This post is one of a series based on my draft writings and thoughts for a current PhD research project, part of the UNESCO Chair project ‘Crossing Media Boundaries: Adaptations and New Media Forms of the Book’. I am working with a self-published author to create a co-creative online reader community where users can share their very own content, stories, artwork, etc. to expand the story world across media. Its an experiment, and the journey is only starting… http://naturemage.com All feedback / ideas welcome!
Image: Nature Mage logo, by James Ledsham – see his profile here: http://www.naturemage.com/people-working-on-this-community
The use of the term transmedia has been so varied and stretched that it risks – as in Murray’s criticism of the term ‘new media’ – becoming too vague and of little value. I believe that the term is useful, when it applies to specific forms of storytelling that depart from previous formats, but indeed there has been a little too much ‘buzz’ about the term, which resulted in misuse and misunderstanding. Take the following statement, found on the website of a company that specialises in transmedia training, as an illustration of the reigning confusion:
Other terms for transmedia include immersive storytelling, deep media, persistent narratives and multi-platform storytelling. We prefer to use the word “transmedia” because it is a neat shorthand to capture all of those concepts.
The statement draws in a whirlpool of concepts under transmedia, not making it clear what it really is. In other examples, taken from industry and practice settings, there seems to be an underlying assumption that there is general consensus on the meaning of transmedia. For example, in last year’s report of Power to the Pixel (ref, 4), a media collective who organise the renown Cross-Media Forum, one can read:
This report uses the term ‘cross-media’ rather than ‘transmedia’ to describe projects which take stories to audiences across a range of media platforms. The differences in the two terms are a minor semantic issue and the two terms are used interchangeably by advocates without any confusion.
Although there have been some wonderful creative media artefacts coming out of Power to the Pixel, this over-simplification and the merging of the two concepts means that transmedia again seems to be anything that crosses media (or platforms), nothing more than cross-media. But the term transmedia storytelling, as we will see, was coined to refer to specific types of artefacts, stories or universes that are spread indeed across media, but in particular ways.
Although I do agree that it may often be wise to avoid getting stuck in fruitless semantic discussions, it is also true that one finds numerous cases of problematic usage of the terms. This, in turn, may drive to a blurring of analytical focus when researchers look at different types of texts that overall fall into the cross-media and transmedia labels, which in turn may result in scholars ending up being limited by choosing literature and analytical standpoints that are not fully suitable for the texts that they are studying.
The problematic uses of the term can be broadly characterised into the following tow main categories:
- Interchangeability: when transmedia is used to describe cross-media adaptation (and even franchised products)
- Elasticity: when transmedia is used to describe very distinct forms of cultural production, stretching its meaning too far for it to hold any significant descriptive or analytical value
Henry Jenkins (2011), in his blog Confessions of an AcaFan, proposes some trends that help explain the abuse of the term: ‘
- different groups of people are defining a still emerging concept differently for different purposes for different audiences in different contexts
- 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
- some groups are strongly motivated to expand or blur the scope of the category for self promotional and self advancement purposes.
At this stage it seems important to look at the origins of the term. Marsha Kinder was the first scholar to use the term transmedia in 1990 (Kinder, 1993). Kinder analysed examples of what she coined transmedia intertextuality among television, movies and toys, using the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as an example of a ‘commercial supersystem of transmedia intertextuality’. According to the author these systems engage with their audiences in ‘combined modes of spectatorship’, in order to:
[C]onstruct consumerist subjects who can more readily assimilate and accommodate whatever objects they encounter, including traditional modes of image production like cinema and new technological developments like interactive multimedia.
In his own words, Henry Jenkins was ‘one of the first to popularize the term, transmedia storytelling’; his revisited definition (Jenkins, 2011) one of the most widely used both in academia and industrial circles:
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.
An example commonly used by the author is The Matrix franchise, which conveys ‘key bits of information’ through various artefacts: films, animated shorts, comic books and videogames. Jenkins explains that ‘there is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe’.
(ref – Jenkins 101)
In spite of sticking to this definition, in Transmedia 202 Jenkins revisits the term adding a list of reflections and considerations to help explain his meaning for it, but also suggests that there is no transmedia ‘formula’. The definition of transmedia is shifting and evolving:
[W]e are still in a period of experimentation and innovation. New models are emerging through production practices and critical debates, and we need to be open to a broad array of variations of what transmedia means in relation to different projects. 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.
Andrea Phillips, a renowned contemporary transmedia producer, is clearly also an enthusiastic defender of transmedia storytelling, but she also adopts a rounded view of the problematic nature of defining transmedia. She writes (Phillips, 2012:13) that defining ‘what we mean when we say “transmedia storytelling” […] is shockingly difficult to do […] it’s flat-out impossible to nail down a single definition that everyone can happily agree on’. Taking contemporary media production in the US as a frame of reference, Phillips distinguishes between West Coast and East Coast transmedia. The first, also known as Hollywood or franchise transmedia consists of:
Multiple big pieces of media: feature films, video games […] grounded in big-business commercial storytelling. The stories in these projects re interwoven, but lightly: each piece can be consumed on its own, and you’ll still come away with the idea that you were given a complete story.
Star Wars, Tron, Avatar and Transformers embrace this approach. On the ‘other end of the spectrum’:
East coast transmedia tends to be more interactive and much more web-centric […] these projects make heavy use of social media and are often run over a set period of time rather than persisting for ever. The plot is so tightly woven between media that you might not fully understand what’s going on if you don’t actively seek out multiple pieces of the story.
An example of this type is ‘Lance Weller’s indie film experience Pandemic, which incorporated a live scavenger hunt, a shirt film, comics, Twitter feeds, and more, all unfolding at the Sundance Film Festival’.
Now going go back to the questions of whether this Nature Mage ‘new media form of the book’ project may be classed as a transmedia project. Taking into account the definitions discussed above, and especially if fan works – art, fiction, and so on – expand the story through an online fan community, and a selection of material filtered into the iBook, creating extensions, backstories, side stories, and visual representations of the story universe, does not this make Nature Mage a transmedia story? The main narrative would still be in the original books, but both the fan website, the iBook, and social media such as YouTube used to spread content, would contain expansions to the story and universe. This would be done in several ways, such as making it ‘come to live’ visually, by creating illustrations of characters; creating backstories and branching narrative to fill gaps and explore specific characters or plots in more detail; adding paratexts such as author interviews; adding extra content based on original writing material that never made it to the final edited version of the book; and other forms of content that expand the story.
For some academics and practitioners, audience involvement is a pre-requisite, or at the very least an essential feature of transmedia.
In the case of Nature Mage, the readers (or ‘fans’) will play a role in guiding the production of the expanded content, as well as being invited to contribute with their own creations based on the story.
 ref – Transmedia 202: Further Reflections, 2011, Aug 1,