Social Dimensions of Television, Movies and Novels

In addition to including elements of play, successful television producers have also found ways to increase the social complexity of their stories:


However, besides the increasing social complexity inside our stories, television producers are finding they also need to adapt to the changing social patterns of their audiences.

Twenty or 30 years ago, we sat in submissive wonder soaking up the magic of Three's Company and Who's the Boss? Today's kids see the screen as an environment to be explored, inhabited, shared and shaped. They're blogging. They're building their MySpace pages. They're constructing elaborate fan sites for their favorite artists or TV shows. (Johnson)

As our stories become more complex and integrate new problem solving dimensions, it becomes increasingly important that media designers consider the full range of social practices people adopt to collaboratively work through those problems and explore story worlds as a group. This is not to say that watching television, seeing a movie or reading a book have not always been social activities: people gathering around a water cooler have long found it natural to discuss the progression of a television plot shown the night before. Rather, what has changed is the levels to which a media designer today needs to take the social activities of the audience into consideration when designing media experiences:

Survivor (2004)—the astonishingly popular CBS show that started the reality television trend—does not just pit sixteen strangers against one another. With each carefully crafted episode, and extending beyond its borders, emerges another contest—a giant cat and mouse game that is played between the producers and the audience. The producers plant clues, foreshadow results, and offer hints. Every week, the eagerly anticipated results are fodder for water cooler discussions and get reported as news—even on rival networks. Survivor is television for the Internet age—designed to be discussed, dissected, debated, predicted, and critiqued.

The Survivor winner is one of television’s most tightly guarded secrets. Executive Producer Mark Burnett engages in disinformation campaigns trying to throw smoke in viewers’ eyes. Enormous fines are written into the contracts for the cast and crewmembers if they get caught leaking the results. And, so a fascination has grown up around the order of the “boots” (the sequence in which the contestants get rejected from the tribe), the “final four,” (the last four contestants in the competition) and especially around the “sole survivor” (the final winner of the million dollar cash prize).

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Recently, educators have become increasingly interested in benefits of collaborative learning pedagogy. However, as many curriculum designers have found, designing activities that take into account the unpredictable nature of collaboration between multiple human beings is infinitely more challenging than simply assigning static learning content. By examining the ways in which audiences in popular culture naturally come together to collaboratively solve problems and explore new worlds, we can glean a powerful model for designing learning experiences.

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