At the forefront of a new mode of storytelling, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries launched on YouTube in April 2012 as an adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and was met with rousing success. Innovative not only for its format, in which 4 to 5 minute bi-weekly “episodes” approximated a modern videoblog, LBD incorporated a number of other social medias to augment, and even further, its story. Characters’ posts on Twitter accounts, additional YouTube channels, and narrative presence on other social medias like Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram created a never-before-seen kind of powerful and meaningful entity known as “transmedia.” In many cases, these other medias were almost essential to the narrative: while the videos could be understood without them, these extra pieces added a more meaningful and nuanced interaction with the show, and made for an engrossing, immersive viewing experience.
The team has been quick to follow up the Emmy-winning Lizzie Bennet with other web series in the same style: Welcome to Sanditon, a spinoff mini-series based on Austen’s unfinished novel, and the new full series currently in progress, Emma Approved, based on the novel Emma. However, among LBD’s successors, it is the copycat independent series The Autobiography of Jane Eyre that has, through it use of social media to make aesthetic and thematic connections to Bronte’s original text, demonstrated new possibilities for how transmedia can interact with the main narrative. This series of productions has proven, beyond a doubt, that transmedia is an essential part of online storytelling. This constantly evolving field positions itself somewhere between the paratext and parallel narrative. By examining the series mentioned above, I will argue that transmedia exists in an entirely new classification, as a network of storytelling choices meant to support and expand upon the adaptive choices of the main text.
A new term in the world of narrative theory, “transmedia” lacks one consistent definition. Transmedia producer for the Lizzie Bennet team, Jay Bushman, has seen the term variously defined as “multiple standalone stories on multiple types of media that all are connected to the same storyworld” and “telling a single cohesive story over several different channels.” Bushman agrees with the second definition when talking about his work on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; unlike the use of social media paratexts in other instances (the websites, webisodes or “official” character twitter accounts that accompany many network television shows), every instance of a social media update became part of the LBD canon. In addition to the main narrative displayed on Lizzie’s channel, personal spinoff channels from Lydia Bennet, Maria Lu, corporate video from Gigi Darcy (the introduction of Permberly Digital’s Domino platform) and Ricky Collins. The total running time of every video element amounted to over nine and a half hours of serialized video, and included transmedia across 35 social media profiles (“Press Release”). The Lizzie Bennet team has been praised as innovators in this new field, even winning an Emmy award in for “Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media” for their transmedia work. However, the meaning of the relationship between transmedia and main narrative is still murky at best. Because of the structure of the video uploads, it would be tempting to define the 100 videos uploaded by Lizzie as the “main narrative,” and consider every other video and social media interaction as supplementary, or paratext. Indeed, viewers who watch only Lizzie’s 100 videos do not encounter any gaps in the narrative; these videos make up a consistent narrative even without the use of transmedia.
However, neither Abbott nor Jonathan Gray’s definition of “paratext” takes into account the scope or narrative importance of this new transmedia. Abbott and Gray refer almost exclusively to physicalparatexts, but LBD and its successors exist as purely digital phenomenon. Further, unlike Gray’s discussion of promotional and peripheral material, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is an entirely free viewing experience, absent of traditional advertising techniques. It seems, then, that transmedia falls in an undefined realm somewhere between text and paratext. Appropriately, Bushman likens the series use of twitter and other social medias to Scott McCloud’s theories on closure and the gutter in Understanding Comics. According to Bushman:
The story is created by the reader when he actively imagines what happens between those two panels. This is my belief on how transmedia works. Each individual tweet, picture, favorite, post, etc. has its own meaning, but the really powerful engagement comes from the audience imagining what is happening between each of those pieces, the meaning they create. (Whyte)
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries remains notable in the world of webseries for its skillful interweaving of transmedia with multiple narrative platforms, which has been unmatched in any successive productions. With the inclusion of transmedia, the story was almost constantly in the process of being told, a unique experience that is almost impossible to replicate in an after-the-fact viewing. By Bushman’s definition, the use of transmedia creates a production team and a viewing public almost constantly engaged with issues of narrativity.
