The Transmedia Hijack (or How Transmedia is the New Dihydrogen Monoxide)

I can’t believe I’m going here, as this whole topic must seem so lame to so many people, but here goes…

So it seems that my recent trip to SXSW in Austin and my subsequent outburst of frustration on Twitter about the misuse of the term Transmedia has caused a little bit of a stir.

I came back and, well, vented on Twitter about how everyone there seemed to bandy about the term when they were talking about not storytelling, but some form of franchising or media extension of an existing or new property, or narrative world, whatever the heck that means.

“Franchising isn’t transmedia, it’s FRANCHISING!!” I screamed. And it turns out I wasn’t the only one having trouble with the term and how it’s being used. Plenty of folks have been seeming to jump onto the anti-transmedia bandwagon (and I’m fine with that).

Even Felicia Day got into the fray during one of her SXSW panels, and in a way, she nailed what many of us in Transmedia Storytelling have been struggling to express for years. Here’s what she had to say about the term (emphases mine):

It’s just a really stupid word, and people use it because they don’t know…they just want to like…I just hate it! Because what does it mean? It means nothing!!

I mean, listen: “Transmedia” is any comic book that ever became a movie, before the internet. I mean it’s just (any novelization of a movie), yes! That’s “Transmedia!” I mean, it doesn’t mean anything, I don’t think that….they’re just throwing it around ’cause it’s a catch-phrase, and it’s like “yes, let’s create a webseries that could potentially be a TV show that could potentially become a movie.” That’s not Transmedia.

I mean, I think what people are aspiring to, and what people are maybe, you know, could use better words or just articulate better, is that there is an opportunity to reinvent storytelling. So that, if I sat down and I created an app, let’s just say, and every day I would tell the story in a different way.

So I would release a comic panel, then I’d release a piece of video, and then I would release a set of pictures, and then I would tell a story in so many different ways that would accumulate in a way that essentially would be like a movie from beginning to end.

And you could use a different media device, because we are in a world where all of that is amalgamated in a way that is unique to what we’re living in and the tools we’re using.

So maybe that’s what we might do? But sometimes people just use it like “We’re just gonna do a TV show that’s gonna be a webseries and then a TV show.”

So look, it seems like things have reached a boiling point. I mean, c’mon, if Felicia Day herself rolls her eyes at the term, it’s time to do something about it. Well, or try to figure out if anything can be done.

And so here’s what I think. Some of you aren’t going to like this. Ready?

There’s nothing to be done.

Pandora’s Box is open, the cat’s out of the bag, the horses have been stolen, (insert cliché here). The term is pretty useless (as are clichés), as it’s popularly being used to describe something that’s been around for a long, long time. It reminds me of the prank that Penn & Teller pulled on folks asking them to sign a petition against the use of dihydrogen monoxide in all our food. It’s just a new buzz-term for something there are already plenty of perfectly good  words for (none of which I’ll list here, thank you).

Now, let me be clear: I’m not bashing anyone or their work. It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, and there are only so many words to go around to describe new things. I just think it’s time I abandon the use of transmedia to describe the work that I do. This doesn’t mean that I forsake or forbid its use, I just won’t be describing my own stuff as such, even though others may continue to for a while.

So……what will I call what I do? Well, I’m not sure what will stick, but I’m going to go with what we’re calling it around the office: Alternate Reality Entertainment.

I’m not suggesting we change the term. All I know is that “Transmedia” no longer describes what I do, so everyone else can have it. :)

So, please excuse me as I prepare my submission for next year’s SXSW: Can Dihydrogen Monoxide Save Hollywood?

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ETA: Revised some wording for clarity and to fix the emphasis of the post.

24 comments

  1. Dee Cook says:

    The only problem I see is that at least now, people have a basic understanding of a little bit of what “transmedia” is supposed to mean, so if you tell someone “I work in transmedia,” it doesn’t immediately result in a blank look and then 30 minutes of extended explanation. If you say “I work in alternate reality entertainment,” there’s no shared understanding there, so you’re going to have to start from the beginning when explaining to a newbie.

    On the other hand, for someone familiar with the term “transmedia,” you’d have to say, “I work in transmedia. The real stuff. The good stuff baby. I can get you all the transmedia you ever needed and leave you begging for more.” Just like a good pusher.

  2. Steve says:

    Well yeah. Speak the language that the recipient understands……and educate them if you need to. :)

  3. Rachel says:

    Steve, I like the term and I’d love to use it. There’s one problem with it though that may prevent my use – your company is in the process of trademarking it!

