An Interview with Jeff Gomez about a Vital New Narrative Model
Jeff Gomez, CEO of New York production studio Starlight Runner, apparently loves, and has always loved, a challenge. In the 1970s, while many shy imaginative high school students were fighting imaginary monsters in store-bought Dungeons & Dragons modules, Jeff was running off-script, inventing entire fantasy universes for his players to fly through. In the 1980s, while most nerds were enjoying Aliens and Terminator, Jeff was publishing Gateways magazine, where he speculated about how fictional worlds could be tied together into immersive universes across different media.
In the ‘90s, Jeff tested his theories with proto-transmedia efforts like Turok, Dinosaur Hunter, which manifested out of Acclaim Entertainment as comic books, video games, and action figures. He scored a second hit after adapting his Dungeons & Dragons campaign into the world of Magic: The Gathering, generating top-selling comic books, video games, and trading cards. In the ‘00s, he dubbed his multi-platform story work “trans-media,” but dropped the hyphen after he learned the term was being used by MIT Professor Henry Jenkins to describe exactly the kind of storytelling technique he’d been using.
Jeff’s success as a transmedia producer is well documented. His company, Starlight Runner, is best known for developing franchise “Mythology” books, clarifying and expanding upon all aspects of some of the best-known entertainment properties, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, Halo, and Transformers. Starlight Runner has also applied transmedia storytelling techniques to big brands such as Coca-Cola and Goldfish, and more recently toward international peace building and sociopolitical change. In all cases, Jeff is fond of saying, “It all starts with story.”
Jeff’s fascination with story, and how it can connect with and move large numbers of people, is the focus of this year’s interview. An unabashed fan of mythologist Joseph Campbell, Jeff has recently been grappling with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which many point to as the prototypical narrative model for nearly every popular story from Gilgamesh to Star Wars. The Hero’s Journey, says Jeff, is so powerful because it is about direct conflict and therefore harkens to the human survival instinct that remains deeply planted in all of our minds: “We have a need, we brave the dangers of the world to achieve that need, and we bring home the reward of fulfilling that need.”
But Jeff feels that the rise of the internet and social media has profoundly impacted the Campbellian model. Story, he says, no longer needs to be linear. It no longer requires the polarization of good and evil; the kind of violence and single-minded righteousness that gave the model such a “masculine impulse,” as he calls it. Instead, Jeff has spent the past several years preparing an alternative model, which he calls the Collective Journey. He says he will describe the model in detail early this coming year, but for the first time in this exclusive interview details how his thinking evolved…
Last year you were very excited about a new mode of storytelling you were working on called the Collective Journey. It was a response, you said, to the linear, conflict-laden Hero’s Journey. How do you distinguish the Collective Journey from your work in transmedia storytelling?
Transmedia is a producer’s toolset to distribute a story in an engaging way; the Collective Journey is a new modality of story itself. I know it’s sacrilegious to say but the Hero’s Journey no longer has the efficacy it once did, especially amidst the backdrop of pervasive communications and our society’s digital transformation.
For many years, it was a big task for Starlight Runner to get our clients to understand how to use different media, marketing, advertising, and licensing in concert in order to cultivate and grow their intellectual properties. Once we were able to finally convince them to do this, and to tell different aspects of the story across different media, they started to see results.
Our client Disney reorganized around this concept and found and expanded their IP from any part of the company, rather than just from movies. Our client Coca-Cola used transmedia on Happiness Factory, and the approach was so successful, they called it Liquid Storytelling and applied it to all of their campaigns. Our client Microsoft turned the videogame Halo into an entertainment franchise.
But from way back, I’ve always wanted to do more with transmedia. Some years ago, I started to get interested in using the techniques to help large numbers of people. Because of the dialog architecture that was a fundamental part of the model we favored, I thought we could use concerted narrative and the forums offered by the internet and social media to give voices to people who normally had none. I believed that people who are heard and who can hear one another could be strengthened in the face of adversity: oppression, corruption, crime, violence.
In 2009, I was approached by the U.S. government and asked about how transmedia could be used to give the nation an advantage on the battlefield. I told them I was not interested producing weaponized propaganda. Instead, I felt my work could be much more effective at providing populations with alternative narratives, opening people up to different ways of dealing with extraordinary challenges.
After a series of meetings my team was referred to U.S. Special Operations Command, and to my surprise they agreed to fund a communications model that would not be used for war, but for activating a population to stand in its own defense, to push back against extremist dogma, and self-organize for peace, justice and a better future.
