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Yes, “Transmedia” is an Empty Buzzword… Until it Isn’t

By Jim Stewartson | May 08, 2013

Friends, it’s time to get serious. The ongoing debate between (intelligent, well-meaning) people about what “transmedia” means and even whether defining the word matters at all, is killing our common cause. To this day, after years and years of debate and experimentation, a Producers Guild credit, countless Variety/Wired/Fast Company/etc. articles, and a zillion doctoral theses, it’s still meaningless jargon. Yeah, I said it.

It’s time to cross the Rubicon. Either “transmedia” will remain an interesting theoretical footnote, a vessel into which we put our fantasies about what might come someday in The Future; or it will emerge as the dominant entertainment format of the 21st century, in the same way that “motion pictures” defined it for the 20th century.

Either way is fine.
But we must choose.

There are two parts to this article.

  1. Should we define ‘transmedia’ at all?
  2. If yes, what should the definition of ‘transmedia’ be?

PART 1: Should we define transmedia?

Yes!

There are 3 reasons why we need to define “transmedia”:

  1. Money
  2. Money
  3. Do I need to say it?

At the moment, the transmedia scene is a vibrant community of smart, creative people who want to create a real industry. However, in order to do so, we must learn to create value on a scalable basis, which is a mission impossible if we continue to rely on touchy-feely, blue-sky concepts to guide our work.

To create scale:

  • We must attract investment. A lot of it. But investors will not put their money into ill-defined ideas, no matter how awesome they sound. To put money at risk, they need to see what they’re buying into, understand it, and be able to quantify the return they can expect from it.
  • We must go mainstream. To do that, we have to be able to explain what we’re offering to normal people. Not professors, or industry insiders, or investors. To our in-laws and neighbors and real people who live between the coasts.
  • We have to be able to create tools, platforms, and business models that create a product that is recognizable and repeatable. If someone sees transmedia, they must be able to say confidently, “By George, that’s some fine transmedia right there. Go check it out!”

OR

We can leave “transmedia” to the academic, the philosophical, and the fantastical. It can remain a conceptual framework for our imaginations to run free in a vast, dreamy Narnia of ideas. If this is our answer, lots of books and panels and dissertations will be generated around the world. It will be great fun talking theory to each other. And no one will make a dime.

Why does that matter so much? Because people like me, who’ve been thrashing about at the intersection of entertainment and technology for a long, long time, need a brand for what we make. A brand like “movies”, “television” or “video games”.  To build businesses, which in turn create industries, we need something to sell.

[OK. Poignant aside... Just now, literally as I write, I received a note back from a friend at a prominent film school that was planning to offer a class in transmedia that I was going to help with. Here’s an excerpt from the email:

Unfortunately the class was recently cancelled because of low enrollment… Based on the feedback I've received, it's been very difficult to fill transmedia courses because most students don't really understand the concept; and it's tough to explain in a course description. 

Ouch. These kids are our creative future and they have no idea what we’re talking about.]

So, I’m looking at you. Yes, YOU. Should “transmedia” be concretely defined, or not?

PART 2: What should the definition of transmedia be?

Let’s be honest. There is no correct definition of “transmedia”, just like there is no correct definition of “snerlicot”, because no one has agreed on what it is yet. On the other hand, there is a correct definition of, say, “badonkadonk”, simply because a bunch of people agreed on what that meant…

So let’s not try to argue about what “transmedia” means now, let’s argue about what it should mean, so that the word creates maximum value for all of us.

I have a few lines in the sand that I, personally, would like to draw.

First, I submit that transmedia should be defined as storytelling. Period. If there is no story, it ain’t transmedia. I know this is a very stark statement, and may leave some other definitions radically narrowed or out of the picture entirely. Sorry, it’s time to make choices. 

[FWIW, I just looked up “transmedia” on Wikipedia and it auto-forwarded me to “transmedia storytelling” so there is support for this rule in the wild. Also, as it happens, for more than half the projects listed as “recent” and “notable”, I was either personally involved or have a close colleague who was. These projects are all based on traditional narrative structures.]

