[posted 20 April - release notes]
Throughout its history, we might consider “accessibility” to be the defining feature of commercial American television. Per the medium’s commercial goals, any program’s success would be judged by its ability to attract, retain, and grow its viewership, which could then be converted into the currency of Nielsen ratings and sold to advertisers. The programming strategies that emerged to support this system of popular appeal have been termed “least objectionable content” or more dismissively, “lowest common denominator.” In short, a television producer’s first job is to avoid alienating potential viewers. At the base level of narrative comprehension, the industry demands that television be easy enough to follow in order to make sense to casual viewers. However, in the mode of narrative complexity, television series often challenge the ease with which a casual viewer might make sense of a program, inviting temporary disorientation and confusion, allowing viewers to build up their comprehension skills through long-term viewing and active engagement, as discussed in more depth in the Comprehension chapter.
In this chapter, I will consider how viewers make sense of complex serial forms through practices of orientation and mapping, primarily through the creation of orienting paratexts. Arguably, most orientation practices involve paratexts, whether in the tangible form of maps and lists, or more ephemeral processes of conversation, as orienting ourselves in relation to a narrative world places us outside the core text itself. These paratexts are distinct from transmedia paratexts that explicitly strive to continue their storyworlds across platforms, discussed in more depth in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter. Instead, such these orientating practices exist outside the diegetic storyworld, providing a perspective for viewers to help make sense of a narrative world by looking at it from a distance—although as with all such categorical distinctions, actual practices often muddy such neat dichotomies.
In the internet era, we are surrounded by an array of paratextual information, much of which is not designed specifically in support of a series. In a telling quote, David Simon, creator of The Wire and Treme, explains to critic Emily Nussbaum the usefulness of creating television in the contemporary media environment:
“Fuck the exposition… Just be. The exposition can come later.” [Simon] describes a theory of television narrative. “If I can make you curious enough, there’s this thing called Google. If you’re curious about the New Orleans Indians, or ‘second-line’ musicians—you can look it up.” The Internet, he suggests, can provide its own creative freedom, releasing writers from having to overexplain, allowing history to light the characters from within.
While few would point to Simon’s series as robust examples online paratextual activity, especially as compared to cult programs like Lost or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, his description of the internet’s expositional usefulness highlights how creators can outsource backstory and cultural references to a pre-existing and highly accessible paratextual realm. In turn, the internet can be used as a site to develop and share vast paratextual resources designed specifically to help orient viewers of ongoing serials. The key point is that television shows are not treated as standalone, self-contained texts by either their creators or fans, but rather exist in a media landscape where online paratexts are always part of a viewer’s potential intertextual flow.
The paratexts explored in this chapter are more specifically tied to their source texts than Simon’s evocation of Google, traversing the boundary between fan-created extensions and official industrial products—while there are obvious differences between the paratexts depending on the source, it is important to think of both official and unofficial paratexts as part of the same realm of viewing practice, rather than necessarily opposed to one another. After outlining the various types of orientation practices used by contemporary television viewers, I will focus in depth on a specific form of orienting paratext, the encyclopedic wiki, before concluding with a consideration of what these paratexts tell us about approaches to television viewing. Throughout this chapter, I use Lost as a primary case study, in large part because the show stands as a rare example of a mass hit show that features a highly complex story that requires and enable multiple realms of orientation practice. Due to the size and passion of Lost’s audience, it offers a huge array of paratexts to explore, arguably only matched on television by franchises that have spanned decades, such as Star Trek or Doctor Who.
Types of Serial Orientation Practices
In thinking about the range of orientation practices that television viewers embrace today, we encounter a mass of strategies and paratextual modes that can be rather disorienting. So to understand the scope of orientation, we need to first understand the aspects of narrative that might require orienting. Returning to the simple definition of narrative offered in the Introduction—a television serial creates a sustained narrative world, populated by a consistent set of characters who experience a chain of events over time—presents four basic storytelling facets that might require orientation: time, events, characters, and space. These four landmarks provide a top level set of categories for how viewers make sense of television narratives—to comprehend an ongoing story, we need to be able to follow each of these elements.
The first category of time is arguably the most central aspect of serial narrative, as seriality is defined by manipulating time as a storytelling variable—we consume the story in installments defined by the creators and experience mandatory gaps between episodes and seasons to process the narrative. The three layers of story time, discourse time, and screen time, as discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter, each potentially require orientation practices. The last of these seems most obvious, but it points to a central issue in viewer orientation: we need to know when an episode is on, and in what order we are supposed to watch them. Traditionally in American television, the order in which episodes air was a minor concern for primetime programs, as networks might choose to air episodes in unusual timeslots or sequence depending on their competition or other mitigating factors. Syndicated reruns often aired a series out of its original sequence, meaning that viewers were likely to encounter a program in haphazard order, and thus storytellers adapted to the lack of guaranteed sequence by avoiding story arcs that surpass the length of a given episode, a practice that still lives on in most episodic police procedurals and many sitcoms.
With the profusion of cable channels and other viewing technologies in the 1990s and beyond, the industry developed ways to orient viewers’ sense of screen time, notably through the onscreen Electronic Program Guide. Viewers adapt their own ways of navigating screen time by cataloguing episodes and airdates on websites like epguides.com or show-specific fansites, and employ technologies like the Digital Video Recorder to structure their viewing. And the rise of boxed sets or downloadable purchases provide another technology to orient viewers to screen time, as the structure of seasons and episode order are foregrounded, often in ways that assert an original intended sequence rather than network reordering. Together, we see the use of schedule as orientation to help viewers master a base chronology of screen time that while seemingly obvious, is essential to being able to comprehend an ongoing complex serial.
While screen time follows a fairly rigid set of boundaries and structures, discourse time is much more variable and free-flowing, especially in shows with complex chronology. Understanding how nested flashbacks, replays, flash forwards, and other atemporal shifts play out on shows like How I Met Your Mother or Flash Forward require dedicated attention to details and chronicling of markers of temporal continuity, often through elaborate plot summaries on official network or fan websites. Lost’s complex chronology led to numerous graphic and textual representations proliferating both on and offline, including both fan-created images and officially sanctioned paratexts on ABC’s website or in DVD releases. Shows do not need to embrace time travel to warrant such use of chronology as orientation, as fans of a series like Battlestar Galactica chart its narrative through diagrams that help guide viewers to understand both the sequence of events and temporal relationship between various onscreen representations.
Discourse time refers to the sequence and selection of the narrative material presented to the audience, while story time comprises the actual events taking place in the narrative universe. For shows with tight chronology, reconciling between story and screen time can be a challenge, requiring strategies to orient the show’s timeframe. For instance, Breaking Bad lacks the sci-fi temporal play of Lost, but it is important to keep in mind that the events of the first four seasons only take up one year of story time to grasp the consequences, pacing, and stakes of dramatic events that remain fresh in characters’ minds. For the historical realism of Mad Men’s 1960s to resonate, fans use timelines to parallel the fictional events with historical moments that are mentioned in the show or left unsaid in the subtext. Such use of calendaring as orientation helps us follow an unfolding narrative in a way that foregrounds a realist sense of a persistent storyworld with consequences and history, a fairly new development in television narrative.
Even when the storyworld is not realistic in the least, mapping chronology and calendars can be a crucial orientation strategy. Probably the most complicated timeline on contemporary television is the “timey-wimey” playfulness of Doctor Who, especially in the title character’s ongoing relationship to fellow time-traveller River Song. Fans have created numerous visual representations of the bidirectional relationship experienced by River and The Doctor, attempting to match-up their experiences and chart the key moments in their story, a strategy that the characters themselves perform on the show by synching up their journals and memories whenever they meet. Of course this is not the exclusive domain of fans, as the BBC produced their own orientation material in the form of an online video chronicling River Song’s story narrated from her own perspective and timeframe. This video highlights how the process of orientation is an element of both official and unofficial production, and can be presented in a range of media, not just graphic timelines or textual lists.
One of the most interesting ways that fans create orientation tools is through the use of video remixes, recasting the temporality of the original series in innovative ways. Two Lost projects speak to the varied approaches fans take to remixing chronology. In the online video Lost: The Synchronizing, a fan took footage depicting moments of the plane crash from across three seasons and multiple perspectives, editing them together via split screen in the style of 24 to synch the chronology and highlight how these moments converge into the show’s most important narrative event. At a larger scale, another fan created ChronologicallyLost.com to distribute his re-edited version of the series in chronological order in 45 minute episodic installments, starting with the origin of Jacob and The Man in Black from “Across the Sea,” and moving forward through the island’s time jumps, character flashbacks, plane crash, escape and return, and finally ending with the final season’s flash sideways as an epilogue. While I doubt that such extensive remix projects work to orient confused viewers like a timeline or map, they do serve as analytic forms of orientation, providing insights via rethinking the show’s narrative timeframe.
So like any complex taxonomy, we need more than one axis to categorize practices of viewer orientation—it’s not just “what” is being oriented (time vs. space), but also “how” the orientation proceeds. One type of orientation practice aims for recapitulation, summarizing narrative material in a straightforward manner like the calendar or chronological list of events. Another practice embraces a mode of analysis, exploring narrative material via a representational mode, typically a visual map or video, that offers an analytic dimension to the representation that goes beyond recapitulation. While analytic orientations aim to better understand what is happening within the text, orientations of expansion look outward extratextually to connect the series with other realms beyond the core program, whether it is another fictional series or aspects of the real world. These three modes, which certainly can blur and blend together, can be applied to the various aspects of narrative temporailty, creating a matrix of orientation practices.
These three modes of orientation practice can be applied to other narrative dimensions beyond time as well. Narrative events are closely linked to time, as they are typically thought about in terms of “what happens when,” and attempting to orient oneself to story events often involves chronology and temporal causation. Plot recapitulations are commonplace orientation tools, whether the now ubiquitous “previously on” segments preceding most episodes discussed in the Comprehension chapter, or write-ups on official network websites or fansites aiming to provide a clear summation of an episode’s narrative events. Such textual recaps are abstractions as well, as the conversion of televisual material into prose is just as much of a transformation as visual or video remixes, and the rise of humorously tinged recaps on sites like TelevisionWithoutPity suggest how orientation can also be a creative act. However, some event analyses detach narrative events from their chronology to create a different perspective on the story, such as lists of character deaths found on various series wikis to more visual depictions, like an infographic poster documenting Dexter’s dozens of murders, charting weapons, motives, and interrelations between victims. Such analytic reinterpretations take a series of narrative events and explore them for greater understanding of causality, significance, or even basic comprehension, and can be pursued within the realm of various media forms. For instance, Breaking Bad’s next-to-last episode of season four, “End Times,” left some ambiguities as to who was responsible for poisoning a child; a fan took to YouTube to offer an interpretation of the narrative events to (correctly) argue that Walter White was responsible, piecing together scenes from the episode providing clues and evidence that proved what would only be revealed in the next episode. Such analytic abstractions and reinterpretations function as sites of forensic fandom discussed more below, enabling viewers to make greater sense or propose new explanations of the narrative events beyond chronology and recapitulation, a tendency we can see even more acutely in analyses of The Sopranos’s finale, as discussed in the Endings chapter.
Plot expansions aim to contextualize the events of a series into a larger intertextual web, most typically by connecting what happens in a fictional series to the real world. For instance, Treme depicts life in post-Katrina New Orleans, with many fictionalized versions of real people and events; bloggers and journalists, most notably Dave Walker from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, catalog and analyze the program’s cultural references, working to orient viewers to the factual basis of the fictional events. More rare are examples trying to connect the narrative events from one series to another fictional world—probably no orientation practice is as disorienting as the Tommy Westphall Universe theory. In the legendary conclusion to 1980s series St. Elsewhere, it was revealed that the entirety of the medical drama existed in the imagination of Tommy, an autistic child staring into a snowglobe. Because the series had a number of crossover episodes and intertextual references with other programs like Cheers, Homicide: Life on the Street, and The Bob Newhart Show, fans have posited that all of these other fictions are figments of Tommy’s imagination as well. Fans catalog these crossover events and create elaborate maps of an intertextual multiverse—as of 2012, the grid lists 282 programs ranging from I Love Lucy to The Wire. While such orientation practices are certainly not designed to actually help viewers truly make sense of fictional worlds, as the theory is clearly meant to be taken as playfully ludicrous, I would argue that fans do take it seriously—they get immersed in the intertextual web and passionately argue about interpretations concerning the validity of various connections. They know it’s not “real,” even within the fictional worlds of television, but many seriously embrace the practice of creating expansive paratexts as if it were “real,” playfully undertaking hypothetical analysis and conjecture similar to recent forms like alternate reality games.
The third type of narrative orientation seeks to understand a program’s cast of characters. For vast, sprawling series like The Wire, it is hard work keeping track of who’s who amongst the dozens of characters, many only known by nicknames or left unseen for long stretches of episodes. Character guides offer convenient overviews of dramatis personae in a manner common to theater goers, whether found on official websites or tie-in books, or fan-created wikis or guides; the baseline goal of such guides is to orient us to the cast, connecting faces with names and dramatic functions. Character analyses typically visualize narrative aspects via alternate means as a way of mapping relationships, developments, and personalities. For instance, Lost DVDs contained an interactive character guide to chart out the often coincidental connections between characters, and fans made similar maps to highlight inter-character links. Analytic commentary can be mixed with a character guide, as in one interactive online Lost guide that features caricatures of each character, scalable by season, with pop-up boxes offering snarky summaries of the character’s actions and death—for instance, Jin’s recap reads “Total jerk to his wife when they got to the island, but later came around to become an all right dude…. Dead: Opted to stay with his trapped wife on a downed sub instead of raising their child. Very romantic.”
While certainly many fan paratexts aim for character reinterpretation, such as fan fiction and remix vids, I would not call most of those “orientation practices” per se, as they are less focused on making sense of the existing narrative world than expanding them into other possibilities. A common mode of such fan creativity is intertextual expansion, bringing characters from multiple storyworlds together into a shared universe, a genre called “crossover fic.” It is fairly rare to see such character expansion clearly functioning as an orientation practice, although one example is a fun case of intertextuality: a number of fans have adopted the alignment system from the classic role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which charts a character’s morality on dual axes of good to evil and lawful to chaotic, and mapped them onto the cast of various television series. Examples range from Arrested Development’s dysfunctional Bluth family to the array of 1960s businessmen from Mad Men, but probably no show is more apt for such intertextual orientation than The Wire, given its thematic emphasis on morality and codes of conduct. Mapping out the characters on a game-based alignment chart invited discussion in the blog’s comment thread over the meaning of lawfulness and chaos in the context of The Wire, and whether characters like Avon and Omar can be seen as anything but evil due to their murderous ways. Such intertextual expansion is an invitation to rethink our impressions of the original series, orienting ourselves to a new way of categorizing and grouping the characters.
