Multichannel Networks and the New Media Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part Three)

The Amazing Race this season has featured a range of social entertainment personalities as their contestants, and many of them seem to be recognized as they travel around the world in ways that previous contestants on the show have not. Does this suggest something about the transnational nature of the media ecology you are describing? Is this another example where U.S. produced content dominates global markets or are we seeing talent emerge in other national contexts which circulates as broadly?

There is indeed a strongly transnational dynamic in new media ecology. Take a couple of examples: Turkey takes a particularly strong interventionary stance with regard to the potential disruption to the political, religious and social order posed by the digital platforms, including YouTube, and has regularly blocked them. The national carrier, Turkish Airlines, however, uses YouTube content creators and multichannel networks in developing a clone of the Amazing Race format ‑ youth-oriented, social media-based engagement strategies ‑ in its attempt to build brand recognition in the ultra-competitive international airline market. Musicians like Elissa from Lebanon or Iranian-Saudi Arabian acapella artist Alaa Wardi or comedians Bader Sadeh, aka the “Saudi King of Comedy”, have harnessed SME platforms to launch global careers and secure cross-cultural and diasporic Middle Eastern audiences less inhibited by local online platform or content censorship. An Australian multichannel network primes aspiring online musicians in their attempts to break into booming Asian pop scenes. India has experienced breakneck growth of amateur content creation, while China is creating a parallel universe of social media entertainment unbeholden to Western platforms and capital.

It is notable that 80% of YouTube traffic comes from outside the US, and 60% of creators’ views come from outside their home country.

Media globalisation has been an enduring topic in film and media studies. It is possible to posit a qualitatively new wave of media globalisation based on the global availability and uptake of YouTube which is relatively frictionless compared to national broadcasting and systems of film and DVD release and licensing by “windowed” territory. And compared to film and television, there is very little imposed content regulation (apart from substantial self-regulation) on the major platforms such as Google/YouTube and Facebook ‑ some of the world’s largest information and communication companies ‑ as their use as content distributors proliferates globally. But it is media globalisation with the difference.

For streaming services such as Netflix, aggressive global expansion (having reached 130 countries to 2015) requires it to negotiate with pre-existing rights holders in each new territory and often requires it to close down informal means of accessing its popular content such as VPN workarounds in such territories. While, longer term, the streaming giants may well drive territorial licensing to the wall, SME content is largely “born global”. This is because this massively growing content industry, in stark contrast to content industries in general and Hollywood and broadcast television in particular, is not primarily based on IP control. YouTube elected to avoid the messy and legally cumbersome traditional media model of owned or shared IP. YouTube also avoided paying fees for content as well as offering backend residual or profit participation. Rather, YouTube entered into ‘partnership agreements’ with their content creators based on a split of advertising revenue from first dollar. In the eight years since the partner plan launched, YouTube has secured over 1 million YouTube partners worldwide.

YouTube talks of being primarily a facilitator of creator and content in the many international markets in which it operates. The key difference between traditional media operating multi-nationally and YouTube is that the former produces, owns or licences content for distribution, exhibition or sale in multiple territories, while the latter seeks to avoid the conflation of YouTubers as the IP creators with YouTube as “platform” and “middleman” operating to facilitate linking of brands and advertisers with YouTube creators and MCNs.

There are significant reasons for YouTube not taking an IP ownership position, which have to do with its continued status as a platform or online service provider rather than a content company. The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998, in addition to criminalising circumvention measures and heightening the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet, created ‘safe harbour’ provisions for online service providers (OSPs, including ISPs) against copyright infringement liability, provided they responsively block access to alleged infringing material on receipt of infringement claims from a rights holder.

Sceptics would argue that while anyone can post content on YouTube and the other video sharing sites, only a small handful gain the top level of visibility. So, what kind of filtering mechanisms are at play here? Does this suggest the persistence of old-school commercial criteria in shaping who reaches the top? Can we make a case that the production and circulation of niche content plays a different or more significant role here than in other media systems? Should our focus be on the true mass successes, applying Broadcast standards, or should we consider the amplified voice available to creators who reach smaller audiences that are still significantly greater than they would have been able to reach in the past?

 

While most critical scholars will assert the top-down, determining hand of corporate capitalism, we think the situation is a little more nuanced than that. Digital platforms provide the fundamental communicative affordance and certainly (attempt to) profit from the communicative activity that takes place on the platform, but they do not determine what content works, what ‘trends’, what ‘goes viral’. The great part of the platforms’ agency in respect of content is responsive/reactive, not determinative. The greatest busyness on the part of the platforms is the massive undercurrent of work responding to takedown notices, maintaining the precarious viability of what is managed as civic/civil discourse. It is estimated that Google deals with more than 60 million takedown requests a month! Meanwhile, of course, the AdSense algorithm takes care of the basic revenue streams that continue to pour into Google’s coffers. As Temple University communication professor Hector Postigo says, YouTube is in the happy position of betting on all the numbers at the roulette table.

Stuart, you’ve spent much of your career focused on questions of media policy, and I know some critics have argued that the media policy tradition has lost its way, shifting from a focus on public service media, towards one more centered around issues of entrepreneurship. What would you say to such critics in terms of the agenda and policy implications of this current research?

Contemporary policy questions, including media policy, can be very much preoccupied with issues of entrepreneurship. Perhaps not so strongly in the US, but in many countries media policy concerns itself with the sustainability of start-up careers and small and medium businesses as well as curbing or harnessing the power of the big conglomerates. If there isn’t vibrant local content production capability to command space in the media diet, what’s the point of curbing or harnessing Big Media power?

Traditions of independent public service media, which of course are much more central in the media ecologies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia than in the US, are engaged these days in the facilitation of regional and local capability. In Australia, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) engages with media entrepreneurs, including YouTube content creators, by providing off Broadway opportunities through iView, its hugely successful catch-up service.

David, you’ve come to this project with a background working in the American entertainment industry. How have your own experiences as a media-maker impacted your agenda and perspective on this project?

This project has exposed, affirmed, and challenged my deep-seated subjectivities. As a former producer and programming executive, I am hyper-attenuated to certain topics and perspectives. Not surprisingly, I can’t seem to stop discussing the agency and precarity of creative management and labor.

Plus as an LGBT producer, activist, and scholar, I may be more attentive to their presence although this functions counter-intuitively. I can sometimes be even more cynical about the progressive value of these LGBT creators, their commercial and representational practices, and potential media effects.

In addition, I am fluent in “Hollywoodlish”. This argot allows me to better understand and critique some of these industrial practices as well as filter out some of the Caldwellian industry “spin”. That said, when it comes to “techlish”, I am often lost in translation.

Alternatively, I fall into old patterns of privileging business logics over critical, cultural, and media effects. Fortunately, I have Stuart there as a mitigating influence, forcing me exert some distance from the economics of this industry to more critically account for how power is operating both positively and negatively in this space.

None of us can project the future, but does your research provide any insights on where all of this might be going? What are the long-term implications of the trends you are identifying and documenting here?

The new digital platforms are competing as much against each other as they are posing challenges to established screen media industries. There are clear dividing lines between platforms (Netflix, Amazon) committed to professional content and competing directly against cable and broadcast and those which, though iterating content strategies and monetising through advertising, remain firmly on the social media side of social media entertainment (Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram). YouTube sits somewhere in the middle. More intense competition with diverging business models amongst these platforms may see a destructive fragmentation of the new screen ecology.

There is an emerging sense that we might be coming to the end of the first phase of the development of social media entertainment. In the eighteen months since Disney acquired Maker, the acquisition of or investment in these SME intermediaries has declined. There is emerging evidence that the rate of venture capital investment is slowing, indicating that the entrepreneurial ‘buzz’ around the multichannel networks has dissipated. The platforms’ revenue model has been based around programmatic advertising and this has significant limits, although we have seen evidence of platforms moving to capture a higher order value by building brand relationships, squeezing the MCNs in the process. Subscription is being trialled (Red) and this has seen YouTube flex its muscles in a way that should really worry anyone who sees cultural potential in social media entertainment.

