I’ve been using this blog to deconstruct research I’ve done that are interesting vignettes of findings, but perhaps in need of a non-traditional method of publication.  In one such paper that I’ve been deconstructing,  I’ve already discussed the Ghost Hunters live special episodes for how they incorporated online technologies as well as the virtual living rooms created by NBC and CBS.  The final piece of that paper is the basis for my current research on virtual worlds television; in this post, I discuss the first virtual worlds television programming I studied, the series Metanomics, for how it demonstrated the potential for social and content interactivities.

In this case study is the attempt to utilize the virtual world Second Life for a “virtual talk show” about virtual worlds technologies.  The television series, Metanomics, was produced, distributed and exhibited in the world as well as streamed to a related web site since the first show on September 17, 2007 until its last show March 7, 2011.  All programs are archived at their website, www.metanomics.net, for time-shifting consumption.

I must first clarify that Metanomics was not the first time television production as been attempted in a virtual world for distribution inworld and through other conventional media.  A decade ago a research group in the United Kingdom, in partnership with a local television system, attempted to create a virtual world that would be used to create broadcast material via a process they dubbed “Inhabited Television” (Craven et al, 2000).  They designed the virtual world to contain areas and events they hoped would entice virtual world inhabitants to visit their space; then they would film the activities that occurred and use the footage for broadcast content.  According to the researchers working on the project:

The defining feature of this medium is that an on-line audience can socially participate in a TV show that is staged within a shared virtual world. The producer defines a framework, but it is audience interaction and participation that brings it to life. … Furthermore, inhabited TV extends interactive TV to include social interaction among participants, new forms of control over narrative structure (e.g. navigation within a virtual world) and interaction with content (e.g. direct manipulation of props). (Benford et al, 1999, p. 180)

In essence, this earlier research project is similar to what the producers of Metanomics have accomplished with their creation of an ongoing television series that even operates within standard television seasons.

Metanomics is not a production supported by a corporation; instead, it is the work of a professor of economics, Dr. Robert Bloomfield ofCornellUniversity.  As part of his interest in the economics of virtual worlds, Dr. Bloomfield began producing this inworld talk show; however, the series is not a specific research project he is conducting.  Instead, it is more synonymous with non-profit public broadcasting of educational programs, which have corporate sponsors to assist with production costs.

The structure used for Metanomics is similar to another attempt at using Second Life with a series that reaches a larger audience.  The National Public Radio series, Science Friday, owned and operated an island in Second Life to which they streamed each episode.  While on the island, people could watch the show, comment on it via the text chat feature of the virtual world, and even have their questions become part of the broadcast.  The series started in 1991, but did not stream inworld until August 31, 2007, just before Metanomics began.  Unlike Metanomics, the series stopped streaming inworld in May 2010, due to budget drawbacks.  Structurally, these programs are very similar for how they incorporated the audience, and Dr. Bloomfield discussed having learned from this series during a presentation he made to my research project in September 2008.

Science Friday in Second Life, courtesy of http://slnewser.blogspot.com

For Metanomics, I began participating with the September 23, 2008 episode, and was there for seven episodes from various locations in Second Life as well as once via their web site.  I also took screen captures of the locations in Second Life to illustrate how the features in the virtual world were designed to become places for exhibition and consumption.  As with Science Friday, the show utilized the text chat feature of the virtual world to promote audience engagement; the web site was linked to this text chat.  Each time I attended a broadcast, I participated in the text chat, taking screen captures to illustrate how it worked.  Oftentimes I would only read what was being said; on a couple occasions I asked questions for the host and his guests, and only a few times did I ask questions of the other viewers.

All the shows in some way deal with topics about virtual worlds: from the study to the design of them.  At the time, the show was broadcast from an “island”, or a region of the virtual world owned by the show’s producers, in Second Life called Sage Hall.  On this island stood a building designed to mirror a physical building atCornellUniversity.  In this building was a large hall festooned with virtual objects intended to replicate a conventional three-camera television studio built for a talk show.  There was a stage decorated with chairs for the host, Dr. Bloomfield’s avatar Beyer Sellers, as well as his guests for the show.  Behind the chairs was a basic backdrop with an integrated video screen that could show graphics, text and video.  There were stadium-style stands for the audience to sit in – or, rather, for the physical audience at their computers to position their avatars at as an anchor in the studio.  There were no objects representing cameras, as the technology allowed for recording to occur either linked to a user’s avatar or to a point in the virtual world of the user’s choice.

