Monthly Archives: August 2011

Lost in a Matrix of Avatars: Principles of Transmedia

In late 2009, media scholar, transmedia describer and master builder of lists Henry Jenkins outlined his “Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling.” The pair of blog posts went a long way to shape the entertainment industry’s understanding of what transmedia storytelling does out there, once it is let loose. Their title, “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn,” refers to a clue to deeper stories that makes a brief appearance in Blade Runner, and is an invitation for the viewer’s imagination or sleuthing instincts to launch.

You may be awaiting that origami yourself, hoping soon the unicorn drops and leads to what transmedia journalism will be. I promise that is up soon, in pages rich with examples. But first I want to set the stage for some principles of transmedia journalism by looking at Jenkins’ principles in entertainment. These will hopefully be an invitation to imagine transmedia journalism on your own. They are:

  • Spreadability — Stories are compelling enough to be spread through fan interaction. What stories do you want to share?
  • Drillability — Stories inspire deeper investigation, engaging the fans to explore the story’s context, and solve intricacies or mysteries. Keep the gaps of The Matrix or the layers of Lost in mind with this one.
  • Continuity — Here multiple stories exist within the same defined world, and maintain coherence and plausibility. Think of how tightly the many stories of the Star Wars galaxy fit together.
  • Multiplicity — Though continuity is highly prized, a multiplicity of story possibilities may make a tale more fun or a richer experience for fans. Look at how the 2009 reimagining of the very continuous Star Trek story upended the characters’ lives, or drill around for alternate tellings of familiar tales, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Spider-Man India.
  • Immersion — A good tale, a good character or a rich story world pulls us in and lets us forget ourselves and feel present at the scene. When was the last time you forgot you were in a theater or paging through a novel? Did the impressive 3-D of Avatar pull you into the silver screen?
  • Extractability — What can a fan take away from the story and bring into their own life? From Captain Kirk lunch boxes to the action figures of Star Wars and even the theme parks of modern entertainment franchises, more and more things and places that contribute to the grand story are available to us.
  • Worldbuilding — Each story in a transmedia franchise contributes to the complexities of the world in which they take place. Remember how C.S. Lewis built Narnia in the imaginations of readers?
  • Seriality — Serial stories are not new. From Dickens’s serialized novels to Harry Potter, the unfolding of a tale has held onto us like a Dallas cliffhanger. A serial keeps us in a story world longer.
  • Subjectivity — No, this isn’t that thing we work to avoid in journalism. Here Jenkins means a transmedia story embraces the varying points of view of multiple characters. Ever read Bram Stoker’s Dracula? The whole frightening novel is constructed from personal and subjective letters, allowing us to see the same story through multiple eyes.
  • Performance — A transmedia story may inspire a fan to act. What stories inspired us to play when we were young (or when we’re old and nobody is looking)? A good story — a really good one — can grab us so thoroughly that we want to act it out ourselves or write a new installment of the tale. As geeky as that sounds, it is a real mark of deep engagement.

These principles are fleshed out in greater detail and with many examples on the Transmedia Principles page linked near the top of the right column or under Contexts at the very top of the page. Read on. Drill deeper.

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World Building

© Kevin Moloney

In his book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, media studies scholar Henry Jenkins identified the core idea of transmedia storytelling: “More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium.” An experienced screenwriter told him:

When I first started, you would pitch a story because without a good story, you really didn’t have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. And now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media.

But what could world building have do with journalism? It’s easy to imagine a Hollywood screenwriter creating an entire fictional world (or galaxy). But in journalism we refudiate invented things. The beauty of journalism, however, is that we don’t need to create stories, characters or worlds. The real world is our transmedia world and it is already filled with cultures, characters and stories to be written and produced, connected to each other and delivered through multiple media channels.

© Kevin Moloney

Transmedia storytelling in entertainment, though years old, is still new enough that definitions are troublesome. Academics examine past works to distill principles and definitions, and practitioners define it more in terms of what they would like it to do and where they think it ought to go. In the past year some debates erupted over how the technique should be defined.

I am going to stick largely to the definitions made by Henry Jenkins, who popularized the term and continues to describe it at length. In answer to the debates, Jenkins recently posted some further reflections on transmedia storytelling on his blog. These reflections not only examine the terms of the debate, but help to put further flesh on the idea. It’s a valuable read.

Today I’ve added a new context page “What is Transmedia Storytelling,” where you can find a more detailed and example-filled look into where transmedia comes from and what social and economic changes have fueled it. Find it linked here, at the top of the blog and on the right column of the page. Watch for much more there in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, here’s a nicely done little “Transmedia 101” video by One 3 Productions: