Transmedia Historiography as Educational Practice: Narrativising Colombian Cultural Memory

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2019.04 | Issue 1 | March 2019

Author: Matthew Freeman, Bath Spa University

Abstract

Both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for understanding transmediality – itself the use of multiple media technologies to tell stories and communicate information – is the sheer breadth of its interpretation. Though primarily still seen as a commercial practice, this article explores the application of transmedia practices to the communication of history across multiple media platforms, questioning what this approach means to understandings of transmediality. More specifically, the article furthers discussions of the contribution that transmedia storytelling can make to educational practices, identifying new strategies for how transmedia storytelling is now being used to capture and narrativize historical memories, as media-based educational resources. To do so, the article focuses on the Colombian armed conflict and the Desarmados project, which I use to theorise how transmediality can work as historiography, allowing for not only a new way of experiencing and remembering history, but as that which can reshape history for the better, reconciling the past and the present.

Introduction

It may be a cliché, but it is often said that travelling broadens the mind – that immersing yourself in different cultures around the globe can open your eyes to the true potentials and possibilities of the world. Cliché or not, it is absolutely true. Toward the end of 2015, I was invited to teach on the Masters in Transmedia Communication programme at EAFIT

University in Medellín, Colombia, itself the first postgraduate degree devoted to transmediality in Latin America. Here, transmediality is not – or rather should not be – a commercial practice associated with fictional storytelling, franchise world-building, cross-promotion, branding, and so on. Instead, it is a political communication technique that is seen as key to developing social change in local communities; in this context, transmediality is about reconstructing memories and building educational bridges between past and future. As one of the postgraduate students at EAFIT University asserts, ‘I strongly believe that transmedia in Colombia can contribute to creating processes of memory, recognition and solidarity for the victims of the Colombian armed conflict. I think that using transmedia with local communities can be the clue to starting real processes of reconciliation in the country.’ When understanding transmediality, in other words, travelling really does broaden the mind.


Across the globe, people now engage with media content across multiple platforms, following stories, characters, worlds, brands and other information across a spectrum of media channels. And yet perhaps the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for understanding this ‘transmedia’ phenomenon right now is the sheer breadth of its interpretation. In the contemporary era of media convergence where the sharing of media across multiple platforms is increasingly accessible, transmediality has emerged as a global strategy for targeting fragmentary audiences and spreading content across a spectrum of media channels. Still, practices of transmediality are still most closely associated with what Birkinbine, Gómez and Wasko (2017: 15) refer to as the global media giants – those being ‘the huge media conglomerates such as Disney and Time-Warner, [which] take advantage of globalization to expand abroad and diversify’. Outside of the conglomerates, though, transmedia storytelling – the practice of telling stories across multiple media platforms, often in creative, digitised and participatory ways (Jenkins, 2003; 2006) – has evolved in far more experimental spaces in recent years. While transmediality is still a common strategy in Hollywood’s contemporary blockbuster fiction factory, so often tied up with corporate notions of brand-building, ‘cash nexuses’ (Lemke, 2004), ‘multiple revenue streams’ (Starlight Runner Entertainment, 2011) and the use of intellectual property as a brand-orientated ‘marketing assault’ (Alpert and Jacobs, 2004), smaller national communities and often far less commercial cultures around the world are now beginning to make very different, nationally specific uses of transmediality, applying the practices of the transmedia phenomenon to the needs of a nation or re-thinking the application of this phenomenon by reapplying it to non-fictional, political, or heritage projects (Freeman and Proctor, 2018). Such a shift feeds into wider global transformations towards the ‘unofficial’ appropriation of digital media platforms for socio-political purposes; Jenkins, Shresthova, Gamber-Thompson, Klinger-Vilenchik and Zimmerman (2016: 7), for instance, have explored the challenges now faced by the current youth generation seeking to acquire ‘the skills necessary for political participation at an age where there is less than complete access to the rights of citizenship.’


This article deals with one such example of political participation, focusing on the socio-political context of Colombia and its armed conflict. I explore the application of transmediality to the practice of communicating an aspect of Colombian history and its socio-political fallout across multiple media – questioning what this means to our understandings of transmedia storytelling. More specifically, in the most basic sense this article furthers discussions about the contribution that transmedia storytelling can make to educational practices. But beyond mere education, something that scholars including Jenkins (2009), Scolari (2016) and Teixeira Tárcia (2018) have each considered previously, this article identifies strategies for how transmedia storytelling has been used to narrativize memories and histories, as well as psychological and physical consequences of conflict, as media-based educational resources in schools. To do so, I focus on the Desarmados project (on which I served as a consultant for its later developments) as an indicative case study. Not about the history of transmedia storytelling, then, but instead a theorisation of how transmedia storytelling can be used to deal with history – that is, to narrativize history across media in ways that affords educational and socio-political benefits. And in doing so, I consider how this application of transmediality raises broader questions about exactly what transmedia practices are for, reflecting on the role of such practices in building cultural memory, fostering reconciliation, and creating new ways of experiencing and remembering history.


