Seeing It From the Audience’s Perspective: An Interview about Transmedia with Lucas J.W. Johnson
I met Lucas J.W. Johnson at Merging Media 2011 where my friend, Cinci, suggested I blog about him. Lucas is exceptionally sharp and ambitious – and he has clearly spent considerable time researching the transmedia landscape. I figured it was in my best interest to sponge off his knowledge. (I found his responses to my interview questions to be quite thought-provoking – so I’ve added a few comments after some of his responses.)
What is a valuable lesson you’ve learned about the digital space?
Look at your project from the audience’s perspective.
You come to a project with the perspective of the creator — I have this awesome story I want to tell, and this awesome way I want to tell it.
[But] if you’re going to actually succeed, then before you actually release it, in the process of creating it, you have to shift that perspective, and come at the project from the point of view of the audience.
Not only things like what will they want, but also how they access the project. Imagine coming to the project as someone who’s never heard of it, right when it launches — how do you draw them in, and convince them to stay? What about if they come to it months after it’s launched — how do you make sure there’s an easy way for them to figure out what’s going on, and where they should start?
The same goes for how you’re presenting the story — what if they’re not on Twitter? Not on Facebook? Don’t have a smartphone? Never engaged with a transmedia or digital media project before? Any time there’s any friction, and moment when it’s easier for them to close the window than it is to delve deeper, you’ve lost them.
(I love this so point so much, because I think that seeing your project through your potential audience’s eyes is so frequently overlooked – even though it’s one of the most important aspects… Think about this more broadly: how many sites have you encountered where you can’t immediately find things like donate buttons or how to purchase a product. Or one with the message “we’ll be launching in December 2011. Come back then” with no way to pre-order the product or even enter an email address for updates? Or how often have you attempted to listen to a podcast only to shut it off after hearing an initial 5 minutes that consisted of an interminable and irritating musical intro or a lengthy introduction of who all the hosts were and what they got up to that weekend…)
Was there anything at Merging Media that you were excited by?
Most mindblowing at Merging Media was hearing Henry Jenkins speak (over Skype, interviewed by my friend Simon Pulman ) — he’s an academic, so clearly he’s smart, but man does this guy know what he’s talking about. He spoke about spreadable media, that what will succeed is not that which is easily broadcasted, but that which is easily shared among friends. Entertainment becomes a gift — let me bring you into this new world, let me give you this experience by sharing it.
(This is brilliant. And an excellent reality-check for the “this will go viral” mentality. We all want to have our posts and projects spread, but there are a number of factors that make people truly want to do so. The premise that “I really want people to share this [project/message etc.] so they should” is oddly at the heart of many campaigns and pitches. The concept of the gift is fantastic. And looking at it from that perspective, and of making your content truly great so that people will be motivated to share can be very eye-opening. Because “it’s OK” or “I like it because I made it” or even “it’s good enough” does not constitute a gift.)
What have you learned from players in the Transmedia space (that you’ve interviewed, read about or had at your Transmedia Meetups)?
To be very broad:
- listen to your audience, engage with them directly, build loyalty;
- give a big chunk of your work away for free, especially if you’re working on IP that isn’t already a blockbuster success, to get people in the doors;
- don’t be afraid to pimp yourself, just don’t be an ass about it;
- experiment, try new things, know that you’re going to fail — but get back on the horse, iterate, move forward; genuinely be a good and honest and open person — people like that.
- Finally, do something with your work — be aspirational, be inspirational, be a force for good; you’re asking a lot of people for a lot of attention and potentially a lot of money — to do anything else is irresponsible.
(These are all very insightful. My favorite is the first, because I feel that the direct connection with one’s audience is how social media has truly empowered artists. And it’s a beautiful, exciting and, occasionally, humbling thing to have such an immediate and easy access to people who connect with what you do. But those artists who have something special to offer along with a real relationship with their audience (which they demonstrate that they value) are the ones who gain the most from social media.)
What projects have inspired you?
The ARG known as the Beast, for the movie AI, back in 2001, because it was so groundbreaking and inspiring for the time — now of course it doesn’t hold up and there are a host of problems with doing something like it, but the point isn’t that we should do the things the Beast did, it’s that we should find new things just like the Beast did. Lance Weiler’s Pandemic project, for the hugely innovative and experimental nature of it, and his Robot Heart Stories project for its educational and aspirational nature. Failbetter Games’ Echo Bazaar, for its twisted and entirely engrossing story and setting.
I’ve also been inspired a great deal by the old tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Like transmedia visionary Jeff Gomez, D&D did a lot for me as a kid to be able to express the stories I wanted to tell, and the things that make for a great D&D game are in many ways the same as those that make for a great transmedia experience. (I even wrote a whole six-part article about it all on my blog.)
Lucas J.W. Johnson is a freelance writer and transmedia storyteller from Vancouver, BC. He received his BFA with Honours in Creative Writing from UBC, and has worked in advertising, PR, television, digital media, gaming, and transmedia. He’s published short stories and stageplay, organizes the Transmedia Vancouver Meetup, and is an active member in the international transmedia storytelling community, with his business Silverstring Media. A storyteller above all else, whenever Lucas isn’t writing, he wishes he were. Find him online at silverstringmedia.com, lucasjwjohnson.com and on twitter @floerianthebard
“Azrael’s Stop is very much an experiment for me, but I think it’s a fun one, and I’ve already had people respond quite positively to the story and even the way it’s told. I’d love for you to check it out, and especially let me know what you think, at firstname.lastname@example.org”