by Andie Petrillo
“Emma Approved,” a YouTube series produced by Pemberley Digital, utilizes a new approach to content publishing that employs multiple platforms to develop story lines and deliver content to more viewers. This multiplatform approach is a drastic departure from traditional adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma. In place of long movies are short video clips, and characters who are given a modern makeover in looks and characteristics. Ultimately, this multiplatform format raises important questions within digital humanities and digital rhetoric. For example, how do people interact with multiplatforms? How do viewers/users remain in the digital space? What are the benefits of multiplatforming? First, this paper will provide a background of the series and examine the theories of Eyman, Mukerji, Knight, Anderson, and Aarseth. Then after observing the number of views and comments on YouTube and the likes and comments on the official “Emma Approved” Instagram page, I will synthesize the data to analyze the success of the “Emma Approved” multiplatform.
Pemberley Digital first began its foray into digital adaptations of classics with “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” in 2012. Reimagining Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a series of vlogs created by a grad student still living at home, Pemberley Digital first successfully captured the idea of a multiplatform and immersive series. Pemberley Digital used multiple-linked social media accounts or “platforms” to deliver content and allow users to follow and interact with each other. “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” eventually went on to win the 2013 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media-Original Interactive Program (“About”). Pemberley Digital’s website states that it is “an innovative web video production company that specializes in the adaptation of classic works onto the new media format” (“About”). Not only does it use YouTube, but also Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, LOOKBOOK, and more to “tell an enriched and immersive story that transcends across multiple formats” (“About”). Pemberley Digital introduced multiple social media platforms for viewers to interact with the cast of “Emma Approved” in character. Along with a Twitter account, Emma had her own personal web blog devoted to fashions from the show and life-advice posts. This allowed viewers to get a closer look at the characters’ wardrobe and purchase outfits as well as read career and lifestyle advice from Emma and Harriet. Viewers could also follow an official Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Google Plus account for Emma.
“Emma Approved” was created on the wings of the success from “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries.” It took the successful elements from “Lizzie Bennett” and transformed them to fit Emma’s story and character. “Emma Approved” was launched on October 7, 2013, and it quickly grew to 72 episodes, each episode “rang[ing] from five to seven minutes in length” (“Emma Approved”). The last episode premiered on August 23, 2014, to an audience of more than 3 million viewers. Creator Bernie Su and his team of writers reimagine Emma Woodhouse (the eponymous character of the Austen novel Emma) as a matchmaker and lifestyle coach “who is filming herself for the future documentary about her life” (“Emma Approved”). Harriet Smith is transformed into Emma’s assistant and Alex Knightley becomes her business partner. I chose “Emma Approved” over “Lizzie Bennett Diaries” mainly because of personal preference. I like the content and format of “Emma Approved” better than the more successful “Lizzie Bennett Diaries.”
This multiplatform approach is a drastic departure from traditional adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Amidst the 72 episodes of plot, there were also six “Q and A” (question and answer) style videos for viewers to ask real questions for the cast to answer in character. This idea began with “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries” and was an undeniable success. The Q and A videos allowed audience interaction previously unheard of beyond a handful of independent YouTube users, lending credence to the story and the Pemberley Digital world, as viewers could interact in close to real time with their favorite “Emma Approved” characters. This dynamic between different social media streams connects to the earlier question about how users interact with multiplatform content.
Multiplatform story publishing allows viewers to remain within the fictional world of “Emma Approved” in new spaces and with new text design. Spaces such as the official website, Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, and Google Plus accounts established and explore their immersive properties. According to Chandra Mukerji, “The Web too is a kind of immersive environment” where “people can shape their identities and exercise agency” (Swenson 46). Mukerji likens this immersion to renaissance labyrinths where people became lost in a world of hedges and statues. Ultimately, Mukerji argues, the web is a new version of the labyrinth where people can lose themselves in endless walls of data and websites and in a deluge of information. This labyrinth metaphor supports my earlier observation about how users remain within the digital space. Within this community on YouTube and other social media, Janeites, or Jane Austen fans, can create their own accounts and engage in discussion with each other. Multiplatforms also allow for staggered content delivery and for other outlets for users/viewers to continue discussion. The official “Emma Approved” Instagram page is set up as if Emma Woodhouse herself is the poster. This allows for complete immersion into the world created by Pemberley Digital.
