“Hey guys! Welcome to Connections!” gushes Taylor Hill, a bubbly Vlogger with the title of Lead Ambassador to the new government-mandated social media network called Connections. Connections was built as the social media platform to replace all other platforms thanks to a national call to action against cyber-bullying and information leaks. A contract with the U.S. government saw Connections poised to solve the social and privacy issues plaguing social media today. Nolan Stauf—the wunderkind CEO and creator of Connections—eagerly declared his victory in a personal blog after securing the government bid, and spoke about his staunch commitment to user privacy. With a tamarind martini—Stauf’s signature cocktail—in hand, he welcomed the new platform’s beta-testers, dubbed “Ambassadors,” and shared that the site would be going live very soon. However, not everyone showed the same enthusiasm as Mr. Stauf. Nofilter.
Later, a text message arrives late one night containing a video link of a shadowy woman speaking of her doubts in humanity. She believes social media is more of a catalyst for humans to expand their true perverse and destructive nature.
NOFILTER – A Digital Experience
This was the introduction to pseudonym productions’ “NOFILTER – A Digital Experience.” NOFILTER was described as “A Horrifyingly Satirical, Totally Narcissistic Thriller Starring YOU.” As a six-week interactive narrative rooted in the digital world via multiple social media platforms–as well as text messages and phone calls–the story would also emerge in the real world with live performances serving to further blur the lines between virtual and reality. While this production was active during the Halloween season, the experience was marketed as a spooky satire, with less of a traditional “Boo!” horror story and more of a dark satire of some of the issues we encounter daily on social media.
The Cast of Characters
The experience started off strong. Prior to Connections’ official launch, players interacted with the main characters on current social platforms that seemed perfect for each of their respective personalities.
Taylor Hill’s favorite was her Instagram account where she would encourage players to connect with her and other Ambassadors by posting pictures of themselves doing NeoGa poses. NeoGa was introduced as New Yoga endorsed by Connections in order to help Ambassadors acquire wellness and find balance. The players added their own flare as they latched onto the odd but amusing poses like pinching their elbow or pushing their legs together as if waiting in line for the restroom. Along with daily NeoGa, Taylor also suggested Ambassadors embrace an inspiring Daily Mantra, like one of the early mantras: “Love with every part of your soul.” Soon, Taylor’s mantras would take a strange turn with phrases like: “Lobsters scream not from pain, but from ecstasy.” At Taylor’s suggestion, these mantras were reposted by players along with their own personal interpretations.
Nolan emerged on his Twitter soapbox shouting buzzwords like “Social Revolution,” “Real connections..,” and “…the future is here…,” as well as reminding us of his obsession with tamarind martinis via his tweets. Nolan appeared to be a new-age boy genius who was excited, confident, motivated, and…might have a slight drinking problem. But his enthusiasm alone was enough to draw the audience to him.
And then there was the anti-social media and very ominous “Vokorev,” who decided to spread her skepticism and distrust of Nolan and Connections through text messages—often in the middle of the night. “V” sent players messages slamming Nolan, saying “Nolan and his little staff seem to enjoy preaching about transparency and honesty yet clearly they play with the art of deception…lying is only…human…question is, what truth do you want to see?” Along with her cryptic texts, V would also attach images or videos to illustrate her point of human hypocrisy. At one point, she sent a video of Nolan sitting at a bar ordering yet another tamarind martini. The video glitches as V approaches Nolan, and their body language gives the impression that they know each other very well. Likely a little drunk, Nolan watches as V presents a contract and lays it on the bar. Confused and angry, Nolan seems hesitant to sign the paper, but V compels him to add his signature. It suddenly seems Nolan wasn’t being very transparent after all.
Not Just a Digital Experience
While the initial interactions with these three online were fun, it was the in-person events that really brought the story to life. The live events followed the plot as it twisted and turned players’ actions and blurred the digital narrative with the real world. With events spread across the USA, participants were unable to attend all–but the accounts posted online of the live events allowed other players to live vicariously through their words.
Los Angeles: A Pool Party
Wonderment and hesitant curiosity were piqued as players from Los Angeles were invited to meet at an apartment building’s rooftop for an impromptu pool party. As they were led up to the roof of the building by someone in an emoji mask, they were asked, “Are you the same person right now as you are online?” and “If you could access anyone’s private information, would you?”
Once all players had reached the roof, a man and woman presented themselves as Jeffery and Elizabeth of the Tamarind Martini Society. The TMS were self-proclaimed “Staufers”—diehard fans of Nolan Stauf and his love for tamarind martinis who documented his drunken adventures on Tumblr. After some small talk, the players were brought into an apartment purported to have previously been Nolan’s, led to a shrine of the CEO himself, then led into a bedroom and prompted to reveal their shameful online behavior. As two volunteers told their stories, players were encouraged to declare how horrible the storytellers were for acting the way they had, told to look down upon them, and ordered to “cleanse” the speakers by rubbing an unknown cream on them.
Moving back to the living room, Elizabeth and Jeffrey handed out masks for everyone to wear before stripping nude, telling the players to paint the TMS members’ bodies with “blood” to signify the pain of verbal abuse. During this ritual of sorts, a projection played on the wall—the video V sent earlier of her meeting with Nolan. Upon seeing the recording, Jeffrey was visibly shaken and began shouting that he did not want to be part of this any longer; he didn’t know she was involved. An angry Elizabeth knocked Jeffrey to the floor, sending him scrambling into the bathroom. She turned to us and warned that there’s more to Connections than we initially thought. And then she disappeared as well.
Other Live Experiences
Not only did the live events enhance the tone, they also gave the characters soul. It’s easy to dismiss the believability of a character in a narrative such as this, but the actors brought them off the screen and into real life, like loud and over-exaggerated Taylor drunkenly attempted NeoGa in heels before falling to the ground in a grand spectacle only reserved for a 14-year-old girl who is “sooooo wasted” after two wine coolers at the Connections Launch Party. Then two Ambassadors waited in a freezing New York City park to meet a contact named “H,” who spoke of how strange it is to hear people talking about you when they don’t think you can hear them. Insightful but twitchy H met the two Ambassadors to share a letter from Vokorev which detailed her abusive and painful past, her suicide, and her emergence from beneath the water as V—something beyond humanity. The letter was from before she decided to join those that felt that “the humans…were in need of some lessons.”
Connections: A Social Media Platform
Connections was a straightforward social media site; the platform had a profile picture and header background that were changeable. Groups could be joined and posts could be made to display on a constantly updating wall, called a “Cascade.” Outside of the standard social media elements, some things were unique to this platform such as Wellness Points. Wellness Points could be obtained by doing daily NeoGa and posting pictures of yourself performing the pose, as well as submitting a personal photo entry for the daily mantra. Connecting with other Ambassadors was done slowly, and users were given new “Connections” with the help of an algorithm used to decide who you were most socially compatible with. You started off with only a few, but received more Connections as time went on. Once you were connected to a user, you could private message them, interact on their wall, compliment them in a number of different categories, and rate them as a person with between 1-5 stars.
A Narrative Influenced by You
Now, what totally narcissistic digital experience starring YOU would be complete if you couldn’t affect the story line and make it your own? For example, when Taylor began exploring her past as a cam-girl to get back in touch with her darker side, players were able to test their own limits and affect the narrative. Using the pseudonym “Abigail Vex,” Taylor did live streams where viewers were encouraged to send pictures of themselves taking risks for her enjoyment. If an Ambassador sent in something that pleased her, she would praise them online. As the story unraveled and Vokorev took control of Taylor, players were told to command Taylor like she had commanded them as Abigail. This was meant to prove Vokorev’s point about humanity needing the chance to be disgusting; players submitted degrading orders for the now-broken Taylor that ranged anywhere from dancing with the camera to stripping fully nude.
Another opportunity for players to forge the story: When tensions rose with Nolan’s growing inability to manage his team and Vokorev’s control of Taylor, the atmosphere on Connections grew tense. If you were a notable Vorkorev supporter, you got an invitation to a private group and a chance to spread chaos across the Connections platform via a God password. This allowed the player to access and modify almost any account they wished; they could post as any user, change images, and read any private messages the user had exchanged before the breach. Players were able to carry out large-scale changes to the story by following Vokorev’s call to chaos, standing firm with Nolan in his somewhat misguided quest to save Taylor, or by blazing their own trail. One group of players decided they didn’t want to side with either, instead opting to create #WeConnect, which encouraged unity and morality among the users, and to rise above the conflict.
Participants’ agency really came into play when Vokorev’s minions decided to hack all of the profiles on Connections in order to upload a profile picture of a tamed Abigail Vex along with the Cascade message: “If Connections shuts down, her blood is on your hands.” This audience choice was incorporated into the official narrative when V repeated her followers’ words on her own Cascade. This led to one of the larger ways players could affect the plot: an Ambassadors’ vote. Nolan called for a vote from all Ambassadors to either keep Connections up in its present state of chaos, or take it offline to let him regroup and repair the site. The vote came in, and Connections was taken down. A day later, players watched as Taylor was transformed into a glitching manifestation of the negativity players brought upon each other within the platform. After days of tumult on the site and a day of Connections being voted offline, Taylor died at a live event in Orlando, FL. An emotional Vokorev plunged her fist into Taylor’s chest and ended her torment of being connected to the Ambassadors’ negativity.
This tragedy lit a fire within the #WeConnect movement, as many players felt hurt and confused by the message of guilt that forewarned them of Taylor’s demise. Once the platform was reopened with a more positive spin, a Connections Public Relations staffer named RJ left Connections, but not before outing Vokorev as the killer of an Ambassador. Vokorev took to the Cascade admitting to the murder and demanding users declare if they were “light or dark.” The newly reopened platform allowed Ambassadors to donate their Wellness Points as they wished, with the majority of users donating their points to Nolan, Taylor, and overwhelmingly to Vorkorev. This final push resulted in the last live event where Nolan temporarily resurrected Taylor, who exorcised the demon inside of Vokorev, returning her soul to her human form.
Thoughts & Discussion
This was pseudonym productions’ first attempt at doing an international digital experience, and I believe they achieved what they set out to do. They started out strong and captured the audience’s attention. However, as the story progressed, there were some things could have been improved on. The characters’ online interactions with players didn’t always feel like the same person from day to day, or at live events. It felt like the online characters were stereotypical, exaggerated versions of their live selves, taking away the humanity that we related to. The evolution of Vokorev and Nolan’s characters also had their drawbacks. Vokorev began as more of a victim of tragedy and turned into a full-on villain, contradicting herself multiple times throughout this evolution. Nolan started as a strong motivational person, but fell into insecurity, becoming indecisive and whiney, before transforming into a man with a superiority complex and super-hero powers. It would have been easier to align with one of these two characters had they exhibited more relatable qualities that were not so black and white. It is in shades of grey where values get twisted, loyalties are formed, and passionate debates are sparked.
Another issue that some players struggled with was how they could affect the story line. Some felt like they had little or no chance changing plot points due to uncertainty in the game-play mechanics. This tends to be a common issue within Alternate Reality Games/Experiences, as well as in immersive theater, as there aren’t a set of rules for everyone to follow. Plus, the rules tend to change from one experience to another. Unfortunately, this confusion will continue to be an issue, as it is difficult for the rules to be fully explained without stripping the player of their creativity or lifting the veil on the story before exploration is possible. Until that uncertainty is resolved, players need to be able to test the waters with the confidence that the “puppet master” will set them back on the proper path if a line is crossed.
Time zones also seemed to be an issue of concern. The story played out in real life, the majority of the action on the east coast. While this helps the narrative lean on a legitimate blending of realities, some players in other time zones were put off by new information being released while they were at work or asleep.
Overall, NOFILTER was a uniquely interesting experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. The social media platform gave the story its own virtual location. The actors gave life to the characters, and the player/NPC interactions (both digitally, as well as in the live events) were more constant than any large-scale Alternate Reality Game that I have ever been involved with. I believe this was a very impressive first attempt at an international experience. I really hope pseudonym productions continues to build and grow in this type of digital format, and I will be eagerly awaiting their next event.