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Transmedia and non-fiction

What does transmedia imply for the world of non-fiction?
I think thinking about transmedia as non-fiction is actually where a lot of more recent research into transmedia has been going. So myself, I’ve been looking at this. But I think, generally as a field, looking at what transmedia might mean, whether it’s a charity campaign, or a history project, or an art project, for example, or a form of activism has been something that’s been at the forefront of a lot of researcher’s minds recently. And I think, initially, a lot of the discussion was to think about actually how we need to change our understandings, or definitions, of what transmedia is in order to readjust it into non-fiction.
And I think as fruitful as that has been, actually what I’ve found is that thinking of transmedia as actually a consistent thing, as a very particular media practise that can work for different audiences, and different objectives, and different aims, whether it’s commercial or non-commercial, fiction or non-fiction, as actually being something that’s slightly more consistent, albeit that’s something that is adapted to slightly different objectives. So, for example, you could look at, let’s say, a charity, such as Red Nose Day, very big, I think, quite globally renowned charity campaign based in the UK, which is about raising awareness of poverty in third-world countries.
And looking at actually how they’ve almost adjusted their strategies towards a fit, a more digital context that becomes slightly more transmedial as they’ve gone across. And I think one of the things that they’ve done is they’ve maintained an element of old media, physical media. So broadcast and the idea of live media is something that brings the nation together in a common cause, which very much fits the aims of charity. Using bits of paper, whether it’s newspapers or pamphlets because it fits, again, it fits the project. But then incorporating things like digital, so things like social media, for example, in a very strategic way, actually.
And I think what’s interesting about not just Red Nose, but a lot of non-fiction projects, is they attempt to narrativize their mission. So even though it’s non-fiction, the idea of storytelling becomes incredibly relevant. So, for example, you can look at things like how they use Facebook and Twitter alongside television. And there’s a clear narrative. There’s a clear story to how they actually use those platforms. So with the case of Red Nose, there’s this really interesting instance I’ve found where Facebook becomes almost the beginning of the story. So it has a big role to play before television comes in, in terms of the charity.
And it tends to focus on the fun, so in terms of the comedy behind Red Nose Day. So there’s a big emphasis on using celebrities to dress up and be silly to engage an audience to raise money, effectively, and using Facebook strategically as that particular platform. Television almost then becomes the next part of the story, which continues that fun and draws on some of the celebrities you’ve seen on Facebook. And then continues that narrative further whilst pointing audiences to the point of the charity, to the more serious poverty-related issues.
And then, interestingly, if you then look at what happens with something like Twitter, there’s a real emphasis on using Twitter after the television programme, and actually stripping away the fun, stripping away the comedy, and focusing actually on what happens to some of the poverty cases of people in countries like Kenya or Ethiopia for example, so people who you might get a glimpse of on television. And then you get asked to donate, but you never really find out what happens next in terms of whether money actually reached them. And if it did, what value it actually had.
And then actually, when you go on Twitter, that’s the point of Twitter is to actually focus on the end of that story, so actually what the money did and the value that it had. So I think there’s a real kind of strategy in terms of using transmedia for non-fiction. Thinking about affordances of platforms, who the audience actually is, which one’s going to engage the correct audience. But actually, this idea of narrativizing the non-narrativizable, thinking about real life or the mission statement of a non-fiction project as something that actually can be narrativized and told as a story. And I think the reason why that works is because stories are engaging. We’re all engaged by stories.
We’re all engaged by beginning, middle, and end. And if even something like non-fiction, a charity campaign, becomes narrativized in that way, I think as audiences, we more naturally migrate and gravitate across different media and, therefore, become engaged in the aims of something like a charity. And to think of transmedia as a way to tell the end of the story and to discover what happened next, I think, is really useful. And in that sense, transmedia doesn’t change that much. There’s still very fundamental strategic motivations, using platforms in particular ways, engaging audiences very thematically, and thinking about platforms as different parts of the story.
Another example that springs to mind, in terms of what transmedia can do for non-fiction, is an instance of a more history-based project. So there’s a project that I’m actually involved with myself called Desarmados, or disarmed, which is a project based in Colombia. And the objective there was really to focus on the Colombian armed conflict and to think about how that conflict can be taught to young people, so particularly to schoolchildren, 8, 9, 10 years old, and actually how rather than producing a history book, which comes from one point of view and is a textbook, thinking actually what if this was a game? What if this was an app? And what if this was Web?
And what if this was more interactive? What impact would that have actually on the strength of actually whether young people are actually being able to understand this conflict in a more sophisticated way. And what we found through that project was that actually children were able to engage with this very complicated political structure through turning into a game, and through having an app, and through using social media.
But I think even more interesting in that was what that case showed, was that actually by having different perspectives, so actually having people who have been impacted by a conflict, let’s say, have been displaced from their homes, but also people who are, let’s say, actually not to blame, but somehow maybe involved in the orchestration of some of these decisions, so people in government or politicians, for example, by having all of these different people interviewed and having their perspectives narrativized through different media platforms, whether it’s web, whether it’s documentary, whether it’s app, whether it’s simply a quote on social media.
What we found, actually, was that all of these different people who didn’t previously speak to one another suddenly came together and actually started to express themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. So people, for example, who had been displaced from their homes actually hearing the perspective of someone in government, and actually hearing the rationale behind some of the decisions which had impacted someone’s life, actually being able to understand that through, in this case, a transmedia strategy, enabled those people to actually think slightly more positively about actually, I understand this.
And similarly, the other way around in terms of, let’s say, people in military or government being able to firsthand see the impacts that some of their decisions had had on people’s lives, really express feelings of regret in a way that actually enabled both sides to come together and to express mutual feelings of reconciliation and forgiveness. And it was really only the fact that this was devised transmedially, so different platforms communicating different perspectives in a way that joined up through the very digital nature of these things, that enabled these very hopeful cultural, socio-political themes to emerge. And I just think that’s a really nice instance of actually what the power of transmedia is.
It isn’t just about strategy, or engaging audiences, or promoting things more widely. It’s actually about different platforms engaging more people in a way that actually it becomes something more. It becomes something that becomes ingrained in people’s lives. It becomes more tangible to people’s lives. It surrounds people’s lives. And through doing that, I think there’s really interesting work being done that they’ve only really scratched the surface of this field, thinking about actually what the power of transmedia can be, whether it’s as a form of activism, whether it’s politically, whether it’s something like Desarmados where we’re bringing different people together who have been impacted or affected by a conflict, or whether it’s something like heritage, or history.
I think continuing to explore this avenue of actually what can joined up, or integrated platforms, achieve socially, culturally, politically, commercially, etc., is a really fascinating line of inquiry.

Watch this video, where Matthew Freeman, from the University of Bath Spa, answers the question: “What does transmedia imply for the world of non-fiction?”

Share your ideas!

Matthew explains that transmedia is not restricted to the entertainment industry and profit making cultural industries, but can also be mobilised by a charity whishing to raise awareness on poverty, or to find different ways to talk about the memory of a violent conflict. Which other causes do you think transmedia can serve and how?

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