The short answer: an entertainment property designed for collaboration with unknown individuals.
The medium answer: an entertainment property designed to allow audiences/fans/consumers to collaborate and participate in the creation of content in the entertainment property.
The long answer follows…[note: the section "Canonical Control (and why SSW owners still have it)" was added 9/24/12]
Shared Story Worlds v. Traditional Entertainment
Traditional entertainment draws a firm legal line around its content, normally retaining all rights (especially commercial).
Audiences are allowed to consume the content, but with the exception of fair use (which is not well-defined and is considered a legal “shield” rather than a legal “sword”), audiences are not allowed to commercially use content in the entertainment property. Further, audiences are almost never allowed to contribute to official (canonical) content in the entertainment property.
Traditionally, the only way to create official content in commercial entertainment or be paid for doing so is by working on the creative team as an employee or consultant/work for hire.
Shared story worlds (SSWs) are an alternate approach to traditional entertainment, one that offers audiences a way to participate in the co-creation of canonical content and sometimes even enjoy commercial rights over their works.
SSWs grant certain abilities and/or rights to audiences that traditional entertainment has withheld. While these rights are legal in nature, they can be expressed in many creative and narrative ways, resulting is an amazing diversity of types, kinds, and formats for SSWs.
Although there are many examples of entertainment properties that encourage and even recognize audience-created content (often called user-generated content or UGC) – see World of Warcraft for regular postings of fan art set in Azeroth – the defining characteristics for a SSW are the ability for audiences to contribute to the official canon and/or enjoy commercial rights over their works.
From Works to Worlds
A SSW may begin as a single story: a novel, a graphic novel, a movie. It may start as a serialized narrative: a TV show, a comic series, or a movie franchise. It may consist strictly of art (images, photographs, etc.), role-playing game properties, or an animated cartoon. But regardless of the mediums involved or the source content, a SSW is not equivalent to a single work. As its name implies, a SSW is a world. An SSW is an entertainment property robust enough to support multiple creative works but flexible enough to encourage and support audience participation.
A Shared Story World is not:
- Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA)…though CYOA can be part of a SSW
- An Exquisite Corpse approach to storytelling…though, it, too, can be part of a SSW
- Transmedia Storytelling…though transmedia storytelling is a natural complement to a SSW
- the same as a Shared Universe…though even that can be the foundation for a SSW
Interaction is not Participation
A SSW explicitly encourages and invites audience participation, where participation is defined as the ability to contribute canonically to the property, to monetarily benefit from contributions to the property, or both. A shared story world bridges canon (official, internally produced content) and fandom (UGC), providing a structure that allows UGC to be integrated into an existing entertainment property.
Participation is not the same as interaction.
From a narrative perspective, consider the act of watching a movie. It is a fixed story, and no matter how many times you watch it, the ending never changes. This is consumption: I can not affect the story at all.
Now consider playing a video game. It is a fixed set of code, but often, the decisions you make early in the game affect the ultimate path you take to the end. In some cases, your decisions affect which ending you experience. There is a sense that the player controls the experience, but in reality, the player is still limited to a fixed set of code, and nothing the player does changes that code. This is interaction: I can affect the story within a preset array of choices, but I cannot change the choices dictated by the game code.
A SSW allows audiences to consume content, interact with it, and add new narrative threads to the story world (i.e., the entertainment property). Audiences can contribute their own stories, art, etc. to the world, creating new experiences. This is participation: I can add new elements to the story world.
Participation as Canon, Currency, or Both
Participation in SSWs involves a parity between the time, effort, and money audiences spend on their works and the value those works provide to the entertainment properties in which they are set. In exchange for audiences spending their time (and sometimes money) to create UGC set in the entertainment properties they love, SSW owners offer an exchange of value. That value can be to recognize certain UGC as canonical and stamp it ‘official’ or a monetary compensation to the contributor (a flat fee, a revenue sharing option, or some other in-kind gift) – or both.
This parity represents a recognition on the part of entertainment property owners that audiences are capable and willing to co-create value with entertainment property owners in many ways. The idea of a commercial entertainment property that allows audience participation in content generation isn’t new, but it is becoming more prevalent.
Canonical Control (and why SSW owners still have it)
A common perception for most folks about SSWs is that they mandate a loss of control by the SSW creator/owner. Many believe that an SSW results in the entire SSW being dumped into public domain or in the SSW creator/owner having no say over what is and is not official.
This is completely wrong.
While it’s possible to construct an SSW that operates in this manner, it is neither required nor the rule. I have touched on the options and, indeed, the need for scoping audience participation in other posts (here, for example and here and here), but I am amending this definitional post to address this common misconception.
The degree to which an audience can participate in an SSW – the design of the collaborative sandbox, if you will – is determined by the SSW creator/owner. They decide how, when, and if certain works will become canon. The only rights an SSW creator/owner gives up are the ones they choose to share with audiences. Simple as that.
Shared Story Worlds bring together many of the conversational threads about participatory entertainment, fandom, and UGC. They are complex, they can be difficult to scale successfully, and they have a lot of moving pieces. But they offer some tantalizing rewards for those interested in building bridges with their audiences.