Asking the Wrong Question

Transmedia hasn't exactly had a blockbuster 2013. In some circles transmedia's been declared dead and/or an empty buzzword, which amounts to the same thing; we've even seen the autopsy

But more telling, in my eyes, has been the dearth of new projects released this year. Work has been slow; budgets have been tight. Some great work is still being done — work is always being done — but the last two years have seen a decidedly downward trend in the number and variety of transmedia projects being launched. The once-vibrant community active on Twitter and at conferences has fallen quiet. 

It's disheartening to me, both as a creator who wants to be a part of something, and as a person who would like to continue using these skills I've sharpened to keep myself in coffee and warm socks. And, you know, everything else that requires money, too. Which is most everything, it turns out.

It's easy to think this is a crossroads for us; do we carry on? Do we accept that all industries have up and down cycles, and wait for the pendulum to swing back again, as it surely will? Or do we put down our swords and shields in defeat, leave the battlefield, and start new lives in a new place doing something else?  It is in that spirit (or so I assume) that I've been invited to a think tank* to discuss...

...the definition of transmedia. Sigh. 

This invitation-only event** is intended to once and for all hammer out a unified and mutually acceptable definition for transmedia, with the intent of looking at what we have and seeing if it is worth creating some sort of "industry group." 

What is transmedia? This is the wrong question to ask; a definition is beside the point. It's fundamentally not even the problem this group of people are trying to address.  Here's the question we need to be asking:

Given that we are a like-minded group of creators and entrepreneurs; how can we band together for the benefit of each other and our craft?

We already know perfectly well we have a lot in common. You don't need to agree on what transmedia means first — and indeed, I think we've been poorly served by our historic checklist-driven approach to a definition anyway.

Adrian Hon recently introduced me to Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblances to define what a game is. I think transmedia is the same thing. We'll never, never find one master checklist, because some members of the family don't have the same nose, others don't have the same curly hair. Some of us are interactive and others have tentpole films. 

But we already know we're all a part of the same family... it's the family of creators and projects and businesses who show up at the table to a discussion of transmedia in the first place.  So starting out the conversation by trying to nail down for once and for all what a member of the family is going to look like is an effort destined for failure. 

I've been down this road before, with the Transmedia Artists Guild. We, too, started with that wrong question. How do we decide who to let in and who not to? This is a question that matters very much if you're issuing a professional accreditation and have to decide who's earned the credit and who hasn't, or who qualifies for a grant and who doesn't. PGA, TriBeCa, Sundance, we're cool.

But if your goal is to make an industry group to support and promote the people and businesses who are making awesome stuff, to allow them to band together for mutual support and advancement, it is the wrong approach. Because the other way to frame that question is: what isn't transmedia? What do we choose to exclude? Who isn't invited to our club?

And that will always result in cutting out the edge cases, the fringe, the innovators. In short, exactly what any transmedia group should be rushing to embrace.  Which is why, in the end, the Transmedia Artists Guild was open to everybody. 

I'm ready to go all-in to an industry group, I really am. I wish the Transmedia Artists Guild had succeeded. I miss the feeling of being a part of something and sharing this journey with like minds. I'd love to share what I know and have with others to promote better work, and I'd love to have a network to support me in my crazy indie efforts, which are getting more ambitious every day. 

But to get there, you have to start by asking the right question. 

* Details and names intentionally omitted because reasons; I'm actually uneasy writing about this event at all, but I feel like the importance of this discussion to the community overrides my duty to respect the shroud of privacy around this event.

** I'm deeply uncomfortable with the framing of this event as an invitation-only think tank of thought leaders, because this means someone has already decided who deserves a voice in this discussion and who doesn't. That's very definitely not the indie-friendly, warm, open community I used to love to pieces.

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