theorycast.63 :: What is Transmedia?

Download theorycast.63 :: What is Transmedia? (.mp4 / 52mb), or watch this on Youtube, Facebook and Blip.tv. Subscribe to theorycast on iTunes.

At the Futures of Entertainment 4 conference in MIT, I asked academics Xiaochang Li, Sheila Seles and William Uricchio of the Convergence Culture Consortium on their definitions of transmedia.

As defined by Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture (2006 // see book and video), transmedia storytelling is published across multiple forms of media with each element making distinctive contributions to a viewer/user/player’s understanding of the story world. By using different media formats, it attempts to create “entrypoints” through which consumers can become immersed in a story world. Jenkins also compares highlights sticky media vs. spreadable media, where we once stuck viewers into specific media, now we’re now encouraging the content to be perpetuated across media and users.

MIT Press Bookstore FOE4 selection
MIT Press Bookstore selection @ #FOE4

Why is transmedia a big deal now?
I expect that the first point is technology, where we see the proliferation of networked media forms, such as video games, the Internet, and mobile platforms. The second point is cultural, such as the Web 2.0 movement, where the participatory design, distributive ease and integrative form of digital media lends itself well to stories flowing across media platforms.

Inspired from Lucian’s analogy of greek mythology, one of the obvious questions on transmedia lies in its distinctiveness. If stories have been reiterated across media (even tablets and statues) since the early B.C., isn’t that already a form of transmedia? If so, how is it different from cross-media or intertextual forms of productions?

From our video interview, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, Prof. Urrichio, describes transmedia as a new “lens” for us to make sense of experiences, both present and past (thus history is ever exciting). The concept clearly existed long ago, but only now are we gathering more precise vocabulary and practice for it. Perhaps it’s like seeing new colors for the first time.

An instance of transmedia in the everyday is Wikipedia, where users are co-creating and co-sustaining the continuity of the online encyclopedia, as well as reproducing the content in print and through development of mobile applications. Prof. Urrichio argues that the magic of transmedia practices, like Wikipedia, lies in its algorithm. In any transmedia practice, it is the algorithm (I offered rule-making) which defines the social outcomes of the story. If a transmedia story were an organism, it seems to me that the algorithm is much like its DNA. Open user participation on a transmedia story means that we can’t really predict how users (or fans) would re-shape the storyline, but with its algorithm in place, we can expect how it would eventually look like.

Futures of Entertainment 4
FOE4 session 3: Transmedia for Social Change (video). The Harry Potter Alliance is ingenius!

Transmedia inevitably offer a canvas for free-play, which leads us into the idea of games, specifically alternative reality games (or ARGs). To explain, Cayden Mak shared with me a neat paper by Henrik Örnebring entitled Alternate reality gaming and convergence culture: The case of Alias (2007). In it, Örnebring describes Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) as a form of internet-based mystery game in which participants are immersed in a fictional world and engage in collective problem-solving.

What makes this paper particularly interesting, is that it takes into account the potential exploitative aspect of transmedia (and ARG) practices. While part of fan culture, the paper problematizes the fact that many ARGs are actually marketing tools.

An ARG I’ve personally observed was called ILoveBees.com, in which a seemingly innocuous web site gets hijacked by an A.I., offering clues throughout the site. As documented by ARG researcher, Christy Dena, “I Love Bees (42 Entertainment, 2004) was a radio drama delivered through fragmented sound files that were released one-by-one to the players as they answered over 1,400 payphone, in over 50 states, in eight countries. Once a call was answered and a challenge was successfully completed, an ‘axon’ (sound file) was unlocked for the players online.” Thing is, I Love Bees was essentially a marketing campaign for the Halo 2 game.

While not explicitly a game, we do see online services such as Facebook come under fire when their terms of agreement seizes the copyright of media shared by its users. On the other hand, Wikipedia threads the line carefully as it remains non-profit and posts no ads. This awareness of potential online exploitation brought about the recent conference called The Internet as Playground and Factory (Nov 12-14, 2009).

I vote @mikemonello for Best Laptop Lid Theme evar  #foe4
@mikemonello, best known for producing The Blair Witch Project, has awesome laptop stickers from Vinylville

FOE4 Conference Aftermath
If you’re wondering how the Futures of Entertainment 4 conference went, let’s just say there’s way too much for me to write about. Thankfully @rachelclarke liveblogged all the sessions, so just scoot over to her blog and search under “FOE”. Here’s my favorite session which she documented, FOE: Producing Transmedia Experiences: Participation & Play. Also, videos from the FOE4 sessions are out on MIT TechTV. I video captured some of the sessions and tweeted them from my iPhone OWLE rig, but they’re not as professional.

Update 1: This theorycast video is now featured on ConvergenceCulture.org (thanks Sheila!) and the MIT Comparative Media Studies web site (thanks Andrew!).

Update 2: I have to point you to the Futures of Entertainment 4 conference videos. If you have time, they are a treasure throve of real-life case studies and experiences. A must-watch is the keynote session by Henry Jenkins entitled “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Five Key Principles of Transmedia Entertainment”. Session 3 “Transmedia for Social Change” is relevant to folks like me. Very inspirational session, esp the Harry Potter Alliance project (mindblowing!). Session 4 “The ROI of ROFL” is where Grant McCracken, author of Chief Culture Officer, lead the panel on the disconnect between “corporation and culture”. I’ve yet to blog about my interview with him. Watch them all 8 sessions here, or download all 8 videos to iTunes, then sync to your iPod to watch.

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  • http://en-gb.facebook.com/people/Walter-Lim/734910544 Walter Lim

    Nice and descriptive post on the future of social media, and how the lines between reality and virtual worlds are blurring. I think what would be an additional step up beyond crossing media platforms would be straddling the various senses – sight, sound, scent, taste and touch. I believe the technology has already been developed for scent producing computers and console games which provide realistic tactile sensations. However, few companies have integrated these elements more holistically into their offerings.

  • http://ramblinglibrarian.blogspot.com/ Ivan Chew

    Hmm… “Singlish is an example of a collaborative endeavor”. I wonder what the anti-Singlish people would say to that, LOL. It's an interesting perspective though.

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

    Indeed, I see transmedia as the understanding of the virtues of each media, including the culture and community around them. Holistic is the right word, so it appears complex, but it also boils down to risk-taking (i.e. $$, time, reputation).

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

    I've actually met folks who argue against the destruction of the English language in place of new ones, a kind of disrespect for the rules. This is why I believe some linguists see language as organic, evolving as society progresses to gratify needs and survive.

  • http://ramblinglibrarian.blogspot.com/ Ivan Chew

    Heh, next time you meet those who feel that English is being eroded, ask them to read books like “The Life of Language: The Fascinating Ways Words are Born, Live & Die” by Sol Steinmetz & Barbara Ann Kipfer (ISBN: 0375721134). took some notes here. Over half of the English vocabulary consists of borrowings from other languages. It's not erosion. It's evolution.

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin Lim

    Ah the semiotics of language… I've seen reference books where instead of being a dictionary, it references the origins of words as well. Sounds like a great book!