Imagining the Future at Sankofa City

A few weeks ago, I shared a conversation which my Civics Paths research group had hosted at USC exploring diversity and science fiction, part of our ongoing exploration of the ways that speculative world building might foster a more robust civic imagination. Our focus on world building comes from many different directions, as science fiction prototyping has become a widespread concept here at USC and beyond. An important early member of our research team was Karl Baumann, who has been going out into the communities around Los Angles and putting some of these ideas about helping people to project alternative futures for themselves into practice. 

Karl Baumann has been working with artist/organizer Ben R. Caldwell in Leimert Park the past year to create a speculative community design project called Sankofa City. The project pairs community residents and artists with USC students, to create prototypes and short films about future technologies tied to local culture. Baumann and Caldwell have worked together for the last 5 years as part of the Leimert Phone Company, which they founded along with François Bar and Benjamin Stokes. 

This video shares some of the backstory for the Sankofa City project, while their final science fiction film is posted at the end of this article. 


Here's how they described their process in a recent academic publication:

The “Sankofa City” project worked with community participants to define their preferable futures, often tied to local African- American cultural norms and social practices. Their imagined futures can present alternatives to dominant techno-cultures, associated with Silicon Valley [9] or “The California Ideology” [10], which is characterized as socially progressive while economically neoliberal, using proprietary techno-systems to replace traditional government services or organized labor.

In contrast, the Leimert Phone Company (LPC) is driven by an ethos of developing public technology for the “commons” [where resources are shared by the community].  In the Commonwealth [11], political philosophers Hardt and Negri argue that urban centers present the most powerful potentials for establishing the “commons” through encounters across different populations, in order to combat the isolation and individualism of neoliberalist socio-economic practices.

The LPC process of design is based on deliberate encounters, or contact zones [8], particularly between outsiders and local residents. As the new subway will connect Leimert Park to the rest of the city, there will inevitably be an influx of outside populations. Rather than be defensive or self-victimizing, our projects seek to create public technologies that facilitate meaningful encounters or direct outsiders to engage with local cultural history and institutions. We have previously created a constellation [12] of designs around contact zones, while developing long-term strategies for capacity building and sustainable growth.

The “Sankofa City” project teamed USC students with local residents, musicians, and artists. All workshops took place at the Kaos Network art center in Leimert Park, with another workshop at the USC film school’s green screen stage to shoot a design fiction video.

The workshops were run as an experimental course, facilitated by Karl Baumann, who is a USC PhD student, and Ben R. Caldwell  who  owns and operates the art center.  Workshops met for twelve weeks, with a final public presentation at the end. The size varied from week to week, peaking at 16 participants in the early weeks. We had 4 regular students, 2 occasional students, 2-9 community participants, and 2-4 organizers. One unexpected participant/organizer was a design graduate student, who is developing public autonomous-shuttles. A wide range of guest speakers were also invited, including urban planners, local historians, an AR designer, a critical race professor, a game designer, a media theorist, and a multimedia designer.

The process included 3 phases, plus a final exhibition:

1.) Brainstorming – high level concepts organized around “what if” hypothetical questions and systematic imagining of the neighborhood. Groups rotated weekly.

2.) Prototyping – groups solidify to create personas and prototypes (wearables and urban objects) engaging the larger systematic concepts.

3.) Design Fictions –designs and personas synthesize into scenarios to create design fiction collages and a video.

4.) Presentation – groups present their collages and videos to a local planning committee of stakeholders.

This process began with a broad set of ideas and then syphoned down to a more focused set of particular designs, personas, and scenario collages/videos. Throughout the process, we intentionally balanced futurist provocations with local history and existing urban forms, as well as systemic approaches with human-centric design perspectives.

I was lucky enough to get a chance to attend one of the workshops and watch this amazing community, featuring participants of diverse racial, ethnic, and generational backgrounds, working together to create personas, imagine worlds, and construct narratives that might represent alternative futures for their community. In the process, you can see friendships form, bonds strengthen, voices emerge, and a shared vision start to solidify, all values we hope to foster through our own civic imagination work. 

In the end, the team created its own science fiction video, which has a distinctive afro-futurist spin, that helps to illustrate what one future for their community might look like, if they had access to the shared technological and economic resources to realize their dreams. 

