Working the virtual picket lines
Almost immediately after the writers strike began Nov. 5 in the real world, a vibrant web of writer and fan-supported strike efforts spun out across the virtual one. Blogs, sure, but this is the new Web now, so activists are tapping into social networks, online video, and numberless micro-interest communities in a search for cyber-solidarity.
“The Virtual Picket Line Starts here,” declares a profile page at myspace.com/hollywoodinterrupted.
Many of the “Virtual Picket Line’s” nearly 1,000 MySpace brethren, a group that includes both Hollywood writers and fans, have done as the creators of the page asked and substituted for their profile photos an image of the stark red and black picket sign of the WGA.
MySpace.com is, of course, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which also owns the struck Fox.
At Facebook.com, the other social networking powerhouse, more online organizing is afoot. A Facebook group called United Hollywood, which posts strike-related news and contains its own discussion thread, has nearly 3,400 members.
Several WGA members in the Facebook group have shared photos from real-life strike duty. One image shows a woman in a red sedan leaving the Fairfax Avenue gate of CBS Studios. She is smiling and waving:
"Hey guys! I really believe in your cause!” reads the caption. “I support you. Just...could you stop walking for a second? I have the green light and your picket line is in my way...."
WGA screenwriter Kristen Stavola helped organize the Facebook and MySpace efforts when she sensed an opportunity to connect writers with one another and with the fans. Though Stavola and her “Hollywood Interrupted” comrades have ties to the WGA’s communications committee, they are working outside the guild’s official auspices.
“We found that we’re more effective just doing it guerrilla,” said Stavola, a new media veteran who helped set up some of the Web’s early music communities. “I didn’t want to sit and wait for everyone to get on the same page,” she said, echoing one of the writers’ solidarity mottoes, "We’re All on the Same Page."
Which is true, she said, but “some of us kind of skimmed ahead.”
Stavola is also working with writer-director Peter Rader (“Waterworld”) on a series of the strike’s most-watched online videos, including clips featuring picketers Patrick Dempsey, Sandra Oh and writer-producers from “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “The Office.” Last week’s “The Office is Closed,” (400,000-plus views on YouTube) had writers from the hit show mordantly criticizing the media companies’ position on Internet and DVD royalties.
On Tuesday, Rader posted “Meet the Writers of 'The Simpsons,' ” a similarly pithy YouTube clip in which the Fox show’s writers, 21 Emmy Awards between them, join the chorus of writers ridiculing the idea that episodes of their shows posted online are merely “promotions.”
“If you watch ‘The Simpsons’ on the Fox website Hulu,” says "Simpsons" writer Matt Selman, speaking of the online video venture between Fox owner News Corp. and NBC Universal, “there are advertisements that Fox is making a killing off of because they’re embedded and you can’t skip them.”
In a bit that didn’t make the final cut, “Simpsons” writer Daniel Chun gave another example, “I’m watching ‘Battlestar Galactica’ right now. This episode of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ is a really good promotion for ‘Battlestar Galactica’ -- I should really watch the show I’m watching right now!”
“I actually think the Internet could really make a difference in this whole effort,” Rader said. “Those of us who play on the Internet know it’s not experimental — it’s extremely vital and powerful. We believe that we can achieve a sort of viral momentum that can actually effect change on a level that gets these companies to really notice.”
Another prong of online strike support has come from the fans. Fans4writers.com has reached out to “fandom” communities across the net in an attempt to recruit viewers to its basic mission: to send food to picketing writers at least once a week.
Fans4writers’ initial pizza delivery to Joss Whedon and his cohort received warm thanks from well-fed writers, including Whedon: "None of the writers -– or anyone -– I’ve spoken to have ever heard of fans organizing and supporting a strike the way you guys have,” he wrote. “Supporting our right not to entertain you. Seriously, that’s rare."
Next up in the queue is a Facebook ‘application’ –- a mini program the site’s users can embed in their profiles, that will allow them to do what Stavola called “Virtual horn-honking.” Users will be able to pick a vehicle that best suits them — are you a truck-driving Teamster, a Maybach-driving Mogul, or a sympathetic rapper in a stretch Navigator?