How the co-creator of My So-Called Life launched the Web series quarterlife.

How the co-creator of My So-Called Life launched the Web series quarterlife.

How the co-creator of My So-Called Life launched the Web series quarterlife.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 20 2008 6:48 AM

My So-Called Internetlife

How I launched the Web series quarterlife.

Quarterlife. Click image to expand.
Scott Michael Foster as Jed in quarterlife

So I went on the Internet. Took a break from television, from movies, from a career as a highly paid writer/producer/director; took a break from a business that isn't a business at all but rather a modern iteration of feudalism. For here in Los Angeles, everyone exists in a matrix, with those above and below one's own station. You can see it in the restaurants at lunchtime, in the way the vassals and the knights bow obsequiously to the earls and the dukes of the business. And, just as in the days of feudalism, you owe service to the lord above you. Service and the copyright to everything you create. In return he offers you protection—offers but never actually gives it—and enough money to support whatever manors and estates you can afford (an "estate" in Los Angeles is officially half an acre).

So I took a break, because I've never been happy serving anyone. And went to the Internet where I could be free. At least that's what everyone told me. The Internet is the "Great Democratizer" where anything goes! You can do whatever you want!

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Uh—not exactly.

Why? Well, let's look more closely at what the Internet actually is. If, as they say, it's a vast sea of information, the first thing to realize is that this sea is only accessible from certain harbors called browsers, like Internet Explorer or Safari. And, extending the metaphor further, all the information on this sea is contained in boats called Web sites. And then you begin to understand the problem. It turns out that this sea is invisible to us, untouchable, unusable. Our relationship to the Internet is entirely made up of our relationship to browsers and Web sites. And you know what? They suck.

They're boring, one-dimensional, and unoriginal. Who decided that all Web sites should have a top nav bar and be rectangular in layout? Who decided they should abdicate any sense of design and be white and clean and uncluttered? No one did, and that's the point. It just happened, because the creators of the Internet were thinking about other things. Because the creators of the Internet are a very distinct subspecies of humanity:

Boys.

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Geeks, engineers, and boys. And because the DNA of the Internet is entirely male, it exudes the best and worst of what males have to offer. On the plus side—it's brilliant, complex, competitive, audacious in how it's changed our way of organizing experience. On the negative side—it's linear, utilitarian, cold, emotionless, disconnected.

Disconnected?—you ask in high-dudgeon. What about social networks like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn? They do nothing but bring people together. Ah, but do they? I submit that they don't.

Social networks—at least as they've been developed so far—are spectral worlds where the public faces of members interact with the public faces of other members. "Friends" aren't friends at all; some people have hundreds of "friends" they've never even interacted with. On MySpace, people advertise themselves. On Facebook—which comes the closest to actual connectivity—members keep a running commentary on the public actions of people they know. LinkedIn offers a utilitarian marketplace where people can size up their competition while angling for a step up the ladder of success.

Even the most brilliant accomplishments on the Internet are essentially cold. Google has changed the world, but you don't snuggle up to it. YouTube is a giant carnival, filled with freaks and mountebanks, a place to gawk and laugh and get bored. Certainly not a place to feel anything. And there's the rub. Because boys and geeks and engineers—and, by the way, I've spent my life among all three and love all three—don't naturally select for emotionality (they'd rather play video games) or exploration of inner life (they'd rather watch porn) or being in deep relationship with other people (they'd rather build Web sites till all hours), the Internet is singularly devoid of these colorations of humanity.

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The further I've gotten into the Internet, the more I've become convinced that we've explored only a tiny corner of what it can mean and what we can feel there. When my colleagues and I set out to bring our particular point of view to the Internet, we found that most people in the cyber biz had no idea what we were talking about. Our aim, similar to that of our earlier shows thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, was to present an emotional look at the dynamics of relationships and the storms of our inner lives. This time, the form would be a series and a social network called quarterlife.

