Transmedia conversations

I had a minor epiphany last week after my friend Jocelyn posted a quote from our conversation at dinner on my Facebook wall. For those of you not on Facebook, the wall is a single-threaded discussion board, where people can write comments to you that are visible to others. One of the reasons I didn’t “get” Facebook was that observing something like the wall from outside a community was meaningless. The comments were disjointed and without context, and I didn’t see how they were interesting… until I got one myself. Jocelyn’s comment preserved our conversation in a more substantial form, but it will only have meaning to those of us who were at dinner – it requires knowledge of a separate context to make sense of the comment.

This is part of a larger trend in society to expand our conversations and communities across multiple forms of media. This post is informed by having read the Transmedia Storytelling chapter of Convergence Culture, by Henry Jenkins, where he describes The Matrix as follows:

The Matrix is entertainment for the age of media convergence, integrating multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium. The Wachowski brothers played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film first to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the computer game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to a conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, and then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry.

What Jocelyn’s wall post made me realize is that conversations in general can no longer “be contained within a single medium”. We have so many options for expressing ourselves, and for having conversations with our friends, that restricting ourselves to a single medium no longer makes sense. We might start a conversation by phone, follow up by email, use instant messaging to arrange a meeting, have a conversation in person, and recap the conversation in Facebook.

One possible disadvantage of such transmedia conversations is that it requires carrying our context with us. I can’t depend on the media to give me cues about how the conversation has developed when the conversation has spanned across several forms of media. So when I get a text message on my phone, I have to remember what I was last talking to this person about, and figure out the frame of context myself, whereas on the phone I could ask for clarification, or in email, my previous email might often be quoted. This may be a generational thing, though, as I think that younger generations growing up in a world of transmedia will have less difficulty with keeping track of their various contexts, as they will not know a world where it could be otherwise.

A similar constraint on these conversations is the lack of traceability and history. I really like email because I can use quoting of an incoming message to frame my reply, and keep a stored digital copy of what was said for future reference. I often get frustrated when looking at an old email that refers to an IM or an offline conversation because I can’t reconstruct what triggered the reference – the conversation that was part of my context at the time is long since forgotten and I have no way of recovering it. I can see advantages to this form of built-in information decay, but I also think we will lose our history. I can’t imagine future historians being able to track their subject’s thoughts and conversations in the way they could fifty years ago by reading their subject’s letters, as so much context will be lost.

Another disadvantage is that these conversations are impenetrable to outsiders. They don’t make sense from outside the community, because only the community is following the conversation across all media (one might call it “media hopping” in analogy to frequency hopping). This may be an advantage in some ways, especially for teenagers trying to develop and assert a new identity without interference from their parents and community, but it makes the barrier to entry into the community higher. One has to earn the trust of everybody in the community to get included in the conversation. Otherwise, one suffers from the experience we’ve all had where somebody says “Don’t you remember what they said? Oh, right, you weren’t there.” where “there” can be a place, a mailing list, a web-based discussion board, an IM chat room, a friends-locked LiveJournal post, etc.

Understanding the transmedia nature of the conversations helps because it makes me realize that it’s not that I’m “old” in not “getting” a new medium, it’s that I’m not part of a community conversation using that medium. New communities are springing up around each form of social media, and many communities are spanning across several media. Having a surfeit of media options provides people with more options for expressing themselves. People that like to write essays can have a blog, people that express themselves through pictures have Flickr, people who think in one-liners have Twitter, people that represent themselves through their networks have LinkedIn or Facebook, etc. And communities can integrate all of these to express themselves. Much like I might represent myself by a particular combination of fields, a community might define itself by the media it uses to trace its connections.

Of course, the next step is to think about how one might try to design the form a community will take by the media used to maintain it (e.g. mailing list vs. web discussion board vs. closed Facebook group), but I’ll leave that to someone smarter than myself.

8 thoughts on “Transmedia conversations

  1. “Of course, the next step is to think about how one might try to design the form a community will take by the media used to maintain it (e.g. mailing list vs. web discussion board vs. closed Facebook group), but I’ll leave that to someone smarter than myself.”

    Hmm, that’s a very interesting problem – and one I’m trying to solve myself. I think the answer depends on the type of community you are trying to create. For example, in a group of friends, you might wind up using a variety of media, depending on where people are making comments at the time. Individual members of the community will need to keep track and help others follow the conversation as it passes from medium to medium.