By basing the series on a canonical piece of literature, the Lizzie Bennet team further engages with issues of literary analysis, modernization, and adaptation. Series co-creator Hank Green spoke of the choice of Pride and Prejudice as a source text: “I wanted something that was very dialogue-based and very character-based so that we could do it not as a big production with lots of sets and scenes and everything, but just as a person talking to a camera. It’s a work of fiction, adapted into a video blog.” (Green, qtd. in Andersen). Pride and Prejudice was a wise choice to adapt, not only because of its cult-status in pop culture, but because the original text itself is engaged with issues of epistemology. Largely a novel about knowing, discovering, and re-interpreting knowledge, Pride and Prejudice is an ideal candidate for new experiments with narrative form. The split between Lizzie’s subjective narration on the video blogs and the more objective, “real” interactions seen on social media harken back to the distinction between indirect and direct discourse so important to Austen’s narrative style. The series further experimented with this idea through elements like Lizzie’s costume theater, a unique style of reporting that reinterpreted every event through Lizzie’s admittedly limited and subjective perspective– perhaps a purposeful choice meant to recall Austen’s satirical narrative voice and use of free indirect discourse.
With Lizzie’s unreliability as a narrator so apparent in the videos, the objective social media interactions became even more important to viewers looking to get the whole story. It was not uncommon for the series’ dedicated fans to enter into lengthy conversations about the meaning behind a series of tweets, discussions of who was following whom on twitter, and other issues of speculation and analysis. Further, by choosing a text with which many viewers were already familiar, the creators engaged fans and creators with issues of modernization and adaptation. Already knowing the events of the book, the “suspense” of LBD lay in how the creators would choose to re-interpret the events of Pride and Prejudice in a modern context. For example, many fans were anxious to see how Lydia Bennet’s “fallen woman” plotline would play out in the face of modern sexual politics. Fans were vocal with questions and opinions about these modernization choices, and neither were they reluctant to critique the show when they thought it could have done better. To dedicated fans, then, the structuring and narrativity was an essential part of their viewing experience; as the use of transmedia increased throughout the series’ run, it became equally important in discussion of narrativity and to one’s understanding of the project as a whole.
In Lizzie Bennet’s world, a number of constituent plot events occurred out of the purview of Lizzie’s camera, due to the practical story-telling limitations of what Lizzie’s personal footage could realistically capture. Bushman discussed the writing process of “[deciding] what belongs on camera and what doesn’t. For major story beats, I’ll look at what ends up in the episodes and try to find ways that transmedia can complement the action, show viewers what’s going on from a different perspective of characters who don’t belong on camera at that point, or ways to bridge episodes together.” (Bushman, qtd. in Whyte) Twitter interactions between Darcy, Bing Lee, and Caroline Lee or between the Bennet sisters and Charlotte Lu, made up most of the “complementary action” early on in the series—interesting, but relatively inconsequential tweets that provided more character insight than plot development. It was about two-thirds of the way into the story that the team really began to explore the possibilities of transmedia by tying it to constituent plot events.