 Here's the background on the two collaborators who set this amazing project into motion:

Karl Baumann is a designer, filmmaker, and researcher. His current work lies at the intersection of speculative design and community art. Working across cinema, games, and mobile media, his methodology is based on collaborative design and user participation that explores the future of civic engagement, urbanism, and networked technology. Karl holds an M.F.A. in Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) from UC Santa Cruz. He is currently an Annenberg Fellow in the Media Arts + Practice (MAP) Ph. D. program at the University of Southern California. Karl works with the World Building Media Lab (WBML), the Mobile and Environmental Media Lab (MEML), the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, and the Annenberg Innovation Lab (AIL). He is also working with Intel’s Global Production Lab and the Google News Lab’s R&D group.

Ben R. Caldwell is a Los Angeles-based arts educator and independent filmmaker. A native of New Mexico, Caldwell studied filmmaking at UCLA, at the same time as Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Billy Woodberry, as part of a group of young artists who were to change African American independent filmmaking — a cultural phenomenon sometimes called "The L.A. Rebellion" (also the title of a book on the topic recently published by UC Press). Caldwell’s work has been shown nationally and internationally, most recently at LAMAG and at the Tate Modern. Caldwell taught several years at CalArts and became a major force in CAP (Community Arts Partnership). In 1984, he founded KAOS Network, a community arts center dedicated to providing training on digital arts, media arts and multi-media, at the heart of Leimert Park, historic center of the Los Angeles jazz culture, now hosting a diverse multi-ethnic multimedia arts center. KAOS Network was designed to empower the youth of the community and is the only organization of its kind in South Central Los Angeles where inner-city youth can participate in hands-on courses in video production, animation, web-site development, video teleconferencing, CD ROM production, and use of the Internet. KAOS is also home to WORDshop, Project Blowed, and BANANAS, weekly workshop for musical artists, dancers, singers, and visual artists. Curator George Clark describes Caldwell’s idea of KAOS, “that artists should have the same role in the community as doctors or lawyers, they should be there on the street: you should be able to drop in and see them, interact with them.” Each week hundreds of youth participate in workshops and programs at the center. In addition to these workshops, KAOS Network has videotaped community events and produced documentaries for the state of California. KAOS Network is committed to creating a worldwide community of young people who are dedicated to learning and working in new media technologies.

Cheers! Lonely Otakus: Bilibili, the Barrage Subtitles System and Fandom as Performance

My book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, was released earlier this year in a translation intended for the Chinese market. My translator, Xiping Zheng, also recently completed a dissertation, Borderless Fandom and The Contemporary Popular Cultural Scene in Chinese Cyberspace. Given my ongoing interest in transnational studies of fan culture, I asked if I might publish a small excerpt from that dissertation here -- in this case, dealing with a form of fan participation that has been taking many parts of East Asia by storm in recent years. I am excited that she is going to be coming to join my research group at USC as a visiting scholar starting in the fall and proud to be introducing her work to the fandom studies community in the west.


Cheers! Lonely Otakus: Bilbili, the Barrage Subtitles System and Fandom as Performance

by Xiping Zheng

Barrage subtitle system is started by the Japanese website Niconico douga ニコニコ動画 —a site for otaku community, the ninth most visited website in Japan in the year 2016. The comments on a barrage subtitle streaming website, instead of appearing under the video in a special “comment” section, appear directly on the video screen. Synced with the video, the comments would appear at certain playback time when the video is played. The default setting makes the comments displayed in black font and white color, flying over the video from the right to the left at a random height; but fonts and special effects can be specified in advanced settings.

The phrase “barrage” is popularized by several anime directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino富野由悠季, including Mobile Suit Z Gundam (機動戦士Ζガンダム Kidō Senshi Z Gandamu 1985-1986) and Aura Battler Dunbine (聖戦士ダンバイン Seisenshi Danbain, 1983-1984), in which a line “The barrage on the port side is too thin! What should we do?” grew viral in the otaku community. Besides, Toho project, a phenomenally popular shooter game since the late 1990s allows bullets to form complicated patterns—a barrage so complicated that it later becomes a spectacle in the gaming community (see Lin and Gao for more information). With such background, netizens on Niconico chose this word to describe heavily commented scenes on a Niconico video as “barrage,” that resembles a scene with flying bullets across the screen in video games. Later this name is given to all the comments on the screen.