There are historical precedents and some impetus for the assimilation over time of this new screen ecology into mainstream protocol and practice, but there is more evidence to suggest it may grow in parallel with, and as a continuing challenge to, the more traditional, established modes of professional screen industrial practice. Rather, with proliferation of new screen platforms capable of luring away traditional media advertising, there is less incentive for the new screen players to transition to the mainstream. Having carved out their own media brands, through unique audience-centric practices and content innovation, the social media creator might survive as a wizard of a parallel screen ecology. Then we’d no longer be in Hollywood, Dorothy.

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).
 
 
David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.

Multichannel Networks and the New Media Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part Two)

Many of these new players have historically existed in a “pre-revenue” space — that is, they have gained higher evaluations than their return on investment might suggest. But, this is starting to change. How will profitability impact the kinds of social and cultural functions these players perform in this new media ecology?

The profitability of platforms is very uneven. It’s much too early to say which of the current slew of social media platforms will survive and thrive, and under what conditions. Twitter for example is very problematic as an economic proposition. It has huge social media affordance, but if it was to falter – as a lot of business media is reporting over 2015-6 – whole swathes of industrious academics in our field would be looking for new angles! Facebook is humongous and threatens to create a proprietary wall around the web for developing countries particularly in Africa, dressed up of course as civic noblesse oblige. YouTube is in a different position. Hammocked by Google’s VERY deep pockets, it was purchased for $1.65 billion back in 2006 and some now estimate it to be worth $70 billion but it has only started to break even very recently. It has been given all the time in the (online) world to get its (business) act together.

But for cultural studies scholars, the point is not really about profitability –it’s about commerciality as such. Most scholars, so far, have treated the kinds of social and cultural functions YouTube performs in the new media ecology as having been compromised by its rapid commercialisation. Jose Van Dijck, for example, says a ‘far cry from its original design, YouTube is no longer an alternative to television, but a full-fledged player in the media entertainment industry’.

Our point is to absolutely acknowledge the deep social and cultural role and impact of YouTube. Vanderbilt University law professor Stephen Hetcher says of its ability to avoid Napsterization: ‘the world has never before seen the likes of YouTube in terms of availability of non-infringing content’. This has allowed it to roll out a virtually global space for vernacular video content whose success culturally as well is commercially has seen most of the contending digital platforms needing to develop video players.

Our second point would be that there is still massive non-commercial civic space available on YouTube. But its commercialisation strategies of professionalizing amateurs have now reached a level that demands critical analytical attention without such strategies being normatively framed against the brief period of pure YouTube amateurism.

 

We’ve seen many generations of struggles for independent artists to gain greater access to the viewing public. How might these new media producers fit within that history? But, the genres or kinds of entertainment they produce are radically different — more commercial in a sense — than what constituted independent media-making in the past. So, how do you respond to critics who would argue that these independent producers are selling out and going mainstream?

Rather than artists or producers, most of our interview subjects referred to themselves as “content creators”, although some used the term “community builders”. In stark contrast to media artists in the past, these platforms offered these creators unlimited access. No gatekeepers or scarcity. The only limitations were, as mentioned before, the iterative tech and social platform that are harnessed and converted into commercial affordances by these creators.

However, before they were creators, and like most artists and producers, they were fans, users, and viewers. And, in addition to watching content, they were also engaging with creators and their fans who shared their interests. Over time, these users became creators, operating as hobbyists initially until they discovered how to monetize their content and their community. In an effort to distinguish these phenomena from traditional entertainment, we have coined the term “communitainment”. This term accounts for their use of social media platforms, uniquely content innovation, as well as the “communion” between creators and their fan communities.

Within communitainment, creators have engage in unique and iterative content innovation that is sometimes starkly different from the high production value and sophisticated narratives of traditional media. Hank Green, one of the most prominent creator-entrepreneurs in this ecology, described how “YouTube has helped people create at least three massive genres of cheap-to-produce, high-quality content that viewers really, really love. Video game “Let’s Plays”, style tutorials, and direct-to-camera monologues (which we in the biz call “Vlogs”).”   Our own genre analysis offers slight variation and, as with most genre formulations, is libel for taxonomic tyranny and rightfully subject to heightened scrutiny and debate.

Game play has emerged as one of the most popular forms of content on YouTube. PewDiePie has converted his comedic game play commentary into over 43 million subscribers and 11.5 billion video views. Although he appears often singularly on screen, PewDiePie employs over thirty people plus a raft of managers, publicists, and advertising experts who run his global media brand across multiple platforms. Although our analysis would suggest much higher sums, PDP has also been rumoured to have earned over $14 million in revenue from his game play in 2015.

Despite some backlash from his fans, for which PDP has even issued forth a kind of video apologia, his media empire continues to grow. This has been a pattern we’ve found with other creators and communities who understand that this space requires funding. That said, creators have developed a fascinating self-regulatory system for maintaining authenticity with their fans while also generating revenue. Creators are very cautious to avoid brand deals with products and services that are misaligned with their own content and representation. As one manager mentioned, “a 19-year-old would be happy to take a one million dollar check from an advertiser unless it’s the last check she ever gets.”

By the way, PDP is just the tip of the game play universe. In 2011, Twitch combined game play on YouTube with the affordances of live broadcasting and was acquired by Amazon for $1 billion. The platform has 100 million monthly users and 12,000 partners generating revenue off of their game play. China features an even more competitive game play industry, including multiple platforms like Panda TV and DuoyuTV that routinely pilfer each others best players.

As Green affirms, style tutorials feature prominently on YouTube and Michele Phan operates as perhaps the best example of how to combine content innovation with strategic commercial entrepreneurism and grow a media brand. Her aspirational makeup tutorials have secured over 8 million subscribers and over 1 billion views. Phan is not converting her fans into subscribers for her mail order makeup business, Ipsy. Phan is also converting her best fans and subscribers into lifestyle vloggers who appear on her YouTube network called Icon. As a result of this virtually seamless ecology both on and offline, the 26-year-old Phan is now valued at over $500 million.

We prefer the term DIY to refer to not only style tutorials but multiple “how-to” subgenres, including the mysterious world of unboxing. Unboxing features built in narrativity as creators open a box in order to assemble and operate its content. Most notably, we have encountered numerous channels dedicated to children’s toys that have garnered startling view counts. One video featuring the Play Doh Ice Cream Cupcakes Playset has been seen over 740 million times.   This content can not help but generate critical anxieties, if not instigate a kind of moral panic, over what these hyper-commercialized appeals may be doing to young viewers.

Vlogging operates as both format and genre, operating more like commodified speech than entertainment IP. As a format, vlogging is a production format featuring direct address as seen in documentaries and reality programs, and now featured regularly in scripted television, like Modern Family and The Office. As a genre, vlogging can feature multiple topics. Hank and John Green are the “vlogbrothers” and have cultivated a community called “nerdfighters”. Their content, which we have identified as a subgenre of “popular information”, feature educational topics as diverse as the U.S. healthcare system to Syrian refugees to why people love giraffes.

In contrast, vloggers like Tyler Oakley feature less overtly educational fare, often based on their own larger-than-life style. Oakley’s most viewed videos cover topics include how to get the best booty, tips for the first kiss, or 100 things he did last year. In his recent feature documentary, Snervous, Oakley acknowledges he doesn’t “make skits or films”. Rather he is “just a personality” – albeit a personality that attracts over 8 million subscribers on YouTube alone, numerous television appearances, bestselling books, and sold out global fan events.

These new media producers are, as a whole, more diverse, culturally, ethnically, racially, and otherwise, than the mainstream media industry. What factors has contributed to the success of minority producers working in this space?

Let’s compare the Academy Awards to the Streamy (online video) awards. 2015’s nominees including an astonishing diversity of race, gender, and national identities, including Palestinian-Americans (Fousey), Germans (Flula), Canadian-Indians (IISuperwomanII), African-Americans (King Bach), and more. While #Oscarssowhite, the Streamyssodiverse. Minority producers have not only harnessed these platforms because of their affordances of unparalleled access coupled with content abundance. They may even be privileged in this space because of their ability to appeal to minorities that have been underrepresented in traditional film and television. This includes Asian-Americans and LGBT content creators who over-index in this space.

