Monday, April 25, 2011

More excerpts from RISD lecture

This is the second posting of content from the Meta-story lecture delivered at RISD on 04/21/11and a continuation of the video content from the last post.

This video speaks to the incredibly rapid changes happening in entertainment habits of the audience due to the explosion of new mobile technology and tablets.

The think tank that explores the intersections of Mobile, Play/Story and Cloud services referred to in this video is called Moveablecode.

 The two charts shown in this video contain information from the most recent KPCB publicly posted trends report.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Excerpts from RISD lecture

The lecture on Meta-story at RISD held on thursday the 21st of April was a very good event on all levels.  The turnout was excellent, the students were a terrific audience with great questions and real enthusiasm for the subject and discussion of Meta-story.

I want to extend my sincere thanks to those students and the teachers and administrators at RISD who made the lecture possible.  Clearly, there is the talent, drive and desire to be true thought leaders alive in the professionals and students at RISD.  We're now all part of the same tribe that is having the vital discussion about Meta-story and its role in transmedia distributed mythology. A special thanks to Shanth Enjeti, Nicholas Jainschigg and Natalie Hogan for all the professional support and enthusiasm.

The entire two and a half hour lecture was video captured and I will be posting a few brief excerpts from it here on the site over the next few weeks.  The lecture was focused on introducing the foundational understandings of what Meta-story is, how it came to be, what its role is in today's Transmedia distribution world and why its critical for creators and vision leaders to learn this craft to insure quality and human meaning in these big mythological stories.

The professional lectures and seminars I'll be rolling out in a few months, will also cover the introduction but further include segments with a great deal more detail as well as workshops.

I will start with several short videos today.

The first video I am posting speaks to the definition of Meta-story. I would like to expand on the credits for Henry Jenkins, who's definition I refer to and credit in this video.  His role, when he created the concept of Transmedia at MIT, was creator and co-director of the comparative media studies program.

Here is the talk on "No room for the Muse" discussing the transmedia created pressures on the act and process of creating grand mythology.  Of note, the chart used in this video segment to represent the present state of how Transmedia producers are functioning is accredited to Simon Pulman who is a Transmedia producer himself and a blogger on the subject.

During the lecture I also covered a bit of why telling and listening to stories is evolved into us.

Here is an overview of how the various media formats, product, licensing and social media fall into "anchor" categories grouped by what function they perform for the narrative.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The rapid growth of E-books, harbinger of changes in the audience

Over the past year, I have been involved in several very interesting efforts in a think tank that focuses on the intersection of mobile, narrative and play, and cloud services. Through this very forward looking group, named Moveablecode, I have had the great pleasure of getting vanguard exposure to things that are coming in the mobile space and capabilities that are fast rising in terms of apps, cloud services and much more. One thing has become abundantly clear.  Change is happening at an exponentially faster rate than many of the established industries and companies are fully recognizing. These changes are broad based, technologically driven, and unlike the explosion, come with applicable business models, many of which are direct to user/audience in nature.

For now, tablet and phone based mobile technologies are largely carrying the majority of this revolution (there are certainly other areas but none quite as pervasive and convulsively immediate yet).

I am struck at seeing and hearing the anxious application of "tried and true" thinking in terms of when to jump in and start working with the emerging newness. I have seen first-hand, leading companies in several industries convincing themselves to wait until this all sorts itself out. This wait and see mindset has largely developed from hard won experience in jumping in to new technologies too soon.  Big investments in vanguard tech can leave content companies and play companies reeling from picking the wrong side in an app or tech battle. Additionally, most of the audience aren't "early adopters" so the companies seeking to sell and market to us don't want to be either.  because of this, most content and play companies like to wait and see what emerges on top and then follow on.

I believe there is something fundamentally different at work this time in regards to what is being enabled with content and play through technology.  Access to content FROM ANY SOURCE is quickly becoming more democratized by affordable mobile devices with simple interfaces so much so that the audience isn't taking years to change its habits. Its happening in months.

