When an App Is an Essay Is an App: Tapestry by Betaworks
In March of this year, San Francisco author Robin Sloan released what appeared to be a brand-new form of content: A “tap essay,” told as a series of slides in the form of an iPhone app. He wrote the content — which itself was a meditation on savoring online content — and designed and built the app himself.
“Fish” was a side project for Sloan, who formerly worked at Twitter and Current TV, and has just released the well-reviewed novel “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.” But it was inspiring for John Borthwick and the folks at Betaworks in New York, who set out to build a tap essay creation tool called Tapestry, and got Sloan’s blessing.
“I saw it, and I loved it so much,” Borthwick said. “It felt like an intimate and immersive form of reading on the phone. I thought, could you not make a platform to publish more of these?”
Borthwick and two others at the Betaworks incubator — “hacker in residence” Patrick Moberg, formerly of Bnter, and entrepreneur in residence Paul Murphy, formerly of Aviary — created Tapestry, and are releasing it today for iOS, as well as a tap essay creation tool for the Web.
Tapestry-built tap essays very closely resemble Sloan’s original effort, at least in form. They can only be read forward, with no back button. Individual pages are tweetable. Sentences can be designed to play out across multiple pages, with each successive tap for a new word adding emphasis to what’s being said.
The three-man Tapestry product team is also effectively going to serve as a sort of editorial board, choosing among tap essays that are created and submitted online to feature a select few in the app. At launch, the app will include a piece by Baratunde Thurston on why people should vote, as well as a new essay by Sloan, called “The Italics,” which serves as a sort of companion to his novel.
Tapestry has also translated a piece about Nikola Tesla, by comic artist Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, into a tap essay.
“This sort of very short punchy staccato form of writing and reading is very well suited for certain kinds of content that’s already been created on the Internet,” Borthwick said. “It deserves a stripped-away experience, as opposed to on the Web, surrounded by a lot of other distractions.”
That may be true, but in my experience reading a whole bunch of sample tap essays and playing around to write my own, the staccato pauses can start to get punchy and yelly.
Should the artform become popular, Borthwick said Betaworks may try to monetize Tapestry by charging authors to release their essays as standalone apps, or by embedding affiliate links to buy other works by the authors on Amazon.
“At some point,” he said, “the technology is fairly simple and flexible, so I think people could use it for greeting cards, for poetry, for political expression, for business if they want.”