A Literacy of the Imagination

a deeper look at innovation through the lenses of media, technology, venture investment and hyperculture

Superstar Beyonce explained through a narrative ecosystem -> #transmedia #crossmedia #intermedia #storytelling

For good and for worse, the buzz around transmedia storytelling is reaching new heights.

Similar to how the social media boom started, there seems to be lots of confusion and uncertainty around mechanics, uses and respective transmedia practices. Further, term definition is a weighty topic for many folks who have spent years in the trenches creating and designing multi-platform narratives -- some are looking for better attribution on the projects for which they create, some need to frame the constructs more easily for their clients, some just want to be able to create new, better, more impactful media through experimental means. All of it is great fun, really.

Rick Liebling and Faris Yakob recently wrote a couple of pieces that got me thinking about how to break this shifting paradigm down in simpler terms (quick aside: Faris's, Ivan Askwith's and Geoffrey Long's early writings got me invested in various transmedia approaches for my own work). I'm not sure I achieved a simple explanation of anything, but I've given it a shot nonetheless. Fact is, every instance or transmedia context is different -- from the sources, to the origins, to the intentions, the mythologies, the behaviors and, of course, the results. Kinda like human nature.

With that said, what I see missing from many of these conversations and theories about multi-platform storytelling is how stories themselves actually build and flourish. Transmedia itself (and I am referring to the proverbial "it" here) is often thought of as a series of actions that happen between or across media or the transfer of messages -- this isn't "wrong" per se, but it tends to neglect the nuances of human behavior, the levers for why people share stories to begin with and how they connect to each other through different narrative forms. I've written about this quite extensively over the last few years and have come to some conclusions about how this all evolved. Read at your own risk.

Nevertheless, I think this is particularly important because the complexities of the media environment as a whole have made it very difficult to understand and measure interactions. Further, this is exacerbated by IP and privacy challenges. In short, story constructs are really the only way to dimensionalize behaviors and intentions that are actionable. Measuring media just for media's sake is, well, becoming more and more meaningless -- it lacks business and cultural context, and on a variety of levels.

Regarding the bigger media picture, I've long subscribed to a triplet of "fundamental truths":

- We are all interconnected through strong and weak narrative ties. This is definitely true of the digital universe, but is even more apparent when we look at how we share stories in different environments, particularly offline.

- All media are inherently social. You could apply this to history: from the Bible, to the Dialectics to Shakespeare. Cut to modern day: What gets us talking isn't so much a channel, but the stuff that goes into it, and the stuff we pull out of it. Movies and TV shows are incredibly social just by their very nature (Is "Social TV" a redundancy? Don't answer that...).

- "Social media" (or socialized media) is a behavior. Call it "earned media" if you want, but don't forget that anything truly social is an action, and not just a click or a conversation. There's no better example of this than the protests happening all over the world, right as this post is being written. Think of socialized media as narrative in action.

So, back to story. Oh yeah, and Beyonce!

Rick used Beyonce - the "Baby Bump" meme - as one of the examples in his post on intermedia, so I thought I'd blow out a Beyonce live event as an instance of how different stories develop within, between and across media. And why not? She's beautiful, immensely talented and her husband (Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z) is the man. Straight up.

Superstar Beyonce explained through a narrative ecosystem -> #transmedia #crossmedia #intermedia #storytelling

Before we jump into some narrative freshness, let's start with a simple (did I say simple?) breakdown of transmedia, crossmedia and intermedia narratives; note that there are many, many media types (not to mention emerging media) and only four are used here. As Stephen Dinehart likes to say: "Narrative is the structure, story is the form."

Superstar Beyonce explained through a narrative ecosystem -> #transmedia #crossmedia #intermedia #storytelling

You'll notice that the word intertextual has been used; this is a long-established story construct. There could be some debate over the number of texts that can be harvested within each scenario, but for clarity's sake, let's just say that transmedia narratives manage a fluid group of multiple texts, while crossmedia narratives manage a single extension or thread of a text, and intermedia narratives manage the single creation of a text. Intertextuality is really the essence of what connects media, what connects people to media, and what connects people to people. This is what makes media social. Look at these narrative types just as they infer: "between" (inter-), "across" (cross-) and "among or encompassing" (trans-).

Now, let's look at the social levers for consumers and fans:

Superstar Beyonce explained through a narrative ecosystem -> #transmedia #crossmedia #intermedia #storytelling

Note that consumerism and fandom are very complex and highly evolved notions in their own right, particularly if you look at influencer dynamics. I also didn't mention anything about communities or tribes. Again, I've reduced this to something more palatable to a general exploration of narrative.

Now we can look at the story and messaging constructs for the "Beyonce Brand":

Superstar Beyonce explained through a narrative ecosystem -> #transmedia #crossmedia #intermedia #storytelling

A couple of things to note here. First, there are larger story components - the meta, if you will - that are activated as other stories and respective experiences. Second, the respective actions are recursive, meaning that if a story compels you to become an archetype ("activist", "leader", etc.) or do something else as that archetype, then new stories emerge that naturally tie back to the original. Again, this isn't really anything new, but it does bring to light the fact that media, in and of themselves, have their limitations.

Having established a framework for the "meta story", we can then see how it might manifest through various actions of media -- the "monos", the "inters", the "crosses" and the "transes" (was that English?) -- and what those actions actually mean in the context of a story or a dialogue, as well as how they manifest as media behaviors:

Superstar Beyonce explained through a narrative ecosystem -> #transmedia #crossmedia #intermedia #storytelling

Finally, we can see what this might look like in a "narrative ecosystem" of sorts; note right away that this is just one instance of what the ecosystem might look like, meaning that it could be reconfigured to support (or collapse to) any other of the media or story properties shown within this matrix. To that end, I thought I would animate this map in something like DHTML or HTML5, but I haven't had the time and my eyesight is degrading. Maybe later.

Superstar Beyonce explained through a narrative ecosystem -> #transmedia #crossmedia #intermedia #storytelling

To boot, I didn't include various storyworld components, characters, personas, multiple memes or game types. I also didn't create delineations between fictional and non-ficitonal elements.

The point is to show the narrative potentiality of dialogues and conversations -- something that is seriously taken for granted by most media companies, studios, networks, agencies and independent producers. At the end of the day (and often through several exciting albeit circuitous routes), a transmedia narrative is an intertextual dialogue between people that are interacting with a story and/or participating in the creation of one.

You will, however, notice some interesting designations -- Transmedia Branding, Transmedia Activism and Transmedia Marketing, among them. I'll let you extract the meanings, but think about how these things can evolve in terms of coordinated, intelligent media.

I've heard many folks (many detractors) say that all of these designations are a waste of time and that stories should be told for the simple sake of telling them and that we shouldn't worry about how they flourish across media. The problem is that until we can navigate seamlessly through a media landscape that has many artificial barriers between inventory and platforms, we'd be hard pressed to figure out ways for the creators of coordinated media - and their fans - to get the attribution they deserve, not to mention the fact that there are collective benefits, such as the ability to build new stories with newly cultivated audiences.

To that end - and perhaps even more important - if we focus on the content relationships that develop as a result of refined storytelling disciplines, measurement and insight become that much more accessible. Hence the idea that "transmedia branding" or "transmedia activism" or "transmedia marketing" are taken seriously, and with components that are interoperable (for example, a transmedia initiative might comprise all three).

The single biggest Achilles heel in all multi-platform narratives, it seems, is the ability to measure effectively and the ability to turn measurement frameworks into viable revenue models.

At any rate, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I'm sure my transmedia friends will be throwing stones as soon as they find the time to read this post.

As for my own work, the slate is widening -- I've been applying these types of approaches to a number of different projects, from non-fictional documentaries, to fictional education games, to narrative technologies, to feature film projects. The radical part about all of this - at least to my mind - is that there really is no one method for story or storyworld creation (did I just say radical)?

And perhaps that's just it: as we evolve as a civilization, we will become more coordinated in our intentions, such that our media will become natural extensions of our desire to experiment and refine the discourse of our meanings and actions.

Or something like that.