Babylon 5 – A Lesson in Social Media

When J. Michael Straczynski was working on Babylon 5 , he was not on FaceBook, MySpace, or Twitter. None of these "social media" sites had been invented yet; "Web 2.0" was not even a glimmer in a tech geek's eye. In 1994, when the series started, such conversations took place on computer services (like Gnie and CompuServe) and in USENET newsgroups: places where people could download posts others had written, or write posts for others to download. "jms" (as he is known online) hung out in the groups created to discuss Babylon 5 (most notably rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated), and pretty literally taken on all comers.

This was not a new idea for him; Straczynski had been participating in such groups since the 80s, and is given credit for being the first celebrity to do so – long before "The Internet" was invented or popularized. Being active online was not without its problems; a story he had written had to be put on hold because a similar idea was posted online, and he left the newsgroups briefly because some peoples' 'flames' were overwhelming his ability to interact with others. But with the creation of the modern newsgroup, where he would not be exposed to story ideas and where the moderators kept the "flamers" in check, he was back answering questions and posting cryptic hints once more.

He kept in touch with the people who watched and loved his show; he patiently shared his process, answered questions and responded to objections. He also listened to suggestions; the composer for the series was originally recommended to him through the internet, as was the name of the element necessary to jump gate production (Quantium-40). The name of the person who made the suggestion was written into the show as a thank you.

He let what he was doing online wind up in the show itself in other ways. The coordinates of the station itself were derived from the page, category and topic numbers of the B5 group on GEnie (immortalized as "Grid Epsilon"). The denizens of DownBelow became "Lurkers," an online term for people who read newsgroups but do not participate; the heavy cruiser Hyperion was named after the original site URL for the "Lurkers' Guide to Babylon 5 ," a very popular fan site and guide to the B5 universe (since moved). There are references to "Channel 4," the BBC channel that aired the show in England, where it had some very devoted fans.

Long before people were publishing guides to interaction in social media – in fact, long before the term even exhausted – Straczynski was getting it right. Although Babylon 5 now gets credit for being the first show "to employ internet marketing," that's not what jms was thinking about when he was online. He was simply communicating; he was talking with his fans. He was participating in the community his show had created. And for me, this is the lesson: not the "marketing message," not the "creation of buzz," but the creation of and participation in community. The thoughtful responses, crediting of suggestions, and cryptic prognostications kept people listening and talking and looking for more – it kept the fans engaged. All of us who live on the Internet can learn a lot from the lessons Straczynski cave us during the creation and filming of Babylon 5 .