First, there was South by Southwest, the annual music and interactive festival in Austin, Texas, which just kicked off its 2012 event Friday.
Then there was “South by Star Wars,” a Tumblr, Twitter account and hashtag that, in its third year in 2011, imagined an alternate version of SXSW, if it took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Here’s a sample tweet that pokes fun at the various panels at SXSW and one of the most popular “Return of the Jedi” characters: “Only 10 min til big Keynote by Admiral Ackbar: ‘It’s A Trap’ is just another way of saying ‘It’s An Opportunity.’ “
The popular meme, used by SXSW attendees and nonattendees alike, now has a sequel: “SXSWesteros,” based on the George R.R. Martin book series and HBO series “Game of Thrones,” which takes place in the land of Westeros.
One example of a “SXSWesteros” tweet (referring to the oft-repeated “Winter is coming,” in the books and series): “But Really, Is Winter Coming? – New Meteorological Techniques from the Citadel.”
Jay Bushman, the mastermind behind both “South by Star Wars” and “SXSWesteros,” spoke to CNN Geek Out about where these ideas came from:
CNN Geek Out: First of all, what was the genesis of “South by Star Wars”?
Bushman: It was inspired by two separate incidents. I’m a writer and producer in the hurlyburly field of new media storytelling that is sometimes called transmedia. And one of my major interests is how social media can be used as a vehicle for storytelling and drama.
Back in 2008, I took part in a Halloween Twitter re-enactment of “War of the Worlds,” and it was great fun. That was on my mind a few months later when I saw Wil Wheaton tweet the “Star Wars” quote: “This is Red 5. I’m going in” and instantly get flooded with replies containing other “Star Wars” quotes. A few minutes later, he tweeted something to the effect of “It’s good to know if we ever need to stage an attack on the Death Star over Twitter, we can make that happen.” And I immediately thought, “Yes, that is exactly what we need to do!”
This was only a few days before SXSW 2009, so a plan had to come together quickly. I hastily put together a transcript of the scene from the movie, translated into Twitter language (I was still editing it on the plane to Austin). I spent the first couple of days recruiting people to play the 20 different roles – trying to get 20 people to commit to being at one place at one time during SXSW is not a simple task. On the day of, we assembled around a few tables in the lobby of the Hilton and started tweeting.
I thought it would be fun for the people doing the tweeting, and that some others would get a smile out of it. But I was not prepared for the amount of people who would want to play along, who would pick up the hashtag and keep going with their own versions. Our Death Star attack lasted about an hour and a half, and people kept on tweeting for two days.
I was also surprised – although in hindsight I shouldn’t have been – at where the real fun of the experience occurred. I’d spent a lot of time trying to re-create the lines and beats of the movie as accurately as possible using Twitter lingo, but the real fun was when people went off script, in between the lines.
Since then, I’ve been producing two of these kinds of events per year – one during SXSW and one during Halloween. For the Halloween projects, I’ve done a story inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and one about famous ghosts. This past year, we turned Halloween into Undead Pride Day.
I’ve done three years of “South By Star Wars.” For the second year, I created 50 new Twitter accounts and scripted a re-enactment of the entirety of “The Empire Strikes Back.” It was a fun exercise in adaptation, but ultimately less successful since it was missing the live, improvised feeling. So for last year’s version, I moved away from re-enactments and towards something more collaborative.
The idea was that a SXSW-like conference was taking place in the Star Wars universe, and that anybody from across the huge world of that story could be there. It went better than I expected, with players coming up with hysterical ideas for fake panels and parties and experiences. One of the players registered the domain for forcesquare.com, and started posting fictional check-in. Pretty quickly, many other players picked up the idea, and “Forcesquare” check-ins ran rampant.
CNN Geek Out: What inspired “SXSWesteros?” Are you a huge “Game of Thrones” fan?
Bushman: I am an immense “Game of Thrones” fan. I’ve been reading the books since the late 1990s.
But I’m also a writer working in Los Angeles, and I know how the TV sausage is made, so I kept my expectations in check. The show has been brilliant, far exceeding my wildest hopes. And it’s been amazing to watch this story world turn into an international sensation.
Right now, the familiarity with the story world of “Game of Thrones” is as high as it’s ever been, which makes it a perfect candidate for a collaborative story event like this. And the name “Westeros” fits so well with SXSW that I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it earlier.
CNN Geek Out: Why do you think “SXSWesteros” will also work even though you won’t be at SXSW this year?
Bushman: It might work even better with me not there – I’ll be able to spend more time monitoring and responding to the players instead of sitting in panels or drinking too many bacon bloody marys.
CNN Geek Out: Why do you think these kinds of memes work so well, especially among the geek crowd?
Bushman: They work because there’s a shared language. Among the geek crowd, there’s such a love of detailed story worlds mixed with a really smart and affectionate desire to mock and repurpose them.
These experiences don’t have to be limited to parody. Another project I’m in the middle of doing is a Twitter adaptation of the Mike Daisey monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” – the piece that sparked all of the recent furor over Apple’s labor practices. It’s a different segment of the geek community, and with a different intent, but it works just as well.
I still get the infrequent Franzen-esque curmudgeon who thinks that anything done over Twitter is by definition stupid and pointless. But those people are never going to get it.
I’m a big believer in social media’s potential as a broadcast and storytelling medium. It works much like comic books – there’s a famous Scott McCloud quote about the meaning in comics being created in between the panels. This applies just as well to social media – it’s not just about the content of the individual tweets, it’s about the meaning created when you add them all up.