People started pointing to our prior work and labeling us “transmedia storytellers” with increasing regularity around 2006. Then, the term transmedia storytelling seemed useful as a way of talking about a single story that unfolded across multiple media platforms. Henry Jenkins, as a self-professed “academic fan,” even made pains to set transmedia in opposition to adaptations, sequels and franchises. By 2009, I was one of the people criticizing the growing over-application of the term, and in 2011 it seemed apparent we’d reached some kind of tipping from which the term might never recover. I gave up the term completely in 2012 unless I’m using it to contrast with my perspective as an experience designer (or as a punch-line).
This is the story of that long break-up.
The Gentle(r) Critics
In 2009, I was part of a panel on producing transmedia at M.I.T. for the Futures of Entertainment conference () with my friend and long-time collaborator Michael Monello. Our panel was the first one of day, right after Henry Jenkins unveiled his new expanded thinking on what transmedia was (), and our first question was to define transmedia. Even then, our answers were somewhat critical:
Monello: “As far as a definition of transmedia, I’m notorious with Brian in some circles for constantly shooting down every term to encapsulate what it is we do and notorious for not having the answer myself as well.”
Clark: “I loved what you were saying at the beginning, but I found myself falling in love with the opposite of everything you were saying. You were excited by media consolidation, I’m excited by disintermediation.”
My criticisms of transmedia storytelling as an experience designer in 2009 were essentially two-fold. First, it was just all so media-centric with very little recognition that many of us weren’t thinking about media as platforms (we were thinking of how media could be used as part of a performance) – sometimes it would even go so far as to just declare “real life” a media (and misunderstand what’s special about un-mediated experiences.) Second, it put pressure on the definition of “a story” by creating the construct of “storyworlds” to describe collections of stories all set in one “universe” – and this was just a way to sneak through the “not adaptation, sequel or franchise” exclusion.
At that point, the community engaged in the debate was still small and heavily influenced by academia, which meant these kinds of nuanced debates were encouraged and welcomed. This would be far less true among the new converts flocking to the term in the hopes of legitimacy and a more formal industry.
This is Not Helpful
The popularity and use of the term grew exponentially over the next two years and, as it did, it crossed rapidly from being a term of academic discourse to a buzzword of self-promotion. In early 2011, Mike and I talked frequently about how that community couldn’t seem to even have the conversations anymore – there was a new level personal reputations connected to ensuring the term meant what you wanted it to mean.
This eventually became a Facebook post about “Reclaiming Transmedia Storyteller” where we tried to make the argument about authorship instead of form. I even took Henry Jenkins up on his offer to guest lecture at his class at USC on how transmedia business models needed to move beyond the patronage model to create bottom-up, venture and company business models of more diversity. At IFP Power to the Pixel that year, I tried to drive the point home for independent filmmakers that they already had the tools to do this and not to let the term transmedia make it seem as mysterious or revolutionary as it claimed to be. Sadly, buzzworditis has a high fatality rate once it gets a strong foot-hold.
What Comes Next?
In 2012, I admitted defeat – transmedia was a buzzword, and as a buzzword was a lie (“Consider me Brutus in the court of Caesar: I’ve come to bury transmedia, not praise it.”) This is just the natural way of things, or as I described in one interview:
“Personally, I’ve always thought of myself as an experience designer, so ‘transmedia’ always felt like a new label for a portion of my prior work (those that relied more on mediated experiences than unmediated experiences) . . . I think these kinds of terms always have natural useful lifespans: in the twenty years I’ve been doing this kind of work, I’ve seen a lot of terms come into vogue and then either wither way to obscurity or expand so broadly they no longer mean anything useful.”
I joked in my keynote at StoryWorld that year () that I had completed the six stages of grief for transmedia and had reached acceptance of whatever anyone wanted it to mean. That’s because I had recommitted myself to being an advocate for experience design as an alternate viewpoint with far richer implications than transmedia, including a couple of centuries of work and thinking to build upon that requires less invention.
I’m not the only one. If you look around the circle of my closest intimates who were trying on the term transmedia in 2009 you’ll notice the word transmedia disappearing … and the phrase experience designer appearing.