What is transmedia?

Henry Jenkins defined transmedia storytelling as: “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels” (Jenkins, 2007).

Jeff Gomez added to this definition, stating in his keynote speech at NextMEDIA: “For transmedia, you need three platforms. Anything less is either bi- or mono-media” (Gomez, 2009, cited in Gollick, 2009).

In 2010, The Producers Guild of America added a transmedia producer category to its membership, and in agreement with Gomez, stated that:

“A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe […] These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.” (Producers Guild of America, 2011)

In this essay I will outline and analyse three transmedia projects using these definitions as a starting point.

77 Million Paintings: private view

http://longnow.org/events/02007/jun/29/77-million-paintings-brian-eno/

77 Million Paintings is an evolving digital artwork by Brian Eno, consisting of a seemingly never-ending stream of unique ambient music and video, described by Eno as “visual music” (Lumen London, 2011a). It was released as software and on DVD, and first went on show to the public in March 2006 (Lumen London, 2011b). It is the private view hosted by The Long Now Foundation in July 2007 that I would like to focus on here.

The private view took place simultaneously in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and online in the virtual world of Second Life (The Long Now Foundation, 2011). The virtual attendees could view the artwork hanging on the wall of a specially constructed gallery in Second Life, and were able to see and communicate with the real-life attendees through a computer based at the gallery in San Francisco. Eno’s talk to the attendees in San Francisco was streamed into Second Life and he also briefly attended the virtual event as an avatar (Rikomatic, 2007).

The audience for this event were members of the Long Now Foundation who were invited by email to attend either in real life or in Second Life. Unlike the other projects I will be covering, this was not widely publicised or aimed at a mass market.

For members who didn’t live near San Francisco, attending the private view was a challenge: they had to join Second Life if they were not already members. Second Life was relatively new (Wikipedia, 2011), and was described as “clunky and difficult to navigate”* for the uninitiated. There was also the issue of the time difference – UK attendees had to log on at 3am. This probably deterred many international members from attending, not to mention those who were not adept with technology.

The design of the event meant that it was not accessible to all, but it was not intended as such, and many of the design flaws within Second Life were due to the technological limitations of the time. This was a pioneering project – my interviewee told me that it took a year to devise the technology to make it possible at all*. In spite of the problem of alienating some of the audience, I think that the design met most of the audience’s expectations, since they were aware that it was all new. I think that the ambitious design was appropriate to the creative content.

At the time, it was not possible to extend this project across other digital platforms such as social networks, simply because they were not available. Eno’s 2009 generative music project Bloom shows how 77 Million Paintings could have been made more interactive and rolled out across mobile platforms if it were created today (Opal Limited, 2009).

The private view is not transmedia by The Producers Guild of America or Gomez’s definitions because it only uses two platforms, but these definitions were written after this event, and with much more technology available. I believe that it is a good example of transmedia in its time because it fits Jenkins’ wider definition by allowing content to be distributed across different platforms.

* Interview conducted on 25 October 2011 with Trevor Hilder, who attended the event in Second Life.

Seven Days

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/seven-days

Seven Days was a 2010 Channel 4 reality docu-soap in which members of the public advised the participants on their everyday lives through an online tool called ‘ChatNav’ (Channel 4, 2011). As well as being a platform for viewer comments, ChatNav aggregated Twitter postings, allowed viewers to share photos of participants they had spotted in real life, and had its own reporters who sought out additional stories that the public showed interest in (Holler, 2011a).

Seven Days was pitched as an innovative replacement for Big Brother (BBC News, 2010), so it was aimed at a wide, mainstream audience. However, I do not think that the audience were challenged by being asked to participate or interact in new ways: this audience already uses social media to talk about reality TV. I think that the producers of Seven Days used audience-generated content in a new way rather than creating something completely new.

In any case, communicating the way that Seven Days and ChatNav worked to the audience seemed to be a challenge that the show’s producers were unable to meet. The initial trailer for the series did not explain the interactive side of the concept at all. After seeing the trailer, YouTube member ‘Mlleclarisse7721’ commented on the official Seven Days YouTube channel: “This advert is brilliant. Visually and with the sentences[…] Anyway what is this program about? Can anyone tell me?” (C4SevenDays, 2010). The show’s cancellation after three weeks was partly attributed to a failure to explain the concept to the audience (Guardian, 2010).

