A Response to Ian Bogost (Part One)

Ian Bogost wins the award for being first to market with a thorough, thoughtful critique of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.

The review is worth reading in its entirity because it really does set a high bar for debate and discussion around this book. Bogost does all of us a great service in taking on this task: the review is helpful to me in identifying some of the battlegrounds that are apt to emerge around this book. As I wrote to him, there are some points of real disagreement here, some points where we place different emphasis, and some points where we agree more than his summary of the book suggests. Some of his criticisms made me wince; some left me scratching my head. I wish I had read some of them before the book went to press.

It seems the most constructive thing one can do at this point is to respond to some of his questions publically in the hopes of getting a larger conversation going around the issues he raises. Because I wanted to respond fully to a range of interesting questions Bogost raised, I am going to be running my response over my next three posts.

I Can’t Belive It’s Margarine!

Bogost’s review begins promisingly enough from my perspective with the following lines:

The book is a short, smart, buttery read on a hot topic, and it is sure to draw both popular and academic interest.

I cite this passage here — other than my amusement over the buttery metaphor — just to show that he really does seem to like the book. (Bless you, Ian, for calling the book “short.” It has to be the first time in human history I haven’t been accused of being long winded.) Hinceforth, I am going to generally ignore the many nice things he says about the book in order to address points of disagreement. I am not trying to pick a fight with Bogost, who I admire, simply trying to respond to the issues that seem most urgent here and I have told Bogost I am planning to do this. My hope is that I can coax him to respond to my response and keep the exchange going.

Reality and Fiction

The discussion of collective intelligence in the Survivor community offers a welcome counterpoint to prevailing ideas that “puzzling” over apparently complex mass-media offers cognitive and cultural value in and of itself, such as those recently advanced by Steven Johnson; the Survivor spoilers are solving a real problem, rather than becoming drawn in to the elusive, unplanned web of J.J. Abrams telescripts gone awry.

This is one of the passages that left me scratching my head. Yes, I think it matters on all kinds of levels that the Survivor fans are exploring something that occured in the real world rather than a work of fiction. They can pool money and send representatives to the Amazon or Pearl Island and interview real people. The fans of Lost really don’t have a chance to crawl down into that hatch and see what they can get from looking around. There’s something fascinating about the experiences of Mario Lanza, the fan fiction writer who corresponds with and gets advice from his characters because they are real people. But I bristle a little at the hierarchy between reality and fiction implicit in this argument.

Perhaps Bogost doesn’t like Lost as much as I and many of my students do. But a key assumption running through my book is that we can use fiction as a vehicle to talk through core concerns and that the activity of making sense of fiction may teach us skills that can be put to a broader array of other purposes. It may be true to Abrams and company are making up what’s happening on Lost as they go — in part in response to the speculations of the fan community. This doesn’t devalue it as art — after all, we know Dickens did more or less the same with the serial publications of his novels. People are still talking about real issues when they talk about Lost, whether they are discussing the spiritual conflicts faced by the characters or the show’s representation of the politics of Iraq, Korea, and Africa. They are also learning how to work within a knowledge community and working through the ethics of collaborative information production and knowledge sharing in ways that have larger applications.

Similarly, I think we can use Survivor to ask some fundamental questions about group dynamics, sexuality, gender, race, and so forth, and as I suggest in the book, I think reality television poses a series of ethical questions that are designed to become the stuff of gossip within the fan community. It’s ability to do so may have less to do with its factual status (especially given how contrived the situation is in the first place) and more to do with its rhetorical and dare I say, narrative construction. But the most important thing in both cases is they provide shared reference points around which conversations cane emerge. In the book’s terms, they act as cultural attractors bringing like minded individuals together to form a reception community and as cultural activators giving the community something to do which exploits the resources of a collective intelligence.

Affective Economics

In particular, economic changes like the decreasing value of the 30-second television spot are forcing mass media into cultural convergence. Survivor and American Idol represent instances of what Jenkins calls affective economics, a marketing technique that appeals to consumers’ emotional vicissitudes. I found it curious that Jenkins chose to invent this somewhat awkward term for a concept that has many names in contemporary marketing theory, including associative advertising and lifestyle marketing. One might assume that Jenkins knows about these concepts, but chooses not to mention them in order that he can reconnect the same underlying concept to cultural studies and fan communities. Yet, he also argues that affective economics is “on the fringes” in the media industry, suggesting that he may have a greater distinction in mind.

The problem of terminology is a vexing one in a book like Convergence Culture. Because the space involves imput from many different sectors, because the phenomenon discussed is evolving, and because there are almost always competing paradigms present to account for any observed phenomenon, there are always multiple terms you could use to describe a particular set of practices. Bogost has identified several places here where I had to drive a stake in the ground and I went with what seemed to me to be the best term to describe what I was talking about.

Frankly, I am less invested in these terminological questions than Bogost is. I see the varied terms as different ways of describing the same phenomenon. Each term helps us see some aspects more clearly and makes others harder to see. For that reason, there’s an argument to be made for keeping multiple terms in play rather than trying to figure out which one is best. If my words are useful, use them. If not, dump them.

He’s right that part of what I was trying to do in this chapter was to show the match between what academics in cultural and media studies had said about fans and an emerging discourse about the role of emotional investments within the brand space. I intended the phrase, affective economics, to be a tad oxymoronic. We tend to think of economics as a cold rational field quite removed from emotion. I wanted to suggest the various ways that people are trying to attach value to emotion in the new media economy. I was interested in several things: the talk about “lovemarks” or “emotional capital” which was shaping the strategies of brand managers and advertising executives; the degree to which research inside the industry was demonstrating in economic terms the value of fan commitments to programs; the work by Robert Kozinets and others about brand communities and the ways they parallel fan communities; and the ways that product placements sought to connect the emotions associate with entertainment onto products embedded within that story.

Some aspects of what I am calling affective economics are deeply embedded in current advertising practice, referred to by the various terms Bogost identifies (“lifestyle marketing,” “associative advertising,” “relationship marketing,” etc.) while others are still emerging — such as the focus on “favorite viewers” as opposed to demographic or ratings to measure the success of a program.

I am convinced that this shift represents the best means we have of getting media producers to reassess their relationship to their consumers and that seems to be key to the long term viability of participatory culture. In the book, I cite Grant McCracken’s observations that companies will have a legal right for the foreseeable future to tightly control their intellectual property and shut down most forms of fan participation but they will have an economic interest in opening themselves up to greater participation from their consumers. One of the reasons for this is that they are discovering, perhaps some would say rediscovering, the value of committed consumers.

When I talk to executives at advertising companies or media companies, I get two key messages right now: one, they are terrified about losing control of their brands or products; they fear what the consumer can do to them through online communications. Second, they want very much to build a strong brand community that will help support their brands and products. And for the short term, this makes it possible to rewrite our contracts with the media company.

Part of what I wanted to stress in the book was Robert Kozinet’s argument that brand communities can both promote and police the behavoir of media companies — can help them reach new consumers, can hold them accountable for bad decisions. This happens because we are no longer talking about isolated consumers; we are talking about groups that pool knowledge, deliberate together, and take collective action. At one point, I refer to these new brand communities as collective bargaining units.

I was intrigued by Jenkins’s willing adoption of lifestyle marketing practices, mostly since I have been such a vocal critic of this type of advertising, both here (1, 2) and, in considerably more detail, in my forthcoming book Persuasive Games: Videogames and Procedural Rhetoric. Essentially, my argument is that lifestyle marketing does not address consumers’ actual lifestyles, but fashions lifestyles as constructs that marketers manipulate consumers to adopt.

This point of disagreement probably deserves a whole blog post in and of itself. To make short work of it, I think Bogost is right that lifestyle marketing can be an empty gesture, a desire to herd us into fixed demographic categories that may have little or nothing to do with how we actually live and think. I suspect, though, that this form of lifestyle marketing is apt to become less and less effective as we are able to get together with like-minded individuals and share insights on the web. Bloggers are pretty aggressive at unmasking and debunking lifestyle pitches that seem inauthentic or run counter to the established practices and beliefs of particular communities. Most of the brand communities I am describing emerge bottom up from the grassroots, though companies may step in to facilitate their activities more fully. These communities emerge because we have authentic investments in the goods that constitute our everyday life and because brands express meanings that we draw upon to express our identities.

The fact that brands serve a range of other functions for the companies that produce and market them doesn’t take away from the fact that we also make use of those brands for our own expressive purposes. For example, having grown up in Atlanta as part of a certain generation, I feel a strong emotional bond to Coca Cola. Its international success as a company becomes an extension of my pride in my home town. This was especially powerful when I was a boy and Atlanta was first fighting to become a global city. It was astonishingly important to me that I knew that Coke was a product produced in Atlanta and consumed around the world. I still feel that aura around Coca Cola even though I have an allergic reaction to carbonation that means I don’t actually drink Coke. In that sense, my emotional investment in the brand is totally divorced from the reality of the product and does not even translate directly into my role as a consumer. It is up to Coca Cola’s advertising executives to figure out how to transform my warm feelings towards the company into purchasing decisions. And in my case, I am a hard sell because it makes me sick to drink the stuff. While I think advertising plays with powerful emotions, those emotions do not necessarily over-ride our rational judgements about how the actual product will operate in the context of our own lives.

Again, I am interested in what happens when the top-down efforts of companies to sell products meet bottom-up forces from consumers who are asserting their identity through their relationship to products. I avoid the classic cultural studies term, resistence, in describing this because it paints too simple a picture of what’s going on. Sometimes, these interests are alligned, sometimes they are opposed. In most cases, some kind of negotiation has to occur to reconcile them. Most of them time they are “impure” in that they represent some complex blending of subcultural and commercial motives. The emergence of brand communities interest me because they are both an expansion of corporate reach and an expansion of consumer power.

I tried my best to honor Jenkins’s request for readers to “bracket their anxieties about consumerism,” but I never felt that he returned to the problem in earnest. Hopeful appeals to future potential are nice, but I expected more vision and leadership on this topic. It’s possible that advertising just doesn’t bother Jenkins very much; it is, after all, the primary fuel of popular culture.

I recognized that the American Idol chapter was going to be one of the most controversial in the book — especially for academic readers. Let’s face it: the academic world has sought to distance itself from the commercial sector for a long, long time. I think in doing so though we have lost the ability to frame meaningful critiques or engage in dialogue with some core forces within our society. We act as if there was something obscene about money or as if advertising was right next to child pornography on the ethical scale. As long as we start from this premise, we will not be able to meaningfully engage in the conversations that are shaping our culture. We will not be able to talk to people in the business world and have any chance of having them take our ideas seriously.

In other parts of the world (Canada, UK, Australia), media and cultural studies have been very actively involved in policy work, connecting on a regular basis with key government leaders, consulting in the formation of key policies that impact their society. In the United States, we have been largely locked out of those conversations. We don’t have a seat at the table. Our government listens to social scientists about cultural matters but not those of us in the Humanities. In these other countries, though, it isn’t as if the academics fully agree with the policymakers or totally support their agendas. But they have agreed to suspend disagreements on some levels in order to engage productively on others. In this country, our culture is shaped more by corporate decisions than government policies (though I would argue our desire to turn every conversation into a struggle against the entire economic system doesn’t make us effective in either sector).

So, yes, it is probably true that I am less worried by the commercial aspects of our culture, including advertising, than Bogost is. I personally enjoy many products — cultural and otherwise — produced by American industry and do not think that commercialization per se corrupts the artistic process. It can but it doesn’t have to. All art is produced in an economic context which shapes to some degree what gets produced. I would say the track record for popular entertainment under capitalism is pretty good.

Right now, I am choosing to engage in other kinds of conversations with industry, conversations designed to increase media company’s responsiveness to their consumers. Perhaps it might be best to think of what I am calling for in the book is a consumer rights movement for consumers of popular culture — a fan politics as it were.

In that regard, sweeping critiques of consumer capitalism seem less productive than more focused discussions of specific policies and practices. I think it can be productive to be critical of specific industry practices that may improve or diminish the quality of our lives. I think most consumers have made some kind of peace with the commercial impulses that surround them, have learned to read through them much of the time, have resigned themselves to accept them as a necessary evil if the result is getting access to entertainment or products they want. I see consumers increasingly savy about the economic interests that shape the culture they consume and more and more willing to make trade-offs which serve their interests.

