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Archive for September, 2008

I reckon it’s time I got back to talking about Japan. To that end, today’s title is a t-shirt slogan I saw in a hip-aching second-hand clothing store in Daimyo today. I really need to start carrying my camera around more: I also hit up ‘Mandarake’, which is five floors of grimy photogenic second-hand otaku tat, cosplay uniforms, improbable, marshmallow-pink figurines and porn. And hundreds of stills, sketches and animation cells from unidentifiable animes, which I bought with a vengeance.

Webkare, Japanese for internet boyfriend, is a combination online game-social networking site-dirty playing card collection, aimed at lonely female teenagers, which became an overnight sensation after its launch. The ‘game’ aspect is a boyfriend sim in the tradition of Japanese dating sims going back to terribly pixelated stuff on mid-nineties games consoles.

What’s notable about this is not that it’s a dating sim for girls- such things have existed for a decade, of sorts. What’s interesting is that it’s the first time a dating sim of any kind has been combined with social networking, community or anything of the kind. Those unfamiliar with the ‘simulated dating’ genre in general would be prone to think of it as the most profoundly solitary activity in the generally solipsistic field of computerised gaming. These are, after all, a species of the ‘visual novel’ genre which, with the curious exception of the Phoenix Wright series, are virtually unheard of outside Japan.

‘Visual Novels’, as the name suggests, are generally interactive only in the barest possible way. In a dating sim, for example, your behaviour and your selection of various conversational gambits (usually from a choice of three) leads to varied successes within a localised harem of vacant, coiffed members of the opposite sex. And novices at these games will have to take my word for it: you have to work pretty hard at mis-navigating those conversation options if you don’t want to end up in an unlikely pre-programmed sexual encounter with at least two or three dead-eyed moe muffins during the course of a game.

Well, all right. But Webkare combines virtual dating with social networking. Asiajin has a summation of the details I can’t hope to top:

On the service, you will spend a virtual school life with 4 young boys, while communicating other users.

Like as other social networking services, you have “Purofu” (my profile), “Mini-Rogu” (microblog), “Oekaki” (Drawing bbs), direct message. As an original feature, it provides “Pro-Peta”, user created icons which shows paster’s attributes and interests, to show others your liking anime/cereblities/fashion/etc.,

It is explained that the system initially has 150 audio phrases for each boy recorded by voice actors. Conversation between you and your future boyfriends can be recorded on your “Album” page.

I swear.

It actually makes a lot of sense. As an online version of an extremely linear type of game, Webkare represents the next evolution of sim dating. The boys in question, their personality and their conversation patterns, can be updated regularly, according to tracked habits of use. Like any other MMORPG the gaming experience is essentially single-player, and nuances can be constantly added, conversation trees given new branches. Relationship crises can occur and be resolved with the release of new updates. Development can be a continual, nuanced, emotional process. The user is signing up for a soap, of which they are at the centre; a drama which, like any MMO, will eternally postpone its climax or endgame to keep subscription coming in.

Particularly interesting is the fact that the system has 150 audio phrases recorded for each bishi. Now, I’m not certain, but the resonance of the number 150 with the number of Pokemon in the original Game Boy game is too strong to ignore. I reckon that audio phrases for the lads will be a currency of sorts, traded among the people using the service.

You have to sign yourself up to one boy when you register: perhaps there will be 150 unique codes to be traded among everyone, and which release a different phrase from every boy. Or, perhaps, the system encourages users with the same boyfriend to trade audio files, or tips on how to get them, among themselves. After all, once you’ve signed up for the system, wouldn’t you want to really know your beau? Know all his 150 moods? To catch ’em all?

But then, this would mean the system is dependent on the interactions of users who share the same virtual boyfriend, who are working through the same emotional vocabulary. This could problematic to say the least, if the feelings of potential buyers of second-hand Realdoll users are anything to go by.

