When POC Are Marketable yet Unprofitable: The Colorless World of Episode Interactive

 

Written by Allissa Soule

The application, Episode Interactive, has created a realm where stories and characters are given faces and animations, bringing the stiff words from paper pages into an almost cinematic reading experience for mobile devices. For an avid reader like myself, this alternate world has been a form of escapism I’ve always longed for.

History

Episode, launched in 2014, has successfully collaborated with notable figures and brands such as popstar Demi Lovato, Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars, cult-classic Mean Girls, MTV’s Catfish, Vine’s Hunter Hayes, and YouTube sensation The Dolan twins; and remarkably held its place in the Apple Store’s top 35 grossing apps of 2016. With an estimated $69,000 daily revenue, it’s safe to say that the growing application has had its fair share of success, gaining popularity on platforms such as Instagram (@Episode) with a massive 500k and Twitter (@Episode) with over 50k followers, who await new releases of official Episode story chapters. Upon the walls of their social media sites are vibrant images, beautifully depicting people of color, disabilities, and different sexualities or religions. This inclusion and representation is what draws many readers to take a gander at what the application definitively has to offer. Admittedly, their ads are what drew me to downloading the app in 2015.

A few of Episode’s many diverse advertisements and posts.

A Revelation

As a year-long member of the Episode reading community, I unfortunately confess that Episode’s colorful ads, hinting at the beauty of diversity in all its forms, are, for the most part, where POC representation stops. This conclusion hasn’t been an easy one to draw, given my love of Episode’s unique take on interactive storytelling and the ability for users to create and share their own stories. Being the true masochist I am, I’ve compiled an exhaustive list of Official Episode stories without customization (the ability to create and change an avatar character) and where they fit in the grand scheme of racial representation to solidify my claim. Official Episode stories consist of works by Episode staff members or freelance writers, whose rights to the story have been purchased by the company. Below is a complete list of stories with un-customizable main characters written by Episode’s hired writers available on the app for reading under the ‘Featured’ or ‘Genre’ sections.
*NOTE: In an attempt to stretch the number of POC led stories (as if it makes it any better), I decided to include pilots, which are rarely completed and found at the extreme bottom of each genre subsection.* [Sample size: 97]

In bold are stories featured at the very top of each subsection. These are the ones readers see first.

14.43% of total (3 featured=10%)
14 Official Episode stories with a non-customizable POC main character: How to Get a Boyfriend in 5 days, Soulbound, Sister Swap, Who’s Pregnant?, Breakthrough, Escape, Safe in the Arms of Danger, Chain Reaction 2: King Theo, girl.c0d3, Summer Camp Clash, Brother My Brother, Cabo Confusion, 300 Days to Find Love, Reckless Hearts

85.56% of total (25 featured=89%)
83 Official Episode stories with White non-customizable main character: Lovestruck, Reunion Hookup, Finding Mr. Wright, What Happens in Vegas, Tangled Love, Swiping Right, Georgia, The Player, My Brother’s Best Friend, Georgia: Full of Grace, Juvie, Georgia: Season 2, Human, The President’s Daughter, The Secret of Rain, The Ember Effect, The Phoenix Prophecy, Bloodlines: Annabella’s Choice, Bloodlines: A New Night, Glamanour Heights, Hunted, Always Talk to Strangers, Campus Crush, Campus Crush 2: Spring Rush, Campus Crush 3: The Mother Lode, Undercover, Missing You, Stranded At Sea, Unmasked, Mystery At the Museum, SLEEPERS, Fit For a King, Party Girls, Secret Diamond Club, Lovesick, Rock n Roll Revolution, Jennie The Girl Who Used to Be a Pirate, Party Girls: Rehab!, Becky and The Bank Job, Fairytale Therapy, Professor Bunny, Ryde Share, Cheer!, WackyWorld, Front Girl, The Captain’s Daughter, The Peacock Heist, The Game, Mayfair Brooks, Welcome to Nowhere!, Greek Life, Uncanny Valley, In a Perfect World, The First Time, Artic Summer, U R What U Write, For the Love of Mr. Rochester, Camp Lakota, 30 Days to Find Love, Speed Date, Evil Twins Heist, Bright Lights Big Dreams, First Love, Pretty P.I., Out of This World, Rock and Roll Romance, A Step Ahead, Around the World, Pride and Prejudice, Ex-Spelled, An English Proposal, Into Another Time, Gemma Halliburton’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, The Dating Life of the Average Vampire, Vacation Island, Five Nights in Rio, Heat on the Water, Midnight Masquerade, Death by Expresso, Missing You, The Bottom Feeders, The Jack and Jane, Prince Alarming