I am posting a link to an article on the explosive growth of E-books here to make my point. "E-book sales triple in February to surpass paper!" Witness the extreme growth in e-books. This is not only a dramatically less expensive way to consume books but its far easier and more immediate. The new e-formats have opened the direct ability for authors, artists and specialty groups to publish direct to audience without having to worry about getting a large publisher to say yes to their content.  Large content distributors console themselves by saying that they have the financial and structural depth to advertise far better than individuals and to some extent this is true.  However, non-aligned reviewer blogs, special interest communities and social sharing can all add up to awareness over time.  Authentic community distribution has already yielded proof that direct-to-audience distribution of your content is not only possible but can be quite successful.  Even the economics of this alternative and direct relationship with the audience carries with it different thresholds of what is considered an economic success.  Do you have to reach as large an audience as a mass market distributor when a much larger percentage of the profit falls through directly to you?  Perhaps not.  There are already smaller and more entrepreneurial companies rushing in to the space between mass and self distribution to supply lists, interim management and development services and simple to use software to enable this possibility.  What seems certain is that the distribution landscape is going to have a lot more flavors to choose from on a go-forward basis.

I also firmly believe that we will see significant changes in how connected the content in "books" will be over the next 24 months and beyond. This has wonderful and huge ramifications for Meta-story. When a reader can explore more than what is on the next page whenever they want, those stories with deeper content will find their audience even more effectively and not always have to go through a large multi-divisional conglomerate to do so.  There is nothing stopping larger corporations from developing parts of their companies to aggressively expand into these new developments with the audience but waiting to enter this market and waiting to aggressively explore it while it is evolving, may have some significant downside.

To be clear, I love traditional books and will always buy them. I believe they have a place in the future and that place will likely have to do with legacy purchases, collections, gifts and keepsakes, precious objects, upscale value and much more.

 It will still be necessary to write great and captivating stories and all manner of form and format will be possible on E-formats from traditional page turners to fully interactive and interruptible content. The audience will decide what works and what doesn't.

This same radical change is well under way for TV, motion picture, toys and much more. I strongly suggest to all those industries to not stand by and "wait" or those lighter, faster, more aggressive or new companies/individuals as they will quickly gain primary foothold in this new "direct-to-audience" world.  Investing in your own obsolescence is critical these days because others outside of your company are certainly doing it for you.  Now is the time to create disruptive enclaves protected from the core culture to think differently and find solutions that a contiguous publicly traded culture can't.  If you are in the business of stories, this is where Meta-stories can help.  Meta-stories and Meta-story creators, by their very nature, have to be engaged in the evolving edges of narrative.

Even if the large corporations do get on the tips of their toes and lean forward to run faster, they will have to think in very different terms. So much of the new relationship is about community, authenticity, giving in order to get, and showing that you have earned the right to sell and exchange with the tribe. These things have always been at the heart of truly good storytelling and I find that I am excited about the audience gaining more voice. They empower creatives and creators who have conviction and vision and a connection to the larger tribe. This is becoming increasingly clear as new commerce moves to those who can change and get the connection with the audience right.

In many ways, this isn't a wildly new way of connecting and sharing stories. The technology is new and the formats are incredibly exciting (and bring with them new narrative needs and strengths that need to be understood and created for).  Though this is all true, what is really happening is a simplification of the relationship between storyteller/creator and audience. It's beginning to resemble the more personal, connected and tribal relationships that groups of humans have had with storytellers since before the industrialization of the world and the creation of large corporate structures. I believe the control in the relationship is partially returning to the audience/tribe...with all its quirks and human imperfections.

What this suggests is blanket, or "push," marketing will be less and less effective in certain categories of stories and play.  Direct and unique relationships with the audience will continue to show their strengths.  (I am including a link to an interesting article about why Justin Beiber is a unique relationship with his audience and not a template for brand success).  Over time, audiences will demonstrate that brands and franchises need to have continually expanding narratives that have true, relevant, meaning and empowerment in order to have lasting value.  These success elements in a connected and self-selecting tribal media environment favor creator-driven meta-stories.

As an aside: It is interesting to see the rush to name this new age. Information age, social age, connected age, etc... Words are important because we build on them like raising a building up. The foundational interpretation becomes part of the structure and defines it. personally and for now, I'll go with "digital tribalism" because it incorporates the idea of self-selecting tribes enabled by the new communication technology.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Meaning, the superstructure running throughout Meta-story

“Without consistent and empowering Meaning, throughout all Transmedia expressions of a Meta-story, the audience will lose their connection with your Franchise.”

With big Meta-stories that have big worlds, it seems that there is a limitless menu from which to choose what to base additional media expressions of the core story on.  Well-built Meta-stories do indeed have a lot of possibilities to work with.  However, all of those potential narrative slices through the larger Meta-story must all share a very important foundational block.  That block is the “Meaning” (with a capital “M”).

Let’s take a moment to be specific about what Meaning in a Meta-story is.  Meaning is the mythological lesson, the ethos of the story that structures everything within that narrative.  Structuring around meaning is part of classical story craft so those who train in and study story will recognize this discussion but let’s take it a step further.

There are many examples that I can use to illustrate meaning at work in a Meta-story and the omission of meaning in other media expressions to the detriment of the franchise and IP.  I will use James Cameron’s Avatar as my example for both.  
James Cameron is a world builder and an artist, producer and director who creates grand mythology that can rise to the level of a Meta-story.  I have a lot of respect for the thought and depth he puts into his work.

Avatar’s “Meaning” is “the power of discovering the connection between all things.”  This Meaning permeates all choices Mr. Cameron made for this movie.  His characters are all different takes on connectedness. 

Sully is a man who has lost all connections:  His family, his place as a warrior, his belief in anything, even connection to his own identity of being a whole man. 

Colonel Quaritch has chosen to disconnect himself from everything but fighting and winning.  He is the anti-connection.  He’s not connected to what is best for his country or world, certainly not connected to humanity, only to himself and making all things submit to him.  Keeping all things separate allows him the freedom to do and think the most horrible of acts and thoughts for his own purposes.

Doctor Grace looks for proof of connections.  She is the scientist studying the church and suspecting the transcendental.  She has yet to connect with her nascent belief without science and facts.

The Na’vi are the achievement of connectedness without loss of the individual.  They represent the possibility of salvation through submitting to connectedness and as such, their connectedness is fragile and the barrier to blind progress.

The Meaning, connectedness, or its lack also drives the imagining of the world and all production designs.  The flora lights up when touched showing the beginnings of connections.  The Na’vi physically connect to the beasts and the Mother Tree.  
The human’s protected enclave of walls and steel, dust and dirt, masks and weapons contrasts all this.  A place where connecting with others is all but impossible except within the rules and missions that the company proscribes.

Even further shaping the narrative, the story unfolds and drives forward by shaping discovery, wonder, stakes and the costs of finding and then fighting for a connection so profound that it engages all living things on the planet.

Whether you agree with the choices or not, Avatar is purposely-structured, deeply considered and richly crafted in great detail.  Those of you who may have artistic or directorial criticisms let’s hold them for now in service of a point to be made that is not about critiquing the quality of the movie but exploring the Meta-story’s effectiveness in Transmedia execution.

With the primary media being so clearly crafted around finding and fighting for the wonder of connectedness, how then is it that the video game completely missed this most important of foundation stones? 
Though the video game is full of action, it simply allows you to choose to play as Na’vi or human to fight one against the other.  The context and conceptual/visual coolness of the movie is represented but the reason why so many people were moved by it to see the movie multiple times, the Beautiful and wild Meaning in connectedness, is wholly missing in the gaming mechanic.

It’s critical to understand why your audience loves your property and continue to deliver that meaning in all expressions.  Anything short of that feels hollow at best or worse still, betrayal on behalf of commercialism even if there was no conscious decision to make it so.  In the Avatar game “The Currency of Power” needs to flow from achieving and accumulating connections in some form or another.  If I loved the movie, I am looking to advance my relationship with the world and the narrative.  I don’t just want to play as a Na’vi, I want to care about life and my connected world like one. 

