Transmedia: New Platforms [October 11-15, 2010]

Avi Santo's picture

Monday October 11, 2010 – Janet Murray (Georgia Tech) presents: Inventing New Conventions for Digital Storytelling

Tuesday October 12, 2010 – Henry Jenkins (University of Southern California) presents: Harry Shum Jr: Dancing With and Without Glee

Wednesday October 13, 2010 – Chuck Tryon (Fayetteville State University) presents: Learning from The Elders: Crowdfunding, Transmedia, and Documentary

Thursday October 14, 2010 – Christina Dunbar-Hester (Rutgers) presents: Oral Wiki project

Friday October 15, 2010 – Jeff Watson (University of Southern California) presents: Games of Nonchalance


Theme week organized by Elizabeth Strickler (Georgia State University)

Picture from Games of Nonchalance

  • Inventing New Conventions for … by Janet H. Murray

  • First of all I have to pick a little quarrel with Henry Jenkins’ very useful formulation of “transmedia” storytelling to describe phenomena like The Matrix and Lost. I would argue that this temporary phenomenon of “transmedia” activity, however useful to today’s industry merchandisers, is actually a transitional phase of a long-term development of new story-telling forms within the Digital Medium.  The ingenuity and energy behind transmedia activity emanates from the  affordances and interaction patterns of digital environments, like social networking, search engines, GPS-mapping,  and multiplayer gaming. Transmedia is of interest to me only when it offers a model for new ways of structuring narrative worlds and channeling narrative curiosity.

    At Georgia Tech I direct an Experimental Television Laboratory (  within the Graduate Program in Digital Media ( ). We make prototypes based on actual television content to explore design conventions for emerging narrative genres. This clip shows a “transmedia” prototype we made in conjunction with the Cartoon Network and the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Lab in 2007. It assumes that Ben 10 cartoons are being provided by a broadband feed for viewers watching on a Playstation. The challenge was to create a game that would reinforce immersion in the imaginary world rather than distract from it. Instead of making a side-by-side activity to distract from the viewing experience, we came up with an interaction pattern that worked for story exploration as well as gaming, and we illustrated how it would work using both Ben 10 and Lost.

    Objects appear at the top of the screen signaling that there is a matching hot spot within the image. The viewer targets the hot spot with the game controller to capture the object and add it to a collection. The captured objects reinforce the imaginary reality of the depicted world, bringing with them attributes related to the story: the strength of the cartoon hero for use in a related mobile game; or the content of a document waved by a character in a dramatic series.  The captured items could also connect viewers to play against one another or to share information to decipher the secrets of a mysterious fictional island.

    Other applications that we have developed use smartphones or the iPad in conjunction with the television to follow intersecting and multi-variant stories without confusion  ( ) . But though our applications might be called “transmedia,” we see no particular virtue in combining transmission formats. Instead, we are focused on enhancing the coherence and complexity of stories by exploiting the affordances of what we think of as a single digital medium into which all of these older representational forms are rapidly converging.  

    Ben 10 copyrighted by Cartoon Network; Lost copyrighted by ABC.

  • Harry Shum Jr: Dancing With and … by Henry Jenkins

  • Transmedia Narrative is simply the most high-profile of a series of different transmedia logics shaping convergence culture. Today, I want to focus on another transmedia logic — performance. I’ve chosen as a case in point Harry Shum Jr., perhaps best known as the “other Asian” on Glee.  Several critics have noted Shum’s status as an eternal extra and what this says about racial politics surrounding television’s treatment of Asian-Americans. Even one Facebook fan page for the character calls him simply “the Other Asian.”

    By contrast, Shum plays a central role in The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD), now finishing up its first season as a direct to Hulu video series, designed to showcase spectacular urban dance performances. Shum was allowed to essentially solo episode 8, “Elliott’s Shoes”  in a performance which echoes back to Jim Carry’s rubbery movements in The Mask. Check it out, since Hulu doesn’t allow us to embed clips.

    Shum is never given a chance to dance like that on Glee! There, the camera placements and choreography subdue his performance to make his co-stars shine. Yet, after seeing him in LXD, his efforts become much more visible when I watch Glee. His Showreal, shared here, suggests how often Shum has appeared in shadow (as in his appearances for iPod) or in the edges of frames (as in countless music videos), while LXD finally allows him to take center stage.

    Prior to the series launch, the LXD dancers were featured on the Oscar telecast (which was produced by Adam Shankman) and on So You Think You Can Dance, which features Shankman as a judge. Shankman in turn was the executive producer for Step Up 3D, which also featured Shum and was directed by Jon Cho, who is the executive producer of LXD. Step Up, which was released near the end of LXD’s first season, also features Twitch and Little C’, two other veterans from Dance, while Little C appears in a cameo role in LXD. And the LXD dancers opened for Glee’s summer road show (where Shum was given his own spotlight moment). Will his character get more screen presence on Glee this season? As the magic black ball hints, “Signs Point to Yes.”

    What seperates these transmedia performances from more conventional strategies of star development may be the intense coordination across these various properties which are clearly designed to move attention from one media platform and one text to the other. I would love to hear of other examples of how transmedia performance is operating today.

  • Learning from The Elders: … by Chuck Tryon

  • Nathaniel Hansen’s documentary project, The Elders, plays like a more poignant counterpoint to David Lynch’s web series,The Interview Project.  On his Vimeo page, Hansen reports that he has conducted twenty interviews with elderly people from across the United States, many of which he has posted online.  The subjects, like Louise, profiled in the teaser trailer, are all natural storytellers, relating small slices of their daily lives.  It’s the kind of project that can, in the best circumstances, serve as a kind of oral history of the labor and leisure activities of an earlier generation of people.

    Hansen’s project might have remained unknown to me if it was not for the pitch he posted on the website, Kickstarter, where he went to raise funds for the film.  Like many other independent filmmakers, Hansen faces the challenge of finding an audience—and financial support—in an increasingly crowded audiovisual culture, in which thousands of films are submitted to festivals such as Sundance and South by Southwest annually.  Kickstarter, like other similar websites, including OpenIndie, invites people to post a pitch video on their website asking for funding.  Donors can receive rewards, whether a DVD of the film or a special thanks credit, and if the filmmakers do not reach their fundraising goals, the donation is refunded.

    Hansen’s pitch illustrates many of the formal properties of a typical Kickstarter pitch.  It consists of Hansen directly addressing the camera while describing his personal investment in the project and his plans for The Elders, which include both film festival and museum screenings.  Although Hansen’s project was funded, many filmmakers are not as fortunate, but I think the success of Hansen’s pitch may tell us a little about how crowdfunding as a practice will be incorporated into new models of independent production.   First, although crowdfunding pitches have often been criticizing for turning filmmakers into self-marketers, Hansen’s project illustrates how these appeals can be seamlessly integrated into the broader storyworld of the film, whether a documentary or a narrative feature.  Many of the principles that have typically been associated with transmedia franchises function equally well in the independent and documentary realm. Further, as Hansen notes, the pitch’s use of direct address, almost invariably from the director, seems to suggest that donors are typically investing in the filmmaker as much as they are in any individual project.  Finally, crowdfunding can potentially be valuable for documentary filmmakers in particular, given that donors may be willing to support a film that engages with a cause they support. Thus, although crowdfunding does not eliminate the power of the marketplace in determining which films will get funded, it is an important site for defining how “independence” circulates after the collapse of the Hollywood indie film.

  • Oral Wiki project by Christina Dunbar-Hester

  • “If you never leave your village you think your ideas are the best ones.”

    -Anonymous abunzi, Kirehe District, Rwanda 

    For my entry, I highlight the Oral Wiki project by software developer Cindy Jeffers.  Using an expansive definition of transmedia as differing forms of meaning-making interacting or converging, I choose a site far afield from popular culture or even a saturated media environment.  In her project, Jeffers asks how new media and information technologies can support and strengthen communities through generating new means for shared meaning-making. 