Most notably, one of the novel’s major cruxes, Lydia’s elopement, was reported and reinterpreted almost entirely through transmedia. In the weeks leading up to Lydia’s “fall,” the character began posting a series of increasingly alarming personal video blogs to her own YouTube channel. These videos, and her Twitter account, documented her anger with her family, her relationship with Wickham, and her overwhelming feelings of confusion and loneliness. When the situation really bubbled over, it was in the form of a live website with a tawdry headline, “See YouTube star Lydia Bennet reveal EVERYTHING,” and a blurry screenshot from what appeared to be a sex tape (Su, “The Day Everything Changed”). The series’ dedicated fans were quick to discover this website and to understand its implications both for the character and for the plot. Casual viewers of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, that is, those who only watched the main videos and did not engage with the transmedia content, would have no knowledge of this plot development until episode 84, finding out the news at the same time as protagonist Lizzie. Myles McNutt writes about the narrative impact of this choice:
For those who have been following along, it’s the point at which the storylines converge, and where Lydia’s self-destructive yet also self-fulfilling relationship with George Wickham returns to the main narrative with tragic consequences. However, for those who aren’t following Lydia’s story, Lizzie’s shock is also our shock, and more importantly Lizzie’s guilt at not paying more attention becomes our guilt at not clicking on those prompts to watch Lydia’s latest video that appear at the end of each Lizzie Bennet episode. (McNutt)
This plotline only led to more transmedia interactions, including the introduction of Pemberley Digital’s “Domino” platform videos, which narrated William and Gigi Darcy’s search for Wickham and efforts to take down the offending website. At the peak of its transmedia efforts, the Lizzie Bennet team was posting as many as four or five videos a week across its various channels. This flurry of information across multiple platforms is what makes The Lizzie Bennet Diaries so unique and celebrated. By expanding the storyworld of their narrative with transmedia, the writing team created a multi-platform, immersive experience, totally unique in its vastness, depth, and narrative impact.
Unfortunately for the team behind the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, now known as Pemberley Digital, the perfect storm of transmedia success has been hard to repeat. After its successful Kickstarter funding campaign, the company produced the short series Welcome to Sanditon, an LBD-spinoff starring Gigi Darcy and loosely based on Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. The series utilized transmedia on a smaller scale this time around, with only one series of videos. However, many fans found the series’ inclusion of fan-created content in the videos off-putting, and complained of a slow-moving plot. In October of 2013, the team followed up with a new full series based on Jane Austen’s Emma. Following Emma Woodhouse, a lifestyle guru and professional matchmaker, Emma Approved differs from its predecessor in terms of its storyworld. While all of Lizzie’s videos were understood to be “in-world” (that is, in Lizzie’s world, they really were posted on YouTube, which meant any character in the story had access to them via the internet), Emma’s videos are understood to be private and “out-of-world.” Emma films herself and her co-workers for posterity, believing that this footage will be useful to the future documentary crew working on her life. This difference, however, has so far created a confusing distinction. Whereas Lizzie was always interacting with her viewers, the character of Emma supposedly has no viewers to interact with. The character runs a blog, in which she posts about fashion, job success, romance, and a myriad of other topics. Every character has a twitter page, but the interactions between characters have been kept to a minimum, at least compared to the flurry of Tweeting that characterized the Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ early transmedia efforts.
Though only 19 episodes into its projected 100 episode run at the time of this writing, Emma Approved has failed to resonate with viewers on the same level as Lizzie Bennet—proving the necessity of an active audience to transmedia projects such as these. In fact, Emma fans have recently made their concerns with the project known, resulting in a lengthy conversation with series creator Bernie Su addressing the challenges of writing for this new narrative form. Su admits that the online format and increased interaction with fans heightens the stakes of production, and increases his sense of accountability to the viewers. However, the real problem seems to be the breakneck speed at which content is produced: the demands of producing bi-weekly content week after week, a schedule Su has compared to soap-opera production, has led to an overworked team (Su, “Pemberley Digital Hangout”). As a result, Emma Approved will be quietly put on hiatus for the month of January to give the team time to regroup and prepare for the next league of the story. This series of events post-LBD proves that there is, of course, no exact science to storytelling. These issues, which call into question the role aesthetic distance, the limits of the new format, and the role of viewer interaction, will surely be addressed in future productions as this new narrative form continues to develop.
Despite the struggles encountered by the team at Pemberley Digital, new strides are being made in the world of transmedia adaptation projects. Inspired by The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an independent group of Canadian college students began collaborating on a similar project, The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, in early 2013. A zero-budget production, AOJE lacks the polish of its predecessor, but the team behind Jane Eyre has still created a convincing and immersive transmedia presence on Twitter and Tumblr. The characters’ interactions on twitter have augmented many plot elements– for instance, Rochester heads up the fictional company Thornfield Exports, which has its own social media presence, and Blanche Ingram has been reimagined as a public relations guru with a strong Twitter following.