Chinese otaku established several video sharing sites, directly imitating Niconico; the most influential ones are AcFun and Bilibili. Here I will primarily use Bilibili as an example. Founded in the year 2009, it is now the most influential and popular barrage subtitle website in China. “Bilibili” is the nickname for a popular female character Misaka Mikoto御坂美琴 in the light novel and anime, A Certain Scientific Railgun (To Aru Kagaku no Reirugan とある科学の超電子砲, 2009-2010, 2013). Since it was originally designed to be majorly catering to the Japanese ACGN otaku, Bilibili has a specific section for all new Japanese animations. Besides, it provides sections for the DIY fans to showcase their talent in singing, dancing, music performance, painting, fan video editing, video game playing, etc., all in the realm of Japanese ACGN culture (acronym of “Anime, Comic, Game, Light Novel”). Because of Bilibili’s growing popularity, it now reserves sections for all types of popular culture, including, for example, American TV series, films, talk shows, Chinese TV dramas, variety shows—the contents incorporated into the website actually reflect the diverse interest and versatile talents of the otaku community.

After the success of Bilibili, the barrage subtitle system became known to the mainstream. Many Chinese online streaming websites, including the mainstream Tudou, Tencent, now support barrage subtitles, yet “Site A” and “Site B” remain the most important websites for the otaku community. According to an interview, Chen Rui the manager of Bilibili says, that he is not worried about the mainstream websites adopting the barrage subtitle feature at all, because what matters is not the configuration, but the content. The content does not only refers to those videos uploaded, but also the interactive barrage subtitles posted by the viewers. The chemistry of these otaku-oriented sites comes from the videos, the viewers, and most importantly, the interaction between the websites and the otaku users.

 Otaku, as it is currently used in daily practice, refers to lovers and heavy consumers of Japanese manga, anime, games, and light novels. The word otaku is an honorarium word for “your house,” and thus “you,” was used by a group of Japanese sci-fi fans in the 1960s for addressing each other inside the community. The word gained wide public attention when a critic, Akio Nakamori, ridicules these heavy consumers of totally unrealistic and childish media products, with the word “otaku.” The otaku culture came to Chinese mainland together with the Japanese manga, anime and game, as early as in the 1980s. For a certain period of time, Japanese anime obtained a position close to mainstream children’s entertainment until in the mid-2000s, when the government shut down the legal broadcast of Japanese anime in children’s programs around the country. The boundary between the mainstream and the otaku culture is therefore blurry and flimsy in China, yet still tangible. Less mainstream ACGN products first came to China in the form of pirated copies of Chinese translations legally produced in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Then online fansubs and fan translators become the major cultural mediators, who translate almost everything in this area. Only recently that the Japanese anime are again screened legally in China, with online video streaming websites purchasing legal rights from the Japanese anime producers. It is not difficult to imagine that most Chinese young people are more or less familiar with the Japanese ACGN culture. Naturally, most of the earliest Chinese fandoms are built on Japanese ACGN culture, even the fandom structures and activities are imitated from Japan through Taiwan’s mediation. With such a heavy influence from Japan, the “popular culture” understood and accepted by young generations in China then automatically involves Japanese ACGN culture. Therefore, the community of ACGN fans in China is not as clearly defined as it is in English speaking countries, where Japanese media traditionally lies in a comparatively marginal and subcultural realm.

While Japanese ACGN culture had been influential, the title of otaku is not widely adopted until about a decade ago. Most early Chinese fan websites and forums are female oriented. Until around 2005, the internet is much friendlier to text than to other forms such as picture and videos. This could be an important reason that in China, male fan culture, which heavily relies on visual elements, becomes observable much later than the female fan culture, which is sustainable on texts. With the entry of the male fan culture, the otaku community gradually evolves into an interest-based community that loosely develops around a certain set of original media products (typically Japanese ACGN culture, but has certain deviation), a community that is inherently heterogeneous but also share a similar set of vocabulary, logic and virtual space for residing. Currently, the otaku community in the Chinese-speaking world relies on several central websites for information and interaction. Barrage subtitle websites are of the most important components of their lives. Gender matters in this community, as the dualism between otaku male and fujoshi female is always present in the daily conversation, but mostly, they coexist comfortably in the same space with their shared interest.

