July 21, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: David Edery on Nontraditional PR
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: An Excerpt on Transmedia Storytelling from Henry Jenkins' forthcoming Convergence Culture
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. This week's newsletter features David Edery's discussion of nontraditional PR and ways to work with online social networking tools and the world of bloggers in the opening note. In the closing note, Henry Jenkins provides an excerpt from his book, Convergence Culture, which will be released at the end of the month. This preview from the book focuses on transmedia storytelling. We also include our weekly update of what has appeared on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. Also, it came to my attention that some people had problems with viewing the correct formatting of the newsletter last week. With my MacBook Pro sent off for repairs (a very painful experience), I was using a different computer to edit the newsletter which may have caused some of these problems. I don't know how widespread the formatting problems were but apologize for them and hope that this week's newsletter will see the problem corrected. If anyone needs a new copy of last week's newsletter sent to them or either the opening or closing note, or if you have any other questions or comments, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
By: David Edery
To my knowledge, most large media companies are still struggling with how to handle PR in the current online landscape. Some of the questions I'm most commonly asked include:
- Should we recognize bloggers? If so, which ones, and how?
- Should we participate in online forums or not? If so, which ones, and how?
- Should we try to influence democratic online news systems like digg.com? If so, how?
There are no short (nor scientifically proven) answers to these questions. But blogs, forums, and democratic news systems have become incredibly important mediums of communication, and major brands simply cannot afford to ignore them any longer.
If you have any doubt as to the importance of blogs, I want to dispel it. According to Technorati (which tracks 49 million blogs):
The Pew Internet study estimates that about 11%, or about 50 million, of Internet users are regular blog readers. According to Technorati data, there are about 75,000 new blogs a day. Bloggers update their weblogs regularly; there are about 1.2 million posts daily, or about 50,000 blog updates an hour.
Some blogs, like that of our own Henry Jenkins, may attract a few thousand influential readers a day. Others, like Joystiq.com (for those of you who follow the game industry) are for-profit enterprises that attract millions of visitors a month. Both types of blog are important in their own ways. And research has shown that people greatly value the "honest" opinion of their favorite bloggers, even if they recognize that that opinion may be biased.
So how do you engage bloggers? First, you need to identify the blogs that are relevant to you. This research process needn't take long: just use Technorati to identify the top ten or twenty blogs in your area of interest. Then, visit those blogs; many of them will have a list of links ("blog roll") to other blogs which may attract less traffic but which are nevertheless quite influential.
Second, don't do anything. I'm only half-kidding. Every blog (and/or blogger) has its own character, theme, and attitude towards others. You are taking a huge risk if you attempt to influence a blog before you have come to understand these things by reading along for at least a few weeks, and before reading some posts from the blog's archive. And you can't just read the posts; the comments on them are equally important (They help you understand the blog's community of readers.).
You might find that a blog, despite being extremely popular, is unlikely to appreciate contact from you because (for example) it has a strong anti-corporate streak, or because its author(s) have a tendency to mock anything that crosses their path. If so, look for greener pastures (But don't necessarily ignore the blog, and don't necessarily reject all requests that may come from it.).
Once you feel like you really understand a promising blog, you can occasionally reach out to the author(s) with a bit of news that they would find particularly interesting. (What might they find interesting? You'll know because you've been reading along.) "Reaching out" works best when it comes with a personal touch ... i.e. rather than email them a typical press release, why not send an individual email, without too much text, simply saying something like
I thought you'd be interested to know that my company is doing XYZ. [Another sentence of two or information about it.] If you're curious, you can find more information at http://www.someaddress.com.
You may also want to add something like "I can also arrange for you to chat with [some important person] if you'd like to hear more", depending on the initiative and its importance to you.
