City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Why Lost is genuinely new media

Written in


Notice: If you care about that kind of thing, many of the following links will feature spoilers, particularly for those watching at the pace that Channel 4 dripfeed the UK releases of ‘Lost’.

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 media, to enable a trackable ‘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.

TWP 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.

On the form itself, 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 see m’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 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.

Lost object in Amazon ID-space

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.

Graphical score of a Lost episode

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; 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 time interval 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.


23 responses to “Why Lost is genuinely new media”

  1. Phil Gyford Avatar

    Interesting stuff Dan…
    I’d be interested on your thoughts as to how possible it would be to create this kind of alternate layers of interaction for a more mainstream show. Would it even be possible? Do these layers of interaction rely solely on creating a show that features endless questions and teasers that only obsessive geeks who spend a lot of time online will get involved with?


  2. JamesB Avatar

    Excellent post Dan. The ‘3rd Policeman’ incident on Lost is also worth mentioning because it shows the lengths people will go to to ‘solve’ what they perceive to be subtexts. Perhaps what we’re witnessing is a ‘game’? But a game without any formal rules, without a ‘constitution’ other than that spouted from the pulpit – the ‘sermon’ of each episode.
    The way media gets folded into new experiences and re-interpreted is quite fascinating. Do you think though that the kind of complexity you’ve shown with Lost is the result not so-much of being very savvy so much as taking risks and looking to divest control to the audience in a way that say Jamie Kane struggled to do?


  3. Dan Avatar

    Cheers Phil. Good point. I suppose what’s interesting here is how the shape of mainstream itself changes. Many broadcasters are thinking in terms of ‘fewer, bigger, better’ and more landmark programming (such as Lost, Sopranos, Six Feet Under – all the usuals; in the UK, the likes of Planet Earth, State of Play, Life on Mars etc.) … And therefore fewer filler items. This should enable in turn richer, deeper programmes. One can imagine the off-screen, off-site possibilities around many of these things. That could certainly apply to different formats, whether that’s Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing, Power of Nightmares, The Thick of It, Eastenders, sports programming, news, whatever. These are the shows people genuinely care about, i.e. not just watch, which is what broadcasters are generally trying to achieve, after all.
    Lost is interesting as the form of the content itself so clearly exemplifies Steven Johnson’s points – that the content itself changes in response to its environment; a symbiotic, supportive relationship between media offerings across platforms, united by brand/story-world. Its particular brand of dense, puzzle-based geekery won’t appeal to everyone, as you point out. I’m not even sure what its actual viewing figures are, but I’d suggest its cultural impact far outweighs them, and that may, in some senses, be far more important. Johnson also suggests that this structure works outside of the likes of Lost, or Alias, say (the TWP heartland) – for example, shows of differing genre like ER, Arrested Development, West Wing etc. (He’s mainly interested in ‘stories’, though, note. Your roots are showing, Steven.) In terms of mainstream versus niche, he also repeatedly suggests these shows actually perform well, particularly with repeat viewings, syndication and DVD views/sales taken into account, too. (His book is very US-focused, obviously. I’m also struck by what all this means for other media i.e. radio – how will that change? If at all.)
    James: Hadn’t seen that RE The Third Policeman story. Perfect. And yes, the game allusion feels appropriate – hence my nod to Masquerade. And yes again, there is an implicit ‘letting go’ involved in this kind of work – again, enabling the ‘the whole tide rising takes your boats with it’ approach. (Akin to the transparency/’giving away research’ angle I detailed in the DTI report last year.) It’s certainly a reversal for many media companies, who are used to control being a primary emotion. A reversal too of the portal approach to aggregating interaction, which even many so-called Web 2.0 enterprises still do. This is a disaggregation strategy rather than obvious aggregation … Which is about opening up the possibilities for interaction (nearly said ‘open sourcing interaction’ there but caught myself just in time) wherever they may be. And that would seem to be working in Lost’s favour, as I’ve attempted to illustrate. Obviously, a well-crafted show is a basic prerequisite too (alongside luck, timing etc).
    As for the BBC, I intentionally didn’t go near what we could/couldn’t do in the piece above, even though some of it has its roots in workplace discussion. It’s tricky for a public service organisation to easily pursue these kinds of strategies, for many reasons, as you know (in my view, more fair trading & market impact rather than ‘editorial policy/control’ though I take your point). However, we have a few ideas up our sleeve, which hopefully I’ll be able to post about shortly (some currently available via Radio 1; more to follow). While not at the level described above, these are all about being with the audience, wherever they are, rather than forcing them to come to us …


  4. Guardian Unlimited: Organ Grinder Avatar

    Getting Lost online

    Do you want to know how to go about getting the web buzzing about your hot new TV show? Well try reading this Cityofsound blog, which looks at how the people behind Lost went about promoting their show online. And…


  5. scola Avatar

    Great post, Dan, and only supported by the fact that a rather fluffy pop-culture magazine like Entertainment Weekly would <a,6115,1178388_3||1045714|1_,00.html”> attempt to make some sense of “the Map” that appeared during the black out as Locke was pinned under the hatch security wall, last episode.


  6. scola Avatar

    Sorry, seem to have had some trouble with the link to the piece I mentioned above. Let’s try again — EW on “The Map”.


