Archive for May, 2009

Thinking on Transmedia: accretive adaptation and narrative resonance

Posted in thinking on transmedia on May 28th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

Recently, in preparation for an upcoming talk we’re giving at Turner Networks, my colleague Ana Domb and I were talking about how slippery the term “transmedia” has become. More and more, it seems to be used to talk about a range of different practices, from ARGs to adaptations, world-building to merchandising. While I do not advocate any set of hard and fast rules for what “counts” as transmedia and what doesn’t, being able to make clear (if not absolute) distinctions between these forms is precisely what makes them useful as categories.

So I wanted to start thinking through some of these issues here, perhaps in a loosely organized series, about some of the different aspects of how transmedia is used, talked about, and theorized. I wanted to take some rough first stabs at getting down some of things clanking around my head, more a documentation of the thinking process than the end result of clear thought.

When we began talking about transmedia, it was defined thus:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” (Henry Jenkins, Transmedia Storytelling 101)

One of the classic examples the Matrix franchise, which told the story across the films, video games, animation, online, and so on, often to the detriment of those in the film-viewing audience who were just engaging with one of these channels, since they missed crucial parts of the narrative and world development.

But as the form becomes more popularized, we are beginning to see more “loose” uses of transmedia tactics, uses that aren’t quite fully integrated transmedia narratives, but nor are they merely replications of a story in a different format or merchandise extensions.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two general hybrid categories: accretive adaptations and narrative resonance.

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Accretive Adaptations is a term I made up just now because I like alliteration I use to refer to adaptations or versions that are meant to be seen in conjunction with or as additions to previous versions, rather than stand in place of them. As such, they often add additional narrative development or reframe the existing narrative in various ways that expand rather than simply repeat the story. Anime franchises are a great example of this, wherein every version of the text — from the original manga, to the anime, to live action stage and screen productions — are created with the knowledge that significant portions of the audience are familiar with previous versions. For instance, because a majority of anime is based off of manga (comics), which produces stories slower than anime episodes, they often include “filler arcs” or storylines that aren’t part of the central narrative to stall for time as manga artists generate more content to be adapted into the anime. Thus, though an anime series is, strictly speaking, an adaptation of a manga, it includes expansions in the story as well. The most popular animes also have live-action stage musicals produces, where the story is retold as musical theater. Again, these retell the main story, but include additional interactions between the characters that potentially deepen character development or bring out aspects of character relationships that are not developed in the original texts.

Narrative Resonance are what I think of as story expansions that don’t fit as part of the story world, but “resonate” with it. In other words, though they are not part of the narrative, they draw their meaning from being related to it. One example is the recent Samsung “Anycall Bodyguard” campaign, which featured a 5+ minute musical drama with a secondary couple from a popular TV drama. The fictional couple were highly popular with fans, but were not the main focus of the show, so Samsung decided to take advantage of the fact that many fans wanted to see more development with the pair. Their musical drama advertisement generated a lot of interest and buzz because of its use of the characters and its development of their storyline, even though it has no place within the real story. It is also like an alternate universe story, a possible scenario or piece of fanfiction, that is adjacent to and resonates with the original, even though it isn’t directly a part of it.

These are just two ambiguous transmedia-adjascent hybrid forms that come off the top of my head, especially in my work in Asian popular media. I’m sure there are countless more forms and examples in media from all over the world.

Audiences and Audienceship

Posted in media, research on May 13th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – 2 Comments

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So I’m guest lecturing later today at a class on Researching Media Audiences and it has me thinking about my initial, and admittedly lingering, resistance to considering myself as someone who does research on “audiences.” Part of it, I’m sure, comes from having emerged out of the “hard” humanities, where terms like social science and empirical research don’t have the best of reputations. Part of it a fear that, as Feuer argues, tactics like reception theory can sometimes be more a deferral of meaning-making onto the production of the “text” of the audience’s discourse rather than actual analytical work on specific texts. And of course, part of it is that I’m afraid someone is going to jump out and shout “ethnography, ur doin’ it wrong!” at me (like all graduate students, I live in fear of accusation “lacks rigor”).

Audiences to Audienceship (or, not just another neologism, I swear)
I have, in my work, been using the term “audienceship” rather than “audience.” The distinction for me, broadly, is that whereas I see “audience” as something that seeks to describe the subject position and context of the viewers, “audienceship” is something that looks to describe a context for the process of viewing, or perhaps more accurately, the encounters between the audiences and their texts. This is sort of important to me for a couple of reasons.

