The Ethics of Transmedia at SXSW

I've submitted a proposal for SXSW this year on the ethics of transmedia. It's traditional at this point for me to encourage you to vote me up and leave comments ("pick me, pick me!") to demonstrate to the powers that be at SXSW that if they do bring me on, somebody will actually show up. So if you would do that, then that would be totally cool.

Ahem. Consider the promotional part of this post done.

Now I'd like to talk about why this topic, and why now. Unfortunately, to talk about that, I have to talk about definitions. Again! Yeah, sorry. Here's my latest thinking:

trans-me-di-a (n.)

1. A method for telling a story via multiple communication channels used simultaneously.
2. A method for telling a story via the communication channels your audience already uses in their everyday lives.

It's that second definition that gets you into ethical hot water. When you're embedding a narrative form into ordinary life, there's a risk that the people who encounter your fiction won't know it's fiction. Depending on the nature of the content, bad things can happen as a result. Bad things like, oh, let's say your audience-participants being afraid of serial killers. Or the real police taking an interest in your fictional missing-person flyers. I've got a million of 'em.

Obviously there's a lot of bad information floating around out there on the internet already. We've all seen stuff like the Time Cube that trigger our "Wait, is this for real or what?" instinct. But we've long accepted an ideal that says your job as a transmedia creator is to be as authentic as possible -- intentionally circumventing that instinct. 

We wind up making bad ethical choices, not on purpose, but because we are so focused on the totally immersive player experience that we never stop to think about the potential consequences for people who happen upon pieces of our content, but aren't in on the joke.

Long-time players of transmedia games develop a keen sensitivity for fakey-fake sites; but the end result is that genuine companies can look strangely fictional to our eyes. Take Lockheed Martin -- a multi-billion-dollar company. To my jaded eyes, the production values on their website are so low that it triggers my automatic suspicion that it's a fake. But of course it's a real company that simply doesn't put much priority on its public-facing web presence; and why should it? They sell to the government, not to me.

We're lucky we have Snopes fighting the good fight against disinformation. But do we want our creations to wind up on Snopes? How do we do right by our players and by the innocent bystanding public at the same time? What's the right thing, anyway? What do we gain and lose with various approaches to ethical transmedia?

Sadly, I'm not going to have a lot of hard and fast answers. There is too much unexplored territory in transmedia for us to bow to one-size-fits-all proclamations. But I aim to put as much information in front of creators as I can, so the choices you make are at least informed and intentional.

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