At its peak, ‘Lost’ sketched out how television might genuinely merge with the internet to create something a new form
Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on March 27, 2006.
I’ve been as impressed with the way that the creators of Lost have enabled interaction around the show as with the show itself. Perhaps ‘enabled’ could be replaced with ‘coordinated’ or even ‘manipulated’, but strategically, the call-and-response relationship between the form of the show and the unfolding interaction across varying platforms would appear to indicate a very sophisticated understanding of contemporary media indeed. To aid communication, I’ve attempted to illustrate this process with a hastily-produced graphic score (below), but first, some set-up …
A while ago, I wrote about a theory of using the ripples made possible by new on-demand media, to enable a trackable, discoverable ‘social life of a broadcast’, based on our work at BBC radio.
What Lost has done is far beyond that, truly raising the bar for much mainstream media. Again, it’s ever clearer — frankly it was at the time — that all those late-90s Flash experiences, grown out of early-90s CD-ROM experiments, were largely facile attempts at ‘new media experiences’. Lost is a far more ambitious piece of media, which uses the entire web as its canvas and its entire audience as its creators. I’d suggest this piece of work — Lost, when viewed in its entirety — is truly new.
Many of the most interesting aspects are meta-media, not multi-media. And having uttered a phrase like that, I can only turn to Steven Johnson, whose book ‘Everything Bad Is Good For You’ has most clearly articulated this idea of developing layered, interwoven media, which engage fans to create further media. For example:
“As technologies of repetition allowed new levels of complexity to flourish, the rise of the Internet gave that complexity a new venue where it could be dissected, critiqued, rehashed, and explained. Years ago I dubbed these burgeoning Web communities “para-sites,” online media that latches onto traditional media, and relies on those larger organisms for their livelihood. Public discussion of popular entertainment used to limit itself to the dinner table and the water coller, but as we saw in the Apprentice fan site debate, the meta-conversation itself has grown deeper and more public. Even a modestly popular show — like HBO’s critically acclaimed drama Six Feet Under — has spawned hundreds of fan sites and discussion forums, where each episode is scrutinized and annotated with an intensity usually reserved for Talmudic scholars. The fan sites create a public display of passion for the show, which nervous Hollywood execs sometimes use to justify renewing a show that might otherwise be canceled due to mediocre ratings.” [Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good For You]
Johnson wrote about Lost specifically in The Times a while back. It was clearly a proof-of-concept moment, and looking at the recap/messageboard site, Television Without Pity for instance, I reckon he’s right.
Television Without Pity is interesting in itself: an apparently semi-professional TV para-site (in best sense), with the bravura chutzpah of a fansite despite being ‘partnered with’ Yahoo!. Given that Yahoo! has been training its sights on television for a while, TWP is arguably a professional media organ now, but manages to cloak that beautifully. It retains credibility and irreverent humour (check any recaps by Erin) such that it sits like a kind of buffer zone between the unruly wild west of blogs, boards and unofficial fansites and the shiny corporate boulevards of Big Media. Very cleverly disguising any sense of business strategy. Again, check the forums to see the true devotion, sharp insight, rapier wit and apparently unlimited time of kids who want to talk about telly. Just look at the number of replies and views. (See also the importance of text in all this. An entire land-mass of words.)
If only Johnson had waited a year to make his own release with this book. Lost doesn’t just confirm much of what he has to say; it amplifies it a thousand-fold. This is partly in the complex layered form of the show itself, but also in the activity around the shows, some of it orchestrated and controlled but most left to grow untended in the fertile terrain of the Internet.
Lost episodes are famously laden with arcana to pore over, deconstruct and even construct in the first place, such is the collective-imagination-run-wild of the show’s fans. For instance, this site which supplies transcripts of the eery ‘whispers’; character names are opportunities for anagrams (‘Ethan Rom’ = ‘Other Man’); there are numbers, codes everywhere; hieroglyphics; mystical allusions; references to philosophy (Locke, Rousseau); the constant casual appearance of literary works etc. The embedded puzzles involved will remind some of a certain age of the Masquerade phenomenon …
Many of these links above go to the Lostpedia wiki — an entire clone of Wikipedia devoted to the Lost universe. Wikipedia has entries too, of course. These are both ‘unofficial’ offerings around the show, but the show’s creators haven’t exactly been tardy with official offerings. The ABC site has everything you’d expect: trails, profiles, recaps, podcasts etc. They’ve also created a whole series of fake sites around the show, such as Oceanic Flight 815 or for the fictional band Driveshaft.
Elsewhere, in ‘official media land’, magazine reviews such as this recent Entertainment Weekly article provide further ripples. There are too many messageboard and community sites to count — check the Lost forum for an example. Blogs abound: Time magazine reckoned there were “more than a dozen “fan blogs”. “More than a dozen”?! And the rest. Check the Google search results for the infamous ‘numbers’ alone. Or read my colleague Chris Jones, here speculating about books glimpsed in the bunker’s library.
