Monday, July 28, 2008

ARGs and the Changing Face of Fiction Online

A fascinating pair of posts ran recently on two separate websites about the ARG (alternate reality game) marketing techniques around The Dark Knight (which, as it just came out in the UK, I have not yet seen.) The first post on Movie Marketing Madness describes in excruciating detail every piece of 'alternate reality' created by the Dark Knight’s agency. It is an amazing and exhaustive list: I don't think it's hyperbolic to state that this is probably the most complex and involved ARG to date.

The second was a post labelled [RANT] on sci-fi blog io9 called The Argument Against ARGs. I wouldn't even call it a rant: the author does a good job summarizing the basic history of ARGs (although the excellent ARG for Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero album isn't included, and it beats the socks off iheatbees) but outlines a very real problem with ARGs. Money quote(s):

    I see nothing wrong with making advertising more fun, and there's no doubt that a lot of people enjoy playing ARGs. What I do have a problem with is the way ARGs seem to have no lives of their own – they feel like they exist solely to advertise another story. At least videogame tie-ins to movies are marketed as their own, standalone items.

    With a few notable exceptions, ARGs are basically treated like walk-in commercials a lot of the time. But commercials can't really masquerade as games: It's foolish for entertainment companies to assume that they can get audiences to forget that they're being virally marketed to. And yet I think ARGs are temping as advertising campaigns because their structures inspire so many of the fan behaviors that media companies translate into instant dollar signs. But getting people to run around and do things is not the same as inviting an audience to enjoy a compelling narrative with a bunch of pals. So with an ARG I get a crappy cell phone instead of a cool fan community? ...

    [w]hat I'd like to see are ARGs for their own sakes — ARGs that involve fans not because they give away posters or free showings, but because they are genuinely compelling tales that you actually want to interact with. A best-case scenario for ARGs might be that they ditch parent stories altogether, becoming their own entities.
Emphasis mine.

This is exactly my problem with ARGs and why they may very well be the next great form of entertainment.

Allow me a digression for a moment. One of the best books I've read in the last five years is Mark Z. Danielewski's stunning House of Leaves, which is many things to many people: a very unique horror novel, a satire of literary criticism, and potentially 'just plain fucking weird.' The book itself is a labyrinth of footnotes that lead to more footnotes, different colors of text that may or may not have meaning, size and positioning of text, stories within stories and stories within footnotes. There's even a 'soundtrack' of sorts – the author's sister is indie music artist Poe whose album 'Haunted' is essentially a soundtrack for the book. Many of the track names mirror chapter titles in House and the title track specifically mentions 'this house of leaves' in the lyrics, and has other references to the book as well.

As I read House I began to wonder: how would this book work as a movie? Is there any way to translate these disparate elements, many of which are intended to be clues to discover the underlying plot, to an entertainment medium? My answer at the time (keep in mind, this was 2002 or so) was to release it as a DVD and include the footnotes / secondary stories as extra features accessible during the movie, or as a commentary track.

Which really isn't a bad idea, but doesn't really account for the full breadth of the book's rich puzzle and mystery. House of Leaves is essentially a mini-ARG in that it combines several elements to form a mystery with various clues. It follows a tradition of literary 'puzzles,' most notably modernist works like Ulysses and T.S. Eliot's poems, and takes it a step further by introducing a different world of magical realism and strange happenings, where houses can be bigger on the inside than the outside. A mini-ARG.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Cathy’s Book, an actual ARG and bestselling book by Jordan Weisman and others (full disclosure: I worked for Jordan's old game company, WizKids, and many of my friends for his new company, Smith and Tinker.) In fact Cathy's Book is exactly what the io9 writer was talking about: an ARG for its own sake, not selling a product. But even Cathy's Book just scratches the surface of what's possible with the myriad variety of content deployment mechanisms the Internet provides.

My job forces me to think about how to bring those mechanisms together to 'tell a client's story.' Storytelling is what PR really is, when you get down to it. Except online those stories are less about shouting at people or performing a play for them and more about involving them in writing the story yourself. Kind of like (nerd alert) running a roleplaying game. Although you have a goal in mind, the way in which you get there is based as much on player input (community input) as it is your own 'story.' The nonflexible gamemaster sucks, as does the nonflexible PR storyteller.