Asian-Americans feature prominently in the first wave of commercial content creators on YouTube, e.g., comedians (Fung Brothers and Ryan Higa), musicians (Sam Tsui and David Choi), beauty vloggers like Michele Phan, and traditional scripted creators (Freddie Wong and Wong Fu Productions). Curiously, we discovered that most of the creators ventured online, not due to the lack of opportunities in Hollywood, but because their parents prohibited them from pursuing media and entertainment careers. This phenomenon was as much the consequence of subcultural inhibitions as any perceived or latent racism within the entertainment industry.

Similarly, LGBT content creators are prolific, leading Vanity Fair to claim that, “everyone will come out on YouTube eventually.” Some creators like Tyler Oakley and Davey Wavey arrived online and out. Others like Hannah Hart came out shortly after starting their channel. For transgender people the coming out process can be quite different. Over the past eight years, Gigi Gorgeous allowed her fans to witness her transformation from cisgendered male to transfemale, which well pre-dates the trans moment in traditional media with Caitlyn Jenner and Transparent.

Other creators have come out of the closet mid-career, including top content creators like Ingrid Nilsen, Joey Graceffa, Troye Sivan, and Connor Franta. On the one hand, their declarations affirm the discourses of authenticity that distinguish their content. As a result, their courage is rewarded with millions of views although we found numerous instances where they turned off advertising on their coming out videos, even those reaching over 20 million views. Alternatively, these creators placed their self-owned-and-operated business in peril. When Ingrid Nilsen came out, she jeopardized her multi-year relationship with Covergirl as a “glambassador”. As she declared in our interview, she did not want to represent a brand that wouldn’t accept who she is.

What are the civic or political implications of these new channels and systems of circulation? Are we seeing signs that these new creators are speaking for and to their communities in new ways? Are now issues and new models of mobilization emerging here?

A number of prominent media and communication scholars like Mary Gray and Katherine Sender have described the proliferation of online networked LGBT communities. They have accounted for the unique forms of Guffman-esque impression management conducted by gay youth online. Some have even levelled critiques about the homonormativity within this space.

Our research continues this scholarship to account as well for their commodification of identity, perhaps best exemplified by Joey Graceffa. After six years of hiding his sexuality, Graceffa came out in unique fashion, by writing, producing, and starring in his own musical fantasy video where he saves and kisses his Prince Charming (his boyfriend, Daniel, in real life). After the music video ends, Graceffa delivers his pitch to camera, expressing his firm desire that his fans appreciate his work and that his coming out might just make a difference in someone else’s life. And, by the way, the video is “just a glimpse of what you will discover” if you buy his memoir to be published the next day. In the meantime, purchase the song to download on iTunes.

The coming out of entrepreneurial LGBT content creators may represent the new “gay for pay”. And yet, does this commercialization mitigate their cultural value or meaning for their tens of millions of fans, old and new, gay or straight?  In nearly every instance, our research has discovered that LGBT creators who come out of the closet have subsequently engaged in various forms of LGBT activism and media interventionism, whether raising money for LGBT causes, or speaking out on behalf of pro-LGBT policies or advocating for pro-LGBT products and services.

For decades, theorists have described the “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu) and “annihilation” (Gerbner and Gross) committed by the dearth of diverse media representation. In this industry, we may be witnessing the inverse, a symbolic proliferation of authenticated, marginalized identities and performance, albeit for commercial gain. While reinforcing anxieties about media capital and effects, these phenomena also offer the potential for progressive cultural change, not to mention the prospect of dozens of student theses and dissertations.

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).
 
 
David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.


 

Multichannel Networks and the New Screen Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part One)

Stuart Cunningham is an Aussie; David Craig hails from the American south. Stuart has been a leading figure in the realm of cultural studies, pushing all of us towards a greater engagement with media policy issues. Craig has been an activist and an industry insider, someone who, as he notes, speaks “Hollywoodish.”

Together, they have set out on the ultimate “odd couple” academic buddy adventure — trying to map an emerging media ecology which is being shaped by new producers and entrepreneurs trying to circulate their content through multichannel networks. They have begun an ambitious project interviewing producers, platform managers, and fans, from around the world, as we understand how the word of DIY video opened up by YouTube more than a decade ago has evolved into a space for professional and semi-professional media production and distribution.

There’s much we do not yet understand about this screen ecology which is evolving hour by hour, but the first step in making sense of the changes which are occurring is to develop a systematic model of the genres being deployed, who is creating this media, what their motives are, what the economic arrangements look like, and what the impact of these evolving cultural practices have been.

There’s been a lot of talk through the years about the value of bringing together political economy work on the creative industries with more cultural studies work on the cultural and political implications of new producers and audiences. Cunningham and Craig are doing that work as we speak.

Often here, I share insights once books have been published, but they wanted to share some of their preliminary findings here in hopes of sparking conversations with others researching and thinking about this space. They are just starting to publish articles based on their initial field work, and you can find an early example here. Over the next three installments, the two authors share with us some key insights and address some fundamental questions about what’s happening with these new formats, new producers, and new audiences.

You’ve described this project as an attempt to map an emerging “screen ecology.” What do you mean by a “screen ecology,” and what are the methods you are using to identify its parameters?

The idea of an ecological approach really refers to the interdependencies amongst the elements in the ‘gene pool’ of the new screen ecology. It means we have been able to develop an account of why, for example, the multichannel networks are as precarious as the creator careers that they are trying to facilitate. This means that we have been able to complement what is the important focus by scholars such as Vicki Mayer on precarious labour below the line, and demonstrate that management in such a volatile environment can be as precarious.

These intermediaries are being squeezed from above and from below. ‘Above’ – more powerful than – them in the ecology is Google/YouTube, which, having invited in, nurtured and licensed MCNs, is now encroaching on their basic business model by developing its own branded content R&D through direct engagement with top brands in its in-house agency The Zoo. ‘Below’ them, successful, MCN-mentored, YouTubers are poached by mainstream talent agencies, move to the numerous other platforms on offer, and/or negotiate much better terms of trade for themselves. To remain viable, MCNs need to innovate even more rapidly than YouTube and the other digital platforms, and certainly faster than established media.

Another example of the ecological approach has allowed us to refine our account of the political economy of the capitalist hegemons at the top of the food chain. Rather than seeing the IT industry/Silicon Valley/NoCal taking on mass media entertainment/SoCal in a battle that only one can win, it is more ecological to look at their evolving interdependency and the way each is forcing change in the other, with potential benefits for the ordinary citizen-consumer.

Ultimately, our notion of ‘ecology’ derives from evolutionary principles that seek to explain the interdependent dynamics of the economic and social worlds we live in. Evolutionary economics –Stuart has written about the implications of this heterodox tradition for media studies in the recent book with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, Media Economics ‑ has taught us that these systems are never in balance or in equilibrium, as the dominant economic neo-classical models seek to model. There is always turbulence, always change, and new green shoots are always emerging from the creative destruction of the old.

 

Your focus in this project are the emerging digital distributors of video content, such as YouTube and Netflix. In what ways do these companies differ from the “media incumbents” they are challenging? What changes do these companies represent for the way media is produced, distributed, and consumed? 

Everyone has heard the old truism ‘content is king’ – this is what comforts Hollywood executives in their darker moments. But the political economy truism is that, if content is king, then distribution is King Kong. Distribution has always been where the money is made in the screen industries. And the two big gorillas in our current distribution mist are Netflix and YouTube. Together, they constitute more than 50% of prime time US online viewing.

Netflix and YouTube are alike in a number of ways. Both are world-spanning platforms. YouTube’s platform is uploaded to and streamed around the world, with the particular exclusion of China – which is platform autarkic, North Korea and at any one time a number of countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. Netflix has expanded to 130 countries after coming to dominate the North American mainstream streaming space.

But there are big differences. Netflix is largely a mainstream video store, just online. Is populated by professionally-generated content (PGC). Yes, it has state-of-the-art recommendation algorithms driving consumer navigation and a great deal of resultant consumer satisfaction. But it is old wine in new bottles. And in most regions outside North America, its back catalogue is dusty and drab. Nevertheless, it has huge brand recognition and attracts a lot of entertainment media attention.

