Transmedia: Who Invited the Lobsters Anyway?


This is a screed (Google it you lazy so and so). This is not a glass half empty, whine from the nether regions. This is a glass done been drained empty by slant drilling moisture pirates manifesto. This is me warming up in the bullpen for a series of missives about missed opportunities and what I see as the steady decline of artistic integrity on the part of the majority of today’s so-called artists in general.

Now to the Transmedia part in particular. I’m pissed off that Transmedia Storytelling, a method of storytelling that I helped pioneer, has been hijacked by the flying monkeys of media marketing, strangled in its crib, long before it could grow into the rich and immersive media format it had the potential to become. I am this man:

For those of you unfamiliar with Transmedia Storytelling and its predecessor, ARG, here’s a Wikipedia definition:

Transmedia storytelling (also known as transmedia narrative or multiplatform storytelling) is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies. It is not to be confused with traditional cross-platform media franchises, sequels or adaptations.

From a production standpoint, it involves creating content that engages an audience using various techniques to permeate their daily lives. In order to achieve this engagement, a transmedia production will develop stories across multiple forms of media in order to deliver unique pieces of content in each channel. Importantly, these pieces of content are not only linked together (overtly or subtly), but are in narrative synchronization with each other.

-From Wikipedia

I struggled a bit when considering the tone and texture of this article after my friend Nick asked me to contribute a piece about Transmedia. Obviously, I have a strong opinion regarding the present state of Transmedia versus its original intent and potential. Honestly, it has become a bit of a sensitive issue for me personally. As I recently commented to my friend, Martin Olsen, ” . . . you know Hollywood. Five minutes after they discover something, they invented it.” This is true, not just in the case of Transmedia, but also a few other developing technologies I had a hand in. PDF, HTML, DVD, Web 2.0 and the short-lived Semantic Web. All media technologies I was intimately involved in developing and evangelizing in their infancy. Each in turn was never allowed to mature and develop into its potential as rich media environments before the marketing vultures descended and turned it all into another sewer pipe used to sell us shit that we don’t need, necessitating working jobs that we hate, etc. (Yes, I just paraphrased Fight Club, get over it).

Ok, admittedly I have bit of a chip on my shoulder but after having helped champion several interactive media formats and styles (more about that in future chapters) and watching them become co-opted by “hollywood,” I do have an emotional dog in the fight. As they say on the interwebs, “I am so disappoint.”

Note, that when I say, “Hollywood,” I am not specifically talking about the geographical place as much as I am referring to the gestalt or permeating matrix of putrescence that extends outward from almost everything that has to do with the “Arts and Entertainment Industry.” Notice, I say the Industry and not the Arts in general. If this is starting to sound like some sort of anti-arts-industry manifesto, then so be it. Let me boil it down to a quintessential statement, because every manifesto needs a slogan: Arts Industry (or insert specific art form, such as Music Industry, etc.) IS AN OXYMORON. If I need to explain that further, You are not a person I can communicate with and you should stop reading now and return to reading your Facebook stream or watching your favorite reality TV show.

As one of the developers of the literary style now referred to as Transmedia, and it was started as a LITERARY style, regardless of how Johnny-come-latelys and interlopers may attempt to spin it these days, I am here to tell you that it was NEVER intended as yet another marketing gimmick. Hands down, no exceptions, NOT PART OF THE PLAN. Transmedia and its immediate predecessor, Alternate Reality Gaming are hybrids of traditional literary narrative, video game story arc, web enabled interactivity and real-life role playing games like LARPs. The original intention was to broaden and open up the storytelling process to mediums outside of the traditional publishing platforms, i.e. text/images. It was part Borges, part George Coates, part The Game (the move with Michael Douglas) and part other things.

Yes, when I started all this, I was a naive, avant-garde artist from the pre-dotcom SF Bay Area, which at least in the 1980s and early 90s was a reservation for wacky, offbeat, anti-commercial artists from all over the world. When I go there now, I am saddened by the amazing paucity of the edgy energy that runs through that area. Much in the same way I am saddened when I survey The Transmedia landscape and see how a new storytelling form has largely become another Hollywood marketing gimmick. So much potential, so unused, so unrealized. The commercialization and commodification of the bay area is but a physical reflection of what has happened to the spirit of art and innovation that once inhabited the bay area tech-art scene. I am of course referring to the days when Burning Man was free and actually FUN.

