On Transmedia and Transformative Media Organizing: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part Two)

You structure the book around the concept of “transmedia organizing.” How are you defining this term? How does it relate to the forms of transmedia storytelling, entertainment, and branding that have surfaced in recent years?

To be honest, over the past year the framing I use has shifted from “transmedia organizing” to “transformative media organizing,” largely because of my involvement in the research, skill-share, and design
process of the Transformative Media Organizing project. Our definition of transformative media organizing is as follows:

“Transformative media organizing is a liberatory approach to integrating media, communications, and cultural work into movement building. It lies at the place where media justice and transformative organizing overlap. Transformative media organizers begin with an intersectional analysis of linked systems of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other axes of identity. We seek to do media work that develops the critical consciousness and leadership of those who take part in the media-making process; create media in ways that are deeply accountable to the movement base; invite our communities to participate in media production; create media strategically across platforms, and root our work in community action.”

More about this model can be found here  and a summary of our findings about how LGBTQ and Two-Spirit organizations in the US are using media in their organizing work is here.

But to answer your original question, my thoughts about the definition,history, and relationship of transmedia organizing to transmedia storytelling are best expressed in the following excerpt from the book (pages 47-50):

The term “transmedia organizing” is a mash-up of the concept of transmedia storytelling, as elaborated by media studies scholars, and ideas from social movement studies. In the early 1990s the scholar Marsha Kinder developed the idea of transmedia intertextuality to refer to the flow of branded and gendered commodities across television,
films, and toys. Kinder was interested in stories and brands that unfolded across platforms, and took care to analyze them in the context of broader systemic transformation of the media industries. She focused especially on the deregulation of children’s television during the Reagan years. Throughout the 1970s, Action for Children’s Television, a grassroots nonprofit organization with 20,000 members, organized for higher-quality children’s TV and against advertising within children’s programming, with some success. However, by the early 1980s both the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters were pushing aggressively to abandon limits on advertising to children and product-based programming. It was during this shift that Kinder conducted a series of media ethnographies with children. She was interested in better understanding young people’s relationships to franchises such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which children experienced across platforms as a comic magazine, an animated TV series, a line of toys, a video game, and so on. She found that cross-platform stories and branded commodities not only increased both toy and ad sales but also produced highly gendered consumer subjectivity in children.

In 2003, Henry Jenkins [that’s you! 🙂 ] reworked the concept for an era of horizontally integrated transnational media conglomerates, and defined transmedia storytelling as follows:

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”

He went on to articulate the key points of transmedia storytelling in the context of a converged media system. Chief among them are the following: transmedia storytelling is the ideal form for media conglomerates to circulate their franchises across platforms; transmedia storytelling involves “world building” rather than closed plots and individual characters; it involves multiple entry points for varied audience segments; it requires co-creation and collaboration by different divisions of a company; it provides roles for readers to take on in their daily lives; it is open to participation by fans; and it is “ the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence.”

In the decade since Jenkins’s 2003 explanation of these key elements, the media industries have increasingly adopted transmedia storytelling as a core strategy. The term transmedia is now regularly used to describe the work of professional producers who create cross-platform stories with participatory media components. Individuals, consultancies, and firms, initially small boutique shops but increasingly also units within larger media companies, have positioned themselves as transmedia producers. In 2010 the Producers Guild of America announced the inclusion of “transmedia producer” in the Guild’s Producers Code of Credits for the first time. More recently, institutions such as the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Festival have begun to recognize, fund, curate, and promote transmedia projects.

In 2009 the media strategist Lina Srivastava proposed that activists and media artists might apply the ideas of transmedia storytelling to social change, through what she termed transmedia activism:

“There is a real and distinct opportunity for activists to influence action and raise cause awareness by distributing content through a multi platform approach, particularly in which people participate in media creation.” (see Lina’s blog).

Several firms now explicitly describe themselves as working on transmedia activism. In 2008 the Mexican film star Gael Garcia Bernal and the director Marc Silver (with Srivastava as a strategy consultant) launched the transmedia activism production company Resist Network.

New examples of transmedia storytelling for social change emerge on a regular basis. Many of these projects are honest attempts to translate the lessons of transmedia storytelling from entertainment and advertising into strategies that could be used for activism and advocacy. Others seem more ambiguous, as transmedia producers who primarily work with corporate clients identify opportunities to win contracts with social issue filmmakers, nonprofit organizations, and NGOs. In any case, by 2013 there were several high-profile, professionally produced transmedia campaigns focused specifically on immigrant rights. Jose Antonio Vargas’s project Define American, Laurene Powell Jobs – backed (and Davis Guggenheim – produced) film The Dream is Now, and the Silicon Valley campaign FWD.us (spearheaded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) are probably the three best known, and I return to them in chapter 7.

I am excited by the growing interest in transmedia storytelling for social change among media professionals. However, in this book the term transmedia organizing does not center on the emerging professionalization of transmedia strategy, whether for entertainment, advertising, or activism. Instead of carefully managed media initiatives, I primarily emphasize organic, bottom-up processes. More broadly, I suggest that social movements have always engaged in transmedia organizing, and the process has become more visible as key aspects of movement media-making come online. This is not to suggest that nothing new is taking place. However, I believe that the recent emphasis on technological transformation is misplaced, to the degree that it blinds us to a comprehensive analysis of social movement media practices. In addition, while movements do already engage in transmedia organizing, they can be more effective if they are intentional about this approach. To that end, I suggest the following definition:

“Transmedia organizing includes the creation of a narrative of social transformation across multiple media platforms, involving the movement’s base in participatory media making, and linking attention directly to concrete opportunities for action. Effective transmedia organizing is also accountable to the needs of the movement’s base.”

I contend that transmedia organizing involves the construction of social movement identity, beyond individual campaign messaging; it requires co-creation and collaboration across multiple social movement groups; it provides roles and actions for movement participants to take on in their daily life; it is open to participation by the social base of the movement; and it is the key strategic media form for social movements in the current media ecology. While the end goal of corporate transmedia storytelling is to generate profits, the end goal of transmedia organizing is to strengthen social movement identity, win political and economic victories, and transform the consciousness of broader publics. Effective transmedia organizing also includes accountability mechanisms so that the narrative and the actions it promotes remain grounded in the experience and needs of the social movement’s base.

The full chapter, and book, can be downloaded for free.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media , creator of the MIT Codesign Studio and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.