The final aspect of narrative that requires orientation is the most common to the practice of mapping: a spatial storyworld. While practices of mapping are well-suited to spatial orientation, it would seem that space is the dimension of television narrative that needs the least outside help for viewer comprehension. While temporality, plotting, and characterizations have all become more complex in contemporary television, spatial storytelling is still fairly conventional and straightforward. Most programs follow well-established filmic conventions for orienting viewers spatially in any scene, with little sense of purposeful ambiguity and playfulness. If anything, space is the storytelling dimension that television is most willing to cheat on to maximize complexity in other realms; for instance, 24’s dedication to maintaining strict chronology and pseudo-realtime narration frequently led the series to create spatial implausibilities, traversing Los Angeles or Washington DC traffic and geography at unrealistic speeds. While many fans will try to make sense of muddled chronology or plot continuity, such geographical incoherence in navigating a story space is typically only recognized by natives of a given city searching for spatial realism, suggesting that in the process of consuming serialized television, temporal consistency trumps spatial coherence.
Nevertheless, both viewers and the industry do invest energy in creating spatial orienting paratexts for television series. For shows that feature a fantasy space, orientation maps are helpful paratexts to ground viewers in the show’s mythology, a common practice found in previous media like Tolkien’s novels of Middle Earth that included maps. We can see a televisual parallel to this in the opening credits of Game of Thrones, which present an animated map of the series’s fantasy world Westeros that changes each week to orient viewers where that episode’s action will take place. More commonly, maps are presented outside a program’s core text, as with Battlestar Galactica publishing a poster-size map of its cosmos, outlining the Twelve Colonies of Kobol with detailed mythological information and graphic depiction not covered by the show; the poster was even signed by series writer Jane Espenson as a marker of canonical authenticity. For fantasy series that do not produce their maps, fans typically fill the gaps, as typified by the vast array of Star Trek cartography that spans the franchise’s multiple series, and frequently facilitates fans moving from creating unofficial orientation paratexts into joining official production teams. Such fan mapping is part of a larger facet of affirmative fan productivity that Bob Rehak has labeled “blueprint culture,” as fans work to document the canonical facts established by a fantastic fictional franchise.
For programs based here on Earth, no tool has been more important to spatial orientation practices than Google Maps, as both fans and production teams create custom maps for dozens of series to show both shooting locations and addresses for fictional story sites, ranging from The Wire’s realistic Baltimore to Veronica Mars’s fictional Southern California town of Neptune overlayed with its real San Diego shooting locales. An interesting example is Seinfeld, as even though it was filmed primarily in Los Angeles, its New York City locale is a powerful part of the show’s narrative experience. Thus both Sony, the show’s production studio, and fans have created their own Seinfeld-themed Google Maps—while the map on Sony’s site features glossier visuals with embedded videos, not surprisingly the fan version is more comprehensive, including more than twice as many locations. Such maps then can translate into embodied practice, as fans explore the locales of their favorite series as part of the growing realm of media-themed tourism, with popular tours of places like The Sopranos’s New Jersey or the Mad Men “Time Machine” Tour of New York. The Seinfeld case is particularly interesting in blurring fact and fiction, as Kenny Kramer, Larry David’s old neighbor who was the inspiration for the Cosmo Kramer character, entrepreneurially created Kramer’s Reality Tour that brings fans around New York to see the real places that inspired Seinfeld’s fictional version of the city, as filmed in Los Angeles. Unlike other media tourism like the New Zealand tours of “Middle Earth” via the Lord of the Rings filming locations, when television tourism focuses on an ongoing serial, it adds another experiential dimension, as fans may explore a space where they anticipate future narrative developments or even hope to see filming on-location. In these cases, maps and tours function less to orient fans to the fictional worlds than to extend those fictions into their real lives and allow them to momentarily inhabit their favorite storyworlds.
An interesting case study of using mapping within an ongoing series is Lost, which created a fantasy setting of a fictitious island whose geography is central to the narrative, and is also grounded within the interesting real-world island of its Hawaii shooting locale. Given the show’s huge participatory fanbase, it is not surprising that fans have created a detailed Google Map of Hawaii, with shooting locations catalogued by season, character, and fictional locale—and it’s equally unsurprising that Hawaian travel companies offer Lost tours as well. Google Maps also hosts a collaborative map of every real world locale referenced on Lost and its copious transmedia extensions, highlighting the show’s global reach despite nearly everything being shot in Hawaii. Google Maps is less helpful in orienting us to the fantasy geography of the show’s central location, although a number of fans have used it to chart potential sites for the mysterious island, including the use of the show’s mythological numbers of 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 as geographic coordinates. But Lost’s forensic fandom is most active in its attempts to map the internal geography of the show’s fantastic island, requiring platforms beyond Google Maps.
Unlike Battlestar Galactica, the producers of Lost did not give us a clear rendering of the show’s fictional geography, even though maps are a central obsession of various characters and do appear onscreen quite frequently. Such brief appearances were copiously catalogued by the forensic fans at Lostpedia and numerous other fan sites dedicated to decoding the world of Lost, but no map is as indicative of how such practices straddle the line between orientation and disorientation as the cultural life of what fans have termed the “blast door map.” In the season two episode “Lockdown,” John Locke found himself trapped in an underground bunker with his leg pinned under a blast door. For a few moments, a black light turns on, revealing a hand-painted map on the back of the door that we see onscreen for no more than six seconds. The information contained within the map, as decoded collectively by fans only hours after the episode aired, pointed to deep mythological clues that resonated both in the show and across the transmedia extensions. John Locke himself attempts to reconstruct the map’s geographical revelations, but fell far short of what fans accomplished, aided by freeze-frame screengrabs, image manipulation software, and collective discussion forums. The map would reappear in transmedia versions four times with slight alterations and additional information, outlasting its role in the series itself as discussed more in the Transmedia chapter. Through their forensic fandom, viewers got a preview of future hatches still to be revealed, references to the backstory of the Hanso family and the Black Rock ship, and other minor clues to forthcoming puzzles.
However, I would contend that the blast door map’s least successful function concerned spatial orientation, as the map provides little sense of scale or relationship between the outlined stations and the places we had seen on the island. Instead, the map functions more like a roster of places, names, and clues scrawled onto a wall, a to-do list for fans anticipating what might be revealed in future episodes. It also provides a window into a number of character subjectivities, visualizing the mentalities of the map’s two authors-to-be-named later, Radinsky and Inman, who chronicle their limited mythological knowledge and island explorations under duress, as well as orienting us to John Locke’s obsessive quest to make sense of the briefly seen images. The map also charts narrative time and events, as we try to situate the drawing’s creation into the island’s backstory and our own limited knowledge of the history of the DHARMA Initiative. Thus as fans worked to decode the multiple versions of the map, they arguably were less engaged with questions of spatial orientation than attempting to understanding the embedded representations of a fictional storyworld, refracted by still to-be-discovered characters and events.
This is not to say that Lost fans did not seek to create maps to spatially orient the island. A wide range of fan-created island maps emerged throughout the series, including illustrated schematics, topographic charts, and even 3D simulations. Like the schematics of the Enterprise, these are clearly attempts to render an unreal fantastic story space via the tools and assumptions of scientific realism. While we never saw Lost’s island explicitly change its shape or topography, we did see it move through time and space in a manner that suggests that realistic geography was low among the show’s priorities. The show’s commitments were more to the flexible realm of the fantasy genre than any notion of realism, yet fans strived to map a consistent geography onto the island; such conflicts between the rational realms of science fiction and more spiritual and irrational concerns of fantasy were an echo of one of Lost’s main thematic debates between science and faith, and became a key point of contention that I discuss in the chapter on Endings.
