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How we connect and thrive through emerging technologies.

Transmedia Storytelling: The Reemergence of Fundamentals

Stories do not exist in media, they are created and experienced in the mind

Transmedia storytelling is one of the most exciting developments to hit entertainment, branding, marketing, and advocacy in the last few years. Transmedia storytelling is a ‘story experience’ both for—and with—an audience that unfolds over several media channels. This is a big deal for two reasons. First, it represents the continuing shift from a technological to human focus that I wrote about in PT Post Trends for 2011. Second, storytelling and narrative tap into a fundamental form of human communication and connection, engaging our imagination and through that, empathy and creativity. 

Transmedia storytelling is a hot topic for us at A Think Lab* because it has broad social and commercial implications. We are living, as media scholar Henry Jenkins (2003, 2006) pointed out, in a convergence culture where transmedia is the norm, not the exception. The lines are blurring, not just between technologies, but also between traditional roles of producer-consumer roles. Today’s audience lives in an interactive and participatory world; they expect and demand that ability to actively engage.

Transmedia storytelling weaves together individual strands of a story into a larger and richer interactive fabric and offers the audience multiple ways to participate, through content production, collaboration, and interaction. When the story has authenticity, coherence, and integrity, it provides a common language that unleashes vast amounts of creativity and invites maximum engagement through audience participation.

The Matrix franchise is one of the early and best-known transmedia pioneers. The main narrative presented in the Matrix movies was self-contained but, for the enthusiastic fan, it could be enriched by information, back story, and character development obtainable only in the video games and Animatrix DVD. Social media connectivity plays a central role in the success of transmedia storytelling not only because content can flow across media channels but also because social media and networked communications have created an audience that understands, enjoys, and seeks out this kind of activity and collaboration.

As a media psychologist, I find transmedia storytelling exciting because it represents a movement away from the technology for it's own sake and toward human experience. In spite of the breadth and dazzle of media technologies, transmedia storytelling is really about using technology in the service of a higher goal: connecting through storytelling.

Transmedia storytelling, because it constructs a story across different platforms and invites audience participation and collaboration, is simultaneously linear and multi-dimensional, and both individual and collaborative. Transmedia storytelling is not the same as taking content and ‘repurposing’ it for different media; it builds a story universe (what psychologists call a narrative) and invites the audience in. The storytellers take advantage of the characteristics of each medium—traditional and new—to contribute a distinct part of the narrative that is satisfying as a standalone experience. Yet each part also adds a unique and meaningful contribution to the overall story experience. Transmedia storytelling has multiple points of entry making accessible to different types of consumers and media-users. It relies on the audience and so it by necessity treats them with respect.  It does not "sell" them, but rather invites them to become co-participants to expand the narrative.

Companies such as 42 Entertainment have created remarkable immersive environments through story in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) that tap the “collective intelligence” and integrate media experience with reality. ARGs are transmedia experiences that integrate platforms so seamlessly so that the real world becomes a functional extension of the gameplay. Players participate in an evolving narrative, seeking out and gathering information from multiple media sources to solve puzzles, and interact with characters and other players, real time in the real world. “The Beast," created to promote the Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and I Love Bees, developed to engage fans prior to the release of the video game Halo 2, gathered thousands of participants who formed collaborative communities to solve problems presented by the narrative.

Many early adopters of this approach came from big budget entertainment franchises and product launches. In spite of these expensive and complex examples, however, transmedia storytelling is a fundamental approach to communications—internal and external—that all organizations should adopt. The drivers of the success do not rest on the economics, but on the quality and integrity of the story. While many scholars and practitioners approach transmedia storytelling with game studies or fan culture roots, the true power of transmedia storytelling rests on the story, not the articulated media elaborations. A story is created and experienced, first and foremost, in the mind.  

In the next post, I will talk about why a story is so powerful.

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Jenkins, H. (2003). Transmedia Storytelling: Moving characters from books to films to video games can make them stronger and more compelling. Technology Review, January 15, http://www.technologyreview.com/biotech/13052/

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

(*Full disclosure: Bonnie Buckner and I are excited to be introducing a class in Transmedia Storytelling through UC Irvine Extension this term)

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and teaches media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and UCLA Extension. more...

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