Going “Mad”: Creating Fan Fiction 140 Characters at a Time

Fan fiction. Brand hijacking. Copyright misuse. Sheer devotion. Call it what you will, but we call it the blurred line between content creators and content consumers, and it’s not going away. We’re your biggest fans, your die-hard proponents, and when your show gets cancelled we’ll be among the first to pass around the petition. Talk to us. Befriend us. Engage us. But please, don’t treat us like criminals. — WeAreSterlingCooper

This is a pretty good statement about the contradictions many fans are experiencing

as they try to interact with media producers in what we’ve been promised is a

new era of “interactive media”. This was written by Bud Caddell, a strategist for

a New York based digital think-tank, Undercurrent, who is also a fan of the AMC

television drama, Mad Men, and “tweets” under the name of Bud Melman, a mailroom clerk at Sterling Cooper advertising. In short, he’s an industry insider who is also a fan and someone who consults in advertising who in his spare time enjoys pretending to be a mail clerk at an advertising firm in the 1960s.

Got that? Good. Don’t make me repeat myself.

Seriously, the fact that Caddell can be both an industry insider and a fan simply demonstrates the degree to which those lines are blurring from all sides in our contemporary convergence culture; the fact that his fantasies have something to do with his real world identity should also not be a shock to anyone who understands the

psycho-sociology of fandom. Some have argued that Caddell is not a “true

fan” because he’s also a “marketer,” but that’s like saying one can’t be both an academic and a fan at the same time. For the record, I’d also call myself a fan of Mad Men! We’re all all multitudes within ourselves.

In his ‘mundane’ guise as Bud Caddell, media consultant, he’s posted a fascinating account of how fan fiction emerged around Mad Man through the unlikely channel of Twitter and how this fandom, like so many others, faced legal challenge from the producers of the program they were hoping to help promote.

I am sure that I will lose cool points if I confess that the joys of Twitter have largely escaped me. Anyone who reads this blog knows that brevity is a virtue I do not possess and the idea of blogging at 140 characters at a time is not a hobby I plan to embrace anytime soon. I like to tell people that I am a marathon runner, not a sprinter, but the reality is I just don’t know when to stop. But I’ve been following this story peripherally for a while and was glad to finally get a more detailed and systematic account of what happened. Caddell’s account should be required reading for all fans and aca-fen but also for all brand executives and content producers.

As Caddell explains, sometime around the start of the second season of Mad Men, fans began to use the blog platform, Tumblr.com, to post a kind of advice

column, written in the voices of the program’s characters, responding to questions from fans, capturing the twisted sexual and interpersonal politics of the early 1960s. Soon, some of these same fans migrated, in character, to Twitter. With a few days after Don Drapper (the ad man protagonist of the series) began tweeting, he had some 3000 subscribers to his update, and his Twitter feed was soon joined by others written by Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Betty Draper, Roger Sterling, and a dozen or so other characters — primary and secondary — from the series.

We can think of these tweets as fan fiction in its most spared down form — these tweets

represented attempts to get inside the heads (or inhabit the bodies) of fictional characters and see the represented events from their perspective. Francesca Coppa has made the provocative argument that fan fiction might be understood as much as a kind of theater performance as it is a prose genre. (See her essay in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet). So, lets think of what was going on here as a kind of performance art.

Initially, many assumed that the tweets were a new promotional device launched

by AMC and their digital advertising agency, Deep Focus. Deep Focus CEO

Ian Schaffer, after all, runs a blog which has enlightened things to say about social media and audience engagement around brands.

Caddell says that he himself initially believed the activity was a deft example of what brand guru Faris Yacob calls “transmedia planning” (Check out this blog post

where I account how the concept of “transmedia planning” has emerged in the brand realm in response to Convergence Culture‘s account of “transmedia storytelling.”) Caddell created his own character, Bud Melman, so he could join the fun:

As an employee in the mailroom, he could have the curse and the good fortune of being invisible, which means I could tweet about what happened before or after the scene you saw on television.

Caddell, the industry insider became an unlikely fan advocate, when Twitter suspended the accounts of nine of the primary Mad Men characters, including Draper, Olson, and Joan Holloway, in response to a Digital Millennium Copyright Act “cease and

desist” notice from AMC’s lawyers. Caddell created the website, WeAreSterlingCooper.com, (and the manifesto quoted above), in order to call attention

to this conflict between the fans and the network, not to mention to aggregate the various Mad Men feeds.

As an industry insider, Caddell notes, he was deeply confused by the industry’s response to these practices. Mad Men‘s viewership had been declining sharply during the second season and there was every reason to think that these activities, small scale though they might be, were helping to generate fan interest and buzz again. The fans involved had offered to work with the series producers and promoters, seeking to better coordinate their efforts rather than creating brand confusion. As Caddell explains:

One element of entertainment and media that consumed me at the time as a marketer was the idea of what to offer fans to consume between commercial breaks, episodes and seasons. The twitter characters could provide other fans a way to play and interact between Sundays when the show aired. From a practical perspective, each single character by themselves was a novelty, but together they could weave an intricate web of conversations and events to follow.

