August 17, 2007
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
Weekend of August 17, 2007
*Editor's Note: Geoffrey Long's Thesis and This Week's Newsletter
*Opening Note: Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins on Convergence, Part III of IV
*Glancing at the C3 Blog
*Closing Note: Jason Mittell Interviews the Creators of The West Side, Part III of IV
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. First up this week, I want to draw attention to another of the Master's theses from the research of the graduate students who worked here at C3.
Geoffrey Long's "Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company
Geoffrey Long, another former C3 alum who is now the Communications Director for the Program in Comparative Media Studies here at MIT, has finished his work with the Consortium and his Master's from CMS as well. His work on transmedia shaped our focus on the subject in our research and on our public blog, but Geoff's thesis is available in full online. We previewed the 10 takeaway concepts from the conclusion of Geoff's thesis work on the C3 Weekly Update's Opening Note on 06 July 2007 and 13 July 2007.
Geoff's thesis, "Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company," examines these Henson properties in a way to further tease out the transmedia storytelling concepts he has written on many times. His thesis can be found here and will also be made available on the internal Convergence Culture Consortium site for our partners later this week. Alec Austin's thesis, which was previewed in the Editor's Note last week, is now available in the resources section on the internal portion of our site.
Here is the abstract from Geoff's thesis:
"Transmedia narratives use a combination of Barthesian hermeneutic codes, negative capability and migratory cues to guide audiences across multiple media platforms. This thesis examines complex narratives from comics, novels, films and video games, but draws upon the transmedia franchises built around Jim Henson's Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal to provide two primary case studies in how these techniques can be deployed with varying results. By paying close attention to staying in canon, building an open world, maintaining a consistent tone across extensions, carefully deciding when to begin building a transmedia franchise, addressing open questions while posing new ones, and looking for ways to help audiences keep track of how each extension relates to each other, transmedia storytellers can weave complex narratives that will prove rewarding to audiences, academics and producers alike."
This Week's Newsletter
This week, we will feature the third part in our four-part series from C3 Director Henry Jenkins and Research Manager Joshua Green in our Opening Note. As I've mentioned in previous weeks, this work will be published in the upcoming collection Media Industry Studies from Blackwell Publishing, which will be edited by Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren. This week's section focuses on the value of engagement and participation.
Meanwhile, the Closing Note this week features the third part of C3 Consulting Researcher Jason Mittell's interview with the creators of urban Western online video series The West Side, looking particularly at issues of serialization and the advantages and disadvantages of independent distribution for online video.
As usual, the newsletter this week features all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Participatory Culture, Lead Use(r)s, and Moral Economy:
How Convergence Culture Is Changing the Relations between Producers and Consumers
Part III of IV: The Value of Engagement and Participation
By: Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins
The Value of Engagement and Participation
"Corporations will allow the public to participate in the construction and representation of their creations or they will, eventually, compromise the commercial value of their properties. The new consumer will help to create value or they will refuse it... Corporations have a right to keep copyright but they have an interest in releasing it." --Grant McCracken, Plenitude: Culture by Commotion.
At the most basic level, the distribution and publicity mechanisms of networked computing renders visible the often "invisible" labor fans perform in supporting their favorite properties. As Henry explains in Convergence Culture, "If old consumers were assumed to be passive, then new consumers are active. If old consumers were predictable and stayed where you told them, then new consumers are migratory, showing a declining loyalty to networks or media. If old consumers were isolated individuals, then new consumers are more socially connected. If the work of media consumers was once silent and invisible, then new consumers are now noisy and public.:
Fans act as "grassroots intermediaries," shaping the circulation of media content at a moment when the industry is concerned about market fragmentation. The result has been a revaluing of fan loyalty and participation based on "affective economics," as is explained in Convergence Culture. Older audience measurements were based on the concept of "impressions", counting the number of eyeballs watching a particular program at a particular time. Scaling up via samples said to be statistically significant, this counting determined the potential number of people exposed to advertisements. An impressions model assesses the frequency of exposure and contexts where ads are placed. Over time, "impressions" have been supplemented by demographic measurements, seeking more precise information about the kinds of viewers watching particular programs, given that different "demos" hold different value for different brands.
