Superheroes and the Civic Imagination


In early December, I delivered — via Skype — some opening remarks for the Superhero Identities Symposium at Melbourne’s Australian Center for the Moving Image. Angela Ndlianis, one of the event organizers, has let me know that an audio podcast version of my remarks and those of some of the other sessions are now available online. You can access my remarks here.


My remarks built upon Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Liana Gamber-Thompson, “Super-Powers to the People!: How Young Activists are Tapping the Civic Imagination,” in Eric Gordon and Paul Mihalias (eds.) Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 295-320.

Here’s the abstract for the talk:

“What Else Can You Do With Them?”: Superheroes and the Civic Imagination

By Henry Jenkins

“If a superhero can be such a powerful and effective metaphor for male adolescence, then what else can you do with them?” — Kurt Busiek, AstroCity

In his 2015 book, On the Origin of the Superheroes, Chris Cavalier traces one origin story of the superhero back to the figure of popular rebels, such as Robin Hood and Guy Fawkes, suggesting the ongoing struggles to contain these larger-than-life protagonists operating outside the system into the constraints of corporate ideologies and political institutions.  From the start, the superhero had a politics and from time to time — when Superman was “Champion of the Oppressed” rather than the defender of “Truth, Justice, and the American way,” when Green Lantern and Green Arrow set out to discover a troubled 1960s America, when Captain America questions the military-industrial complex, and when Wonder Woman inspires the birth of Second Wave Feminism — that politics threatens to get out of hand. It is one thing to kick Hitler’s butt and another to stand up for GLBT rights, challenge Islamiphobia, or support African self-determination.

My interest here, though, is not first and foremost in the way politics is depicted in superhero comics, but rather the ways superheroes are stepping off the page and the screen and becoming resources for the Civic Imagination. Around the world, activists are struggling for immigrant rights, battling rape culture, questioning the police state, asking for homes for Syrian refuges,  or condemning wealth inequality while deploying iconography and mythology borrowed from the American superhero tradition.  Before we can change the world, we need to be able to imagine what a better world might look like, we need to believe that change is possible, we need to see ourselves as agents of change, and we need to develop empathy for the plight of others whose experiences are different from our own. The Civic Imagination refers to the often shared mental constructs and rhetorical devices through which we inspire these potentials for social and political change.

Recent research on participatory politics in the United States suggests that more and more the Civic Imagination is being fueled by popular culture, especially among youth, and we have begun to see such patterns elsewhere around the world.  There is a blurring of the lines between fans and activists as characters from popular culture are being reimagined, redrawn, and re-performed to speak for non-dominant peoples who often want contemporary heroic narratives they can pass along to their own children and help them imagine a different role for themselves as political and civic agents.

And this process has gone global as the success of the Marvel franchises has introduced the superhero genre to countries, especially in the global south, which have had limited exposure to it before. As countries seek to create mythologies that place them on the map of an increasingly transnational culture, as they seek narratives of personal and collective empowerment, they are seeking to insert their concerns into the framework the superhero genre provides us.

In this talk, I will provide an overview of this phenomenon, situating it within the larger contexts of participatory politics and the Civic Imagination. I will consider what about the superhero has made this popular culture trope such a flexible and generative tool for sparking the Civic Imagination. And I will close with some reflections on the strengths and limits of conceptualizing struggles for social justice within the terms the superhero genre offers.


You can go here for information about the conference and links to other presentations, including featured interviews with Hope Larsen, Paul Dini, Nicola Scott, and Tom Taylor,  among others.


Angela also shared with me some great videos produced for the event interviewing Australian fans and artists from local comics conventions. Enjoy!

Do Fans Generate Transtexts?: An Interview with Melanie Bourdaa and Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz (Part Three)

An important contribution of this book is expanding the range of exemplars of transmedia practice to consider the role that transtexts play in relation to the contemporary sitcom and professional wrestling, among others. What are sitcom producers doing differently from those working with speculative fictions and how might expanding what we look at further sharpen our conceptual vocabulary for thinking about transmedia?


Derhy Kurtz: Thank you. Sam Ford’s chapter on wrestling and the chapter on sitcoms do offer perspectives which are… under-represented, we could say, in academic literature on transmedia; as does yours, on a totally different level, with regards to geographically and conceptually different types of transmedia. This was precisely the point of this book: not only to develop the analysis of key and often-discussed topics through new case studies, as Matt Hills and Paul Booth skilfully have, but also to bring new elements and perspectives to the table.

And some sitcom producers using transmedia strategies, indeed, do things differently, on a number of levels. In our chapter, Simone Knox and I explain that in this TV III era, TV channels, and US networks in particular, are struggling for audience share, and sitcoms are thus turning to smaller but more engaged audiences; with the producers encouraging invested viewership by using transtexts. This is where we came up with two new notions (albeit not specific/limited to comedy). Transtexts give their audiences the opportunity to willingly (continue to) suspend their disbelief, play along and ‘believe’ that the transtexts are ‘real’ (for example, that books and or tweets were in fact written by the characters); this is what we have called Accepted Imaginative Realism. It is, therefore, an imaginative game between the producers, who invest in creative labour to provide a more compelling and life-like storyworld, and the audience, who becomes further engaged and chooses to ‘believe’ in the transtexts (in a manner reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s ‘we-know-they-know’ double-codedness of the postmodern). But of course, one can also express the situation from the production perspective, rather than the reception one, through the concept of the Reality Envelope, where the producers have a specific agenda: attempting to push this (reality) envelope so as to penetrate beyond the TV set’s screen and thus bring this sense of reality to the audience. We chose that expression because, in addition to the ‘pushing the envelope’ idiom, an envelope is a spatial object, alike transtexts ‘hovering’ around their storyworlds, and also because envelopes are fragile, a notion which we must be kept in mind in relation to these concepts of ‘realism’. But I wish we had more time / space, because there are many more elements to talk about, which are used within transtexts by sitcoms producers, such as issues relating to texture, performance and the actors’ input. To sum up, individually and collectively, such concepts can enrich debates on transtexts, and in our conclusion, we invite others to engage with them and test them out through other case studies, whether from or beyond the sitcom genre.

While most accounts acknowledge that many transmedia texts function as both storytelling and branding, the emphasis has largely been on identifying their contributions to the story. Yet there are several places in the book where this emphasis is reversed. What might readers learn about branding by looking more closely at transmedia franchises?


Derhy Kurtz: Yes, I think this is another important element as well, and it is interesting to finish on that note. Besides studying what transtexts and branding can bring to a story, one could and should also look at what transmedia stories can bring to branding, and marketing, and communication. As it happens, the answer is: a lot! I have long been interested in that aspect, in fact, and aside from guest-editing a special issue entitled ‘Branding TV: Transmedia to the Rescue’ a few years ago, I actually teach transmedia as a communication and a branding strategy to communication postgraduate students (it was only natural, therefore, that this emphasis would be reversed at times in the book, as you note).

Regarding transtexts and branding, and the text-brand, Hélène Laurichesse, by applying concepts such as the galaxy system and the brand universe to transtexts, and by clarifying the place of fans in this brand-centred analysis, brings a rare insight into how the two can work with one another. But aside from branding, transmedia franchises (for which a whole new legal framework must be considered, as explained by Jennifer Henderson, due to the presence of extensions under many forms) can be used as an example to create an engaging marketing or communication strategy around a product, which will be more immersive and more compelling than a traditional advertising campaign could ever be; as was done, for instance, by Chipotle and its scarecrow campaign a few years back. But it can also be used in order to create a new storyworld, the transtexts of which would be the ones to be sold to the public, like LEGO (through the help of various right-leasing devices, in order to use a number of comic books or other fictional characters), which have created a universe where people are… ‘legos’, and directed the audience to the transtexts themselves: videogames, films, etc., which are sold to the consumers, rather than to the original product itself: the toys (as opposed to using transtexts as a decoy to hide the advertising purpose, while bringing people back to the original product; in the case of Chipotle: sandwiches).

Transtexts are, therefore, not ‘simply’ a persistent – and rising – narrative form for a variety of cultural products anymore; they are also part of the future of communication, marketing, branding and advertising.

Melanie Bourdaa is an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne in Communication and Information Sciences, and a researcher in Transmedia Storytelling and fan studies. She ran a MOOC entitled « Understanding Transmedia Storytelling » in France. She created the GREF, a research group gathering scholars working in the field of Fan Studies.  She co-created the CATS, a consortium on Transmedia Storytelling, gathering researchers and professionals in this field of expertise. She runs the research program “MediaNum”, dealing with the valorization of Cultural Heritage via Transmedia Storytelling, funded by the Region d’Aquitaine.

Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz teaches at Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3), Sciences Po (IEP) and Ecole Polytechnique (X), as well as at various communication and business schools. He created undergraduates/postgraduates courses, including on Transmedia, and holds experience in marketing and in institutional/promotional/political communication and consulting. His PhD, at the University of East Anglia, explores ‘success’ in the TV industry.

Do Fans Generate Transtexts: An Interview with Melanie Bourdaa and Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz (Part Two)


There has been an international conversation amongst fans, producers, and academics about the nature of transmedia entertainment over more than a decade now. What do we know now that we did not know a decade ago? Why is now the right time to publish a new book on this topic?

Bourdaa: We are in a more mature time to analyze transmedia productions and strategies. A decade ago, production teams were experimenting, trying to find the good balance between expanding stories, the use of the right platform to tell their stories and engaging the audience. When projects blossomed a decade ago, there was this sense that transmedia was all about marketing and digital production. I am thinking of the interactive platform NBC launched, called NBC 360, to enhance the stories of their TV shows. Now producers realize that transmedia content could be deployed on different media platforms and non-digital ones, such as comic books, novels, billboards, radio podcasts for example. Moroever, Jeff Gomez introduced the term Transmedia Producer in the Producer Guild of America, creating a job with rules to develop extended universes.

This book is published at a perfect time for scholars to look back and take a step back on transmedia projects. They have the background to know what worked, what didn’t work, they had time to delve into the strategies, play with them, engage in the stories, go from one platform to the other to unravel new contents. They played the role of the fans, and that gives them the legitimacy to analyze the strategies from within, giving new insights on practices both from a production point-of-view and an audience one.


Early definitions of transmedia placed a strong emphasis on the “coordinated” and “systematic” unfolding of content across media platforms and thus on the central role of the author, not necessarily an individual but a creative team or design network, in insuring consistency and continuity across the story world. Reading fan works as transtexts, alongside the commercially produced paratexts and intertexts, requires us to adopt a different model of transmedia authorship. What do you see as the implications of this shift towards a more participatory account of how transmedia takes shape around a fictional property?


Bourdaa: When you coined your definition Henry, it was around a Hollywood IP, The Matrix Trilogy, and the case study has some specificities, besides an obvious marketing one: the use of multiple platforms to tell chunk of an overall story, bridges between those platforms to form a coherent whole and the creation of a coordinated narrative universe. The goals were to extend the stories and to engage and immerse hard-core fans in the storyworld, hunting for clues and moving from one platform to the next. This is what Brian Clark called the West Coast model, based on a franchise property, where ancillary contents are created around a mothership. Your definition was a bit restrictive in terms of effectiveness and feasibility for production teams and you developed 7 principles to soften it.

With the integration of fans’ works, of paratexts and intertexts, we are in a more flexible definition of transmedia strategies. The term Transtexts as we explained earlier and in the book considers both production strategies and fans’ tactics in the creation of a common, bigger, more shifting narrative universe. Of course, this requires from the production to include spaces to welcome fans’ creativity and opportunities to participate and collaborate in the narration. Transmedia strategies are very effective around entertainment strategies with a solid fanbase, as fans will create and produce their own content and own meaning, and they will engage in the collaborative spaces required by the production design. I am thinking of ARG (alternate Reality Games), which are participatory storytelling, asking for a huge collaboration between players to advance in the storyworld and discover clues and Easter eggs, on media platforms and in the real world.

One of the basic principles of Transmedia Storytelling or Transtexts is the creation of a narrative universe, a process called world-building. The stronger the world-building, with reliable characters and imaginative places, the more audiences and fans will play with it, will create around it, will discuss it. This is the key to a successful transmedia strategy.


Derhy Kurtz: Of course, industrial transtexts (or transmedia storytelling) need to be coordinated by someone, or an intellectual entity in relation to the copyright owner; this is why, for instance, the Marvel strategy is a coordinated one, with the various transtexts forming one storyworld, while one could not have a transmedia strategy with elements from BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary, even though both programmes revolve around the character of Sherlock Holmes; indeed, most of Conan Doyle’s stories being part of the public domain now, there is no way to coordinate or oversee one version, one universe of Sherlock Holmes (a strategy could be made around the Elementary version, specifically, however, as one could exist around the Sherlock one).

When it comes to fan-made extensions, such transtexts can – and, from the fans’ perspective, are meant to – be seen as paratexts, surrounding the main text(s), the source text(s) as I call it/them, and completing them in the way desired. Similarly, other fan-made transtexts can take the role of intertexts, shaping the meaning of industrial transtexts, often (with so many fanfictions, fanvids, etc.) to give a slightly different interpretation than originally intended by the producers (for example, imagining a romance between two characters, or saving a character implied (or shown) dead, etc.).

In that sense, the model of media authorship that we can adopt should be a collaborative model, where industry and fans collaborate together, although not one along the other, and thus create a number of transtexts around one central piece, the canonicity of some being often up for discussion (or not, as most fantexts are often considered as non-canonical by fans, which gives the latter no less pleasure in producing and ‘consuming’ them). As a result, this model is quite complicated and paradoxical, as the relationship is not reciprocal in the majority of cases: while fans make transtexts around the institutional ones, the industry typically does not make transtexts revolving or acknowledging fan-made ones (although some exceptions exist). While this overall, mutually-constructed universe (by industry practitioners and engaged audiences alike) should be considered and acknowledged, and while fan-produced extensions developed across different media must be recognised as transtexts as such, this non-reciprocity in terms of interaction between the two types of transtexts incites one to make that very distinction: consider them as two types of transtexts, revolving around, and within, one common (initially industry-built) universe.

Part of what had initially interested me about transmedia storytelling was that we were seeing the kinds of textual expansion, backstory elaboration, and development of secondary characters that I had long associated with fan fiction but being incorporated officially into the franchise and thus becoming part of the canon. Although I appreciate the intellectual rationale for doing so, I also worry that our ability to make meaningful distinctions about the status of different textual extensions may get lost in your more expansive concept. What do you see as the continued value of canon and fanon in this transtexts paradigm?

Bourdaa: This book offers a new perspective in Transmedia, as it was so often analyzed from a production point of view, i.e. studying the canon and authentic texts produced by the industrial and executive team at work.

Canon productions and fanon ones have to be both distinct and yet, if we think in terms of transtexts, they have also to be linked together in a shared storyworld. When I quoted Geoffrey Long earlier on negative spaces, I think we have here the core aspect of transtexts: those space left by the production teams are inevitable going to be filled by the creativity of fans. A dialogue, a co-creative process have to be envisioned by both parties. The extended universes have to be built by both the production teams and the fans.

Of course, that can create monsters and controversies like for example Star Wars, the paragon of extended universe. The Star Wars stories are augmented by hundreds of novels and comic books, video games and TV series (animated or not). And fans complete this huge narrative universe with their own productions, sometimes creating alternate universes within the canon. When Disney bought the franchise, before launching Star Wars 7, they created a clean slate for the canon, keeping only a few ancillary content such as The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels for example. But the fans’ texts are still out there, still part of the storyworld. To control fans’ productivity and play with the canon, J.K. Rowling created the interactive website Pottermore, which contains original content from the Harry Potter universe, thus extending the stories. But the author, wishing to regain control on the fanon productions and especially on the proliferation of slash fictions, created a creative space where fans could write their own stories but would have to follow some rules if they wanted to be published on the website.


Examples here from Hunger Games and Doctor Who suggest ways that fans and other audiences actively accept and reject bids for authenticity and canonicity rather than taking all commercially produced texts at face value and we’ve seen with Star Wars that the producers, themselves, may actively retract the canonical status of particular transtexts if they block potential future developments in the franchise. On what basis do fans arbitrate and resolve these conflicting bids on what constitutes the canon? Why does it matter if we have an agreed-upon sense of what constitutes the canon?


Derhy Kurtz: To go back to the origin of the term, canon, of course, initially refers to what is considered as ‘officially part of the “story”’ by a legitimate figure of authority, with the Rabbis deciding on which texts to include in (and reject from) the Old Testament (Tanakh), twenty four books / texts in total, and later on the Church, making slight adjustments to the list of texts from the Old Testament and making a new selection for the New one (with, interestingly, a number of variations: the Samaritan canon only retaining the Pentateuch and the various Christian denominations having certain dissensions on the final version of the canonical Bible). From this, we see that decision on what is considered canonical or not comes from the authoritative figure, rather than from the ‘audience’.