Conceptualising the Practice of Transmedia Historiography


It is now understood that ‘transmedia’ is not a noun, but rather an adjective in search of a noun. ‘Transmedia, by itself, simply describes some kind of structured relationship between different media platforms and practices’ (Jenkins, 2016). Thus scholars have turned their attention to ‘transmedia storytelling’ (Jenkins, 2003; 2006), ‘transmedia engagement’ (Evans, 2015), ‘transmedia branding’ (Tenderich and Williams, 2015) and so on. But what of transmedia historiography? How can we understand the use of ‘multiple media technologies to present information … through a range of textual forms’ (Evans, 2011: 1) as that which communicates the stories of history, embracing the multifaceted politics of those histories along the way? Research has delved into the relationship between the cultural form of transmediality and politics already, albeit in relation to ‘politicized [entertainment] properties like The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films’ (Hassler-Forest, 2018: 304). For as Hassler-Forest (2018: 297) stresses:


Transmediality is more than just a textual practice, in which a single narrative – or, more appropriately, storyworld – is strategically disseminated across multiple media (see Jenkins 2006). It is also a dialogic form that is constantly being reconfigured by competing forms of audience appropriation, technological transformations, and changing industrial practices.

By ‘transmedia historiography’, then, I mean the coordinated use of digital platforms and non-digital materials – integrated dialogically in ways that encourage audience appropriation – to transform how people make sense of a historical moment, encouraging more active ways of learning about the complex, multi-perspectival components that make up a given history, such as its politics, cultures, memories, and so on (see Freeman, 2019). Still, before analysing the workings of Desarmados – a project that will be fully outlined shortly but for now can be summarily described as an internationally funded initiative that aims to reconstruct the cultural memory of the Colombian armed conflict using video letters and other media artefacts – I will begin this article by outlining some of the key theoretical pillars needed to conceptualise transmediality as a historiographical education practice. This means delving into some existing scholarly understandings of transmediality, education, and historiography.


Today’s digital transmedial environment, itself ‘the migration of our media and our attention from one screen to many’ (Holt and Sanson, 2014: 1), has the potential to tell stories in new and dynamic ways across multiple media (Jenkins, 2006; Scolari, 2009; Freeman, 2016a). However, Hay and Couldry argues that understandings of transmediality are all too often based on Western-centric and commercial media sectors such as film and television: ‘International differences are obscured by the generality of the term “convergence culture”, and it can be helpful to consider convergence “cultures” in the plural’ (2011: 476). Pearson, too, notes that ‘researchers have focused primarily on the United States and occasionally the United Kingdom’ (2014: vi), thus leading to a rather macro-level interpretation of the workings of transmediality. By contrast, better understanding the practices of telling stories across media means acknowledging the innate multiplicity of transmediality’s potential. And this means establishing a cultural specificity approach to both the study and the practice of transmediality, conceiving of it as essentially a recognisable approach to creating and communicating stories whilst also taking into account the politics, peoples, ideologies, social values, cultural trends, histories, leisure and heritage of individual peoples and their own communities. Taking a cultural specificity approach to transmediality means mapping the many faces of transmediality in different countries. For as I argued previously, ‘past builders of fictional story worlds employed many different strategies that showcase just how many possibilities there are for telling tales across multiple media’ (Freeman, 2016a: 189-190).

So what are the possibilities for transmedia practices once applied as an educational strategy? One of the newer meanings for transmediality lies in its application to education, with educators and different governments around the world seeking to bring the digitised, creative and participatory engagement associated with the former to the teaching and learning practices of the latter (Fleming, 2013). Current debates in this area of digital literacy studies center around the integrated and diverse uses of digital technologies in educational contexts, for example how today’s youth generation are learning new things via uses of digital media (Scolari et al, 2018). Specifically, ‘transmedia education’ represents a move away from traditional learning and towards interactivity across multiple platforms and learning zones. The interactive power of a transmedial approach to education was recognised by the United States Department of Education in 2011. Jenkins (2009) challenged teachers to involve students and to encourage them to utilise what they see, hear, and read in a far more interconnected way, both in and outside of the school classroom. In such a system, students are urged to seek out additional content, explore different pieces of information in various contexts, interact easily with other readers, and evaluate ideas across formats. Later I will analyse how such a transmedial approach to education has been adopted to shape how school children have made sense of the Colombian armed conflict, but for now it is important to consider the conceptual relationship between transmediality, education, and historiography.

How, in other words, can a transmedial approach to communicating history create new ways of not just experiencing that history, but also reshape how it is remembered, acted on, and even transformed for the better? What is the value of thinking about transmediality as a historiographical practice? Conceptually, the art of transmedia storytelling has a great deal in common with the multi-perspectival narratives of a historiographical practice. In a fictional example of the former, for instance, the story may well switch from one character’s point of view to another’s, as the audience moves from one medium to another. See, for example, Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel written by Jean Rhys in 1966. Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s famous 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Rhys’ novel followed the life of Antoinette Cosway, the first wife of Mr. Rochester in the Brontë novel, who was a secondary character in Jane Eyre that was turned into the hero of her own story. By switching between the perspectives of different characters across additional stories, the larger story of Jane Eyre was thus extended. As Jenkins (2009) puts it, this kind of transmedia storytelling is precisely about subjectivity – that is, ‘exploring the central narrative through new eyes, such as secondary characters or third parties. This diversity of perspective often leads fans to more greatly consider who is speaking and who they are speaking for.’ And much like a transmedia story, history, quite similarly, is never a single-perspective narrative; it cannot be easily synthesized into one single chronicle. Rather, the tales of history are entirely made up of a ‘collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses … students of history would be better served descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many “histories” that compose any given subject’ (Conway, 2015). In effect, both the consuming of transmedia stories and the learning of history operates on the basis that people will gain a richer and fuller understanding of that given story/historical event if they consume as much material relating to it as possible, across any number of platforms: ‘To fully experience any fictional storyworld, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels … to come away with a richer experience’ (Jenkins, 2006: 21). Similarly, historiography is about rejecting the idea of a single, standardized perspective and instead embracing the idea that hunting down as many perspectives on history as possible will provide the fullest understanding. As such, applying the practice of transmediality to the learning of history makes sense, but more than this, it can also allow for a multi-perspectival way of communicating and sharing history that leads to reconciliation and solidarity for all parties involved, as I will now explore in relation to Colombian culture.


Colombian Culture and the Desarmados Project


Colombia has a population of 48 million, a landmass of 1.139.000 km2, with 5 million internally displaced people, 480,000 refugees, two left-wing guerrilla groups/armies and more than six new right-wing paramilitary groups/armies called BACRIMS (see Gómez and Velásquez, 2018). Colombia also has the most unequal distribution of wealth across the continent, with 30% of its population living in poverty, and it is experiencing one of the longest armed conflicts in the world, lasting almost 50 years (Fisas 2009; UNDP, 2010).


As part of its ongoing peace process, on May 25, 2015, the Colombian government issued decree 1038, under which it established the aspiration that all educational institutions, spanning pre-school to higher education, would promote the objective that young people and teachers alike have a newfound space for learning, discussion and reflection on non-violence, the culture of peace and sustainable development in the country of Colombia. In the Colombia Country Strategic Plan document (2017-2021), education is one of the Government Priorities, ‘targeting schoolchildren … [and] participation in education activities’, while also ‘prioritiz[ing] the areas most affected by the conflict.’ The need to understand the emergence and history of violence in Colombia has led researchers to consider the origins and multiple causes of the armed conflict, the main factors that have contributed to the persistence of the violence, and the impacts it has had on the population. As such, a number of Latin-American academics (see García-Durán, 2014; Gomez and Velásquez, 2018) highlight the need to adopt a multi-perspectival approach to education in order to understand the multifaceted nature of the Colombian armed conflict. Transmedia storytelling is one such multi-perspectival approach, establishing itself as the ideal communicative form for the complexity of the country’s political state. For some Colombian universities – such as EAFIT University in Medellín – transmedia storytelling is as a way of dealing with the complexities of the conflict precisely because of its multi-perspectival nature, as different media communicate different perspectives of the conflict: ‘The multiplicity of socio-political factors shaping the Colombian armed conflict highlights the need to adopt a complex and multidimensional approach in order to understand the nature, and future solution, of this conflict’ (Gomez and Velásquez, 2018: 178). As we shall see, transmedia in Colombia can contribute to creating processes of memory, recognition and solidarity for the Colombian armed conflict victims.

Indeed, out of this context comes Desarmados, an internationally funded initiative supported by the Colombian Ministry of Culture, EAFIT University, and Bath Spa University. The Desarmados project aims to reconstruct the cultural memory of the Colombian armed conflict using video letters and other digital/non-digital artefacts and was proposed as a pedagogical tool for the Colombian Chair of Peace. Its purpose is to involve young people with the country’s history and to give them a platform to ask questions to ex-guerrilla and paramilitary fighters as well as civilian victims. It harnesses the potentials of transmediality by allowing the young people of Colombia to meet the various voices of the armed conflict, like indigenous people, Afro-descendants, soldiers, teachers, ex-guerillas, paramilitaries, and so on. As will be demonstrated shortly, these groups can each tell their own experiences through multiple media platforms, in turn allowing students to better understand the origin and impact of the violence. Specifically, Desarmados aims to: harness and appropriate (commercial) practices of transmedia storytelling as tools for documenting the citizens of Medellín and for narrativizing their memories of the Colombian armed conflict; reconstruct the cultural memory of this armed conflict; and develop workshops with a total of ten secondary schools in Medellín to help engage children in the transmedia project and to test new transmedia education materials as tools for social enterprise between survivors and civil society. Desarmados was the result of the thesis of three students enrolled on the MA in Transmedia Communication at EAFIT University. The University subsequently presented the project to the Ministry of Culture, in the category ‘Co-production of Content for a Culture of Peace’, and won. After the delivery of the prize, the main website was built, which includes numerous interactive videos about the history of the armed conflict and over a dozen audio-visual video letters. Other transmedia materials deriving from the project comprise a journalistic resource, social media channels (Facebook and Instagram), a student-led workbook, and an app, which at the time of writing is in the final stages of development. The project was nominated in Colombia for the Kids’ Choice Awards 2017 in the ‘Favourite Website’ category and was presented at the international Build Peace conference in 2017.


Research for the project was based on the simple process of speaking to as many people as possible who had been impacted by – or themselves impacted – the conflict in one way or another, be them victims, politicians, ex-guerillas, and so on. These voices are the stories that were joined up across media, as project leader Juan Sebastián Zuluaga explains:

 

It is a platform that aims to generate an exchange of correspondences and, in addition,
become a pedagogical tool of the Chair for Peace. It offers an interactive map, with a timeline, showing animated videos that explain the relevant events of the armed conflict. The country of Colombia cannot simply turn the page after sixty years of conflict. If we forget the victims it is to victimize them a second time. Those who left, those who died and those who suffered during the conflict have to be in force in the memory of their society, otherwise it risks victimizing them all over again. So a project like this is not to revive wounds but is to remember that we have forever tarnished the human being.

Indeed, Desarmados was not intended as a piece of propaganda; rather, in its hope to not revive old wounds, the project sought to create a far more hopeful sense of reflection. That is to say, by allowing people to see and witness others, be them other victims or whoever else, the joining up of their voices across and between multiple media platforms sought to join up these different political and emotional perspectives into something that inspired solidarity, reconciliation, and reflection. Digging into the past so as to remedy the future, if you will.


The original methodological contribution of Desarmados as a practice discovery thus lies in its mix of qualitative research methods, multiplatform media production practices and pedagogic insight to comprehend how a coordinated use of narrative, audio-visual and textual content can be used to teach socio-political and historical aspects of an armed conflict. But more than this, Desarmados’s use of transmedia education strategies and materials showcase a link between multiplatform education practices and the development of peace-building. Allow me to now demonstrate these ideas in action via the project’s own media platforms. In the ensuing sections, first I will explain the function of each platform in historiographical terms before analysing how its technological affordances led to rich forms of understanding the Colombian armed conflict while inspiring positive acts of reconciliation and solidarity.

Website – remembering the past


Initiating the Desarmados project is its website (www.desarmados.org), its ‘mothership’, as Jenkins (2009) puts it – meaning the primary media platform that anchors the rest of the transmedia story and which all other platforms build upon. Thematically, the strategic function of the website is to remember the past, to provide a participatory means of learning about the origins of the violence and how the past has shaped the present. The website is divided into six sections: ‘History of the Conflict’, ‘Protagonists’, ‘Map of the Protagonists’, ‘Leave Your Study’, ‘Blog’, and ‘Pedagogic Material’. This final section will be discussed shortly, but for now I will focus on the first three of these sections, which all link together.

The ‘Map of the Protagonists’ page shows a basic map of Colombia, including its key cities. In the past, ‘[p]rinted maps were a popular way of holding transmedia stories together and contributing new narrative information to a story world’ (Freeman, 2016a: 81), such as the maps produced by author J.R.R. Tolkien for Middle Earth. But maps, especially digitised maps, today afford much educational value, too. For example, along the bottom of the Desarmados web page are specific dates – ranging from 1965 to the present day. Users are able to navigate through the various years and across different Colombian cities; when they do so, they can watch short educational videos that reveal something about the origins or the impact of the Colombian armed conflict in that particular city and/or year. These videos are mainly of individuals, teaching users something about place and history via subjective memories and experiences. Put simply, the map epitomises the educational strategy of the entire project – that is, that history is ‘not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high’ (Conway, 2015), but is only ever a grassroots set of individual memories, all in dialogue with each other and built up by all corners of a society. The map signals the central idea to users – i.e. students – that the history of Colombia belongs to the individual.

