Thursday, June 02, 2005

"Lost:" The Curious Case of the Viral Website Which Might Actually Be a Fan Website

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Back in February, I made the following prediction during an episode of my short-lived podcast: That as more and more companies turn to viral marketing to promote their products (that is, underground activities such as fake websites and company-sponsored "anti-company" campaigns), it's going to become easier and easier for actual customers to make their own campaigns for the company as well (either pro or anti), with a growing amount of the general public confused over whether the campaign is "real" (i.e. sponsored by the company) or "fake" (sponsored by customers). And now just three months after that prediction, we actually have our first example - the enigmatic and delightful driveshaftband.com, a supplemental site to the weirdo ABC television hit "Lost."

It's purportedly a fansite for the platinum-selling British band "Driveshaft" - which, as followers of the show know, currently counts its bass player as one of the marooned survivors on the freaky black-smoke-huffing island we've all come to love. And indeed, the site is insanely exhaustive in its details, including an downloadable audio interview with the bass player's brother (another character that's appeared on the show, via flashbacks), photos from the band's various live performances, a weekly blog from one of the band's roadies, even Kurt-Cobain-style tributes to the bass player sent in by fans. And, like all great viral websites, driveshaftband.com also seems to contain hidden information about the show that one cannot get from the episodes themselves - such as the tidbit that American officials have been examining the flight manifest of the downed plane since the accident, and have discovered that several of the passengers listed have no record of actually existing (no IDs, no work history, no tax records, etc). And considering that there actually is a viral website out there officially sponsored by ABC (oceanic-air.com, which actually does have all this weird-ass s**t hidden in its pages relating to the show, and which "Lost" fans absolutely must visit), many people have just assumed that driveshaftband.com is yet another officially-sanctioned viral site, and that the tidbits we read there really are coming from the show's writing staff.

But wait - is it an officially-sanctioned site? Examine the evidence:

- The shots of the band playing live are actually vidcaps from one of the flashback sequences on the show;

- The site claims that the bass player has been missing for nine months now (that is, the length of time the show has actually been on the air), although according to the show itself, season 1 only covers 40 days;

- The site has a guestbook that the general public is allowed to sign, which includes numerous references to the television show, breaking the illusion that the site is "real" (a big no-no among viral marketing campaigns);

- And perhaps most telling, the site is peppered liberally with curse words, including lots of references to the F-word. And in the times we live in, I can't imagine in a million years that ABC would let a viral site be peppered with F-words, no matter how tangentially the site might be related to them.

You see my point, though, right? This, I think, is the first time in history that fans have created a "fake" site so convincing that people are still debating whether it's officially sanctioned or not, months after it first went online. And since one of the cardinal rules of viral marketing is that the company can't admit in public that they're the ones behind the viral marketing, it may be a long time indeed before we get a definitive answer. This is simply going to become a bigger and bigger issues over the next couple of years, as more and more companies turn to viral marketing to promote themselves, and the fans get smarter and smarter about creating viral campaigns too. As this example shows, the potential for sticky situations is high when it comes to viral campaigns, and especially the potential for fans putting words into companies' mouths that they don't want in there. It'll be interesting, I think, to see what happens in the future when it comes to company/customer relationships in the world of viral marketing.

For those who don't know, by the way, there is a plethora of supplementary material on the web for "Lost," much of which helps explain the subtle details embedded within each episode, many of which you might never discover on your own. (Here's one really good example - it's been discovered by viewers now that at least six of the characters have Chinese symbols somewhere on their bodies, either as a tattoo, necklace, or design on their clothes. Well, some smartypants actually sat down with vidcaps and translated them all into English, and it turns out that they each stand for a specific personality attribute that can be directly applied to that character in question. Man, that "Lost" writing staff sure are a bunch of sneaky little f**kers!) A great resource for finding all this crap, in my opinion, is lostlinks.net, which I encourage all fans of the show to check out; they have hundreds of vidcaps from telling moments of the show, behind-the-scenes videos, JPEGs of the crazy French woman's maps, even a comprehensive list of every single reference in the show to the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 (and there are hundreds of them, as you can imagine).

And finally, two little pieces of trivia for "Lost," for those who don't already know: 1) At $13 million, it was the most expensive television pilot in history; and 2) with 130 foreign markets airing the show this year as well, it's also the most widely simultaneously-watched television show in history. Um, can you tell I kinda like the show? Jeez, I'm such a dork!

p.s. For those who miss listening to it, I am going to be doing my podcast again - just as soon as those damn programmers over at Odeo actually open for business, that is.