Are Participation and Corporate Interests Compatible?

I have to admit that I’ve been avoiding the topic of participation in transmedia (or any media, really). The reason for this is simple; because I’m approaching transmedia from a business perspective in this blog, I mostly see problems of participation at the moment, and very few solutions. Even after thinking about the compatibility of participation and corporate interests for a long while now, I haven’t reached a conclusion on what the best way forward is. Consequently, I’d like to put this question out there to all of you, in the hopes that some of you might offer me perspectives or experiences that I haven’t thought of before. To start off, then, here’s what I’ve been mulling over:

 

The Concept of Participation

First of all, I’d like to go into more detail what I mean by “participation.” As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I really like Henry Jenkins’ distinction between “interactivity” and “participation,” where “interactivity” refers to “preprogramed entertainment experiences” and “participation” to “tak[ing] the resources offered by a text and push[ing] it in a range of directions which are neither preprogrammed nor authorized by the producers.” So, to put it simple, interactivity gives the users a pre-set choice (ending a, b, or c; should the character do this or that next) while participation has users ‘do their own thing’ with the existing content – expanding it, altering it, continuing it, etc. In this blog post, I am solely talking about participation in this sense then – cases where users are having an actual, not-pre-programmed impact on how the story or the story universe develops.

Because interactivity is pre-programmed, it is usually the safer option to engage users – from a corporate perspective. The content creators retain absolute control over how the story develops, and they can divide all revenues from the users’ interaction amongst those involved in the production (the biggest share remaining with the content owners). Interactivity also offers great instant feedback for content creators, and can prove invaluable for causing audiences to emotionally invest  in a story. So right now, we already see many different forms of interactivity, and they become increasingly sophisticated.

The real crux of the matter remains participation, however, where things are a bit different.

 

The Basics of the Situation

From my own life and history as a fan, I know that it is a) impossible and b) defeating the point of entertainment to try to shut down fan participation, including (but not limited to) fan-generated fiction, websites, videos, music, posters, artwork, costumes, etc. If your content is supposed to move people, you have to accept that it will also move them to action, or rather, to production. Particularly now that virtually all forms of media production have become accessible and affordable for users around the world, and that broadcast-style media consumption is dying, audiences demand to be involved more than ever. There is no way around dealing with fan participation, and I’m assuming that the reason why authors and content owners are still avoiding the topic altogether is that they, like me, are simply at a loss of what to do.

And all the while, participation is more often than not the reason why some IPs survive over decades. When there is no new canon (‘official’ content), fans bridge the gap and keep the fandom alive by sharing their own creations. Fan works also often cater to fan interests the canon cannot or will not meet – romantic pairings, a different decision by a character that would have propelled the plot in a completely different way, learning more about the lives of characters, etc. However, once fans let their imaginations run wild, it may just be that the content of their creations takes the canon down a completely different route than it was originally intended by the author(s) – both in terms of plot and themes. Given the importance of careful image and brand management for any product today, a deviation from an established type of content can be extremely dangerous, particularly if the property itself has a broad mainstream appeal. For example, can you imagine J. K. Rowling accepting (and thereby endorsing) fan fiction involving a sexual relationship between school principal Albus Dumbledore and young student Harry Potter? Probably not. It would spark outrage amongst fans (just because one fan likes the concept others don’t have to) and parents the like, and would certainly also cause media regulatory boards of all countries to get involved. A definite brand disaster with unpredictable economic consequences – and therefore highly unappealing for entertainment executives.

In reality, for most entertainment executives, “corporate interests” translates into “the corporation making money, and lots of it.” Like it or not, the entertainment industry is exactly that – an industry. The good news of this is that the industry has the money to get great entertainment made, but the bad news is that as a result, a) everyone involved in the production of an IP wants to make money off it, too, creating ridiculously chaotic national and international licensing systems, and b) entertainment execs are extremely risk-averse. In a constant blockbuster-race, all (mainstream) media are launching bigger and bigger projects requiring more and more initial investments, and so the general industry’s willingness to share their revenues and to try new things diminishes. However, if you encourage fan participation, and if you’d like to include it in your story world, you also have to share the revenues derived from the fan-authored work with the fan-author him/herself, you have to try something new, and you have to relinquish your absolute control of the story world. In terms of corporate interests, a very toxic cocktail.

