"Becoming the New Socialite? Facebook, Transmedia and Storytelling in the Age of New Media" by Zsolt Kelemen
Zsolt Kelemen is a PhD student in the English and American Literatures and Cultures PhD Program, University of Szeged, Hungary. His main areas of research are: new media, remix culture, transgressive U.S fiction, psychoanalysis and theories of the subject. He is also a technical assistant at AMERICANA eBooks and a member of the Digital Culture and Theories Research Group. Email:
In my paper I focus on how contemporary American fiction has been affected by the possibility of transmedial storytelling in the age of new media and how it requires a more interactive audience. To clarify my aim I wish to focus on the way we consume texts: let them be digitally produced or written in an analogue – “offline” way. Our affiliation with the printed texts is a medium-specific experience, namely that our story is usually bound to books, magazines and newspapers, which are their inalienable properties. The presence of certain Web 2.0 services, however, paved the way for another experience that is the content has stopped being anchored to a single medium; nowadays people can read Time magazine on their Kindles, iPads or on screen of their smartphones.
Social media services are prone to serve promotional purposes, like authors distributing samples from their works or more importantly they – social networks – can be an extension of their works. The reason why I consider Bret Easton Ellis a conscious user of new media, is that his online presence makes great use of social networking, such as Twitter and Facebook, updating his fans about not only his books, sales or a new website but he also constantly tweets about his personal life in a seemingly controversial manner. I found Bret Easton Ellis’ work, Imperial Bedroom, to be an illustrative example of this. When in 2007 Bret Easton Ellis wrote the very first sentence of his new book, Imperial Bedrooms, in the form of a tweet, it obviously marked how new media infiltrated the world of fiction writing. In the era of simulacra, one must not forget about the uncanny dimension of the marketing-machine that might be operating behind Ellis’ persona. As Jerry Aline Flieger quotes Slavoj Žižek: “we are what we want, in cyberspace” (Flieger 20), which not only gives us a Lacanian reference of the constructed Other, but it also resonates with the uncertainty with which the Internet seems to be obsessed. Nevertheless, in the case of Bret Easton Ellis, whose before-mentioned tweet of the first line of his novel was retweeted by his fans, one might observe a rather complex advertising machine that makes great use of fans and does so by consciously focusing on the technical advantages of transmedia. To give another apt example of what transmedia storytelling could be, I would turn to Neil Gaiman’s ‘twovel’ (a blending of words, ‘Twitter’ and ‘novel’), to which everyone can contribute if they have a Twitter account. As Gaiman summarized:
The aim with One Book, One Twitter is – like the one city, one book programme which inspired it – to get a zillion people all reading and talking about a single book. It is not, for instance, an attempt to gather a more selective crew of book lovers to read a series of books and meet at established times to discuss,” explained Howe at Wired.com. “Usually such ‘Big Read’ programs are organised around geography. Seattle started the trend for collective reading in 1998 when zillions of Seattlites all read Russell Banks’s book, Sweet Hereafter. Chicago followed suit with To Kill a Mockingbird a few years later. This Big Read is organised around Twitter, and says to hell with physical limitations. (Guardian, 2010)
Besides the elimination of physical limitations, it is also necessary to see that physicality also diminishes medium-wise. To illustrate what ‘transmedia’ means, it would be fruitful to turn to the campaign of Ellis’ latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms. The novel, having been marketed as the sequel of Ellis’ Less Than Zero, was published in 2010. A website (www.thedevilinyou.com) was set up just to measure “how morally corrupt you are” (ibid). In this video-narrative the user is expected to seduce a girl by various means. “The devil in you” has been featured in New Media Age, a site for interactive businesses, and as its creators inform us, it has been viewed over 40,000 times. The importance of this campaign is that its online presence is inevitable: not only does Ellis’ official website contain a movie clip and an excerpt from the novel but another website was also set up to promote the novel. The digital aspect of the novel does not stop here: a Facebook campaign started where fans can win BEE books if they post their favorite Ellis quote. On his website, one can find Ellis on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and is able to find downloadable songs each grouped and rendered to an Ellis book as if they were albums.