From Danny Choo:

First off is the price tag problem which is easily solved. Doll Mate (NSFW) is an online dealer that specializes in selling second hand dolls – you can pick up a Candy Girl… for a laughable 200,000 yen. If you can forgive her for being with another man...

I’m being unfair. Danny Choo has nothing if not a sense of humour about his unasked-for role as interpreter of bad Japanese Weirdness to the rest of the world. Koko o Sawatte, I always say.

How exactly will social-networking interactions on Webkare work, I wonder? Will the girlfriends of the surly, intellectual sterotype form a group to support one another through his bad moods? Will those chasing the long haired surfer-type trade insults on why he didn’t show for the big date? Surely these games are designed to make the user feel like they are at the centre of the characters’ world?

What kind of experience will it be to have a whole population, far more than a virtual high school could contain, all wanting to dish about their hot date with the same guy? Collaboration seems to be the key to winning the heart of the chosen boy, but how exactly will this work?

Somehow, I think both marketers and social-networking experts would agree that this system could only have been pioneered with a sim aimed at girls. The results would be too extreme, too little community-oriented, in a collaborative dating sim for boys. Boys tend to want to be the seducer, not the wing-man. Nonetheless, success (or otherwise) of Web-kare should be nothing less than instructive to anyone hoping to combine social networking with gaming or any other object of obsession. Like, say, Shibuya fashion.

fame is chiefly a matter of

dyeing at the right time

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McCain cries Yahoo

Reflections on the Sarah Palin “hacker” scandal:

The incident is a gift to the Republican campaign, and one which they have slow-played masterfully. Most importantly, the fact that no juicy details have come of the hacking has been made glaring by omission.

Anything that does come out will remain a less interesting discovery than the fact that the Palin administration used Yahoo profiles for the business of the governership at all. It’s a matter of record that they made that decision on the basis that Yahoo accounts wouldn’t legally have to be released for public disclosure. Nonetheless, the McCain campaign immediately characterised the incident as the ‘breach of privacy’ which the “hacking” of a Yahoo account implies. This despite the fact that it wasn’t a “personal” account but one used for business, albeit business which was to be kept out of the public domain.

I suspect that the kid who guessed the secret question, and who then got frightened off by the thought of Federal investigation, is not clever enough to have covered his tracks fully. I reckon he’s going to be caught, and the Republicans are going to burn him down. (Though there’s still the chance they might choose to highlight the absence of incriminating email by choosing to be magnanimous).

In any case, the incident will be an opportunity to bring the fear about Our Connected World, and possibly be a hook on which to hang a broader conservative message about the merits of a responsible (i.e. incorporating, legislating, limiting) approach to the internet. Maybe an opportunity for both sides to simplify their message is exactly what’s needed in this particular policy battlegound. Both candidates have clarified their position on net neutrality but it’s hardly rabble-rousing stuff.

though he may not be the man some

girls think of as hand some

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Chicken heads

I’ve started some work for a local magazine here, which wants to expand its online operation. It’ll be a chance to see first-hand the thinking that goes on about internet issues from the perspective of media outlets in sharp commercial situations, such as an absolute dependence on relationships with local advertising concerns. I asked, among other things, the boss’s opinion of wikimedias; while admitting that he saw their use, it was as expected dismissed out of hand. They are, in a sense, in the business of controlling information, he said. They operate in a closed system, and find it easier that way. That’s entirely understandable.

But then, I argued, there is a middle ground between relinquishing control to the attrition forces of wiki, and rigid editorial control of online material, which in a small operation makes full exploitation of the medium impossible. Themed individuals’ blogs under the magazine’s auspices, for instance, are somewhere between the wiki and the rubber stamp. I know a number of people who’d jump at the chance to write a masthead theme blog, a ‘Gaijin Diary’ or an ‘Expat Digest’ or something. And for free, what’s more, non-anonymously and submitted cheerfully to a (fairly hands-off) editorial regime.

Expat magazines have an advantage matched only by vicarage newsletters and urban style bibles: they serve a tight-knit, incestuous community with its own currents of fame and influence, and its own regular inflush of newcomers; as such they could if they wished get enthusiastic, literate people to do much of their work for them. People who’ll select themselves into a position of moderate responsibility for a pittance on the basis of becoming known, or operating under a brand, and whether the promise of influence is real or imagined.

They magazine is also interested in developing a gaijin’s guide to the city, and multimedia expansion, interviews with various gaijin, daily fashions, all sorts. In some ways it’ll be as interesting as applying blue-sky thinking would be in an idealistic, well-funded environment: I’ll get to see which ideas take and which are anathema to the commercial instincts of long-time community journalists.

Also, in the process of seven hours of copyediting for the magazine, I was given the opportunity to alter the transliteration of otaku from ‘nerd’ to ‘geek’. I marked it up as [assistant: semantic choice] and it was passed without comment. Possibly they trust my deeper understanding of the intricacies of hipster dialect. Possibly they let me have my moment in exchange for continuing to hyphenate cos and play. Either way, a victory for semantics, I feel.

wearing a wire

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“rethinking news priorities”

(From the Rocky Mountain News. Images link to original Twitter feed, and story via journalism.co.uk)

There’s been a slew of interesting predictions for the newspaper and magazine industries in the last couple of days. Gawker sci-fi hub io9, obviously considering the future as a whole their territory, reported on ex-Conde Nast James Truman’s predictions for the future of magazines.

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Here’s what he decided about print magazines: they’re becoming obsolete, but the final stage along that path is to become luxury items. Look at horses, which became obsolete as a form of transportation after the car came along. The upkeep and gear for a horse used to be affordable to the average family, but now it’s a luxury bestowed on Muffy in the Hamptons on her sixteenth birthday.

So it is with print magazines, which have been superseded by improved technology. They won’t go away, but there will be fewer of them and they’ll be more expensive. They’ll be more like books, in fact. The magazine publishing business is being transformed by super-ninjas like Armani and Karl Lagerfeld. Although, Truman felt constrained to point out, Karl Lagerfeld is not actually a real ninja.

As magazines get to be more of a luxury item, they’ll become more fetishistic and less connected to utility.

[permalink]

Now, I’ve used the word fetishistic in connection with the internet a lot, as part of an argument against the theory that the absolute reader empowerment of the web browser is inherently radicalising, making people reactionary and dependent on being told what they want to hear. I prefer to say that the internet is inherently fetishizing: no matter how deep you get into a subject, there’s always someone deeper, and it sucks you in. io9 may be too hip to admit how long they spend following obscure trends to produce their magazine-style sci-fi digest. Their content skims along to top of some of the deepest wells of geekdom on the internet, and their service is based on aggregating the most interesting stuff for you.

And it’s aggregation, being a ‘connector’, that people are talking about in terms of how news will be marketed and sold in years to come. How much power will lie with the connectors, and how much with the traditional source of news authority, the multimillion pound international newsrooms.

When you’re a large news house, your brand and your content used to be the same thing: your reputation came from authority or from quality (that is, fulfilling the needs of the customer, whoever they be). Marketing has always been taken out of the editors’ hands: whether people talk about you or use you as a reference determined your authority. And so the experience of operating online, where marketing is almost completely democratised, your readers’ caprice thoroughly empowered, should not be too terrifying. But it’s the relationship of big, professional information-gatherers with the nonjournalists and unprofessionals, the “news-porn” peddlers on whom they rely to make the connections, that has come under strain and scrutiny.

The right to charge, the right to distinguish between career man and rolodex amateur, is what is at stake.

So, in the spirit of some of the wiser and more perceptive speculators I’m going to provide a service almost as valuable as information gathering itself: aggregating material together for comment and comparison. One major question raised by these bloggers and executives is whether I, or anyone else providing aggregation service, would be better off by charging people for access to my aggregation site but linking for free, or negotiating a cut of the money made by each site I link to based on the amount of traffic I send their way. After all, either way, I’m doing them a favour.

