By Kyle Palmer
When Jacob Lewis was growing up, he liked to write “really terrible Stephen King-like fiction stories.” Looking back on those early works, the former managing editor of The New Yorker said he’s glad they never saw the light of day. But for thousands of teenage writers across the country, Lewis has helped do the exact opposite.
The Web site Figment—founded by Lewis and New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear in 2010—gives young writers a forum to freely publish their work. The site now boasts more than 220,000 registered users and has stocked a library of more than 350,000 individual pieces, ranging from reflective poetry to multi-chapter novellas.
“We really thought at first that it would be more of a social network site,” Lewis said. “But it has been all about project creation. The amount of new content our users produce is amazing.”
Lewis said Figment users post more than 1,000 new original pieces every week, many of them only a few hundred words representing a large range of genres, from heart-tugging romance to dystopian fantasy.
“It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like they have,” Lewis said. “We knew there was a need for this, but we’ve been surprised at the passion and the ownership our users have shown.”
Similar to Facebook, Figment users—most of whom are between 13 and 24 years old—create a profile and upload their work, giving it a title and picking from a large selection of stock images to use as cover art. Other users can read the pieces online and leave comments and provide feedback.
Not all pieces are read widely, but some works, like Diamonds in the Rough by a user from Wisconsin who goes by the screen name Fish Fingers, have received 130 comments and more than 200 “Hearts” (Figments’ version of Facebook’s Like button).
“Wow! This [story] is beautifully sad!” one user commented about Fish Finger’s work.
“Your similes are impeccably accurate,” wrote another.
“The one negative thing I’d say is that I think it would’ve been better if you had let people figure out the moral for themselves then say what it is at the end of the story,” posted another user.
Dana Goodyear, who has written for The New Yorker and teaches literary nonfiction at USC, said this kind of genuine feedback is common on Figment.
“What’s most exciting is the intensity of the usage,” she said. “These writers are getting a really deep experience receiving this feedback. Having an audience is so crucial to support young writers.”
Goodyear said Figment is beginning to explore more uses for educators, too. The site already has a “Groups” function, which can allow teachers to set up online workshops for their classes.
Meenoo Rami, a National Board certified English teacher in Philadelphia who hosts the teacher blog #engchat, said Figment is the “perfect platform” for her students.
“It’s important for students to know that their work is viewed by more than just their teacher. For my students, the idea that a larger audience is being exposed to their work is important to them,” Rami said. “This gives them an authentic reason to write.”
Goodyear said she and the other Figment staffers hope to continue evolving the site. She said they want to work on adding “in-text editing” features so that users can change their work in real time online.
She also said Figment will continue to bring in professional writers and published authors for online Q&A sessions, live chats, and blog posts, to connect them to Figment’s aspiring teenage writers.
One Figment user, Blake Nelson, has already received an offer for a book deal for the poetry he posted to the site. Figment also hosts regular contests in different genres in order to feature fresh young talent.
Yet, Lewis said Figment should remain at its heart a place for teens to express themselves.
“Our mission is to not take amateur writers and make them pros,” he said. “We don’t want to set up a hierarchy. We just want these young writers to see how empowering it is to be able to share your ideas.”