Tip of the Quill: A Journal

I love this bit from Robin Sloan’s About Me page:

What’s a media inventor, anyway? I think it’s someone primarily interested in content—words, pictures, ideas—who also experiments with new formats, new tools, and new technology. Allen Lane was a media inventor. Early bloggers were media inventors. The indie video game scene is full of media inventors.

Media inventors aren’t satisfied with the suite of formats available to them by default. Novel, novella, or short story; album, EP, or single; RPG, RTS, or FPS—media inventors don’t like those options.

Media inventors feel compelled to make the content and the container.

If this sounds familiar, I invite you to use the label, too. And more generally, I’m on a mission to bring back the word inventor with all its connotations: protean lightning-crackle and occasional crackpot-itude alike.

Preach it, Brother Sloan! Can I get an a-men?

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  • Disney Infinity sells 294K copies in its first two weeks. Disney reportedly spent upwards of $100MM on the project, with execs keeping a keen eye on its performance. According to a spokesman, “We’re very pleased with the launch in both the U.S. and globally, and believe Disney Infinity is well-positioned for the critical holiday sales season.”
  • Skylanders hits 1.5B lifetime revenue. The expansion, Skylanders Giants, moved 500K units in its first two weeks of sale (again, compared to 294K for Disney Infinity). Apparently the franchise is picking up steam: “The new lifetime revenue total of $1.5 billion indicates that the series is as lucrative as ever. The series debuted in October 2011, and didn’t reach $1 billion in sales until February 2013. It has added a further $500 million in just seven months.”
  • Jordan Weisman’s Golem Arcana is at $178K/$500K with 27 days to go. I’ve not gotten into tabletop gaming previously, but this is starting to look like a world worthy of devotion.
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WyrdCon 4 dragon spaceship

I’ve been to a lot of conferences in my life at this point. As in, a lot. My friend Donald Brinkman (@brinkmanship) at Microsoft Research in Seattle keeps a collection of his conference badges hanging in his office, all clustered together like some strange bundle of obscure herbs in a rustic kitchen. Me, I have an old Apple Store bag in my closet stuffed with them. Either way, the symbolism is the same: each one of those little plastic name badges represents another event, in another place, in another year, with another group of (usually awesome) people, and, hopefully, another talk or presentation given. It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.

When I was first invited to participate in WyrdCon (@wyrdcon) 4 (held Sept. 12-15, 2013 in Orange County, south of LA) by my friends Angelique Toschi (@AngeliqueToschi) and Lauren Scime (@LaurenScime), I unhappily had to decline because WyrdCon was in LA and I was then in Seattle, still toiling away in the pixel mines at Microsoft. I should have known better. As we all know by now, the universe was determined to have me at WyrdCon, and so it engineered my departure from both Microsoft and Seattle and my family’s relocation to Los Angeles – as well as a hiccup in the best-laid panel plans by the always-lovely Alison Norrington (@storycentral) – all so I could appear at WyrdCon.

As it turns out, one should always trust the universe. WyrdCon 4 was one of the best convention/conference experiences I’ve ever had.

I should know this by now. I should absolutely know this. I always have so much fun at little conferences (like Readercon back in Boston, circa 2007-2009), because you can actually get to know people, not just do a quick exchanging of business cards as you’re being rushed out of a room so the next group can take the stage. Smaller cons are all about the people, and man, does WyrdCon draw a great bunch of people. Not only did I get to hang out with the aforementioned Lauren, Angelique and Alison, but I also got to:

Long story short, the signal-to-noise ratio at WyrdCon was off the charts. If I have anything to say about it, WyrdCon will be an annual thing for me, at least as long as I’m in LA. It should be for you, too.

Come! Let us be weird (wyrd?) together – WyrdCon 5 will be held on Memorial Day weekend (May 22nd – 26th), 2014 at the Westin by LAX. See you there?

(For more pictures of the event, check out my Flickr photoset.)

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I’m digging this trend (a couple years old by now but still worthy of appreciation) of collaborations marked with an x. TEDx Transmedia. Monocle x Samsung. MAKR x Monster Children. Stumptown x Poler. It’s a bit hipstery, sure, but I like the implication that the collaboration isn’t just A + B, but A x B – a multiplication of the awesomeness of both elements. I totally want to do this for the byline for a co-authored book. [Your name here] x Geoffrey Long. Doesn’t that have a neat ring to it?

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It feels decidedly odd to be writing here again. Delightful, yes. Wonderful, sure. But also very strange.

