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Author Interview: Josh McHugh

Josh McHugh

Josh McHugh is the president of Attention Span Media, the social media studio behind two of the most-watched web series of all time, Dorm Life and Simon Fuller’s If I Can Dream. Josh’s experience at the intersection of technology, media and business began 14 years ago at Forbes Magazine, where he chronicled the brainiacs and billionaires behind the turn-of-the-century tech upheaval. Since 2002 he has been a contributing editor at Wired Magazine and a writer for Vanity Fair, Outside, and shelfloads of other publications. He has also worked as a copywriter for advertising juggernauts Wieden + Kennedy and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. A cable series based on his Wired story “Drug Test Cowboys,” about professional pharmaceutical trial participants, was, for a brief, heady time, in development hell at Comedy Central. Josh graduated from Yale in 1992 with a BA in English. His efforts to dunk a basketball are the subject of Dunkumentary, selected for the Short Film Corner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

You’ve been a print journalist for the past decade and a half. How did you decide to make the foray into online entertainment?

Short answer: a couple of years ago … oh wait, that’s the long answer. Shortish answer is that four stories I wrote for Wired—one of them a long feature that got spiked—drove me to online entertainment. I was looking to get into writing shows for TV, and found a couple things: 1. that show-biz writing was in the process of being radically fragmented by digital distribution; 2. that social technology was changing the way audiences relate to entertainment—goodbye fourth wall. I had some knowledge of what was going on there on a technical level. So I jumped in.

What were those four stories?

The first was a piece about Oscar Pistorius, a world-class South Africa sprinter who’s also a double amputee. The week the story ran, the Sunday Times of London ran a piece about Tom Hanks wanting the movie rights to Pistorius’ life. The Times piece turned out to be bogus. But that buzz, plus the help of the amazing Josh Davis, a fellow Wired writer, led to me getting represented by CAA on my next piece, about professional human guinea pigs. Drug Test Cowboys, re-imagined as a screwball comedy (think Friends meets Jackass), was held up by the WGA strike and later perished in development heck at Comedy Central.

The third and fourth stories were very technical pieces about the tactical black arts of building social networks and the emergence of identity-control technology (spiked—too geeky for Wired!). These last two, incidentally, were the key to what we’re doing now at Attention Span Media.

What is it you’re doing at Attention Span Media?

We’re plugging the audience directly into the show, using social technology to create a new kind of storytelling. One of the really magical things about attending live entertainment of whatever kind is that there’s an interplay between the audience and the entertainment. At a sports event, the home crowd can have a huge effect on the outcome of the game—like when fans unite to deliberately drown out a visiting team quarterback’s play—calling or heckle opposing players. Think about a comedy club—lots of back-and-forth between the comics and the crowd. Even a play, which is less interactive, feels like a more high-stakes experience because the audience could interrupt at any time.

So far, most of what we’ve done hasn’t quite reproduced all of that live-event intensity, but it has introduced something fairly intense that’s not possible with traditional TV: one-to-one interaction between characters and fans. With a pre-produced, scripted show like Dorm Life, the fan-character interaction happens around the core video content, but within the conceptual world of the show. And since fans are coming across the show’s episodes at lots of different times, the ongoing back-and-forth gives a perpetual freshness to the experience.

Now we’re doing something with Simon Fuller’s company, 19 Entertainment, that adds a few additional wrinkles: in addition to building out the social tech world of the show (cast members interacting with fans on FB, Twitter, MySpace), the show is live 24/7, and there are opportunities for the fans that show the most dedication to have live conversations and to form relationships with the stars.

Before we talk about your joint venture with 19 Entertainment, tell me how Dorm Life is more interactive than other TV shows. I heard in an interview that the characters have FB and Twitter accounts, and that the actors themselves are behind them. Is that the type of fan/character interaction you’re talking about?

The key is not simply to have a presence on a bunch of social platforms. Even that takes a bit of managing—for starters, you need to make sure the characters’ info and behavior is consistent across the various networks. Having the actors handle interactions with the audience is ideal, because they’re used to spending time in the characters’ skins. So when you, as a fan, send a message to your favorite character on Twitter or in a comment on Hulu, and that character replies in a consistent, believable way, you’ve just been welcomed into the world of the show.

Some network TV shows are dipping their toes in this area. Mad Men has done a great job of fleshing out the world of the show via Twitter. Or I should say their fans have done it—initially AMC (Mad Men‘s network) tried to threaten fans who were tweeting as Mad Men characters, but some clever person at AMC prevailed and the company did a 180, throwing its support behind the tweetelgangers.

The Big Bang Theory (CBS) is also enjoying the efforts of some really creative and talented fans, who are tweeting as the shows characters, in character, communicating with each other and with the rest of the fanbase. Glee (Fox) does a decent job of sending out in-character tweets, but you don’t see the degree of interaction that’s there in the other two shows.

