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Monday
Jul092012

Transmedia. It's not a brand. It's not a campaign. It's not fucking advertising!

I recently encountered uWall.TV; an interesting visual interface approach to accessing a music library. Its cool, simple, highly effective.

A collaborator I am currently involved with in developing a large multi-platform project sent me a link to it and posed the question of how we might use such an interface in the context of the multi-platform storyworld experience we’re currently developing. 

As I am prone to do I got a little carried away in my response. Too much time spent teaching screen production has embedded a nose for the ‘teachable moment’ into all my work. And my response was not just to confirm or deny my opinion on the relevance of the idea to our project but rather to examine the long-standing issue I have with the techno-centric cart-before-the-horse thinking that dominates soc much of the discourse around multi-platform and new media projects. 

My response went like this…

uWall.TV is an interesting way to access what is essentially a fancy song play-list. The ‘emotion’ mechanic is not unique or original but it is effective. Adding a voice-command from your microphone doesn’t change or make the experience better, just perhaps more efficient. 

There is an important distinction to make about such a device however, which is to ask; is it a an ‘Experience’ or is it a ‘Tool’? In the case of uWall.tv it’s really just a tool. A way to build a custom playlist of music different from other extant tools (manual, automatic, theme-based, etc). What it’s not is an ‘experience’. I would only come back to uWall if I found it useful in sorting my music and choosing what to listen to. I wouldn’t come back for the ‘experience’ of using uWall - there’s no motivation or reward in that. This distinction is crucial if we are to build an effective storyworld that is engaging, satisfying, embraces technology and yet is more than just a flash-in-the-pan curiosity or oddity. Substance over show.

The crucial thing  to remember about a multi-platform storyworld is that technology without narrative imperative is useless. The interface of something like uWall.tv is very valid and intriguing but unless it serves a Narrative function it isn’t helpful in a storyworld and works only as a stand-alone toy.

5 Questions to ask of any technology or platform idea we may have…

  1. Is the audience dynamically motivated and compelled to engage? (motivations)
  2. What dramatic or narrative questions are they mentally asking? (dramatic questions)
  3. How does the platform answer and extend that question? (answers and revelations)
  4. How is the audience rewarded for engaging? (reward)
  5. What ‘Role’ does the audience play in the platform? (solve, fight, escape, capture, detect, etc) (role-play)

In this way I think it very important that we conceive and develop our project with an independent and agnostic approach to technology and platforms. There is undoubtably a technology for any kind of experience we want to create but our ideas for experiences will be forcibly curtailed if we try and put the cart-before-the-horse and go to the technology first or try and use the technology to inspire an experience. 

The articulation of the specific Experience we want to generate leads to the selection and filtration of the best platform and technology to deliver that experience. Moreover it does so in a way that puts audience motivation and narrative questions at the centre to ensure that the ‘experience’ is not arbitrary or disposable; a story ‘experience’, not just a tool, gimmick or token gesture. A motivated and rewarded experience for which the technology is in service.

Thats probably a long winded response to the idea of the uWall.TV interface but experience in this space has taught me that there are an awful lot of multi-platform projects that fail miserably to be anything other than a collection of disposable and eminently forgettable ‘toys’ when they go to the technology first rather than mining down on the Experience they want to create.

What this response of mine (to an otherwise simple question) also speaks to is the frustration I feel with the general discussion around ‘Transmedia’; the hijacking and diminutisation of the word that seems to happen at the same time as it is venerated as a great holy writ. In this, the real tragedy is that those who so often proclaim the ‘great transmedia revolution’ do so by citing an endless litany of examples and case studies which are all nothing more than ADVERTISING..!  Please dont try and tell me about the great Dark Knight or Prometheus Transmedia Campaign like its some sort of master narrative work… Stop deluding yourself. Dark Knight and Prometheus are FEATURE FILMS and all the shit around them is just ADVERTISING to sell tickets to the FEATURE FILM.

There are two words I am very tired of hearing used by so called Transmedia practitioners - ‘Campaign’ and ‘Brand’. Vile, detestable words. A ‘Campaign’ is what marketing companies do to Sell you Shit you don’t need or want. Your multi-platform creative project is not a fucking ‘Campaign’, your creation is not a fucking ‘Brand’…! What tedious weasel words they are. Your project is a Creation, an Experience, a Story, an Idea, its a Feeling State, its Something to Say and an Audience to Say it To and the moment you try and trade the complexity of Creation, Experience, Story, Idea, Feeling State, Premise and Audience in for a ‘Brand Campaign’ you FAIL to elevate transmedia out of the mire of banality its is so deeply trapped in.

As I have been recently reviewing and constructing feedback coverage on a large number of multi-platform, interactive and transmedia projects, I have encountered two further key mistakes creative developers in this space make with alarming regularity. The first is directly connected to my little rant above; that they mistake Promotion and Marketing for ‘Transmedia’. Creative media designed to draw attention to a promote the sale of another work of creative media is not ‘Transmedia’. Its just fucking Advertising and Promotion. Accept it for what it is and move on. The second mistake is to assume your audience are ‘fans’ before they actually, or indeed before you even have an audience. If your various multi-platform elements rely on the audience being ‘fans’ who want to “find out more about the…..” then you’ve got a very wrong-headed cart before the horse. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve heard a Transmedia pitch that consisted of a single creative element (usually a feature film) surrounded by a whole lot of “stuff for fans”. The central problem with this is that such thinking entirely lacks any kind of engagement with the audience to motivate them to become Fans. It assumes the audience are already Motivated Fans, and that is a very dangerous assumption to make that will not help you solve the key narrative and audience experience questions you will need to answer in order to make your Audience into Fans. If you’re going to distribute your narrative across media platforms then give each platform a REASON TO BE and have it driven by clear audience motivations. If you do not have a clear audience motivation for a given platform then get rid of it. Its a boat anchor not helping you. 

I could go on, but I shall refrain before my rant becomes incoherent.  But my frustration with the transmedia discourse perhaps explains why the 5 Lies of Transmedia that Brian Clark wrote about not so long ago, spoke to me on a very deep level.

  • Stories don’t move between media. We all knew that was a lie, a conceptual overstretch, and we all went along with it. The Harry Potter movies don’t change based upon whether or not you’ve read the books. “Story worlds” are nothing more than the boring work of continuity management. “Story Bibles” are just a pile of ideas you haven’t even executed yet. Sometimes people make things that really do require attention across multiple media to make sense of: those projects are shambling Frankenstein monsters, novelty acts or inaccessible conceptual art. That’s why there’s never been a big “transmedia hit”
  • Not everything is media. We all knew that was a lie, the way an android would think rather than the passionate world of flesh and blood, and we all went along with it. Live theater is not media. Food trucks are not media. “All of life” is not media. Stories do not require media to exist and pretending that everything with a story in it is suddenly media is disingenuous at best.
  • None of this transmedia stuff is new. We all knew that was a lie, that storytelling hadn’t changed at all, let alone “forever,” and we all went along with it. We babble about transmedia activism, as one example, as if it were new because we thought about it, rather than using the phrase media activism that has been around forever. We use the phrase “transmedia” as an excuse to believe we’re inventing stuff and thus don’t need to learn what came before.
  • Transmedia is just multimedia after all. We all knew that arguing otherwise was a lie, a con job, but we all went along with it. This is revealed most plainly when people say that something can be entirely Internet based (one media delivery channel) and still be transmedia, but television (where you could do most of those same things) isn’t. We let ourselves get so excited about inventing the future because the comic book character has a Tumblr as a multimedia marketing campaign.
  • If everything is transmedia, than nothing is transmedia. We all knew that was a lie, like a psychotic seeing the number 13 behind everything, but we all went along with it. If the fault of the phrase “alternate reality gaming” was that it was too narrow like “bluegrass” – break one rule, and it isn’t really an ARG — transmedia suffers from the other extreme like “noise” because there are no rules: anything is transmedia, everything is transmedia.

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