But it also affords massive opportunities to do exactly what Jordan did and what the io9 writer proposes to do. If 'all media is multimedia,' surely we gamemasters and storytellers should discover new ways to tell our tales online? And surely, purely from a storytelling standpoint, we can do that with ARGs for their own sake?

I pose this not as a marketer but as a writer: if literature is already becoming more gamelike and games are becoming more literary, doesn't it make sense for us to be thinking of this space not as a way to sell tickets to movies or things only tangentially-related to the ARGs that marketers create but as a new and unlimited canvas for us to start telling engaging tales to audiences who clearly want this sort of thing?

The ARG's future and its literary possibilites and implications are something to watch indeed.

Photo "Art Is Resistance - London" (from the Year Zero ARG) from Jennaphoenix' Flickr stream.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Starfish and Coffee

"Why the hell would I want to read about what someone ate for breakfast?"

My colleague Simon and I ran our digital PR 'boot camp' training for a couple of clients last week, and we got the inevitable question about the relevance of blogs, cited above.

I've always been amused by that question because it goes back to some really early Internet conversations about, well, breakfast. Actually it goes back to some of my friends' personal websites and conversations we had in college about the content there – which sometimes included what we had for breakfast.

But the breakfast meme is one that goes around often, and I suspect it's the easiest way for people to think about blogs, which are a personal publishing platform. Personal means you talk about what happens in your life, which means you blog about breakfast. Right?

That is an extreme oversimplification but I suspect it is, at its root, true. But it is absolutely a legitimate question because there are enough personal diary blogs and Twitter feeds out there: why would I want to read about what someone had for breakfast?

But for the first time I didn't just capitulate and say 'yeah, the blogosphere sure is funny huh?' Rather this was my response. Or something like it, since I now have the pleasures of hindsight, a word processor and HTML.

Actually I do want to know what people had for breakfast – sometimes. One of the greatest joys of my marriage to the Beautiful Competition is our Sunday breakfast ritual: we go to a restaurant we enjoy and have a nice breakfast, and our calorie counters can disappear for an hour or so. We talk, catch up, start enjoying the day on the weekend when we make time for us and ourselves.

In Bothell we had a favorite haunt: Alexa's Café, which I still maintain is the Eastside’s best breakfast outside of a Denny's. And really, who does a good Sunday breakfast at Denny's?

But here in old London Towne we have yet to find 'that breakfast place.' There is no Alexa's here. Hell, there isn't even a Denny's. The restaurants in my neighborhood are alright but they aren't great. They're all greasy spoon style places which isn't bad at all, except that the quality tends to be a little... suspect. But that hasn't stopped me from looking. And where have I been looking? Online. On blogs.

In fact, there is a blog called 'The London Review of Breakfasts' that does nothing but – you guessed it – review breakfast places. Big time London blog Londonist also reviews breakfast places, among other things. Their review of The Diner Camden led to not only a new and relatively satisfying breakfast adventure last week, it also led to a fun day out at the market. All the things I look for in a weekend. It's not the only London-based breakfast blog either! The Greasy Spoon (which, to be fair, covers more than breakfast) blogs about morning places to nosh as well.

In the meantime, the search for my perfect London breakfast will continue, and it will continue online.

My point with all this was to illustrate that there actually is a very legitimate reason why people might want to read about what someone had for breakfast. In fact, there's a very legitimate reason why someone might want to read just about everything. Too often we lose sight that people blog as a hobby, that they write about their experiences to share them as well as get their thoughts down. With a potential audience of six and a half billion people it stands to reason that someone out there is going to be interested in what you have to say no matter how obscure and silly you might think it is.

This isn't a call for people to blog, or a plea for my clients not to dismiss blogs because there is valuable content online. If anything it's an observation that goes back to what I discussed about white noise and tuning in to what's important to you in the vast sea of mediocrity and irrelevance online. Yes, somewhere out there is something of relevance to you. That's the beauty of all this: it may be utterly worthless to many other people but as long as you find it significant, there isn't any reason not to find, follow and participate.

Photo 'English Breakfast' by zo-ark on Flickr.

Monday, July 14, 2008

For My Friend

I have to help
You jump up to the dresser now.

And your fur
Has more mats than
It used to.

I promise I won't be mad
When you miss the litter box a little
And I won't push you down
When you jump on my lap
In the morning.

Blog New World

If I had to choose one fiction book to preserve in case of a nuclear war, it would probably be Brave New World. It was the subject of my final research paper in college, and I can say with a high degree of certainly that it is the single most influential book I’ve read. The thesis of my research paper was that as society – specifically American society, but the increasingly global society as well – comes closer to resembling that of Brave New World the people in it must decide how to deal with the knowledge of its inner workings. Do we, as John Savage did, take the final exit and commit suicide with the knowledge that we will be powerless to change the overall society as individuals? Or make a different existential choice?

Re-reading my paper I stand by my thesis that suicide is existentially irresponsible, and what I’m interested in at the moment is the way in which society is looking increasingly like that in Brave New World (for the sake of brevity and clarify, I’ll refer to that society as BNW as opposed to the full title of the book.)

Brave New World often plays second fiddle to its cousin, Orwell’s 1984. Both are dystopian novels, but postulate two very different futures. Byfar the best summary of the differences is this excerpt from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

    What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
I emphasized what I consider the most relevant part of Postman’s summary of the two novels. In BNW people are conditioned from birth to have desires and wants, to have a driving need to consume but no capacity for reasoning why and when they ask why they are socially outcast and given drugs. Contrast this with 1984 and its poor, oppressive, tyrannical society. In short, BNW is a capitalist dystopia while 1984 is a communist dystopia.

Political and economic theories aside, what interests me as a digital strategist is the BNW take on information, specifically the flood of information that would ‘reduce us to passivity and egoism’ and ‘the truth [being] drowned in a sea of irrelevance.’ At the time Postman wrote that book, the Internet was in the hands of the government, the World Wide Web still a twinkle in the eye of some college hackers, and things like blogs, Twitter, RSS, social media and even forums completely alien. There was Usenet seven years before the Endless September, but was hardly a common media type.

In other words, with the explosion of the Internet, the Web, push-button publishing and what has become collectively known as Citizen-Generated Media (blogs, YouTube videos, podcasts, and so forth) the sheer amount of information to which we have access has increased. I’m not sure by what factor, but I’m willing to guess it’s in thousands if not the millions. In other words, that sea of irrelevance just got far bigger than the few hundred magazines, few dozen TV channels and local newspapers of Postman’s time.

We were already teetering on the brink of inanity before; how do we keep from completely drowning in it? What makes information accountable in digital media? Or have we already sunk so low into the ocean that we’ve simply been reduced to passive observers, willing to blog about something but little else?

There seem to be arguments for several sides and positions within this discussion. I’m reminded that while war and genocide raged in Darfur the citizens of Digg were more concerned with the suppression of the code that would have allowed them to steal HD DVDs. Two of the most widely-read blogs online are about celebrity gossip and captioning pictures of cats with grammatically incorrect jokes. This certainly seems to support the white noise and irrelevance argument.

Take Wikipedia, which despite having ranked higher than forums, blogs, social networks and other online sources of information in Edelman’s own Trust Barometer still has a (somewhat deserved) reputation as a source of credible information as long as you’re looking for references in DragonballZ, Pokemon, or Buffy. This xkcd cartoon from the other day illustrates the point in a humorous manner, and it sparked a conversation with Seth shortly after I read it and shared it. Seth turned me on to Wikipedia which, despite its flaws, is an amazing source of information. Sure, there is some inanity on it, but part of the Wikipedia user experience is to flag it or improve it for other readers (and myself). This is the important piece that makes Wikipedia work: it’s self-correcting and the vast amount of information therein can be filtered and adjusted as necessary.

