Domino, Start Recording: A Virtual Boomtown in Sanditon, CA
Pemberley Digital’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries recently took home a Creative Arts Emmy for Original Interactive Program for its web adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The web series reframed Austen’s classic in a modern setting, allowing the characters to live out their fictional lives outside the show’s main YouTube channel, interacting freely across dozens of social media platforms. On October 7th, the team at Pemberley Digital will be returning to play in Jane Austen’s universe with the release of their next major production, Emma Approved. But between The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, Pemberley Digital turned to one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known works for an experiment in transmedia storytelling with Welcome to Sanditon.
As one of California’s many Gold Rush boomtowns, the town of Sanditon California was no stranger to rapid change. In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, William Darcy’s company Pemberley Digital developed an experimental video recording platform, Domino. Sanditon’s mayor Tom Parker met up with Gigi Darcy at SXSW, and signed up his town as a partner community, giving interested townsfolk the chance to share their lives on the platform through blogs, pictures, and videos. Mayor Parker’s aspiration for Sanditon was to transform the city into a vibrant, health-conscious vacation spot, and much of the plot revolved around complications that arose for townsfolk and business owners when the mayor’s idealized version of the city conflicted with its reality.
This comes to the fore through the story’s main plotline, following the interactions between Sanditon Scoops owner Clara Breton, whose ice cream parlour is targeted for a mayoral-encourage rebranding to juice bar, and Parker’s reluctant assistant Edward Denham, who shows a delightful passion for obscure British television. Glitches in the early release of the Domino platform also resulted in bringing a budding romance between the two to the town’s attention, resulting in equal parts consternation and glee. While Gigi Darcy has largely stepped into the town to serve as an embedded narrator, Welcome to Sanditon allows her to complete her own narrative arc. Executive producer Jay Bushman viewed Gigi’s character as the strongest test cases for transmedia storytelling in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, making her reprisal through Welcome to Sanditon the end of an 18-month long journey.
Astute Jane Austen fans might have already guessed that the town of Sanditon, California is a modernized version of the town’s English counterpart, featured in Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. While the 12 chapters published by her estate do an admirable job of introducing readers to the town of Sanditon and its residents, the novel ends before Austen can explore her intended narrative arc in depth. As such, adaptions of Sanditon are typically dominated by continuators looking to bring closure to the novel by injecting their own story. The Pemberley Digital team bucked that trend, choosing to weave a loose adaptation that toyed with the themes of the novel without speculating about the end result. Tom Parker’s obsession with changing Sanditon Scoops into a juice bar and attracting health-conscious businesses like the Griffiths siblings’ rival spin gyms echo the almost pathological obsession with health in Austen’s novel. Both towns also grapple with the contrast between the Sanditon that lives in its residents’ correspondences and the Sanditon that exists in fact: for Welcome to Sanditon, that contrast is all the more stark when you remember it only exists as a virtual boomtown.
With The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the primary purpose of the show’s transmedia storytelling elements was to create a biome for Austen’s characters to inhabit. For Welcome to Sanditon, that focus shifted to finding ways of extending that biome out to include the audience. The day that Gigi Darcy released a video announcing she was on her way to Sanditon, fans of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries flooded social media sites to set up virtual shingles as residents and small business owners in the town. Drawing on a literary fanbase, it’s little surprise that Sanditon, California can boast 37 different bookstores, putting the town in contention for having more bookstores per capita than any other community in America. While bookstores were the most popular establishment, Sanditon businesses ranged from ad agencies, schools, and even exorcists (helpful, when the town is actually haunted). Fan-made news outlets like The Sanditon Sun were essential in keeping up with all of the fan-generated stories. In an online discussion about the storytelling experiment soon after its launch, Welcome to Sanditon‘s transmedia producer Alexandra Edwards explained,
I think it’s important to keep in mind that Sanditon is going to operate a lot like a real town, where you definitely don’t know everything that’s happening with everyone who lives in your town. I mean, 150,000 people live in my town, I have no idea what’s going on with most of them…find the thread you want to follow, find the things that interest you, and hang out with them.
While fans created content across a broad range of platforms, the Domino Beta Portal was the dominant way for fan-created stories to filter their way into the main narrative. Built on the Theatrics platform used for similar collective storytelling experiments like Beckinfield, participants were offered periodic prompts about issues facing the town likely to be featured in future videos. For example, after the “glitch” that highlighted a possible love interest between Clara Breton and Edward Denham, fans were asked to talk about their own experiences with Domino’s creative editing. These contributions were then fused together into a compilation video, where the virtual townsfolk concluded that Domino was an algorithmic fangirl.
The romance between Annabell Jones and Horace Smith serves as the strongest example of the more organic storytelling that took place within the virtual city of Sanditon. The drawn-out courtship of the two fan-run accounts played out in part through text, audio, and video uploaded to the Domino platform, with plot points from the main storyline like the glitch in the system interweaved throughout the couple’s more private romance. Pemberley Digital compilation videos even drew attention to the developing romance on more than one occasion. For the handful of Sanditon townsfolk role-playing or even following this additional love story, the eventual engagement of the happy couple served as just as meaningful a conclusion to the series as the final video.
Welcome to Sanditon concluded in August much as the books did, with the arrival of Sidney Parker. And while most of the plotlines introduced by Pemberley Digital were wrapped up, the series still holds an unfinished quality that echoes its source material. As writer and executive producer Margaret Dunlap explains, “This is a summer thing. It’ll be different, it’ll be an experiment, it lets us flex different muscles than Lizzie Bennet. This isn’t exactly us completing the novel.”
If you’re interested in going back and experiencing Welcome to Sanditon, there are a number of options. You can watch the main narrative play out on YouTube at the Pemberley Digital YouTube channel, or you can read through one of the curated feeds like the official Welcome to Sanditon site to experience a taste of some of the interactions that drove the show beyond the web series. You can also dive straight into Domino to get a feel for how a town of virtual strangers grew to form a community over the summer. And if you like what you see, keep an eye out for Emma Approved, which already has a few tendrils of background seeded across the web.
For those of you who aren’t afraid of spoilers, looking to skip straight to the good stuff? Be sure to at least check out the all-important “first kiss” episodes of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Welcome to Sanditon.