It’s been almost exactly a year since I last posted something here, and it’s been three years since I stopped blogging more or less regularly. When I joined Microsoft, I couldn’t talk about what I was doing there at all, and when my daughter Zoe came along last year, I had more important things to do than blog.

Still, I missed it. I got little hits of pleasure from sharing cool stuff on Facebook and Twitter, but I missed having a place that was my own, where I could write longer essays and reflections, post updates on projects, stuff like that. I missed having my own little corner of the web that was kind of like a workshop with an open door – people could swing by, see what I’m working on, hang out to chat for a bit, that kind of thing.

A few months ago, my circumstances changed again. Microsoft and I parted ways in the spring of 2013, and I found myself back out in the bigger, open world. I still can’t talk much about what I was up to during my three years in Redmond, but bits of it are slowly trickling out. Some of my “future of entertainment” think tank work for J Allard and Ray Ozzie can be seen in SmartGlass; I was on the planning team for Xbox One; either my own handiwork or my teaching influence can be seen on the Ryse digital graphic novel (which launched at the San Diego Comic-Con this year and on which I’m credited as the transmedia designer), the Adera Windows 8 game and its e-book extension, the upcoming transmedia experience Quantum Break, the Halo: Forward Unto Dawn webisode series (for which I feel a teacher’s sense of pride, as it was created by former teammates from the think tank whom I’d happily and shamelessly geeked out with/on about transmedia aesthetics), and a bunch of stuff that still has yet to be truly made public. They were three amazing years, and I feel like I really did have a hand in shaping the future of entertainment – and how many folks are lucky enough to say that?

Still, I missed academia. Also, when Zoe was born, it was like a switch in the back of my head got thrown, and I woke up one day saying, “Oh, crap – I need a COMMUNITY!” And not just workmates or online buddies, but Friends Down the Street. We lived on an island, for Pete’s sake. So my wife Laura and I looked around and had some long heart-to-heart talks, and we finally decided that, although we had dear friends in Seattle, we would make a bigger move: from Seattle to Los Angeles. One of my oldest friends from high school and his wife had been living down there for the past several years and they were about to have their first kid, too – so we suddenly had a built-in co-parenting group. My mentor from MIT, Henry Jenkins, had moved to USC and brought a number of his entourage with him, so there was a thriving like-minded community of folks at USC. And I had a growing number of friends and industry contacts in Los Angeles, from all the work I’d been doing in the transmedia entertainment space in the past ~10 years. So we packed up the house and the family and headed south, landing in the artsy-but-grounded neighborhood of San Pedro.

Professionally, I’ve landed at the Annenberg Innovation Lab (AIL) at USC, where I’m now a Research Fellow and the Technical Director.

Annenberg Innovation Lab

It’s a funny title; part of my job is, yes, to make sure the servers stay running, but it’s more of a strategic position, much more in line with my think tank days at Microsoft. The beautiful thing about AIL is that it’s a Think and Do Tank, as my friend and collaborator Erin Reilly likes to say. We don’t only look at the far-flung future of communications and entertainment, but we’re also building stuff, which is thoroughly exciting. Much of my time at Microsoft was spent further away from the metal, so to speak, so the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and start prototyping stuff, to “move quickly and break things,” as we like to say in the lab, is thoroughly exciting.

And one of those prototypes is me.

me in Google Glass

I like to tell people that I learned more at Microsoft than I ever did at MIT – the difference was that I didn’t want to know half of it. I’m not saying it was completely horrible, but it’s not the only way to go. There are other paths, and one of the things I’m up to in the lab is trying to figure out what the ecosystem of the future entertainment industry looks like.

I believe that there is a place in the future of transmedia entertainment for big businesses (obviously), but there is also a sustainable future for independent creators. There is a sustainable future for people who want to teach in this space, for people who want to tinker in this space, for people who want to keep pushing things forward. The transmedia storyteller of 2023 is going to have a really interesting set of narrative tools in their toolbox. 3D printers, wearable devices, virtual reality and augmented reality and so on, those are the new tools of 2013 – and my new lab gives me the opportunity to explore those, to play with those, and, to some extent, to learn and play and create in public.

In short, I have my open-doored workshop back!