As developed in the chapter that I wrote about canonicity and transtexts, institutional figures still have a major role in whether a text is recognised as canonical or not when it comes to, as you say, the commercially produced texts. In many cases, once they weigh in, fans would not typically challenge the ‘official version’ (I’m still talking about transtexts from the same ‘universe’ here; not, say, adaptations). When things are left unsaid, however, without the show-runner, the channel, the writer or whichever authoritative person, everything is left to discussion, and fans can engage in heated debate over the status of a given transtext. In such cases, issues of credibility and consistency with the rest of the canonical texts arise, and, when such elements are debatable, long debates are sure to ensue.

As for why it matters to have an agreed upon sense of what constitutes the canon, I guess this comes back to the historical original sense of the term and purpose thereof: for the community to have a collective understanding of the ‘story’ in question so as to bring consistency and togetherness to its members with regards to a shared culture and ‘myth’, to know what did ‘happen’ and what did not; what is, what was, and what could be.

Bourdaa: When it comes to fans’ creations and works, there is often, if not always, a tension between what is considered by the authoritative production as canon and what is considered by fans as fanon. Fans play with the universe in the sense that when they produce their videos, write their fanfictions, draw their artworks, they poach what they think is interesting and re-work it into something new. They produce a new meaning, new contexts, new relationships.

In the Hunger Games case study, fans went against the authoritative canon of the movies because they thought it was not faithful enough to the books. The marketing campaign and the movies were glamorizing the stories and characters, thus weakening the purpose the books. So, they “took back the narrative” and organized themselves to build a transmedia activism, on multiple media platforms and social networks, and make something positive out of a negative narrative. This form of “resistance” from engaged audiences and this activism can be cultural, social or even political. A more recent example: the science-fiction show The 100 (broadcast on the CW) killed off Lexa, a lesbian character in episode 3×07 and a fans’ favourite, by a stray bullet, continuing the Bury Your Gay trope, that is infamous among LGBTQ fans. This trope shows how gay characters can be killed off to make a straight character’s arc move forward (see Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries for example). In this case, LGBTQ fans felt betrayed and enraged but they chose to re-direct their energy towards a good cause: raising money for the Trevor Project and bringing awareness on lesbian and more largely on LGBTQ representation on TV and media. Moreover, fans created their own alternate universe with fanfictions and tumblrs in which Lexa is still alive and still in her relationship with Clarke, her lover. These fanon productions and creations do not match with the canon since Lexa is dead but give fans an opportunity to make Lexa live again and build their own imaginative storyworld, emphasising on a positive representation that is lacking now in the canon.


Melanie Bourdaa is an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne in Communication and Information Sciences, and a researcher in Transmedia Storytelling and fan studies. She ran a MOOC entitled « Understanding Transmedia Storytelling » in France. She created the GREF, a research group gathering scholars working in the field of Fan Studies.  She co-created the CATS, a consortium on Transmedia Storytelling, gathering researchers and professionals in this field of expertise. She runs the research program “MediaNum”, dealing with the valorization of Cultural Heritage via Transmedia Storytelling, funded by the Region d’Aquitaine.

Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz teaches at Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3), Sciences Po (IEP) and Ecole Polytechnique (X), as well as at various communication and business schools. He created undergraduates/postgraduates courses, including on Transmedia, and holds experience in marketing and in institutional/promotional/political communication and consulting. His PhD, at the University of East Anglia, explores ‘success’ in the TV industry.

Imagine Us, 2040

Recently, my research group, Civic Paths, released a special project, “Imagine Us, 2040,” which we developed using the Medium Platform. We’ve been spending more and more time as a group theorizing what we describe as the “civic imagination” and running world-building workshops with various groups as a means to inspire more progressive visions of political change. This process has seemed especially urgent to us in the aftermath of the November election and at the start of the Trump administration, given how many people have lost hope in the direction our country is going. We decided to apply this process to our own community and “Imagine Us, 2040” is what emerged.

In an introduction below, Gabriel Peters Lazaro describes the process which generated the project. You can visit the issue here. There you will find short essays on, for example, the future of technology and labor, alternative models of journalism, native rights, social justice, and my own reflections on what an ideal health care system might look like, to cite just a few examples.

The goal is to describe the kind of world we want to live in — an act of advocacy rather than simply critique. We’d love to see others experiment with this mode of analysis and critical writing.

If you’d like to know more about our workshops, check out this documentation of what we did last summer at the Salzberg Academy for Global and Media Change. I am just back from running a similar workshop with the good folks at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Introduction to Imagine Us, 2040
written with Gabriel Peters Lazaro

“Imagine it’s 2040 and everything turned out OK; in fact, things have have turned out fantastically. What does the world around us look like?” This was the opening question of the worldbuilding and civic imagination workshop that we, the members of the Civic Paths research group based at the University of Southern California, asked ourselves on November 28th, 2016, only three weeks after the presidential election. After brainstorming our collective answers to that question we each wrote a personal projection or story envisioning that future world and we share those stories here.

Imagining the United States as we would like it to be in 2040 may seem like an unusual way to respond to what may well be one of the most divisive moments in America’s history. It might seem that it is a reaction that rests on escapism and distraction from vital issues. But for us at Civic Paths it seemed like the best way to respond to a difficult moment. It felt like exactly what we needed to do to begin to collect our thoughts, mobilize as a community, and figure out how to guide our own responses to issues of politics and justice as they continue to evolve and arise. Giving ourselves a little space to take a deep breath and reflect on what we really care about and channel just a little bit of energy into visualizing a future world that we really want to live in seemed like a good way to face that moment and all the moments ahead. Now, having seen what the transition and inauguration have brought, we feel all the more affirmed in the necessity of this approach and invite you to read the stories we came up with about the world in 2040 and maybe even share your own.

Our decision to run this internal workshop was not simply an intuitive reaction to the election but in fact an application of insights gleaned from our previous research. Founded in 2009 by Henry Jenkins, Civic Paths uses public conversations, workshops, research, and the popular arts to bridge between participatory culture and civic engagement. Civic Paths’s previous efforts resulted in the NYU Press book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism and the online resource for educators. For that project, the team interviewed several hundred young artists and activists to identify tactics and strategies by which networks of youth are able to expand civic participation via the practices and infrastructure of participatory culture. As Civic Paths learned, these networks also place an emphasis on personal and collective storytelling to effectively harness what we call the civic imagination.

We define civic imagination as the capacity to imagine alternatives to current social, political, or economic conditions; one cannot change the world unless one can imagine what a better world might look like. Beyond that, the civic imagination also requires the capacity to see one’s self as a civic agent capable of making change, as part of a larger collective which has shared interests, as an equal participant within a democratic culture, and as empathetic to the plight of others different than one’s self.
Working with community partners, Civic Paths developed several workshops around the civic imagination with the hope that they would help communities tap into and expand their inspirational and organizational potentials. The workshop we ran internally with our group in November is a variation on our “Think Critically, Act Creatively” workshop, which is a future-focused experience highlighting the power of stories as tools for fostering civic imagination and inspiring real world change.

Although our interests and perspectives are generally transnational in scope, we felt that the current moment called for a focus on the United States. Our brainstorm on November 28th was divided into two parts. The first part was a free-wheeling, anything goes brainstorm where we defined some key characteristics of the world we envision for 2040. The second part invited Civic Paths members to contribute their own autobiographical or fictional response to the world. It gave each of us an opportunity to really delve into that positive future vision that we had generated collectively, but in very personal terms.

The outcome is a collection of short stories and reflections that we share with you in this publication. We feel they capture our thoughts and visions at this particular moment, a moment that we feel will one day be historically significant. We also feel that by taking this time both collectively and individually to articulate some of our values and hopes for the future, we will be better equipped to make tough choices and take action in the world today. Each story includes links to other writings or organizations that are working in the areas addressed in each of the pieces and include topics such as healthcare, immigration, education, social justice and financial security. We also want to extend an invitation to others who may want to respond with their own aspirational vision for the world of 2040 and have included the full prompt here. Anyone can author their own piece and submit it to us for inclusion in this publication.

Do Fans Generate Transtexts?: An Interview with Benjamin Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Part One)

Over the last few installments, I’ve been sharing an interview with Matthew Freeman, the author of a new book which takes us into the history/prehistory of Transmedia entertainment. Today I will introduce a second interview also focused on current research which revises our understanding of the concept of Transmedia entertainment – Benjamin W. L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa, editors of The Rise of Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities, which was published late last year. This is a rich collection which includes new essays by some of my favorite thinkers about all things transmedia, including Louisa Ellen Stein, Geoffrey Long, Matt Hills,Aaron Delwiche,  Paul Booth, Sam Ford, and yours truly. My contribution explores what it means to locate transmedia production within particular media ecologies and economies, asking for example whether transmedia looks different in a public service based media economy as opposed to a commercial economy.

