Things move fast in the digital age.
I’m not talking about the speed of our servers or the power of our processors. I’m talking about the evolution of ideas. The speed in which something goes from concept, to prototype, to salable product, is as awe-inspiring as it is scary. A now-legendary marathon weekend of coding by a group of Harvard undergrads in 2003 laid the foundations for Facebook, a site that went from concept to multi-billion dollar enterprise in less than a decade. For every Facebook there are hundreds of ideas that didn’t quite get to the finish line, but that’s the way evolution works.
Consider the photo sharing site Pinterest. Launched in March 2010 by Ben Silbermann, Evan Sharp, and Paul Sciarra, the company gives users free reign to create digital "pin boards," flagging photos and videos of interest from all over the net. Just three years after launch, Pinterest is valued in excess of $1.5 billion and had nearly 12 million unique visitors in January 2012. The company offers several examples on how the site can be used—Tim shows off his personal style, Jessica flags her favorite recipes, Joy is collecting ideas on how to decorate her dream home. User created pin boards vary in content from the thematic (such as "Boyfriend Style"), to the highly personal ("i'd like to go here"), but regardless of differences exhibited in individual collections the one thing all boards have in common is that they empower users to act as curators. While at the most basic level the pin boards give us an opportunity to explore our shared interests they also give us a unique glimpse into the lives of the people who create them.
It was only a matter of time before someone used Pinterest as a means of telling stories. The first past the post in this regard was European transmedia production company beActive when they announced the launch of their latest project, Beat Girl. An online adaptation of Jasmina Kallay's novel of the same name, the story follows Heather, a 21-year-old woman who turns to music after the death of a loved one. Billed in the press release as "the first scripted series to be told on Pinterest," the creators leverage the site's unique features to craft a story from Heather’s perspective.
But it’s not as simple as just "telling a story." A new platform means new rules of engagement between creators and audiences. Sure, Pinterest may be a hot new social media property but it is far from conventional when used as a storytelling tool. Aside from a brief line of explanation at the top of each pin board, there's no place for Heather to write her thoughts like there is on a blog or even a Facebook timeline. Other users don't comment on things they like, they simply "re-pin" them to their own boards. Exactly how much story can you expect to cram into photos and very short videos? The answer appears to be: quite a lot.
One of the defining characteristics of transmedia storytelling in the idea of non-linear narrative. While it is certainly not a rule, the practiced storyteller knows that there should be multiple points of entry for potential audience members, acknowledging that not everyone will come across the story in the same fashion. As a platform intended to collate items of interest, Pinterest offers a ready-made jumping-off point for crafting an immersive narrative. The viewer can take Heather’s posts at face value or, like a crime scene investigator, they can treat each post and pin like a vital piece of evidence. Taken on their own they are just photos of artists she admires or films she enjoys. But considered together they paint a picture of a young woman whose love for music has given her strength and inspiration when she needed it most. She's waxed on the importance of friends and family and has made clear her hopes and dreams. Along the way the audience is exposed to content created specifically for the story in the form of short videos and photos intended to give us a fuller picture of the woman behind the posts. Users are invited to treat Heather as they would any other curator, re-pinning and sharing her posts to their own boards in a move that integrates the fictional and real worlds.
Heather’s story doesn’t end with pin boards and short video clips. BeActive intends the Pinterest project to be the first element in a web-based franchise that will include a web series and broad social media footprint. Yet, after seeing the potential of the site as a storytelling platform, one wonders if the launch of a web series might cheapen the Pinterest effort by reducing it to an exercise in world building. It would be a shame to treat the immersive experience of the Beat Girl boards as nothing more than a teaser to something as conventional as a series, an element to be cast aside and forgotten once the "main attraction" gets rolling.
The explosion of new ways for people to interact gives storytellers an equal number of new ways to engage audiences. We live in a time where Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett trade barbs via Twitter and video blogs in The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, an online adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," and even the Bronx Zoo Cobra has her own twitter feed detailing her trips to Magnolia Bakery and the Empire State Building. Beat Girl is (as of the writing of this article at least) still ongoing, so time will tell if this use of Pinterest was a success. Beat Girl represents a compelling first implentation of a potential storytelling tool but it will take others—storytellers and audiences—to test the boundaries of what is possible with the site. Evolution takes time, even in the lightning-fast digital age. Give it a few months; I’m sure we’ll have all the answers by Christmas.
Convergence: Immersive Media at Lincoln Center is Film Society's ongoing transmedia series. Join us on Tuesday, July 24 for our next event, a StoryForum with Mikhael Tara Garver about her groundbreaking rock concert/theaterical piece Fornicated from the Beatles.