Blog / Digital storytelling in the awkward years

The structural transition facing traditional media can certainly trigger a lot of anxiety. As a recent journalism graduate, I experienced much of it in J-school, where the prevalent feeling around the online platform was apprehension: declining newspaper sales, lack of online monetization models, the rise of citizen journalism - it all signified chaos!
But as the internet continues to change the way we produce, distribute and consume media, it’s important to put this into context: media has gone through massive transition periods before. Media revolutions occurred when things like the printing press, the telephone, film, and of course when radio and television emerged. As technology created new media, it took time to figure out what each was best suited for.
In his TED Talk a couple of years ago, Clay Shirky described two big shifts in this media revolution: 1) The internet gives us the first inherently many-to-many communicator (as opposed to the telephone’s one-to-one or television’s one-to-many patterns; and 2) As all media gets digitized, the internet becomes the native carriage for all other media.
Shirky also notes that media is less just a source of information, but more a site of coordination. Now people can communicate with each other as they watch a video or play a game.
So taking all of this into context, let’s talk about Melting Silos. Agentic started this program a couple of years ago to connect people in the narrative filmmaking world with web developers in the digital world to work on projects together. The program also set out to discover why, although there’s been an explosion of online content, there seems to be something missing from an artistic point of view. “While satisfying for a short hit of laughter or a cringe of embarrassment for others, the higher emotionally resonant work often found in narrative or documentary film is absent. Why? This project seeks to answer this question and fill this gap.”
I’ve been interested in this question for quite some time. What makes good online storytelling? Can you remember the last time you were captivated by or immersed in a digital story? Can digital storytelling evoke the same feeling that a powerful narrative documentary can? Does it have to?
Melting Silos co-hosted a talk with transmedia guru Brent Friedman, which shed light on this question for me. First, Friedman distinguished transmedia from multiplatform content – a necessary step in a world where buzzwords are bountiful. He defined transmedia storytelling by comparing it to fractal storytelling: If you break a mirror into a hundred pieces, they are all part of the same whole, but reflect that whole differently. This is not the same thing as simply repurposing content for different platforms; each piece is ideally different.
This has helped me realize that transmedia storytelling is not just about telling stories, it’s about building a story universe – or as Friedman puts it, a universe worthy of devotion. This universe often consists of a main story in the form of a film or video episodes, a complimentary story that is usually based online, and a backstory available through mobile channels. Together they form a seamless experience that engages audiences and allows them to choose their level of participation – from simply viewing episodes to playing games to chatting in forums to remixing or creating content. The more it allows people to immerse themselves into the storyworld, the better.
Now, more than ever before, the perspectives and participation from “the people formerly known as the audience” help to form the experience of a story. In a way this was always true, but digital platforms allow this to proliferate and to be shared in an explosive way.
As we collectively explore the best practices for transmedia storytelling, I’m curious to know what your favourite transmedia and online stories are. Did they evoke something in you the way your favourite films have? Please share your thoughts!

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