    In an environment where the community has a goal (such as a work or professional or hobby organization), the group will have to designate a particular media as the “central” conversation/meeting location (just as they would designate a physical location, such as a house or public area). This area will be where “official” business is conducted (i.e. if you didn’t say it in the LJ group, you didn’t really propose it).

    Hmm..

  2. So, a while back, I posted an idea I had about a way to essentially aggregate all “your” conversations across messageboards, comments on people’s blogs and the like, and essentially turn it into your personal blog. The idea was to essentially take that “transmedia conversation” and squeeze it all into a historical document that you *could* trace through.

    So, if you had a comment on your Facebook wall, maybe I could click it, and it would take me to your transmediaaggregator.com homepage, where I could then see the conversation in context, go back through the myspace.com whatevermabob, IM discussion, etc., and get the context to understand a particular comment.

    How a user would make certain things available or not would be something that’d need to be worked out, but I could see it working essentially like Google’s shared items do now. If there’s a particularly interesting conversation I want to “share,” I can simply click a button, and that entire conversation, across all media that it’s part of, becomes publicly available and contextualized on a single page.

    I’m finding that I *really* want something like that now, particularly re: the conversation about Bioshock that A_B and I were having – I’d like to post that to a game forum I’m a part of and have other people participate, while still providing the sense of personal ownership of the interaction that comes with the blog. Also, being able to essentially create pathways where the conversation in some regards is two-way, where you could talk to others about it, and in some ways one-way, where you’re simply sharing and not letting others “participate”. So, in this case, I could have TGFers (the forum members) post on my part of the conversation, on my page, and A_B might not. But so looking at my page, you’d essentially get a larger context. Then, if A_B decided to comment on something one of the TGFers had said, if he’d seen it on my “part” of the conversation, he could click it, and essentially then branch the converstaion on his blog to include it.

    Or something.

  3. Y’know, I bet I used to be able to manage all that transmedia tracking and suchlike. Nowadays, I can barely manage to remember who I have told what to in conversations where I was physically present.

    Some of this is that I’ve gotten out of the habit of memorizing details, having replaced it with the habit of taking notes and bookmarking things in one way or another. But that’s in many ways a response to the more fundamental problem that my brain is full. Seriously.

    As with the previous topic, I think this one is generational in a contextual way, not in an exposure/adaptation way. Kids in high school have transmedia conversations because, really, how many different circles of people are they talking to, and how many other things have they got to keep track of? Transmedia is easy in that kind of situation.

    It’s like the joke: Why does an elephant never forget? A: What’s he got to remember? Where he put his car keys? Whether he should get milk at the store? Of course he never forgets!

  4. Seppo: Part of the issue is that some of these conversations are not aggregated in one place (e.g. Facebook walls, IMs, text messages), so to get the context, one would have to do the aggregation oneself, and that gets into privacy issues. But, yes, the ability to “own one’s comments” as Dave Policar phrases it would be handy.

    Beemer: Good point. This may be a manifestation of the physical constraints leading to Dunbar’s number. Our brains are big enough to be able to track the social interactions of a hunter-gatherer tribe of approximately 150 people. In high school and even college, our “tribe” was much smaller than that, so we could keep track of everything. But now with multiple social communities and mailing lists and blogs, it’s not unreasonable for people to be trying to track hundreds of people. And that’s too many for our unaugmented brains to handle. Clearly we need a Facebook cyborg implant. Or something.

  5. Yeah, the question is how to get all that stuff to understand each other. I mean, I understand it’s all in crazy different formats, but it’s not like there’s an infinite number. Let’s say you start by supporting myspace, facebook, phpbb, blogger, livejournal, typepad, and any of these other huge formats. Through a Firefox plugin or something, you get it to recognize all the comments fields that you might fill out, and how they relate to other comments. Most comment threads have some sort of hierarchy that you can understand visually, right? So, there’s something in the code that delineates the hierarchy of comments.

    I dunno – even if I had to manually “grab” the comment somehow, as long as I could right-click in it, it’s not that big a deal to me. And then yeah, getting all the various usernames and accounts that people have across all these things – you’d need to figure out some way to associate various usernames with single identities… Yeah – lots of problems that need to be dealt with, but the benefits would be pretty ridiculous, IMO.

  6. Seppo: Check out Greasemonkey, for Firefox. There are several GM scripts that I use to help me manage my posts to Flickr groups. One script I use allows me to “collect” photos from pages I have visited, and paste their URL’s into conversation threads.

    Something like this could be expanded to enable one to add all sorts of metadata to posts in different places.

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