Will I see you at TEDx Transmedia in Rome?
I am thrilled about participating in TEDx Transmedia. I’ll be the final speaker there at the end of the day. They have a stellar lineup of speakers, all exploring the future potential for media. It’s happening in Rome on September 28.
Below I’ve posted a preview interview that I did for the event. Personally I find the word “transmedia” inelegant, like new media in drag, but I am a big fan of innovation in television. I am looking forward to seeing some amazing things in Rome.
TEDxTransmedia (TXT): Hi Robert, please can you give a brief overview of your relationship with Transmedia? What do you think of the term?
Robert Tercek (RT): The word “transmedia” may not beautiful, but the concept is deeply appealing. For more than fifteen years, I have been working on interactive entertainment on a variety of platforms. I’ve faced the fun challenge of creating interactive content for just about every device, from TV set top boxes to game consoles, computers, mobile phones and more. In the past, we were confronted by the conundrum of matching weak computer power with the demands of processor-intensive graphics and interaction. These limitations obliged us to discover creative solutions and use a lot of ingenuity to work around the limitations of the device. Today the devices are ten times more powerful, including the mobile phone, but those early lessons are still very valuable.
TXT: The theme of this year’s TEDx Transmedia, WEKids, is about harnessing child-like wonder and courage to make media that has a social impact. What do you see as the potential of that approach?
RT: I love the two themes of child-like wonder and the courage to make meaningful media. When Nicoletta first proposed these to me, I responded immediately. Too often, instead of striving to achieve the extraordinary with transformative storytelling, producers settle for much less. Mere commercial success is a common goal. In my experience, producers can achieve much more by aiming higher. A great storyteller can inspire a generation with hopes and dreams. The greatest story franchises in media consist of whole worlds populated with compelling characters and meaningful dialog. It takes a special kind of genius to conceive of a whole world: that requires an imagination that is childlike and egoless, able to breath life into every corner of a vast domain.
TXT: The theme’s focus on the spirit of an inner child is partly an encouragement for people to play. What do you see as the role of play in innovation or any work you’ve done?
RT: Play is important. Play is often overlooked and underrated because it doesn’t strike business executives as important. Too often, they consider play to be the domain of children, not adults. That’s a mistake. A huge part of learning involves play and discovery. That’s as true for adults as it is for children. People experience their greatest creativity when they adopt a playful attitude: you can’t force great ideas to come into existence.
Play is also an important aspect of transmedia. I’d argue that play is the heart of any interactive entertainment. Games are the most compelling form of entertainment on the two-way network. No other form of interactive media offers such a clear proposition to the audience.
Everyone loves to play… even if some of us happen to be a bit out of practice. Sometimes adults need an excuse to shed their workaday identity in order to recover their childhood love of play. The best online games give us an easy way to set aside our conventional identities and assume a new playful identity. This is a core behavior on the two-way network. From the earliest days of the Internet, long before the World Wide Web, games were a part of the culture. There were simple shooter games, like Space Wars, but there were also incredibly rich narrative games in the form of MUDs and MUSHes. These were truly collaborative spaces. The lessons learned in MUDs informed the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play games that we introduced in the late 1990s.
TXT: The subheading is Dreamers, Geeks, Mindshifters; which do you most identify with and why?
RT (laughing): That’s a very good question! In each of these identities, I see richness and also some element of risk. The risk of being a Dreamer is that one might never rouse to take action. The risk of being a Geek is to remain marginalized, outside of the mainstream, too weird to connect with the rest of the group. And the risk of being a Mindshifter is that one might mystify or confuse people instead of delighting them with entertainment. I embrace all three types, but I suppose these days I am most preoccupied with shifting minds and challenging conventional wisdom. So call me a Mindshifter!
TXT: What did you want to be as a kid? What were your dreams and aspirations?
RT: As a child, I read voraciously, especially about faraway countries. I had heard many stories from my parents and grandparents about Europe and the rest of the world. My grandparents were immigrants, and my parents were jetsetters. My desire even from a very young age was to see the world. It was more than a dream. It was a passionate curiosity that eventually consumed my imagination entirely! At the age of 11, I began to organize my own travel adventures. By the time I reached college, I studied and traveled all over Eastern and Western Europe and had organized an auto adventure driving across all of North America to Alaska. As an adult, I travel frequently, often to faraway places and unconventional destinations. Throughout my career, I’ve lived and worked in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. This year I will travel to Australia, France, Canada, Italy, Mexico, and Turkey. This is one childhood dream that I have fulfilled!
TXT: Do you think your experience as an artist informs your work now? How?
RT: Art is present in everything that I do. I surround myself with art in every place where I live and work. I travel with art supplies. I am rarely without a pen and paper because I draw constantly. I also draw and paint on my tablet computer. To me, art is a great way to connect with people. If your job involves thinking and sharing ideas, then you need to discover as many ways as possible to express those ideas. Visual arts provide an alternative way to describe the world, quite different from mathematics and verbal language. Visual arts communicate much faster, and on a visceral emotional level. Art hits you at gut level. To me, visual art is not optional or secondary. It is vitally necessary for the creative professional. Human beings are visual creatures. We think in images, we dream in images, we watch images on screen all day and night. Those who can create images have the ability to inspire others.
TXT: TEDTalks are renowned for their inspiration, energy and focus on the personal. Can you give us a taster of what you want to bring to Rome?
RT: At TEDxTransmedia in Rome, I will be speaking about how to turn dreams into reality. When you are child, it’s alright to have a dream, or even a daydream. But when we become adults, we must develop the capacity for action, otherwise the dreams turn sour. The danger of dreaming is that we never wake up!
Every person faces an awesome choice: we can choose to create the world of our dreams, or we can choose not to act. Inaction is a choice. In that case, we relinquish the opportunity to fulfill our dreams; we give that chance away to another person. Our dreams die bitterly. Inaction means that we’ve chosen to let someone else build the world of their dreams, and we will eventually become the inhabitants of their dream. My speech at TEDxTransmedia will provide the audience a lot of encouragement for staying focused and active so that they can pursue their own dreams.
TXT: You’ve often done jobs that didn’t exist before you came along. How do you overcome the challenges of that kind of innovation?
RT: I’ve launched new companies, new products, and sometimes entirely new industries. And I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work in Asia, Europe and the Americas. One thing I’ve learned is the vital importance of sharing a vision with the entire team. It’s very important that everyone on the team has a clear picture of what they are building. Too often we proceed under the assumption that everyone on the team knows what we are building: that’s almost never the case. You must find as many ways as possible to connect, to share the vision and to inspire your team.
One of my very earliest jobs was drawing storyboards for motion picture directors. This job taught me the vital importance of communicating with pictures. My storyboards helped the directors to bring their ideas to life. They relied on my pictures to communicate light and shadow to the grips and gaffers; framing to the cinematographer; blocking and action to the actors; wardrobe and props to those departments. Everyone looked at the storyboard for guidance about how to construct the next shot.
Starting a new company demands something similar. Pictures matter greatly when there is no company and no product. As a leader, you must inspire the team with a clear vision. Everyone on the team depends upon the leadership to convey a clear message about what they are building and why. The sooner you can generate a picture (maybe a diagram or a plan, or sketch of the product or box art), the sooner the team will share a unified vision and can begin building.
When you draw a picture, even a simple sketch, of something that exists only in your mind, what you’ve accomplished is pretty amazing: you’ve managed to transmit your vision into the minds of those who see your picture. That’s telepathy! It may seem like a very crude form of telepathy, but it works incredibly well.
TXT: You’ve had some very exciting jobs, including working on the visuals for the Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour and as President of Digital Media for Oprah Winfrey. What’s been the most fun job you’ve had and why? And what’s been the most rewarding and why?
RT: Those were all great experiences! And I’ve had other amazing jobs, too. Creating the first video on mobile phones was incredibly thrilling and very difficult. Making interactive game shows for TV was really fun. But probably the best job was when I was the head of on-air promotions at MTV: Music Television. I supervised the design and production of all of the short entertainment on MTV: the short form animated films, short movies, the animated logos and all of the promotion for the channel. The best part of my job was directing short films for MTV. Every month, I had the opportunity to take one week off in order to write, direct, produce, edit, mix, score and approve for broadcast my own original video for MTV. I still can’t believe that I had this freedom: nowadays that would be unthinkable. In the early 1990s, MTV was still a very cool place to work. It was like making art, but art that would be seen by millions of people on TV. I worked with all of my friends who were artists, composers, painters, writers and directors in New York. It was incredibly fun, and we made some great work together.
TXT: Can you explain your role as a Creative Activist and the role of the Creative Visions Foundation? How does the current media landscape help activism?
RT: I truly enjoy my current role as Chairman of the Creative Visions Foundation in Malibu. This foundation provides support to young people all over the world who are using art and media to create changes in communities and towns. At any given moment, the CVF has at least 50 active projects underway. The founder, Kathy Eldon, is quite simply the coolest person I’ve ever met. She brings a graceful egoless charm to every interaction. I really love to work with her and I try to emulate her in my own life. She is a hero for me. The mission of CVF inspires me. I believe that media and art have a magical power to elevate people. One good picture can persuade thousands. We encourage every activist to use media and art so that they can make connections with huge audiences via broadcast media and the web.
TXT: What is vital in designing engaging interactive content?
RT: The most important aspect of interactive entertainment is the two-way nature of the experience. This is very new. The previous century involved broadcast media, which is one-way, centralized, homogenized, controlled and programmed. There’s no room in that equation for audience participation.
But interactive media is different. The experience doesn’t really exist until the audience engages and participates. The reason the early interactive media platforms (such as CD-ROM) were unsuccessful is that they lacked a connection to a two-way network. Today, we have ability to integrate Facebook and Twitter into any kind of entertainment, and that presents a massive enhancement to the experience. Entertainment on a two-way network is different because it involves a kind of exchange. A trade. You ask the audience to give you something (their time, their energy, their involvement, their endorsement, or their commitment to creating the magic) and in exchange you must provide something to them. I think it’s quite useful to think about the Internet as a giant exchange, like a marketplace, where every participant is trading their time, attention, knowledge, contacts, tastes and preferences. The question for the producer of interactive media is: what do you demand of your audience? And what do you offer them in exchange?
TXT: What are some of the myths around creating interactive content? What lessons have you learnt about integrating content across platforms?
RT: Today, many executives in traditional media companies have an outdated idea about the Internet and interactive media. I have encountered many television executives, for instance, who dismiss YouTube as “web junk” and who sneer at games as a degraded narrative experience. I think that they are mistaken. Everyone needs to revisit the interactive platforms often, to witness the incredible rate of change. There have been impressive improvements in internet-based storytelling in just the past 18 months, and of course it continues to improve. Traditional media evolves much more slowly. It’s very common to hear an executive from a big media company make a grand pronouncement about the Internet or the mobile web that is completely inaccurate. I think these are the myths that will die the hardest.
TXT: How do you get people to interact with a story or media experience in a more active way than reading a book or watching a film? Is it as simple as having a great story and characters?
RT: A great story and characters are necessary, but those are no guarantee of success. To make a great interactive experience, you must get a commitment from the audience: they must identify with the story so strongly that they have an emotional stake in the outcome of the program. If they don’t care about the outcome of the story or the plight of the characters, then they won’t complete the interactive portion, and the program will fail. Get an emotional commitment from the audience!
One of the most useful things a producer can do is to define the role that the audience must play. In fact, there may be several different roles for the audience, depending upon how much passion they bring to the material. Some audience members will want to be very active: for them you must provide a role that is central to the story, with great stakes and big consequences. But other members of the audience are lazy, so you also need to create several smaller roles that don’t require a high degree of engagement. Most of the audience will be in a supporting role. Think of how your visitors engage with your blog: a few members of the audience get the chance to contribute a guest article. Some members get to post comments. Still others merely like and share the article. Some are just there to read, not write. All of these are valid roles for the audience.
TXT: You say we’re in the second century of electronic media and social media is waking us up from a 60-year trance. Can you explain what you mean by that?
RT: For more than six decades, we’ve outsourced our natural storytelling ability to professionals. Hollywood screenwriters craft the scenario so brilliantly that we tend to give up our ability to speak for ourselves. Very few people have the ability to tell good stories: just one or two generations ago, that would have been unthinkable. Today, most of us spend every evening in darkness at home, silently observing the work of the screenwriters. In the past, before television, people shared stories and songs. Today social media offers us an opportunity to reclaim our personal storytelling capacity. Social media provides something that TV cannot. Instant validation from friends. This is a very powerful motivational force.
TXT: What are some of the secrets to building communities in interactive media?
RT: Most successful online communities thrive because of a shared passion. At the core, they share some kind of emotional commitment to the subject matter. There are many ways to generate a passionate emotional response: the key thing is to get them to care so deeply about the existence of the community that they feel some ownership and a need to protect it and groom it. Just like buying a home in a real community. Transmedia producers should think carefully about how they can generate an emotional reaction.
TXT: Your career has spanned many changes in interactive content. What do you think is the next game changer?
RT: Simultaneous release across all distribution platforms. It is just beginning to happen now. I believe that distributing directly to individuals on personal screens (as opposed to distributing to households via television) will open up the market for quality video productions.
TXT: What’s your view on the future of publishing? Will print survive? Is digital publishing being innovated enough?
RT: Books have been around in one form or another for at least a millennium, and we’ve had moveable type since 1453. We will still have them for a while longer! Most Americans and Europeans are unaware of just how saturated our society is in the printed word. Printed documents define our contemporary world: print drives government, heath care, the financial system and currency. It will take a very long time for print to fade away entirely, and perhaps it never will. But I can predict with some degree of certainty that the mass market book will be gone within ten years. Sure, you’ll always be able to purchase a special edition of a bound book, but for most trade paperbacks and non fiction, digital delivery to tablets and e-readers will rapidly emerge as the most convenient option. This is a good thing. More than 300 books are published in the US every day. Think about how much paper and fuel is wasted printing and distributing those books, especially the ones that don’t sell very well. These books should live on digital platforms, not in print.
There is a titanic struggle underway right now between traditional media companies and technology companies. What’s at stake is nothing less than the right to determine the future of digital media. Companies are using their power, wealth and influence to reshape the Internet according to their strategic interest and their preferred business model. They cannot all succeed. Therefore we are about to witness some winners and losers. The most interesting question about our current situation is whether the old media of the past will prevail, imposing their business rules and economics on the young new medium of the Internet. To me, it seems unthinkable, but there are some very powerful companies at work on this right now.
TXT: Is your belief in the power of social media politically driven?
RT: No. Personally, I don’t use social media for political purposes at all. But I do pay close attention to those who use social media for political purposes, because they are often highly innovative. Sometimes surprisingly so.
One of the big political changes wrought by social media is the emergence of a new kind of political group: the self-organizing, leaderless, autonomous, spontaneous digital movement. These arise with breathtaking alacrity, and they can outmaneuver the police and the authorities. During the past year, we’ve seen such groups arise rapidly in Egypt, Tunisia, the Middle East, Europe and even the US in the form of Occupy Wall Street. This is a brand new phenomenon. It’s well worth paying close attention to.
TXT: How do you use social media?
RT: I rely massively on social media for crowdsourced intelligence. I run a group of about 2000+ . I ask my followers questions (and often the responses are great). I also provide advice and answers whenever I can. For most of the past year, I was the host of an online video program called “This Week In Social Media”: we used all of the social tools to connect with our audiences and with the guest panelists on the show. Right now I am developing online course materials that incorporate social media for a collaborative learning process. And also, obviously social media platforms have emerged as a great new way to discover and browse content. We are still in the early stages of social media but these new developments seem to indicate that the role of social media is expanding to provide a new way to browse, recommend, discover and consume content.
TXT: Is social media making us more or less antisocial?
RT: Far more social than previously. Now I can keep in touch with more than 2000 friends just from my mobile phone. Facebook and LinkedIn give me a handy way to keep in touch with my friends in Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.
TXT: What attracts you to speaking at TEDxTransmedia in Rome?
RT: I like the TED conference and I wish to support the TEDx movement. I adore Nicoletta. And of course, I love the great city of Rome!
TXT: What’s the most important part of Transmedia for you? In your experience, what makes a great Transmedia project?
RT: The key to success in any medium is to commit to the core attributes of that medium. As Verdi said, “Opera is opera and symphony is symphony.” Certain stories are best told in traditional linear media. But some stories can only be told in interactive format. Strive to tell your story in the medium that suits it best: don’t make the mistake of attempting to bend the medium to support a story that doesn’t quite fit.
TXT: What do you see as the future of Transmedia storytelling?
RT: I believe that all media will be social, cross-platform, responsive and personalized. Authorship will evolve with the medium: authors will become collaborative, finding a way to integrate the ideas and participation shared by the audience. As traditional channels dissolve or evolve, marketplaces will rise in their place. Individual shows or stories will take on the attributes of a destination, a permanent part of the landscape rather than something seasonal or fleeting.
TXT: Is Hollywood missing out / missing the point on Transmedia?
RT: A surprising number of people in Hollywood are keenly focused on the future. That’s an encouraging sign of evolution. But it is also true that some executives in traditional media companies are determined to fight the future. They are mounting a rearguard defense to preserve a crumbling business model from the previous century, instead of embracing the dynamics of the new century’s medium. Those who treat new media as a mere marketing gimmick or as an ancillary market are missing the point. At the core of transmedia is the promise of cross-platform entertainment. Embrace it, don’t waste energy fighting it.
TXT: What in your life are you most passionate about?
RT: Inventing the future. I believe that we all have the chance to create the future or influence the future. In fact, I believe it is our obligation. It’s why we were put here on this planet. I’ve already done it a couple of times, and I plan to continue.
I am also passionate about explaining the future to other people. I love the opportunity to share a common understanding about the complex events that are unfolding around us. That instant of shared insight is magical.
TXT: And something a bit more personal (if you don’t mind?), what do you enjoy doing outside of work?
RT: I write, I paint, I play piano, and I love to read books. Yes, I read books on paper and also on my iPad and my Nexus 7.