Digital Culture

Imzy: Off to a Good Start

Kace Alexander posted a couple of really amazing Medium pieces recently about how toxic Twitter has become and why that's never going to change, and the new contender on the horizon to become the next big social media thing: Imzy. Kace is very, very smart, and you should go read those pieces now. I won't be repeating that stuff here.

My personal experience of Twitter isn't actually bad on a day to day basis, but I am keenly aware of some harsh realities. I'm a woman. I work in games. I hold extremely left-wing politics. I've had a few scuffles with MRA-types that blow over fast, but the sword of Damocles hangs over me, just waiting for the right moment to fall. The better my career goes, the worse Twitter will be for me. 

I really need to start fostering other spaces that give me the same benefits in having a public-facing persona, the ability to connect with new people, and access to water coolers for talking shop and letting off steam that encompass entire industries.

So! Imzy. I have a community on Imzy already, and I'm happy to hand out invites—just give me a holler. I don't have the hang of Imzy yet, but it took me a long time to get the hang of Twitter, too. And the lesson I've learned from that is: I need a critical mass of other people there to make it more than just an extra chore.

Right now I'm using my community as a personal space to repost stuff from this blog and from Instagram. In turn, one of the reasons I woke up this blog is to start moving some thoughts off of Twitter. But I'm sure that usage is going to evolve over time, as Imzy's culture grows more established and best practices emerge.

Maybe join my critical mass on Imzy? And help carve out a kinder, safer space on the internet, where moderation exists and abuse isn't tolerated? It may work and it may not, but I feel like the right thing to do here is give it a vigorous and honest try.

 


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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 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.


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The Always/Only Test

Lo these many months I've been using a quick rule of thumb to explain how I identify offensive, stereotypical, or even just atrociously thin characters through a variety of intersectional lenses. And I thought I would share it with you! It's called the Always/Only Test. It is very simple! Only two questions! They are:

Does the character always have that attribute?
Is the character the only one to have that attribute?

For our purposes "a character" can also mean "a class of characters in this story." So: people of color, fat people, disabled people, you name it.

Let's see how this plays out with, oh, sexual objectification of women. If your women always have sexiness as their role in the story, then what you have is not a character so much as the embodiment of a fantasy. If you only ever have women who are sexy, and none of the men are ever sexualized at all... hm. Hmmm. Yeah that's pretty sexist.

But if you have a story where men and women are both viewed as sexual objects and they also have more character traits than that.... awwwww yeah that's what I'm talkin' about.

OK, let's try this one: If black characters are always drug dealers; if black characters are the only ones to deal drugs.

If fat people are always eating donuts; if only fat people eat donuts.

If Fundamentalist Christians are always violently racist; if only Fundamentalist Christians are violently racist.

A yes/yes answer is potentially problematic and stereotypical, depending on what the character type and attribute is that you're using. If you all your lesbian characters obsessively love flying kites, this doesn't play into an existing stereotype, so it might be shallow characterization, but it's not actively hurting anyone. Fine! Sometimes shallow gets the job done.

Yes/no and no/yes can be a little trickier. They are by and large better than a straight yes/yes, but can still be kinda not OK. If you have a Wall Street film where all the Jews are greedy, but actually all of the characters are greedy, that's less troubling than it would be otherwise, though it probably still bears extra scrutiny. Or if you have a single greedy Jew who hoards food, rejects close relationships with others, and engages in self-harm behind closed doors, you have a complex and multi-faceted character who isn't a caricature of the avaristic Jew, though again: still bears extra scrutiny.

And then no/no means you're probably looking at an awesome, super interesting, complex, and non-hurtful character. 

This rule of thumb can't completely solve the thing where media is sexist, racist, ableist, all the -ists. But as a writer and a consumer of media, this tool helps me to put my finger on what it is about some media that bother me, and also where I may be falling into hurtful stereotypes in my own writing, too. Maybe it can be useful to you, also! Let me know what you think.

 


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How to Not Be a Bullying Mob: Version 1.0

I've been very concerned the last few years with how easily we are rallied into howling mobs baying for blood on social media. There's a certain joy to being a part of it, the feeling of being just and righteous and striking a blow for good. It's a very human, natural behavior, and it cuts across all lines of belief and political stances. But it also does a lot of damage, especially because sometimes there's no true villain involved -- just regular, flawed people, and mobs that pit them against one another.

It's one of the most crucial tasks of our new era to work out new social norms and etiquette to deal with the implications of social media. How to be kind to one another, even when we're angry, even when we disagree about things that are important. So I'm taking a stab at what that kind of etiquette should look like.

The guidelines I've used are aimed at allowing people to express their anger, but in ways that don't wind up targeting specific people for harassment. The more general guidelines as I see them are:

  • Don't escalate a disagreement by crossing privacy barriers or bringing in uninvolved parties.
  • In general, target institutions and non-human entities by naming them, but not people.
  • Be mindful of when an issue isn't yours, and you're just adding fuel to an inferno.

I obviously don't think I've solved the problem of people being outraged on the internet. (But man if I did, Nobel Prize Committee, you know where to find me!) This is more like a jumping-off-point. At the very least, we can collectively start thinking about what just and appropriate behavior is.

Social norms like "don't bite your friends" and "sneeze into your elbow" go a long way toward making civilization more bearable to live in for all of us. And the first step to adhering to social norms is figuring out exactly what those norms should be.


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Get Thee to HR, to Be Hanged

So the now-infamous McKinney pool party happened, and it was terrible and continues to be terrible. I am amazed that incident concluded with nobody dead or in a hospital. And now we're in the everyone-is-upset-and-angry period, soooo of course I've seen some calls to try get a woman fired. Maybe a bystander, maybe even the woman who started the whole thing by saying racist crap and then slapping a black teenager. This makes me deeply, deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

Let's look at a counterpoint. This weekend, Tor creative director Irene Gallo got some heat for expressing some opinions on Facebook about the Sad Puppies, and was thrown under the bus by her employer. And a lot of people are calling for her to be fired, too.

This is our nuclear option on the internet, and we go straight there whenever our dander is up. Someone should get fired over this. Salt the earth. Wreck their Google results. Make it so they never work in this town again, or any other town for that matter. Sometimes it works. Mostly against women. But... not exclusively.

Every time I see this, I grow more and more upset. This is not the tool of a just and reasoned discourse. And this is a real slippery slope kind of issue. Look, I don't want to live in a world where "you made some people on the internet angry" is a firing offense. 

If the McKinney woman that people are trying to get fired is the right person who assaulted a child, then you know how justice should be done? By taking her the hell to court for criminal assault and battery charges. Or make it a civil case. The avenue for justice is not emailing her employer. Likewise, if Irene Gallo done wrong, the place for that is in court, too, for slander or libel, not emailing her employer to take her job away. And then if there are clauses in an HR manual or employment contract about criminal behavior (or opening the employer to lawsuit liability) then take it to HR for review, fine.

But that's not the very first step in the process. Unless you're happy operating as an angry mob like GamerGate, and I am very much not happy with that. I want to be better than that. If you believe in social justice, you damn well should be better than that. Due process. It's a beautiful thing. I believe in it, because I'd rather justice be slow than that innocent people have their lives ruined.

I'm starting to think we need some kind of Geneva Convention for public online discourse. Social media is not the arbiter of justice, and we should not be serving as judge, jury, and executioner. Because that sword doesn't just cut the people you think are racist, sexist, homophobic assholes. It cuts the people you like, too, the people who have opinions exactly like yours. And sometimes they bleed out right before your eyes.


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