What's Happened to Transmedia?

I got an email in my inbox a week or two ago asking the titular question. It's been haunting me ever since. 

The underlying premise to the question is that transmedia reached a peak in or around the year 2012, and ever since then, new conversations, resources, and works have been increasingly hard to come by. It's hard to dispute that. ARGfest as a professional conference isn't a going concern anymore, nor is StoryWorld. TEDx Transmedia has pivoted to dealing with a variety of topics involving futurism and philosophy. 

"Transmedia" as I once knew it was, as Brian Clark would have said, an art scene encompassing a particular group of creators doing some things in common, largely springing up around the space that used to be alternate reality games: Clark himself, of course, but also the folks at Campfire and Stitch Media; the crew of FortyTwo Entertainment, later turned Fourth Wall Studios; the filmmaker Lance Weiler and his myriad projects; Steve Peters and No Mimes Media. Transmedia has included documentarians, experimental theater designers, web video creators, musicians, authors, and more.

And it still does... kinda.

It's true you don't hear a lot about transmedia as such anymore, in the same way that you rarely heard about hot new alternate reality games as such after about 2008. So did we move on to a shiny new buzzword? Nah. Did we all cut our hair and get real day jobs? Not all of us, no. So what happened, exactly?

Basically that indie art scene that started with alternate reality games is... well, it's over. We had our fun, and now we've more or less gone our separate ways.

Diaspora

This by no means is equivalent to "transmedia is dead," so let me just stop you. There are still strong standard-bearers talking about transmedia in so many words. A quick look at the Twitter hashtag right now shows me participation from long-time experts like Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, Simon Staffans, and Gary Hayes. 

For a lot of the rest of us, we've spread our transmedia-like tentacles into a lot of distinct and separate industries and arts in the interest of building longer-term careers and businesses.

A lot of the air and energy that used to be invested in transmedia has moved to virtual reality, with Campfire Media making award-winning experiences for the likes of Westworld. Fourth Wall's Sean Stewart works with Magic Leap, now, a Florida company that my money is on to be the next big thing. (And if you're from Magic Leap... email me. Seriously. I want to work with you so bad it's like acid running through my veins.)

There's also a thriving if small web film subgenre, continuing through companies like Astronauts Wanted. Experiential theater is going strong; Third Rail and Punchdrunk are making intense, transformative pieces. And locational theatrical experiences like Accomplice are still running, too.

In fact, the short but high-touch experience is where most of the action is these days. It's no accident that the room escape game began to boom right around the time transmedia-the-buzzword began its decline. Now room escapes are just about as widespread as the family restaurant chain of your choice. It's easy to see why: they use a lot of the same compelling ARG formula of experience + narrative + puzzles, and you can charge admission. I've done a little room escape work myself, and I'd enjoy doing a lot more—it's a very rewarding format.

And finally, some of us have taken our know-how in-house at places like, say, Disney Imagineering. Some of us are dedicated indie game developers now, or writers, or authors. And some of us have kinda dropped out of sight entirely. I don't want to name and shame, not least because I'm sure I look like one of 'em. 

Not to say that there's nothing left of that community—because of course there is, though the nature and tone of it has shifted along with the media landscape. 

The primo sources of conversation and information right now are the StoryForward podcasts and meetups. ARGN is still a going concern. The Future of Storytelling conference is a brilliant way to explore the intersection of narrative and technology... if you can afford the ticket price (and I wish I could). The core of creators that coalesced around that word "transmedia," though, has gradually decentralized. There's not one place you can go to find out what's happening in transmedia, or if anything is happening at all.

The Business Model Problem

At the end of the day it's not down to any one cause, but a lot of them working in conjunction: artists need to eat, transmedia as such lost its novelty, social media turned into a raging river where once it was a mere firehose, and media companies have become a lot more parsimonious than in our heyday about digital. These factors all contributed to making the ground transmedia grew in less and less fertile. 

But really, it's mostly down to money. We never really cracked a business model for social media storytelling where the social media bits paid their own way in terms of ROI. That meant a lot of transmedia creators like me were reliant on sponsors and marketing work to pay the rent. But as social media has transformed, it's become harder to grab attention in the flood of free content out there, much harder to get press coverage for methods of storytelling that we've maybe seen before, and old funding sources are shyer about spending money on stuff when they're not sure if it'll work. "It's on the web" doesn't sound like an automatic Cannes Lion anymore. Innovative things don't stay innovative for very long.

Outside of the marketing arena, more than one company has sought investment to try to build out original content on a transmedia-driven philosophy. Those companies have by and large folded, often due to an internal lack of clarity about whether they were primarily trying to build platforms or content.

