A Literacy of the Imagination

a deeper look at innovation through the lenses of media, technology, venture investment and hyperculture

Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing

Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing
[“Unification”: My first drawing using the Adobe app on the iPad; could be Pegasus, could be Icarus, could be something else... Or it could become a part of a larger narrative...]

Something Big To Celebrate

The announcement this week that the Producers Guild of America has officially created a new category for the “transmedia producer” is a huge step not only for content creation, but for media as a practice. Kudos to Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment for leading the charge. As stated in the new by-laws:

A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.

A Transmedia Producer credit is given to the person(s) responsible for a significant portion of a project’s long-term planning, development, production, and/or maintenance of narrative continuity across multiple platforms, and creation of original storylines for new platforms. Transmedia producers also create and implement interactive endeavors to unite the audience of the property with the canonical narrative and this element should be considered as valid qualification for credit as long as they are related directly to the narrative presentation of a project.

Agencies, studios and media companies of all types will either suffer under their continued “gatekeeping” practices, or they can rejoice over the plethora of new opportunities they now have to connect with audiences of all types.

Planning & Development

From an experience planning perspective, I can tell you that this is a watershed moment for many us, especially as the struggle to get clients and other agency folk to overcome their perceptions of what cross-media storytelling can really entail or mean, let alone, what “integrated” can entail or mean, builds to a head.

As Seth Godin remarked upon in his book Linchpin, we’re no longer in the business of just pushing widgets down the assembly line. Further, and in the more immediate term, the idea isn’t so much to sell more stuff, but to sell more, or better yet, share more, of the right stuff at the right time. If we were to break this down to the most rudimentary level, perhaps this is what the difference between “integrated” and “transmedia” might look like:

Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing
I’ve used the terms “campaign” and “promotion” to prove a point: we don’t have to divorce ourselves from the functions of media, we just have to change the functions of what media can mean to us (you know, in a collective sense). You’ll also notice that “narrative” has replaced “channel”; we want to get comfortable with the idea that narrative is the thread that not only binds, but is what culturally disrupts and ultimately affects real change in the real world.

Having been entrenched in the agency world for some time now, I still believe that brands, and their legacy powers, are the primary conduits of change. But all the respective agency groups – client services, creative, delivery, media, what have you – need to take a harder look at themselves and ask themselves why they exist, because all this jockeying for control isn’t changing the output of the work for the better. Put it this way: if we’re not challenged, and we’re not curious, then what’s the point?

Some Personal History: Juxtaposing Themes & Objects

My own affinity for transmedia is borne more out of being a media misfit than someone who has actually spearheaded a bunch of so-called “transmedia” initiatives (although, arguably, a few of them have been, or at least had the potential to be of that designation...). Truth is, I’ve conceived, strategized, written, produced and sometimes directed for just about every medium you could think of: broadcast, print, film, IPTV, interactive, gaming and mobile — among others - and have even architected software. Whether this makes me more knowledgable or just more confused is also subject to debate, but I will say that I find great solace in knowing that I no longer have to specialize in one “discipline” versus another.

In looking at the body of work I’ve created or co-created over the years, it was interesting (well, at least it was to me), to see exactly where media stifled the storytelling effort, or, how platform could have enabled the expansion of a theme, and ad-like object or an idea.

Here is a piece I wrote and co-produced years ago for PS2 that ended up being the opening sequence of the gaming console.


A few years later, my partners at the time at TRÜF and I created this viral as an exploration of the cultural impact gaming has on our normative views of war (this viral was part of series we did that exposed several cultural mores as well as our fascination with normative language systems and naming conventions).

<p>TRÜF - "Joystick" :30 from Gunther Sonnenfeld on Vimeo.</p>

Here is another piece I co-created a while back that examined running as a definition of the human condition...

... And running as a means of expressing relationship dynamics (as seen through the lens or alongside of the product itself).

You may not find the content itself all that compelling, but the larger point is what these content pieces can mean, potentially, in the larger context of the narrative and the world (or a world that one might know very well). Platforms as we know them now can give us an ability to explore further, to dig deeper, to juxtapose, entertain and recontextualize. And where narrative was previously dependent on a specific execution or series of executions, we can now use networks and utilities to make these media forms into something greater than themselves, and us – the people creating or curating them.

Again, the pieces you see here, regardless of their perceived quality or singular impact, are just that: parts of a much bigger story than can unfold just about anywhere and in very unexpected ways. And where transmedia as a practice can specifically take them is into the realm of new possibility.

