As TV and movie producers try to enrich their fictional universes with extra content online, their failures can be as interesting as their successes. In a guest post on Henry Jenkins' website, Ivan Askwith examines the short, unhappy life of Defaker, an "in narrative" blog for fans of the new Aaron Sorkin series, Studio 60 on Sunset Strip:
Defaker turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Rather than delivering on its claim to offer an "insider's" perspective on the show, the site's first entry was nothing more than a mediocre recap of the events that took place on the show, and a series of HD screen captures presented as "behind-the-scenes photos." (As several visitors pointed out, the recap got some details wrong.) The writers also seeded the entry with a handful of meaningless, enthusiastic "in character" comments, from fictional fans, to set the tone. The design logic behind the site was clear: Defaker didn't need to offer any new content to viewers, because the gimmick of presenting the old content in character was so clever. Fans of the show would love it, right?
Wrong. The attacks began within minutes….
[A]s one of the most astute commenters pointed out, Defaker "is a laughably bad attempt at viral marketing. Not since the Flinstones rappin' about Fruity Pebbles has a major corporation so completely misunderstood the phenomenon they're trying to cash in on." Despite the apparent assumptions of the show's promoters, a show cannot simply go online and expect fans to be impressed—it has to offer visitors something new, and create opportunities for engagement that the show alone can't offer.
The network quickly pulled the plug. Here's a quote from the blog's final post:
To my detractors… who think that this is 'viral marketing bull' for NBS, viral marketing (I just looked up what this means on Wikipedia!) only works if people with nothing better to do jabber on about the thing in question, so apparently, the more you talk, the more I grow stronger…. insert evil laughter here.
Askwith writes that this "simply blows my mind: the writer is not only dismissing the (admittedly harsh) criticism from the site's visitors, but insinuating that the show's most invested viewers have 'nothing better to do [than] jabber' about the show. This response all but dares the viewer to stop watching the show. If someone didn't lose their job for posting this, I'd be surprised."
In his introduction, Henry Jenkins notes that Sorkin's characters have a history of battling "online fan communities: Josh Lyman ran into trouble with a discussion list on The West Wing and we've already heard the characters opine negatively about bloggers on Studio 60." Which is what you'd expect, right? Every time I watched The West Wing I felt like I was sitting through a speech. It's hard to switch gears between preaching to your audience and entering a dialogue with it.