— There are those who claim the Internet is the enemy of serious writing, but for a group of teen scribes, it's a place to call home.
They're Figmenters, devotees of Figment.com, a fusion of online writers' group and library that boasts over 36,000 registered users, and recently secured $1 million in funding from an angel investor. Figmenters post short stories and poems, comment on each other's work, and participate in forums that run the gamut from what to read to how to structure an epic. They earn badges for being prolific, and enter contests in which they can win prizes such as "Harry Potter" paraphernalia, plus feedback from famous writers.
"On the first day, we had maybe 4000 people sign up for it," says Jacob Lewis, former Managing Editor of the New Yorker and Conde Nast Portfolio, who launched Figment in December 2010 with Dana Goodyear, a New Yorker staff writer. "We've been shocked at the growth of the user base, and shocked at the amount of content they've generated from the beginning."
Figment displays over 80,000 "books" — poems, plays and stories posted by users, each with its own illustrated virtual cover. There are also excerpts from published works by adult authors.
"I was a bit of a nerdy kid," says Lewis. "I wrote a letter to Philip Roth when I was a teenager, and I was pained that nobody responded. Building the site was about building a connection from fans of reading to published authors, and giving them a place to interact together."
And interact they do. The site adds between 1,000 and 2,000 users per week, and the published adult authors inspire and judge contests. But if you really want to understand Figment, it’s best to ask a Figmenter for a tour.
KAI WILLIAMS, age 13, Riverdale, NY
Williams joined Figment soon after it launched, and has 44 writings posted. In her own words, she's "completely addicted."
"When I go on the site," she says, "I check my online desk, check on who I'm following and what's been going on. Then I check my writing to see if anyone commented. And after that I go to the forums, which are so active and funny."
Williams won runner-up in the recent Story in Verse contest with "My Street," a piece of poem fiction that vividly details the daily routines of a family in mourning.
"Poetry is not my strongpoint," says Williams, a seventh grader, "but it was a new genre and it seemed very exciting to me. I wrote my piece and sent it in. I didn't even know I was a semi-finalist because I was having a sleepover with my friends when they posted [the latest standings]."
The contests, however, are a small part of the "addictive" thrill. Williams eagerly describes the interactions on the site, which allows you to give "hearts" to other people's books — a mouse-click pat on the back. She is flattered when other Figmenters elect to "follow" her, which means they will receive alerts when she writes something new.
"I remember going sledding with my family, and right before we left I realized I had my first follower, or someone had replied on my forum,” she says. “The first time that happened I felt like I was part of something really special."
Williams is a regular on the role-playing forums, where a host can assign a scenario for which other users build detailed character profiles.
"A role-play can be any story," she says. "Fantasy or nonfiction or drama. You post the rules — like 'Cursing is fine, but let's not overdo it.'” Then the story is acted out in real time, each person playing a part.
The site is mobile. Williams has used it on the iPad, and borrowed a parent's smartphone to attend an online comment session while riding in the car. A few of her Figment friends are people she knows in real life, from school, but others she will never meet.
"When you're writing, and you get criticism and comments, it's very interesting to see which pieces people react to," she says, noting that almost all the critiques are constructive — Figment has strict policies in this regard. "You write a new piece and send it out into the Figment world. ... On Figment, you just sort of take a chance."
JOSH MITCHELL, 13, Corvallis, OR
"If I could sum my writing up in a word, it would be 'funny,'" says Josh Mitchell, an eighth grader.
At last count, he had 124 writings uploaded on Figment, mostly poetry. Plus, Mitchell has written some 400 comments about other Figmenters' work. He checks the site every day, usually multiple times.
"I would love to actually be a writer when I grow up," he says. "When I was five years old, I had blank notebooks I would carry around the house and write in. And then I stopped, and now I've started again."
His "Dyslexic Love Poem" is currently in the running for the Backwards Contest, which required users to tell the story of a romantic relationship in reverse.
"When I see a contest, I always think, Hm, I wonder if I could enter this," says Mitchell. "I always try. If it doesn't work, then I just give up, no big deal."
As with Williams, the appeal of the site for Mitchell seems to be the interaction, not the accolades. He loves watching single-word posts on the "General Random" forum kick off far-ranging discussions.
"Everyone's a little bit insane when you go on Figment," he says. "One user actually said, 'If you're going to go on Figment, you have to lose your sanity.'"
Certainly, being an active participant means exposing your work — some of it deeply personal – to a barrage of virtual attention. But seeing what gets noticed is part of the fun. Mitchell found that out while dabbling in the genre labeled “cyberpunk.”
"Aside from the occasional 'LOL,' I really don't like using a lot of text talk,” he says, “but I had the idea to write a 'book' entirely in text talk to see how the audience would react.”
The response? Major. His poem "I <3 U 2" is one of the top 25 "most hearted" in the Cyberpunk genre.
“They have this thing called swaps,” he says, “where you can request to read some of another person’s work and they read some of yours, and I did a ton of that. ... Now I’m at the point where I don’t need to swap anymore.”