The barrage subtitle system is a perfect presentation and embodiment of otaku’s desire in community and companions. This system, if not intentionally disabled, does not only make communication possible when people watch videos, it makes communication obligatory. Once it is sacrilege to interrupt the flow of image and time on the film screen, now it is the urge to communicate over the image that draw the audience together at these websites. It is not exaggerating to claim, that barrage subtitle system creates a new mode of watching, as well as a new mentality and meaning of being audience. Activities on the barrage subtitle websites have constituted an affective social ritual, performance and interaction in a virtual space; the video watching experience is itself a performance that confirms the social identity of being an otaku. Far from being void, boring and nonsense, these performances build up an alternative community in the virtual space. Such communications are observable in every aspect of the internet culture, yet it is extremely important for online otaku culture because it is—at least in China—a youth subculture that still yearns for collectivity and identification. For a virtual community consisting of people with their own interests in front of their own small screens, the importance of instant communication in multiple voices can never be underestimated.

Ultimately, barrage subtitle websites deeply integrate users’ input for the final view of each video uploaded, much more than websites without such a system. Viewing experience then becomes literarily a process of inserting oneself into the streamed material and the audience community, rather than a silent voyeur in the darkness. In many ways, barrage subtitles convey comparatively little (if any) content that would add on to viewers’ knowledge. Explanation and “encyclopedia” subtitles and translation subtitles also exist, but very limited compared to the tons of seemingly meaningless and senseless subtitles. As Hamano Satoshi observes, many barrage subtitles on Niconico come not from reason, but direct affect. Since the configuration of barrage subtitle system ensures a direct link between the comment and the commented, commentators need not elaborate their feelings into a long sentence, but only need to type out their immediate reactions and feelings. Hamano suggests that such comments represent a fragmented, or in his words, modular mode of consumption (5). I suggest, however, that the fragmented comments towards the specific details inside the videos visualize immediate reactions and close reading, inherent in fans’ viewing actions, but usually hidden when viewers are supposed to give generalized impressions and evaluations of a video. In other words, the consumption process does not become fragmented because the barrage subtitle system, it is fully articulated and presented in a directly visible way, something repressed in a traditional video streaming websites as YouTube. The fully presented consumption process therefore easily take the reading strategies and community conventions, constructing a space of discussion for close reading details that the otaku community relies upon in reaching consensus for further elaboration. In many ways, once the hidden and repressed process of close reading visualizes, it could be the most representative narrative that generates pleasure and intensifies allegiance.

With the development of the new media, especially the internet, we as the audience are encountering screens with videos on a daily basis. Theatrical experience these days becomes somewhat a nostalgic ritual for cinephilia, or a bait of spectacle, designed specifically the high-grossing, visual and audio effect laden blockbusters. While barrage subtitle websites, just as other types of online video-streaming websites, belong to the multiple screen culture in the contemporary daily life experience, barrage subtitle system revokes the collective aspect of theatrical film viewing in an unexpected way. The word “pseudo-synchronicity” accurately grabs the artificial sensation that all the audience for the same video are able to see the comments made by other viewers as if all these people are viewing the same material together. The experience on barrage subtitle websites challenges the iconic image of a contemporary viewer sitting lonely in front of a computer screen. However, the watching experience on barrage subtitle websites is still drastically different from the experience of watching films in an old fashioned movie theater, because the general silence and awing respect for the material on the screen totally disappears. The shared experience of watching, and especially the sharing synchronicity is expressed not through the shared silence and more permissible reactions such as laughing, but rather through actions that deem very impolite in a film theatre experience: speaking (or typing), which means uttering something significant to one’s point of view at the specific moment of the media material. The sense of shared interest and community comes from uttering comments that would trigger other people’s reaction or add on to someone else’s reaction. The viewing experience on barrage subtitle website is intrinsically multitasking, because with the barrage subtitle flying over the video, one not only response to the video itself but also the comments made by other viewers. The amount of reading required on a barrage subtitle website is almost a blasphemy for the streaming content, especially for the heavily commented videos.

When I talk about the conversational experience in barrage subtitles, however, it does not mean that the comments necessarily correspond to one another logically. Sometimes the content of comments is insignificant compared to its visual existence. What matters is that there are people who also watched the video and feel also the urge to express themselves at a particular point in time. When it comes to exciting moments, or significant moments, viewers would collectively post comments, stylized or randomly, to enhance the emotional intensity of the particular moment, be it humorous, sadness, or passionate. I will raise two examples below.

