Building a Mystery
A rogue YouTube channel inspires obsessive investigation.
The countdown started July 9. For the first three years of its existence, the YouTube channel Pronunciation Book was only one of many guides for non-native speakers of English, its hundreds of videos ostensibly intended to help viewers improve their language skills. But with that day’s video, “How to Pronounce 77,” the channel took an abrupt detour into the bizarre. “Something is going to happen in 77 days,” the anonymous narrator intones. Sixteen seconds of silence follow.
Since then, each successive Pronunciation Book video has preserved the refrain — “something is going to happen in [X] days” — but prefaced it with a brief, cryptic line, a snippet of story. The second countdown video served to further entice the amateur detectives from Reddit, 4chan, and other forums who had swarmed to the channel: “I’ve been trying to tell you something for 1,183 days,” it says, referencing the date the channel was created. What seemed an innocuous, obscure learning tool now had now become a surreal, vaguely menacing mystery.
Attempting to piece together some kind of narrative, investigators have scoured the videos to uncover an intricate mythology, complete with characters like “Chief” and “Franco,” a “squad” on some kind of mission to a jungle, and references to “The 10 Mysteries.” Running the silences through spectrographic analysis has revealed a portion of an image that appears, halfway through the countdown, to resemble a person pointing a finger at the viewer:
The Pronunciation Book mystery, which has become known as 77 Days after the video that sparked the investigation, has produced rampant speculation about What It All Means — and what will happen when the countdown ends on September 24. The wilder theories claim the videos are connected with the unrest in Syria, survivors of the Jonestown Massacre, or a nuclear power plant emergency drill scheduled for Sept. 24, 2013 in central Missouri. More likely is that 77 Days is an alternate-reality game (ARG) in the vein of I Love Bees or Year Zero — a marketing effort disguised as a puzzle and/or narrative. Collectively, ARG participants (players?) piece together clues from disparate sources to unravel a coherent version of events. The activity culminates in a reveal of some type, where the object of the mystery is exposed. Often this object is a product.
77 Days theorists claim to have connected Pronunciation Book with Thomas Bender, a veteran creator of ARGs. (Of course, whether Bender himself helped create this theory, or whether he exists at all, could be part of the game.) Last month, the Daily Dot published an elaborate analysis linking the videos to a possible reboot of the Battlestar Galactica TV series; this seems to be the prevailing theory at the moment. Others speculate the countdown will culminate in the launch of a new movie or video game. Whatever its outcome, the most compelling aspect of the mystery is its length: Even if this is all a hoax, it’s gone on for nearly three and a half years.
My initial thought, when I first encountered 77 Days, was of William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. Unlike Gibson’s previous books, Pattern Recognition is not set in a cyberpunk dystopia but a world still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The MacGuffin here is the auteur behind “the footage,” a series of artistic film clips that have gained a cult following after being released anonymously online. Through the main character’s search for the filmmaker, Gibson explores our need to make connections between disparate points of data, to assign meaning and structure to random phenomena.
But Pattern Recognition is also about branding and rampant commercialism, and this — not in the search for meaning — is where its connection with 77 Days lies.
The fantasy of Pattern Recognition is that an artistically and culturally compelling mystery can exist independent of a marketing plan. The footage, we find out, was not intended to be branded or monetized in any way — it is a genuine means of artistic communication, one of the few artifacts in the book that is not a product.
It’s rare to find ARGs that are not tied to a corporate marketing department. Most have been used to promote TV shows, movies, video games, and even cars. That’s not to say they can’t be enjoyable: The LOST Experience was good fun for fans of the mythology-heavy show. The very concept of an ARG lends itself to transmedia storytelling, which can be an extraordinarily rewarding mechanism for fans to engage with, and even help construct, a narrative.
But there is ultimately something crass about this kind of ARG narrative. Engaging intelligent, eager critical thinkers as an unaware street team for your promotion belies the idea you respect them as customers, let alone as people. When the center of the mystery is just another thing someone’s trying to sell, what does that mean for and to the people who spent so much time and effort unraveling it? ARGs depend on mobilizing masses of people to cooperatively solve a problem. What does it say about our culture that the root of that “problem” is so often a salable good? Or, worse yet, the promise of a salable good?
Consider Curiosity, the mobile game developed by celebrated game developer Peter Molyneux and his studio, 22Cans. This app for iOS and Android devices tasked users with tapping away at a cube to reveal the layers beneath. Eventually, the cube would open and one lucky winner would be rewarded with a “life-changingly amazing” experience.
In late May, the cube opened. This marketing video was inside.
The prize, of course, wasn’t the video. The winner, Bryan Henderson of Edinburgh, would be incorporated into 22Cans’ upcoming video game, Godus, as an all-powerful deity. He would also share in a portion of the game’s profits. This was, by any reckoning, a creative and unique reward.
But for millions of people who chipped away at Curiosity’s cube, the reveal was anticlimactic. 22Cans had spent months hyping their “social experiment” — the app’s subtitle and official hashtag was What’s Inside the Cube? — and now it was revealed to be yet another product. Not even a product, really: the promise of a product that did not yet exist. The winner gained an opportunity to contribute to the making of a product and to benefit from the revenue it could potentially generate. The rest of us received nothing.
Curiosity may not qualify as an ARG in the strictest sense, but it operated like one: It presented a mystery, made vague promises of a reward, and engaged participants in collective problem-solving. (Granted, mindlessly tapping a screen is not very complex problem-solving.) That its reveal was yet another promise of a consumer good — from Peter Molyneux, no less, a man famous for grand promises — reinforced how unlikely something like Gibson’s “footage” is to emerge from a contemporary ARG. At the center of the mystery is something else to buy.
What I like most about 77 Days is the subtext of menace in the countdown videos. There is an implied threat lurking in the repeated phrase “something is going to happen.” It’s likely that “something” will be the launch of a new TV series or the announcement of an upcoming video game. It’s also entirely possible that, in what would be a world-record-long trolling, the completed spectrogram will reveal the smirking visage of Rick Astley. In either case, that carefully-crafted sense of menace will deflate as forcefully and as abruptly as a balloon pricked with a needle.
ARGs are not about the destination, the argument goes, but the journey. The process of collaborating to investigate the mystery is necessarily more enjoyable than whatever solution eventually appears. Whatever “happens” on September 24, whatever the spectrogram reveals, the people who went to the trouble of visualizing sound waves have experienced something rewarding in the act of investigation.
Yet something about 77 Days also reminds me of House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski’s sprawling, terrifying experimental novel. House of Leaves features at least four layers of storytelling: It’s an anonymously edited version (1) of an unreliable narrator’s account (2) of a recluse’s academic study (3) of a film documentary (4) about a haunted house. None, or all, or some, of these layers may contain the truth.
What fascinated me about House of Leaves, aside from the central story of the house and the family inhabiting it, was Danielewski’s multiple, often contradictory ways of presenting information. You don’t read House of Leaves so much as excavate it, extracting narrative artifacts you’re compelled to assemble and reassemble on your own. Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker accomplishes the same feat through its inventive use of language and folklore. Both novels challenge the reader to solve the mysteries of their construction, to do some of the heavy lifting in building their worlds. I like the idea that 77 Days is inspiring people to do the same.
So I dearly hope September 24, 2013 doesn’t bring us yet another product announcement or monetization opportunity. I hope, instead, it brings us an artistic artifact as genuine as Gibson’s “footage.” The most powerful way to end this countdown might be to simply end it. How to Pronounce 1: silence.