  7. Mags Avatar

    As for the BBC, I intentionally didn’t go near what we could/couldn’t do in the piece above, even though some of it has its roots in workplace discussion.
    I can mention, from the external point of a fan, the massive online and meta interaction being created by Doctor Who. There’s the official site but there are also the mini-sites, which are not linked to from the official sites, though they are created by BBCi (and obviously, fans have used the “whois” to track down who owns the sites). Those sites are found by fans, linked to, and the easter eggs discovered. Then they are discussed in places like Live Journal or the Outpost Gallifrey forum, and interwoven with the series. Then there is TWP (based on the US run just started on SCI-FI), fanfic, icon-making, the mobile phone trailers from BBCi, the satallite programming on CBBC and BBC3, the two print magazines, the books…
    At one point, there was a theory that the BBC was ‘allowing’ the leaks. So the first episode ‘escaping’ had the advantage of drawing the inevitable “I’m disappointed it’s not the best thing ever” reviews from Ain’t It Cool News and the most fanatical fans, so that when it was broadcast, expectations weren’t so exaggerated. And, obviously, the leak meant more publicity as it became a news story. Of course, all this paragraph is an example of the extreme meta debate Who brings up.
    When the new series was announced, there was a lot of concern that Outpost Gallifrey – and all the fan activity that had evolved over the last sixteen years – would be shut down, in the same way that Fox shut down a lot of X-Files activity, but the suspicion is now that the BBC tacitly allows all the fan activity because it adds to the sense of Who being something big and loved.


  8. Unexpected Nut Avatar

    Lost in the Media

    This is a great article discussing Lost as media experience vs/ TV show.


  9. nick s Avatar
    nick s

    I’m hoping that Dan or Adrian Hon will be around in a bit, but I remember Sean Stewart discussing the A.I. game, where sections were written on the hoof in order to keep up or respond to the work of the cloudmakers.
    “When the players noticed the picture of a DonuTech employee was the same piece of stock photography used for one of the Belladerma geishas, I wrote in one of my favorite sf stories of the game, the Step-Self.”
    Authors sometimes say that their readers make connections that they weren’t conscious of writing, and that those connections aren’t just valid: they become essential. And with sequential media, this isn’t necessarily a new thing. While part-work novels like those of Dickens or multi-volume works like ‘Tristram Shandy’ certainly were not subject to the kind of instant in-depth discussion that TWoP offers, authors were certainly aware of readers’ responses and expectations, and worked with those in mind. And this departure from the myth of the unitary, self-complete work (New Criticism etc.) is something to celebrate. Instead, we have a self-containing mythos, an in-game environment: something like a sophisticated MUD in which the writers have the wizbits.


  10. Nick Avatar

    This is a fantastic post – but to sidetrack a step to your original snarky remark about Channel 4’s broadcasting delay: Everyone I know here in the UK who cares about Lost either downloads it every week, keeping them up to speed with the US – or they know someone who does, and occasionally watch it with them. The TV broadcasters completely missed the boat when it comes to delayed releases. God knows why they do it.


  11. Dan Avatar

    Thanks for the comments, all. Good stuff. And Nick, completely agree; that’s exactly why I put the ‘Bittorrent’ release on the graphical score – suggesting that someone in the UK could watch the US ‘release’ months before the official UK broadcast. It completely breaks the model of different releases per territory, and arguably pushes the whole enterprise towards the idea of simultanous global release, as per blockbuster movies. Difficult to get any real numbers, but we can assume that the current numbers of people downloading will be small compared to ‘official broadcast’; yet growing rapidly. And proportionately higher for the kind of programmes that people genuinely care about, as you suggest.


  12. the chutry experiment Avatar

    Saturday Afternoon Media Links

    Just a couple of links I don’t want to lose: first, via Steven Berlin Johnson, Dan Hill’s fascinating blog post arguing that Lost is genuinely new media. I’ve been thinking about, writing about, and theorizing new media a lot this…


  13. Guardian Unlimited: Organ Grinder Avatar

    Trackback: Getting Lost online from Guardian Unlimited: Organ Grinder: “Do you want to know how to go about getting the web buzzing about your hot new TV show? Well try reading this Cityofsound blog, which looks at how the people behind Lost went about promoting their show online. And…” [Read More]


  14. Avatar

    Trackback: Why Lost is genuinely new media from “” [Read More]


  15. Unexpected Nut Avatar

    Trackback: Lost in the Media from Unexpected Nut: “This is a great article discussing Lost as media experience vs/ TV show. …” [Read More]


  16. the chutry experiment Avatar

    Trackback: Saturday Afternoon Media Links from the chutry experiment: “Just a couple of links I don’t want to lose: first, via Steven Berlin Johnson, Dan Hill’s fascinating blog post arguing that Lost is genuinely new media. I’ve been thinking about, writing about, and theorizing new media a lot this…” [Read More]


  17. alistair Avatar

    Have you started playing the Lost game yet?


  18. Dan Avatar

    Oh do catch up, Guardian.


  19. zanet Avatar

    Hi There
    you may be interested in this site i found
    it seems everyone in the world cant help themselves by not allowing the clock to countdown to 000:00
    i found it on


  20. sue Avatar

    The lost game has moved on-its revealing more about the mysteries of Lost and is far more accessible -check the video blog at


  21. Atoms Avatar

    Well, Matrix did the exact same thing years before…


  22. kampery Avatar

    This is a fantastic post – but to sidetrack a step to your original snarky remark about Channel 4’s broadcasting delay: Everyone I know here in the UK who cares about Lost either downloads it every week, keeping them up to speed with the US – or they know someone who does, and occasionally watch it with them. The TV broadcasters completely missed the boat when it comes to delayed releases. God knows why they do it.


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