Lost , a show its producers once described as Survivor meets The X-Files premiered as a new series in 2004 on ABC television. In 2009, Lost will begin its fifth season. Lost will only run for six seasons. This is the amount of time the producers say they needed to tell the story. Since initially airing, Lost has become one of the most widely discussed programs ever shown on TV and a true cultural phenomenon. On the surface, Lost is the story of the survivors of Oceanic flight 77, a trans-pacific flight from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles, California that crashed mid-flight on a remote tropical island. Below the surface, Lost is much more.
The most ardent fans of Lost are not just fans of the show; they are fans of everything that composes Lost. The architecture of Lost is trans-medial. Lost begins with the writers in L.A., crosses the Pacific to Hawaii where it is filmed and produced, gets broadcast to the world as television entertainment, enters the liminal space of the internet where it begins to blur the boundary between the created and the real, and then, sometimes, Lost enters into the real world. Those who follow the show most closely exist within a space where the fictional has seemingly become real and as such has become something they, as real world human beings, can touch, taste, and perhaps even contribute to.
In fact, Lost is a composite of technical forms which, through purposeful architectural design, manages to create contingency within the fan community. It is through this lens of uncertainty as to the actuality of what is happening within the fantasy world of Lost that fans are forced to sift in order to discover the answers to their many questions. To add further confusion to the issue, the producers also blur the lines between the worlds of fantasy and that of reality. This inter-textual and inter-world nature of Lost is representative of a contemporary discourse in which the entire range of media and products must be considered in order to understand why fans continue to speculate, argue, and wait anxiously for the next episode of the show to appear. The architecture of uncertainty built into Lost is as complex as it is compelling and in order to have an understanding of how the show has acquired such a dedicated fandom, one must look at what came before Lost.
At its most basic level, Lost is an island survival story in the tradition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 and is considered by some to be the first novel written in the English language. The characters on Lost, like Crusoe before them, find themselves stranded on an island where they encounter a number of ‘others’ and are forced to come to terms with a variety of moral, religious, and economic decisions as a result of these encounters.
Lost though is more than a survival story, it is also the story of ‘the island’ and as such owes a large debt to Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island published in 1874. Like the castaways on Verne’s island, those on Lost, arrive from the sky and experience strange phenomenon. In addition, Verne’s story also has a dog, a submarine, a mysterious beacon from another castaway, and supplies which come from an unknown source. The creators of Lost have recently acknowledged The Mysterious Island as the starting point for the story of Lost.
In fact, Lost, owes a large debt to many in science fiction and fantasy. Many of the episode titles are in reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Numerous references are made to white rabbits and both a prominent location and an episode are named “The Looking Glass”. Like Alice, the castaways have gone down the rabbit hole and are now in a world which does not always make sense to them in terms of the world they have left. And, like the readers of Carroll’s works, the audience of Lost is left in a state of uncertainty as to what is going to happen next.
Lost uses multiple methods to create this uncertainty, among them, serialized formats similar to those of radio and film in the early 1900’s. While serials fell into many different genres such as science fiction, western, or detective stories; the common elements often included a recap of previous episodes and at the end of the episode a cliff-hanger ending and an ambiguous preview of the next episode. In Taking Soaps Seriously: The World of Guiding Light, Michael James Intintoli looked at soap operas from an anthropological perspective. His descriptions of soaps sound like a description of Lost:
… viewers cannot be sure of an outcome or the well being of any particular character during any particular program. (Intintoli. p.52)
One of the things that Lost fans have both complained and marveled at is that even the most popular characters can be killed off without any notice. Lost has earned a reputation for killing off characters just as they start to become interesting. Of course, sometimes they don’t stay dead, or perhaps they never died at all, or maybe the viewers were looking at the past or future of the characters, or maybe the idea of death isn’t quite the same on Lost as it is in the real life. Fans are rarely sure a character is dead or at least dead and gone. Unless the actor is dead, which hasn’t happened yet, but even that might be no guarantee.
Lost is a trigger to the imaginations of those who have become fans of the show. Unlike the confined two hours of a film narrative, Lost makes time an uncertainty as it progresses in a non-linear format which can move from past to present and from character to character while still maintaining a cohesive meta-arc due to the hyper-knowledge the fans have about the text. In the season three finale, Through the Looking Glass, the show broke with a tradition of using only flashbacks and also began to use flash forwards. This only became apparent at the end of the show. And yet some fans had already figured it out based on the appearance of a cell phone that would not have been available at the time of a flashback.
This hyper-knowledge of the minutest details serves fans as a social currency (Jenkins: 1992) which allows for participation at a higher level within the fan community. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other cult television shows which preceded it, Lost has acquired a discriminating and productive audience which ranges from fans of the actors to fans who role-play as add-on characters within the greater narrative. These relationships between the fans, stars, producers, and the media have created an intricate web of connections which not only define the reaction to the show, but, according to many fans, determine the plot as well.
Charting the ecosystem of the world the show itself has created is not a simple task. While the show has only one ‘official’ website at ABC.com, fans have created millions of websites devoted to the show. A Google search of the keywords “Lost Television Show” brings up over 8-million pages. One of the most comprehensive is Lostpedia.com a community created wiki which details everything from transcripts to pop-culture references. In addition there are the very popular fan message board sites at thetailsection.com, thefuselage.com, and lost-tvforum.com with a combined total of more than 100,000 users. I should emphasize these are only three of the most popular and there are literally millions more websites.
Many of the websites are dedicated to discovering what the fans have dubbed ‘Easter Eggs’. Lost uses these hidden clues which are scattered throughout episodes, websites, and even the real world; to create a sense amongst watchers that there is a secret story that is hidden beneath the surface waiting to be found, however, many of the Easter eggs are so ambiguous that it becomes uncertain whether they are meaningful at all. One example of this is the books shown on the bookshelf of Ben, an evil-seeming character. Are the producers telling the fans where to find further clues or simply dressing the set with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
In some cases these clues reveal startling things about the meta-narrative and its characters motivations and in others they are simply a way of acknowledging those fans that are paying extra close attention. These nods became important to the fans after a season two episode where the logo of an in-story organization called ‘Dharma’ was seen printed on the side of shark for less than a second. Associate Producer, Noreen O’Toole told me the producers are continually amazed at the speed with which the fans unearth even the most obscure Easter Eggs.
The producers have embedded sub-audible whispers within the show, reversed speech hidden within the soundtrack, shown split second images, utilized historical meaning behind names, and even had billboards put up in real-life New York City advertising Oceanic Air which then led fans to a fake website positioned as if it were real, which in turn took them into an alternate reality game (ARG) based on the show but anchored within the real world. Navigating these multiple realities is not easy and some fans have speculated that they might be looking at alternate realities which may not even exist for the characters at all!
Trans-medial fans analyze the names of characters or in-show businesses to locate anagrams such as ‘Mittelos’ a bioscience company mentioned in the show during the third season which fans quickly descrambled into ‘Lost Time’. Fans also take part in the multiple alternate reality games which the show has created. The trans-medial fans require more than the past, present, and future presented in the course of the series narrative. Instead, they are treated to a meta-story which exists independently of the TV show itself.
The Lost Experience, an alternate reality game which took place between seasons two and three revealed the story behind the story of some of the characters on the show. The New York Times described it “a multimedia treasure hunt that makes use of e-mail messages, phone calls, commercials, billboards and fake Web sites that are made to seem real.” This was followed by alternate reality games titles “Find 815” between seasons three and four and “The DHARMA Initiative Recruiting Project” between seasons four and five which is still in development according to ABC. The Oceanic Air billboard mentioned earlier was a part of “Find 815”. The alternate reality games introduced new characters and storylines that the producers claimed would help unlock the many secrets of the island.
The producers have released at least one book which has brought about intense speculation. Lost Twin is a detective story, written by Gary Troup, a fictional passenger who died when Flight 77 crashed. Characters in the second season find, read, and then burn the manuscript which was salvaged from the flight. Later that year, in the real world, Hyperion Books, released the book complete with an account of how the author had disappeared on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Troup figured prominently in The Lost Experience, the first alternate reality game associated with the show. This is but one example of how the lines between reality and fiction have become blurred on Lost.
Lost is a unique artifact of the early twenty-first century United States of America. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “The media is the message,” and as such the totality of the ecosystem the media creates and encompasses is deserving of careful scrutiny. Lost is the nexus of a more modern sort of entertainment.
Lost fandom is a worldwide group connected by shared experience, the internet, common knowledge, and sometimes through meeting in person. They create a community, establish rules and norms within it, and at the same time are perhaps even convinced that they have the means to take a hand in shaping the source of the culture which they are participating in.
Fans of the show see Lost as the cutting edge of breaking down the wall between the production and consumption of entertainment. The producers of the show see Lost as a new way of telling stories. The truth is, Lost, is a means of interactive storytelling which spans multiple media and makes the fans think they might be contributing to the way that the story is told, but they don’t know. The writers and producers of the show create this sense of contingency within a complex global media.
Those who are most interested in the show find meaning in the tiniest details. Elaborate theories have been constructed to explain how and why the characters are on the island, heated debates rage as to the validity of these theories, and the ultimate conclusion is that even those with the best theories are forced to wait for the producers to reveal the plot or the spoilers to leak. Thus far all theories have been disproved or modified to fit new data.
Within minutes of an episode airing, fans have captured screenshots, magnified book titles from the background, played audio forward and backward, identified the most obscure use of previous plot, identified historical or literary references based on the names of characters, locations, or companies, and constructed philosophically deep theories as to the reasons these things have been included.
Lost attempts to cross the boundary from the fictional to the real. The production is architected to create contingency and thus draw the fans into speculation about what is real versus what is fantasy. While it is descended from island stories and serialized drama, Lost distorts time, death, and meaning in new ways. The show has millions of fans and the producers use Easter Eggs to reward dedicated fans with a deeper understanding of the show which can then be used as a form of social currency within the fan community. Lost architects contingency using a combination of old methods, such as literary devices and new methods such as alternate reality games and embedded audio. Through this combination of forms, Lost has become a new sort of entertainment which caters to a new form of fan. Lost is a television show, an online game, an obsession, a lifestyle, and to some extent, Lost is real.