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Author Margaret Atwood, seen here in London, England in 2006, signs books for fans in New York using the Long-pen device. (Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail)
Author Margaret Atwood, seen here in London, England in 2006, signs books for fans in New York using the Long-pen device. (Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail)

Russell Smith: On Culture

Celebrities in cyberspace: Are they authentic? Add to ...

Margaret Atwood is back in the tech-startup business, lending her name to a new computer and mobile app that aims to put fans in virtual touch with artists and entertainers. The project, called Fanado, is being developed by a U.S.-based producer and some Toronto-based engineers. It is currently seeking funding, for the development of the mobile applications, on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo. They’re looking for $85,000.

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You may recall that about five years ago Atwood got some engineers to design a remote-controlled robotic pen, the LongPen, that enabled an author to sign a book from another continent. That was never a big success. This is a development of the same idea, but richer: The idea is that a subscriber to the app can make an appointment to “meet,” on their computer or phone screen, a famous person or group – say a band. The band will appear, say hi to you personally, and then sign your CD cover (that is, their electronic signature appears on your electronic screen).

Or they could (if the startup raises enough money to develop this) use the LongPen to remotely sign, with ink, a book or other object – Fanado would then ship it to you. A whole event, like a concert or a backstage tour, could be livestreamed to registered fans. Then the fans are encouraged to create and post walls of their own signed memorabilia (as they already do on sites like Pinterest), and they can instantly share the video of themselves chatting with their idols, on other social-media sites.

This development is not just a new means of promoting creative work, but a reflection of the trend towards microfame: It’s not just the artists who are in the spotlight, but the fans who, more than ever before, can create public narratives around their fandom.

The artists and their representatives are responsible for signing themselves up to Fanado and for organizing their events. They will pay a membership fee to Fanado, and then they can charge fans what they like for different levels of interaction.

With good technical help, artists can, of course, set up things like this on their own sites, or use videoconferencing portals like Google Plus Hangouts. But not everyone is competent at this kind of marketing. Writers in particular (who may be experts on gender roles and 19th-century history but not so much on social media) might not know where to start; Fanado is offering to take care of the technical side, for a fee. (The L.A.-based producer, Daniel Edelman, promises the fees will be “modest.”)

Key to the whole sales pitch is the idea of the reality of the meetings and the signatures. The signature on the electronic photo that appears on your tablet is still electronic, but it is personalized and happening in real time. And the one that would be created by the distance-writing machine is, Fanado insists, a real one, not a virtual one: It is “legally authentic and verifiable.” They stress it is a “wet ink” signature. I’m not sure exactly why the quality of the ink makes a difference – I can right now sign a document, scan the signature and email it to you and you can print it out and the ink will still be wet, but I’m quibbling. Clearly, there is a greater emotional echo from the idea of a moving single pen than from the multiple ink nozzles of a printer.

And what of the romance that the artist’s hand has been present in yours, or on your book? There is obviously still a healthy market for magic or sacred memorabilia – objects said to have been touched by a celebrity. The owner of the Berlin Internet café where Luka Magnotta was caught even put the chair he sat on up for sale. It’s a pretty ordinary chair. It’s not a record of anything.

Signed books are also a strange fetish. Authors can sit in an empty bookstore and sign dozens at a time; why do those signatures make people feel the books are more valuable? Actually, statistically, they don’t: Signed books are just as likely to sit in their dusty piles as any other books. The only real value of an author’s signature is as a record of a physical meeting, a record of an exchange between people in a room. It says you were there.

And as for having your left breast signed by a rock star, well, the interaction with the LongPen or the electronic tablet isn’t going to be quite as sexy as that. However, Fanado would in theory give fans the opportunity to see into private spaces – a writer’s study, for example, or a tour bus – that public appearances would not afford. It could be even more intimate than an actual meeting.

Is the experience of meeting an admired person the same if it takes place through a video camera? The success or failure of Fanado will answer that question.

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