The production staff of the show was geographically dispersed around the United States, and at times around the world.  For the September 23rd show, Dr. Bloomfield was at our university, but was still able to conduct his show as if he was doing it from his standard location.  The series was “filmed” and transmitted by SLCN (Second Life Cable Network), which since the data collection period has become Treet TV.  The show was broadcast within Second Life to special islands, or event partners.  During data collection this included: MetaPartners, New Media Consortium, Rockcliffe University Consortium,MuseIsland, andOrangeIsland.  As mentioned, the show is also streamed live at their website for those who do not have access to Second Life, either in general or due to a technical glitch, as happened to me once.

Metanomics inworld viewing location, Colonia Nova

As part of my experience, I visited all of the event partners to understand how the transmission worked.  At each island, a theatre was constructed that allowed users to position their avatars in chairs or stadium-style stands and orient their avatars, and thus what they could see in the world, towards a screen that would exhibit the show.  Once I was forced to attend an event partner because I had arrived too late at Sage Hall to become part of the live studio audience.  Each island has a limit as to how many avatars can be there at any given time; by the time I had arrived at Sage Hall, the studio was full.  Also, because this experiment combined both a virtual world and live streaming, there were technical glitches.  For the October 13 show, the audio and video feeds were distorted at the New Media Consortium island, which I had scheduled to visit.  Then, in teleporting to the Rockcliffe University Consortium island, my avatar, and thus myself, became stuck in a blue void and I was unable to move.  That night I ended up going to the website to watch the show and participate from there.

While the use of a virtual world to produce an ongoing television series is itself innovative, this case study’s most innovative feature, when compared to traditional television broadcasting, may be the utilization of an inworld feature to facilitate, encourage, and utilize active audience participation.  The series created a “chatbridge” or “backchat” structure wherein audience members can utilize the world’s standard texting feature to talk amongst themselves and address questions and comments to the host, guests and producers during the live show.  This feature produces what Dr. Bloomfield called a “constructive cacophony”.

At each of the locations in Second Life, there were balls in the audience sections that were treated metaphorically as microphones.  If the audience member sat her avatar within a specified range to this “microphone”, then anything she types in her chat field will automatically be included as part of this “constructive cacophony”.  Individuals who watched the live stream at the website could likewise log in and participate in the chatbridge from there.  The host and the guests were also a linked to the chatbridge and would sometimes partake in the conversation.  Audience members were encouraged by producers to ask questions for the host and guests, allowing for the backchat to actually provide feedback to influence the content of the show.  The producers also used this chatbridge to send out announcements before, during and after the show, such as information about the show’s sponsors, links to websites discussed in the show, and information about upcoming episodes.

The fact that a section of a virtual world was structured so as to produce a television series is itself an attempt to foster greater interaction on the part of the consumer.  More than just logging in to a website and clicking on the hyperlink for a specific page, the consumer must initiate the Second Life program, which includes creating an avatar, then orient her avatar to a place where the episode will be shown and to face the screen within the virtual world so that what appears on the user’s computer screen is that episode.  These steps require more activity on the part of the user, and more reactivity on the part of the medium in order to function.  However, as with Ghost Hunters Live, not every question directed at the producers of Metanomics became utilized by the producers to impact the content of the show: the producers were the filter through which content interaction took place. From the user’s perspective, there was no one-on-one correlation between the user’s actions and the content’s reactions.

Furthermore, the producers of Metanomics promoted synchronous content interaction through their promotion of the constructive cacophony.  The chatbridge allowed individuals to communicate with each other during the show.  Because the producers, host and guests were also part of the chatbridge, there was the possibility that any audience member could impact the course of the show, utilizing the same potential promoted by Ghost Hunters Live.  As with Ghost Hunters Live, not every question directed at the producers of Metanomics became utilized by the producers to impact the content of the show: the producers were the filter through which content interaction took place.  From the user’s perspective, there was no one-on-one correlation between the user’s actions and the content’s reactions.  Instead the content responded to the aggregated audience by reacting to perhaps the “best” actions, where the actions are determined to be as such by the producers.  In Metanomics, the producers act as gatekeepers and decide what communication from the audience will be passed along to become part of the show’s content.

The content interactivity attempted was an attempt to refashion the distribution of television from one-way transmission to two-way dialogic.  In both cases, there was structured into the show an attempt to include the consumers in the production process, to a limited extent.  Being a live show,Metanomics structured its virtual space so that the audience could provide feedback to the producers that could impact the progress of the content as it was broadcast.  By allowing, and promoting, such feedback potentials, the producers were explicitly indicating they did not intend to distribute their content in the conventional linear model; instead, they attempted to bring in real-time audience feedback, thereby creating a dialogic distribution model.

