Transmedia Negotiation and #donald4spiderman

I’ve been playing around with the idea of “transmedia negotiation” lately. It’s a mashup term I coined and then discarded in the process of drafting Ch2 of the diss, combining two of the digital communication skills Jenkins et al outline in their sweet white paper about participatory media: transmedia navigation, and negotiation.

In the paper, these two skills are treated distinctly, with no suggestion that they’re any more related than any of the other nine skills on the paper’s list. But the very first time I read through the paper’s discussion of the two, they struck me as very closely linked – perhaps not so much that a distinction is unnecessary, but that there’s a lot to be gained by thinking about how they function together. And the reason, I think, that this connection jumped out at me, is because the paper uses Spiderman as an example to illustrate one of the concepts – an illustration that led my train of thought directly to another Spiderman-related example in which the two skills operate hand in hand.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a quick rundown of the skills in question – starting with transmedia navigation. Jenkins et. al’s interpretation of transmedia navigation focuses on the media aspect – the ability to follow threads and information from text to image, video to interactive game, and so on. The paper illustrates this skill effectively with the example of the character Spiderman: Spiderman has a different look depending on whether he’s appearing in a printed comic, a video game, a live-action movie, and so forth. Transmedia navigation, in its most basic form, allows us to recognize all these manifestations as part of the same character. This ability to track particular subjects or interests across multiple media manifestations, the paper posits, gives students “multiple points of entry” for thinking about, discussing, and working with the subject, “enabl[ing] many different forms of participation” (87). Negotiation, the second skill, is “the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms” (97).  It’s the ability both to “negotiate between dissenting perspectives,” and to “negotiate through diverse communities.” Jenkins et al note that while the promise of social media and other highly participatory spaces is one of inclusion and diversity, “[they] also can be deployed as a weapon of exclusion and, as a consequence, as a tool for enforcing conformity to peer expectations” (99). Negotiation is the skill that allows people to recognize the value of new or conflicting viewpoints when they encounter them throughout their travels online.

In other words, I would argue, it’s the processing arm of transmedia navigation. Transmedia navigation is the skill that deals with recognition – with finding and following ideas and knowledge across the wide range of possible means and spaces for its expression. But once something is recognized as part of the conversation, it’s negotiation that makes sense of it, that evaluates and processes its place in the overall picture. There are definitely distinct steps involved here – first following the information to a particular space or manifestation, then processing its place in the whole. But I would argue that these two skills operate very closely, so closely that any productive consideration of one must take into account the other. The real skill to be watching is the mashup: transmedia negotiation.

To see this claim in action, let’s return to the white paper’s Spiderman example. The typical fan, as the example above shows, has enough transmedia savvy to recognize that the character they watched on Sunday morning cartoons is the same one they see in comic books – it’s arguably that act of navigation that feeds their fandom, allowing them to consume the outsized portions of mayhem and mythos that make one a bonafide superhero fan. But a Spidey-related dustup in 2010 shows that without a corresponding ability to negotiate diversity within that range of representation, this power breaks down – fans are prevented from recognizing representations of the character that don’t meet their existing expectations.

All you Spidermen fanatics out there already know what I’m talking about, no doubt. But since that crossover population is probably not large, an explanation for the rest of you:

In May of 2010, the handsome and talented Donald Glover was put forward on Twitter by a fan as a candidate for the role of Spiderman in the upcoming franchise reboot. The campaign quickly gained visibility on Twitter through use of the hashtag “#donald4spiderman,” which in turn made it a hot topic of discussion on entertainment media sites, fan forums, and other forms of social media. But while many were enthusiastically supportive of the idea – including series creator Stan Lee – many other voices were resoundingly negative. Here’s Donald Glover’s own summary of how things went down:

“They were talking about, on this geek blog, remaking Spiderman, you know they’re redoing it. So they said that maybe this new Spiderman, since they’re making it so, you know, quickly after making these other Spiderman’s, maybe they should make it real different. You know, make it kind of dark and edgy, like The Dark Night, and put it in modern day times. And maybe Spiderman doesn’t have to be white, maybe he can be Black, or Hispanic or something like that. And then somebody put a big picture of me in the comments, being like ‘Donald Glover can play Spirderman! He’s nerdy!’ And I was like ‘okay,’ and somebody sent that to me so I was like ‘oh yeah’ so I put that on my twitter. ‘Donald for Spiderman, let’s do this.’ You know kind of a joke, but also who doesn’t want to be Spiderman?”

And that’s when the world went crazy. Half the world was like ‘Donald for Spiderman. We’re only gonna watch the next Spiderman if Donald Glover is playing Peter Parker.’ And the other half was like ‘He’s black, kill him.”

Glover himself undoubtedly saw a wider range of responses from both sides, but there was plenty out there in the public sphere, on social media and entertainment news sites of all stripes, showing the breakdown of transmedia negotiation in action. While there were definitely some straight-up racist comments here and there, the overwhelming majority protested the idea on the basis of recognition: the representations they knew don’t show Spiderman as black, and so obviously he can’t be.

“I am not a racist, but I would like for Movies to match themes of the books, screenplays, or games they are based off of.”

“I dont wanna see famously white characters become Black, Nor do I wanna see Black characters become White! Stick to the god damn source material!”

“Look you can say this isnt a race issue, you can say why shouldnt he have a shot but spider man is a white character…ive read comics and watched the movies ad cartoons since i was a kid, [their] job is to match those characters as closely as possible. i hope this kid a great career but this isnt the role for him!” **

In other words – they could not recognize this representation of the character as a valid one because it ran counter to their own expectations. Their ability to navigate the array of spaces and media in which Spiderman appears was compromised by the limits of their capacity to negotiate the “dissenting perspectives” represented by Glover’s candidacy, and the “diverse communities” where that candidacy was supported.

Ultimately, Marvel passed over Glover in favor of the more traditional-looking Andrew Garfield. However, a subsequent comic bookissue, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #160, unveiled Miles Morales as the new Spiderman in the wake of Peter Parker’s death – a half-black half-hispanic teenager who looks suspiciously familiar…


The activity surrounding #donald4spiderman serves as a strong illustration of how closely transmedia navigation and negotiation are bound together. It shows that recognition is a complicated act, and one that’s not just a matter of following ideas from comic page to movie screen. Critics of the hypothetical casting weren’t just dissenting opinions – they were unable to recognize a black Spiderman as part of the fandom they knew. Their dissent, and the community divisions that ensued, were products of both navigation and negotiation failures. Fanart and mock-ups of Glover as Spiderman circulated actively as part of the conversation, and many of the comments, for and against, feature visual language – being unable to “see” Glover in the role, or arguments that it “just wouldn’t look right.” But the same failures underlie more abstract, less visually motivated moments of disconnect as well. As the quotes above show, readers who objected “on principle” to the idea of a black Spiderman frequently make assertions that it’s not a question of race, that racism has nothing to do with the issue. But the idea that a traditionally white character cannot be represented otherwise without sacrificing its essence is absolutely about race. Claiming otherwise doesn’t make you a racist, but it does indicate a failure to recognize how one conversation relates to another. Just as objectors can’t see Donald Glover slinging webs as Spiderman, they can’t see the debate surrounding that failure as part of the larger one about race in America.

Recognizing the influence of racial issues in conversations about Spiderman, like recognizing a black actor in webbed spandex as Spiderman, is a function of transmedia negotiation – the ability to recognize and respect alternate perspectives across a wide array of networked representations. One without the other is no good. In order to encounter those moments of difference we need to know how to follow the conversation; but the conversation’s lost on us if we can’t negotiate its contradictions.


**Quotes taken from comment section here; lightly cleaned up in places for readability.