Another example of the contrary argument is how quickly the online community picked up on Iran doctoring the press images of its recent missile launch. Less than 24 hours after Iran released the images to the international press, the online community noticed they Photoshopped it (poorly) to make their missile launch look more successful than it actually was.

It remains to be seen of course whether unmasking Iran’s Photoshop shenanigans will spark and real debate that might lead to actual change in the policies that have created that state, from internal and external influences. So it’s arguable whether there is any real ‘value’ in the online community responding so quickly and accurately as far as long-term debate and dialogue go. But it certainly appears that despite the vast sea of information out there, the truth is not drowning in the irrelevant white noise yet.

Or is it? As I have been composing this post, a fascinating post went up on the IdeaLab about Polymeme and diversifying what it calls the echo chamber. I particularly like the opening bit:
    The iPhone is released. The world stops.

    While surfing around on the Internet today, you would be entirely forgiven for assuming that the only news worth talking about is the release of Apple's 3G iPhone. Of course, there are plenty of other notable and interesting conversations taking place online (among them: the ethics of for-profit fundraisers, a Danish island's march toward energy independence, and how English is "evolving into a language we may not even understand") but most of us don't know how to find those conversations as we navigate through our personal echo chamber of bookmarked websites, subscribed RSS feeds, and the web pages they link to.
The post goes on to describe the Polymeme tool, a service that scours RSS feeds for related content to introduce users to new stories.

The idea that this moves beyond the echo chamber is what roused my interest. Digital Media’s greatest strength, and that which allows it to avoid becoming a sea of complete irrelevance, is also its greatest weakness in that the most relevant can easily be lost: it is an echo chamber for most. Even so-called news aggregators like Digg are fuelled by their userbase and what that userbase feels is important, which leads to situations like the HD DVD crack being the news of the day over Darfur genocide.

The takeaway here isn’t that it is still unclear whether the digital space will liberate us from our own BNW, or be the thing that finally encapsulates us in it. The popularity of the echo chamber versus discovery tools like Polymeme is disconcerting to say the least, but even my own Twitter group leads to me discover things I never would have before. At the very least we can stave off our willing slavery for a little while longer.

Image "Savages Row" from Ruddington Photos Flickr stream.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

From The Management

The management would like to apologize for the previous post. Those responsible have been disciplined.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Communism, Corporation, Community

There's an old Polish proverb which states "Under capitalism people exploit people; under communism the reverse is true." I recalled this after a discussion with my coworker Simon the other day as we talked about our various challenges when dealing with large corporations.

My job has brought me into contact with several large, multinational companies. Some are my clients, some aren't (and full disclosure: this is not a 'naming names' post, it's a general philosophical post.) Dealing with these corporations has been an eye-opening process for me; before agency PR, my background was at a startup games company and an Oklahoma state government agency as well as some freelance writing and editing gigs. I worked for State Farm for a few summers, but never really got a taste for the full company, and State Farm isn't a multinational anyway. So my exposure to business was limited to smaller and middle-level companies, and of course government.

What strikes me about massive companies is there is a kind of internal bureaucracy normally associated with socialist and communist countries. In fact, it is the exact kind of bureaucracy many libertarians and Goldwater conservatives oppose in goverment: the kind that is a barrier to progress. I'd be remiss if I didn't indicate that it is exactly the kind of bureaucracy that the Neocon Bush Administration has spent the last eight years creating in America. The same that lead to the ultimate failure of and subsequent distrust in the bureaucracy and the administration that created it following the disasterous and murderous breakdown of the system following Hurricane Katrina. The events following Katrina justify the Goldwater conservative / Libertarian view of bureaucracy in a way that no pseudophilosophical blog post ever could.

The resemblance to this justifiably hated bureaucracy in the internal structure of large companies is remarkable. I'm not claiming that it is as dangerous as a failure of infrastructure, but the process to affect change within these bureaucracies is ultimately so convoluted and Byzantine, especially (from my point of view) as they seek to embrace social media, as to be harmful to the company and its consumers both. I realize that these internal reviews and management structures exist precisely to keep things from changing too quickly, but in the digital world it is as much a liability as it is an asset when preventing change. In fact, it's probably far more of a liability. Bureaucracy is the single-largest barrier to adaptation and positive change in either a company or a government.

But how much of a liability? Dangerous to the company certainly. The ability to not react quickly to customer concerns and to rethink PR and communications as one of interaction and customer service is something that will ultimately doom those companies seeking to engage online and go about it the 'old way' and all that implies. But don't take my word for it: Carl Ichan, CEO of Ichan Enterprises (who owns, among other things, Blockbuster) said it best in his post 'Corporate Democracy Is A Myth:

    Many American corporations are dysfunctional because corporate democracy is a myth in the United States. They run like a decaying socialistic state. Our boards and CEOs exist in a symbiotic relationship where the boards nourish the CEO with massive stock options that are re-priced downward if the companies stock declines - making them forever valuable. They reward the CEO with pay packages and bonuses when the stock is floundering or the CEO is leaving the company. Corporate performance and the shareholders welfare seldom enter the picture. What kind of democracy is this? There is no accountability.
Accountability is a word I've thrown around before when discussing the same despicable layers of bureaucracy the Neocons created, as ultimately what bureaucracy does is absolve anyone of responsibility. To go back to Katrina, the only one who really lost his job was Michael 'Brownie, you're doin' a heckova job' Brown, a man who was so criminally underqualified for his postion that whomever appointed him should be tried for the murder of people who perished in the days after Katrina. The bureaucracy created so many layers of confusion that in the end, no one except a crony stooge was accountable and the only action taken was he was fired from a job he wasn't doing and didn't need the income from anyway.

This invites other business-government comparisons as well, some of which are exceptionally relevant to engaging online. I could be snide and say Apple is a fascist dictatorship run by one man's cult of personality, but I won't. Or did I? But I'm more interested in the startup mentality from my experiences at WizKids.

The flexibility and freedom of a small to medium-sized startup is far more anagalous to an anarcho-syndicate collective working together to produce things (as opposed to a commune, which works together for the common good, an important distinction Simon pointed out earlier.) This is interesting in that it elegantly mirrors the behavior of many online communities; even within large 'communities' like Facebook people naturally congregate into smaller collectives to serve their specific interests. I realize that's an oversimplification but it's an interesting insight that the companies best equipped to take advantage of online behavior and step around the (you guessed it: bureaucratic) Old Media are those whose internal operations reflect that online behavior.

I can only speculate as to why this is; a company, like a government, in the end is nothing but a bunch of people with artificial structures. When the media structure operates in the same way as the company or government, then it seems - from a relatively small and nonscientific sample - that it is easier for the two to interface. This may be why large companies are so hesitant to embrace social media, as it reflects a system and structure so fundamentally different than the internal bureaucracies they've created that it is too alien for them to comprehend.

I certainly welcome thoughts from anyone who bothered to read this entire rambling piece.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Same Dream

The way it begins varies but it always ends up the same: I'm in some kind of large store, always with my wife. People are buying strange old things like broken furniture, giant rolled rugs and cardboard boxes. It's extremely colorful and garish, and there are piles of old things just sitting around as if they were garbage but they're for sale too.

I run past all this and I realize I've got something sharp in my mouth. Most of the time it's a bunch of nails but sometimes it's sewing pins or needles or razor blades. I try to find the bathroom but I can't speak to ask where it is, and I have to stop to keep one of them from sliding down my throat, physically by putting my finger in my mouth. It's hard because I can feel the other pins there and they poke my finger.

I finally find the bathroom and it resembles a cross between a YMCA locker room and a slaughterhouse. The floor is made of olive-and-yellow tiny square tiles but it is covered with what I know is small pieces of blood and flesh, each maybe the size of a ball of cotton. I run over to the sink and spit out the pins, but some of them have stuck in my skin. Some have even poked all the way through my cheeks. I pick them out one by one and the holes start to bleed a little.

And that's typically about the time I wake up.

The picture above is by Polish artist Z. Beksinski and is available for sale at this gallery online.