June 23, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Jason Mittell on Lost ARG, Part II
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Rob Kozinets on researching online fandoms
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. This week's newsletter features the concluding part of Jason Mittell's piece on the Lostalternate reality game in the opening note, as well as Robert Kozinets' look at researching online fan communities in this week's closing note. We also include our weekly update of what has appeared on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.If you have any questions or comments, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, firstname.lastname@example.org.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Lost in an Alternate Reality
By: Jason Mittell
As discussed in the first part of this article, “The Lost Experience” has run into troubles meeting player expectations about the role of marketing within a game and the challenges offered by an ARG.ButLostfans have also bristled at how the “Experience” has extended the show’s narrative world.One of the challenges of converting a complex ongoing narrative likeLostinto a game is the delicate balance needed to sustain two storytelling modes.Losthas been able to spin a richly complex and layered narrative web in its two seasons, simultaneously solving mysteries while offering new enigmas.How might “Experience” fit into this storyworld?Producers must ensure that whatever is revealed in the ARG is not needed to comprehend the TV series, as the audience of millions for the latter will certainly dwarf the number of players who will stick through “Experience” until its conclusion this fall.Additionally, “Experience” is running simultaneously across the globe, butLost’s schedule outside the US is significantly lagged—for instance, the UK is just now getting episode 7 in the already completed season 2—meaning that any plot revelations in the ARG must be sure not to spoil mysteries within the television series.Thus “Experience” must offer only supplementary inessential narrative information toLost, allowing the television series to retain centrality within the storyworld.
Beyond these practical concerns, there are significant tangles to be unraveled between the two narrative forms.Lostis clearly marked as fiction in every way, such as via acting credits and writers who host a weekly podcast.ARGs are dependent on creating an alternate reality that seems real to players—thus “The Lost Experience” presents The Hanso Foundation as an actual organization thatLostproducers incorporated into their fictional universe,a claimmade by Hanso spokesperson Hugh McIntyre onJimmy Kimmel Live!.This ABC talk show has a bit of aLost obsession, featuring numerous interviews with actors & producers, visits to the set in Hawaii, and parodies of the program—all of which maintain the notion thatLostis a fictional TV show.Yet McIntyre appeared as a “real” representative of Hanso, defending alleged misrepresentations of the organization in the fictions ofLostand the recently published novelBad Twin.
This novel is another component of both the ARG and the TV show—author Gary Troup died onLost’s ill-fated airplane crash, but his unpublished manuscript has been found and read by two characters on the show.Disney’s Hyperion Publishing published the ghost-written manuscript in May as if Troup were a real author who had perished in a tragic plane crash, promoting it (and providing “Experience” clues) via posthumous videointerviewswith Troup on legit sites like Amazon.com.To complicate matters, Troup’s fiction-within-a-fiction refers to institutions and characters from Hanso, Widmore Corporation, and Oceanic Airlines, which exist within the storyworld ofLost, but are treated as real in the “Experience.”McIntyre and Hanso have publicly denounced Troup in newspaper ads and onKimmel, asking us to believe that the real Troup died in a real crash that is being fictionalized onLost.
However any claims to reality within “Experience” start to crumble upon reflection—if we are to believe Hanso’s claims,Lostis a fictionalization of real figures and events, including the September 22, 2004 plane crash that killed Gary Troup.ButLostpremiered on ABC on that very date and thus could not be portraying a real event that had yet to happen when it was filmed, creating a disconnect between the various meta-fictional claims abounding with the “Experience.”Additionally, recent clues within the game point to images from the show’s island concerning a shark with a logo (if you don’t watch the show—don’t ask!), suggesting that within the allegedly real website of Hanso, events on this fictional television show are also pointing to real events—a claim that breaks down within spaces likeKimmel, in which television actors and ARG characters co-exist on the same plane of existence.While such a discussion of meta-levels of fictional reality might appear to be nitpicking and simply a set of complications to be overlooked for the fun of the narrative, remember that ARG players are asked to believe in an Alternate Reality which requires them to unpack surfaces for hidden meanings, running HTML source codes through anagram generators and base64 decryption—these meta-fictional details and consistencies are the very lifeblood of playing ARGs and immersing yourself in complex puzzle narratives likeLost.I’m expounding on these details not to condemn the sloppiness of the puppet masters, but rather to suggest that there may be some deeper difficulties in adapting a complex serialized fictional narrative to the particular demands of illusory realism of the ARG format.How can we buy into an alternate reality that we have already conceptualized as fictional?
