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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Gould

Worldbuilding Through Transmedia Storytelling

Transmedia storytelling is a powerful technique for developing and dispersing a narrative structure across multiple platforms (Jenkins, 2006), most commonly through web-based technologies and social media, to achieve a level of engagement that compliments the need “digital relativity” (Rubel, 2010) in the information age. The Internet has completely transformed the way we create, share and experience media today, fragmenting our consumption and socializing our exchange of culture. This techno-social lifestyle is the product of advancements in mobile communication, social media networking and the Internet, which have enmeshed technology and society in a “reciprocal, cyclical, relationship” (Chayko, 2014, pg. 985). Transmedia storytelling compliments the decentralized and fragmented ecosystem of the Internet, allowing content creators to create overarching narratives, new modes of presentation and social integration with a degree of audience participation, interaction or collaboration across multiple platforms and formats. Thus, this process serves as an extension for Worldbuilding, as content is systematically dispersed across multiple channels creating a singular and coordinated entertainment experience.

Supercharged by technology the web is constantly growing and has fundamentally changed how we communicate and share information. Social media has had the most profound effect on society and our public life, especially in regard to social capital (Valenzuela et al, 2009). Now, more than a quarter of the world’s 7 billion humans are active on Facebook (Constine, 2018) adrift in an ocean of information and content, as 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily (James, 2017). Although social networking sites have consolidated audiences and communities, it has also fragmented our attention and complicated matters of choice. However, in the era of collective intelligence (Levy, 1997) and networked societies, transmedia storytelling is an ideal aesthetic form that offers different points of entry for users and the possibility of co-creation.

Transmedia storytelling takes full advantage of the eclectic digital landscape to bring “greater institutional coordination, added narrative integrality and deeper engagement” (Johnson, 2013) to the consumption of culture. Similar to franchise models (Sigue & Chintagunta, 2009), which spread resources aligned through social relation, interest and brand identity, among a network of stakeholders, transmedia storytelling extends, adapts and transforms content through social exchange and spreadable media (Edwards, 2012). Transmedia storytelling is essentially serialized production of singular source material across ancillary markets and various platforms, offering unique experiences and diverse consumption. As previously mentioned, cultural production and consumption has splintered from traditional markets as social media and the Internet has fundamentally changed communication and the information economy. As a result, entertainment and advertising has reoriented to involve transformative exchange and networked collaboration (Kinder, 1994) across the internet, social media, film, television, video games, comic books, mobile applications, music, merchandising, literature and throughout other platforms and industries.

Dispersing uniform content across various media outlets is not inherently unique in the information era. Many marketing and branding strategies aim to achieve widespread and consistent messaging (Mathieson, 2010). Addressing audiences and constructing identities across different platforms online, even for individuals, has a degree of deliberate performativity (Papacharissi, 2012). However, this type of orchestrated and multilateral presentation is not altogether transmedia storytelling. Rather, transmedia storytelling is achieved when elements of a story or fiction are extended through separate intermediaries, all with their own unique contribution, which unfold to create a collective experience.

As consumers, we are cognizant of companies, like Nike or Marvel, using “story worlds” as means of brand development and engagement (Escobedo, 2017). Expanding off the borders of a cinema screen, we can experience, and sometimes participate in, entire fictional cosmologies online. Exhaustive wikis, fan-centered content on social media and a wide range of other technologies give us greater context, weaving a tapestry of continuity for these worlds and inviting us to fill in the blanks with our own journey (Jones & Nelson, 2015). For example, in the Lord of the Rings franchise, pieces of information are conveyed through six live action films, a series of graphic novels, eight books, and several video games. There is no one single source or urtext where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Middle-earth universe.

Extensions of transmedia stories blur the line between marketing and entertainment as each piece enhances a user’s experience and serve different functions specific to their method of delivery. This practice leverages the splintered configuration of the modern entertainment industry and even forgoes classically constructed narratives, which are becoming less popular among consumers (Giliberti, 2016), to offer audiences a greater sense of realism and immersion. Transmedia stories become unique to the individual’s collective sum of episodes and experience, giving way to comprehensive insight and the captivation of world building. As an illustration, the characters from Sherlock, a British crime drama television series, post to a virtual blog that pair with each case and provide additional context and color to each episode. Similarly, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus created a fictional TED talk given by fictional character Peter Weyland in the year 2023. This video was released before the film and although it was used as a marketing tool it is very story-driven as it sets up the plot of the Alien prequel and leads viewers into the world.

Social media platforms further enable storytellers to deliver their content and build fictional worlds in new and exciting ways. As we have discussed, transmedia creators offer to their audiences a very intricate narrative world, but their aim is also to have audiences become engrossed in these fictions, taking possession of that world and develop it independently. Social media has proliferated fandom and user generated content around these fictions (Fiorelli, 2015), which can even lead to crowdsourced spin offs. Never being officially greenlit by a studio, a timely leak of test-footage for Deadpool by director Tim Miller and actor Ryan Reynolds prompted widespread enthusiasm, a fervent response online from fans and eventually spurred Fox into bringing the project to the box office (Shaw-Williams, 2014). Social media has made the influence of fans and media consumers more overt.

