Does Transmedia Have to Be Interactive?

A couple of weeks ago, commenter John Sietsma left a thought-provoking statement on my ethics of transmedia post: 

Nothing to do with ethics, just a nitpick about your definition of transmedia. It ignores interaction. 

This may be my misunderstanding about transmedia, but I would have thought audience reaction would be a vital part of shaping and connecting with a story. 
But, I live in a world of games, where story and interaction wrestle each other constantly.


According to the definitions of transmedia I use in that post, he's right; there's nothing in there about interaction. So is this an omission on my part? Does transmedia have to be interactive? 

I've been thinking about it ever since, and my answer is a tentative no. (And I'm as surprised as anyone else that it panned out this way.)

What Does 'Interactive' Mean?

To talk about why, we get to have another conversation about definitions! Tra-la-la, oh happy day! What the heck does interactive mean, anyway? Let's examine the few ways that people tend to use this delightfully ambiguous word.

Definition 1: Uses the internet. 

A lot of you will wince over this, but let's face it, this is a definition that is really out there and that people really use, albeit a very shallow one. There are still ad agencies out there who use 'interactive' as their in-house shorthand for 'banner ads and SEO.'

Does a project have to use the internet to be transmedia? Not on my watch, buster. I think the esteemed Henry Jenkins would be on my side, here. Think of the Matrix example: A video game, graphic novel, and trilogy of films with intertwining plot threads taking place in the same world, and in which the events in each element inform the storyline of the other elements. There is a game there, which falls into some definitions of interaction yet to come. But was the internet a necessary part of the experience? Nah.

According to my WTF is Transmedia? post, I'd call that a sequential transmedia experience. But does a spiderweb transmedia experience have to use the internet? Still no dice. 

Let's think for a second about Cathy's Book: It's a novel which includes an evidence packet -- photographs, birth certificates, letters. There are phone numbers to call, voice mails to listen to. That experience does use the internet -- there are email addresses to write to and websites to hit -- but it's very easy to imagine a similar spiderweb experience that doesn't. Cathy's Book without the internet is still a great piece of transmedia narrative. The internet is a powerful creative tool, but not a necessary one.

That's not to say that a lot of the experience wouldn't wind up on the internet. A lot of every experience winds up on the internet; recording experiences is one of its primary functions. But intense threads about, oh, Survivor or Desperate Housewives on Television Without Pity doesn't make those shows inherently transmedia.

Definition 2: The outcome is influenced by audience participation and/or action.

If you read Cathy's Book enough times, does the ending change? ...does that make it not transmedia? I should think not.

In fact, I harbor a suspicion that most of the big ARGs and transmedia experiences out there not only don't let the players directly affect the outcome, but are structured very specifically to provide them with the illusion of influence where no actual influence exists.

Or maybe it's just me and I'm projecting. Anyone?

Definition 3: Requires or allows audience participation and/or action to further the story. 

Here's where we start to get into some fine semantics and hair-splitting. In my reply to John Sietsma, I said that I think interaction is an emergent property of transmedia. It's like talking about teeth in a definition of eating; it's not a strictly necessary part of the definition. I can envision transmedia projects that don't require audience action or participation. (But boy howdy does it help).

Let me cut and paste those definitions here for you again so we can take a harder look at them:

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.

Under the multiple-communication-channels definition of transmedia, there is a certain amount of interaction built in to the definition... kind of, sort of, maybe, almost. After all, it's up to each audience member to choose to seek out each constituent piece of a multitextual narrative. But I don't think this is the sort of action that people mean when they say 'interaction.' You have to choose to read each successive issue of a comic book, too, but I don't think anybody is calling a comic book interactive on that basis.

I think, then, we can conclude that the sequential model of transmedia, in particular, does not require interaction.

But that distinction gets pretty blurry indeed if you're talking about spiderweb transmedia -- storytelling using an audience's everyday communications channels. Is having a Twitter feed interaction? It can be a totally passive experience, but the audience must locate the feed and make the choice to follow. I think we can agree that asking a player to make a phone call is requiring audience participation to consume the story. Is it interaction if your game calls the player? I find it tempting on the surface to call that a passive experience. 

It hints at action even so -- the audience member being called had to give you their number, after all, and had to choose to pick up the phone. There's a dance going on. But again, to watch a TV show, the player has to make the decision to turn on a screen and tune in the show. So I still don't think that making the decision to consume is inherently interactive.

It's totally possible to consume a transmedia experience in a completely passive mode -- reading blog posts, watching videos, reading Tweets, without ever doing the actions that in my gut I feel are interaction-the-way-we-mean-it: sending emails, leaving comments, reaching out and touching the story world.

What's more, I think this passive method of consuming a transmedia experience is by far the type that the most audience members engage in.

So no, I don't think interaction is a necessary component of a transmedia experience.

I Love Interaction

This should in no way be taken as an endorsement for ignoring interactive elements in any transmedia project. But it's not a requirement for me, nor is it something I'd want to hang a definition on.

Interaction is for many of us the heart and soul of a transmedia experience. It's the magical thing that makes us want to do this. It's what electrifies the certain segment of our audience. And let's be clear, even that silent majority of passive audience members are electrified -- by the spectacle of other, more active participants reaching out and seeing the story reach back. It makes a world and a story come alive like nothing else.

But maybe somebody without the same motivations and sweet spots as me has a great idea for a project, and they're not sure if it's OK to call it transmedia. Me, I say take the name. I want to include as much as I can under the transmedia umbrella. 

There's net-native literature to be made in a kaleidoscope of structures and forms. Let's keep our minds open.