The reason why Ellis is an apt choice to designate a shift in writing is that he also admits the change in writing. In a video interview, he talks about how digital books and iPads change the way we write and read books. Ellis’ metanarratives and paratexts can be an integrative example of what is called transmedia. For example one of his characters, Clay, is the host to show us around Los Angeles, which used to be on the L.A. Times blog. This experiment used Google Maps and Street to designate Clay’s favorite restaurants and to mark the places that are in the book. As Jenka Gurfinkel remarks:
It’s why the Los Angeles Magazine website has an interactive Google map of the locations featured in Imperial Bedrooms and it’s accompanied by Clay’s guide, in his own words, to these various haunts. It’s why Clay has ended up on Facebook and his profile photo — still bearing a decided resemblance to Andrew McCarthy — is also included with his city guide. Here, for instance, is Clay’s take on Hollywood Forever Cemetery:
The most beautiful cemetery in Los Angeles. It’s behind the Paramount lot and it can be disorienting to walk off Gower Avenue into this lush, paradisiacal place. I remember going to movies there during the summer; Psycho, The Muppet Movie, Carrie. I was there last for a funeral where the only person I talked to was Blair. (Gurfinkel 2010)
The example of Bret Easton Ellis tweeting the first line of his novel bears a huge importance for me: it puts a great emphasis on how these services, like Twitter are becoming integrative to the traditional content consumption. As we can observe, content is also starting to change its initial platform.
First we need to take a look at the definition of what transmedia storytelling is. Henry Jenkins remarks that “a transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of different media platforms” (Jenkins 2007) or
Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe. (ibid)
That is, we are supported by various technological devices (strangely echoing transhumanism) that are also enhancing our media consumption. As Jenkins also observed, these changes have encouraged more (inter)active audiences. He talks about a ‘discourse,’ which “shapes how consumers have deployed those technologies.” (Harris 157)
As this all shows, numerous web services can serve as the virtual extensions of a narrative (say, Ellis’ narrative) but does this become transmedia? With the help of technology, such as tablets or cell phones, we are able to follow stories on different platforms. What Ellis talks about is nothing else but that our reading methods are being changed and formed by the advent of new technologies. With the use of these technologies, users can follow their favorite characters, listen to songs that are listed in novels, or simply ‘like’ their authors to keep themselves updated.
It seems, however, that these approaches are only connected to certain cultural products, like books, movies, albums or events. The rapper, Jay-Z used QR-code technology when promoting one of his albums, or the magazine Esquire, had an issue, featuring Robert Downey Jr., using the same technology. Downey Jr. was on the cover sitting on a huge QR-code, which can be read by special software, made available on Esquire’s site. Once read by the software and our webcam, Robert Downey Jr. appeared on our screen in a video, welcoming us. Not only this, he commented upon ads as this video shows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wp2z36kKn0s.
If we take another example of the American industrial-rock band, Nine Inch Nails, into consideration, we can see how effective transmedia storytelling can be. In 2007, some songs from their Year Zero album were thought to have been leaked as they were found on a lost flash drive in a hotel room, while the band was on tour. On that flash drive there were songs and recorded phone calls, which later turned out to be parts of a previously made-up online experience for Nine Inch Nails fans. From the recorded phone call mp3 fans decoded a URL of a website that gave them further clues to decipher.
From now on, I would also suggest that audiences, if part of an online community for instance, are much rather users than audiences, who remix contents. Nowadays with an effort of a single click one can ‘like’ certain contents of the web; ‘liking’ has become an essential part of browsing, this process is understood here as:
An option on the Facebook Web site to provide feedback on the stories that appear in your friend’s news feed. The Like option allows to acknowledge a friend’s news feed item in a positive way without needing to add actual commentary. (http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/F/Facebook_Like.html)
As we can see here, users are needed to participate actively in the form of ‘liking’ a picture – let it be a remixed, subtitled picture or a meme, which is defined as:
an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media). (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=meme)
Usually, if a user is logged in her Facebook account, it will automatically update her feed showing what she liked a second ago. Likewise, if she likes Bret Easton Ellis books, it will appear on her feed, as well.