    Jeffers focuses on oral societies’ mechanisms for social maintenance and mediation, especially dispute remediation and informal justice systems.  This project has been designed for Rwanda, a “post-conflict” site where a non-state forum for reconciliation is especially valued because formal judicial systems are seen to engender animosity.  Jeffers first set out to understand traditional means for informal adjudication of civil disagreements, 80% of which center around land disputes.  Abunzi are the go-to figures in Rwandan society who adjudicate between claimants, handling 70% of civil cases.  Operating at the village level, with limited access to information regarding laws, the abunzi instead rely upon the aggregate knowledge they have gained from hearing a variety of cases and conferring with abunzi in nearby towns.  Abunzi Jeffers met with expressed a need for a means by which to discuss best practice.

    The Oral Wiki project acknowledges the sociotechnical factors that afford and constrain intervention and attempts to account for them in its design.  These factors include state infrastructural investment that lags behind community needs, minimal access to the Internet (3%), and an uneven distribution of literacy among both the populace and abunzi (65% overall).  Thus, the Oral Wiki project seeks to support and extend the informal justice system now in place, using telephones as the interface for a system for knowledge aggregation and sharing.  This system would grant abunzi, ordinary citizens, and government officials access to an archive of case decisions; the archive would also support peer moderation (abunzi and citizens listening to and ranking others’ decisions), sharing of best practices, and tagging and categorizing archive entries.  Jeffers hopes the Oral Wiki will facilitate sharing between people working in the informal justice system, which will in turn generate a more efficient and transparent informal justice system.  It is deliberately designed to be a lightweight “bridging” infrastructure for consensus and reconciliation, likely with only temporary utility. 

    We might wonder about the consequences for distributing a system for mediation across platforms and geography.  Whose participation and empowerment is supported?  Madeleine Akrich suggests that networked technologies may play a role in creating the modern entity of the citizen through enrolling people into relationships with the state.  At the same time, the Oral Wiki may enhance the durability of shared meaning-making between neighbors.

    To experience the Oral Wiki, call the prototype at 646-833-0710.

  • The Games of Nonchalance by Jeff Watson

  • This video is a trailer for “The Games of Nonchalance,” a four-part transmedia experience “woven into the fabric of San Francisco.” Participation in “The Games of Nonchalance” begins with the discovery of one of the project’s many “rabbit holes,” some of which can be found online (such as at the mysterious Jejune Institute’s website), and some of which are physically embedded in the Bay Area (such as posters pasted to telephone poles, performers appearing at live events, player-created get-togethers, low-power FM radio signals, and even “hobo coins” distributed in the local economy). Once a prospective player has tumbled into one of these rabbit holes, they quickly discover a rich story world that quite literally makes a theme park out of the city, layering story and interaction across living, breathing urban space-time. Readers who are interested in a more complete description of the experience can find one here, or can read my interview with the group’s founder, Jeff Hull.

    “The Games of Nonchalance” testifies to the notion of transmedia as a flexible praxis that can function across a wide range of techno-social contexts. Put differently, transmedia’s true referent is not a constellation of convergent technologies, but rather a mindset put into practice. The platform for Nonchalance is the world in general, and the city of San Francisco in particular. Within these broad constraints, anything capable of carrying story and/or facilitating participation and performance is fair game. Narrative figures emerge through the aggregate effect of the creators’ exploitation of the affordances of many different media forms, old and new. Immersion in this sense is a tangible reality — that is, since elements of the story-world could appear in just about any context at any time, the player’s experience is one of being surrounded. This contrasts sharply with more literal-minded “immersive technologies” that operate in tightly constrained (usually screen-based) contexts and appeal to a narrow slice of their players’ sensoria.

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 11 Oct 2010 04:04:42 +0000