Saturday, March 12, 2011

What Exactly is Transmedia Storytelling? (And Does it Even Matter?)

Good stories are timeless.
So why is it that we are often confined by media constructs, such as campaigns, which have specific in-points and end-points in time?
Why is it that we gravitate to buzzwords, and supersede powerful, emergent disciplines (such as transmedia storytelling) with notions of the "way things have to be" given these formative points in time?

Over time, we’ve argued over story. We’ve argued about stories. We’ve challenged our beliefs in them — just look at history. And over time, we’ve developed a sense of narrative by virtue of the channels we’ve created. Yet, ironically, we are bound to those channels by way of media and technology, and to a lesser extent, context. We always have been.
If we can look at time as simply the measurement of intervals between events, its relegation to manufactured thinking, or its basis in historical relevance, this was the initial impetus for what has evolved as transmedia storytelling.




As with anything cool and unique, the notion of “transmedia” tends to be adopted in phenomenon and language, and often misused or misunderstood. Banish or change the term if you like, I don’t really care.
As a creative media and technology misfit of sorts, I’ve written quite a lot about “it” and spoken about “it” and actually practice "it" more out of a fascination with this notion of “transcendent media”, not so much as a discipline that can be broken down into best practices or methodologies and even frameworks that can be serialized, but rather one that can’t. The beauty of what have been determined to be transmedia vehicles or platforms is that they are wonderfully unpredictable, reflexive, imaginative and kinetic.
I won’t distill the point by generating a list of “transmedia examples”, nor will I go on a rant about how the various media markets are dying their own deaths. This is fairly obvious if you pay attention to what's being thrown at you everyday in the way of messaging and God only knows what else.

Quite simply, I gravitated to “transmedia storytelling” because it gave me an opportunity to liberate my ideas, and explore a narrative interdependency (versus a codependency) between technology and media, and more importantly, between people.

This doesn’t make me a subject matter expert, or a guru, or a futurist, or someone assigned to any other ridiculous designation. But I am, and I am proud to say, that I am a practitioner. To borrow from the great William Goldman, no one really knows anything. Be that as it may, I am student like all of you who can share his knowledge and experience in the pursuit of higher learning and collective intelligence. The confidence I have in my own opinion is borne out of this determination.

As with anything we’ve done or anything we do in technology and media, the tendency is to align ourselves with a clique of one type or another. I don’t care what side or channel you’re in or on, what matters is that you can appeal to the best and the most curious in human behavior, and that you can use technology and media for what they can be... Platforms that can help us transcend our more traditional thinking.
Furthermore, whatever we choose to call “it”, “it” should not only influence behavior, but endeavor to change behavior.
A good number of folks who have helped pioneer or develop “transmedia” in various ways – people like Jeff Gomez, Stephen Dinehart, Christy Dena, Lina Srivastava, Mike Monello, Nedra Weinrich, Scott Walker, Robert Pratten and Ivan Askwith – will all tell you that “it” has this power. And power, of course, is something that we already possess, it just needs to be cultivated in ways that are meaningful.


In other words, once we can get over our technology and media hubris, the real work has yet to be done.

So, I don’t think it’s really a matter of what transmedia is, what it has done, or necessarily what it does in the context of now, but rather what it represents. Which is, quite simply, possibility.

Now, to get a bit more specific (and a bit less lofty), I think it is important to make a significant distinction between technological and cultural disruption.
Fact is, technology will continue to evolve, but the real evolution culminates in the iterative cycles we undergo in our relationship to narrative. Story has an undeniable and somewhat impermeable place in our own genealogy, and I think the more obvious manifestation of this resides in historical debate, and the less obvious dynamic resides in our attraction to fiction. Clearly, what has given rise to the narrative adoption of fantasy elements (such as comic books) is a relatedness to things that are a part of our own history, and most likely things about our history that we cannot comprehend, yet things that define us quite formatively as human beings. This seems fascinating.
If we can accept story as genealogy as a precept of our faith in the unknown, and an opportunity to transcend through media, then we have something very special that we can call our own. And, as we are discovering more and more, we can cultivate it through networks of people.


Where does technology (ala platform) then play a vital role? In audience delivery and participatory appeal.
Here's what I mean.
Aside from the narrative prospects, I believe that most media companies (and by “media” I mean any entity that produces and/or distributes content) fail to understand that convergence is a matter of understanding and extracting the anthropological elements of participation, from ontologies to folksonomies to emotional mapping and geo-spatial integrations. Further, things like AR, ARG and LARP extensions provide new perspectives on the realities we already share. To put it more simply, what we share in the way of context, consensus and relatedness is precisely what makes our media more sustainable, our products and services more resonant, and our identities more powerful.
This, in my humble opinion, is the true value of what transmedia storytelling can afford us: the ability to synthesize narrative and platform in ways that are self-revealing, regenerative, altruistic, and ultimately, scalable.
This is why gameplay can be so appealing: it allows us to collectively (and individually) explore our notions of what we value, whether we are duly cognizant of them or not. The point is not so much if games can change the way we look at the world, rather how we look at the world when we play them. Big difference.

We can also ascribe sentient and empathic value to gameplay, but that of course depends on the types of games we choose to play. Or does it?


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Winning a game is a subjective experience (Faulkner would argue that the battle only reveals to man his own folly...). If we liken this to the challenges we face with media in general, we can come to the quick realization that we must make our own meaning. However, if we can deliver audiences to brands, and audiences to other audiences (which we can), the sky really is the limit as to what is transformative with respect to our consumption.
Then, maybe, we no longer consume: we co-create, we co-own and we share.
But of course, we have the old media mavens to contend with - the gatekeepers that are stuck on controlling the gateways, as opposed to liberating them, despite the fact that transmedia vehicles provide more opportunity to actually sell more media.

Then again, what does “selling more media” do for us anyway?


Put it this way: we’ve commercialized our ideas for centuries, why not break the patterns that clearly don’t work?


So, perhaps it’s time we stopped bickering over name and process, and put our intentions to good use. Again, the real work has yet to be done.


Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

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