So now I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I’ve always known that I wanted to be a combination of storyteller, scholar, designer and consultant, specializing in transmedia experiences and the future of entertainment. I still have a long way to go, and I still have a ton of work to do, but it’s impossible for me to sufficiently convey how happy I am to be back in my open workshop. I’ve got a bunch of projects I hope to finish up and share in these next weeks, months, and maybe even years, some opportunities to finally test out some theories I’ve had that were too wacky even for Microsoft, and some that were too zany for even MIT. Setting up shop at USC has let me do that, has let me find a community of amazing like-minded mad artist-scientists, and it sure looks like we’re going to have an amazing time. “Move quickly and break things,” yes, but – more in line with my own personal philosophy, “get excited and make things!”

Get Excited and Make Things

I’m going to try and use myself as a prototype for what the future of transmedia storytelling (and scholarship) looks like. I’m going to try and figure out what it means to be a participant in the new entertainment ecosystem, and then be that. And I’m going to try and do it more or less in public, to learn in public and prototype in public and grow in public.

So, yes. Welcome to my workshop. Hello again, world. It’s great to see you!

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A quick note to apologize for the silence around these parts. Long story short, my full-time gig as the Lead Narrative Producer for Microsoft Studios’ Narrative Design Team is sucking up most of my bandwidth, and I (obviously) can’t blog about most of what goes on there. Further, any bandwidth I have left over is taken up by this little beauty:

Zoe and Me

As of July 8, 2012, I’m a daddy. Meet Zoe Eowyn Long, my daughter – and by far the best thing I’ve ever made.

As the photo above implies, I have my hands full. 🙂 For the foreseeable future, I’ll hopefully add the occasional post here, sharing whatever adventures I’m up to (and whatever stuff I get a chance to make in my spare time), but it certainly won’t be with any degree of regularity. In the meantime, you can find me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for visiting!

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(Note: since publishing the original version of this essay, I received two extremely nasty, insulting comments from people I don’t know. Rather than publish the comments – because the vitriol in them is not something I care to have cluttering up my blog – I’m revisiting the essay to attempt to clarify my original point, conceding that the imagery I chose to use in the original post was too easy for critics to lambast instead of considering the real point of the piece. What follows is a revised version of the essay; the original has been taken down.)

When I was younger, I reacted passionately and negatively against what I perceived to be Harold Bloom’s staggering heights of pretension and arrogance, setting himself up as the canon-keeper, looking down his nose and sniffing disdainfully at all those things I loved that wouldn’t even begin to measure up to his impossibly elitist ideals. He was the über-snob, the Platonic ideal of everything that I hated in the worst of my undergraduate professors, the mascot of the asinine out-of-touch Old Guard that represented everything I despised in traditional English Literature. I was a lousy teenager when it came to rebellion, a miserable failure as a punk of any sort – I wasn’t terribly interested in the Ramones, the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols, I was more interested in Counting Crows, U2 or R.E.M. – but when it came to literature, by God was I pissed off by these stony-faced buffoons. Reigning atop this bilious pile of condescension and loathing was, of course, Harold Bloom.

Now, I see videos like this one, and… Well. It’s hard to keep a hardened heart against someone who so eloquently communicates his love for language and poetry, for the art of text. There’s something sweet in his smile here, in the way his hands tremble when reciting verses. Thirtysomething me watches Bloom and wonder if in fact I was wrong, if I somehow missed the point.

Then again… I just did a quick search, and discovered that I’m not alone in my disgust for Bloom’s narrow-mindedness. Neil Gaiman considers Bloom a twerp for his take on audiobooks, as well as Bloom’s condescension towards Stephen King. That latter link contains a perfect example of Bloom’s pretentiousness:

The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer, on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.

The publishing industry has stooped terribly low to bestow on King a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and to playwright Arthur Miller. By awarding it to King, they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat. If this is going to be the criterion in the future, then perhaps next year the committee should give its award for distinguished contribution to Danielle Steel, and surely the Nobel Prize for literature should go to J.K. Rowling.

What’s happening is part of a phenomenon I wrote about a couple of years ago when I was asked to comment on Rowling. I went to the Yale bookstore and bought and read a copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” I suffered a great deal in the process. The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible. As I read, I noticed that every time a character went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the character “stretched his legs.” I began marking on the back of an envelope every time that phrase was repeated. I stopped only after I had marked the envelope several dozen times. I was incredulous. Rowling’s mind is so governed by cliches and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.

But when I wrote that in a newspaper, I was denounced. I was told that children would now only read J.K. Rowling, and I was asked whether that wasn’t, after all, better than reading nothing at all? If Rowling was what it took to make them pick up a book, wasn’t that a good thing?

It is not. “Harry Potter” will not lead our children on to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” or his “Jungle Book.” It will not lead them to Thurber’s “Thirteen Clocks” or Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” or Lewis Carroll’s “Alice.”

