The Growth of Online Drama
Storytelling has been embraced by each new technology, from theatre to radio to film and television, and now it’s the turn of the internet. It is still early days, but the last few years have seen a boom in dramas made specifically for the web.
The Origins of Internet Drama
Web drama was born way back in 1995 with the launch of US online soap opera, The Spot. Based around the lives of a group of Southern Californian twenty-somethings, The Spot accrued a massive following. What made it so popular was not the video content alone, but the social community surrounding it and the interactivity with characters through ‘character diaries’; all years before the rise of social networking and blogging.
YouTube, Video Blogs and Online Interactive Fiction
However, the current crop of online dramas descend not from The Spot but from the YouTube video-blog (or vlogs) of a sixteen year old girl, lonelygirl15. Or not, as it turned out. After months of speculation and controversy, it was revealed that lonelygirl15 was not a teenager named Bree, but an actress named Jessica Rose and the blog, not true-life confessions but an intricately written drama by three amateur filmmakers from LA.
After their fictional nature was revealed, the lonelygirl15 vlogs morphed from detailing ordinary teenage life to a multi-stranded plot dealing with the occult. They also went from self-funded to being financed by big name brands through advertising and product placement.
Television Drama on the Internet
The internet drama sphere is now extremely busy with examples from all over the world. Several have been transferred to television, often unsuccessfully, as with Quarterlife which NBC cancelled after one episode. Some television series have launched web spin-off series, such as the Battlestar Galactica web serials, The Resistance (2006) and The Face of the Enemy (2008), or in the UK, the animated serial, Doctor Who: Dreamland (2009).
The big Hollywood studios and internet businesses are pumping money into some. Yet, self-funded projects are still experiencing success, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon’s Emmy award winning web serial, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog (2008) and in the UK, Severance writer, James Moran’s Girl Number Nine (2009).
New Storytelling – Interactivity and Alternate Reality Gaming
New web drama is moving away from the video-blog format and is in some cases rivalling the quality of film and TV. Some shows utilise traditional writer-led storytelling, whilst others put audience interactivity at the forefront by allowing them to decide what happens next.
‘Alternate reality games’ (or ARGs) are taking the dramatic form in a new direction, with the Sherlock Holmes and The Dark Knight film tie-ins, 221b (2009) and Why So Serious? (2007) along with charity, the Red Cross’s Traces of Hope (2008), for instance, mixing traditional drama with interactive computer game elements.
Online Drama Series – The Future
As the failure of internet hits to transfer to television illustrates, it is often the interactivity and social aspects of online drama that make them popular. The key to the future success of web drama will be its ability to give us something new and different, to exploit the strengths of the internet as a medium and perhaps take some cues from the computer games industry. Whatever it does, online drama clearly is an exciting new market that is not a replacement of traditional drama, but a new stage in its evolution.