Transmediation in Real Life

A need for new media theorists in the 2010s (background)

When I was an undergraduate student at Florida State University, I was part of this program called Editing, Writing, and Media in the English Department. It’s a fanciful title. I can’t say the name alone got me five internships, but it didn’t hurt. It was often the first thing recruiters asked me about. It was a talking point. For my future colleagues — people who studied communications, advertising, and marketing (traditional media paths) — this marked an interesting development in the field.

People’s interest in EWM, as I see it, was part of a larger shift toward social media as a business strategy in the late 2010s.

Apps like Instagram were no longer shared among close friends. Neither were they dismissed as a mere fad — here one day and gone the next. They were seen as legitimate tools with powerful targeted advertising and analytics capabilities. They were, perhaps, necessary for survival in a competitive market. Big companies upped the ante. In 2010, Dell trained 3,500 employees to use social media on behalf of the business. And unlike large-scale custom software or tailored databases, these technologies weren’t off-limits to small businesses with family-sized budgets. Job descriptions like “social media manager” sprang like daisies.

A quick snapshot of coverage from the NYtimes is revealing in the kind of “learn the tool” and e-etiquette conversations of the 2010s discourse around social media: “Tweeting in 280 Characters? Now You Can Do It, Too,” “Why Deleted Tweets Still Linger Online,” “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.”

It’s interesting to consider the fresh concerns (more than mere technopanics) of social media in the 2020s: spread of dis/misinformation, cyberbalkanization, radicalization, issues with privacy and transparency, and national security, voting, democracy. What sort of jobs might this invoke?

I was “over it,” theory-wise

EWM is a 21st-century professional English degree that launches young professionals at this job vacancy opportunity. In this social media-embedded business environment, new jobs were formulated and EWM put New Media in its crosshairs. The degree was practical in many ways (i.e. internship requirement). Still, there was material I considered useless.

In particular, I could stomach little of what academics said about theory. I found little return in the hours-long investment to crack the abstruse, meandering codes of my course readings every week. Compared to building a social media plan for a local nonprofit that Amber, Director of Development, could use today, this sort of work felt detached, irrelevant, and indulgent (perhaps also a bit saltless and boring). Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, Walter J. Ong’s orality, and J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin’s remediation seemed far outside the wheelhouse of what we’d need to know to actually help people — or secure that precious thing called employment. Why did I need to know about the cups of Douris, monastic scribal culture, and the invention of the rotary print press? (This attitude toward learning, I realized much later, was exactly what got in the way of my advancement as a person and scholar.)

At any rate, I valued the practical sides of my education while questioning the theoretical. I wasn’t aiming for a professorship role in academia, so what was the point?

Making theories work — at work

It wasn’t until I joined a communications team after graduation professionally that I saw the value of these theories. They were thinking tools to help me capture and express complexities, strategies, and reasoning behind actions.

I took a class called Writing and Editing in Print and Online (called WEPO, pronounced “weepo”) that helped me think through one particular problem. For many years we had conducted an annual survey to get feedback on our services as an organization. In the survey results, I noticed a pattern where audience members called for clearer communication. They wanted, in particular, fewer email communications that were shorter and to the point. But the employees liked email. Email was economical on the one hand and could be used for longer poetic, narrative, and storytelling forms on the other. It was dynamic. And everyone knew how to use it. It was the default, as such.

But email was not getting through to the audience. We needed to transliterate messages from one employee-written medium to another that would ring the bell of our audience.

The germane theory was transmediation: translating a message from one medium to another. For example, the poster for a movie is transmediated from the movie itself— both contain the same message, the same essence, the same symbols in different packages.

On Wikipedia — which media theorist and University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins will tell you has its merits — the article on transmediation distinguishes two components: sensory and semiotic (signs). The trick of transmediation, in my view, is to preserve the semiotic while manipulating the sensory.

As a project from my WEPO class, we transmediated one message across different media to form a sort of campaign. I did two different things with this: in one, I took Lloyd Bitzer’s 1966 paper “The Rhetorical Situation” and transmediated it to an infographic. In another, I took my own project — called Riders With Reason — and transmediated an announcement as a press release, social media video, and a paper flyer. This taught me to decode messages and work with the general of communication artifacts in a whole new way. I could deconstruct and reconstruct their meanings. I could tell the same story five different ways, each appealing to a unique demographic or achieving a distinct purpose within an overarching, shared strategy.

For this particular project at work, I engaged in some speculative (or “spec”) work to prove the efficacy of transmediation in this specific context. I took our email messages from the last month and transmediated them into short videos à la “Now This” for social media using Premiere Pro. I showed our communications team, and gradually we started making it part of our overall strategy. I’ve found this to be an effective way to demonstrate success for a thing you want to be more central to your job: start doing it and show the results.

A still frame from the video I produced, transmediated from an email

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Designer, Researcher, and Teacher. Currently based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Phil Mendez

Phil Mendez

Designer, Researcher, and Teacher. Currently based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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