Reconsidering Jenkins’ Transmedia Storytelling

I first encountered the idea of “transmedia storytelling” in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture. Using the phenomenon that was The Matrix trilogy of movies, he suggests that the film was marketed in a groundbreaking and particularly effective way:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best–so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa. Any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole. Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption. […] A good transmedia franchise works to attract multiple constituencies by pitching the content somewhat differently in the different media. (95-96) [Apologies for the long quotation.]

I think Jenkins uses “media platforms” to refer to a variety of technologies or strategies, rather than thinking about media as materials. This isn’t a criticism, but the distinction is important. I agree with his observations about marketing and finding new ways to engage an audience. But the scope of his argument covers more ground than my own interests. His formulation of “media” doesn’t quite foresee the crossover and mixing between television (network and cable), newspapers, radio, and the Internet. In Jenkins’ model, the distinctions are still clear. But with the encroachment of Netflix and other avenues for streaming media, what used to look like a variety of media now looks more like a soup. But that soup, as amorphous and mutable as it might be, still manifests some distinctions between media. They just diverge from the model Jenkins offers. Instead of television and toys and websites, the model now looks a lot more like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, tablet apps, cinema, television, Hulu, Netflix, etc.

What makes Jenkins’ argument increasingly dated is that it formulates media as a set of distinct targets at which marketers or storytellers are taking aim. At the time of his analysis, I think he couldn’t be more insightful and clear. But now there’s a growing trend toward spreadability (not sure who coined that term, and I don’t like it much, but it’ll do for now). Sure, I’m referring to viral videos and caption memes, but those are really just the tall peaks on a landscape of engagement. What interests me most are two relatively new phenomenon: sharing and embedding. Sharing has to do with the buttons you’ll often see floating around the edges of a news article, blog post, or almost any other discrete piece of content on the internet. These buttons allow users/readers/viewers to “share” the content somewhere else like Facebook or Twitter. This usually means that the user will post a link in her/his social network or venue of choice. The link takes a reader back to the original content. Embedding is similar, but it’s a bit more involved. Instead of posting a link pointing back to an original location, embedded content is accessible on-the-spot in the actual location where it has been posted. Whereas in Jenkins’ model readers/viewers are primarily consumers, in this new model, readers/viewers are also distributors. In other words, the goal is no longer only to get people to watch/listen/read, but it also to get them to distribute or spread the content.

So this is a slight adjustment to Jenkins’ model. If the engagement goal switches from a consumption-across-media model to a sharing-across-platforms model, how does that affect Jenkins’ notion of “contribution to the whole”? I don’t think it changes it significantly–at least not in practice. I think that with Jenkins’ model, once a user/viewer became invested in a particular story, regardless of his/her point-of-entry, he/she would seek out additional avenues of consumption. But now, I think there’s less seeking out, and more sharing. And it follows that with more sharing, comes more receiving. And thus continues the spreading.

In series of new posts, I’ll be reflecting a bit more on some of the roots of transmedia storytelling. We’ll start by considering some of the marketing around the 1951 Superman movie with George Reeves. Then we’ll jump to the era of the original Star Wars trilogy (late seventies; early eighties), focusing especially on action figures. Then, I hope to revisit Jenkins’ arguments in the context of those two examples. From there, We’ll take a look at Lawrence Lessig’s arguments about transitioning between a “read-only” culture and a “read-write” culture. Eventually I’ll touch on Donald Norman’s working definition of “affordances,” as well as Jenkins/Ford/Green’s concept of “spreadability” (Yeah, it’ll be here where I admit that Jenkins is obviously well aware of the contemporary partial obsolescence of “transmedia storytelling,” and that his updated thinking is still innovative and clear.) But the ultimate goal of this series of posts is to explore how the concepts of transmedia storytelling and spreadability might demand that we reconsider contemporary approaches to scholarship and “making meaning” in the worlds of Computers and Writing, Digital Humanities, and Rhet/Comp.

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