And the Winner for Best Transmedia Story Telling is . . .

I’ve been fortunate. For a few years I worked in Kendall Square and often found my way over to MIT for various events – mostly the MIT Communications Forum. In the course of these visits I got to hear Henry Jenkins discuss the idea of transmedia – that is various content types and channels being used to share elements of a narrative that strengthen and support the overall story. If you consume one channel you’ll get part of the picture but the more channels that are tapped into the richer the experience and the closer one is drawn to the core story.

Transmedia has started getting more attention recently. Steve Rubel did a post on it and the Producer’s Guilde of America has added Transmedia Producer as a new job title. But questions remain as to what exactly transmedia is an who’s doing it well.

There are lots of examples of transmedia – MIT did a forum on Heros that discussed its transmedia efforts. Most of the examples I’ve seen are of media or entertainment brands – but I don’t think any of them are really nailing it like the example I have in mind. My winner for best transmedia storytelling has been at it for longer than anyone, it’s reached more people than any one and it’s used more channels than anyone I can think of. The organization I have in mind is the Catholic Church.

Think about it. There is a core story line that is expressed in text. But from that text have emerged dozens of expressions in different media – and all of them have been designed (or at least intended) to expose part of the core story and to make it accessible to different audiences.

Let’s look at just a few examples:

Architecture – think of the cathedrals – with their design to inspire awe in visitors, the statuary intended to illustrate stories and introduce characters from the core narrative (and also from local lore).

Infographics – stained glass – which are obviously part of the cathedral – serve again to illustrate stories to what was often at the time of their creation a non-literate population.

Literature – there have been thousands of works that have used religious themes, topics, characters and events. In some cases these have supported the central narrative, in some cases they have merely used them as fodder for story-telling and in others they have been crafted in opposition to the church – but in all cases they provide and opening and exposure to the core story.

Technology – the fact that the first printed book in the West was the bible says something about the place of the narrative in the lives of those creating media. The church has – for better or worse – been willing to adopt (or demonize) media depending on how well (or poorly) it supports transmitting the core narrative.

Images – when it comes to visual content, biblical characters and stories have been some of the most represented in Western art. Some of these were actively encouraged while others were strictly user-generated. In either case images have long and successfully served to help spread and make the core narrative more accessible.

Drama – dramatic interpretations of biblical events have a long history – from Passion Plays to Christmas Pageants – these have been performed thousands of times all over the world.

Music – liturgical music and music with religious themes have been around for millennia and have ranged from psalms to operas to popular music.

Location-based Experiences – the number of shrines/churches and suggested pilgrimages have long provided an opportunity for ordinary landscapes to be cooped and used for religious purposes.

These are just a few examples of the channels that the Catholic Church has used (or which have been used by others) to convey and support and extend that core textual narrative. One could be exposed to any one of them and would have some sense of the larger story – but the more one is exposed to the deeper and more engaging that experience becomes. That is the idea and goal of transmedia storytelling.

Now a few caveats. First, I’m not exactly a Catholic. I was raised one but stopped counting myself a Catholic almost 30 years ago. Second, one might argue that any large religious institution could also be used to illustrate transmedia storytelling. I suppose that’s true.

For me what sets the Catholic Church apart is the fact that it has a centralized authority that oversees messaging. Few other faiths (or frankly organizations of any kind) can claim so long a history with so clear a lineage. This has resulted in an orthodoxy that has kept the story contained and focused for a very long time. This stability and longevity have allowed rules and understandings to emerge that have permitted the core narrative to be interpreted and transmitted in many ways without compromising the overall story.

This whole thing is something I’ve been thinking about casually for a while. It makes sense to me and I was pretty excited when I came up with the idea but I’d really like to hear other people’s thoughts. Does transmedia make sense to people at all? Does this example help illustrate the idea of transmedia? Are there other – better examples – that make more sense? I’m going to continue to give this thought but have to move on now to other things. Can’t wait to hear what others have to say.

2 thoughts on “And the Winner for Best Transmedia Story Telling is . . .

  1. Samuel D. Conti says:

    Hello Greg,
    A topic worthy of exploration. A brief comment at this time relates to a few other forms of transmedia for the preservation, explication, and elaboration of the core narrative. Among others that might be considered are assembled and compiled letters, sermons, and homilies. These could proceed from simple works by country curates to the towering example of autobiography in St. Augustine’s Confessions. Other examples within the written medium are biographical, reflective, and instructional materials, e.g., Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy and Theilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man. Other varieties of writing that may be imprinted or informed by the core narrative are those explicitly constructed for apologetic or instructional purposes. Another form of writing is that produced not primarily to explicate the core narrative but to have that narrative as the subtext or underpinning or motive force of either a fictional (e.g., Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamosov) or non-fictional (e.g., Gibbons, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Butler, Lives of the Saints, and McLuhan, The Medium is the Message). Another example of transmedia connections and communications within the church springs from and in institutions most notably colleges and universities, but extending as well to all levels of education and institutions like schools and hospitals and social services providers. All of these institutions present an earmarked version of the core narrative of the church and each could be explored in detail to document the multiplicity of ways that the core narrative is written out and explicated by the institution and elaborated in the larger society. Undoubtedly, there are a host of other mechanisms through which the core message of the church is preserved and played out for succeeding generations to learn and continue an awareness of the institution in changing times and places. Further exploration is merited.

  2. Samuel D. Conti says:

    Me again. Further thoughts about the means of extending the core narrative through transmedia are encyclicals and other writings, formal and informal, and doctrinal statements, e.g., through which church members are made aware of requirements of the faith and steps to be taken toward conformity. Institutions within the hierarchical structure, e.g., national and parish level bodies also serve as a means for dissemination of church requirements and should ideally serve as a route for feed-back from the faithful to church leaders. More thinking to come. SDC

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