In general, I've found that many bloggers tend to love a good interview with an "important person". For especially significant initiatives, it probably wouldn't hurt to identify key bloggers who are receptive to corporate contact, and offer one of them the opportunity to interview said internal "important person" on the subject of the initiative (and anything else they care to ask about.) As with everything else I've recommended, it would not be wise to over-utilize this particular method of interacting with the blogging community.
If your efforts are successful, you'll find that one or two well-placed blog posts will organically mushroom into many more across the blogosphere. Bloggers feed off each other; you don't need to reach them all, just as long as you reach one or two key points of influence.
Much of my advice for blogs applies to forums, the most well-developed of which have communities with a distinct character that you need to become familiar with before you dive in.
Once you understand a forum, you can occasionally participate in discussions that are taking place within it. (Say, for example, that people are discussing a problem with your product. Or sharing ideas for future features they'd love to see.) If you do jump in, you must identify yourself as a representative of your company. Failure to disclose this could infuriate the community should they discover your identity.
However, identifying yourself has its own risks. In many (but not all) cases, a large forum community will have its share of more emotional, more vocal members. These members may pounce on you if they are unhappy with your company in any way, shape or form. If that happens, the proper response is polite acknowledgement of their concerns, and (ideally) a candid response to those concerns. It is entirely possible that this will not appease some people, and that's OK. Many other people will recognize and appreciate your effort to engage the community. Most companies just don't bother.
Engaging a forum is non-trivial. Unlike a blog (which simply requires a few minutes of your day to read and has few authors), a popular forum can potentially require hours to digest (given the volume of posts), and once people know you're there, they can and will post messages to your attention. You're by no means required to respond, but you can't ignore everyone forever. Suffice to say, don't enter a forum discussion unless you're ready to remain a part of it for a few days, at least.
Democratic News Systems
Democratic news systems like digg.com enable users to submit a news story for consideration by the community as a whole. If community members like the story, it will rise up from obscurity to ever-greater levels of visibility. The most popular democratic news systems can drive tens of thousands of unique visits to a given site -- and that doesn't include secondary traffic generated by other sites (i.e. blogs) that jump on the bandwagon.
Unfortunately, there is no acceptable way to "influence" these systems, outside of submitting your own news for consideration, and perhaps making it easy for visitors of your site to signal their interest in the story (on my blog, Game Tycoon, every story includes a link called "digg this" that takes the reader to the digg.com website, with my post info pre-filled in.)
Any attempt to manipulate democratic news systems (by, for example, coordinating the activity of many employees and/or friends to vote on the story) can potentially be detected by the community. When this happens, the resulting outrage is very, very ugly.
I'm not saying manipulation is impossible. I am almost certain that some people are currently manipulating digg.com to great effect (it can probably be done with a dedicated group of people, all working from different locations, who behave like natural members of the community but simply act in tandem once in a rare while to benefit a particular story.) But communities are constantly searching for novel ways to ferret out manipulators, sometimes with surprising creativity. You do not want to be company that first discovers a way of cheating the system no longer works!
David Edery is Associate Director for External Relations and Special Projects for the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, in addition to his role as a manager for the Convergence Culture Consortium. Edery is also a principle investigator of Cyclescore, which fuses video games with exercise equipment. He also authors a blog on the video game industry called Game Tycoon.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
IN2TV En Espanol Begins Wednesday. The Spanish-language online television station features 1980s American television programming dubbed in Spanish. The initiative combines the burgeoning rise in demand for Spanish-language content, as well as the growing market for online videos.
Jason Mittell on The Lost Experience. Following up on a topic that he wrote about here in the C3 Weekly Update a few weeks ago, C3 Faculty Adviser Jason Mittell further examines the Lost alternate reality game.
Stefan Werning on Indy Filmmaking and Live Arcade. Stefan Werning, a German scholar affiliated with the Convergence Culture Consortium, looks at how the model for the X360 live arcade service might serve indy filmmakers whose films are primarily distributed for free online with a service that would provide them with royalties.
NBC Offers Previews Through Netflix. NBC will be offering the pilot episodes of two of its most promising new shows online, in addition to trailers for several others, on a disc made available to Netflix subscribers.
Wal-Mart's HUB School Your Way Sparks Internet Debate. The new Wal-Mart brand community social networking site is sparking a debate about the feasibility for company-controlled brand community sites for teenagers and whether the site is an authentic place for teenagers' communication or nothing beyond a marketing ploy.
CinemaNow Makes Burn to DVD Available. The online movie distribution company CinemaNow has released Burn to DVD services for a few select titles that will allow viewers to download and burn a DVD that has all the features of one purchased in the store for significantly cheaper. Will the experiment lead to a full-fledged Burn to DVD service?
NBC Launches Daily News Video Blog for Nightly News Program. The NBC news site launched a video blog for Brian Williams to preview the content for the nightly news in the early morning after the initial news meeting. This comes in addition to an afternoon daily blog for the show as well.
C3 Director Henry Jenkins Publishes Work about MySpace. Sam Ford looks at Jenkins' recent interviews and comments about MySpace and the significant ways it is changing the way people communicate, as well as the current legislation discussed to ban MySpace for libraries and schools.
The Weather Channel Picks Up Nielsen Minute-By-Minute Ratings. The Weather Channel is the first network to set a deal based on minute-by-minute ratings, focusing on breaking down each minute of programming rather than averaging all the commercial minutes in a particular show. The network is the first largely based on the nature of its programming.
Internet and Spanish-Language Ads Drive Sales Increases. While traditional advertising sales rates are not particularly impressive, the growth in the Internet and Spanish markets show great promise in expanding content and advertising to new segments of society and new platforms.
--------------- 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 ---------------
An Excerpt on Transmedia Storytelling
from the forthcoming Convergence Culture
By: Henry Jenkins
Franchising a popular film, comic book, or television series is nothing new. Witness the endless stream of plastic figurines available in McDonald's happy meals. Cross-promotion is everywhere. But much of it, like the happy meal toys, is pretty lame and easily forgotten. Current licensing arrangements insure that most of these products are peripheral to what drew us to the original story in the first place. Under licensing, the central media company--most often the film producers--sells the rights to manufacture products using its assets to an often unaffiliated third party; the license limits what can be done with the characters or concepts in order to protect the original property. Soon licensing will give way to what industry insiders are calling co-creation. In co-creation, the companies collaborate from the beginning to create content they know plays well in each of their sectors, allowing each medium to generate new experiences for the consumer and expand points of entry into the franchise.
The current licensing system typically generates works that are redundant (allowing no new character background or plot development), watered down (asking the new media to slavishly duplicate experiences better achieved through the old), or riddled with sloppy contradictions (failing to respect the core consistency audiences expect within a franchise). These failures account for why sequels and franchises have a bad reputation. Franchise products are governed too much by economic logic and not enough by artistic vision.
In 2003, I attended a gathering of top creatives from Hollywood and the games industry, hosted by Electronic Arts; they were discussing how co-creation might work. Danny Bilson, the Vice President of Intellectual Property Development at Electronic Arts, was the guy who organized the summit on what he calls "multiplatform entertainment." As someone who has worked in film (The Rocketeer), television (The Sentinel, Viper), and comics (The Flash), as well as in games, Bilson understands the challenges of creating content in each medium and of coordinating between them. He wants to develop games which do not just move Hollywood brands into a new media space, but also contribute to a larger storytelling system. For this to work, he argues, the story needs to be conceived in transmedia terms from the start:
"We create movies and games together, organically, from the ground up, with the same creative force driving them. Ideally that creative force involves movie writers and directors who are also gamers. In any art form, you have to like it to do well with it; in fact, you have to be a fan of it to do well at it. Take that talent and build multiplatform entertainment. The movie and game are designed together, the game deepens and expands the fiction but does not simply repeat material from the film. It should be organic to what made the film experience compelling.
"Going forward, people are going to want to go deeper into stuff they care about rather than sampling a lot of stuff. If there's something I love, I want it to be bigger than just those two hours in the movie theater or a one hour a week experience on TV. I want a deepening of the universe. I want to participate in it. I've just been introduced to the world in the film and I want to get there, explore it. You need that connection to the world to make participation exciting."
Bilson wants to use his position as the man who supervises all creative properties for the world's leading game publisher to create multiplatform entertainment.
This level of integration and coordination is difficult to achieve even though the economic logic of the large media conglomerates encourages them to think in terms of synergies and franchises. So far, the most successful transmedia franchises have emerged when a single creator or creative unit maintains control. Hollywood might well study the ways that Lucasfilm has managed and cultivated its Star Wars franchises. When Star Wars moved into print, its novels expanded the timeline to show events not contained in the film trilogies, or recast the stories around secondary characters, as did the Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina series, which fleshes out those curious-looking aliens in the background of the original movie. When Star Wars went to games, those games didn't just enact film events; they showed what life would be like for a Jedi trainee or a bounty hunter.
Many believe that much greater coordination across the media sectors is needed to produce transmedia content. EA explored this model in developing its Lord of the Rings titles. EA designers worked on location with Peter Jackson's production unit in New Zealand. As Neil Young, the man in charge of the Lord of the Rings franchise for Electronic Arts, explained, "I wanted to adapt Peter's work for our medium in the same way that he has adapted Tolkien's work for his. Rather than being some derivative piece of merchandise along the same continuum with the poster, the pen, the mug, or the key chain, maybe we could turn that pyramid up the side of its head, leverage those pieces which have come before, and become the pinnacle of the property instead of the basement. Whether you are making the mug, whether you are making the key chain, or whether you are making the game, pretty much everyone has access to the same assets. For me, when I took over Lord of the Rings, that seemed untenable if you want to build something that captured Peter's unique vision, and Howard Shore's music, and the actors, and the look of this world, and you needed much more direct access."
This system allowed them to import thousands of "assets" from the film production into the game, insuring an unprecedented degree of fidelity to the details of Tolkien's world. At the same time, working closely with Jackson and the other filmmakers gave Young greater latitude to explore other dimensions of that world which would not appear on screen.
Neil Young talks about "additive comprehension." He cites the example of the Director's Cut of Bladerunner where adding a small segment showing Deckard discovering an oragami unicorn invited viewers to question whether Deckard might be a replicate: "That changes your whole perception of the film, your perception of the ending." The challenge for us, especially with The Lord of the Rings, is how do we deliver the origami unicorn, how do we deliver that one piece of information that makes you look at the films differently? Young explained how that moment inspired his team: "In the case of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the added comprehension is the fact that Gandolf is the architect of this plan and has been the architect of this plan for some time. Our hope is that you would play the game and that would motivate you to watch the films with this new piece of knowledge which would shift your perception of what has happened in the previous films. Here, Young points towards a possibility suggested by the books but not directly referenced in the films themselves.
Like his colleague, Danny Bilson, Young sees transmedia storytelling as the terrain he wants to explore with his future work. His first experiment, Majestic, created a transmedia experience from scratch with bits of information coming at the player via faxes, cell phone calls, e-mail, and websites. With The Lord of the Rings games, he worked within the constraints of a well-established world and a major movie franchise. Next, he is turning his attention towards creating new properties which can be built from the ground up as cross-media collaborations. His thinking races far ahead: "I want to understand the kinds of story comprehension which are unique to transmedia storytelling. I've got my world, I've got my arcs, some of those arcs can be expressed in the video game space, some of them can be expressed in the film space, the television space, the literary space, and you are getting to the true transmedia storytelling."
Henry Jenkins is the chief faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is Director of the Comparative Media Studies program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. His book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, is due for release at the end of the month. His blog promoting the book is available at http://www.henryjenkins.org.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (email@example.com)
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