To Spread or To Drill?


I was invited by Henry Jenkins, Josh Green, and Sam Ford to contribute to a book project they are working on, Spreadable Media: Creating Value in a Network Culture.You can see an outline of the project posted serially on Henry’s blog, emerging from a research paper drafted as part of the Convergence Culture Consortium. The book will feature Henry, Josh, and Sam’s skeleton, fleshed out by short contributions from a range of media scholars and practioners–I was asked to contribute a piece on “Complexity and Engagement,” considering how the narrative complexity that I’ve been working on fits within patterns of spreadable media.

As I am want to do, I broke away from my assigned topic. Instead of considering how spreading explains engagement with seriality and complexity, I pose another metaphor: drillable. I’ve posted a draft of the essay beneath the fold – as always, comments and constructive criticism are welcome!

Complexity and Engagement

While the rise of spreadable media through social networks and digital platforms of collective engagement is a major trend of the 2000s, 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 like voice-over narration and playful chronology, and deliberate ambiguity and confusion. These trends, which I’ve explored at length elsewhere, are tied into transformations within the television industry and technologies of distribution that have enabled programs to be viewed with more consistently by smaller audiences and still be considered successful.

Such long-form complex narratives like 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” of YouTube to be shared and commented on during downtime at work. They are the DVD boxsets 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 encourages viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the complexity of a story and its telling. Such programs create magnets for engagement, drawing viewers into the storyworlds 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, theorize possible explanations, play paratextual games, and draw connections across the scope of the program and external 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 spread fan practices outward.

Narrative complexity and drillable engagement is not an entirely new phenomenon, but rather an acceleration by degree. Highly serialized genres like 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 network programs make upon their viewers to pay attention and connect the narrative dots.

One text can inspire fans to both drill and spread. For instance, Battlestar Galactica features a highly complex narrative that engages fans to drill into the mythology on 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 storyworld 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 where every aspect of the narrative is interconnected can inspire spreadable off-shoots more akin to the bulk of shared texts on YouTube. One such example comes from season 4 of Battlestar, where 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 storyworld knowledge–it is not surprising that the clip has been seen over 250,000 times and linked to on numerous blogs and social networks. (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 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 both are legitimate forms of cultural engagement, differently appropriate depending on a viewer’s context and goals.

23 Responses to “To Spread or To Drill?”

  1. 1 Mark

    Very interesting piece, and I can certainly see the term “drillable” growing and being added to the lexicon.

    What this put me in mind of, and this may move even further away from your area of writing, is shows where producers/writers/showrunners are seeking to provide more of this drillable material themselves, through transmedia narratives and other sources. One obvious example which springs to mind would be Heroes, with the online webcomics providing deeper insight into characters (possibly canonizing storylines which may have otherwise appeared in fanfic?), the ARG providing additional depth again. Of course, there still remains the level of fan drilling, and perhaps these additional narratives further encourage that drillability, but this is certainly what I was put in mind of by your post.

  2. Mark – thanks for the comment. You’re completely right, and how TV creators are creating rich veins of drillable content definitely belongs in this piece. I do think that once you get away from the core text and into the paratexts you mention, the drilling audience becomes thinner, but it’s still an important part of a model distinct from the spreadable impulse.

  3. 3 Tama

    Hi Jason,

    I think your concept of ‘drillable’ media is very useful, but one more aspect of this analogy which immediately sprang to mind is that drilling certain things can be difficult and the labour/effort involved puts many people off; similarly, the effort involved in drilling down into the sort of media you describe can actually put off more casual viewers, but rewards the smaller but more hearty viewer (a bit like Jenkins’ difference between zappers and fans, for instance).

    If we juxtapose spreadability and drillability further into the exciting world of home improvement metaphors, we might think of spreadable media as the stick-on easy-remove hooks (which are 3M hooks in Australia – is that a US brand, too?): they are quick, easy to use, and are usually temporary. By contrast, drillable media is analogous with a thick stainless-steel screw which takes real effort to drill into a wall, but the end result is a lot more permanent, robust and rewarding (it can hold up a lot more). I’m not sure if that’s actually taking an analogy a little too far, but I do think the inherent acknowledgement that ‘drillable’ media would meet with some resistance in viewing/commitment terms is a very useful part of the term as you’re outlining it! 🙂


  4. 4 Tama

    PS The reason that sprang to mind is that when talking about transmedia storytelling, so many of my students pointed out that they chose not to engage with the franchise at all because of the perceived work needed to really understand the story (ie partake in the drilling, as it were)! 🙂

  5. Great articulation of a phenomenon that has been going on for several years. And also, an important and useful distinction between the flat rocks that seem to skip along the surface of various media (spread) and those which dive deep into the water (drill). For those in advertising who are seeking ever new ways of engaging with their clients’ potential customers, you can’t expect everyone to interact with the same intensity (or at all).

  6. 6 scottellington

    I have only a trivial objection to your use of the term, “drilling”, in that its initial impression seems to suggest some form of tedious repetition. “Mining” is the alternative metaphor I’d like to offer, simply because the term lends itself to a vision of the audience as a vertically-integrated, transnational conglomerate (possibly) contending with mainstream media organizations for ownership of valuable intellectual properties, many of which overlap (Godfather saga, Goodfellas, Sopranos) in a linear/temporal sense AND like dimensional strata (the criminal enterprise construct of Deadwood contextualizes and underlies that gangser thing), while leading to “deeper” perspective on the arbitrary annexaton of an inhabited continent; part of the play on words facilitated by “mining”.

  7. Another example of the “drillability” of television series I recently ran into: a fan going at amazing lengths to analyse and explain the ending of The Sopranos. He’s even going into frame-by-frame analysis of the last scene, with comments on camera angles, camera movement and framing, something I’ve rarely or never seen anybody do on a television series (no other example pops to mind). This tends to be done only in the context of cinematic masterpieces in feature film, so it was very exciting to see this in the context of a prime time tv show.

    There are several pages to this, including links with Kubrick films and Godfather trilogy.

  8. 8 Scott Ellington

    The stunning revelation of inquisitive analytical intelligence at the far end of Tom’s link suggests, at least to me, that drilling or mining may be more imprecise analogs for the phenomenon of which you speak than metaphors drawn from an archeological approach to unearthing architectural forms and structures common to storyworlds across platforms, media and channels; as though the work of a spreading segment of dedicated audience (outfitted with tweezers and teaspoons, rather than derricks and hydraulics) is the voluntary revelation of Culture: An almost-holy quest to find or define, “human” by example.

  9. Jason, terrific addition to our toolkit for thinking about storytelling in a digital age. Am likely to be citing you in a conversation at EduCon2.2 in Philly at the end of January… thank you! (Like Scott’s “tweaks” towards “mining” and “archaelogical” approaches as well.)

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  10. 10 Star Wars & Transmedia Storytelling 1: Spreadability vs. Drillability – Luziferians Medienecke
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