Transmedia

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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Tales of the Stop

I am sitting on a mountain of awesome things right now, my friends. Things I have not yet told you about, but will be talking up in the coming weeks! And thing #1 is: Tales of the Stop. If I may steal a few words from the project creator as written over at Chuck Wendig's place:

A few years ago, I wrote a story called Azrael’s Stop. It’s a fantasy story about a teenager named Ceph who’s had to deal with a lot of death in his life—his whole family, a childhood friend, his best friend from school… And it’s kind of fucked him up. He thinks that everyone he loves is going to die, and so he won’t let himself get close to anyone.
Then a mysterious man brings him to a bar called Azrael’s Stop—said to be the watering hole of the Angel of Death Himself—and sets him up as the bartender. People start coming to the bar, people who are either ready to pass on from this world and just need someone to share their story with, or people who, like Ceph, have experienced death and need help dealing with it.

I have a short story in this volume called Changed and Changing. As with much of my short fiction over the last few years, it is thematically about the complexity of motherhood. I think it's a lovely, sad little piece, and I would enjoy it if you would read it and let me know what you think. (Note that it's also in my own collection of shorts Shiva's Mother and Other Stories if you've read that before, but I'd prefer if you buy Tales at this point. And if you liked Changed and Changing from the other collection, well! You'll definitely like the rest of the anthology!)

I know Lucas J.W. Johnson from way back in the transmedia salt mines, and I've always admired him for the way he thinks big and then acts on those visions of his. Azarael's Stop is a transmedia project start to finish; go and read that post at Terrible Minds to see learn more about its creative vision and implementation. It's worth your time, I promise. 

And then buy Tales of the Stop! This book is available in all the stores for the low price of $4.99! LOOK AT THESE BUY LINKS: Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo or buy it from Lucas directly as a discounted bundle at Silverstring Media!

More awesome things incoming. Stay tuned!


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Community Building Panel!

I don't do a lot of speaking these days, but when I do, I pick and choose very carefully -- which is how you know the StoryForward NYC panel on the art of community building is going to be SUPER AWESOME.

This session is going to be 100% snake oil free, guaranteed. We're not going to be all "yeah it's important to build a community, you have to engage people, man, the secret is to build content's really engaging," which is nice and all. It's even accurate (mostly), but it doesn't get you any closer to actually knowing how to do that thing. We are going to talk about how to do that thing! Actual useful techniques and methods! Things you can try! I want you to walk out of there with at least three concrete ideas for how to build and manage a community of your very own.

And speaking of community: StoryForward is a fantastic, warm, supportive community of creators, and you should join the meetup so you know when the next shindig will be, too. It's my perpetual regret that I can't make it to every single one, usually due to family-related scheduling conflicts. 

The details: it's this Monday Sept. 21 from 6 to 7:30pm. There is an admission cost, but it's only one lousy dollar. It's at New York Women in Film and Television at 6 East 39th St., Suite 1200. In New York, of course.

There's not a ton of room in the venue, so please RSVP at Meetup.com to reserve your space. And it's going to be so great. So great! Hope to see you there!


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Confessions of a Transmedia Pundit

If you're a long-time reader here, it won't have escaped your notice that I stopped talking about transmedia a while back. I'm not writing about craft anymore, I'm not giving talks at conferences, and I've been increasingly winding down or declining commitments to run workshops, speak to classes of aspiring digital professionals, and so on. But it's not because I've left transmedia, and not that I don't believe in transmedia anymore.

Partly this is because I'm in an extremely fortunate position wherein haven't needed to hustle for new projects for a long time now. But it was already in the cards when I was still hustling. Mostly it's because I don't want to sell snake oil, and when I talked about transmedia, snake oil was where I was headed -- and definitely what audiences wanted from me: promises that if they just did what I told them, they'd get more engagement, attract more eyeballs, and make more money.

That's not always true. Transmedia is not your magic bullet; you can use every technique in the toolbox and still make a project nobody ever looks at or cares about. Sometimes implementing a transmedia strategy is a waste of precious energy and resources. It's hard to say that when your goal is to get people to hire you for money to do things, though. But look: transmedia isn't synonymous with innovative or interesting, nor is it a replacement for a traditional marketing plan.

Anyway, I didn't want to become someone eternally pitching something I didn't believe in anymore. So I stopped punditing, basically.

There's another reason, too. While I was still on the conference circuit, I found myself increasingly talking about work that I'd done or experienced three years before, five years. Meanwhile the amount of work I was actually doing was paltry, and I don't think any transmedia work I've done has been noteworthy since... well. *coughs* It's been a while. 

I got into this field because of the art, because of the audience relationships, because when you make something amazing and electric, there's nothing else like it. I got into this because of The Beast, because I was told a story and gifted with an experience that changed my life. I want to do that, too. 

I wasn't ever, ever going to do that by speaking to a group of brand strategists about the engagement pyramid.

When something isn't working for you, when you find yourself walking down a path that goes somewhere you don't want to be, the only answer is to turn a corner and head somewhere else. So what have I been doing instead? I doubled and tripled down on making instead of talking

I've got a really magnificent long-term project that you could probably call transmedia I'm working on -- details will come eventually, I swear. Hopefully in the next couple of months!

And I've also been chipping away at a long-term plan to build some credibility as a writer, and maybe start some organic growth so that one day I can go to a publisher or a production company and have the gravitas to get more complex things made... without having to start a studio my own self. I've done independent works like Lucy Smokeheart and The McKinnon Account. I've also somehow turned into a legit science fiction author. I've written a novel, I've published a few short stories. I'm represented by Zoe Sandler at ICM now, and I'm a member of SFWA. I have a game on the way, and some secret stuff, too. I'm making again. It feels... amazing.

But I'm still here, and I have big plans. Long-range plans, to be sure. But hopefully when we get there, you'll find it's been worth the wait.

And who knows, maybe when the time comes, I'll finally have some new things to say about transmedia, too.

 


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Imaginary Friends

A few years ago, my friends at Stitch Media had a wonderful idea. What if you could give your child a book, and have the events of that book spill over into the real world? It would require a little help from the parents, of course -- but as parents, we already bring the Tooth Fairy and other small, personal sparks of magic into our children's lives. What if you could expand those little sparks into a full-fledged adventure?

And so Imaginary Friends was born, a concept for how we could provide a story and framework for children and parents to build something magical together.

That's how I came to write Circus of Mirrors. You can call it an interactive children's book, but that's not doing it justice. It's not an app where you can click on the flowers and watch them sproing. It's not a book with a website attached to it. This is a story where the characters are the child's friends, where they rely on the reading child to help them out of a pickle again and again. This is a book that lets the reader be the hero.

And the world of this book is, I think, full of whimsy and delight: magic mirrors that take you to an enchanted circus; cotton candy that tastes like lightning; the Strong Lady and the Bearded Man. Also: a mean witch! A mysterious fortune teller! A missing magician! This is a story full of love and sadness, mystery and deception, unbridled joy and mild sibling rivalry.

Right now, Imaginary Friends is being Kickstarted. But it's already down to the last couple of days, and it's not quite there yet. If you'd like to visit the Circus of Mirrors, get your ticket while you can. 

"Ready?" Sofia asked.

Max pulled back for a moment. "Wait a second," he said.

Sofia squeezed his hand as tight as she could. "Come on," she whispered. "Don't you want to have an adventure?"

Just on the other side of the mirror, the mysterious colored lights of the circus glowed, warm and promising. The music urged them to come closer. A crowd they couldn't yet see cheered. The scents of fresh popcorn and hot sugar drifted toward them.

Max smiled. "I'm ready. Let's go," he said.


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