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February 19 at 8:15am

Nobody Knows Anything #5: Rethinking Transmedia and Crossmedia

By Charles Peirce

By Charles Peirce  

Nobody5-300As I alluded to in a previous post, Transmedia is in the midst of a debate about its definition and who has the authority to determine that definition. It is one of those discussions I think best observed from the sidelines, but then I have no financial or artistic stake in that debate. However, I do think they’re important terms to understand.

The PGA offers up one definition of Transmedia, though a restrictive and unclear one. Its requirements are a counterpoint to a more populist (or maybe recklessly inclusive) definition that would allow Transmedia to absorb the entire world of new media forms: ARGs, Immersive Theatre, Experience Design, Interactive Storytelling, Social Media Games, etc. Perhaps on one side Transmedia is seen as the potential of play and a freedom from normative constraints on media and its uses. [1] And perhaps on the other a Big Business mentality that sees it useful in forming dynastic monopolies of content across all media forms.

Although I find the first idea more interesting, I think the second of more practical use. I see Transmedia and Crossmedia (whose definition, if the wiki is any indication, has becomes likewise confused and debated) as tactical responses to a world of fractured and decentralized media. Given the abundance of platforms, there needs to be an appropriate response to managing content via them. Crossmedia involves sending the same message across multiple platforms, regardless of their form (say linking to your blog articles on Facebook and Twitter). Transmedia, in turn, is sending a message across multiple platforms but tailoring that message specifically for each platform (so Facebook or Twitter is used to convey other aspects of your movie’s narrative). [2] Both are necessary, essential tools for anybody dealing with today’s media landscape. Crossmedia represents a least effort, best practice for everybody, while Transmedia represents an ideal dissemination of content given the proper resources.

Of course, that there is a debate about these terms might be more telling than that these terms have emerged. There tend to be obvious beliefs about contemporay media and its evolution: either it has progressed over time and how we communicate now is new to our civilization, or the forms have changed but very little else — media still fulfills the same basic human needs and functions we’ve had for millenia. Given the imposing depth of the subject matter, there are few incisive studies of media over time, though Harold Innis made a particularly important contribution to the field with his work.

Harold Innis’ Empire and Communications

Harold Innis was a Canadian researcher and academic and a sortof grandfather figure to contemporary communications studies. A precursor to Marshall McLuhan, Innis wrote Empire and Communications, a book which traces the history of the forms we use to communicate and what that means. This is a materialist-based, economic reading of the methods of communications through history which offers surprising insights into contemporary and historical trends — from the role of law in society to the purposeful manufacturing of religion [3] to issues of copyright, ownership via licensing, and monopolies.

Principally, Innis divides our history into two alternating cycles of rulership, both of which seek power through consolidation and monopoly, but one via Space and the other via Time:

“Monopolies of knowledge had developed and declined partly in relation to the medium of communication on which they were built and tended to alternate as they emphasized religion, decentralization, and time, and force, centralization, and space” (Empire and Communications, 192).

A society that communicated via stone tablets (a form that lasts, unchanging, for decades if not centuries) was one that had little use for time and concentrated its power around space, military force, monarchy, and politics. A society that used oral tradition or writing and perishables like paper was time-based and used control of information, scholarship, and a priestly class to rule.

Innis died in 1952, and his work ends with a discussion of radio — a form Innis saw as representing the concentration of power via time. If Innis is right, then it seems television wouldn’t be the continuation of radio as a form — it would be the usurpation of it, the transformation of the consolidation of power from the vantage of time and back to that of space. Since Innis’ work ends before that, you have to look to other places to find the continuation of a critique along those lines. The Frankfurt School and Theodor Adorno in particular is at least one possibility there, along with the work of Guy Debord. For them, power is accumulation via “Spectacle” and “The Culture Industry”, accomplishing, among other things, the abolishment of time and the alienation of the individual from a personal relationship to history. That critique isn’t limited to the extreme Left of theory either. [4] 

While the internet may have initially seemed to be concentrating power through space, allowing as it does theoretical egalitarian access to everything by anyone, it is clearly starting to be about a concentration of power through time — and could thus be part of the dissolution of power via space. There are a lot of contemporary trends, big and small, that suggest as much.