This last option is in theory a more clear-eyed engagement with the “link economy” everyone’s always talking about. It would work best if there was a ubiquitous, Paypal-like service which integrated link analysis with a compensation system between Bloggers and corporations, say a branch of Google Analytics.

That plan has an obvious down side (or dark side, depending on how you look at it, even aside from making Google even more the Kleenex of the Internet). If bloggers are paid for their links to profit-making websites, then every blog is potentially profit-making. Just as you can’t describe any media outlet dependent on advertising as 100% bias-proof, so too would you be forced to wonder about the motive behind every link that a blogger served you. And just as Dickens got paid by the line and Rubens by the square inch, you’d probably find even the most respectable blogs posting bloated, uncritical linksplashes on a daily basis. The blog as labour-of-love would be forever suspect.

Another downside, as we all know, is that there’s already plenty of attention-money to be made not by endorsing products but by wildly whaling on them. And who wants more of… this?

Perhaps I’ve already taken this too far. Jeff Jarvis argues newspapers could find their place in a paid news economy by doing what they do best and linking to the rest, say by maintaining Baghdad station but linking to another agency for sports, for a consideration based on the amount of traffic you direct. But inevitably, this means arguing for a link-as-currency exchange only between professional news houses, not between big houses and the bloggers who link to them.

After all, a news house which relies on its “brand consistency” for income is hardly going to relinquish editorial control, develop a permanent link relationship or otherwise associate itself with, say, some yahoo who blogs on both sports and the imminence of the Rapture.

Linking is NOT endorsing, but telling your readers “We get our sports news from Dan the Waterboy, and so should you!” is something no self-respecting agency is going to publish.

And this is, after all, about self-respect. Proposing such a backscratcher model looks unfortunately like a knee-jerk attempt to maintain an old business model in a new economy, one which benefits those in the loop, and keeps everyone else out. Newspapers internationally can agree on the basis of mutual professionalism to, say, cover up the presence of a member of the British royal family in a fighting role in Afghanistan. But that professional climate extends only to those within the old institutions, and there’s nothing but bad form stopping just anyone with a laptop and no shame from busting the story open.

As On Demand Media points out, this is business, and you can’t expect people to be nice. Even if the big houses come to an agreement on the link-as-currency among their brothers in the professional trade, they would merely be rafting themselves together while the Huffingtons of this world continue to circle about them.

Instead of forming an open monetary relationship with anyone who links to their material, papers which want to see link economy only among the rarefied international network of professional newsrooms would be attempting to maintain authority by professionalism, in a world of authority by consent.

Links are a commodity, that’s for sure; to be bought and sold. I’d stop at the brink of saying that links can be the content, or can be the reporting. But I wonder if I’m not cynical enough to agree with another model proposed by Nico Flores of On Demand Media: allowing access to your articles for free, so people can “deep-link” to you at will, but making your homepage and your content-listing and internal navigation subscriber-only.

It’s a model similar to the FT’s, whereby a ‘casual’ level of reading is free, but more than 30 articles a month and you hit the subscriber barrier. Here you’re welcoming the serendipitous reader, while charging your regular or dedicated reader, and thus recognising the differences in demand and in willingness to pay between your casual and regular users. At this point you’re encouraging people to use you as a reference while still getting paid to be trustworthy- or, to put it another way, you’re charging people for their trust in you. It’s a move which reflected the role of the FT as an expert reference in a wide range of professions (though I’m reliably informed that City types read it largely to study what people were thinking yesterday).

Adopted by more broad news agencies, either of these subscription models would professionalise the connectors, the aggregators, “those who have the power to link”, by charging them for the resources needed to carry out their self-appointed jobs. Which might deliver a guaranteed minimum of quality and competence among the connector class, or might result in connectors being perpetually under suspicion of corporate involvement.

Now, when the business philosophy speeches made by newspaper execs seem to match up with the blue-sky imagery of bloggers, I’m inclined to think it’s because they want the philosophical waters thoroughly warmed within the industry before they dive in. After all, innovation is only valuable if you’re nimble enough to use it. Peter Grimshaw of FT.com may be making noise about new paradigms because none of the papers want to be the first to start charging for content you can get elsewhere. And FT at least knows it has a unique, expert appeal.

Perhaps some editors envision all the major players making the leap at once in a coordinated subscriber strike, free one day, restricted the next, and the professionals’ code preserved. The worst thing in the world is trying to make it over a crevasse in two jumps. But plenty of nimbler people have made plenty of money charging for things that with a little effort can be got elsewhere, iTunes foremost among them, and with no regard for its brothers in the trade.

There is a Go proverb: When you want to test the depths of a stream, don’t use both feet.

There is definite merit still in the notion of a code of understanding among journalists worldwide. But when they traded silence for a package of soundbites and a unique front-page shot for every paper of Prince Harry on patrol, editors knew they were preparing for the moment somebody broke the story. And they must have known, or suspected, when they made the deal that such an arrangement would never be possible again.

Edit: Google’s saturnine response to the request by the Tribune group that it exclude one of their newspaper sites from Google News’s coverage. Wired point out the similarities with a case a year ago, akin to the more recent AP legal action, of news agencies not getting it. A Belgian media company argued successfully in European courts that their copyright was infringed by Google providing abstracts and links to their content. The Tribune asked to be excluded not for copyright reasons but because of “problems with Googlebots” (the crawler software Google News uses to sample hundreds of publications and randomly aggregate them on its homepage). However, Google’s response was the same in both cases. “We really make it easy for publishers who don’t want their websites to appear in a search index. We have really easy tools for them to use to tell us not to crawl them.” These tools involve the implementation of a code called robots.txt in a site’s source code, which tells Google to exclude it from GNews’s crawler and from Google searches. And who in their right minds is going to want to sentence themselves to obscurity?

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There is almost no Pepsi in Japan.

It’s the sort of thing you don’t notice till someone points it out. But once they do, the absence is obvious. I had a great chat with my supervisor about media in the country today, and he spoke about the Pepsi test: “if you want to know about a country’s media, look for the Pepsi.”

Pepsico is currently able to advertise products on Sky channels, but not on TV, and this is because of the monolithic nature of Japan’s advertising industry. The industry is almost totally dominated by four large players, of which the biggest, Dentsu, books up around 60% of all TV airtime more than a year before airing. And it seems that Coke has a longtime platinum contract with Dentsu, and were able not only to convince them to shut out Pepsi from their share, but to pressure the other agencies into doing likewise, effectively closing the ports to Pepsi products. There are vending machines on every street corner and Coke is the only western brand in any of them (I’ve only seen one which was defeaced in any fashion whatsoever, the one pictured below, outside a painfully hip skate shop. They’d also voluntarily put coke stickers on a bench outside the shop, combined with guns, skate tags and graffiti’d hopes for world love. It’s a brilliant simulacra of cultural poverty which seems to unify Japanese counterculture).

My supervisor tells me that pretty much every TV show is sponsored or ‘brought to you by’, and that in a show sponsored by, say, Toyota, all the bad guys will drive Nissans.

It all bears further research, particularly into the credibility meltdown that the public service broadcaster, NHK, suffered a couple of years ago due to bribery scandals and the possibility that they’d allowed the state to fiddle one of their documentaries and other programming, including among other things reviews of the third Star Wars prequel. It got so bad that around 30% of the license fee owed wasn’t being paid; many of these households were not paying in protest, which I guess is the first step towards a full-scale Rebel Alliance.