And last but not least, when talking about participation, we also have to take the author(s) into account. After long times of honing their skills, practicing, drafting, and editing, it is no wonder that most authors hold their creations very dear. I am sure we can all understand this feeling, and the resulting unwillingness to relinquish one’s control of a project that took so long to accomplish. However, inviting fan participation demands exactly that from the author, and on top of that it also raises the question of copyright: If a user produces content based off existing content, does he/she get to claim the copyright to his/her story, and to what extent)? Again, not a very favorable prospect from a corporate (which includes the artist) perspective.

 

If You Decide to go for it: Why it Still Won’t Work

First of all, it can be very difficult to work with your fan base. Most fan bases are fragmented – you have fans of different characters, pairings, worlds or races within the world, lovers of slash fiction, lovers of alternate universes, and the like. So it is simply impossible to satisfy everyone’s ideas and wishes, and when inviting fan participation you’ll probably have to still find a common denominator for all – including the mainstream, if that is your overall target audience. That in itself can be a very difficult thing to achieve.

Then, if you have decided to include user-generated works into your official canon, the question is how you go about doing it. You can’t incorporate every single fan work into your canon, of course; it would completely blow all of your story continuity. What’s more, if you invite fan production, you’ll probably also have to accept your fans’ opinions on what they consider the best user-generated works to incorporate into the canon. I’d assume that this creates another conflict of interest – on the one side, you have the original author and brand stewards who have necessarily got a very precise idea of the story types and overall themes involved in your story universe, and on the other hand you have the user-producers and fans who might want to take your story down a completely different road from what you’ve originally intended. Once you’ve asked fans and users to expand your story with you, you cannot un-invite them or, even worse, ignore their views and wishes without alienating them. What do you do if you really don’t agree with their creative vision for your property?

And diverging visions of fans and author(s) aside – how are you going to sort through the hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of fan work submissions? You’ll need gigantic teams of highly trained workers who can a) recognize good from bad narration, b) know what your property’s key themes and meta-narrative are, and c) who know your universe inside out to spot continuity mistakes. A logistical and financial nightmare.

Once the fan piece to be incorporated into the canon is decided, you’re up against two more issues: Paying the creator of the work you’re about to use, possibly reimbursing all other users (or the finalists at least) who invested time and money into their works which you then exhibited to the public, generating a buzz around your story world, and re-defining who the author of your work is – the person with the original idea only, or both the original author and the user-author? And what about the different producers (in the case of transmedia projects) that adjusted your story parts to work on different platforms?

 

 

These are the points I’m generally considering when thinking about the compatibility of participation and corporate interests. Overall, it seems to me that at this point in time, at least, fans and entertainment companies are too far apart from one another. However, as I mentioned above, I’m hoping that some of you out there are willing to jump into this discussion with me, and to offer me your point of views and insights that you have had – maybe even from participatory projects you executed yourself? Any thoughts or ideas?

 

 

5 comments

  1. Hey Christine,

    great post with many details worth considering!

    Maybe participation is a question of scale and might be a better fit for smaller (or artistic) projects.

    That said, I’m doing research on a large commercial transmedia production that experiments with co-creative participation, but also on a small scale (35 co-creators, the tiny tip of the famous audience pyramid). As far as I learned from participants, they are keen to be part of what they think is a fun endeavour. Even skilled fans (game designers, storytellers, artists) see it as experiential learning and an investment in their CV. In the best case, simple play becomes purposeful play for them. I’m not so sure that contributors want to see a share of the money that’s made. Wanting to be part of something communal lies in human nature, and is fuelled by a sense for belonging that we gain through sharing. But it remains to be seen how this experiment turns out in the end. Exploitation is always an issue.

    Nonetheless, what I miss in most debates about copyright and IP is a reflection on the fact that copyright is a comparably young concept to begin with. For centuries art and creativity lay either in the realm of the commons or were paid for as a service. So, creative work-for-hire as participation is certainly viable (cf. Amazon turk), but doesn’t that also change the entire dynamic of playful participation? That’s when competitiveness turns it into something else, into something more serious than play.

    So, yeah, juggling this paradox of commercial co-creation is certainly not easy. It’s like: corporate need for predictability vs. letting go of control. That doesn’t mean, though, that co-creative projects can’t be the avant-garde that leads the way to new, very agile business models that allow for participatory contingency.