This critique of “The Lost Experience” is meant not to condemn an ambitious attempt to take a cult game form into the mainstream or innovate cross-media storytelling techniques.On some fronts the game has succeeded—the bookBad Twinhas sold well, propelling a literally unknown (and unreal) author onto the bestseller list, and generally satisfied players with a mediocre (seemingly by design) detective novel that offers insights into both game and show.But every medium and storytelling format has its own norms and biases, limitations and possibilities—thus far, the conflicts between these two narrative modes seem to have hurt the game’s viability.
Can an established serial fiction make the leap into an alternate reality game?As of now, the clues make it appear doubtful—but given the tendencies of both modes of storytelling, everything we think we know might change.Perhaps the “Experience” as played out thus far has been a metaphorical exercise like the show’s button-pushing, carrying out senseless tasks motivated by faith for a big payoff that will reveal deeper meanings behind the surface.Just to be sure, I’m still playing…
Jason Mittell is an assistant professor of American Civilization and Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College in Vermont and faculty adviser with the Convergence Culture Consortium. His research areas include television history and criticism, animation and children's media, genre and narrative theory, taste cultures and media, and new media studies and technological convergence.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Henry Jenkins' "Ode to Robot Chicken". Henry Jenkins looks at the Robot Chicken phenomenon and the show's relationship with the fan community.
Henry Jenkins' take on Snakes on a Plane. Henry Jenkins looks at the incredible amount of an energy surrounding the release of Snakes on a Plane.
Thinking About Game Producers as Lifestyle Brands? C3 Manager David Edery has published a piece on Next Generation about game producers as lifestyle brands. Is it possible? If so, has anyone yet accomplished it?
Weekly Comic Book Series Launches Online Daily Newspaper. DC Comics' new weekly comic book series 52 has also launched a Web site for Metropolis' The Daily Planetwhich gives daily news updates within the fictional DC universe.
Partnerships for Transmedia, Interactive Ads Announced. Ford Motor Company will run interactive ads on the Dish Network, while DIC Entertainment partners with AOL to launch the "Saturday Morning Secret Slumber Party" on CBS.
Nielsen to Provide Ratings for National Commercials. Under pressure from advertisers, broadcast networks will begin providing numbers for nationally aired commercials in the fall.
Mama's Family Fans Lead Drive to Get Show Released on DVD. After months of rallying in the fan community and on the Web site TV Shows on DVD, Warner Home Video announces the release of the first season of the '80s sitcom.
Ham Radio Fan Communities. Sam Ford encounter with a couple of ham radio operators brings up questions about fan communities surrounding outmoded technologies.
An In-Depth Look at Teens on the Internet. A piece released from Science News Onlineexamines several new studies about how teens use the Internet and how the Internet is changing their lives.
Cover Girl Product Placement in Teen Book. Perseus' new book Cathy's Book has struck a deal with Cover Girl to include product placement throughout its book, angering non-profit anti-commercialism groups.
On-Demand Sneak Peek at TV Movie. Oxygen is providing an on-demand preview for its new television movie Banshee before it airs on Saturday night.
The Parents Television Council and Indecency Fines. Sam Ford reacts to the PTC's celebration of President Bush's signing the new fines into law.