(CURRENTLY FEATURED STORIES) The startling reality.

Truth Hurts

To anyone basing their decision to download Episode Interactive on the advertisements the application promotes, this list is disappointing to say the least. Tragic, really. Out of the abundance of Official stories written by the Episode staff, very few mirror the advertisements plastered on every corner of the application’s social media or website. A staggering 14% of official Episode staff written stories without customization have main characters of color, this percentage juxtaposed against a whopping 85.56% of stories with white main characters speaks to a reality many POC are already familiar with in real life regarding racial representation in media and beyond. A simple tap on the ‘Featured’ section of Episode might lead one to drawing the same conclusion I have, just by glancing at each of the stories’ cover art. Even cover art for stories permitting customization of the main character feature a white default woman and maybe even a tan white masculine presenting figure if we’re lucky.
These facts recently made waves in the sub-culture’s community, found primarily on Instagram. A minority of user writers who center racial representation (and other forms of diversity) in their literary works have taken to Episode’s staff, asking for more accurate representation and more representation, period. The discussion is heartbreakingly one-sided, with staff members oblivious to what the very definition of diversity and inclusion means, and the lack of an official public statement regarding the app’s newfound promise to center diversity in their future stories. There has been, however, an acknowledgement of the app’s failure to properly include representation for all people of color in their new story Pretty Little Liars, by a prominent Episode staff member. This concession stems from Episode’s feature, giving readers the ability to create and customize their own characters within a story. In PLL, the option to make characters with dark skin was non-existent. This erasure was pointed out by distinguished writers and readers of the Episode community, eventually leading to an apology on behalf of the company, and a promise to do better with racial representation.

Caption: An Episode staff member promises to promote diversity.
None of the 94 responses to this statement have been replied to by the Episode staff as of yet. (3/19/17) (http://forums.episodeinteractive.com/forum/main-category/announcements/1235333-episode-s-commitment-to-diversity)

Episode staff member acknowledges erasure and Episode’s lack of diversity.

Since the release of the customization feature in 2016, Episode has since relied on it for users to ‘add their own diversity,’ without the stories necessarily having to address it. However, related characters within such stories (such as siblings and parents), continue to appear with white features and characteristics, regardless of the customization. This can lead to the appearance of ‘ashy’ lips, as some users have coined it, on darker characters of color as presented below. This coding issue was only recently acknowledged and fixed after numerable posts by Episode community members.

Episode staff member acknowledges erasure and Episode’s lack of diversity.
Default white features on characters of color.

A Question

All things considered, we’re now left with one question: are people of color only good for marketing yet their stories deemed unprofitable?

For many people within the community, Episode’s silence and continued disregard for their voices is enough of an answer.

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View Comments (15)
  • Well written, and a very serious issue! Hopefully this company will understand now that their dirty laundry is being aired.

  • Wow, to think I thought I was the only person who noticed this. Great article, Allissa! Hopefully you shedding light on this issue will spread change.

  • You guys got it totally right! It’s degrading how representation is cut off from the app. Even a state has more diversity than what they have to offer. I hope this leads to a positive change.

  • This is a great article. I agree with you on the customization of characters. They did that because they don’t want to create diverse characters themselves. I don’t read any of the stories featured at all. That’s why I think their new loading screen is a joke too. If their was another interactive story app that anyone could write a story and the company actually cared about diversity, I would quit Episode in a heartbeat.