And the emphasis on the individual establishes a narrative for the history of Colombia that is then extended transmedially across additional parts of the website. Previously I argued that ‘it is now time to theorise transmedia storytelling not as a phenomenon that relates … to crossing media, but instead as a single experience of drillable multi-media consumption’ (Freeman, 2016a: 200). The Desarmados website is one such single experience of drillable multi-media consumption, with users encouraged to click through to the ‘Protagonists’ part of the website. Here, six videoletters, each documenting individual reflections on the personal impact of the Colombian armed conflict, are available to watch and listen to. Each of the videoletters come from very different people, be them ex-parliamentarians or victims who have been displaced from their homes. Discussing the strength of transmedia storytelling, Hancox argues that ‘its multifaceted use of multiple platforms affords arguably the best possible mode of storytelling – a mode that is capable of enhancing characterization, emotional and experiential engagement’ (2018: 166). Enhancing the characterisation of the Desarmados protagonists stems from the ability to upload your own ‘responses’ to each of the aforementioned videoletters, such as further videoletters, diaries, written letters or photos.

As such, users have a firsthand account of the testimonies of the people who have been silenced and forgotten by the conflict, of those who feel excluded and defeated. By allowing users to respond to and post their own memories in dialogue with those of others, a narrativised thread of correspondence is thereby created – a collective memory, if you will, based on a chain of personal memories, each providing feedback, discussion, questions and answers. It acts as a network of historical stories that are complemented by the data of the aforementioned map, together creating a history of place, of the events that were lived, and of individual motives or consequences of violence. This feature allows children and young people who see any of the stories to learn not only about the intimate experience of the event, but also about the context in which it occurred. More than this, the transmedial nature of the videoletters, i.e. with the individual and previously disparate voices of the conflict suddenly coming into contact with each other for the first time, as one videoletter responds directly to the last, works to create a conversation that actually affords a sense of reconciliation. Those who experienced personal loss, for example, sometimes expressed forgiveness in their videoletter having seen and heard from particular ex-parliamentary figures, who themselves expressed a sense of regret over the causes and consequences of the violence in their community; youth and ex-combatants began a correspondence exercise to get to know each other, recognising each other for the first time and learning of their common ground in terms of how they imagine the future of Colombia. Such is the ‘reflexive and self-organizing potential of transmediality on the level of culture, [as] each additional version of a text or its fragment influences the ways in which we understand and remember the source text itself’ (Ibrus and Ojamaa, 2018: 90). Put simply, the transmediality of the videoletters led to empathy on both sides, as well as a retelling of the history of the Colombian armed conflict based not on one perspective, but on the exchange of memories between different individuals.


Pedagogically, therefore, and unlike the average history book that does not allow for the exchange of views or stories, the Disarmed website makes participants out of students, participants out of individuals, and a collective narrative out of personal memories – all of which is underpinned by the transmedial exchange of correspondences (via videos, photos, letters, interviews, etc.). Looking forward, then, users are building new stories in dialogue with the past, shaping a more hopeful image for Colombia’s future based on reconciliation.

And this ability to create new stories, shaped via an exchange of correspondence, has implications for how we understand the value of telling a story across multiple media. It may be common knowledge to think of transmediality as a single narrative that is strategically disseminated across multiple platforms (Jenkins, 2006), but the Desarmados videoletters exemplify transmedia storytelling as a form of cross-generational postmemory. The concept of ‘postmemory’ describes the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective and cultural trauma of those who came before to experiences they seemingly ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images and behaviors among which they grew up. But, as Hirsch (2012) elaborates, ‘these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.’ In other words, postmemory describes the way that one generation remembers the past, and specifically the idea that the way in which they remember the past is quite often not though recall but through mediated images only. In terms of Desarmados and its process of narrativising history transmedially, what is important to note is that the very transmediality of the project website, i.e. its joining up of people and platforms, works almost to counter this issue of postmemory insofar as it puts different generations into contact with one another via multiple media sources, which themselves come into contact digitally. In effect, transmedia storytelling hereby allows one generation to speak to and learn from another – not directly, perhaps, but via watching and engaging with the larger narrativisation of everyone’s history.


Workbook – imagining the future


The Desarmados website may initiate the project, looking backwards to the past, but a more structured sense of engagement in real life was needed in order to accomplish the project’s ambitions. With ‘the real roots of transmedia storytelling [being] in education’ (Fleming, 2013), a workbook was subsequently designed for use in classrooms by secondary school students, guiding the process of learning about the Colombian armed conflict (see Fig. 1). In Colombia, it is common to find textbooks that offer concepts about peace and human rights in the context of the country’s conflict, and for a series of pedagogic activities to be developed in the classroom. However, in these textbooks there is often little interactivity between the students, teachers, and the protagonists of the armed conflict. Accordingly, the project team sought to explore which culturally-responsive transmedia storytelling practices can be used to teach the Colombian armed conflict to school children, delivering teaching guidelines and producing a set of materials to be used in the transmedial teaching practices of secondary schools in Medellín. Anchoring the educational resources in the classroom is thus its student workbook. Thematically, the strategic function of the student workbook is to imagine the future, or more specifically, to creatively imagine a better future for Colombia. The logic, quite simply, is that positive emotion trumps negative emotion; in the search for reconciliation, for catharsis, the project team wanted the transmedial act of crossing from one media platform to another to allow for a positive emotional reaction based on reflection.