The new multiplatform setup created by Pemberley Digital is ultimately what I would consider “digital heuretics.” According to Eyman, who borrows the term from Gregory Ulmer, “heuretics” is “the use of theory to invent forms and practices” (Eyman 67). Since “Emma Approved” is solely web-based, I added the digital aspect. Not only is the use of multiplatforms to immerse viewers novel, but the whole adaptation itself is also new and exciting. Before “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Emma Approved,” adaptations of classical works were limited to the world of Tinsel Town. Movies and plays became the only other way ordinary people could interact with the text. With the advent of Internet technology came a new way to view fanfiction texts: the vlog. With each episode of “Emma Approved” being less than ten minutes long, viewers could quickly binge to catch up with the series, or classrooms could show the series in its entirety in less time than it would take to watch a movie adaptation. The decisions made by the creators allow the viewers to easily connect with characters and follow the drama without ever picking up the novel itself.
What are the benefits of multiplatforming? The efficacy of the multiplatform affects composition and the definition of text itself. In “Reclaiming Experience: The Aesthetic and Multimodal Composition,” Aimée Knight examines how aesthetics have changed over time and how the digital affects aesthetics. The term “aesthetic” comes from the Greek aisthetikos meaning “relating to perception by the senses” (Knight 146). Multimodal or multiplatform is defined by Knight as “platforms that move between different modes of interaction from visual, to voice, to touch” (Knight 2).
Multimodal and multiplatform approaches also embrace media convergence. This leads to “deep changes in the forms and functions of cultural and bodily engagement with the world, and on the forms and shapes of knowledge” (Knight 147). The digital aesthetic also encompasses form and content and information and design. According to Knight, Mark Hansen has also argued that “digital media has fundamentally changed how we perceive” (Knight 152). This observation is an interesting notion to consider in our age of participatory culture. According to Knight, these Janeites take and make meaning from the series beyond what the analog text originally intended. They use YouTube as a springboard for creating a unique, multiplatform aesthetic that embraces form, content, information, and design. The ability to embed or link multiple social media accounts to the description of a video allows for users to clearly see and follow through with exploration. Again, this new aesthetic begs the questions of how people interact, how they stay within the space, and the benefits of multiplatform.
Caroline A. Jones and Bill Arning also claim that “aesthetic practices locate how bodies are interacting with technologies at the present moment, and provide a site for questioning those locations” (Knight 152). If Jones and Arning are correct, then it is the combination of the aesthetically pleasing layout of YouTube, the appealing nature of “like” buttons, and the nature and location of cross-platform links, that lead users to follow through by clicking and therefore affect how users interact in the space. In fact, placing a comment section directly below the videos makes it easy for viewers to interact. Knight continues by noting that composition must then consider the aesthetic “as a mode of sensory experience—an act of sensory perception” (Knight 153). This circles back to user-defined aesthetics. YouTube allows content creators to set up their own aesthetically pleasing format. “Emma Approved” is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also linked to other aesthetically designed social media platforms ready for audience interaction.
The genius of multiplatform format also lies in layering. Daniel Anderson’s “The Metaphor and Materiality of Layers” explores layering in the digital. Layers “add verticality” to composing, and “each reading performs and even generates new versions of a text over time” (Anderson 80). The digital often evokes the analog as well in layering. Anderson gives examples of collecting, stacking, and saving. In order to collect my data, I embodied these ideas directly. I collected, stacked, and saved numerical data in order to analyze it. But layering also raises a question as to how we can view the failure of saved data. What if data is deleted, scrubbed, or changed over time? Does this change or nullify Anderson’s views on layering and multiplatform?
Layering also affects composition. Composers of a layered digital space can fluidly circulate content (Anderson 82). This circulation is heavily dependent on what Anderson calls tactile engagement such as clicking, touching, sliding, and scrolling. Layers also “oppose sequentiality, suggesting instead the ability to frame, window-like, numerous items at the same time” (Anderson 84). Anderson also divides layering into three types: levels, stacks, and tracks. Levels and stacks place the materials in space while tracks organize composing around the vertical and horizontal axes (Anderson 87). Finally, Anderson discusses how branching and merging affect composing. Branching and merging shift content from level to level. Users can interact with content at any level. Ideas and content move simultaneously throughout the branches of composition. I can easily call the links within the video description and annotations as the new era of branches. Users can approach and click on any and all links in different ways and end up in new spaces. Depending on how the user interacts with the platform, the content and composition of the web series changes.