Lost points toward one final dimension of orientation that transcends time and space: the concept of dimensions themselves. As narrative complexity has opened up possibilities of time and space in serialized storytelling, it has occasionally explored notions of parallel worlds or multiple dimensions, issues that have emerged more commonly in complex films like Lola Rennt, Sliding Doors, and Inception. Multiple dimensions can emerge in specific episodes of shows like Community or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even as serialized plot arcs as on Fringe, Life on Mars, or Once Upon a Time, but the final season of Lost was one of the highest profile television examples of such storytelling—abandoning the flashback structure typical of the show’s first three seasons, the fourth season’s flash forwards, and the fifth season’s frequently jumping time traveling, the sixth season introduced what producers and fans called “flash sideways.” In almost every episode, action would toggle between the endgame being played out on the island, and a seemingly parallel dimension where Flight 815 never crashed, most of the characters had drastically different lives, and seemingly the island was sunk at the bottom of the ocean. Not surprisingly, forensic fans were both frustrated with and excited by the challenges of orienting themselves to this dimension, especially since the actual explanation for what the world was and how it related to the main storyworld were not revealed until the final minutes of the series finale. Scanning the edit history and discussions on Lostpedia on the entry for the Flash Sideways Timeline documents dozens of fans working for months, debating issues of chronology, character, and even ontology for this aspect of the story—and finally when all was revealed, arguing over whether to delete the whole article due to the temporal ambiguities that remain in the sideways dimension.
The case of Lost’s sixth season points to one of the particular challenges that emerges at the intersection of narrative complexity and seriality: as storyworlds grow more complicated and challenging, they require greater attention to ensure comprehension. But orientation practices for an ongoing serial are charting out a storyworld that is still evolving as they are being created and consumed, forcing viewers to try to map a moving terrain. We watched hours of flash-sideways stories without knowing how to orient ourselves to this fictional world relative to the core storyworld that many fans had invested a great deal of time and energy mapping and documenting. Especially for fans who watched the season in its original airing, the weekly gaps between episodes provided ample time for speculation and attempted orientations, aiming to map a coherent explanation onto the unspecified time and space of the flash-sideways. While few examples are as acute as Lost, a danger of all complex serials is that we won’t realize what is vital for maintaining our orientation until all of a show’s mysteries and outcomes are revealed, and by that time it might be too late for fans to care.
What do these categories of orientation practices teach us about how we consume complex television? First, it is significant that they are happening at all, as standing as proof not only that viewers are actively engaging in television viewing (which we have known for decades), but that today’s television outright demands that viewers stretch beyond the time and space of their initial viewing to try to make sense of what they have seen. It’s not just that audiences are active, but that texts are explicitly activating, designed to stimulate viewers, strategically confuse them, and force them to orient. These orientation practices also help us understand the ways that television has embraced narrative complexity, and the areas where it might still look to develop. Clearly there has been much experimentation with complex plots and time schemes, and character relationships have always been a fertile ground for serial complexity. However, there is comparatively little experimentation in terms of innovative spatial storytelling, so if we were to predict where another wave of narrative innovation might come, we might look to how serial storytelling plays with space.
While some of these practices fill in textual gaps designed by creators, most go far beyond that, taking orientation practices into the realm of fan creativity and transformational fandom—such practices highlight the ways that making maps and diagrams is fun, whether it’s charting a fictional geography onto a real space or positing that the entirety of television is happening inside a boy’s imagination. We can see the playfulness and passion that goes into fan engagement with orientation by looking closely at one site of Lost viewer practice: the encyclopedic wiki Lostpedia.
Sites of Participation: Fan Wikis as Orienting Paratexts
One of the important technologies that emerged alongside the growth of complex television is the wiki, the system enabling “read/write” websites, allowing multiple editors to make changes from within their browser directly without any direct HTML coding. The wiki software, which emerged in the early days of the web in the 1990s but became popularized by the unprecedented success of Wikipedia in the 2000s, displays content to anyone accessing the site like most webpages, but allows fast editing and access to revision history at the click of a button. The ease and growing ubiquity of wiki software made it a popular option for fan groups to adopt as a collaborative tool to collect and present information about their favored cultural objects, whether that be a sports team, a musical genre, or a television series.
Fan wikis can potentially take many different forms, functioning as sites of collaborative fan fiction or experimental storytelling media, or even the vast analysis of TVTropes.org, which seeks to explore storytelling conventions of nearly every medium and genre imaginable. However, most wikis fall under the long shadow of Wikipedia, mirroring that site’s encyclopedic approach by striving to document the storyworld and production information of an original text, explicitly serving an orienting function. There are dozens of developed fan television wikis, but I will focus primarily on Lostpedia for two reasons. First, it is one of the higher-profile and larger examples of a wiki developed for a contemporary series, with most of the other larger fan television wikis documenting longer-lasting franchises like Doctor Who, The Simpsons, or Star Trek. Second, my knowledge of Lostpedia runs deeper than most users of the site, as I was a frequent editor of the site throughout the show’s run and, for a period of around six months in 2006, served as one of a dozen or so rotating site administrators. Thus I approach my analysis as a participant-observer, looking at the cultural practices of editing a fan wiki from the inside.
Lostpedia was launched in 2005 at the dawn of the second season by Kevin Croy, a computer programmer who created the site as a technical test for how to administer the MediaWiki software, figuring Lost was a good topic to experiment with. The site’s growth surprised him, supported by dedicated editors adding and supervising content while Croy and others successfully maintained the invisible but vital back-end. Lostpedia has since grown into a full-fledged Lost portal, with an associated forum, blog, IRC chatroom, and more than ten foreign language mirrors, although my analysis will focus on the original English-language wiki. In 2008, Lostpedia migrated from its own independent server to the wikia.com domain, which is run by the Wikimedia Foundation; despite the migration, the same community of Lostpedians made the site one of the most popular wikis in the world, generating over 7,000 unique content pages, more than 3 million registered users, over a million edits, and over 150 million page views.
My analysis of Lostpedia seeks to understand how the site functions as a place for the aggregation of fan creativity and consumption practices, the limits and boundaries placed on that fan-generated content, and the rationales for those policies and preferences. These uses of Lostpedia are definitely influenced by the ways Lost differs significantly from other television programs, including both a larger global viewership, and the broader array of Lost transmedia content, including multiple games, novels, toys, and extensive web tie-ins that extend the show’s narrative universe as discussed in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter. Perhaps even more central to the growth of Lostpedia, the show’s central narrative framework presents Lost as a puzzle to be solved, a set of interlocking enigmas that require research materials and a searchable archive to enable comprehension. Such ludic narrative logic and transmedia storytelling promote forensic fandom by encouraging research, collaboration, analysis, and interpretation. As Henry Jenkins discusses in his early study of online forensic fandom of Twin Peaks, fans saw the technologies of the VCR and Usenet boards as essential tools to crack the narrative codes of the series. Just as Lost’s narrative architecture pushed the boundaries of television storytelling far beyond the innovations of Twin Peaks, the decoder rings of today have similarly evolved to facilitate a more inclusive, faster paced, participatory, and multimedia forensic fandom.
Thus Lostpedia’s core function is as a shared archive of data, culling the show, its brand extensions, and its cultural references to make sense of the show’s mysteries and narrative web for viewers seeking orientation. But we should also look at how Lostpedia goes beyond the realm of data collection, as there are elaborated policies on how to treat borderline material such as speculation, hypotheses, fanon, parody, and fan-generated paratexts. Such forms of content blur the boundaries between fan creativity and fan documentation, as the three orienting functions of recapitulation, analysis, and expansion all co-exist throughout Lostpedia, often in tension. How do the users who generate the site’s content make these distinctions and decide on such policies? And how does the wiki system enact such policies and put them into practice?
