The World is Yours: A Film About Hip Hop and the Internet

Marguerite de Bourgoing was among the first students I got to know when I arrived at USC, and she has been blessed with the entrepreneurial spirit. In 2010, I featured on the blog her grassroots media franchise, LAstereo.tv, which deploys YouTube and social network sites to showcase the Los Angeles hip hop scene.  At the time, I wrote, “de Bourgoing represents the Trojan spirit at its best — a social and cultural entrepreneur who is taking what she’s learned as a media maker and deploying it to serve her larger community.” SInce then, she’s taken this work much further, producing a documentary exploring the roles which new media has played in building and promoting contemporary hip hop culture, and she asked if I’d be willing to share a progress report with my readers, since she’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign to push this project even further. So what follows is her account of what she’s trying to do and why it matters. Full disclosure: I am one of the talking heads included in the film (even though I know less about hip hop than the average bear). She is collaborating on the film with my colleague, Taj Frazier,  from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, a gifted scholar whose work touches on the politics of race, globalization, sports, and popular music.

The World is Yours: A Film About Hip Hop and the Internet
by Marguerite de Bourgoing

The World Is Yours  looks at the web 2.0 revolution by following the rise of hip-hop artists. In these times of disruption, we face both angst and great opportunities–depending on your viewpoint and how you address it. Hip hop has always been ahead of the curve in technology, and its underground culture is bypassing the mainstream again. The words “the world is yours” were first immortalized by Shakespeare: “Why, then, the world’s mine oyster, which I with a sword will open.” Hip hop’s take echoes the engrained DIY ethos that has made it the most influential culture of the last 40 years and taken it from rags to riches.

Thanks to social media, today these words make even more sense: one can now access the world through one’s own perspective and interests and eschew the uniform vision constructed by the media. Spheres of influences are spreading and multiplying. Young hip-hop artists are creating their own movements and communicating directly to their fans without taking the traditional PR route. These young artists have re-appropriated the idea that it is better to make yourself discoverable than to be discovered.

The World is Yours probes the most innovative and enterprising of these artists. It focuses in particular on three different movements that have each been seminal in the recent changes that occurred in hip-hop and what those changes mean for the music industry.

Shooting star Wiz Khalifa went from being dropped by major label Warner Bros to becoming the biggest hip-hop breakthrough artist of 2011 with the massive international hit “Black & Yellow” — all thanks to the support of his fans, the “Taylor Gang.” He shows us why radio isn’t the be all end all for a rising artist, and how it’s essential to build a buzz on your own. Today he is one of America’s biggest stars.

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​Wiz Khalifa Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

Lil Bs bizarre creativity set a new precedent in the amount of music released by one artist in a short timespan. A marketing genius who does it all on his own, Lil B has been setting trends in style, fashion, music, and new producers ever since his first viral hit “Vans” in 2007 with Bay Area group The Pack. Since going solo, he has developed a strong cult following around his alter-ego, the BasedGod, which is cultivated through social media twenty-two hours a day. (see clip below)

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Lil B Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

Finally, media darlings Odd Future took the music industry by storm becoming the first DIY evangelists of this hip-hop generation, doing all production,  graphics and videos by themselves. We focus on their sound mixing engineer/dj/producer/singer Syd the Kyd, the only woman of the collective and one of the group’s pillars, whose homemade studio enabled the artists to created a cohesive sound before catching everyone else’s attention.

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​Odd Future Pic: Julian Berman

The Internet is giving birth to a new face of hip-hop, introducing artists who less than five years ago would have never been given a chance of making it as a rap artist. There is more diversity than ever in the new hip-hop landscape. Queens born Albanian chef Action Bronson raps about foodChildish Gambino is stand-up comedian Donald Glover, Iggy Azalea is a white Australian woman, Detroit’s Danny Brown was turned down by 50 Cent for wearing skinny jeans,  and Harlem-born rapper Asap Rocky takes inspiration from Houston. These are just a few examples of new artists who all owe their careers to the internet. New models are being created: Chance the Rapper collaborated with Justin Bieber on the strength of his free album Mac Miller has his own series on MTV, Macklemore was the first independent act in years to have several hit songs on the radio.

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​Thank you Based God or #TYBG – an ode to Lil B- is one of the biggest long running internet memes

In the film, we talk with the people who have identified those cultural shifts along the way (like Henry Jenkins!) as well as people who contributed to those changes. We focus on key moments like the closing of hip-hop record store Fat Beats, or the making of multi-million dollar rap lyrics website Rap Genius. We look at how this movement fits in the history of hip-hop and the recording music industry.  From the fans’ perspective on some of their favorite artists, to the camaraderie of The Foreign Exchange, the multimedia vision of a QD3 and the birth of a new music group The Internet composed of Odd Future’s Syd the Kyd and Matt Martians, the film offers offers unique point of views documented over several years.

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​The closing of Fat Beats Pic: Kasey Stokes/ LA Stereo TV

The World Is yours is the ultimate guide on how to navigate the digital era today.  One tweet, Vine, and Instagram post at a time, these artists and their communities are redefining the media landscape and pointing to the opportunities brought by these changes. This film is a reminder to think outside the box and cut new paths made possible by technology. The World Is Yours and everything in it if you get up and get it.
To find out how you can help and be in the film, check out our Kickstarter campaign.
The following clip is a excerpt of an abridged version of the film that just aired in France on France O that features artists rapper Lil B. We are working on getting the film out in the US.

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part Three)

We both agree that the Writer’s Strike represented a key battle in the struggle to define digital extensions as part of creative content and not simply as part of the promotion of a series. Some years out from the strike, what do you see as its lasting impact on the way the industry operates? What won what in these struggles?

The honeymoon period during which creators were given carte-blanche to experiment with the media corporations’ IP was short-lived. In the period leading up to the strike, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) stubbornly refused to acknowledge the creative labor involved in these short-form, content-promotional hybrids. The WGA strike of 2007-8 signaled an important response by the exploited members of the writing community that their creative digital labor needed to be rewarded with credit and income.

Disney launched the first volley across the bow of the WGA’s minimum basic agreements by engineering a deal with Apple iTunes to stream its TV series online; however, they failed to arrange an appropriate compensation package for the writers whose original work was being replayed on a new distribution platform. To make matters worse, the networks placed ads inside this digital content, which allowed them to earn additional revenues, thereby undermining their claim that this content constituted promotions.

In the period leading up to the strike, Cuse and Lindelof were able to use their considerable leverage during the making of Lost to negotiate on behalf of not just the WGA members, but also the other talent guilds to ensure that all creators received payment for their work on derivative content such as “The Lost Diaries” webseries. This precedent helped the WGA negotiate terms for all digital content created by guild-represented writers; however, the sanction lacked teeth, as more and more studios formed their own in-house social media marketing groups to oversee these “content-promotion hybrids” going forward.

While the WGA achieved a symbolic victory—an agreement to pay writers for their creative labor regarding digital content, they have lost out in two ways:  first, writers are still earning “digital pennies” for creating derivative content given the uneven measurement system associated with online entertainment; secondly, the big media companies are shoring up the infrastructural walls surrounding digital content by creating in-house social media marketing divisions and limiting creator involvement.

In many ways, transmedia is playing a secondary role in the industry’s current thinking to the idea of second screen content. What do you think is motivating this obsession with the Second Screen? What functions does the second screen perform for the industry? for audiences? Why is the second screen easier to comprehend and implement than the more ambitious ideas about wired television so many industry leaders have been promoting?

As Jennifer Holt and Kevin Samson explain in the introduction to Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming, and Sharing (2014)  “connected viewing” practices eschew the top-down, bottom-up binary that has governed so much media industry scholarship around digital, in favor of what Michael Curtin has called “a matrix era”—namely, “a transition from the one-to-many distribution strategies of the broadcast networks to a moment ‘characterized by interactive exchanges, multiple sites of productivity, and diverse modes of interpretation and use.”  While one could argue that these interactive systems and multiple sites of productivity engender enhanced creative exchanges between production cultures and audiences, the industry’s current focus on “second screen” over “transmedia storytelling” experiences seems designed to help studios manage consumer data more efficiently via their infrastructural strengths: marketing and distribution.

Furthermore, by controlling marketing and distribution, the media companies are able to facilitate a disturbing trend—developing sophisticated analytics designed to harvest consumer preferences via algorithms and other, digital measurement strategies. In the last decade, Hollywood has fallen far behind their Silicon Valley counterparts—Google, Facebook, and Netflix—when it comes to managing the sale of big data to advertisers through products such as Adsense and Adwords. The latter, in combination with tools like Google Analytics, provided publishers with access to a composite portrait of consumer behavior designed to help advertisers deliver targeted online ads.

In contrast, transmedia storytelling strategies were creator-dependent activities designed to empower creators and audiences via “multiple sites of productivity” and “diverse modes of interpretation and use.” Teasers, trailers, and interstitial video already circulate between broadcast TV series; now, via second screen experiences, all of these new forms of online promotions and branded entertainment can be enlisted to access a composite of consumer information. By bringing these digital production activities in-house—hiring low-paid creative labor to execute all this digital, promotional churn—big media companies will be able to navigate the online advertising space more effectively, unimpeded by talent guild restrictions.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part Two)

Your dust cover frames the book in terms of the development of the “post-network” television era in relation to “the introduction of broadband into the majority of homes and the proliferation of popular, participatory Web 2.0 companies.” What role has technological change played in shaking up established modes of production and distribution or arrangements of labor?

In the early days of broadband and Web 2.0, the networks tolerated an exceptional degree of collaboration with thought leaders and cutting-edge companies outside of Hollywood proper; these outsiders included executives from Silicon Valley, entrepreneurial writer-producers and digital producers, among others. The result of this momentary largess was a vast array of transmedia storytelling experiments associated with the networks’ most valuable media franchises, including Smallville, Lost, Heroes, Ghost Whisperer, among others.

Furthermore, the networks jumped into the digital distribution waters headfirst by making broadcast content available via Apple iTunes, Hulu, and the CBS Digital Audience initiative, as well as their own network websites. During previous periods of upheaval—economic, cultural, and technological—the Hollywood studios have tolerated the cultural experiments of creative insiders who embraced these new technologies, such as sound, radio, television, cable, and most recently, digital; however, these shifts cannot be reduced to technological developments alone; instead, we’ve seen a history of cultural convergence as Hollywood embraces alternative creative models during periods of social-economic change in the U.S.

As seen in your book, What Made Pistachio Nuts, the beginning of sound had a damaging effect on Hollywood’s traditional operations, as did the social-economic crisis prompted by the Depression; the studios responded to these combined threats by looking to alternative aesthetic forms, such as Vaudeville, to enhance their own offerings. In other words, Hollywood’s earliest days demonstrated this tendency–the “emergence of convergence”—best seen in the studios efforts to import Vaudeville’s stars by integrating their performance strategies into Hollywood’s traditional narrative system. This history of convergence was also amply on display during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as Hollywood embraced, emulated, or assimilated other cultural outsiders, such as the German Expressionists, the Italian Neo-realists, and the French New Wave.

Furthermore, Hollywood has always demonstrated a willingness to advance the business logic of key cultural-industrial entrepreneurs, such as Walt Disney, George Lucas, and more recently, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Pixar’s John Lasseter, among countless others. The big media corporations’ internalization of these epochal changes tends to take place slowly, in incremental steps, over several decades; however, the studios responded rather quickly to Lucas’ game-changing creation, Star Wars, by making sure their boiler-plate contracts with talent granted the studios 100% ownership of all licensed merchandise.

Most agree that Walt Disney’s introduction of the multi-platform, cross-promotable, media franchise in the 1950s is one of the key drivers of today’s modern media corporation. Disney has continued to inspire imitators, as other studios try to replicate its use of Marvel to generate a “shared universe” of characters across their film, television, theme park, and other formats.

In contrast, the networks appear to be more risk-adverse organizations, unwilling to invest too much of their intellectual or infrastructural capital to overhaul their aging system without concrete evidence that online advertising will soon outpace their analog revenues. Even though the early experiments in transmedia storytelling  proved popular with millennial audiences, the networks disbanded them, preferring to bring these interactive content-promotional campaigns in-house via their newly created social marketing divisions; notably, this retrenchment is also evident in the networks current emphasis on tech-driven “connected audience” strategies over cultural experimentation via creator-driven transmedia storytelling initiatives.

As we think about what I call transmedia, do you see some tensions between the desire for coherence and continuity within an expanded story world and challenges to creative autonomy within a dispersed production sphere strongly governed by licensing agreements? 

Transmedia storytelling was embraced by a variety of independent-minded production personnel who were eager to disrupt the rigid storytelling conventions of most Hollywood big media franchises; furthermore, it was an effort to bypass the usual gatekeepers—agents, managers, attorneys, and the battery of studio executives overseeing development, marketing, business affairs, and consumer products divisions.

As you point out in your Wired TV essay, “The Reign of the Mothership,” the term “transmedia” originated around major media franchises targeting children; Marsha Kinder demonstrated how characters from key franchises, such as Super Mario Brothers and Teenage Mutant Ninga Turtles, became part of a “transmedia supersystem” and revenue generator for the media companies. It wasn’t until later that you used the Matrix example to expand the definition to include the various stakeholders in the creative authorship of the storytelling associated with various platforms linked to a particular media franchise.

Derek Johnson’s essay in Wired TV sheds light on the history of film and television licensing, focusing on the period from the 1950s to the present when studios mimicked the structured business models used by fast-food restaurants and gas stations to organize their management of licensed properties. In particular, Derek Johnson, as well as media scholar M.J. Clarke, Transmedia Television (2012), describe network and studio licensing divisions engagement of  independent vendors—comic book writers, game designers, and novelization authors—in “work-for-hire” agreements that allow these creative personnel to earn revenue and deliver profits to the studios by creating stories for additional platforms linked to media corporation-owned media franchises. In this scenario, licensed vendors are often made to feel like second-class citizens in comparison to the studios’ highly valued above-the-line creative personnel—showrunners, directors, and producers, and so forth.

Notably, the latter are protected by the talent guilds, whereas licensed vendors must cover production costs, insurance, and other major expenditures themselves, placing them in a high-risk, low satisfaction segment of the creative labor force. Johnson explains the paradoxical lengths that NBC-Universal went to in order to limit fan engagement with their Battlestar Galactica Videomaker contest; they forced this unpaid labor force to sign contracts analogous to the onerous “work-for-hire” arrangements with licensed vendors rather than reward this advance guard of fans for their loyalty and commitment to keeping their series active in the Zeitgeist.  Johnson’s case-study underscores the themes running throughout Wired TV—that media corporations have been over-zealous in their management of their IP, preventing them from benefiting fully from the spreadable nature of media in the digital ecosystem.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part One)

Ever since I came to Los Angeles five years ago, I have been collaborating with Denise Mann in producing the Transmedia Hollywood, now Transforming Hollywood, conferences — events which bring together industry leaders, creative artists, activists, journalists, and academics to reflect on the trends which are reshaping the entertainment industry. Mann has been the director of the Producers Program at UCLA since 1996 and brings to our collaboration a solid network of industry contacts,a front line perspective on the production process, and above all, a deep grasp of current theoretical and conceptual models within industry studies.

Mann has brought all of these things together with her new book, Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future, which brings together some of the top thinkers working on production studies, media audiences and fandom studies, transmedia and franchise entertainment, branding and labor practices. Her goal is to understanding the ways that the television industry has — and for her, more importantly, has not — changed in response to the shifting possibilities for audience engagement, alternative systems of distribution, and new creative practices made possible in the new media environment. As this interview suggests, much of her work centers around the ways that the American broadcast and cable industries have resisted change, have stuck to old imperatives and business models, even as they are confronting disruptive and potentially transformative forces in the culture around them. The focus here on creative labor is an important intervention, both in the ways it complicates sometimes reductive models based on free and precarious labor, but also because of the ways that it cautions us about being too optimistic about the creative possibilities of transmedia storytelling.

At the same time, in this interview and in the book, she’s also flagging for us alternative systems of production, financing, distribution, and consumption/reception that have emerged as new players are taking advantage of the opportunities posed by digital media to enter the industry from unexpected directions and demonstrate that things could be different. The past year or so has seen ample examples that such strategies are destabilizing television as we know it, though it is too soon to tell which of these innovations will have a lasting impact. I was struck at this year’s Transforming Hollywood conference by how many of the so-called independent media producers still measured success in terms of getting picked up by a broadcast or cable network and the ways that this desire for mainstream embrace could act as a conservative force on their alternative visions for television content or production practices.

All of this is to say that Wired TV is an important and timely book. So, I was eager to get Denise Mann to share her vision for this project and some core insights that emerged from it with my readers.

Let’s start with the title of the book. First, what do you mean by “Wired TV”? Does this refer to transmedia, multimedia, second screen, cross-platform delivery, twitter flows, or all of the above? Second, what significance do you attach to the concepts of “Labor” or “Laboring” to our understanding of these new forms of television as compared to what is now a more common emphasis on fandom or consumption or reception? And finally, what do you mean by an “interactive future”? What changes do you envision happening from here in terms of how we — producers and consumers — interact with television?

The title of the book, Wired TV, references all of the above—transmedia, multimedia, second screen, cross-platform delivery, twitter flows, and more. The theoretical hunch underlying the collection is that the traditional network television industry’s failure to adapt to the digital economy is a function of its over-reliance on an intractable system of workplace bureaucracies and rigid affiliations.

In Wikinomics (2006), Don Talbott and Anthony Williams argued that corporations must learn to open their doors to the global mind hive as a means to generate innovative solutions to otherwise unanswerable questions. While their conclusion is a bit simplistic overall, the central thesis is nonetheless compelling: visionary experiments, such as Wikipedia and the Human Genome Project, offer undeniable proof of the potential of mass collaborative activities undertaken on a global scale. According to the authors, even staunchly conservative U.S. organizations, such as Proctor and Gamble, IBM, and Lego,  have been able to reboot their waning industries by loosening their grip on proprietary intellectual capital—the intangible knowledge amassed by corporations to generate value.

The networks, I argue, have been notoriously “closed door” about sharing both their financial assets (their IP) and their intellectual capital (as evidenced by their over-reliance on aging, unreliable divisions, such as development, marketing, and licensing). The book’s focus on labor assumes that production studies and audience studies cannot be understood in isolation—that Stuart Hall’s notion of coders and encoders as two sides of the same coin has become even more relevant in the Web 2.0 era.

Key creative personnel associated with specific network series—Smallville, Lost, Heroes, The Ghost Whisperer, etc.—understood their primary obligation  to deliver broad audiences to advertisers; however, they were eager to embrace the creative opportunities of transmedia storytelling, even as they acknowledged its commercial upside—the fact that fans were seeding grassroots social media marketing campaigns. The economic value of these interactive campaigns has not been lost on advertisers, many of which are actively seeking to cut out the Hollywood middlemen by hiring production personnel to create interactive forms of branded entertainment (e.g., Asylum 626, and so forth).

While the creative industries scholarship generally aligns itself with a Marxist critique of the knowing exploitation of unpaid fan labor by industry, this collection offers a more nuanced view, juxtaposing essays that critique the media companies’ calculated misuse of fan labor (Levin Russo, Kozinets) with essays (Johnson, Brooker, Mann) that invoke the social value of these content-promotional hybrids. The paradox exposed across the collection as a whole is that the networks would have benefited in the long term by showing a greater tolerance for these experimental systems of exchange between creators and fans; however, the industry’s refusal to “let go” of their bureaucratic grip on their IP has undermined their ability to engage audiences as they continue to migrate online.

In the title of our recent conference, we talk about “Transforming Hollywood,” which implies that some key things are changing about the nature of this medium. How does Hollywood need to be transformed to make way for the possibilities your book considers?  What changes have already happened? In what ways has Hollywood resisted those changes?

In the latest edition of Transforming Hollywood, you and I focused less on the networks proper and more on the various innovators and thought leaders emerging in competing industries—in particular, the streaming video-on-demand companies or SVODS (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Studios), as well as progressive and cutting edge cable companies (BET, PIVOT), web-based production companies (Geek and Sundry, Nerdists), and scholars analyzing the consequences of this vast, cultural-industrial revolution. Aymar Jean Christian focused on a different type of revolution taking place among independent web-creators, who see themselves as artists first and foremost (although a number are seeing their work being turned into professional-length series by the cable companies and SVODS).

While the networks initially perceived YouTube’s user-generated mash-ups and illegal downloads as a flagrant violation of their IP rights, with time, the media companies embraced YouTube’s amateur aesthetic and its one billion a month user-base as a viable means of expanding their promotional reach and a way to redirect viewers back to their broadcast series.

Notably, the cable networks have been more expansive in their use of a second layer of innovative outsider—namely the transmedia producers, such as Starlight Runner Entertainment, and digital marketers, such as Campfire—who share expertise in crafting story-driven promotions. The cable networks have been more tolerant of these affiliations in large part because of their more targeted approach to audience and the positive impact of these campaigns on their subscriber base. In contrast, the networks are still reliant on delivering broad audiences to advertisers and affiliates. As a result of these age-old affiliations, the networks’ infrastructural rigidity has made them less agile in terms of accommodating the new, algorithm-curated, video-on-demand capabilities of their latest competitors: the video streaming-on-demand companies.

The growing number of programmers in the digital space has been a boon for talent, prompting the current expansion or “renaissance” in the television space—many seeing this growth as an outgrowth of the decline of independent filmmaking in the theatrical space. As Fox and other networks struggle to dismantle the highly dysfunctional and wasteful pilot system, they have been outpaced by the rapid growth of cable networks and SVODs. The latter have demonstrated a willingness to commit to full series without forcing creators to go through the typical gauntlet of development notes and arduous pilot production schedules; instead, more and more creators are able to secure deals based solely on promising pilot scripts, graphic novels, international formats, web-series, and other less expensive alternatives. In one telling instance, fans were able to exert their considerable influence on the marketplace by using Kickstarter to fund the adaptation of a favorite TV series, Veronica Mars, into a feature film. BET has benefited from its core audiences’ fascination with Twitter to expand its reach to a wider audience.

Broadcasters have watched in dismay as Netflix enlisted high-priced Hollywood creators to create House of Cards without regard to production costs as a way to strengthen their core revenue source–subscribers. At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, the multi-channel networks or MCNs (e.g., Maker Studios, Machinima, and Fullscreen) have aggregated thousands of YouTube creators in order to amass tens of thousands of online users.

In my panel, I focused on this relatively new trend—the formation of a new business model around the proliferation of YouTube content creators. Most MCNs pursued this new business model shortly after YouTube started investing $100 million to augment the production budgets of a hundred or so YouTube talent partners. To serve this growing group of YouTubers with significant user counts, the MCNs inserted themselves as business allies, taking a percentage of the advertising dollars offered by YouTube and up to 50% of the IP, in exchange for providing amateur creators with these added services.

The results have been controversial, as thousands of YouTube creators have signed contracts with most earning little or no profits for their considerable efforts; in contrast, the small handful of creators, who have been able to secure a living despite YouTube’s restrictive terms, are resentful of the MCNs for profiting from their creative labor.  The MCNs—considered by many critics to be a blatant power-grab by a handful of business-savvy digital industry leaders—has raised the ire of the once democratic YouTube community by exploiting a wide swath of user-generated content creators to increase leverage with online advertisers.  At the same time, the MCNs have commanded the attention of several Hollywood media companies, which recognize their inability to access YouTube’s growing audience of online users. Notably, Disney recently acquired Maker Studios for $500 million, while Warner Bros. continues to kick the tires at Machinima.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Critical Making, Social Media, and DIY Citizenship: An Interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (Part Two)


And finally, the last part of your title, “Social Media,” implies some model of how media change — and the availability of new technological resources — may be shaping what counts as citizenship and political discourse right now. So, what assumptions does your book make about the relationship between new media technologies and political empowerment?

 

MR: We think the book actually calls up both the possibilities and the problems with social media as a site for political action. The ‘problems’ of course include private ownership of platforms, popularity echo-chamber (filter bubble), lack of public accountability – any of these factors can change at any moment, of course. But in terms of possibilities, one examines increased freedom for connectivity, ‘routing around’ traditional media outlets and systems–all of which poses some challenge to government control and censorship and makes for complex terrain. Readers will find in the collection examples of both good and ill without being either socially or technologically determinist.

 

While we were motivated to organize the conference and edit this book based on our significantly optimistic or politically hopeful trajectories, promises, and accomplishments already achieved through creative social media uses, the chapters aptly capture what can rightly be termed “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” Readers will note Ron Deibert’s Foreword, marked by his serious warnings about the end of the free and open internet as we know it.  Further, essays such as Jenson’s on the limits of creative production in school contexts, essays on surveillance practices as outlined by McPhail et al, and Bissonette’s critique of TV news formats such as iReport represent, on this continuum, the more pessimistic view.

 

Some of the examples discussed throughout the work probably would be most often described as “citizen journalism.”  What roles do you see citizens playing in shaping the informational resources available to their communities? 

 

MB: Part IV of our book, “DIY Media: Redistributing Authority and Sources in News Media” includes a diverse array of perspectives on the roles citizens play in shaping and distributing information in new media landscapes.  Having been researching for over ten years the motivations and practices of those who produce what I term “digital dissent” or alternative media for the web 2.0 environment, it is clear that people are hungry for trusted sources, for interlocutors who can help “filter” or “make sense of” information produced by traditional authorities. People’s hunger for trusted sources runs parallel to the increased capacities and possibilities to produce alternative interpretations given the new media landscapes and modes of access to expression and dissemination.

 

Citizens, people, users of the world wide web, increasingly make it part of their daily lives and work to create, shape and share information with their communities.  It is now widely recognized that news is consumed predominantly via mediated platforms like FB where “friends” have pre-selected, in a sense vetted and culled, news or information believed worthy of recommending and spreading.  Given the information saturation and inundation of the information economy, understandably people require signposts and directions for making choices regarding sources.

 

Frustrations with traditional news media coverage after September 11, 2001 catalyzed everyday citizens to become media makers and producers of digital dissent.  I term ‘digital dissent producers’ those who elected to produce blogs, videos, or engage in public expression specifically to contest corporate-owned media and its often predictable agenda-setting, point of view, choice of content, and use of sources. The shifting understandings of truth or what we have come to identify as “sense making” is especially apparent in the challenges to the authority of traditional news sources and the rise in citizen journalism that has corresponded with crises of public faith in traditional news authorities. The crises of faith with respect to news institutions is closely related to the quite real crises and public skepticism towards electoral political sphere and traditional social and state institutions ranging from news to schools, government to democracy.

 

Regarding alternative media, Chris Atton emphasizes the importance of alternative media reflecting the  “practices of decentralized, directly-democratic, self-managed, and reflexive ‘networks in the everyday’.” The Chapters included in this section outline diverse kinds of alternative news-making or interventions , ranging from the production of feminist ‘zines (which pre-date so-called Web 2.0 capacities; Reitsamer and Zobl), to DIY experimentation with technologies and “vox pop” rituals aptly illustrating critical making (McVeigh-Schultz).  With a bit less optimism, other chapters analyse the blurry lines between amateur/professional “alternative” interventions such as the controversy sparked by KONY 2012 Campaign (Meikle), the ongoing agenda-setting influence of powerful media institutions (Ananny) and in his chapter on CNN’s iReport, Bissonette argues that “Citizen journalism remains tilted towards commercial gain, not democratic discourse.”

