Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Serial engagement is the cornerstone of community

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.


The Dancing Kids said...

I think this post fits into my obsession with active v. passive entertainment. (We've discussed this ages ago, I believe)

Obviously an ARG is more active because it involves so much work on the part of the community (not to mention the CREATION of a community) -- but I love your idea that you can apply it to serials (That should be "passive") like 24 and Prison Break, since we end up forming smaller communities of "enthusiasts".

Mostly I am concerned as to why you and I aren't calling each other RIGHT NOW to talk about ANTM, but I am totally selfish.

Anonymous said...

This actually blends remarkably with a conversation I've been having with a filmmaker friend of mine about the "next wave" of entertainment. Coming primarily from performance and writing backgrounds he an I are probably biased toward an old-style, one way delivery of content (what princessyumyum refers to as passive entertainment).

I've noticed the tide change (especially as new shows premiere) in plot development - from serialized shows designed for syndication toward season-long arcs with a large central mystery and lots of smaller, intertwined pieces - Lost, Six Degrees, the Nine, and Heroes. Seeing it from a game-theory perspective, it's a fascinating application of serial engagement in the very design of the show. In a way, it builds the buzz-making capacity into the very fabric of the experience, forgoing the need to build it by leaking photos of your stars to US just to keep the show's name in the public eye.

But I do think you've put a name to something that hasn't fully manifested yet - the direction of the rapidly diminishing chasm between "traditional" and "new" media. The key differentiator is participation and self-identification. This sort of buy-in is the Holy Grail for writers/creators and certainly for advertisers, but it will be interesting to see how issues of "fan input" will handled - how much will the audience be able to directly affect the unfolding of plotlines? More importantly, how much control do fans really want? Too much input can destroy the excitement of the unexpected.

Comics and graphic novels have had letter columns for years, and publishers and writers are traditionally very responsive to the fan base, particularly the hard core (leading to the old trope of characters continually coming back from the dead.) I wonder if there are signs of things to come in the funnypages.

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