Quickfire insight rattling in my brain that I want to post here so you all know that I'm thinking about it:
What do Battlestar Galactica, American Idol, Lost, lonelygirl15, America's Next Top Model, and alternate reality games like ilovebees and Last Call Poker have in common?
They have a remarkable power to build incredibly multiple levels of meaningful community through serial engagement.
First, let me explain what I am identifying as the 3 scales of community they create. Here are the 3 levels: online, watercooler, and intimate communities. The first is mediated community at a massive scale and constructed through public communications (online). The second is face-to-face community in shared social spaces, through semi-pulic communications, at a macro scale (watercooler). The third is mediated but intensely personal community based on private communications, at an intimate scale (intimate). Think, respectively, of online forums and IRC channels (online); office and barber shop conversations (watercooler); and SMSing or IMing good friends or family not about real life but rather about the entertainment property (intimate). So I take part in spoiler and speculation discussions online about the Battlestar storyline, e.g.; I gossip about American Idol performances at work with colleagues and at the dog park with familiar strangers; and I SMS and IM with my sister and a good girlfriend on commercial breaks of America's Next Top Model to talk about the live broadcast. These are all interesting kinds of community that we would do well to consider separately, particularly the second and third categories. I know that I have a closer relationship with my sister, for instance, during seasons of reality TV shows we both watch, and I feel more connected to familiar strangers whose names I might not know but who I have discussed TV episodes with the night after they air.
Second, I want to argue that what makes this possible is the rhythm of serial engagement. Community requires multiple instances of collective engagement. Certain kinds of serial drama (Prison Break!) 24! and persistent storytelling (lonelygirl, ARGs, etc.) and campaign-based entertainment (So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, etc.) are perfect for this. Each episode or massive update represents a live node for plugging into the various levels of community.
This is hard to create around theater, which although is inspires collective (whole audience) engagement does not repeat-- unless there are multiple viewings are likely (think the obsessive $20 student rush crowd for RENT circa 1998); hard to create around movies, which also have local collective audiences but are typically one-off engagements; hard to create around unschedule console gameplay, where most people are at different levels/stages from the rest of the audience (although launches of highly anticpated sequels create something of these communities, e.g. Halo 2's launch....)
On the other hand, traditional folk games are meant to be experienced serially, iterated over and over again in multipled instances of gameplay. You can have a serial engagement with someone over a chess board or a scrabble board or on the tennis court or the golf course or in the Werewolf or Mafia circle. Indeed, one reason I am launching GROWL the International Werewolf League next month is to promote serial engagement through mutiple local Werewolf chapters.
I'm just trying to get some thoughts formally out here, because I have been obsessing about the pleasures of serial entertainment since the Sweet ValleyHigh series, which I started reading when I was 7 years old. And I have a feeling that investigating the psychology and social power of serial experience, specifically around both traditional broadcast and new digital distribution networks, is going to be an important task for me going foreward.