Anderson concludes his article with this powerful metaphor:
Moving through these materials, we discover processes and products at every level as versions play out even in the metaphors we string together to point at their composing—layer after layer, like the burned edge of a leaf in our palm, curling in heat magnified by convex glass hovering above the tissue of the two together, receding as we zoom out (Anderson 94).
I close my analysis of theoretical approaches by considering literature in the digital age. Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext addresses some relevant issues regarding digital literature. While he focuses mainly upon computer games and hypertext fiction, his theory still applies to a multiplatform digital interpretation of text. Aarseth explains that cybertext “focuses on the mechanical organization of the text” but also “centers attention on the consumer, or user, of the text” (Aarseth 1). He also considers cybertext as ergodic, where “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” (Aarseth 1). This characterization equally applies to the aimless clicks it takes to find, watch, share, and interact with YouTube.
Aarseth also envisions digital text to be “interactive fiction.” This new fiction takes old or “analog” inspirations and creates a new digital version. This directly connects to my conception of digital heuretics. “Emma Approved” takes inspiration from the physical text of Emma and reimagines it in a twenty-first century setting. Pemberley Digital also uses the prescribed YouTube format and creates a series with multiplatforms. These multiplatforms allow for interaction and content delivery, answering the question of “how users interact.” This is the genius of multimodality and its strength. Not only can longtime fans enjoy and interact with the content, new fans who have never read the source material before can ask questions of other fans and become familiar with the text, answering the question of “how users can stay within the space.” Finally, the applications of multiplatform are endless, which speaks to “the benefits of multiplatform.”
Multiplatform story publishing allows viewers to remain within the fictional world of “Emma Approved” in new spaces and with new text design.
My data collection and the physical data show how people interact with the multiplatforms contained within “Emma Approved.” Because I was unable to gather my data as the series aired, my conclusions are indicative of the trends in data now as opposed to how interaction developed in real-time while the content was new. While I will address this again in the conclusion, one of the difficulties with digital research projects is attempting to be in the right digital space at the right time. In order to collect my data, I visited the Pemberley Digital YouTube page on Monday, October 30, 2017, around noon. I clicked through each video and copied the video count and the amount of comments per video. In order to do so, I contributed one view per video but this does not affect conclusions drawn, based on the data. After copying the view count, I created an Excel spreadsheet to record the video number, the views, and the number of comments. This allowed me to quickly scroll through the data for the 72 unique videos (see Table 1). Once this data aggregation was complete, I created a line graph in Excel to view the trend of views and comments rising and falling over the course of the 72 episodes (see Figure 1). I also created a stacked line graph to compare comments and views in one place.
A month or so after collecting the YouTube data, I began collecting the social media data. I discovered that the website was archived and visitor views were scrubbed so I could garner no useful information from the blog. I next followed the link to the official Tumblr page, and again there was no visible activity due to archiving. This leads me to question why they would archive or delete content that is only about three to four years old. Finally, I settled upon the Instagram account: “emmaapproved.” Not only was this the only data available for another platform, but it was a gold mine of data. I visited Instagram on Thursday, November 30, 2017, around 1:00 p.m. Similar to my approach with the YouTube data, I set up a tab in an Excel spreadsheet for Instagram itself with columns for likes and comments. I then scrolled through each of the 84 posts and copied the likes and comments into Excel (see Table 2). I then created graphs of just the comments over time, just the likes over time, and both likes and comments together (Table 3 and Figure 1). Once this was complete, I put all of the data together in two separate, stacked line graphs (see Figure 1). From there, I was able to analyze the data and connect it to my research goals of discovering how users interact, how they remain in the space, and what the benefits of multiplatform are.
Looking at the data, I discovered an interesting trend. I had previously thought that over time the number of views and the number of audience comments would increase, however, as displayed in the graphs above, as the series progressed, the view count dipped while the comments increased. The beginning, middle, and end videos had the most comments due to the major plot points in play during these key videos. The view count began strong, likely due to the excitement over a new project from Pemberley Digital, and ended strongly thanks to devoted Janeites (Jane Austen fans), and other fans of the series.
The drop in viewership at around episode four in the Figure 1 could be due to Emma Woodhouse’s typically unlikeable character, especially for those unfamiliar with the source material. The dip could also be due to the fact that the series was released before the Generation Z YouTube boom. This relates to how or why users would interact with the content or consume the content. Adults spent an average of 21 minutes per day in 2011 watching digital videos. That number grew to 76 minutes in 2015 (Walgrove). Generation Z (individuals aged 14-25) watches more content on digital devices including digital streaming services (Walgrove). The year 2013 is right between what Walgrove studied but appears to follow the trend of 2011 more than 2015. YouTube was not as profitable for content creators at this time as it is now and was not as popular. I was unable in my research to find any documentation on why content consumption would drop on YouTube due to the high consumption of YouTube in 2017.