Recently, I decided to pin a badge of curmudgeonly honor on myself, knighting myself with the honorific title of: The Jack Smith of Transmedia. If you haven’t heard of Jack Smith, you’re kinda proving my point here, but I will enlighten you. Jack Smith was a photographer, filmmaker and auteur extraordinaire whose influence is literally responsible for making the careers of such names as, Andy Warhol (by his own admission), Kenneth Anger, John Waters and Jonas Mekas, to name a few. However, that is not the part of Jack’s spirit I claim as my banner. Jack stood against the exploitation of the artist by interests of money and ego. He was a “pure artist,” in it for the art itself. That is the part I claim as my muse today and in the future. If you’re rolling your eyes right now and muttering something about “naive,” you may fuck off and leave the room. You have my permission, sheeple. If on the other hand you are intrigued by this archetype of art, I will recommend you go here and watch Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. Prepare to settle in for an excellent but heart rending story.

Then you will understand when I say: I stand opposed to the lobsters!

Really, I cannot stress this enough. Civilization is on the precipice. Culture has become a tool of control, to sell you more crap and to guarantee your compliance. Obey, work, consume, die. What ever happened to the artistic spirit of rebellion? Where are the Rimbauds, the Kerouacs, the Mailers, the Situationists, the Dadiast, The Fluxus, the Neoists of today? Rise up and say NO MORE. TAKE BACK YOUR ART AND YOUR ART FORMS. DO NOT SELL OUT TO THE PLANETARY WORK MACHINE. MAKE ART, NOT PRODUCTS. SAY NO TO TERMINAL EMPLOYMENT.

Not to digress, but while I have your attention, may I also suggest that since the banks have robbed us all, that maybe we rob the banks and use the money to make free art for all? I mean, during the first Great Depression, John Dillinger was a folk hero. What if we had our own folk hero for the current age? A cross between Cecil B. Demented and John Dillinger. Just a thought… *cough* (Since I wrote this piece it looks like someone took  my advice. I also know of one other person who followed  my advice but for the sake of privacy, I’ll not use their name.)

In conclusion, if you’re not familiar with Transmedia or Alternate Reality Gaming, you can Google the terms and you’ll see a plethora of definitions, most of which were coined by people who weren’t even around during its inception. As is so often the case, the people (myself included) who worked to bring this new form of writing/storytelling into being did so largely without reward. I think the corporate start-up world refers to these types of people as “loss leaders.” In others words, necessary risk takers, visionaries, and edge detectors which (in the mind of corporate marketing dweebs) serve as the cannon fodder necessary to break new ground. Consequently, when the form “broke,” many rushed in declaring themselves “experts,” usually being ignorant and/or disdainful of the founding artists intent, and sacrifice. It was all reminiscent of a few other gold rushes I’d seen in the past, to name a few: Dotcom, Web 2.0, Social Media, and then Transmedia. I’m sure there will be more. However, it’s still not too late to use this method to tell compelling, immersive, captivating stories. DO SO IF YOU ARE AT ALL INSPIRED BY THIS SCREED!

Luckily, I sidestepped truly becoming a “loss leader” because I had a several revenue sources attached to Ong’s Hat in the form of expanded ebooks, CD ROMs, T-shirts, mouse pads, et al. Still, my work received the reception of a redheaded step child in the publishing world. In the beginning I sought a game company, publisher, etc. to distribute Ong’s Hat, but hit the same dead-ends each time. The conversations went kinda like this:

Me: I’ve distributed over 1 million copies of the work in several formats. (The number is now of 2 million).

Them: Who published it?

Me: I did, because no one could understand what I was doing.

Them: Oh. You self published. Explain to me what is it you’re doing. I can’t figure it out. Is it a video game? A RPG? A comic book? A novel?

Me: Yes, all of the above.

Them: I see. Well, that’s a problem. First of all, we would have no idea how to categorize this work, meaning the stores won’t know where to shelve it…

I had that conversation in the ’90s and even early “aughts” more times than I can even remember. You see, I was yet to learn that the gatekeepers of publishing and film making, etc. Are followers, not leaders. Who suffers because of that? You, that’s who. You are deprived of new forms of art because it doesn’t “fit a mold.” As Rimbaud said: “The discovery of the unimaginable can only be attained through employing new forms.” (Paraphrased from French).