To say the least, this was not going to be a tent pole movie rollout. It was a huge responsibility. We would be briefed, gather data independently, and commit to months of research. My team had to give careful consideration to everything we did.
But I had been thinking about how story was changing in the digital age. It was becoming less linear, more participative. Just look at 4chan, Reddit, Twitter or Facebook. Look at how consumer demands are impacting major longtime brands, from Time-Warner Cable to Abercrombie & Fitch. It reminded me of how all my neighbors talked to one another at the same time on the benches in front of our apartment building when I was a kid, or on a larger scale, the American civil rights movement. It was like an ancient tribe sharing tales around a fire, or inspiring one another to take on a cause. Story was becoming messy again. It also was becoming a potent bonding agent for growing communities of people, many of whom only knew or talked with one another through the web.
So, I started thinking about communal narrative, and the aspects of story that were becoming prominent as we built this model that I called transmedia population activation. When it came time to apply the model, my team asked USSOCOM to release us and let us work independently with a nation whose people directly asked for the help. That nation turned out to be Mexico, which was experiencing terrible internal violence at the time due to conflicts between the drug cartels. The US military agreed to let us go and work directly with a significant community of interest there. The model took nearly a year to adapt, and another to implement, but the results were striking.
Through a concerted effort of messaging, corporate and media cooperation, and targeted social services, all of these compelling human stories were told and heard. Vast stretches of population became engaged with these stories. They saw themselves, felt validated and got excited. They became activated, they self-organized, and they marched. Tipping points were reached, and these dominant and often destructive societal forces had no choice but to pull back. Violence went into decline for several years. The results were so impressive that Starlight Runner was asked to apply the model in other parts of the world; in Colombia, and most recently in Southwest Australia.
I realized these communal narratives, which my team had to research and develop and produce with the Mexicans—they were not Hero’s Journey narratives. That’s really when my concept for the Collective Journey model of storytelling began to coalesce.
You’ve said you felt that the Hero’s Journey did not adequately address the sprawling, nonlinear and far more participative narratives that describe today’s popular story worlds and the social media fueled stories that have captured our attention in recent years. But Starlight Runner has been quiet about the Collective Journey in 2016. Can you tell us what’s happening?
This time last year, I was really excited about the Collective Journey. We were about to apply it formally in our work with a distinguished university in Australia. I was preparing to announce it, and put it out there; approach major clients with it, and tour it in a master class. The model as it was coming together seemed to explain so much about how and why things were changing, and so much of it seemed to be changing for the better. But then I started to feel a dark wind blowing.
I realized I hadn’t finished the puzzle, and still needed to place some tricky pieces. When I see communications phenomena emerge—the seemingly spontaneous manifestation of self-organized movements like the Yellow Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, or the 99%, or No Mas Sangre, No Mas FARC in Colombia—I’m drawn to study them. I want determine the narrative-based factors that sparked them and pushed their momentum to the tipping point.
Like most people, I was sickened by the actions of ISIS, and was struck by how rapidly they had risen. Their messaging was crystal clear to me, as if they were a corporate media machine, and yet they were this decentralized band of pirates. When I looked closer, however, I realized they were better at building their brand and conveying their story than any government, because they fully understood the power of the internet and social media. Figuratively speaking, they were running around with iPhone 10’s, while the Obama administration was responding with flip phones.
Moving down my checklist, I realized that the Collective Journey was not just about the taking down of the Confederate flag, or Black Lives Matter, it applied to any number of emerging systemic narratives, including that of ISIS. In all of these cases, the movements picked up very quickly, and had major impact, as did the Arab Spring before them, and as would Brexit and the American alt-right movement later.
What happened then? Did you return to your government contacts with your insights into ISIS?
I did. I met with high ranking officials from the State Department at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. But I failed to impress them. Part of it was my fault, because this is a huge, very serious situation and my revised Collective Journey model wasn’t ready. I didn’t have the language. Here I am talking with them about story and narratology, and they’re sitting there thinking about technology and logistics. They were searching desperately for a killer app, while I was talking about shifting archetypes. I’ll never forget when Madeleine Albright called my approach “airy-fairy.”
They also wanted solutions that could be implemented and get them results by the end of 2016. The laws of physics would have prevented my model from working for them in that time. It was hugely frustrating, because I could see what needed to be done so clearly, and I could see it was only going to get worse, and my model, such as it was, made no sense to the decision-makers.