However, the content interactivity of these experiments is not equitable with the truest form seen in digital games due to the lack of a one-to-one action-reaction ratio.  What this means is that the progress of the television content was not reactive to each single consumer.  Instead, the content reacted to the aggregated audience.  In  Metanomics, the producers selected only certain questions or suggestions to incorporate into the live content; everyone who wanted to influence the content could not directly do so.

All of the case studies I have covered in this blog reflect the tension Cover (2004; 2006) described as the problems involved in overcoming the “author-text-audience” relationship.  The lack of the one-to-one content interaction can be seen as “paying lip service” to the desires of consumers to fully participate in the content.

While the potential for the Internet is the one-to-one ratio of interactivity, such as through customizability and user-control, these case studies illustrate a continuance of the more traditional power dynamic as a holdover from broadcast models.  Television broadcast models strategize for the aggregate audience; the introduction of the Internet as a medium for television was met with the hope for new broadcast models (Saito & Murayama 2010; Van Tassel 2001).  Indeed, the more interactive the medium for television, it was argued the more interactive the content would be, thereby creating a more balanced power dynamic, or one that favors the consumer over the producer (Saito & Murayama 2010).  Instead, with these cases, the increased interactivity did not preclude the more traditional broadcast model from being applied.

Perhaps the model relies less on the technology used for delivery of the content, and more on the amount of consumers.  These examples seem to suggest that with a large audience, the content can only be interactive — that is, responsive — to specific or aggregated inputs.  When the broadcast model relies on live transmission of content, it may not be possible for the content to be responsive on a one-to-one basis.  Saito and Murayama (2010) concluded as much in their experimental tests for their audience-driven live television broadcast model.  On the other hand, it may be possible to more approximate a one-to-one synchronous content interactivity when the broadcast contains pre-recorded content: in that instance, the television content could be structured similarly to game content, where the consumer is given choices over how to proceed in engaging with it.   Independent producers of web-series are experimenting with similar structures as well, such as YouTube producers Chad, Matt and Rob.

These case studies illustrate producers’ experiments with the potential for brining to Internet television the type of interactivity standard interactive television has not been able to achieve.  The case studies refashion the technologies of production, distribution and exhibition of the content so as to promote more content interactivity.  However, they are not actually refashioning the content itself to make it more interactive.  Ghost Hunters Live and Metanomics request interactivity with the content as it was being produced; however, the amount to which any individual viewer actually impacted the content was negligible, as who impacts was at the discretion of the producers.  Thus, both cases remediate traditional content genres “talk show” or “game show”, where “lucky” viewers chosen by the producers can have an impact.  CBS and NBC have remediated the traditional consumption practices of chatting with fellow watchers while focusing on the “boob tube”.

In all cases, even with the higher interactivity, shifting the content from the television set to the Internet remediated the standard practices and positionings of the viewers to the content, and by extrapolation to the producers, rather than innovating on what the viewers could do with the type of one-on-one interactivity of a digital game.

The question remains, what does the remediation of conventional power dynamics indicate?  A lack of willingness on the producers’ part to embrace more fully the potential of interactivity?  A failing of the technology to permit such potential from being reached?  Or the unassailable nature of broadcasting live to a large audience?

Additional Readings, check out:

Benford, S., Greenhalgh, C., Craven, M., Walker, G., Regan, T., Morphett, J., Wyver, J. & Bowers, J.  (1999).  Broadcasting On-Line Social Interaction as Inhabited Television.  In S. Bødker, M. Kyng, and K. Schmidt (eds.). Proceedings of the Sixth European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, J2-16 September 1999, Copenhagen, Denmark, (p. 179-198.)  Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers  

Cover, R.  (2004).  New media theory: Electronic games, democracy and reconfiguring the author-audience relationship.  Social Semiotics, 14(2), p. 173-191.

Cover, R.  (2006).  Audience inter/active: Interactive media, narrative control and reconceiving audience history.  New Media & Society, 8(1), p. 139-158.

Craven, M., Benford, S., Greenhalgh, C., Wyver, J., Brazier, C., Oldroyd, A., et al. (2000).  Ages of avatar: Community building for inhabited television. In Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVE’00) (pp. 189–194).  New York: ACM Press.

Saito, Y. & Murayama, Y.  (2010).  A proposal of an interactive broadcasting system for audience-driven live TV on the Internet.  Journal of Information Processing, 18: 26-37.

Van Tassel, J. M.  (2001).  Digital TV Over Broadband: Harvesting bandwidth.  Boston, MA: Focal Press.

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