The Internet and social media have democratized access to creation and distribution tools (Bhargave & Klat, 2017). In regard to transmedia, these technologies have transformed the relationship between creators and consumers by facilitating dialogue and enabling cooperation (Gurel & Tigli, 2014). More than mere spectators, fans can share and show their liking or criticism through social media including blogs and forums that they generate. Furthermore, participants gather information and share in collective journeys and hybrid experiences to better understand these fictions (Zuckerman, 2016). Levy advocates that art in a period of collective intelligence, like our networked society, functions as a cultural attractor, which draws like-minded users together to create communities (1997).

Because of the current digital topography, media consumers resemble hunters and gatherers, surveying various outlets, narratives and paratext trying to stitch together a deeper understanding. Gaps or voids discovered in these narratives reveal an opportunity for further engagement, activating discussion and the creation of fan fiction. For example, the extremely popular Harry Potter series left insatiable fans, like author Cassandra Clare, wanting more. Clare penned her own run of Potter-based fantasy with her fanfiction, the Draco Trilogy. To avoid plagiarism and make the work entirely original, the trilogy was later adapted and developed into the Mortal Instruments series (Baker-Whitelaw, 2013). Nuances of legality aside, fanfiction culture represents impassioned devotees who want to reimagine and further connect with their favorite characters and stories.

Social media isn’t just an ideal medium for the granular diversification and channeled expansion of a narrative world found in transmedia storytelling but allows these stories to be enriched, reproduced and easily shared through their transactional networks. Audiences have collective agency in social media’s participatory culture as many services depend on the digital labor of its users like Instagram, Wikipedia and Facebook (Chayko, 2018). Because a majority of content on social media is directed and distributed by individuals, “transmedia storytelling recruits the audience as co-authors of the brand narrative, without knowing for certain where it will lead” (Cohen, 2011). Consequently, transmedia storytellers and content creators build brand or story ‘worlds’ that tie each experience and every communication back to a shared universe. Although worldbuilding is a subset of storytelling, which expands upon setting, it has more potential for online engagement and autonomy in user experience.

By providing foundational context and blended content for experience, transmedia storytellers set users adrift among an invented landscape of virtual touch-points orbiting a central message, brand or theme. Departing from the linear path of traditional storytelling, like a Hero’s Journey, worldbuilding supplants structure for community, lending itself to shared experiences and social sharing. Effective worldbuilding becomes a storytelling practice where plot becomes secondary to design. Moreover, this narrative model has the potential to capture diverse audiences and communities through synergy, immersion and interaction (Gomez, 2010). Because of their dependency on social exchange, transmedia storytelling and worldbuilding influences, and can be influenced by, culture production mechanisms (Gurel & Tigli, 2014).

The process of worldbuilding creates deeper experiences for audiences by “fragmenting the stories… into a million pieces and sparking the imaginations of our audiences so they want to put them back together in the way that feels right to them” (Hinchcliffe, 2012). The democratization of storytelling isn’t unique to transmedia and digital technology. One of the earliest examples dates back to 1740, when Samuel Richardson published England’s first bestseller, Pamela. Blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction, Richardson circulated the manuscript to friends for input that helped shape the story (Turner, 1994). Similar to the dynamic-interactivity of Shakespeare’s plays, or the reshaping of oral compositions like Homer’s Iliad, communal readings of Pamela were performed in villages all over England (Swallow-Prior, 2013). There is a sincere drive for immersion in storytelling and the Internet is the first media convention that’s inherently diverse and interactive by design.

Stories are universal and integral to our culture but the way we tell them evolves with the emergence of each new technology. Uniquely, social media can act like all of its media predecessors – it can be experienced through audio, video and text. Fostered by the Internet, social media is also nonlinear, interactive and immersive. Furthermore, worldbuilding and transmedia storytelling is underpinned through hyperlinks, paratext and metacontent that deepens the possibilities for engagement. In stride with our techno-social lifestyles (Chayko, 2014), transmedia storytelling and worldbuilding compliments our impulse for storytelling in a mechanism that rewards participation and offers extravagant discovery.

The digitization of media has completely reshaped industries, audiences and production practices for the last twenty years. The versatility, interactivity and mobility of media have completely converged, changing social structures and the way information is disseminated (Bolin, 2007). Today, there is no one medium to which specific media content belongs and the higher the fluidity of a media text the more it widens consumption. Ergo, worldbuilding appeals to consumers and creators alike, as George Lucas observed, it offers an “immaculate reality” (Kelly & Parisi, 1997) spread across multiple channels that allow consumers to chose their own path and level of involvement.

Worldbuilding through transmedia storytelling is an approach to audience engagement online that combines story and experience. Worldbuilding is a narrative-design philosophy that is ushered through the multiplatform configuration of the Internet, especially social media. Social media platforms have introduced unprecedented levels of user content, customization, personalization and interactivity such that “attention is the real economy of people” (Davenport & Beck, 2001). Worldbuilding offers media consumers a pervasive, participatory and connected experience of their favorite brand or familiar fiction. In conclusion, media-technologies have always changed the way we experience and share stories, but now wikis, blogs and social media have given audiences an opportunity for co-creation and transmedia storytelling leverages these platforms to create dynamic narratives and entire virtual worlds.


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