University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Scott Lindenbaum ’04

Lit goes electric

Scott Lindenbaum

Departments / Alumni Profiles

Lit goes electric

SCOTT LINDENBAUM '04   There’s something about the human voice, says Scott Lindenbaum ’04. “Anyone who’s ever worked in radio will tell you it’s one of the most intimate mediums.” And yet, when Lindenbaum and his friend and business partner Andy Hunter surveyed the social media landscape in 2010, considering how next to grow their business, they didn’t see an application or website where voices took center stage.

“It’s the oldest form of storytelling—the oral tradition. It held humanity together for a hundred thousand years,” Lindenbaum explains. That history intrigued the pair, who had already proven themselves in the realm where storytelling and new media collide.

To tell the story of what Lindenbaum and Hunter did next requires telling the story of what had come before. After graduating together with master’s degrees in fine arts from Brooklyn College, they created Electric Literature in 2009, a publication with a simple, but challenging mission: return short stories to a place of prominence in popular culture.

Retooling Publishing

To accomplish that, Lindenbaum and Hunter had to tune out the voices that said literary fiction was wasting away, its whole-grain offerings replaced by a junk food media diet of blogs and Facebook. “What it came down to,” he explains, “was picking all these things that people thought were threats to literary culture and culture with depth and expression—like YouTube and Twitter and online engagement and device-based reading—and instead, flip them on their heads and marshal them into defense of things we care about.”

The answer, Lindenbaum says, was not to ignore and feel threatened by the devices competing for readers’ attentions, but to use them to deliver literature to an audience with a demonstrable hunger for content. Electric Literature delivers short stories in the format of the reader’s choosing: for iPhone, Kindle, as an eBook, audiobook or, yes, even a print version. This on-demand, subscription-based model has allowed Lindenbaum and Hunter to revitalize the mechanics of publishing by keeping overhead low, which in turn means a higher paycheck for the writers—including award-winning authors Michael Cunningham, Jim Shepard, and Rick Moody, among others.

The publication gained wide attention in the fall of 2009, when Electric Literature tweeted a story Moody wrote expressly for Twitter. The story, “Some Contemporary Characters,” was delivered in Twitter-sized bursts—140 characters—every ten minutes for eight hours, three days in a row. Each tweet was  satisfying unto itself, but followers could also string them together to reveal the larger narrative—and, capitalizing on the way Twitter displays messages, the story could be read bottom to top or top to bottom. It was an attempt at “microserialization,” Lindenbaum says, “a modern day version of people waiting for the next Dickens chapter on the docks.” Some adored the concept and others reviled it, calling it gimmicky or a bastardization of the form.

But it garnered widespread attention, from The New York Times to the Huffington Post and PBS. “More people were reading and talking about literature than in a long time,” Lindenbaum says. “At the end of the whole thing we ended up with 150,000 Twitter followers, which was more than any book publisher in the world, and it’s meant that since that moment when we want to do something or promote an idea or push any kind of content out the door, we speak to a larger constituency than Penguin.”

But Lindenbaum and Hunter were interested in applying their technological and literary sensibilities to an endeavor with a potentially broader audience than literary fiction will ever have. That takes us back to 2010, when the pair decided that oral history and social media needed to meet.

World on the move

As mobile devices have liberated internet users from their desktops and laptops, a new phase of experiencing the Web has begun. Location-based applications (think FourSquare and Facebook Places) are on the leading edge of internet development.

Location, says Lindenbaum, is also what makes a story unique. Our memories, he notes, are primarily indexed by place. Out of this confluence of factors, Broadcastr was born.

Broadcastr is an application that allows a user to record and upload an audio file and pin it to a location on a map. Those who visit the website can search for stories to listen to based on location—zoom in on Portland,
Oregon, and hear a taxi driver talk about his fares—or choose a category and find stories about disasters, love, or food all over the globe.

Even more notable, the application also allows you to set a filter (story category or the user who uploaded it, for example), put your mobile device in your pocket, and walk. As you pass a location where the kind of story you’ve asked to hear is available, the app will play it for you through your headphones.

Called “geoplay,” this functionality works like a museum tour of the world. “That’s very powerful from an experiential point of view,” Lindenbaum says, “and it’s also very unique because nobody else—no other application in the world—is allowing your movement to be your search query.”

Broadcastr, still in beta, has partnered with organizations from TV network Oxygen to the 9/11 Memorial to provide rich and varied content. Unlike other social media outlets, like Twitter, where a tweet is relevant for maybe ten minutes before vanishing into the electronic ether, Broadcastr aims to “build an invisible layer of memory, history and experience that stretches over the entire world,” Lindenbaum says. “With Broadcastr, what we’re trying to build is something a little bit more like literature, where the content that gets put there—whether it’s by an official publisher like the History Channel or whether it’s by an individual—if it’s good, it’s going to be relevant forever.”

Amanda Waite ’02 G’04

Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue.

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