With the prevalence of media convergence, the manner in which narratives are constructed and the way audiences interact with them has evolved. One relatively new narrative format is “transmedia” storytelling, a term which first emerged in the 1990s, and was widely used in discussions about The Blair Witch Project (1999). The development of the concept is closely linked to the development of the Internet because of the way the Internet facilitates media convergence. As defined by Henry Jenkins, a transmedia story is one that “unfolds across multiple media platforms” (2006, p. 95). The format is also sometimes referred to as cross media storytelling, or a distributed narrative.
This review of the literature examines how audiences engage and interact with transmedia stories. Certain aspects of transmedia storytelling invite the audience’s participation. Transmedia stories carefully structure their distribution in space and time (Walker, 2004; Kinder 1991) to bring the audience closer to the story world. These narratives must also tell a single cohesive story, with the text on each media platform contributing to the whole and strengthening the narrative (Beddows, 2012; Jenkins, 2006; Page, 2014; Sangalang, Johnson, & Ciancio, 2013). Each part engages the audience in a different manner, and should ideally come together as a more satisfying whole.
There are risks and challenges associated with this form of storytelling. The story creator risks excluding parts of their audience who may not engage with the story on all its platforms, particularly those who are older or less tech-savvy (Jenkins, 2006; Page, 2014). Furthermore, as Page (2014) puts forth, there is later the challenge of accessing a transmedia narrative as an archive. The distributed narrative has to be collected somehow for audiences experiencing the story after its initial run.
The most challenging and most rewarding element of a transmedia story is interactivity. This factor has the greatest potential for audience engagement. When Beddows (2012) interviewed transmedia producers, all indicated that they wanted to incorporate interactivity into their projects. While interaction may sometimes ask too much of an audience (Jenkins, 2006), when done well, even small interactions can be meaningful (Page, 2014) and give the story verisimilitude.
Transmedia storytelling has largely emerged as a reaction to the way people today interact with media, and thus these narratives have higher potential for audience engagement.
Because transmedia storytelling is a relatively new concept, its definition is still fluid. While it is agreed that a transmedia narrative is one distributed across multiple mediums or platforms, the level of integration between these platforms is contested. According to Jenkins (2006), each branch of the story should be independent enough that an individual could enjoy each one without needing to experience the others. Dena (as cited in Long, 2007) disagrees with this point in Jenkin’s definition, and therefore prefers the term “transfiction”, which refers to a story that is contingent on all story pieces across all mediums. By this definition, no single branch would be adequate to experience the story. Long (2007) further distinguishes transmedia stories by dividing them into those planned to be told in a transmedia format (akin to Dena’s transfiction), and those that were later adapted for transmediation (including spin-offs and other addendums that would fall within Jenkin’s definition).
Where a transmedia work falls within these spectrums influences many other aspects of the transmedia work like their accessibility and their distribution in time and space, therefore altering audience interaction. For example, Page (2014) looks specifically at The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which falls between Dena and Jenkin’s definition. The video diaries are the main story source, or primary text, and alone tell a complete story. Without the videos, it would be impossible to follow the plot of the series. However, without the material on additional platforms, particularly Twitter, there are gaps in the narrative that the audience must fill in, and the larger storyscape is incomplete. Having some or all platforms tell an independent story increases accessibility and creates more widespread engagement, while building an interconnected storyscape that relies on all platforms creates a narrative experience that is ultimately more satisfying (Page, 2014).
Those franchises that have evolved into transmedia works after the fact create a slightly different experience. While one must draw a distinction between a transmedia story and a work that has been adapted to different mediums (Long, 2007), some franchises do successfully make the transition from a single- to multi-platform work. Scott (2010) reminds us, also, that audiences, through fan-created content, have a long history of continuing and expanding narratives (unofficially) across multiple platforms. These narratives are less integrated, and conflict between official and unofficial canon can therefore arise (Scott, 2010). This lack of cohesion between independent and disparate elements again offers accessibility, though at the cost of deeper involvement in the story world.
One unique aspect of certain transmedia narratives is the opportunity for an audience to follow along with the story in real time. A transmedia story that is experienced “live” matches it’s narrative time with the audience members’ real time (Walker, 2004). The timed release of the narrative (ex. posting a video or tweet) creates anticipation between episodes, particularly when an episode ends on a cliff-hanger or teases a major plot point, and creates eagerness in the audience for the next update (Page, 2014).
