Today I came across an article on The Next Great Generation that asked whether ‘social films’ are the next big thing.
Social films are short webisodes distributed via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, and which require the viewer to take action in order to influence how the story will develop. The example discussed in the article is a collaborative project by Toshiba and Intel called Inside. Directed by DJ Caruso, Inside stars Emily Rossum as Christina, a girl who finds herself locked up in a dark room with nothing but a laptop. Over the course of almost two weeks Christina uses her social network contacts (i.e. fans of the film) to find a way to escape and to solve different clues her captor leaves. As a result, the audience takes an active part in how the story develops through direct interaction with the protagonist.
First of all, I think social films are very interesting and long overdue. Books that make the reader a part of the story and let him/her make the decisions (“If you decide to go to the beach, continue reading on page 25. If you decide to go to the mountains, continue on page 32.”) have existed for a long time, and using the interactivity of social networks to tell a story is definitely a great way to engage the audience. The relationship between content creators and involved fans is never an easy one, and social films seem to offer a great compromise – fan engagement, but within a set of certain parameters.
And it is this very set of parameters that can also be problematic. As Henry Jenkins pointed out in one of his recent blog posts, there is a difference between “interactivity” and “participation.” Content producers, afraid to lose control over their IP tend towards interactivity, i.e. “preprogrammed entertainment experiences” where audience input is possible, but like in social films, only within certain parameters. Truly participatory content, on the other hand, has no such restrictions; it leaves the story wide open to fans’ creativity when filling gaps, continuing the story after it ends, or making a completely different decision in the protagonist’s place (For example, Christina could enlist the help of a hacker ring that helps her locate her laptop, and consequently, her own location; she has an internet connection after all).
While I myself (and so many other fans) would like to see participation to be encouraged most of all, I do think that social films marked by interactivity are definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to accommodating modern audiences‘s demands for engagement. Particularly in the case of transmedia franchises, social films can be a great way to continue a certain story arch online. It requires great effort and care to coordinate a grand narrative across different media platforms, and allowing interactivity but not participation helps the content creators to keep all story arch on a general track at least and to avoid it ‘running off’ into a completely opposite direction than what the authors imagined.*
So are social films the next big thing? I wouldn’t call it that. There are a significant step in the right direction, but because they require a larger-than-usual time investment from audiences, there can only be so many social films that really capture their audience. I do, however, believe that social films can be a great part of an overall transmedia strategy, and a great way to engage your audience.
*I am not saying that “running off” into a completely different direction is always a bad thing. As Simon Pulman has summarized so aptly, there are tons of good things that come from true fan participation (new perspectives, mirroring audience reaction, carrying your brand and content through time, etc.), and I certainly want to encourage content creators and fans to continue to search for compromises and solutions when it comes to fan participation. Interactivity is NOT the compromise, just one way to engage the audience.