Sunday, April 27, 2008

TV character blogs

Interesting discussion at work the other day about fictional TV characters blogging which prompted me to do a quick trawl of the web for existing TV character blogs, the results of which are below, ordered by launch date. Whilst UK broadcasters are only just starting to dip their toe in this particular pool, a couple of the US networks have really embraced the concept. NBC was first out the gate in February 2005 with Nigel Blog but it's ABC which has been the most prolific to date, launching ten character blogs since October 2005.

So, the $64,000 question: do they work? Well, that depends on your success criteria. For the commercial TV networks, the bottom line is ad revenue and that means getting eyeballs to your blogs (or their RSS feeds) either to generate direct revenue from online ad sales or to increase engagement with the associated show and shore up its on-air audience. Hard numbers for these blogs aren't easy to come by as most of them are hosted on sub-directories of their parent network's site (of which more later). For those with their own domains, monthly uniques range from the low thousands to a peak of 25,000 for Robin's Daily Dose (see below chart from Compete).

As to whether these blogs pass muster on editorial merit, opinion seems very much divided. Steve Rubel describes character blogs as "a complete waste of time because a character is not and never will be human", although his comments seem mainly directed at marketeers, prompting a intelligent response from Rok Hrastnik on the blog, arguing that blogs are now reaching a more mainstream audience who don't care about "the rules" as defined by the early blogging adopters and just want to be entertained.

Assuming that your persuaded that there's either financial or brand building merit in creating a TV character blog, what are the other decisions you need to make before launching your blog? Here's a quick run down:

1.) Which character to choose

The most common approach is to pick a relatively minor character who is able to proffer observations on the key players without threatening the main thrust of the narrative (e.g. Joe the barman in Grey's Anatomy). Probably the most notable exception to this is Hiro from Heroes who has emerged from a large ensemble cast as one of the most popular characters in the series. Another thing to bear in mind is how plausible is it that this character would keep a blog? Whilst blogging is undoubtedly becoming a more mainstream pursuit, there are still some characters who feel a more logical fit for the medium.

2.) Who's going to write it

Pretty fundamental this one, the most obvious choice being the writers of the show's broadcast scripts who are used to writing dialogue for the chosen character. Potential pitfalls include a lack of enthusiasm/engagement from the writers who are used to writing teleplays for sizeable primetime audiences; agreeing a remuneration rate agreeable to all parties (lack of precedent) and how to handle comments (see point 4). Alternatives include a writer more comfortable with blogging but unconnected with the on-air writing process; the actor who plays the character on-screen (Judah Friendlander writes Frank Talk, Masi Oka contributes to Hiro's Blog and Rainn Wilson regularly scribes for Schrute-Space); or, if you really want to go out on a limb, a bunch of superfans (not sure anyone's gone down this route yet, although I think it would be fascinating to try).

3.) Frequency of posting

The frequency of posting differs wildly on the blogs surveyed below, ranging from the regular-as-clockwork weekly posters to the extremely sporadic. The issue here is managing users expectations and encouraging repeat visits (especially important when that most basic of blog features, the RSS feed, has been omitted). A related question is whether to continue blogging whilst the show is off air, increasing costs but potentially maintaining audience engagement between seasons. The recent WGA writers' strike forced many of the below blogs to cease updates for the duration, resulting in some creative explanations for the bloggers' absence: "Joe and I have been on a hunger strike for several weeks so I haven’t had the strength to blog" (from Grey's Anatomy's The Nurse's Station).

4.) Whether to enable comments

Often cited as one of the fundamental ingredients of what makes a blog a blog (along with reverse chronological entries, permalinks and subscribeable feeds), comments present an interesting dilemma for the authors of character blogs. On the one hand, you have comments which threaten to shatter the carefully constructed narrative universe by alluding to its artifice. On the other, you have comments which seek to engage directly with the character. Dealing with either is fraught with difficulties (do you pay the author to respond to comments in character?) which is why so many character blogs either ignore comments or switch them off altogether.

5.) Where to host the blog

There appear to be three main options when it comes to deciding where to host your TV character blog. One is as part of your TV network site which has the advantage of piggy-backing on existing infrastructure and Googlejuice but demands a greater suspension of disbelief amongst users as the artifice of the blog is made all the more apparent by the surrounding network livery. Another option is a dedicated domain name (e.g. which can help to maintain the artifice that this is a genuine blog and feels pretty essential if you are going to show the URL as part of the on-screen drama (see point 6). That said, most of the below sites with a dedicated domain name have heavy network branding which arguably counters the main benefit of an off-portal URL. A third option is to use a third-party intermediary such as MySpace, which worked pretty well for FX with The Carver ( - 68,000 friends and counting.

