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Transmedia: The Snowden Effect

By Michael Magee | October 01, 2013

The topic of Edward Snowden and his leaked confidential documents have resoundingly rippled through American foreign policy. The impact of Snowden’s decision to release confidential documents, that have revealed the National Security Agency’s deepest secrets on political and foreign policy, is still a matter of considerable debate. You only need to tune into any current affairs program to find a new discussion about the state of the American relationship with other countries, like Russia, China or Brazil. There have been a range of reactions from concern to outrage over the allegations of secret surveillance of the data and internet communications of their citizens. The entertainment industry might be watching these events with any eye towards the story potential, after all, it has all the elements of an episode of “House of Cards” or a Tom Clancy novel, but there are some deeper issues. It has effectively ended the illusion of online privacy forever. It has created new problems that will likely alter the relationship that Transmedia producers have with their audience and unveil a number of new legal issues.   

The problem goes back to the point when technology heavily disrupted the traditional relationship between the screen and the viewing audience. Social media, apps, downloading and streaming content have all created new problems in understanding how people view creative properties. A lot of very smart people in the film and television industry have been trying to figure out this new relationship, using much of the same technology that caused the initial disruption. For many, the technology that caused the problem is also the solution for closing the new gaps between the screen and the viewer. The goal of using these disruptive technologies is to create a new relationship that is meaningful for the viewers and financially viable for the industry.

Transmedia has played a significant role in closing this gap and connecting audiences with the narrative on the screen. One of the first things that became obvious is that most Transmedia productions need to gather personal information about their audience. There are two reasons for gathering this information. First, you need to establish a relationship with your audience. You need to know who they are so you can develop strategies to build affinity with them. The relationship is part of the overall strategy to build audience engagement. The second reason is a need to track the metrics surrounding your audience relationship. You need to have numbers in order to make the business case for the success of the Transmedia project. Those numbers are going to provide you with the metrics (market segment, share, usage) you need to demonstrate ROI on the project and help you pitch the next Transmedia development idea to a film or television project. 

Unfortunately, gathering personal information is where Snowden’s leaks have their biggest impact. The leaks have created two problems. One is the loss of trust of your audience. Two is the legal situation your Transmedia campaign can create for your creative project.

Trust is critical to building a relationship with your audience; it is the only way to get people to give up their personal information. Most producers who have engaged in online campaigns have been very careful about making it clear to their audience that any personal information they gather isn’t going to be sold to a third party. This is something that producers can control. What they can’t control is access to any private information on any U.S. server by government agencies. No matter how honest their intention, producers don’t have the power to completely protect the privacy of any personal information. The result is going to be a lot more people who are going to be more careful about where their personal information ends up.

The legal issue is more complicated. Many democratic countries have made it very clear that internet users do have an expectation of privacy. This belief has been written into a number of privacy laws that protect the personal information of their citizens from unlawful viewing. Unlawful viewing would be someone going through the contents of your hard drive, electronic files or email without a court order or any kind of legal oversight. This isn’t a new problem as countries like Canada and many EU countries will not even legally allow the personal information of their citizens to be stored on an American server after the implementation of The Patriot Act. The Patriot Act allowed the search of personal information that was being stored digitally without a legal warrant. The new information from the Snowden leaks have made it obvious that not only is all personal data on a U.S.-based server not confidential, any server owned by an American company is also subject to secret surveillance. As a Transmedia producer a decision to capture and store personal information from your audience needs to respect the laws of the audience’s country when it comes to confidentiality. Your audience might not care or be aware of the consequences of putting their personal data on a server that is susceptible to surveillance but lawyers in their countries aren’t quite so lax. They may take issue with the way data and communications are being monitored by American intelligence agencies. 

Transmedia producers are going to need to consider privacy and personal data issues when they design their Transmedia property. It doesn’t make sense to create an amazing Transmedia experience if it exposes you and your company to legal liability. There is going to need to be more attention paid to the technical infrastructure they are using to coordinate their websites, apps and social media feeds. This isn’t going to be simple as the rise of cloud computing doesn’t really provide any clear indication of which country your data lives in while it is in the cloud. The cloud may be borderless but it is made up of a collection of servers and those machines physically exist within a country somewhere on the planet.   

Like most problems created by technology there are also people looking towards a solution. In a recent conversation with Frank Huerta, the CEO of TransLattice, I asked about some of the upcoming issues that the media industry would be facing. One of the top three on his list was “the protection of data from a privacy standpoint”. If the data you’ve collected is valuable or the source of liability then you want to be able to control how it is protected. Mr. Huerta outlined a scenario where “personal data can’t leave the country of origin or you can’t put certain data into the cloud”. Suddenly you need to have regional control of data because of legal and regulatory compliance issues. Mr. Huerta is part of the technology community that is creating solutions for these kinds of problems. He, and his company, have developed a new approach to storing data in nodes within a distributed database. In non-technical speak, it lets you control where you store your data and how. So solutions to the problem have already started to evolve, the entertainment industry isn’t the only industry facing this problem so there is a lot of interest in finding a solution.

The issues around privacy aren’t trivial but it is possible to solve them. It will mean one more legal and technical issue to consider in the design and development of any Transmedia project. It isn’t likely that any existing Transmedia properties are going to migrate their existing sites and delivery infrastructure. This isn’t a practical activity. This probably won’t be a significant issue as most Transmedia properties have an expiration date. They usually run for the duration of a film or television program. It isn’t likely that any existing project will need to deal with a migration issue for audience trust or legal issues. The likely scenario is that privacy and legal issue are going to be a consideration for any new projects that begin. While there are some solutions out there that can provide some answers there won’t be a simple and certain strategy in the immediate future. It is a new problem that technology and legislation has created, on a positive note; these kinds of problems are the ones that often drive entrepreneurs to create new technology and business solutions. This means the problem won’t be around for long, at least until technology or legislation ends up creating a new challenge for the entertainment industry. 

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