysis of the editing history. To do this, it is hoped to deploy similar methods to that used on Wikipedia by IBM’s visualization team (4,5) in order to elucidate the editing history of individuals and the edit history of specific pages. This can be then be triangulated through qualitative interviews and compared with actual texts.

Poster Session Thoughts

Interesting comments about edit history compared to folklore and the oral tradition. In the same way that, say, Cinderella exists in multiple versions and variants across time, perhaps we can see an edit history as the representation of transmission across time. Some of the techniques used for folk literature (e.g. motif analysis) might be relevant here.

One person wondered about tying in demographics with page edits; e.g. does gender, ethnicity, nationality and so on seem to be relevant to page edits. Although this could be done it is not really a direction I wish to take in this project. Also I suspect that it's not really possible to get at that information in this case.

After several conversations I have become more convinced that although AMP is patently not "great literature" it is an important culture moment.

Mark Bernstein made some interesting comments placing AMP within a historical context of the dream of the great collaborative novel and also referenced pre-literate literature such as the Iliad.

Lack of linking. It's noteworthy that AMP appears to be very minimally linked (with certain exceptions). Indeed it might be interesting to compare the frequency of linking in AMP to other wikis (e.g. wikipedia). Does this lack of linking reflect a cognitive dissonance between the notion of the book and the "wikinovel?"


  1. A Million Penguins, >> Accessed 3rd july 2007.
  2. Elek, Jon. The End is Near, Penguin Blog. Accessed: 3rd July, 2007. >>
  3. John Swales, Other Floors Other Voices: A Textography of a Small University Building Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998.
  4. Fernanda B. Viégas, Martin Wattenberg, and Matthew M. McKeon, The Hidden Order of Wikipedia, >>, accessed 3rd July, 2007.
  5. Martin Wattenberg, Fernanda B. Viégas, Katherine Hollenbach, Visualizing Activity on Wikipedia with Chromograms, >>, accessed 3rd July, 2007.
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