Tranmedia stories are also released in fragments across multiple platforms. This reflects our Internet habits of scanning, rather than reading, and rapidly switching from task to task. (Walker, 2004; Jenkins, 2006; Page, 2014). This form of storytelling can be accessible to an audience who may not engage with traditional texts (Page, 2014). However, the creator risks alienating audience members who are unfamiliar with one or more of the platforms and cannot engage with those aspects of the narrative (Page, 2014). Challenges arise when the story ends and can only be experienced as an archive. The carefully timed and distributed elements have to be brought back together as an integrated whole (Page, 2014).
Of distribution in both space and time, Coutard (as cited in Roos, 2012) makes note of a shift that has occurred in the digital age; audiences today can experience media at any time on a variety of mobile devices. Not only is this a boost in accessibility, but it is what makes such precise timing and spacing of a narrative possible.
One strong point surrounding the potential for audience engagement with transmedia stories is the idea that audiences engage more with stories they can interact with. To fully engage with a transmedia story requires a certain amount of audience participation; the dispersed format demands that the audience actively seek out the story on multiple platforms (Page, 2014).
This is contradicted by Roos (2012) who concludes that the audience can only partly participate, because the arc of the story is almost always defined by the creator and cannot be measurably changed, and therefore, like in traditional media forms, the producers still have control of the production process. The line between consumers and producers is more blurred (Jenkins, 2006; Roos, 2012), and larger commercial transmedia works may exploit audience participation to a certain extent (Roos, 2012; Scott, 2010), but this does not necessarily mean that the participation can influence the storyscape. Page (2014) finds in her example, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries that audience engagement did not impact the plot of the narrative. However, Page (2014) establishes that the audience still found meaningful ways to interact with the story; for example, fans were able to have conversations with the characters on Twitter. Both Page (2014) and Roos (2012) assume that fan-produced works are not a part of the overall narrative. Jenkins (2006) stresses that the format promotes collaboration between creators and fans, but a single person or team maintains control in the most successful cases. Beddows (2012), alternatively, points out that a transmedia story may be treated as a world which encompasses both official and unofficial works.
According to Jenkins (2006), media convergence alters the way an audience consumes media. However, though transmedia stories use multiple platforms to deliver a single narrative, technological convergence alone does not heighten engagement (Beddows, 2012). Rather, the stories capitalises on the audience’s existing media consumption patterns (which have been shaped by convergence) and their diverse online identities (Page, 2014). Because a transmedia story utilizes multiple platforms, it has more points of entry for potential audience members (Long, 2007; Jenkins 2006).
Transmedia works, particularly those that utilize recently developed platforms, risk making their story inaccessible to less tech savvy audiences. (Page, 2014; Jenkins, 2006). Older audience members with less distributed consumption patterns may find the transmedia format too demanding (Jenkins 2006). On the other hand, Page (2014) notes that these works have the potential to reach audiences that may not engage with print texts.
The notion that verisimilitude in art creates a stronger emotional reaction in an audience dates back to the works of Aristotle. Verisimilitude in a transmedia work is created through a combination of the techniques previously discussed including integration, interactivity, and distribution in space and time. Projects that utilize social media to create profiles for the characters place these characters’ online presence in the same space as the presence of real people (Page 2014; Walker, 2004). The characters are assimilated into a stream of social media updates, and interact with their audience the same way the audience interacts with their own friends online (Walker, 2004). Further, small interactions, like creating a video response or tweeting a character, create the sense that the characters are real (Page, 2014).
Jenkins (2006) refers to The Blair Witch Project as one example of verisimilitude created by presenting all elements of the story, from the supernatural legend to the soundtrack, as real. An interview with members of the film’s creative team revealed that by creating a vast and rich fictional world which reflected the complexities of the real world, the fans spent time exploring Blair Witch universe and gave it more emotional weight (Jenkins, 2006).
There are opportunities in transmedia stories for audience engagement that are not present in traditional narratives. The use of multiple platforms allows the story room to expand and develop, creating a more immersive experience for the audience. What is lacking in the literature is an analysis of individual experiences. The focus is largely on the construction of the narratives and how this impacts the experience of the audience en masse. Further research could compare individual experiences, like those of an individual who experienced all parts of the story versus one who only experienced the story through a single primary text. Furthermore, future studies could also explore the impact of particular media platforms on an audience’s level of engagement. It is clear from the research that the transmedia structure is well suited to the current age of the Internet and media convergence, and transmedia stories at their best promote a high level of immersion and involvement.