Some sense of this potential was realized when Melman and some other fans staged a Twitter-based short story arc involving “a meeting at the Tom Tom Club for drinks and

shenanigans” just to show what could happen if they coordinated their efforts.

(Here, they start to sound more like the kinds of Role Play Game/Fan Fiction

writing activities that occurs in LiveJournalLand.)

So far, these overtures have had a chilly reception. Mark Deuze has suggested at

least two reasons why production companies get anxious around such activities:

the creative department’s desire for creative control, the legal department’s concerns about controlling copyright. Here, we can add a third: the promotional department’s fears about losing control over their brand message. Of the three, the last is perhaps the most absurd, since in reality, these companies lost control a long time ago; the fans can do pretty much anything they want with these brands and with a high level of visibility and going after them is a bit like Brier Rabbit pummeling away at the tar baby. Yet, even pretty innovative companies are getting trapped in the internal politics around television production and promotion, incapable of forming meaningful partnerships with their most active and visible fans, and thus almost certain to start acting in ways that are going to leave them, to continue the metaphor, looking “stuck up”.

As Caddell writes as a fan in the report’s conclusions:

AMC saw most of us as stealing something that was theirs. When in reality, we were expressing our affinity for the characters and the show.

Shifting perspectives and writing as an industry insider, he concludes:

We shouldn’t threaten fans with legal notices and we shouldn’t isolate them. We should cultivate the relationships we’re either lucky or gift to have and help them with their expression of their fandom. Brands should offer as much content in as many types to its audiences with the hopes that they feel to compelled to rearrange them and add novel elements to tell their own stories. We fight to insert ourselves in the conversations of real people, and that is exactly what happened with the Mad Men characters on Twitter. If we cling to this sense that we are the sole owner of creative work, we’ll continue to isolate that work from the actual world and the human beings we work to affect.

Fans have consistently raced out ahead of content producers and brand executives in their understanding of the potential of “transmedia entertainment.” They are testing new tools, moving into new communities, embracing new forms. Rather than seeking to silence or control them, creative agencies need to observe, document, and where-ever possible, join the game. Caddell’s dual status allows him to quickly translate what he’s learned as a fan into what his industry needs to learn. I just hope some of them are ready to read and take notes.

Thanks to Joshua Green for calling this report to my attention. Green, a CMS postdoc, and Madeline “Flourish” Klink, a CMS grad student, are listed as consultants on the report.

Comments

  1. Christian B. says:

    First and foremost, “thank you;” your voice serves as a great advocate and soapbox for an entire industry.

    That said, I do take some issue with some of your observations as it pertains to this initiative, which has been dubbed by some as “Twitter-gate.”

    First, it’s been pretty well documented that AMC did do everything necessary to ensure that these Twitter “uber fans” of Mad Men continued to have a voice and the forum to engage with each other through the shared passion for the characters of this show.

    The Hollywood Reporter reported on this:

    http://www.thrfeed.com/2008/08/mad-twitter.html

    As did the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/01/business/media/01twitter.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=twitter%20Mad%20Men&st=cse&oref=slogin)

    And Business Week:

    http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/sep2008/tc2008096_785921.htm

    Also, much deserved kudos for the @don_draper character who not only started this entire initiative, but has been nothing but forthright and transparent about his motives and has since worked with AMC’s digital agency to determine next steps with the account; this is hardly what I would label as a “chilly reception.”

    http://paulisakson.typepad.com/planning/2008/11/don_draper-twitter.html

    If anything, I think this demonstrates how AMC does in-fact “get it,” and that despite a few missteps, they do at least recognize and appreciate the Twitter community, which is more than most brands.

    Lastly, Caddell was but one of many characters, and jumped into the fray after others had taken this on as almost a “full-time passion project,” taking copious notes on character lines on the show in order to stay true to form and not break that wall between “fiction and reality.” I take nothing away from his insight nor participation, but let’s give additional credit where credit is due.

    To that end, additional recognition goes out to @peggy_olson, who will be taking home a shorty award for her authentic representation, constant communication and feedback with the Twitter community all while in character.

    All this to say, while the Twitter community is still in its infancy, they continue to flex their marketing muscle in new and unusual ways, from outscooping traditional media outlets (i.e. Miracle on the Hudson), to bringing established traditional brands to their knees (i.e. Motrin); I for one am excited to see what the future holds.

  2. Christian B. says:

    and by the way, full disclosure, I work at Deep Focus.

  3. Henry,

    I’m absolutely honored by this post. Clearly, my report and my experience barely scratch the surface of the fandom universe; but I’m happy to expend the energy to explore further. I hope we can meet IRL someday soon.

    Christian, you’re absolutely right; Peggy Olson and the other characters proved themselves diligent keepers of the canon and quite brilliant writers. I would never say or do anything to diminish what they did. They have nothing but my respect and appreciation.

  4. Marco says:

    Dear Professor,

    How can I e-mail you please?

  5. We created a social site for the fan fic character portrayals on twitter. We have Mad Men, Harry Potter, Star Wars, True Blood, Heroes and some others. One group is a world based on different characters that Russel Crowe has been in movies.

    twitterfic.com