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?