It certainly isn’t news to any of us that the media are changing, and very rapidly at that. The Internet allows us to access any type of medium and any type of content – be it legally or illegally – at any point in time; our media devices are merging into one, so that we no longer have to literally put down our book in order to start a computer game; and to top it all off, the tools of media creation and production not only become increasingly easy to use, but also a lot more affordable. It goes without saying that all of these trends greatly benefit transmedia storytelling; looking at them a bit more closely, however, we can see that these trends also have far wider implications when it comes to our understanding of media as a whole, and to our overall approach towards storytelling.
In this post, I’d like to outline these wider implications to give you an idea of why transmedia storytelling is actually a misconception. Don’t worry, though, this doesn’t mean I’m giving up this blog or my enthusiasm for transmedia storytelling just yet.
A medium no longer stands on its own
Second screens! Movie websites! Prequel webisodes! Wikias! Help the detective solve the riddle online! I love bees! The Old Republic! Knights of the Old Republic! Graphic novels! And so on. Media over media now help us tell our stories, engage our audiences, and reap the (economic) results. What many producers still fail to see, however, is that with the integration of other media, the ‘original’ medium ceases to stand on its own. It now exists in direct relation to the added media, and the quality and type of content offered on one medium directly impacts the appeal of the content on the other medium as well.
Whether you’re only trying to get hold of your TV audience on second screens, or whether you’re building a gigantic transmedia franchise, each medium and each platform involved must have a purpose in the overall story you’re telling. If the quality, tone, or content of the media you’re using differs too much, it will interrupt your audience’s overall entertainment experience. And there is no escaping from such multi-media aspects for your content either. A website is a standard requirement for any entertainment property nowadays, and increasingly, audiences will demand even more content from producers.
Storytelling has freed itself from the medium
In the past, how a story was told and consumed was greatly dependent on the media available. This still holds true, of course, but with a minor difference: We now have all (currently known) media available to tell a story, we have easy ways to distribute each medium, and users don’t need many different devices to access different types of media. As a result, storytelling has freed itself from the media. Want to convey a character’s inner thoughts and feelings? Use text/a book. Want to really show off that awesome final fight scene? Use a movie. Want to show your users what your storyworld is like? Use a computer game. For the first time in history, the narration is fitted to the narrative, not the other way around.
The entire notion of what constitutes a “medium” might soon be overcome
For hundreds of years, our understanding of individual media has been defined by the devices that delivered them. Whether it was a book, a movie, a radio show, a TV program, or a computer game – the device framed narration, distribution, accessibility, and formats. All of these characteristics are breaking down, however. A book might now consist of text, video, pictures, and audio parts. TV shows – although often still constricted to traditional formats due to traditional advertising structures – experiment with the integration of social media and online communities directly on screen. Web producers suddenly find that their audience does watch for more than five minutes, and that they also play games tied into a web series. Thus, there is again a shift from “what the medium is” to “what a media feature can do”. Whether it is a ‘TV show”, a “radio program,” or a “graphic novel” doesn’t matter anymore; instead, the question is what types of narrative devices are involved – audio, visual, text, interactivity, everything at once? “The medium” as such is ceasing to exist. Now, it’s all about the combination of different media parts to create the best entertainment experience possible.
Transmedia is really a misconception, then …
There have been endless debates about what the exact definition of “transmedia” is. Does every platform have to add something new to the story? Does a t-shirt count as a transmedia extension? Is the same plot with more detail on a few scenes in a different medium transmedia?
It really doesn’t matter. Looking at the way the media are currently evolving, everything and nothing is going to be transmedia. As traditional notions of “the medium” break down, it really is all about the story, and how different media features can be used as narrative devices. Transmedia is a misconception because very soon, it will be the standard of how stories are told. There will be no uni-media/single-media to define what transmedia is not. Every story, every type of content, every entertainment experience will involve different “media.” From the very beginning, starting with the earliest books consisting of texts and pictures, authors have put different types of media to use as narrative devices. It is the natural course of art and creativity. Right now, we’re at a point where we can finally live this creativity to the fullest because we are no longer constricted by the limits of individual media. How many “media” (or rather, their features) we’ll be using exactly to tell our stories is irrelevant. It is the story and the experience that counts. Technically, the notion of transmedia has existed for a long time now, and it will continue to exist. It is not a new concept, and there is no right and wrong transmedia. It’s just that we now have the possibilities to really pursue it, and to tell stories the way we’ve always wanted to.
… but we need it to put a name to this thing
The reason why transmedia has such a wide appeal at the moment is because it puts a name to this change in media and storytelling we’re experiencing. Calling this change “transmedia” allows us to think about its different aspects – guiding audiences, using media features as narrative devices, finding future business models, etc. – so that we can start to wrap our heads around what we’re seeing and experiencing. The transmedia scene has been doing great so far in developing future ways to tell a story, so even if the concept itself may not actually be the novelty many praise it to be, the term “transmedia” itself will continue to be the best rallying point for anyone thinking ahead of the stories we are seeing now.