I have written an article for an online publication that will be published any day now. But since I don’t know just when it will be published (edit: it is now online), I’ve decided to share a section of it. It is a section that does deserve it’s own article, and so here it is.
While you weren’t looking, transmedia became a paradigm. What does that mean? I mean, hey, doesn’t everyone know about transmedia? Isn’t every bloody conference littered with the next wave of evangelists and exploiters? Aren’t there more and more dark corners of industry suddenly discovering it and championing it as the way of the future? Well, yes, and that is the problem.
Years ago, I came across a theory that stood out for me because it seemed to illuminate an aspect of how change happens. I have an ongoing question on my life desktop: how do new things happen? So I was interested to see this theory about the way a huge technological transformation happens. Specifically, the researchers looked at virtual reality (VR) and it’s lack of taking hold as a business, as a market.
What G.M. Peter Swann and Tim P. Watts argue in their 2002 essay is that VR is a “pre-paradigmatic” market (Swann and Watts, 2002). They explain that despite the exciting allure and potential of the technology, it hasn’t become a strong market. This is because it is “pre-paradigmatic”:
It is not an issue of technological failure or lack of potential demand. Rather it is because of a lack of coordination of expectations and vision between diverse technology developers and diverse users. Even if VR has the potential to meet real user needs, vendors and users do not manage to focus on the same paradigm for VR. At present VR remains in a pre-paradigmatic stage and until that stage is passed diffusion will remain slow. VR lacks a coherent vision and is, in a sense, a victim of its own ubiquitous potential. (p. 42)
VR, they continue, has so many things it could achieve and so many users of all of these potential uses. This is what they call the paradox of ubiquity: these diverse possibilities work against market success. So there are many people working in VR, exploring and evangelising different uses (and therefore disagreeing on the definition of VR), and likewise many users championing those different uses according to their interests. Just as we see in transmedia.
There is, as they explain, a diffusion, a lack of coherent foci that thwarts ‘leading designs,’ and therefore market success. For me personally, I have kept out of the many discussions the transmedia scene has had about cementing what transmedia is. I am at home with what it means to me, and I have worked hard to make the area as inclusive as possible (my thesis is about recognising lots of different kinds of transmedia, transmedia around the world, transmedia throughout time, transmedia with story or game elements and so on).
For the first time in years, I posed something about the definition of transmedia. I posted a colleague’s observation about an early definition of transmedia and I was suddenly swamped by guys arguing what transmedia is. To me, what could have been a meta discussion about the nature of an academic definition and the context of it’s creation became an argument once again about what transmedia is. I felt frustrated with the argument just as my colleagues perhaps felt frustrated that there are people corrupting transmedia or don’t understand it. I think we can feel angry and frustrated because we think these differences mean the death of what we love. We are right and we are wrong. We’re right because these differences are what keep us in this “pre-paradigmatic” state.
So I’ve been watching what has been happening and waiting to see the moment when (if) transmedia moves out of it’s “pre-paradigmatic” state. It is then there will be a shared understanding. Like people understanding what you mean when you say TV or games – there is a great diversity within it, but you cannot have an industry without a top-level (albeit perhaps shallow) idea of it.
Indeed, Swann and Watts are careful to note that everyone doesn’t have to agree on a foci in order for market success to happen. We are wrong about differences meaning the death of transmedia. Instead, they explain, sometimes a product leader can emerge and unify vendors and users alike. Creators and non-professional audience alike –something that has been missing from the equation. I think it has happened.
Here is an article from The Atlantic about the Emmy-winning Lizzie Bennett Diaries:
LBD is said to have “changed the face of storytelling” because of the way the multiple platforms allow fan interaction to add zigzags and layers to the old linear story, and it’s a shining example of what’s become known in entertainment, tech, and advertising as transmedia. Transmedia integrates story components, multiple platforms (many of them digital), and audience interaction…
There it is. To me — seeing the success of LBD with audiences, with peers, and the way it is described, and the way transmedia is described — indicates a paradigm. A shift in the story of transmedia. A product leader that solidifies for creators and audiences alike what it is.
If this is the case, and I would be relieved if it is, then it means transmedia is a mix of the (apparently competing) types of transmedia: television (of a traditional artform) and alternate reality games (of a net-native artform). That is, there has been transmedia around traditional works, and transmedia that is net-native. So with Lizzie Bennett Diaries we have a mix of the sensibilities and lessens of both. They’re building on each other, and importantly the Internet is playing a big role is what this new proposition is.
So of all the definitions of transmedia, who was the closest? I would pick Jill Walker Rettberg and her proposal of “distributed narratives“. Although at the beginning of my research (2006 & 7) I spoke about the importance of the Internet in cross-media (pdf, pdf); and I still disagree with the ideologically argument that there is no unity in these works (I argue against the idea in my thesis), I think Jill (coming from a net literature perspective) captured the phenomenon best. Here is a sampling of her writings:
Distributed narratives explode the work altogether, sending fragments and shards across media, through the network and sometimes into the physical spaces that we live in. This project explores this new narrative trend, looking at how narrative is spun across the network and into our lives.
ARGs are just a part of the greater phenomenon: this placement on the Internet and the aesthetic approach of situating the fiction in the player’s world, is a trait. It may not define all of them, but as we know, it is a compelling proposition that attracts the imagination of audiences. I think there needs to be that “immersive” hook for something to find fire with audiences. Just as digital games has the driving attractor of taking players out of their world, these projects bring a fictional world to the player’s world. None of this is a coincidence. But I digress now.
So a lot of the passionate talk about the nature of transmedia has been essential. In some ways, many of us have been aware of the impressionable nature of the birth of a new form. We care, and so we’ve fought with people who didn’t care, and with each other because we thought we would have to be on the same page. But we don’t need to be on the same page. We just need a short-hand that everyone relates too, and then we can get on with actually having support and audiences for doing what we love.