We are witnessing a seachange in how information is currated through what might be called a ‘remix’ traditional/institutional sources and filters, intermixed with personal/networked sources and filters. The effect is a (still inudating) number of differing entry points, pathways of information, be those a combination of platforms (from Reddit to Facebook to Twitter) that facilitate information, crowd-sourced or other “trusted filter”significantly determining directions and pathways. And of course, all of his moves alongside the invisible politics of ranking performed by the algorithms of Google, for example.

Indeed, the whistleblowing events brought about by Assange, Manning, and Snowden are not only related to the technological crises surrounding surveillance and privacy, but truth and propaganda and their function within the information economy.  And it’s crucial to point out that in both instances, Assange and Snowden partnered with and used traditional, established news organizations (the Guardian and the New York Times).

 

 

For the past decade, it’s been a cliché that young people learn more about contemporary social concerns through entertainment sources, including “fake news” programs, than through traditional journalism. Megan, you’ve done extensive research into this space. So, what is your current sense of the ways people use the Daily Show and other such programs in relation to more traditional forms of journalism? What do you see as the strengths and limits of the kind of civic knowledge that emerges from these sources?

 

MB: The October, 2010 Rally for Sanity and/or Fear organized by Stewart and Colbert  in Washington D.C. drew nearly half a million people from all across North America, (“Woodstock with the Clothes on”, as one attendee described it to us), demonstrating that those long accused of being slacktivists and couch potatoes are in essence a standing reserve of political and cultural criticality.  Following years of questionable scholarship asserting such claims as the “cynicism effect”–that viewing The Daily Show may result in decreased civic engagement such as electoral voting–this monumental rally demonstrated indubitably that viewers of so-called “fake news” are at the ready to be mobilized and called into action.

 

A recent and ongoing sign of the power of satire as a news format are the increasing number of popular “fake news” shows found even in some of the most repressive governmental regimes, such as Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef’s show Al Bernameg, now in Season 3 following the events of 2011.

 

There can be little doubt that satirists, bloggers, citizen journalists, and independent video producers around the world are taking action daily and dissenting from mainstream media agendas.  What matters is that dissenting voices are being aired through increasingly broad and multiformat channels. Corporate-owned news and papers of record are being forced to watch their step by the 24/7 surveillance of a vibrant public demanding accountability. 

All of this raises interesting points regarding the ways in which “fake news” can be conflated with entertainment, and then — as noted in your question — is turned into a cliche, about young people as disengaged — of course there are distinctions to be made between different forms of popular cultural entertainment and how they do or don’t cultivate a critical sensibility towards political institutions and practices.  The comedians may claim to be only interested in the laugh. But those who watch, think critically, and take numerous forms of action do come away each night with renewed political convictions–not least of which is to question a news media that too often fails in its responsibility to speak truth to power

 


Megan Boler
 is Professor of media and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her books include Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (Routledge 1999); Democratic Dialogue in Education (Peter Lang 2004); Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (MIT Press, 2008); and DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media (eds. Ratto and Boler, MIT Press, 2014). Funded by Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council for the last ten years, her previous research “Rethinking Media Democracy and Citizenship” examined the motivations of producers of web-based challenges to traditional news.  Her current funded research “Social Media in the Hands of Young Citizens” is a mixed-methods study of women participants’ experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including interviews with women in seven North American cities. Her web-based productions include the official study guide to the documentary The Corporation (dirs. Achbar and Abbott 2003), and the multimedia website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. More at: www.meganboler.net

Matt Ratto is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. He coined the term ‘critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world.

Critical Making, Social Media, and DIY Citizenship: An Interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (Part One)

In 2010, a group of forward thinking scholars, activists, media-makers, and citizen journalists gathered at the University of Toronto to participate in a conference which sought to explore the ways that the emergence of new media platforms and practices was impacting our civic and political lives. I was lucky enough to be asked to be one of the key note speakers at this event, which was organized by Matt Ratto and Megan Boler, and several of my USC colleagues (past or future) Anne Balsamo and Mike Ananny as well as a number of my USC graduate students Kevin Driscoll, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, and Lana Swartz, among them, participated.

In some ways, the discussions at that conference anticipated some of the top political stories of the past few years, from Occupy Wall Street to the “Arab Spring,” from “Binders of Women” to KONY 2012, as we grappled to come up with frameworks for thinking about how the public sphere was shifting in response to the emergence of social media, the ways that community based hacker and maker spaces were allowing people to envision new kinds of civic media technologies and rituals, and the ways that the “digital divide” and “participation gap” threatened the democratic potentials that many of us see within this new media landscape. The conversations at the event were critical — both in the sense that they asked hard questions and refused to accept simple solutions and in the sense that these exchanges were urgently needed if we were to hammer out together some frameworks for understanding how political life operates in the digital age.And the conference also provided hacker and maker space tools where people could work on projects together, putting their ideas into action.

Some years later, Ratto and Boler have released an important new book, DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, published earlier this spring, by The MIT Press, whose contributors are drawn from the conference participants, though in many cases, their arguments were updated to reflect the many ground-breaking stories of social media and political change we’ve seen in the past few years. The essays here could not be more timely; they represent a range of important theoretical and conceptual models, but they are also deeply grounded in concrete case studies and practical experiences. And the result is a book that should matter to anyone who cares about the future of democracy around the world.

I had asked the editors if they could share with us some core insights, specifically helping us to understand the central concepts of the book, and what they see as some of the most important developments to occur since the conference. I am happy to share this interview over the next two installments of my blog.

 

Let’s start by mapping out some of the keywords from your title. DIY citizenship, as developed by you and your contributors, seems to be an especially expansive concept. So, can you share with us a working definition. What relationship does it have to what I and others like to call participatory culture? 

 

Matt Ratto (MR): The concept of DIY Citizenship was originally used by Hartley to extend traditional notions of citizenship associated with civil, political, and social rights.  To these, Hartley added ‘DIY citizenship’ generally meaning the right to self-determine one’s own identity through engagements with the concepts and ideas on offer within the media. According to Hartley, the DIY citizen is one who creates their identity and individuality through a process of choosing from the semiotic material on offer.

While this was the starting place for the book and for the conference that preceded it, we also highlight issues with this definition. In the introduction, we note linkages between Hartley’s notion and the atomistic sense of self that is assumed within liberalism – this is most easily revealed in the obvious connections between Hartley’s ‘DIY citizen’ and the self that is typically assumed by marketing departments. This is namely a fluid, consumerist model of the self that presupposes that we are all equally free to choose from a set of options (nicely provided for us by social institutions) what kind of being that we want to be. It is increasingly obvious that this is not at all true and even, to take it one step further, that the various discourses of semiotic self-determination is often leveraged to hide or underplay structural restrictions that impinge on our ability to choose for ourselves our own identities.

Here we can see one connection to the simplistic notions of participatory culture that were previously to be found in early work on Free Libre Open Source Software that emphasized open participation by all. While the rhetoric was about freedom and openness, the communities themselves were often anything but – and for sometimes good reasons since the work involved often required very specific forms of expertise (e.g. the writing of Linux device drivers.) This is one connection we might draw between DIY Citizenship and Participatory Culture –both are manifested and driven forward by a central contradiction that exists between openness and closedness, between a reliance on a sovereign, DIY self and the self that is imposed upon us.

 

Megan Boler (MB): More specifically, examining the characteristics of participatory culture (Jenkins 2006), it becomes apparent that indeed many of the projects described in this edited collection exemplify quite precisely ‘participatory culture’ at work:

‘1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement 2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others 3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices 4. Where members believe that their contributions matter 5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).’ 

We suggest that beyond its reiteration of the practices of participatory culture, the notion of DIY citizenship pushes us to ask questions about self- and collectively-determined political affinities, coalitions, and aims – and how we work to construct both them and ourselves. One can conceivably have all sorts of DIY activities that are not explicitly seeking political voice or membership or effect.

 

MR: Exactly, Megan, and many of these activities do seek to intervene in the semiosphere and in this sense can be understood as political activity. This aspect of participatory culture is emphasized in our use of “DIY citizenship” but equally in the development of “critical making” that occurs within the collection. Whereas DIY citizenship emphasizes the dialectic between sovereign and structured self, the term critical making emphasizes the reflexive, praxis oriented engagements and interventions that emerge from diverse indy or collective energies. Critical making is about reflecting on how we build ourselves, our cultures, and our institutions through processes of material engagement. Thus the ‘critical making’ is key to distinguishing the “politics” of culture as well as an extension of participatory culture.

 

One of the challenges that have historically clung to the word, DIY, is the focus on individualism. You in English is especially slippery since it can be both singular and plural. So, the you in YouTube and its slogan, “Broadcast Yourself,” has often been read in terms of personal expression, where-as most notions of the civic start with the idea of shared interests and collective action.  Some have suggested a shift to talk about “doing it ourselves.” How have you and the other contributors to the volume addressed this issue? 

 

MB: Yes, the very term “DIY” ideally provokes debate of this sort.  “DIY” was chosen for the title and the common referent because of its more common usage, but the underlying question is not of small consequence.  As suggested increasingly in diverse scholarly works about social media and networks, there are genuine questions about how best to describe the contemporary experiences of “self” and “individual,” — whether a coherent notion of the individual is indeed even possible any longer;  whether and how this individual is distinct from the liberal individual — all questions that poses  a persistent challenge to many critical scholars. Yet–at the same time–the notion of ‘yourself’ cannot be avoided, and will always be overdetermined. To substitute DIO or DIT loses a signifier that has much broader connotations in our contemporary culture.  In our Introduction we address this fraught question, and outline alternative conceptions such as  “DIT” (Do it together), DIY as in the plural, DIO (do it ourselves). My own research suggests that we may need to develop a new concept like “collective individualism,” to try and capture the  collectivity of the You so distinctively featured in this mediated era of pluralistic self-expression.  I come to this having been intensively studying the recent shifts from “collective” to “connective” action, a shift which arguably is closely tied to the growing  role of networked connectivities that increasingly constitute our globalized collective identities. Social media and networks encourage new forms of connectivity, which are distinct from a collective identity but not solely an aggregation of individuals.

