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The Fanthropology of Theatrics

The session was called "Unlock the Power of Fans" at Transmedia Los Angeles’ monthly meetup earlier this week, but I’ll remember it as the Fanthropology of Theatrics, because I learned so much about the way audiences are using the new collaborative storytelling platform that I was there to represent.


I kicked off the discussion with a presentation, embedded here, about how theatrics works, and was then followed by Jay Bushman, co-executive producer of ‘Welcome to Sanditon,’ the sequel to the phenomenally successful web series ‘Lizzie Bennet’s Diaries,’ a modern updating of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice. ‘Sanditon’ used Theatrics to invite fans to create their own characters who could engage with the story over a 14-week run.

The third panelist was Kris Longfield who describes herself as a “fanthropologist.” Such a perfect conflation of terminology! You instantly know what she does: she studies the behavior of online fan communities.

My client Theatrics has built a remarkable platform, but like any software tool, it’s only as good as those who use it – like world-class interactive visionaries Jay Bushman and Margaret Dunlap from Pemberley Digital (the fake company in their stories, which is now the real production company behind these great Austen transmutations.)

Jay reported than more than 200 videos from 130 “characters” inside the Sanditon story world were created in the first week, from which he built a very engaging compilation episode.


With more than 400 videos created by fans, Jay will edit another, and that practice will continue over the run of the series.

Sanditon has managed to keep about healthy slide of the Lizzie Bennet audience, but not all of them are pleased at the team’s introduction of the interactive aspects of the story, as the comments on the non-Theatrics companion sites indicate:

I don't mean this rudely, but: Is there actually a point to this? Like, is there actually a *story* in this story? Or just random user interactive things like this? :-/

And in this corner:

I'll give all you Sanditon plot haters a clue......Your Welcome. Heh, heh. Seriously this_ series is what you MAKE IT. After all we are all just a PART IN THE PLOT. Do you get it yet? Good luck. ;>

Bushman surmises that lots of fans --  notwithstanding their age (young) and their relationship to digital tools (extensive) still want a linear narrative. It’s the 90-10 rule, said Longfield, e.g., only 10% of the audience in most fan communities actually contribute. The rest lurk, read, observe, consume.

She also noted that fan communities thrive within and against the aura of a “canon” – the official version of the story, its settings, characters and rules. Huge commercial properties like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter have immense fandoms, sometimes embraced, sometimes opposed by the commercial interests behind the canon. She noted that it may be harder for original properties to generate fan engagement communities in the same way as existing properties.

The Pemberley projects attract a fanbase that is overwhelmingly female and young. Bushman noted that most of the videos uploaded by young women included some form of apology – for their performance, for the quality, for their video skills. Male uploaders did not apologize. Clearly the social context for young women has an impact on how they interact in these kinds of fan communities.

Bushman opened the door to a fascinating ethical and legal issue for the show creator whose work invites user content with the disclosure of a particularly delicate incident that in which a young woman shared – in character – something highly personal that other fans did not like. Does the show runner or other fans have a responsibility to help? To police errant behavior?    

From the audience came one decisive question: “Just who are these people?” – meaning, is there a profile for the type of audience member who migrates into the world of co-creation that tools like Theatrics enables? Her research suggests, she said, some usual suspects like students who have time on their hands, bored housewives, and, counter-intuitively, a lot of lawyers. Tell that to Shakespeare!


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