The Colony is a TV series about a very serious pandemic that devastates our civilisation. As a teaser, Discovery Channel has set up a “personal simulation” using your Facebook data to show you how such an outbreak would affect “those closest to you”.

Of course I had to try; I love new ways of telling stories. But despite Discovery Channel’s dire warnings that if I found the simulation too realistic, I could always escape by closing my browser window, it didn’t really work all that well. Better for a giggle than a scare, really.

The problem is that my friends’ names, photos and locations really isn’t enough information. The main issue is tone of voice. All the status updates and comments are written in pretty much the same style. Quite apart from the fact that my friends write in different languages, they all have different ways of writing on Facebook. My husband Scott would never post an update like this one, for instance!

OMG indeed.

The next problem is that people have to give you too much back story in their status updates. Here, a friend suggests a way of charging a car battery using red wine. Of course she has to explain why this is necessary (mind you, they have power to use the internet so why not to use a starter cable?) – but most Facebook status updates don’t explain backstory to this extent.

Which also makes me think that a more authentic-seeming narrative would include more offhand jibes. Would EVERY UPDATE really be about the pandemic?

The simulation does use locations fairly well. “Kate Pullinger” talks about shops being empty in London – and this is a fairly realistic use of Facebook, too – people connect across different locations and like to share information about their local situation.

The simulation is divided into two pages. One simulates your Facebook news feed during the outbreak of the pandemic, and one shows a later stage, when a lot of people are dead already and society has pretty much collapsed. The tone of voice may not vary much from one character to another, but it does change a little from the first to the second period of time. And actually, the seriousness of the second section makes the glitches in voice less odd. This seems reasonably convincing to me – these people might actually have said those things. (Hadia Tajik is a Norwegian politician, by the way, not a friend, which makes this even more effective, in a way):

The characters also post more convincing messages with less backstory. Presumably this is because the action already happened: now they’re just showing us a scenario we’re really quite familiar with from science fiction movies and dystopias:

And yes, they do realise that it’s a bit of a stretch that Facebook is still up and running – I like this little meta-reflection:

In this case the tone of voice works coincidentally quite well – the real Kate Pullinger may well have written such a comment.

You might ask how “authentic” you’d really want a Facebook “personal simulation” narrative to be. It’s fiction, after all. But if it wants to work as a narrative, you don’t really want it to make you laugh instead of be chilled. On the other hand, it’s marketing – and actually, people are more likely to share things that make them laugh. So perhaps a severely flawed narrative is exactly right for the purpose.

5 thoughts on “discovery channel doesn’t know my friends

  1. Bryan Alexander

    Checking out this Facebook-based pandemic simulation game, http://bit.ly/aHwZi7 .

  2. Ida Aalens links

    discovery channel doesn’t know my friends http://bit.ly/9coRl7

  3. […] I’m putting together a statistics of public health course, and this post got me thinking — how hard would it be to build a Facebook app that went in, pulled up your friends list, along with age and gender, and then just ran the probabilities for death and chronic illness, assigning each person a date of death and what they died of? […]

  4. Francois Lessard

    Discovery has set up a “personal simulation” using your #FB data to show you an outbreak http://bit.ly/9iZU04

  5. WE3K FOUR | Hardly Working

    […] This crazy Norwegian blog was also discussed, and the entry about the Discovery Channel was particularly crazy. There was also mention of Small Pieces Loosely Joined, but God knows what that was about. Google says it’s a unified theory about the web by David Weinberger, but we’ll never know for sure. […]

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