So now tell me about your joint venture with Simon Fuller’s company, 19 Entertainment.

With 19, we’re designing and running the social media environment around Simon Fuller’s new “post-reality” show, If I Can Dream, about five aspiring young artists living in Hollywood. Major differences between Dream and the reality shows you know:

—it’s running on Hulu, on its own website, and other spots on the Web—not on network TV.
—there is real-time interaction between the cast and fans, using existing social technology and some new tools we’ve designed and created for the show.
—the show is live, 24 hours a day, on this amazing website that lets you pinpoint each artist’s location inside the house, then “fly” into the room you select, giving you the choice of viewing it through any of the house’s 50-odd HD cameras.
—there’s an ongoing audition process, sort of a massive multiplayer game where auditioners and promoters rise to the top to get consideration for a spot as one of the If I Can Dream artists.

What are the new tools you’ve created for If I Can Dream that allow viewers to interact with the cast members?

1. We worked with 19 Entertainment to create a Twitter app specific to this project, but that could easily work for other real-time entertainment. The app takes tweets we filter from the incoming stream of fan questions, cleans up the punctuation, reformats them and displays them on big screens inside the house. The aspiring artists then respond to the questions live, on-camera.

2. We’ve also done a lot with the customized short-link system we created for the show: . Basically, any content that gets shared from the IICD site or the IICD-related accounts on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter automatically shorten URLs into custom IICD links.

Here’s one for you:

That not only makes it easier for fans to share links to IICD content on text-constrained platforms like Twitter or SMS, it also gives us data on which content is being shared and viewed the most—and on which fans are the most effective sharers.

One thing we’ve been encouraged by: raw enthusiasm for the project is just as important as “online influence” measured by number of followers, etc. That means that an IICD superfan with a relatively small number of followers who tweets about the show and the artists with real feeling can be more effective in getting a lot of other people to check it out than a fan with a very large follower base who isn’t as perceptibly enthusiastic.

3. To keep track of the entire fanbase and figure out who the superfans are, we use, the audience-development system we’ve built. We use it to pinpoint all of the conversations related to a show, pull those conversations in and look at who is behind the conversations. The fans who are the most engaged get attention from the show in the form of replies to their comments online, Twitter follows, retweets, onscreen shoutouts or visits to the house.

Not to flog the company name too hard, but attention is the coin of the realm here. It makes for a really effective quid-pro-quo system: bring attention to the show and the show will bring attention to you.

Now that If I Can Dream has been running for a while, what are some of the
challenges you’ve faced in designing and running the social media environment for the show?

The challenge that sets IICD apart from things we’ve done in the past is the fact that it’s happening live around the clock. Like a telethon, but with hot people in their early 20s. With Dorm Life and some other projects, we’ve specialized in adding responsiveness and interactivity to scripted entertainment. But the fact that the IICD storylines are evolving from minute to minute—as the aspiring artists struggle with their careers, deal with each other and interact with fans—has caused us to develop a new skill set: real-time story
editing (19 Entertainment refers us as their “social media producers”).

Another challenge: making sure the superfans continue to feel the love from the show as the overall IICD audience grows.

Luckily, social media helps us distribute attention both broadly (FB wall posts and general tweets) and in a more targeted way (@ mentions and direct messages, video shoutouts).

For example, in addition to the daily live Twitter sessions we produce, we’ve also had cast-offs from each week’s episode of American Idol come to the house for special Twitter sessions. We handle 3 to 5 times as many tweets in the AI castoff sessions as the regular ones; which makes sense—the castoffs bring a chunk of the 15-million-person Idol audience with them. Most of these special evening sessions end up making Twitter’s top 10 “trending topics”—meaning that while they’re happening, they are among the ten
most-discussed phenomena in the world. On Twitter, that is.

But we’ve managed to keep the long-standing superfans from mutinying because we give them VIP status and involve them no matter how high the volume of activity. And as a result, a handful of people who opened Twitter accounts specifically to interact with If I Can Dream now have decent followings and online influence scores of their own.

Some of these former nobodies have developed much better online influence scores than I have, come to think of it. Excuse me, I have to go tweet now.

18 comments to Author Interview: Josh McHugh

  • Very interesting. I'd heard about IICD, but it's neat to hear from someone behind the concept. Thanks, y'all!

  • Ah, Kristan, what would I do if I didn't have you to comment on my posts after I've disappeared for three weeks! I watched IICD for a while one day and got frustrated that I couldn't see everything that was going on, but I think watching the edited episodes is probably more fun. It's definitely an awesome concept for an Internet TV show!

  • Kristan – glad to see you'd heard of IICD before. I have to ask – via traditional media, social media or old school word of mouth?

    If you haven't jumped into it yet, here's the link: – one nice thing is that there are plenty of layers – the edited episodes are probably the best place to start (my recommendation: start around episode 10 and circle back to earlier eps to fill in blanks as needed). Once you get a feel for the people in the show, the great thing is that you can talk to them via Twitter. (another tip: you are almost guaranteed to get a quick response from Ben Elliott: @benelliottlook ) also – check the schedule on the website to find out when the live tweet-in sessions are happening. Enjoy!

  • caroline

    A little daunting, to see how behind i am with tech advances. I thought interactivity with the television or computer was yelling at it. Or better yet yelling at the other person in the room to change the channel and voila, the channel changed as if THE TV HAD HEARD ME.

    thanks for getting me a little bit more up to date. Great interview.

  • Great article, Meghan! It's so cool to read about the inner workings of IICD. Attention Span Media owns the art of online audience interaction. (I think my love of Dorm Life and IICD has turned me into a new kind of monster…the ASM Superfan.)

    And Caroline, even with the ability to tweet directly to the people on my screen, I still sometimes find myself yelling at them! Some things (thankfully) never change.

  • Caroline – thanks for stopping by!

    Lisa – I hav to add, too, that I LOVE Dorm Life. It's a great show. And I had a lot of fun watching IICD, but I don't want to get hooked because I imagine a TV show that's on 24/7 could be very addictive!

  • brent

    [[giving you the choice of viewing it through any of the house’s 50-odd HD cameras]]

    well what project are they talking about in this interview because it sure isnt

    IF I CAN DREAM there have been complaints for months about the aggressive feed dumping and the ever shrinking active cameras around the artists. example if an artists goes from the living room to put a dish in the sink they crash the feed for the living room, and if your lucky they will activate the kitchen but many times this does not happen. They have demonstraited a near virtual environment during a pool party which was awesome but the daily reality is it is so limited that its bairly better than TV and in many ways worse because in "auto mode" the view can randomly switch away from important events to some artists brushing her hair, and in "manual mode" it is very labor intinsive on the viewer reloading the prefered camera all the time IF its available and your not traped in an active room where your artists is NOT.

    making for an overall unplesant viewer expirence for all save the most casual of viewers that have it on while watching TV.

  • brent

    I wanted to add that as far as Attention Span Media goes I think they are doing an exceptional job at what they do for IF I CAN DREAM especially when it gets very chalanging. my primes are twitter and facebooks, and A-span does a decent job of keeping people informed and the formal twitter sessons run pretty smooth and while they sort a bunch of tweets they ones passed to the artists area wide spectrum not just softball questions.

    the only complaint I have with A-span is they can be a bit of a black hole when it comes to asking them questions and they have a low reliability in responding.

    I have an important email that has been sent about a week ago in reply to an email I got from them and still no reply back.

  • Brent – you are resourceful!

    For anyone reading this comment thread, Brent is an IICD superfan who watches the show like a hawk, creates a lot of content around the show by posting comments and screenshots and helps out with a generous stream of tweets and emails letting ASM and 19 know what's happening from a fan perspective.

    So… to address the issue being brought up here, Brent and one of the IICD artists had somewhat of a falling-out. This particular artist objected to Brent's posting of some content that came from an off-show event she was involved in. Brent had the best of intentions, but the artist felt that the posting had crossed a personal line with her and blocked him on Twitter and removed his posts/comments from her Facebook page. Brent has asked ASM to intercede on his behalf, but, regardless of where we come down on who is being more or less reasonable in this particular matter (and no, we aren't going to render an opinion here or in an email, Brent), ASM and 19 feel that the artists should be free to follow or block anyone they choose to.

    This is one of several fascinating issues IICD brings up: with real-time, pervasive access to performers and artists now possible, thanks to social media, how responsive can an artist be expected to be, and how much should an artist be expected to do to keep fans happy?

    I ask you: how many shows feature ongoing drama like this between performers and fans?

  • I'm following this thread, and I love the drama! I'm assuming the IICD artists are the people living in the house? I need to spend more time watching IICD! Very exciting to have direct interaction between the artists and the fans. I'm rushing right over …

  • m++

    How simply brilliant, Josh, to impassion aspiring entertainers early in their careers to submit their dreams in video form to your social broadcast network. The edited bits of IICD are really engaging reality TV with a twist of tight aesthetic. Thanks Meghan for another wonderful interview expanding our insight into the star systems that power this literary world.

  • Josh-

    I found out about it quite a while ago, I think before it actually aired, via a friend in NYC who gets all the latest buzz on advertising, social media, etc. etc. She sent me a link to an online article (maybe at MSNBC or someplace similar).

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  • The Times bit turned external to be bogus. However that whisper, plus the servant of the incredible Kid Davis, a partner Wired scribe, led to me getting represented by CAA on my following sample, about pro person guinea hogs.

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  • Why you seat on this site?

  • The subject of this interview are really interact the audience and with this real feeling can be more effective in getting a lot of other people to check it out than a fan with a very large follower for different platform.