  4. Steve says:

    Oh hmm, there is that…..I’d better revise my post a little :P

  5. [...] Peters wrote a post after a big explosion on Twitter, The Transmedia Hijack (or how Transmedia is the New Dihydrogen Monoxide): His definition is “a single story spread beginning-to-end across multiple [...]

  6. Stu says:

    Its a very valid and legitimate discussion that should occur. According to the popular definition of transmedia storytelling I have been working in that field for about 20 years and didn’t even know it!
    Transmedia is often used in tandem with the term “storytelling” which does qualify it somewhat. Some kind of common ground will eventually be struck on this topic though discussion, dialogue and outbursts (read: Steve Peters). Its all good.

  7. Carrie says:

    My biggest issue with transmedia is ultimately it is an academic word first, an industry word second. I have to ask Dee Cook, who are these people who are so familiar with the term? Are they industry people? (And I’m also including in amongst industry people anyone who is casually related including social media managers as well as anyone from the media who covers transmedia). Are they already of the small number of hardcore fans of transmedia? Or are they of the general public that has yet to be converted? Yeah, all those people who would rather play Farmville than any number of stellar transmedia projects that fell far far far far short of that demographic?

    I feel like right now there is a lot of preaching to the choir and not enough proselytizing to the people we need to embrace transmedia: the people “formerly known as the audience” to quote Jay Rosen. (This issue of not-walking-through-the-player’s-perspective is a systemic problem I find in general, but I digress). My point is, few are looking at this term from a mainstream “audience” perspective.

    And because the word came out of academia, and frankly sounds very academic, it stands as a barrier to said “audience”. We have to start imagining how a non-industry person will utilize the term to, say, a friend. Whereas someone might say: “Hey, do you wanna go to a movie?” and the person instantly understand the meaning, no one is saying: “Hey, do you want to become immersed in a transmedia storytelling universe?” or, “On the weekend, I took part in an immersive transmedia experience.” We need to stop using hybrid long explanatory expressions and hit upon that key word that sums it up, with a bright red bow on it.

    All the alternatives to transmedia that are being bandied about present the EXACT same problem. For one person to talk about their experience with a transmedia project to another person should be as easy as pressing the share button on Facebook and as transparent as inviting another to play the Wii.

    Frankly, we have to stop concentrating on how we explain what we do to each other, and start looking at how we get the public to proselytize to each other easily and efficiently.

    We need a shorthand that is as instantly communicative as “movie”, “video game”, “MMORPG”. That can easily fit into a sentence such as: “Let’s go to a ***”or “Let’s play a ****”. We need a single easy to grasp NOUN? Is that really beyond this industry’s scope of capability?

    Transmedia just simply does not translate into a fun shorthand word. I mean, we could say, “Let’s play a tranny/trannie” but that won’t work for obvious reasons. As it stands, when I tell Joe Public I work in transmedia, I already get comments like: “Is that like media that likes to wear women’s clothing?”

    :D

    I’m not saying it will be easy to change the language, but I do know that any expression won’t catch on until we start including the perspective of people who matter most in the discussion.

    And once we have that issue tackled, then let’s tackle the new term for the “people formerly known as the audience”.

  8. Carrie says:

    My comment above was so long I decided to edit it into a blog post:

  9. Steve says:

    Carrie,

    That’s pretty much my main issue with the term. It should be for the audience, to help them grasp what it is, not for the meta-heads and analysts. Alternate Reality Entertainment is even too cumbersome in this case. Transmedia feels academic, and doesn’t convey the coolness of it all.

    The problem is, the term Transmedia gets you in the door in Hollywood, but it’s a double-edged sword as most people think it means something entirely different that I do. :)

    Ultimately, something will come up, hopefully a made-up word that has a very specific definition. I mean, Movie, Television and Blog are pretty silly words if you think about it.

  10. [...] Steve Peters: The Transmedia Hijack (or how Transmedia is the New Dihydrogen Monoxide) [...]

  11. Brooke says:

    The issue is, and may always be, that transmedia is everchanging. And unlike movies & blogs there isn’t a standard basis from which to take a word. Movies comes from moving pictures and all movies have those. Blog comes from web log which isn’t quite as specific as moving pictures, but it’s understandable. Television is the most “academic” of your examples and, much like transmedia, a greek (or latin?) root attached to a common word… tele (far) + vision.