 

One of the striking features of the original conference you hosted and now of this collection was the ways you were exploring a way to bridge between new forms of activism and the emergence of Maker culture, which has not always been understood in political terms. What might this collection teach us about the political and civic dimensions of the Maker movement? Another way to ask this would be what is “critical” about “critical making.” 

 

MR: Yes,  this bridging is definitely an important part of the overall project – and to explore the bridge between maker culture and academic practices as well! This occurred more at the conference where we supplemented more standard academic talks and plenaries with a HackSpace where other kinds of projects could be encountered. (The academy still need to work on incorporating such forms within our larger scholastic practices – but this is a longer term project…). More importantly, an obvious aspect of maker culture today is that it increasingly follows a larger social trope of innovation and entrepreneurship. While there is nothing wrong with this, this move does de-emphasize some of the more overtly political maker actions of the past. In some ways, the move from ‘hackers’ to ‘makers’ mirrors the move from Free Software to Open Source. Both discursive developments are about depoliticizing the processes while maintaining their pragmatic effects – a sort of stripping away of the value-laden aspects while keeping the utilitarian. Despite this, there are still makers who remain focused on moving beyond the linguistic to other forms of political activity. Understanding making as critical – whether the making of gardens, of new forms of media– is a key focus of the collection.  As we note in the Introduction, “Critical making signals the ways in which productions–whether of video, web-based communications, gardens, radio transmitters, or robots–are understood as politically transformative activities….Critical making invites reflection on the relationship  of the maker” to processes of production.

 

Megan Boler is Professor of media and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her books include Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (Routledge 1999); Democratic Dialogue in Education (Peter Lang 2004); Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (MIT Press, 2008); and DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media (eds. Ratto and Boler, MIT Press, 2014). Funded by Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council for the last ten years, her previous research “Rethinking Media Democracy and Citizenship” examined the motivations of producers of web-based challenges to traditional news.  Her current funded research “Social Media in the Hands of Young Citizens” is a mixed-methods study of women participants’ experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including interviews with women in seven North American cities. Her web-based productions include the official study guide to the documentary The Corporation (dirs. Achbar and Abbott 2003), and the multimedia website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. More at: www.meganboler.net

Matt Ratto is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. He coined the term ‘critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world.

 

Stories That Matter: An Insider’s Perspective on the Peabody Awards

Over the weekend, I went to New York to attend the Peabody Awards Ceremony. The Peabody Awards have been given each year since 1941 in recognition of outstanding work in audiovisual media. Initially, it was an award, granted by an independent group housed at the University of Georgia Journalism School, which recognized outstanding accomplishment in radio (created in part because the Pulitzers refused to recognize Broadcast journalism), but through the years, the Peabody has expanded to include broadcast and cable television and more recently still, audiovisual content distributed on the web.

The Peabody Awards distinguish themselves from, say, the Emmy Awards or the Golden Globes in multiple ways. There are no fixed categories; the Peabody jury can award as few or as many programs as they wish in any given year. Consequently, you do not see the tendency for one dramatic series and one sitcom to take over the Emmy for year after year without giving a chance to a broader range of programs. Beyond that, the Peabody Awards have historically been much more reception to the pop culture end of the spectrum than the other awards which tend to be decisively middle brow in their tastes. The Peabody Committee, for example, gave an award to Star Trek: The Next Generation at a time when it was not being shown respect from the other award-granting bodies. And at the same time, the Peabody has been more open to cutting edge arts and cultural programs, which might have seemed too out there for the more conservative Emmy awards.  Public media – both PBS and NPR – have historically fared much better with the Peabody Awards than with the other more commercially focused awards events, yet they exist alongside some of the most popular entertainment series.  You can see the full list of this year’s winners here.

A little less than a year ago, I was invited to become one of the 15  jury members who determine the recipients of the Peabody Awards. Just being asked to serve in this way was an enormous honor and I have relished, so far, the experience of participating in the deliberation process.  Each year, the Peabody Committee receives well over 1000 submissions, mostly from the United States, but increasingly from countries around the world (More than 40 countries submitted programs for consideration this year). There are committees at the University of Georgia, consisting of faculty and students, who review all of those submissions and make recommendations to the jury, which we weigh in our discussions. But the committee also breaks down the contributions amongst us, insuring that each entry is seen by 2-3 committee members on the first round.

For about a month and a half earlier this year, the reviewing process took over my life. Altogether, the jury meets for 12 plus days, across three sessions, held in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Athens, Georgia, as we talk through the submissions together, debating the merits of each entry, and gradually winnowing down the list. The committee is an amazing mix of veterans from the broadcast and cable world, academic media scholars, television critics, and folks from the public relations and advertising world, all of whom care passionately and think deeply about the medium. In between each marathon meeting, we watched hundreds of hours of television. By the time you get to Athens, we all ended up pulling several all-nighters as we all tried to catch up with the finalists that we had not been able to see yet.

Now, to be clear, I watch more television than most other academics I know, but the scope of the entries is so broad that we are all pushed beyond our comfort zones as we deal with material we would not ordinarily watch.  For me, the real stretch came in learning how to assess the quality of documentaries, news, and radio entries where-as I felt much more comfortable dealing with new media, entertainment, and children’s programming.  In the end, any program receiving the Peabody has to be unanimously approved by the committee, which involves a fair amount of soul searching and a certain amount of horse trading, but ultimately, what emerges is the best of the best.

You don’t go through this intense process without coming away with enormous respect for the current state of the medium. There is so much astonishingly good television out there. The more television I watched, the more I wanted to watch. I came off my first year on the committee with a long list of shows I wanted to spend more time with and now I am finding myself searching even more actively for new shows we will want to consider next year.

This year, the Peabody Awards recognized 46 programs, the largest crop in the award’s history. Yet, in chatting with my fellow Jury members over the weekend, all of us had regrets about shows that did not make the final list, but few if any about the series which did. It’s easy to get pumped up as a fan about the relatively small number of shows we set our Tivos for, shows which meet our own tastes and interests, and I am certainly hearing plenty of people saying we are in a golden era of television. But, reviewing programs for the Peabody Awards, forces you to pay attention to the things which were on someone else’s Tivo last year, programs that aren’t aimed at you, programs which you would never watch, programs you’ve never heard of, and you discover more and more hidden treasures than you might ever imagine.

Jeffrey Jones, the director of the Peabody Awards, wrote an op-ed piece in Variety over the weekend which helps to place the unprecedented number of winners into some perspective, pointing to the dramatic expansions we’ve seen in what counts as television in recent years: the growth of new digital distribution outlets such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, which are producing original programs and also giving us access to more and more programs from other countries around the world; the explosion of web-based television producers who are independent of studios,networks, or major platforms and may be distributing their work via Youtube (from whom the televisual equivalents of Mean Streets or Easy Rider are starting to emerge); the expansion of cable networks that have moved in recent years from producing reality programs towards scripted dramas and comedies. For example, Al Jazeera America, just completing its first year of operations, took away two awards this year, and there were many others that made it into the finalist or semi-finalist stages, suggesting an important new player in the realm of television news, one which is not afraid to provide minority or critical perspectives on powerful institutions, telling stories that were not being covered on the major cable and broadcast networks.

Or consider the various ways that this year’s winners intersect digital media (an area close to my own heart). Orange is the New Black and House of Cards are television series which were never aired on television, distributed via Netflix. Scandal is a series which has developed an extraordinarily active following via social media, which has helped to build its ratings and has provide a space for important conversations around race, gender, and politics. A Chef’s Life was one of several series we recognized this year which was funded through Kickstarter. The Race Card is a NPR series which relies heavily on crowdsourcing stories from the general public via the web. Hollow and A Short History of the Highrise are interactive documentaries which uniquely deploy the affordances of the web to create rich multimedia experiences. A Needed Response was a student video circulated via YouTube. And amongst the local news stories, many of them had used the web to provide richer, more interactive maps which allowed the public to “follow the money” influencing local and state politics.  All of these examples point to the ways that the media landscape is changing as it intersects with digital media.

As a cultural studies person, we are taught to be skeptical of established notions of cultural hierarchies which tend to reflect particular class, gender, racial, and generational biases. So, a big question for me when I entered the committee was what constituted “quality” or “excellence” as the board recognized it. The fact that this group has recognized outstanding cult media properties, from Star Trek in the 1960s to Doctor Who last year, went a long way to calming my suspicion of a high culture bias: as did the knowledge that in recent years, Awards have gone to series like Friday Night Lights, Justify, Girls, and Louie C.K., suggesting that they understood a range of different ways that popular culture might contribute to larger conversations.

