THE BLOG
04/17/2013 06:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2013

In a Viral World, Critical Analysis Is Critical: Lessons Learned at Transmedia Hollywood 4

On Friday, I attended the Transmedia Hollywood 4 Conference at UCLA. Well, I attended half of it, thanks to social media. My friend saw my nametag at the registration, and she Facebook messaged me to ask where I was sitting. At that point I was in bed looking at Facebook, but I got dressed quickly and headed over to the conference thinking about how I needed to get better at calendaring.

I had a feeling that this Transmedia Conference would be good for me since I work in the nonprofit world. We are budget poor and rely on great creativity to get our ideas out there. For example, how do you think Plastic Pollution Coalition and 5 Gyres can compete with the American Chemistry Council (headed by Dow Chemical) on messaging about the dangers of plastic pollution vs. the wonders of disposable plastic that disappears from the consumer's hands almost immediately but lasts forever somewhere where the consumer may not see it? The petrochemical lobby has the bucks, the high-priced ad agencies, lawyers, and legislators in their pockets. We have the truth and our creativity. Praised be social media for allowing some democracy of ideas.

When I finally sat down at the Bridges Theater at UCLA for the second half of the panels, I still had no idea what Transmedia meant. I assumed it was just another word for social media. I had produced a panel on using social media for environmental messaging at the United Nations in preparation for the Rio Earth Summit in 2012. But, Transmedia sounds like media in flux between one identity and another? I pulled up a blog full of definitions as I waited for the next panel to begin. This excellent post "What the Hell "is" Transmedia is from 2011, but I figured things couldn't have changed that much in two years in terms of definitions. I am sure someone will correct me in the comments if it has.

I was impressed with the brilliant minds I heard from on stage and vowed to make the entire conference next year. One of my favorite panelists was Sean Carasso, the mind behind the Falling Whistles Campaign. If you don't know about how this energetic young man started a movement to stop war in the Congo with the sale of whistles used to represent those given to boy soldiers sent to the front lines with only a whistle around their necks, you need to read up on the amazing success of this campaign as a media sensation, a nonprofit success, and in attaining mission.

Sean brought up a very good point about how "branding" can be used in the nonprofit world just as in the commercial world. He reminded the audience that branding is as old as organized religion and politics. It is the marketing of identity. It's a shortcut to allegiance and we are tribal in nature. Of course, branding can be used for good or evil.

At this point, I felt one of my urges to get ahold of a microphone and add my two cents. I pointed out that not so long ago, the Church was really the only brand in town. Priests knew how to read Latin and the uneducated masses could not read even the Bible on their own, so they just got to attend masses, in Latin. With the invention of the printing press came the Gutenberg Bible and soon other books besides the Bible became available to people in their own languages. Knowledge is power, and soon more and more people were reading and getting educated. Child labor laws allowed children to get an education even if they came from poor families. Education became public and required. Education was recognized to be the fundamental basis of democracy.

But even though we understand that universal education is fundamental to democracy, we are not meeting the need. In America, we spend more money on incarceration than education. High school students lack basic reading and math proficiency, and we fail to graduate about half of our students in some cities. This is a big problem as many of those who fail to get an education fail to become a useful part of society and finally end up locked up. Mostly, we throw away the key. There is very little to no educational opportunity within the prison system, and those who go into the system usually return. We do a better job recycling trash (not so great, especially with plastic) than we do rehabilitating people...a very sad comment on our values as a nation.

So now we have an explosion of educational potential online, information bombarding us on every subject, 24/7, but how does an undereducated populace make use of it? Without critical analysis skills, is more information any more useful that the lack of it? How to sort the truth from the crazy?

Professor Ann Penddleton-Jullian agreed that we are failing to teach critical analysis skills in our schools, focusing on rote learning, but stated that she believes there is great potential in the web to fill in the gaps in our educational system. Jonathan McIntosh was a bit more cynical finding that pop culture is the default education system in America at this point. He calls himself a culture hacker and takes bits of pop culture and remixes them like a DJ would with rap, to form a new artistic statement. McIntosh like s to turn the pop culture messages on their head like he did with his brilliant piece Buffy vs, Edward: Twilight Remixed, a merging of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Edward the vampire from the Twilight Saga. As a self-declared Feminist, McIntosh finds the message of Twilight repugnant as Bella is the anti-femininist -- just a vessel for Edward's lust who has no will or power of her own. So he decided to replace Bella with Buffy and made a very funny, ass-kicking piece of social media that shows how to resist a stalker even if he is a vampire. For a very interesting legal saga of how McIntosh fought a major studio for his First Amendment rights to this creative repurposing of their material see this.

Erick Huerta, an undocumented immigrant activist who sprang to political consciousness with the Dream Act movement, claims he learned both English and his satiric analysis of culture from watching The Simpsons when he came to America at the age of 8. He first heard about Jimmy Hoffa and labor unions on The Simpsons. Huerta floundered in high school because he felt that his undocumented status prevented him from a future in American society. Thank goodness he watched The Simpsons, however, because he is a recognized leader in immigration reform and justice for undocumented people in America.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the creative genius of Yael Cohen's Fuck Cancer Campaign, and especially her brilliant PSA campaign The Cancer Talk in which celebrities talk first about the sex talk their parents had with them and how it's now their turn to have the cancer talk with their parents. The celebrity factor and humour play large in these pieces. As currency is devalued around the globe, I have always said that the one currency that remains high universally is celebrity, and Ms. Cohen's Fuck Cancer Campaign uses celebrity brilliantly to educate about an incredibly important public health issue: early detection of cancer saves lives.

In conclusion, I will be attending the full day of the Transmedia conference next year; I will be a crusader for better education in America in order to produce the kind of thinkers who challenge and change society for the better; I will continue to use social media, transmedia and any media I can get to get the message out that we are more than what money-hungry corporations are trying to sell us, and we need to live sustainably and in harmony with each other. Please Tweet, FB and share in as many ways as possible. Thank you, and see you next year at Transmedia Hollywood 5.