The Evolution of Platform

Another retrospective curiosity I’ve had was the relationship between platform and publishing, particularly as social networks have evolved. Scion bB (broadband) was among the first web utilities developed as an “branded online programming” platform. We would literally curate content, editorialize it for specific community groups, and create programming schedules tailored to specific segments based on desired or shared interests. We didn’t quite have the broadband audience we wanted at the time, but the initiative did show us that we needed more than just a core, “built-in” audience to extend these narratives out into the world, or extract them from culture-at-large in more meaningful ways.

Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing
Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing

Several years later at TRÜF, we created another content portal for Explore, a special project of the Annenberg Foundation that endeavored to enlist multimedia participation from people and cultures all over the globe. The insight we took from this was that too open of a framework would never lend well to the sustainability of content, and that, in a true transmedia sense, we would have benefitted from the ability to adapt to, editorialize and procure new forms of media selectively chosen by these communities, and selectively extended by us as the marketing agents and content curators.

Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing

Perhaps the most “transmedia-esque” effort that I've been involved with to date never actually got off the ground. This was another initiative we developed along with our friends at Memelabs with the non-profit activist group, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The main thrust of this platform was to allow community groups to build the narrative with us and then turn those narrative pieces into specific media, whether that would be a documentary, a web series, interactive DVDs, mobisodes, or perhaps all four.

Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing


Since then, I’ve been involved in AR (augmented reality) and ARG (alternate reality games) work that certainly explored transmedia storytelling in exciting and unique ways. Participatory culture, for one, is evolving at a steady clip, and we’ve even been able to develop learning systems that can seamlessly integrate with popular and emerging entertainment properties. Going forward, the difference will clearly lie in how media entities transition to, or are willing to move along with, market shifts and cultural phenomena. We must also embrace the idea that consumer segmentation and analytics are less predictive and more adaptive in nature.

The Dynamics of (New) Publishing

My friend and colleague, Jon Samsel, regaled me with tales from the early days of dynamic publishing. He worked on a number of innovative platforms that would advance personalized authorship well before we had PDAs.  As Jon tells it:

 "One was a very unique interactive PDF, one of the firsts if its kind called The Killer Content Workbook, that I wrote and produced. It contained audio, video, links and an embedded data field that could store user input very unique for its day. At the time, I was an Apple consultant working for Dana De Puy Morgan. We knew it would change the game. We just didn't know to what extent."

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: devices such as tablets – Slate, iPad, what have you – are far less about their functions than about what they represent within the storytelling paradigm. Media and technology have already embarked on a more formal convergence. But now we have an opportunity to literally redefine ourselves, our intentions and recontextualize history in powerful new ways. We will look at advertising differently. We will consume media differently. We will share differently. And all of this will shine through in the discourse of storytelling, because now, the line between publisher and producer has been blurred and their associations have been synthesized.

Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing
[Source: Carlos Alberto Scolari; Transmedia Storytelling: Implicit Behaviors, Narrative Worlds, and Branding in Contemporary Media Production; University of Vic Catalunya, Spain]

Semiotics or metasemiotics are a natural instigator of our sensoral cognition — we have new freedom to investigate the pathways of self-expression, as well as the ability to defer to collective intelligence (the power of our networks) to formulate a perspective around the things we wish to talk about, engage with and/or create.

Of course, this does not come without a price. Sometimes our pursuit of transparency and truth can expose some things we may not want to face, see or hear about. But that is a smaller price to pay when we consider the hoodwinking we’ve perpetuated through our media self-interests. Nothing good, as we know innately, comes without a price. And there is no better example of this than the transgressions we’ve witnessed in the world of investigative journalism.

Transmedia, Content Convergence & Publishing
There is no lack of content or access to it. However, we’ve become desensitized to the very things that make us tick, our hearts beat and our minds melt. We must never lose sight of the pursuit of common truths, nor should we take its meaning for granted. There will always be another question to every answer, but it’s our curiosity that will provide us with the meaning we so desperately seek. As media people, we often take this for granted, forgetting that the tools we use and the ideas we proliferate are not actually our own, but the intelligible actions of our collective imagination.

A Few Simple Takeaways (For the Taking)

A new friend and mentor of mine, Peter Kreitler, has postulated that we will know in the next three years (yes, three) if we will make it as a civilization. This doesn’t mean that the world will end within our lifetime, but it could mean that the end is only a few hundred years away. Peter has spent the last 40+ years as a minister of faith and a devout environmentalist and an author of several books on human relationships, so I value his perspective.

Bottom line, we’ve got a lot of work to do in the way of creation and curation in order to right the ills we’ve generated.

  • We need to change behavior, not just drive it.
  • We need to help create meaning whenever, wherever and however we can.
  • We need to be our word, specifically through meaningful action.


What do you think?

The next step in the narrative of life is completely up to us ;)