Thursday, July 31, 2008

In Defense of Passivity

I ran across this in a Wired article on new attempts to cash in on web video:

But Friedman's ambition is to merge television with videogames in a form of storytelling that engages audience members on multiple levels — and not just with the narrative but with each other. So while Anna dodges "sims" (simulated life-forms, with their telltale orange stigmata) and agents from the mysterioso outfit known as Gemini Division, fans will be able to log on to the show's Web site and get transmissions from Anna's partner in the police department. Users will be recruited as Gemini agents themselves, at which point they can talk with other agents — er, users — by webcam. "I think this is where entertainment is heading," he says. "It's where I want entertainment to head, because that's what I want to experience."
This is, of course, a familiar prediction. For years we've been hearing about the inevitable decline of television and movies as viewers reject passive experience. In the future, we're all going to interact with our entertainment and make up the stories ourselves!

Except that we won't. Recently I've been watching the first season of "Weeds" and the HBO John Adams miniseries, and I've been enjoying myself despite the complete lack of interactivity. Turns out, good writing and good acting make for an enjoyable passive experience. Conversely, when I read about a web series that expects me to sign into websites to learn more about what's going on with the show, I see that as work. Why are they making me go to the trouble, when they could just embed that information in a script and reveal it to me with the rest of the show?

Maybe I'm uniquely lazy and everyone else is excited and engaged by this form of entertainment, but I think interactivity poses a serious problem for content creators. They have an unenviable choice: either make the show truly interactive by hiding important information in various places online, with the full knowledge that a percentage of their viewers will never find that information and so will not get the full experience. Or, more likely, they will create the pretense of interactivity and throw a bunch of unnecessary detail online while saving all the crucial information for the broadcast, in which case they've "rewarded" their most dedicated fans with material from the cutting-room floor that was no doubt cut from the script for a very simple reason: it wasn't very good.

Then there's the interaction with other viewers of the show, which is where the article (finally) overlaps with the topic of this blog. Again, I find I don't much care. The fact that some other person watched the same episode as I did is not enough to get me to video conference with them. There are plenty of people who watch "24" and "Heroes" with whom I don't want to talk, let alone see what they might be tempted to show me via webcam. And those are some of the more normal shows I watch; I don't even want to think about what might go out over webcam from my fellow watchers of "Battlestar Galactica."

There's a point to be made here about community: a single shared interest is not enough. When you make a connection with another person, you expose a little bit of yourself. That's an exercise in trust, and most people will be unwilling to do that unless they feel they're in a scenario that supports the trust they're investing. And so: live video chat with people about whom you know nothing except that they watch the same show that you do? Not trustworthy. You're asking a lot of your viewers if that's a cornerstone of the community you're trying to build.

Let's hear it for passivity. Entertainment doesn't become more entertaining simply by becoming interactive. And if the community around the show is formed of people chatting with strangers via video, that's one community that smart viewers will probably avoid.