Thankfully for researchers, the wiki architecture leaves historical breadcrumbs to facilitate such research. The MediaWiki software that runs both Lostpedia and Wikipedia records every change to a page, allowing researchers to view the evolution of content and track the development of policies. Even more usefully, each wiki page contains a Discussion sub-page where users discuss the page’s content, debate ideas before posting them to the main page, and even vote on proposed policies or major edits. The very decisions as to how to define the site’s parameters and scope are explored and rationalized within the public access of the site itself. As such, fan wikis provide a tremendous resource for scholars to observe a fan community reflecting on its own practices, making the meta-discussions of fandom transparent and accessible to all who know where to look.
As suggested above and discuss more in the Characters chapter, charting characters and their relationships is a key orientation practice for complex series with large casts. Productive fans frequently go beyond recapping existing relationships to speculate and call for relationships beyond what appears in the text, especially queer readings of characters via fan fiction and remix videos, but a wiki primarily aimed to document a storyworld seems like an unlikely space for such speculative production. When I first did this research in Spring 2008, Lostpedia had a space for queer readings and shipping fandom on the page called Pairings. The page was defined as follows: “Pairings are relationships, either real or suggested, that fans enjoy and would love to see consummated. The desire for love to blossom on the Island between several pairs of characters, to varying degrees of commitment and affection is explored further in fan fiction.” Beneath this brief disclaimer, the page listed a wide array of romantic relationships included in the show and their fan shorthand terms, such as Sawyer & Kate (‘Skate’) and Charlie & Claire, whose multiple monikers include PB&J, for ‘Pregnant Babe & Junkie.’ This page also included relationships more imagined than enacted, like Sayid & Kate (‘Kayid’) and Claire & Ethan (‘Eclaire’). Same-sex pairings were also included equally in this list, such as Kate & Juliet (‘Juliate’) and Locke & Sawyer (‘Lawyer’), with links to related fan-created projects that explore these relationships, such as the satirical fanvid Brokeback Island posing a Jack/Sawyer romance. On this page, all romantic relationships, from canonical to slash to extratextual, like the mashup of producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse into ‘Darlton,’ were given equal billing, seeming to exist without hierarchy within the Lostpedia universe.
One of the hazards of researching wikis is that the object of analysis is potentially always in flux. On January 2, 2009, the Pairings page transformed without discussion, when a Lostpedia SysOp removed all non-canonical relationships from the page, offering only the explanation “removing fan wished relationships. non-encyclopedic cruft.” A link to a page on Fan-made Names remained, but the shipping content there was far less prominent and extensive. This edit suggests how oftentimes wiki content can appear or go missing by a single user’s preferences, rather than consensus or debate even when a clear policy remains in place―and often such changes are left in place simply because nobody within the community notices the edit or assumes that a SysOp speaks for the entire community when it may just be his own preferences. While any wiki does reflect a version of consensus amongst the editing community at a given time, it is important to note that often times it is a passively accepted status-quo rather than actively negotiated agreement, with active and vocal editors trumping broader-based opinions of less forceful or frequent users.
While wikis can be frustrating to study for their instability, the fluidity also allows direct engagement by researchers when appropriate. Although as an academic I would not want to impose a single vision of proper fan practice, the wiki platform allows interventions to be transparent and impermanent. Because I disagreed with the decision to eliminate imagined relationships from the site, I created a page entitled Pairings (fanon) on March 27, 2009, to restore the “cruft” that had been edited out, albeit within its own fanonical space as dictated by Lostpedia policy. No users have protested this change, and there have been over ten additions to the page since. I made this direct intervention into the site as a fan and dedicated user, informed by my analysis of the site’s practices―the lack of response suggests that wikis are often transformed not by a unified community, but by individual decisions passively accepted by the userbase.
The Pairing page’s discussion tab reveals an older history with more drama and conflict, less around slash content and more questioning the basic point of shipping fandom. One fan named Pazuzu47 wrote “This is an unneeded, idiotic and ridiculous article btw.” Two minutes later, an active female editor (and self-described “Squeeing Fangirl” and Skater) Jengod replied “Emotion and human relationships ARE a totally legitimate part of the Lost world. Just because it’s not hard math or supermystical doesn’t mean it’s not important. ‘Ships are a huge part of fandom for lots of people.” Similarly, male editor XSG weighed in shortly after, “The truth is that Lostpedia is used by many different people for many different purposes, and while I share your sentiments regarding the necessity of this article, I can appreciate that folks like Jengod do find that it has value. Let’s play nicely in the sandbox!” A similar conflict developed around what to name Hurley & Libby; infrequent editor Offput wrote “My girlfriend says that Hubby and Hurlibby suck and has proposed Hurby. What say you?” CaptainInsano, a hyper-masculine editor with a well-known aggressive attitude among the Lostpedia community replied, “Are you serious. You have discussions about this, and it what is worse is that it is with your girlfriend (real, imaginary, or inflatable). You guys need to find something else to talk about.” One user wrote to tell Captain to “play nice,” while Offput responded with dismay to this attack; included in his comment, he wrote, “I always thought wikis were there to invite people to discuss not to humiliate them into submission.” Notably, Offput did not make another edit for seven months.
Such discussions highlight how Lostpedia can function as a space of debate over what is appropriate use of the site, as well as how best to watch the show itself. In my own experiences, the bravado insult humor of users like CaptainInsano is not tolerated for long, with a number of prominent editors of both genders regularly weighing in to defend a broad array of fandoms and ways of using the site, not asserting a singular norm of how best to watch Lost or use Lostpedia. However, Lostpedians do maintain some important but debatable boundaries about how best to organize and categorize the various types of content contained on the site, a site of conversation that echoes how many viewers parse out various reactions to and engagements with a series.
Lostpedia categorizes pages into a number of broad types of content, including canon, theory, fanon, and parody. These categories are central to the organization of Lostpedia, but are far from self-evident for a transmedia narrative like Lost. The canon page in Lostpedia has undergone a series of significant revisions―initially, it offered two categories of canon and noncanon, marked by the presence or absence of official endorsement from the show’s creators. After The Lost Experience and tie-in novel Bad Twin complicated the boundaries of the storyworld, as discussed in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter, Lostpedians began to debate various levels of canonicty. One dedicated editor, Scottkj, proposed a complex and highly Catholic set of canonical levels―Canon, Deuterocanon, Ex cathēdrā, and Apocrypha. While the community ultimately rejected these gradients, both due to their lack of simplicity for casual users and their religious connotations that put off some editors, the ensuing discussion forced Lostpedians to engage with fairly complex notions of narrative medium, transmedia authority, and intentionality―for instance, if a deleted scene appears on a DVD, does it count as a canonical event in the storyworld? As an active editor named GodEmperorOfHell philosophically posited, “If Claire had coffee with the pilot and someone deleted that scene, did they have coffee?” The canon policy that stands today is more straightforward with three levels of canon, semi-canon, and non-canon, resting ultimate authority with the series authors, both creative and industrial―if it comes out via ABC or from the mouths of producers, it is canonical. Usually.
One of the central ways this policy impacts Lostpedia’s users is that canonical content is presented as the site’s unspoken standard or norm, which fits with Lostpedia’s typical encyclopedic form of writing―a page containing canon is unmarked, simply existing as one of hundreds of entries in Lostpedia’s archive of the show’s narrative universe. By contrast, most other modes of information contained on the site are clearly labeled as non-canonical, creating a clear hierarchy between creator-endorsed truth and fan-created para-truth, or perhaps “truthiness” in Stephen Colbert’s wiki-friendly term. The most integrated of these non-canonical modes are theories―since its inception, Lostpedia has served as a site for mulling possible explanations for the island’s enigmas, with a variety of different ways of separating the canonical known from theoretical speculation and musings. Unlike other encyclopedias and even Wikipedia, Lostpedia has always allowed for original research and analysis, incorporating fan-created knowledge alongside the more encyclopedic acts of collecting, organizing, and distilling canonical information.
