Talking transmedia

Transmedia. It’s like that word that you know should fit perfectly to describe what you’re trying to convey, and you know what letter it starts with, but there’s just no way that you can remember it right now. So you let it slide, confident that ”it’ll come back to you” at some point. Right now, it’s come back to at least parts of the transmedia community.

This past week, Andrea Phillips has argued that a taxonomy of transmedia forms would be necessary. Instead of transmedia – which still could be valuable as an umbrella term – we should talk about Web Series++, Expanded Documentaries or Franchise Storyworlds and so on. In this way, we can more precisely talk about what we actually want to talk about, get funding for what we want to get funding for and produce what we want to produce, without any misunderstandings or valuable time spent discussing terminology.

Brooke Thompson, on the other hand, sees a term that has done what it came to do. It has given a set of people something to rally around, when there was a need for something to rally around. We’ve ”broadened our horizons and narrowed our focus”. She would rather see us talk straight about what we are doing – a web narrative with e-book elements and a web series spanning over a 6 months experience – than name it ”a transmedia project”. At the same time she acknowledges that there are meetups and companies and organizations and projects that have adapted the term as an integral part of themselves, which means it’s not going away anytime soon.

I wrote a post for MIPBlog earlier this week. Working a lot in the more-or-less traditional TV industry (yes, it’s very much moving in the direction of multiplatform, second screen and social TV, but ”transmedia” is still a term regarded with a certain amount of scepticism, since very few feel they have a firm grasp if its’ meaning) I ended up writing the post in an effort to highlight some possibilities applying transmedia storytelling methods can bring to any TV production. The post caused some arguments in discussions on Facebook, chiefly about my final approach being non-journalistic and cherry-picking sentiments that supported my own train of thought. I’ve worked as a journalist for a number of years and know most things there is to know about getting different opinions in, letting them bash against each other and providing the audience with an objective analysis. Regarding this post, such an approach wasn’t really an option, but then again I didn’t view it as a journalistic piece of content but more something akin to an opinion piece. As I wrote in the discussion on Facebook:

I’ve been giving the issue a lot of thought lately. I believe we are heading into territories where the term “transmedia” increasingly will take on different meanings for different people. That’s already a fact, as transmedia incorporates so many professions and fields of interest that the diversity amongst practitioners is greater than in any other media field I can think of. This means – as we have seen in this and other discussions – that transmedia will mean one thing to you and a slightly – or vastly – other thing to me.

I stand by my initial position, and why I started writing the article in the first place; that transmedia is becoming redundant for a lot of people, especially those that have not been involved in creating transmedia projects. If you’re only looking at it from the outside, but you’re still embedded in the media industry and might FEEL you’re looking at it from the inside, then you’ll probably feel a great feeling of ”meh”, and an even greater feeling of ”so what, everything is already multiplatform, right?”. That’s where I came from in the article at MIPBlog, as I came to the conclusion that even though the feeling might be that it is redundant, in practice this is not the case. I agree with Jeff that the art of creating what we, for lack of better terms, call transmedia content is one that requires certain skills and a certain mindset, and that art will not be furthered by declaring it redundant.

At the same time, if you look at it from the OUTSIDE, this might very well be the case. This is ”outside” as in viewer, or funder, or user, or buyer, but also ”outside” as in ”working in media but not in a creative position directly working with transmedia”. For such persons, I can absolutely believe that ”transmedia” as a term feels like yesterday’s news, and viewing it from this angle, I understand why there was a lot less talk about transmedia at MIPTV this year.

So, to conclude, that was what the article in the end turned out as. I wanted to put the PRACTICE of transmedia back on the table for an industry that – in their own minds – have ”moved on” to pastures new.

What I’ve personally experienced though, as I’ve worked with everything from music artists to global companies to TV formats to personal branding over the past years, is that applying transmedia storytelling METHODS while developing, writing and producing content will help you no end when it comes to creating great content that will move seamlessly and logically over different media.

