Archive for October, 2009

Weekly round-up [10/30/09]: Audience measurement online, globalization, and more spreadable media in your future

Posted in weekly round-up on October 30th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – 1 Comment
  • I’m going to start by carrying over a topic from the last weekly round-up: Waern over at Pervasive Games does a great break down of what went wrong with Toyota’s Your Other You campaign, tracking its development history and explaining some of the problems in the campaign’s assumptions about its target audience.
  • CMS alum and C3 colleague Sam Ford explains the 10 Thing Corporations Can Learn from Pro Wrestling. Much of his advice focuses on insights on how (and why) to understand and respect your audience and their practices in order to engage their loyalty and energy around your product or services.
  • Speaking of audiences, Jim Louderback wrote a piece in Ad Age calling for more scrutiny online viewership metrics. The article calls for both a better sense of proportion over what counts as notable numbers, as well as more clarity and transparency over what is getting counted, how, and how numbers are evolving over time. This pairs well with a couple of pieces that came out last month, one by Kristina Grifantini in the MIT Technology Review on distortion in online recommendation systems and the other by MG Siegler for TechCrunch about how useless YouTube ratings are.
  • In miscellaneous reading, I’m just now getting around to cracking Sakia Sassen’s now-classic book, The global city: New York, London, Tokyo, which looks at the structural dynamics and strategic formations of transnational centers of commerce and policy.
  • And on the topic of globalization, I found the Gizmodo piece explaining the origin of the approximately dozen or so different types of electrical plugs totally delightful and engaging. I learned that all that post-colonial reading really is good for practical knowledge (if a few steps removed) and that El Salvador is the best place to chill if I want a good excuse for never answering my phone or email.
  • That little armchair theoretical physicist in me is totally fascinated by all this talk about how the Hadron Collider is being affected by a “malign influence from the future”. While still a theory, I do love the possibility that one day comic book artists and speculative fiction writers will get to go “seriously, what have we been telling you?”
  • And speaking of the genres, I just started Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods.

Two things for future consumption:

  • First a free webinar on November 6th on Moving from Sticky to Spreadable with Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and Sam Ford. The three of them are currently working on a book on Spreadable Media, coming out of the white paper I co-wrote in 2007 along with Henry Jenkins and C3 colleague Ana Domb and Joshua Green. The book is set to feature contributions from a laundry list of C3 researchers and affiliates (myself included), but in the meantime, check out the free webinar for a taste of what’s to come.
  • I also just read the first part of a new 3-part play entitled Miraculous Lives by my close friend Trystan Trazon. It’s utterly mesmerizing and densely textured and some of the best work I’ve seen from this amazing young playwright, and I say that not just because we’ve been BFF for nearly a decade. He’ll be having a reading of part 1 at the Bridge Theater Company next week, though I’m not sure yet if it’s open to the public.
  • What is open to the public is a reading of Psychomachia by Jennifer Lane tonight, also at Bridge Theater Company, which I will be attending. I’m generally not a theater person, but I’ve heard great things about this piece.

Participation and Crowd Control: Stephen King’s Under the Dome promotional puzzle

Posted in C3 blog on October 28th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – 1 Comment

In build-up to the release of his much anticipated new novel, Under the Dome, Stephen King’s UK publishers Hodder & Stoughton have launched what they’re calling “the biggest ever game of literary hide-and-seek.” For the game, fans across the UK are enlisted to help both hide and find the 5,196 excerpts that makes up the 335,114 word novel both online and in the real world. The found pieces are then posted to, where people can take a crack at piecing all the parts together.

While the initial description of the project reminded me of Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg’s Implementation — a novel that was distributed across the globe on a series of stickers that was then reassembled online — the commercial promotional focus of the Stephen King effort seems to have elements intended to control and curb certain types of participation even as it hopes to incite fan engagement and interactivity.

Promoting Participation

The project has two main activity sets — the hiding/seeking of the story pieces and the actual piecing together of the story once pieces have been found. The “hide-and-seek” portion is well-scaffolded for participation with forums, twitter feeds, facebook groups, and all the other social media implements to bring participants together to create and solve clues, as well as discuss the novel snippets they find. It works because, in addition to a prize to the most ingenious hider and prolific finder, the process itself is an incentive for participation. The game activity is based in what fans already desire — getting glimpses of a highly anticipated work — and therefore rewards and encourages with more than just a prize.

Exercising Control

The second part of the activity, however, is intruiging. While the site suggests that the ultimate goal is to “piece [the excerpts] all together and discover Stephen King’s new masterpiece,” participation at the level of content assembly isn’t supported structurally within the project. The web interface is not designed to actually facilitate piecing together the excerpts. When you click begin, random excerpts enter the screen on floating semi-translucent panels that move around, turn, spin, and overlap, making reading them difficult. It’s unclear whether what you see on screen is all the excerpts that have been found thus far, or merely a random selection. My assumption would be the latter, since this kind of interface would be completely impossible to navigate with more than a handful of text pieces at a time. When you go to save any work you’ve done in piecing parts together, the page generates a link where you can view your saved work. However, when you follow the link, you no longer have access to the excerpts you have not yet used, so that you can’t add to the work you’ve saved.

More than making it difficult for individual participants, this part of the game also doesn’t include any easy way to share and collaborate with others. This seems like an effort to curb collective intelligence behaviors that would likely lead to effectively piecing together the novel in the short time before its release. Moreover, most of the pieces start and stop mid-sentence, which strongly emphasizes that there is a correct order, and deters more inventive or unconventional assemblies of the content. Additionally, without the ability to share and collaborate, the social aspect of fan activity is minimized, which significantly lowers the incentive to try and actually put together the novel.

These control mechanisms built into the structure of the game make sense when you consider that the publishing house has a vested interest in discouraging fans from actually being able to piece together and share online a complete or close to complete version of the novel, since they want to move printed units. There’s little that’s interesting about breaking the novel into pieces on the narrative level, since the structure of the game itself doesn’t leave room for the participatory involvement in shaping the content itself, as we see in ARGs, hypertext novels, and other forms of non-linear or distributed storytelling. Which, in the end, doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, the goal here is to sell a novel, not innovate the novelistic form.

weekly round-up [10/16/09]: Toyota’s “prank” suit, interactive fictions, and biopolitics

Posted in weekly round-up on October 16th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

This week, I seem to be reading heavily on a theme of interactivity — gone both good and bad — in narrative construction.

  • There’s been some talk lately about the lawsuit again Toyota over their “prank” campaign, much of which has been fairly negative. I would love to see any examples of the emails people received, or the opt-in statement that they apparently agreed to to get a better sense of the level of transparency that was practiced.
  • I wonder too if this particular effort was meant to create a sense of intimacy between the brand and its consumers, given the feeling expressed by Toyota CEO that their decline is the result of the brand becoming “too big and distant from its customers.” On a side note, it is somewhat amusing/telling that the justification all these articles cite for assuming the campaign character was real is the existence of a myspace page.
  • A quick write-up in AdAge Mediaworks about branded, short-form content on the web, focusing on HBO Imagine. While I haven’t had a chance to explore the HBO project in-depth, the description of “Rashamon meets Choose Your Own Adventure” reminded me of the structure of early hypertext novels.
  • That led me to revisit the article “Just Tell Me When to Stop: Hypertext and the Displacement of Closure,” from the collection The End of Books or Books Without End: Reading Interactive Narratives by Jane Yellowlees Douglas. The article analyzes several pieces of hypertext fiction, including the classic Afternoon by Michael Joyce, focusing on the question of closure in narratives that don’t have set orders.
  • Speaking of hypertext and lack of order, a colleague of mine from CMS who is currently at Duke sent me this from Postmodern Culture. I find it equal parts intriguing and incomprehensible.
  • On an even more (more?) egg-heady front, I’ve come by a cache of readings on biopolitics and political economy, courtesy of another colleague of mine. I’m starting out with Robert Mitchell’s “The Laws of Mo(o)re: waste, biovalue, and information ecologies,” chapter 3 from his 2006 book with Cathy Waldby Tissue economies: blood, organs, and cell lines in late capitalism

Unimaginable Audiences: why broadcasters miss their targets

Posted in media on October 14th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

A recent article in Ad Age Mediaworks discusses the success of more “conventional” shows like the new NCIS spin-off, NCIS:LA, noting that broadcast networks are shying away from “clever, unique concepts that drive buzz and conversation” and opting for clones of successful programs as a safer bet for ratings. One part of the article caught my eye in particular. CBS-entertainment president Nina Tassler explains in the article that “Because ‘NCIS’ has such a loyal following, you really have to respect the viewer and stay very close to the original brand,” which makes sense.

What makes less sense to me, however, is that respecting the viewer and the original brand meant “Taking the cookie-cutter route,” at least at first, though there will eventually be  “some degree of originality and creative choice-making,” presumably once the spin-off has cemented its own following.

The Lure of Industry Lore

This me thinking back to the discussion on “industry lore” at the kick-off plenary panel at Media in Transition 6 last year, where the panelists discussed the prevalence of executive decisions based on what the industry makes broad presumptions about what their audiences want without thoughtful consideration as to why. Knowing who is watching what doesn’t give enough information for insight as to what people are watching for and why. Without that, all you know is that X number of people — sometimes of a certain type — like something. This is what leads to the “cookie-cutter” logic — you don’t know why they like something or what specifically they like, so your best bet is to duplicate the entire thing.

All of this speaks not to a lack of imagination on the part of producers, or a lack of taste on the part of audiences. It speaks to the growing insufficiency in how we measure and analyze audience engagement. Ratings and demographic data are important, but they’re not enough to understand the ever-changing, ever-fluid audience formations that we are witness to. Moreover, they inspire industry lore — that women watch soap operas, men watch pro-wrestling, ethnic and racial minorities watch programming featuring ethnic and racial minorities, etc — and shut out potentially rich new audience markets that can’t be anticipated. This is something I realized in my research on East Asian television fans online, when I asked why it was that while network offerings such as AZN struggled and eventually failed, the fan-driven distributors online were flourishing. While the answers are considerably more complex, deep at the heart of it was this: fan-driven circulation catered to the audiences that existed, while industry efforts catered to an audience that they imagined should exist.

Audiences in the new media landscape audiences are more participatory, interacting and forming communities with one another, which in turn makes them unimaginable in two key ways:

Audience Fragmentation, Fluidity, and Diversity

First, they are increasingly impossible to define along any single vector of identity. Demographic information such as gender, class, race, and so forth are still relevant, but we cannot let them limit our interpretation of the audience from the outset. As Sonia Livingstone points out, “[i]n the new media environment, it seems that people increasingly engage with content more than forms or channels – favourite bands, soap operas or football teams” (2004: 81), so that communities are formed around shared tastes rather than social determinations, resulting in groups with diverse backgrounds and motivations.

In short, knowing who your audience is doesn’t tell you who they are as an audience member. We take on different identities as participants in different activities. This is why I continue to emphasize the need to think about audienceship instead of audiences, about what viewers do and how they engage, rather than whether they’re a 45-year-old suburban housewife.

Audience Visibility

Second, the activities of audiences and fans online are now so radically visible that we no longer have to imagine them. We no longer have to guess at why people watch things and what they watch for based on quantitative data. We have access to rich reserve of qualitative information with just a few clicks. The audience may be, as Livingstone puts it, a “moving target,” but at least it’s a target that we can now see and track in ways we couldn’t previously.

These concepts apply strongly to brands as well, where it is similarly not only important to know who your consumers are, but how they use your brands, and what your brands communicate to and for them. Brands and media properties, like technologies, are tools and resources of communication. As such, we must understand not only who uses what, but the methods and motivations for use.

Of course, taking the time to understand audiences and consumers in this way. It is of course both easier and safer to just reproduce a working model. But we shouldn’t act as if there are no other options.

Collaboration or Competition: Levi’s Go Forth campaign

Posted in C3 blog on October 7th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – 2 Comments

Levi’s recently launched a new ARG-style scavenger hunt to promote deeper involvement with their brand mythology. The story centers around the last will and testament of Grayson Ozias IV, a fabled friend of Nathan Strauss who disappeared mysteriously into the wilderness with $100,000, which in turn is the grand prize for the game.