6.) Whether to reference the blog in the on-screen drama

Not easy to do in a way that doesn't feel forced, weaving a TV character's blog into the on-screen narrative is another interesting call. Finding a way of rewarding users who are reading the blog with extra insights, without penalising those who aren't is a difficult balance, although somewhat easier in the wake of shows like Lost and Heroes which achieved this masterfully (see earlier post on Why Heroes raises the bar for multiplatform media).

Anyway, enough rambling, here's my round-up of existing TV character blogs. Let me know in the comments or on your own blog if you've come across any others or have a strong opinion about the merits (or otherwise) of TV character blogs.

Nigel Blog

Show: Crossing Jordon
Network: NBC
Active: February 2005 - March 2007
Comments: Yes


Show: The Office
Network: NBC
Active: September 2005 - present
Comments: Yes

Dave's Diatribe

Show: Invasion
Network: ABC
Active: October 2005 - May 2006
Comments: Yes

Natalie's Blog

Show: Monk
Network: USA
Active: January 2006 - September 2007
Comments: No

Margene's Blog

Show: Big Love
Network: HBO
Active: March 2006 - present
Comments: Yes

The Nurse's Station

Show: Grey's Anatomy
Network: ABC
Active: April 2006 - present
Comments: Yes

From the Desk of Detective Sergeant David Gabriel

Show: The Closer
Network: TNT
Active: June - July 2006
Comments: No

Hiro's Blog

Show: Heroes
Network: NBC
Active: September 2006 - June 2007
Comments: Yes

The Emerald City Bar

Show: Grey's Anatomy
Network: ABC
Active: October 2006 - present
Comments: Yes

Barney's Blog

Show: How I Met Your Mother
Network: CBS
Active: March 2007 - present
Comments: No

Frank Talk

Show: 30 Rock
Network: NBC
Active: March 2007 - present
Comments: Yes

Creed Thoughts

Show: The Office
Network: NBC
Active: May 2007 - present
Comments: Yes

Jessica's Reflections

Show: One Life To Live
Network: ABC
Active: July 2007 - present
Comments: Yes

Robin's Daily Dose

Show: General Hospital
Network: ABC
Active: July 2007 - present
Comments: Yes

Kendall's Hart to Heart

Show: All My Children
Network: ABC
Active: July 2007 - present
Comments: Yes

McCallister & Me

Show: Brothers & Sisters
Network: ABC
Active: September - October 2007
Comments: No

"Hmmmm" by Randy

Show: My Name Is Earl
Network: NBC
Active: September 2007 - present
Comments: Yes

Toxic Shark
Show: Casualty
Network: BBC
Active: October - November 2007
Comments: No

Cam's Blog

Show: Big Shots
Network: ABC
Active: October 2007
Comments: Yes


Show: Carpoolers
Network: ABC
Active: October - November 2007
Comments: Yes

Confessions From The Front Desk

Show: Private Practice
Network: ABC
Active: October 2007 - November 2007
Comments: Yes

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Beta invite giveaway

Thought I'd share some beta invite love. If any tickle your fancy, contact me with your email address via either Gmail or Twitter (fabricoffolly on both). And if you're interested in returning the favour, I'm still after a FFFFOUND! invite :)

UPDATE: FFFFOUND! invite now received (thanks Matt!) Will try and keep the below updated as the number of invites ticks down.

Fire Eagle

Geo-location sharing service
Remaining invites: 0

Music-sharing community
Remaining invites: 4

Social aggregator / lifestreaming service
Remaining invites: 9

Live TV & radio desktop player (PC only)
Remaining invites: 7

Browser-based multi-player online game
Remaining invites: 2

Social aggregator / lifestreaming service
Remaining invites: 41

Encyclopedia Britannica offered free to "web publishers"

Neat idea from the Encyclopedia Britannica who must have finally got bored of only ever being cited as an example of how established business models have been undermined by the internet and the cost of failing to respond to that change quickly enough (see below chart for headline traffic comparison with Wikipedia).

The scheme is called Britannica WebShare and is described as "A special program for web publishers, including bloggers, webmasters, and anyone who writes for the Internet. You get complimentary access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica online and, if you like, an easy way to give your readers background of the topics you write about with links to complete Britannica articles".

I signed up (here) yesterday afternoon giving this blog's URL as my "Web Content Site" and by 10pm had received an email confirming I had been granted access. It's not 100% clear what their definition of a web publisher constitutes although the registration form has a disclaimer at the bottom stating "This program is intended for people who publish with some regularity on the Internet, be they bloggers, webmasters, or writers. We reserve the right to deny participation to anyone who in our judgment doesn’t qualify" and the FAQ advises that "If you go online and start a blog with one post just to get a free subscription to Britannica, we may say no".

