What the hell *is* Transmedia?

Well, much like herpes, this subject just won’t go away for me. :)

To further highlight the problem with the term “transmedia” and the increasing chasm between storytellers and franchisers/marketers, I am going to start collecting the amazing amount of sometimes contradictory definitions, which should nicely illustrate the problem. I’ll add to this list as I find stuff, and please, link me to more definitions in the comments section and I’ll edit them in! :)

Oh, and I’ve saved my definition until last…

(Note: all emphases mine)

First, we start with Henry Jenkins:

Stories that unfold across multiple media platforms, with each medium making distinctive contributions to our understanding of the world, a more integrated approach to franchise development than models based on urtexts and ancillary products.


Transmedia storytelling is storytelling by a number of decentralized authors who share and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media. Transmedia immerses an audience in a story’s universe through a number of dispersed entry points, providing a comprehensive and coordinated experience of a complex story.

From Wikipedia:

Transmedia storytelling is a technique of telling stories across multiple platforms and formats, recognized for its use by mass media to develop media franchises. [UPDATE: This definition has been updated to reflect a more accurate description]

From Jarrett Sherman:

Transmedia is based around one narrative wherein each component informs the larger world. Interconnected components, such as a TV series, book, mobile app and online game, may serve as off-shoots that give life to one main story. Think Star Wars.

From Seize the Media:

Transmedia is a format of formats; an approach to story delivery that aggregates fragmented audiences by adapting productions to new modes of presentation and social integration. The execution of a transmedia production weaves together diverse storylines, across multiple outlets, as parts of an overarching narrative structure. These elements are distributed through both traditional and new media outlets. The online components exploit the social conventions, and social locations, of the internet.

From Jeff Gomez (although I can’t find the actual source material):

The art of conveying messages, themes or storylines to mass audiences through the artful and well-planned use of multiple platforms.

From the Producers Guild of America:

A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.

From Steve Rubel:

Transmedia storytelling is the future of marketing. And those who can span across formats and share their expertise will stand out in an age of Digital Relativity.

From Simon Pulman:

At its simplest, transmedia allows the expansion of a mythology for a story or intellectual property.

From Brian Clark:

Transmedia storytelling is the label for when you’re creating a story as the primary storytellers and intending to tell your story across multiple channels.

From Robert Pratten:

‘Transmedia storytelling’ is telling a story across multiple media and preferably, although it doesn’t always happen, with a degree of audience participation, interaction or collaboration. In transmedia storytelling, engagement with each successive media heightens the audience’ understanding, enjoyment and affection for the story. To do this successfully, the embodiment of the story in each media needs to be satisfying in its own right while enjoyment from all the media should be greater than the sum of the parts.

From Brooke Thompson:

  • 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.

And finally, from me (I like short and to-the-point):

Transmedia storytelling is telling a single story spread beginning-to-end across multiple platforms.

At this point, I’d like to quote Jenkins again, as he very astutely (as PhD’s are wont to do) quantified the dilemma:

The reality is that our definition of what constitutes transmedia is still very much evolving, as can be witnessed from the various discussions of the concept at the Transmedia Hollywood: S/Telling the Story conference… As we brought together people from across the media industry to discuss these emerging trends, we found some included all forms of franchise entertainment as transmedia and others had much narrower definitions which insisted that the different media platforms be integrated to tell a single story. There was disagreement about the value of various proposed terms, including not only transmedia, cross-media, and “deep media.” There were recurring disagreements about transmedia as a mode of content as opposed to a mode of marketing. And finally, transmedia’s aesthetics was still being defined and with it, the issue of whether this is something really new or an expansion of long-standing practices. Around the edges, you could hear hints that transmedia should be extended from a focus on storytelling to a more expansive understanding which includes notions of performance, play, and spectacle that can not be contained within a more narrative-centric definition.

I take a little umbrage to his saying that people like me have a much narrower definition of things. :) I just want to tighten up the definition so as to be more useful. We need to quantify the differences of Transmedia as a “mode of marketing as opposed to a mode of content.” See, the word Transmedia is a modifier, but most are not including what it’s a modifier of. The franchisers are just calling what they do Transmedia, or worse, Transmedia Storytelling. I mean, come on! I don’t know any storytellers that are calling what they do Transmedia Franchising! This is exacerbated by the (still inaccurate) Producers Guild definition above, which, although it’s a definition for qualification for the PGA, in fact serves as a definition for many of the term itself. As a result, because of this incorrect/incomplete usage, the de facto definition of Transmedia is coming to merely mean Franchising.