What should — or could — have been done?
That’s a long story. In short, a movement that exhibits the traits of the Collective Journey, but is fueled by rage, can’t be shot with bullets or blasted by bombs. You can’t smash into it with an opposing ideology. By its nature, it’s going to make your story work against you, like narrative judo.
Instead, the administration would have had to pull the narrative engine out of the ISIS chassis and take it apart completely; study and learn everything about it so that a truly viable alternative that most people can live with can be developed and shared. But that takes enormous patience. That takes having respect for their narrative, and understanding that these people are dying every day to carry it forward.
Ultimately, it would have meant doing the same as we did in Mexico: building a powerful community of interest made up of a cross section of citizens from the region. But it also would have necessitated a good deal of behavior change on the part of our country. By the end of the meetings in Aspen, it became clear to me that this would have to be accomplished through other channels rather than through the administration. Starlight Runner is pursuing those other channels now.
Earlier you mentioned the alt-right, an ideology and movement that is often credited with helping Donald Trump become the President of the United States. Should this be understood in the context of the Trump narrative being Collective Journey?
Yes. In every sense of the term. The alt-right, which coalesced in 4chan and Reddit, took lessons from the failure of the Tea Party. The media held Tea Party up to ridicule, despite what they felt were legitimate concerns around fiscal responsibility and taxes. If you’re perceived as stupid or nuts, your agenda flies out the window.
Instead, the alt-right gestated on the down low, using collective intelligence (which Henry Jenkins calls an “alternative source of media power”) to innovate a far more potent and resonant ideology. Because of this nonlinearity, and because of this interconnectivity, less than 40,000 people set to work disrupting the system. Early on, they targeted the person most conceded would be our next president. In a matter of months, Hillary Clinton’s reputation, foundation, and campaign were all under serious assault.
At the same time, there was Donald Trump, who had been humiliated by Obama at that White House Correspondents’ Dinner, deciding to respond by audaciously running for president. Trump’s personal values had always harkened to the post-World War II golden age of patriarchy and societal order. It was no great leap for him and the alt-right to connect and suffuse into one another. Trump became the voice of the collective. It would be a voice that told a wildly entertaining and deeply resonant story; one that many understood, not just a relatively small number of 4chan intellectuals.
What are some key aspects of the Collective Journey that were used by the Trump campaign that were not used by the Clinton campaign?
Their Collective Journey setup was perfect. The protagonist is one of many: Trump seems like an outlier, but he almost immediately establishes himself as of the people, one of a vast community. He’s airing their grievances for the first time in decades. He’s speaking in their language, expressing their discontent, even their rage. Their cause is nothing short of systemic change: Trump attacks both sides with equal vigor; he wants to “drain the swamp.”
Collective Journey narrative allows for multiple perspectives: To the outside, the story seemed a mess, often contradicting itself, playing out in outrageous flourishes; but to the community it all made perfect sense, and was so deeply gratifying that the base became electrified and activated. No matter what variations existed in their viewpoints, they were all unawed as this force that flew in the face of the establishment.
In the Collective Journey, the narrative embraces its opposition. Criticism against Trump and his agenda became fuel for their engine, attacks against them were met with overwhelming counter-narratives. Pictures counted more than words: Every Trump community member was emboldened to become a broadcaster, generating dozens or hundreds of supporting stories and opinions and spreading them to their social media feeds.
In keeping with the power of these Collective Journey traits, what was largely deemed impossible quickly became real. An ideology was born a few short years ago, and will be made flesh (in the form of alt-right leader Stephen Bannon and to a degree Trump himself) inside the White House in January.
The Clinton campaign failed to embrace any of these factors. Compared with all this, Hillary Clinton ran a campaign that would have sat quite comfortably in 1996.
You’re generally perceived as an optimist with progressive values. Has Trump’s use of Collective Journey elements—and its use by ISIS for that matter—darkened your view of the model? Is this why you’ve been hesitant to be more open about it?
No, I’m thrilled by the model, but it needed to be ready. My primary job is to understand why stories work, how they can be made more effective, and how to fix them if they’re not effective enough. That’s been easy for me with Hero’s Journey stories, because I’ve been studying them since I was a kid.
