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Reflections on Transmedia

A USC professor of media may be able to break down transmedia with a keen eye, but even he can still admit that there is no ultimate formula.

A USC professor of media may be able to break down transmedia with a keen eye, but even he can still admit that there is no ultimate formula.

The above video was shot by Scott Walker during one of my presentations at San Diego Comic-Con, during which I spoke about some of the controversy which has surrounded the definition of transmedia over the past six months or so. I've largely stayed out of these conversations, though you can find a very good summary of the debates here.

I've been focusing on other projects and also I've been more interested in the shapes these discussions take than seeking to intervene in them directly, but over the summer, in a range of venues, I've been pushing and proding at my own definitions to see if I can capture some of my own shifting understandings of transmedia, especially as I am preparing to teach a revamped transmedia entertainment class at USC. Today, I am going to try to put some of this still evolving thinking into writing in hopes that it helps others sort through these issues.

Much of this is covered in the above video so if you process things better in audio-visual than in print, you have your options. I've heard some gossip that Jenkins was going to issue a "new definition" of "transmedia": this is no where near as dramatic an overhaul as that, just some clarifications and reflections about definitions. This definition still covers, more or less, what I mean by transmedia storytelling:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.

So, consider what follows Transmedia 202, to compliment my earlier Transmedia 101 post on my personal blog.

Given the sheer range of people who have embraced (latched onto?) transmedia, we should not be surprised that:

1. different groups of people are defining a still emerging concept differently for different purposes for different audiences in different contexts;

2. some of those who talk about transmedia are less immersed in the previous writings and thinkings as we might wish and thus can bring a certain degree of fog; and

3. some groups are strongly motivated to expand or blur the scope of the category for self promotional and self advancement purposes.

So, let's start at the top with convergence, which in Convergence Culture, I describe as a paradigm for thinking about the current moment of media change. Convergence contrasts with the Digital Revolution model which assumed old media would be displaced by new media. Aspects of this convergence model are shaping decisions of media producers, advertisers, technologists, consumers, and policy-makers, and thus convergence has many different aspects and consequences. Transmedia, used by itself, simply means "across media."

Transmedia, at this level, is one way of talking about convergence as a set of cultural practices. Transmedia storytelling describes one logic for thinking about the flow of content across media. We might also think about transmedia branding, transmedia performance, transmedia ritual, transmedia play, transmedia activism, and transmedia spectacle, as other logics. The same text might fit within multiple logics. So, for example, we could imagine Glee as a transmedia narrative in which we follow the characters and situations across media, but more often, Glee's transmedia strategies emphasize transmedia performance, with the songs moving through YouTube, iTunes, live performances, etc., which we read against each other to make sense of the larger Glee phenomenon.

So, there are some people who think that transmedia is simply a form of branding: I would rather argue that branding is one thing you can do with transmedia, but when I speak about transmedia storytelling, that is not the central focus of my interest. I am focusing on emergent forms of storytelling which tap into the flow of content across media and the networking of fan response.

Some people have argued that transmedia is simply another name for franchising. Franchising is a corporate structure for media production which has a long history and throughout much of that history, there has been an attempt to move icons and brands across media channels, but not necessarily an attempt to extend the story in ways which expanded its scope and meaning. Most previous media franchises were based on reproduction and redundancy, but transmedia represents a structure based on the further development of the storyworld through each new medium. For a good guide to the history and practices of franchising, watch for the forthcoming book by Derek Johnson, who has been doing extensive thinking on this topic.

Much of franchising has been based on licensing arrangements which make it hard for mediaproducers to add or change anything beyond what is already in the primary text or the mother ship. True transmedia storytelling is apt to emerge through structures which encourage co-creation and collaboration, but as Johnson notes, the more a media producer moves in this direction, the greater the challenges of coordination and consistency become.

I have been troubled by writers who want to reduce transmedia to the idea of multiple media platforms without digging more deeply into the logical relations between those media extensions. So, if you are a guild, it matters deeply that you have a definition which determines how many media are deployed, but for me, as a scholar, that is not the key issue that concerns me. As we think about defining transmedia, then, we need to come back to the relations between media and not simply count the number of the media platforms.

One can construct a high end transmedia system (a major blockbuster movie or network television show and its extensions) and one can construct a low end transmedia system (a low budget and/or independent film, a comic book or web series as the spring board for something which might include live performance or oral storytelling...). Some have tried to argue that games are a key component of transmedia, but I do not want to prioritize digital media extensions over other kinds of media practices.

For this reason, it is possible to find historical antecedents for transmedia which predate the rise of networked computing and interactive entertainment. I am not preoccupied with the "newness" of transmedia. The current push for transmedia has emerged from shifts in production practices (shaped by media concentration, in some cases) or reception practices (the emergence of Web 2.0 and social media), but it has also come from the emergence of new aesthetic understandings of how popular texts work (shaped in part by the rise of geeks and fans to positions of power within the entertainment industries).

The options available to a transmedia producer today are different from those available some decades ago, but we can still point to historical antecedents which were experimenting with notions of world building and mythology-modeled story structures in ways that include both radical intertextuality and multimodality. In that way, you can say that L. Frank Baum (in his focus on world building across media), Walt Disney (in his focus on transmedia branding) and J.R.R. Tolkien (with his experiments in radical intertextuality) each prefigure transmedia practices.

Similarly, I've argued that Obama is as much a transmedia character as Obi Wan is. I do not mean by this simply that our everyday lives are conducted across multiple media platforms, though this is true. I also mean that we tend to connect those dispersed pieces of information together to form a story, that the story we construct depends on which media extensions we draw upon (Fox News vs. The Huffington Post), and that there are architects who seek to coordinate and construct the range of meanings which get attached to that story. In that sense, the Obama story, as constructed by his campaign, includes both radical intertextuality and multimodality.

The Hollywood based model of transmedia assumes a story told or a world explored across not simply multiple media but multiple texts, which can be sold to audiences separately and which represent multiple touch points with the brand. The ARG model, however, assumes that multiple media can contribute to a single entertainment experience. So, we are more likely to talk about The Beast, I Love Bees, or The Lost Experience as completed texts in their own right (as well as in all three cases as part of larger entertainment franchises). Different groups have different stakes in drawing lines distinguishing or integrating these two models. It is important to understand what they are each trying to accomplish, but I am less invested in defining in or out one model or the other. I just think this is a space which deserves closer conceptual work than it has received so far.

Transmedia refers to a set of choices made about the best approach to tell a particular story to a particular audience in a particular context depending on the particular resources available to particular producers. The more we expand the definition, the richer the range of options available to us can be. It doesn't mean we expand transmedia to the point that anything and everything counts, but it means we need a definition sophisticated enough to deal with a range of very different examples. What I want to exclude from this definition is "business as usual" projects which are not exploring the expanded potential of transmedia, but are simply slapping a transmedia label on the same old franchising practices we've seen for decades.

A version of this post originally appeared on Confessions of an Aca-Fan.


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