I saw my book as addressed as much at the media industries as at consumers and was trying to provide a space where both sides could understand the other’s perspectives a bit more clearly. Swatting your readers with a newspaper is hardly the best way to open up a dialogue. I fully expect the information provided in that chapter to be deployed in a range of different arguments about whether this new model of consumption is a good thing or a bad thing. I may even engage in some of those arguments from time to time. But what I was trying to do there was describe, as accurately as I could, how this new style of affective economics works by looking more closely at a specific advertiser, Coca Cola, and at a specific franchise, American Idol.

With luck, this book will push debates about consumerism to another level, allowing for more nuanced discussions of what is going on right now. Too often, critics of consumerism act as if nothing has changed in the ways brands operate since the 1950s. Bogost is a much more nuanced thinker on this subject: his critiques here of lifestyle marketing suggest a real engagement with contemporary industry discourse; he has also worked himself extensively in and around advertising so he has some front line perspective on this. I expect to learn a lot from his book. It’s just apt to be a very different kind of book than the one I set out to write.

I do think I am offering both vision and leadership in trying to find the basis for reaproachment between academics and industry. I don’t think the only way to show leadership is to go in with guns blazing. I As I suggest in the book’s conclusion, the fight for the quality of our culture is one which needs to be fought on different levels.

In Part Two, I will take up Bogost’s critique of my concept of transmedia storytelling and some of my arguments about fan culture. Since issues of commercialization run through his argument, they will resurface throughout this response.


  1. Thanks for this start to what is sure to become a lively discussion, one I’m looking forward to having here. I’m going to be indisposed all day, so I wanted to post a quick reply that is mostly a promise of a longer one. A couple quick notes:

    (1) Yes! I really did enjoy the book. Thanks for noting that for your readers so they don’t think I’m just an ornery grouch.

    (2) I’ll explain this more later, but I think I wasn’t clear about my comparison of Lost and Survivor. I suspected at the time that I should explain myself further, but I didn’t want to get too far off topic in the review. I wasn’t trying to privilege reality over fiction, actually, but real puzzles over false ones. I understand why you were scratching your head, and I’ll try to explain later what I meant.

  2. Woo! Lively discussion! This is great. As I have not read the entire text of Convergence Culture yet, I will have to refrain from weighing in on the book itself until I get my own hands on that hot little buttery snack. ^_^ But I wanted to comment on the Survivor vs. Lost comparison made by Bogost in his review. As a puzzle designer and mystery evocateur, this is actually something I think about a lot– what does it mean to ask a community to solve an ACTUAL mystery versus giving them a playground/storyworld to find all kinds of not necessarily solvable intrigue and enigmas. The thing about LOST (and not the LOST experience ARG, but rather the show and original extended media online) is that as far as I can tell the community is not being asked to investigate something with a defined, existant solution. It is interpretation, like figuring out what Joyce meant in a Ulysses, not puzzle solving in the “you’ll know the answer when you find it” sense. I think both forms of collective investigation have outstanding uses; indeed, ARGs generally combine both. But we should definitely mark their difference– not so much as reality vs. fiction, but actual vs. interpretive.

  3. Jane touches on the core issue I was trying to tease out of the Lost/Survivor comparison. As an example of collective intelligence, I think Survivor depicts the “good side” of distributed problem solving, and I was happy read the chapter on it in the book. You don’t read Lost in the same detail in the book (which is fine), and my comparison of the two was intended to offset your (convincing) discussion of collective intelligence in Survivor with the (less convincing) discussion of fan participation around Lost in, say, Steven Johnson’s recent work. Let me explain this a bit further.

    I’m a comparatist, so I love fiction. My beef with Lost and shows like it is not that they are fictional, but they that they use collective intelligence as an empty promise, implying that there is some actual riddle the creators have developed, which viewers could figure out, individually or collectively, but which actually does not exist. When I say riddle here, I have in mind the kind that Nick Montfort has written about in Twisty Little Passages, and which he summarizes here, which is the same as what Jane means by puzzle above.

