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The much-talked-about Project Ape Shirt has officially been born and christened Ficlets! Launched late last Wednesday afternoon (mere hours before getting on a plane to SXSW), Ficlets is a social website/app revolving around writing micro-fiction – short (really short) stories between 64 and 1024 characters (not words). On the site, you can write a ficlet, comment on other authors’ ficlets, write prequels and sequels, and find various sources of inspiration. That’s the basics – easy peasy.

Ficlets was developed internally at AOL over the course of four months and is largely the brain-child of Kevin Lawver. Other guilty parties include Cindy Li, Jenna Marino, Ari Kushimoto, and of course, myself. We had help along the way from other designers, Ops team members, etc., but the core of the project was the five of us.

We ran Ficlets like a startup. There were no requirements documents, no technical documents, no long-winded meetings about this or that. I can count on one hand the number of meetings we had. The rest was getting down to business, building working demos, and hammering out things we didn’t like or didn’t work. We Got Real, iterated through UI and design, dropped features, built less. The goal was to get a product out to the public, see how they use it, and adapt as necessary.

Our process really flies in the face of a lot of the “established practices” at a large corporation. Our launch-day press release was a message on Twitter to about 100 of our friends. We had a couple hundred dollars for printing up some shirts, stickers, and buttons. Our promotional blitz was hanging out with folks at SXSW and chatting up what we’d done. Small. Simple. Easy.

I’ll talk more about SXSW in another post (once my brain gets back to functional state), but for now, a few more “technical” facts about Ficlets:

  • It’s built using Ruby on Rails. Ficlets is AOL’s first Ruby on Rails app to be launched publicly. At the onset, neither Kevin nor I knew RoR – we built the entire site while learning the language and framework. I’d say that speaks to the exceptional job the creators of the framework did. We had a little help along the way from Chad Fowler and some other RoR folks, so my hat goes off to you guys and girls.
  • We’re using Flickr photos for the Inspiration section. Everyone on Team Ficlets is a huge Flickr geek and we even got people from Yahoo! excited about the project.
  • All Ficlets are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. This is the mechanism by which people can extend and mash-up stories into other works. I was unaware of this until recently, but this is also the first AOL project to use Creative Commons.
  • We’re using microformats all over the site. I love microformats and it’s been a ton of fun (geeky fun) using them on this project. Authors bios are marked up as hCard, stories (and lists of stories) are mostly marked up as hAtom, and comments are marked up as hReviews. I think there’s still some cleaning up I can do in some cases, but on the whole, we’ve got microformats out the wazoo.

This post is starting to become a bit long, so I’ll end it there for now. There’s a lot more to tell about Ficlets, but I’ll save it for another post. In the time being, why not check out the Ficlets blog or keep up with what I’m doing on the site at: