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.
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.