One official criteria for the awards is “excellence on its own terms,” which may mean whatever the individual members want it to me, but it invites us to try to articulate criteria for how a series which does not necessarily match the traits we associate with “quality television” (the novelistic, the psychologically rounded, the realist) might never-the-less deserve recognition for its achievement of very different kinds of aesthetic goals.   And some of the group’s most intense and yet generative debates stem from the effort to articulate what standards should apply to programs which are more melodramatic in tone and structure, or how to deal with programs which may be cartoonish and larger than life, but which achieve real distinction in their categories.

There has justly been a resistance to granting awards based on pure popularity, yet there also needs to be away of recognizing work which has a strong public impact or which serves the needs of segments of the television audience which has been under-recognized elsewhere. Indeed, the case can be made that diversity is itself increasingly a marker of quality on television: the awards this year recognized entertainment programs such as Scandal, Key &Peele, Orange is the New Black, or The Bridge, or documentary programs, such as How to Survive a Plague,  Latino Americans, The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, or The Race Card, which dealt with the shifting demographics and racial politics of America today.

The new catch phrase of the Peabody Awards is “Stories that Matter,” and there’s a healthy debate surrounding “matter to who” and “matter in what way,” which are the questions we should be asking if the award should be seen as reflective about how we might define excellence or quality in the absence of inherited categories and fixed hierarchies. A sentimental favorite for me was the recognition which the group bestowed on A Needed Response, a  single-shot 26 second video, produced by two University of Oregon students, and released via YouTube, to increase awareness of the growing number of cases of sexual violence on American college campuses. The committee saw something there which both seemed emblematic of the emergence of new forms of campus activism which takes advantage of expanded access to the means of cultural production and circulation and seemed distinctive and generative in the ways it reframed the debates around sexual violence through its intervention.

At the same time, the awards are torn between a focus on the global and on the local/regional. On the one hand, the awards went to a record number of programs produced outside the United States, including Denmark (Borgen), France (The Returned), Pakistan (Burka Avenger), the United Kingdom (Broadchurch), Canada (Orphan Black), amongst others.  And on the other hand, there was real respect paid to the continued importance of local news coverage, which becomes all the more important as many local stations are abandoning their commitment to investigative journalism and no one is holding local and state officials accountable for the performance of their duties. We might think about these two competing tugs when we look at two food-related programs which earned recognition this year – on the one hand Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, features the famous chief as he travels around the world sharing with us what he learns about local cuisines and practices, and on the other hand, A Chef’s Life is the story of a farm-to-fork eatery in North Carolina, as the chef introduces us to the folks who grow her ingredients and the local traditions which shape southern cooking.

This weekend, we paid respect to the recipients of the award in a ceremony held in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and hosted by This American Life’s Ira Glass. It took quite a while for Ira to introduce and bestow awards on the 46 recipients, but each of these sets of producers had won their moment in the spotlight and each had a moment to showcase their work and share their thoughts with the audience.

I have to confess I was star struck for most of the event, as we saw distinguished journalists (Tom Brokow receiving a life-time achievement award, Charlie Rose getting recognized for his interview with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad), important producers (Ken Burns), top performers (from Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad to Joel Grey representing a PBS documentary on the Jewish legacy on Broadway), global pop stars (Aaron Haroon, representing Burka Avenger), each pass across the stage. There were so many moving moments: from four of the Central Park Five standing on stage  and getting an ovation before an Manhattan audience , to Henry “Skip” Gates describing the way Bill Cosby’s Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed helped to inspire his own entry into the field of African-American studies to a young black student who figured strongly in 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School describe how he was able to graduate in the face of adversity and get accepted into college, to the purple haired University of Oregon student who gave a powerful speech about the “rape culture” on the country’s college campus.

These are what Noel Holston calls “Peabody moments,” moments when we see just how much these stories really do matter to the people involved, and where those of us who helped to select the winners feel that all of those weeks of hard work really do matter to those who received these awards.

I am already bringing my experiences working with the Peabody Awards into my classroom, using them as an opportunity to encourage students to reflect more deeply on the criteria (implicit or explicit) through which we judge television and the blind-spots in our own viewing habits. I’d love to encourage readers of this blog to share with me shows you think I should be watching more closely as I prepare for my second year on the board.

 

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Four)

Early on, you quote Lucy Bradshaw from Maxis as saying that her company has “a real respect for the player community” and the term, “respect,” runs across the book. What do you think these companies mean by “respect” and how does it relate to the value they place on fan labor?

 

The term respect came up in a good few interviews with various developers and it especially seemed to be a part of the Maxis ethos – their attitude to the gamers participating in these co-creative relationships. This respect had different dimensions and was expressed in different ways by different developers.

For some developers respect meant their appreciation for the creativity and innovation evident in the player created material. Following from this it meant supporting the players to express and realise this creativity through the quality of the tools that they provided and the support implemented around those tools. Many commented on how what the players achieved often surprised them.

Respect also meant how they communicated with the player community and valued their input and feedback about various aspects of a game’s ongoing design and development. Respect, in the terms Bradshaw raises in her interview with me, also meant recognising the value that the players’ co-creative practices contributed, including economic value.

 

Now as the various accounts of these co-creative relationships detail in the book, what this respect meant and the limits of it were often contested and debated among the developers. Some designers and lead producers raised dilemmas around the extent to which it is possible to include gamers fully in the design process, commenting on problems of ‘design by committee’ in which the committee now includes the unruly and very diverse views and opinions of online gamer communities. In sorting out the limits of respect and what this meant the developers and managers also struggle with the ambit and boundaries of these co-creative production relationships.

I think you see these struggles emerge in the discussions about the economic value of these various forms of participation (for example in the interview you refer to with Lucy Bradshaw, but also in the interview with Will Wright in the book’s conclusion). They don’t dismiss the value of, for example, the content created by players. But they do contextualise this with all of the professional labour, materials, technologies and infrastructure that the developers and publishers provide to enable and support this player creativity. Bradshaw uses the image of a ‘handshake kind of relationship’ that enables player creativity but also benefits from that creativity. I don’t think the developers (or the players) fully come to terms with the nature of this relationship and the exchanges of value that are occurring. But that is to be expected, as they are still very emergent and evolving.

 

You found yourself embeded inside the games company for part of your research process. How did this experience color your understanding of the corporate motives and assumptions shaping co-creative labor?

 

I was employed by Auran from 2000 to 2005 as an online community manager. I think this experience colored my account by influencing my decision to foreground the professional labour and craft-skills that contribute to co-creativity. I also wanted to emphasise the diversity of developer understandings of co-creativity and indeed the conflicts and differences among developers that shape these relationships. I’ve tried to describe the diversity of these motives and assumptions shaping co-creative labour rather than reducing all of that to something like a logic of capital or even a singular developer identity or position on all of this.

Here I hope this account might also contribute to illuminating developer studio culture for fields such as games studies – a topic that I think is underexplored. Other researchers including Casey O’Donnell (who has a forthcoming book, Developer’s Dilemma, with The MIT Press) are also doing important work on this . But in pursuing this have I unhinged my account from important structural or systemic conditions such as overarching corporate interests and agendas that characterise capital.

By emphasising the diverse understandings and motivations of developers and gamers do I risk overlooking the extent to which these very understandings are shaped by such structural conditions, which is different from determined by them. Even if these understandings are canny and knowing am I perhaps avoiding dealing with the conditions of capital that contribute to all of this?

Perhaps – these are good questions. They came up for me in a rather different context recently while reading Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. In this book Boyd tackles many of the myths and moral panics surrounding teens and social media by making room for their voices and experiences, including the diversity of that experience. In the process she establishes that it is indeed complicated.

My book kind of reaches a similar conclusion about co-creative production – it’s indeed complicated.

One of Boyd’s key points is that the social behaviours she explores among teens are adaptive. In my book I’m very interested in these emerging, adaptive practices in the context of the networks of co-creativity. In the introduction to her book Boyd also acknowledges the “capitalist logic that underpins American society and the development of social media…” but then comments that … “although I believe that these assumptions should be critiqued, this is outside the scope of this project”. Is that just a cop out? If this is so then how can you consider the implications of teens’ use of social media without tackling such an assumed logic?

An interesting point to consider here is that perhaps the adaptive behaviours and practices that she describes so well just cannot be understood in terms of “the capitalist logic”. Not in the sense that they escape or oppose such a logic, but more that the dynamics and processes involved don’t quite make sense in terms of such a singular logic. At least this was my sense as I undertook the research for my book and also in my experience working in the games industry. Such frameworks (political economy critique) and assumed logics just didn’t provide the explanatory traction that I wanted to understand these kinds of adaptive and emergent behaviours and dynamics.

 

How does the concept of co-creation challenge older logics that have governed cultural studies work, such as resistance and co-optation? How might we characterize the ways these fans/consumers/produsers relate to the corporations which are acting on their collaborative designs?

 

The logics that you mention – ideas of resistance and co-optation – are often framed by a quite specific political economy derived understanding of a logic of capital – a structural or systemic understanding of capitalism and a critique of that system. This is the context in which the question of labour is also often raised, as labour provides the ground for critique of that system.

 

The way I approach co-creation is to start with the participants’ understandings, practices and behaviours. I don’t start with assumptions about broader capitalist logics and then ask well are these practices coopted by or opposed to those logics.

For many of the co-creative practices I describe these ideas of resistance and cooptation just do not provide explanatory traction and they aren’t the frameworks or terms in which the participants themselves generally understand the practices.

