Web Exclusive Essay
Forensic Fandom and the Drillable Text
While the rise of spreadable media is a major trend of the contemporary era, another development within media seems to pull in an opposite direction: narrative complexity of media storytelling, especially on television. Since the late 1990s, dozens of television series have broadened the possibilities available to small-screen storytellers to embrace increased seriality, hyperconscious narrative techniques such as voice-over narration and playful chronology, and deliberate ambiguity and confusion. These trends, which I’ve explored at length elsewhere (Mittell 2006), are tied into transformations within the television industry and technologies of distribution that have enabled programs to be viewed more consistently by smaller audiences and to still be considered successful.
Such long-form complex narratives as Lost, The Wire, 24, and The Sopranos seem to run counter to many of the practices and examples of spreadable media found elsewhere in this book. These shows are not the ephemeral “video of attractions” common to YouTube that are shared and commented on during downtime at work. They are the DVD box sets to be shelved next to literary and cinematic collections, long-term commitments to be savored and dissected in both online and offline fora. They spread less through exponential linking and emailing for quick hits than via proselytizing by die-hard fans eager to hook friends into their shared narrative obsessions. Even when they are enabled by the spreadable technologies of online distribution, both licit and illicit, the consumption patterns of complex serials are typically more focused on engaging with the core narrative text than the proliferating paratexts and fan creativity that typify spreadable media.
Perhaps we need a different metaphor to describe viewer engagement with narrative complexity. We might think of such programs as drillable rather than spreadable. They encourage a mode of forensic fandom that invites viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the complexity of a story and its telling (Mittell 2009a). Such programs create magnets for engagement, drawing viewers into story worlds and urging them to drill down to discover more.
An example of such engagement can be seen in a fan website such as Lostpedia. This wiki, open to be edited by anyone with an interest in the show, aggregates engagement by directing it inward toward the core text itself. Lostpedians come together to decode episodes, to theorize possible explanations, to play paratextual games, and to draw connections among the broad range of episodes, transmedia extensions, and external cultural references. Even though such a site is not an official product of ABC, it is solely focused on the centrality of Lost as the site of collective engagement. Fans congregate at Lostpedia to drill down into the text, not to spread fan practices outward (Mittell 2009b).
Narrative complexity and drillable engagement is not an entirely new phenomenon but rather an acceleration by degree. Highly serialized genres such as soap operas have always bred fan archivists and textual experts, while sports fans have a long history of drilling down statistically and collecting artifacts to engage more deeply with a team or player. Contemporary examples are notable for both the digital tools that have enabled fans to collectively apply their forensic efforts and the demands that mainstream television network programs make on their viewers to pay attention and to connect the narrative dots.
One text can inspire fans to both drill and spread. For instance, the twenty-first-century update to Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined series which first launched on the Sci-Fi Channel in 2003) features a highly complex narrative that engages fans to drill into the mythology on the Battlestar Wiki and countless blogs and online forums. Fewer fans engage as they drill down to deeper levels, but their intensity rises in positing theories and interpretations about the story world and its potential outcomes, or debating the show’s representational politics or social commentary. This type of engaged drilling requires concentration and motivation by fans, making it a realm for the most dedicated and die-hard viewers.
However, even a complex serial in which every aspect of the narrative is interconnected can inspire spreadable offshoots more akin to the bulk of shared texts on YouTube. One such example comes from season four of Battlestar, in which a character unexpectedly and brutally kills herself. Forensic-minded fans took this moment as an opportunity to explore motivations, rationale, and repercussions, but one fan saw a spreadable opportunity. Posting a video on YouTube called “Worst Commercial Placement Ever,” the clip shows the moment of the suicide, ending with the body lying in a pool of blood, and then continues into the advertisement that followed the scene on Canadian television: a cracker commercial with slow-motion shots of splashing tomato soup (resembling blood via this juxtaposition), set to an upbeat song with the lyric “I just want to celebrate another day of living!” This clip fits YouTube’s attraction model, with a clear moment of spectacular humor requiring no depth of story-world knowledge—it is not surprising that the clip has been seen over 250,000 times and linked to on numerous blogs and social network sites. Even after the clip was blocked as copyright infringement, fans posted numerous copies to continue the spreadable moment. (Alas, I have no information as to how successful this ad was in promoting the cracker brand, but clearly many more people have seen it via this spread.)
The opposition between spreadable and drillable shouldn’t be thought of as a hierarchy but rather as opposing vectors of cultural engagement. Spreadable media encourages horizontal ripples, accumulating eyeballs without necessarily encouraging more long-term engagement. Drillable media typically engage far fewer people, but they occupy more of their time and energies in a vertical descent into a text’s complexities. Privileging depth over breadth is a knee-jerk response bred in the humanities, where complexity is a marker of quality over surface pleasures of sensation and surprise that are more typical in spreadable media. However, we need to shift our normative stance to allow that both spreadable attractions and drillable complexity are legitimate forms of cultural engagement, differently appropriate depending on a viewer’s context and goals.
Mittell, Jason. 2006. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” Velvet Light Trap 58:29–40.
———. 2009a. “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies).” In Roberta Pearson (ed.), Reading Lost, 119–138. London: I. B. Tauris.
———. 2009b. “Sites of Participation: Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia.” Transformative Works and Cultures 3. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/118/117.