By Xiaochang Li | April 12, 2010
A couple of dramatic developments in the world of media and technology from the past couple of weeks. First, the release of the iPad, which has everyone speculating about the future of media, publishing, advertising, and the mobile web. And second, the introduction of Transmedia Producer as an official Producer’s Guild of America credit, which has both its proponents and detractors (though most are positive, with reservations).
Much of the buzz around both these things tends to focus, quite rightly, on their potential, and what they mean for how we’ll come to use, consume, and produce media in the future. But more than just pointing us towards the future of media, both these developments are symptomatic of a shift that’s already very much underway.
Moreover, each serves as evidence of the importance and cultural relevance of the other. What greater potential is there for the iPad, after all, than as a transmedia device — as something that allows us to coordinate, integrate, and marshall together different narrative pieces scattered across different formats and platforms? But the inarguable potential for synergy between the iPad and transmedia storytelling triggered a lot of scattered thoughts on the implications for what transmedia will be as it becomes less of an exception and more and more the baseline for our media experiences.
Coming together in Time: Transmedia and Simultaneous Experience
Matt Dawson’s provocatively suggestion that the iPad could be a really robust remote control that would let you manage, annotate, and expand upon your TV viewing in real time. This first bring up the interesting idea of transmedia components that are meant to be experienced simultaneously. Transmedia is premised on the distribution of narrative threads through and across multiple platforms, but the implicit assumption is that the experiences would take place at different times, that the different pieces, while deeply integrated and reciprocal, are nevertheless meant to be experienced individually. What the ipad signals is perhaps a shift from the popular perception of transmedia as expansion (leading to the central-property/peripheral extension dichotomy that transmedia producers and thinkers often push against) towards one of layering. I’ve previously discussed transmedia stories as intertexts — not just a story told across text but somehow created in the gaps between, the elasticity of multiplicity. This shift speaks to that same concept, as a metaphor of layers moves us to think not only of a world created through multiple stories, but also of stories told through multiple lenses that build upon one another, adding depth and nuance to the view.
Coming together in Space: What is “trans” about “transmedia”?
The iPad also brings up another interesting possibility. With the creation of various video, magazine, web, and mobile apps that will be native to the iPad, the notion of “across platforms” becomes increasingly ambiguous. Are we still moving across platforms if we watch a movie and read its fanfiction on the same device? What does transmedia move across, if not platforms? These questions make apparent not only how often we conflate platform with delivery technology, but how we’ve taken for granted that formats were defined by how delivery technology shaped the viewing/reading experience.
With devices like the iPad, which are designed to delivery multiple media formats (of course, we always had these capabilities on our laptops, but there seems to be something different between “capable of” and “made for”) it’s more apparent transmedia’s potential isn’t a question of technology or platform, but of creating stories across aesthetic forms and narrative practices, across different creative industry structures that limit and enable their their products differently. That’s why a comic book and a novelization are different despite being both bound, printed matter — the differences in formal storytelling capabilities, the history of the art forms, as well as the differences between novel publishing and comic book industries and audience expectations all determine which stories can be told and how.
More interestingly, I think these changes will have dramatic affects on how we organize different types of storytelling into categories. For so long, forms have been defined by their recording technologies — film, records, television, books. The limits and affordances of those have determined different aesthetic and narrative structures. For the time being, they continue to hold the shape of the mold they were created in, even as those molds are starting to change and dissolve. But that’s changing. Even now, we’re seeing the emergence of genres that are defined in part by how audiences encounter them — transmedia, interactive media, mobile, spreadable — by how they move through culture rather than what devices they’re viewed through.
I’m not rewriting the black-box fallacy (i.e., that we will one day consume all media through a single, universal device). Rather, I’m suggesting that devices like the iPad make more apparent than ever that our media consumption isn’t being consolidated, but rather layered. We won’t be consuming all our media through one device — we’ll be consuming multiple streams of media through multiple platform simultaneously, as part of the same experience, with increasing reciprocity and responsiveness across our many mediated encounters.