MST3K’s history and the freedom of fans from corporate stalkers

mst3k2_large_580-0On many levels I’m appreciating this oral history of the legendary Mystery Science Theater 3000 just as a fan of the show. While I wasn’t involved in those usenet groups, wasn’t actively involved in trading tapes with others through the mail or anything like that I did love the show, identifying immediately with the humor on it and absolutely aware that what I was watching was incredibly unique. I had dozens of VHS tapes with episodes recorded off of Comedy Central (and later Sci-Fi) that I would watch over and over again, always on the lookout for new episodes to add to my collection.

But there’s one section from the article that I want to call out because it hits me where I am *now* in my career as a content strategist while the rest speaks to where I *was* as a budding geek all those years ago.

It’s this quote from Kevin Murphy:

We always encouraged people to share tapes of the show with each other. But the online thing was born of itself. The whole newsgroup that started was self-generated. We didn’t have anything to do with it.

Compare that to the countless lists and articles and blog posts that have been published about how to make sure your content goes viral. Or how to make sure you hit the front page of reddit. Or how to optimize your headlines for Facebook. Or any of the 7,492 other examples I could list here.

There was a fan base and they found a place that was all their own and used it to share and discuss their fandom, free of corporate or other interference.

Yes, you can say “Well this was before the internet is what is now and so there just wasn’t the possibility for Comedy Central to get involved in or spur those conversations.” But that’s missing the point, which is this: Corporate conversation participation isn’t always a good thing.

Sometimes it’s alright – in fact it’s often preferred – for companies and organizations to just stay out of it these fan conversations. Sometimes these places need to happen where the fans want them to happen and not on the platform where the brand wants them to happen. And sometimes brand participation can actually hurt and turn fans off by the constant “Hey! Look at me!” attitude that’s often conveyed.

That’s a big lesson we can learn from the pre-corporate web, that to paraphrase Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, fans will find a way. And often the worst thing that can happen is for some “stakeholder” to jump in and feel that their participation is always a good thing. There are lots of times it is but not always. And it’s the smart marketing professional that can tell the difference and provide the appropriate guidance.

The Expanded Universe is now non-canon

I’m late to it (the story of this site) but did want to make some sort of comment about the announcement by Lucasfilm last week regarding what has come to be known as the Expanded Universe.

There have been lots of questions in the last year or so about what would or would not be considered “canon” as production on Episode VII gets closer and closer. In fact a few months ago there was the news that Lucasfilm had convened some sort of committee to decide what would make the cut. And now we know the answer: Canon in the Star Wars Universe will only include the six feature films and the TV show The Clone Wars.

That means all the books, comics, games and other material that has come before should not be counted when discussing the core Star Wars story. Instead it will be labeled as “Legacy” while at the same time there are a new batch of books being planned that *will* be part of Star Wars canon, beginning four books starting later this year. Lucasfilm said, though, that while those stories aren’t officially part of the universe they may cherry pick certain elements for future stories. So while the new stories may introduce a character like Mara Jade the talent involved in telling those stories is under no obligation to adhere to what was established about her in the books and comics starring her.


On the one hand this makes sense. Disney is obviously interested in telling more stories in the Star Wars universe, whether on film or in print or wherever and those folks want to take the occasion of a new movie coming out to reboot things in a sense, building out a new universe of original stories that’s more under their control. I get that and can’t fault the logic. I enjoy cohesive universe stories and would be the first one to admit that the EU sometimes was confusingly messy and inconsistent. This writer would portray Han in one way, another in a very different way. One writer would have the universe in shambles and falling apart, another would portray one that’s in the midst of a golden age. It was…yeah, messy is the best word.

But at the same time it’s hard to think of all these stories now being relegated to, if not the junk drawer at least the shelf above the stove that’s hard to reach and you don’t need anything from up there regularly. That’s because, way before even rumors of a prequel trilogy started circulating, those were the only way for fans to get more of a Star Wars fix.

