Ever heard of Inanimate Alice? Understand what all the fuss is? If the answer is “no” to either, take a gander below. (Full disclosure: I’m an English teacher, and obsessed with media forms as rhetorical vehicles; I also find them hugely important as digital presence bleeds into physical boundaries, especially in the field of education. If you’re less curious, you may want to skim rather than read the article below. This is about as brief as I can get it.)
Media as a Term
Plural form of the singular medium, media are simply ways of communicating ideas: letters, emails, paintings, poems, videos, and countless other forms can be considered media. They can be classic or modern, formal and informal, in the end reducing to the basic human need to communicate.
Any balanced discussion of media has to include Marshall McLuhan.
Born in 1911, and hitting his stride during a time when televisions were replacing radios and McCarthyism was changing lives, McLuhan was witness to sweeping cultural change. Among other revelatory ideas, McLuhan felt that through media, the “individual” was being replaced by the “tribe,” media acting as a kind of collective-conscious glue. He saw that humankind was coming to define itself through media—involuntarily–through numbing consumption and persistent conditioning. In this way, McLuhan saw media forms as social long before Zuckerberg had his big idea.
Here in 2012, media is in a brilliant state of flux–so many forms, so many platforms, so much consumption. And further, notions of fluid texts, hypertexts, and quasi-intertextuality lord over the ideas embedded within. With this new-found digital fluidity comes a kind of passing of the guard in terms of pop culture forms. Videogames have surpassed classic media forms like music, DVDs, and now movies, increasing the role of the audience, and gamifiying media consumption.
Which brings me to books.
While I personally find it difficult to imagine a world where the stalwart of narrative structure—the novel—is vaporized by YouTube addiction and Beiber fever, it’s true that anything is possible. And with physical books now giving ground to e-books in terms of total sales (at Amazon, anyway), the future is incredibly complicated. If a Kindle can display an e-book, pdf files, Google Currents, and mashed blog posts, where does one media form begin, and the other end?
Transmedia & Alice
Transmedia is what the word parts suggest it might be: a merging of media elements, here the digital with the narrative, but with the multiple platforms as part of the narrative. While transmedia promote interaction, they aren’t video games, but rather a media that simultaneously honors the form, the audience, and the narrative itself in a way that has been inaccessible to classic media forms.
So who is Alice, and what does she have to do with McLuhan, video games, and transmedia? Alice is the female protagonist of the story.
“Inanimate Alice is Transmedia-designed from the outset as a story that unfolds over time and on multiple platforms, the episodes are available on all devices…. ‘Alice’ connects technologies, languages, cultures, generations, and curricula with a sweeping narrative accessible by all. As Alice’s journey progresses, new storylines appear elsewhere providing more details and insights, enriching the tale through surprising developments. Students are encouraged to co-create episodes of their own, either filling the gaps, or developing new strands.”
Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph combined their respective narrative and artistic talents to create the simply named, intrepid character, Alice. Initially
written programmed conceived primarily for entertainment purposes, Alice supporters Ian Harper and Laura Fleming joined Pullinger and Joseph to explore the potential of this newly-minted media form. Together, they pushed the project onto new ground, logically landing within the field of education.
So Inanimate Alice is a narrative delivered through digital transmedia. The big deal? New storytelling mechanisms, decreased audience passivity, and opportunities to develop critical digital fluency.
And the McLuhan bit? Because it’s all new and shiny and different, the media form here becomes the message, nearly overwhelming the narrative itself. If this story were told via a picture book, there’d be no story.
But it wasn’t–and there is.