FIGURE 1

So, having witnessed the range of videoletters available at www.desarmados.org, the pedagogic journey of Desarmados continues via the workbook activities that are led by teachers in the classroom. As with the earlier analysed videoletters, students are required to reflect on the memories of others; the ‘protagonists’ of the website become characters whose lives are extended into the classroom setting, much like the character of Antoinette Cosway being extended from Jane Eyre to Wide Sargasso Sea. The subjective personalisation of this approach was designed to engage students more emotionally and to allow them to understand the meaning of the armed conflict and the violence that has been perpetuated on individual lives. The first question posed to students is: How do you imagine the people who have been part of the war? As Rojas points out, the history books have tended to represent these figures as barbarians, uncivilized, rebels, victimizers or victims: ‘In traditional historiography, the faces of the war have been divided between good and bad, ignoring their particularities and the contexts in which they have grown up’ (Rojas, 2001: 22). The pedagogic experience of Desarmados seeks to overthrow those kinds of prejudices, rejecting the notion of a single, standardized chronicle of the history of Colombia and its people in favour of an exchange of different, often conflicting memories, with students themselves descending into the proverbial bog of conflict and learning the many histories of this particular conflict. More than learning multiple, personalised histories, classroom exercises are designed to help the transformation of Colombia, a country mired in decades of violence, hatred and pain.


For example, classroom challenges, conducted in reaction to the website content, include letter writing, drawing, and memory tree games (see Fig. 2 & 3). Having witnessed a reflection on the loss of freedom, students might be asked, ‘What does freedom mean to you?, and to draw a more progressive idea of freedom in Colombia. As with the subjectivity of all forms of transmedia storytelling, these classroom challenges allow students to explore the central narrative of the conflict through new eyes, leading them to more greatly consider the question of who is speaking and who they are speaking for: ‘Solidarity and respect are reflected in my letter to Diana, one of the protagonists of Disarmed. In every mail we realize how young Colombians trust that peace is the way!!’ (Age 8). ‘The young people of the country admire [Diana] and trust that through teaching such as hers we can understand the virtues of peace’ (Age 10). As project leader Zuluaga explains further of these challenges:


This innovation generates spaces of interaction between the protagonists of the armed conflict in the country and society, at the same time that it seeks to sensitize young people in terms of understanding the causes and consequences of war and to encourage them to think together about the changes that are required to rebuild the country. All this in order to face a past in conflict and assume a process of peace and reconciliation that allows changes in the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors in our society to forge a shared and peaceful future.

FIGURE 2

FIGURE 3

Social Media – documenting the future


Utilising transmedia storytelling to draw profound attention to the perceptions, attitudes and behaviours in Colombian society require that the world of the story goes beyond the digital. In the case of Desarmados, its users are required to interact with the locales of the real world, which is where social media comes into play. Thematically, and most basically, the strategic function of the social media platforms – again, Facebook and Instagram – is to document the future, commemorating it in the real world. The project’s use of social media channels is really about extending the experience of the project outside of the classrooms and into daily life. Having gained a knowledge of the past (website) and imagined a vision for a better tomorrow (workbook), social media becomes a means to document this vision, joining up additional perspectives, reflections and memories across multiple media. Examples include students using social media to document their visions as graffiti drawing on walls, or posting further responses to the videoletters, etc., building the multi-perspectival histories further.

Of course, one of Jenkins’ original seven core principles of transmedia storytelling was ‘performance’, which concerns ‘the ability of transmedia extensions to lead to fan produced performances that can become part of the transmedia narrative itself’ (2009). But the type of performance being enacted by the Desarmados social media users is less to do with notions of fandom and more about capturing a sense of historic place. Joshua Meyrowitz commented that a lot of Westerners have lost touch with their sense of place because the ‘traditionally interlocking components of “place”’ (1999: 100) had been broken up by digital media since their location did not hinder them from always being ‘in touch and tuned-in’ or, as most would now say, connected to or ‘always-on’ their portable media (McStay, 2010: 3) – an idea that arguably also applies to any social media user. However, at a time when the innate connectivity and shareability of social media is also making certain strands of transmedia stories ironically fleeting, it is the role of locative media and physical real-world projects such as the aforementioned graffiti drawing to keep audiences politically engaged.