I mean, the sky is blue and the ocean is blue. But that doesn’t mean the ocean is the same thing as the sky, right?

So, here’s my call to the marketers and franchisers and brand-builders out there (and you know who you are!):

Start being honest. Start calling your cigar a cigar. Stop referring to what you do as merely Transmedia or Transmedia Storytelling. Call it what it is: Transmedia Franchising (even though I think that term is redundant, but whatever). Or Transmedia Branding, or Transmedia Merchandizing, or Transmedia Marketing. I don’t care.

Just leave the term Transmedia Storytelling (or Transmedia Entertainment) to the actual storytellers!

This means there can be lots of stuff like, oh, Transmedia Art (one art piece that spans platforms), Transmedia Games (one game that spans platforms), and more!

Let’s just all stop using Transmedia as a noun. If you use it at all…

But don’t forget that soon, very soon, this argument will be moot. As something somewhere made by someone one of us probably knows will penetrate the mainstream consciousness and become The Big New Thing that everyone understands and consumes. And that mainstream collective audience will decide what to call it.

And I will cheer. :)


[ETA: And dang, it’s now apparent that there was a perfect title for this post: transmedia is the new Transmedia.]


  1. […] May 25] Steve Peters: What the hell *is* Transmedia? […]

  2. […] and on she goes… Insightful words once again from @vpisteve: What the hell *is* #Transmedia http://www.stevepeters.org/2011/05/18/what-the-hell-is-transmedia/ (Why do I do this??) Related Posts (auto-generated):Your mom is Transmedia (updated)SXSW 2011 Panel […]

  3. Brooke says:

    What gets me, really, is that it’s only a (short) matter of time before folks stop using transmedia to describe franchises or branding. Franchises are just franchises and branding is just just branding. Some of these franchises & marketing elements will have transmedia elements, some won’t. But in their zeal to become transmedia experts (many of whom have no practical idea of what transmedia means, let alone the possibilities it provides or how to successfully execute in a transmedia environment), they’re muddying the very thing they want to use to propel themselves forward, making it relatively useless to them in the process. They’ll be far more successful, in the long run, if they promote a narrower definition of transmedia by showing a broader understanding of the business and the many other ways extensions can be utilized to support a core story or brand message instead of using “transmedia” to define any and everything.

    There is something incredibly magical about integrated transmedia experiences. And while I love (some) franchises, serial storytelling is awesome, and social media is fun… these things alone (or, even, together) do not make transmedia. So I’d really like for people to stop killing the magic by pretending that they do.

  4. J Stratton says:

    you might want to include something from christy dena such as http://www.yousuckattransmedia.com/2010/06/ysa-creating-a-you-suck-at-transmedia-website/ (nice image) or http://www.christydena.com/academic-2/phd/ – I have been collecting articles that define/discuss transmedia as well – the short list is up over 40 and still so many not yet added ;) humans like to categorize, identify, and organize – it is the system to be used that causes distress

  5. Ian Ginn says:

    Ian falls of his chair laughing at Mike’s link…but wonders is this meant to be Steve, Brooke or Mike himself..?

  6. KH says:

    Et oui c’est bien là le problème !
    Steve the thing is that the French, and in Europe in general, they just dont read Uncle Henry, or Christy Dena or even know of Lance Weiler, and sorry even less about the grest cast from Brian Clarck’s Facebook Note ! That’s why it is so important to do this in Europe and advocate to let them know more what is / is not / transmedia. I’m heading to Madrid to advocate in a Spanish crowd (curated by Fernando Carrion, another transmedia advocate like me), it would have been great to just copy and paste the “Note” and your “Post”, not that easy to do according to the web arrangements/design… LOL ! A lot of copy+paste to do to get one doc “MONOmedia ready” for our workshop next week !
    This is “cross-post” with the LinkedIn Group Transmedia Storytelling ;)

    “I would love to post my own sentences. I was kind of afraid to jump into a bunch of experts especially with my “English as a second language” ;-) But I will post those I prepared on a Wiki for the TransmediaCamp I just organised in France to show the efforts that are being made and try to avoid the industry/marketing hacking act over the transmedia term (they do it anyway). Then I am like really concerned about how to translate your voices to a European crowd, especially in France.
    + Question : you start with Henry Jenkins, then the fans come with Christy Dena ;-) If you start with Henry, does that mean that you like this one ? Cheers !”