Jim Stewartson of 4th Wall Studios, finally, wrote a post about transmedia from his point of view. His view is that we need to finally define transmedia as a term, since not doing so will impair everyone’s chances of making a decent living from it. We must attract investment, we must go mainstream and we must create something that is recognizable and repeatable, in order to achieve scale and ultimately profits. While I agree with a lot of what he’s saying, there are other things I disagree on. For instance, he dismisses the notion of blurring the lines between fiction and reality, whereas I in my work with corporate storytelling or the music industry have found this to be not only valuable but actually profitable – with regards to quality – as well.

So, differing opinions, as always when we talk transmedia. I have no doubt this discussion will be held a number of times in the future as well, and I will admit I’ve all but given up looking for the Holy Grail – the one project that will be the shining beacon that everyone in the media world can point to and say ”THAT, my friends, THAT is a great transmedia project”, and that can be shown to everyone else as well and instantly make them ”get” transmedia.

Do I agree with the opinions I’ve related to above? Yes, I do, as I’m usually the kind of person who sees the world not in black and white but in a lot of shades of grey. If you want to make serious money from transmedia, as Jim Stewartson advocates, and you insist on ”transmedia” being an integral part of that profit-bringing excersise, you will have to define it thoroughly. Else no one will know what to pay you for!

Do I think transmedia has done what it came to do? Yes, I believe that as well. It has brought a loose-knitted community together, it has given food for many thoughts and it has resulted both in funding possibilities as well as a number of inspiring projects. Do we need the term now? In my line of work, not necessarily.

Do I think we would benefit from naming the different practices now existing under the transmedia umbrella in greater detail, as Andrea suggests? Absolutely, especially when it comes to pitching projects or talking to external possible partners, or other creators and producers in the transmedia community.

In conclusion, I think transmedia – as Brooke put it – will continue to exist as a term to gather a lot of projects under, much as it works today. For me, it will always be a term that puts my creative mind in a certain gear – a gear I won’t need when developing a new quiz show for television, but a gear that can be useful in a lot of other projects.  I unfortunately don’t believe that there will arise a consensus for either Andrea’s or Jim’s suggestions; the definite definition of transmedia will not see the light as there are just too many different voices and minds already invested in the term on their own premises (and note that I haven’t even touched on territorial differences yet, where European transmedia projects often are quite different from US transmedia projects, not to talk about projects from Asia or Africa).

I hope we would move in the direction of Andrea’s suggestions, with clearly defined sub-categories that everyone can feel at home in. Somehow, though, it feels that you’d need a globally recognized authority to put such categories in place, and I don’t think the UN is inclined to get involved in something as thorny as this.

Bottom line – transmedia storytelling and the application of transmedia storytelling methods is a wonderful practice that has helped me a lot professionally. I’ll cling to it, as it often helpes me create better content. I feel I’ll be using it less and less though, especially since a lot of my work is geared towards the TV industry, sometimes in quite a traditional way. I’ll still consider myself a proud member of the transmedia tribe though, and will hope for more discussions that take the community and the practice onwards.

PS. As some might’ve noticed, I’ve changed the title of the blog. It used to be ”Transmedia Development”. Now it’s ”Developing Media”, as I feel that reflects my standpoint better. DS.

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6 thoughts on “Talking transmedia

  1. Pingback: Nature of Media | Media Today

  2. Pingback: Talking transmedia | Simon Staffans // Developing Media | Richard Kastelein - Creative Technology and building the bridge

  3. Hi Simon – great reflections and insights of the meaning of new buzz words. It brings back memories of a a similar discussion of ‘Techno’ in the (underground) music industry 15 years ago ;-D The term you choose to use about something defines you and your position in the industry.

  4. Hey Simon – yep agree with what you said. My opinion is the constant need to define transmedia in whatever way (I’m a pure transmedia type of guy – telling one story across platforms. Storyworlds come into it at a later point for me – but no less important)
    In the whole scheme of things, I think that people should just get out there and do it! If we as a community know what the term means, in a way we can just ignore people outside and get on with the work (and maybe create that great transmedia project)
    Talking with TV execs down here, it’s taken so long for them to think about the digital, multiplatform and interactive world – that bringing a term like transmedia into just confuses their minds so much that they just go fuck it and forget it all…

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