Towards a definition of transmedia…

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a renewed interest in coming up with a solid definition of transmedia. That’s, perhaps, not fair to say – there’s always been an interest in defining this brave new world of whatever the heck it is that we do. What’s changed, however, is the mainstream awareness (and money making potential) and that, of course, brings a sense of urgency to label these things as something… anything.

Several years ago, two terms began battling it out for dominance: cross-media and transmedia. While most tended to lump the two terms together, a few began to differentiate between them. No matter the side people were on, many of the arguments seemed to boil down to little more than “I like this term and my work is X! So I am going to define it as such!”. To a small degree, that continues today as the reaction to the Producers Guild of America’s definition of transmedia seems to show.

That’s right, the PGA has defined transmedia. It’s a great day for us – no matter what one thinks of the initial definition. It provides a sense of legitimacy and will help to open doors that were previously closed. It also helps to spread awareness and will, hopefully, encourage the other guilds to follow suit and convince more people to explore the possibilities of transmedia. Because, when it comes right down to it, the more people play in this crazy sandbox, the more we’ll actually come to understand what we can do with it. (definitions be damned!)

However, the PGA definition, as some have pointed out, seems to favor franchises. As franchises can greatly benefit from transmedia, it’s a very legitimate use – and one that is especially favored in Hollywood. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, franchises are what make the networks and studios money. However, for many, it’s one of the least exciting applications of transmedia entertainment. What this has done, then, is reignite the definition debate. And, though it has always been this way, the discussions are even more focused on the intent and content of the project. Do these have a place in transmedia? Absolutely. But are they what defines transmedia? Not at all.

Before we can look at content applications (such as universe building or marketing), we need to look at the very basics – how many media formats and platforms are used and how does the project utilize them? Transmedia projects are comprised of multiple media formats distributed on multiple platforms and where the platforms interact with each other in a complex relationship in order to create a larger and more complete whole. That’s a confusing sentence, so I’ve broken it down into a pretty little diagram (clicking on the images will take you to bigger versions with captions).

The first thing to look at is the number of media formats that a project utilizes. Examples here would be video, text, or audio. Keep in mind that this is from an audience standpoint. Obviously, nearly every film since the 1930s has used both audio and video which, technically, makes it a multimedia project. We aren’t talking about that. So, ignore what goes into the production and look only at what the audience sees or interacts with. Is there just one media format or is there more than one?

From there, we look at how the project is distributed – what is its platform? Most single format projects are distributed on a single platform: video to movie or text to book. However, when we’re dealing with a multimedia format, the options expand. Some projects are distributed on a single platform (examples: a website, video game, or assemblage) while others are distributed over multiple platforms.

Up until now, I suspect that most of you agree with me. Transmedia projects are comprised of multiple media formats distributed on multiple platforms. But here is where it gets a bit tricky and where cross-media and transmedia diverge.

Unlike some definitions, at this point, it has nothing to do with the number of formats or platforms but everything to do with how they interact with each other. We already addressed the number issue in the first two steps -  both with format and with platform. And our number system is one or many. The reason for this is that a bridge can be created between two platforms and all we need for interaction is one bridge. So it’s not a matter of number at this point, but how the interaction occurs. The way I see it, we have three options: no interactions, simple interactions, and complex interactions.

1. The platforms do not interact. In this case, the media platforms are completely and wholly separate. They may have similar content and come from the same “universe”, but there is nothing that takes someone from one platform to the next and there is no reason to go between platforms. Marketing campaigns make heavy use of this – you’ll see similar messaging on billboards, in tv commercials, and on  websites but there is no interaction between any of them. Putting the commercial on the website does not count – it is just a commercial sitting on a website, it is not interacting with the website. This multiple media.

2. The platforms interact with each other in a simple relationship. Not only may the various platforms have similar content and messaging (as in Multiple Media), but here there may be content that drives you from one platform to the next.  However, the relationship is typically one way and it’s quite simple. As far as the entirety of the project, the platforms do not rely upon each other in order to make the experience complete. For example, look at you favorite television show’s website. Does it have character bios? A timeline of big events that have taken place? Extra video? All of these things are driven by the content on one platform (your favorite show), but they don’t have much interaction with each other and virtually none with your favorite show. It’s unidirectional – your show drives the content, but it does not ask for anything in return. In other words, any narrative outside of the show is not only optional but it doesn’t have any impact on the show itself. As you probably gathered by looking at your favorite show’s website, we see a lot of this coming out of Hollywood these days (advertising, too). This is cross-media.

