Yes, Transmedia HAS a History!: An Interview with Matthew Freeman (Part Two)

To continue with questions you pose yourself, “what does it actually mean to understand the industrial contingencies and practices of historical transmedia practices”? To break this down further, what does it mean to focus on shifting industrial conditions as opposed to say the technological affordances of media, the constitution of audiences and the conditions of reception, or the thematic and narrative conventions of the period, each of which might also help to explain transmedia practices?

 

For me, only by understanding longer histories of production and consumption can we begin to make sense of the contingencies and the affordances of our contemporary transmedia landscape. In that sense, the model of transmedia storytelling today is not the only one; past builders of fictional storyworlds employed many different strategies that showcase just how many possibilities there really are for telling tales across multiple media. In other words, understanding the workings of transmedia storytelling in the past means exploring the shifting industrial conditions and the technological affordances of media and the constitution of audiences and reception and the thematic and narrative conventions of the period. All of these factors had important and often overlapping influences on the ways by which a story expanded across media.

Allow me to point to an example to explain what I mean. Elaborating on the ideas of advertising I mentioned previously, we can trace the links between advertising at the dawn of the twentieth century and the strategies of transmedia storytelling that it afforded via the case study of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz.

Here, we can detect the importance of colour, spectacle, comic-strip characters and also posters and reviews as key promotional mechanisms for building storyworlds across media at that time. While colour and spectacle allowed audiences to see that some stories in one medium belonged, as it were, to stories in another medium, comic-strip characters and posters worked to point audiences directly to other media where new pieces of that story were told, meaning that the adventures of Oz and its characters existed not solely within the actual texts (novels, stage plays, films, etc.), but also folded across multiple sites of media paratext (printed maps, posters, reviews, competitions, faux newspapers, etc.).

All of these outputs were based on industrial conditions and technological affordances. But on the other hand, the concept of the media-migrating audience was very different to its status today, and much of this cross-platform activity stemmed from the rather middle-class culture of consumerism and shopping that came to define the early twentieth century. Audiences were by now absorbed in the so-called ‘society of the spectacle’, with images that pointed them to other images and across to other sites of (media) consumption a characteristic of the period. In other words, gauging the manoeuvrability of audiences across multiple platforms at that time means understanding the wider historical culture, just as exploring the associated patterns of narrativity of each of that period’s media forms can shed new light into why particular media of the era tended to specialise in particular parts of a given transmedia tale.

 

If we broaden transmedia to incorporate earlier media and industrial practices, how does this shift our definition of the concept? Some fear that transmedia has already become so elastic that it describes anything and everything. Does this historical expansion of the concept make the problem worse or does it help us to identify something particular that links these various practices together?

 

This is a very important question. I, for one, agree with some of the criticisms of that say that transmedia, as a term, is becoming too elastic. Since I argue throughout the book that both the industry strategies and wider cultural contingencies informing transmedia storytelling have varied substantially over time, I believe that it is even more important to theorise a different conceptual model for examining transmedia storytelling as part of the industrial-cultural configurations of the past, rather than simply trying to apply its present model to the industrial-cultural configurations of the past.

However, as you imply in your question, this archaeological approach does raise one notable problem: If transmedia storytelling is indeed closely linked to twenty-first century media culture and its industrial or technological configurations, then how can one go about classifying earlier forms of media culture and divergent industrial configurations as the same phenomenon? Doing this successfully really means understanding transmedia storytelling according to a few general characteristics that can be seen in both the media of the past and of the present, with only the industrial configurations informing those characteristics varying one from period to another.

So, in so far as it must ultimately work to expand established fictional storyworlds and extend the arcs of characters and plots across multiple media platforms, I would argue that transmedia storytelling can be understood in terms of the following three general characteristics: (1) Character-building; (2) World-building; and (3) Authorship. Most basically, if character-building is a smaller aspect of world-building, then authorship is crucial for achieving both of the former.

Thinking along these lines allowed me to explore historical cases of transmedia storytelling by focusing on how each of these three general characteristics were determined by particular industrial workings in the past. And I show that the strategies for holding the past’s transmedia storyworlds together and indeed for pointing audiences across those multiple media were informed largely by different determinants and configurations from case to another, from one era to another.

