The Great American Text

In 2008, Dana Goodyear wrote a story for The New Yorker about a trend in Japan relating to how young adults were telling stories: They were using Web-enabled cell phones to write short stories, poems, even novels.

“The medium—unfiltered, unedited—is revolutionary,” she wrote, “opening the closed ranks of the literary world to anyone who owns a mobile phone.”

After her story ran, she noticed excitement in the publishing world back home about the idea. Lots of people emailed. People told her how amazing they thought the idea sounded. All of that gave Ms. Goodyear an idea: Why not start her own Japanese-style mobile-lit business in the U.S.?

“It gave me this sense there was real excitement around this idea and it might be viable,” she told Off the Record.

Ms. Goodyear’s notion has begun to take shape, in a Web site and multimedia platform called Figment. It’ll essentially take the same concept that is being used in Japan—texting stories—and bring it here.

“The portability of it, the novelty of it, the fact that it is a device connected to friends and communities,” said Ms. Goodyear in an interview, thinking out loud. “You can’t do your homework on your cell—you can do things that are pleasurable, creative and exciting, and it’s about invention and self-invention.”

The Web site is expected to have a soft launch in about three months and then launch around Labor Day. The site and mobile applications will be free; anyone can write on it; the stories can be as long or as short as they want, but the majority of the site’s audience and users are expected to be 13-to-18-year-olds. “We might see a lot of romance,” she predicted.

Ms. Goodyear, who used to be a senior editor at The New Yorker and is now on contract as a writer, called up her old friend Jacob Lewis to see if he’d like to help her. Mr. Lewis was the former managing editor at The New Yorker, moved to Portfolio in the same job and then was out of work when the magazine folded last April. Ms. Goodyear knew he was available, so she wondered: Would you like to go into business together?

“It worked for me,” said Mr. Lewis. “I came out of a situation where I lost my job and I needed to figure out what to do, and this seemed like a good opportunity. It allows us to create a relationship where I can run the company out of New York and do the day-to-day level of it. It felt like it was the right time to start something.”

Back in the pre-meltdown days for journalism, maybe Ms. Goodyear would have turned her New Yorker article into a book; now, she figured, you might as well start a business!

“There’s something specific about journalists losing faith in print media as a lifelong career,” said Ms. Goodyear. “But I do have faith! And I’m extremely grateful to The New Yorker and committed to my relationship to The New Yorker, but this does seem like a moment that an article could be converted into a technology business. That’s something that might not have happened five years ago. My writing a book on cell-phone novelists could have easily have happened. The difference is that people are now looking beyond the traditional business models, I think, everywhere.”

The Great American Text