66.3, August 2019

Introduction to Special Issue on Transmedia, Participatory Culture, and Digital Creation

By David Wright, Daniel C. Reardon, and Edward A. Malone

In its broadest sense, transmedia refers to projects that combine several media platforms. More specifically, transmedia has evolved into a heuristic for understanding the digital spread of a single idea into multiple iterations of that idea. Through digitization, media consumers become participants in the shaping, redefining, and production of media; in effect, often through transmedia, consumers become producers. Transmedia may also be understood as a cultural exchange; by that cultural definition, transmedia as a phenomenon is much older than the digital era and has most often referred to storytelling. Folktales, for instance, exist in several versions, adapted and changed over several centuries to appeal to audiences of sometimes widely disparate cultures.

Another example of early transmedia storytelling would be the Arthurian legends. The first mention of King Arthur dates to the 9th century; the first extent story about Arthur dates from 1138 CE by the Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth. Since then, stories of King Arthur have been adapted, conflated, transformed, updated, and embellished into epic poetry, opera, novels, films, animation, television series, and a Broadway musical—Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot from 1960. In each version of the Arthurian legend, key locations, plots, and characters have changed or been added, and many have been eliminated. But as in all transmedia, a central core remains—the spirit of an idea, carried through each new form. In the Arthurian legends, that central spirit is Arthur—the boy who becomes king and who attempts to build a better world.

While transmedia storytelling has existed for centuries as a phenomenon, its codification and definition are fairly recent, beginning in 1964 with Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media. McLuhan (1964) declared that “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (p. 9). He recognized the growing power of media—what he understood as print, television, radio, and film—to shape lives. Any new communication technology became “media” for McLuhan, and, through its use, any new technology changes human experience. McLuhan (1964) also saw media as interconnected: Radio plays were derived from stage performances, which also influenced cinema production. Television—at least to McLuhan—was a derivative of cinema. According to McLuhan, each new media technology transformed storytelling to fit the new technology. In fact, it was McLuhan (1964) who coined the now somewhat amorphous and hackneyed phrase, “The medium is the message” (p. 4). For McLuhan, the transmitter of the message was more important than the message itself. King Arthur’s song “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight” is less relevant than the fact that King Arthur sings. And he sings because he is in a Broadway musical.

While McLuhan was primarily concerned with the influence of media on individuals, the transformative power of individuals to exert influence and change on media was explored by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984). In his analysis of what he called “strategy” and “tactics,” de Certeau (1984) argued that “strategies are actions which, thanks to the establishment of a place of power, elaborate theoretical places capable of articulating an ensemble of physical places in which forces are distributed” (p. 38). As de Certeau (1984) used the term, strategies are created by insiders—by those with power. Strategies exert force on the powerless, as the powerful enact their will. Tactics, however, exist in opposition to strategies; tactics are “the circumstances which the precise instant of an intervention transforms into a favorable situation” (de Certeau, 1984, p. 38). The powerless insert themselves into the world of the powerful through tactics and transform the strategic spaces they use.

Prahalad and Ramaswamy (2000) effectively merged the theories of McLuhan (1964) and de Certeau (1984). The authors described how, in the new millennium’s emerging Internet age, nearly instantaneous customer feedback regarding satisfaction or dissatisfaction with marketable goods and services would revolutionize the manufacturing and retail worlds, because companies would be able to far more quickly and efficiently adapt to consumer desires. Prahalad and Ramaswamy (2000) called this new form of Internet-created consumer empowerment “cocreation,” because consumers effectively “become a new source of competence for the corporation. The competence that customers bring is a function of the knowledge and skills they possess, their willingness to learn and experiment, and their ability to engage in an active dialogue” (Prahalad & Ramaswamy, 2000, para. 7). In other words, consumers become cocreators of products, in a sense, working with manufacturers on the improvement of goods and services.

Cocreation, transformation, spaces, tactics, the medium, and the message—such are the cornerstones of transmedia, as described by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2008). Describing what he envisioned as a loss of distinction between manufacturer and consumer—or author and reader—Jenkins (2008) predicted that regarding storytelling in the Internet age, cocreation would wreak havoc with traditional legal definitions of ownership, copyright, and property of narratives: “Soon, licensing will give way to what industry insiders are calling ‘co-creation.’ In cocreation, the companies collaborate from the beginning to create content they know plays well in each of their sectors, allowing each medium to generate new experiences for the consumer and expand points of entry into the franchise” (p. 105). These points of entry would result in avenues, or what de Certeau (1984) would call “spaces,” for consumers to influence what stories are told, how they are told, and who tells them. In effect, consumers will become cocreators of narratives across multiple platforms. Jenkins (2008) further described that “in the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms” (p. 3).