    Attenuating a serial’s content to fan responses is nothing new, as you note. But there is a difference between that attenuation (which does not require the structure of the riddle), and the use of a “false” riddle as a means of “simulating” an actual enigma. In the case of Lost, it is not the fact that the writers are figuring it out as they go that devalues the show, but rather the fact that they appear to promise a riddle but deliver an open-ended storyworld that simulates a riddle. In my opinion (you knew this was coming), this technique is primarily used to hook viewers and insure their commitment to the show in order to increase the value of the broadcast’s advertising dollars. Such value is the primary currency of consolidated media, but it also benefits creator JJ Abrams, who gets a cut of the show’s value thanks to his role as creator and executive producer. So, there is a financial incentive toward false riddles or riddle simulations, which are arguably easier to craft than real one. While Lost hasn’t run its course, Abrams has a history of false riddles in his work… the most prominent being the ill-formed prophecies of Milo Rambaldi.

    If I can play Slavoj Zizek for a moment, we might compare the nature of Lost’s false riddle to the Lacanian signifier, which slips endlessly from signfier to signifier, forming the void that structures desire. The signfieds of Lost’s “unconscious” slip from episode to episode, supporting the viewer’s desire for a solution that can never be realized — only canceled along with the show.

    As for the expressive value of Lost, certainly viewers can apply interpretations to the show, as well as they can to any work. We could debate the nature, quality, and depth of the spirital conflicts and politics represented in Lost, but I won’t deny that they might inspire further interrogation. My intention was to contrast the targets of collective intelligence in Survivor with those in Lost.

  4. Reading this discussion on creating/solving mystery, I was reminded of the Twin Peaks franchise.

    I’m curious to know what the writer/readers/commenters take is on the

    nature of the twists/turns of the mysterious plotline of Twin Peaks?

    Has this (i.e. the nature of the plotline) increased or decreased the value of the broadcast’s advertising dollars?

    I think when Twin Peaks was released some people were fascinated by the mystery as presented in the series (cf. the X-files series that appealed because of the “there’s something out there” feeling, a feeling that continues to “haunt” us actually – Twin Peaks is still popular: the franchise will get another boost when the remaining footage of Fire Walk With Me will be released) and challenged to find out whodunnit. They were hooked.

    Maybe some became less hooked as the series progressed, especially when the prequel Fire Walk With Me was released which unraveled mysteries that they thought should have remained unrevealed and/or they thought the (dark) nature of the prequel did not connect with the series.

    Other people were alienated by the weirdness of the story and found in incomprehensible *unsatisfying).

    I think the latter group was the biggest, which means the value of the broadcast’s advertising dollars could’ve been higher had the series been made more accessible (less weird, more comprehensible).

  5. I beg to differ with Ian’s account of Lost, and I wonder if his dismissal of its riddle/puzzle possibilities are based on the show itself or its serial form. The realities (both economic and practical) of serial television disallow the producers from “completing” the full series from the start of its consumption (as in stand-alone puzzles like mystery novels or videogames), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a “real” puzzle or riddle. From all I’ve read about the show (which is a lot), there is an ending & solution already devised, and they never pose a question they lack an answer for. There is fluidity to respond to audience responses, creative shifts, or practical limitations (like troublesome actors), but at its core I have little doubt that there is a plan, there are answers, the producers intend for the show to conclude (if ABC will let them), and things can be figured out along the way (quite collectively on sites like http://lostpedia.com ). It may be more “interpretation” (per Jane’s comment) than “solving,” but puzzles like “are the Others actually good guys?” can be debated, analyzed, and theorized. How is it less of a riddle than spoiling Survivor?

    My question for Ian would be whether it’s possible to create a serialized fictional riddle, per your definition? An ongoing multi-year puzzle like Lost must be nested with smaller mysteries to sustain interest, and withholding clues that would allow viewers to figure out everything too early in the show. Changes will be made along the way. Does this invalidate the riddle form per se, or is the serial form somehow incompatable with such puzzling pleasure? I don’t think so, as seriality demands differing expectations.

    Enjoying the conversation between the two of you!

  6. Whirl– Twin Peaks comparison seems very apt. I believe the real problem with Twin Peaks was not its inaccessibility but the eventual growing dread that David Lynch was making it all up as he went along. Viewers wanted to believe there was a knowable solution– same with LOST. I believe many people are turned off by JJ Abrahm’s work because of the same sense that he is making it up as he is going along (Alias suffered from this growing belief midway through its run, too). There is no gnostic pleasure in a mystery that has no solution when it is first posed. On the other hand, one of 24’s great pleasures is the knowledge that its plotline is being made up on the fly and therefore is capable of (indeed, seems prone to) reflecting the audiences’ experience. The writers like to shock viewers by playing against what they come to realize are the audiences’ expectations– they also like to reward viewers by giving big drama to audiences’ favorite emergent characters. But 24 doesn’t have a gnostic element– so it works.

