Niche or Mass Entertainment?
I get on a fair number of airplanes. (I hate it. Carbon footprint the size of Rhode Island, and growing.) Most of the time, we all observe the etiquette of plane flight, which is that each person is enclosed in their own private bubble of space, and the only interaction between me and my seatmates usually involves guerrilla warfare over who get s the armrest. (Person in the middle. Hands down. Just my opinion.) Occasionally someone will engage me in conversation, and what they usually do is ask me, ‘What do you do?’
If ARGs/transmedia entertainment/whatever-we-are-calling-ourselves-today was a mass entertainment, I could just say, I write for transmedia. As it is, my family isn’t even really sure what I do. On airplanes I usually default to ‘marketing.’ Because given the way the work I do is funded, it’s mostly true.
But we have not broken out in a visible way to people. We haven’t had our Birth of a Nation. Our hit single. We’re not even yet ‘that things that kids do that I don’t understand’ which was what video games were for a long time. The question is, will we ever be?
I believe that an artform will arise out of the characteristics of the internet. I would like to be working on that artform. I just don’t know if I am.
What do I consider the characteristics of the internet? At least for art?
• Self publication.
• Plasticity of platform.
• Technology linked to person, not location.
This is part of the larger parlor game going on in the community about what transmedia is. There are currently a couple of different flavors of people describing themselves as producing transmedia, and I’m pretty sure that for an outsider, the distinction between them is pretty thin. In Hollywood, it seems to primarily mean that a property (usually a franchise like, say, Spiderman) is transmedia if it has a movie, some comic books, and maybe a novel or a comic strip. That is, if it has stories that are part of the franchise on several different platforms.
I don’t deny that managing a project like that is complex. I’ve never seen the Star Wars bible, the massive collection of documents that tracks continuity, but I know two people who’ve written Star Wars tie in novels and they have mentioned that it is vast. I’ve worked off of a couple of property bibles myself, and let me tell you, it’s mind boggling, even when the property hasn’t got the sheer quantity of material in the public eye that the Star Wars franchise has.
But it’s not what I do. It’s weird for me to have people describe that activity, which is essentially a kind of document control system for managing information, as the same thing that I do. For one thing, it’s not as if what I do hasn’t been around for while. I started following this field in 2001, and started working in it in 2003. But by that definition, transmedia has been around forever. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a transmedia project. There was the novel. And there were stage plays. And there were paintings, staged photographs, and illustrated versions for children. You could argue that they were less controlled than franchises today, but I would point you towards fan fiction: George Lucas may not recognize Luke Skywalker/Hans Solo slash fiction as part of the franchise, but for a subset of fans, it is not only part, it is the most important part.
This model of transmedia doesn’t recognize interactivity. Interactivity is most realized as a form of entertainment in video games. A movie isn’t interactive. A print publication isn’t interactive. Interactivity is not unique to the computer—improvisational theater, jazz, even the call and response of certain kinds of church services are interactive. But the interactivity of the kind of transmedia I do is simultaneously private and public. Private, because it is in my email box, or on my phone, talking directly to me, engaging me as a character in the fiction. Public because I or anyone else who received it can record that phone call, or copy that email, and share it with a million other people online.
That weird negotiation between public and private is the art space, the place of exploration in transmedia today. What does the audience want? Some of them seem to want the community engagement of a vast story that no one person can completely experience on their own. But for others that community is forbidding, and they want a private, single person experience. Watching videos on Youtube of people interacting with an experience like 4th Wall Studio’s Eagle Eye Free Fall, it’s clear that there is a level of fascination and of discomfort evidenced by the nervous giggle. Is that because of the sheer novelty of the experience? Will that go away as people become more familiar with the form? Or does a transmedia experience need the kind of careful, mediating rules of a video game interaction, where the interaction often consists of shooting others in a arena of rules embedded in the game engine and quickly discernible by trial and error?
In the face of that, the idea that a Star Trek tie-in novelization by James Blish published nearly forty years ago is transmedia strikes me as missing a very big point about what is growing out of new technologies. We are on the verge of new ways to tell stories, and to make art.
