User comments and video responses directly influence the life of one young man in this series where viewers and star are “connected.”
If we’re talking about sitdotcoms that were born on the web, have flourished on the web, and are so inseparably linked to the web that they could not function in a different medium, then we have to talk about ichannel.
Imagine waking up one day with the feeling that you’re being watched. Slowly you discover that wherever you go, there’s a hidden camera following you, quietly judging you, and you can’t escape its discerning eye. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and there sits a handheld PDA displaying the words: you are now connected. Well, this is the world of ichannel, a highly innovative and collaborative web sitcom that launched about 8 months ago and is now on its 19th episode.
The story revolves around “I,” the nameless, unwilling star of a rogue video blog about his life. True this may seem like a Truman Show/Ed-TV clone, but Craig DiFolco, ichannel’s writer and director, has successfully built upon these static works of fiction and brought this 1984-esque genre into the fast-paced, interactive world of the web. Yes, it’s still fiction, but it’s definitely not static.
The show begins with I fighting his audience, begging us to stop watching him because he says he’s not interesting, but slowly he gets his bearings, just as we, the audience, also begin to feel comfortable with the show’s conventions. Eventually I begins to embrace his odd predicament, or at least he complains about it less. Here’s the first episode so you and I can get acquainted:
At the end of each episode, viewers are invited to “connect with I,” by submitting text comments and video responses, which in itself is nothing new. But it’s the way that the show has integrated these user comments into future episodes that makes ichannel truly unique and feel much more collaborative than your average sitdotcom.
After receiving his PDA, at first only the omniscient storyteller is able to talk to I. But soon the narrator asks, “Want some advice?” and that’s when user comments start appearing below the action – actual comments submitted by subscribers to the show on Youtube. I even sometimes watches his video responses on his PDA.
And not all comments are flattering to the series. I was surprised to see a negative comment pop up on the show every now and again, such as when viewers began to think the premise was getting stale. At the end of Episode 9, one viewer comments, “We get the point about you not wanting us to watch, take the story forward and do something else.”
And right after this, the series changes drastically by introducing a new character that the audience can follow. Did the user comment spur on this change of plot or is the show simply justifying its decisions based upon this user comment? Eh, I’m not sure it actually matters.
As the show becomes more popular as user comments become more prevalent, they begin to serve as a handheld, virtual conscience for I, giving him advice, telling him when he’s being lame, warning him against doing something stupid while he’s drunk, etc. But just like a true inner monologue, comments keep pulling I in different directions.
For example, in Episode 13, I has a drunk ex-girlfriend upstairs in LA while his current girlfriend is calling him from NY. At first, comments persuade I to go upstairs and tell his ex that he still has feelings. “Do you really think we believe you don’t still love her?” “Go upstairs and tell that girl you still like her. Be a man for a change.” But right when he’s about to tell her, he gets a new comment: “Don’t do it bro! You’re rocking the boat and forgetting about a great girl back in NY!” It’s sort of like “Herman’s Head” on speed.
The fact that I is actually listening to our advice makes us feel more responsible, not only for his well-being but for moving the show forward in general. This is what a true web sitcom should feel like – a collaborative world where a humble user feels like he can affect real change, ever so slightly.
But as one viewer comments in Episode 18, “I liked when not as many people knew about this.” And I nods in agreement. As the show gets more and more popular, will individual users feel less and less able to affect I’s world? We’ll see.