As the series progressed, more viewers waited anxiously for new videos to be released. Fans of the series seemed desperate to know how Emma and Harriet fare as seen by the peaks in the graph of viewership at episodes 24, 35, 47, 62, 70, and 72. Once the series reached episode 66 or so, views increased again as viewers saw the series soon coming to a close. The key episodes to the plot such as “Boxx Hill” or “At Last” had more viewers and commenters than “Listening, Again” or “Back in Business.” Also, the comment spikes and view spikes did not directly correspond or correlate. This could be due to the fact that many fans of the series tend to re-watch the episodes that are plot-heavy or exciting and skip over those that are less important or less exciting. This comment trend also tells me that comments were not always content-motivated: the users chose to remain in the space due to a connection to something beyond content.
On the other, hand, the Instagram following grew over time. The likes and comments started low and experienced various gradual spikes. This trend corresponds directly to how users interacted with multiplatform. The posts with the highest likes had 1,034 and 1,082 respectively. These posts correspond to heavy content YouTube posts. The first post is of the whole cast at the Boxx Hill opening event and is a “behind-the-scenes” type photo. The second was posted around the time of the last videos “At Last” and “After All” where Emma and Knightley and Harriet and Martin are finally united as couples.
The ability to embed or link multiple social media accounts to the description of a video allows for users to clearly see and follow through with exploration.
In fact, the second post with the most likes is of Emma in a black and white dress. This post has four comments out of nine that relate directly to the show. One user, “simrazee,” wrote, “[Todays] episode literally killed me [Im] [cryinf] it was perfect.” Another, “elinnerikssonn,” wrote, “[Todays] episode OMG.” Some users even commented that certain outfits are “Knightley approved.” This is a shift from earlier interaction on the page of users simply noting how much they loved or coveted Emma’s and Harriet’s outfits. It is direct evidence of users successfully crossing platforms (how users remain in the space) to discuss content. Just as the Instagram stayed in character, users interacted with the page as if it were Emma herself asking her about Knightley.
Looking at the graphical representations of the YouTube views and Instagram likes, the trends seem to align in a few places. When the episodes aired in real time, they released the Instagram posts at the same time to show viewers a closer look at the episode’s outfits. Emma herself never promotes the social media in the videos, but an end screen with upbeat music contains annotated links to other series and to the social media platforms. This is how users could potentially discover the Instagram account. There’s an uptick at video twenty-five and in post twenty-five on Instagram. There’s a drop in views and likes at sixty-four. Finally, there’s another large uptick in views and likes in the seventies towards the end of the series. These trends show that viewers were receptive to the multiplatforms and more likely to interact on Instagram and YouTube than YouTube alone.
Based upon this data, I can make some conclusions about multiplatforms. First, YouTube allows for many different people to approach the analog text of Emma. Second, multiplatforms allow for an immersive environment where users can interact with each other and with the actors, in character, and that users do in fact cross platforms. Third, viewers/users follow and interact because of an attachment to characters or actors not simply because of content. Fourth, this multiplatform/multimodal format changes how people interact with content and changes composition itself. Finally, multiplatform is effective and is the future for digital media.
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
“About.” Pemberley Digital, pemberleydigital.com/about. Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.
Anderson, Daniel. “‘The Metaphor and Materiality of Layers.’” Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Rodolfo and William Hert-Davidson, 2015, pp. 80–95.
“Emma Approved.” Pemberley Digital, 2018, www.pemberleydigital.com/emma-approved/. Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.
Eyman, Douglas. Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice. University of Michigan Press, 2015.
Knight, Aimée. “Reclaiming Experience: The Aesthetic and Multimodal Composition.” Computers and Composition, vol. 30, no. 2, 2013, pp. 146–155. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2013.04.004.
Svensson, Patrik, and David Theo Goldberg, editors. Between Humanities and the Digital. The MIT Press, 2015.
Walgrove, Amanda. “The Explosive Growth of Online Video, in 5 Charts.” Contently: The Content Strategist, 1 Feb. 2017, contently.com/strategist/2015/07/06/the-explosive-growth-of-online-video-in-5-charts/.
Andie Petrillo is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program.