One such example of a locative, politically engaged extension of the Desarmados project is the use of its social media accounts to encourage users to consider the relationship between what they have learnt about conflict and its impact on their own community. ‘Enter www.desarmados.org,’ one Facebook post reads, ‘and you can share facts of the conflict that happened in your community so that together we can create a map of memory reconstruction so that these events will never happen again. Now it’s your turn!’ One message, for example – again written on a wall for all to see and captured via a photograph on Facebook – pleaded with the citizens of Medellín to remember the violence that took place in a specific street but, in response, to ‘recover humanity, solidarity and start a new era of peace in our streets.’


By inscribing parts of the transmedia story of the origins and impact of the Colombian armed conflict outside of screen-based media forms (and the classroom space) and onto the physical walls of real locations across Medellín, those inscriptions essentially become characters in the unfolding story. While I have implied throughout this article that the transmedia practice represented by Desarmados has little to do with the commercial whims of the likes of Disney and Time-Warner and their brand-based transmedia entertainments, it is certainly possible to draw a direct comparison between the social media strategy utilised by Desarmados and the practice of location-based promotion that has taken hold in the advertising industry. Scholars have discussed the ephemeral nature of new media promotion, from YouTube content and websites to interstitials and memes (Grainge, 2011; Pesce and Noto, 2016). With the rise of mobile technology, a promotional campaign now has the ability to both reach out to audiences and to guide them to specific locations as part of a broader, spatially linked experience. Broadly describing an internet-based scheme employing a scavenger hunt metaphor, these promotional practices may span multiple territories, and involve multiple users. The development of these locative forms of promotion have seen promotion as a whole become an explicit journey, with audiences invited to participate in one identifiable event in advance of engagement with another event. Consider the way that in 2014 Starbucks made use of locative mobile media technology to track consumers’ device IDs and locations, using that information to deliver personalised text messages with offers of 50% discounts on their favourite drinks at the most local Starbucks.

Occupying much more of a social-activist arena than this overtly promotional area, the Desarmados social media channels are nonetheless devised with a number of the same motives in mind. Just as with location-based promotion, the aforementioned Facebook examples sought to create a multimedia experience that transcended the screen and the classroom; there is also a similar degree of interactivity that is based on users generating content for projects by inputting their own meanings into how the images are experienced. There is even a comparable emphasis on equating experience to place, attaching location-based images to community spaces that are public and shared, with the communal nature of these images and spaces linked to the messages of reconciliation, solidarity, and change.

All of which is to say that the same promotional leanings that are inherent to social media platforms and which afford myriad ways to ‘communicate and share’ (Gauntlett, 2011) are at work in the pedagogical, historiographical, and socio-political uses of those platforms. The locative, real-world physicality of the aforementioned Facebook posts, each enabling and promoting ‘sharing, collaboration and content creation’ (McStay, 2010: 37-38), is what is most significant about the contribution made to the meaning of the Desarmados narrative – that is, that everyone has an important voice in the recreation of the history of Colombia.


Moreover, making use of the inherent promotional/democratic affordances of social media to establish the socio-political ambitions of the project also raises important questions about the recreation of cultural memory via these particular platforms. The earlier analysed videoletters may have exemplified transmedia storytelling as cross-generational postmemory, but the use of social media to document new stories about Colombia’s future in real-world locations points to what Michael Rothberg (2009) describes as ‘multidirectional memory’, which encourages us to think of the public sphere as a malleable discursive space in which groups do not simply articulate established positions but actually come into being thorough their dialogical interactions with others. Writing in reference to the collective memory of the Holocaust, Rothberg provides ‘a framework that draws attention to the inevitable dialogical exchange between memory traditions and keeps open the possibility of a more just future of memory’ (2009: 21). For Rothberg, it becomes useful to rethink the means by which collective memories are made, especially in political historical contexts defined by conflict and tragedy, as ‘moments [that] coexist in which historical memory serves as a medium for the creation of new communal and political identities’ (2009: 12). Rothberg may be referring to the image of the Holocaust across culture, but his ideas are equally useful for making sense of the kinds of transmedial interventions represented by Desarmados and its social media platforms. In this case, and by understanding the value of social media in a project like this one as that which fosters forms of multidirectional memory, it becomes apparent that ‘both the subjects and spaces of the public are open to continual reconstruction’ (Rothberg, 2009: 5). Users are not merely promoting solidarity; they are rewriting the entire story of solidarity.