The internet is changing our relationship to time in fundamental ways. Bruce Sterling noted how we have access to the past more thoroughly than the people who actually lived in it. New social media platforms have become increasingly diffuse and time-based, from Google’s time-based search to Twitter’s streaming feed (emulated by Facebook) to the success of Snapchat — a time-based application that emphasizes privacy and the ephemeral. [5] Our most recent political campaigns have allowed the public to fact-check politician’s statements via resources like Youtube, and there is the continuing struggle between Wikipedia and Academia (or the News and Anonymous and Wikileaks) as to who has the authority and control over information. Even the shift from the gold standard to fiat currency to the recent arrival of something like Bitcoin fits within Innis’ pattern.

For Innis, dominant power always consolidates in one form and then is dissolved or defeated by the opposite form. He believed that any truly successful empire had to manage and balance these two forces. From that perspective, Transmedia and Crossmedia are part of the strategic mindset that seeks consolidation via a monopoly on space. They’re necessary tools, but it raises the question — what does a contemporary strategy that seeks consolidation via time look like?



1. Perhaps connecting to a tradition of avant garde forms that have had only small, limited appeal over the years, but which remain a ripe ground for creativity and exploration.

2. This means there needs to be some unifying core to the message that can be translated across platforms, thus for instance, the idea of “storyworlds”.

3. See Akhenaten and the creation of Aten for purposeful state control and creation of religion.

4. Grant McCracken: “Modernist cultures are concerned less with order, memory, and tradition (and the agencies that see to their reproduction) and more with the creation of forgetting, variety, discontinuity, and innovation (and the agencies that make these possible). It is as if the presiding genius of a culture, once best represented by the government bureaucrat, was now a reckless, relentless, irrepressible entrepreneur” (Culture and Consumption II, 75).

5. I think Snapchat is an important aspect to understand in the changing media landscape. Facebook, surely a concentration of power via space, tried to acquire Snapchat and, failing that, emulate it with no practical success.


Previously: Rethinking Franchises and Sequels

Next Week: Principles of Strategy


Nobody Knows Anything is a speculative journey through the more esoteric theories of popular culture: what that means, what comes next, and what can be done about it.

Charles Peirce is a screenwriter and musician, with an active interest in marketing, behavorial psychology and  strategy. He finds it odd to talk about himself in the third person. He can be reached at ctcpeirce@gmail.com or via twitter @ctcpeirce.

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One Comment

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  1. Hank Blumenthal / Feb 19 at 8:15am

    There are some good points here about the definition of transmedia and the consolidation and monopolistic practices of the distribution and creation system. 6 corporations now own 90% of the media space and that’s consolidated from 50 in 1983.

    However let me try to add some points of clarification. I think the mixing of business and marketing, critical practice, and creative authorship are getting muddled in away that make it hard to think about what goals are being pursued.

    1. Transmedia storytelling is narrowly defined by the PGA and also Henry Jenkins but also constitutes a clear creative form. Modeled on the Matrix franchise whose complex story was told across movies, games, animation, and more and extended to Lost and other examples there is clear story form here. For convenience I have named in my academic work (and practice) these groupings a “storyscape” to refer to this new medium of media and allow creators and critics to define this new storytelling form.

    2. We seem to mix in marketing, finance, and an obsession with formal elements (bigger story world!) equally with the creative process. These are all central issues but when I make a movie or tell a storyscape the focus is on story. For me that means the mythology, character, canon, and genre not hiring marketing execs and creative digital media teams to create branding exercises. These are different modes and should be considered separately. Certainly a creative process driven by marketing and technical splashiness is what we revile in Hollywood and leads to perverse spectacle that Debord talks about. I may choke the next person who asserts a good storyworld is one that has many connections designed in as I would a person who asserted good film is one that has many shots designed into it.

    3. Transmedia, or cross-media, or art installations, marketing extensions, or interactive narratives constitute a great mass of storytelling and marketing experimentation across academic, artistic, and media communities. I don’t think this explosion will easily conform to definitions or should but we shouldn’t hesitate to pull out in isolation new creative modes of storytelling or marketing extensions without trying to puzzle out this tangled mass.

    4. For me what is interesting is that stories are changing fundamentally. Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end were rearranged in Godard’s famous quote and deconstructed in the storyscape. Storyscapes work like open texts (as Eco talked about) that may have no ending and reflect on ideas but showing us different angles of experience. Now that is an awesome change in how we use stories to situate ourselves in the world.

    Thanks for your thought provoking ideas.

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