These same companies now search for signs of audience activity and "engagement." For example, research done by Initiative Media found that less than ten percent of the viewers of most network television shows regard the program to be a favorite, while some shows -- especially cult programs -- are regarded as top choices by as many as 50 percent of their viewers, as Convergence Culture describes. The research, further developed through a close study of viewers of American Idol, suggests that viewers watching a favorite series were twice as likely as more casual viewers to pay attention to advertisements, less likely to switch channels during commercial breaks, and had significantly higher brand recall. Almost half of loyal American Idol viewers search the web for more information about the show and thus had more extensive exposure to affiliated brand messages. The researchers advised their industry clients that a show with a high level of engagement may be a better investment than a program with higher overall ratings but only superficial audience interest.
Under this model, the value of consumer loyalty is still being read primarily in relation to traditional consumption roles: watching television programs and purchasing advertised products. Other companies push further, developing feedback mechanisms which tap consumer's individual and collective insights to refine the production process. In his book, Democratizing Innovation, Eric Von Hippel describes how manufacturers have enabled low cost innovation by closely engaging with their "lead users." The earliest adopters frequently adapt products to their particular needs and interests. By incorporating these "lead users" into the design process, Von Hippel argues, companies can discover new and unanticipated uses for their products or locate untapped markets. Von Hippel talks about the emergence of an "innovation commons" as companies monitor social networks for user insights. In some cases, companies actively solicit such feedback throughout their design and development process. For example, as Henry wrote about on his blog, when Lego sought to improve its Mindstorms product, it asked its most hardcore fans for feedback about what had or had not worked on previous versions. Crowdsourcing constitutes a more formalized version of the innovation commons. Daren Brabham's forthcoming work on crowdsourcing finds that companies such as Threadless, iStockphoto, and InnoCentive, solicit design ideas from their consumers, using their online community to weight their attractiveness, and sharing revenue with the amateur creators whose products the companies produce and distribute.
While Von Hippel writes about manufacturing processes, similar practices occur within the creative industries. Historically, fan cultures have most often involved what the industry regarded as "fringe viewers" who fell outside of their dominant desired demographic -- for example, the most active reworking of program content came from female fans of action-adventure series or adult fans of children's culture, as Sam Ford, Henry Jenkins, and other members of the C3 team pointed out in the 2006 white paper Fanning the Audience's Flames. Increasingly, more sophisticated companies pay attention to such "surplus" consumers because they represent ways of extending their potential market. Modest shifts in the program content, for example, spending more time on a beloved secondary character or adding more serial elements, can broaden interest while spin-off products sometimes directly target these consumers.
As Convergence Culture describes, some game companies allow players access to the development tools they used to construct their games, resulting in a "mod" culture where amateur designers produce and circulate "skins" for characters, new levels of game play, or animated films (machinima). Minimally, these practices extend the shelf life of the original products (since the amateur content can only be played with the original software) and in some cases, these companies have hired these amateur designers or contracted to distribute their mods as part of official expansion packs, as former MIT Comparative Media Studies Master's student Brett Camper wrote about in his thesis, Homebrew and the Social Construction of Gaming. Mods provide a low cost, minimal risk way of determining what refinements might generate consumer interests. As John Banks discusses in his 2002 essay "Gamers as Co-Creators" and here, Brisbane-based developer Auran distributes player-modded elements of their train simulator Trainz. The company develops a "third party developers" relationship with these amateur co-creators, enabling Auran to better align their product with the community's desires. Auran has effectively expanded its workforce by releasing design guidelines and production tools and providing enthusiasts access to Auran's professional design team. These amateur teams sometimes generate labor intensive features the company couldn't otherwise afford to produce. This model has been so successful for Auran that they also use the fan network to manage the distribution and promotion of their product at gamer events.
Harnessing productive fans is not always so straightforward. Raph Koster, the man in charge of the development of the multiplayer game, Star Wars Galaxies, incorporated the fans of George Lucas's science fiction saga as clients in the design process, making early specs for the game available via the web, as is described in Convergence Culture and Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler's "The Genesis of 'Cyberculture.'" Koster's early courtship of these fans resulted in an immediate fan base when the game launched but power struggles within the company resulted in significant deviations from the recommended policies, as Henry wrote about here. Retooling the game in hopes of expanding its market, the company alienated the original players without generating new interest. In Democratizing Innovation, Von Hippel acknowledges that the earliest adapters are not necessarily representative of the larger market and thus their insights need to be weighed carefully in predicting market interest. Moreover, incorporating users into the design process requires trust; companies risk alienation and backlash when they pull back from what consumers perceive as commitments.