ChatNav has now been removed from Channel 4’s website, but we can see its design and content from the video on the creative agency Holler’s website (Holler, 2011a). ChatNav has a similar layout to social networks such as Facebook and YouTube, so I think it is appropriate to the intended audience. According to Holler, “16,168 thoughts were posted on the site along with 9,652 responses; 43,870 Tweets were aggregated, and 235 pictures” (Holler, 2011b). Twitter posts were much more popular than ChatNav forum posts, and this may reflect the marketing failure or perhaps that the audience were not willing to engage with the new ChatNav platform directly.

I think that this project would have benefitted from being extended across additional platforms: it is surprising that a ChatNav app for mobile devices was not used since the technology was widely available at the time. However, I do not think that extending across further platforms would have saved the series without proper communication with the audience.

Seven Days meets the criteria for all three of the definitions of a transmedia project because it is a multi-platform fiction that has different strands of storyline in each platform – for example, some of the online video content would only have been available online, and was specifically requested by viewers using ChatNav. All of the activity is centered around the TV series, but the audience could feasibly engage with the story without having access to a television. However, I would view this as a failed transmedia project because people did not understand the concept and therefore turned off in droves (BeehiveCity, 2010).

Biophilia

http://bjork.com/

Biophilia is a 2011 album and multimedia project by the Icelandic musician Björk (Bjork, 2011). The project consisted of “music, apps, internet, installations and live shows” (Manchester International Festival, 2011) as well as a documentary and a series of educational workshops. Biophilia was described as the first “app album” (Guardian, 2011a) because it was first available as an app for iPhone and iPad, as well as being partially recorded and devised on an iPad.

I will be focusing on the iPad app in particular because it allowed an interactive element. Each of the ten songs on the album has a corresponding app within the “mother app”. The app for the song ‘Crystalline’ contains a scrolling visual score, an essay by a musicologist and a game that allows users to generate new versions of the song depending on how the game is played (Guardian, 2011b).

While Björk’s music is well known internationally, it could not be classed as mainstream, so this project probably did not have as wide an audience as Seven Days, but it still had a much larger audience than the 77 Million Paintings private view. I would suggest that along with Björk’s core fanbase this project would have attracted a new audience of iPhone and iPad users who may never have bought her music before.

Although this project was available in many formats, I think that the apps would have proved most challenging to the audience because the devices required to access them were still relatively new and expensive. Björk reportedly responded to critics of the apps, saying, “I think it will be soon enough that touchscreens will be cheap and available to everyone” (Gigwise, 2011).

Because the iPad app was designed in tandem with the content of the project, the music and technology work together very well. The style of the app was described as “Björkesque” (Guardian, 2011b), which shows that it was thought of as perfectly appropriate. However, some critics complained that the iPad app did not take full advantage of the available technology to create an integrated experience between songs and more interactivity between users (ibid).

This project covered many platforms and I don’t think it could have been extended much – though a webcast of the live performance and apps for other smartphones and tablets would have been useful. Most albums are finite in scope: once the album is released nothing changes, but in this case I would suggest that Björk could use these current platforms to continue to develop the ideas within Biophilia and perhaps promote her next album.

Biophilia qualifies as a transmedia project because it meets the criteria of the three definitions above: it uses multiple channels to distribute different parts of the work, and each platform can be viewed alone or as part of the whole. Although the musical aspect is central to all of the platforms, I do not think that it could be argued that it is being ‘repurposed’; each platform draws attention to a different part of the music and allows the audience to connect with it in new ways.

Conclusion

I think that all three of the above projects can be classed as transmedia, because they all use more than one platform to distribute interactive content. I disagree with The Producers Guild of America and Gomez that there should be a minimum of three platforms, because I think that you can reach the same outcome with just two.

 

Total: 1782 words

Bibliography