Jenkins (2008) noted that while the idea of transmedia is ancient, the speed and degrees to which transmedia now proliferates is unprecedented because of the Internet era, in which the idea of information is fluid, can travel and change instantaneously, and is activated or transmitted in an instant by millions. Ultimately acknowledging the economic power of transmedia storytelling, Jenkins forecasted marketing creation beyond what George Lucas, for instance, accomplished by mass marketing Star Wars through hundreds of consumer products. Equating transmedia storytelling with world-building, Jenkins envisioned an entertainment industry in which fans, players, viewers, and consumers participate in the development and expansion of storytelling empires that stretch across several media, from novels and short stories to comics, films, short videos, and digital games.

One recent and financially successful example of transmedia storytelling would be the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), begun by fits and starts in 1998 with New Line Cinema’s Blade and in 2000 with the film X-Men, then a licensed property of Twentieth Century Fox, after Marvel Comics sold a number of its properties to New Line, Fox, and Sony in an effort to acquire capital for the flagging comics company. After the box office success of Fox’s X-Men and the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man films (2002, 2004, 2007) by Sony Pictures, Marvel decided to create their own films using some of their less popular characters because their most successful properties were under license by other studios. Their first attempt was Iron Man, released in 2008 and produced by Kevin Feige and Marvel films president Avi Arad. Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, this first film in what would officially become known as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” ignited the franchise and launched 22 films in what Feige—who eventually took the reigns as Marvel films CEO—called “The Infinity Saga.” An additional MCU film—Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)—debuted in July 2019, with several more Marvel films on the way.

Each MCU character is based on a Marvel comics original, most of which debuted in the 1960s. Since then, Marvel superhero characters have appeared in various incarnations through Saturday morning cartoons, in toys, lunchboxes, school backpacks, t-shirt logos, mass market novels, and digital games. The Marvel “multiverse” encompasses several Earth-like worlds—all called Earth, and all featuring versions of popular Marvel characters. Several of these characters converged in a 2018 Marvel animated film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, which featured six different versions of the character. Some were reimaginings of Peter Parker, and others were entirely new characters. One was Spider-Ham—a pig named Peter Porker—created by Larry Hama, Tom DeFalco, and Mark Armstrong in 1983.

Transmedia in Technical Communication

The term transmedia has entered the academic vernacular at this point. Scores of journal articles dealing with transmedia exist, and many others are likely to come. However, within technical communication journals, the topic has been slower to diffuse, even though much of today’s technical communication is conducted transmedially in practice. Rarely do companies communicate with customers through only one medium, and rarely do customers communicate with one another or those companies through one medium. Instead, they tend to repurpose information for different modalities and develop product awareness, relationships with customers, and brand loyalties across media. To acquire a comprehensive understanding of a product or service, a consumer may watch a video, look at photographs or diagrams, and read producer-generated literature as well as user comments. Moreover, the consumer may choose to participate in the user forum or engage in other social interactions supporting the product or service.

Jenkins (2011) noted that transmedia storytelling is only one “logic for thinking about the flow of content across media.” As examples of other logics, he listed “transmedia branding, transmedia performance, transmedia ritual, transmedia play, transmedia activism, and transmedia spectacle.” To this list might be added transmedia learning and transmedia work.Although transmedia storytelling has long been used to communicate technical information, transmedia technical communication is usually predicated on a different logic (and sometimes more than one logic) of content flow. The content is often expository rather than narrative and nonfictional rather than fictional. Users form communities that are at least partly constructed by the media they use to exchange information, support one another’s goals, and build (in the words of one of our contributors) worlds of technology-in-use.

Although transmedia communication is not new, its use has intensified and proliferated in recent decades and will continue to do so as people have more media at their ready command. Our work lives have changed and become more complex because of transmedia communication. Although there are more opportunities to incorporate the advantages of transmedia communication into our work lives, not every industry embraces those practices, and there are precarious disadvantages to be negotiated as well (Fast & Jansson, 2019). In addition, corporate responsibility has been closely scrutinized (Morsing & Schultz, 2006; Capriotti, 2011; Coombs, 2019), as users have more access to corporations through more modes of communication than ever before, and as artificial intelligence has become a powerful tool for connecting with users and branding corporate values.