 

I’m interested in the microfoundations (following an emic approach), the social interactions and behaviours, which constitute co-creativity. I’m not rushing to explain co-creation in terms of macroeconomic outcomes or in terms of general logics of capitalism. Instead, as developed in the book’s final chapter, I’m drawing from fields such as economic sociology and cultural sociology, through the work of David Stark (Sense of Dissonance) especially.

 

My approach is that the kinds of capitalist dynamics playing out around co-creative production (so concerns around commodification, emergence of markets, labour, innovation, and so on) emerge from and through these interactions. By working at this micro level I seek to understand the dynamics of capitalism (changing conditions of cultural production around co-creativity) from the actors’ perspectives. But by drawing from work in economic sociology such as Stark’s I also seek to avoid the problems associated with rational actor theory.

My argument is that this micro perspective is crucial – describing and analysing these emerging phenomenon from the perspective of the actors themselves and the decision or choice problems they grapple with. This is very much the model and approach I develop, especially in the book’s final chapter in collaboration with Jason Potts.

 

When you ask how we might characterise the ways these co-creative gamers / consumers relate to the developer companies and publishers I emphasise that it is diverse and I foreground in the book their understandings of this. Some view it as a rewarding opportunity to have their views and opinions influence design and development. Others at times are suspicious and skeptical about the commercial motivations driving the developers. Others view it as an opportunity to learn more about game development and gain skills in this area. For some it is about the quite intrinsic rewards that come from contributing to an online game fan community.

In my research I’ve seen individual gamers move through a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours towards the developers – from warmly embracing and appreciative of the work the developers put in participating in and supporting these relationships through to outright hostility. But in describing and understanding this diversity I’m trying to get a handle on the micro foundations of co-creativity.

 

The next problem to tackle though and which I don’t pursue in the book, is how do these capitalist dynamics, the macrophenomena if you like, operate when approached from the perspective of the actors’ understandings, interactions and behaviours. This is the meso problem of linking or articulating the micro to the macro. I start setting up an approach to this by drawing from evolutionary economics and ideas emerging from network theory. A lot more work needs to be done here with thinking that through and figuring it out. This concerns the emergence of novelty: how new organisational forms, behaviours and identities emerge. But in all of this I also try to maintain the ethnographic commitment to the lived experiences and understandings of the participants’ themselves.

There is a tension there in those aims and I think that tension is there in the book and I hope it works as a productive tension. For example, there is material in the ethnographic description and interviews that rubs up against the model of co-creativity I develop in the later chapters. They certainly don’t align seamlessly.

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

 

 

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview With John Banks (Part Three)

You are arguing that respect must be paid in thinking about co-creation to the multiple motives shaping the various participants. How would you characterize those motives?

 

The argument about how multiple and diverse motivations and incentives shape co-creative practices is central to the book and I develop this out fully in the final chapter with my colleague Jason Potts (an evolutionary economist). Our argument here is that these participants aren’t acting from just economic or cultural (extrinsic or intrinsic) motivations but often from both simultaneously. Too often, as we criticise in the chapter, co-creativity is approached as an opposition between commercial and non-commerical domains. You see this for example in Yochai Benkler’s work, which privileges and valorises a gift economy grounded in intrinsic motivations and incentives.

 

Our contention is that co-creativity might be more helpfully approached as co-evolving relationships. Co-evolving market and non-market contexts that draw in the complex interrelationships between multiple contexts, incentives and motivations. Throughout my account of co-creativity the non-market and non-pecuniary motivations (a gift economy if you like) are very clearly evident. People undertake these projects for a range of intrinsic motivations, including values associated with altruistically contributing to the gamer community. But to then valorize these emerging networks as necessarily or in some sense inherently non-market is a mistake.

 

I try to account for the motivation and incentive diversity that I encounter in my research. Yes this includes the business bottom line of games developers and publishers achieving profits. But the developer side here also isn’t just constrained to these incentives – I hope the account that I provide sufficiently foregrounds the motivations around craft-skills and professional identity in which developers have a sense of intrinsic reward from contributing to these co-creative networks.

Among the players themselves some headed in an entrepreneurial direction, what started out as nonmonetary hobbyist practice developed into pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities. Others provided accounts of how their participation in co-creative communities helped them gain skills that became job opportunities, for example as online community managers.

Co-creative production cultures then rather than being approached as distinct and incommensurable economic and cultural domains, with their related incentives and motivations, is more a site of dynamic and emergent relations between markets and non-markets. But in saying this I’m not suggesting that these activities should simply be reduced to their market or economic value.

 

The perspective developed in the book’s final chapter is that both market and non-market relations may be occurring simultaneously with analysis then focused on how they mutually affect and continuously transform each other. In my ethnographic research participants often did not display evidence of neatly or sharply compartmentalising different aspects of these contexts and then resolving them into actions that reflected say straightforward trade-offs between commercial and non-commercial interests. Rather, they sometimes behaved as if these multiple contexts and distinct tensions were characteristic of the situations and decisions they encountered.

 

When does co-creative labor become exploitation? Is there a sharp line that can be drawn between the two or are things necessarily blurry at a time when new paradigms are emerging?

 

My approach has been to try and identify when the participants themselves are grappling with this – what do they understand as exploitation and the contexts in which it occurs. How do they deal with the blurriness that you mention?

For example, in the chapter, ‘Co-creative Labour?’ I provide an extended account of a gamer content creator reflecting on the value of an item of content he had created and the use made of this content by the company, Auran. In an email exchange with me the content creator, Marlboro, observes that ‘… frankly my feelings towards Auran were always mixed…. On one hand I admired the guts to approach a niche market, the concept of customer communication, support, innovative ideas etc. On the other hand I thought to see through a thin veil the attempt to exploit the community’. Marlboro’s analysis here is quite sophisticated and canny. This approach to working through these relationships and value exchanges with the games developer was not uncommon; many of the gamer content creators had very similar discussions with me.

 

What occurred here is that his understanding about how Auran would distribute and use his content was not entirely clear and indeed the norms this community had developed on this, especially norms of transparency, had been infringed by Auran. But keep in mind this same content creator was often very supportive of Auran’s approach to player created content. As he put it, his approach to this was ‘mixed’. He doesn’t identify these practices as necessarily or inherently exploitative, but he was prepared to call Auran on practices that he felt were unfair and exploitative. So this was very much about emerging norms around the nature of the value exchange occurring between the players and the company. This involves adapting and adopting norms for dealing with the dilemmas arising from these complex exchanges characterized by multiple and mixed motivations and incentives.

As companies such as Auran seek to engage their consumers as co-creative participants consumers’ expectations of how companies will participate and the terms and conditions of that participation also transforms. When the player co-creators consider that these norms or implicit contracts are infringed they then start to question the practices in terms of fairness and exploitation.

 

An area that is unfair is the formal legal instruments that purport to govern these relationships and here I’m referring to EULAs. These agreements (if you can call them that), seldom if ever fairly acknowledge or reflect the nature of these relationships and the value players are creating. The agreements are generally totally one-sided.

Co-creative consumer rights if you like and the duties or obligations of corporations around this are just not reflected in current consumer protection. But on this, at least in the case of Auran games, I found the ways in which they managed their relationships with the player co-creators was just not at all reflected in these legal agreements. Essentially the developers’ practices, at least in this case, were generally far more reasonable and equitable than formally expressed in these agreements. But that’s no excuse – and these agreements really need to be more reflective of the reality of these co-creative production relationships.

 

A significant issue for the players was transparency. They wanted to know what the developers were intending to do with the co-created content and they also wanted detail on decisions made by the developer that impacted on these co-creative relationships. There were norms and expectations forming around this communication. This was along the lines of ‘we know you are using our content in various ways and gaining value from that, but we want you to inform us of this and give us an opportunity to express our views’.

Sometimes Auran mismanaged this communication. At times the communication was very sophisticated and respectful at others it was very clumsy. Part of this I think was to do with the company and its staff figuring out how to manage these relationships effectively and fairly. There were also challenges around adequately resourcing and staffing this area of game development. This required Auran managers coming to terms with the fact that it was integral to their development activities, not just an ancillary activity of marketing and communications that could be left to the publisher. But when players thought that these norms and expectations around transparency and communication were infringed they would then start considering the practices to be unfair or exploitative.

 

In the book and indeed in this interview I emphasise the importance of the players’ understandings of these relationships and their capacity to form canny judgments about all of that. But this does depend on a certain level of knowledge and transparency so that they can make informed decisions. There is a definite power differential here in terms of the developers’ control over that and their willingness (or not) to share that information with players.

 

From the perspective of the developers – the producers, programmers, community managers, and designers – they often struggled with meeting the players’ expectations around all of this. They sometimes felt that they were inadequately resourced, especially in terms of scheduled time, to fulfill and follow through on the commitments that had been made to the players. This was particularly a concern among those developers who were committed to supporting these co-creative relationships. And it is important to note here that this commitment was very uneven across the development team at Auran and indeed the extent to which the developers should contribute to these co-creative relationships as part of their jobs was debated among the developers – there was not a singular developer position on all of this. Nevertheless, there was a sense here that meeting player expectations often added just more work to their already full schedules and that this was sometimes unreasonable and unfair.

 

These co-creative production practices are still emergent and unclear. So the norms around the nature of the value exchanges (these markets if you like), what’s fair and when exploitation occurs, are still somewhat if not necessarily blurry. My interest here is in how the participants themselves negotiate and coordinate to resolve these dilemmas.

