October 16, 2007
Best and Worst Practice in Online Narrative Extensions

I wanted to respond this morning to a piece over at The Extratextuals, the blog which C3 alum Ivan Askwith has a 1/3 stake in. This was not from Ivan, but prolific Extratextual Jonathan Gray, who had a couple of notes of interest for me.

Gray reviews two NBC-related textual extensions of their show, a character blog from My Name Is Earl and the Dunder Mifflin site for The Office. His criticisms of each are both quite strong, as they include official NBC logos, advertisements for shows, ranking favorite characters, and a whole host of things that break the illusion that this is in any way part of the narrative world. I think his criticisms here are a lesson as to how to make these extratextual extensions more meaningful and part of creating an immersive story world, a sense of deeper engagement with the characters.

He asks for examples of really good Web sites, and there's one, bar none, that deserves all the credit: WWE.

I may sound like a broken record and I'm not claiming that my friends down in Stamford never make mistakes (believe me, the fans let them know on a regular basis when "mistakes have been made), but I have told WWE in the past that they have created the first continuous ARG in many ways. Their Web site is a logical extension of the show in a way that few sites can achieve because the designation between the narrative world and the "real" world is harder to break. Stories take place on their site that forward fictional plots forward, alongside pieces about real injuries or back stories of the competitors. WWE, of course, can afford to do this, because pro wrestling blends fact with fiction, anyway.

When I met with Brian Kalinowski, the former COO of Lycos, shortly after he took the job as general manager of digital media for WWE, we talked about his visions for the site as an extension of the WWE narrative between television episodes and as the pivotal point in a transmedia empire. He was new to the job, and the WWE spent the summer reeling from the Chris Benoit tragedy and its aftermath, but his vision reflects what I have done extensive research on with WWE: that they are a case study in how to run a transmedia empire, even if the rules they play by and the fictional world they create is quite different from traditional television fare.

See my post, for instance, about the handling of Mr. McMahon's death. While I question some of the creative behind the decision, its implementation between the site and the television show were fascinating, before the Benoit tragedy caused the storyline to be abandoned. For more on WWE's transmedia storytelling, look here.

For all its lack of savviness, there were things I enjoyed about Luke Snyder's blog from ATWT as well, since his keeping a blog was referenced on the show but never heavily focused on, save his dad finding it (and revealing how little the character of Holden understood about blogs in the first place). It was set up on a Blogger site and kept very low-tech, with no references back to the show, to the point that some people seemed to not know it was a character blogging about being "in the closet" until some ATWT fans came on pretending to be characters formerly on the show and started responding to Luke. Those comments probably should have been moderated, since they destroyed some of the realism, but better the fans destroy realism through their creativity than the project be doomed from the outset with a corporate logo or two.

For another bad example, see Ivan Askwith's post about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and DeFaker here. Also look here and here. Despite many of the creative aspects of its launch, the Daily Planet site for the DC Comics series 52 does not purport to be part of the narrative world in the way it could have.

Oh, and by the way, Jon, I don't know if any of the current presidential candidates will have the guts to make it over to the WWE, as you muse. They invited the candidates to come on their show back in 2000 and then ripped on both of them when they didn't. In fact, they got so mad at Joe Lieberman's dismissal of them through his alliance with the Parents Television Council, legend still has it that prominent members of the Lieberman camp believe that it was a tirade by WWE commentators on RAW the night before the election that might have swung enough undecided voters against Gore/Lieberman. I'd give anything to see Ron Paul whoop up on Bill Richardson on ECW on Sci Fi tonight. I'd be better than all the Boogeyman/Big Daddy V matches you could shake a stick at.



Thanks Sam. I'm enjoying the WWE's site, for many of the reasons you mention (and will keep my eyes pealed for ads for an Edwards-Gravel cage match). As for other better sites, I used to show Smallville's old site, which was modelled after the school newspaper, with chicken noises, links to the town council, an ad from Luther Corp, etc. The fan-made Drive Shaft site for Lost was inspired too. When I get some spare time, I'm gonna go on the prowl, and will try to blog on my findings


Hey Jon, thanks for the comments, and, as I thought about how soaps could push further into transmedia storytelling, I had some conversation with Mark Warshaw about the Smallville newspaper you refer to. I had the idea, which sparked some interest from Michael Lebowitz at Big Spaceship at last year's FOE, of a soap opera launching an online newspaper with articles written by the fan community, but within the narrative world. The Smallville newspaper was written by staff but did include letters to the editor from fans who pretended to be residents of the town.