Examining these complex stories of seismic change objectively can be daunting. I had to put on my Spock ears, set any judgement aside about the values espoused, and just look at how they worked. It’s like trying to study something that’s both alive and exists within four dimensions. It’s not just that Collective Journey stories run in different directions across time and space, it’s that they are participative.
I call Collective Journey narratives porous, because there is the story being told, and there is the ability of any individual to cross over into the story. Reading the story is one thing. Sharing it and commenting on it is another. But now we can connect directly with the storyteller. We can contribute to the narrative. We can even help to expand the story world. We’ve seen some of this in entertainment and advertising. Now we’re seeing it in action in the real world, and it’s easily accessible and stunningly fast because of technology. That’s a lot to study and understand and test, but the tests work. The model works.
But there are dangers. In the talk I gave at TEDxTransmedia in 2010, which alluded to the early work I was doing in Collective Journey, I ended by expressing a very specific concern. I took Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion and equated it to the power of transmedia storytelling. I warned that one day soon, narratives communicated through these techniques can generate “a system of symbols and text, which establish powerful, long-lasting moods in people by telling us stories that make sense in our reality, stating these stories as absolute fact, which make these moods uniquely realistic.”
In other words, if we are not careful, the transmedia communication of potent communal narratives can make something that is not real seem very real, or something that is fiercely destructive seem innocuous and positive. If misapplied, entire populations can become polarized and confused, no longer able to discern reality from fiction. My prediction has come to pass. This is happening in the world today. Look at this fake news issue that everyone is arguing about, from the President to Mark Zuckerberg to your Facebook buddy from high school.
We’re never going to get out of situations like this if we’re lost inside of them, even though for some of us staying inside is self-affirming. As tempting as that is, I’m a believer that it works to all of our advantage to see the matrix for what it is. If we fail to understand these new narrative models, and harness their power for the betterment of all of us, the alternative is for us to surrender our personal freedoms to others.
As the stories and the communication efforts distributed along Collective Journey principles are so inviting and so ready to draw the user into an echo-chamber of memes, “shitposting,” consent and group-think, what do you feel would be the most crucial skills that we should focus on honing ourselves and teach to others? Critical thinking? How to tell stories? Produce content? Something else?
This is a hot button for me. The answer, of course, is media literacy, which is the process of absorbing and comparing multiple images and narratives across different media, and becoming able to discern the meaning and intent of messages. It’s also the process of being able to discern facts from various interpretations of the facts. We’re taught reading comprehension in school. Some of us can glean the message or “moral” of the story, but because there is no media literacy taught in the primary education system in the United States (nor in many other countries), young people are left to their own devices and adults can’t hope to keep up.
The result is that we take the easy way out, gravitating toward stories we agree with, rather than ones that are more objectively factual. We’re gathering evidence that by default reaffirms our preconceived notions, or the notions of the leader, celebrity or role model we like best. Kids are not taught how to best leverage their $700 iPhones for study and information purposes. Instead they’re being treated like toys that need to be put away. Children are not advised on how to use their devices to practice media literacy, or as a powerful form of self-expression. My daughter is in an advanced NYC high school and she’s coloring posters with crayons in math class.
Years ago, I started to warn anyone who’d listen that we were far too complacent or even dismissive of our personal technology. If we did not introduce substantial media literacy programs into our education system, eventually angry and well-armed people would get there before us and figure it out for themselves. Then we would have problems…
What do you see next for Starlight Runner and how will you be employing the Collective Journey model in terms of business?
2017 is shaping up to be a fascinating year. I’ll be answering the question, what if we fuel the Collective Journey with the same aspirational drivers that power the most successful story worlds? My belief is that if you do this, you can accelerate positive systemic change. So, on the business side, we’ll be looking for companies and brands that stand for those drivers, that are trying to manifest something positive in the world. To that end, we’re taking an interest in the sharing economy. We’re taking an interest in music and sports. We’re taking an interest in large philanthropic organizations, and we’re going to continue our overseas work at the national level.
On the entertainment front, with my writing partner Steele Filipek, I’m teaming with producers Kay Rothman and Dana Kuznetzkoff to develop a hybrid television and 360 project that has a truly unique premise and setting. They’re even indulging me by employing some Collective Journey elements into the series mythology. And after ten years of back and forth with Electronic Arts, we are finally working on one of their biggest videogame franchises, which is super fun. We’ll be able to talk more about both in the coming months.
For more on the collective journey in the coming months, visit blog.collectivejourney.com.