What to do with Wikis? Using the Internet to Watch TV.

As an avid viewer of the ABC television series Lost, I first found my way to the wiki site Lostpedia sometime during its second season, not as a narrative scholar, but as an admittedly confused viewer and fan. The show was a guilty pleasure I looked forward to once a week, and the website was a way to extend that pleasure while waiting for the next episode. Though I remained a “lurker,” never contributing to the wiki myself, I took great joy in mentally arguing with its contributors as I sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed with the theories and assessments they contributed.

Since that time, Jason Mittell’s scholarship concerning what he labels “Complex TV” and “Forensic Fandom” goes a long way in defining both the way television viewing has changed over the past few years and the activity in which I was engaged as a viewer of Lost. He explains how multiple shows now “convert many viewers into amateur narratologists, noting usage and violations of convention, chronicling chronologies, and highlighting both inconsistencies and continuities across episodes and even series” ("Complexity in Context," paragraph 51).

Within this context of the evolution of television, the question that I keep returning to is how and to what extent narrative studies can utilize the wealth of reception data that these wiki sites continue to generate. By definition, wiki’s are collectively constructed encyclopedic resources. As such, they reconstruct storyworlds originally presented through other media such as television and film, or collect information concerning transmedial storyworlds that unfold across multiple media platforms such as video games, books, television and film.

On the one hand information compiled on these sites has tremendous potential to shed light on the process of how fans collectively configure and then reconfigure narrative elements. For example, Smash.wikia.com is a wiki devoted to the not-so successful NBC series Smash. Even so, the wiki site maintained an active participant base. The show featured a story within a story as it chronicled the production of two fictional Broadway musicals. The second, entitled Hit List, was said to be an original composition by one of the characters. Neither musical was ever presented on the show in its entirety, and songs were often presented out of order. In response, in the case of Hit List, the site history shows how fans left gaps in the reconstruction of the plot an order of songs, only to return with later episodes to revise their understanding of the musical and reconfigure the song order and the surrounding libretto.

On the other hand, as Jason Mittell has also previously argued (2009), wiki sites do not just report facts established in the show, but also become sites of creative storytelling in their own right. For example, on the same Smash wiki, after the show was cancelled one admin contributors with the username Wicked.Renthead-Gleek published his own version of the libretto which he then tweaked with the help of comments from other participants and references to the show.

Still, there are problems in researching fan wiki’s that need to be addressed. First, as with any research that deals with online anonymous forums, to what extent participant statements can be taken at face value is difficult to determine. Instead, the question we must ask is does it matter whether one participant’s theory or idea is genuine if, regardless of their intent, it shapes the way a lurker like me configures the storyworld.

The second issue is the fact that nothing shuts down debate on sites quicker than a definitive statement from a show’s creator such as Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) or Shonda Rhimes (Grays Anatomy). As an academic this is often frustrating. I am sometimes baffled at the conflicted nature of these sites in that fan participants who seem to revel in speculation and their own creativity will equally yield to the creator’s expressed intent when provided.

Even so, though I do not have hard and fast answers to these questions, I continue to see fan wikis as both an untapped resource for narrative studies and a new mode of storytelling in its own right.


Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, pre-publication edition (MediaCommons Press, 2012-13).

--“Sites of Participation; Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia.” Transformative Works & Cultures; 3 (2009). Web. 29 March 2011.


Image on front page by Aashnik and found on Lostpedia.


Laura, you highlight some interesting points in regards to the ways contemporary audiences interact actively with narratives. I will admit to also being a "lurker" on fan sites, often for shows that found little mainstream success (the names of those shows will be withheld to preserve my dignity - ok, ok, Legend of the Seeker is one example). Your example of Smash, and my experiences with campy, less popular, instantly canceled shows (Seeker shockingly got two seasons), made me wonder how we might theorize those efforts of viewers who both try to "save" their shows (Firefly is an obvious example and exception) and that may use these wiki spaces as a means of preserving a narrative that was found to be unprofitable and thus discontinued. In the case of Seeker, a lengthy book series existed first, but many viewers pressed forth, writing whole "episodes" drawn from the television adaptation.

You also mention that you believe this is a "new mode of storytelling in its own right." Does it have any historical precedence?

Finally, I was struck by your claim that you were at times frustrated when "fan participants who seem to revel in speculation and their own creativity will equally yield to the creator’s expressed intent when provided." I think this is an interesting line of thought to explore further. In a non-academic manner, I'm often delighted when author figures offer definitive answers; to me it feels like learning the end of mystery novel. In some ways, all the creativity and speculation is a guessing game; it adds to the experience of the narrative and is not erased when a "top-down" assertion is made. Another thought that occurred to me was that perhaps because those figures have a much wider audience than the typical fan, perhaps fans feel obligated to concede that authority due to sheer numbers, or even the lingering sense of hierarchy afforded the author figure who initially created the universe the fans are playing in. 

Intriguing stuff. I need to go check my Dr. Who fan page now.

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