Tapping a creative user-base requires balancing market and non-market motivations. Discussing the Auran example, Humphreys et al. note that hobbiests often operate along different timetables than publishers. Motivated by passion, interest, and social rewards, amateur developers often fall behind timetables and they demand more attention than companies can afford. Humphreys et al argue this relationship reveals not the exploitative nature of mobilising users as co-creators, but the complexity of the power relationships shaping participatory culture.
In other cases, fans play curatorial roles. For example, American fans of Japanese anime grab content which has not yet been imported, circulating copies through an underground circuit with their own amateur subtitles. While some companies might shut down such "piracy", the Japanese companies watched this black market closely but allowed it to continue. These "fansubbing" practices are credited with identifying properties with American appeal and educating consumers about unfamiliar genres; for more, see Convergence Culture, Sean Leonard's essay "Progress Against the Law" from The International Journal of Cultural Studies, and Ian Condry's forthcoming work. Commercial distributors often draw heavily on titles with fan bases established through underground circulation. In many cases, fans have stopped circulating their amateur versions to ensure a viable market, as Jordan Hatcher writes about in "Of Otakus and Fansubs: A Critical Look at Anime Online in Light of Current Issues in Copyright Law." In his 2007 C3 white paper "Fandemonium!," Sam Ford and the C3 team argue something similar has occurred among fans of American wrestling, where the underground circulation of wrestling tapes indicated a market for the World Wrestling Entertainment's archives.
Accordingly, Wired Magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson's idea of the "Long Tail" has become a major preoccupation within the creative industries. Drawing on examples such as Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes, Anderson argues that rather than focusing primarily on a small number of expensive properties with generalized viewership, media producers should produce and distribute lower cost materials which may appeal to a range of niche audiences. While most physical stores can only stock those titles which quickly move units, online distribution can sustain a vast backlist. Anderson argues that the "long tail" of storehouse titles will collectively generate greater revenue than the most popular titles. Anderson's model suggests profit from niche markets depends on lowering promotional expenses (by relying more heavily on "buzz" from empassioned and empowered consumers) and distribution costs (through online exchanges.) MySpace represents a good example of how this process works: the social network site is a favorite among bands -- big and small -- who want to identify and get information out to their most hardcore fans; here, fans "friend" groups whose music they like and then pass cuts along to their friends. Bands in turn use their sites to get word out about concerts or allow fans to sample new releases. Similar ideas have been embraced by independent media producers of all kinds. For example, as Henry writes about here, the producers of the independent film Four Eyed Monsters have used a range of different Web 2.0 platforms to generate public awareness of their production. They have, for example, encouraged potential viewers to register their interest in seeing the film. As they identify sufficient numbers of interested viewers in any given locale, they solicit exhibitors, demonstrating a ready market in their area. Some television producers have proposed that fans of cult media producers might sign up in advance, funding the production and distribution of new properties, as is examined in Convergence Culture. A smaller number of shareholders or subscribers might sustain programs which otherwise didn't meet the Nielsen ratings bar required for broadcast television.
If media companies were monitoring fan conversations, they still weren’t necessarily understanding what they were hearing. In mid-2006, New Line Cinema responded to online anticipation for b-grade horror-thriller Snakes on a Plane. Based on fan feedback, the film went back into production six months after principal photography had concluded to re-shoot scenes to up the films rating to an R (from PG-13) and add dialogue that emerged from fan discussions. Most famously, star Samuel L. Jackson delivered the line, "I've had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane," which originated in a popular Internet parody. Taking a hands-off approach to fan use of Snakes IP, the studio showcased mash-up trailers, artwork, and t-shirts, through their official website and relied heavily on the buzz rather than critics preview or expensive marketing campaigns to "open" the movie. This online buzz generated it's own interest, both online and off, setting up high box office expectations.
When it failed to deliver a blockbuster opening, Snakes was quickly declared a bomb. This measurement of achievement, however, seems a narrow assessment of its success. While domestic box office didn't match inflated expectations, the interest generated by the grassroots intermediaries produced pre- and post-opening revenue streams in the form of marketing, merchandising, and ad-sales opportunities a b-grade film like Snakes is not expected to generate, and, as Henry notes, a significant measure of the film's success will come further down the tail as Snakes succeeds or fails to generate more revenues as it is released on dvd or shown by campus film societies. The media confused the internet fan following for a focus group, expecting it to scale out across the general population, whether than trying to understand the committed niche audience it attracted. Accounting for its success as a cultural phenomenon requires a more nuanced mode of measurement than box office revenue.
In each of these examples, companies are re-appraising the value of fan engagement and participation--in some cases, openly collaborating with fans and in others, allowing fans some free space to repurpose their content towards their own ends. Yet, each also suggests potential conflicts since fan and corporate interests are never perfectly aligned.