I have been involved in many projects with big Franchises quite a few ways that moving a narrative into Transmedia expression can go awry.  Those include:

Movie companies, for reasons of security, not willing to give critical information about the story to other media licensees in time for them to include it in their product or media development.

Licensees not understanding the critical role of the Meaning of the original story in their work and simply applying their media's "success dogma" like a one-size-fits-all approach.

The Licensor’s licensing management group focusing too intensely on a predetermined “style guide” or “franchise bible” that defines the property as merely and only the contextual elements found in the launch media.

I don’t know what the case was for Avatar but the example of losing the Meaning in the Transmedia translation into a video game stands as very clear example of what can happen even when the creator of the narrative is a great world builder and a good narrative structuralist, if the meaning isn’t carefully shepherded, communicated and discussed as to how to use it in each additional media expression. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Story and the Social/Behavioral Soup

“The heroes that we aspire to be in the popular stories we choose to tell, effect the nature and health of our society.”

Narrative Responsibility
Today’s post, rather than focus on the ABCs of Meta-story, is going to talk about the effect that stories have on our world.  As part of this discussion I’m going to raise the notion of “narrative responsibility.”   This is the idea that the storyteller/creator bears a responsibility to be aware of the culturally transformative power of narrative and the nature of the aspirations he or she is putting into our collective consciousness.  The ideaological, social and cultural effect of a narrative is something that is sometimes unconsidered or even ignored in exchange for marketable sensationalism, angry ranting and other unhealthy motivations.  This is an especially important discussion in our increasingly Meta-story enabled Transmedia world because of the pervasive quality and mythic power that these largest of stories can have.

This is not a discussion about censorship or regulation.  I leave those debates to the lawmakers, regulators, agencies and our legal system and hope that they tread lightly.  This is also not an ideological discussion about my values and beliefs.  I certainly have them and include them in my narratives and my life.  This discussion is simply asking that as storytellers and Meta-story creators we consider the significant effect that our narratives can have on the audience and world culture.  Our goal is to be very successful at reaching the largest possible audience and moving them with meaning and mythology so thinking carefully about the aspirations we will represent is important.  Realize that stories can and have changed the behaviors of individuals and countries and influenced the times and events throughout history.

Cultural Soup
Let’s begin this subject with a truth about the effect that being so connected has had on us all.  We are all floating about in the same cooking-pot full of our cultural soup!  Every narrative we put into the broth contributes a little or a lot of flavor for all the rest of us to soak up.  There is no such thing as isolated content that can’t spread (unless you are talking about secret documents and even then, those are finding their way into the larger kettle to boil about these days). 

Let’s also dispel another popular notion.  There is no such thing as public content or narrative that doesn’t have a lasting effect.  It all influences us.  If it’s entertaining and moves us emotionally, then, over time, it can change the way we think, feel and act even if we don’t realize it’s happening.  Seemingly harmless but voyeuristic narratives that use the “easy” emotive triggers to gain interest and audience share, over time, elevate the “entertaining” but caustic values, behaviors and beliefs they contain to true celebrity status.

“Culture of Celebrity”(link to interesting article with additional links in psychology today)
Once celebrity status is granted, much of the audience imbues content and characters with many of the qualities and power that in the past, we attributed to royalty.  Those qualities include: a better class designation, access to greater voice with significantly greater credibility assigned to that voice and a lessening of critical questioning or evaluation. Increasingly today, once granted, popular celebrity brings with it an almost irrational and extreme tolerance for forgiveness of socially unacceptable or damaging behavior. 

From Entertainment to Power
Our media connectedness and a number of other factors have resulted in creating a path directly from entertainment value to legitimacy, cultural influence and even political power.   There is no proof or consistent examples that show any automatic correlation between entertainment celebrity/popularity and socially beneficial ideas and actions.  Those benefits lie in the narrative’s meaning and underlying human truths and insights and should be judged and elevated on their own merit.