The book’s primary contribution and provocation is to broaden the category of transmedia storytelling to include works produced by the audience and in particular by fans. For me, this is been a somewhat vexing question. Early on, what drew me to transmedia entertainment was the degree to which producers were replicating forms of extensions that I previously only seen in fan fiction and other fan works. Fans had long demonstrated a fascination with back story for example or with fleshing out secondary characters or exploring uncharted corners of a fictional world. Heck, in Textual Poachers, I noted that fans were pushing for a more serialized form of storytelling at a time when network television was still highly episodic. So initially, what seemed important about transmedia storytellingg was that these fan reading practices are being recognized and replicated within the official Canon. So in that sense, transmedia and fan works operate in parallel with the difference that one is authorized and the other is not.

That said, if we think of transmedia stories less in terms of continuity and more in terms of multiplicity, then it is hard to argue for a sharp distinction between fan works and other kinds of transmedia extensions. More and more, transmedia entertainment has become a sprawling inter-textual system which includes text that are not easily located within a master plan for the unfolding franchise. When readers encounter the franchise online, their experience of say Star Trek includes both authorized and unauthorized works.

Building on our observation, The Rise of Transtexts ask us to consider this new category – transtext – which can be used to discuss the relationship between the two. Many of the contributors here are making a strong case for factoring audience produced text into our consideration of the transmedia system as a whole. I’m going to be very curious to see how people respond to this argument. My hunch is that the new concept is more likely to be embraced by academics and active fans rather than industry insiders and creative practitioners.

Regardless of how you fall down on that particular question, The Rise of Transtexts represents an important next contribution to the growing literature around transmedia entertainment. One could not reduce its contributions to the question of fan works, since it has much to say about the history of transmedia practices, the genre categories in which transmedia production operates, the industrial context that yields transmedia entertainment, and much much more.

This interview with the books editors opens up a wide range of such topics and offers some preview of the challenges and opportunities the books title describes. I will be running it over the next three installments of my blog.

Let’s start with some core concepts from the book’s title. What do you mean by Transtexts? What does this concept include that might normally be excluded from our understanding of transmedia storytelling?

B.W.L. Derhy Kurtz: Ok, let’s go. First, thank you for inviting us to do this interview, it is a pleasure to be featured here. The questions were challenging (as they should) and enjoyable to answer, and so very relevant in this day and age when talking about transmedia and transtexts.

The term Transtexts first appeared in 2012, for a study proposal I had made (with the same title / subtitle of the book, and of which this book would be a spin-off, if you pardon me the TV-pun), as I felt it a necessary step to build on, or rethink the existing concept of Transmedia by reinserting the agency of power of engaged audiences within the concept (which, incidentally, is very much the purpose of this collection. The term ‘transtexts’, in fact, could be seen as an ‘acronym’ / abbreviation for ‘transmedia storytelling and fan-produced texts’. Because, of course, two types of transmedia texts can be identified (and were thus addressed in the book).

Firstly, industrial transmedia texts, produced by supposedly authoritative authors or entities (we go back to canon and what is seen as ‘authority’ in this interview and in the book), and directed at active audiences, in order (hopefully) to foster engagement. Secondly, there are fan-made transmedia texts, which are made by the very engaged audiences which are targeted by transmedia strategies. Fans are, therefore, making and spreading original texts across various media (and social media platforms) which, in turn, expand the content and presence of this narrative universe. As such, as explained by several of the book’s contributors (especially Louisa Stein), such fan-made texts could / should be considered as transmedia narratives, on the same level as industrial transtexts.

This new concept was introduced to provide a category where they can both fit, and giving equal attention to the audience’s texts. Since the concept of transmedia storytelling, as generally understood, mostly positions itself on the side of institutional transmedia practices and thus leaves little place for fan-produced transmedia narratives, using the same expression while widening its scope would not be enough (due to this inherent industrial connotation). It thus seemed that a term encompassing both notions at once could be of use.

Finally, Hélène Laurichesse argued in this collection that it was this twofold nature of transtexts (industrial and fan-produced), rather than transmedia storytelling alone, that constituted the foundation of a text-brand’ identity, while Aaron Delwiche provided a fourfold typology of transtexts. Nothing is ‘lost’, therefore, by this new terminology, which simultaneously allows the study of wider-ranging phenomena than were usually studied, and encourages the search for more precision through in-depth analyses or case studies.

There’s a productive tension running through the book. On the one hand, you discuss transmedia or transtexts as something that urgently must be addressed because it is exerting such a strong influence on the contemporary entertainment industry. On the other hand, many of your authors seek to situate today’s transmedia in relation to a much broader history of telling stories across media. Given this tension, how much weight should we place on the idea of “the rise of transtexts” as opposed to the persistence of transtexts? What factors contribute to the increased visibility of such practices at the current moment?

B.W.L. Derhy Kurtz: I think this point is a key one. As explained in the introduction, the term rise does not refers to a supposedly new start of the phenomenon, as transtexts must be understood through a complex framework involving a history and development of this form and use, a recent one, and a much older one (as demonstrated by Denzell Richards, for instance), since we can find examples throughout history dating back even to Biblical times and state propaganda in Ancient History; this rise of transtexts refers to its incredible expansion over the past few years.

As stated in the introduction, and further in Melanie’s chapter, it is the combination of these three revolutions, I believe, which has fostered, and continued to encourage, this increased visibility – but also development in use (which is undeniably becoming increasingly widespread) – of transtexts.

M. Bourdaa: Of course, the art of extending narrative universes existed before what we are witnessing today with such pieces as Star Wars and even before that with the Disney Universe, the Wizard of Oz or the Marvel and DC stories, with ancillary contents spread across radio shows, novels, cartoons, comic books and comic strips. A history and archaeology of Transmedia strategies is needed to understand why and how they have been evolving, as Matthew Freeman proposes in his more recent book or as Denzell Richards publishes here in this collection.

I agree with Benjamin on the evolutions of the media landscape. As I have stated in my article on The Hunger Games in this book, I think that three mutations paved the way for a more systematic use of Transmedia strategies in the entertainment industry, bringing awareness on a rise of Transmedia and transtexts.

First, we have witnessed the implementation of technologies in production strategies, mixing traditional media with new ones, leading to what Jennifer Gillian calls “must-click TV”, and to stories spread across multiple media platforms.

Then, narrations have evolved into a complex system and more seriality, developing cliffhangers and negative spaces, where fans could fill the gaps with their own productions and creations.

Finally, fans and audiences are more and more engaged in narrative universes, leaning on a convergence and participatory culture. They work together, share, discuss, create, organize in their communities and often productions rely on these fans’ works to promote their shows, as it is the case with Game of Thrones, Orange in the New Black or Hannibal when they ask fans to create artworks that would later be used to advertise seasons of the show.

So of course, transmedia and transtexts are not new strategies in the entertainment industries, but there are definitively factors and mutations that are leading to a more visibility and acceptance of these practices and tactics.

 In his Foreword, Toby Miller raises some ethical considerations about transtexts: “In moving rapidly between platforms, genres, and sites in order to tell stories, how good and how well-informed are those stories and those involved in telling and reading them?” Up until now, the focus has been on identifying models and practices associated with transmedia. Transmedia has been read as something like a talking dog — who cares what it says. But at some point, we need to be asking the kinds of evaluative questions Miller is pointing us toward. What criteria might we use to evaluate whether a given transtext is good or more importantly whether the shift towards transtexts is good for the society?

M. Bourdaa: The question of evaluating transmedia strategies, especially around audiovisual contents such as TV series or blockbusters, has been a problem since the beginning because it implies economical and marketing issues. How many people follow the strategy? What are the rates of engagement?

The only way to measure that is to look at the number of likes on a Facebook page or the number of people following a Twitter account and that is not very reliable, because people can like a page and never come back on it or have no interaction with the content.

Transtexts are focused on creating storyworlds both by the production teams, thus deploying stories that are canon, and by the fans themselves, expanding the universe in a fannish approach. One criterion to evaluate transmedia projects could be the degree of engagement by fans, and by that I mean what fans do with the media text, how do they re-work it, what meaning do they produce with it. Fans are the target audience of transmedia projects, because they are the expert audience and because they will share the canon content within their communities and via social networks. But they will also create new content, using fan fictions, viding, fan arts, discussion boards, games.

Louisa Stein gives a good example, when she analyzes the way Jane Austen’s fans re-worked the stories in a more contemporary setting and produced the webseries The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, focused on the iconic character of Pride and Prejudice. Fans can also resist the marketing aspect of the transmedia strategies and organize themselves to produce transmedia activism, as it was the case with fans of Hunger Games.