Lostpedians do try to mark differences between various forms of theory. Some broad-based theories as to the nature of the island garner their own individual articles, such as the Garden of Eden Theory or the Black Hole Theory―these macro-theories are expected to offer compelling evidence, links to external sources for underlying ideas, and present a persuasive case for their potential accuracy. Discussion pages for such theories tend to be robust debates over the merits and inconsistencies of such ideas, a model of collective engagement that many scholars highlight as one of the most participatory and exciting aspects of fan culture.
For some Lostpedians who view the wiki as an authoritative document of the canonical storyworld, theories and speculations belong on the site’s discussion forums, not within the wiki itself. To enforce this distinction between verified storyworld “fact” and conjecture, a wiki architecture was developed for including theories in Lostpedia’s archive: the theory tab, a separate sub-page on each article that allows for non-canonical possibilities. Lostpedians work to ensure that such theory tabs are not simply discussion forums and speculative musings, but more elaborated attempts to hypothesize and prove an interpretation. The theory tab emerged in late-2006 out of a frustration that individual article pages were being overwhelmed with speculation and theories, and thus detracting from canonical information. The discussion about the theory tab recognized that theorizing was unusual for most other wikis modeled after Wikipedia, but also that such analysis is crucial for the nature of Lost’s narrative mode and forensic fanbase.
In many ways, the creation of the theory tab served to further canonize the site’s authorial-endorsed factual content. As one anonymous editor wrote to endorse the theory tab, “Not only do I feel it will keep things organized, and give more room for elaborated canon-based justifications of each theory, but also think the explicit separation of Theories from the facts articles, will be of a great effect on debunking any claims of Lostpedia being a fiction-based project.” The ironic contortions evoked by attempting to deny the fictional roots of a Lost encyclopedia aside, such comments highlight how the site’s architecture is designed to allow spaces for non-canonical fan production as a means of prioritizing canonical authorized content, a marked separate sphere of unofficial knowledge that helps make canon seem more official by comparison. The site’s theory policy also stipulates that canon trumps theory―when a theory is disproved, either via producer denials or conclusive storyworld evidence, such theories are deleted from the theory tab. While the policy allows discredited theories to be archived on a page’s discussion tab, it is clear that the goal of theories is to arrive at fact, not to serve as an ongoing realm of fan creativity or speculation, or an archive of non-canonical imagination of different narrative possibilities.
The discussion over the place of theories cuts to the very heart of the definition of Lostpedia and wikis in general. PandoraX, an active female editor and former SysOp who offered the initial proposal for theory tabs, highlights that theories potentially muddy the waters of the site’s goals: “Wiki editors, IMHO, should seek to be recorders, rather than editorialists, otherwise we risk biasing others with our opinions. I’ve noticed many newer editors don’t edit anything *but* theories nowadays” (emphasis in original). Other users take a more pluralist approach to including theorizing within the purview of Lostpedia, highlighting how much post-episode traffic is editing theories more than filling out canonical information, and that not every user references the site as an encyclopedia. Even co-creator Damon Lindelof highlights this coexistence of theory and canon in a 2009 interview conducted on Lostpedia; after explaining the official show bible maintained by story editor Gregg Nations, Lindelof suggests:
What differentiates Gregg from what Lostpedia does, is that Lostpedia is speculative. That is to say, it has to assume something, because it’s not run by us. So, you know, I think there is sometimes a perception out there that Lostpedia is kind of branded by the show, as opposed to a separate fan community, and we find ourselves having to differentiate those two things. That being said, when we’ve visited the site we are incredibly impressed with sort of the level of detail. There are occasions where we basically say “What was Juliet’s husband’s first name?”, and if Gregg is not sitting in his office we will log into Lostpedia to get that answer.
Thus for Lost‘s production staff like many of its fans, Lostpedia’s primary function is as a repository of canonical fact, supplemented―and made questionably valid―by the associated non-canonical speculation and theories.
In many ways, the tensions between Lostpedia’s canonical and non-canonical information stem from the slippage between the software platform of wikis and its most well-known iteration in Wikipedia―there is no platform-determinate reason that wikis are suited more for recording than editorializing, and many wikis have been used as sites of collaborative creativity, collective brainstorming, and other potentials beyond gathering and organizing facts. But for most people, the word wiki evokes Wikipedia and its assumed objective model of writing―for instance, in a comment on Sarah Toton’s article about Battlestar Wiki, a user named Spencerian offers the following dubious claim as fact: “A wiki, by definition, is an encyclopedia.” This connection between wikis and encyclopedias is further emphasized by Lostpedia’s name evoking the objective -pedia rather than collaborative wiki- aspect of Wikipedia’s portmanteau name; although its name and platform do evoke an encyclopedia factualism, Lostpedia’s orienting practices include a broader array of creative production than most Wikipedia-style wikis.
Fan production goes far beyond the realm of collecting and recording narrative orienting information, and Lostpedia does have ample space for fanonical modes of contribution. Initially, the site allowed for original parody pages, allowing editors to create pages that tweaked many of the conventions of both Lost and Lostpedia. One of my personal favorites of such pages was Box, a parodic theory positing that a cardboard box made by the company owned by Hurley and employing Locke was the essential powerful force that caused all of the island’s enigmas―the page documented every image of a box appearing in the show, and included such enigmatic clues like “Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have described a new lead character in Season 3 as ‘cubical, hollow, brown, and corrugated’.” This fanonical page faced a bit of a crisis of faith in Season 3, when Ben Linus referred to a “magic box” that allowed him to transport Locke’s father to the island―editors had to clarify the links to Box to separate the canonical (although probably metaphoric) magic box from the parodic Lostpedia box, while some editors felt that Ben’s reference to the box was a shoutout to Lostpedia from the producers, a theory that remains unsubstantiated.
In the summer of 2007, Lostpedia had a collective change of heart about parodies. As numerous parodic pages emerged to less-than-enthusiastic reactions, the community debated how to deal with bad parodies, and whether embracing parodies creates a slippery slope. As XSG wrote:
If we accept parodic articles, how do we feel about slash? I could argue, and possibly successfully, that the only difference between slash and parody is the intended audience. Opening the door to one would therefore open the door to the other, and … I don’t think slash belongs in Lostpedia. I’m questioning whether fanon does, either, and now I wonder about parody. Thoughts?
The consensus was that neither parody nor slash (the slang for homoerotic fanfiction) belongs in Lostpedia, at least as the site of origin. Parody and fanon became markers used to point to fan-produced content that resides outside of Lostpedia, such as fanvids, fanfic, parodies, and fansites, but Lostpedia removed all pages comprised of original fan content, including Box (which lives on only via the Internet Archive). This is consistent with Lostpedia’s role as orientating paratext, serving to point to other non-orienting works but not hosting them directly.
But we shouldn’t take this decision to ban original content creation as a disavowal of the wiki architecture as a site to enable collaborative creativity. One fanonical page that remains is Jackface, a gallery of images of Matthew Fox, the actor who portrays Jack Shephard, making hyperemotional facial expressions. Jackface works as a site of wikified creativity because the community shares the basic parameters of what constitutes a Jackface, and a common appreciation for the form―the collective intelligence of Jackfacers makes the page a definitive resource for sharing a parodic wink about one of the show’s lead actors, while feeling like we are contributing to something a bit more creative than cataloguing canon.
Lostpedia also allows for a mode of writing that we might think of as creative non-fiction, with the caveat that this “non-fictional” gaze is aimed at the fictional storyworld of Lost. Pages categorized as literary devices, such as Archetype, Plot Twist, and Symbolism, all offer original analysis and research, synthesizing elements of the show to demonstrate its use of particular storytelling devices and representational strategies―such original research is strictly forbidden on Wikipedia, marking a key difference for how Lostpedia can work counter to its encyclopedic label.
