Telling Tales

Jennifer Maerz | February 27, 2017 | Story Tech World

Things look dire for Chloe. Something is watching her from the forest outside her window. Her dad texts her from the train, warning her not to take her eyes off this horrific creature or she’ll risk certain death. Their texts are our only clues to Chloe’s chances for survival—clues that hundreds of thousands of teenagers followed by hitting the “Next” button in their Hooked app to discover how the fictional micro-drama “The Watcher” unfolds.

“The Watcher” is one of 150,000 short and serialized stories on Hooked, Silicon Valley’s entrant into the fast-growing phenomenon of mobile fiction platforms for teens. It’s a category that includes Japanese smartphone stories, Canadian storytelling tool Wattpad and, more recently, Amazon’s Rapids service. Hooked stands out in that it was the first to formulate stories as text messages—a smart play. Nearly three-quarters of American adolescents have access to smartphones, according to Pew Research Center, and the average teen typically sends and receives 30 texts daily. Hooked engages its young demographic with thrillers, sci-fi, romances and memoirs couched inside a natural communication tool. Users can read one story a day for free. Should they hunger for more quick lit, the tiered pricing goes from $2.99 per week to $7.99 per month to $39.99 per year.

Serial entrepreneurs Prerna Gupta and Parag Chordia—a husband and wife who reside in Brisbane—launched Hooked in September 2015 with the tagline “fiction for the Snapchat generation.” Recently, the company achieved a major milestone: 1 million American teens have now devoured 1 billion text messages through the app, largely coming to Hooked through word of mouth. Gupta says it’s her mission to make reading and writing as easy for teenagers as texting their friends. “My hope is that it’ll lower barriers to writing for young people,” she says, “and inspire them to share more of their experiences with others.”

The average six-minute tale garners 100,000 reads, according to Gupta. “The Watcher,” Hooked’s most popular short, has earned over 550,000 reads in part one of the serial alone. In April of 2016, Hooked allowed its users—mostly 13- to 24-year-olds, and 70 percent female—to publish their own stories on the platform. Within a week, its fiction pool exploded from 700 shorts crafted by MFA grads to 10,000 user-generated tales.

Hooked’s commissioned narratives rely on data-driven storytelling. The app collects information on the types of stories and specific cliffhangers that generate the most reads so the company can iterate assigned storylines for maximum impact. It may seem heretical to shrink creative writing into sound bites riddled with calculated cliffhangers, but Gupta says the mythology of the solitary artist is a false one in our feedback-rich climate. “I don’t think you can divorce art from the audience,” she says. “It’s an interplay.”

That interplay is also of interest to Hollywood. Hooked’s investors include executives from Warner Bros. and the WME talent agency. “They believe our thesis that this data-driven approach to storytelling is a better way of doing things,” says Gupta, “and the next Hunger Games or Harry Potter will be discovered on a platform like Hooked."

Originally published in the January issue of Silicon Valley

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