Although, Bret Easton Ellis’ Imperial Bedrooms or Gaiman’s ‘twovel’ serve a good starting point of analyzing transmedia, I would like to go further. As stated before, transmedia storytelling can be conveniently recognized with cultural products, but what if we exclude those products and concentrate on another narrative, that is, on Facebook. I would like to extend Jenkins’ definition that it is not only fictional use that transmedia has been put to. If our Facebook persona is also constructed alongside our ‘feeds,’ using several media, like recorded videos having been previously published on YouTube, or photos of certain moments of our lives, we can also have an ongoing story put in chronological order. Not to mention that our feed can be printed out in a form of a book (Elliott 2011).
What I am proposing here is that Facebook has become a site, where a possible new subject-formation is taking place, creating – as Trent Reznor put it – a “hyper-real version of yourself” (Bruno 2010). While it is a fact that one can play with her online avatar or ‘hyper-real version’ of herself, but even if we construct our identity in a tricky way, or lying about it, does it not constitute our subjectivity? Is it the intention of deceiving others not ourselves? In Jacques Lacan’s term, our core subjectivity is formed when we (mis-)recognized ourselves in front of the mirror, but this subject formation is precisely what happens if we form a new – or several for that matter – subjectivity online. Facebook not only lets us have this freedom but we can also follow each of our friends’ stories on the go: browsers and applications on cell phones, tablets or even consoles, such as Xbox 360 are all updating us and them. What is crucial here is to see how technology and storytelling are getting closer. Martin Lister and Jon Dovey in their books refer to Manuell Castells describing a certain shift from the industrial mode of development to an informational mode of development. Castells summarizes:
In the industrial mode of development, the main source of productivity lies in the introduction of new energy sources and in the ability to decentralize the use of energy throughout the production and circulation processes. In the new informational mode of development the source of productivity lies in the technology of knowledge generation, information processing and symbol communication. (Lister and Dovey 180)
The before-mentioned memes are examples of symbol communication in the network society, as they are electronically spread and are understood by the community. Facebook and Myspace are prime examples of sites in network society, where they are spread and understood – as Castells remarks:
the definition, if you wish, in concrete terms of a network society is a society where the key social structures and activities are organized around electronically processed information networks. So it’s not just about networks or social networks, because social networks have been very old forms of social organization. It’s about social networks which process and manage information and are using micro-electronic based technologies. (Kreisler 2001)
How does this social formation in the network society transform the user-content creator relationship? When Bret Easton Ellis in an interview talks about royalty fees, he might have pointed out that digital books are available for a larger audience, that is a price of any given book might get reduced from $25 to $10, printing and shipping can also be excluded out of the service. Needless to say that a larger audience is available in the network society by digital means and that it requires a more active audience or user. This phenomenon is what Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine described as “The Long Tail” theory, which stems from musical sales. Anderson in his article (Anderson 2004) gives not only advice on how to make sales but he also defines “The Long Tail” theory, in a way that users actively explore more contents:
The advantages are spread widely. For the entertainment industry itself, recommendations are a remarkably efficient form of marketing, allowing smaller films and less-mainstream music to find an audience. For consumers, the improved signal-to-noise ratio that comes from following a good recommendation encourages exploration and can reawaken a passion for music and film, potentially creating a far larger entertainment market overall. (The average Netflix customer rents seven DVDs a month, three times the rate at brick-and-mortar stores.) And the cultural benefit of all of this is much more diversity, reversing the blanding effects of a century of distribution scarcity and ending the tyranny of the hit. (ibid)
As Investopedia suggests:
In business, long tail is a phrase coined by Chris Anderson, in 2004. Anderson argued that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, but only if the store or distribution channel is large enough. (http://www.investopedia.com/terms/l/long-tail.asp)
Alongside with indie and lo-fi musicians, amateur artists and authors can promote their products to a larger audience.
Lev Manovich exemplifies “The Long Tail” with iTunes. The theoretician of new media, in his Software Takes Command, refers to this online phenomenon:
[…] we see emergence of the “long-tail” phenomenon on the net: not only “top 40” but most of the content available online – including content produced by individuals – finds some audiences. These audiences can be tiny but they are not 0. This is best illustrated by the following statistics: in the middle of 2000s every track out of a million of so available through iTunes sold at least once a quarter. In other words, every track no matter how obscure found at least one listener. This translates into new economics of media: as researchers who have studied the long tail phenomena demonstrated, in many industries the total volume of sales generated by such low popularity items exceeds the volume generated by “top forty” items. (224)
This new economics requires new dynamics, where both amateurs and professionals are present. Such dynamics allow them to publish, advertise and inform users of the availability of a given product. Facebook is a site where those two groups can collide: I can get in contact with a celebrity anytime. Or, I am able to create and show off my preferences of a given subject, on which Amazon.com compiles my preference list as I logged in. While I can watch videos, share stories or play games with my friend and acquaintances on Facebook, it is no surprise that the retelling of the Facebook story used the vehicles of transmedia. Even its marketing exemplifies the reconfigured relationship between amateurs and professionals what Manovich talks about:
I want to ask how the phenomena of social media and user-generated content reconfigure the relationships between cultural “amateurs” and official institutions and media industries, on the one hand, and “amateurs” and professional art world, on the other hand. (223)
In a video, David Fincher, Trent Reznor and Aaron Sorkin use what seems to be Facebook chat to talk enthusiastically about making a movie on Facebook. What this video shows is that professionals are chatting and swearing just like ‘we’ do. The movie was heard of for the first time in October, 2010, on a Myspace page. Later on, Vanity Fair published documents of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, which helped the writing process of Accidental Billionares by Ben Mezrich.
Traditionally, a certain cultural product in an old media fashioned franchise might contain a movie, a book and/or a soundtrack, which would be harder to consume because you might have to leave the house to rent a VHS or go to the movies. Whereas in the new media franchise one is able to select a desired movie from home and watch it, or simultaneously can participate in an online tie-in that smoothly completes her watching experience. Television sets are being sold with the options of letting users check YouTube videos or check Facebook updates. With the appearance of tablets we might have the anticipation what Friedrich Kittler foresaw and what Anne Friedberg entitles as a ‘newfound determinism’ (Harries 32). Friedberg also acknowledges that “digital technology inherently implies a convergence of all media forms” (ibid).
Kittler’s vision alleged that “the general digitalization of information and channels erases the differences between individual media” (ibid), which also corresponds to the fact that the way we consume today’s media tends to converge, but is not this technological determinism highly ideological? From mapping out what we like constantly (and ironically the selection appears in our browsers, as if it shows off its advanced capability), to registering our location by using our GPS coordinates, our phones and gadgets are all in the know about our whereabouts. The same homogenizing effect can be seen when we log in to certain email accounts, where not only date but IP addresses are logged. As we can see the freedom of being online, that is we are less likely to be bound to computers physically, but our monitoring has become hypervisible.
It is in this environment that an active user, a new socialite is formed. To achieve this, one is backed up by technology and transmedia that are available for all? In examples such as Bret Easton Ellis,’ one can observe how effectively constricted a transmedia experience can be, how new media makes use of a given author’s persona. In this age, where the hyperreal is closer to us than ever, we might have to be aware that a story we follow might not be what it seems. The new socialite can be described as a more active user, who participates in the online environment, has the advantage of not being constricted to physical spaces – as Gaiman suggests – but can float around in town and with the help of technology she can constantly be online. The new socialite is an apt user of technology, is a participant of network society, thus finds great pleasure in networking sites and takes transmedia storytelling granted, even if she just checks trailers on YouTube or imdb.com or creates her mixtape online with the help of cloud services. The appearance of this new socialite is justified by the shift marked and defined by technology and networking society, which clearly involves the advantages of new media.
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