Wednesday, March 03, 2010
MLK and Media?
Last night I joined the first NYC Transmedia Meet-up. Sounds horrible, right, WTF is that? It was actually a great little gathering of several people interested in where things are at and going next in film, media and transmedia, or cross-platform (please another word soon) projects (the book on the right is a good place to start learning about this stuff, BTW). While my mental state only allows for a brief visit to such settings before I really want to talk about something else, I had a great conversation with a small group about the difference between transmedia as marketing and as real transmedia. Lot’s to unpack in another post, but I really enjoyed some comments by Jeffrey Lee Simons, who has been doing this a lot, and you can read his thoughts on his blog. At one point he compared good transmedia as similar to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Having had a couple beers, I was ready to pounce on this nonsense, but he might be right.
Among the many great aspects of Dr. King’s legacy was the fact that he empowered his audience. He wasn’t just a preacher, just a civil-rights leader, just a political figure, just an organizer. He was all of those things and more, but he had an uncanny ability to catch the mood of a certain moment and a lot of people and give them a message that didn’t just preach to them or tell them what to do - it empowered them to feel part of a movement, to know they could control their destiny and that their actions were as important as his. You never felt talked down to, or that he was the most important man in the room - you were on a journey with him, and yes he was very important to the movement, but so were you. When he said “I have a dream” it was powerful, for among many reasons, because that dream could become yours and you could add to it and make it happen.
This is simplifying Dr. King’s legacy a bit, but I think it’s a valuable lesson for anyone thinking about transmedia, and actually for anyone making a film generally, be it narrative or (but especially) a documentary. Let’s just call all of you media artists for now. What media artists often do is try to be the master of their story world, and exercise complete control over where it takes you. They tell you a story and it can enthrall, entertain or so many other things, but while it may “suck you in” it rarely empowers you and makes you feel you are as important to the story as the media artist who authored it. Of course there are exceptions, but this is a generally true point for much media. Jeff’s point, I think (but it’s definitely mine), was that good transmedia goes an extra step. Yes, it gives you multiple story access points and good ones can be quite interactive, but to rise to truly great it must empower the audience. It too should capture the zeitgeist and bring you in to a journey for which you are equally important to the outcome. It should empower you to take action, to join the conversation and contribute to its fruition. Not by telling you exactly what action to take, necessarily, but empowering you to make a choice that could change the (hi)story. The nature of the story, by definition, must change based on how where you, the audience, takes it. Many transmedia experiences today are simply marketing. While they are on multiple platforms, they aren’t doing much more than giving you alternate ways to get to their story and (with some exceptions) they don’t empower you to add to or change the story. I’m not arguing that no one does this, but rather that more should think about this empowerment aspect.
While this clearly applies to transmedia, it also applies to traditional filmmaking. In documentary, in particular, I find a lot of films that tell me some story. It might be compelling, it might be persuasive, attempting to change my mind or enlighten it. They might also tell me where to donate, when to cry, or how to take some action. But rarely do I feel empowered in quite this same way. While I wouldn’t argue that every film should be an exercise in empowerment, I do think it should be explored by more filmmakers, especially those hoping to have a true impact. Plus, I can’t see any harm in trying to put a little MLK in your media making!