In October 2014, Beatrice Duke, Hero Duke and Benedick Hobbes watched through (and livetweeted) their own videos and those from their friend Ursula’s channel. Except Beatrice, Hero, Benedick and Ursula are fictional characters, and the videos they were watching are the show Nothing Much to Do as we have been watching it for many months. The playlist that we use to track the channels became, for the characters, a playlist organized by Ursula. The mysteries of their lives were suddenly exposed. "Holy f*** this was online?!" Beatrice exclaimed during a particularly revealing moment on Ursula’s channel, suddenly realizing how much drama could have been averted by simply watching all these videos when they came out (as the viewers did).
Many modern webseries take advantage of transmedia and new media in general to further their story. In the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, much of the story revolved around the “secret” of Lizzie’s vlogs, and keeping them hidden from certain people. Slowly, characters became aware of Lizzie’s videos through different means, and thus were able to move the story forward. Caroline’s awareness enabled her to manipulate various aspects of the situation, Darcy’s exposure allowed him to better understand Lizzie and himself, and ultimately even the final moments of the show touch on the matter (however humorously).
The Autobiography of Jane Eyre took this a few steps further, having an entire episode devoted to Jane introducing her new friend to her story. This episode cast Jane’s previous videos as both a documentation of her experiences until that point and a subtle criticism of it. Mary questions certain plot points (“why is there blood?”), views the character development sharply (“oh, you like him”) and ultimately reflects the audience experience.
AoJE referenced on multiple occasions the complicated double-nature of Jane’s videos (when Rochester first discovers them, at the show’s end, etc.), but it also struggled at times with balancing realness and plot. Rochester’s insistence on uploading certain videos became suspect at some point and little moments that weren’t cut began to seem like they were truly geared towards an audience, not reflective of the vlogger herself.
Many modern webseries have stumbled quite seriously at this point, most obviously Emma Approved. In that show, the ambiguity of the filming and editing made certain scenes feel distinctly scripted and unbelievable. In essence, Emma Approved resembled The Office much more than it did shows like AoJE or NMTD - there are moments that clearly stretch the credibility of the medium, but the endgame addresses the medium (and some of its inconsistencies) explicitly.
The comparison to The Office is an important one for me. Throughout its (long) run, The Office gradually let go of the restrictions of the “documentary” style. There were scenes that could not have been filmed, cameras in places that made no sense, situations where it was no longer possible for the “filming” crew to remain behind, and ultimately the structure became a background idea. There were a few minor points at which the medium became relevant throughout the series, but a clear addressing of the “documentary” only arose at the show’s end. The discussion - of what’s edited, what ends up included in the story, the purpose, etc. - proved to be one of the strongest ideas the show ever dealt with. In addressing the character’s internal awareness of their own story, the show made its medium credible once again. The Office is one of the only shows that has ever explicitly dealt with the question (that I’m aware of) of who is telling the story and why.
Which leads me back to NMTD. NMTD distinguished itself by having different channels with clearly defined objectives. Unlike Emma Approved (which used a second channel for specific videos that were actually published, in a manner that ended up being extremely confusing to fans), NMTD made clear from the beginning who was watching which channels, and who was showing what to whom. There is a constant acknowledgement of where and why certain characters have not seen certain videos. Videos are edited with care according to the character uploading the video (and often explained in the video description). Problems are addressed within the story. While it’s legitimate to argue about the effectiveness of these excuses (and whether or not they don’t stretch credibility somewhat as well), there is no doubt that they clear up many of the confusing aspects that trip up bigger productions.
And then finally, moments before the show is due to end, the characters walk straight through the 4th wall and watch all the videos, livetweeting every step of the way. Like Mary in AoJE, they too question certain unbelievable aspects, but they also add extra commentary. They fill in the gaps (certain missing scenes that viewers had eagerly waited for), they speak to their audience, and they simultaneously remain in character the whole time. No 4th wall after all. More than that, the experience is an optional experience - many viewers do not track Beatrice’s rarely updated Twitter account, and will never read these tweets.
Part of the appeal of vlog webseries is their realistic nature: we connect on a personal level with the characters, convincing ourselves that they’re real people. The various aspects of transmedia flesh these characters out further, distinguishing them even more from traditional media. The “meta” moments in which the characters wink at the audience thus walk the fine line of acknowledging realism problems (pulling us out of the story) and telling the story as it ought be best told. Some shows are upfront about everything (interestingly, these are the shows with teenage characters, like NMTD or Green Gables Fables), while other shows live in a more traditional ambiguous realm (Frankenstein M.D.).
Most normal TV shows don’t have internal character awareness (Community is the obvious exception). Many webseries opt for the TV style as well, even if they add different tricks to make it feel more intimate (The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, for example). My personal taste remains loyal to the new realism form, where it’s possible to simultaneously tell a story and have everyone aware that the story is being told. I’ve found it to be more interesting, and certainly more thought provoking.