Using a new app that started through a Creative Writing Program competition, John Lawrence ’14 M.S.’15 aims to make reading more attractive to millennials by socializing the reading experience and capitalizing on the popularity of serialized narratives.
In the competition, called the Art of Modern Storytelling (AoMS), readers voted on their favorite serialized stories, released biweekly by competing writers. Since graduating, Lawrence has transformed this competition into a startup and app, Scroll, which is currently in the midst of testing.
The competition: AoMS
Lawrence started the competition hoping to revitalize the experience of reading for the current generation.
“I’m a materials science engineer but have always been interested in the creative arts, particularly reading and writing,” Lawrence said. “It was kind of a secondary focus for me. I came up with this idea that it would be amazing if we could socialize reading and bring reading back to the forefront of people’s lives.”
In order to test this theory, Lawrence partnered with Hannah Farr ’15 and the Creative Writing Program to implement AoMS at Stanford during the 2015 winter quarter. Students applied to be one of 40 readers or 10 writers, each of whom wrote 10 serialized stories in five increments over 10 weeks. Every two weeks, the readers dropped their least favorite two stories. At the end of 10 weeks, the writer who accumulated the most followers won a cash prize.
Farr indicated that readers and writers were chosen methodically to include not only English majors, but also those who pursued creative writing and reading as hobbies.
“We intentionally wanted a diverse group of writers,” Farr said. “It was interesting to see how different people wrote: creative writing students focused on how the story was written and the exact methods while others’ stories were more plot driven.”
From competition to startup
After the competition, Lawrence interviewed and gathered feedback from the readers and writers. The positive reception to AoMS convinced Lawrence that his idea was worth pursuing further.
“The reception to AoMS was great and people were saying that this is something that they would like to see on a daily basis, and that we should make into an app,” Lawrence said. “So we decided to do just that.”
Lawrence bought his friend Adeeb Sahar ’14 on board to to focus on developing the app and the startup.
“Millennials read things online, like things people share on Facebook,” added Sahar. “It makes sense: novels are passive and isolated experiences whereas people of our generation like sharing experiences. So, we thought, why don’t we update reading? We want to reinvent reading, or the novel, in a way that makes it more appealing for millennials: in short bursts and with a social aspect, but keeping the fire of interesting story which is what drew us to books to begin with.”
Farr echoed Sahar’s sentiment, stating that AoMS and its subsequent startup can appeal to millennials in the way that TV shows or serialized podcasts do.
“There is definitely a void to fill,” Farr said. “ I love short stories, but there is no platform to find short stories as quickly as we can find TV shows.”
Currently, Lawrence and Sahar are working on fundraising, implementing more features in the app and recruiting writers.
“We are finalizing our product,” Sahar said. “The idea at the highest level is that the app will be a place for people to post serialized stories,” said Sahar. “We are expanding it to five schools: Stanford, Berkeley, University of Santa Clara, USC and UCLA, and we are finding writers from each of those schools right now.”
Lawrence hopes to expand the app to student writers from all universities and make it accessible to whoever wants to read.
Hurdles along the way
Lawrence and Farr initially faced challenges obtaining funding. Nina Schloesser, whom they had originally chosen as their faculty mentor, was a lecturer and not a full faculty member, so she could not act as a mentor to get funding from Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR). Lawrence only discovered this caveat two days before funding was released.
“The confusion about funding ultimately led me to [speak] with Eavan Boland, the head of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford,” said Lawrence. “We embarked on a contentious discussion for 30 minutes about all things reading and writing. She was putting the idea to the test and seeing if this was something we were really passionate about.”
Ultimately, Boland expressed appreciation for the idea, and especially the innovation and passion behind it. Rather than going through UAR, the Creative Writing Program gave Lawrence $2,000 directly to fund the competition.
After getting through the hurdle of funding, Schloesser acted as an advisor for Lawrence and Farr throughout the competition process. She said the innovation of the idea and its relevance to the current generation appealed to her.
“[Lawrence] and Hannah were trying to get a young, tech-savvy and very busy population interested in reading more fiction,” said Schloesser. “Their idea was that fiction could be very tempting if delivered conveniently and in units that could be digested fairly quickly, then a person can get hooked on a tale the way a person gets hooked on a TV show.”
Currently, Lawrence and Sahar are facing difficulties in finding coders with the correct experience and mindset to help with app development.
“The intersection between technology and writing is a small niche area,” said Lawrence. “A lot of coders might be attracted to technically-inclined ideas away from writing and reading. It is a challenge find people at that intersection.”
Contact Pallavi Krishnarao at pallavik ‘at’ stanford.edu.