While the game and story themselves seem like a fairly straight-forward multi-platform scavenger hunt — a three-tiered system of challenges, quizzes, and puzzles that will eventually identify 100 finalists that will compete for the grand prize — the nature of the grand prize caught my eye. While it’s certainly not the first of it’s kind of offer a large cash reward as an incentive to participate (Mind Candy’s Perplex City memorably offered 100,000GBP to their winner) , the Levi’s campaign does represent a rising trend in contest-focused efforts.

It’s unclear this early in the game whether the Levi’s campaign intends to play out like transmedia experience, or if it intends to be a more traditional scavenger hunt with a decorative narrative shell. What is clear is that they’re hoping to leverage the type of collective action and deep engagement by “pulling out a page of the ARG book,” as Levi’s director of digital marketing Megan O’Connor put it to Brandweek, but also seeking to “keep it a little less complicated.”

Making things “less complicated” often means at the level of narrative, which in turn suggest that it will be centered around the contest structure. Which makes me wonder how a contest-driven format that focuses on a clear (and singular) winner deals with engaging the type of collective intelligence and participatory action we’ve come to associate with ARGs. Especially if they’re “trying to keep it a little less complicated” as O’Connor claims. ARGs, after all, are not about games or puzzles, per se. The games and puzzles are the vehicle to drive forward the larger collective storytelling experience, which is what stimulates the robust levels of engagement, even for those who don’t receive anything tangible in return for their participation. Therefore, by reducing complexity, they run the danger of also reducing the points of access and the types of incentives available for participation to the cash prize. And if that were to happen, what incentive do people have for sharing information and clues and otherwise engaging with one another to move the story forward?

Certainly and many ARGs have had some sort of special (often secret) prize for who those who stuck it out to the end. But on the whole, ARGs, though considered to be games, aren’t competition-driven, which is what allows for the pervasive collaboration that serves as both the heart and the engine. So how might we see participation reconfigured when the whole process is oriented towards an end goal that can only be claimed by one person, rather than the collective storytelling experience? What does it mean for the social ties formed within the process?

My recent white paper at C3 focuses on the negotiation between types of social value/worth and economic exchanges, and I can’t help but think of it now and wonder the campaign will still generate the sort of engagement it envisions, given the changes in social relations that come with the introduction of monetary value. As ARGs become more and more common in promotional campaigns (last summer, in the wake of Dark Knight, it felt like a movie couldn’t premier without an accompanying ARG), the question of how to negotiate the space been social worth and economic value becomes increasingly pressing. Advertising may very well be able to generate the same amount of attention, whatever their tactics, but must still consider how different game-play and reward structures affect the nature of the engagement produced.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve worked with Levi’s previously, but was not at all involved in this particular campaign.]

weekly round-up [10/02/09]: China, Gift Economies, and Zombies

Posted in weekly round-up on October 2nd, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

I’ve been having a my strangely under-productive week, which I blame the sudden cold for, so this post will be relatively short. But hopefully, this amazing photo makes up for it:

Militant ballerinas celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Peoples Republic
  • The above image comes from‘s photo essay China Celebrates 60 Years, documenting the 60th Anniversary celebrations of communist rule in China. I’ll spare everyone the diasporic musings, and say only that this collection of images was a source of immense, and conflicted, wonder. And also that one of my own childhood photos features me in a tutu, toting a toy machine gun. Just sayin’.
  • A couple of pieces from the Chronicle of Higher Education, first a study indicating that free electronic copies don’t hurt print sales of (crazily overpriced) textbooks, and another piece that breaks down the war between libraries and the ubiquity of online search.
  • Apparently I’m all about numbers and figures this week, so also an article from the New York Times about slowing rates of decline in global ad sales, which breaks it down by type and geographical region. Not earth-shattering, but notable.
  • My MIT C3 Colleague Grant McCracken has an interesting post on the gift economy, about his recent experience at one of Pip Coburn’s lunches, comparing exchange in the good exchanges (as in goods, not exchanges that are good) to those in gift exchanges and the kinds of values and expectations they bring.
  • In Media Res this week is all about Zombies! Braaaaaaaaains.