Beyond the buzzword: Transmedia for social change

Ever heard of the term transmedia?

Wikipedia defines it as telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats through unique pieces of content, using current digital technologies (not to be confused with traditional cross-platform media franchises,sequels or adaptations).

Or as marketer Vincent Teo recently wrote, it is the "practice of arching story worlds over various platforms, with each thread tailored to the platform it lives in. It extends elements of a primary storyline across multiple spaces to create an interactive, multi-layered fiction greater than the sum of its parts. It is important to note that transmedia is not about repurposing content from TV to another platform or producing a spin-off into something else. It is about appropriately and organically telling a story across all platforms where elements of a story are dispersed systematically across multiple media spaces, each making their own unique contribution to the whole story".

That includes everything from Harry Potter and Pottermore to Prometheus and its spin-off TED talk and website, or Heroes, which complemented the TV series with interactive web content, webisodes, and online graphic novels. Or you could trace it further back in time to the likes of the Blair Witch Project, which rather than running a promotional website for the film, created a site that continued the narrative with police reports, characters' diary entries, etc. And more recently, campaign work around the launch of TV show Game of Thrones has been hailed as a transmedia success.

In a fragmented media environment, transmedia is all about leveraging the best features of each platform to enhance the experience. While brands have found many ways to capitalise on the opportunity, increasingly those in the area of social change are joining in. 

Lina Srivastava, a former lawyer turned activist and consultant on social issues, is leading the charge in this area. Documentary is proving a popular base for such transmedia activity, she says, citing the National Film Board of Canada's Highrise project (which also incorporated elements such as outdoor poster and video installations) or Bear 71, which was augmented by an art installation, Twitter and Tumblr accounts and a microsite. And in response to the Cairo revolution, crowdsourced storytelling project 18 Days in Egypt sprung up as an example of transmedia.

Srivastava was in town last month for the Documentary Edge filmmaking lab. We caught up with her to chat about slacktivism, social consciousness and the role of storytelling.

On who else is doing transmedia in this space...

In terms of human rights, I think I’m the only person, particularly in the aid and development context. I’m looking at storytelling as a social construct of innovation and design. Having said that Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders does it beautifully for themselves, for their own, and Oxfam does it really beautifully too.

On the impact of transmedia...

It’s another way to engage donors, activists … but also it’s about feeding back into the platform, about making sure you construct that bridge, because I don’t believe in staying at awareness. If you’re trying to solve a social issue you cannot stop at raising awareness. That burns up a lot of resources.

On going beyond the 'like'...

I don’t believe that everything online is clicktivism or slacktivism. I do think that eventually we have to move beyond those likes and those clicks. They don’t do anything except create community. And maybe they create community, but sometimes it’s just fragmented behaviour.

The point is you want to take communities that are activated or interested and move them beyond just clicking 'like'. The question is in any particular arena of social change, who is going to be able to commit the actions? Who are the influencers? Who is going to be able to influence behaviour, change, commit resources to whatever it is? Often that isn’t the general public. Sometimes you do need a critical mass, though, in the general public, to move people’s opinions.  There is a continuum of action, I think. And there’s nothing wrong with asking people to click on 'like' but that in itself isn’t change at all.

On making transmedia work for you...

Look at how you actually make a social action a dynamic part of your platform and part of the actual entire story. Make sure that your social action is always relevant and resonant with the community needs and the story that you’re telling.

Don’t drive story through technology ... I think it’s all driven by your story and where your audience is. If your audience is on radio, don’t use an iPad. If your audience is on SMS, use it. If your audience is on Facebook, go there. Story drives it and where your audience is. Those are the two factors that should determine what platform you use.

On storytelling vs messaging...

If you don’t have a strong story then you’re not going to get people interested, and that’s true of any realm. And it’s not about message. You need messaging for sure because you need to be able to convey what you’re doing. They’re related to each other but they’re not the same.

The story is a full-bodied expression, a solution, what the community wants ... the message is something that encapsulates what you want them to know. A story is really very traditional, an ancient structure with character, plot, an arc – a beginning, middle and end. A message is something that draws people in.  It’s something that you use as a communications tool.

On generational differences...

I think every generation has been aware of issues. I wasn’t around but I think about the late sixties, how activated people were ... they were against the old guard.

I think we have more means now for communicating, like rapid fire. Like the Arab revolution. I think it would have happened despite social media but it wouldn’t have been as fast and it certainly wouldn’t have been as rapidly organised. I don’t like calling them social media revolutions – I don't think that’s right – but I do think they were enhanced by that.

I think this generation has the opportunity to get much more educated than other generations had. Having said that ... our knowledge was deeper, it wasn’t as broad but it was deeper ... I don’t think they’re more socially aware than in the past – I think they have more opportunities than in the past.