Wrestling With Words: Defining Transmedia

Wrestling Sideways - Really By Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton
"Wrestling Sideways - Really" by Timothy K. Hamilton

“Transmedia isn’t new; it’s the current iteration of interactive storytelling. Now there’s more media.”

Craig Engler/SyFy @ NYTVF’s Digital Day

Ask 5 people what they think transmedia is and you’ll get 10 different answers, all with pretty sound reasoning, most likely based on the industry they work in. In trade publishing, it’s a relatively new buzzword with little consensus on its meaning or importance, while other industries are more familiar with it and approach it in different ways.

Last week, I attended NYTVF’s Digital Day session, Building the World–Multiplatform and Transmedia Storytelling, and while specific platforms and connectivity were emphasized by some, SyFy’s Engler, Bravo’s Lisa Hsia, and the always interesting Jeff Gomez focused primarily on the underlying story. When asked for great examples, Star Wars was of course mentioned, but quickly sidestepped as it’s often seen as an exception, not the rule. Dexter, Battlestar Galactica and Glee were also offered up.

Not mentioned, oddly enough, was the Marvel Universe, perhaps the best example of collaborative fiction there is, and their recent digital and film initiatives gives them a compelling transmedia platform that rivals Star Wars. One could even argue that Stan Lee was a proto-Transmedia Creator and Developer, and you have to wonder how the MU would have evolved if the original creators had retained their rights.

On defining transmedia conceptually, they each offered strong opinions that sync with my own:

“Great storytelling starts with a great idea, not the platform.” – Hsia

“Good transmedia production contributes to the long-term health of the intellectual property.” -Gomez

“This is a great time to be a content creator.” -Engler

While the term “transmedia” is a clunky one that puts more emphasis on platform over story, not unlike the simplistic print vs. ebook debate that drones on and on, it’s gaining traction and we’re likely stuck with it, at least for the time being. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the privilege of engaging in some thought-provoking discussions, in person and online, with some really smart people who have helped me refine my personal definition of what transmedia means.

Briefly, I see three things as being critical to defining and developing a transmedia story:

  1. Story, Story, Story – Transmedia isn’t a book, a movie, a video game, or an interactive app; it potentially includes any, all or none of the above, depending on the underlying story being told.
  2. Creative control – In transmedia, there are no ancillary rights. The creator, whether an individual or a collaborative team, must look beyond any single channel or platform and take a more holistic view of the story to ensure that every potential branch is relevant, organic, and part of the official canon.
  3. Return on Investment – Technology has expanded the mediums available for storytelling, and transmedia is quickly becoming the buzzword of choice for app developers and marketing gurus. If a particular medium doesn’t serve the story AND provide the necessary ROI on financial and/or marketing metrics, it’s just a new shiny distraction.

I wholeheartedly believe, as Engler suggested, that transmedia is a great opportunity for writers and publishers who are savvy enough to look beyond the traditional book and focus on the stories they contain and the unlocked potential therein.

I’ve read three really good articles recently that have greatly influenced my thinking, and I highly recommend them:

I’ve also put together a WEBcast for Digital Book World on 10/12, Transmedia 101 for Publishers and Authors, that brings together a quartet of smart, innovative people I respect — David Marlett, Alison Norrington, Anita Ondine, Chuck Wendig — to discuss and debate transmedia and what it means from a publishing perspective.

While I highly doubt it, one thing I’d love to come out of that session with is a better term than “transmedia.”

My preference is “free verse storytelling.”

What do you think?

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16 thoughts on “Wrestling With Words: Defining Transmedia

  1. Guy,

    Your emphasis on story is spot on. It’s easy to mistake the bells and whistles for good storytelling. Kudos for drawing more attention to this and hopefully helping us frame a more constructive shared view of transmedia (and very much looking forward to your 10/12 DBW WEBcast!).

    I have no silver bullet, but here are my thoughts about why we’re still having this conversation.

    Our inability to agree on a term and on a definition is indicative of just how comprehensive the transmedia storytelling model is. It potentially cuts across all mediums, all entertainment industries, all technologies, all genres.

    The struggle to define transmedia is often a reflection of how you view it changing your place in the world. Little wonder we’re still arguing over its importance and place in entertainment.

    I humbly believe we’re going to need more time and far more examples of how transmedia can be implemented if a general consensus will be globally reached.

    Yes, it’s kind of painful now, but it’s also a very creative phase for transmedia. We’re just beginning to explore the full potential of this model, and the sky is the limit for how transmedia can be applied (think politics, health, education).

    As Engler said, “This is a great time to be a content creator.”

    1. Agreed; it’s early days and as we see different and unexpected examples of transmedia succeed, the definition will evolve as will its applications (“politics, health, education”). In some ways, I think it’s more of a philosophical concept than a concrete one, so there won’t only be one definition.

  2. I’ve been following this term for a few months now. It IS elusive. One definition stored in my “Transmedia” folder:

    “According to Henry Jenkins, author of the seminal text, ‘Convergence Culture’: Transmedia storytelling is storytelling by a number of decentralized authors who share and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media. Transmedia immerses an audience in a story’s universe through a number of dispersed entry points, providing a comprehensive and coordinated experience of a complex story.”

    Got it? Hmmm….

    Here is one of Prof. Jenkin’s posts “Transmedia Education: the 7 Principles Revisited” http://henryjenkins.org/2010/06/transmedia_education_the_7_pri.html

    1. I like that definition, though I don’t think it requires multiple authors. Collaborative storytelling is one model, as is Walker’s “participatory entertainment,” but a single author can certainly take advantage of transmedia, too.

      PS: Convergence Culture is sitting at the top of my to-read pile and I’m looking forward to getting to it in the next week or two.

  3. I am at a terrific conference this weekend: Lee Lofland’s Writers’ Police Academy. Jeffrey Deaver is our keynote speaker this evening. The workshop staff’s credentials are staggering. Small group, maybe 150 total, and the most most commonly heard question, “What do *you* write?”

    I tried the new definition: “I’m a transmedia storyteller! I develop 3D interactive media content, replete with exciting stories and structural creations, open to multiple, simultaneous interaction. And the best part? All outcomes are determined by readers.”

    Three hundred eyes have glazed over, wan little, “ooooh” noises are emitted. Today, I added, “and I write short stories”. At least I’ve noticed the rise and fall of their chests return. ~m

  4. I understand anyone’s confusion about the current definition of transmedia. The main problem from my point of view is that the original definition was utilitarian, but didn’t help generate a lot of revenue or successful implementations for proponents. In the intervening decade (if not longer), the original definition has been replaced by looser definitions which provide for greater marketing opportunities, but which — as you point out — have not produced a greater number of prominent successful examples.

    If you roll back the clock on the very idea of transmedia, it’s not hard to see where the term came from. It’s been long understood that all mediums can be turned to the task of storytelling, and that in any given medium a story can be told from beginning to end. You don’t need two mediums (books and movies, say) to tell a story, you only need one — and there is considerable advantage to sticking with one, particularly if technology is involved.

    Still, because human beings like mucking around with the status quo, some people began to wonder what it would be like to take a given story world or universe and explore it across multiple mediums. The key distinction to be made now is that these people were not talking about taking a given story and porting it to other mediums, they were talking about doing what each medium does best, and exploring – without strict narrative replication — the entirety of the world/universe across (trans) multiple mediums.

    This is fundamentally different from the dumbed-down definition of transmedia that many people are now using and selling. In the same way that ‘interactivity’ went from meaning something useful (choice that reveals outcome — my definition) to something more salable (clickability), transmedia now often means a single story that is exploited across multiple mediums — even though such a concept is not actually new. (Unless we want to say that making a movie out of Gone With the Wind was transmedia, which is pretty weak.)

    As often happens, the people who make stuff are shouldered aside by the people who talk about stuff (critics, academics) and sell stuff (entrepreneurs, marketing departments), and what was once a useful technical term becomes a dumbed-down buzzword tailored for consumer and investor consumption.

    Again, from the point of view of storytelling craft, the only useful distinction one could make by employing the word ‘transmedia’ would be the idea of a meta-story that one cannot understand without experiencing a narrative universe across multiple mediums. And the only reason to use multiple mediums from a craft point of view would be to exploit the inherent advantages of a given medium to the fullest. (This is a choice that all storytellers tend to make implicitly in any given instance: is this story best told as a novel, a stage play, a comic?)

    The biggest knock against transmedia from the point of view of both craft and consumer interest is that it complicates a process that already functions well in the marketplace. Like adding an additional step to the process of ordering fast food, one could reasonably expect that this additional complication would act as a deterrent to interest, rather than an inducement. Personally, I’m not convinced that audiences en mass have the tools to appreciate the complexities and subtleties of transmedia, when individual mediums seems to satisfy their storytelling needs.