  7. Jason —

    What I hear you saying is that that the open-jawed duration of television series foreclose “structured” riddles of a fixed nature, since the creators must find ways of filling anunknowable amount of time. Let me comment.

    A genuine riddle can be solved (Jenna is the winner of Survivor; Bruce Willis’s character is dead in The Sixth Sense). The problem lies not so much that the creators of television series like Lost pretend that there is a solution when there isn’t… rather, the problem lies in the fact that they never pose a question, yet then they drop new “clues” that are really just posturings in a pretense meant to postpone both question and solution. The very idea that the producers have an ending in mind begs the question of what an ending would mean in the first place. What, in short, is the riddle posed in Lost? (How did they get on the island? Do they get off? Is it real? What is DHARMA?) The very fact that the riddle itself is held in suspense — that we don’t know the question posed by the riddle — seems to suggest that whatever it is that is at work in the machinations of Lost, it is not a riddle.

    Media like Lost may be great examples of fan communities creating elaborate “interpretations” or interventions. But I still think the questions you call “puzzles” (“Are the Others good guys”) are left open to defer meaning for commercial, not expressive purposes — they muster tremendous fan energy around problems that simply cannot be spoiled. I know that Henry (and you too, from the sound of it) believe that these fan gestures are disruptive to commercial enterprise, but I think the argument for such disruption is much stronger in the case of Survivor than in the case of Lost. And just to circle back, that’s part of why I was so happy to read Henry’s chapter on Survivor in the book.

    Serial riddles are possible. I just don’t believe Lost is such a one. I suppose the easiest approach would be planning a certain duration or at least an end point for the riddle. Even Dickensian serials were constrained in form and length (both the length of each installment, and the total number of installments). This solution is almost impossible in broadcast television, where series are usually bled beyond dry. Some ARGs offer interesting examples of serlialization techniques for riddles. One technique is a fixed end state: this probably one of the reasons the marketing-bound ARGs can be successful in that way (i.e., they are often tied to a product launch or event). Some use geographic distribution (ilovebees), but clearly that won’t work for broadcast television. It strikes me that the economic realities of television are the primary constraints at work here. The very idea of a series of fixed duration (in seasons) is almost unthinkable. Perhaps the better question is exactly that: is a contemporary broadcast television serial riddle possible?

  8. Argh, I had this window open and replied before I saw Jane’s additional comment.

    Jane said something nice and very compact, with which I agree and which I’d like to recall here: There is no gnostic pleasure in a mystery that has no solution when it is first posed. It’s worth also noting that having a solution when it is first posed does not mean revealing the solution, but rather unshrouding the mystery that the solution would shed light upon. I think one reason Alias fell apart was that the gnostic question (what is the Rambaldi prophesy and how is it revealed) was revealed to have been a hack, or at least a ruse, and then the show got mired in highly unappealing sideline characters. But unlike Twin Peaks, with its provocative yet perhaps misleading “who killed Laura Palmer” tagline, Alias didn’t start off as a riddle either. It started out as a romantic teeny drama + spies, following in the footsteps of Abrams previously successful show, Felicity.

  9. Jane McG–Thanks for your reply!

    Twin Peaks, continued

    As far as Twin Peaks is concerned, the unveiling of certain events in Twin Peaks as fake puzzles did make some part of the audience feel manipulated, irritated etc., though at the end of the 1980s the role of information on Twin Peaks’ producers/production was not as big as it is now.

    The challenging (puzzle-solving) part of Twin Peaks for the fans I think remained alive (to some degree irrespective of knowing about fake puzzles) due to its crossreferences in the story/stories between themes/motives etc. and its constantly absorbing and (quite) dominant atmosphere feeding fascination for the TP franchise. TP became a world fans would love to (temporarily) live in, no matter its incomprehensibility/weirdness.