Not so mainstream, and less noticed by main media and people of a certain demographic, YouTube’s social media entertainment, we would argue, is a much more radical, longer term challenge to main media than Netflix. Every YouTube creator, whether they’re earning big bucks or not, started as an amateur, a hobbyist, operate, create content, and represent alternative and participatory value to their audiences. And now these are multiplatform creators, using numerous social media platforms to incubate and monetize their unique form of content as well as engage with, aggregate, and harness global fan communities.

These platforms raise questions about the relationship between commercial and amateur production. Many of the top stars on YouTube, say, have positioned themselves as much closer to the audience than to the commercial entertainment sector. Is this simply a posture or is there something different about these new producers from the kinds of media producers that have shaped previous generation’s entertainment? And in particular, is there something significantly different about the ways they connect with their viewers?

Within this ecology, platforms feature constantly differentiating and iterating content, curation and comment features that inform circulation. However, rather than platform determinism, users have the agency to harness these features and create their own technological and social affordances. Baym (2015) describes this as the social shaping of technology. As informed by our research, these creators have also converted these features into commercial affordances, although not without precarity and frustration.

As Halverson (2013) noted, “curation is the new creation” as platforms have sought out new forms of artificial scarcity to compensate for almost unlimited content abundance. Content players like YouTube and Netflix offer user interfaces (UIs) and content management systems (CMs) that feature a mix of programming categories informed by recommendation algorithms. These programming categories resemble what one might see in a video store, e.g., documentaries, drama, and comedies, TV shows, and talk shows. Beneath these taxonomies, however, are complex, non-transparent, and iterating algorithms based on user interaction, including views, subscription, likes, and shares. In contrast, social network platforms like Facebook avoid categorization and simply feature feeds, yet again, constantly iterating and generating indiscernible algorithms designed to avoid hacking by advertisers and creators. While these curatorial features may promote content the users want to see, their primary function is to better target, aggregate, and engage users for the benefit of platforms and advertisers.

For creators, these iterative shifts in platform features can prove disruptive. An overnight shift in algorithms can result in the loss of audience and missing revenue. Most recently, Instagram announced it will switch from a chronological to algorithmic feed. This has led creators to besiege their followers, pleading with them to turn on “push notifications” to notify fans when content has been posted, effectively working around the algorithm. Other creators are petitioning Instagram to stay chronological, while others are threatening to leave altogether.

Notwithstanding all this platform precarity, creators have proven strategic in understanding and converting these features into commercial affordances as well as adapting to these changes. Based on our research, creators have found ways mitigate this platform precarity through a sophisticated, if laborious, practice of circulating customized content across multiple channels and/or platforms. Some creators feature multiple YouTube channels while others have launched channels on an ever-increasing array of proliferating platforms, e.g., Vine, Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat, and Victorious.

Social media play a crucial role in making the content produced and distributed by these platforms accessible to their desired markets. To quote someone or other, “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” So, what can you tell us about the ways content is curated and circulated through these social media channels?

Content circulation represents more than sharing and reposting. Rather, the content must be customized to the nature of the content players, whether short-form looping video on Vine or a live broadcast channel on Periscope or a filtered photograph on Instagram. Only a few platforms offer partnerships; however, creators may be posting content to engage in influencer marketing, which has been richly funded by brand deals and guaranteed across multiple platforms.

But not all content makes money. Some content is designed to add value. Creators use multiple platforms not simply to spread content but to engage in community building. Our interviews affirm that this practice is high-touch with limited scalability. Creators spend upwards of 50% of their time on multiple platforms for the sole purpose of engaging with fans and building their community. Like their fans, they comment, like, share, retweet, and subscribe.

In addition, most creators manage this work themselves, in part to maintain discourses of authenticity with their community that few can emulate. However, in our interview, we learned that the SMOSH duo initially refused to work on Facebook, forcing their managers at Defy Media to pose as one of the creators and respond to the Smosh fans.

Comedians Rhett and Link hired their own social media manager, because “there is no way we can personally manage it”, although they pointed out that “Jenn” is well known to their fans.

 

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).
 
David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.

The Ancient Art of Falling Down: Vaudeville Cinema Between Hollywood and China

Last fall, I ran a three part interview here with Christopher Rea, an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. (See Part One, Part Two, Part Three). Rea is the author of a recent book, The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015), which explores the emergence of new forms of popular humor in China in the early 20th century.

Rea had contacted me because he had drawn some inspiration for this project from one of my early books, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. I had traced the emergence of new styles of comic performance from the variety stage to Hollywood over the first three decades of the 20th century. This was work I had done almost 30 years ago, so while I was intrigued to learn more about what scholars were saying on this topic today, it was ancient memory for me.

When Rea was invited to come to USC, he asked me to come out and play. Together, we put together a cross-cultural conversation about slapstick comedy, which was hosted by the fine folks at the USC Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. Rea shared with me some of the clips he wanted to discuss from Chinese slapstick cinema, and I pulled together some clips for American silent and early sound comedy that explored some of the same themes and motifs. We pooled slides into one massive power point presentation, but otherwise, what emerged was unscripted and unrehearsed.

We met for the first time in person just moments before we went onto stage together. But what emerged was pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. There are clearly unexplored connections between comedy in China and the United States during this period. Seeing clips side by side evokes all kinds of memories and associations, and a great discussion emerged around those connections. The result has left me wanting to dig back into my roots in comedy studies and explore this territory once again.

We are sharing the video of that session here for your amusement (some pretty funny material) and your reflection (We would love to hear from others who have researched slapstick comedy in either country and might have insights to share about the topics we discussed.)

By Any Media Necessary (Part Six): To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

This is the sixth and final entry in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

by Emilia Yang

Donald Trump, real estate magnate and reality television star (against all odds and many people’s disbelief) is still running and leading in the primary elections of the Republican Party. During his campaign Trump has made various statements regarding illegal immigration using derogatory and generalizing terms to refer to the Latino population and even proposing to ban people from “Muslim countries” from entering the country. At the same time, various white supremacists and neo-Nazis organizations have shown support for Trump. Sadly, Trump’s hateful rhetoric not only has had a political effect on his fellow candidates’ positions about immigration, but it has also materialized through violence toward various racial groups, growing exponentially since I first started researching this topic in September 2015 [1].


His proposal for “stopping” illegal immigration is to build a giant wall that would be called “The Great Wall Of Trump”[2]. It is evident that Trump and his supporters do not understand nor care about the humanitarian catastrophe that this would represent. Immigration and security experts warn that historically, US government border enforcement strategies have resulted in a massive increase in border crosser deaths [3]. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [is an open wound] where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds” (1987).

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Source: Ian Cleary, “The great wall of Trump”, August 26th, 2015

In a parallel context, students at USC and many other Universities across the Nation are struggling to call attention and overcome structural racism. Even though Trump’s hate speech does not directly link to the discrimination lived by the students on campus, it is disproportionately present in the media discourse that we are exposed to. The recognition of these issues provides a context for discussions about the realities of ethnic minorities such as the Latino community.

In response, I created a media art project borrowing ideas from participatory co-creative media, agonistic design and installation and participatory art, which I called To Trump Trump’s Wall. The main objective of the project was to test different participatory frameworks (a workshop and an art installation) where a political issue is discussed, imagined, and represented in situ. A secondary objective was to find the difference in results between these two frameworks, and the third objective was to inspire fellow students, activists and academics to work with media making methodologies as communication alternatives that challenge both their perceptions of difference and their political engagement.

The first iteration of this project was in the 2015 West Coast Organizing Conference hosted by the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) in what I will call the workshop framework. At this conference, student leaders from across the West Coast reunited to teach, support, learn from and inspire each other in their fights for justice. This inspirational weekend featured panels, caucuses, and workshops including To Trump’s Trump wall workshop, as discussion spaces for transgender, women, queer, people of color, working class, and people with disabilities. The second iteration of this project was presented in in the lobby of the SCI Interactive Media Building in the School of Cinematic Arts at the “Against Method” Exhibition that presented five ongoing PhD. student projects in what I will call the installation framework.

