I have seen it a lot lately: transmedia stories that are told as if they are real. This way, people are immersed into the story. They wonder whether or not it is true and they start the discussions. I started to think about the ethics of transmedia storytelling. Is it ethical to make people believe in stories that are not true? How far can you go? And where do you draw the line?
LonelyGirl15, the teenager who shares her life with her webcam and the world wide web. The story starts with simple adolescent issues, school, parents, boys. No one even suspects that Bree is played by an actress. Some people see her as a friend and share their joys and sorrows with her. The story is getting darker as it becomes clear that Bree’s parents are part of a secretive religious sect and they suddenly disappear. When the observant and suspicious viewers discovered that it was all fake, the story continues. People still find it interesting. But what about the teenagers who found out their friend Bree does not exist, that they have had personal contact with a social media manager for weeks and that they have been worrying for nothing. Nobody is talking about that…
Is it the creators responsibility to protect these people? And how do you do that? It is a possibility to develop a logo for transmedia projects. If this logo is shown on all expressions of the story and links to information about the veracity, it would save some people a lot of trouble. But such a story will all of a sudden be a lot less exciting. You want people to be scared and having them to convince themselves that this is not real, that this is fiction, that it’s all in their heads. But what if they can’t tell the difference between the storyworld and the real world? Will they stay scared?
I think you can let people believe in stories that aren’t true, but you should always keep an eye on the impact it has on your audience. Here are three important questions.
1. Is it scary?
2. Is it personal?
3. Is it realistic? The reality and the storyworld are blended.
A transmedia project is ethical if no more than 2 of these 3 questions can be answered with ‘yes’.
An example: Final Punishment.
This story starts with articles in reputable newspapers and on news websites, there is a new high-tech prison, but hackers have managed to crack the system. Very realistic and quite scary, but it is not personal. It is not an existing jail, nobody has anything to do with it personally. That’s why this project is ethical.
Another example is Your Other You, a campaign for Toyota. On the website you leave some information about a friend and he will be stalked for one week. One of the five maniacs leaves him personalized emails, text messages, phone calls and movies. Funny? Don’t think so. How would you feel if you were harassed by an idiot who seems to know everything about you every single day? It is realistic, scary and very personal. I would say this project is ethically irresponsible.
Ofcourse there will be exceptions to this rule and we have to try things to find out what works. So as a transmedia creator, always keep your audience in mind. You can make mistakes, but it is your responsibility.