Before writing was invented, stories were transmitted orally. This means that myths and fairy tales evolved organically as they were passed from one storyteller to the next. Since there was no canonical version, storytellers were free to modify their tales to suit the occasion, the audience, or their personal taste. For this reason, the stories were very much alive, able to grow and change along with the culture. This allowed them to retain their relevance over long periods of time.
The written tradition has changed this, of course. A story, once set in writing, becomes official and canonical. In the case of religious texts like the Torah or Bible, this is because the text is taken to be the word of God, which needs to be preserved faithfully. In the case of modern fiction, it’s because the story is taken to be intellectual property, whose plot and characters belong to the single author (or small group of authors, or corporation) which created it. This contrasts with myths and fairy tales; since their origins are often unknown, we tend to think of them as written by and belonging to the entire community, to be retold and modified for personal use as people please.
It’s hard to think of modern strategies for writing, and attitudes toward creation, which resemble the oral tradition. One possibility I can think of is fanfiction, where although there’s a single canonical story, fans are able to modify it and use its characters and world in stories of their own creation. But in fanfiction, the original story always dominates; the modified versions rarely leave the enclave of the fandom or gain anything close to the same status as the original. Perhaps closer to the oral ideal of collaborative storytelling is Scott Alexander’s conworlding community, which has in fact generated a bunch of mythology. But if I’m understanding that community correctly, the members all write pieces of the story and sew them together like a patchwork quilt; thus it differs from the oral tradition, where a single story is told in many different ways by many different storytellers.
Of course, we still have all the original myths and fairy tales that have flowed down to us from antiquity, and we are free to revise and retell these as we please. The proliferation of modern adaptations ensures that these stories stay alive and relevant to the 21st century. But I would really like to see some new myths and fairy tales emerge organically through time as well, for instance myths that reflect our scientific worldview.
Fortunately, in modern times we have developed a method of collaboratively creating content, and that is the open source movement. An open source project seems like the perfect way to implement something resembling the oral tradition. It would allow people from all over the world, who may not even know each other personally, to develop a story together. And if I understand open source culture correctly (having never actually contributed to an open source project), the resulting program does not have an individual owner or creator, but is thought to belong to and have been created by the entire community. Also, version control systems like git allow variation instead of one single canonical version; different versions of the story can develop in separate branches.
So, does anyone else think this is a good idea? Would anyone reading this be interested in contributing to such a project? Note that there’s room for people with all sorts of talents, everything from developing the characters and plot to improving the wording of a near-final draft. One of the nice things about this approach is that you don’t have to be good at every aspect of storytelling in order to contribute.
So if you might want to join such a project, or even if you don’t want to join but still think it’s a cool idea, please leave a comment below! If enough people are interested, then we can commence with the storytelling.