During the organizing conference I was given a time frame of one hour to enable a discussion about undocumented issues with 20 participants. I was inspired by Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop [4] created by my colleagues Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova, along with Karl Bauman, Ilse Escobar and Susu Attar in collaboration with community partners, artists, and activists and presented in the website By Any Media Necessary. This website provides resources that enhance and illustrate the forthcoming book By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics authored by Henry Jenkins and the Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) group.

In this world building workshop model, facilitators use prompt cards and ask participants to produce a one-word response to their prompt. Then they ask participants to imagine a future world set in a specific year (i.e. 2044) where fantastical things are possible and to come up with a narrative of what happens in this world, relating it to one of the themes fleshed out in the brainstorm. At the end, participants have to come up with a way to perform the story back to the whole group. Similarly, in Trump Trump’s wall workshop, I asked participants to discuss issues of immigration prompted with cards, reflecting on the immigrant experience, and then craft a message that they would like to inscribe in Trump’s wall if it was built and they had it up front. These are some examples of the cards given to the participants:

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The participants of the workshop engaged in very interesting discussions in groups. Their message was first drafted, both in words and visually on a storyboard, and then created and projected in the form of stop-motions animations. This mechanic enabled participants to learn how to animate figures and understand the logic of stop-motion animations while doing them.

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The installation piece enabled an interactive experience of facing the wall, listening to a soundscape of the US/Mexico border. As in the workshop, participants where asked to create a character with a message that would face the wall with the materials and objects available.

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The results are a large amount of media creations that will have a longer life than both frameworks. The animations created by the participants were politically charged, thoughtful, with calls for action. Participants stated that this was an innovative way of discussing any subject and they were interested in doing similar activities in their organizations and sharing their creations online.

Despite being different frameworks of engagement, both enabled multiple discussions with diverse voices of students and faculty. These conversations generated media creations that address a relevant political theme with a playful approach. Overall, I believe that the collaborative and public creation of media activates new spaces for political debate and possibilities of expression within the participants, tapping into practices associated with participatory culture.

My proposal for critical participatory making is to recognize us in others and harness the power of imagination to think otherwise. I propose participation as the place where real, inclusive and contested communication can take place, without erasing difference. I hope for participants not only to empathize with a real situation like the immigrant experience, but also to imagine an alternative positioning where they feel that they can confront this reality creatively. In this sense, I align with Henry Jenkins’ call to stimulate the civic imagination. For him, change emerges from the possibility of imagining a different world, infusing this imagination with a sense that change is possible, and understanding ourselves as agents capable of helping to drive that change. Thus the duality between “this is our reality” and “how we would like it” are displayed not as two isolated and abstract events, but as a contested open space in the present that we can transform through the encounter between reality and desire.

 

In the case of Trump’s hate, racial discrimination and active calls for the enactment of violence, I believe we are entering into a completely different reality than the one I foresaw when developing the project, and we have to address this with multiple practices of civic imagination. The animal we are facing has mutated drastically. Lives are at risk and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to Trump Trump’s wall and hate by any media necessary.

Citations:

[1] Gabe Ortiz, “TIMELINE: Trump’s Racial Demagoguery Is Having Dangerous, Real-Life Consequences”, America’s Voice, September 16, 2015, http://americasvoice.org/blog/a-timeline-trumps-racial-demagoguery-is-having-dangerous-real-life-consquences/

Dara Lind, “What the hell is going on with violence at Trump rallies, explained”, March 14, 2016.

http://www.vox.com/2016/3/14/11219256/trump-violent

[2] “Trump on border: We’ll call it the great wall of Trump”, August 20, 2015, Real Clear Politics, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/08/20/trump_on_border_well_call_it_the_great_wall_of_trump.html

[3] Clare Floran, “Trump’s Immigration Wall May Have Lethal Consequences”, August 25, 205, National Journal, http://www.govexec.com/management/2015/08/trumps-immigration-wall-may-have-lethal-consequences/119371/

[4] Workshops: “Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop” http://byanymedia.org/works/mapp/activity-1?path=activities

References

Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands: la frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Luke Book Company

Emilia Yang is an activist, artist, and militant researcher. Yang is currently a Ph.D. student in Media Arts + Practice in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Her work has been interconnected with digital communications, performance, and public art. Her research focuses on participatory culture and its relationship to media, arts, and design. She is interested in transmedia storytelling framed through the question of how it can foster social change and civic engagement. Her art practice utilizes site-specific interactive installations, interactive documentaries, performance, and urban interventions, all of which explore social justice issues in participatory ways. Emilia completed an M.A in Communications at Penn State University. Her Master’s project researched the first social media protest to make it to the streets in her home country Nicaragua. She developed a participatory transmedia storytelling hub in a site called ocupainss.org with the objective to present the maximum number of stories and violations of human rights around this protest.

By Any Media Necessary (Part Five): By Any Infrastructure

This is the fifth in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

By Any Infrastructure Necessary

by Samantha Close

What does a scholarly transmedia project look like?  We’ve become familiar with venturing into fictional worlds created by weaving together different mediums, different modes of engagement, and different narratives.  For the By Any Media Necessary project, there was already a book being written.  When your purpose is to analyze and explain rather than to create and entertain, what kind of digital structure makes sense?

At the start, it looked like a google doc and an excel spreadsheet—the time-honored academic method of listing out sources, citations, key notes, and organizing them into thematic clusters and columns.  One of the key affordances of digital media is its ability to extend, to archive more kinds of content in more ways and simply more volume than any one printed book ever could.  We used that capacity to accumulate a hefty pile of case studies and examples, interesting groups and fascinating moments, which at that stage of brute force listing and organization could have easily become another book or an article in a journal.

Books and articles are, in general, linear.  The argument is organized as a forward march and the existing content materials are marshalled accordingly.  What doesn’t fit gets moved around; what doesn’t contribute to the point gets cut.  With the digital structure, however, we didn’t have to.  Even more than the affordance of abundance, the ability to allow, and even privilege, the winding detour turned out to be key.  One argument and line of logic doesn’t need to satisfy all comers because they, like us, can follow and chart idiosyncratic paths through the assembled materials.

After several long meetings, it looked like an alien lifeform.  As research assistants, Raffi and I sketched out circles, lines, and arrows in multi-color marker on our meeting room whiteboard, accompanied by snippets of suitably cryptic text.

BAM Brainstorm Visual

Our scribblings were motivated by the desire to find a balance between railroading audiences through material without allowing for exploration and dropping them into the middle of a trackless archival heap. The navigational structure had to clarify, not confuse, but also to anticipate a wide range of perspectives. Speaking to different audiences coming from very different places meant that questions like “what items do you put on the main menu?” and “how do you explain that there are educational resources without using the words ‘curriculum’ or ‘education’?” assumed great importance. Using terminology that didn’t signal to the audience who could use the content, that led people to expect something that didn’t follow, or that encouraged people to artificially corral themselves in one small corner of the project could lead to teachers, activists, students, scholars, and other folk closing out and not coming back.

And then, it started to look like a website. A really ugly website. But we were getting there. We settled on a few key navigational principles that balanced separation and classification at the top with a web of dense interconnection once you dove in. Navigating into the archive, you’re asked to choose between learning about people doing things (groups, individuals, and networks) or about the things they were making to do them (different kinds of media). That allowed us to chart out analytical paths through each of these broad categories that highlighted particular properties of activities and texts, like the impact of media form or a focus on a specific issue.

Once audiences drilled down to a particular case, though, they had easy routes out to follow whatever piqued their interest—not necessarily what brought them there in the first place. One could start looking at civic networks, find the Class War Kittehs case and see the way actors within this network join cute (and grumpy) animal memes with strong statements about labor rights and economic policies that they share on social media. Now curious about the use of such memes in activism, it’s easy to move from a focused look at the Class War Kitteh Grumpy Cat (who is still waiting for it to trickle down) to analysis of how single, still images can and are being used to promote social justice. From one of those images, a teacher could move to the Conversation Starter video on remix and authorship, which translates the analysis of how civic networks use images into a classroom-ready prompt for student discussion. An activist passionate about economic issues might move instead from these images to the collection of other organizations tackling these topics with different methods and from multiple points of view.