  • As a person who has been in the Episode
    community for three years, I can see the app growing bigger and more famous by each day, but POC discrimination still happens within it. You really caught my attention, and amazed me with your way of wording this. This is truly remarkable. This article just described all of my bottled up feelings about this diversity issue in such an eloquent and beautiful way. Thank you a ton for this, and I truly hope that you get noticed by the Episode staff, so they can see that this problem is far from a petty minority. Oppression starts in places as small as phone apps, the staff needs to stop taking this matter lightly, and start making relevant changes.

  • What really grinds my gears is the fact that they have the audacity to advertise in such a diverse manner knowing that it’s all a lie. POC shouldn’t have to asked/beg to be represented. It’s shame that we have to asked/beg and quite frankly inhumane. That might sound harsh but Episode has had the chance to fix this problem and they didn’t. Now they have to face the consequences. It’s sad though cause I actually enjoy the app. Some of the users stories are phenomenal. Lots of talent there, but at this point. Ugh. Just ugh Episode.

  • Thank you for writing this article, it really describes all my frustrations with the app. In addition to not having darker skin tones in the newer style, there’s also no facial features for POC (wider noses, flatter noses, monolidded eyes, etc) or Asian skin tones. The community has also asked for ages for non-western clothing and while they’ll include it in their Holi ad (girl on far right), they won’t include it in the app. People keep asking over and over again for ages to include POC instead of just White Girl #398494 but Episode never listens. Just, ugh.

  • This is frustrating and hopefully enlightening to those unaware. I thought I’d shed some light on another story app that seems to address these discrepancies. It is called Choices, and is clearly a knockoff of Episode. As far as I’ve read, the art is beautiful, the stories are engaging, it’s pretty cool. It’s also under construction with only a handful of stories and new ones coming out every few weeks. The writers and illustrators put real work into the stories though, and I feel like my choices matter more. Like Episode, there is still a paid-for choices system (sigh) that is way too expensive, but you get a gem each episode you read, so you can have a fun scene every once in a while. Above all this, it seems to be much more diverse than episode as far as I (a straight white girl) can see. Almost all the stories – the newer stories, anyway – offer character customization. The customization is limited, but quite good, and the character art is very nice. The characters are a lot more realistic than Episode, too, and there are a few different styles. It is worth noting that the two non customizable characters are white girls, though. There seems to be sufficient diversity in the other important characters, too, including Asian characters, which are hardly present on the Episode platform. And, very importantly, the most popular story (as well as a few others) offers a homosexual relationship for the main character. There’s plenty of homosexual representation in qThis has not been an advertisement, just a public announcement.

  • No, they didn’t. According to their official website that you can check at http://home.episodeinteractive.com/about it states “Episode launched in 2014.” They also just had their 3 year anniversary which you can look up on their instagram. So if you do the math 2017-2013 = 4 years and 2017-2014 = 3 years. Just saying actual facts

  • This entire article has been so very illuminating. The depth of research that went into it is incredible and I commend the author for putting in all this work. That said, I think the issue of representation in media is a major one that people need to stop ignoring. It’s not going to go away just by not talking about it. The silence from the Episode Team on this matter is deafening and, as the author so eloquently stated, a response in itself. Either they’re scrambling to figure out what to say (creating a long-term plan to keep this cycle from repeating itself is a good place to start), or they genuinely don’t care. With all the responses from team members on the forums as evidenced above and on some team member IG accounts, it seems like they want to do better. I’m not sure where the disconnect is but they better hitch their wagon to the correct train car ASAP because the “Representation in Media” train will be leaving the station soon, with or without them. I suggest they hop on board while they still have a chance to bounce back and make positive changes.

  • I thought the app was diverse based on its ads…isn’t what they’re doing appropriation of POC? That’s disgusting.

  • Good article. False advertising is never a good thing; especially on the backs of people of color. Will be sharing with my friends!

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