 

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Two)

You’ve been studying co-creation in the games industry over an extended period of time. Can you describe some of the changes you’ve observed over this period? What was the status of co-creation when you started your research and how would you characterize its status now?

 

When I started studying co-creation in the games industry back in 1997 I was actually uncertain as to what was going on here, what was I looking at. As were the participants themselves. I recall approaching it, from my disciplinary perspective coming from cultural studies and media studies, as possibly a case of active audience and/or fan community practices. My reference here included your book, Henry, Textual Poachers. That book was in my backpack when I undertook my initial fieldwork and first interviews in 1997 with games developers and gamers.

What struck me at the time was a sense of the developers, including those in senior management, trying to figure out the nature of these emerging relationships with the players and why they would invest in them. Greg Lane, Auran’s CEO, on a few occasions when I discussed this with him, mentioned he wasn’t sure if they would gain any direct financial or commercial benefit from their activities with the fans, but the fans and some of the developers seemed to enjoy it and it was therefore worth exploring. He viewed it as an investment in the player community that he hoped might also eventually gain a commercial return. But he was also committing time to supporting that and the time of developers because he gained a sense of intrinsic value and satisfaction.

 

From that point back in 1997, at least in the context of the central ethnographic study in the book, this co-creative activity grew – from involving the players in design and development feedback, through to online and offline marketing initiatives, through to the quite extensive reliance on user generated content. As I suggest in the book, this was no longer an ancillary or marginal activity –  it was becoming core. This content and the gamers’ co-creative practices were contributing directly to the commercial viability of this product – a train simulator in the case of the book’s central ethnographic case study.

This shift was captured for me in a key moment when I worked at Auran as a community manager in 2001. I shifted my desk from sitting with the marketing and web team to in with the development and design team. This was because a big part of my role had become liaising between influential content creator members of the gamer community and the core Auran development team. Before that, although requiring some contact with the developers (the programmers, designers and artists), my position was viewed as more of a marketing and communications role I guess. This definitely shifted.

Part of my decision to move the desk was also about getting a closer ethnographic insight about what was going on. But it was also about being able to do my job better as an online community manager. Figuring out the implications of this shift across the next few years as I saw it play out at this workplace and as it was negotiated between the developers and the gamers was a big focus of my research and of the book.

 

The most recent shift I’ve seen is around how big data and data analytics contributes to games development and indeed if this can be approached as co-creative at all. I first encountered this in 2007 while undertaking research on Auran’s development of Fury (a failed MMOG). At the time there were disagreements among the core team of developers, the Fury gamer community (especially those involved in the play testing) and the online community managers about reasons for the games problems and the quite critical reception it was receiving from the gamers participating in the testing.

At a particular meeting one of the developers dropped on the table a print out of data taken from that past weekends play testing. He used it to support his view that many of the players making arguments on the forums were “uninformed” and that the data proved (captured from their interactions with the game) something very different from the players’ views as expressed on the forums.

Now the community managers contested his interpretation of that data, but at the end of the day, as my fieldwork journal noted, ‘we just got trumped’. At the time this provided a quite telling case of game developer studio culture and the various forms of expertise and craft involved in that. As I discuss in the relevant chapter 5, ‘Co-creative expertise’ co-creation is very much about how these diverse and conflicting forms of knowledge and expertise (both amateur and professional) interact and converge.

 

What I didn’t quite see back then was the shift here in the way the gamer was being figured or represented in these exchanges – as data traces really. For me questions were also raised about the power of that form of knowledge and around how it was being mined.

Is this co-creative? I guess that depends on how that data is used and how transparent all that is to the player.

In the book’s conclusion I include material from an interview I did with Will Wright (designer of games such as The Sims and Spore) in which Wright touches on how designers can increasingly capture metrics about players’ behaviours and then potentially feed that back into the game to change the game experience. He mentioned how ‘… we’re just kind of scratching the surface of that now’. In more recent research I’ve undertaken over past few years with Halfbrick (Brisbane, Australia based developers of Fruit Ninja) this issue of data analytics has very much come to the fore. But there isn’t a single developer perspective on these issues around data analytics. Programmers, lead designers, producers and so on often have very different opinions and approaches on, for example, how big data might inform game design.

 

 

In the academic realm, the major push-back against co-creative production has come from critics writing about “free labor.” What does that critique get right and what does it get wrong about the kinds of practices your book discusses?

 

The labor question is incredibly important in the context of co-creation. A central focus of my book is how developers grapple with the challenges and opportunities of co-creative production at the coalface of their everyday workplace – the game development studio. Co-creativity is not just about the bottom up, peer-to-peer participation of gamers and fans. Co-creativity requires the craft skills and knowledge and commitment of professionals and experts.

So in the book I seek to describe the lived experiences and understandings of these professionals and citizen consumers as they together explore together the opportunities and challenges of co-creative production. An important point here that I mentioned earlier is paying close attention to their understandings of all this. This is the ethnographic impulse I guess that orients much of my research.

These understandings are diverse. For example, professional videogames development teams are often far from united in their support for co-creative production or for the value that these engagements offer. Throughout my now well over a decade research on this one of the clear points coming through again and again is that producers, designers, programmers, artists, CEOs, marketing and community managers all have very different understandings of these co-creative relationships.

 

The ‘free labor’ argument going back to Tiziana Terranova’s work and others such as Andrew Ross is that through these kinds of co-creation activities we see significant value generated that creative industries rely on. Following from this the argument is made that this extraction of surplus value is unfair and exploitative. Furthermore, co-creative production practices may also contribute to the precarity of creative professionals working lives. The concern here is that this ‘free labor’ may replace the jobs of media professionals. This political economy critique questions accounts that emphasise the empowering and potentially democratizing, participatory potential of these activities.

 

What does this critique get right? For me what it gets right is foregrounding questions of work and labour. In the book my approach to this is to focus on the participants’ (both users and game developer professionals) understandings of these topics. In ‘Chapter 4: Co-creative labour?’ with Sal Humphreys, we approach all of this as a question. Indeed, there are a lot of questions posed in the chapter. Should we approach these co-creative activities as a form of labour? What are the impacts of these practices on the employment conditions and professional identities of videogames developers? If we accept that labour is a helpful category then should we approach this as a case of exploitation in which surplus value is extracted by capital in such a way as to reduce costs and potentially displace paid workers?

We suggest that co-creative media production may sit uncomfortably with such political economy critiques. I guess I’m open to criticism here that in doing this I become an apologist for, or at least complicit with, the interests of business and capital. In this book I’ve tried to avoid what I find to be quite unhelpful and polarising polemic around these issues.

I don’t think my book is especially valorising or celebratory of co-creativity, at least I hope not in any panglossian sense. I most certainly have concerns about market excesses and exploitative labour practices that can characterise the videogames industry. Nevertheless, the argument I develop is that co-creative production should not necessarily be approached as cheap content or unpaid and therefore exploited labour.

One of the keys for me here is that the participants themselves (the gamers and the developers) do not often approach it or understand it in these ways. Sometimes they do – at moments in the ethnographic research participants do raise the concern that the practices are becoming exploitative or unfair.

The way I’ve approached it then is to try and understand co-creativity as a dynamic and often contested mechanism for coordination and change in which the participants are adaptively experimenting with these opportunities for mutual benefit and endeavouring to figure out what that mutual benefit looks like and how best to realize that. Yes exploitation can occur and yes work practices and employment conditions are at stake. But I’m just not convinced that the language and framework of exploitation and extraction of surplus value necessarily explains what is occurring here.

 

The co-creative relationships cannot easily be reduced to corporate exploitation of the gamers and the professional developers. I try as much as possible to take my lead from the often quite nuanced understandings of the participants themselves. I struggle with the assumption that there are social forces (exploitative and manipulative) at work behind the actors’ backs as it were.

I question this ‘unknowingness’ by suggesting that the players and professional developers often do know what they are producing and the conditions under which this is occurring and they often do not understand this in terms of exploitation. They are usually quite canny and indeed competent participants in the shaping of these relationships. They make informed judgments about the nature and conditions of the value exchanges and transactions that are occurring.

I question an assumption that academic critics are in some sense blessed with an ability to see through manipulative or exploitative practices that the participants themselves are blind to. However, in making this point I’m not saying that exploitation and unfair practices don’t occur. The ethnographic description in the book includes extensive coverage of participants (including the gamers) identifying such occurrences and working through their understanding of this.

 

I’m just not convinced that political economy critique adequately grapples with the flows and exchanges of value characterizing co-creativity. These flows can be very different from say a displacement of professional labour by unpaid creative labour. Instead we need approaches and models that grapple with how economic outcomes and incentives sit alongside and co-evolve with social and cultural outcomes. But in all this yes the question of labour is crucial. We need to keep posing the difficult questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these industries, as does for example Gina Neff in her important book Venture Labour.

 

As an aside on this, I’m also interested in how the kinds of workplace and labour issues I’ve seen in games development also occur and are experienced in other areas of media production. For example, in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2013 Harper), Sean Howe vividly describes the experiences of comic book writers, artists and editors in the ‘Marvel bullpen’ as they weathered the turbulent boom and bust cycles of the comics market. In reading this book I was struck by the similarities to videogames development and it raised for me questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these volatile industries.

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.