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19 Notes

Transmedia’s Failures as a Scene

The rational self-interest of investing in creating scenes is obvious to anyone who has been part of a vibrant one: your work gets better when you’re part of a scene because you personally benefit from the synergies of the network that emerges. This is the single most important truth about where phenomenal work comes from throughout history: it comes from the intersection of artists with scenes.

People who haven’t been a part of scenes often work against that dynamic. They see acclaim as a limited resource to compete for, believe that they invent things instead of synergize things, think that because it was new to them it is new to everyone, and see the synergistic benefits to the scene as something they’ve lost.

Transmedia failed as a scene because there were too few of us that came to the movement from other vibrant scenes. They never even knew what they were missing, so my arguments two years about reclaiming transmedia storytelling or my provocation that transmedia was a lie a year ago didn’t have enough shared context to be meaningful.

The “transmedia scene” failed to manifest the attributes essential to productive scenius. Critiquing this failure allows us to focus on what we build next together, exposing base assumptions that we apparently did not share in the process. That means some people won’t be interested in joining the new scene or abandoning the old one, and that’s fine. Artistic scenes are built in reaction to the flaws of the prior movement, and the framework of scenius provides us a new way to analyze what those might be for transmedia … and what a movement reactionary to transmedia might look like:

  • Stand against something. Transmedia never had the core attribute of either a proactive technology movement or of a reactive cultural movement. It didn’t stand in opposition to franchises, it didn’t stand in opposition to the role of the audience, it didn’t even stand in opposition to the idea that “everything is transmedia”. It offered only vague promises of a proactive sort, rarely articulated beyond, “Storytelling will never be the same again!” It did, though, further elevate the concept of the auteur while only paying lip-service to the audience, so perhaps what follows would stand against the excesses of auteurism and replace them on the throne with the audience.
  • Let’s forget the idea of genius. Transmedia took the concept of the genius auteur as far as one could take it, creating new credentials, elevating practitioners patting themselves on the back with a PowerPoint MeetUp presentation culture. It increasingly cast the audience in the role of the lucky people who get to be transformed by this inventive brilliance. To stand in opposition to this, we would emphasize scenius over genius and have pity for the lone-geniuses that shut themselves away from the scene.
  • More mutual appreciation. Transmedia increasingly calcified with the same group of canonized leaders dominating the dialog instead of bringing new voices forward. When those people spoke of each other’s work, it was just as likely to point out what was wrong with it as it was to celebrate what was great about it. Our next scene should fetishize the discovery of new voices and of risky, imperfect first work.
  • Claim each other’s successes. Transmedia eventually devolved to a place of competition, where people saw each other’s successes as their own losses. Great scenes are exactly the opposite — any win by a member of the scene elevates the scene and, thus, gets claimed by the entire scene as a collective success.
  • Create barriers to entry. Transmedia never found a way to filter out the wannabes, posers and hangers-on … except to further elevate self-anointed leaders. Roger Ebert used to tell people you’re only a filmmaker if you’re making a film. Having a film show at a festival was a barrier of entry to the scene of indie film, but hundreds of new people were still crossing that barrier every year. Curators, and valuing what great curators bring to the scene, should be central to whatever we build next. Those curators are going to have to pride themselves on how their programming makes them different from the others, not the same and just on a different date in a different city. As a scene, it should be our job to curate the curators.

In many ways, the alternate reality gaming scene was a far more vibrant one than the transmedia scene ever managed to become, in no small part because the ARG community was a meta-scene, a collection of smaller scenes that had something curators could point to as having in common. It stood in opposition to the presumption that audiences were dumb and existed to passively consume. Brian Eno’s rules for good scenius where even the rules that community used to help new sub-scenes take root, to the benefit of everyone who ever made an ARG.

ARGing failed for a different reason than transmedia, because it failed to have “local tolerance for novelties” — the community became obsessed with a microcosm of rules about what counted as an ARG or not. Transmedia emerged from that making the opposite extreme choice, that everything could be transmedia … but not everything could be correct transmedia. Such are the nature of the scenes, so we need not be shy in pushing the pendulum extremely in the opposite direction (we’re creating the opportunity for a new scene to emerge in the future in opposition to our excesses as well.)

The independent film movement provides an interesting example of what an extremely successful meta-scene might look like. That community is also a series of sub-scenes: foreign, documentary, queer, experimental, low-budget, no-budget, etc. And yet, indie film has survived as a viable movement for more than 40 years, because all those sub-scenes share a reactionary trait: they aren’t Hollywood and are largely excluded from its mechanisms. This shows the power of picking something really big to be against, instead of something small to be against. It extends the lifespan of a movement as it grows from a scene to a meta-scene.

So the road to a meaningful movement starts with creating a vibrant scene galvanized by articulating a reaction to transmedia’s failures as a cultural scene, which is a critique of the ecosystem that emerged around the ideas more than a critique of the ideas and nomenclature itself. Any of us who’ve been a part of a scene will intuitive get why the result is worth investing energy into creating, and we’ll just have to accept that those who don’t get it intuitively just haven’t had the kinds of experiences (yet) to be part of the scene — as long as those barriers are climbable by new voices that the scene attracts.

tl;dr: Cultural scenes are the phenomena that emerges from reactionary ideas, which means ideas can be shaped to produce certain kinds of scenes.

see also: "Reclaiming Transmedia Storyteller" (2011), "Transmedia is a Lie" (2012) and "Be Phenomenal" (2012)