Dan Brown’s life is out of control, and he’s nervous. He’s telling the Internet about it, over-enunciating his Ps and Ts while he describes his project, Dan 3.0, his Web TV show that will put his day-to-day life in the cyber hands of his fans. But this is all part of the plan, and it’s all very under control.
The notion behind Dan 3.0 is that "groups make better decisions," he says. (About what? That’s up to the group.) Using an online "decision engine," Dan is outsourcing his "decisions" by letting participants suggest and vote on daily tasks. Each day, he says, he’ll do the most popular task. So far this has taken him to the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska to high-five strangers. And it’s taken him on a walk to the nearest city, Walton.
But don’t worry, Dan says, the big tasks are coming; he and Internet-television network Revision3 just need more time to plan. Then they can focus, for instance, on one of Dan’s favorite topics: his girlfriend. She might get a birthday visit from Dan—if his viewers want it. And since "my viewers care about me," Dan says, chances are they’ll give him the task he wants. Now who’s controlling whom?
There are still 361 days left to see. As of Friday afternoon, there are four episodes of the show, which debuted August 1. After the pre-show ad and the logos for Revision3 and sponsor SquareSpace, a bed-haired Dan, wearing what seems to be his only T-shirt, starts talking. He’s in his studio (decorated with art sent in by fans), and he’s chatting away with his practiced self-assured but self-conscious delivery.
This self-referentiality seems to be constant, even when the task of the day begins. Dan spends the task talking about doing it while doing it, talking about talking about doing it while doing it, and so on. But, as he notes, "It’s not about getting a whole lot of footage—it’s more about capturing the moment." So, following his own advice, he captures the show’s meta-moment—existing as a show—as he reflects on the project.
Perhaps Dan has reason for his ego, however cloaked in young-adult angst it may be. He began building a strong Internet fan base in 2007, when he posted an instructional YouTube video on how to solve the Rubik’s cube. Three years later, the video has almost 16 million views. In the meantime, Dan has posted videos on everything from gay marriage (which he supports) to, in the following video, Crocs (which he says "might just be the most important issue I ever talk about").
Dan is one lucky vlogger, and he knows it: "I make videos talking about what I want to talk about when I want to talk about it, and it provides for me."
Dan gains from vlogging, and his viewers are supposed to gain from watching and suggesting tasks. But besides a chance to influence the quotidian, yet artificial, life of a 20-year-old, what else do they stand to gain? "I want everyone who participates to be happy about the whole experience," he says. "I want to push the envelope as to what it means to have a new media relationship with an audience."
Indeed, it’s quite the transitional period for visual entertainment, as television and Internet share and influence each other’s content more than ever. As Dan says, "There’s so many new tools being invented everyday that increase the capacity for interaction." His decision engine—the simple yet incomplete structure for a year of his life—is supposed to be one of those tools.
Dan 3.0 is still nascent, so it’s hard to tell if viewers will continue to interact with it the way Dan wants. According to Revision3, the website’s traffic doubled on the day the show launched. And there are more than 5,700 tasks posted on the site.
Hype, of course, is at least one of the reasons driving the show’s initial popularity. But Dan’s simple vlogs have been doing well for years, and there’s somehow never a shortage of time to spend watching strangers on screens. Seventeen years ago, in his E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, David Foster Wallace offered some prescient explanation:
If we want to know what American normality is—what Americans want to regard as normal—we can trust television. For television's whole raison is reflecting what people want to see. It's a mirror.
Or, as Dan says, "I think that a lot of the appeal of watching people’s day-to-day lives is just people are curious as to how other people live their day-to-day lives."
But pretty soon we start to turn inward, Wallace warned: "We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching."