Transmedia Activism

One of the members of The Art of Social Change, Brad Lichtenstein, wrote last month at about his newest documentary project, What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest for the Commons, for which the film's creators are using a transmedia storytelling process to craft the film and its outreach strategy. Transmedia storytelling is a concept first described by Henry Jenkins. In his blog entry, Brad paraphrases the process' definition as: "Transmedia storytelling, also called multiplatform or enhanced storytelling, is storytelling across multiple forms of media. By using different media, it attempts to create "entry points" through which audiences can become immersed in a story franchise's world. The aim of this immersion is decentralized authorship across multiple new media forms like television, movie theaters. video games, the internet, and mobile platforms. By encouraging the sharing of assets and user generated content, transmedia conveys a complex story through numerous media sources."

There is a pure marketing benefit that arises from multiple entry points into a media property-- and in allowing your audience to participate in creating content and new platforms to distribute it. Even more interesting is the door this opens up for cause outreach, though (particularly in the context of this site). Nonprofits and creators of social change media have a challenge in making their content "sticky" and, in a crowded field with limited funding or distribution channels, it takes significant resources and expertise to first, create audience awareness and, second, inspire/prescribe action. There is a real and distinct opportunity for activists to influence action and raise cause awareness by distributing content through a multiplatform approach, particularly in which people participate in media creation. (A multiplatform approach would involve real-world, web-based or mobile content delivery of a variety of possible media, including feature-length narrative or documentary films, short films and clips, streaming or downloadable video, photography, blog posts, articles, spoken word content, exhibits, benefits and events, etc.)

Nonprofits engaged in social change initiatives should view storytelling as a necessary component of mission-fulfillment. (I know, as if the stretched, underpaid staff of any nonprofit doesn't have enough to think about.) It's well-established that for any individual institution, engaging your audience-- whether that's your beneficiaries, funders (existing and potential), board members, community or other stakeholders-- requires that they convey clearly, precisely and artfully what they do, how they do it, where their services/programs are most effective and necessary, and why they should be supported in your efforts to continue or grow their work. In the larger view of systemic change, though, storytelling takes on an even bigger role, where a well-told story creates a shared experience and helps illuminate all the factors (root cause and symptomatic) that effect social change efforts at both the global and local levels, creating a comprehensive, connected, "best practice" view of achieving progress.

Looking at this issue in the simplest of terms, one of the best ways to have people connect to a cause is to expose them to a variety of accessible media properties over a number of distribution channels-- which opens up avenues for dialogue and provides an audience with an educational experience about workable solutions-- and then work with the most creative and engaged audience segment to facilitate the creation of their own content that further explains the cause and inspires action around it. This kind of participatory social change art is not a new concept. The Theater of the Oppressed, a company established in Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s, engaged its audience as "spect-actors" -- participants who could both act and observe-- to learn how to solve social problems and constructively fight against oppression they encountered in their daily lives. (Today, there are still companies that use this theater form, such as the Aarohan Theater in Nepal which creates interactive theater in which the audience analyze social problems they face and act out possible solutions.) Another interesting example is the upcoming documentary Resist. The film's creators have set up the ResistNetwork website to start the film's outreach throughout its making, and to invite people to contribute stories of change that may end up in the final product or ancillary media.

To have a nonprofit's stories heard and to have an audience connect with cause, nonprofits should think about whether they can conceive and execute on a multiplatform approach. Leaving aside the question of funding (there are still relatively few funders who support media outreach initiatives with any consistency), a nonprofit would need a clear, defined, sustainable strategy and the attendant resources to create appropriate, compelling content and distribute it. As Brad points out in his blog, his journey through this process of transmedia storytelling has changed him from a filmmaker to a content producer. Nonprofits dealing with social change don't need to get into the business of content production or multiplatform distribution-- but it is a digital world now. It's likely time to add storytelling to the task list.

Republished from The Art of Social Change, at (

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mike Arauz was speaking about this just the other day and he pointed out how critical "Recombinant" was in transmedia planning.

It would suggest we need to not only delivery a story across multiple mediums, we have to allow for new works to be easily created from our existing pieces.

I think this is often missed and the focus is on "immersion" without the ability for co-creation to occur. ie: most people allow their audiences to create their own content but never to touch and re-edit their finished and sculpted stories/content/properties.