August 22, 2011
A couple of years ago I found myself in a small town in Patagonia called San Martín de los Andes. The town lies in a fold in the mountains, but a short, steep hike through the woods gets you to an extraordinary vista point—the dry, scrubby buttes of the Patagonian steppes in one direction, the blue waters of Lake Lácar and the snowcapped peaks of the Andes in the other. But as with much of Patagonia, the journey is every bit as remarkable as the destination. In this case it meant following a seemingly random network of trails that wend their way up the ridge. About halfway up I encountered the trails’ author—a half-dozen head of cattle. There was no “right” path, for the cattle any more than for the people. Instead, the paths all converged at a dusty spot near the summit where three old women sat on the porch of a cabin. As I approached, one of the women stood up and asked for a peso. I paid the toll and walked past a ramshackle house sporting a large satellite dish to the lookout, where I got to see a condor from above. Choose your own adventure indeed.
I’m reminded of that walk whenever somebody mentions transmedia, the seemingly radical new approach to narrative that was mapped out several years ago by Henry Jenkins, then a professor of media studies at MIT and now Provost’s Professor at USC Annenberg. Henry once defined transmedia in his blog as “integral elements of a fiction . . . dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” (He didn’t mention the satellite dish or the three old women and their pay wall, but they’re part of nearly any entertainment experience these days.) Earlier this month, in a post called Transmedia 202, he attempted to explain how the trails work and, by the way, defend them against those who would try to pave and straighten them and/or get obsessed with signage. It’s an important read.
(For the record, the term “deep media,” which I borrowed from Nigel Hollis of Millward Brown and others, overlaps considerably with Henry’s concept of transmedia, the main difference being that one places the emphasis on the goal—immersiveness—while the other focuses more on process. For a more long-winded explanation, see the interview Henry conducted with me earlier this year. As I said then, I wouldn’t be surprised if both terms disappeared once this form of storytelling became ubiquitous and therefore taken for granted. Does anybody still say “talkies”?)
An idea is a fragile thing. And at this point, the idea that we’re on the cusp of a new form of storytelling seems to have reached that weird place where much of the world still hasn’t accepted it but many of those who have are too busy squabbling over the details to actually focus on doing it. As Nick DeMartino, formerly of the American Film Institute, noted in a recent post at Tribeca Film’s Future of Film blog, the discussion devolved into an all-out flame war in the wake of the “New Worlds” panel at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference. It was against this backdrop that Henry weighed in.
The most basic distinction he makes is between adapting a story from one entertainment medium to another—something Hollywood has been doing routinely for decades—and extending a story into other media. Borrowing a line from ngmoco founder Neil Young, he calls the point of this kind of story-extension “additive comprehension.” As an example he cites Falling Skies, the summer sci-fi series that Steven Spielberg produced for TNT—an alien-invasion story that echoes the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds, which Spielberg adapted for the movies several years ago. Explaining the difference between extending and adapting, Henry notes:
The Falling Skies graphic novel is a prequel which tells us about the disappearance of the middle brother [during the invasion] and thus helps to provide insights into the motives of the characters on the Turner television series. In this case, additive comprehension takes the form of back story, but the same graphic novel also helps us to better understand the organization of the resistance movement, which we can see as part of a world-building process.
Most transmedia content, Henry goes on to say, serves one or more of the following functions:
- Offers backstory
- Maps the World
- Offers us other character’s perspectives on the action
- Deepens audience engagement.
Another point Henry makes is that there’s nothing all that new about this stuff. Falling Skies and its ilk were prefigured, he notes, by the works of Walt Disney, J.R.R. Tolkien, and L. Frank Baum, who extended his 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into various other media, including a stage musical (later adapted into the Judy Garland movie by MGM) and a slide show he presented on the lecture circuit.
I’m as fascinated by early precedents as Henry is. But as significant as they are, I think the critical factor at work today is technology—both the influence of the Internet and the proliferation of screens (computer, television, smartphone, tablet, etc.) that access it. The historical precedent shows us that the impulse to tell stories across different media isn’t new. But it’s the proliferation of devices that deliver a variety of different media—audio, video, text—that makes it feel increasingly natural.
It used to be that every medium was tied to a specific device. Television was something you watched on TV; radio was something you listened to on the radio; a movie was something you went to the movies to see. No longer. Transmedia is what happens when media become uncoupled from the devices that were invented to deliver them. It’s an organic and inevitable response to the world we live in. Like, how else would you tell a story?
Not that we’re really there yet. That’s the problem with the definition debate. To my mind, being free to walk different paths is key to the whole thing. To try to channel an emerging form of narrative into a single definition is not just a mistake; it’s antithetical to the spirit of the time. “Many people are looking for simple formulas and a one-size-fits-all definition, trying to delimit what transmedia is,” Henry writes. That’s not what we need; what we need is to be open to experimentation and innovation:
There is no transmedia formula. Transmedia refers to a set of choices made about the best approach to tell a particular story to a particular audience in a particular context depending on the particular resources available to particular producers. The more we expand the definition, the richer the range of options available to us can be.