  7. KH says:

    Transmedia could be :
    “A concept, an adjective, a complex notion that is understood viscerally by each individual within a community in the field of transmedia creation”
    “Transmedia involves a creative community and happens when STORYTELLING and EXPERIENCE come together in a creation or production designed for multiple devices, formats or platforms”
    Option 1:
    “A project can be defined as taking a transmedia approach, when both STORYTELLING and EXPERIENCE are interwoven. Transmedia properties are those which tell different parts of the story across multiple devices on multiple platforms. A true transmedia experience would enlist the participation of a community” (KH & CL)
    Option 2:
    “Transmedia involves a community and happens when STORYTELLING and EXPERIENCE come together in a single production or creation designed for multiple devices, formats or platforms. What intrigues you more? Transmedia STORYtelling or Transmedia EXPErience? ”

  8. Mike Monello says:

    Steve, I’m struggling with your definition of “single story.” correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t ILB have two stories, the story of the AI being stranded on Earth and then the story revealed by the radio drama? Does that mean ILB does not qualify?

    If there is a “single story” requirement, then how do you make each platform/media a complete experience on its own?

    Finally, how do you define which is the main story? Is Star Wars the story of Luke Skywalker? Is it the story of Annakin Skywalker? Is it the story of the rise and fall of The Empire?

    I think you can argue all of those successfully and make the case for Star Wars as transmedia storytelling whereas you might argue it’s franchising so I’m not sure “single-story” can stand as the dividing line.

  9. Steve says:

    Hey Mike, KH and everyone, sorry it took so long to reply. I’m going to cross-post here my response to the thread over on Brian Clark’s Facebook page. Transmedia conversations! :P

    I’m actually sort of loathe to get into a discussion about what does and does not constitute a “story” but I’m just trying to say that it’s, *generally* speaking, like that of a TV episode, a movie, a novel, etc. with a beginning, middle, and end, even though it may have a plot and subplots etc. There are obviously exceptions like a two-part TV episode, etc.

    Additionally, I don’t think I’m advocating limiting the term transmedia to mean the single-story thing. At this point, I guess I’d just be happy if the definition *included* the single-story project (like a typical ARG), which things like the PGA credit does not….under that definition, none of the producers of any projects I worked on at 42, NMM or now at FWS would qualify. It’s seems I’m always trying to point this out, but it gets lost in the kerfuffle….

    Anyways, to address your post: As far as ILB is concerned, it was one story. The radio drama piece was directly part of the crash-landed AI piece, as the present day stuff was what facilitated the delivery of the future stuff. Sort of like Marty McFly watching the people fade in the photos. Two time-periods, one story, right? :)

    Now for Star Wars. When I saw it in 1977 and walked out of the theater (well, drove out of the drive-in), I felt like I had seen a complete story in the film. It was a movie! With a beginning, middle and end! It’s not hard! But hey, I’m not an academic, so maybe that’s my problem. :)

    And….speaking of Star Wars, if it’s being held up as such a paragon of “Transmedia,” and it came out over 30 years ago, doesn’t that kind of prove that this supposed newfangled thing called Transmedia isn’t something new at all? And if it’s not new, then why is a new name being slapped on it?

    I’m talking about the new form of storytelling that has been emerging because of the new possibilities of technology over the past decade or so (again, *generally* speaking). The thing that Blair Witch, The Beast, Chasing the Wish, Majestic (yes, Majestic, even), Art of the Heist, The Truth About Marika, I Love Bees etc. found themselves to be. That’s what I’m pursuing. That’s what excites me. Not just a movie that has subsequent sequels and books and toys and video games and lunch boxes and cartoons and plushies and comics and record albums and Christmas specials. That’s nothing new. Brilliant, yes. New, no.

    I do agree with you that intent can’t be the deciding factor, either. Yes, it’s too hard to divine, as you need to be able to peer into the creator’s heart. There are many stories whose purpose is to sway opinion or cause action, so using that to separate storytelling from advertising in my previous post turns out not to hold water as much as my second point about generating a relationship with a brand, but hey, that could be said of religion too, so where does that leave us?

    And yeah, your point about a story marketing itself would cause the whole thing to implode or eat itself into oblivion like some Ouroboros, so yes, Intent is out. :)

    OK, so where does this leave us? I guess when I get down to the foundational quest for me, it’s being able to define the difference between not only franchising versus storytelling as it relates to the terminology, but also between the same old thing being dressed up as something new versus the stuff that actually *is* a new way of doing things.

    And I guess I’d append the call on my blog to also include this: The PGA needs to fix its credits requirement. This was promised over a year ago and nothing has happened yet, which is pretty outrageous. And yes, it *is* important to this discussion for all the reasons like funding and insurance and tangible things that folks like Brooke and Evan Jones have pointed out.

    So Mike, what’s next? Where do we go from here?