Geoffrey Long in this collection offers a framework to analyze such successes by evaluating the negative spaces left in the storyworlds, spaces that will later be filled by fans’ productions. He sums it up here: “the key lesson is that successful vast transmedia storyworlds find a balance between saying what they say in a unique fashion, such as in the unique franchise characteristics at both the storyworld and character levels, and in strategically not saying everything there is to say, both inviting audiences in to imagine who they themselves would be in these storyworlds and filling in the negative spaces in the storyworld with their own imaginations”.

Melanie Bourdaa is an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne in Communication and Information Sciences, and a researcher in Transmedia Storytelling and fan studies. She ran a MOOC entitled « Understanding Transmedia Storytelling » in France. She created the GREF, a research group gathering scholars working in the field of Fan Studies.  She co-created the CATS, a consortium on Transmedia Storytelling, gathering researchers and professionals in this field of expertise. She runs the research program “MediaNum”, dealing with the valorization of Cultural Heritage via Transmedia Storytelling, funded by the Region d’Aquitaine.

Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz teaches at Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3), Sciences Po (IEP) and Ecole Polytechnique (X), as well as at various communication and business schools. He created undergraduates/postgraduates courses, including on Transmedia, and holds experience in marketing and in institutional/promotional/political communication and consulting. His PhD, at the University of East Anglia, explores ‘success’ in the TV industry.

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

Marsha Kinder’s Playing with Power introduced the concept of “transmedia” in relation to characters and not stories, characters that travel between texts without necessarily carrying large amount of backstory with them. Her examples were Mario Brothers, Ninja Turtles, and Muppet Babies. Is the same true for the earlier examples you discuss? Does a more character-centered notion of transmedia allow for a looser set of relations between texts and less dependence on audiences “catching them all,” seeing every installment in order to make sense of the connections between them? Might this suggest that what was distinctive about more contemporary forms of transmedia is precisely the tighter integration of story enabled by new networked forms of production, distribution, and reception?


I don’t think so. I would argue that there has been a tendency in some of the earlier work on transmedia storytelling to perhaps over-emphasise the ‘complexity’ of contemporary transmedia, suggesting – directly or indirectly – that the new era of digital convergence is somehow more effective at producing tight integrations of networked plots across platforms.

For me, such an assumption is to greatly undermine and to underestimate the storytelling prowess of the past. It’s true that characters are an important part of a story that transcends multiple media – if nothing else, they help to ‘link’ different texts together in the eyes of audiences. But that’s not to assume that the tight integration of interconnected storytelling across platforms wasn’t going on in the past, albeit in ways informed by largely different strategies and practices.

Here’s a nice example to show just how integrated and ‘complex’ the transmedia storytelling was in the past. Even in the face of industry experts that warned authors of the 1930s not to produce media stories across multiple platforms on account of the perceived risks that one version might compete against another versions, Edgar Rice Burroughs was especially detailed in his weaving of plot details across multiple media for his Tarzan adventures.

In one case, the words ‘red star’ were used to link a pulp magazine with a later novel, pointing readers across both texts. The novel then gave readers some added insight into how and why the pulp story’s plot occurred as it did. So the novel incorporated a new kidnap sequence, which explained how a particular map was attained by characters in the pulp story, whose own narrative began after the map had been stolen. New characters were added into the novel – one that was revealed to have kidnapped Magra, a character rescued by Tarzan in the pulp story. This story then continued over into the newspaper comic strip and the radio serial, which, crucially, were published and broadcast almost concurrently to one another. Thus in the first edition of the comic strip, readers were told that Tarzan had travelled to hold a meeting on the outskirts of Bobolo, a town on the Congo River hundreds of miles inland. But readers were not told where Tarzan had actually travelled from – until, that is, the broadcast date of the radio serial, when exactly four weeks later listeners were informed that Tarzan had in fact travelled from the village of Loango, a town which lies one hundred miles downstream the Congo River from Bobolo, thus interconnecting the tales of comic strip Tarzan and the radio Tarzan simultaneously.

All of which is my way of highlighting just how complex and ‘involved’ transmedia storytelling could be in the past. In this case, after all, Burroughs had crafted a quest narrative comprising of a large number of supporting characters, each in rival expeditions with hidden agendas, and with the audience’s careful following of small details of plot across pulps, novels, comics and radio all being crucial to the story.


You argue that of all the media, cinema proved most resistant to transmedia practices. Why? How might today’s “mothership” model of transmedia reflect the desire of contemporary transmedia producers to work around or work with the resistances of the film industry to a transmedia model?


Ah yes, the ‘trouble with the cinema’. Whereas some media forms – namely, comics – greatly afforded transmedia storytelling in the past, the cinema almost consistently militated against the telling of stories across multiple media. The problem with the cinema was not inherent to the medium itself and its mode of telling stories, but was instead related either to its cultural distinction from other media around the turn of the twentieth century or to the mode of vertical integration that had come to typify Hollywood by the 1930s.

With regards to my first comment, what’s important is that directing certain audiences to the cinema in the 1900s and 1910s was often difficult, since the audience composition that built up novels and Broadway was so different to that which made up the cinema’s audience: Whereas novels and Broadway belonged to the rising middle class, the cinema was still mostly associated with its lower class nickelodeon origins. And this lower-class perception was reflected in the price of buying a novel or attending a Broadway play compared to the cost of seeing a film: A nickelodeon entry admission was around five cents, whereas a novel cost around $1.50 and the average admission price to see a Broadway show was $1 to $2.

And in later decades, secondly, the system of vertical integration that came to characterise the major Hollywood studios meant that these studios occupied a producer-distributor-exhibitor model and had therefore grown accustomed to working internally. Without a regulatory influence forcing different media industries to work together, it was much more difficult for creative personnel to author storyworlds that crossed in and out of the cinema. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, but it’s certainly interesting to see that Burroughs’ Tarzan films were arguably the least transmedial of all of his Tarzan ventures in the sense that many of these films failed to connect with the plots occurring in other media, while DC Comics later resorted to producing many of their Superman films with relatively minor-status companies so that they could manage screenplays whose plots weaved closely into the plots of their comics.


Your conclusion makes some provocative suggestions about planned obsolescence in today’s transmedia as compared to the long-standing franchises from the early 20th century. Oz, Tarzan and Superman are still present in our culture in a way that The Matrix is not. How might you account for this shift in the life span of intellectual properties?


Interestingly, there’s a case to be made that the transmedia storytelling of the past century centered on a more individualistic notion of authorship compared to the more corporate ideas of authorship now associated with the franchised transmedia worlds of the contemporary era – and for me this difference is key to answering this question.

Today’s convergent media culture has certainly allowed transmedia storytelling to gain urgency as producers now make use of a host of internal corporate connections so to craft stories across media. But there’s a sense that the corporate scale of today’s industrial convergences breeds a form of ‘departmental’ authorship as transmedia storyworlds now pass through the hands of so many creative personnel, working across many sub-divisions and subsidiaries (and often farmed out to many different transmedia consultancy companies such as Starlight Runner Entertainment). As such, many of today’s transmedia franchises tend to be short-lived projects that come with a high turnover rate. We are perhaps more accustomed to the idea of the ‘reboot’ in today’s Hollywood cinema and popular culture than we’ve ever been before.

By way of comparison, my own exemplars of historical transmedia storytelling (Oz, Tarzan and Superman, all of which are still part of today’s culture of course) continued to be built for a substantially longer period of time – for twenty years in some cases. These historical cases, and unlike the conglomerate-produced cases of today, were typically produced by one author, or at least by a smaller number of creative personnel working together across media. For example, it’s quite remarkable to note that, with the exception of one instance, the basic story told in each and every Land of Oz text produced across novels, comics, theatre and films between 1900 and 1918 came from the imagination and the pen of L. Frank Baum. Though the same cannot be said of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the many Tarzan stories that emerged between 1918 and 1938, there is the sense that the most effective transmedia storytelling strategies to emerge during that period came when Burroughs carefully managed his various licensing contracts himself. And this was also true of DC Comics and their Superman stories between 1938 and 1958. Here, only a very small handful of creative personnel worked on Superman across multiple media forms.

Importantly, across my three cases of Oz, Tarzan and indeed Superman, almost all of the authors and creative personnel that brought these storyworlds to life often relied on the continued transmedial growth of their storyworld to make a living, with the need to find new revenue streams driving the desire to expand the story. What’s more, the fact that these authors depended so heavily on their respective storyworlds growing partly explains why many of the strategies used to tell stories across media in the past were so varied – revolving around everything from colour-coding to spectacle, from comic-strip characters to printed maps, from posters and reviews to licensing and franchising, from merchandising and sponsorship to propaganda.