In addition to unlimited personal access to the Encyclopedia, the WebShare initiative also encourages publishers to share the love by linking to individual articles which readers can access without being able to then move laterally through the site. So I can point you at this recently added article about Beck, which you can access, but to browse further you'd need to register for your own account.

They've also hopped on the widget bandwagon, offering embeddable 'clusters' of thematically grouped articles - below is their US Presidents widget (full list of available widgets here).

Whilst it may ultimately turn out to be too little too late for the EB, it's encouraging to see an 240 year old publishing company implement a fairly major rethink of its strategy and open up its content to the very people whose Wikipedia contributions have contributed to its decline.

My only criticism would be how poorly (if at all) the pages render in Firefox and Opera on a Mac. Sort it out guys.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Social media as popularity contest

The results of Mike Butcher's 'who will be BBC FM&T king' poll on TechCrunch UK got me thinking about the extent to which popularity dominates behaviours around social media online, for, as Jemima Kiss intimates on the Guardian's digital content blog, the final list is more of a reflection of the relative online profile/popularity of people publicly associated with BBC Future Media, than an assessment of their suitability for the job in question. Which is fine and probably what you'd expect from a poll on a tech blog such as TechCrunch.

What's interesting to me though is how this overt popularity contest is an example of a much wider trend within online social media. Let's start with Facebook, where the number of 'friends' you have is not without consequence. As Robert Scoble pointed out at the Next Web Conference in Amsterdam, this is partially due to the fact that the quality of your experience on social media sites is, up to a point, determined by how many 'friends' you have (i.e. no friends and it's not a whole lot of fun).

However, at least for some users, the number of 'friends' they have has acquired a far greater importance as a signifier of their status or popularity. When Facebook was first taking off in the UK, I remember seeing a number of status updates (perhaps a telling phrase?) trumpeting the passing of a major friend milestone or bemoaning their inadequate friend count (although researchers were predictably swift to ascertain that "while people perceive someone who has a high number of friends as popular, attractive and self-confident, people who accumulate 'too many' friends (about 800 or more) are seen as insecure" (see Guardian article).

Of course, it's not just about raw numbers. The roll out of Facebook's developer platform enabled third-party developers to tap into the long-tail of people's popularity neuroses. It's no accident that amongst the most popular Facebook apps are Top Friends, Compare Me, Circle of Friends, Friends for Sale, Hotness and Best Friends. Compare Me is a particularly fine example, sending you regular email updates to inform you that you've just jumped two places in the sexiness rankings but dropped one against funniness or appending a list of your four most kissable friends...

Whilst the drive for popularity might be most obviously manifest in thoroughbred social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, it is also present, albeit less conspicuously, in sites where social objects (e.g. videos, photos, bookmarks) are nominally the focus. Similarly, the prominence given to 'number of followers' (interesting terminology again) in Twitter is instructive, as is the existence of services such as TwitDir and Andrew Baron's recent (abortive) attempt to auction his Twitter account (with followers, naturally).

Whilst on one level, social media's obsession with popularity is just a mirroring of the basic human dynamics at work in any playground or office, there's something about the measurability of online popularity which is particularly seductive. Whilst the social pecking order of a real-world group may be well understood, it is rarely made explicit, unlike online communities where public rankings are a stock in trade. The same harsh assessments of people's desirability have been silently taking place in bars and nightclubs for years but without the results then being posted up on the wall, as they are with online stalwart Hot or Not and its legion of imitators.

The trend certainly looks set to continue, not only because it taps into a very basic but powerful element of human psychology (ego!) but also because it adds a competitive and potentially addictive element to sites which consequently increases their stickiness and grows advertising revenue. Everyone's a winner! (except, that is, for the losers...) (Ok, I'm just bitter I didn't appear on the TechCrunch list ;-)

Photo: Shahid Sarker. Used under licence

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The mixtape reborn

A couple of weeks back, whilst visiting my parents, I ventured into the loft above their extension (basically a repository for all the crap I didn't want to bring with me to London after university but wasn't yet ready to throw out). In amongst the old computers, Whizzer and Chips annuals and back issues of PC Format I found a shoebox of cassette tapes, a good proportion of which were mixtapes, some from friends, some from ex-girlfriends, some of my own composition. Whilst I now lack the means to play them (having bid farewell to my hi-fi separates in a concession to the protocols of cohabitation), I couldn't quite bring myself to part with them just yet because of the instrumental role (no pun intended) that they played not only in my musical education but also in my emotional development during those formative years.

So, what's the modern analogue - sorry, equivalent - of the C60 mixtape? Well, if a couple of new startups get their way then it'll be the, er, mixtape...