A fan remixed video of the domestic Chinese animation film, Monkey King: The Hero Is back (2015), combined with a song titled “Wu Kong” by Dai Quan, is so popular that it has been played for about 2.7 million times in less than one year after it was posted in June 2015. As I examine the video in May 2016, during the three minutes playback time, one sentence keeps appearing in the barrage subtitles, “Qitian dasheng Su Wukong, shen ru xuantie, huoyan jinjing, changsheng bulao, haiyou qishi’er bian 齐天大圣孙悟空,身如玄铁,火眼金睛,长生不老,还有七十二变,” which means “Great sage Sun Wukong, Equal of Heaven, with a body like black iron, golden-gaze fiery eyes, immortal, and seventy-two transformations.” Numerous barrage subtitles containing this sentence scroll across the screen, or appear in a vibrant color at the center of the screen, or form a colorful screen of texts over the screen (Figure 1). Posting this sentence in barrage subtitles have become a ritual. This line is one of the most famous in the animation film, that a little fan of Sun Wukong, a little monk keeps repeating his own legend to the depressed Monkey King. The collective repetition of an iconic line directly refers to the high-grossing animation film, and towards the intertextual network consisting of numerous texts derivative from the ultimate source of the story, the vernacular novel Journey to the West, a book often dated back to mid-Ming Dynasty around the 16th century. In the animation film, the little monk and fan of Monkey King recites fluently this line, celebrating his personal hero in a mode that many Chinese children do. By repeating this line, the audiences are reprising the iconic scene of the film, referring to a similar childhood experience and impersonating the little monk in the film. The intertextual network that the fan video relies on goes far beyond the animation film, but to a collective childhood experience. Moreover, Monkey King is the all-time popular hero for Chinese children. Through several fandoms and fads since the late-1990s, including Stephen Chow’s The Chinese Odyssey (1995) and Jin Hezai’s Biography of Wukong, Monkey King himself through various metamorphosis, becomes a national hero that refers nostalgically to an almost nationally shared childhood as well as a national past and legacy. The target audience of the video and the community built up by the barrage subtitles are those who identify with this cultural nationalistic narrative told in the remix of the domestic animation and a song that borrows tunes from Peking Opera. 

Figure 1 Screenshot on May 6, 2016 of the Monkey King remix by Miaoxingrentingge at 02:56 as appeared on Bilibili

Figure 1 Screenshot on May 6, 2016 of the Monkey King remix by Miaoxingrentingge at 02:56 as appeared on Bilibili

Another example displays the ritual for commentators directly through the pictorial quality of barrage subtitles. There is a transformation process, which is ridiculously long, but is presented exactly the same way in every episode, in the anime Penguindrum 輪るピングドラム (2011). From a certain episode on, whenever this transformation process begins in the video, viewers start posting ASCII art of little rockets in the barrage subtitle in various colors. The screen will be covered by flying little rockets rapidly scrolling from the right to the left of the screen during the whole process of character transformation (Figure 2). Frequent viewers of a particular series of anime build up ritualistic conventions in barrage subtitles showing a sense of community and collectivity, or more straightforwardly, the ability to type exactly the coded language agreed by the fans of this anime and by the otaku community.

Figure 2 Screenshot made on May 6, 2016, of Ep 03 of Penguindrum at 04:47, uploaded by 96 Mao@141.2cm as appeared on Bilibili.

Figure 2 Screenshot made on May 6, 2016, of Ep 03 of Penguindrum at 04:47, uploaded by 96 Mao@141.2cm as appeared on Bilibili.

In both aforementioned examples, barrage subtitles have transcended the function of verbal communication, turning into a collective performance and spectacle. Daniel Johnson suggests that these comments are “counter-transparent writings,” by which he describes the heavily coded language that “disrupt the viewer’s ability to understand what is being written through their use of wordplay and movement between linguistic and pictorial registers of communication” (306). Barrage subtitles, according to him, are often written in the subcultural dialect indecipherable for outsiders. As a result, such writings play two roles simultaneously, one is linguistic communication, and the other is pictorial registration. Both functions lead to communication that is partly exclusive towards the language community. The comments in the Monkey King fan video show their direct registration towards the insiders of the fan community. Through the continuous repetition of one sentence, the barrage subtitles create a space of common knowledge and a visual spectacle.