 

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Writing this now with the advantage of hindsight, the structure seems almost painfully obvious. Of course that’s what we would want! The process of getting here, though, was far from straightforward. It pushed us to conceptualize our material in new ways and to collaborate with both a graphic designer and an interactive media team. For my part, I am almost as excited to see how people engage with the infrastructure as with the content, to the extent that the two even can be separated. Like the activists this project analyzes, we’ve tried to find the best media to get our message across. Come help us figure out where it will go from here!

Samantha Close is a doctoral candidate in Communication at the University of Southern California.  Her research interests include digital media, theory-practice, political economy, fan studies, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on labor and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism.  Her documentary “I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers,” based on her on-going dissertation work into the economic culture of crafting, is hosted online by Vice Media’s Motherboard channel.  Her writing appears in the academic journalsFeminist Media Studies, Transformative Works and Cultures, and Anthropology Now as well as in more informal online spaces.  You can find her on Twitter @butnocigar.

By Any Media Necessary (Part Four): The NAMLE/MAPP Educator Collaboration

This is the Fourth in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

The NAMLE/MAPP Educator Collaboration

by Michelle Ciulla Lipkin

The exploration of the topics of credibility, remix, agenda shifting and privacy are of utmost importance for media literacy educators. I was thrilled when the organization I lead, The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), was asked to develop and implement a strategy to distribute videos and curriculum related to these topics to educators. These Conversation Starter Videos featured as part of the MAPP Project were created through collaboration between MAPP, Participant Media and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRecord. Supporting materials were also developed for the videos to be used in high school and higher education classrooms.

The goal for this particular project was to conduct professional development sessions with the videos and accompanying materials for high school teachers and college professors. NAMLE conducted a series of workshops with the Conversation Starter Videos in various locations around the U.S.A. from July, 2015 – November, 2015. I had the opportunity to coordinate and lead these workshops. I attended NCTE’s WLU Literacies for All Summer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia and the University of Rhode Island’s Summer Institute in Digital Literacy in Providence. I coordinated a professional development session in collaboration with the Jacob Burns Film Center in White Plains, NY and the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I also had the chance to conduct a workshop for Rhode Island librarians as part of the statewide Media Smart Libraries Initiative.

NAMLE Workshop

You’d think that in my role as Executive Director of a national education organization that I would have lots of the opportunities to talk directly to teachers. I certainly do my best to create those opportunities but I often find that my time is spent doing lots of other things in support of teachers but not necessarily with them. This project was unbelievably appealing to me because it gave me an opportunity to be face to face with teachers to talk about topics integral to media literacy. The conversations did not disappoint.

Overall, the videos and materials were very well received. Teachers felt the videos were engaging and thoughtful. There were certain themes that resonated throughout the workshops. Teachers are hungry for easily accessible resources to use in their classrooms. They greatly appreciate free resources. It allows all teachers to have access. They want contemporary content that speaks to their students and echoes the type of media their students are consuming and creating. Teachers want the opportunity to decide how they want to use resources in their classroom rather than being told how to use them in a prescriptive way.

As far as the video topics are concerned, there are two points that really stuck out for me. First, the topic of credibility is of tremendous concern to educators. In the workshops that I conducted, teachers were asked to break out into small groups and develop activities using one of the videos. By far, credibility was the one people chose to discuss. There is an evident desire to explore the ways to teach credibility. Teachers feel that the issue of credibility continues to grow more and more complex with the increase of digital technologies that allow access to more and more information. It was apparent that teachers are struggling with how to teach their students the skills they need to assess credible information in a media saturated world.

Second, teachers had the most questions about the remix video, having difficulty understanding the basic concept of remix and how to teach it. It was tough to delve deeply into substantial conversation after the remix video because of the focus on clarifying the topic itself. The divide between the generations was evident here. While youth embrace the remix culture, adults are somewhat confused by it. It is apparent that more tools need to be developed to help teachers comprehend remix and its relevance in their classrooms.

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One of the highlights of the project came during the one student workshop we conducted with the Student Leadership Committee of the National Speech and Debate Association. The National Speech and Debate Association is the largest speech and debate organization serving middle school, high school, and college students in the United States. 153 students from 38 states actively participated in our online chat and were very engaged by the material. The video format, music, and style were very appealing to the students. They had a lot of thoughts on the topics, were eager to share their answers with the questions posed in the videos, and were willing to debate points with each other. It was clear these videos sparked conversation for the students.

After conducting these workshops, I conclude the videos and accompanying materials are valuable resources for teachers interested in exploring issues with credibility, remix, agenda shifting, and privacy. Their energetic style with a celebrity host only adds to the appeal for students. It is important to note the videos really do act simply as conversation starters. While they pose important questions and provide discussion prompts, they do not provide answers or practical action steps. Teachers consistently said that they would have appreciated more concrete answers to the questions posed. The use of accompanying materials and additional resources are needed to truly explore the topics.

I was incredibly glad to be able to share media content with teachers for free that could lend itself to important conversation. Watching teachers discuss and debate credibility, remix, agenda shifting and privacy made it apparent how essential media literacy professional development is to the success of a 21st century classroom. Teachers are eager to discuss these topics and enthusiastic about bringing them into the classroom.

As an organization, NAMLE is committed to ensuring that everyone is taught to be a critical thinker, effective communicator and an active citizen. It is no surprise that we are inspired and encouraged by the work of Henry Jenkins and the MAPP project. We were so honored to be part of this project and look forward to seeing how these resources are used in classrooms across the country.

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Michelle Ciulla Lipkin has been the Executive Director of NAMLE since September 2012. After graduating from NYU’s Film School in 1994, Michelle began her career in children’s television production, working for Nickelodeon from 1995 – 2000. Michelle returned to NYU to earn her graduate degree at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

Michelle focused her grad work on children and television while also continuing to do freelance television production. Since earning her graduate degree, Michelle has been lecturing and doing workshops for parents and children on media use and digital citizenship. Michelle also worked as a facilitator for The LAMP (Learning about Multimedia Project) from 2010 – 2013 teaching media literacy and production classes from Pre-Kindergarten to 5th grade.

For the last 7 years, Michelle has been an active parent in the NYC public school system. Michelle served as Chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, President of the District 3 President’s Council, and President of the P.S. 199 P.T.A. Michelle currently serves on the Parent Association Board and School Leadership Team of M.S. 245, The Computer School. Michelle lives in New York City with her husband, son and daughter.

By Any Media Necessary (Part Three): Educator Collaborations with the National Writing Project

This is the third in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

Educator Collaborations with the National Writing Project

by Diana Lee (with materials created by Liana Gamber Thompson, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, Alexandra Margolin and Sangita Shresthova)

Are you interested in how teachers are using the By Any Media resource to plan lessons? The educators section of byanymedia.org offers an in-depth look at how educators and activists have helped us build on and improve this resource for use in learning spaces by sharing their  lesson planning processes.

Starting in Summer 2014, we began piloting the By Any Media Necessary (BAM) online resource with groups of K-12 educators affiliated with the National Writing Project. This was done in an effort to see how teachers can utilize the resource in their classrooms. Sessions brought together small groups of teachers to informally explore the BAM resource, provide feedback on the utility of the scalar platform and usability of the interface, test drive some of the available materials such as the MAPP workshops anddigital media toolkit, and engage with the sizable archive of media on BAM. For example, high school Economics teacher Albert spoke from experience as a teacher who already incorporates creative use of digital media and technology into his classroom. He described how different aspects of the BAM resource could help him scaffold and build lessons that deepen students’ critical engagement with social issues and how working with these practices and tools could help students learn to express their knowledge and opinions through creative and maker practices that they are passionate about.


Through our conversations, we also sought to understand some of the structural obstacles preventing teachers from working with digital media and technology in their classrooms. For example, high school Language Arts teacher Kate talked with us about administrative and systemic barriers to working with cellphones and other kinds of digital media and technology at her school, and discussed ways that she and other teachers could legitimize this kind of work and navigate around these barriers.