    So for me, all the “but transmedia is sooooo academic!” arguments are bunk… it’s no more academic sounding than television (or microwave or interstate or or or). The time it took to go from academia to industry was all of .2 seconds. It hasn’t had time, really, to go mainstream*. I don’t know if it ever will (or, even, if it should). Unlike television, it’s not easily shortened for common use (telly and/or tv… tranny? i don’t think so!). But, I’m in the camp that think the word works on an industry level. And, sure, it’s being co-opted and used in a lot of crappy ways. But, at least, it’s a starting point. I can further define and/or clarify when I need to. I have no problem with that.

    As for the mainstream audience… well, a term will appear as they are exposed to more and more transmedia projects. When that happens, we’ll probably all bitch about whatever they decide on, but we’ll learn to accept it. We may even come to love it. In the meantime, I think we should all just focus on making cool stuff for the rest of the world to experience while we call it whatever we we want – transmedia opens doors, but maybe not the right ones, though it will if we defend the term transmedia (as we see it), because love it or hate it, it’s looks like it’s here to stay.

    (*it took television several decades to move from academia to industry to mainstream, but that was mostly due to limits in technology… ooo another academic term ;))

  12. Steve says:

    Brooke, I’m fine (maybe resigned) that it’s here to stay. What I’m not fine with is people thinking when I say I’m a transmedia producer or whatever that I work in controlling brands across platforms. So, I’m not going to call what I do (not just talk about, btw) Transmedia. It’s clear that the word has come to mean something entirely different, so I’m abandoning it as a label. I’m not sure why so many people have a problem with this, and feel like they have to “defend” the term!

    If storytellers who use transmedia elements in their work want to continue using it and running the risk of most folks misunderstanding what they do, that’s up to them.

    But when 14/15 Transmedia panels at SXSW or 5/6 Transmedia panelists at NAB have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with what I do, who should change their descriptor, them or me? :)

    So like I said, Transmedia’s a fine word. Just not for me.

  13. Brooke says:

    I get you, I really do. I have no problem with you (or anyone else) abandoning the term. The “we” I was speaking of was the “we” who choose to continue with Transmedia. That wasn’t clear at all, so I understand the confusion.

    I fully understand & sympathize with the arguments against transmedia because it’s become a misused buzzword. (but, really, isn’t that the nature of buzzwords). I just get frustrated over the arguments about the practicality of use in the mainstream – it hasn’t been around long enough to form any real conclusions. It, arguably, wasn’t widely used (even in an academic setting) until 2009 or 2010. That’s just a year or two. I’m not sure how people expect it to be adopted by a mainstream audience already, especially when the majority of the mainstream hasn’t really experienced a real transmedia experience. But “OMG my mom’s cousin’s uncle’s brother doesn’t get it!!!” Well, I bet if you mentioned television without context to your mom’s cousin’s uncle’s brother in 1930, he wouldn’t get it either. When you throw a bit context around the term, people get it (and get it much more quickly, in my experience, then any other term I’ve used). It’s all about exposure at this point – and by that I mean exposure to awesome projects more than whatever words people use to describe them.

  14. Steve says:

    When you throw a bit context around the term, people get it (and get it much more quickly, in my experience, then any other term I’ve used). It’s all about exposure at this point – and by that I mean exposure to awesome projects more than whatever words people use to describe them.

    You hit the nail on the head there, Brooke. This whole discussion is moot, to a certain extent, because once something hits mainstream success, that thing will determine what everyone calls it. :)

  15. garitz says:

    I agree with most things that you say here.

    I understand what you say about the trivialization of the term. The same thing happens with the “web 2.0″. Many who have spent years practicing what that label defines don’t longer use it, we almost get embarrassed. Today everyone claims to be 2.0, but they are not.

    However, I do believe that using the term transmedia has positive things for those who intend to communicate that way. Comes to clarify some aspects of this practice, is usefull to channel discussions and reflections, and establishes rules. Rules, I believe, that should be very flexible, subject to new interpretations. In sum, rules that must be broken again and again.

    It’s true that some people is using the term in the wrong way to define products that are not transmedia, simply because they are using different media platforms. And there may be people that is doing transmedia but do not even know the term or what it means.

    But I disagree with what Felicia Day says. With all due respect. It’s contradictory.

    If transmedia does not mean anything, if transmedia is nothing like she says …. Why then she adds that there are things that are not transmedia? If there are things that are not transmedia, transmedia means something, transmedia is something.

    People using the label to define things that are not transmedia does not mean that transmedia is nothing. And I totally agree with this point: The term is being used to define things that are not.