Furthermore, I am of the opinion, as I have written before, that storytelling itself is not broken and that Transmedia Should Not Try to Fix It. For 25,000 years, storytelling has meant the communication, from one entity to another, of events that have a beginning, middle and end, and which include characters and conflict. Believe me, I know first hand how exciting it is to think about those rules as old-fashioned, a relic of the time before The Enlightened Age of Transmedia.

But I also know first hand what an epic waste of time it is to have “the audience drive the narrative” and ideas of that ilk. The truth is, “Choose Your Own Adventure”, no matter how complex and social and multi-platform and slickly produced, will always suck. This includes every version of ‘collaborative storytelling’ known to man. These efforts uniformly result in something confusing and unwatchable. As Tim Kring pithily put it:

“The ubiquity of the pen doesn't mean everybody's Hemingway.

Some will disagree. To them I respectfully ask for counter-examples.

Second, we need a clearly defined “curtain” for transmedia stories. Every entertainment format in history has had a very well defined way to enter a story, a comfortable way to enjoy it, and an easy way to exit.

Blurring the lines between reality and fiction is awesome for a small number of extreme people who like that sort of thing, but it will never, ever, be mainstream.

My colleagues and I used to make alternate reality games, which were the storytelling equivalent of being dropped naked by parachute into the rainforest. But what we eventually realized is that, like an amusement park ride, in order for sane people to participate in intense experiences, they need to be able to see what it is, know how long it’s going to last, and know that you have to be THIS TALL to ride it.

Third, we must stop confusing transmedia with marketing or merchandising. While ‘transmedia’ can be commonly used as a tool for marketing other forms of content or products, it is not the same thing as the marketing. This is exactly like saying that ‘video’ is used all the time as a tool for advertising, but it is not advertising itself.

OK, who’s seen some version of this godforsaken diagram? Or even worse, made one themselves? [Yes, I have made them. A bunch of times. And I’m sorry. Seriously. :( ]

 

Let me state clearly and loudly:

We should NOT call this mess ‘transmedia’.

We should call it ‘snerlicot’…

…Just kidding. This is already called ‘merchandising’.

We don’t need another word for it.

Look, I don’t care how nice of a presentation you make, how much backstory or world building it contains. Your beautifully bound coffee-table book is not a new form of entertainment… It’s just an expensive pitch for creating the usual stuff.

Fourth, transmedia should be multi-screen and mobile.

There does seem to be some surface-level agreement about this. I don’t know anyone who says an episode of Castle is ‘transmedia’, no matter what device it’s on or how dreamy Nathan Fillion is.

The pertinent fact is that human beings are being completely rewired to require multiple simultaneous information inputs in order to feel fully engaged. You know the stats on multitasking, or you should… Depending on the source, somewhere between 77% and 88% of us multitask with at least one other device while watching television. This seems like an insane statistic at a glance but is really empirically apparent, unless you live in a retirement home.

COROLLARY: Transmedia is not a ‘second-screen’.  There are a bazillion apps now in this category. Some of them bring value, while others are just crappier versions of what we can already do on the internet – watch twitter streams, play trivia, etc. Even the category ‘second-screen’ implies that these apps have an inferiority complex:

                  Oh King Screen One, we are here to say,

                 “To your primacy, we’ll kneel and pray!

                 Our apps will be your sidekicks, jesters,

                 As long as we attract investors!”

Transmedia should not have this attitude. Transmedia should mean creating content that treats all screens as a common fabric for telling compelling stories. It should be a new form of entertainment, which has emerged to recognize a fundamental, species-wide shift in our human experience. It is not Bedazzled TV.

 

By now, I’ve probably managed to piss many of you off. That is not my goal. I mean no harm. I come in peace!

My only claim here is that I have screwed this up as much as anyone. I bear many scars, have endured years-long explorations into alluring dead-ends, had accomplishments diminished through the rear-view mirror, and had thriving companies destroyed by ignorance. And I know I’m not alone in this.

But you know what? Boohoo. Sniffle, sniffle. This is always the entry fee when creating something important and disruptive.

The point is, we have collectively paid our dues by now, and we need to take charge of this opportunity, before others who haven’t earned it do it for us. I don’t really care if my personal opinions become consensus (well, maybe a little); I just want us to collectively make some choices, so we can get to work and build something permanent, create great content, and make a damn good living.