Later I read a lavish, loving review of Harry Potter by the same Stephen King. He wrote something to the effect of, “If these kids are reading Harry Potter at 11 or 12, then when they get older they will go on to read Stephen King.” And he was quite right. He was not being ironic. When you read “Harry Potter” you are, in fact, trained to read Stephen King.

Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down, and the causes are very complex. I’m 73 years old. In a lifetime of teaching English, I’ve seen the study of literature debased. There’s very little authentic study of the humanities remaining.

Bloom wrote this essay, “For the World of Letters, It’s a Horror”, for the Los Angeles Times in 2003. Back then, I was furious when I read it, and denounced Bloom as an elitist asshole that had somehow mistakenly been given the keys to determining “what’s worth reading”. Now, with more years of distance between me and being a student, the experience of having attended multiple academic conferences on comics and video games and film and other popular media, having been a grad student at MIT looking at the evolution of media and storytelling and having given quite a few academic lectures myself… Now I see Bloom as something else, as the defender of a particular religion that may require defending or else it will simply disappear. I see him as loving that which he is defending, but that which he is defending is not a thriving, living thing but something to be studied and analyzed and understood – then replaced in the museum where it is stored, safely away from the day-to-day vibrancy of the contemporary arts scene. I suppose writing this will come back and bite me in the ass someday when I wish to teach at a more traditional institution, but there is so much vibrancy, so much life to be found in the areas Bloom wouldn’t dare to explore, much less enjoy, that I can’t quite bring myself to care any more.

Bloom has plenty to say, but all of it should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s like listening to a doddering great-grandparent telling stories from their cracked old chair, reeking of pipe smoke and linament and decay. The stories can be excellent, providing a window into a bygone era – but they can also be touched with the racism and sexism that ran rampant back in their youth. These stories can still provide insight, as long as one can separate the wheat of the insight from the chaff of the resentment at being left behind.

Further, what strikes me as particularly onerous about Bloom’s condescension now (with these few extra years’ worth of perspective) is how dull it is. The field of writing has always been bifurcated into high and low art, and just like every other art form, low art exponentially outsells high art, and the high artists bemoan the unfairness of it all. I’d argue there is more reading being done now than in decades, what with the advent of the Internet and the explosion of content through websites, e-books, and so on. It’s true that America is suffering from a toxic, potentially fatal overdose of anti-intellectualism, but it’s also true that characters like Bloom have only their own snobbishness to blame. When intellectuals place themselves so gleefully and disdainfully out of touch with what gives the majority of the people joy, they set themselves up for a fall. That’s one of the reasons I long to teach, and when I teach whenever I can – to get students to not abandon that which they love (which is what the worst of my own English Literature professors did to me) but to love it more thoughtfully, to embrace a kind of playful thinking that will turn them not into ossified, out-of-touch intellectuals, but vibrant, full-of-life intellectuals that will continue to shape the future and foster further joy as long as they live. For even art evolves, as it must if it is to stay alive and relevant, and there are degrees of art, all (well, most) of which can and should be celebrated.

Perhaps this is why it’s hard to rectify the joyful, literature-loving Bloom in the video up top with the condescending, scornful Bloom in the pull quote. If Bloom had spent his life fostering love for literature instead of spewing such pretentious bile, he would have had a much broader impact and have done much, much more good in the world. This, I believe, is why I adore Umberto Eco so much – he captures so much love and joy and playfulness in his essays, especially compared to Bloom. When I am an old man, I hope to be the joyful old soul that shows kids what happiness there is to be found in imagination, innovation and art, not the hateful, cantankerous monster shaking his cane at progress. To be an Eco, not a Bloom. Or, at the very least, to be the Bloom expounding his loves, not the Bloom decrying the loves of others.

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Found this on my Comix-Scholars mailing list. I can’t make it to Puerto Rico next year, but maybe one of you can?

CFP: ASA Panel 2012 – Transmedia Empires: The Impact of Transmedia Storytelling on the Paradigm of Empire and Resistance

The ASA Annual Meeting
San Juan, Puerto Rico
November 15-18, 2012

Abstracts Due: 2011-11-20

At the turn of the 21st century, corporate consolidation, technological advances, and new attitudes towards and among audiences caused an explosion in a phenomenom known as transmedia. In transmedia, popular “franchises” (such as Harry Potter, The Matrix, comic book superhero “universes,” etc.) expand across and between various media in a process of fleshing out a property so as to increase both sales and communicative possibilities. With the advent of this “convergence culture,” as Henry Jenkins calls it, media forms are now linked more closely than ever before as the boundaries between them become as porous and fluid as the international circulation of ideas. This has given rise not only to transmedia narrative, but also, according to Jenkins, to, “transmedia branding, transmedia performance, transmedia ritual, transmedia play, transmedia activism, and transmedia spectacle.”