So are we a niche, like, say live bluegrass? It’s pretty clear that if no one on an airplane ever has a clue when they ask me what I do for a living, we’re niche. The next question is, how come? We give entertainment away for free. The answer could well be that like some things—live bluegrass performances, for example—we aren’t just that intrinsically interesting at this cultural moment. The things we create have some of the same cultural characteristics as live bluegrass performance. The people who like what we do are often intensely passionate about it. A significant, if small percentage of our audience has moved into creating and producing transmedia themselves, either as amateurs or professionals.
For that matter we could be ahead of our time. We could be figuratively making nickolodean shows (the ones that showed short films for a nickel , not the kid’s TV network) while dreaming of making feature length movies. In many ways the technology doesn’t quite support us yet. The holy grail is to make entertainment that feels immersive and somewhat ‘real’. For that to happen, the interactions have to feel real. The problem is automating interactions in a way that feels real. Video games automate interactions. You ‘shoot’ someone/something and it falls down. (Or explodes or disappears in a glow or whatever.) Even simpler, in Farmville, you click on a cartoon tree full of mangoes and the mangoes disappear and you are informed that the tree has been ‘harvested’ and you’ve earned x number of coins.
The model for transmedia though is the model of photography or movies. The ideal is that you call a character and have a meaningful interaction. The technology for this is called phone parsing, and it is still problematic, as anyone who has ever stood in an airport, called an airline, and gotten a phone tree understands. (“Representative!” you say into the phone. “I’m sorry,” responds the cool even-tempered female voice, “I didn’t get that. Would you like to make a reservation, change an existing reservation, check your frequent flyer miles, or speak to a representative?”)
Email parsing is not much better. One solution is to use actors or have someone manually respond to emails. But that’s a niche response. It falls apart as soon as the experience begins to attract more audience or, in the vernacular of the industry, ‘scale up.’
So we do other things. We have the players call a number, get a password from a voice mail, and then enter the password into a website. It’s an interaction. But it’s not necessarily an intuitive reaction. When I’m on a website and there’s a phone number, my instinct is not to call it. My instinct is to avoid it. I go to lots of websites with contact information on them and I rarely call them because people I don’t know answer. And unless I have a reason to call other than ‘I wonder what happens if I call this number?’ they tend to feel put out. (Unless they work for Zappos, but that’s another story.) Even though I know that the International Mime Academy website is fictional, I worry about the 867-5309 effect, whereby someone makes up a number and the people who have that number then live lives of hell. I once had a phone number one number off from someone (I believe) from the Middle East. I don’t know for certain, because I didn’t speak their language and most of their callers didn’t speak mine. But they apparently got a lot of calls because enough of them misdialed that I got some of them.
Transmedia is currently mostly an entertainment that requires the audience to push through it. You can’t get passively hooked on a transmedia entertainment. You can’t even do that thing that happens in video games where you’re just going to get the next health power up and then quit. The experience offers you lots of places where you don’t really know what to do next and it’s easy to quit. Until transmedia entertainments not only interact with the audience in a compelling way that doesn’t make them giggle nervously, wondering what they’re supposed to say, but pulls them from platform to platform, it’s always going to remain a niche experience.
Technology is changing. Language parsing is getting better. Technology is allowing ever more creative ways to pull through experiences. In the 18 to 34 demo, an inordinate number of North Americans watch TV with a laptop or a Smartphone there so they can text or surf while they watch. It doesn’t seem to farfetched to use a television platform as a pull to keep an audience engaged while they branch out through emails and websites to experience a more complex and complete and interactive story. Nor does it seem too far in the future when software will exist to integrate multiple experiences seamlessly so that the audience doesn’t have to go to the website, the experience takes them there. In fact some of it’s here now.
I think that transmedia—multiplatform, interactive, person (rather than location) based—entertainment is ripe for it’s Birth of a Nation. I’d really like to write it. But it’s going to need three things:
• Technology that may or may not be enough
• Compelling entertainment through story or experience
• A lot of money.
The last one is really in many ways the big one. I’m going back to the nickelodeon now and work on what I can. But I’m going to keep dreaming about the big one.
Tags: ARG, mass entertainment, niche, transmedia