The third part of this four-part series will appear in the Opening Note of next week's C3 Weekly Update.
Dr. Joshua Green is the research manager for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT.
Dr. 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 blog is available at http://www.henryjenkins.org.
---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
MTVN, Second-by-Second Measurement, and Accountability. Sam Ford looks at the TNS/MTVN experiment with second-by-second viewing measurement and correlates it with issues of qualitative versus quantitative research and discussions about grading student work at academic institutions.
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators (2 of 4). In the second part of this series, Jason Mittell asks Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman about their choice of an urban Western and their online series' relationship to more "traditional" media formats.
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators (1 of 4). Jason Mittell starts a four-part interview with the creators of online serial movie The West Side, an urban Western. Creators Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman discuss the origins of their project and the series' budget in the first part of this series.
New Site: To Aggregate or Not to Aggregate? (4 of 4). The final part of this series from Eleanor Baird looks in greater detail at the partnership with Fox and what partnering with various online companies means for a traditional network.
New Site: To Aggregate or Not to Aggregate? (3 of 4). In the third part of this series, Eleanor Baird looks at NBC's strategy in distributing content across multiple platforms and the place of the network brand in a non-linear distribution model.
New Site: To Aggregate or Not to Aggregate? (2 or 4). Eleanor Baird looks at the ways in which both technology and consumer habits are changing the configuration of the advertising industry and the economic model of television in the second part of this four-part series.
New Site: To Aggregate or Not to Aggregate? (1 of 4). C3's Eleanor Baird starts this four-part series on NBCU/News Corporation's New Site by examining the "YouTube Killer" label.
C3 Team: DRM, Hypermasculine Soaps, and Gender and Fan Studies. A variety of C3 Consulting Researchers have done interesting work on their own blogs of late. Rob Kozinets writes on digital rights management over at Brandthroposophy, while Jason Mittell looks at Rescue Me as an example of a hypermasculine soap. Finally, the latest round of the Gender and Fan Studies discussion takes place over on Henry Jenkins' blog, featuring Jonathan Gray and Roberta Pearson.
NBC's Didja To Launch Alongside the New Site. With the new online video distribution plans coming together for NBCU/News Corp., Sam Ford looks at NBC's launch of an online destination for commercials, alongside Turner's Very Funny Ads and adTV.
C3 Updates: Flash Gordon, ATWT InTurn, and Ten Day Take. In this piece, Sam Ford gives updates on C3 posts in the past, looking at the launch of Sci Fi's Flash Gordon series, the second season of the CBS/Procter & Gamble Productions As the World Turns InTurn reality show, and the second round of Endemol's user-generated content contest with Comcast Ziddio, Ten Day Take.
An Interview with Parry Aftab (4 of 4). The final part of this interview series Sam Ford conducted with Parry Aftab looks at the role of government in managing social networks and the role of the media in public perception and awareness of social networks.
An Interview with Parry Aftab (3 of 4). In the third part of this four-part interview series Sam Ford conducted with WiredSafety Executive Director Parry Aftab, Parry discusses her work with MySpace, her current social networking projects, and the necessity in accepting social networks as part of American social life.
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Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/.
--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators, Part III of IV
By: Jason Mittell
Two weeks ago, Jason Mittell started an interview with Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman, the creators of an online serialized film called The West Side. These two, who met on the job at MTV, have collaborated on this online urban Western which will be rolling out in episodes over the next several months. The third installment looks at the serialized format and an independent distribution model.
JM: What drew you specifically to the serialized format? And how much in advance have you produced & scripted? Is there room for change in the story and style based on feedback, or do you feel pretty locked in to your vision of where it's going?
ZL: We spent a long time in preproduction. We thought a lot about the themes we wanted to explore and went through several major rewrites. It was pretty painful sometimes, but we always made the decision to go back and rewrite when something didn't feel right, which retrospectively was always the right decision. I say always because it happened more than we'd probably like to admit; we took a lot of time to craft our ideas and to really pare them down to the best they could be.
As for production, we're doing it on the fly. While we would love to take a couple months to shoot and edit continuously, we both work full time. But we've been lucky that the actors we cast at the beginning of all this have been really cool about going along with our nights and weekends approach.
