De-Buzzifying a Buzz Word

Last week I had the opportunity participate in a panel discussion at Sprockets, Toronto’s International Film Festival for Children and Youth (which, by the way, is a FANTASTIC event held in the new and equally fantastic TIFF building). The topic of the panel? Transmedia. Well of course. It seems that transmedia has blossomed into an all-out industry buzz-word — it’s a featured topic at conferences ranging from SXSW to Kidscreen. Rumor even has it that Henry Jenkins is out to “reclaim” the word, and I don’t blame him.

Regardless, I was thrilled to join fellow Canucks Jennifer Burkitt (CBC), Sara Grimes (University of Toronto), Matt Toner (Zeros 2 Heroes) and Richard Lachman (Ryerson University) in a spirited discussion about how transmedia is effecting traditional broadcasting models, how it is effecting education, and — most importantly — what really is transmedia, anyways? Here is a summary of our discussion:

  • What is transmedia?
    Transmedia is a single property that crosses multiple platforms. It’s hard to find something that is not labeled as transmedia these days, meaning that the property lives on multiple platforms. However, true transmedia capitalizes on the unique affordances of each individual platform, expanding established storylines and allowing fans to connect and participate in the fictional world. It was interesting to see that everyone on the panel had a slightly different bar for what constitutes “true” transmedia, and made me think that the industry is all probably using different definitions for this word. Perhaps we all need to sit in on a class with Jenkins?
  • Is transmedia a threat to traditional broadcasting models, or an enhancement?
    The panel seemed to agree that transmedia is certainly something all media producers need to be paying attention to, if for no other reason than that kids are expecting it. But the truth is that transmedia can provide exciting new entry points to your property, and can offer unique enhancements to traditional media. However, they key point that panelists tried to get across was that if your core competency is in one platform, that’s OK! It can be better to try to specialize in one medium than spread an idea over multiple platforms where you don’t have expertise. Not every developer has to be a jack of all trades (and in fact, usually the best ones aren’t), but every developer should be considering how their audience might want to interact with their story in ways outside of the core medium.
  • How can content producers leverage new platforms to build around and expand on existing properties?
    You need to consider the unique affordances and more importantly limitations of each individual platform as you are extending your property across mediums. If you’re telling a story in a lot of different platforms, you should be putting something unique and plausible in each place. If it doesn’t make sense, and if it doesn’t add something distinctive, why is it there? So, for instance, mobile devices provide anytime, anywhere accessibility. On the other hand, they have small screens and smaller keys and if you’ve got young readers and writers in your audience this needs to be a serious consideration.
  • How does multi-platform content affect education?
    In terms of formal education, a teacher may have a better chance of bringing a property into the classroom if it is available in multiple forms – especially if some of that content is freely and openly available. In general, multiplatform content can increase opportunities for learning by:

– Meeting different learning styles and needs

– Expanding children’s knowledge networks outside of their immediate community

– Motivating learners

– Enabling participation in media construction

– Encouraging deep investigation of narrative structure as well as story content

– Bridging the gap between school and the other sectors of a child’s life

As Cooney Center’s resident transmedia expert Becky reminded me, it’s important to remember that if a property is too all-encompassing, it can have the unintended negative effect of restricting kids’ play and talk about the stories, ideas, characters, etc. There need to be holes for kids to fill in their own ways.

Hopefully this helps (at least a little) in de-buzzifying the industry buzz word of the moment. Overall, the panel agreed that transmedia has been around since long before the hype, citing examples like Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Pokemon. Developers shouldn’t let a big word stand in the way of expanding their property and allowing kids to partake in its creation. It’s an exciting time, with all of these new platforms that can help enable this expansion and participation — just remember that you don’t need to be everywhere, and if it feels like a stretch it probably is.

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