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On the trail of Evan Chan

by Giles Turnbull -- 2001/04/24

Online marketing has never been this smart. But the web-based hype about forthcoming sci-fi movie AI is setting new standards for viral marketing and online community. Confused? You will be...

There's been movie hype on the internet before. Remember when everyone went crazy downloading trailers for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace?

But the hype surrrounding AI is like nothing you've seen before, for several reasons. It's original, it's captivating, it doesn't insult the intelligence of the people taking part, and it offers something more than a downloadable screensaver and an interview with the cast.

It's a viral marketing strategy that has had an extraordinary amount of thought and pre-planning put into it.

Here's the really short version: the people behind the making of the film released two names (Evan Chan, and Jeanine Salla) and a phone number to the public domain. From then, it was up to people to search on the net and find stuff about them. And there's loads of it.

The whole thing has evolved into an engaging, addictive online game involving hundreds of serious players all over the world.

Rather than take WriteTheWeb's word for it, here's an interview with one game player, UK-based weblogger Dan Hon.

What emerges from this interview is the degree to which the makers of the campaign have succeeded on almost every level - by engaging and encouraging their audience, by challenging their brains rather than their browser specifications.

No doubt there will be plenty of copycat campaigns, once this one has calmed down. But the people behind the AI online game deserve a lot of credit for not just having a good idea, but for implementing it smartly and using it to create an instant, loyal, interested online community.

There's a lot of other producers of online content who would love to be able to do that.

WriteTheWeb got in contact with Dan Hon, a 21-year-old law student at Cambridge University (UK), who has become one of the many people trying to unlock the mystery of Evan Chan's death. He is now maintainer for The Trail, a document that details just about everything there is to know about the story so far. WARNING: If you want to enjoy taking part in the game, do NOT read all of The Trail.

WriteTheWeb: When did you first discover the AI-related sites? How did you first hear about it? Why you, for goodness sake?

Dan Hon: I first heard about about AI sites when reading Coming Attractions, a Canadian fan-run site that previews up and coming movies. It was covered on their April 12th update for AI and listed a few of the sites, and mentioned a forum on Aint it Cool News that was covering the campaign. I started through: watched the trailer for the film, searched for "Jeanine Salla" on Google and was hooked.

I checked back with the AICN forum later that day, and saw that a guy called Cabel Sasser had started a mailing list on YahooGroups called Cloudmakers, so joined that. I prefer getting email over checking a bulletin board, and this seemed to be moving quite quickly.

WtW: Were you one of the first? How did you know?

DH: Definitely not one of the first, but not far off. I was the ninetieth member of the mailing list, but perhaps that's a moot point now: at last count, the list has gathered about 1200 members since it was created on the 12th April.

WtW: What made you start The Trail?

DH: Cabel Sasser, the owner of the Cloudmakers mailing list started the trail, but basically asked for some help. He'd been quick off the mark and created, a pseudo game universe site, and had asked on the list for ideas and help for lokoing after the information he'd started to put together. Bronwen Liggitt and I (future list co-moderators) volunteered to tidy up and collate. I ended up converting the trail from an email to the webpage that it is today.

Even with the trail, we were unorganised. There was a hell of a lot of information that needed summarising, and it was obvious that over the next few days we'd be getting a lot more members to the list. It made sense to collate it all sensibly so that those who did want to contribute wouldn't have to retread over old discussions. Cabel, Bronwen and I discovered very quickly that we all wanted to preserve the sense of community that had sprung up.

WtW: Any idea how much time you have spent on this?

DH: Probably far too much, and I realised as much pretty quickly. What's been great though is that it's been very much a community effort: offers of mirroring the Trail quickly popped up when I posted a message to the list that traffic for the Trail was saturating its server's internet connection. People like Dan Fabulich and Irwan Dolobowsky as well as Cabel are now mirroring the site and helping compile updates, whilst Bronwen has set up a bulletin board system. I know how much time other people have spent on this as well: an IRC chatroom "#EvanChan" was quickly set up a few days after the mailing list was formed, and since then hasn't been empty. A lot of people have made friends in there, though most of them should be sleeping according to their timezone...

WtW: Was it worth it?

DH: Definitely. Although now I'm less hooked on the puzzles and more hooked on maintaining the pages like the Trail, the second big "hook" has been the sense of community that's sprung up. I've made a lot of good friends over the last week, particularly with those who've been working behind the scenes.

Surprisingly, for a mailing list that's got so many members, and has posted so many emails (over 4,200), it's been a relatively hitch-free ride. Everyone wants to pitch in, and the signal to noise ratio is something that I'm proud of. There's a great sense of people wanting to help each other along with the story and find out what's going on. The first "meet" was held in New York last Friday, and there's talk of a west-coast meeting at some point as well.

The chat room's packed at all times, full of people who really should be doing other things. Oli Young, in Australia, whilst not patiently explaining the game to new members, doles out Neighbours plotlines and the latest hot music from Australia. I swear he never sleeps.

WtW: What's your opinion of the effort/thought that has gone into building of all this stuff?

DH: I think Dreamworks and the Warner Brothers have taken this to the next level. We first saw this type of web-marketing/promotion behind The Blair Witch Project, and since then nobody's really moved it onwards or upwards. This is different. Electronic Arts is developing a game called Majestic that is essentially the same as this: the game will pervade your life, to the extent that you will let it. People have been received phonecalls, faxes, accessed voicemail and been investigating (some say far too closely) the game web sites.

When I introduce people to the game, their jaw hits the floor. Nobody expects this level of marketing and they expect it even less when they haven't even been told about it. People get freaked out by the phone messages, but they become well and truly immersed. They want to know what's going on.

What's wonderful is that while this narrative is being played out and it's bringing people in, on top of that, they're making new connections with new people. There's a lot of intense discussion going on, not all of it game-related. One of the hot threads over the last few days was the "ethics" of the game: how do you play something when you don't know what the rules are? This became important when one stage of the puzzle was broken not by detective work, but by sheer brute force: we tried every single combination possible, and cracked it. A few people were upset that we weren't playing the game properly, that we'd have to rationalise the "answer" backwards.

I hate using the word "community" so much, but it's really true. The list moderators and chat room operators really sense some kind of responsibility to those that they're looking after, and for the most part people have been incredibly positive. A drinking game has sprung up as tongue-in-cheek humour towards the mailing list and people have been writing guides to the game and its plot.

As to the effort and thought that's gone into building this for us: a lot of speculation on the mailing list has gone into who, exactly, is behind this. Hardcore fans are happy in that the storyline bears marks of Kubrick, whilst others are happy that this seems to be Spielberg story telling at its best. Some others have unearthed links to old school game designers who are intent on creating huge, believable and realistic universes and who love storytelling.

One of the highlights for me was when we realised exactly how interactive this "game" could be: on last Tuesday's updates, an in-game character mentioned Cabel's site on a diary page. The more excitable fans couldn't contain themselves; the acknowledgement to us was a nice touch.

I, for one, am very happy, and very impressed, that this has been done. The only downside is that I wish it wasn't happening so near to my finals!