Technology is constantly evolving and changing and along with that, our style of writing has adapted just as much. On a regular basis, students switch from writing academic essays to carefully crafting tweets and Facebook status updates in the same day; both of these examples are forms of writing, but drastically different in their audience and craft. The technological revolution has flipped writing as we knew it upside down, making typing on a computer more commonplace than handwriting text and increasing audience sizes and reach almost instantaneously. However, the nature of technology and the constant change it presents means that writers who wish to use it effectively also have to constantly adapt and change along with it. Digital writing is adapting to the widespread use of technology by creating an immersive and engaging multimodal sphere that incorporates traditional forms or writing, film and art into one interactive community.
As Jenkins says, We’re currently in an era of “media convergence” where content floats from one media platform to the next almost seamlessly. This convergence particularly lends itself to transmedia storytelling, the process of developing large fictional worlds across platforms, where stories develop through various mediums, such as text, film, and social media (Dudacek, 2015, Scolari, 2009).
Transmedia storytelling got its start in the entertainment industry and may be most recognizable in franchises like Star Wars and Pokémon. Henry Jenkins describes it well when he says that, “by design, Pokémon unfolds across games, television, films, and books [and now apps, with the new installment of Pokémon Go], with no media privileged over any other” . Now, as transmedia storytelling continues to be used within the entertainment industry, creators and educators alike have taken to developing an immersive experience as a way of getting literature and writing themes across to their technology-driven student base. These interactive worlds across websites using video, text, and audio, for example, are much more similar to an app you would find on an iPhone than a slide on a projector, but that’s precisely what keeps students engaged; a traditional classroom setting might just seem too “slow” to modern students (Dudacek, 2015). For example, reading classic literature from a book may not hold the attention of modern high schooler like being able to immerse him or herself in a virtual world with literary content. And although classic literature may not be the first thing most people think of pairing with the most modern technology, this is exactly what Hank Green and Bernie Su did when they created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern-day, multimodal adaption of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries perfectly uses the strengths of transmedia storytelling to convey and adapt a classic novel. Told primarily through video blogs (vlogs) from the viewpoints of Lizzie (Elizabeth) Bennet, the series also features content on YouTube and Twitter accounts belonging to various other characters and businesses in the webseries (Wade, 2013). One example of this is the character of Lydia Bennet, the immature and reckless younger sister, in both Austen’s classic and Green and Su’s adaptation. Although an audience member could get the full story from just viewing Lizzie’s content alone, Lydia’s channels and vlogs add an outside perspective and a more comprehensive understanding of the character (and her immaturity) than provided in the original novel. Having multiple perspectives and dimensions within a multimodal world practically asks for increased engagements as viewers click through links and content to learn more about the characters and world that they become invested in.
This point leads to one of the reasons why transmedia storytelling has made such a huge impact in the field of digital writing: fanfiction. At the root, fanfiction is a response to the audience wanting to interact with the elements of a story or piece of media and having no way to contribute or make their ideas heard – that is, until they crafted sometimes elaborate, sometimes silly pieces of writing and posted them on the internet. Some creators encourage this kind of fan interaction and attribute it to building community. Other creators feel that it is infringing on their intellectual property. However, in this age of digital media and transmedia storytelling, some creators are beginning to do more than grant permission for their fans to develop their own creative responses. Some creators are actually making those responses part of the narrative.
One notable example, perhaps the first of its kind, also involves a webseries. Kissing in the Rain, created by Yulin Kuang and posted to the Shipwrecked Comedy YouTube page is a 12-part series that follows two pairs of actors throughout different film sets where, like the title suggests, they always end up kissing in the rain. In between the video content, however, there are many missing moments. It is these moments that Kuang invited fans to fill in through any digital medium. Kuang set up a Tumblr blog and a tag for the project; then after each episode aired, the fans could create. If their creation was reblogged on Tumblr, it became canon. It was officially part of the narrative. The project was a success, and it proved that fans can help shape a narrative through digital writing and drawing. The growth stemmed from the community; a process unique to, yet common, in digital writing. In an unparalleled fashion, fans had more control over the content they were consuming than ever before.
Even if you’re not a fan fiction author, the principles of transmedia storytelling can still be used to enhance any kind of digital writing. First, any digital writer should look to showcase his or her content on multiple platforms, whether that be a blog, a Twitter account, YouTube videos, or Instagram. It’s intuitive, but having unique content creates multiple avenues for audience engagement and reach. It also allows for multiple perspectives and increases transparency of the author. As mentioned earlier, part of the success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was the ability for the audience to gain additional insight into each character’s (fictional) life the more that they interacted with the story. An author writing non-fiction on a blog could achieve the same results by posting snapshots of the research or writing process on an Instagram account and linking it to their blog; the key is connecting the two mediums but providing original content on each.