In a way, though, room escape games are the ultimate answer to what happened to transmedia. So are mystery box services. So are single-user VR experiences. They don't just solve the business model problem; they also solve the real-time problem, the friction problem, and the late-joiner problem. It turns out that if you want to tell stories embedded in the real world, the best technology is no technology. A real key and a real lock you can hold in your hands (or the illusions of them) are a billion times more immersive than any old character on Twitter.

The Future

So does this mean transmedia is over? Nah. The genie is out of the bottle and can never be returned to it. Techniques for social storytelling, immersive narrative, and interaction have all come a long way; we can't forget what we've learned, and we apply that knowledge everywhere we go. Even ARGs still happen, and they can still be amazing, artful, and new.

And the future is always being born. There are probably a dozen other things going on right now that I don't even know about, because they're taking place in communities and under names that aren't "transmedia." I am dead sure a new, vivid, incredible art scene is happening right now with a group of starry-eyed creators who just want to make amazing things. I can't wait to see what they have in store for us, whether I'm invited to the party or not.

Is This Thing On?

WELL HELLO THERE, GOOD LOOKIN'.

I don't call anymore, I don't write... things have been kind of crickets around here unless I have something to sell you. And that's not cool. I'm not just saying that because I have some things to sell you. Let's leave that until later. Future posts, even!

I've let this place fall by the wayside over the last year or two for a lot of reasons. One is that I don't have a lot to say about transmedia specifically, and that's why I started this place up back in 2005. Hence my bad pun in Latin: deus ex machinatio. It means divinity from a plan, and so the art that makes my heart pound and fills me with gladness.

Why does that mean haven't I been posting? Partly because I stepped back from the conference circuit. Partly because even beyond transmedia, I say a lot of the same things I would otherwise be blogging about on Twitter or on my podcast The Cultures. (Did you even know I have a podcast, with Naomi Alderman and Adrian Hon?) I've been pretty busy! And I won't lie, the chilling effect of Gamergate is real; I'm reluctant to engage in some of the social issues that used to be one of my hallmarks.

There's also a bit of uncertainty about how to engage in thoughtful conversation via online media anymore. Should I be posting on Medium instead? It would probably be good for "exposure," but I'm not a fan. Should I be posting things on Facebook instead, where it would be more highly shareable? Or posting here and linking to Facebook? Should I be cross-posting to my Imzy community, or or or?

This stuff used to be easy when I was just a freelancer and my audience consisted almost exclusively of colleagues digging in the same salt mine as me. But now I have a mixture of colleagues from games, marketing, film, and academia mixed together with students learning from A Creator's Guide, friends who are non-transmedia authors, just friends with no work-related relationship, and even a few fans who don't know me except as a person who has made some stuff they like.

This used to be almost all talk shop, but it's slowly shifted into being a vehicle almost entirely for announcements of launches and conferences.

I don't like that very much. It feels kinda gross and manipulative. I like to be human on the internet, not a marketing bot.

So let's give this a whirl: I can't promise this is going to be the start of a bold new era, but I do have a whole slew of posts I want to make for now: some launch announcements, yes, but I also want to talk about the state of transmedia (no, really), some things I've been doing in my personal life, and some serious writing-craft challenges I'm mulling over, but have not yet solved. Maybe some politics?

And if you have things you'd like for me to talk about here, I'd love a comment. Should I be reviewing media I'm excited about? (OMG K-dramas.) Do you want an accounting of how much work I get done in a week? I dunno. You tell me.

Mostly I just want to feel like I have a home and a voice in the internet again—a place that belongs to me, where I'm not just sprinkling words into the ephemeral stream. So let's see how this goes.

MidAmeriCon2: Worldcon 2016

AWWWW YEAH I'M GOING BACK TO WORLDCON!

I have once again fooled the Worldcon programming folks into thinking I am a person of wit and notability, and as a result I have a freakin' amazing bunch of programming this year! And not just panelling, either. I have a kaffeeklatsch (which you'll need to sign up for in advance if you want to attend), a reading, and an autographing session. Wowzers!

Incidentally, autograph sessions can be lonely and demoralizing when you're a new author like myself and don't exactly have lines going out the door. (Or, uh lines at all...) So if you're free late Sunday morning, I'd be delighted to have you stop by to say hello and chat for a while. You don't even need to have or buy anything for me to sign! I am more than happy to sign nothing at all. Or if you really, really want me to sign something for you, I'll have a few postcards to give away, free of charge.