Web series up to now have been somewhat fly-by-night affairs—cheaply done mysteries, comedies, bikini fests. Some interesting work is out there, for sure, like The Burg, but not a lot, and most of it is simply incompetence and ignorance masquerading as an "Internet style." And until now, no one had tried anything that would actually engage the emotions of an audience. Our theory was that maybe the advertising industry has been slow to invest in online video content because there hasn't been much content worth investing in. So, we decided to tell stories the same way that we've done in our television shows and our movies and see if the advertisers would come. When we first suggested—18 months ago—that we'd put hourlong stories on the Internet, we were laughed at. "No one will watch anything longer than two minutes," we were told. So, we compromised and split our hours into six parts, each one approximately eight minutes long. The experts clucked and shook their heads. Eight minutes was still way too long. Didn't we know that everyone on the Internet had ADD?

We forged ahead into the unknown. Should we premiere just on our own site? No, we were told—we would literally be the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no users there to see it. So, we made a deal with MySpace to distribute the show, which meant they would stream it and give it a lot of promotion on their site. We still owned quarterlife and held onto all creative control—that was key for us—but it would premiere on MySpace. As the premiere date approached, we started to panic. Our site wasn't ready, and we were getting no promotion on MySpace. In the TV and movie world, promotion begins two and three weeks out from your premiere. Here we were, days away, and there was still nothing on MySpace. Finally, in a fury, I called our executive there. He calmly explained: "You don't get it—this is the Internet—people want instant gratification. We'll start promoting your show the day it premieres, and people will go and watch it."

And that's what happened. More than 100,000 that first day. We were off and running. Not the most successful Web premiere in history, but respectable. And our social network—with half its functionality, a very leaky boat indeed—went live the same day, and thousands checked us out; many of them stayed. A week later we had a small community, first in the hundreds, then in the thousands. What amazed me was that our users were exactly the people I'd hoped they'd be: aspirational, creative, thoughtful. We began to see the most remarkable conversations on our forums: "Why be a writer?" "Dealing with generalized anxiety disorder." "Being a Christian and an artist in today's society."

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For a growing number of people, the show and the Web site had come to represent an environment they couldn't find anywhere else, that supported their dreams and addressed their fears, and in which they could recognize their truest selves. Nowhere on the quarterlife site do you encounter the meanness that now permeates "comments" sections all over the Internet. Discussions are honest, sometimes tough, but never cynical. Your charming reviewer Troy Patterson—who said of our pilot that it was about a bunch of people either crying, starting to cry, or having just cried—would be carted away screaming from our Web site: There's not a snarky bit of snideness anywhere in its microclimate.

Of course, the Internet isn't all a bed of virtual roses. Like I said, you're pretty much invisible; no one in the cyber world can afford the $10 million ad campaign that accompanies every new television show. That wonderful term viral is imagined as a replacement for actual marketing and promotion. Don't believe it. There are millions of Web sites out there—chances are you can name fewer than 20. Plus, watching scripted content on the Internet is just not yet everyone's idea of fun. Even the Internet masterpiece Roommates—which as near as I can tell is about pretty young girls in bikinis washing cars—never got much above 1 million views; a failed television show gets 4 million. Criticized for being outperformed by this cultural milestone, I whined, "How can I compete with breasts?" And a few weeks ago, we figured it out. The little thumbnail for our current episode happened to be a picture of the lovely Bitsie Tulloch in her underwear. Lo and behold, two days later we had done 450,000 views. Silly me, all this time I thought making a great show would bring me viewers. Idiot. It's the thumbnail.

And now we're going to NBC—on Feb. 26. We're excited, and apprehensive, since so many people are watching to see if our Internet experiment will work on plain-old television. But we've already won the main victory, no matter what happens: Our deal at the network leaves us with 100 percent ownership and creative control. No producer in the history of television has ever had creative control over a network—yet we're delivering completed episodes to NBC; they haven't even read the scripts.

The goal all along with quarterlife has been to prove you can independently produce high-quality content on the Internet. This is important, because Hollywood's feudal structure is already penetrating the digital realm: New duchies and principalities hold sway—Google, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft—even as the old kingdoms—TimeWarner, News Corp., etc.—try to carve up the territory. You may think I've switched metaphors, from sea to land, but it's the companies that are trying to do that. No one can own the sea, but the land is easy to delineate. Our job, all of us, if we care about freedom of information and ideas and good story-telling, is to keep it all a big ocean where everyone is free to roam.

With any luck, the motley quarterlife crew will do its part.