At the TWP forums, amidst the comments running into the hundreds of thousands, we find a telling quote: “You gotta wonder if the writers read this forum and think “Shit! That’s what that means? We need to change some things.” and “Ooh, I like that better. Let’s go with that theory”.”
I’d be amazed if Lost’s researchers weren’t reading those exact words. Some have speculated that the show is only being produced a few episodes in advance, as the screenwriters are wrangling the numerous ideas generated in fans’ forums into the script …
But the most sophisticated tactic I’ve seen deployed thus far lasted for a few seconds on-screen, and has yet to play out fully online. In series 2, episode 13 (‘The Long Con’), the Hurley character is casually seen reading a tattered manuscript found in one of the suitcases washed up on the beach.
He shows the name of the prospective book: Bad Twin by a ‘Gary Troup’, and makes an off-hand complimentary comment on the content. And the scene moves on. However, this book, Bad Twin, actually exists in Amazon.com. Scroll down and check the ‘About the author’ section to discover that Lost’s fiction and Amazon’s facts have collided …
“About the Author: Bad Twin is the highly-anticipated new novel by acclaimed mystery writer Gary Troup. Bad Twin was delivered to Hyperion just days before Troup boarded Oceanic Flight 815, which was lost in flight from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles in September 2004. He remains missing and is presumed dead.”
OK, the cover is badged as a ‘Lost’ product, so the artifice is partly lost, but still. Generating an ISBN for the book; creating an author; having an actual book written (it’s out in May); all relatively straightforward for an enterprise on this scale.
All of this creates an entry in a new data-space: in this case, the Amazon database and user experience. This is the producers of the show (presumably) actually using the identifiers of other operations to provide coherent hooks for interaction around their product. Comments, discussions, tags — all could follow. How long before there’s a Driveshaft CD available? (A while, I hope. Though it looks like there was a faux Myspace account for Driveshaft at one point.) One half expects the Sawyer character to turn up as an actual Flickr user, posting images from the beach, or more likely, selling bits of charred aircraft on eBay.
This isn’t so much product placement as identifier placement.
That book itself might shift a few copies, but more importantly, it carves out more terrain for interaction around Lost. Importantly, for the mindset of media owners, it doesn’t really matter if this interaction is uncontrolled, unbranded (in the traditional sense). As the tide of conversation rises, all their boats rise with it. (Of course, users are already doing populating these dataspaces on the show’s behalf: Flickr photos tagged with the numbers. But I’m more interested in the creators of the show itself using these tactics.)
I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine even new books such as Descriptive Metadata for Television: An End-to-End Introduction have much detail on these end-to-end tactics. What Lost should indicate for media creators working on the web is that the amount of useful interaction off-site should be far greater than that on your own website. The amount of content produced about your content should be of far greater weight than the originating content itself. This in turn creates a new kind of content, forged from a social process of collaboration with users, viewers, listeners.
What Lost indicates is the power of understanding this new media terrain, and modifying your product in order to take advantage. This is truly McLuhan territory, with the old medium now responding to the form of the new. It signals that the form of content articulated by Johnson in Everything Bad Is Good For You is indeed incredibly powerful when allied to the Internet, such that approaches for media working with the latter should now include a fully variegated range of controlled releases which filter and ripple out across an increasingly uncontrollable terrain. By infiltrating almost every level of the stack, the producers of Lost appear to have a thoroughly deep understanding of this combined new media.
And so to the inevitable diagram.
This graphic notation (visually influenced by George Crumb’s scores, but not conceptually, alas) indicates the way that part of the interaction around a single episode of Lost plays out. This indicates a full circle of US release to UK release, via Bittorrent/iTunes distribution etc. This is merely the interaction I’ve witnessed; there will be much more than this. Moreover, this applies only to broadcast and online distribution; not DVD releases, spin-offs etc. Every ‘circle’ is simplified i.e. it doesn’t indicate distribution in other territories, other languages; it doesn’t track media appearances by actors, creators etc.; it doesn’t indicate merchandise or traditional marketing activities etc.
Read clockwise from the top; the inner circle indicates coordinated activity by Lost’s creators (the production, the network etc.), with outer circles indicating stimulated second-order ripples in increasingly uncontrolled spaces. This would be for the aforementioned episode 13, so reading from the middle out: activity at Amazon.com; official sites (inc. fakes); broadcast releases (inc. Bittorrent/iTunes); media responses (inc. ‘Television Without Pity’ thumbnail sketches and then recaps and then forum discussion, as well as magazine articles etc); Lostpedia; blogs etc. (inc. forums). Density and clustering equals weight and significance of event and response. I’ve picked out the relationship between the episode and the Amazon book.
It’s clearly the tip of the iceberg, to complicate with a metaphor. Imagine one for each show, each producing cumulative events and interaction. I haven’t attempted to illustrate repeat notation, or ‘harmonic’ effects, or a varying ripples between US and UK releases, say. But one could do, and I’d be keen to develop this further; as the complexity of this ‘performance’ approaches that of music, graphic notation could be useful for mapping and then orchestrating such strategies.
Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on March 27, 2006.
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