Reflections from Storyworld, part 1: Meanwhile, in another industry …

Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts inspired by the recent Storyworld Conference, hosted in San Francisco. As the jet-lag wears off I’ve started to think about the major themes and issues emerging from the fervor. In each post I will discuss one of these themes framed by my own experiences. That being the case, each theme discussed is personally relevant yet also, I hope, generally inspiring. This first post is titled, “Meanwhile, in another silo …” and it speaks to the trials and tribulations associated with navigating industries and, sometimes, continents. Enjoy!


A long, long time ago, on a continent far, far away there was a PhD student, and she was me. I came to transmedia defining, categorising and scrutinizing. When I first stumbled across the term on the blog of one Henry Jenkins, I immediately knew I had found my subject! As a fan-girl I had been consuming transmedially for quite some time and the subject spoke to me personally. The idea of creating meaningful connections between platforms and building experiential texts which continue beyond the limits of media seemed intuitive to me and so, I went forth, boldly, to embark on a stunning academic career in the research of transmedia storytelling. A few things changed.

I now sit in two camps. I wear two hats. When the camps don’t play nicely, I try to moderate conversation. Whilst I continue my PhD research, which focuses on how fans engage with commercial transmedia texts, I also work in the transmedia industry, creating, consulting and writing. At Storyworld, I was one of two others I knew of, Ivan Askwith and Geoffrey Long, who also bridge the gap, transitioned from one sphere to the other or continue to straddle both. I’m talking, of course, about academia and transmedia practice. I was inspired to talk about this on the blog for two reasons: firstly, because of a distinct lack of conversation surrounding this issue at Storyworld and, secondly, because it ties in nicely with the concept of bridging (silos, industries, etc.). There were other PhD candidates at Storyworld and I think I speak for us all when I say we were privileged with some fantastic insights into this burgeoning industry; however, listening to the panels I couldn’t help but wonder how academic research could help answer some of the most difficult questions facing the community, such as: how can we encourage audiences to move across platforms?; how should we market transmedia texts?; and, how should we manage co-creation? Furthermore, there were poignant questions which weren’t being asked, such as: why do audiences move across platforms?; what kinds of audiences move across platforms?; and, where is the demand for transmedia storytelling coming from? These, I feel, could be addressed in an academic context.

Of course, academia could also learn from the practical application of concepts tested in theory; however, beyond the obvious merits of cooperative work, there was one issue which stood out to me most at the conference: a lack of qualitative focus. Whilst the use of quantitative metrics are both useful and necessary in advancing a measure of practical success, there was little focus on qualitative research. Given that the industry is still in its infancy it seems prudent at this stage to focus on research which yields understanding – not just information. This isn’t easy. My own research is an undertaking three years in the making, but the insights from that work have helped me when consulting. Whilst the business of entertainment is a business of numbers, essentially, qualitative insights into the field can bolster those numbers; understanding leads to results. Herein lies the critical relationship between academia and transmedia practice: practice shapes theory leads to insights informs practice. I like to think of it as the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Incidentally, I also brought my partner to Storyworld. He came mostly for moral support and free sandwiches. He is one of two Directors at Daedalus Group, an online marketing company. What initially promised to be a great opportunity for free food soon became a strategising frenzy. You see, transmedia storytelling shares an intimate relationship with marketing and so my partner got a lot more than free sandwiches. This became blindingly clear at the conference where marketers and advertisers comprised approximately 40% of attendees and panelists (at a guesstimate). Creatives were confronted with the prospect of using their stories as vehicles for advertising and promotions, whilst marketing firms were confronted with the prospect of telling stories. During a panel titled, “Licensing, Branding and Commercial Viability”, the audience hotly debated the use of product placement in fictional texts. At one point, someone mentioned Stephen King, because he is known for using consumer brands in his writing.


From one of King's lesser known titles.


The most interesting thing about this example was the response from one of the panelists, who (apologies, I sat at the back and therefore cannot remember who exactly said this) claimed that using “fudge” brands, like “Pepso” or “Cola-coka” negate narrative integrity. For those writing stories set in a realistic storyworld (i.e. non-magical), it is highly unlikely that their characters would drink either Pepso or Cola-coka. In order to faithfully recreate contemporary settings it is necessary for a stories’ characters to interact with consumer brands. For me, this demonstrated better than any other panel how the relationship between transmedia storytelling and marketing could be articulated in a way that promises value for both fields.

Another useful concept for understanding the relationship between these two approaches is Carlos Scolari’s (2009) notion of brand fiction, described as a mutation of product placement which sees the fiction become the brand. This speaks more to how transmedia storytelling operates according to the same logic as marketing; different story components serve as advertisements to direct consumers back to the ur-text. Whether or not this should be viewed negatively is not the focus of this entry. Indeed, one might ask which approach — storytelling or marketing — is being taken advantage of in this process. Critically, these discussions demonstrate that the two clearly share a potentially lucrative relationship. I know I’m not alone in saying that both parties will soon have to learn to play together.

All said and done, the Storyworld conference provided the perfect space for disparate industries to unite in the name of transmedia storytelling. I came an academic/writer/consultant with a marketer/creative. I left with fingers in more pies than there are at my local bakery. I love them all, and so the story continues.



Scolari, C 2009 ‘Transmedia Storytelling: Implicit Consumers, Narrative Worlds, and Branding in Contemporary Media Production’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 3, pp. 586-606


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