I have come to despise all unqualified statements.
Discussions about digital piracy, transmedia/crossmedia, whether user-generated content (UGC) can ever be ‘good,’ and whether coffee beans really do voluntarily roast themselves in the presence of Chuck Norris tend to quickly devolve into polarized arguments, not open exchanges where the intent is to have your opinions challenged by facts (what normally happens is you find your facts being bludgeoned by someone else’s opinions).
This is often the result of a one-size-fits-all approach to the issue, a blind focusing on only one particular aspect of the topic that ignores salient facts, or an induction of biased selections/examples as the grist for a general theory mill.
So, having set the stage for my own public flogging, allow me to propose the following: “Collaborative transmedia storytelling with audiences does not always equate to an anything-goes morass of poor quality, choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) fan fiction.”
I’ll start with the reasons why it’s not, then back track (a bit) and explain the sort of.
Collaborative entertainment certainly can be awful, but it doesn’t need to be. Specific executions and implementations of the model may be good or bad, depending on how they are produced. When well-managed, co-creating value with audiences will tap the benefits of collaboration without damaging either the property’s branding or its narrative continuity. Done poorly, the result is a soup of content without structure, quality control, or coherence.
We don’t damn the entire movie industry because Deuce Bigelow 2 got made, and we don’t slam every television network studio because yet another reality show was greenlit. It’s equally wrong to summarily dismiss all UGC as having no proper place within commercial entertainment properties.
It’s not as if access to talent, money, resources, and distribution channels guarantees success. The studios, networks, imprints, and video game companies consistently provide us with many examples of bad entertainment, often with mind-staggeringly high budgets attached to them. Neither money nor control over production/distribution are guarantees for quality.
Further, there are many ways to build a bridge between canon and fandom, several methods for shaping the collaboration, and the invitation for fans to take a seat at the table of canonicity can be tailored to generate the desired participation. There is a spectrum of options between the binary options of traditional commercial entertainment and ‘do whatever you want with the content.’
Lastly, from a numbers perspective, the absolute amount of poor-quality UGC is easy to explain: there’s an incredibly high absolute amount of UGC compared to traditional commercial entertainment. Independent creatives tend to experiment and take risks. They’re willing to express themselves creatively, multiple times. And it’s never been easier to create and distribute content than now.
Little wonder YouTube turned out the way it did.
All of this, however, does not automatically lead to the statement, “All UGC is bad.” Or even, “UGC has no place in commercial entertainment.”
Having torched that particular straw man, let me delve into why I think a CYOA-type structure for transmedial properties is not necessarily bad (and why it is most likely inevitable).
Image by woodleyworkshop, Creative Commons BY 2.0
As I posted earlier, creators have lost control over how, when, and where audiences find and experience content. And if it’s impossible to control this with a single piece of content, imagine the challenges involved with a transmedial property.
Content creators can control when content is release. They can control the initial medium of publication, the initial format, and the initial distribution channel. They can even start out with an intended consumption platform. That’s it.
Once a piece of content has been released, there is no concrete way to force consumers to experience that content in any given way. Furthermore, as soon as more than one piece of content in an entertainment property is published, the creators can no longer control the order or sequence in which audiences experience the content, much less the presentation of the content.
Your film may find its way to bittorrent, your art may be copied and published on someones’ personal blog, your TV show credits may get remixed, heck even your commercial may become an Internet meme. But I digress (and I have also touched on the benefits of piracy and transmedial advertising in a post from last year).
The lack of control over entry points into a property and the narrative sequencing of the content within the property are both the challenge and the opportunity for storytellers playing in the transmedial sandbox.
Audience members may enter your entertainment property via your comic but then discover your video game, which leads them to the novels. Or they may play your ARG, which prompts them to see your movie, and they may never read the comic or play the game.
Image by Ethan Hein, Creative Commons BY 2.0
Creators can coax, guide, and hint at the ‘proper’ entry points and narrative paths through a transmedial property, but they cannot enforce them.
In this sense, audiences members can, within a transmedial property, choose their own narrative paths through the world. But that does not automatically equate to such transmedial properties as necessarily being sub-standard storytelling experiences, nor does it follow that a loss of control over plot/narrative for the property as a whole dictates a rudderless storyworld for audiences.
In other words, don’t confuse the loss of control between transmedial content pieces (e.g., the self-created sequence of narrative paths between the content pieces) with the loss of control over the experiences of the individual content pieces (the movie, the TV show, the ARG, etc.). Most audiences still tend to consume discrete media the same way they always have: by beginning at the beginning and ending at the end.
The freedom for audiences to choose how they want to interact with your entertainment property, coupled with the ability to reach wider audiences by offering more than one medium/experience, is powerful indeed.
The challenge for transmedia creatives is to figure out how the individual stories (books, films, etc.) can be integrated and related so that multiple narrative pathways and content/narrative sequencing can still produce an enjoyable entertainment experience. To the degree that properties support multiple coherent narrative sequencing with multiple entry-point medium opportunities, they can engage a larger audience and provide a richer, deeper experience.
At this point, you should be thinking something along the lines of, “Man, I bet Chuck Norris can’t even get a cup of coffee at a Starbucks without screwing up the inventory of coffee beans.” Or you might be thinking, “Transmedial properties are hard to do well.”
You’d be right in both cases.
Native transmedia properties (v. franchise extensions or transmedia marketing) require an inordinate amount of energy and time to pull off properly. They demand not just a mastering of story but a mastering of medium. Individual stories must be matched to the mediums that best presents them to the audience.
But these challenges should not hinder creatives from shouldering the mantle of transmedia storytelling, nor shirk the opportunities inherent in co-creating value with audiences because it’s more work. We’re just beginning to map this new territory, and there’s a lot of treasure waiting to be found.
For anyone creating a transmedial property, I encourage you to ask yourself two questions: (1) what are the benefits to inviting audiences to the table of canoncity? and (2) what are the creative possibilities when you trust audiences to chart their own narrative pilgrimage through your entertainment property?