As Derek Johnson’s post yesterday astutely acknowledged, overflow requires labor and increasingly fans are looked upon as valuable sources of free promotional and creative work. Rarely, however, does overflow rely on fans to be the sources of narrative expansion across platforms, which is what makes The 4400 illustrative of both the possibilities and limitations of such fan-generated corporate-sanctioned initiatives.
In early 2007, USA Network hired the online viral marketing firm Campfire to design a promotional campaign for the fourth season of The 4400. Seeking to energize the series’ fan base to “be… classic evangelist[s]” that would bring new viewers to the show, Campfire created an immersive launch that invited fans to insert themselves directly into The 4400 story-world by creating their own characters and self-narrating as if they inhabited that universe. Specifically, The 4400 Campfire campaign encouraged fans to upload videos and blog about their experiences with Promicin, a fictional drug that either gave its users powerful abilities or produced painful deaths.The Campfire campaign created pro, con and undecided websites where fans could tell their own Promicin-related stories.
The websites attracted 417 registered members who uploaded a combined 72 in-character Promicin videos and stories as well as posting 3576 messages to 202 forum topics. Forum threads offered narrative interventions into The 4400 story-world. For example, a thread titled “Blue and Green” chronicled police officer Aegis’ decision to take Promicin in order to serve and protect his community and included a detailed account of the 48-hour period immediately following his injection, in which it would be determined if he developed abilities or died. Posters to this thread offered Aegis encouragement and advice, including discussions over whether Promicin was perishable (Aegis was not certain how old the injection he found was). They also debated the ethics of super-powered law enforcement officers policing their communities. As fan-habitants collaboratively told Aegis’ story, other subplots developed, including RandomHero’s offer to heal Aegis’ injured partner (Aegis’s partner was badly beaten by a Promicin-positive thug) and concerns over whether certain members were really anti-Promicin spies trying to get Promicin-positives to reveal their true identities and locations. Overall, the fan-generated plotting fit the conspiratorial and ethically ambiguous atmosphere found on the television series. The “Blue and Green” thread is but one example of fan-habitant labor actually contributing to the meanings and events transpiring within The 4400 universe, generating oveflow through creative participation.
The 4400 was cancelled after its fourth season. While fans appreciated the creative participation afforded them by Campfire, their labor did not attract new viewers. While the series continues to circulate on DVD, the Promicin websites have been disabled, effectively evicting their fan-habitants and deleting their stories from the larger 4400 universe. Herein lies the limitations for fan-generated corporate-sanctioned overflow: when the corporation no longer sanctions it, because its promotional utility has expired or the cost of maintaining the websites exceeds the profits likely to be gleaned, all the world-building work done by fans vanishes as well. Paradoxically, overflow strategies can prove to be quite ephemeral, even as their world-building functions seek to add temporal and spatial dimensions to the story being developed.