Scholars, agents, marketers, corporate executives, and a host of other interested parties and stakeholders have all begun to explore this topic. However, in this flurry of ink, relatively few authors have considered the transnational ramifications of the transmedia moment. How does the new interconnectedness of media influence our thinking about the relationships between nations and peoples? Does transmedia offer new opportunities for the subaltern to be heard, or does it merely reassert or strengthen existing power imbalances?

Transmedia is a fluid concept, and we invite contributors to make full use of this fluidity in their work, exploring any and every aspect of the phenomenon. Papers might explore such issues as:

  • The way transmedia franchises mirror the structures of colonization and domination
  • The use of transmedia by marginalized groups to tell their stories
  • The use of transmedia stories by corporations and conglomerates to attract new international audiences
  • The ways in which transmedia franchises have influenced, shaped, and/or bypassed both domestic politics and international relations
  • The creation of new possibilities for identity formation via transmedia
  • The use of transmedia iconography for subversive purposes

Please send 250 word abstracts by November 15 to Andrew J. Friedenthal and Andrew Hamsher, Dept. of American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, andrewfriedenthal@gmail.com and ahamsher17@gmail.com.

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I’m writing this on Liwet, my silver sliver of a laptop (a 2011 MacBook Air that I bought for the precise purpose of grabbing writing time in strange places) while seated behind the wheel of my car, waiting for the ferry to shove off from Edmonds and cross the sound over to Kingston. I’ve got Imogen Heap’s Eclipse on the stereo, and I’ve just discovered I’m three scant days older than Heap. That might have something to do with how much I enjoy her unique style of work. Perhaps something was up with the moon that week.

This morning I put Laura the Wife™ on a plane to Ohio, where she is throwing a baby shower for her sister. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be an uncle for the first time right around Thanksgiving, which is both odd and kind of cool for the kid. Although it’s rough to have your birthday dominated by a holiday (turkey and birthday cake every year?), it’s also rather a perk for everyone to be on vacation for your birthday. I’m hoping the kid shows up at least after November 22nd. This family needs more Sagittarians. (Sagittarii? Sagittariuses?)

Anyway, this temporary reversion to bachelorhood is weird. I’d been making a list of things to do for weeks once I had the place to myself (play Deus Ex and Gears of War 3 until the wee hours of the morning! Eat an entire box of Count Chocula!) but now that I’m actually on my own, I feel more unmoored than anything else. So far the most adventurous thing I’ve done is spend the better part of an hour wandering around a Half-Price Books – and I didn’t even buy anything. I am apparently growing dull in my old age.

Still, there are some things I might try to crank up while I have this focus time. Prep for the Fall 2011 Lecture Circuit! Do some more writing! Catch up on work! Record an album of esoteric, Heap-esque music! Finish off some long, long, long-overdue projects! Achieve Inbox Zero!

First up, though: the video games. Or maybe one of the horror movies The Wife refuses to watch with me. Then the video games. Hey, it’s research.

How long until The Wife comes home again…?

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Autumn 2011 is going to see me on a lot of planes. On October 4th, I’ll be a guest lecturer in Henry Jenkins’ transmedia storytelling class at USC (see Henry’s full syllabus here – I am honored to be among some amazing presenters, and I would kill to take that class), and then I’ll be presenting for the second time at GDC Online (which used to be GDC Austin) in the Game Writing track October 10-13. Then, at the end of the month, I’ll be part of a panel discussion at the first-ever Storyworld Conference in San Francisco, which is shaping up to be amazing. November’s much more tentative, but it looks like I might be giving another talk in Vancouver, and perhaps flying up to Boston to hang out at the Futures of Entertainment 5 conference if time allows. Come say hello if you’ll be around!

In other news, the new car (which we named Samwise, since it’s small, reliable, and the best traveling companion anyone could hope for) is absolutely amazing, and we’ve put over 2000 miles on him in the month-and-change that we’ve had him around. The day job has me hopping, working on things that I can’t tell anyone about but are going to turn some serious heads in the next couple of years. All this and I’m still trying to steal time to write and do other creative work during my long commute and in any spare moments I can carve out. In short, life is good – intensely busy, but very, very good.

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