In other news, Yahoo Japan is to launch a new generation of ‘Interest Match’ advertising, which tracks browsers with a cookie and then provides intelligent ads and referrer information. It also supposedly can target by gender, age, geography and time of day. A big corporate rollout for what’s essentially ‘legitimised’ spyware attracted privacy questions even at the launch, though the bloggers they invited did seem quick to realise that better targeting means more ad revenues for everyone. ‘Kimochi Warui’ seems to have been the focus group’s biggest worry: it roughly translates to ‘creepiness’. The system is only going online in Japan, presumeably with the aim to tweak and release it in other markets later. Japan is where it’s all happening.

I’d also like to showcase what might be the most frustrating, but also the most arresting, advert I’ve ever seen. Unlike crawlers it respects the boundaries of its allotted banner space, but the slightest waver of interest from you, and it’s got you. It is really quite annoying so I haven’t put it up here, but go and have a look, and keep clicking.

P

Finally, I wrote a while ago about the question of interfaces as the frontier of hardware convergence in the home. That is to say, the need for a simple, wireless, robust, preferably one-handed interface with the screen for on-demand on your TV to make the jump to the Internet as the source of all entertainment. In short, you can navigate an on-demand menu with a remote, but you can’t use it to navigate the net. A couple of new solutions are coming out in prototype, deceptively simple things which might just allow an inter-generational jump from scrolling through channels to navigating a sea of entertainment. Toshiba’s face- and-fist-recognition screens sound more promising than Panasonic’s similar ‘Digital Hearth’ venture, which can tell when you smile. Better than the Nielsen system, any day. That said, Toshiba’s interface notion of holding up flashcards to your TV in order to control it would take some getting used to.

A particularly interesting interface concept to have come out of the TechCrunch50 conference is Swype (generic url, go to Video section to see it in action). It’s one of those idea that you know you could have thought of first if you had just put your mind to it, though in this case that feeling might be justified.

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In Ko

I’ve started a sister blog, for friends and family and anyone interested. It’s a more stream-of-consciousness account fo life in Japan. It will also hopefully be an account of my attempts to learn to play Go, one of the most abstract, simple and challenging games in the world. here goes nothing.

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A line will be drawn

Movie trailer voiceover actor Don LaFontaine has died. The link is a touching tribute by Ain’t It Cool. The man with the most heroic voice in recording history was, it turns out, also a witty and genuinely talented performer and writer, with a warm sense of irony about the endless cliches of his work. His voice carried almost single-tounguedly (?) the style of blockbuster trailer where the voiceover could be evocative but not spoileriffic. One-voice-fits-all narration could express the concepts behind a film straight from marketing’s flipcharts, and hint at both the central tension and the uplifting resolution we knew the film would promise.

By contrast, I watched the trailers for ‘The Lucky Ones’ and ‘Milk’ today. These kinds of big-release, thoughtful films left behind Don LaFontaine’s style years ago, and avoid the obvious superficialities of either text or voice narration. That said, while great trailers, these two are reliant on clips of exposititory dialogue from the film to get across the premise. In a sense this gives less away than a voiceover or a one-line synopsis: we’re presented with the tensions operating in the film, but not the kind of conclusion we can expect.

A LaFontaine voiceover for ‘The Lucky Ones’ might sound something like this:

“Three very different soldiers… Returning to the land they fought for… A land.. no longer their own…

They fought for freedom… They fought for honour… But only in America will they learn.. the greatest fight… is for each other.

[Or with spoiled, contemptible Nevada princesses, by the looks of it]

They are… The Lucky Ones.”

But then, a voiceover like this tells us exactly the same bottom-line that we learn from the reams of dialogue clips in trailer, but without giving away any of the jokes, let alone the whole fourth act. Instead of the conflict/resolution spoiler we get from a voiceover trailer, we get spoiled with a preview of exactly who the characters are, what happens to them, and probably the best climaxes of the film.

