Fire Balloons


At various points in his short life, the poet Percy Shelley worked as a radical pamphleteer. It was one of these pamphlets, in fact, “The Necessity of Atheism,” that led to his dismissal from Oxford, in 1811, and another, “Address to the Irish People,” that brought him to the attention of the Godwin-Wollstonecrafts and their daughter Mary (of Frankenstein fame).

By 1812, Shelley and his coterie had moved to Lynmouth, in southwestern England, where their political activities kept them in almost constant conflict with the local community. While there, low on money and lacking a publisher, Shelley developed an inventive and elegant (if entirely desperate) way to continue circulating his pamphlets:

Shelley self-printed his pamphlets, stuffed some into bottles, which he cast into the Bristol Channel, and attached others to
sky lanterns, or “fire balloons,” which he released over Devon.

In effect, Shelley found a disruptive “lifehack” two centuries before either term became popular. He dispensed with (and transcended) traditional editing and publication frameworks and used nature as his distribution network.

I recently reread the sonnet Shelley wrote about this mass release of pamphlets — “To a Balloon Laden with Knowledge” — and it struck me that the poet’s means of self-creating and self-circulating texts has a number of contemporary equivalents. Platforms (like this one), social media services (like Twitter), open-source code repositories (like GitHub), and self-publishing opportunities offered by Amazon and Scribd allow all of us to release 21st-century “fire balloons” as we see fit.

Reminiscent of a line from Shelley’s sonnet, these utterances are frequently ephemeral:

Unlike the Fire thou bearest, soon shalt thou
Fade like a meteor in surrounding gloom …

The ideas they contain may endure and be picked up by other reader-writers (the two traditionally separate roles having effectively merged into a sort of qubit). But the vehicles and forms — infographics, posts, code branches, &c. — fade away rather quickly. (Some suggest the average lifespan of a Tweet, for example, is about eighteen minutes.)

“Releases” happen every second of every day all over the world, and it’s hard to believe we once lived in a society, not yet two decades past, that so thoroughly alienated writers and other content creators from production means and distribution networks. We could rightly say that writers in 1990 and 1790 had more in common with one another than either has with writers today.

For better and for worse, like Shelley in Lynmouth, we also find most contemporary writers have jettisoned both traditional gatekeeper-editors and publishing capital. Similar things could be said of filmmakers, artists, coders, and other content creators, of course. Improved, or at least lower-barrier, alternatives abound, and we now play in a different sandbox altogether:

A gritty worldwide network of liberated voices that’s free to think and write and self-select the representative (but non-exclusive) voices of the moment.

In the old system, the limitations of production means and the expense of operating distribution networks created profound resource scarcities. As a result, editors and other curator-arbiters had to make choices about which content utterances to sponsor. This was true for code, books, films, and other forms of media. Now, however, production means and distribution networks scale quickly, relatively inexpensively, and practically infinitely. As a result, and perhaps most exciting of all, no one voice (or group of voices) necessarily cancels out another.

19th-century Romanticism, of which Shelley was a standard-bearer, popularized the subjective experience and lent enormous power to individual experience. Driven by a sort of “Romanticism 2.0,” the 20th-century used mass media to give certain individuals super-human powers of expression. In many ways, like Shelley’s peer Lord Byron before them, figures like Rudolph Valentino and Ernest Hemingway and Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury, were awareness incarnate. (Or, at least, their power stemmed from their ability to use media resources to command mass awareness at will.)

However, their presence in the warm, exclusive 20th-century awareness circle came at the expense of others. For a variety of temporal, economic, and other capital-related reasons, the circle was only able to hold so many people. Only so many albums could be profitably produced per term, only so many films made, only so many books published, &c.

Hence, the “star” was born, for all its glory, simply the byproduct of accounting mandates.

The movement from individual, exclusionary, competitive voices to collective, inclusive, cooperative networks may very well be the most disruptive feature of the 21st century. It certainly represents the most cogent and capable counter-argument to Romanticism in over two-hundred years.

Sixteen years in, as we move ever deeper into it, the lesson of the 21st-century seems to be:

There are no more stars, only constellations.

From a business standpoint, these content and creator constellations are so powerful and so ubiquitous that they’ve rendered terms like “buyer,” “customer,” and “user” obsolete. As we argue at Studio Hyperset, now, there are only audiences and the content that engages them.

Marketers are just beginning to explore ways to harness the power of this shift. However, the content creator’s responsibility in this reality is clear enough, though it likely bears restating. Freedom is no excuse for inattention, banality, or laziness. Shelley’s work was no worse because he avoided the bookshop and newspaper and, instead, released it into the air and committed it to the sea.

Those of us playing in the 21st-century sandbox still need to write fiercely, responsibly, purposively, and well, just as we’ve always done. If we’re going to do so without curators, the burden’s that much heavier upon us. Modern textual freedom and literary empowerment shouldn’t give us license to create empty trivia or vacuous negativity. We must remember that any system like the web, which was built around self-policing, absolute freedoms, always risks being abused, revoked, or, worst of all, written off.

Those who criticize the new forms, and nostalgically pine for the old ways of print and ink and oversight and control, miss the point. To do so is to privilege the wineskin over the wine. Like books and newspapers, Twitter, LinkedIn Pulse, Medium and their sibling platforms are merely vehicles for carrying real fire: ideas, value, information density, knowledge, insight, beauty.

The particulars of transport and literary logistics, as Shelley knew, are just more or less lovely distractions, material necessities, bottles bouncing on waves, sky lanterns consuming themselves above the coast.

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Quimby Melton


Quimby is the founder and president of Studio Hyperset. He started Studio Hyperset in 2006 after studying Transatlantic literature and culture, new media, and humanities computing at the Universities of Georgia (AB, 00) and Nevada, Las Vegas (MA, 03; PhD, 08). He has a background in literary studies, media production, front-end development, and project management. His current primary duties involve helping clients frame solutions that meet their needs; scoping and managing Studio Hyperset's growth strategy and business development pipeline; finding and developing talent; and, most importantly, supporting the SH team.