    1. Philosophically, we’re about 90% on the same page, except for the idea that transmedia is (or can be) a “single story that is exploited across multiple mediums,” or that “audiences en mass have the tools to appreciate the complexities…”

      Porting the same story across various mediums doesn’t fit my definition of transmedia; telling different stories set within a single storyworld across various mediums, a la Star Wars, does. And while “audiences en mass” don’t necessarily have the tools, segments of the audience do and wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity to engage with their favorite storyworlds on their platform(s) of choice.

      Key word: choice. Not every story is best served, or fully served, by a book. Or a film. Or a video game. The creator(s) need to be smart about that, and consumers will let them know when they’ve gotten it right.

      Example: I’m a big fan of Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick; not just the main character but the entire world he inhabits. I loved the Xbox game, enjoyed the animated film, and bought but never read the novelizations. I’d LOVE to see a series of graphic novels set in the world, would be intrigued by an RPG, and hope they eventually make a third movie.

      Star Trek, on the other hand, was a fun movie, and I’m looking forward to the sequel, but have no interest in engaging with it elsewhere.


      Gomez said it best: “Good transmedia production contributes to the long-term health of the intellectual property.”

      Smart creators would be wise to keep an open mind about all media, not rejecting anything out of hand because of a familiarity or comfort level with any specific one.

  5. I’m with Ditchwalk on this, any individual artist makes these sort of artistic decisions as to which artistic form (and now media) is best suited to the material.

    But Luddite as I am, I’d like to lob in a hand grenade about why the centrality of story-telling? Someone mentioned experience above and clearly there is a difference between story telling and experience relating, even if that is shaped into a narrative. TV & film in the early 21st Century are possibly the most efficacious means of telling stories. Literature, which originally inherited the communal story-telling around the tribal fire mantle, now lags way behind these visual media. I would posit that where literature can thrive, is in questioning what we now mean by story-telling, why we still require it to shape part of our experiencing of the world and what is the precise nature of fiction to this story-telling urge. The multi-platform delivery of these themes may or may not form part of any such creative & imaginative inquiries. For example, I believe what is unique to print, is typography, so that there is plenty of room for collaboration between writers, designers & typographers to deconstruct & explore language as it looks on the page/screen.

    1. I’ll repeat part of my comment to Mark: It’s about choices, for the creator(s) and the fans.

      Jeff Gomez said it best: “Good transmedia production contributes to the long-term health of the intellectual property.”

      Smart creators would be wise to keep an open mind about all media, not rejecting anything out of hand because of a familiarity or comfort level with any specific one.

    1. Good post; pretty much illustrates my “10 definitions from 5 people” comment. Of course, I agree with Anita’s perspective; she blew me away at DIY Days and I’m really looking forward to having you and her on the WEBcast next month. Thanks!

  6. You say you don’t like the term “transmedia”, instead preferring something like “free verse storytelling.” While emphasis certainly needs to be placed on storytelling, stories have always been defined by the medium in which they appear. I read a book, I watch a movie, I listen to a radio drama. No one questions that there are stories involved in each, so why not use “transmedia” to describe a story (or stories) told across (trans) multiple media?

    (Though I wonder what the attached verb would be. I experience transmedia? I partake in transmedia?)

    Secondly, does your reluctance to include a single story told across multiple media as ‘transmedia’ preclude something like an ARG, in which various websites, email accounts, videos, audio files, etc., are used to get across a single complete story — or are you just referring to remakes, where the same story is told completely as a book, then again as a film, then again as a comic?

    1. Your point about “what the attached verb would be” perfectly illustrates my problem with transmedia as a term; it doesn’t really work and takes the focus off the underlying story. Transmedia, as I define it, is simply various points of engagement with a storyworld, but the vagueness of the term also lends itself to marketing initiatives that have nothing to do with the organic extension of a story.

      That said, “free verse storytelling” isn’t any less clunky, but at least it’s more focused on my agenda. 🙂

      As for ARGs, my limited knowledge of them would certainly fit under the transmedia umbrella. It’s the porting of the same exact story onto a new platform — remake, adaptation, novelization — that I don’t consider to be legitimate forms of transmedia.

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