Transmedia Trends 2021: Metaverse, NFT and Endless Entertainment

After making do with remote work, virtual concerts, and streamed classes, we are slowly easing back into offline spaces and offices. Have we gotten too comfortable though? Virtual experiences are trending and the metaverse is expanding. The creative economy is a fact, with a wealth of entertainment provided by start-ups, designers and content creators.  

This transmedia report more broadly covers the post-covid media landscape which promises an entirely new internet, composed of augmented reality, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain.  companies like Epic and Facebook have adjusted their strategies towards a larger Metaverse, which blends online and offline. Consumers increasingly worry though, from the carbon footprint of blockchain to the neverending crunch time and HR crisis in game design. The sustainable angle of media, as an ecological and inclusive necessity, is critically discussed in this report. Innovation is happening, but who pays the price eventually? 

This year the term metaverse has been more omnipresent than ever. Originally the metaverse was a fictional concept coined in Neal Stephenson’s iconic novel Snowcrash from 1992. Users escape to this imaginary place to be entertained: “It won’t pay the rent, but that’s okay — when you live in a shithole, there’s always the Metaverse, and in the Metaverse, Hiro Protagonist is a warrior prince.” Stephenson’s book reads as a scenario of how the internet could develop. A place of infinite entertainment. A virtual reality.. His vision is much like an online game, populated by avatar.

The metaverse has become a strategy for tech companies by now. Some of these visions lean more towards virtual reality, others are augmented, and again others are an evolution of digital gaming. The metaverse is a buzzword, and different tech giants and startups are quick to label their products as a part of this space. Different platforms are now walled gardens, but the metaverse will hopefully connect them further.

Broadly speaking, the metaverse is presented as a digital space of users, brands, and other stakeholders for the purpose of entertainment and communication. Facebook redubbed itself as Meta, striving to  create an augmented reality, and introduced its vision of the metaverse in an iconic video. Its vision of the metaverse features augmented work and virtual entertainment platforms that go far beyond social media. Different aspects of our life blend in these tools, from streaming and gaming to  office life. This also gives companies the means to monetize not just our content, but our entire lives. As James Muldoon emphasizes in Jacobin: “The end goal for Meta is that it is no longer a service you use, but instead, the infrastructure upon which you live.”

Equally excited about the metaverse is Epic’s CEO Tim Sweeney, as reported in Bloomberg: “The next three years are going to be critical for all of the metaverse-aspiring companies like Epic, Roblox, Microsoft, Facebook. It’s kind of a race to get to a billion users, whoever brings on a billion users first, would be the presumed leader in setting the standards.” Epic Games completed a $1 billion round of funding to support its future growth and long-term goals, and in particular its metaverse strategy. This year Fortnite hosted concerts of among others Ariana Grande in-game, blending offline/online experiences into unique events. Expanding Fortnite into a platform that goes far beyond a game is one of their highest priorities.

Who will provide all this new content? Not just the company, but also the users and gamers. Content creation is a vital part of the metaverse as envisioned by Epic, and for that purpose the Unreal Engine is being retailored and made more accessible. ‘The end goal for Meta is that it is no longer a service you use, but instead, the infrastructure upon which you live’, as James Muldoon notes in Jacobin.

The big questions this raises is: Who owns the metaverse and why? The metaverse has the potential to attract a billion users and might become a central power even bigger than earth. What makes it particularly attractive for users and companies is how it presents a mixed reality platform that acts as an umbrella for different tools and activities. No wonder Facebook presents itself as Meta now as a powerful rebranding move. As Zuckerberg noted, its brand extends far beyond Facebook alone. But the timing of the rebranding also coincided with the launch of the Facebook Papers, highlighting issues of the company. Does Facebook just want to wash itself clean from the bad press and legal battles that it’s been involved in the past years?

The commercial metaverse, owned by a company like Meta, is a haunting image, though we are halfway there already. It also raises the question if this verse will become a new public space, owned by its users, or a monopoly governed by one or several platforms. The latter would be an even more powerful platform economy than today, profiting from our content, our jobs and every facet of our lives.

The Year of NFT
NFT (non-fungible tokens) have been widely discussed in the mainstream media and artist communities the past year. By now, creatives realize that these tokens can help them monetize and protect digital art and other assets in better ways. For instance, Nike purchased NFT fashion startup RTFKT, who specialize in digital apparel. The startup made the news earlier this year when 18-year-old artist Fewocious sold his NFT sneakers for 3.1 million. This was also the year in which the first edit of Wikipedia was sold as an NFT at Christie’s and the first Webtoon that sold NFT’s of its characters was launched. Why are these tokens interesting? For one, they allow content creators to monetize their work in better ways. Instead seeing their work being profited from by big tech, they can create their own investments directly, without a Patreon or another platform in the middle. Moreover, these creatives and their fans can become content owners and investors – users who own part of the network.

