YouTube show The Lizzie Bennet Diaries pioneered transmedia storytelling, and took home a Creative Arts Emmy for Original Interactive Program for its achievements. Here, Alexandra Edwards, the transmedia producer behind the show and its follow-up, Welcome to Sanditon, talks about the benefits and challenges of building interaction into a linear drama.
How do you define “transmedia” and what does it entail for your series?
Since our shows are web series first and foremost, we use “transmedia” as shorthand for any and all multi-platform content beyond the videos themselves. I work with our showrunners, Margaret Dunlap and Jay Bushman, to develop and produce that content. So day to day, I’m writing and posting social media content for a cast of about 15 characters. Much of that is concentrated on Twitter, but it can also include Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, This is My Jam, Reddit, and anywhere else we decide we need to go. I get help from our really great transmedia editor, Dana Shaw, who handles script breakdowns, so we know what beats are happening in the videos on any given day.
We wanted to open the world up to the fans and let them play in the sandbox.
How has your approach to transmedia evolved?
Lizzie Bennet was an interesting experience in having characters who “live” on social media, because most people know the plot of Pride and Prejudice. While we had audience members who played along and talked to Lizzie as though they didn’t know what would happen in the end, we also had a lot of people who would tweet spoilers about Lizzie’s life to her. With Welcome to Sanditon, we wanted to open the world up to the fans and let them play in the sandbox. The pitch, from the very beginning, included the role-play aspect, where fans would get to be townspeople in Sanditon.
We’ve tried to open up new platforms. For example, we wanted fans to get to know Edward Denham (played in the videos by the terrific Kyle Walters). We’d already decided that he ran the town’s subreddit, so it seemed natural that he would run an AMA (Ask Me Anything). Ed announced the AMA in-universe, and the fans got on Reddit and asked him questions as though he were a real person. It allowed us to leverage interactivity in order to give the audience a better picture of a character that they previously didn’t know very well.
How flexible are your storylines? If a particular plot or character starts to trend harder on Twitter, does that impact how you use them in future?
The videos are locked pretty far in advance, usually anywhere from one to two months. That’s the main plot, and it isn’t flexible once we’ve filmed it, but there’s definitely room to play within that framework. You can get from plot points A to B in an infinite number of ways, so the transmedia fun comes in making the decision of which path to take.
If a lot of fans are talking about something, I can and do tailor updates based on that. It’s about having characters react in the moment. It works a lot like improv, actually: a character might start the scene, so to speak, with a certain Twitter update. Then fans will respond, and how the conversation goes really depends on that interaction.
Fans tell me they’re now inspired to try out their own transmedia projects
What are the benefits of allowing fans to “enter” the world of the show?
We could never have made Sanditon feel like a real, whole town. We just don’t have the time or resources. Having fans help us create the world has been really fun, and I think we’ve all learned a lot about this kind of wide-scale creative cooperation. We’ve also gotten to introduce a large group of people to the process of telling a story through transmedia. Fans tell me all the time that they’d never done anything like this before, but now they’re inspired to try out their own transmedia projects. That’s huge for me, I love hearing that.
Do you think your transmedia model could be carried over to a broadcast TV show?
I absolutely think it could carry over to TV. The thing to keep in mind is that, if your show has any kind of fan following, people are already having conversations about it and building community around it online. I think the biggest mistake creators can make is to try to dictate to fan communities how they should be interacting or expressing their fannishness. You have to respect these people who love your work. If you want to use transmedia, especially to encourage interactivity, you have to find ways to invite them to play in the world and make it cooperative. That’s not to say that you have to let your fans dictate or influence the creative direction you go in. But fan communities operate on the principle of possibility. They’re always asking “What if…?” And the best thing you can do as a creator is to allow all those possibilities to co-exist.