“Transmedia is a word for old people”

The Lizzie Bennet DiariesTransmedia—telling stories across multiple platforms and formats like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social media—is very trendy right now. You’ve got the success of shows like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and East Los High, in which fans got to interact with characters in “real time,” making them not only consumers of the content but story tellers as well.

As a relative newbie to transmedia, I’ve been feeling psyched about the possibilities, particularly when it comes to storytelling for non-profits. Think of the possibilities for engaging donors and volunteers, bringing organizations’ missions to life in a visceral way.

But when a friend of mine shared my obsession with her 17-year-old daughter, this was her response:

“Transmedia is a word for old people.”

What?? Aside from making me feel about 100 years old, what did my friend’s daughter mean by that?

My friend’s daughter explained that young people don’t need a word to describe transmedia because this is how they live every day. The narrative of their own lives unfolds across different social media platforms and they consciously create identities for themselves depending on where, what, how and with whom they share information.

So a younger person may have one persona on Tumblr, another for Facebook (where their parents and grandparents hang out), yet another for Instagram, and so forth. And they take in information in the same way: watching a series on Hulu while IM’ing a friend or scrolling through animated gifs on Tumblr or watching reaction videos on YouTube. The idea that there is just one way to consume content is just flat-out incomprehensible to them.

So that’s why transmedia is a word for old people—if you’re older than age 30 or so, you grew up in a broadcast world where you watched whatever the networks or cable channels chose to beam at you with no easy way to beam back at them or communicate with like-minded folks consuming the same content (though some folks tried their best—I’m looking at you, old-school Star Trek fans).

Of course, nowadays nearly everyone consumes content the way younger people do. For example, the NY Times recently redesigned their news pagers so that comments appear to the right of the original article, giving both equal visual weight on the page. But while older consumers are “doing” transmedia, they don’t live it the way younger folks do.

You can see this playing out in organizations because the primary decision makers—senior executives and CEOs—generally Don’t Get It. They still think of marketing and communications as a one way street. They treat social media channels as PR tickers. Most importantly, they still think of people as audiences rather than as collaborators in creating a shared experience—which is how younger folks see themselves.

In order for companies and non-profits to succeed, they need to reevaluate where and how they tell their organizational stories. It’s not just from a narrative perspective. For example, something that drives me crazy is how brands promote themselves on Tumblr. Some companies like General Electric and IBM are producing cool gifs and graphics, but they never share anyone else’s content. The whole ethos of Tumblr revolves around endless sharing, so why aren’t companies participating in that? It isn’t just about what you put out there, it’s about what you pass along.

As content creators, we need to make the case for true multichannel, multidirectional storytelling that is collaborative communication and gives a chance to folks share their own stories in turn. This isn’t a nice-to-have opportunity, it’s an absolute must-be-done to survive. Remember my friend’s daughter. She’s not waiting around for us to “get it.”

About Alisa

I'm a writer, blogger and social media specialist with nearly 15 years experience in medical and science writing for organizations that include Caltech and UCLA, as well as non-profit fundraising and political organizing. I specialize in making complex information clear and compelling. Learn more about my work here

  • I got a great email from reader Scott Ellington and wanted to share:

    The word represents an attack on the institutional tendency to retain control and ownership of cultural vitality. It’s meant to describe stories that reach people who only read books, watch movies, listen to music, play games or otherwise seclude themselves from “lesser entertainments”. These stories, according to Henry Jenkins, travel from page to screen by being told by people whose expertises vary from illustration to composition to character design by investing each iteration of the story with unique packets of information that bears upon the complete apprehension of the entire story that is presided over by “story architects” who coordinate the release of information into the mainstream of current media like breadcrumbs in a forest or thread in the bowels of a labyrinth that serve to orient all who wish to follow. While “YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social media” are current, trendy means to spread this kind of narrative, they’re only presently-fashionable means to spread content that has always/previously been invested in books, graphic novels, videos, movies and other forms of media that endures beyond trends. That the institutions best-prepared (with wealth and extant distribution channels) to sponsor transmedia narratives are broadcast studios and transnational corporations is unfortunate because the tendency to retain ownership and control of cultural vitality is a contradiction in terms, a fundamental oxymoron. I think your friend’s daughter is absolutely right and only slightly wrong because transmedia is another word for power, and sharing control of culture is not the primary objective of the folks who are presently in control of the definition of transmedia.

    And a follow-up:

    I’d like, as well to share with you a journal entry posted yesterday at deviantART.com by a photographer of some repute, Marcus Ranum: http://www.deviantart.com/journal/Welcome-to-the-Internet-Now-go-home-443388824

    Professor Jenkins has always used the term “media consumer” in ways that raise my hackles.

    What consumers do to content is consume it, depreciating its value (to that of excrement).

    We’re customers, I think, primarily because we customize the content we receive from creators, and the best customers pass along attribute to the source material from which their recitation/parody/homage/critiqe was drawn.

    Transmedia is a problem that’s rooted primarily in power, but it’s a problem that can resolve in more creative content or more wealth in very-deep pockets or the deep despair of creative artists. It represents a tremendously-inspiring opportunity tor every customer; culture over commerce.

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  • Larry Rosenthal

    the word is “viewser” even if the kids dont know it yet. age offers wisdom. but so few are buyers.

  • susankuchinskas

    thanks for an insightful and interesting post!

  • Within the last decade, there have been many successful Transmedia campaigns. However, there have also been many failed attempts at Transmedia. In particular, Chris Carmichael The Matrix Transmedia campaign proved unsuccessful despite the overwhelming number of resources invested in the campaign.