The road to a more decentralized internet where users are in the driving seat again, and in control of their data, is an important one. New visions on Web 3.0 promises such a decentralized internet, and the dream of realizing it is powerful and necessary. This concept emphasizes data ownership – users carry their data with them. This type of web would be more peer-to-peer and blockchain-based than the metaverse, though discourses and examples blur the line between the two.  While striving for a consistent metaverse and growth on its own platform, Epic also encourages blockchain-based games and NFT’s in games. One does not exclude the other.

The downside of NFT? Like I wrote before, tokens are collectibles and that means that value can be lost with these trades as well. Plus, this technology is not very sustainable, but luckily companies are looking into responsible blockchain technology more. These innovations are a necessity if we want to implement it further.

This decentralized metaverse obviously is a parallel trend from the more centralized metaverse discussed above. It is important to keep watching this space to see what stances companies take, who they collaborate with or merge with, and what their long-term strategies are. Valve’s Steam, for instance, has actively banned the use of cryptocurrency and NFT in games. Valve has not explained the reasons for the ban, but it could tie in with Steam’s general ban on items that have a monetary value. Tokenization has benefits for the creative industries but some are sceptical – how is it different from gambling, pyramid schemes, and lootboxes? It’s best in my opinion to see it as a digital extension of the art space and other markets.

'Consensual Hallucinations' by Serwah Attafuah
Consensual Hallucinations, an NFT by Serwah Attafuah

Transmedia Fatigue
2021 was also marked by endless transmedia revivals. Transmedia storytelling was once an innovation in the 2000’s, but by now feels old hat, unwanted and overkill. Sure, we could enjoy Dune, and if we were very lucky and not in lockdown, even in cinema. However, not everything has lived up to the expectations of the fans. Think of the cruel ending of Wandavision. The problematic Sex and The City revival And Just like that. The puzzling and unnecessary prequel The Many Saints of Newark of The Sopranos. We have seen many spin-offs, prequels and adaptations this year, most of which barely stick with us. Next year we can look forward to the Harry Potter revival and How I met Your Father, among others. Audiences crave for more, but when it is not in line with the characters and stories that they love, it leads to negative affect.

Transmedia can be exciting. Looking for new parts of a story, almost like finding clues in a media scavenger hunt, seeing new angles to characters that you know be explored, or seeing loose ends be tied up. But the downsides include overexplanation (do we really need to hear the origin story of Hodor’s name?) or narrative reduction.  Each installment is a precursor for yet another character arc or moment. Failed transmedia raises negativity with audiences, resentment and pain. They question these narratives and their value. Why are the characters written in this way? Why is there no real closure or an ending that is incoherent, insufficient? Transmedia, when received badly, leads fans to speculate about the value of a creative product as well, which comes across as a fad suddenly. This is the flipside of transmedia as a business model geared towards fans and insiders. 

In a culture of remix, however, what is new and original stands out more than ever. Powerful shows like Succession which have natural dialogue, shy away from Game of Thrones-like fantasies and mythos and subtly address human ethics and political positions. There is no black and white pay-off in this corporate chess play. When so many characters are increasingly remolded and reused in different versions, shows with unique storytelling and episodic narratives perhaps stand out more. They become media events again that we tune in for week after week. Equally impressive are the adaptations that actually address the downsides of rebooting, and deal with it in a self-aware way.

The final part of the Evangelion Rebuild films, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, feels almost like an exercise in character writing and worldbuilding. The characters actively strive to be someone new, to rediscover themselves, and achieve narrative closure. It has a powerful ending that shows the impact that the characters had on our lives and on our society. It is a testament to anime, and almost feels like a love letter to the characters. 

That also means that saying goodbye to characters becomes more urgent and important. This is why endings of a narrative need so much more attention, and need to be done right. Disney and Marvel leave hardly any space for these goodbyes, since every ending is just a teaser for the next big thing.

Shinji and young Gendo at the end of the final Evangelion rebuild (2021)

The Future
2021 ends with less innovation buzz than last year. We had a can-do mentality towards the pandemic oftentimes, but this year is focused on vaccination and fatigue. What does a post-pandemic time look like, and will we even get there? Now the virtual is our status quo. Audiences are barely surprised when Zuckerberg floats his ideas of the metaverse because it has become all the real. It is all of us, all the time, augmenting our work and streaming our lives.

It is exciting to see what shapes and forms the new content will take. At the same time, we focus more and more on the pay-off. Is blockchain really the solution during a climate crisis? And what about the carbon footprint of streaming and AI? Some speak up about green media use and sustainable media consumption.  The fact is, we have grown accustomed to all these services, even more so when events, education and work shifted to streaming. Media and tech is a given now, but the coming years, companies will have to consider sustainability and how to develop this content in a responsible way.  

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