First is that in thinking of “audienceship” or the act of engaging with a text within a particular context steers us away from the audience as a category of person and towards audience as a sort of situation that describes particular sets of practices and engagements with texts and cultural materials. There has always been something presumptuous to me about audience categories — “diasporic audiences,” “working class audiences,” “minority and majority audiences,” and even perhaps less politically loaded ones like “surplus audiences” — that tempts us to presume some kind of coherence or neat alignment between identities/conditions of viewing and how meanings are made. Does being part of a diaspora and viewing texts from your country of origin automatically make you part of a diasporic audience? What determines which of the many axes of identity marks what kind of audience you are?

Of course, historical conditions, positions of race, class, gender, migration, and so forth, powerfully inform their view and understanding of the world and delimit the range of audienceships and set the parameters of viewing that you can be a part of, but no single condition or affiliation can wholly dictate or account for the whole of the engagement of any audience member with the text, or with the other members of the audience, especially as media moves across national and cultural borders and, coinciding with an increasingly complicated negotiations with cultural identity that has increasing dramatically with the rise of globalization.

So that in thinking of these modes of engagement as audienceships instead of audiences help me, at least, remember that we can slice an orange many ways and reveal different shapes and patterns of formation. That any member of an audience as whole, coherent subjects, we can think of them as participates negotiating across multiple audienceships, often simultaneously, producing both rich synergies and contensions.

Audience Publics, Audienceship/Citizenship
When I first started thinking in terms of audienceships, I wasn’t explicitly thinking of the linguistic evocation of “citizenship.” Honestly, I just didn’t like how “audiencehood” sounded like Robin Hood. But there is, I think, something compelling about that linkage, as new media forms and platforms make audience and increasingly public act, both in terms of visibility and in terms of the public sphere. I’m still sorting through some of these things, but it strikes me that many of the audienceships that I look at — particularly in the fan-driven online circulation of transnational media content — are not only collective imaginaries, but collaborative ones, communities of sentiment that are radically involved in creating, selecting, curating, and distributing the very text and images that shape them.

So if we can think of social imaginaries that are being constructed through audienceship, and that these social imaginaries, in turn, by being collective and collaborative, constitute, in some way, publics. Perhaps then what we have is an audience-public, not a public made from an audience nor an audience that also happens to be a public or is transformed into a public due to circumstance, but a public that is constituted through the very act of audienceship.

IP or Censorship: Viacom issues take-down for racism protest

Posted in C3 blog, media on May 4th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – 2 Comments

Recently, Viacom, in the process of of trying to “protect” their intellectual property not only managed to make copyright claims on original transformative work that is protected under fair use, they managed to censor political protest against racism in the process.

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(one of the revised shirt designs available at

In one of their “routine sweeps,” they issued a take-down to on-demand retail platform for the contents of the store, a non-profit effort that sold t-shirts to protest the all-white casting of non-white leads in the Avatar: the Last Airbender live-action film (more details on that particular controversy here and here). sold shirts with original art and designs, sporting slogans such as “Aang ain’t white” and “this is not a tan” (in response to a statement by one of the cast members about tanning to get into character), and “The Last Airbender: putting the Cauc back in Asian.”

None of the products on the site contained any images from the series (see them here, posted by the creator) — the only thing “in violation of Viacom’s intellectual property rights” were words used to talk about something that Viacom produces. Viacom, it seems, sees itself as owning your discussions around its properties.
We are, by now, long accustomed to epic failure on the part of DMCA takedowns initiated by major media conglomerates. Viacom, in particular, has been a visible and often hilariously illogical offender, with its memorable removal of a clip Christopher Knight put up on youtube from the show WebJunk 2.0, which had featured none other than Knight’s own campaign commercial (presumably aired without permission).

But there are two unsettling things that this instance in particular highlights. The first is a rising trend in companies deciding to “participate” and “acknowledge” and with fans and users by effectively claiming ownership over their discussions and discourse. This is, for instance, what I pointed out with Skittles use (and consequent barring of access to) the twitter feed on their front page. It is a problem of companies claiming to want conversation, but attempting only to enact control.

Related to this is then the second pattern, which is that these supposedly objective methods at issuing take-down, general search-term sweeps that don’t differentiate and make value judgements, are in fact anything but neutral. They presumes the right of large corporations — which are, lest we forget, are already part of a structure of unequal power relations — while simultaneously allowing them disavow responsibility by blaming it on the technological limitations. That is to say, Viacom, in this instance, will no doubt claim innocence to censorship by virtue of it having been “unintentional,” convieniently overlooking the fact that they have structured their use of technology in a way that makes precisely these types of “unintentional” abuses possible, and increasingly prevalent.

All of this, finally, is made all the more poignant by the fact that this case centers around a question of race. In other words, the very voices Viacom tried to silence this time around  — whatever their intent — we those being raised in protest of already being silenced. Viacom is effectively making a statement that groups already struggling for representation in mainstream mass media similarly don’t even have the right to represent themselves elsewhere.