Transmedia Storytelling and the New Media Convergence

 Wikipedia Commons C C3 David Goliath Blanton Narrative media is undergoing a shift from the traditional model of single, linear story lines to much broader explorations of the story world. Narratives are developed within larger contexts where even tertiary characters can act as launch points for new stories that flesh out the fictional universe. These bleed into the physical world through alternate reality gaming and transmedia cross-platform experiences that directly engage the audience, drawing them into the story through real-world challenges. ARG's may not be especially new but they're being more commonly integrated into franchise productions through transmedia campaigns across web sites, mobile engagement, shorts, graphic novels, video games, music, and any other possible medium that can extend the story.

While much of this shift has been driven by the entertainment industry, typically around run-up advertising campaigns, transmedia experiences are perhaps most compelling as native expressions of a fully-articulated narrative universe. This is transmedia world building: creating a fictional universe so rich and complete that a multitude of interweaving stories can emerge from it, taking form through the social and technological spaces we share.

The video game spin-off becomes an opportunity to extend the narrative and create a new experience. The web site becomes a breadcrumb in the story arc offering a phone number that conveys a meeting place. The graphic novel picks up the life of a tertiary character from the original story. The audience is asked to participate in the unfolding narrative.

The pieces here aren't particularly new but they're all starting to converge with the technologies that enable these experiences. Most importantly (and disruptively) they are converging in a way that radically empowers independent content creators at exactly the moment when they've been completely abandoned by the industry giants of yesteryear. The majors have ditched or shelved their independent film houses and now focus solely on tent-pole blockbusters. Premiers at Cannes, Sundance, and other indie fests are barely selling to the studios. Yet, independent creators can set up powerful home studios and score a RED camera or even a Canon 5D mk2 to shoot & produce exceptional, authentic work. And very soon the audience will control access to this massive Long Tail of content right from their living room (and from their mobiles, and laptops, and kiosks, and car stereos, etc...)

Indeed, the near-simultaneous announcement of both Google TV and the new iteration of Apple TV herald the final arrival of truly integrated internet TV. This is the enxt major wave of convergence. These devices will fully legitimize web video - the pre-eminent domain of independent film, tv, and short-format creators - and bring it directly into the living room for mass consumption. Viewers will be able to open chat streams, web browsers, interactive content, and feedback polling while watching content from YouTube, Hulu, Vimeo and anyone else uploading to the cloud. Content providers will grab analytics off the back-end, manage ad placement, and push interactive challenges directly to the viewers. Internet TV convergence will be radically disruptive.

The majors are fighting hard to control this space. They'll continue to defend the old models & limp box office gimmicks like "3D" movies while new media innovators will be figuring out how to use Microsoft's Kinect and augmented reality and geolocation to extend the reach & impact of their content. New models of crowdfunding & collaboration will bring the audience into the production, and creators will push out distribution through iTunes, Netflix, torrents, and the emerging array of independent web hosts. Whatever the role of Old Media may be in the future, independent creators will play a much larger role in the new media landscape.


  1. I do love a good classic Judith and Holofernes painting. Um.

    Anyway, on your post:
    I’m not excited for the Kinect as a game device or Wii competitor. I’m excited to see the technology thats in the Kinect make it’s first debut. I find it so odd that so many people don’t seem to really be able to see what it means and the implications for it to lead to a hell of a lot of the things that sci fi authors have written about for years. In X number of years that tech is going to be ubiquitous. Your microwave will recognize you, recognize the food you put into it, and automatically cook it the way you like it. On a more sinister note, the window display at Macy’s will recognize you and cater their display for you as you walk past (ala Minority Report). Its pretty daunting and fun to think about the inevitabilities of being able to track skeletal motion, recognize people, and input just through motion alone.

  2. Narrative media is undergoing a shift from the traditional model of single, linear story lines to much broader explorations of the story world.

    Cf. Homer, the Bible, the Arabian Nights, etc. Multiple, nonlinear (or quasilinear), tertiary, etc. stories have been around for millennia, much longer than the “traditional” model that you mistakenly posit as the standard one, which is more of a creation of modernity, the novel, etc.

  3. Thanks Chris! Great to have you here! Next time try to include new or useful information in your posts. ;) This post is just a summary of transmedia storytelling–at least link to good stuff on the subject like the writing of Henry Jenkins.

    1. And thank you for the snark, Daveypogue! Not everyone is familiar with transmedia. In fact, most people have never heard the word. I wrote the article for the masses, not the experts like yourself. You are an expert, right?

  4. Hi Chris…

    I think it is important to make a significant distinction between technical and cultural disruption. Fact is, technology will continue to evolve, but the real evolution will be the iterative cycles we undergo in our relationship to narrative. Where does technology (ala platform) then play a role? In audience delivery and participatory appeal. Here’s what I mean.

    Aside from the narrative prospects, I believe that most media companies fail to understand that convergence is a matter of understanding the anthropological elements of participation, from ontologies to folksonomies to emotional mapping and geo-spatial integrations. Further, AR & ARG extensions provide new perspectives on the realities we already share (to some points here). This, in my humble opinion, is the true value of what transmedia storytelling can afford us: the ability to synthesize narrative and platform in ways that are self-revealing, regenerative, and ultimately, scalable.

