The Fourth Medium

Stories as TV Programmes, by tristanf

It’s been a while since I last posted. Things are going well, and I’m glad that all this has come on leaps and bounds since this time last year. Hopefully, by this time next year, there will be something practical to show for all of it – stay tuned, and keep an eye here if you’re interested in the Ontomedia work.

I’ve been busy refining the ideas that I’ve discussed here, experimenting and talking to others about it. In the course of doing so, however, I’ve felt that there’s one major part of what I’m trying to put forward which doesn’t always get through. It’s something I touched upon in the last post, but I thought it might be good to expand and explore again here.

In the case of drama, the writer is the starting point for everything. Their ideas and the ways in which they are communicated through their writing are central to their craft. The story comes first, and then it is translated and adapted to suit a number of different media. There are, of course, three main types of media that I’m referring to – text, speech and (moving) pictures. This then roughly translates to the medium of print, radio and television respectively. The audience for the writer’s work is implicitly aware that they are experiencing the story through the filter that the medium overlays on the narrative. In the mind of the audience, then, they must decode the filter in order to get to the real ‘prize’ – the narrative, the context, the ideas being communicated.

This isn’t to say that the filtering effect of the medium (be it text, speech or pictures) is necessarily a negative influence. Careers and whole industries have been built on the ability of people who understand the natural tricks of the medium, and are able to utilize them to create an effective and compelling representation of the story. Equally, tricks of the trade can be noted and enjoyed by audiences who find comfort and satisfaction in familiar practices.

Of course, when constructing a narrative, the creator is likely to be aware of the conventions, limitations and advantages of the medium they have chosen to communicate through. This may indeed shape the narrative itself, but it remains true that you should be able to strip away the medium’s influence, in order to access the ‘pure’ story at the heart of the work. This can then be re-contextualised through a different medium – some of its beauty in the former medium may be lost, but a new perspective may reveal new highlights in the new medium.

OK, so far, so (fairly) obvious, if a little abstract. The point that i’m trying to make is that when you use a medium to construct a representation of a narrative, the medium plays an active role in the communication of that narrative to the audience. Or at least, it should do, if the medium in question is used to its full potential.

So, with that in mind, let’s examine the media that we’ve discussed. We’re all aware that print, radio and television (alongside film) have their own techniques, advantages, quirks. Writers, producers, technicians, artists, all use these quirks to make representations of a narrative in a way which is best suited to their chosen medium. That is to say, you have the book of Swallows and Amazons, the TV adaption, the radio version, even the film. Note also the language being used – adaption, “…brought vividly to life…” – each acknowledging the fact of the different media being used to tell the story.

However, then we come to the Web – and what do we find? It would appear that, from current use, we cannot call the Web a fourth medium. Instead, it is merely a distribution channel for the other three, akin to a TV set, a radio, or a bookshop or printing press. Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself – applying the technology of the Internet – of a network – in this way is pretty obviously a good thing, despite the legal ramifications – communication has never been so cheap and widely distributed. But earlier I said that representations of a creation through a medium involve some form of adaption, not just delivery.

The book, the TV, the radio, the film – these are all isolated, one-shot representations of a creation. They are produced, packaged, sold, distributed, consumed – in isolation. In order to remix, re-adapt, and so on, we either have to go directly back to the source, to the creator, and ask them to rework their creation, or we have to cut and paste, knowing that in doing so we are left with the pieces of the story still in situ of the media from which we took them – they cannot truly be extracted.

However, the Web is different – it has the potential to be the fourth medium, a networked, connected medium, thereby very different from the other three. Rather than sound effects, paragraph breaks or camera tricks, the Web has its own natural tricks and advantages – the network, the connections. These, of course, are the same connections that we all make when consuming narrative from the other three media – but rather than being isolated within us, the Web allows us to expose these connections, explore them, analyse and create new links, enabling us to enjoy narratives and stories in a way which is both natural to the Web, and, more importantly, natural to our minds.

Just as we take a story and adapt it for a book, for TV etc, so we should adapt stories for the Web. We should forget about scenes and chapters, and concentrate instead on the story itself – the events that take place. In this way, we can begin to construct entirely new adaptions and representations of stories. Only then can we say that we are using the Internet to its full potential, and only then will we have added a fourth medium to our repertoire of cultural and creative expression.

1 Comment

  1. Would have to take umbridge with your comment on the current internet usage: “Instead, it is merely a distribution channel for the other three, akin to a TV set, a radio, or a bookshop or printing press.”

    Much of online usage is often and increasingly so, beyond that……….


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