Dr. Mariann Hardey

Digitally on.

Speaker, Writer, Academic.

Durham University Lecturer.

I do stuff for the BBC.

Feminist & lovely.

Slanguage of social media

Serial as co-consumptive narrative

November 2015

Those familiar with my work will know that I am a fan of two things: The podcast Serial; and the work and character of Professor Simon James, of English at Durham University.

After Professor James's and my adventures at the Consuming Crime Conference in Limmerick over the summer, as are putting together the final touches of our paper about the narrative of Serial as co-consumptive plot and digital text.  Simon's work on narrative is seminal and renown. My own take is the as an exploration of Serial's consumptive themes that are truly outstanding in terms of content and context of plot and the appeal it holds with the audience as consumers.

So far, Serial has done more, arguably, to enhance our understandings of co-consumptive narrative form than any other medium, broadcast shows, or scholarly publication. What is unique - and, thus, appealing from our perspective, is how Serial in podcast form develops a clear linear narrative that is shaped by morally complex (often dubious in character) individuals who step over and often cross boundaries of social, political, criminal and cultural control.  

Serial presents a significant challenge to what we do as audience.  It has already promoted a huge amount of debate - moral and intellectual - issues that we want to explore and go to the heart of contemporary culture and consumer activity. 

Some questions that we are thinking about include:

What broadcast medium is telling this story better? 

Is Serial best characterised as episodic narrative reported with attention to detail, or simply recasting ‘the story’ how Koenig perceives it to be?

Was social justice advanced in the telling to a huge and ‘influential’ audience? 

What particular narrative mistakes does Serial make?  

Not wanting to give away our ending, Sarah Koenig’s original intention in broadcasting Serial was  not: 

‘to exonerate Adnan. I'm here to report this story. I don't know what I'm going to find, and I might find evidence that he's guilty, and we should all be prepared for that’

(npr, December 23, 2014).

A year on, it appears that Koenig has achieved her intention, but has also gone far beyond this original premise to produce a sophisticated exemplar of a new context for consumer behaviour. And Adnan's case has been granted a new hearing.  

In the telling of Seial, Koenig also provides a narrative account that is closer to that of a dystopic society and source of complexity than positivism; the strong emphasis on deceit, authenticity, and the difficulties of understanding causality, if not a crime that is over fifteen years old. A good example here would be how Koenig (like her audience) will change her mind about Adnan’s innocence and his involvement. During several episodes, Koenig has voiced her concerns that has the effect of impacting on the view of her audience as well as the lives and residents in Baltimore - the prime example being the dubious character and actions of Jay, as well as others for whom this case has touched.

Serial's focus on re-imagining, attempt to account, for a past criminal act provides a basis for discussion and analysis of not only criminal issues, but also those including class, gender, race, employment, youth, belonging, power, ethics and morality, the law, bureaucracy, corruption, education and, of course, crime and narrative. 

As a 'fan' the conclusion of Serial is disquieting. Not disappointing as some have claimed, but genuinely unsettling. By downloading and listening to the podcast, along with the audience, I feel that is not enough.  Away from the weekly broadcast of the show we seek to consumer more in order to capture new interpretations of the ‘evidence’, new understandings of the case and trial notes, as well as the moment and the emotion mediated through online forums such as 'a place to discuss Serial' on Reddit that emphasise prior personal moral sensibilities. These are all clearly prominent factors in the shows success and its consumption as a narrative text.

To close, it is within the above frame, and by thinking through the type of consumer behaviour that is offered in this consumptive text that we can begin to make sense of the way in which the ‘realness’ of the events of the broadcast, along with the stimulation of the consumptive methods of the audience overlap and relate.

So that's our forthcoming paper. Ready for publication by the new year, 2016. I really hope you look forward to reading it.