Transmedia Literacy: Expanding the Media Literacy Frontier

Pamela Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge

Critical thinking across multiple modalities

Pamela Rutledge, PhD, MBA
Director, Media Psychology Research Center Adjunct Faculty, Fielding Graduate University

Media literacy is an increasingly pressing issue for media psychologists and educators who strive to prepare people of all ages to function well in a media-rich, globally connected world.   The ever-expanding integration of media technologies in our daily lives, from social media platforms to mobile apps, have challenged our understanding of just what it means to be literate in the 21st century (Hobbs & Jensen, 2009).  The emerging trend of transmedia storytelling will continue to push the envelope even farther.  Transmedia storytelling goes beyond the need to segment such skills as search and collaboration.  It demands the ability to recognize, understand, and interact with narrative threads across multiple modalities, not just within them.

Transmedia storytelling is the design and distribution of a story that is coordinated across multiple media channels.  Each channel offers unique content, using the strengths of each medium to its best advantage to build a larger, richer story.  Transmedia storytelling is intentionally designed for participation, drawing the audience in as co-creators to expand and develop the narratives.

Transmedia storytelling may not seem particularly different or profound until you consider that all information is translated into narrative in our meaning-making brains.  We embody the stories we tell.  Stories are how we assign causality, consciously process sensory input and imagery, and create associations so we can commit experience to memory.  Stories are how we make sense of our selves, our lives, and our futures in the world around us (Polkinghorne, 1988).

In a world where information is plentiful but our attention is limited, we search for content that creates a satisfying experience. Our cognitive reliance on narrative as a meaning-making device means that we gravitate to stories.  Much to media producers’ frustration, research suggests that 78% of consumers aren’t just channel flipping, the consumers’ attention is further divided by “content grazing” across smartphones while on their PCs, TVs, and tablets (Google, 2012).  Viewers are so hungry for stories that 57% of consumers routinely use multiple devices to expand their experience of a single event, creating a layered meaning through personal investment, whether it’s texting a vote for a favorite on American Idol, joining a Twitter feed, or “googling” an actor’s bio (Microsoft Advertising, 2013).

Mass media producers are scrambling because they can no longer take viewers’ attention for granted.  Audiences have choice and are psychologically and technologically empowered to seek content worth their most valuable asset—attention.

Transmedia storytelling has grown in popularity as a solution to this “attention gap.”  Transmedia storytelling is compelling and engaging because: (a) it is based on storytelling, humans’ fundamental meaning-making device, (b) it delivers content the way the human brain thinks, constructing larger narratives through the synthesis of multiple experiences; (c) it transports us into a story, lowering our cognitive resistance and making us more susceptible to persuasion and attitude change; (d) it creates an experiential environment piquing our curiosity through interactivity and nonlinear exploration; and (e) it turns audiences into stakeholders through participation and collaboration.

Transmedia storytelling is as effective for educational purposes as it is for marketing or entertainment. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a children’s story told across an interactive book, iPad app, and film (Joyce & Bluhm, 2012).  Readers can experience the story in multiple dimensions, interact with imagery, and even learn to play the piano. Inanimate Alice tells the story of 8-year-old Alice and her digital best friend Brad over a series of webisodes that take Alice from China to Italy, Russia, and England as the story expands across multiple media, including text, sound, puzzles, games, Skype, and GPS locators (Pullinger & Joseph, 2005/2014).  Inanimate Alice is used by teachers to provide experiential lessons in subjects from history and geography to global citizenship (Fleming, 2013).

Transmedia storytelling is a fundamental change in how we construct media narratives. Access and interconnectivity have shifted the psychological balance of power, and our relationship with media has forever changed.

Media literacy has to keep up with the ever-changing technology.  Media literacy advocates such as Renee Hobbs and Howard Rheingold have long argued for, and rightfully so, an expanded conceptualization of the literacy skills that acknowledge 21st century connectivity (Hobbs & Jensen, 2009; Rheingold, 2010).  Where some approaches to media literacy tend toward reductionism, transmedia literacy requires synthesis.  It requires multimodal, nonlinear problem solving where context and linkage change meaning, and where collaboration and participation change narratives.  Transmedia literacy draws on the ability to identify, dissect and reconstruct narratives wherever and in whatever form they occur and however they may be connected.  Transmedia literacy is the ability to see how a story travels and grows across media, the ways in which different media influence not just the story but how and how much we participate and how each medium and our participation can impact our perceptions and attitudes.

Jenkins, Rheingold, Hobbs and others have emphasized the impact of social networks and digital media in how we approach teaching and literacy.  The rise of transmedia storytelling—media experiences that are increasingly holistic and multi-dimensional—suggests that we need to acknowledge the simultaneity of multimodal communications (NCTE, 2012).  Transmedia literacy is an essential skill to all of us as  communicators and consumers because transmedia storytelling orchestrates stories across multiple media technologies to engage our most fundamental psychological processes: narrative meaning-making, interacting, synthesizing and connecting socially.


Fleming, L. (2013). Expaning Learning Opportunities with Transmedia Practices: Inanimate Alice as an Exemplar. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 5(2), 370-377.

Hobbs, R., & Jensen, A. (2009). The Past, Present, and Future of Media Literacy Education. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 1, 1-11.

Joyce, W., & Bluhm, J. (2012). The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Rheingold, H. (2010). Attention, and Other 21st Century Social Media Literacies. EDUCAUSE Review, October, 14-21.

Editor’s Note: Pamela Rutledge received Division 46’s 2014 Early Career Applied/Research Contributions to Media Psychology and Technology Award.

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