Only two weeks old, Muxtape is the brainchild of New York-based web designer Justin Ouellette and has been generating a fair amount of heat on Twitter and in the wider blogosphere. It's Flickr-esque both in its pared down design and ease-of-use, although it lacks some fairly basic functionality such as embedding and you can only upload a single 12-track mix against each username. Unfortunately it's real USP (allowing you to upload MP3s from your own collection) is also likely to prove its Achilles' heel once the copyright lawyers catch up with it. Here's my mix of 10 awesome tracks you probably don't own but should: - get it while it's hot there.


Just one day older than Muxtape, Mixwit is hoping to sidestep the legal issues by pulling in its music from the wider web via SeeqPod and SkreemR (you can choose which to search via a dropdown). Whilst the catalogue of these search engines is potentially limitless, tracking down the exact version you're after can be a time-consuming and frustrating business and listed tracks are frequently 'no longer available' when you come to add them to your mix. On the plus side, your mixes (represented as a cassette tape, 'natch) can be visually styled and easily embedded. If Muxtape appeals to the geek elite then this one's more for the kids.

Other options include Mixaloo (which I reviewed in my latest round-up of new (to me) music apps) and the Fuzz Mixtape Creator (a.k.a. the Deck-O-Rator - no, really). Alternatively, if you're too lazy to pick the tracks yourself, why not make a request to the 'robots' powering the Tiny Mix Tapes Automatic Mix Tapes Generator or enlist the help of your friends using the Project Opus Mixx Maker Facebook app.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

5 lessons I've learnt from blog stats

Prompted by recent stats-related posts from Nick, James, Robin and Jemima and the imminent arrival of my 70,000th unique visitor (it could be you :), I thought I'd publish this blog's traffic stats for the first time and share five things I've learnt from them since I signed up for the rather marvelous StatCounter back in April 2006.

1.) In space, no one can hear you blog (it takes time to grow an audience)

As the above chart illustrates, my first year of blogging was essentially just me shouting down a well. Admittedly I wasn't posting very often and when I did, it was in a rather scattershot fashion, without any real unifying theme beyond the strange meanderings of my mind. Well the latter hasn't really changed any, but I did start posting more often and towards the end of 2006 traffic started rising and has continued trending in that direction ever since (recent weirdness excepted - see points 4 and 5). The moral of the tale: keep writing (regularly) about what you find interesting and eventually some like-minded souls will find your blog.

2.) Small can be beautiful (think quality not quantity)

Whilst there is unquestionably the potential for addictive/compulsive behaviour around anything which can be charted, be wary of actively chasing extra visitors in order to keep the graph heading upwards. Small can most definitely be beautiful when it comes to blog readerships (or any other online community for that matter) and a huge influx of new visitors can easily cause you to question if not the wisdom, then certainly the desirability, of crowds. Last summer's round-up of DIY live video streaming services earned me not only lots of new visitors but also what remains my all-time favourite comment on this blog: "You are on serious crack. You run a Mickey Mouse blog and your biased rating system proves it." (Thanks for the feedback, do come again...)

3.) A subscriber in the hand is worth two in the bush (check your FeedBurner stats)

Just like the print magazine business, a key measure of success for any blog is its subscriber base. Whilst there will be a proportion of regular readers who like to keep it old school and check back for new posts by visiting the blog, the vast majority will subscribe to the RSS feed instead. As a result, your feed stats can be more meaningful than your site stats in tracking the growth (or otherwise) in your regular readership. The below chart shows how subscribers to this blog's FeedBurner feed have recently overtaken daily unique visitors to the site (although this does coincide with a change in domain name which has reduced traffic to the site - see point 4, below).

4.) Changing domains can lose you traffic (but is worth it in the end. probably)

Despite reassurances from Google that all traffic to my old blogspot address would be seamlessly forwarded onto my .com domain, the stats tell a different story, with unique visitors dropping from 1,500 to 680 in the week following the move. Unfortunately the longer-term impact of the move is being masked by a comparison piece I wrote on lifestreaming services which caused traffic to spike to a record 2,000 visitors a couple of weeks later.

5.) Being Dugg isn't all that (beware the locust effect)

I take a perverse pleasure in reporting that my most dugg post to date (the aforementioned post on lifestreaming services) received a measly 35 diggs. Whilst Digg, StumbleUpon, reddit, et al. can be a boon for introducing new readers to your blog, they can also herald something of a false dawn, more akin to a swarm of locusts, who arrive on masse, eat all your bandwidth and then piss off, never to be seen again.

Right, that's me done. Anyone else care to share their learnings from blog stats...?

Related fabric of folly posts:
Towards a more meaningful conception of online performance