    If we can deliver audiences (which we can), the sky is the limit. But of course, we have the old media mavens to contend with, the gatekeepers that are stuck on controlling the gateways as opposed to liberating them, despite the fact that transmedia vehicles provide more opportunity to sell more media.

    If interested, I have plenty written about this on my blog…


    Gunther Sonnenfeld

  5. One of the major problems with so many people who talk about the future, and technology, is that they lack sufficient historical context.

    Tdawwg has already pointed out the fundamental problem, so I’ll just add specifics.

    The author claims, ” Narratives are developed within larger contexts where even tertiary characters can act as launch points for new stories that flesh out the fictional universe.” He offers this as an example of new non-linear modes of narrative. Huh? What then is the relationship between The Iliad and The Odyssey, exactly? *nods to Tdawwg*

    Prior to the advent of the novel in narrative form (usually linked to Cervante’s “Don Quixote”), the principle mode of narrative wasn’t even prose. On top of that, it could extremely non-linear, and there are examples of secondary characters becoming principle characters (and the opposite, too) in other fictional works. The relationship between Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde” and Henryson’s alternative ending “The Testament of Cresseid” are suggestive of the ways in which earlier fictional works (here, poetry) are capable of playing rather aggressively with concept of narrative modes (i.e. non-linear).

    That isn’t even to take up how works like “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Fairie Qveene” play with narrative non-linearity.

    I’ve argued in other venues that Malory’s “Le Morte d’arthur” could be reasonably argued as the first novelistic attempt in English, but the near-undefeatable defense has been Malory’s non-linear format, as well as his accretionary mode of tale-telling. What the heck are Tristan and Isolde doing in King Arthur’s world?

    Answer? Literature, historically, isn’t beholden to the simplistic (and untrue; and reductively linear, I might add) narrative that Chris is laying out for us. Simply put, the kind of linear development of narrative from simple, straight-forward and linear to complex, misdirective and indirect that the author argues for doesn’t exist. He wishes that it did, because then, in a “whig-history” moment, he can argue that we’ve now arrived at some wonderful new narratalogical space. We haven’t.


    1. Lanvil – I would agree with your point about historical context. Another example is Tolstoy’s “The Hadji Murad”, one of the first non-linear novellas, about a Cossack rebel who is held captive and whose story unfolds before, after and during his subsequent death. There are many examples of fictional (and non-fictional) narrative that span periods of time and between bodies of work.

      However, I disagree with the assertion that we haven’t arrived at some “wonderful new narratological space”. For one, the notion of the distributed bard points to a distinct evolution where the convergence of philosophy, social science, technology and media have helped us advance our “narrative evolution”. We have also seen distinct strides within the last two decades, from Robinson’s work at IBM in the 70s, to Marsha Kinder’s observation starting in the early 90s, then culminating in the Labyrinth Project in the late 90s, and of course where academics like Henry Jenkins have taken things, not to mention the works of Jeff Gomez, Stephen Dinehart, Robert Pratten and many others.

      That said, I think Chris would’ve benefited from referring to some of the pioneers of the transmedia movement, and spoken about how the participatory elements of things like gameplay and fandom factor into transmedia storytelling and this new media convergence.


    2. Lanval, where are these other arguments, other venues, of yours? They would be fun to read!

  6. I suspect we’re likely to look back on the 20th Century (and, most notably, the post-war half) as being something of a blip in the way popular culture was experienced as being a linear, largely passive, mass-market package. Because this is the period that we grew up in, and – most significantly – the previous two generations also grew up in (which is essentially what “living memory” refers to), then we tend to view this as being the norm.

    The non-linear, non-standard narrative experimenters never really went away, but they were driven a little bit underground (e.g. the fantasy role-players) and they are now emerging again into the public conciousness.

    I’ve got nothing against the transmedia marketers, but I hope that they are not going to take the Apple route of pretending massive innovation albeit with elegant design; but rather that they are willing to acknowledge all the pioneering work done to enable them to, well, actually make money!

  7. Yes, I should have been more clear that I was mainly referring to visual narrative (ie film & TV), though I assumed this was apparent from the rest of the text. There is, of course, plenty of non-linearity in stories, both modern and traditional, but they have not until recently branched out beyond stage & film. The point of differentiation is that modern technologies are enabling a new type of storytelling that reaches out into the audience in ways that were previously impossible. Non-linearity is explored through emerging channels of engagement.

    Again, I assumed this was clarified in the other 20 or so sentences.

  8. Super piece…the interweaving of stories has always been part of our human experience but now the ease, pace, and importance of being mindful of all these non-linear narrative fragments has accelerated…in the best possible ways we are being initiated into a mindful way of interacting with our narratives and how they they combine with others to create our realities.

    I recently did a fun 2 minute piece challenging our cherished notions of Beginning, Middle, End clean narratives…

    Thanks for a provocative post.

    Terrence Gargiulo

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