A Literacy of the Imagination

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On Storytelling & The Challenges of Multi-Platform Media, Part 2 #transmedia #crossmedia #media

Part 1 covered off on a somewhat crude but personalized timeline of events surrounding the evolution of multi-platform storytelling. There are many examples I didn't include, but I wanted to give folks a reference set for understanding the "macro challenges" of what it means to be a storyteller in a wildly unpredictable and fairly hegemonic Internet economy.

Further to that, my intention is not to scare anyone, or deter them from taking on or developing new projects, but to help people see:

- The importance of building storytelling vehicles as real products that can be modularized, monetized and scaled;

- The importance of socializing the associative models within communities and peer groups;

- The importance of taking those learnings and packaging them up as potential use cases for regulators and legislators who ultimately determine the fate of our media ecosystem(s) as a whole.

In short, storytelling these days requires us to connect dots and to "feed the dots", as it were. It's not always fun, it's never easy, but it's a creative responsibility we must take on, that is, if we want to keep building markets for our ideas, now and into the future.

 

On Storytelling & The Challenges of Multi-Platform Media, Part 2 #transmedia #crossmedia #media

We're all digital consumers, but are we really prepared to become multi-platform content creators?

 

It's All In a Conversation...

Someone called me recently to ask if I would be interested in helping his company develop an "independent transmedia franchise platform" out of a series of book properties it had just purchased. The company had allegedly built a core technology to distribute the material, and intended to "strong-arm" the studios and networks into specific channel deals based on the distribution footprint.

I said sure, why not, but threw out the caveat that I needed to ask him a few questions first. He agreed. So, to my own detriment I suppose, I immediately "led the witness":

Me: "What's your definition of 'transmedia'?"

Him: "Excuse me?"

Me: "What's your definition of 'transmedia'?"

Him: (chuckles, then) "I'm not sure I understand the question."

Me: "Um, ok, what's your definition of a franchise?"

Him: (chuckles again) "Are you serious?"

Me: "Ok, lemme ask you this -- do you have a distribution and revenue model in mind?"

Him: (laughs, then) "That's why I'm calling you, dude!"

Me: "And I really appreciate that. Really, I do. But you haven't given me a definition of transmedia, or a definition for a franchise, and I need to set expectations here."

Him: "Is this a creative issue? Do you not have the right people?

Me: "No, that's not it..."

Him: "Well, I don't want to hire (so-and-so) or (so-and-so). I need someone who isn't gonna sell me a bunch of black magic or charge me a shit-ton of money to produce storyworld elements, or an automation system to distribute stories. I need scale."

Me: "Actually, it sounds like you need an audience..."

Him: "The books have an audience. A pretty big one."

Me: "No, the books have readers. We would need to build the audience and maintain it. One does not necessarily facilitate the other."

Him: (clears his throat) "Ok sure, fine, but I need scale. The investors were sold a transmedia platform, a franchise platform with multiple revenue streams."

Me: "I get it. Believe me, I get it loud and clear..."

Him: "So can you do the work?"

Me: "I'm not worried about getting the creative work done. I know lots of people who can do that -- people a lot better at it than me, quite frankly -- but I need to have some idea of what we're trying to build here, you know, as a business."

Him: "We have a business plan..."

Me: "Sounds to me like it's more of an idea than a business plan."

Him: (suspiciously) "Really..."

Me: "Yeah, we would need to create a framework. A real distribution model and a real revenue model, before we hire a single writer, designer, programmer or director. Have you considered how you're going to license these properties? Established terms for use? Creative commons considerations ala 'freemium to premium' or something like that?"

Him: "Sort of."

Me: "Then we'll have to look at various licensing models and strategic partnerships. We'll need to know what's in front of us, you know, obstacles and opportunities. We'll need to make deals with both publishers and distributors, as well as with open communities, even if we create our own content because we want people to distribute some of it themselves -- the question is what part of it. "

[pregnant pause; shuffling in the background]

Me: "Look, I don't sell transmedia. I can't. I shouldn't. I help build platforms that hopefully make money, and I can measure success with unique tools in my arsenal, and I can continue to do so over time. Isn't that what you want?"

[another pregnant pause]

Him: "I'll call you next week."

I never heard back from this gentleman again. By the way, I've had more than a few conversations in recent months that transpired just like this one, with a couple that have taken more positive turns.

Creating Accessible Standards For Growth

Here's the bigger rub.

We've had an opportunity -- a good number of us in the creative community -- to define what transmedia or crossmedia or multi-platform storytelling is and, for whatever reason, we haven't been able to do it very well.

Sure, people have overlapping definitions, and use cases, but there aren't many scalable revenue models from which to borrow or leverage. There is very little to be deemed as "industry standard". Just like, for the most part, they're aren't many in social media. Just like we didn't define what video or DVD distribution should have been when they came out.

Enter DRM, IP management, piracy, privacy, astroturfing, franchise licensing and the like, and we have an overwhelming smorgasbord of issues that just won't allow is to tell stories the way we think we might want to.