It’s hard to over-estimate how big an event, particularly in retrospect, the release of Heir to the Empire, the first book in what came to be known as The Thrawn Trilogy from writer Timothy Zahn, was exactly. Here was a new Star Wars book at a time when the franchise seemed to be falling into the background of popular culture. There weren’t LEGO sets, there weren’t action figures. There was nothing. This was a drink of water in the desert for fans. It was huge. And that trilogy of novels were what gave things a jolt and began to bring it back to being the cultural juggernaut it is now.

Think about it: Without Heir kicking things off in 1991 – something that must have seemed like a huge risk to the publisher since there was so little happening on the Star Wars front at the time – it’s hard to imagine the Original Trilogy coming back to the forefront. Without something that proved out the continued interest in Star Wars it’s likely we would never have gotten the 1995 VHS remasters (a special moment for me as it was the first time I’d seen the movies in widescreen format since watching them on the big screen during their original theatrical release) or the new line of action figures that represented one of the first big forays into the toy aisle in *years.* And without the 1995 VHS remasters it’s hard to imagine the 1997 Special Editions (whatever you think of them) and without the 1997 Special Editions you don’t get the Prequel Trilogy (whatever you think of it). And without the Prequel Trilogy you don’t get to where we are now. In between that, Heir to the Empire and the rest of the books proved there were fans out there ready for Star Wars video games (I loved games like Dark Forces, X-Wing, Rebel Assault and others) and other material.


So it’s hard to admit, as a fan who loved many of the stories from the Expanded Universe – and who spent countless hours in high school and college debating how those stories fit into the Original Trilogy and didn’t contradict a thing, dammit – that they are no longer official. We all, if I’m being honest, kind of knew that even if many of us at some point considered the Thrawn Trilogy to be Episodes VII, VIII and IX whether Lucas was willing to say that out loud or not.

That being said, here’s to more Star Wars. There will be a whole generation of fans who come to know the universe primarily through these new movies that are coming out over the next several years and whose first book, read to bide the time between theatrical releases they already know are coming, will be one of these new ones that are created to be official parts of the story. No, it won’t be as messy and chaotic as the Expanded Universe fans like myself have been following since 1991. But it will be theirs. And that’s what’s important.

Story of my life

Just opened up WordPress and went in to search for an old post I’d written and discovered nine posts in Draft, half-written and just waiting for me to come back and finish them. They’re all being deleted, though, since they were meant to be timely and that time has now passed.

It’s oddly hard for me to do something like that, delete unwritten posts. I feel like I’m abandoning them and resigning myself to the idea that I won’t be able to complete those loops in my head. That’s tough, tougher than it should be, not because I’m so narcissistic that I feel I’m denying the world the insights that come from me. I know that’s not the case. But it’s because, quite literally, writing about something is how I think about things.

Take the announcement that David Letterman was retiring, the topic of one of the posts that’s being deleted before it was posted. When I was thinking about that after I heard the news it was in the form of my writing about it. I think, in other words, in blog posts or long (or short) write-ups. And many times I’m not sure what I want to say about some topic until I start to sit down and write about it.

That’s all a long, pretentious way to say there’s a bunch of stuff that I deleted before publishing and to mention that yeah, I’m behind on stuff. And that it’s not easy for me to abandon these posts, which will now never see the light of day. But such is life.

Let’s not write Google+’s obit just yet

GooglePlus-Logo-02The social media world has been positively giddy with anticipation, speculation and conjecture over this story, which purports that Google is looking to abandon Google+, at least as it exists today. Much of this is coming from the collision of two groups: First, writers who found a bone to chew on on an otherwise apparently slow news day. Second, those who have been all too eager to see the predictions of Google+’s demise come true and so latched on to the story – which simply connects one fact and a handful of unsubstantiated rumors – as a proof point.

I don’t claim to have any special insights into Google’s decision making process but from my point of view this isn’t the time for the company to abandon the Google+ platform, it’s the moment to double-down on it and start making a serious sales pitch of its virtues to social media publishers and marketers.

As has been covered and discussed ad nauseum, Facebook is on everyone’s list right now over changes to their News Feed algorithm that are resulting in brand Pages seeing decreased engagement, lower levels of Reach and so on. So right now every marketer and publisher worth his or her salt is pouring over metrics on a regular basis either assessing the existing damage or waiting to see the first signs of this change starting to impact their Pages.

But Google+ – like Twitter – doesn’t have any such algorithm in place. And while it’s slowly become more and more widely adopted it’s been waiting for an opportunity to really say “Here’s what differentiates us from Facebook,” with the lack of said distinction being one of the primary reasons for the slowness of the uptake.

So while I can’t argue with the logic of moving some of the functionality to the background and, as some have speculated, creating a new and better version of Google Accounts I also think this is the moment Google needs to come out with case study after case study about the value of Google+; Who it’s working for, where and how brands are seeing success and so on. This is their moment.

Aside from that, any marketing professional who sees a story like this – which reads like half speculation and half a planted hit piece to me – and suddenly recommends a drastic change in strategy doesn’t have their head on straight. As with any change, real or imagined, it helps to know more about the situation before going off any deep ends.

There are a lot of good things about Google+ for brand publishers to consider if they either haven’t put their toes in those waters or haven’t figured out exactly. And I’ll admit I was slow to come around to it as well. But once I started playing around with it it became a valuable tool in the publishing programs I help manage.


So back to my point: This is an opportunity for Google to make the value proposition to publishers that it can be what Facebook no longer is for them. That is, of course, assuming they know it themselves.

Facebook’s gaping security hole

Forget two-factor authentication. Forget all the talk about how passwords are inherently weak and how the future is about biometric access to our online account. For my money, the biggest security problem on the social web is in how Facebook requires you to use the same account to manage brand Pages you do for your personal profile.

One of the best things I and the people I know and work with do when it comes to the brand publishing programs we manage is to follow the simple “don’t cross the streams” rule. That means you don’t use the same publishing tool for your personal account(s) that you do for anything business related. So if you use Tweetdeck for your personal Twitter browsing, use Hootsuite for business. If you use SocialEngage for one account, use Shoutlet for the other. Following this simple advice seriously reduces the chances you will accidentally post a personal update on your client accounts, or post something meant for one client to another’s page. These are the kinds of mistakes that result in lost account or lost jobs, so it makes sense to reduce the odds of that happening.

While you can setup different tools to manage different Facebook accounts – Shoutlet here, SocialEngage there and so on – doing so still requires you to log in with your personal Facebook page, through which you are the manager of any corporate/client pages you help with managing and publishing to. And that means if your personal account is hacked, the perpetrators then have access to all those pages. That’s a huge problem.

By using tools like SocialEnage, Hootsuite and others brand managers are able to minimize the security risks. They can give their team and other stakeholders access to those tools without giving them direct password access to Twitter, so while it shouldn’t be understated or dismissed, the worst thing that’s going to happen is someone is able to post an unapproved tweet or two before someone realizes what’s going on. They can’t change account information or do more harm. Accounts can still get hacked, yes, but the risks of wide-ranging damage is minimized.

But once someone has access to your Facebook page they can do anything and everything to your personal profile or the business Pages you manage. They can post anything they want, they can change account information, they can take down posts and do a lot of very serious damage.

This is a huge, gaping hole in the world of social network security, one that has a huge number of potential repercussions. Facebook needs to take a break from figuring out how to get brands to pay for more reach for their posts and rethink Page admin access, including offering the ability to setup some sort of business-level account that brands can use to manage a Page or multiple Pages. Then and only then can this dangerous connection between the personal and professional be severed to the point that Pages aren’t at risk every time someone, through no fault of their own, falls victim to a bad-actor who has hacked their personal account.