Humans text. A lot. SMS, the antiquated cellular network system for texting, is estimated to process eight trillion texts a year. The two largest free instant-messaging services – Facebook's Messenger and WhatsApp, with a billion users each – process more than 60 billion messages a day. Add it all up, and every year people are texting more words than the entire canon of Western literature (a couple hundred-trillion "lols," "wuts" and "you ups," by my back-of-envelope reckoning).
Toronto's WP Technology Inc. has built a huge online following for its (mostly) amateur fiction-writing platform Wattpad, and believes there might be profit in stories told in the same format as texting. So it has launched a new fiction app, Tap, that seeks to capture the energy of a back-and-forth text exchange.
Literature has long imported forms of letter writing into its creative process; some of the early epistolary novels date from the 1400s; books written as a series of letters were hugely popular in the 1800s; and more recently, stories formatted to look like e-mails or transcripts of audio or video footage have also popped up.
Once smartphones made it easy to screen-grab message threads, people have posted these exchanges for their comedic or shocking effect; you can fall down an endless well of "damn auto-correct" images, scathing comebacks to poorly intended pickup lines, or humorous fiction such as "Texts from Dog" (the latter is a must for dog owners, and is available in coffee-table book format).
Tap takes that basic idea, but makes you tap or click to see each new reply in the chain. A typical story on the new service mimics the sort of "new phone who dis?" type misadventures of texting with a stranger, and slowly as you tap and read, the characters reveal themselves.
Tap officially launched on Feb. 21; at publishing time the company had recorded more than 240 million taps, and was averaging 120,000 taps an hour. More than 25,000 user-generated taps have been created, and 40 stories have more than one million taps each.
The early results "blew all of our expectations out of the water. We've seen an incredible amount of activity," says Tarun Sachdeva, who has been with Wattpad since 2012 and is now head of emerging products. His group has been testing the basic idea behind Tap for about a year.
Already several stories on the service have cracked the million-tap mark – some are thrillers, some are funny (a reimagining of a drunken Instagram photo posted by Chrissy Teigen was amusing); one is even about Justin Bieber. The most popular, with 16 million taps, is called Hide, a horror story that was written by a Wattpad employee – Amanda Lai, a product marketing manager – as a pump primer to show off the platform's strengths.
Tap's service is cleverly designed for maximum addictiveness. The format is constructed for suspense or romance – you literally can't skip to the end, and it comes with the added bonus of some day providing analytics on exactly when people stopped tapping.
Though stories can be viewed on the open Web, before you reach the conclusion the thread will stop to present a message: download the app. Once you're using it, at a certain point (many taps into the process) you're told that to keep reading and tapping, you have to get a premium plan. This is an interesting way to capture user dollars (subscription plans go from weekly to yearly) but users can also just wait and after some time elapses (Wattpad isn't saying how much time) free tapping is restored.
Sachdeva says that the idea came from behaviour Wattpad was seeing among the 45 million users of its main site, best known for fan-fiction that revamps popular characters into different forms of genre literature. Wattpad users have long collaborated with each other to offer sidebars, sequels and communal character development in the site's comment section. They were chatting without a chat app, and Tap hopes to soon enable users to co-write stories together.
It almost doesn't matter if texting is the next great literary form, the point is a huge volume of text is already recorded this way. From that perspective, Tap is about a decade overdue.