Maybe certain standards can't be put in place. But, if we look at a storytelling platform by the channels in which it is comprised, we probably can. And there are models that do exist for channel-specific distribution, mostly those which are "proprietary". I've developed some of my own through various engagements and won't be sharing them here as I'm not at liberty to do so, and because I share a lot already as it is (probably too much at times ;)

That said, I don't mean to come off as hypocritical; what I'm saying is that we don't necessarily have to dive into core methodologies -- that is something which makes us as individual entities competitive (in a good way), and something through which we can create value and markey viability -- but we do need to share as many use cases as we can so as to provide context. The context piece is what we can all collaborate on to empower the market as a whole.

More important, when we don't develop standards for growth, experiments or not, we lose out to the gatekeepers -- media brokers, lobbyists, legislators and other private and special interest groups, you know Old Media, that don't want us to break out of our little creator and consumption boxes.

But, again, there is hope in building a sustainable marketplace. I think.

The Go-Forward Considerations (And a Friendly Tip)...

Right here in Los Angeles, in my own backyard, Google and Facebook are moving into bigger, hipper, bolder offices.

Why? They're taking over where studios, TV networks and banks refuse to go, or anywhere they can't go. Internet companies, along with Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach (a funny new label for the west side of LA), are getting deeper and deeper into the distribution business.

Twitter, in my honest opinion, is probably threading this needle in the most innovative of ways. Its foray into the broadcast space has a lot of promise, and the platform is already attracting strategic partners from the highest ranks of media, as well as content creators who have made a name for themselves cutting through the clutter of crap on offer in most social media channels (like YouTube).

Whether these folks are proven multi-platform storytellers is not the point; they are looking to reinvent what does work out of the more established Old Media and branded content models, and hope to lay the groundwork for where New Media can play a more definitive role.

What's Twitter really doing? It's looking at audience development in an entirely new way. Google is approaching it from a different angle, which is the premium channel route, and, through its robust suite of utilities which are now integrated into G+. Facebook is betting on distribution ubiquity by empowering folks to use Timeline as a storytelling and curation tool, and by leveraging its new array of mobile platforms. Yahoo! is making a run as a premium publisher, and is looking to leverage its communities of users to do it. AOL is using the HuffPo relationship to feed its content syndication model that hopes to stretch across a variety of New Media. Bing is making a stronger play in location-based services, which includes the development Microsoft has undertaken to allow people to connect through stronger social media interactions and various forms of interactive storytelling, particularly through its gaming platforms.

Harking back to the early days of the 'net, these companies are coming around, full circle.

But Internet companies, as much as they like to portend that they are actually media companies of one sort or another, are not storytellers. Most of them (not all) don't really understand multi-screen audiences. They're just now learning how to build real fan bases, and not like studios or TV networks or brands do when they do things right (which is, of course, a tragic irony in all of this).

In short, Silicon Valley will not solve our storytelling problem. Not by itself, at least.

Don't get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for these companies. I really do.

But they're not looking out for the media ecosystem itself -- they're not really democratizing production along the web, and they're not doing it just for creators or consumers, as much as they like to say they are. The reasons for this are far more complicated than the viewpoint presented here, but let's just say that they can't -- some are public companies tied to inextensible ad models and quarterly earnings reports and investors who only care about the bottom line... And putting ideaology aside, I suppose we can't blame them.

And guess what else?

These same companies are becoming the banks of the future. They've got way more cash on the books than any of the retail institutions (probably combined), as well as alternative currency and transactional systems, and they have the distribution pipelines to boot -- you know, captive users.

In addition to taking on the disposition of banks, if they look like studios or networks, and they operate like studios or networks, then they probably are studios or networks.

If this is the case, can they also fight or continue to support our battles around an open Internet? Do they even want to? Studios want to do the oppposite, and to date, have poured millions into lobbying for paywalls and encryption technologies to charge consumers for content at every turn...

... And so a sobering reality remains...

...The media world is still based on scarcity. Investment is scarcity-led. The Internet doesn't really operate on scarcity, but unless you are an Apple, an Amazon or a Netflix, you're either in the content distribution business, the device manufacturing business, or the audience building business, and no one has figured out the latter. (Hint: It won't be done through a single algorithm either...)

Not yet at least.

A piece of advice to all you storytellers out there: Learn how to build, cultivate and maintain audiences. Develop a model for it. Or five of them. But do it, and do it fast. Knowing how to spread stories is one thing (and a very prized skill), but knowing how to keep audiences satiated and "engaged" is the holy grail of our media existence.

With all that said, I am still a firm believer in good storytelling (that can mean a lot of things, but still...).

So I'll remain a storyteller, and as a technologist, I'm placing my bets in other areas: Solving the legislative problems we have, the distribution challenges we face, the Big Data opportunities we have, and the economic barriers that keep us from being creatively free.

Think about how this relates to you, and the role in which you're comfortable playing. Think of this guy, if you need a dose of inspiration:

 

On Storytelling & The Challenges of Multi-Platform Media, Part 2 #transmedia #crossmedia #media

Hopefully, one day soon, transmedia or crossmedia or multi-platform storytelling will just be storytelling that can be enjoyed and shared by all.

And we will get there, sooner rather than later. Believe me, we will.