Having been a very early evangelist of the DVD video format, I learned that you have to weather 100 no’s, but you only need one yes. In a later chapter in this series, I will tell my DVD stories but for now, suffice it to say, I am one stubborn S.O.B.

Since those early, frustrating days, I have received some acknowledgment from several mainstream sources and if you’re interested on a few different takes on the origin story of Transmedia/ARG I have included links below. In my next installment I will tell you how I crossed the finish line, with arrows in my back.


Until next time, adieu.

Postscript: Since this article was published, two sites have run supportive articles expanding and commenting on its themes.


Taking Back Transmedia

The Rise of ARG (Games Magazine 2013)

The Surprising On-Line Life of Legends

You may also read the first (and only to date, to my knowledge) history book of ARG/Transmedia roots, written by my late friend and writing partner, Dave Szubulski. The book in question, in case you’re interested, was called This is Not a Game. There may also be a Kindle/iPad version floating around somewhere for free. *cough* TPB *cough*

Many other links and more about me on my homepage.
JOSEPH WAYNE MATHENY (born 24 December 1961, Chicago, Illinois) is an American writer and transmedia artist who has created works using alternate reality gaming and transmedia storytelling methods. He holds patents for prediction, recommendation and behavioral analysis algorithms and software design. He is a published author of screenplays, white papers, technology, sci-fi, marketing and gaming books. He currently resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. He is probably best known for the avant-garde work, Ong’s Hat.


    • Nicholas Belardes says

      Well there you go, Tammy. haha. Thinking ain’t free. Seriously, I’m still digesting this piece. Gonna comment on it later. Soon as I get more of my own revisions out of the way. I love Joseph. The guy knows how to get mad.

    • Loren Gruber says

      Yes! I’m forwarding this to my former students and colleague do they can run with ypur challenge.

  1. Nina Lynn says

    This is fantastic! I have to say right off the bat that you hit so many nails (actually smacked them) flat dead on their heads … this is one of the most honest and without-a-doubt, true forms of cultural and artistic documentation from a first-hand perspective that I’ve ever read.

    I hope many more read this and really “get” wtf it means.

    Good (more than) work!

  2. Nicholas Belardes says

    Of course, you know, Joseph (or maybe you don’t), of my interest in transmedia. I witnessed some of its growth while working for an animation company in Las Vegas in the late 1990s. While we were making cheesy sound-and-light shows, what was interesting was, here was my boss with knowledge of animation, html, and with a wonderful creative mind. She was creating interactive DVDs marketing our material. It marked a real transformation in front of my eyes that transmedia could work when telling a story.

    I wanted to create my own Wunderkammer regarding a local myth. A dark myth many consider true.

    I took what we were doing at the animation company, and although much later than Ong’s Hat, I created an interactive website, recruited filmmakers, and created a little splash with multiple levels of exploring the Lords of Bakersfield. It was transmedia done with rough html, a vanity press, photos and video. The interactive story grabbed a cult following. Although that’s all it was–a regional transmedia experience, and not one that really took off beyond the pale of Central California.

    My Twitter novel, Small Places connected to Second Life, but only briefly, and there was a NYT article that never happened for BumbleSquare. Blend that with my inability to monetize it, pretty much killed that Twitter novel follow up (I don’t rule anything out in the near future).

    I loved the follow-up to this piece on Reality Sandwich, “In Beautiful Dreams: Nurturing narratives and the forgotten potentials of digital culture”. Metcalfe puts it so well, as you do, that digital advertising has dug too deep on multiple levels of our senses, and our blind willingness to buy into fears. Sure, I wanted people to dig in and buy a book. Not sure I would plan a corporate takeover of the mind and body.

    And in the meantime, makes me wonder what I can do in the future to enter the world of transmedia again, and what is really out there worthy of my corporate-eaten, mothballed brain.

  3. dennis marshall says

    Beaten like a Red Headed Step Child eh ?

    We Irish love the abuse and come back a fightin with a long stick and an empty bottle me grandma O’Higgins taught me she did.