    A few days ago Gonzalo Martín has used a new term: Common Sense Transmedia. In this post I also gave my opinion in the same line I’ve done here.

    It’s in Spanish: http://gonzalomartin.tv/pulsiones/2011/03/20/transmedia-de-sentido-comun/

    Regards.

  16. haritz says:

    My name is Haritz, not Garitz… Everything goes too fast. ;)

  17. [...] Peters: The Transmedia Hijack (or How Transmedia is the New Dihydrogen Monoxide) Pandora’s Box is open, the cat’s out of the bag, the horses have been stolen, (insert cliché [...]

  18. Steve says:

    Haritz,

    Great points, overall! Admittedly, as I transcribed what Alicia said, I realized these apparent contradictions, as I couldn’t convey tone, etc. Tough to know when she’s talking about what people *think* transmedia is and when she’s talking about what *she* thinks it is. I think in a nutshell, she’s saying that people are applying the term to just about anything that shows up in more than one place, and in saying “That’s not transmedia” she’s inferring that what she’s referring to already has a label and has been around a long time, hence the lack of need for the term transmedia to describe what most people are using it to describe. Does that make sense?? :)

    Then she goes on to describe what we can aspire to, and the tension between what people are using the term for (more brand franchising and multi-channel world-building) and what the storytellers would like to see.

    So, I’m not sure she’s contradicting herself as much as a mere transcription doesn’t necessarily convey her conversational tone.

  19. Dominic1978 says:

    Hi Steve, in a way I fully agree with you. However, marketeers take stuff and run with it, should we therefore change it? Maybe we should, but then where will it end?

    For new guys like myself it’s hard to explain to people (decision making people) what we do. A phrase like Transmedia helps us in a way because people at least understand the field we’re operating in (even when it’s broad).

    Alternate Reality Games is what I (try to) do, but some personal phrases I prefer are Multimedia Mystery (as they almost all are mysteries in a way) or Alternate Reality Experience (as I believe they are bigger than games).
    However, to explain it to the “outside world” I describe it as Transmedia Experiences.
    You are a big name. People look into your resume and go “wow, he did that and that and that,” so they will be fine if you call it Alternate Reality Entertainment as you are obvious an expert in the field.
    For the independents and noobs like myself, we need to be able to explain to potential clients what we do. If we can by using a phrase like Transmedia (when the phrase ARG doesn’t connect with them) then Transmedia as a phrase could be beneficial in our case.

  20. [...] Peters recently got on the anti-transmedia wagon (which he started at SXSW, posted about, and is still continuing on twitter under the hashtag #antitransmedia). Steve is a great and funny [...]

  21. Jenn Mann says:

    A little late to the party but one thing that really caught my attention was talking about audiences understanding/not understanding the term “transmedia.” I don’t think the audience cares what it’s called as long as it’s entertaining, well-produced and exciting. If you can hit the audience sweet spot, they’re going to call the campaign or experience “cool, awesome, incredible, etc.”

    I think the term – whatever it is or comes to be – is for the industry – how potential employers classify people who do what we do and how we can concisely say “hire me – i get it.”

  22. Esther says:

    I’m in agreement with the difficulty of this term as well as many others that are constantly floating in the industry that have no meaning, e.g. “Gamification, Frictionless/Friction”. Coming from a user experience and customer service background, I always try to put myself in the audience’s shoes. They don’t care what we call it as long as the story and the experience is compelling and worthy of committing their time.

    I agree with Stu. In fact I always laugh about our conversation during GDC when he asked me to define the term transmedia when he in fact has been practicing the art of multi-media storytelling and experience design for 20 years!! That really puts things in perspective for me.

    What’s wrong with calling this what it is in terms that people to relate to? I think we need to get off the jargon wagon and start speaking in plain language. People understand multi-media. What is the reticence of going back to a word that people understand? Yes I know that multi-media was used to describe the interactive CD-Roms we used way back when, but really the big differentiators between that and today’s form of multi-media storytelling is that the content is more accessible across the web/cloud and can be experienced with many people at once.

    I’ve been trying out a few terms myself. So far Interactive Storytelling doesn’t draw as big of a blank look or multi-media experience designer. Neither are perfect so the refinement continues.

    Thanks for the dialog. I only hope for our sake (the practitioners and storytellers) that a new, more intuitive term emerges.

  23. [...] Steve Peters, Geoff May, and Brooke Thompson weigh in on the word “transmedia” in the days since SXSW. [...]