For instance, looking through the lens of world-building, we can understand the Land of Oz in the early 1900s as a playground of fantasy where systems of advertising across novels, magazines, newspapers, reviews, etc. afforded a host of characters to roam free and for different adventures to be told transmedially. Later on in the 1920s and 30s, analysing the empire surrounding Tarzan in terms of authorship lends itself to correlating the affordances of corporate practices such as merchandising and sponsorship to the interlinking of Tarzan’s stories across the likes of pulp magazines, radio serials, movies and toys. And, perhaps most unexpectedly of all, analysing the iconic red cape of Superman in terms of character-building across comics, radio, cinema, etc. really led to a very clear understanding of how practices of propaganda, war cinema and B-movie production throughout the 1940s and 1950s ultimately gave way to forms of transmedia storytelling as a response to the Second World War.

 

 

In other words, each of these cases serve as a demonstration of how very different industrial configurations in the past led to the same transmedial results. In revealing how differently structured media industries still had very strong impulses towards what is now called transmedia storytelling, I like to think that my work serves as an important example of how contemporary developments can actually re-focus the ways in which we think about the past, and indeed the ways in which bygone historical perspectives can in turn reframe current scholarly debates of, in this case, transmedia.

 

You note that your emphasis on American developments in transmedia are not intended to reflect “any kind of general explanation” of transmedia’s industrial history, but it seems to me that your account tends to assume that transmedia is an extension of commercial or market logics that dominate the American entertainment system but do not necessarily shape other media ecologies. Would transmedia have necessarily emerged in cases where there is a much stronger emphasis on public service broadcasting or state funding for the arts? Or would transmedia at least have taken a different shape if storytelling was kept separate from marketing and promotional practices?

 

Absolutely, I very much believe that, at least in the context of US history, transmedia storytelling emerged out of large-scale commercial and market logics driven by industrialisation and consumer culture, with modes of storytelling across media coming out of certain industrial and culture needs to reproduce and distribute media products for the mass-market.

Yet, be that as it may, I also don’t think that my conclusions are globally applicable. What I realised is that when you examine transmedia in its present context compared to its historical contexts, it is totally different – even if it’s in the same country. In my eyes it’s much more useful to think about context specificity – that is, that different things at different moments in different cultures for different reasons inform transmedia in different ways. It would be wrong to say that the commercial or market-based ideas that I propose of transmedia’s past in the US can be used to explain transmedia in other countries. Instead, it is much more accurate to start again, as it were, and to look at the specific country, its cultures, industries, society, etc. and ask: What role is (or was) transmedia playing here? And what are the specific mechanisms informing it?

A perfect example of this would be Colombia, which I’ve started researching lately. Colombians very passionately reject the idea that transmedia is commercial. Some Colombian researchers actively oppose the link between transmedia and Hollywood, say, or transmedia and branding or franchising. Instead, in Colombia transmedia is a long-standing social tool, a way to unite a dispersed Colombian nation – people who have gone through terrible social ordeals and violent conflicts in the past.

I’m also currently working with others who affirm similar ideas about the specificity of transmedia in different countries: Melanie Bourdaa, for example, argues that transmedia occupies a role of cultural heritage in France, while Indrek Ibrus and Maarja Ojamaa explore the dual role of transmedia in Estonia as both a mechanism for supporting cultural heterogeneity and for enforcing coherence and stability in culture via maintaining the relevance of historical media texts. Marie-Eve Carignan, too, is doing very interesting research that analyses the media coverage of terrorist attacks in Canada to show the key role of transmedia in the radicalisation of that country.

Not to simplify things, but in each of these cases it is documentary that seems to have shaped the form of transmedia. And because of this, in a country like Colombia transmedia is now fundamentally perceived not as a tool for brand-building but rather for community-building, with the spreading of content across multiple media serving to re-create lost cultural memories and to re-build broken societies.

 

Dr Matthew Freeman is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at Bath Spa University, and Director of its Media Convergence Research Centre. He is the author of Historicising Transmedia Storytelling: Early Twentieth-Century Transmedia Story Worlds (Routledge, 2016), the author of Industrial Approaches to Media: A Methodological Gateway to Industry Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and the co-author of Transmedia Archaeology: Storytelling in the Borderlines of Science Fiction, Comics and Pulp Magazines (Palgrave Pivot, 2014). His research examines cultures of production across the borders of media and history, and he has also published in journals including The International Journal of Cultural Studies, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and International Journal of Communication.

 

Historicising Transmedia Storytelling: Early Twentieth-Century Transmedia Story Worlds is published on December 6, 2016:

https://www.routledge.com/Historicising-Transmedia-Storytelling-Early-Twentieth-Century-Transmedia/Freeman/p/book/9781138217690