    Me Uncle Fester on the other hand taught me the way of a hards day work in the labyrinth and the drunken reward at the middle of the double rainbow and its pot o gold next to me easy chair in front of the boob tube.

    Youngin’s got to know the basics though. Ballplayers know that when things go to their heads that the fall is certain and defeat and disappointment are the fuel that feeds strife and eventual worry that lead to renewal and more chances at greatness.

    After my own version here of this my little screed, it must be remembered by the game player that all resides within and within there are regions in the body that open and close that allows information to flow to the brain for critical thinking to occur.

    Sometimes energy, as it were, must be captured lowered than the head region. The head analysis’s but the body must be engaged through currents that often misguide. Grounding is essential and grounding requires cease and resist of thinking and then to know according to the subject matter whether it be the next level or the level beyond that sidesteps the 1, 2, 3 path. Of course the the river of synchronicity is the real prize here and the reward of the game is the wisdom that one finds from within that allows one the freedom to do anything that can be diagramed in the mind.

  4. says

    Jo, nice read – brilliantly written my friend. So good to read your words again – have missed you and them!
    LOOKing forward to more of your insightful skilled musings :D


  5. says

    Nick: But of course I remember my friend. Your early interest and work (Lords, Twitter novels, podcasts, etc.) was what inspired me to contact you in the first place. Waaaaaay back in the stone age. It has been a while now, hasn’t it?

    Nina: Thanks for your kind words. Much appreciated. Thanks for getting my little agit-prop passion play.

    Dennis: Ever hear that story about Joyce, while he was working on Ulysses he was asked why he looked so exhasted and he said: “I wrote an entire sentence today!” Meanwhile, I will finish reading “The Sync Book” today, since you have reminded me I still need to finish it. Got sidetracked with Eggers’ new one. Always loved that part in The Invisibles where GM has his characters following the synchronicity clues across the city.

    Brent: Thanks my brother from another mother. Been sick most of this year, but I am slowly but steadily, day after day, climbing out of the pit.

    Also, noticed this article which showed up on Reality Sandwich: Thanks for the props, David.

  6. says

    Any artist is hungry for articles like this one. In your next foray to fun & exciting Dumb Town, I would love to discuss a book, faux doc or film story about a fellow using a transmedia approach that succeeds in transforming the world. Temporarily, of course.

    A side note: One of the charming and bittersweet flaws in my idealistic visions of what art should be is that I forget that earth is a dumb planet by nature, and that every new art form will be co-opted and absorbed by commerce. Not because there are really any bad guys, but because, a la Huxley, humans *like* being mindless consumers.

    • Joseph Matheny says

      Of course, you are right Martin my friend. Anywhere I say or imply THEM I do of course mean US. However, when writing agit-prop, it’s more fun to get lathered up about a THEM, even if the THEM is us. (Isn’t it always?)

      However, I like to keep the bar high and my contrarian nature just won’t let me go out like that, so I’ll forever keep driving US/THEM with the whip, because dammit, WE/THEM can be SO MUCH MORE. Why settle?

      Yes, would love to talk to you. Drop me a line/email. If you lost it, use the contact form on Don’t like to give it out in public cause the spambots be on patrol, don’t ya know? ;-)

  7. Rich says

    The problem I see with this catching on is that a lot of people start a project, dangle some clues out there, and very few people follow them and give feedback to inspire the storyteller to continue and broaden the work. Other times, someone wants to fully develop their story before installing it, and they get sidetracked with other stuff and it doesn’t happen when they had planned. But those are always fairly small one-off projects, because they don’t translate into the money people need to continue pursuing their passion.

    Another problem with living this lifestyle as time goes by is getting people together in one room with the intention to make something for free. Used to be that we were so bored there was nothing else to do but make art. Now there’s lifetimes worth of distractions available at any instant, and that keeps on increasing. Meanwhile, many of the artists I know are busy with a dumb job, or with their kids, or spend their free time doing any number of pointless or mindless activities.

    You nailed it with the cecil b. dillinger. Most of the people I know interested in this stuff are very poor. We all talk about the ideas we have and how cool it would be to do this or that. But then we all separate and return to chasing the gears of some overgrown work machine. /rant


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