WTF is Transmedia? (2013)

It's become fashionable to hate the word 'transmedia' in some circles. 

The T-word has been very good to me. It's netted me any number of speaking engagements and website hits and sold me a book, among other things, so I feel a certain loyalty to it. I don't think I'd be enjoying the same degree of professional success if I hadn't very consciously embraced That Word back in 2010 or so. 

But I will admit that we have a problem with the T-word. Or maybe not the word itself -- maybe the problem is how we're trying to use it.

Rehashing the Past

If you're looking for historical context on where I'm coming from, you may be interested in these earlier posts, though some are missing their pretty charts now: WTF is an ARG? (from 2009)WTF is Transmedia? (from 2010)WTF is Transmedia? (from 2011)

In a nutshell, though: I come from the community of alternate reality games, and for several years, I tied myself in knots trying to view every innovative piece of online or pervasive or physical narrative through that lens: Gameplay + Story + Community. The problem was that a lot of the projects I was enjoying (and even making myself!) didn't fit into that Venn diagram. Not at the center; maybe not at all. 

We speculated that 'alternate reality game' was just a subset, then, of something bigger and potentially more exciting. And then our little games niche intersected with the Henry Jenkins and Jeff Gomez crowd, and bam! We finally had our umbrella term: transmedia storytelling.

The Definition

In A Creator's Guide and elsewhere, I've become comfortable using what is more or less the Prof. Henry Jenkins definition of transmedia: the art of telling one story over multiple media, where each medium is making a unique contribution to the whole.

It's a simple definition, an elegant one, and it's big enough to cover all manner of creative works in its leafy shade: alternate reality games like Perplex City and ilovebees, entertainment franchises like Star Wars and Pokemon, hybrid works like Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Cathy's Book, How I Met Your Mother.

Complaints against the T-word vary. It doesn't mean anything, it's too vague. It's nothing new, it's just media, everything will be transmedia. We need a different word. We don't need a word at all. 

And of course years of heartache have poured into arguments that amount to, "If what I'm making is transmedia then what you're making isn't," which grew particularly heated when bodies like Sundance, the PGA, and Tribeca began various new media/transmedia/emerging media efforts to try to spotlight, accredit, or foster new forms.

But if "transmedia" adequately describes an enormous swath of new and old forms of narrative... it yet elegantly and entirely misses the heart of what many of us get so excited about when we talk about transmedia. That standard-op definition for transmedia is lacking key words like emergent, collaborative, adaptive, pervasive, interactive, tangible, collective. 

And this is exactly correct by our definition: for something to be transmedia, it can be all of these things, but it doesn't have to be. ...So then what's the word for the stuff that is?

Redeeming 'Transmedia'

Let me go out on a limb here and suggest that the conversation about the word isn't really about the word at all. 

The controversy is the result of people wanting to have meaningful conversations about their art and finding that they cannot, because there isn't enough shared, precise language. And what shared language exists often means different things to different people, adding to the post-Babel frustration. A 'producer' in film parlance is a pivotal creative force; a 'producer' in games is primarily a project manager.

These are the inevitable growing pains of an emerging form. By and large, nobody argues much about what a "book" is; if we see a collection of bound-together leaves of paper, we're pretty comfortably sure it's a book. But you can't say anything true and compelling about "books" when you mean "alt-history paranormal romance." Someone who thinks "book" means "DB2 manual" will probably disagree with everything you say, and for good reason.

And yet even with as established a form as the book, similar debates still burn on in the emerging edges where art is born, like stars fusing into being. New genres are invented, flame bright, and die. Science fiction becomes speculative fiction explodes into a splintered mass of terms like New Weird, biopunk, post-colonial fantasy.

Each of us wants a word to describe exactly the things that we're making. "Transmedia" simply isn't precise enough, through no fault of its own.

It doesn't make it a bad word, nor even an unnecessary one. It's just that ARG found its umbrella term, and now we need names for all of our cousins, too.

Toward a Taxonomy of Transmedia Forms

Part of the free-wheeling joy of transmedia storytelling is that the structure itself is a part of the creative expression. Nailing down any particular structure and saying transmedia is exactly that necessarily excludes other things, things so amazing we can't even picture them yet. So we've been resistant to naming structures. I get that.

But for approaching fifteen years now, we've more or less ignored the fact that there are certain family resemblances to some structures that get used again and again. Naming them might facilitate a better quality of discussion, though, and even help us fumble our way toward still more new forms. And so I'd like to propose a fledgling taxonomy for specific forms of transmedia narrative. 

Alternate Reality Game: What's old becomes new. A story played out through media embedded in the real world as though the fictional events were really occurring. Often meant to be played by communities rather than individuals; often incorporating gamelike challenges like puzzles. (Perplex City, Why So Serious?)

Franchise Storyworld: A series of standalone pieces of traditional media (such as books, comics, films, games, TV shows) that each tell an individual story, but that tell a larger, inter-related narrative when taken as a whole. (Star Wars, Pokemon.)

Tangible Narrative: A story making heavy use of physical (and sometimes digital) story artifacts in service of another more traditional single-medium narrative. (Sleep No More, Cathy's Book, Laser Lace Letters.)

Web Series++ (or Film++, or Novel++): A single-medium narrative that makes light use of supplementary social media, video, etc. to add non-critical flavor and depth to the main work. (Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Dirty Work, How I Met Your Mother.)

Expanded Documentary: A nonfiction project that incorporates multiple vectors for propagating information about the topic, often in service of raising money or awareness for a specific cause. (Half the Sky, Bear 71.)

You'll note that none of this is exactly brand-new terminology. But I think it would help a lot for us to take that single step toward precision when we talk about transmedia, to qualify whether we're talking about transmedia as a whole (like one might talk about "books" or "video games") or a specific kind of transmedia narrative (like one might talk about "travelogues" or "hidden object games.")

Take this whole thing as provisional and imprecise. These particular terms definitely overlap -- you could potentially create a single work with elements of all of these in it. Still, I'm hoping that this can move the conversation toward better conversations about craft. Not just "How do I get funding for my transmedia project?" but on to "How do you help an audience to navigate a tangible narrative?" or "How much additional content becomes burdensome or overwhelming for a Web Series++?" or "How do I channel the traffic from my expanded documentary into direct action?"

It may even be my categories are thrown out in favor of something else. And I'm cool with that. I'm hoping that others will take this ball and run with it. Maybe by this time next year we'll have so many named forms that we hardly ever need to talk about 'transmedia' at all.

Language can shed light, and it can obscure. The fault never lies in the words themselves; it's all in how we use them.


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