Why you should care
Because this might be the way to get a distracted generation to read more.
A strange wailing noise is coming from Tiffany’s basement. It sounds like a baby crying. “Do you hear that?” she texts her mom. “I’m not home,” her mom replies. “Wait till I get back.” The crying gets louder. “It’s coming from the basement,” she messages. “Don’t go down there, Tiff,” her mom types back. “I’m warning you.”
In less than 30 words, the above exchange has fired up 24-year-old Jessica Moore’s imagination. What could be in the basement? Why is Tiffany’s mom being so secretive? What’s going on? She quickly taps her phone screen to find out.
This story, titled Where Is She?!, is one of 1,200 or so told-by-text-message narratives on storytelling app Hooked. Moore downloaded it a few months ago and has been addicted ever since. “There’s something so immediate about reading like this,” she says. “It feels like the in-story action is happening to me as well.”
These bite-size stories take the form of conversations between people … in a way that feels natural, and a little naughty.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing over how today’s youth prefer Netflix to a good book, but the breakaway success of Hooked and similar apps offers a new narrative. Just as Amazon’s Kindle changed the shape of books, now story chat apps are changing the way teens and millennials get their stories. Like Snapchat and Instagram (let me snap that on my insta), this new way of consuming has its own catchy moniker: chat fiction.
These bite-size stories take the form of conversations between people — friends, dates, parents, etc. — in a way that feels natural and a little naughty — like you’re snooping on someone else’s private chats. The writing is taut and compelling, and there’s an urgency to the narrative, with so little space you need to get to the point quickly — perfect for the ADD generation. For Hooked, stories are created by their in-house writing team — which includes a former New York Times editor — who specialize in by-the-seat-of-your-pants narratives, with readers frantically tapping the screen to find out what happens.
This storytelling format is “an organic representation of how people communicate each day,” explains Kevin Ferguson, Hooked’s chief business officer. This tap-to-reveal format lends itself especially well to certain genres; advancing the narrative forward by taps provides an element of suspense that works really well with horror and romance. No surprise then that those are the most popular stories on the app. “Right now we’re in the era of the reboot,” he says. “But there’s so much opportunity to tell new stories, and technology can really enhance that.” By going mobile, Hooked connects to readers in their favored environment and challenges them to reevaluate the nature of a story.
Launched in 2014, Hooked has reached more than 100 million readers through their app and Snapchat channel and has 40 million active monthly users, the majority of them ages 13–25. To be sure, people who read chat fiction are generally not reading Game of Thrones–length tales. The average story length on Hooked is around 1,300 words — intentionally short, to be quickly consumed on the go. But they also offer many serialized stories — essentially “chapters” — so you can get a meatier read. There’s an audience for that as well; in late 2018 Hooked released Dark Matter on Snapchat, a 32,000-word paranormal thriller series. It was so successful that they’ll repeat the format this year.
Most of the chat fiction apps work on a subscription model — freemium, to a level, but you have to wait 15 minutes to read more, or subscribe for around $4.99 a week ($39.99 a year). Subscribing also comes with perks; you can opt in to story narration or sound effects and access visual imagery such as selfies, which gives readers added insight into the action. But do people pay? Ferguson declined to answer, but Moore says no, not in general. She did pay for one week early on, but now she’s content to wait out the advertising to advance the story.
Hooked, which has raised $6 million so far and boasts investors like media titans Snoop Dogg, Mariah Carey and Jamie Foxx, is not the only chat fiction clamoring for eyeballs. There’s Yarn, with stories that include tales from the Marvel Universe and the CW hit Riverdale; Tap, where you can read and upload your own stories; Cliffhanger, which takes a choose-your-own-adventure approach; and Amazon (which launched its own chat fiction contender, Amazon Rapids, in 2016). But Hooked remains the most popular.
It’s not impossible to imagine Hooked being used to teach kids in the future — imagine Shakespeare reimagined in text form! Of course, reading bite-size fiction isn’t the same as reading an actual book, but it’s an access point. Moore says she hasn’t read this much in years. “It doesn’t feel like work when I read this way,” she says. “I never have time to read books, but these snack-size stories are perfect for my lifestyle.”