Perhaps even more important outside of creative narratives, including multiple outlets showcasing an individual’s work increases levels of transparency throughout the content. Using the same example as before, a nonfiction author who may seem very distant from the writing on his or her blog could provide controlled perspective into his or her life by featuring other related content on Instagram or Twitter. Finally, writing on the Internet is a communal, interactive experience, so including multimodality among one blog or piece of digital writing connects you to the other parts of the online community and catches and maintains interest.
Technology is always changing and forcing users to adapt and change with it. This is particularly true for digital writers whose goals are to capture and immerse an audience in their work. Multimedia storytelling has developed as a process used by fictional authors and the entertainment industry to increase audience size and engagement, but can still be applicable to other digital writers. Writers working online can use multiple mediums to present content, encourage audience feedback and participation and increase author transparency by using some of the tools commonly employed in multimedia storytelling.
In any form of writing, the goal is to reach your audience and make your voice heard and if your content is creative and engaging, the audience will want to interact with you and your ideas. Through transmedia storytelling, the realm of digital writing is expanding, and by doing so, they are reaching a wider, multimodal audience. In addition, that audience is more engaged with the content than when it was presented traditionally, in the style of a singular format. When thinking about digital writing, it is important to remember that writing is about sharing ideas.
Sharing ideas is not limited to long narrative passages, nor is it limited to one creator. Writing can be a collaborative effort between creator and audience to build content that is ideal for both. These digital creators are using their platforms of choice to develop their stories and meet their audiences, bringing digital writing into a new era. It will be exciting to see where their pioneering efforts will lead transmedia and digital storytelling in the future.
As a student, I’ve used aspects of multimedia storytelling throughout my undergraduate career. Because I’ve grown up with the use of technology, navigating an arrangement of multimodal content is as second nature to me as reading a printed book. In my first year of college, I participated in a Digital Humanities boot camp and was actively using multimedia storytelling to create a website before I even knew what it was. For this project, I used interactive timelines, video, audio, images, and text to document the history and experience of First-Year Orientation programs at Dickinson College. Each aspect could have stood on its own and provided interesting and potentially useful knowledge, but combined together they made the project dynamic and able to reach a larger audience.
On a similar note, learning to write to appeal to a diverse and unknown audience can be helpful in virtually any career path I or my classmates choose. Usually due to formatting or character limits, digital writing makes an author seriously consider what they want to say and how to express their thoughts in the most concise yet attention-gripping way possible. Students working with digital writing are learning how to set their own standards for content; the 5-paragraph essay formatting has been replaced with colors and headings that are designed to capture the interest of large audiences rather than a single professor.
Digital writing also improves students’ writing abilities by challenging them to not only write about something that’s of interest to them, but communicate in such a way that’s understandable to a stranger. While writing my own blog and reading my peers’ work from this semester, I am understanding just how difficult it is to turn something highly specialized into text that a general audience can understand.
Finally, as a digital writer, you must change your way of thinking. In other words, to create multimodal content, you must think multimodally. A digital writer considers multiple perspectives and takes a creative approach to distributing content; they analyze what they want to say in multiple ways. This aspect of digital writing has been the most challenging to me, despite my past experience communicating online both through the Digital Humanities Digital Boot Camp and on social media outlets. As a student spending the majority of her last four years writing various forms of lab reports, switching from a standardized format with a given prompt to choosing a highly personal blog theme and post topics has been quite a transition.
However, despite the challenges I may be facing, I truly believe that digital writing might be one of the most useful things I’ve learned throughout my Dickinson career. Never once when working with media and technology have I had the thought, “When will I ever use this?”. Knowing how to effectively use technology to find others’ ideas and perspectives or sharing my own is sure to serve me well in any future career. Although the technology will change over time, I’ll have a foundation to build upon and grow with. Overall, learning how to incorporate multimodal content into one piece of easily understandable digital writing has enhanced my communication skills while strengthening my technological aptitude at the same time, making this one of the most useful classes of my college career.
Dudacek, Oto. “Transmedia Storytelling in Education.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences(2015): 1-4. Web. 26 Oct. 20.
Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling.” MIT Technology Review. N.p., 15 Jan. 2003. Web.26 Oct. 2016.
Kuang, Yulin. “Kissing in the Rain, Inverse Fanfiction, and an Experiment in Transmedia.” Shipwrecked. Tumblr, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
Rorabaugh, Peter. “Organic Writing and Digital Media: Seeds and Organs.” Hybrid Pedagogy. Digital Pedagogy Lab, 21 June 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
Scolari, Carlos Alberto. “Transmedia Storytelling: Implicit Consumers, Narrative Worlds,and Branding in Contemporary Media Production.” International Journal of Communication 3 (2009): 587-606. Web. 26 Oct. 2016. <http://ijoc.org.>.
Wade, Megan. “Expanding Austen: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Transmedia Storytelling.”N.p., 2013. Web. 26 Oct. 2016