At the same time, transmedia has given rise to cocreation and crowdsourcing on vast scales. This is especially true within industries such as the gaming industry, whose customers have grown up with transmedia communication. Game developers now struggle to satisfy customers who both have access to and use multiple platforms to actively voice their concerns. Patching games in response to those concerns is now commonplace (Sherlock, 2014), and ugly confrontations have taken place at times between game developers and their customers (Reardon, Wright, & Malone, 2017). As Hepp (2014) showed, these changes are due as much to changes in society as to changes in technology, as users now have unprecedented access to both corporations and, perhaps more importantly, to one another.

Technical communication today is usually accomplished through multiple media and often across media in the truest sense of transmedia. The meanings that are constructed through transmediated content are much harder to define than those conveyed through single-medium content because of the fragmented and subjective nature of their construction. Yet we must study the processes of meaning making to understand them. The articles in this special issue examine various uses of transmedia in technical communication, with an emphasis on participatory culture and digital creation. Along with previously published articles (e.g., Ding, 2012; McNely, 2017; Gallon, Lorenzo, & Josefowicz, 2017), the articles in this issue contribute to our understanding of the approaches to and nature of transmedia technical communication.

The Articles in This Issue

In “‘Don’t Be a Dilbert’: Transmedia Storytelling in Technical Communication during and after World War II,” Edward A. Malone discusses the pre-digital age use of transmedia storytelling techniques in the U.S. Navy’s Dilbert safety campaign for pilots. Transmedia storytelling requires multimodality (the use of diverse media, though not necessarily digital media), intertextuality (invoking one text in another), and additive comprehension (incremental gains in understanding). Malone explores the development of the Dilbert myth across various media, including posters, manuals, films, magazine columns, shaming rituals, training devices, and even nose art on aircraft (multimodality). He points to the ways in which the texts connected to one another—both in the same medium and across media (intertextuality). A text might incorporate, quote from, respond to, or in some other way invoke another text (such as using a Dilbert poster in the Dilbert film, or a Dilbert poster in a book or a magazine column, or the nickname “Dilbert” for an underwater cockpit escape device). Finally, Malone argues that each contribution to the Dilbert myth (whether it was a poster, an installment of a magazine column, or something else) was a contribution to the audience’s safety training—a hodgepodge of discrete rules, examples, and advice that the pilot assembled into a better understanding of safe flying (additive comprehension). This training was never complete but rather ongoing as accidents happened, new strategies were developed, and technologies advanced. Malone suggests that this historical example might serve as a pedagogical tool for introducing transmedia storytelling concepts and techniques to technical communication students.

In “Next-Gen Resumes: A Case Study of Using Transmedia Storytelling to Create Branding on LinkedIn,” Lynn B. McCool challenges professional communication educators to consider next generation (next-gen) resumes as an alternative to traditional resumes. Young professionals are using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and especially LinkedIn to engage in personal branding and career building. McCool examines Tyrone Jacobs, Jr.’s LinkedIn profile, focusing on the way he uses various media in conjunction with personal narratives to foster engagement in a participatory culture of LinkedIn users. Technical communicators and other working professionals—and students who aspire to become working professionals—should note that Jacobs has been developing and maintaining his next-gen resume throughout his career. His resume is not something he takes out and dusts off only when he is trying to find a job; it is his presence in an always-on, always-connected world, bringing him visibility and opportunities while he is on the job. McCool’s case study shows that, in an age of digital media and social networking, transmedia storytelling techniques are instrumental in telling our personal stories in a professional setting. They allow us to build our stories incrementally across several media and create engagement and emotional connections with prospective employers and others.

In “The Transmedia Workbench: Technical Communication and User-Driven Innovation,” David Mueller uses the metaphor of a transmedia workbench to describe a space in which the users of a product, the Moog Werkstatt synthesizer, can work collaboratively to build resources and relationships across multiple media. The workbench is exemplified by the Werkstatt Workshop, an online user portal that provides resources for building and modifying the synthesizer. Those resources take various forms (messages, schematics, proposals, and testimonials) and use different media (images, video, text, and software). Many of these resources are created by and elaborated upon by the users of the product as they share ideas and problems and help one another accomplish their goals. As a transmedia documentation network, the workbench facilitates relationship building and innovation among users who assume roles such as engineer, critic, and musician. As Mueller writes, “Just as fictional transmedia narratives foster rich participatory engagement among media consumers, a transmedia documentation network can enable users to assume active roles in the design and production of technical objects.” Mueller believes that such networks present opportunities for professional technical communicators to become administrators and coordinators of user-driven production rather than just content creators.

The authors of “Communally Designed Deception: Participatory Technical Communication Practices in an Amateur Game Design Community” draw upon personal experience as inveterate forum game players in this study of participatory game design. Alisha Karabinus and Rachel Atherton challenge technical communicators to “expand their understanding of world-making beyond the notion of fictionalization.” Toward this end, they study the activities of a group of individuals playing social deception games in an asynchronous forum. The game designers in this group, known as MafiEra, create games that contribute to the transmedia worlds of franchises such as Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, while all group members help to create the MafiEra world by developing game rules and documentation across diverse media. It is the making of the MafiEra world—and other worlds like it—that should be of interest to technical communicators who want to study world-making processes in the context of game-design ecologies. Although the design practices, including the technical communication practices, of professional game design studios are usually kept hidden from the public, the practices of amateur game design communities are likely to be visible and, therefore, accessible to researchers. Studying the design practices of MafiEra and similar communities can provide insight into the activities of the professional studios, but amateur game design communities are also worthy of study in their own right.

In “Memetic Variation in the Whole30: Understanding Content Consistency in a Transmediated Nutritional Program,” Carleigh Davis considers the effect of transmediation (i.e., switching media) on the acceptance and understanding of content, for example, on the perceived credibility of scientific information. She collected and analyzed the most frequently occurring memes in a set of printed books and a Facebook Community Page—both supporting a popular nutritional program, The Whole30. A meme is “a unit of communication” by a human or nonhuman (e.g., technology) that is repeated one or more times and derives its rhetorical purpose from its relationship with other memes in a given context. Davis discovered that interface memes such as hypertextual design, a haptic-textual interface, and the physical separation of information from sources can determine whether important content memes will transfer successfully across media. One such content meme—a skepticism of scientific research—transferred successfully from the books to the Facebook Page, because both memeplexes (the books and the Facebook Page) included interface memes that facilitated the sharing of personal experience. Davis advises technical communicators to determine which memes are suitable, as they are, for transmediation, and which ones require adaptation or even rejection in favor of new ones. Moving content across media without this understanding may cause an audience to ignore important content or (even worse) misunderstand it.

What genres of technical communication do gamers create? Why and how do they create these diverse artifacts? Carly Finseth answers these questions in “The Participatory Culture of Technical Communication in Online Gaming Communities.” One of the most useful findings of her study of 10 game-related websites is a list of 24 distinct genres of game-based technical communication (forum posts, graphics, shareables, trivia, etc.). Finseth indicates whether each genre is typically site, user, and/or community constructed. Also valuable is her list of nine purposes of game-based technical communication—from the usual (to solve problems, to provide information) to the unusual (to post bragging rights). In discussing how gamers create technical communication artifacts, Finseth emphasizes the important role of transmedia: “Players in participatory cultures consistently create game-based materials as part of their social identity, stretching across modes and media to suit their rhetorical goals.” Three different individuals might produce strategy guides, and they might provide the same (or some of the same) information and advice, but the first might be a podcast, the second a text, and the third a video walkthrough. A user might consult all three (or just one or two) to increase his or her understanding of gameplay.


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About the Guest Editors

Edward A. Malone is Professor of English and Technical Communication at Missouri University of Science and Technology, where he teaches courses in the international technical communication, technical editing, and the history of technical communication. He is available at malonee@mst.edu.

David Wright is an Associate Professor of English and Technical Communication at Missouri University of Science and Technology. His research interests include technology diffusion, technical communication history, and strategic communication. He is available at wrightmd@mst.edu.

Daniel Reardon is Associate Chair and Associate Professor of English at Missouri University of Science and Technology, where he teaches Game Studies, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Literature. Dan has published articles and chapters on technical communication, writing program administration, and higher education administration. He and Dr. David Wright are completing a monograph on technical communication in digital games. He is available at reardond@mst.edu.