One interesting example of this mode of collaborative research is the page Economics. Originally drafted in June 2006 by user Scunning, a doctoral student in economics, the page initially read like a term paper exploring how the allocation of resources on the island mirrored various economic models. Dozens of editors dived in, expanding, deepening, and rethinking the original article, leading to it being awarded Featured Article of the Week status in late 2006, the first time such an analytical page was highlighted on the site’s front page. While academics are prone to thinking of analysis as a solitary extension of single mind, Scunning embraced the collaborative output of the community:
Wow. When I started working on this entry around 8 months ago, I never dreamed the community of viewers would transform it into this. This entry is really spectacular as a result of what everyone has contributed. The weakest parts of it, I now see, are the original sections I wrote! Seriously, this is phenomenal.
The Economics page, like other such analytical pages on Lostpedia, are not tagged as Fanon or otherwise marked as non-canonical. This distinction was noted in July 2007 by Silence, a male user who had just joined Lostpedia, but notes that he is an active Wikipedia administrator:
In what sense is analysis, in the sense you’re using it, not fanon? ‘Analysis’ like Economics is non-canonical (I don’t think the word ‘socialism’ has ever even been used in the show), fan-created, and is based on, but not a part of, actual canon. Something doesn’t need to be far-fetched or outlandish to be fanon, after all.
Years have passed with no reply, suggesting that distinguishing analysis from canon is a far less pressing concern among Lostpedians than demarcating or eliminating more explicitly creative modes like parody and fanfic. While the wiki architecture allows for multiple modes of collaborative creativity, the Lostpedia community seems to have embraced a hierarchy of perceived value differently than Wikipedia, by allowing original research, analysis, and theories, but still embracing core distinctions in fan culture that privileges canonical content and extensions from more explicitly non-canonical modes of creativity, a distinction that certainly connects with the gendered differences noted by Toton and many fan scholars.
Lostpedia’s dual function as a catalog of canon and site of original creativity found an interesting point of synergy surrounding The Lost Experience in the summer of 2006, as discussed in more depth in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter. This alternate reality game extended the show’s narrative universe beyond the confines of the television screen and into the real lives of viewers. Fans could attend events to receive complimentary Apollo Bars (a candy featured in Season 2), watch a fictional representative of the mysterious organization The Hanso Foundation appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to denounce the misinformation spread by Lost, and witness a live event at Comic Con in which the ARG’s main character Rachel Blake accused Lost producers of having “blood on your hands.” Clearly the blur between real life and fictional universes was part of the game’s appeal, a disorienting blur that extended into Lostpedia.
A key part of The Lost Experience was a hunt for 70 pieces of a larger code that could be entered into a website to reveal a hidden video offering key mythology about both the ARG and the in-show DHARMA Initiative. These codes were primarily linked to graphic glyphs that were embedded in a variety of websites or posted in real-life locations. In August, the “puppet masters” of the ARG contacted a number of fansites to embed glyphs, including Lostpedia. Site admin Kevin Croy received a request to embed a glyph in Lostpedia, and Croy subsequently contacted me as the designated Lost Experience SysOp. The two of us devised a puzzle using wiki protocols that was designed to pay back dedicated Lostpedians through their knowledge of the site by giving them their own glyph. While it took a few days for users to discover the trail of links, the puzzle began when they found the new user account of Rachel Blake posting on Lostpedia. Once the glyph was found, one Lostpedian commented on Blake’s page, “Awww. This is so exciting! I feel like Lostpedia is getting a little reward! ”. However, the way we placed the material on Lostpedia probably violated the community’s policies on posting original content and properly labeling non-canonical contributions, policies that both players and the administrators in-the-know happily overlooked. Not only did this event create an interesting loop with my own participation as researcher, ARG player, community member, and momentary puppet master, it also highlights how the encyclopedic thrust of Lostpedia can be punctured to create spaces of ludic engagement and fictional roleplay, even as it still functions as an authoritative and reliable source of Lost information.
I want to conclude this analysis by highlighting the potential of the wiki architecture to overcome and blur boundaries and hierarchies between fiction and truth, canon and fanon. Even though Lostpedia’s structure privileges canon and the authority of Lost’s creators, it also offers many spaces for unauthorized content, creative experimentation, and blurring boundaries between categories. Except for an occasional rant by an aggressive user, the site is impressive for its collegial discourse across different realms of fandom: shippers and cataloguers, theorists and vidders. The open platform of the wiki allows for constant remaking of the site’s parameters and policies, and Lostpedians use other platforms to include content not appropriate to the main wiki―in the hiatus after season 3, the site sponsored a fan fiction contest to map out the arc of the following season, hosted on the Lostpedia discussion forum. While the site’s hierarchies and attitudes matter, they are fluid and ever-changing (even in the dormancy following the show’s end in 2010), reshaping as the community develops. Although hierarchies between different modes of practice, engagement, and identity persist within various spheres of fandom, the structural possibilities of wikis like Lostpedia provide a paratextual site where differences within a fandom can be ironed out, one edit at a time.
Orienting and Drilling: Forensic Fandom as Mode of Engagement
Throughout this chapter, I have focused on ways that viewers engage with television by digging into its content, exploring its form, and orienting themselves to their favorite storyworlds. This approach to digging into a fictional text runs counter to one of the dominant trends found in contemporary media culture: the so-called “viral video” or more accurately “spreadable media” that suffuses social networks. While the ephemeral “video of attractions” model common to YouTube, sharing links and offering brief comments during downtime at work, is certainly an important and prevalent mode of contemporary media consumption and dissemination, complex serials offer a counter approach to online engagement. 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.
I believe we need a different metaphor to describe viewer engagement with narrative complexity and their paratextual extensions, thinking of such texts 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. As this chapter documents, complex series encourage viewers to both consult and create maps and guides, proliferating orienting paratexts to help comprehend and engage with select programs, and fill the gaps between episodes with deeper and more comprehensive engagement.
Drillable engagement and forensic fandom are not entirely new phenomena, but rather have emerged as an acceleration by degree. Highly serialized genres like soap operas have always fostered 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. Fan cultures in ongoing fictional series have long invested energy in chronicling, analyzing, and documenting franchises ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Star Wars. However, contemporary examples are notable for both the digital tools that have enabled fans to collectively apply and share their forensic efforts, and the demands that mainstream network programs make upon their viewers to pay attention and connect the narrative dots. Additionally, as discussed in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter, many contemporary series are dispersing their narrative content across media forms, providing opportunities or even actively requiring viewers to drill down into various sites to fully comprehend their storyworlds.
A single 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—Battlestar Wiki boasts over 6,000 registered users, although only a fraction of them actively contribute to editing and maintaining the site, suggesting a small niche of the millions of television viewers who consume the series.
However, even a complex serial where every aspect of the narrative is potentially interconnected can inspire spreadable off-shoots more akin to the bulk of shared video 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. Even after the clip was blocked for copyright infringement, fans posted numerous copies to continue the spreadable moment. (Alas, I have no information as to how successful this ad was in promoting the cracker brand, but clearly many more people have seen the commercial 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. As discussed more in the Evaluation chapter, 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—and open to other vectors and modes of engagement beyond this binary as well.
