Transmedia Activism: Telling Your Story Across Media Platforms to Create Effective Social Change

Lina Srivastava

Transmedia storytelling, a concept identified by Henry Jenkins, is storytelling by a number of decentralized authors who share assets and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media. Transmedia immerses an audience in a story’s universe through a number of dispersed entry points, providing a comprehensive and coordinated experience of a complex story.

There is a clear marketing benefit that arises from multiple entry points into a media property—and in allowing your audience to participate in creating content and new platforms to distribute it. (Luke Freeman has a discussion here concerning transmedia storytelling in the for-profit media world.)


But even more interesting is the door transmedia storytelling opens up for social change cause outreach. Nonprofits and creators of social change media have a challenge in making their content ”sticky” and, in a crowded field with limited funding or distribution channels, it takes significant resources and expertise to create audience awareness and inspire action. There is a real and distinct opportunity for activists to raise awareness and influence action by distributing content through a multiplatform approach, particularly in which people participate in media creation.

Looking at this issue in the simplest of terms, “transmedia activism” is one of the best ways to have people connect to a cause, by exposing them to a variety of media properties over various distribution channels—which opens up avenues for dialogue and provides an audience an educational experience about workable solutions—and then working with the most creative and engaged audience segment to facilitate the creation of their own content that further explains the cause and inspires action around it.


Paul Hawken, who is turning his widely influential book Blessed Unrest into a film by inviting social activists to contribute stories that illustrate the book’s “movement of movements” theme—the documentary will consist entirely of pieces culled from online submissions and aims to be at the forefront of collaborative media towards social change movements.

Spooky Concert, Storyboard Slide, 2008

In a similar vein, Gael Garcia Bernal and Marc Silver, two of the creators of the upcoming documentary Resist, have set up ResistNetwork, a site to strengthen the film’s outreach throughout its making, and to invite its audience to contribute stories of change that may end up in the final product or in ancillary media.  The network already hosts short films and calls for action from its participants around the film’s theme, a search for “authentic freedom” from economic inequity and instability. The network partnered with Amnesty International to set up a webcast exploring how decentralized communications networks can address poverty and its underlying causes.

Silver has also created Eye of the Storm, described as “a website, a public installation and a story,” which encourages its audience to explore ways to find peace amid chaos, by contributing audio, video, images and writing, creating an ever-growing collection of user-generated content that will be streamed on web and mobile platforms and will also be part of a real-world installation.

Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein writes about his current documentary project, What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Quest for the Commons, for which the film’s creators are also using a transmedia storytelling process to craft the film and its outreach strategy.

And on another front, Steven Starr, Executive Producer of FLOW, has leveraged the success of the documentary to create a website aimed at encouraging collaboration among Right to Water activists, who will be able to use the site as a global hub upon which to launch their own local sites.


Organizations have also been successful in executing transmedia efforts. One dynamic example is the Human Rights Action Center, which has been celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights each year through a variety of media it has created, collected or commissioned, including concerts, films, blog posts and spoken word.

Breakthrough is another organization whose entire mission and strategy is built on transmedia activism, creating and distributing content in a number of media forms and distributing it across a variety of platforms, including the relatively new and growing field of games for change (Games For Change is one resource to explore these tools).

Two recent game efforts have been Oxfam’s A Seat at the Table; and Global Kids, which has created Ayiti: Cost of Life and Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City, by retaining a professional developer and working with youth in an after-school program.


So how do you do it? How does a nonprofit or media maker—particularly one with a tight budget or small workforce—engage in transmedia activism? As Charles Leadbeater has said, ”[y]ou don’t need an organization… to achieve large and complex tasks… this is about [community-building to] provide communities with tools, resources, platforms on which they can share.”

To build a community and have that community connect with a cause, nonprofits should think through how they can execute a multiplatform approach. For this, there needs to be (1) a defined, sustainable strategy and (2) the attendant resources to create and acquire compelling content and distribute it.

With regard to strategy, an organization should consider how its business model could support a co-creation network, and how it can be innovative in minimizing its cash outlay while maximizing its outreach. In the context of social change—where media can be created by audience members, donors, partners or beneficiaries—a social change initiative should network with its stakeholders to encourage or solicit innovative media tools that raise awareness and inspire action.

To that end, a similar outreach effort to “friend-raising” will be required in terms of bringing together a co-creation network. (This brings up another potential benefit in terms of fundraising organizations, in that engaged audiences are more likely to donate money; an engaged stakeholder is more likely to donate time to create media, as well.)

This effort requires appropriate technology, staff capacity, and the management ability to collaborate with external consultants and partners. The Internet and related Web 2.0 technologies have opened up new and cost-effective ways for social change initiatives to communicate with their base and to foster a co-creation network—and has the added benefit of expanding the engaged audience and moving them from awareness to action.

There are also a number of technological tools such as wikis, virtual team environments and videoconferencing, to make interactions and collaboration easier—both internally and with external content creators. In terms of staff capacity and management capability of a nonprofit specifically, performing a communications audit can illuminate an organization’s practices and internal capabilities to deploy staff to manage creation, curation and distribution of content, and engage with external content creators.


The question of resources, specifically funding, is more difficult. Some of the work of building a co-creation network and distributing content can be performed within an organization for “free,” in that communications or development staff can be trained to do the work as part of their tasks. Although there is a transactional cost to using staff blood and sweat, there can be little direct cash outlay. (On a related note, during a discussion of social media networking tools at the Craigslist Foundation‘s Nonprofit Boot Camp, panel attendees estimated they spend around 2 hours a day maintaining their internet- and mobile-based communications towards outreach. A sustained transmedia activist effort would likely require a similar time commitment.)

Content that is produced by users in an open collaboration, particularly in the context of the social change world, could be accessed for free, as well—or if for payment, for less than an organization would pay a full-time staff person dedicated to content creation. But any sustained transmedia activism effort will require funding. There are still relatively few funders who support media outreach initiatives with any consistency.

In the past few years, The Fledgling Fund has emerged as a forward-thinking and consistent funder with a roster of innovative projects, some of its own making. 

The Omidyar Network, Humanity United (which only funds mission-related projects involving mass atrocities and modern-day slavery) and the Skoll Foundation have all supported outreach initiatives employing cause-related art and media.

This past summer, BritDocs hosted a forum, The Good Pitch, bringing together third sector funders and organizations with media makers to explore the idea of collaboration and funding. Shooting People’s blog contains a fuller list of some funding possibilities.

Nonprofits engaged in social change initiatives should view storytelling as a necessary component of mission-fulfillment. Any individual institution engaging an audience—whether beneficiaries, funders, board members, community or other stakeholders—is required to convey clearly and artfully what it does, how its does it, where its work is most effective and necessary, and why they should support efforts to continue or grow the institution’s work.

In the larger view of systemic change, storytelling takes on an even bigger role, where a well-told story creates a shared experience and helps illuminate all factors (root cause and symptomatic) that effect social change efforts at both global and local levels, creating a comprehensive, connected, “best practice” view of achieving progress.

As Lichtenstein points out in his blog, his journey through this process of transmedia storytelling has changed him from a filmmaker to a content producer. Nonprofits dealing with social change don’t need to get into the business of content production or multiplatform distribution—but it is a digital world now. It’s likely time to add storytelling to the task list.