Jenkins on transmedia

It was a tough call last night–go to see Jean Lave talk about the everyday or to listen to Henry Jenkins on transmedia? Since they were at overlapping times, I decided to go to the Jenkins talk. I have heard him speak before, but this was an intimate setting and I hoped that hearing his thoughts on transmedia might help me to rethink a chapter I am writing about transliteracies. And I think it ended up doing that. But in searching online for the official definition of the concept (he whipped through that slide too quickly for me to process), I found a pretty faithful summary of his talk here on his website. Nevertheless, I am posting my take on this for anyone interested.

The presentation really centered around his work with the idea of transmedia storytelling, which he said he has been talking about with people in the entertainment industry in very similar ways to the way he discussed the concept with us. He began by describing the provenance of the term transmedia (building on the work of Marsha Kinder) and his interest in transmedia storytelling (as opposed to other transmedia logics one could examine like transmedia play, branding, performance, etc.). Jenkins is an engaging speaker, and he used lots of examples to illustrate his definition of transmedia storytelling throughout the talk, drawing on popular culture texts like Harry Potter, the Matrix, Green Lantern, Disney, and dozens of others. He provided a working definition that structured his talk, explicating the italicized portions for us over the next hour:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.

He made two important points: 1) there is an important distinction between participatory culture and Web 2.0 (a business model that attempts to commodify that participation) and 2) transmedia is about how we tell stories and not the tools we use to do so. That is, he is interested particularly in the ways that narratives can be expanded and how fans/audiences engage with that process. That is my take away, at least, from the talk (and the part I am most interested in).

He spent the majority of his time describing how transmedia storytelling expands narratives (point #1). This story expansion can happen successfully when the author creates a world (e.g. the world of Harry Potter). That is, when storytellers create or map a fictional world (e.g. Baum’s creation of Oz), they create many opportunities for narratives to be developed in different media (novels, movies, plays, etc. that all tell different stories set in Oz). Sometimes this means that a story is adapted (Superman is told in comic form and in movie form, with a similar plot line but adapted/interpreted for different media) and other times the story is extended (Superman in his youth, in a different country, etc.). Hollywood has embraced the principle of additive storytelling, in which there is a “mother ship” or a self-contained, ‘authorized’ version from which other stories are spun off. This adds a deepening/layering element to the narrative, which also allows other narratives to be told (e.g., minor characters’ stories or some kind of backstory might be developed in a video game). But the Matrix, for example, had a different logic–an integrated vision whereby the story was told in pieces across different media (and made for an incoherent narrative if someone missed the backstory from the video game, for example).

In all of these ways, then, Jenkins makes clear he is talking about the different possible relations between media. He argues that for him, transmedia storytelling has to combine principles of radical intertextuality and multimodality that allow us to understand something more about a story. He describes radical intertextuality as a movement across texts or across textual structures within the same medium (like DC comic characters that traverse different comics over time). He talks about multimodality as the way different media involve different representations, with different affordances for interaction (e.g., the Green Lantern is a character that moves across comic, movie, and game but is recognizable across all three, though each has a different kind of affordance for our relationship to the story/medium). For him, then, transmedia storytelling has to traverse texts (intertextuality) and modes (multimodality) in order to extend a narrative in some way.

I am particularly interested in the second point (above), about how fans and audiences engage with transmedia storytelling. Jenkins argues that fans can have different kinds of relationships with transmedia stories, from hunting and gathering (e.g., finding parts of the Buffy story that you like) to fan participation (creating your own story in the Harry Potter fictional world). He says the question becomes–as audiences take up, broaden, and extend these narratives through their participatory practices (like the huge fan fiction following of Harry Potter fans), what is the relation of these texts to the authorized “canon”? Jenkins talked about this tension in relation to JK Rowling’s new online space that will extend the Harry Potter narrative but not take into account the complex worlds fans have already created (e.g., ‘sorting’ themselves in ways the new site will likely not recognize or take into account). He asks about the multiplicity of stories in this ‘fanon’ and its relations to the canonical texts of the corporate entity. All fascinating questions–and I am left wondering: what other kinds of relations might audiences take up with texts? What are the other roles people take up beside ‘fan’? What can we understand about the literacy practices of authors and audiences as they participate in multiple ways? What are the relationships between texts/authors/audiences across genres? With corporate/mainstream texts? What kinds of counternarratives might we find in an analysis of the stories fans create? In general, I think I wondered a lot about the stories that do and do not get told and the ways in which people are positioned by and position themselves in relation to these mainstream media (and of course they ways they actively coopt, resist, and otherwise transform those media/narratives).

In relation to these questions and Jenkins’ work, I found an interesting article on transmedia traversals by Jay Lemke that proposes a theoretical model for understanding these relationships. Lemke argues that the presence of social networks changes the nature of these relationships, in that we will filter and re-appropriate our diversity of experiences and resources across our social networks in ways that challenge the hegemony of mass media.

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6 thoughts on “Jenkins on transmedia

  1. Thanks, Amy! Wish I could have attended, but your discussion gave me a good sense of what he had to say. Looking forward to returning to a focus on multimodal forms when the dissertation is finished. Sharon

  2. Amy, thanks for such a great summary. I took pretty good notes considering I was typing on my iPhone in Evernote, but didn’t get anything out on the web. This is very helpful.

  3. Hi,

    Amy, regarding Lemke’s model.

    Lemke indicates creators could distribute content on a social network, as well as fans.

    I agree, that the identity market on Lemke’s model is the mass-media…which is the user’s first introduction to a film, tv, or comic franchise, and after that experience he or she will log-on to a social network and dive in deeper to a franchise.

    I also agree that social networks or online sites that are connected to a film, tv, or comic franchise could potentiallty change the leadership because with the internet fans have access to an abundance of free tools. They also have the ability to discover likeminded fans, held debates, and create their own stories, most of the time, without the authorization of content creators/copyright owners.

    So, the problem here is that the owners of mass-media prevents fans from pushing their ideas into the mass market, limiting the chance of a fans storyline or idea to reach a comic book store, television channel, or movie theatre. I understand because of legalities why they don’t want do this…but the solution to Transmedia storytelling, I think is for fans and creators to be connected.

    Last thing, could you describe what you meant by social networks changing the nature of the relationship(hunting and gathering, fan participation) and did you meant in a good or bad way?

    Because I see it as a good way because it enhances the experience, and most social networks provides the users with free tools to dig in deeper.

    I hope my point of view makes much sense, and I love your piece!

    1. Hi Tyre–thanks for writing! I appreciate your comments about connecting fans and creators and I concur. I did mean that social networks can change relationships in a good way in just the way you described. But I also think there is room for other kinds of relationships to take root, especially as more people create their own content (eg self-publishing books, movies, art) and interact with others around that content (promotion, commerce, civic engagement, etc.). I’m thinking of Etsy and other peer-peer engagement. Just some thoughts–I am still thinking all of this through!

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