RBK: Viewer feedback will definitely influence the series, whether it be in terms of pacing, certain characters becoming more (or less) prominent, tweaks to the music or visuals, etc. but in terms of the 12-episode storyline, the whole thing is already written. It's impossible to have everything happen for a reason in a script if you don't know how it ends; we weren't interested in a choose-your-own-adventure angle to the show. Ideally we'd have had the whole thing shot by the time we put up the first episode, so we could roll them out more quickly. But if we waited for that day, we'd be premiering in 2047.
JM: Do you have a sense of how momentum is going to work for you or against you? I'm thinking about a number of the debates in serialized TV scheduling that swirled around this past year - Lost's hiatus (allegedly) led to a decline in viewership upon its return, similar concerns emerged around Heroes, etc. The sense is that in a downloadable, purchasable media culture, we're less inclined to want to wait until the content-providers offer a new installment, as we want the next entry on demand (a trend that might be fueling the rise of spoiler culture, which I've researched some). Serialization always entails the gap between episodes being much longer than the episodes themselves - without a clear release schedule, do you worry that viewers might lose interest between installments? Might the buzz for the project peak too early, frustrating viewers waiting for a new episode?
ZL: Intuition would say that our "sparse" episode release schedule is definitely going to affect any kind of viewership momentum we may gain. And yes, we've definitely thought/worried about that. But unfortunately, it's the reality of our production. We felt that an intermittent release schedule would be better than waiting another full year to finish production when someone else would potentially have had that year to do their thing. We would love to get the episodes out there as soon as possible, and we will. But it's just the two of us, and it takes time. We want to be satisfied with what we're putting out there, and we're prepared to deal with any loss in momentum because of it. We'll just have to work that much harder to make each episode good enough to bring people back!
JM: The site features both independent production, which is fairly common today, and independent distribution rather than running through YouTube, GoogleVideo, etc. What was the thinking for serving your own video, and where do you see the strengths and weaknesses of that choice?
RBK: We've had some healthy debates about the distribution issue, with me tending to argue for the "put it everywhere" model and Zack wanting to retain tighter control.
ZL: There are a few reasons I'm so adamant about this issue:
- I want to maintain visual control over the "world" we hope to create with the series
- We built the website ourselves and spent a long time making it exactly what we wanted it to be for its intended usage, ie. posting and cataloging our episodes, blogging, commenting on episodes, etc. It's also easier to track your video's progress statistically if the video's only coming from one direction
- We made the decision early on that we wouldn't have any advertising -- maybe a "sponsorship," but no banners or text advertising. And if we're not making any money on it, we don't want anyone else making money on it
- Some of the video distribution networks are doing a really nice job in terms of video quality with flash video, but the heavyweights that you spoke of don't currently deliver the performance we'd like. Bandwidth and storage are getting cheaper, so this is changing as we speak, but we spend so much time crafting our images that it would be a shame to let a bad delivery mechanism ruin our hard work.
That's not saying that we won't use the larger networks once the time is right, but I see their potential utility more as promotional tools that will help drive traffic to our site. Once we have enough content, we're planning to produce a trailer that we'll let the big boys distribute.
RBK: I see this debate as being similar to the one currently going on in Hollywood over day-and-date distribution. Every filmmaker wants to have his or her work seen in a darkened theater on a 50-foot screen; for me personally, seeing a movie in the theater is certainly richer and forms stronger memories than watching it on my laptop. Indeed, if I had a choice between 500 people seeing our film in the theater or 500 people seeing it on their cell phone, I'd choose the theater every time. But the fact is, a 500-person audience in a local theater might translate to 50,000 viewers globally across internet-connected platforms. And the venues aren't mutually exclusive in the day-and-date model; people still have a choice of how they consume the media. For this example, if thewestside.tv is the equivalent of the higher-quality venue (the theater), and YouTube is the lower-quality source (the cell phone), the difference here is that the film doesn't stop playing at the theater; thewestside.tv is always open. If someone watches an episode on YouTube and enjoys it, they can choose to watch successive episodes in higher quality on our site (or even the same episode over again).
Congratulations Jason, you've prompted our first public debate. When it comes down to it though, I do understand Zack's point, and we've always said that the distribution of The West Side isn't about how many people see it, but rather getting the right people to see it--namely, anyone who's established in the industry and recognizes talent: an enabler. And, of course, intelligent film viewers.
The final part of this interview will be featured in the Closing Note of next week's C3 Weekly Update.
Jason Mittell is an affiliated faculty member with the Convergence Culture Consortium and assistant professor of American Civilization and Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College in Vermont and consulting researcher 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. See his blog at http://justtv.wordpress.com/.
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