Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Telling Stories or Selling Stuff (or are they the same)?

The title of the latest post to Daniel Terdiman's Geek Gestalt blog for CNET News is, at the very least, fascinating (at least in the Spock-raises-eyebrow sense): "Hollywood Scripting Getting a Multimedia Rewrite." The topic turns out to be an "increasingly popular concept" (in Terdiman's words) called "transmedia storytelling." It is unclear what constitutes popularity, but the metric seems to take into account several start-ups and a one-day symposium jointly hosted by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and USC's Annenberg School of Communication and School of Cinematic Arts. If all this has happened relatively recently, then it is probably fair to say that the popularity of the concept is increasing; however, that may be one of the few concrete things one can say about transmedia storytelling before venturing into the usual Hollywood world of blue smoke and mirrors.

Begin with the question of whether those promoting the concept are doing anything more than coupling one of the oldest words in the practices of human nature with a made-up one with a root that reflects "the trade" and a prefix that makes it sound cooler than business. In trying to provide readers with an anchor to just what the phrase means, Terdiman turned to Jordan Weisman, the founder of one of the startups (Smith & Tinker), who said that transmedia is "when you are taking a single story and distributing components of that single story through a wide array of media. When you collect those pieces of the media, it tells the [whole] story...When [you have] a text message and a video clip on YouTube, and a toy, or even a movie, when those things add up to a larger single story, that's a transmedia experience."

I have a bunch of nits to pick with this. First of all, I do not think it is pedantic to try to sort out the distinction between an act and an experience. You know you are in trouble when a purported definition begins with the word "when" (as opposed to a more grammatically legitimate copula). Usually it signals that you are going to get wrapped up in a bunch of impressions of how some "thing" is experienced that never manages to home in on just what that "thing" is. It's sort of like trying to define "controlled substance" as anything that makes you feel high. This says nothing about the substance itself, nor does it suggest any ways you can examine something to determine whether it is such a substance. The best you can do is give it to a respectably-sized statistical sample and observe the effects.

Thus, to continue the "controlled substance" metaphor, my guess is that those who are "pushing" this new (purported?) concept may not have given very much thought to the nature of storytelling beyond deciding that it has become too old-fashioned. There is no doubt that it is old. It is clearly older than any society's written culture; and it is old enough that Aristotle put a lot of effort into figuring out just what it is (the result being his "Poetics"). Does that mean that it has now become frayed around the edges and needs to be replaced and/or upgraded?

If we are seriously considering this question, then we would do well to remember that Walter Benjamin raised it in 1936 when, in the opening paragraph of his essay "The Storyteller," he posed the hypothesis that "the art of storytelling is coming to an end." The remainder of this essay digs into that distinction between act and experience with far more discipline than Terdiman's account, considering the experiences of those to wish to hear a story, the acts of those who tell stories, and the experiences that inform the stories they tell. Where (if anywhere) does the "transmedia experience" either enhance or transform the legacy of storytelling?

Benjamin's framework fits nicely into Aristotle's foundations. In its attempt to analyze what stories are and how they are told, "Poetics" begins with the premise that the act of storytelling is one of imitation. In Benjamin's terms an individual has an experience and fabricates an imitation of that experience in the form of a story, thus enabling those listening to the story to experience the imitation. This is an example of what the philosopher Noam Cook calls "making knowledge sharable;" the knowledge of the experience is made accessible to others as imitation through the medium of the story being told. Is transmedia storytelling an new approach to making knowledge sharable?

On the basis of Weisman's characterization, the "transmedia experience" seems a lot closer to solving a jigsaw puzzle than to listening to a storyteller, reading a book, or watching the dramatization of a story on stage, in a movie house, or on television. The result is that this idea of experience though imitation must necessarily take a back seat to collecting all of those "pieces of the media." The story is little more than an excuse to send you off on the treasure hunt of digging up all the pieces and then inspire you to assemble them.

This is a crucial distinction, because what do you think you encounter while you are off on that treasure hunt? This is where we understand why Hollywood has decided to buy into the concept: Going on a treasure hunt takes you to a whole new set of domains, each with its own strategies for luring your attention with advertising. (You think Odysseus had a rough time just dealing with Skylla and Charybdis? Brace yourself for another think coming!) In other words the transmedia experience is not so much about anything so lofty as eroding a theater's "fourth wall;" it is about eroding the walls of shopping malls by giving you opportunities to shop and purchase wherever you happen to go as part of your "experience!" Once again, it is Mel Brooks who saw the future; and, once we are all engaging in our transmedia experiences, The Schwartz (or, in our own vernacular, "merchandising") will be with us (whether we want it or not).

This takes us back to Benjamin. While I do not agree that the art of storytelling is coming to an end, I am willing to admit that there may be an increase in those less inclined to experience stories, regardless of the medium through which they are presented. To reflect on the example I explored yesterday, these are the people who prefer to spend their time watching the Home Shopping Network instead of watching episodes of The Wire (or, for that matter, Lost). There is no way that the Hollywood suits can deny the extent to which they are losing audiences through the new opportunities for shopping created by both television and the Internet. From this point of view, transmedia storytelling is nothing more than a Hail Mary pass at trying to recover those lost audiences. I know better than to try to predict whether or not this metaphorical pass will complete successfully, but at least I know where the goalposts are!

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