September 29, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Alec Austin on "The Virtual Divide" and Social Networking
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Ivan Askwith on Failed Studio 60 Blog, Part One
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. This week'supdate features an opening note from C3graduate student media analyst Alec Austin, who focuses on the digital divide that keeps a mainstream audience from being interested in virtual spaces like Second Life and World of Warcraft, which remain niche markets.
The closing note iswrittenby anotherone of our graduate student media analysts in C3, Ivan Askwith, who examines a transmedia project associated with Aaron Sorkin's new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and how this online blog failed. This is the first of a two-part series looking at this blog. The second part of this piece will be published in next week's update.
As usual, the update also includes links to all the entries from the week from the Convergence Culture Consortium blog. Some of you all are already contributors to the blog or else regular followers and even commenters on the blog. We encourage everyone who is part of the C3 team, including faculty and corporate partners, to engage in this public part of C3's work.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
The Virtual Divide: Virtual Worlds, MMOs, and Social Networking
By: Alec Austin
There has been a great deal of talk about virtual worlds like Second Life and massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft (WoW) of late. WoW recently reached 7 million subscribers worldwide, driving even more speculation in the press about the potential reach and financial upside of massively multiplayer games.
At the same time, however, experts like Raph Koster (designer of MMOs such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies) believe that World of Warcraft is an exceptional case and that there is a hard limit to how much money can be drawn from the audience of dedicated gamers that it caters to. While WoW is clearly financially successful, that success seems to have come at the expense of the other major players in the MMO space, where formerly hit games like Everquest are struggling to retain their subscribers. The argument advanced by Koster and those who agree with his assessments is that the long-term market for MMOs aimed at dedicated gamers (such as WoW and Everquest) will be smaller than that for virtual worlds like Second Life.
This is a somewhat problematic statement, when one considers that Second Life only has around 650,000 registered users. And while web-served social spaces with casual gaming elements like Habbo Hotel and Neopets draw larger audiences, they don't garner subscription income, functioning mainly as social spaces and venues for product placement. While they may post impressive user statistics, it's questionable how effective they are in fostering long-term loyalty in their users, and even the user stats of the more socially oriented spaces pale in comparison to those of dedicated social networking sites, such as Myspace and Facebook.
Obviously, Second Life's current subscriber numbers don't tell the whole story, but I think that it's telling that the greatest successes in online gaming and social networking are occurring towards the more dedicated ends of the spectrum. World of Warcraft has an environment that focuses the player on its gameplay, and while it improved on previous games by allowing players to be effective independently as well as in groups, as well as simplifying its user interface and learning curve, at its core it is unmistakably a game which uses social elements to enrich the player experience. Social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace, on the other hand, are dedicated to their social function, offering limited customization and personalization without any other "game"-style functionality.
In between these two approaches lie the casual gaming spaces and virtual worlds, and of the two, virtual worlds currently have less widespread appeal. I believe that this is because worlds like Second Life lack the kind of clear focus or hook that other online spaces possess. When players get into World of Warcraft, they know they are there to play a goal-oriented game, and perhaps socialize. When someone sets up their Myspace or Facebook page, they are connecting with friends and expressing themselves. The casual gaming spaces motivate chatroom-style socialization through their gaming elements, by giving players something in common to talk about.
So far, at least, virtual worlds lack hooks that are as powerful. The primary selling points of Second Life are customization (the ability to design your own avatar and shape your corner of the world) and visual socialization (using your avatar to interact with the avatars of other players). At the moment, these selling points appeal mostly to lead users and niche audiences, who enjoy the work involved in creating textures, 3-D models, or scripted animations, or are motivated to do the work because they want an avatar that looks like an anthropomorphic fox. While these individuals find the freedom that Second Life offers liberating, users who are less self-motivated are apt to find the creation interface overwhelming and the creative freedom it provides paralyzing (to say nothing of the fact that they might not appreciate the creative choices made by others).
I do not dispute that the worldwide market for MMOs is probably limited by the population of players that are willing to devote a significant amount of money and time to them. But to imagine that other forms of virtual worlds will displace them simply because dedicated gamers are a minority of the population is to misunderstand the nature of the online marketplace. Users are attracted to websites and virtual worlds when they serve a clear purpose (social networking/self-expression) or serve some kind of demand (MMOs). Without creating some kind of "killer app"* which will draw in users that would never consider using virtual worlds in their current form, spaces like Second Life seem doomed to remain the playground of niche groups.
*: It's worth noting that World of Warcraft's "killer app" was cherrypicking the best and most user-friendly design choices from many decades of prior work in MUDs and MMOs, creating a game that appealed to new and casual players as well as dedicated gamers. With that said, however, WoW succeeded in a market where millions of subscribers had already proven willing to pay significant monthly fees for access to a game world. While Second Life has produced many interesting anecdotes (such as the real-life financial success of Anshe Chung), it has yet to be proven that virtual worlds have enough mass appeal to become more than a niche phenomenon. So far, more effort has been expended in attempts to replicate the virtual world ("The Metaverse") that Neal Stephenson described in his novel Snow Crash than has been spent asking what applications such a virtual world would have. Without the emergence of a first-order killer app for virtual worlds, the creation of a virtual world-equivalent of World of Warcraft remains impossible.
Alec Austin is a media analyst with the Convergence Culture Consortium and a graduate student with the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. His work focuses on how commercial concerns, ads, and product placement affect the content of (and audience reactions to) TV, movies and new media such h as video games and blogs. His work has ben published inThe New York Review of Science Fictionand Web sites such asStrange HorizonsandSavant, the latter of which he was a co-founder.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary.Henry Jenkins further elaborates on his writings about fan fiction in Convergence Culture, based on the review of his book on the University of Chicago Law School blog.
Fundraiser to Get Your Name in Author's Book.An eBay fundraiser had readers bidding to get their name in the upcoming books of 14 different authors, with the proceeds going to the First Amendment Project.
What Is High-Definition? Lawyers Want to Know.California attorney Philip Cohen is suing DirecTV, claiming fraudulent advertising because the reception he gets from their high-definition service is not clear enough to truly be called HD. This question of defining HD has lasting implications on the industry's development over the next few years.
Picking Over Pilots.C3 Director Henry Jenkins looks at the place of the pilot episode in today's shifting mass media environment and how this compares with the pilot's traditional place in American television culture.
If You Can't Beat Them...The U.S. government has launched an anti-drug campaign through YouTube, hoping to curb the growing number of videos on the video sharing site depicting or encouraging drug use.
David Betancourt's Feeling Old.The Washington Postcolumnist writes about his struggle with becoming increasingly outdated with a new media generation seeming to come along every year and with a digital gulf separating him from his younger sisters.
MTVN Purchase of Harmonix.One of our partners here at C3, MTV Networks, has made headlines with its purchase of Harmonix, leading to growing speculation as to the crossover between Harmonix' music-based video games and the programming of the music channels under the MTVN umbrella.
Sony Pictures Strikes Deal with Starz.Starz will distribute Sony films through video-on-demand and broadband Internet distribution, beginning in 2008.
NBC Launching Video-on-Demand Shows through Cablevision.Another deal is struck for VOD as networks attempt to provide content across more and more platforms for busy viewers who demand the product in an increasing number of ways.
ABC Expanding Transmedia News Opportunities.As the network re-invents its news division, it releases an online player that will stream ABC news for the Web sites of the network's affiliate stations and that will eventually also include inserts from local news as well.
Guiding LightPodcast in the News.The Washington Postprovides an illuminating look at how the transfer is made from a 40-minute daily daytime drama into a 25-minute daily podcast for the Procter & Gamble soap.
Fans Finally Get Mamaon DVD.After more than a year of Internet lobbying by a surprisingly devoted fan community, 1980s sitcom Mama's Familyhas been released on DVD.
Soap Opera/Marvel Superhero Crossover.The superheroes in Marvel's Avengers enter the town of Springfield from soap opera Guiding Light, in one of the most unexpected cross-promotions in recent memory.
Industry Tensions Over HD Commercials.99 percent of commercials are still shot in standard definition, but Chase CEO Manning Field says that it's because the majority of advertisers are disconnected from an increasing number of viewers' experience with high-definition TV.
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--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
Online Content Experiments: The Fate of Defaker
By: Ivan Askwith
In May, speaking before an audience of advertisers and television executives, NBC CEO Jeff Zucker declared, "No longer is content just for the television screen!" This might as well have been the official slogan of this year's upfront week, where many network executives spent more time promoting their new online strategies than previewing their new on-air programming. In their coverage of the event, the New York Times reported that "analysts are calling this upfront week a watershed because the networks are significantly expanding their presence in the new media, whether through Webisodes, video downloads, podcasts or mini-series created for cellphones." (Elliott, 5/16/06)
Of course, the upfront announcements themselves weren't much of a watershed -- they simply articulated, for the benefit of the press, a trend that has been accelerating over the past two years: the television industry's growing awareness of the importance of compelling online content. Over the past year, almost all of the major networks have made arrangements to distribute their broadcast content online. Now that the core programming content is online, however, the more interesting (and dangerous) step begins: networks must begin to understand their audiences well enough to provide meaningful online-only content.
In a previous newsletter, Jason Mittell reviewed The Lost Experience, ABC's complicated interactive campaign to maintain audience interest in Lost through the summer rerun season. (I'm also in the process of finishing up an official C3 analysis of The Lost Experience, which will be available online through our website in the next few weeks.)
This week, I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss another notable online experiment: Defaker, an "in-narrative" blog that NBC launched to promote their much-anticipated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Defakerwent live shortly after Studio 60's premiere on the evening of September 18. Designed to look almost identical to Defamer, a popular Hollywood gossip site, Defaker presented itself as a source for "insider, behind-the-scenes information" for fans of Studio 60's fictional show-within-a-show.
In theory, this isn't a bad idea: a show like Studio 60, which focuses on backstage relationships and network politics, would actually lend itself beautifully to an irreverent gossip blog. A site like Defaker could be used to generate audience investment in the show, reporting "rumors" that provide resolution on throw-away moments seen in previous episodes and foreshadow the action of future episodes. Fictional "interviews" or "news articles" could provide details and anecdotes that flesh out the show's characters, elaborate the events that led up to the show, hint at future guest stars, and more. This, in turn, could deepen a viewer's engagement with the show -- readers of Defaker would become "local experts," capable of reporting to casual viewers on the significance and implications of the (in-narrative) online rumors. Did I say Defaker wasn't a bad idea? I take it back: Defaker has the potential to be a brilliant idea.
In practice, however, Defaker turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Rather than delivering on its claim to offer an "insider's" perspective on the show, the site's first entry was nothing more than a mediocre recap of the events that took place on the show, and a series of HD screen captures presented as "behind-the-scenes photos." (As several visitors pointed out, the recap got some details wrong.) The writers also seeded the entry with a handful of meaningless, enthusiastic "in character" comments, from fictional fans, to set the tone. The design logic behind the site was clear: Defaker didn't need to offer any new content to viewers, because the gimmick of presenting the old content in character was so clever. Fans of the show would love it, right?
Wrong. The attacks began within minutes.
A sample of the feedback:
- "This is lame, you can't even get stills from the set? You had to use screengrabs?"
- "Whoever they hired to write this horrible blog didn't even understand the show."
- "This site is awful. An ounce of effort could have made it all right."
- "You must be kidding. This is the worst fake I've ever read.
- "The show is OK but this writing is a mess and the whole thing's a turn-off! BOO!"
- "This blog is sh*t."
Some visitors went so far as to declare that they had enjoyed the show, but shared the sentiments of one commenter who declared that "out of protest against this ridiculous, lazy and unoriginal marketing attempt, I'm going to boycott the show."
Next week, I'll try to explain exactly where NBC went wrong, and offer a few thoughts on what lessons we should take away from this.
Ivan Askwith is a media analyst with the Convergence Culture Consortium and a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. His research areas include television and alternate reality gaming. He has published for Salon and was a researcher for Steven Johnson'sEverything Bad is Good for You.
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