    And yes, a knowable solution/resolution is generally (may be globally, regarding the success of H/Bollywood feature films) more preferred than ambiguity/confusion (cf. the standard screenwriting theories. E.g. see

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screenwriting_Theories )

  10. Ian – thanks for your reply. I don’t claim that fan interventions in Lost are disruptive to the comercial enterprise, but I don’t think that such disruptions are inherently valuable (or at least more valuable than consuming a text as its creators intend). And I guess I disagree that there’s a significant difference between the riddling of Lost and Sixth Sense – until the last ten minutes of SS, did you even consider the question of Bruce Willis’s character’s mortality? Likewise in Lost’s episode Walkabout, we are not supposed to consider the question “is John Locke paralyzed?” until the answer is revealed. Withholding the question is a long-standing tradition in narrative riddles.

    There are longer arced riddles that have been posed, like “what is in the hatch?” I sincerely doubt that any fan at the end of season 1 would have guessed “an abandoned social science research facility,” but it was a clearly posed riddle. And the broader series questions are there – what is the nature of the island, how do the characters’ backstories fit together, and will they escape? I have no doubt that all of these questions have answers that will be shared in due time, and that new questions will appear.

    Finally, the constraints of the TV system you describe are somewhat unique to the US – in other national television systems, series are regularly conscribed to limited runs. I think that US TV might become more open to that option as well – shows like Prison Break seem designed to not run beyond a couple of seasons, and networks are recognizing that fan communities can turn on shows quickly that outlive their welcome (see X-Files & Joe Millionaire for examples), damaging the health of the franchise’s archives. So I would wager that if the Lost producers back their statements that they will not run the show beyond 4 or 5 years, ABC will not force the issue – as they’ll want to be able to bring the next “from the creators of Lost” show.

  11. Perhaps the better question is exactly that: is a contemporary broadcast television serial riddle possible?

    Veronica Mars, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all manage something – though I don’t know if it would be considered a “serial riddle”.

    All three shows internalize the structure of the form and construct their narrative “riddles” around it. A series subdivided into seasons subdivided into episodes is constructed of relatively independent episodes (mystery or monster of the week) which contain parts of an overarching season arc (Who killed Lilly Kane/caused the bus crash, looming face-off with the “Big Bad”). Their construction of the arc is different from Lost, which is more top-down – the overarching mystery is important to each episode in a way that it’s not for the other shows. If Lost is not building to something, then each episode we watch is a waste of time. It gives the show’s fans an out for criticism, though – what seems to be a boring, extraneous episode could just be something of importance that we don’t understand yet!

    I suppose the easiest approach would be planning a certain duration or at least an end point for the riddle. Even Dickensian serials were constrained in form and length (both the length of each installment, and the total number of installments). This solution is almost impossible in broadcast television, where series are usually bled beyond dry.

    Interestingly enough, there is at least a notion (I have been told this by several Lost fans, but never bothered to research it myself) that the show’s producers have said there are five seasons (just enough for syndication!) and a movie planned. The promise of a knowable solution (implicit in a reality-contest-based program like Survivor) is what keeps people watching. Unlike Veronica Mars or the Whedon shows who provide regular answers at the end of each episode and season, the Answer will not come until the end of the show/the movie (if the producers are to be believed). Unfortunately, after two seasons we don’t know what the Question is, other than “What the hell is going on?”, and that’s starting to get a little tired.

    Another interesting case is Prison Break – the producers said in an interview with “Entertainment Weekly” that the show had a two-season run at most. Fox originally only ordered a half-season of the show, and watching it you can see the benefit of that constraint on the authors: no need to stall for time (like Lost), so the first thirteen episodes have impressively economic storytelling – every moment counts for something. The second half of the first season, presumably written after the renewal, does not have quite the same methodicalness.

  12. I love that this conversation has turned into a discussion of the future and nature of serialized mystery content. (Also let me say that Twin Peaks was absolutely a formative pop cultural experience for me, and someday anyone who is reading this with interest, if we are in the same room, ask me about the near-religious-experience gnostic moment of Survivor Season 1 related to Jenkin’s discussion of the spoiler community.) What a wonderful thing to be considering in a pop cultural moment of so much self-contained, episodic drama… Law & Order, CSI, Numbers, Medium, and so on. The re-emergence of serialized storytelling on television is great news for storytellers, and bodes well for experimentation in other media. The future of serial content on networked game consoles is a huge area of interest for me, for example. Although not much work has been done in this space yet, the technology and business model is in place on one console already and coming soon to the others. Serializing game content should be a great boon to those who believe that narrative and gameplay can evolve to be more tightly and meaningfully connected.