And certainly for many television viewers, a text that demands drilling into transmedia, consultation of maps or reference materials, or otherwise requires orienting paratexts to ensure comprehension sets too high of a bar to entry to attract audiences sufficiently large enough to sustain themselves within the commercial television marketplace, with rare exceptions like Lost. Given that television has traditionally been regarded (if not actually functioned) as a medium allowing for low engagement and passive attention, the rise of complex programming that encourages paratextual play and expansiveness does not meet many people’s expectations for how they watch television and what they hope to take away from it. There are certainly viewers who avoid complex series for fear of the implied time commitments and need for external “homework” that counter their goals of television offering more relaxing and low-impact pleasures, especially when compared to other media that are regarded as more serious (literature, some music) and/or participatory (games, other music). But as discussed in the Evaluation chapter, we need to recognize the particular viewing possibilities offered by complex series, not to hierarchize complexity over conventionality, but to recognize the way contemporary television broadens the possible textual pleasures and corresponding modes of engagement available to viewers, fostering a mode of forensic fandom that appears to be an essential type of 21st century media consumption.
 See Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010), for a comprehensive analysis of media paratexts.
 Emily Nussbaum, “Pugnacious D: The Wire Creator David Simon on His New HBO Series, Treme,” New York Magazine, April 4, 2010.
 This video aired on the BBC program Doctor Who Confidential in the U.K. on October 1, 2011, and is described at http://io9.com/5845981/river-songs-chronology-on-doctor-who-from-rivers-own-point-of-view.
 See Mark Andrejevic, “Watching Television Without Pity The Productivity of Online Fans,” Television & New Media 9: 1 (January 1, 2008): 24–46.
 Shahed Syed, “Dexter’s Victims”, updated 2012, http://www.shah3d.com/poster.php?call_id=1.
 ”Breaking Bad Finale Theory: A Case for Walt Poisoning Brock,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BROfhjCycY.
 See Walker’s “Treme Explained” blog.
 See Paul Booth, Digital Fandom (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010) for a discussion of the ARG style of fan engagment.
 Steve Murray, “Loved & Lost,” The National Post, May 21, 2010.
 See Bob Rehak’s Graphic Engine blog for his in-process writing on the topic.
 For more on media tourism, see Nick Couldry, “On the set of The Sopranos: ‘Inside’ a Fan’s Construction of Nearness,” in Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, ed. Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 139-148; David Crouch, Rhona Jackson, and Felix Thompson, The media and the tourist imagination: converging cultures (Routledge, 2005); Leshu Torchin, “Location, location, location,” Tourist Studies 2, no. 3 (December 1, 2002): 247-266.
 For more on wikis as participatory culture, see Jason Mittell, “Wikis and Participatory Fandom,” in The Participatory Cultures Handbook, ed. Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Henderson (New York: Routledge, 2012); and Booth, Digital Fandom.
 See Jason Mittell, “Sites of Participation: Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia,” Transformative Works and Cultures 3 (Fall 2009), for a more detailed analysis of Lostpedia. All Lostpedia content referred to can be found on http://lostpedia.wikia.com.
 Henry Jenkins, “‘Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’: alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery,” in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 51-69.
 Because of the fluid nature of wikis, quotes from Lostpedia might change over time. Whenever appropriate, quotes will cite a date that the page did include the material; if not noted, the quotes were part of Lostpedia on March 20, 2009.
 For more on collective online fan engagement, see Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Booth, Digital Fandom.
 See Christy Dena, Jeremy Douglass, and Mark Marino, “Benchmark Fiction: A Framework for Comparative New Media Studies,” in Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference (presented at the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Bergen, Norway, 2005), 89-98; and Bruce Mason and Sue Thomas, “A Million Penguins Research Report.” (Leicester, UK: Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University, April 24, 2008) for examples of more creative, non-orientation uses of wikis.
 See Sarah Toton, “Cataloging Knowledge: Gender, Generative Fandom, and the Battlestar Wiki,” Flow v.7 (January 2008).
 See Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
 See Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, eds., Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (New York: New York University Press, 2007), for an array of fan practices across historical era and medium.
 As of this writing, the clip was available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEDjAFi7oJ4.
- 1 See Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010), for a comprehensive analysis of media paratexts.
- 2 Emily Nussbaum, “Pugnacious D: The Wire Creator David Simon on His New HBO Series, Treme,” New York Magazine, April 4, 2010, http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/65235/.
- 3 This video aired on the BBC program Doctor Who Confidential in the U.K. on October 1, 2011, and is described at http://io9.com/5845981/river-songs-chronology-on-doctor-who-from-rivers-own-point-of-view<
- 4 See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKcKtjrL5bc.
- 5 See Mark Andrejevic, “Watching Television Without Pity The Productivity of Online Fans,” Television & New Media 9: 1 (January 1, 2008): 24–46.
- 6 Shahed Syed, “Dexter’s Victims”, updated 2012, http://www.shah3d.com/poster.php?call_id=1.
- 7 “Breaking Bad Finale Theory: A Case for Walt Poisoning Brock,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BROfhjCycY.
- 8 See Walker’s “Treme Explained” blog at http://topics.nola.com/tag/treme-explained/index.html.
- 9 See http://home.vicnet.net.au/~kwgow/crossovers.html.
- 10 See Paul Booth, Digital Fandom (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010) for a discussion of the ARG style of fan engagment.
- 11 Steve Murray, “Loved & Lost,” The National Post, May 21, 2010, http://www.nationalpost.com/arts/lost/index.html.
- 12 See http://mightygodking.com/index.php/2010/12/09/alignment-chart-week-the-wire/.
- 13 See Bob Rehak’s Graphic Engine blog for his in-process writing on the topic, http://graphic-engine.swarthmore.edu/?tag=blueprint-culture.
- 14 See http://www.sonypictures.com/tv/shows/seinfeld/multimedia/?sl=google_map and http://www.stolasgeospatial.com/seinfeld.htm.
- 15 For more on media tourism, see Nick Couldry, “On the set of The Sopranos: ‘Inside’ a Fan’s Construction of Nearness,” in Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, ed. Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 139-148; David Crouch, Rhona Jackson, and Felix Thompson, The media and the tourist imagination: converging cultures (Routledge, 2005); Leshu Torchin, “Location, location, location,” Tourist Studies 2, no. 3 (December 1, 2002): 247-266.
- 16 http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Timeline:Flash-sideways_timeline.
- 17 For more on wikis as participatory culture, see Jason Mittell, “Wikis and Participatory Fandom,” in The Participatory Cultures Handbook, ed. Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Henderson (New York: Routledge, 2012), and Booth, Digital Fandom.
- 18 See Jason Mittell, “Sites of Participation: Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia,” Transformative Works and Cultures 3 (Fall 2009), http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/118/117, for a more detailed analysis of Lostpedia. All Lostpedia content referred to can be found on http://lostpedia.wikia.com.
- 19 Henry Jenkins, “‘Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’: alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery,” in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 51-69.
- 20 Because of the fluid nature of wikis, quotes from Lostpedia might change over time. Whenever appropriate, quotes will cite a date that the page did include the material; if not noted, the quotes were part of Lostpedia on March 20, 2009.
- 21 For more on collective online fan engagement, see Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Booth, Digital Fandom.
- 22 http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/The_Lostpedia_Interview%3ACarlton_Cuse_%26_Damon_Lindelof
- 23 See Christy Dena, Jeremy Douglass, and Mark Marino, “Benchmark Fiction: A Framework for Comparative New Media Studies,” in Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference (presented at the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Bergen, Norway, 2005), 89-98; and Bruce Mason and Sue Thomas, “A Million Penguins Research Report.” (Leicester, UK: Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University, April 24, 2008) for examples of more creative, non-orientation uses of wikis.
- 24 See Sarah Toton, “Cataloging Knowledge: Gender, Generative Fandom, and the Battlestar Wiki,” Flow v.7 (January 2008) http://flowtv.org/?p=1060.
- 25 See Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
- 26 See Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, eds., Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (New York: New York University Press, 2007), for an array of fan practices across historical era and medium.
- 27 http://en.battlestarwiki.org/.
- 28 As of this writing, the clip was available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEDjAFi7oJ4.