While the MAPP team hopes that BAM is a resource for teachers, we understand that we ourselves are not teachers and therefore the development of lesson and unit plans is not our expertise. Rather than outline how we feel BAM can be used in the classroom, we would like to highlight how actual teachers are using the resource. We hope to continue to partner with teachers who are using BAM in their classrooms in the months ahead.

Also see:

  1. Lesson Plans: Teachers from Locke High School in South LA
  2. Teaching Teachers: Nicole
  3. Conversations with Activists and Educators

Diana Lee is a doctoral candidate at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who researches the creation and circulation of mediated counter-narratives in response to racial microaggressions. Through multimedia visual culture and storytelling resistance practices, she explores how these networked participatory cultures aim to collectively process, speak back to, or educate about racial microaggressions and their layered, cumulative effects. She is particularly interested in the potential healing and empowering impact of participating in these resistance practices for those who frequently navigate microaggressions in their everyday lives, and how these kinds of engagement can be utilized and fostered for education in other contexts of learning. Before doctoral studies, Diana worked in education research and evaluation, afterschool programming and development, and on several mixed-methods research projects in education, psychology, mental health, immigration, youth culture, media literacy, and communication. Diana holds a B.A. in Sociology from UC Berkeley, an Ed.M. in Learning and Teaching from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a M.A. in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU.

By Any Media Necessary (Part Two): Conversation Starters on Digital Voice (By Any Media)

This is the second in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

resources curated by: Alexandra Margolin, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, Sangita Shresthova

The “Conversation Starters on Digital Voice” collection aims to help you get a conversation on By Any Media Necessary started in communities, organizations and educational settings. The core theme shared by all the conversation starter short films in the series is that the nature of political participation is changing in an era of networked communication. More and more we rely on each other for news and information, more and more we work through issues and concerns in conversation with others within our social networks, and more and more we tap the affordances of new media in order to mobilize for change.

As we do so, then, there are practical and ethical challenges: Young people — indeed, all of us — need to take responsibility for the quality of information they circulate, they need to recognize the risks and opportunities of political engagement, they need to understand the copyright implications of their choices to remix and share media, and they need to respect the contributions of others within their community. We want to use these interstitials to help young people to better understand what is at stake in participatory politics and to ask core questions before they act online.

How were these films and materials created?
All the interstitial films were created through collaboration between MAPP, Pivot.tv and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRECord. Below is a little more information about each of the collaborators.

HitRECord
The collaboration started with HitRECord, a self-described “professional open collaborative production company” founded by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. According to Gordon-Levitt:

HITRECORD is different than your typical Hollywood production company. Anyone with the Internet can contribute to our collaborative projects & this website is where we come to make things together, like Short Films, Books, Music, Art, and our latest & greatest production – our television show: HITRECORD ON TV. You can contribute your Video, Image, Text, or Audio RECords to any of the collaborations we’re working on, or you can start your own collaboration on the site. And if your work gets used in a money-making production, we pay you for it. For their work in 2013, the community is receiving a grand total of $737,175.09.

HITRECORD ON TV airs on the Pivot.tv television network which is a component of Participant Media.

Participant Media/Pivot.tv

Participant Media is a media company that serves a double line “dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change.” According to their website:

Founded in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, Participant combines the power of a good story well told with opportunities for viewers to get involved. Participant’s more than 65 films include Lincoln, Contagion, The Help, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Food, Inc., Waiting For “Superman,” CITIZENFOUR and An Inconvenient Truth. Participant has also launched more than a dozen original series, including “Please Like Me,” “Hit Record On TV with Joseph Gordon-Levitt,” and “Fortitude,” for its television network, Pivot.

Pivot.tv is Participant’s television network where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord is aired. In their own words:

We’re Pivot TV, a new TV network where what you watch does make a difference. We’ve got all the usual stuff like original shows, movies and docs, but we’ve also got a little something more. When you watch Pivot TV, you won’t just be entertained.  You can also take action on the issues raised in our content.  The chance to do something about it will be right there on the screen, or just inside the next commercial break. So go ahead and pivot. You just might be able to make a meaningful difference in the world. Pivot TV: It’s Your Turn.

Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP)
The Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research team is lead by Henry Jenkins and is based at the University of Southern California (USC). Over the past five years, MAPP conducted five case studies of diverse youth-driven communities that translate mechanisms of participatory culture into civic engagement and political participation.

Building on these findings, the MAPP team partnered with the Media Arts + Practice Division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to create resources, conversation starters and workshops that encourage participants to think critically about previous examples of civic media and act creatively as they draw on their own experiences and aspirations to translate these insights into their own media practice. These resources and workshops currently live in the “By Any Media Necessary” collection and can be accessed at byanymedia.org.

What does this collection contain?

This collection contains the following:

Films: Four short conversation-starter films created through a partnership between HitRecord, Pivot and the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project at USC. The films cover the following digital age topics: credibility, private vs. public, remix and shifting the agenda

Resource Packets: Four corresponding resource packets with sample questions, key points, key term definitions, and examples that will help you identify ways that these films may serve your community or students

Supplemental Resources: Additional article resources on related topics to help you further explore the topics covered.

Conversation Starter Topic: Credibility in the Digital Age

 

How do we assess the quality of information we encounter online? What accountability and responsibility should we have over the integrity of the social justice content we decide to circulate? And how prepared should we be to defend the claims we make to support our arguments around political issues? According to a recent survey conducted by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network, 85 percent of high school aged youth want more help in learning to discern the credibility of the information they encounter online. For us, this issue is most powerfully raised by our case study of Invisible Children’s Kony2012campaign, but it is also one which almost every public awareness effort confronts sooner or later.

Conversation Starter Topic: Shifting the Agenda in the Digital Age

How might identity groups use media to react to, reshape, or even control the narrative being constructed about them in mainstream media? We are seeing many of the groups we study — but especially the DREAM activists and the American Muslim networks respond quickly to news stories or popular culture programming that they feel places them in a negative light. They are using their collective capacities to pull together information, critique representation, construct alternative narratives, and get them into circulation, often in ways that commands the attention of major news organizations. In part, these strategies work because of the ways they are able to quickly mobilize dispersed and decentralized networks that are invested in helping them spread content.

Conversation Starter Topic: Public vs. Private in the Digital Age

How might activists assess risks, especially those concerning privacy and security, as they share their stories online? In a widely shared critique of so-called “Twitter Revolutions,” The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell argues that online activists do not face the same kinds of risks as previous generations faced in their struggles for civil rights. Yet, we are finding that there are high risks for, say, undocumented who post videos coming out via YouTube or American Muslim youth who use social media to think through their identities in the Post-9/11 era. Many of these risks emerge as these youth make choices about the bounds between publicity (“coming out,” “speaking out”) and privacy, which are similar to more mundane choices confronting all youth in the era of Twitter and Facebook.

Conversation Starter Topic: Remix in the Digital Age

How can appropriating and remixing content from popular culture lead to new kinds of political consciousness? And, how do activists who appropriate and remix  existing media in their campaigns resolve issues around copyright? These are the sorts of topics that prompted the Remix conversation starter video collaboration with HitRECord.

We are seeing examples of the merging of the identities of fans and citizens across a range of political movements — most spectacularly in our work through the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, but also in the use of remix for political expression via the Occupy Wall Street movement (like the Pepper Spray Cop memes), the protests against Gov. Walker in Wisconsin,  “Binders Full of Women” during the 2012 Presidential Campaign, and the use of the Guy Fawkes mask, most closely associated in the United States with V for Vendetta, by a range of activist groups, including Anonymous.

Remix promotes a mode of political speech that can be easy to understand, funny and powerful. It contrasts with the policy wonk language that often excludes youth from meaningful participation. Within this context, copyright can be seen as “private censorship” that silences a particular kind of expression. Creative activists need to understand the basic criteria of Fair Use and make informed choices as they quote and circulate pre-existing media. Diving into these complex issues with your organization, community or students can open up many opportunities for meaningful learning. In classroom contexts especially, remix practices may intersect with questions around plagiarism and present a productive context in which to develop best practices for citation and appropriate use of existing content for purposes of critique and transformative work. This video is meant to be a starting place and jumping off point. More context, resources, and topics to consider are provided below.

