The Uncertain Audience and the Paul Lynde Factor

I'm taking an internet vacation, but while I'm gone a few top-flight transmedia writers have graciously agreed to fill in and talk about... whatever they feel like. Today's guest post is by Jay Bushman, indie transmedia creator and master of Twitter as a literary medium. His vision for transforming great literary works into modern digital media is just breathtaking.

It's hard to learn how to play video games. Most console games feature controllers with way too many buttons, triggers and different contexts for using them. The learning curve is enormous. This is why, if you invite me to a video game party, I'll spend the week before trying to learn the basics of the game so I don't look like a flailing idiot. There's a certain level of pain involved before getting to the point where a game can be enjoyable – a long break-in period of figuring out the basic question: "What am I supposed to do next?" And that's merely for figuring out which button to press on a controller. Consider the dilemma facing a new transmedia audience. With so many avenues of engagement and so many possibilities to consider, a typical first reaction is paralysis.

When we first started playing and creating Alternate Reality Games, the wide-open feeling that anything could happen was a large part of the thrill. But the freedom of seemingly-unlimited possibility that excited some people was also the very thing that turned off many others. "This is too confusing." "Why would I want to do that?" "I don't get it." "I don't know what I'm supposed to do next."

The down side of an immersive entertainment is that it requires surrender, trust, and a level of commitment that only a small part of the potential audience will be ready to give. They rest are just too damn busy.

A lot of thought and effort has been spent on the question of how to make interactive experiences more welcoming for the casual player. For the Twitter story events that I produce, I've taken to calling this "The Paul Lynde Factor."

Paul Lynde's main claim to fame was as the center square in the old Hollywood Squares game show. As the cast of celebrities changed around him, Lynde was the stalwart who anchored every show with arch quips and witty pronouncements.


What does Paul Lynde have to do with transmedia? We work in a field which seeks to provoke user interaction, user-generated content and collaborative storytelling. As designers and producers, we tend to laud the exceptional, the complex and the most intricate of player contributions. There is a lot of talk about how to highlight the "quality" content, the material that seamlessly integrates with the story that we're telling. But in reality, the bulk of interaction is short, arch, and sometimes satirical. Many player contributions seek to interact with the story while simultaneously commenting on it.


The Paul Lynde Factor is a reminder that we should welcome the simple forms of participation. We should continually remind players that, yes, simply making jokes on Twitter is a valid form of participation. A wry aside, a joke at a character's expense or the lampooning of a story element may seem on the surface to be cheap, inconsequential or besides the point. But what they truly represent are the first baby steps of engagement and the training wheels for the new transmedia audience. Whenever possible, we should design our stories with this low barrier to entry.

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The Talking Dead

So now that I'm on record talking smack about how difficult it is to get users to create content, blah blah blah, let's take a look at The Talking Dead, the latest of Jay Bushman's Loose-Fish massively collaborative narratives.

The latest of Jay's projects are fabulous creations in which users collaborate on the fly to construct narrative. Or in less academic terms, Jay builds frameworks so groups of people can all play 'let's pretend' together. I will, Halloween-style, dissect these projects like flatworms and see why they work, when one might plausibly think that I explained in depth yesterday why they shouldn't.

1. Yes, user-generated content is hard. But the beauty of Cthalloween and The Talking Dead is that each individual piece of content to be user-generated is tiny. 140 little characters isn't as much work as contributing entire news columns, for example, or crafting an entire fictional internet persona. You can Tweet once and still feel like you've been a part of it. Low barrier to entry.

What's more, you can still engage with the experience in a meaningful way as a spectator; I guarantee you there will be far more people watching the action on stage for The Talking Dead than there will be actively participating. This is only natural and to be expected.

2. There is no burden of maintaining a central canon and its continuity. For projects like Cthalloween and The Talking Dead, continuity doesn't matter. Each cluster of player-participants can spin its own interpretation of the story as they go along. So what if there are four Lizzie Bordens and nine Mark Twains? As long as everyone is having a good time, there's no harm done.

3. There is no liability issue here. Everyone knows everyone else is a player. There is no central voice of authority, so no expectation that any one player might be speaking on behalf of that authority, even though they are playing as fictional characters within the story world. The boundary is clear.

The Talking Dead and projects like it are truly net-native works, and I'm excited to live in a world where this is possible. If you did this as a book, as a film, as a TV show, it would be a mess. If you did it even in person, it would kind of be a mess! The vehicle of Twitter lets you dip in and out of it, instead of devoting the entirety of your weekend to meeting up with a bunch of people with flour on their faces and ketchup on their shirts to exchange pithy barbs. All the fun, none of the overhead. 

So that's why Jay Bushman can get away with ignoring that line between the audience and the creator. It can work, but only in very specific and structured contexts.

Oh, and you should totally participate in The Talking Dead. It's going to be amazing.

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Creative Spotlight: Jay Bushman

I've blogged about Jay before, for his Loose-Fish projects The Good Captain and his Spoon River anthology. But you really want to hear about the latest from him -- he's taken his talent at literary adaptation and bent it into some wonderful new pop-art configurations.

In 2009, Jay did the infamous SXStarWars and replicated the climactic trench run on Twitter. This year, he naturally did the sequel -- The Empire Tweets Back. Using Twitter's new list functionality, he's put together a production of Empire that you can follow along with on Twitter whenever the mood strikes you. It's running right now, go take a look!

But I have to tell you, my most favorite Jay Bushman Special was what he did for Halloween last year, and that I shamefully didn't call your attention to in time: Cthalloween. Jay organized the rise of the Lovecraftian Elder Gods on Twitter as one massively collaborative, synchronized whole, and it was freaking awesome.

The next time he does something like that, I'll tell you ahead of time, folks. I swear I will. You won't want to miss it.

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Spoon River

I've been remiss in covering this before now, but Loose-Fish is at it again with an updated reimagining of the famous Spoon River Anthology. Go ahead and take a look at the Spoon River Metblog and see how this tightly interwoven tale of small-town life and death is unfolding. I've just finished reading through it, and it's hot stuff.

Meanwhile, my own sekrit project is coming close to a launch, and I'm hoping I'll be able to tell you all about it soon.

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The Good Captain in Review

A few weeks ago, The Good Captain, an adaptation of a Herman Melville story for Twitter, finally wrapped up. This story was written by Jay Bushman of The Loose-Fish Project.

The surprising thing about the Good Captain was how quickly it became a thread positively thrumming with tension. At first, it was admittedly a little difficult to follow the story, and I found myself tracking back frequently to make sure I really understood what was going on. But after the first several updates, as the scene was set and the story proper got underway, I began to learn some valuable lessons about tension and pacing.

The lesson is this: Giving your audience only the sparest taste at once with long pauses in between amps up the tension in a story like nobody's business. I should've known this from my Cloudmakers days, of course. That game primarily updated on Tuesdays, and the community would whip itself into a frenzy with anticipation of new content each week. But as it turns out, this effect works with more modest amounts of content, as well, and maybe even better.

That's because the anticipation gives each tiny piece a disproportionate significance. If I had been able to read this story straight through, I would have breezed through sentences like "Now I feel silly and I chuckle at myself. Dziga’s jumpiness must be getting to me." But when it's all I had to add to the story at once, I would find myself sifting through the story in my head word by word, trying to work out where it was all going. Was it foreshadowing? Was it a sign that something was about to happen? Could I take it at face value? What the heck was going on, here?!

And so this medium, tiny bites of story delivered intermittently, provided a fantastic vehicle for delivering incrementally more and more tense bits of story, and then, at the end, unwinding it all in a few short days with the final explanation.

Good work, guys. Can't wait to see your next one.

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