Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I'm Still Here as Transmedia

I know the news on this film has largely subsided, but here goes anyway:
I’m Still Here is not only a transmedia project, but it’s also one of the more successful ones ever least this year.

I’m ready for the mobs of trans-experts to attack, but let me (for once) be brief. Wikipedia defines transmedia storytelling as:

In Transmedia storytelling, content becomes invasive and fully permeates the audience's lifestyle. A transmedia project develops storytelling across multiple forms of media in order to have different "entry points" in the story; entry-points with a unique and independent lifespan but with a definite role in the big narrative scheme.

Now we can argue if this is correct, but since we can all contribute to the definition at Wikipedia, for now, this definition will be considered communal. So, to me, I’m Still Here was a story that unfolded across multiple media - television shows, tabloid news, websites, traditional newspapers and eventually a movie. There were rap songs, poems, drug-filled ARG, er, escapades.  Joaquin’s performance was ongoing, pervasive and in a sense it was an ultimate ARG that no one was even sure whether they were participating in it or not. I haven’t looked too far, but I’m sure someone has even created a comic or animation about it. Each of these things was a story entry-point, and could engage audiences with the story in different ways. At minimum, it engaged many audiences in trying to figure out whether it was real, fiction, a bad drug trip or some combination of all of these.

So, how is this not transmedia? (I’m sure I’ll hear in the comments or offline....)

One of the most successful? Definitely not in terms of box office. But if we also look at success by how well people believed in and interacted with (even debated) the story-line, it was a huge success. Same with criteria such as media impressions, entering the cultural conversation, being uber-meta, etc.

Some might say it’s just a hoax, or a mock-u-mentary or doc or just plain stupid. But I think transmedia can be many things, and it might just be that something like I’m Still Here qualifies. Sure, this was an artful hoax, but why can’t a hoax be transmedia? Does the creator have to personally create all the platforms the story unfolds upon for it to be transmedia? Or can they create a situation where even the news as “reported” by someone else becomes part of the experience? Some might argue that the story has to motivate you to participate, but I think plenty of people participated in this by talking about it, sharing it with others and paying for a ticket (ok, maybe 5 people did that).

I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, so please disabuse me of this notion if you think I’m terribly wrong. To be honest, I’ve been wondering for a month why no one has written about this yet - in my googling, I’ve not found anything (but again, tell me if I’m wrong). The closest thing I’ve found on this subject was Henry Jenkins writing about LonelyGirl 15 (back in 2006, mind you) and the relation of the “hoax” story to epistolary fiction. He wrote:

The content of earlier epistolary novels turned readers into armchair detectives and amateur psychologists, piecing together the events of the story from multiple, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory, always subjective, accounts. These ARGs take on a more public dimension, exploring conspiracies or mysteries which exploit the expansive potential of the transmedia environment. Though read in private, these early novels became the focus of parlor room discussions as people compared notes about the characters and their situations. ARGS today offer a very similar experience of mutual debate and collaborative interpretation for a society just beginning to experiment with what cybertheorist Pierre Levy calls collective intelligence.

He too brought up that most people would think you need to push the audience to act, to do something.  As he wrote:

This is the nature of art (fictional or nonfictional) in the age of collective intelligence: the work provokes us, incites us into action. Indeed, as an art project, Lonelygirl15 seems designed to encourage our participation. Yet we don't know what we are supposed to do if we do not correctly identify the genre within which the text operates: do we dig deeper into the text in search of clues (as in the case of an ARG) or do we go beyond the text in search of reality (as in the case of reality spoiling)? In this case, the public's uncertainty about the status of these images made figuring out the source of these messages the central task. The mystery overwhelmed the content -- perhaps more than the art students anticipated and forced them to out themselves so that we might hopefully engage with their work on another level.

In fact, we’ve been seeing a lot of these “in-between” docs that straddle the line of documentary and fiction, and thereby require us to get more involved as viewers in figuring out the “puzzle” of just how real they are. Jenkins noted: “In other words, there seems to be a fascination with blurry categories at moments of media in transition -- it is one of the ways we try to apply evolving skills in a context where the categories that organize our culture are in flux.” So perhaps as we straddle this line, we’ll get some hybrid forms that become more than just a movie and straddle into transmedia territory.

In a hypothetical debate, I can see arguing the other side - that it’s not transmedia, just a good performance, but more than anything I think arguing this point might help better define the term for all of us.

Until then, I’m calling this one transmedia.

Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures

1 comment:

Matt Johnston said...

Love the thinking. I think the Transmedia conversation too often focuses on tech. The experience is the thing.