Detecting audience design: The rhetoric of mystery and transmedia storytelling in the case of “Harper's Island”

Deborah Leiter, Purdue University


The purpose of the present study is to explore para-authorial roles in strategic mediated communication situations, specifically to study the relationship between author and audience in transmedia mystery narratives. An updated version of Allan Bell's (1984, 2001) audience design theory illuminates three dimensions of power in author-audience relationships in multi-audienced situations: (1) power over continuance; (2) power over style; and (3) power over reputation. Using an exemplar from a transmedia storytelling experience based in a mystery/slasher television show, the expectations of active audiences in two overlapped para-authorial roles—that of audience detective and of an audience reading a storyworld across media—are brought to light. The ways in which the most active audiences react to their felt stylistic marginalization is investigated, and suggestions for future studies of para-authorial roles and their rhetoric in multi-audienced situations are discussed. Chapter one introduces the study and the concept of para-authorial roles for audiences. Chapter two provides a literature review featuring concepts from rhetorical, sociolinguistic, and media studies. Chapter three discusses in detail the issues of power in mediated situations, particularly relating to audience roles in transmedia and mystery genre situations, before introducing the specific case of the Harper's Universe, a multimedia (television and web) based mystery event. Chapter four explains the methodology and in chapter five an analysis and discussion of the audience comments are explored in light of three power dimensions: (1) power over continuance; (2) power over style; and (3) power over reputation. The findings illustrate the ways in which the most para-authorial audience of the Harper's Universe , the transmedial audience detectives, reacted to their felt marginalization in terms of all three power dimensions. Highlighting the expectations this group brought to their para-authorial roles along with their reactions to the perceived audience design raises a wide range of implications for other new forms of participatory audience roles. Chapter six discusses the implications and limitations of the study along with proposing future studies in a variety of scholarly areas.




Clair, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Modern literature|Multimedia Communications

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