You can also download “Conversations on Digital Voice” resources and videos here.

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Alexandra Margolin is the Project Manager for the Mellon Funded Digital Humanities Initiative at the Claremont Colleges. She comes from a background in Ethnic Studies, non-profit project management, and grassroots media production having spent the last 6 years working on non-profit and higher education grants. Prior to joining Claremont’s Digital Humanities team, Alex served as the Program Specialist for the Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project at USC which examined participatory models of youth activism and was responsible for the project’s outward facing programming with activists and educators. She received her B.A. in history from Pitzer College and an M.A. in Asian American Studies from UCLA. Her research interests include: social constructions of multiraciality through foodways, social justice learning, and alternative modes of storytelling.

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro is an assistant professor of the practice of cinematic arts in the Division of Media Arts + Practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where he researches, designs and produces digital media for innovative learning. As a member of the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project he works to develop participatory media resources and curricula to support new forms of civic education and engagement for young people. He helped create The Junior AV Club, a participatory action research project exploring mindful media making and sharing as powerful practices of early childhood learning. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on digital media tools and tactics, digital studies and new media for social change. He received his B.A. in Film Studies from UC Berkeley, completed his M.F.A in Film Directing and Production at UCLA and is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Arts + Practice.

Sangita Shresthova is the Director of the MacArthur funded Henry Jenkins’ Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project based at the University of Southern California. MAPP focuses on civic participation in the digital age and includes research, educator outreach, and partnerships with community groups and media organizations, and companies. Sangita’s own scholarly work focuses on the intersections among popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. She holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures and MSc. degrees from MIT and LSE. Her book on Bollywood dance and globalization (Is It All About Hips?) was published by SAGE Publications in 2011. Drawing on her background in Indian dance and new media, she is also the founder of Bollynatyam’s Global Bollywood Dance Project. Her more recent research has focused on issues of storytelling and surveillance among American Muslim youth and the achievements and challenges faced by Invisible Children pre-and-post Kony2012. She is also one of the authors on By Any Media Necessary: The New Activism of Youth, a forthcoming book that will be published by NYU Press.

By Any Media Necessary (Part One): The Book Companion as Multimodal Scholarship

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Later this month, New York University Press will release my newest book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. This book reflects seven plus years of field work which I have conducted with Sangita Shresthova, my research director, and our Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research team. This work has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of their ongoing support for Digital Media and Learning and in particular, as an outgrowth of the multi-disciplinary, multi-university research network on Youth and Participatory Politics (headed by Joseph Kahne, Mills College).  Our research team interviewed more than 200 young activists as well as monitored their media strategies, seeking to better understand the mechanisms by which these groups tapped the existing skills and interests of young people and helped them channel these resources and literacies towards civic ends.  Here’s the official description for the book:

There is a widespread perception that the foundations of American democracy are dysfunctional, public trust in core institutions is eroding, and little is likely to emerge from traditional politics that will shift those conditions. Youth are often seen as emblematic of this crisis—frequently represented as uninterested in political life, ill-informed about current-affairs, and unwilling to register and vote. By Any Media Necessary offers a profoundly different picture of contemporary American youth. Young men and women are tapping into the potential of new forms of communication such as social media platforms, spreadable videos and memes, remixing the language of popular culture, and seeking to bring about political change—by any media necessary. In a series of case studies covering a diverse range of organizations, networks, and movements involving young people in the political process—from the Harry Potter Alliance which fights for human rights in the name of the popular fantasy franchise to immigration rights advocates using superheroes to dramatize their struggles—By Any Media Necessary examines the civic imagination at work. Before the world can change, people need the ability to imagine what alternatives might look like and identify paths by which change can be achieved. Exploring new forms of political activities and identities emerging from the practice of participatory culture, By Any Media Necessary reveals how these shifts in communication have unleashed a new political dynamism in American youth.

Each of the book’s co-authors — which include beyond myself and Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman  — took ownership of one or more specific case study of youth activists at work. Our exemplars include Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, The DREAMer movement, Students for Liberty, and a range of projects within the American Muslim community. But the overarching themes of the book emerged from many years of intense discussions amongst the writers, including the core theoretical frame I helped to provide in the opening and closing chapters. We’ve already received some great responses to the book:

 

“A far reaching book that explores the many different digital strategies and platforms young people use to have their voices heard and their political agendas advanced. The case studies at the heart of this book are powerful,  telling the story of how young people across demographic categories are using digital media to engage in a new form of politics—Participatory Politics—that is destined to significantly shape  civic life for years to come.”

—Cathy J. Cohen,  author of Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics

“Fantasy is not an escape from our world; it’s an invitation to go deeper into it. The most relevant book of our era, it will undoubtedly inspire you and those you love to join the millions of people who are transforming our world: by any media necessary.”

—Andrew Slack, creator/co-founder of the Harry Potter Alliance

 

“A much-needed narration of political agency that tackles its many contradictions head-on, without losing sight of nuance. The book’s case studies, rich in detail, are wonderful invitations to think more and better about the role of empathy, care, ethics, empowerment, and participation in our contemporary political realities.”

—Nico Carpentier, Uppsala University, Sweden

“Understanding the connections between practices of media consumption and enduring civic engagement is one of the most exciting challenges that cultural studies currently faces. For over a decade, Henry Jenkins has been exploring this issue, and now he and an excellent team of co-authors offer the most searching examination of this question for a US context that we have.  An inspiring and enlivening book, this is a definite must read!”

—Nick Couldry, London School of Economics and Political Science

 

As we’ve prepared the book for publication, we’ve also developed some additional online resources which educators and activists might use to foster discussions around its core themes of transmedia activism, the civic imagination, and digital citizenship. Over the next few installments of this blog, I will be sharing with you reports from members of our larger research team, describing how these resources were developed and how we have been working in partnership with several core educational networks — the National Writing Project and the National Association of Media Literacy Educators — to test these approaches with educators. I am hoping you will check out our online site,  byanymedia.org, and consider how you might make use of these materials in your own context.

The Book Companion as Multimodal Scholarship

by Yomna Elsayed

As a book about new forms of political activism that have emerged from the practices of participatory cultures in the past few decades, By Any Media Necessary approaches publishing in a way that addresses the multimodality of each case study, from web pages and social media to remixes and videos. The role of the online book companion is to extend the dimensionality of every chapter with a chapter summary and its accompanying audio-visual content. Hence, print chapters should be read concurrently with their companion chapter to get a more holistic understanding of the type of activist practices discussed and referenced in the case studies.

BAM1

The hybrid design, with both digital and print components, and the choice of Scalar as a platform, is a reflection of the authors’ appreciation of the digital scholarship tradition lead by Tara McPherson and Steve Anderson. In the book companion, the multi-modal artefacts are given center stage while the summary text is used to provide the context of the audio-visual content. Multimodality, Tara McPherson notes, helps scholars “understand their arguments and their objects of study differently” by experiencing the argument “in a more immersive and sensory-rich space” (McPherson 2009).

While mostly amateurish, the value of showcasing digital artefacts, such as confessional videos, or campaign ads around which action was organized, is not to highlight the videos themselves as much as it is to highlight the practices they facilitate. These media objects also signal a shifting relationship between consumers and media products, and a networked mode of visual expression .

BAM-bookpath

The book companion path is composed of seven pages. Each page revolves around one of the book chapters, providing a summary of key ideas and concepts as well as any referenced audio-visual content in the print version. It also connects with the groups/organizations path, media library and the glossary to provide readers with new pathways to follow the argument in a non-linear fashion. The intent of non-linearity is to explore new relationships and new research questions that “are not necessarily based on the structure of a linear argument” 1. The book companion can be accessed through the main menu at byanymedia.org.

 

 

McPherson, T. (2009). Media Studies and the Digital humanities. Cinema Journal 48 (2), pp. 119-123

Yomna Elsayed is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is a research assistant for the MAPP project. Her research interests include the cultural productions and manifestations surrounding social change in the Arab World and Egypt in specific. She is also interested in online technologies and how they are appropriated by youth to overcome cultural and political barriers, and to engage in a process of public will formation at a time of social conflict.