There’s been a bit of fuss in the blogosphere lately over the issue of character blogs: weblogs that are “written” by a fictional character. That is, the entries are presented from a rather allegorical perspective, as opposed to a realistic one.
Some very smart people (such as Steve Rubel) hate character blogs. Others like them, or at least aren’t inherently opposed to them. Personally, I think character blogs have their uses depending on motives, goals, topics, and (most of all) audience…
To set this up, here’s an excerpt from Steve Rubel’s recent posting on this topic:
“Character blogs are a waste of time because a character is not and never will be human unless it’s Pinocchio. …A character blog is a giant missed opportunity to have real humans …engaging in a real dialogue with consumers. I am all for using characters in TV commercials and even micro-sites, but having them blog is just a lame, lazy idea. In fact, it’s an insult to blogging and bloggers everywhere.”
Yes, I agree that weblogs can be an ideal vehicle for interaction. However, what if interacting with real humans would actually interfere with a higher goal of a particular weblog, such as education, or building enthusiam for a project? Or humor? Or making sophisticated yet important information more generally understandable?
The main situation that comes to my mind here is children. Kids are often surprisingly interested in advanced topics such as science, engineering, and mathematics as long as the topic is presented in a kid-friendly manner. This means much more than simplifying complex, detailed information or writing for a certain grade level. It also often means incorporating coherent storytelling techniques which is a surprisingly sophisticated communication technique.
Kids love listening to stories, and they are more engaged and attentive when they feel an ongoing connection to the storyteller the narrator. You see this all the time on kid’s TV shows, such as the PBS series Postcards from Buster. The technique of using a fictional character as narrator helps kids connect empathically to what would otherwise be a more documentary-style presentation.
In fact, fictional characters might even be more successful guides and narrators (from a kid’s perspective) than real humans (adults or kids). I remember reading in Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book The Tipping Point about research conducted in the early days of Sesame Street.
If I remember correctly (sorry, I’m at my cabin now on dialup and don’t have my copy of the book handy), researchers discovered that kids watching Sesame Street were far more engaged (as measured by the amount of time watching the screen and participating in or imitating the show’s action) when watching scenes where puppets were played a leading role, than human-only or human-led scenes.
Bringing this back to weblogs…
It seems to me (my own totally unscientific best guess) that in weblogs geared toward young kids (especially blogs with educational goals), character blogs might be especially appropriate.
PBS has made a halfway attempt at this with the Postcards from Buster Blog. I’m not sure whether I’d consider it a “blog” or not, since it doesn’t allow comments and has some other key format differences. However, it is “written” by Buster or at least assuming the Buster character.
HERE’S WHAT I’D LIKE TO SEE
I would love to see a blog for kids “written” by the two Mars Rovers. Right now there is some amazing exploration and research happening on Mars. It is genuinely exciting and significant. It will probably directly affect the lives of people who are children now. I think a truly interactive character blog of this type would be a great way to interest kids in space exploration. It could help them feel directly connected with what’s going on. And they could get their questions answered.
This approach wouldn’t necessarily exclude the voice of real humans. This blog could feature guest postings from scientists, engineers, policymakers, futurists, and others involved with this mission. it could be a group effort and offer a unique twist on the concept of “diversity.” And it would probably be a lot of fun, for both the bloggers (real and fictional) and the target audience. It would have a sense of drama and adventure, too.
HUMOR MATTERS, TOO
Another great use for character blogs is when the driving goal of the blog is humor, including parody. Humor is a hard thing to pull off in any medium. However, I can’t help but recall that one of my favorite TV comedy bits was Weekend Update from Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t just the jokes that made those skits great the characters, especially their ongoing nature, was the key. We got to know these characters and relate to them. That level of empathy made the humor more successful.
Character blogs can provide intriguing storytelling and a welcome bit of levity. This, I gather, is why the Austin American-Statesman once published a blog “written” from the point of view of Lance Armstrong’s bike. It was whimsical, and fun. While not serious news, it added what many bike-racing fans thought was engaging context.
So don’t discount character blogs wholesale, please. Just use them with great care. Be clear about your goals and your audience. And have fun.