    Thanks by the way for starting out with a differentiation of ‘interaction’ and ‘participation’! I’m trying to do the same for collaboration, co-creation, and peer production. Hell yeah language.

    Oh, and a few weeks ago Andrea Philips, Scott Walker (with Mike Monello, Haley More, and Carrie Young) had quite a convoluted debate about this topic.

  2. I think you’ve summed up the situation really well, Christine. Or, as a famous character might say, “Grasped it you have. Answered it you have. Now, believe your answer, you must.”

    It is impossible to shut down fan participation. (So don’t try.)
    It is a brand disaster to embrace some fan participation. (So don’t embrace those.)
    It’s hard to figure out how fan works mesh with an official canon. (So dump the official canon idea.)

    And so on. It’s true that many of these answers are toxic to corporate interests, the way these interests currently define themselves. This does not make the answers any less true, however.

  3. Ele: thanks for the link reference to my exchange with Andrea! We should Skype sometime – guessing we have a lot of shared views!

    Christine: It’s a challenging environment, but it’s not as bad as you think it is. 🙂

    Speaking from my own experience, I heartily agree that entertainment media companies (Hollywood, for lack of a better, all-embracing term) have almost no interest in allowing audiences to participate in the creation of official content under an IP. Even when positioned as a business proposition, Hollywood doesn’t understand and has little interest in pursuing a shared story world model (consumer brands are far more open to this kind of participation, but that’s a topic for another post).

    However, you need to add the following caveat to your premise: “At this time.”

    I assure you the moment Hollywood realizes they can net in-aggregate more money from audience participation than they can from traditional, closed properties, audience participation will enjoy the same promotional support we saw for VHS, DVDs and 3D.

    Hollywood just doesn’t see a viable model it can understand at the moment when it comes to participation.

    But I also want to push back on your reasons why participation still won’t work. Let’s take them in order.

    1) “It can be very difficult to work with your fan base.”

    Well, yes, just as it is for any entertainment endeavor. That’s not a differentiator for participatory properties, that’s a challenge for every entertainment property.

    2) “What do you do if you really don’t agree with [fans’] creative vision for your property?”

    IP owners, regardless of what kind of entertainment property they own, never agree with all of their fans about the creative vision for the property. One factor behind fan fiction is fans’ desire to see something in the property the IP owner can’t or won’t create (e.g., slash fiction). That won’t change, even with a participatory model.

    Your objection seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition, too. Participation begins with an invitation to contribute, and IP owners can scope and scale what that collaborative sandbox looks like. That invitation can have as many or as few restrictions as the IP owner likes, meaning there is no loss of creative control if the IP owner does not want it.

    Let me repeat that: participation does not automatically equate to a loss of creative control.

    Ultimately, it’s the IP owner who decides what is and is not accepted as canon into a property, even in a participatory model.

    3) “How are you going to sort through the hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of fan work submissions?”

    There are two parts to this: the nature of material being submitted and the process for reviewing the submissions.

    Both parts touch on scoping the invitation appropriately, which means constructing the collaborative sandbox to automatically filter the kinds of participation you’re looking for. Also, IP owners can schedule invitations to participate instead of having an open-submissions policy (e.g., they can ask for short stories of 3,500 words or less one month, fan art the next, etc.).

    Regarding reviewing of content, there are also different models IP owners can pursue. For instance, they could allow audiences to serve as the first-round editors, and the IP owners can limit themselves to reviewing only the content that bubbles up from the audience editors (think 5-star ratings).

    An in-house model does require additional overhead, though, so you are absolutely correct that predicted earnings from monetizing the accepted submissions should be more than the expense of accepting submissions – otherwise, there’s no business reason to pursue it (though there can be valid marketing reasons for doing so, which would require an marketing ROI over a production ROI analysis).

    But to dismiss participation because “it’s too hard” at face value really implies that you’re looking at an always-on, we’ll-take-anything mentality on the part of IP owners. That is a highly unlikely approach. Instead, a guided, scoped invitation to participate is much more likely, which greatly reduces the potential overhead requirements.

    4) “You’ll have to pay the audience!”

    Well, ideally, yes, though plenty of fans would sign away all rights to their derivative work if it meant they would be considered an official contributor to their favorite IP.

    Still, there are models for paying contributors to a shared story world. The Grantville Gazette is a great example of fan-produced, professionally-edited offerings of UGC based on a traditionally-published novel, Eric Flint’s 1632. Contributors are paid professional rates, and they have been producing anthologies of fan-produced fiction for years.

    5) “How will you credit the audience?”

    This isn’t really a problem from a credit standpoint (check out how my company’s shared story world, Runes of Gallidon, applies attribution and assigns commercial rights to derivative works). In fact, there are many ways to approach this (see the worlds listed at Shared Story Worlds for more examples), provided you aren’t dealing with Hollywood.

    The bigger issue with Hollywood is handling the guilds. That will be a stumbling block when you start talking about paying audiences (i.e., non-guild members) and/or giving them credit for work they create.

    Publishers do not have to worry about the guilds, though, so outside of Hollywood, there are more opportunities to explore a shared story world under fewer legal restrictions. Check out Angry Robot Books’ “WorldBuilder” project, which just launched with Adam Christopher’s “Empire State.” Contributors will be paid if their work is selected by Angry Robot Books.

    So, yes, there are many challenges to participatory / shared story world models, but I believe it’s only a matter of time before more companies realize they can enjoy greater earnings, better customer relationship, and – for the few who pioneer this model – added prominence from a marketing standpoint.

    However, the challenges you posed are either invalid or solvable under a variety of solutions. We’re seeing more examples all the time in the independent space, and it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood finds a model it likes.

  4. Wow, first of all, thank you so much for your in-depth replies! It is really interesting to hear what you have to say, particularly given the fact that you two have hands-on experience when it comes to participation. 🙂 Particularly your points, Scott, are excellent as always!

    To be honest, I don’t see the future of participation quite as bleak either, but I couldn’t resist playing the devil’s advocate, if only to help the discussion off the ground. 🙂 I do agree with you that there are ways to credit participation, to sort through submissions, to not lose control, etc. And yes, looking at the current state of the entertainment industry and Hollywood in particular, it is very clear that they’re not ready “at this time.” It’s going to take a lot of experimenting with many different models and sandbox rules to figure out what the best ways are to invite participation and to really integrate it in the production of a story world. And you’re also definitely right in saying that we can’t just rule out the entire concept of participation just because the world we live in is still one way or another.

    Still, looking back at my post, then, and seeing how it is mostly the concept of copyright that dominates my thinking and approach (despite not even being this old, as Ele so aptly pointed out!) rather than concepts of participation, it becomes clear how hard it can be to abandon current forms of thinking in favor of new approaches. And I guess this is really the crux of the matter, and probably also one of the reasons why you’re saying “at this point in time” – the fact that we, entertainment executives, authors, and the guilds, and so many others currently involved in content production processes, have to overhaul our ideas of ‘creation’ before we can really talk about participation. Right now, many – if not the majority – of us come from a world where media were one-way, and participation took place in a very isolated manner. Even five, six years ago we probably wouldn’t have imagined how quickly and in what manner the internet would evolve, and all the devices that are now tied to it. But as current and future generations grow up and old with two-way media, they will look at participation and concepts like copyright in a completely different way than we do “at this time” (there it is again!).

    Looks like my issues with participation are boiling down to a lack of imagination/vision with regards to the future of production then. :-/ Thankfully I have thought-leaders like you two, though, to shape my vision and to iron out the last bits of my remaining skepticism! I’ll be honest, I still can’t wrap my head around inviting participation for gigantic fandoms like Harry Potter or Star Wars, for example, but I’ll be sure to keep observing what’s happening in terms of participation, and I’ll definitely keep following the work of both of you. Again, thank you for your answers, they’ve been incredibly helpful!

  5. Great wrap-up to out little conversation!

    The reason why I keep on re-reading your post is that you raise important points that all need creative solutions. And that’s what I find incredibly exciting. To believe in participation is a bit of a bet. We all see something approaching on the horizon and anticipate it’s this or that, but once it gets closer and we see better, it turns out to be quite different than what we thought. I loved Gibson’s Gernsback Continuum for making that even clearer to me. We’re building for the future, for something that we want to be. But what we envision will never be, because the outcome will always be different. And the current struggle with SOPA vs. commons even fuels the unpredictability. That’s why transcending boundaries between art/culture and economy (and beyond) is of such great value at the moment; to integrate both while we’re shifting into something new. Your work here delivers a lot of important input for that discourse.

    Besides, I’ll be near Frankfurt in February. Let’s reconnect?

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