3. The platforms interact with each other in a complex relationship. As in the previous two possibilities, we’ve got multiple platforms with similar or related content and it’s interacting. The difference here is that there are complex relationships being formed between the platforms. In other words, the interaction can go back and forth between the various platforms taking with it information and knowledge from one to the next and, perhaps, back again. A fairly simple example is the Matrix. That project included three movies, a series of shorts (the Animatrix), a video game (Enter the Matrix), and a series of comics. While each of these could be enjoyed on their own, you didn’t gain a full grasp of the story unless you consumed all of the media provided. For example, when you play Enter the Matrix, one of your missions is to deliver a message which originated in the Animatrix and impacted events in the movies. Another example, that’s less consumer-driven, is a character (the Kid) who was inspired and freed by the main protagonist (Neo) in the Animatrix reappearing in the final movie in order to save the day. While this happens fairly typically in franchises, in this case, the character appears on a different platform with no introduction and it is left to the audience to know and understand how he came to be there. It is through these complex relationships and interactions taking place between media platforms that this sort of project relies on in order to create a larger and more complete whole. This is transmedia.

So, to come back to my definition! Transmedia is…

  • a media project comprised of multiple media formats
  • distributed on multiple platforms (and where)
  • the platforms interact with each other in a complex relationship

…in order to create a larger and more complete whole.

Cross-media vs. Transmedia
This likely ruffles a few feathers out there. Some make no distinction between the two while others may find issues with how I have classified them. Make no mistake, I am not saying that one is better than other. Quite the contrary, they are just different and each has an important place in the media landscape.

What differentiates the two, and also fully separates them from multiple media, is the degree of interdependence in their relationships. In cross-media, the various platforms in use may be closely related and one piece may rely upon another for meaning, but that dependence is not returned. In transmedia, the platforms are strongly linked. While one piece may be digestible by itself, it is meant to be viewed as a part of a larger whole and, as such, the meaning changes for both it and the other pieces if they are left unseen or viewed individually.

Also, as they are defined here, they are not mutually exclusive. A popular example would be The Dark Knight and the Why So Serious campaign. Why So Serious was a transmedia experience (in this case an Alternate Reality Game) that took place over 18 months and brought Gotham to life through websites, newspapers, short videos, live events and all sorts of stuff (one of my favorites was the Bat Signal and HAHAHA appearing on buildings in several cities). Each piece of the WSS campaign could be digested on its own, but it was created as one big story experience – the more of the experience you consumed, the more of the story you gained. It was its own transmedia project that could be fully enjoyed as it was, but it was also a piece of a larger cross-media campaign promoting the film the The Dark Knight and it had little to no influence on those other pieces. Best of all, it’s just one example of the many possibilities created by joining cross-media and transmedia campaigns.

I will be the first to admit that this is all just an exercise in semantics. The only people that care about these distinctions and differentiations are those that are seriously thinking about, comparing, and defining multiple platform projects. Of course, if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you fall into that category and, for us, there is value here. A technical understanding of the key characteristics defining the different types of multiple media projects not only benefits our analysis and communications, but enables us to more successfully play with those characteristics for our creative benefit (whether that’s on a conscious level or not) as well as for our clients’.

However, there are also practical reasons for discussing this – as other Guilds follow the PGA and bring transmedia into the fold, they need a definition other than “I know it when I see it.” To a degree, the above definition fails as it relies on the subjective measure of defining complex relationships. Where I see interdependence, someone else may not and vice versa. In attempts to combat that subjectivity, we wind up with definitions similar to the PGA’s where there needs to be “three narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe.” Their definition is specific, but it opens up the gates to a number of projects which are not transmedia (ok?) while shutting out some that are (not ok!). And, if it is then a matter of some board subjectively deciding that the non-three narrative storyline project is, in fact, transmedia after all, well, then all  we have accomplished (in so far as a definition) is the creation of some arbitrary rules that matter not. Personally, I think that we’re better than that.

What I am not sure of is how to further define and group projects under the transmedia and cross-media umbrellas. I know that there are distinct categories or groups -The Matrix is clearly transmedia but it is clearly not an alternate reality game which is also transmedia. But beyond being able to loosely identify some groups, I do not think that there is a next specific step in the media tree and, honestly, that’s a good thing. We do not want to limit creative potential or create boxes that projects have to fit into in order to qualify – there will always be those projects that don’t fit into a box and we want to encourage those as they are some of the most innovative and inspiring ideas out there. In fact, it is only once we see more of those projects that we’ll have a large enough body of work from which to identify key elements. Until then our best bet is to set up some sort of matrix that identifies varying  degrees of platform integration and ludic elements and audience involvement and and and… and, it seems impossible. Though, I certainly dare someone to try! (if you do, be sure to let me know!)