Transmedia for Social Change ☆

| February 18, 2011

Today I attended the final day of an intensive workshop event hosted by Working Films. The event brought together a diverse group of talented filmmakers, powerful activists, and leaders in the education sector – I was lucky I got to crash their party! In their own words, it was:

a residential workshop designed to help filmmakers and non-profit organizations leverage the power of films that document some of the most significant problems – and innovative local solutions – that unfold every day in schools across the United States and the world… [The last day] is a day of serious strategy for groups already committed to advancing change in the educational sector!

Cool stuff. At the center of the event were seven amazing films (links below). After hearing from the production teams and seeing clips from their films, we workshopped “social action” strategy in small groups.

Social Action

Action. Justice. Change. Transformation. Learning. There was a lot of passion in the films, and a lot of potential to start conversations, dialogue, etc. So that’s where we started. It was a lot to take in: the filmmakers (and by extension the production companies) shared their visions of the kind of impact they wanted their films to have. Better educational opportunities? Yes. Empowerment for underserved groups? Yes. Social change? You bet. Some of their ideas overlapped, some diverged.

A theme from the ongoing discussion that stood out to me was what someone in the group referred to as a “transmedia strategy” – from the idea of transmedia storytelling across multiple platforms and formats (Kinder 1991, Jenkins 2003). The conversation that emerged throughout the day was how the filmmakers – if they wanted to enhance the transformative potential of their films – were likely going to leave the more familiar domain of film… and enter into meatspace and cyberspace in new ways.

Or, in other words, the essential question of the day was: How can films lead to action?

I think everyone was sympathetic to the idea that discussion isn’t enough – that talk is cheap, as they say, even with respect to democratic action. And there was a shared sense among the activists and the educators that the films could do even more.

Notes on Transmedia Strategy

So this was my schtick about trying to get things done online: Start by creating opportunities for “engagement” across a spectrum of actions ranging from simple to complex. (Twitter = simple. Facebook = pretty simple. Embedding video = getting harder. Coming to your site = not so simple. Using your tools = takes some dedication. Putting content on your site = hard.) The Internet may be somewhat indifferent to your ideology (so to speak), but it is definitely not indifferent to the design of your software/applications/etc. A strategy that includes many of these elements – and successfully engages your audience – is a sufficient transmedia strategy.

Across the seven projects (“projects” seems better than “films” in this context), there was already a variety of thinking about online and social action strategy. Interestingly, I sometimes couldn’t tell if an idea for an “app” or a website was a tie-in or a tool – and it occurs to me now that that’s probably a bad sign. Allow for a quick clarification of terms: for me, a tie-in is a filmworld thing (to bring people to the experience of the film), and a tool is an educational thing (that empowers people to change things). The two can go hand-in-hand – and I nodded my head positively as we talked about that – but it is an uneasy relationship.

I suspect it would pay off to disentangle a tool from other tie-ins. They’re different animals. A good example of this kind of distance is the “professional development experience for teachers.” That’s something that someone else builds, and inserts some excerpts from your film into. It’s not a tie-in as much as a tool. And: let someone else make that tool.

But, let’s say you want to build a tool for social change, and you want to do it yourself.

You want to build a way to help parents connect. A way to give young learners a voice. A way to make families without children care about education. A way to help people achieve a new literacy. (Let’s agree to ignore the teachers here on the premise that they got the professional development kit.) You’ve now taken off your filmmakers’ hat off and put on a crazy new hat. You’re building a new tool.

First of all, you still need the aforementioned transmedia strategy: that’s your so-called social media funneling people of all kinds toward your film experience. A tool isn’t that. And, perhaps sadly, it’s not your film either – that helps, but it’s a non-starter in an online/digital/phone/app space. It’s also not your festival-in-a-box (that’s a tie-in). If you want a great tool, don’t confuse amplification with transformation. Amplification is about getting the word out and the conversation started. Transformation is when you enable every person to make it their own.

Sidenote: let’s agree not to aim to change policy on day one. Not with the tool that you’re going to put online (or on a mobile device). Let’s be realistic here: it would be a huge win if your chosen constituency finds your tool as useful as a scrap of paper. You’ll have to build up from there.

So, secondly, and most importantly, you need to make a useful tool. A humble, easy-to-understand tool. One with a little inspiration and imagination. It’s just one part of your transmedia strategy. It’s the part that aims at a very specific group of people and allows them to engage or enact the ideas that are buried deep within your film. It’s a super simple thing that may spring into the world wholly-formed, or take shape through many stages of refinement and revision. Sure, it’s a tie-in, but it shouldn’t look like one. It has to be a gift.

So let’s get to the unpleasantries. Unpleasantry #1: If you want your film to be part of a tool, you have to give your media away for free. Yep: that’s how the Internet wants it. That’s how educators want it. That’s how students want it. You don’t have to give it all away. And this isn’t just a strategy to get people to come and pay for another experience. This is a reality. It’s a reality for films that are good, authentic, truthful, honest, and transformative. If that means your film, that’s probably a good thing. Get over it. Keep your day job. Etc.

Unpleasantry #2: Developing good tools is hard. It’s easy to throw a lot of money at the problem and lose. But that doesn’t mean it’s expensive. You just need new friends. These new friends will be young, opinionated, difficult to communicate with, and just generally strange by your standards. (That’s okay though, right? You’re a filmmaker for goodness’ sake.) The words they should be saying to you are: simpleiterative, open source. That’s not a recipe; it’s just a good foundation. If they’re not saying those things, good luck to you. I have no idea what you’re building.

Unpleasantry #3: You need data. You need to convince your new aforementioned friend(s) that you need data. Each and every new aforementioned friend will not like the idea of gathering data, but with a little push, he or she can create a nice foundation. Traffic? Sure. An understanding of how individuals use your tool? Excellent. Demographic data? That would be nice. It’s unclear what you’ll do with it now, but it’s for the future. It’s for growing. It’s for understanding what you’re actually doing. Collect it. Organize it. Save it. If your tool is successful, it’s going to help you tell your story. Data is the cinematography of the digital world. (Hypothesis for further exploration: collecting great data is the high art of social change.)

Bonus round: give your users control over their content and their data. This will ingratiate you to the geeks and the media literate, but it’s also a great practice that will help you build a community around your tool. Give them an easy way to give you feedback, too.

Lastly, importantly,

I hope this vaguely coherent rant is more clarifying than it is discouraging. There is a ton of room in this world for transmedia for social change. We’re giving up too much if we leave it all up to Facebook, Google, and Apple. Jump in and play a bit. Hey, you’ve made a film… do you really want to do that again anytime soon?

Also, don’t forget about the people in your films. They are the people who have been given the most powerful tool of all.

Lastly, a big thanks to the multitalented organizers of the workshop, and, of course, anyone who had to suffer through an encounter with me, lol.

The films: