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Transmedia Storytelling is Bullshit...

I love a good provocative statement but the particular one that leads off this post is one i feel somewhat justified and qualified to make. Such proclamations are usually reserved for the traditionalists from old media that  ‘just don t get it’. I am certainly no such person having spent a good proportion of my professional career writing producing and developing in new media spheres. And indeed a great deal of my current research, teaching and project development is in transmedia forms. And yet despite this, I find myself lately saying loudly and in frustration - Transmedia is Bullshit..!

But perhaps my hostility is misdirected; my problem with Transmedia really stems not from the media and process itself but the people who champion and espouse it. My assessment is that too many of those singing the praises of Transmedia have an engrained insistence on tossing the baby going out with the bathwater.

I was at a recent conference that held a panel on Transmedia and it was this that raised my latest bout of ire. As i sat and listened to these Transmedia Gurus rabbit on i kept hearing statements such as “these technologies require a different kind of storytelling” and “the old ways of telling stories don’t work” Now, Allow me to call these statements for what they are…


Empty, vacuous, ignorant, presumptive, absurd and fascicle weasel-word statements that do the cause of Transmedia no good.

Let me be clear, the advent of narrative cinema, radio and TV Did Not change Storytelling. So why would we think Transmedia does ?

Stories in these new mediums found a new visual or aural grammar, new parameters, new ways to experience, but the notion of story itself as an experience and concept did not change. Television Did Not change Storytelling. Radio did not change storytelling, so to the Internet and even Video Games have NOT changed Storytelling. The grammar, the mechanics, the delivery means may alter but the notion of Story has not and does not. Regardless of medium, a Story (by both is most broad and most narrow definitions) is still a progression of events; an inciting action triggering events and experiences, challenges and obstacles that lead to conclusions.

The notion that simply because a story may be carried in parallel across multiple mediums of tv, game, internet and mobile device should mean it is somehow a wholly new breed of storytelling is not just absurd, it is arrogantly ignorant of history. Even the much cited idiom of non-linear storytelling is a myth - an open-world sandbox video game such Oblivion or MMORPG such as World of Warcraft is NOT in any real way Non-Linear. Story in such media is still, as always, a progression from inciting incident (the triggering event, decision or action) through a series of escalations to a conclusion (or multiple conclusions). There may be multiple paths and many parallel story roads to traverse leading to many endings, and the viewer may be free to choose certain pathways before or after others, but this really changes not at all the fact that all the major narrative events on any and all of those paths will still occur in a largely pre determined order - this then that then that. Certain events must still occur before others in order for the story to progress and without progression there is no story.

It doesn’t matter the medium, Story is still predicated on causality - cause and effect, one thing causes another in sequence. Thus I find that Non-linear is a misnomer and misdirected obsession in Transmedia. The much more applicable and useful term is Parallel. At one such conference i attended, a panellist made the comment that “life isn t linear why should stories be?”  which struck me as an entirely ill-conceived and immature statement. Indeed Life IS Linear. It is completely and entirely and utterly and profoundly Linear! It moves in one progressive direction, each action triggers a subsequent dilemma leading to more actions. Birth as inciting incident, death as the conclusion. In between there is sequential and progressive struggle, obstacle, tension and release. Examples such as these point to a blinding effort by too many Transmedia aficionados to desperately exert and promote Difference, rather than more soberly identify connection and extension.

The fundamental of Transmedia is NOT a lack of linearity, nor is it some radical new perspective on what a a Story is. The heart of Transmedia is a Story-World where multiple and often ongoing, stories may be told and experienced and accessed across different platforms in different mediums at different times. This is exciting and relatively new, but it is still Story, it is still the same progression of events and cathartic experience of journey through those events, as has existed for millennia - from greco-roman theatre to video game console.

Tension, action, catharsis, dramatic question, journey, transformation, inversion, character, challenge, desire, obstacle - these are the base elements of Story. They have never changed before when technology has evolved. Why should they change now just because we went digital and invented Facebook?

On the whole my big issue with the way Transmedia is promoted and espoused by its vocal proponents is that it pushed like an all-or-nothing drug. The prevailing mentality seems to be that if you re doing Transmedia you must have everything and the kitchen sink or else you re not really doing transmedia. The result is all too often a central story-world with some viable story off-shoots but which are then bogged down in superfluous, disconnected, pointless, irrelevant, weak or just plain disposable platitudes.

Not every story needs a twitter feed for God Sake! Not every story must have a Facebook page! Not every story warrants an augmented reality game…! Far too many Transmedia projects look like a collection of mindless busy work to keep idle hands amused but which add nothing to the experience. Bottom line is that good Transmedia projects should include only those elements that are Right for the story or experience, those that are important, those that count, that are worthwhile and leave out those that aren’t. Transmedia is a Smorgasbord; lots of choice but the meal isn’t better for putting everything on your plate.

In this context too, we need to be very mindful of our assumptions about what audiences want in the way of Transmedia experiences or indeed who Transmedia audiences are. I, for example, am undoubtably a digital being. I rarely go to the movies and never watch broadcast TV without time-shifting, streaming or downloading. Every story i consume i do so as download, stream, game, rss, tweet, blog, box-set, time-shift, interaction. And yet, even i who live and breathe digital media have absolutely ZERO interest in ARG s, entirely no interest at all in discussing story-lines of a tv show in a forum, never ever want to change or effect the outcome of a movie. I will never be interested in following a characters twitter feed or friending them on Facebook. Indeed, unless its an actual video game i have no interest in interacting with my screen stories at all aside from selecting where, how and when i want to watch .

Now, I m not at all suggesting that everyone is like me, but what i am suggesting is that assuming people want to interact is a a false assumption, assuming because a person is a technology early adopter and digital native means they want to play an ARG is a myth. The smorgasbord metaphor applies here too; not everyone will eat everything on your Transmedia plate. A story experience must be satisfying but be careful about which elements you assume your audience will partake of in order to make the story satisfying. (and if you have limited budget and resources spend the money where it will count - which is probably Not in ARG’s)

The fundamental is that If we want to move to a Transmedia world and get old media enthusiastic about new media, then we need to cease the absurd and ignorant rhetoric. We need to stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater by making false assumptions and grandiose statements about how important and radical and revolutionary Transmedia is. Because frankly, It’s Not.

There is nothing Revolutionary at all about the digital Revolution.

Transmedia is NOT a reinvention of media and storytelling, it s just an extension on it. Just the latest extension in a long history of extensions. Transmedia is NOT a revolution in storytelling. It’s just Evolution; another stage of evolution in a long history of evolutionary changes.

To make great Transmedia projects and to engage creators of all kinds with the possibilities of Transmedia we need to stop talking about the Differences between old and new media and talk more about the Similarities. We need to focus on how Transmedia extends what we know rather than abolishes it. We need to build upon the foundations of storytelling and narrative experience that have survived all the media Evolutions before now, and honour them within a new media grammar and a multi-platform paradigm without assuming or arbitrarily deciding they are obsolete.

Transmedia is Bullshit. And long live Transmedia….!

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