The main reason for this more ad-hoc formation of transmedia storytelling in the past – in turn spanning such a diverse range of industrial and technological strategies – is quite simply because many of the strategies that underpinned how stories were told across media in the past were themselves emergent in nature, with the likes of Baum, Burroughs and DC Comics reacting to new developments as and when they arose.

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 was published on December 6, 2016:


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:


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

From the start, there have been competing claims about the origins of Transmedia storytelling. Many read my discussion of The Matrix in Convergence Culture as indicating that transmedia was a new phenomenon emerging from networked culture. Transmedia in that account lay where old and new media collide. Indeed, at the time I wrote Convergence Culture, I was excited about the prospect of a new storytelling paradigm which I was trying to piece together from the glimpses provided by a range of contemporary projects — from Dawson’s Desktop and The Blair Witch Project to the early ARGS to The Matrix. So my understanding of Transmedia in Convergence Culture reflected a sense that something new was happening here. Yet, if you look closely at my discussion of “The Art of World Building”, you will see references throughout two Homeric epic, Joseph Campbell, and the Christian church in the Middle Ages, as points of comparisons to the world building and extra-textual references found in contemporary Transmedia storytelling. I was certainly not arguing for a total break with the past, and I was hinting that people have been using every available media to tell stories fora long, long time.

Derek Johnson in his own book, Media Franchising: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Culture Industries and through his contribution to Spreadable Media has consistently made the case that today’s Transmedia is simply a reconfiguration of much older industry practices. Similarly Avie Santos has used the example of the Lone Ranger to make the case for earlier forms of product licensing as prefiguring Transmedia. See his recent book Selling the Silver Bullet: The Lone Ranger and Transmedia Brand Licensing. Other contemporary books such as The Rise of Transtexts explores a range of historical analogies. I will be sharing more insights from that boo’ks editors in a subsequent interview in this blog.

But to date, the most thorough and convincing exploration of the prehistory of transmedia has emerged from the pen of British media scholar Matthew Freeman. Freeman recently released the book Historicizing Transmedia Storytelling: Early 20th century Transmedia Story Worlds which represents the state-of-the-art in terms of exploring historical antecedents. Across this book Friedman develops case studies of the Wizard of Oz, Tarzan, and Superman as significant media franchises of the early 20th century. In each case, fictional characters and worlds were extended across a range of contemporary media platforms. For example, L Frank Baum, the “Royal Historian of Oz”, wrote not only books but also comic strips, stage plays, films, games, and other print ephemera, each of which told us something we didn’t know before about his magical realm. Within the first few years of Superman’s existence, the character was appearing in both comic books and comic strips, animated shorts, live-action serials, and radio dramas. Each of these platforms contributed significantly to the development of Superman as we understand him today and of the superhero genre more generally. Freeman explores why each of these producers were willing to take a chance on a new genre and a previously unexplored audience. There were not necessarily the same strong links on a narrative level across these different versions, but there certainly were examples of additive comprehension as sophisticated as anything found in today’s Transmedia franchises.

Freeman’s book must be regarded as a essential reading for anyone wanting to understand how the modern sense Transmedia emerged and what forms it might’ve taken in earlier eras. Freeman is deft in his ability to move between contemporary theoretical and critical accounts of Transmedia and detailed historical accounts of earlier media practices. I was honored to serve as an outside reader on Freeman’s dissertation and have watched with great interest as he’s translated that document into the current book. I was delighted when he agreed to conduct an interview for the blog in which he explores a range of issues concerning both contemporary and historical forms of Transmedia entertainment. I will be sharing his insights over the next three installations of my blog. Enjoy!

Let’s begin with the question which frames your first chapter — why “historicize” the study of transmedia? What has been lost by keeping the focus of discussions of transmedia on the current moment, on an emerging or evolving set of practices within the entertainment industry?

Most pointedly, I have attempted to show in Historicising Transmedia Storytelling that there is far more to transmedia storytelling than meets the eye. It may well be a practice of industrial convergence that affords media content to spread across the subsidiaries of a conglomerate. It may also be a system of technological convergence that grants audiences the power to themselves spread stories across a web of digitally connected media platforms. But transmedia storytelling is also a form of historical production, distribution and even regulation, and one that had a very important role to play in historical media culture long before such modern convergences existed.

That said, I do agree with those who claim that transmedia storytelling is the future. The concept and practice of transmedia has really come to define the workings of today’s (commercial) media industries, speaking as it does to the ways that the spread of content across platforms comes to encapsulate the networks and convergences at the core of today’s media.

And yet the perceived newness of transmedia storytelling – or rather the perceived importance of newer convergences on the rise of transmedia storytelling – has indeed left a sizable gap in our understanding of this practice and its importance across the face of history. Derek Johnson once remarked that ‘one of the newest dimensions of contemporary transmedia entertainment is our recognition of it as such’, and the practice of telling tales across media has not only fed into the workings of media industries over the past hundred years or so, but transmedia storytelling can actually be used as a lens through which to make better sense of some of the biggest industrial, cultural, social and even political developments characterising the fin-de-siècle, the rise of modern advertising and Hollywood.

For example, I explore modern advertising at the turn of the twentieth century, itself a fast-developing industry and system of cultural and commercial communication. That period’s advertising can provide us with a source of early industrialised transmedia storytelling. At that time, new trends in modern advertising invited authors to apply promotional techniques based on branding, collectivity, colour printing technologies, etc. to their storytelling practices. In essence, everything from the giant billboards on the side of buildings and the artistic arrangements in shop windows to the promotional forms of newspaper comic strips served to attract an audience’s attention with content (characters, images, spectacle, etc.) before steering them elsewhere, often across platforms to other related content in media texts and consumer products in an overtly transmedial fashion. In this instance, only via the process of historicisation can we more fully understand transmedia as itself the industrialised slippage of commercial logos, fictional characters and brands across platforms well over a hundred years ago.

In mostly conceptualising transmedia storytelling as part of digital or industrial convergences, it is fair to say that many scholars have thus far had a tendency to neglect such workings of the past – thus leaving us all with a limited and narrow understanding of what is actually a far longer, far broader and far more complex historical development. In other words, only by looking to the past can we fully see the contingencies of the present, and by searching for historical precedents it can force us to be far more nuanced in describing what is truly specific to our present media moment. To be clear, my work is in no way a ‘corrective’ to any particular scholarly understandings of transmedia storytelling. Simply, it is an expansion of those understandings, adding new information, insights and perspectives that enhance the characteristics of this important phenomenon as it evolved across history.

If we are historicizing transmedia, why should our focus start with the dawn of the 20th century? Set the stage for us in terms of what conditions were emerging then which would push storytelling in a more transmedial direction.

There’s no denying that the notion of stories that span multiple platforms pre-dates the dawn of the twentieth century. Derek Johnson and Roberta Pearson, in particular, point to the mythological narratives of Ancient Greece and to the cross-platform narrative architecture surrounding the figure of Jesus Christ as possible (almost pre-historical) forms of transmedia storytelling. Mark J. P. Wolf also points to things like Homer’s Odyssey as a storyworld that exists transmedially and trans-historically.

And so while identifying ‘the first’ transmedia stories is surely well and truly beyond our abilities as researchers, there were nevertheless some major and fundamental transformations associated with the United States circa 1900 that became intrinsically tied to the rise of transmedia storytelling on an industrial scale. Most broadly, two of these key transformations were industrialisation and consumer.

I should probably explain that statement a little. In many ways, telling stories across media is not really about stories converging as it is about stories building – rather like a series of extensions that are added to a building to form a larger and ever-expanding house. This analogy of a house hints at a central point: The industrial strategies of the past century that became most significant to the industrial history of transmedia storytelling were all practices or developments that afforded a way to build and to spread that which was built. Industrialisation was all about building and spreading. Just as media convergence allows content to flow across multiple media platforms, so did industrialisation, albeit in different ways.

Of particular importance were the technological changes that made the production of new forms of culture possible and the concentration of people in urban areas that created significant audiences for this new culture. At the turn of the twentieth century in the US, indeed, larger cultural factors concerned transformations that saw a predominantly rural-farming economy eventually develop into an emerging urban-manufacturing landscape. It may have only fully characterised particular cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but this period unquestionably witnessed the full force of industrialisation and became characterised by related developments to do with new models of mass production, fresh industrialised systems of modern advertising, and evolving developments in methods of mass communication.

What is important to stress is that, come the turn of the twentieth century, new forms of mass production technology, which led to a new and characteristically American form of manufacture, emerged only around the turn of the twentieth century. And this American form of mass production was vital to transmedia storytelling at this time.

