Twenty years ago today, on October 12th 2000, I walked into Arts Council England’s offices in Manchester with an idea.
I was a Media Artist and Creative Producer, which meant I came up with creative ideas that were either inspired by technology or designed to be delivered through technology, and then made them happen.
And I’d had a new idea.
I wanted to turn your mobile phone into a book.
I’d been running a webserver since the mid-90s, and had been teaching my then-partner, Ben Jones, how to use it. One day I got back from work with him bouncing excitedly, “I’ve discovered your server can support “WML!”, he said. “WTF’s WML?” I replied. “That’s what I thought” he said, then explained he’d done some digging and had found out it stood for ‘Wireless Markup Language’ and was the computer code language for the early days of European mobile phone internet (which was known as ‘WAP’ – Wireless Application Protocol). WAP couldn’t do much, but it could hold about 150 words of text to a page, and black and white bitmap images.
Ben wanted to find copyright-free content (stuff like Shakespearian sonnets) just to play around with, but my geek-brain couldn’t put down the future potential for this stuff. Internet access was still relatively new in UK homes, and mobile phones were still only really being used by stockbrokers, gambling empires, and the pornography industry. To me, this felt like an amazing opportunity to help artists (in this case, writers) get ahead of the geek game. We chatted with a friend who worked in publishing, Ben Stebbing, who agreed to come on board as our Editor.
I’d arranged a meeting with the three of us and the Art Council’s Literature Officer and Media Arts Officer. All I’d told them in advance was that we had a new literature and technology project we wanted to run past them. Our proposal asked for £2000 to kick off an experiment: we knew micro fiction (<300 words) and flash fiction (<1000 words) existed, but would writers be interested in creating ultra-short micro fiction of up to 150 words, designed specifically to be read on the technology you carry in your pocket?
We wanted £2000 to test this idea, with all money going to the writers. We proposed 3 categories of story, paying at better rates than The Observer:
The MINI STORY: 50 to 150 words, paid at 25p per word.
The MICRO STORY: less than 50 words, paid at 35p per word.
The SHORT MICRO STORY (or SMS): less than 150 characters, paid at 50p per word.
[Quick aside… many people have assumed our short micro stories were inspired by Twitter, but we actually launched more than five years before Twitter even existed. Perhaps they were inspired by us… 🙂 ]
At the meeting, the Literature Officer’s response was 100% positive – she didn’t understand the technology, but we were challenging writers with a new creative brief, and paying them above professional rates in the process, whilst also reaching and inspiring new readers: she was IN!
The Media Arts Officer was – surprisingly – less convinced. She simply didn’t believe that anyone would want to read a story or engage with any content on their mobile phone (and, yes: she does hate me telling this story now!)
That £2000 from the Literature pot was enough to prove she was wrong. We launched Version 1.0 on March 1st 2001, with 34 ultra-short stories written by 18 writers, selected from 300 submissions. Each story was published to our WAPsite and website, along with a spoken word recording for each story.
At our follow-up meeting we were greeted with smiles all-round. Not only had we pulled off the experiment, proving that both writers and readers were up for the challenge, but we’d also been featured the night before on a Radio4 Front Row edition. Simon Armitage (the then Poet Laureate) had been invited to discuss the upcoming Guardian SMS poetry competition (to be launched in May that year), but had heard of our call for writers and been far more interested in that – gaining us our first Media attention, too!
the-phone-book.com grew and grew. We ran quarterly editions for three years, publishing 935 stories written by 330 writers from 24 countries. By the end of publication in 2004, we were receiving 3000 submissions each edition, with 1500 unique views to the WAP and websites every day. We’d also managed to gain a few more grants and commissions, enough to design and build a bespoke web2.0 xhtml database-driven website (which made producing each edition way easier, and included a word count limit, preventing the inevitable submission of entire novels!), produce an installation listening-piece called ‘the-phone-box’, a 3-disk CD box set and a four-book anthology from the first year’s collection, and a 10” red vinyl and 12” black vinyl version for scratch DJs to use in battles.
Six years after that first meeting, in 2006, Twitter was born and the first iPhone was released in USA. That year, timed neatly with the iPhone launch, we showcased “A Mobile Phone Art Retrospective” at an International Animation Festival in Portland, Oregon. That exhibition, screening, and conference panel contained not only samples from the-phone-book.com’s story collection, but all the other creative projects we’d run since – artones.net about ringtones/logos, and the-sketch-book.com about animation and films. All creative challenges based on the technical limitations of the technologies you carry in your pockets.
I’m sharing this story today – in a world where most of us wouldn’t know how to exist without our phones – to share a message. No matter how unfeasible other people might say your ideas are, you should always, always, trust your gut. Many people will tell you you’re wrong. But sometimes, history might just prove you right.
If you’re interested in more…
* The full collection came offline many years ago now, but can still be accessed via The Wayback Machine at archive.org (bless ‘em): http://web.archive.org/web/20050801084025/http://www.the-phone-book.com
* For more on my old company’s history, read “the-phone-book Limited reflections” (a keynote talk for the Mobile Innovation Network Association 2016 conference) http://www.reallybigroadtrip.com/2016/12/minamobile16