Please note that there are sometimes last-minute changes to programming, so double-check to be sure nothing's moved in space and time. But for now, this is my schedule:

Driverless Cars

Wednesday 16:00 - 17:00, 2206 (Kansas City Convention Center)
Self-driving cars are being tested on our roads, but it's not clear the public would buy one if available. Who do we trust with the design and production? The challenges -- potential hacks, electrical storms, malfunction or apocalypse -- and opportunities -- to empower people with disabilities, for example -- are discussed.
Andrea Phillips, Howard Davidson, Dr. Jordin Kare

Writing Games in Fiction

Thursday 14:00 - 15:00, 2204 (Kansas City Convention Center)
From Azad to Armada, fictional games, gaming and gamers are an increasingly visible part of our SF landscape, offering us complex characters and interesting discussions of how gaming is becoming an integral part of our lives. Our panel discuss how these representations present gaming to a wider audience.
Becky Chambers, Andrea Phillips, James Cambias (M), Peter Tieryas, Tim Akers

The Future is a Different Country

Friday 12:00 - 13:00, 2208 (Kansas City Convention Center)
How will stuff (culture/tech/etc.) change in the next 40 years? Can we really predict with any sense of accuracy or will there be a singularity of some sort that makes all predictions worthless? Our panel predicts anyway, and wonders what their writing and creative practice will look like as a result.
Andrea Phillips, Edward M. Lerner, Kathleen Ann Goonan (M), Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Kaffeeklatsch

Friday 13:00 - 14:00, 2211 (KKs) (Kansas City Convention Center)
James Cambias, Toni L. P. Kelner, Andrea Phillips

My Transmedia Life

Friday 15:00 - 16:00, 2208 (Kansas City Convention Center)
Authoring is not a stale business. Today's writers are finding new ways to reach audiences, making interactive websites, podcasts, trailers and games to represent or enhance their worlds and characters. Panellists discuss ways that they build transmedia works and take their literature into the realm of games, video and visual arts.
Christopher Kastensmidt, Andrea Phillips, Katie Li

Futurism vs. SF

Friday 18:00 - 19:00, 2209 (Kansas City Convention Center)
Science Fiction explores the future.  Futurism explores the future and tries to relate it to the real world.  What causes someone to be a Futurist rather than a science fiction author?  Where are the overlaps and the differences between the two practices?
S.B. Divya (M), Karl Schroeder, Andrea Phillips, David Brin

Societal Aspects of Technology

Saturday 13:00 - 14:00, 2208 (Kansas City Convention Center)
If your cellphone died would you be late for work? When your power goes out, would you dispair for entertainment? In a world where people are digitally dependent, what will happen when energy fails us? Downton Abbey dramatized the advent of home electricity, the telephone and the radio. How did those advances change social lives? Instead of bringing us together, have phones increase our isolation? We discuss how technology changes the way people communicate and relate in society. 
Mike Shepherd Moscoe, Andrea Phillips, Edward M. Lerner (M), Karl Schroeder, David Brin

Magazine Group Reading: Escape Artists, Inc.

Saturday 14:00 - 15:00, 2502A (Kansas City Convention Center)
Our Magazine Group Reading Series continues with a special group reading that features authors from the family of Escape Artists magazines.
Alasdair Stuart (M), Marguerite Kenner (M), Dr. Amy H. Sturgis, Andrea Phillips, Bud Sparhawk, Scott Edelman

Autograph Session

Sunday 11:00 - 12:00 (Autographing Space) (Kansas City Convention Center)
Kate Elliott, Melissa F. Olson, Robert Reed, Robert J, Sawyer, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Andrea Phillips

Reading

Sunday 14:30 - 15:00, 2202 (Readings) (Kansas City Convention Center)

Annnnnd that's it. Worldcon, get ready, this is going to be great! Just one more thing to work out: what the heck am I going to wear...?

Readercon 2016

This is big news, you guys. ENORMOUS. I'm going to be at Readercon this year, and—this is the big news part—I'll be doing my first-ever fiction reading. I can't decide what I should read from! An upcoming ReMade episode? The Luck Eaters? A short story to be named later? Ahhhhhhh so many options!

Anyway, here's my (possibly still preliminary) schedule. Please, please flag me down and say hello if you're at the con. It's going to be so great!

Thursday July 07

8:00 PM    5    Living in the Future. John Chu, Barbara Krasnoff (moderator), Andrea Phillips, Tom Purdom, Terence Taylor. Today, if we're going to see another person, we have cellphones to instantly communicate with that person, and maps on the cellphones to help us find our agreed-upon location. Twenty years ago we would have had to phone each other on landlines, pick a restaurant in advance or agree to meet at a landmark known to both of us. Five hundred years ago we wouldn't have had watches on our persons, so even keeping to the correct time of the appointment would have been difficult–how would we even know when the agreed-upon time of our meeting arrived? Our panelists will discuss some of the conveniences, large and small, that we take for granted, and the absence of which would cause difficulties of the sort that are often elided in fiction. The discussion will also discuss science fiction novels and stories that incorporate and project modern technology into their fictions, and which fail to take these things into account. 

Friday July 08

1:30 PM    A    Reading: Andrea Phillips. Andrea Phillips. Andrea Phillips reads new work. (!!!)

3:00 PM    C    Fantastical Dystopia. Victoria Janssen, Ada Palmer, Andrea Phillips, Sabrina Vourvoulias, T.X. Watson. Dystopia is popular in YA fiction for a variety of reasons, but why do authors frequently base their future dystopian society on some flimsy ideas, rather than using history to draw parallels between past atrocities and current human rights violations? Is it easier to work from one extreme idea, such as "love is now considered a disease" rather than looking at the complexities of, for example, the corruption of the U.S.S.R or the imperialism of the US? If science fiction uses the future to look at the present, is it more or less effective when using real examples from the past to look at our present through a lens of the future?

5:00 PM    BH    WTF is Transmedia?. Andrea Phillips. Quick answer: transmedia storytelling is the art of using multiple platforms to tell a unified story. Sometimes it looks like the MCU, and sometimes it's stories that infiltrate the real world. Transmedia veteran Andrea Phillips will talk about her years as a pioneer in the transmedia mines, and how it made her a better writer–and a worse one!

Saturday July 09

1:00 PM    5    If Thor Can Hang Out with Iron Man, Why Can't Harry Dresden Use a Computer? . Gillian Daniels, Elaine Isaak, Andrea Phillips, Alex Shvartsman, E.J. Stevens. In a series of tweets in 2015, Jared Axelrod pondered "the inherent weirdness of a superhero universe... where magic and science hold hands, where monsters stride over cities." This is only weird from the perspective of fantasy stories that set up magic and technology as incompatible, an opposition that parallels Western cultural splits between religion and science and between nature and industry. Harry Dresden's inability to touch a computer without damaging it is a direct descendant of the Ents destroying the "pits and forges" of Isengard, and a far cry from Thor, Iron Man, and the Scarlet Witch keeping company. What are the story benefits of setting up magic/nature/religion and technology/industry/science as either conflicting or complementary? What cultural anxieties are addressed by each choice? How are these elements handled in stories from various cultures and eras?

3:00 PM    C    What Good Is a Utopia? . Michael J. Deluca, Chris Gerwel, Barry Longyear, Kathryn Morrow (leader), Andrea Phillips. If an author sets out to write a utopia, several questions arise. Character and interpersonal conflict can drive the story, but how do you keep the utopian setting from becoming backdrop in that case? Were the Talking Heads right in saying that "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens"? And how do you showcase how much better things would be "if only"?

Bookburners Debut

Ahhhhhhhhh you guys I am so, so, SO excited. It's LAUNCH DAY! Late last summer I holed up for the weekend with some of my very favorite writers to help plan Season 2 of Bookburners. And today, the first of my two episodes this season is LIVE and you can BUY IT and READ IT! OMG OMG OMG it's really happening.

...Wait, wait, hold on. Probably that needs a little translating before you can be as excited about it as I am. So BAM, let's FAQ this thing up!

Andrea. Andrea. What the heck is Bookburners?

Bookburners is a serial fiction narrative written by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Brian Slattery, Mur Laffery, and ME! Plus the amazing Amal El-Mohtar also has a guest episode this season, so you're in for a real treat.

It's urban fantasy about a team of operatives working out of the Vatican to find and confiscate magic books before terrible, terrible things happen. Or let's be honest: usually slightly after terrible things have already begun to happen, because that's way less boring to read about.

How does this serial work?

One episode comes out every week on Wednesday in ebook and audiobook formats. This season started last week (you're already behind!) and goes for sixteen weeks. 

Serial Box is bringing the HBO model to ebooks -- teams of writers working together to produce high-quality story each week, far faster and better than any one of those writers would be able to do all alone. I'm thrilled to be a part of it, and I'm hoping you'll be thrilled to read it, too! And I've got another Serial Box project in the works, too: ReMade. I can't say much about it yet, buuuuuut I'm pretty excited about that one too. More on that front in September!

OK but here's the important question: how do I buy it?

If you never want to miss an episode, you can buy a season pass for everything in ebook and audiobook format, and have an array of choices for where to read it. You can also buy single episodes (like mine!) on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, basically anywhere ebooks are sold. (For Nook, too, but it looks like it's not up there quite yet...)

Since this is the second season, you may also be interested in the Season 1 Omnibus -- or if you're in a rush, there's a convenient Season One Recap so you can get up to speed right away.

I AM SO EXCITED. ARE YOU EXCITED TO? AHHHHH! If you're feeling excited too, plus you have a couple spare bucks and an hour to read, pick up my episode and let me know what you think!