Consider the era’s new archetypal model of industrialised mass production – the assembly line. The assembly line’s significance on what is now called transmedia storytelling ties most straightforwardly to the fact that production fast became a reproducible system of adjoining interchangeable parts during this particular time.

If imagined only from a strictly manufacturing perspective, transmedia storytelling is similarly about the reproduction of many media texts as much as it is about the creative expansion of fictional storyworlds and the migration of audiences. If the entire process of transmedia storytelling is ‘like building your Transformer and putting little rocket ships on the side,’ as Heroes’ Tim Kring once put it, then those additional ‘rocket ships’ are essentially interchangeable extension parts. And it is for this reason that the assembly line – this quintessentially American form of mass production – is so crucial to comprehending the industrial context through which transmedia storytelling emerged as an industrialised practice.

After all, in the same way that transmedia storytelling is the integration of multiple forms, or a process where elements of a larger product work like components of a unified experience, so too was the model of early-twentieth-century mass production: The assembly line was a process whereby one component was produced according to its relationship with others, which in turn was designed to be joined with another component, and with each of these adjoining components eventually all coming together to form one larger product. Conceptually, the assembly line and transmedia storytelling both work on the basis that separate product-pieces are each added one by one to form a larger product, like individual bricks building a proverbial house. In short, mass production afforded the sheer reproducibility of fiction as multipliable products for the industrial age.

From there, we then reached a phase in US history where consumer culture emerged, and this too was crucial. Economically, transmedia storytelling operates on the basis that audiences will gain both a richer and fuller understanding of a given story if they consume more of its media texts. Any attempt to historicise transmedia storytelling must therefore account for consumer culture as a broad contextual backdrop; the consumerist ideology ingrained into many current definitions of transmedia storytelling suggests that its history is closely related to the rise of consumer culture.

Specifically, the rise of consumer culture around the early twentieth century was important to the industrial history of transmedia storytelling for two reasons. First, the new models of mass production described above would lead to increased mass distribution, spreading the array of new products across media and audiences whilst further intensifying the importance of standardised differentiation on the production of products. Second, this mass distribution gave rise to the business of a number of interconnected licensing practices associated with corporate authorship’s managerial function, and in turn transmedia storytelling became corporatised. Put simply: If industrialisation afforded ways to build media on an industrial scale, then consumer culture afforded the means to spread and market that media across platforms.


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.


Presenting the Videos of Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment Conference

Today, I am happy to share with you the videos capturing our Oct. 21 event, Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment, hosted by the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, in partnership with our colleagues in UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program. The event was organized by Denise Mann, Henry Jenkins, and Stacy Smith and sponsored by JK Foundation, Fusion/Univision, George Foster Peabody Foundation, and the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The day was incredibly rich, full, and generative, so we are hoping that the discussions captured here can provide resources for others who are exploring issues of diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry. Final conversation with Melissa Rosenberg, Series Creator/Showrunner, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, was not recorded at the request of the speaker, but everything else is here.

Ernest J. Wilson III, Dean, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism
Denise Mann, Head of the Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education, University of Southern California


Stacy L. Smith, Director, Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, Associate Professor of Communication, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

In February 2016, the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg released the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD). The CARD report examined films, television and digital offerings of 10 major media companies from 2014-2015. Looking across gender, race/ethnicity and LGBT status, the study provides a look at what its author, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, calls an “epidemic of invisibility” in media. Dr. Smith will present findings from the CARD report and her most recent studies to give attendees a glimpse of the current state of entertainment media and the progress still needed.


Moderator: Robeson Taj Frazier, Director of the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg (IDEA); Associate Professor, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

After hearing about the dismal representation of marginalized groups in entertainment, one question remains: What can be done? As the conversation on diversity and inclusion continues to escalate, several voices stand out from the crowd with solutions, strategies and attempts to address disparities. This session brings together industry members and experts to discuss four essential topics. First, the panel will address why inclusive entertainment matters. Second, individuals will discuss the underlying causes at the heart of why under- or skewed-representation persists. Third, the group will overview what efforts are underway in Hollywood to effect change. Fourth, panelists will cover the challenges that remain and the work still needed to increase representation on screen and behind the camera.


Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, Head of Equity and Inclusion, Pearl Street Productions
Bertila Damas, Actor and National Chair of the Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee, SAG-AFTRA
Melissa Goodman, Director of the LGBTQ, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project, ACLU of Southern California
Danny Woodburn, Actor, Vice Chair SAG AFTRA Performers with Disability Committee, Member International Council on Disability, Ruderman Family Foundation


Moderator: Denise Mann, Co-director, Transforming Hollywood; Professor and Head of the Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

This panel explores social media as a powerful tool for artists, activists and influencers to express their voices of diversity and dissent outside the Hollywood mainstream. Social influencers are a new breed of online creator whose ability to thrive in the platform economy depends on their facility with social media connectivity to amass a dedicated following of online users. Fans who become invested in a favorite artist or musician can help spread their messages of change across an exponentially wider circle of social media communities. While guaranteed a paycheck via “work-for-hire” contracts, Hollywood talent lack essential power and agency because they don’t control the copyright for their artistic work. In contrast, actor-creator-entrepreneurs such as Freddie Wong and Issa Rae are running mini-studios of their own making and retaining part or full ownership of their creations; at the same time, they must use a variety of social media tools to keep their voices heard above the din of clickbait and app fatigue. This new breed of online creator also needs powerful advocates: TV showrunners who understand how to navigate the Hollywood system; talent managers who know how to connect creators with alternative voices to their fans; and tech experts who can tweak algorithms so that streaming content aggregators serve artists as well as platform founders. Welcome to the platform economy.


Troy Carter, Founder, Atom Factory; Global Head, Creative Services, Spotify
Bambi Haggins, Associate Professor, Arizona State University; author Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America
Prentice Penny, Executive Producer/Showrunner, HBO’s Insecure (based on Issa Rae’s web series, The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl)
Freddie Wong, Director, Co-Founder and CEO, RocketJump; online video pioneer and VFX artist


Moderator: Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education, University of Southern California

Within the entertainment industry, genre conventions help to shape what stories get told and how productions get promoted and marketed. Many of today’s creators find themselves pushing against taken-for-granted assumptions and long-standing formulas, and as a consequence, often fall back on old tropes and stereotypes. Both realist and fantastical genres offer opportunities for “changing the script” but they also bring historical baggage — old ideas about race, gender, sexuality and disability. The news media like to focus on the white male backlash in fandom but many active fans are embracing these changes and, indeed, modeling through their creative responses what more diverse genre entertainment might look like. Activists are asking critical questions about the ways even more diverse and inclusive productions fall short of our hopes. So, how do we change the script? How do we embrace new stories? How do we tell the old stories differently? And what role can the fantastical or speculative genres perform in imagining alternatives to current racial realities?


Grace L. Dillon, Professor, Indigenous Nations Studies Program, Portland State University; Editor, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction
Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Writer/Producer, Lost, The Middle Man, The 100, Xena: Warrior Princess
Nakul Dev Mahajan, Dancer/Choreographer, So You Think You Can Dance
Dodai Stewart, Executive Editor and Director of Culture Coverage, Fusion
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Young Adult Writer; Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania
Phil Yu, Founder/Editor: Angry Asian Man

A gliche cut off the very beginning of this program, but the core is here.


Moderator: Maureen Ryan, Chief Television Critic, Variety; Juror, Peabody Awards

The challenge of creating more diverse representations often centers on the construction of characters. It is not enough to put diverse faces in front of the camera: We need to depict those characters with nuance and complexity, in ways that audiences will recognize from their own lives, in ways that inspire their imaginations. Where does the responsibility rest for generating compelling characters in contemporary popular entertainment? What roles do producers, writers and actors play in defining who these people are, what they desire, how they react, what goals they pursue and what relationships they form? And how should we respond when bad things happen to good characters, when subsequent production decisions undercut or marginalize characters whose presence is particularly significant for underrepresented segments of the population?


Evelyn Alsultany, Associate Professor; Director of Arab and Muslim American Studies Program, University of Michigan; author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11
Desmin Borges, Actor, You’re the Worst
Effie Brown, Producer, Dear White People
Kathy Le Backes, Vice President of Research and Development, Wise Entertainment
Melissa Silverstein, Founder and Publisher, Women and Hollywood
Jeff Yang, VP of Cultural Strategy, Sparks & Honey

Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 6)

How important is it that we share what emerges from our imagination with others — that we think of imagining as a collective rather than personal/individual process?


This is such a powerful and important question – one worth devoting much attention to, as you have!