There is also no direct relationship between how successful a narrative or media product is and how humanly meaningful or insightful it is.  I am not suggesting that, as story creators, we should only create high human mythology or profoundly meaningful narratives.  Entertainment plays many roles in our lives and the success and growth of those various formats is proof that we both want and need them.  Many forms of successful and satisfying entertainment are nothing more than fun, simple, distraction.

Instead, I am suggesting that some of the narratives that can be entertaining can also have significant unintended consequences for our human culture and behavior and we should be aware of them to make conscious choices that are responsible. 

“Acceptance linking”
Our Hyper-media-soaked lives supercharge a very simple mechanism that for now I’ll call “acceptance linking.”  It works something like this:
I like something.  I want others to like it and like me.  I share it and we expand our relationship and friendship a bit further because we now share a like.  The thing we now both like, takes on an importance beyond itself.  Not liking our shared like means you don’t like a bit of us.  The bigger the “us” the more powerful the effect.  Soon we grant the “like” its very own celebrity status and all that comes with it because it helped us to extend and define our community and ourselves.  Meaningful stuff yes? 

“Embarassment TV?”
Here’s where it can be not so healthy.  All humans have curiosity about the not-so-good behaviors and intentions in the human spectrum of behaviors.  Many a psychological study has shown that all humans have these urges and thoughts but learn to suppress them for their own good and the good of the community/tribe/culture.  How do we learn this?  Our stories!  Parents, schools, siblings, societies are all chock full of the stories that shape us into good citizens of the tribe and of the planet based on the values it holds.  Some of those stories model the best in us facing off against the worst and some model the bad in contrast with the worst (and many forms in between).  All can be quite compelling and really give us insight into the human condition in highly entertaining and motivating ways.

However…there is an entire class of entertainment that has grown up in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century that is driven by this voyeuristic curiosity to see into the bad boy and bad girl side of life.  I’ve heard it called several names such as “Embarassment TV, Anguish TV, Conflict TV and Humiliation TV.”  Some of this kind of content lives on the web, shared by mobile and beyond.  Our interest in it, though not our proudest moment, is natural.  The issue arises when we aren’t fictionalizing that experience and/or we aren’t showing appropriate social and human consequences for it either.  Remember, “acceptance chaining?” It happens even here and quickly.  Once the no-consequences bad behavior and its stars become acceptance linked and get granted celebrity status, we create aspirations for the audience that are truly unhealthy.  Soon, some of the audience will want to be these characters and act like them because…it made them celebrities and…their social group has linked around these stories and internalized them in subtly approving ways.

I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances tell me “it’s just a show and it’s just fun and I know the difference between what I see on TV and real life!”  As one proof point that there are changes created in our society's behaviors by these narratives I offer the terrible rise in bullying behavior in our school-age children.  Though there are most likely many factors contributing to this epidemic, it’s hard not to see a clear link between emotional and physical bullying and some narratives such as:

The various “real housewives” glorified but venomous, snarking, narcissist behaviors (heavily watched by tween girls),

Jersey shore’s real life self-absorbed “stars” slapping and fighting in excessively hedonistic situations (also heavily watched by tweens),

Charley Sheen’s ranting and self-absorbed tirades (invited to colleges to give speeches like a scholar or hero) and other celebrity status bad behavior turned entertainment.

I could continue with examples but I think the point is clear enough.  The stories we tell (and yes, even reality TV tells stories) express what we want others to see, hear, understand and learn.  Transmedia enables it all to travel and grow much more quickly and powerfully.  Be aware of that power and help by making choices that make us all better when we experience your story.  Show us the grit, the grime, the bad choices, bad people and behaviors, as well as the consequences that come with it.  It is human drama after all and it draws us like moths to a porch light. 
 It’s important to note here that the audience also bears responsibility in this by rewarding those narratives with purchases and viewership.  When it comes to stories, we all need to be aware of the choices we’re making and be careful not to inadvertently build momentum behind human behaviors that history shows us are not good for us, our children, our communities, our world.