If enough of us agree on the answer to the first question, “Should we define transmedia?” then we should get to work on the second question of how to define it. So comment here, write your own article, email me (jim@rides.tv), or whatever floats your boat. And then let’s get our act together and create a process for making some decisions.

Now’s the time.

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Comments

Robert Pratten: | May, 09, 2013

I agree that storytelling is a key differentiation.

I agree with multi-platform storytelling but not specifically “multi-screen and mobile”.  I don’t agree that we need multiple stimulus to feel fully engaged - at least not from an entertainment perspective. When I read a book I’m fully engaged and I mentally cut out all the sound around me.
I would argue that the reason for so much 2nd screen use is that many shows aren’t engaging enough in their own right. I do see big opportunities for multi-screen engagement but it’s not a shopping app or b-roll content—> it should be storytelling and that means the writing needs to envisage both (or more) screens at the time of writing. They need to be true integrated… but that doesn’t necessarily mean synchronous. Async works too.

I agree we should define what the experience will be and allow the imagination to explore the story, not pretend it’s real. I proposed this labelling system a long time ago http://www.tstoryteller.com/a-unified-labeling-system-for-transmedia-projects but reaction was kind of 50:50

I do believe that interactive stories can work and I believe that audience participation can work. How do you see story-games like The Walk Dead episodic games or RPGs like Fallout 3.0. Why can’t we take these single-platform stories/games and layer them across multiple real world platforms? I think we can and our technology, Conducttr, does it.

I think that if these techniques/parameters are applied in a marketing context then it doesn’t stop the execution from being transmedia. So I don’t think we can limit the industry or use. Or rather we shouldn’t define transmedia as not extending to certain industries - like advertising. If it’s storytelling, across multiple platforms then it’s transmedia.

Bottom line is I think the only area where I would beg to differ is on the participation. But I don’t mind if it’s not part of the definition, we’ll just do it anyway smile

Jim Stewartson: | May, 09, 2013

Robert, thanks for the thoughtful comment! Just the sort of dialogue I’ve been hoping for.

I agree that single source storytelling is not dead. I just don’t think that’s where the future lies. Personally, I think TV per se has never been better quality-wise, but the pervasiveness of multitasking is rendering the TV format itself less and less relevant the younger the audience gets.

I think Walking Dead and Fallout are actually very good examples of active storytelling as opposed to interactive storytelling. Effectively, both have a preset story or auto-generated “story missions” that use the death failure state to provide something for the player to do while they’re on rails. They’re not really affecting story.

I absolutely agree that marketing is a valid use for transmedia. Effective marketing is almost always storytelling at some level. I just don’t think that just because you are marketing across multiple platforms, it automatically means it’s transmedia.

roberickson: | May, 14, 2013

Great article.  I think one of the key things to think about when defining transmedia or in moving forward in general is to think like the Average Joe.  Right now how do people interact with media.  TV/Ipads/cellphones. Simultaneously.  The Average Joe isn’t conditioned to interacting with transmedia content across their devices while they’re getting their story fix.

Old people and young people use ipads and smartphones to look up house names on wikipedia during Game of Thrones rather than interacting with an app.  The content producers of the major entertainment industry IP are likely doing the same.  They don’t feel the pain of wanting more out of the experience and thus will be reticent to shell out cash to develop content they don’t have a direct hand in developing and capitalizing on. 

With this being the case I think that you’re absolutely right in your bit about money, money, money.  The big boys in the industry need to be shown they can make as much on these new ways of storytelling as they do pumping out summer sequels. 

Writers need to be shown the light as well.  Why should they spend the time developing content for 3 other destinations when their bread and butter is in writing tv episodes or crafting the next sequel to the previously successful content.  Education of industry power players and content producers is essential to the success of transmedia, after the collective agreement has been reached on it’s definition.  Just as important is education of the consumer that a new era is dawning and that storytelling just got a whole lot more immersive.  Many Sci-Fi fans get it, because much of the transmedia push up to this point has been in that genre (e.g. Defiance), the population as a whole, does not.

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