--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------
Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.net/weblog/
--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
Exploring the Netnographic Universe: Researching Fandom and Community Online
By: Rob Kozinets
Media marketers have been increasingly drawn to the shock and awe of the Web, and especially to its more radically participative recent elements. In a recent article, I used a cosmological metaphor to relate the expansion and growth of the Internet multiverse. From an amazingly explosive beginning, over 13.7 billion years ago, out of nowhere and nothing, suddenly there was a there filled with everything. Billions of years of change and alteration passed in this expanding bubble of space and matter coalesced before human beings—the only self-aware critters of whom we can truly be certain—were born, by which time the universe hummed, buzzed, danced with an ever-awe-inspiring variety of galaxies, star systems, substances, and on one small blue planet at least, forms of life.
The Internet’s big bang event occurred a few weeks after one of our species set foot upon the moon. In the fall of 1969, four Southwestern university-based computers (at UCLA, Stanford, UC-Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah known Interface Message Processors were linked together. In fairly short order, the new network expanded to involve much of human life, moving from defense project to academic research network to a forum for a massive amount of global, commercial, and identity-project related communications. During the 1990s, the Net burst forth as a full-blown mass commercial and cultural phenomenon. The varieties of communicative experience that it spawned were vastly variegated. During the early years of the Millennium, the Internet life has taken on a self-aware character often glossed as Web 2.0, but present in the very beginnings of entertainment-oriented online culture and community (see, e.g., Jenkins 1995, Kozinets 1997). The web has finally concretized what those of us in fan and audience studies already knew: consumers want to be active co-creators of their own brand meanings, they want playspaces in which they are not only passive observers, but active creators.
It has been about ten years since that cybercultural Cambrian Explosion in which the online environment teemed with a multiplicity of forms. The major question facing marketers and marketing researchers has been how to study them? Entertainment consumption has moved online, where networked communications have become, for many, an integrated part of the overall entertainment experience involved in film and television audiencing, music and celebrity fandom, and gaming. How should we approach these online communications and new social forms? How should we begin to make sense of what goes on in these spaces?
Over the last decade, I have been thinking and writing about the ways we can study this dynamic online universe which has grown, annexed, and which continues to radically shift. I am trained as an anthropologist and ten years ago coined the term “netnography” to refer to the focused, market-oriented use of ethnography online, the participant-observational study of the cultures and communities that form through computer-mediated communication, adapting the tools and techniques of cultural anthropologists to the needs of marketing and consumer research (for details see Kozinets 2002).
In Kozinets (1999), I considered five main ways that we can classify where/how online cultural exchange occurs: chat “rooms,” bulletin “boards,” playspace “dungeons,” mailing “lists,” and “rings” of interlinked web-pages. Over the years, I have offered characterizations of these online spaces that I believed were true at the time. For instance, I averred that the membership of boards contains a respectable concentration of insiders and devotees, and few minglers, and much of my netnographic writing thus far has deployed boards such as alt.coffee or rec.arts.startrek.current as forums for the investigation of consumption and entertainment marketing-related issues and themes.
However, much has changed and is now changing. In the past decade, some of these basic forms—perhaps we might now think of them as the primeval elements, the fire, air, earth, water, and spirit of Internet community—have evolved in interesting ways. Fascinating variations and hybridizations have been spawned and new forms have also emerged. In Kozinets (2005), from which much of this is drawn, I explore some of these new communal forms.
More recently, I have considered that some of the cultural center of the Internet has shifted to the web-page form called a blog. A 2005 Fortune article stated that “Blogs are challenging the media and changing how people in advertising, marketing, and public relations do their jobs” (Kirkpatrick and Roth 2005, p. 46). A blog search engine reported that, as of June 2006, there were 24 million blogs—over 11 million of them considered “active” (http://www.pubsub.com/). There were three times as many blogs as there were the last time I wrote about them, in March of 2005.
The power of blogs to foment consumer critique and activism is infamously glossed by the Rathergate and Kryptonitegate episodes that helped to bring down Dan Rather after he President George Bush’s dereliction of National Guard duty based on falsified documents and to reveal an obvious security defect in a premium bicycle security product. In a recent examination of a brand-related blog (Kozinets forthcoming), I demonstrate how consumer blogs link up brand with history, location, social distinction, craftsmanship, personal involvement, emotion, childhood memories, authenticity, and religious devotion. The specifics of these netnographic understandings are useful in articulating a range of positioning and branding strategies with wider appeal.
I am also deeply intrigued by the advancement of virtual spaces such as Everquest, Sim Online, Galaxies, City of Heroes, There and Second Life. Years ago, my colleague and friend John Sherry coined the term “the researcher-as-instrument” to refer to the importance of the human ethnographer’s calibration of insight (Sherry 1990). The acuity of the researcher-as-instrument becomes shifted in these virtual spaces into that of the avatar-as-instrument. In these online communal spaces, the avatar incarnation becomes like a set of clothes, a uniform, a diving suit for cool cyberian waters. How and how well that avatar is used is a key consideration yet to be developed in netnographies of these new social forms.
Another key development is the combination of mobile cellular technology with networked computing. Games have already gone mobile, and they are morphing with SMS text messaging to provide simulations of everything from Bingo to Texas Hold’em to Grand Theft Auto. Players can sit and chat with friends and strangers while at the airport, in the mall, or at work. How does netnography seek to study and understand this as a situated element of the current and future everyday human experience?
Context is altering content is changing context; these new media are making novel messages. Flash mobs, net-conferences, micro-activism and other millennial phenomenon are the initial offspring of the enormous organizational empowerment resulting from the intermingling of virtual networks and physical world. A new industry of podcasting and vlogging seems posed to morph both radio and television broadcasting into new forms of self-created reality show. What are its impacts on marketing, on service delivery, on advertising, on communication, social responsibility, and culture?
On the other hand, the ubiquity of online advertising and promotions have created a profoundly polluted online environment. How do consumers swim through these murky waters? On the other hand, this can all be viewed as part of the human cultural experience, where people sing, memorize, rewind, and recite ads, but claim disingenuously on surveys and in interviews that they despise and ignore them. Surveys and clickstreams will not tell us anything about the lived experience of searching, surfing, and communing. For that we need new, trained, insightful researchers. We need thinkers and analysts used to handling this complex, incredibly rich, dynamic ocean of data. We need to develop, refine, hone, and test our tools for the challenges and vagaries of these new and changing environments, and fill our toolboxes full of useful new tools. The ever-changing expanding netnographic universe demands it.
Jenkins, Henry (1995), “’Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’: alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author and Viewer Mastery,” in David Lavery (ed.) Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 51-69.
Kirkpatrick, David and Daniel Roth (2005): Why There’s No Escaping the Blog in: Fortune, January 10, pp. 44-50.
Kozinets, Robert V. (1999): E-Tribalized Marketing? The Strategic Implications of Virtual Communities of Consumption in: European Management Journal, 17 (3), 252-264.
Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “The Field Behind the Screen: Using Netnography for Marketing Research in Online Communities,” Journal of Marketing Research, 39 (February), 61-72.
Kozinets, Robert V. (2005), “Communal Big Bangs and the Ever-Expanding Netnographic Universe,” Thexis, 3, 38-41.
Kozinets, Robert V. (forthcoming), “Netnography 2.0,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods in Marketing, ed. Russell W. Belk, Edward Elgar Publishing.
Sherry, John. (1991), “Postmodern Alternatives: The interpretive turn in consumer research,” In Handbook of Consumer Behavior, edited by T. S. Robertson and H. Kassarjian, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 548-591.
Robert V. Kozinets is a Faculty Advisor for the Convergence Culture Consortium and Associate Professor of Marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. His research areas include branding, virtual communities, technology consumption, communal markets, themed retail, entertainment marketing, new product development, and postmodern consumer behavior.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (email@example.com)
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