Crowdsourced storytelling has been part of the internet since the first fan-fiction writers shared their stories online. But now major media producers are incorporating audience interaction and creativity into their gaming, movie and TV releases, and we’re seeing a new era of collective creativity going mainstream.
The demand for shorter, episodic and curated content is growing as consumers seek interactive engagement and a "pick and mix" approach to narratives, time commitment and economic models. Co-creation opportunities are vast as new generations of users want to be a core part of the process, not just the end point.
Netflix's new era of fan fiction
This crowdsourced storytelling trend can be seen playing out on fiction-writing platform Wattpad, which has a reader base of more than 65 million; these readers help brainstorm, develop and shape stories with chapter-by-chapter feedback. Wattpad has spawned hit movies and shows, including Netflix’s romantic comedy The Kissing Booth (one of 2018’s most watched – and rewatched – pieces of content), and in 2019 is set to "professionalise" its creators with the release of Wattpad Next, which allows readers to support writers directly by purchasing "coins" to unlock their stories.
Meanwhile, numerous moves are being made to increase the impact that people can have on the entertainment they consume; Netflix released its choose-your-own-ending hit Bandersnatch (part of Black Mirror) at the end of last year, creating a fan furore. And online games such as Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds have popularised the model of a game as an ever-evolving experience; they allow creators to continue to tweak, upgrade and develop games based on real-time user feedback. This model has been adopted by big publishers; tactical shooter game Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege was unsuccessful upon initial release but, following a series of ongoing updates, became a huge commercial and critical hit.
There are a number of wider drivers behind the emergence of this trend. First, media consumers are increasingly craving collective experiences and immersion. Younger generations (and Generation Z in particular) are rejecting passive experiences in favour of shared ones; the current bastion of optimised community entertainment is esports, which see huge groups of fans gathering to watch online games played in a physical space by their heroes.
New collective experiences
Another driver of this trend is the idea that the discussion and consumption of media are becoming increasingly blended; for digital natives, the idea of watching or reading something and waiting until it finishes to discuss it is increasingly rare. Apps such as TikTok (a social media app for creating and sharing videos as well as live broadcasting), livestreaming platform Twitch and 2018’s surprise hit, quiz app HQ, all turn entertainment into an inherently social experience. Similarly, apps such as Discord – a messaging platform made for PC gamers to chat without disrupting the viewing experience – are helping viewers create seamless social experiences where the original media isn’t delivering.
This trend has a number of implications for brands and business, and not just those operating within the media landscape. When you consider that businesses involving customer communities see a 33% higher growth rate than their peers, it’s clear that crowdsourcing isn’t just a nice gesture; it’s commercially powerful. Building authentic collaboration into your media business model not only allows for more potent creative development, but forges links between businesses and community users.
And just as original and user-generated content are intermingling, so too are the worlds of financial and social networks. Social selling site Depop grew out of indie magazine PIG, which was created as a marketplace for its hyper-cool readership to sell clothes to each other. If you have a community, following or readership built through content, is it time to enable your fans to buy, sell and trade there?
Bronwen Morgan is head of content at Flamingo