I don’t think we can ignore that it starts with the personal/individual process – this question of the collective imagination, I mean. As individuals, as children, we learn about the world through our imagination. Playing with things, imagining what they can do and then feeling the pushback to learn about the world. As we grow, we use the same mental capacity to create the stories through which we participate in social life and then, ultimately civic life. We assimilate events and build stories that construct our individual identities inside of a larger group. So all the tools and capacities and tricks of the imagination that we employ as individuals are in preparation for both social/civic life and a larger kind of civic imagination. If we aren’t using our imagination fully to somehow close gaps between novel things and events and what we know, the stories we hold and the identities that they sustain, then we atrophy as authentic individuals – we become part of a pack. And if we are not using our imaginations fully to imagine alternate stories, to experiment with those stories, then we also atrophy. We succumb to inertia in a world that is far from inert. Resilience requires being able to imagine and then act on alternate pathways.


Imagining as a collective scales off of the personal/individual process. We know that as a child grows, they begin to participate in a social group of peers through play where the imagination gets shared through language – beginning language and simple stories. As they interact with family, school and then ultimately increasingly larger social groups, the friction between stories of their own – the stories of their embryonic identity – with and without peers – and those of the larger body require some kind of resolution. This resolution is the beginning of participating in a social group and then civic life – public life with a sense of responsibility to the group. The moment one stops using their imagination for that resolution – accepting unaltered the stories and rules of the social context they are entering – is the moment when one loses the faculties needed for a civic imagination as a collective imagining.


In Pragmatic Imagination, we talk about the personal/individual process of imagining as an intra-psychological process that occurs in a short amount of time – from nano-seconds to seconds. The collective imagination is a shared cognitive/psychological/emotional process that is mediated through language or images and over some amount of time.


So when I think about the collective imagination, I think if it in two ways: as a sustaining imagination and as an evocative – propositional – imagination. The sustaining imagination is contained in the stories of a social or civic group – those stories that provide the shared identity and frames through which a group interacts with the world. ‘Images’ of how a group sees itself, the historical events from which it derives this perspective, and even what constitutes viable futures. Just as a child resolves novelty through the imagination, the civic body does as well. This is why ‘history’ is always an interpretation of facts. Biases of a group are a function of this. The fact that a group of people might actually see something – believe they see something – that does not intersect with the actual event, means that they are all working off of similar banked mental images – the stories of collective self. This is why contested geopolitical boundaries are so contested and so emotionally charged. The stories of events rarely overlap. This is also how we have things like the Salem witch trials and mass hysteria of all sorts.


But in addition to a civic imagination that sustains a civic body, there is the civic imagination deployed to either participate in civic life for the betterment of the whole and the potential for a civic imagination that works to evolve the civic – to shape the civic body anew.


If the collective imagination relies on a current of language and images, today, with all the new media we have, and with the way in which it can spread quickly over vast distances, clearly there is a new capacity for engaging people in collective imagining: for finding and building social community, for sustaining stories, for presenting the stories of others in order to hold up a mirror to a situation, cultivating understanding and empathy, and for engaging others in imagining possibilities in order to create authentic and impactful action at many scales from the personal to political. The pervasiveness of media and the ease with which individuals can participate as both creators and consumers has created hyper-performance around stories and images that are the currency of any communal imagination.


You have made great use of J.K. Rowlings quote “We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside of us already. We have the power to imagine better.” Again that seems to imply the individual BUT when it is part of the Harry Potter fan base – a collective group that takes seriously that challenge and call to action – the imagination transforms into real civic engagement – engagement with a sense of responsibility to make the world better – and real civic action. This is pretty spectacular. Your new civic imagination atlas project is a testimony to the scale of this endeavor of using collective imagination for social change. And again, whether it is change to be catalyzed by empathy or by actual projects – a kind of activism of the imagination.


Another thing about media today is how engaging it is because it surrounds us with multiple inputs that challenge the boundary between the real and virtual. To be able to not only hear about something, but to see it, to be in it, virtually, and then to even participate in the story through media intentionally designed for participation (games, args, world building, fan fiction), has heightened the potential for identifying with people, situations and events as stories. The potential in this is that one slips beyond understanding into empathy. This is fascinating. John Dewey spoke of the Moral Imagination as a capacity to imagine oneself in the shoes of another in order to act better. But he also spoke of rehearsing better action. So imagining and then rehearsing, with the intention of this spilling over into real life. The ability to use media today to, not only rehearse, but to be in the situation with all of its texture is an opportunity to super-charge Dewey’s concept. I, myself, am fascinated with empathy. Empathy is a state that does not go away. Sympathy does. Too often the two are confused and little sustained action comes from sympathy.


It may seem like I am digressing but for me, empathy is engagement that transports one into a different place. Beyond understanding as a cognitive intellectual process, it compels you to act as if it were you. Collective imagining that can attain this and then open up possibilities for alternate futures – possibilities either not imagined or not seen as viable before – and then possible action – the how to get there – this is very powerful for shaping desired, not default, futures.


As I talk about this I am reminded that one must also understand how all of this can be used for bad as well as good. The capacity is agnostic. Collective imagining (ISIS’ new caliphate) can be as powerfully bad as it can be good. Understanding how it works is necessary for counteracting as well as acting.


So, yes, imagining as a collective and imagining at scale. The potential is enormous. Which makes me wonder . . .


In Pragmatic Imagination, we talk about how the imagination engages in an entire spectrum of cognitive activity from perception, through reasoning, speculation, experimentation, and free play. This is a spectrum, not different categories, and different locations on the spectrum correspond to different degrees (proportions) of using the imagination for sense-making and sense-breaking.


So if you permit me to riff off this relative to the collective. Although I am not quite clear how yet, I think there is something super interesting in thinking about how the spectrum works on a collective, even civic, level both operationally and cognitively . . . Certainly networks are forging an entirely different set of scaled public spaces of imagination. I think it could be productive to unpack how the civic imagination (let’s stay with that phrase) operates and could operate all along a similar spectrum. We’ve talked about its value for creating understanding (at least) and empathy (at best), for speculating on possibilities around civic action and then carrying them out (that’s the pragmatic part – instrumentalizing the products of the imagination), and for building/widening communities around this social action . . . We know how the imagination functions collectively to perceive/interpret events that come along (often emotionally) but is it used for ‘reasoning’? And on the far side of the spectrum, towards experimenting and playing (without specific goals in mind), how to think about that . . . at scale . . . could we engage a civic collective at scale in imagining a different future? For instance, could we get a nation to imagine an alternate ‘american dream’ in a way that scaffolds ownership and commitment and leads to political action and redesign.


Benedict Anderson used the phrase Imagined Community in 1983 to define nation as a socially constructed community imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group despite the very real differences, inequalities and exploitations that exist. It is an imagined political community that shares, what he calls, a deep horizontal comradeship. As testimony to this he talks about the willingness of millions of people over the last two centuries ‘to die for such limited imaginings.’ Writing this today on 9/11 2016, it is pretty clear that that statement has become much more true in certain contexts and much less true in others. What would be interesting is to pragmatically construct a process to catalyze the civic imagination of us at the scale of all of us in order to, not only find coherence of nation, but to imagine a nation that holds all of our diversities[1] in a productive culture[2] of cacophonies.


So yes, to answer your question, sharing what emerges from our imaginations with others is invaluable. Finding pragmatic ways to instrumentalize what emerges is even more critical. And imagining collectively for civic purpose (on the good side) and then finding pragmatic ways to set that imagination on the ground running towards a better future at any scale is even more valuable. I want to emphasize the ‘at any scale’ part because small actions, smartly deployed, can have disproportionate impact. BUT, there is a caution in this. And that is that ‘smart’ is critical. Intention and capacity to imagine better is not enough. In a complex world that is constantly changing and hyper-connected, where contingencies override absolute conditions, unintended consequences or even just unforeseen consequences can override intentions. Knowing how to navigate this world is critical for civic action. This is what Design Unbound is about – a kind of manual for how-to-think-about and tools-to-do. Pragmatic Imagination is what we call both parent and child to DesUnbound because without the imagination, it is hard to get beyond incremental change and default futures. But also, it, as a specifically human faculty, is the way we evolve as individuals, as societies and cultures, and as a globally distributed species. At all scales, imagination is, as one of Frank Underwood’s writers, Beau Willimon, says, its own form of courage. In context of the show, he did not mean imagination itself, but the willingness to follow where it leads and act on it. Of course, in his case, we can’t ignore that there was/is some degree of evil involved.


Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).



[1] Diversities is pluralized to indicate many kinds of diversity from physical to cultural to socio-economic to educational to dispositional and so on – a whole host of diversities.

[2] by culture I mean like the culture in a petri dish – the growing of organisms in or on a medium.