  13. Nathan Piazza says:

    I guess I’ll let him explain it for himself, but I interpreted Bogost’s skepticism about Lost to be an extension of the frustration an increasingly sizeable portion of the fan community is feeling about the show’s direction. Many feel “gypped” by the storyline, suspecting that in fact Abrams and company are “making it up as they go along”, especially those who have sought so meticulously to make sense of the plot’s many hints, twists, and threads, which they now fear will never be tied together in a satisfying way. To top it all off, rumors of the show’s cancellation or truncation have only built on fan frustration with the networks, who have cancelled favorites like Firefly. Combine a plotting methodology that requires multi-season resolution (which shows like Invasion are now aping) with the fragility of network commitment to fans and the shows they love so dearly “participating” in, and you have a recipe for real alienation – not mererly from a single show but from the participatory model altogether.

    In any case, the point is that Bogost is not alone in suspecting Abrams’ writing team of gimmickry that will lead to little payoff. All this just goes to show how fleeting and potentially shallow the participtory culture really is. When a large portion of the culture you are chronicling themselves suspect the networks and writers of Barnum-esque manipulation, it would seem that it’s as important for critics studying the phenomenon to chronicle the “darkside” of participatory culture as it is for them to herald its arrival and declare it a definitive movement.

  14. Nathan wrote: “All this just goes to show how fleeting and potentially shallow the participtory culture really is. When a large portion of the culture you are chronicling themselves suspect the networks and writers of Barnum-esque manipulation, it would seem that it’s as important for critics studying the phenomenon to chronicle the “darkside” of participatory culture as it is for them to herald its arrival and declare it a definitive movement.”

    Interesting perspective, one that I think should be included in any discussion of participatory fan culture surrounding mass media entertainment. On the the other hand, in alternate reality games, many players are fully aware that some of the game will be made up as it goes along, as ARGs embrace the notion of real-time game design, a kind of collaborative storytelling that allows fans to influence the way the game unfolds through their speculation and detailed documentation of the game world. Pretty much every puppet master of a major ARG has proudly admitted to using fan documentation of the game characters, plot and other details to build future game updates–because the players do such a meticulous job of documenting and then imaginatively filling in gaps in the universe. In this way, “making it up” along the way can be seen as empowering to the participatory culture– but only if the official “authors” of the experience acknowledge and embrace a give and take with the community.

  15. du yongming says:

    Mr.jenkins,i like your new book,i want to translate into Chinese.Whom should i contact with?

  16. Ian Bogost wrote “The very idea of a series of fixed duration (in seasons) is almost unthinkable.” Let’s emphasize that “almost”. As Jason points out, this is primarily a US thing. But even in the US, there’s at least one extant example: Babylon 5. Originally conceived as a 5 season story, and eventually created and broadcast as such (though not without some hiccups on the way). I’m surprised that no one else has yet mentioned it in this conversation.

  17. I was waiting for someone to bring Babylon 5 into the conversation. Sci-fi serial fans still cite Strazynski’s 5-year pre-composed arc as a model (let’s forget about the actual writing, acting et al). B5 has come up in interviews with the writers and producers of Lost, among other shows. But the Strazynski’s and Whedon’s seem few and far betwee; i.e., producers who will stick with a franchise on a week-by-week basis to shepherd it through an arc.

    I don’t think you can discuss the future of ‘serial mystery drama’ without addressing the extreme attrition even the most successful shows experience in their writing staff, along with all the other variables cited above. The X-Files never recovered from the loss of both Morgans and Wong, and several other of the early season writers.

    Who’s going to mind the store(yline) when the exec producer gets a movie deal, and his finest writers are lured away by production deals/other hit dramas?

    Ron Moore’s revival of Battlestar Galactica is fascinating to watch in this regard. You want mystery and riddles, he has them – and, perhaps more important, most fans believe that their patience will be rewarded.