I sort of understand the thinking behind the serious protraction that trailers have undergone in recent years. ‘Lucky Ones’ and ‘Milk’ both clock in at 2.30. Audience attention span is less of a problem in cinema trailer spots, since they’re kind of trapped. And after all, if you’re trying to convince the Move Make-Out ‘mavens’ to make some noise for your film six months in advance, then you don’t have to worry about keeping your tv spot short, since they’ll not only be willingly searching out your trailer but watching atentively all the way through for anything to make their blogs sound important or ahead of the curve.

But then, after I missed seeing Juno during the initial furore I had a niggling feeling which was confirmed by others that the trailer had captured not just the general gist but the overall atmosphere, the best jokes and the conclusion. That might be a symptom of the kind of film it is: for instance, even if the climax hadn’t been captured on the DVD’s cover (for god’s sake) we would have been able to tell from the first thirty seconds that Garden State would end with a moment of evanescent teen victory. Wes Anderson trailers make an interesting comparison, since their only purpose, like the films, is to capture an atmosphere.

It’s all part of the plan.

I promise I’ll stop talking about this film soon.

I first got really interested in the trailer-maker’s art when I was obsessively watching the Dark Knight spots during the long months of buildup. If you were as familiar with the trailer as I was by the time you watched the film, then you’ll know that the choice bits of dialogue they use in the trailer are different recordings to those actually used in the film. The classic Joker tagline “It’s all part of the plan” is actually kind of a throwaway  dialogue line, for instance. Now, someone will either have realised that the line, isolated from the script, would make a brilliant, enigmatic tagline, or else the trailer director will have seen all the takes of the hospital bed scene where the line occurs, and decided on one that suited his purpose.

It’s incredibly difficult to find the people really behind the trailer and the rest of the campagin without a decent amount of inside knowledge. A very full run-down of the remarkable amount of online promotional goings-on is here, but even with this amount of detail it’s all just the brothers Warner behind it all. The Dark Knight campaign was the life’s work of a few WB staffers, and deserves to be remembered as such, just as the trailers should be preserved in isolation from the film, for their brilliant editing and performances.

Tremendous Adventures

“In a world… after the thirty-second slot… Advertisers must learn to present a “story of their brand”…

And they may find… the hardest part is not getting the message out…. but keeping the message in…

[This said, I’m kind of sick of reading marketers and others misusing the word ‘disenfranchised’ to refer to modern advertising demographics. They may be cynical, even impassive, but online users are absolutely enfranchised by their ability to browse. More on this below.]

The little details like the Joker cakes made the Dark Knight campaign a brilliant poster child for the ARG as a marketing medium. The cakes, given away by bakeries across the US when the user spoke a password, were a unique experience for the few who looked deep enough into the series of online puzzles. A disproportionate amount of marketing budget spent on a few users, perhaps. But the idea is that after you engage them this far, these hardcore users then do your marketing work for you.

Promotional ARGs (Alternate Reality Games, essentially like Massively Multiplayer games where the prizes are promotional material) are inherently ephemeral media, in a sense more transitory even than newspapers. They’re like a combination of writing a novel and running an adventure weekend, though more than anything they resemble an online version of The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown.

But even though we can’t re-experience the ARG as a campaign, unfolding in real-time and with the promise of unique experiences for the dedicated follower, it’s still as much a fascinating piece of work as is the trailer after you’ve finally watched the film. Just like with Don LaFontaine, any stigma still attached to making work like trailers which will mostly line tomorrow’s recycle bins won’t last when people are used to having an infinite capacity for archiving. As always, it’s a paradigm shift which favours the young: they acclimatise faster, and they’ve had less time to make mistakes.

(That said, when the link to the McCain quote disappeared off Drudge, it suddenly became much more scarce. Good job somebody’s always linking.

In other news, I am now living in Japan. Expect a more Asiatic-centric media analysis over the coming weeks, after I’ve got my stuff sorted and I’ve finally unpacked. If this doesn’t give me something to write about besides the Dark Knight, nothing will.

The question of whether an ARG can operate without something to sell, for instance.

A friend of mine told me about his blog this morning, and mentioned its title. Since he’s a young bloke who I assume is thoroughly familiar with the internet, It’s a reasonable guess that he doesn’t mind me looking it up, nor would find it particularly unusual if I did. Given a few details -the title, his screen name, or even a rough idea of what he writes about- I could find the blog myself, and hence his mentioning it was in a sense an open invitation to browse. ARGs work on the same principle: to have a plausible fake company, it has to have a fake website, since a few keystrokes can provide verification. It has to have a Wikipedia page. If it has an email, even a phone number, it has to work and have the right area code.

If you’re creating an fiction online in which people are supposed to immerse themselves, you have to realise the extent to which people can fact-check or investigate further without ever leaving the medium, or ideally, ever feeling like they’ve broken the fourth wall. The internet is a storytelling medium which provides the reader with the toold to dismantle the story. You have to rely on a willing suspension of disbelief, but you also have to anticipate every skeptical or speculative search the user makes, and have something ready for them which keeps them inside the game. And this is how you get them to burrow deeper into the rabbit hole.

Marking territory

Now, you’d think Japan would be the ideal playground for these games. For example, because of the lack of decent domain names in Roman characters which translate well into Japanese, large Japanese advertisers have started directing people to their online presence with the name or phrase to Google rather than a long indelicate URL (a practice which recalls the rather sweet, parochial days of the ‘AOL Keyword:’ print link at the bottom of Time Warner posters and TV trailers).

As a marketing practice this has its own cachet and its drawbacks: by encouraging searching rather than direct linking, you’re opening your target user up to the world of things said about your product by other people on the internet. Companies spend a lot of money keeping their brand at the top of Google search returns for given keywords, but a rumour or a good smear campaign can topple them.

Ideally then, the target audience for these products are accustomed to browsing, rather than being directed straight to a product. These Japanese advertisers know they do not have a monopoly on their users’ attention, nor on what they read about the product.

When the ‘product’ is promotional material released through an ARG, it’s in the promoter’s interest to provide interesting stuff for the shallow user, but to reward the user who explores further or thinks differently with the coveted unique experience. And marketers have been pushing the idea of the ‘unique experience’ to millions of consumer for long enough to know that there is money in it. Someone must have decided that Joker-branded mobile phones, hidden within no more than three dozen cakes in cake shops all over America, and a staff of people to run the game, was a good investment.

But can ARGs tell a story for the story’s own sake? One game that’s proven popular in Japan is the Detective Conan ARG, based on the popular manga/card game/video game franchise. The detective ARG is based on clues, puzzles and sections of images provided on collectible cards, and so in this game the money is much more directly related to the game as played. The cards are bought first, the puzzles and the story told through websites and emails sucks you in, you buy more cards. The story itself isn’t selling something; it only has to be compelling, in the same way that a periodical or comic book sells itself through storytelling. And more than products, stories can provoke strong, unpredictable reactions.

And Japan, after all, is the land of obsessive fandom. Or so our stereotypes tell us. But it’s also a culture with a great respect for order, and one in which media use is often habituated to a surprisingly narrow field. (More on this in a later post, especially the Japanese government’s continued policy of suppression of information from school textbooks and discussions. An anecdotal example is here.) Is Japanese fandom capable of the disorder which is inevitable when a game or story crosses over into reality? All signs point to yes.

So why can’t I find more Japanese ARGs currently being played? well, maybe because english language resources either don’t know or don’t care what goes on. Or maybe Japanese culture already saw the ARG coming, and were past it before we realised: a j-horror flick about a viral marketing ploy gone horribly wrong came out last year.

I guess the local Geocaching or Reality Game communities would be a good place to start. As always,It bear further research.

Over the nexgt couple of days I’m going to set up a sister blog for friends and family about my experiences, largely because it’s easier than writing to everyone involved. I still have to think of a title.

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