But the teams’ real coup has been Jane’s Tumblr, an exercise in character building and thematic blogging. Part personal blog, part scrapbook, Jane uses the website to post and re-post images, songs, and words that reflect her inner thoughts, feelings, and moods. Often, these posts have provided additional insight into the character’s mental state, serving as “extras” to keep viewers immersed in the story between the bi-weekly episodes. More interestingly, however, they have also referred to motifs and symbols within Bronte’s original text. Currently about halfway through it’s projected run, The Autobiography of Jane Eyre has just brought together Jane and Rochester as an engaged couple: in the days before and after their engagement was revealed, Jane’s Tumblr included many pictures of grand trees, including a picture posted soon after the engagement video of a tree that had been struck by lightning – an intentional reference to the scene in novel that portends the doomed nature of Jane and Rochester’s engagement. Other visual elements of Jane’s Tumblr have recalled the novel’s original setting in Victorian England, it’s gothic tone and imagery, and made reference to Jane’s childhood, specifically in an original drawing-based video addressing Jane’s childhood and the loss of Helen Burns (“Eyrequotes”).
These posts deepen the series’ connection to the original text, and many may even be interpreted as foreshadowing, particularly to viewers who are already familiar with Jane Eyre. Those who have already read the novel are engaged in the same issues of modernization and adaptation that engaged LBD viewers: currently, fans are waiting with bated breath to see how the series will handle the novel’s major crux, the reveal of Bertha Mason. Though at the time of writing the series is only half way through its projected run, it has already managed to augment the narrative using visual and symbolic forms of new media, incorporating a sensitive and literary aspect to the series that both Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved seem to lack. This independent production has proven that transmedia is a constantly-innovating field: by approaching their production on a smaller scale, and focusing on the thematic aspects of the narrative rather than its vastness, The Autobiography of Jane Eyre has created an entirely new, alternative-use, of transmedia.
If nothing else, the case studies above have proven that there is an essential difference between a traditional serialized series and the sprawling, multi-narrative entities that have so enthralled internet viewers in the past year. Transmedia encompasses many things: paratext, parallel narrative, and symbol. Finally, it is an unprecedented series of immersive narrative choices that bring fictional characters, creators, and viewers into the same narrative space. The wild success of these series can only mean that more will emerge, and the definition will constantly expand and change. I would be interested to see future productions use these examples of transmedia to adapt the already-vast storyworlds of novels by, say, Charles Dickens, to even use them to add depth and meaning to original narratives.
Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.
Andersen, Michael. “The Lizzie Benet Diaries Brings Jane Austen to YouTube.” Wired. 23 May 2012. Web. http://www.wired.com/magazine/2012/05/the-lizzie-bennet-diaries-brings-jane-austen-to-youtube/
Eyrequotes. Official Tumblr for “The Autobiography of Jane Eyre.” Web. http://eyrequotes.tumblr.com/
Gray, Jonathan. “Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.” New York: New York University Press, 2010. Print.
McNutt, Myles. “Lydia, Legacy, and the End of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” Cultural Learnings. 28 March 2013. Web. http://cultural-learnings.com/2013/03/28/lydia-legacy-and-the-end-of-the-lizzie-bennet-diaries
Press Release. “Emmy Award Winning, Interactive Web Series ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ Immerses Fans into Jane Austen’s Timeless Classic.” The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. 22 August, 2013. Web. http://www.lizziebennet.com/press-release/
Su, Bernie. “LBD – The Day Everything Changed.” 31 January 2013. Web. http://berniesu.tumblr.com/post/41936137046/lbd-the-day-everything-changed
Su, Bernie. “Pemberley Digital Hangout – Dec 7, 13.” GoogleDocs. Web. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1LeQ6dtk0ToAbEpmWWjFxcCTbmwPqIfb_6zwhNSmkYqI/edit
Whyte, Marama. “Exclusive Interview: ‘Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ Transmedia Producer Jay Bushman talks the Streamys, the show, more.” Hypable.com. 18 February 2013. Web. http://www.hypable.com/2013/02/18/lizzie-bennet-diaries-jay-bushman-interview/2/