Power to the people: On storytelling ecosystems

Cartoon 'Hey baby, show us your business model'

Occasionally, Libby liked to try out daring pick-up lines. (On her husband, of course.)

A few months back, I had a discussion with a filmmaker/producer friend about storytelling and the creative industries. Specifically, the new generation of YouTube whiz-kids (like Jamal Edwards, Charlie McDonnell and Tanya Burr) who make massive amounts of money through advertising and sponsorship while racking up millions of hits on their YouTube platforms.

“What’s the business model?” is one question that’s frequently asked. How do they make so much money? Is it really just because they are – as Guy Kawasaki or Penelope Trunk might refer to it – ‘enchanting’?

Product? … or seed?

In business-school language, these young people are the product. They work hard, pump out content, get a critical mass of followers … and then the magic happens. They partner with YouTube, get sponsorship, and when their empire gets bigger than one person can manage, they get employees. The business model changes as they go. They have worked out how to convert YouTube hits into cash.

Yet we’re not dealing with a top-down approach to a business here. We’re dealing with an organic growth, roots-up, that works in symbiosis with other, similarly-functioning organisms. These young gals and guys are doing an age-old process known as ‘selling’, for sure, but they have taken opportunities as they arose and not only built a community of loyal followers, but also a solid network of like-minded content creators. The world of YouTube is fast, it’s direct and it’s cheap to produce. But more than that, it’s an agile ecosystem built on storytelling.

YouTube is just one locus of storytelling culture but, in terms of ecosystems, other media aren’t yet – or perhaps now – so resilient. I suspect it’s due to the give-and-take culture that must, by design, be part of an ecosystem. YouTube evolved in precisely this manner, so it’s no surprise that its business ‘models’ are as they are: in tandem with technology (AdWords, sponsorship, commissioning and so-on).

Other storytelling media

Film can be relatively cheap to produce, but we’re still talking about thousands of dollars for indie, low-budget. It’s a team effort (writer, producer, director, actors, lighting, sound …) – which many creative projects are – but it is by its nature comparatively time-consuming, and expensive.

As my friend said (I’m paraphrasing):

the [Australian] film industry would be dead in the water without government subsidy, and newcomers are only making films so that they can be noticed and swept into the arms of a larger production company.

Hmm. Ecosystem? Or dependency?

an instagram picture of some kids watching a movie

“Entertain me!”

The ‘ecosystem’ of film has traditionally been stretched between all these production contributors and a film’s audience – the latter of whom have barely any opportunity to be involved in the process.

Of course, with all storytelling, the story would be nothing without the ‘user’ (viewer, reader) so I’m not going to debate viewer agency other than to say that, with film, most people will say they are paying to be entertained. They pay for a ‘service’, if you like. They rarely submit ‘likes’ to the cinematographer or chit-chat with the clapper-loader. Because of its scale, it’s difficult for a movie (script, whatever) to be agile, to respond to viewer feedback – as, for example, a stand-up comedian or a YouTube personality would. That’s not the way film – nor the industry – evolved. That’s not the expectation. There are too many moving parts; it takes too long.

Amanda Palmer is an interesting example of a performer (storyteller, if you like) who straddles audio and visual arts worlds, and is able to harness her networks in order to crowd-fund albums. Burned by her old-school record label, she moved on to build her own ecosystem, because – and this is the critical factor – her attitude is ‘give‘, and ‘ask, don’t demand‘ (see her TedTalk, The art of asking, for more). She uses non-monetary exchange systems as well (which should be a blog-post all of its own).

Other big names such as Lady Gaga now look to micro-networks in order to build fan engagement, though this is not quite the same approach as AFP, and smells a little like a marketing retro-fit.

Transmedia ecosystems

I’ve talked before about how writers might use other media to build their brands, and how transmedia storytelling (as opposed to narrative) has only occasionally been in evidence in the world of fiction. But, as transmedia storytelling and brand-building become the norm, it’s time to think about how we view ecosystems across various media – as producers and as consumers and, for some of us, as business models.

Jesse Alexander (TV producer) was quoted in Huff Post:

“There is no infrastructure to do transmedia, so you have to borrow from lots of buckets to find the resources,” says Alexander, especially for new shows without a proven audience. “So there are a lot of exciting and ephemeral transmedia experiences that market films, TV and games … but what is the sustainable model beyond six weeks?” (Jesse Alexander as quoted in Huff Post ‘Future of Film’ Part 2)

Picture of the author's brother with fire

Every so often, Tim harnessed his powers to create a transmedia Goliath.

Right now things are getting interesting. We’re seeing some top-level producers – dare I say ‘media curators’ – who are well-positioned to realise and execute the wider storytelling and narrative-building possibilities. Interestingly, many of them are women.

We’re also seeing collaborations across media as, for example, Brendan Deneen of Thomas Dunne (see this Publishing Perspectives article) who straddles traditional (print) publishing and film production.

We’re seeing collaborations at grass-roots level as we always have, between makers and doers who are building the transmedia ecosystems of the future.

But, in each case, it’s less about the publishing or transmedia production machine retro-fitting their brand with stories, and more about the people – producer, writer, game designer – and their networks and communities, building roots-up.

Just like the olden days …

As for the business model question: watch this space. Transmedia ecosystems are a new frontier. Perhaps business models for ecosystems will by their nature always be flexible or agile. Perhaps trying to apply modernist, old-school models will simply drive us crazy.

Okay, I’m over transmedia now. *removes transmedia helmet, mops brow*

PS. The term ‘ecosystems’ is one that I have noticed out in the Twitosphere, often relating to one particular medium at any one time. I don’t know who first coined it. Gunther Sonnenfeld’s post on the valuable links between stories and our collecitve actions is a good one for ecosystems context.

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