Cynicism, Engagement and Disney World

Last month, I went to Walt Disney World with my family. As I was there, watching parades and fireworks, I did a lot of thinking about transmedia and audience engagement. (I can't help it, not even on vacation!) 

Hollywood Studios has a parade called the Block Party Bash. Its highlight is when everything stops and the characters come down from their perches on the parade floats to dance with the crowd lined up along the sides of the street.

We came with a large and varied family group, so lots of personality types and age groups were represented. Out of all of us, the only one who threw herself into the dancing with all her little heart was my four-year-old daughter. After a little while, the other children joined in, too... but none of the adults did. (OK, I did, but just a leeeeetle bit.)

Why would that be? The adults were, after all, the ones paying a lot of money to be there. Once we were there, why wouldn't we fully engage?

We live in a cynical time. Maybe it was always thus, but it's certainly true now: we are a society of people who fear risk and rejection. So we distance ourselves from participation, and from the appearance of engagement. Being a little too into any one avenue of entertainment is dorky, no matter if it's Harry Potter or knitting or MS Paint Adventures or scrapbooking or the manifold works of Joss Whedon.

So we hide or apologize make excuses for liking our favorite bands or shows or movies or hobbies. Or we go to Disney World and don't dance, because we don't want to look foolish -- even when the only audience are family members, who already know exactly how foolish you are, and strangers, who have better things to care about. My four-year-old was the only one too little to be afraid of looking dumb.

This becomes a problem for the transmedia creator. Many projects are built around sharing and visible participation. We're asking our audience to make a leap of faith every time they engage with the story, and doubly so if it's a social experience. How can we make this act of trust easier?

One way is to provide social proof, per my sock puppets post -- nobody wants to be the first one dancing, but once you have a handful of groovers and shakers, the psychological barrier to entry is vastly lower. So you seed you experience with evidence that other people are doing the same things.

But at the end of the day, there's no way to force someone to deeply engage with you. So you provide for different levels of engagement: the people who want to watch the parade, the people who want to wave at the characters on the floats, the people who want to high-five the character as he walks by, the people who want to get up and dance in the street.

This isn't so different from the ARG classic: the person who wants to read story content only, the person who wants to talk in the community, the person who wants to talk to the characters, the person who wants to solve puzzles online, the person who wants to attend a live event.

As creators, we really, really want more of those most-deepest players, the ones who are so engaged with your story that they'd answer a payphone during a hurricane for you. But you can't force it. The best you can do is make the next-deeper level of engagement so tantalizing that the perceived risk is negligible in comparison.

And... as human beings, we can drop the cynicism and just dance, you know? Life is more fun when you don't distance yourself from it.

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