Conclusion


This article has explored how one project’s combined use of digital platforms (narrativizing the origins, consequences, politics, places and peoples of the Colombian armed conflict across websites, social media, video letters, etc.) and physical artefacts (drawings, games, workbooks, etc.) allows for not only a new way of experiencing and remembering history, but has demonstrated how the practice of narrativising history across digital and physical artefacts can reshape that history, creating new knowledge and ways of reconciling the past and present. Indeed, Desarmados is a transmedia project that encourages Colombian people not to escape their pasts, but rather to think differently about their pasts by traversing ‘across and between the borders where multiple media platforms coalesce’ (Freeman and Gambarato, 2018: 11). It asks those people to see their history differently, and it is the practice of transmedia storytelling – with its power to immerse people in interactive platforms and shared, connected experiences – that is fundamental to achieving those important social ambitions. Fundamentally, the use of transmedia practices in Desarmados – themselves representative of what I have argued to be a practice of transmedia historiography – is really about making sense of a violent past that for many people still does not make sense; such practices enable the narrativisation of what is un-narrativisable from a single perspective by making use of multiple perspectives and the activism that emerges from surrounding media.


Where, then, does that leave my broader attempts to theorise transmedia storytelling as that which narrativises history across media in ways that specifically affords educational, socio-political and historiographical benefits? Firstly, rather than separating ‘commercial’ practices of transmediality, i.e. based on the use of additional platforms as ‘cash nexuses’ (Lemke, 2004) that in turn create multiple revenue streams and ‘marketing assaults’ (Alpert and Jacobs, 2004) from so-called ‘democratic’ forms of transmediality, like transmedia journalism (see Gambarato and Alzamora, 2018), Desarmados reinforces the need to embrace the multiplicities and pluralities of transmediality as a multi-perspectival and cross-disciplinary practice, one that is capable of addressing specific and very different objectives. Transmediality now means very different things, in different parts of the globe, to different sets of industries, cultures, practices, arts, and disciplines (Freeman and Proctor, 2018).


Yet despite the multiplicity and plurality of its applications around the world, two ideas best characterise the kinds of transmediality exemplified and afforded by Desarmados, both of which push forward our general understanding of what transmedia practices are really for. The first idea concerns the importance of conceptualising transmediality as a series of practices for building and capturing memory. Colin B. Harvey (2014) has argued previously that memory is a key component of all transmedia storytelling, fictional or otherwise, insofar as audiences are required to remember the specifics of a story from medium to medium. But beyond this individualised definition of memory based on remembering plots or characters during the act of migrating across media, one might wish to discuss transmedia practices as the capturing of a more collective cultural memory: Desarmados is a transmedia project that is designed to preserve the memory of a population, rooted in memories of its collective past. Be it via postmemory or multidirectional memory, a project like Desarmados demonstrates the idea that joining up what were previously desperate individual memories across multiple media platforms allows people to make greater sense of those individual memories – the multi-perspectival interconnectedness of transmediality here affords dialogue and context.


The second idea concerns the social-activist notion that transmediality – far more than being a strategic practice of extending narratives across platforms – is something that actually helps people. As Camilo Tamayo Gomez, one of the Desarmados researchers, argues:

The development of transmedia narratives is a clear example of how constructions of memory, recognition and solidarity are a healing process for victims in contexts of armed conflict. Thus, the development of transmedia products to construct memory narratives is based on expressive activism as an instrument to exercise political and social actions in the public spheres of this Colombian city (Gomez and Velásquez, 2018: 154).

Understanding how transmediality can deal with the traumas of a history in a positive way, then, means acknowledging the ways that ‘transmediality can enable not just the spreading of messages across media, but equally the creation of a social fence around those messages, inviting participation and building a stronger community’ (Freeman, 2016b: 95). Crucially, while none of these ideas are necessarily specific to Colombia – and while the thematic ingredients of different historical contexts will always change the nature of how that history is narrativised transmedially – one can nevertheless claim that these factors of conceiving of transmediality as 1) a practice for rebuilding cultural memories, and 2) a healing process to exercise political and social actions, do encapsulate an altogether culturally specific model for the function of transmediality in Colombia. Which, by contrast, raises related questions to do with the broader potentials of recreating and narrativising everyday life via digital media technologies, as well as how the integration of old and new media forms can shape how we navigate everyday life, and indeed how the transmedial narrativisation of histories across media can help people to deal with the traumas of those histories in a profound way.


Looking forward, the potential exists for researchers to now consider how Colombian notions of transmedia storytelling, i.e. as that which contributes to memory and solidarity, can be adapted or localized to achieve similarly profound social functions in other countries or cultures. How else and for what historiographic benefits might transmedia practices be applied elsewhere? The very act of narrating history across media, as has been demonstrated via Desarmados, works to realise something altogether new in terms of how we experience that history, remember it, act on it, reshape it for the better. I believe it was George Santayana who famously said that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ With transmedia practices applied at their creative best, there should be no need to forget.

Acknowledgements

Many of the ideas in this article emerged from a number of funded initiatives. These include the Transmedia Earth Conference, held at EAFIT University in 2017 and for which I co-organised and received Newton Funds (£2,000), and the Desarmados app, itself funded by a Santander Pioneer Award in 2017 (£5,000). I would personally like to thank both Paola Morales Escobar and Camilo Tamayo Gomez for their generous support in Colombia.

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