Speaking from Frankfurt, where he had just launched the start-up Small Demons at a conference called Tools of Change, Valla Vakili was trying to remember the exact wording of a quotation by Jorge Luis Borges. It was from the short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," first published just over sixty years ago: "The history of the universe, which contains the history of our lives and the most tenuous details of them, is the handwriting produced by a minor god in order to communicate with a demon."
"I read that as meaning, 'The history of the universe is all of the stories that have been told," Vakili says. Minor gods construct the words, and the demon is "the thing that drives you to create, and also the thing that connects the writer to the reader." With that in mind, he settled on "Small Demons" as a suitable name for his company, which he hopes will serve as a "discovery platform" for readers to connect with the people, places, and things that are written into stories.
The beta launch of the site has a database of a couple hundred books. With about $2.25 million in funding and eleven full-time employees, the company scours each novel--Vakili says they'll focus on fiction and narrative non-fiction--for proper names and other significant items (whiskey, for example, holds an important place in the whodunit canon). Each object fits into a network of literary references, available for free on the Small Demons site (and possibly for a fee in future apps). At the top of the homepage, you can access major categories: Books, People, Places, Things--the last being perhaps the niftiest if you're the breed of nerd interested in which items get the most literary attention (within this finite database of books, at least). The top three are: Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz, and The New York Times. Vaikili says they are still figuring out which allusions to keep track of, but that user contributions will continue to grow the site's catalogue.
Vakili is far from the first web entrepreneur to find inspiration in Borges, who saw reality with the kind of expansive vision that appeals to those who lay internet pipe. The writer's influence came "almost by necessity," says Vakili, since Borges's work provided the "first example of a hypertext, where everything links to each other." Small Demons doesn't actually embed links within a story, but offers reference material for whenever curiosity impels a reader to stray beyond the book itself. "The closest model for us would be the way people use IMDB or Wikipedia," Vakili explains. Small Demons may be, like Borges's "Library of Babel," a universe in the form of an endless library--a welcome message for the site announces, "Welcome to the StoryVerse." It has the potential to build shelf after digital shelf to catalogue allusions, and then, to organize those catalogues into countless patterns. This type of engagement with text--as a reader hunts for points of intersection with other novels and in the real world--feeds an approach to literature that longs to fill-in an ever-more complicated network of meaning.
In 1992, the novelist and critic Robert Coover wrote about hypertext in the New York Times Book Review. His piece was called "The End of Books." In it, he mentions StorySpace, a project created in 1981 as a tool for writing and reading interactive fiction. The platform is still around as a means to re-cast the author as a digital architect, who designs a framework of storylines through which a reader is free to move, via hyperlinks. The whole idea has been traced back to Borges, though he isn't the only one who should get credit (let's throw in Ted Nelson, Foucault, and Barthes, too). Coover had a lot of questions about all this: "How does one resolve the conflict between the reader's desire for coherence and closure and the text's desire for continuance, its fear of death? Indeed, what is closure in such an environment?"
With Small Demons, the books themselves don't have hyperlinks, the site does. Readers can login for "paths to new discovery that have always been in front of them because they've always been in the book, but they've never been all in one place," Vakili says. "All of those references deserve their own place, in their own world."
In that world outside the book, all of those references are taken out of context and placed into a new one. While Vakili emphasizes context as the driving force of his site--as he said in an interview, "This sort of contextual discovery is much more powerful because, by nature, it's not siloed. It can open you up to things in different mediums; it's an extension of the story you're already in." Small Demons allows readers to pare down books to their component parts. And, of course, it's all stuff you can buy.
Small Demons has set up partnerships with publishers and affiliations with major retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Netflix, and iTunes. Items on the site will have "buy buttons" that will link out for purchase. "The return on affiliate revenue is not huge," says Vakili, and "we're not in the business of being a retailer." Down the line, he sees Small Demons as a natural candidate for sponsorship of book campaigns and book-to-movie projects--"not distractive advertising," he says--which might find their way back into the site's database of media references.
And although Vakili says "a lot of people have the expectation to share," the social networking features of the site aren't central to it, but rather "a profile of how people really like things." Contributors will be encouraged by a yet-to-be-determined recognition system to fill in information, add to book pages visually, and check facts. Right now, the database is fairly sparse, and largely stocked with content pulled from Wikipedia, Vakili says. To compare the Small Demons and Wikipedia pages for the footnote-rich book The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is to see hypertextual annotations at their infancy and maturity. And with Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz offers his own titillating elaborations on his references--of everything from a Dominican dictator to comic book heroes--within the book itself. The value of Small Demons will lie less in its stock of reference materials than in its usefulness in connecting them.
That's how Vakili sees it, anyway. At the end of the day you have to stand for something, he explained, and Small Demons wants to be, first and foremost, a catalogue of connections.