The Power of Cross-media Practices in SKAM

At the end of last year, many television critics noticed the exceptional success of a small Norwegian cross-media programme called Skam. The New York Times and Dazed published articles on the show; the Guardian even published two (see here and here). This attention comes at the heels of the show’s third season, which managed to reach a large and very active international fanbase.

We’ve decided to publish a little blog entry about Skam because it speaks to many concerns of our MA programme in Cross-media Cultures.

Skam’s innovation does not only or even mainly lie in its content. The show, whose title is Norwegian for ‘shame’, is about the everyday life of a group of teenagers at an Oslo high school. As one can imagine, many of the storylines revolve around problems with (relatively absent) parents, teenage crushes and relationship problems. Most of this will sound familiar to seasoned television viewers. It must be said, though, that Skam courageously addresses difficult issues, such as islamophobia, homophobia and mental health.

The truly remarkable aspect of Skam, at least from a cross-media perspective, lies in the way it tells its story. The show is told on various platforms, mostly in short video clips, text messages, and Instagram pictures. All of these story elements all published on the show’s website and in real time. This means that when one of the characters within the story sends a text message, say, on Monday at 11AM, this text will be posted to the website on Monday at 11AM. A video clip that shows something happening in the evening of the same day, will be posted at the exact time those events are supposedly happening. It’s a very simple conceit, but it is extremely powerful and – to my knowledge – hasn’t been employed with as much rigor and effect as it was in the case of Skam.

The first effect that is remarkable has to do with suspense. The release of clips and messages in real time brings the exhilaration and angst of teenage life into the viewer’s own lived experience. An example: on October 17 (11:53AM), Isaak and Vilde plan a party for the following Friday. On this occasion, Isaak might also get a chance to see his crush Even again. (Even’s the new guy in school.) In response to this announced party, the viewer starts to anticipate the events of Friday and speculate on what might happen. The characters’ time seeps into the viewer’s own lived experience.

Besides those long-term arcs of anticipation, the series also has a more immediate effect. Since Skam does not follow a regular program structure, new content can be posted at any time. The constant possibility of new content appearing online continuously pulls viewers to their smartphones or computers, refreshing their browser windows by the minute. When new content is published, fan communities on Facebook and Twitter immediately start translating the posts from Norwegian into English. In the process, new cycles of speculation are kicked off, which Julie Andem, the head writer of Skam, reportedly takes into consideration for the continuation of each season. In this way, Skam creates a tight cross-media network of professional writing and publishing processes as well as fansubbing and commenting practices.

Sometimes the success of such cross-media fertilization can be a bit overwhelming, it seems. Towards the end of season 3, Skam got a bit meta, basically telling its fans to get back to their real lives. In the season finale, Isaak has a conversation with Eva. Isaak says: “I was fake before it [his realtionship with Even who deals with bipolar syndrome]. I was only lying at home, watching Narcos and gaming and stuff. I’m over that now. Now I want my life to be real.” For this viewer at least, that moment was a big letdown. It seems like the writers are lecturing their audiences to get back to “real” life, thereby disavowing the force and liveliness of their own art. Life today is mediated. Season 3 of Skam allowed for international fan communities to gather and exchange their thoughts on coming out, homophobia and mental health. Within the series itself, life is shown as utterly mediated: besides the omnipresence of Facebook, Instagram and text messaging, Even is shown in at least one scene as reconnecting with people through video gaming.

That’s why it doesn’t make sense from a cross-media perspective to distinguish between “real life” and “fake media.” We live with media every day. They have a lot of influence – positive and negative – on the ways we relate to people. So we put our focus on finding out what exactly the impact of media is, which problems we need to be aware of and which potentials we should embrace.