Barrage subtitle websites including Niconico and Bilibili are a space of affect for otaku audience, who constantly experience a sense of community through pseudo-synchronicity and through a subcultural dialect consisting of counter-transparent language and memes. The videos streamed online could be understood metaphorically as a theatrical play that constantly invites, or even forces participation from audience. Audience’s performance in this play then add into the play, turning a play without the fourth wall into a carnival. Not to suggest that the community on barrage subtitle websites is a utopia outside the commercialized and globalized world, I only suggests that barrage subtitles have the potential for alternative socializing and communication. It is a new media and form; only the technophobia would read the doom for meaning from it.








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Miaoxingren tingge喵星人听歌. “Ran qilai! Tongbulü baobiao! Dang Xiyouji zhi dasheng guilai MV yudao Dai Quan laoshi yuanchuang gequ Wukong.” 燃起来!同步率爆表!当《西游记之大圣归来》MV遇到戴荃老师原创歌曲《悟空》. Online video clip. Bilibili. Bilibili, 29 Jun 2015. Web. 6 Jun 2016. <>.

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Wochong卧虫. “Danmu, he’ermeng, ciyuan qiang he zuowei yijia gongsi de bilibili” 弹幕、荷尔蒙、次元墙和作为一家公司的哔哩哔哩. Pingwan 品玩. 8 Dec 2015. Web. 6 Jun 2016. <>.

Xiqing Zheng is an assistant professor at the Literature Institute, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China. She received her doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington in 2016.  Her research interest includes fan culture, new media, Chinese cinema, translation, etc. Her current project is working on revising her dissertation, which is based on online fan subculture, mainly in China, but also in Japan and in the English speaking countries. She is the Chinese translator of Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers. She is also a consultant of the Internet Literature Studies Forum of Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University, and participated in writing a book of keywords on Chinese subculture, which will be published this year by Joint Publishing. An avid fan for more than ten years, she mainly serves as a fan translator online and occasionally creates fan fic and fan art.

Unspreadable Media (Part Five): Back and Forth


It’s hard to believe that it has been almost a year since the four of us presented our research at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Despite us all having our distinct focuses, I remember it being particularly remarkable just how many criss-crosses there were across our presentations, when it comes to themes about the contemporary media landscape and the various facets of this idea of “un-spreadable media.” So I’m excited to have this opportunity to reflect on this work many months later.

For those reading this exchange, a quick bit of background. Leah and I met through some overlapping pedagogical interests in transforming the practices of the media studies classroom, while I first encountered Lauren’s work through the ways her dissertation asked critical questions of the ways in which campaigns aiming for spreadability framed participation, in reaction to the work Henry, Joshua Green, and I--and all those who were part of that broader Spreadable Media research initiative--were doing. Henry and I were fortunate to be brought into the loop as Leah and Lauren began brainstorming ways to tackle questions of “unspreadable media” in various contexts...and, in particular, how digital discourse, participation, and media text production gets framed by frameworks for success driven by the “breadth model” of spreadability--a logic that success is determined by spreading as widely as possible.

As we gathered in Atlanta last spring, and as I reflect on the work we’ve collected here for this series, it feels like there’s a conversation to be had both about how these logics are so deeply imbedded within the media industries, and then the various ways in which organizations, communities, and individuals who are not in the for-profit media industry are measured by these logics, have their work framed within these logics, and often even internalize these logics in ways that may run counter to their goals. My hope is that this series can help accomplish that.

Perhaps a good starting point would be a bit of background about what drove each of us to this work, and where that work has gone since last year?

Since my piece for the series is particularly reflective, I’ll aim to keep my part in this short, but I’ll kick us off. In my case, I wrote this while immersed in the media industries, in my role at Univision/Fusion Media Group. While I was running a group designed to be a couple of steps removed from the day-to-day, frantic nature of the newsroom, it nevertheless is particularly telling that the reason this dialogue is happening now, rather than last summer or fall, was largely because of my delays. That pace within the media organization--and the fact that industries like journalism and television are 24/7/365--is one of the key drivers behind media organizations having a difficult time being able to conduct deep reflection on how business is conducted and how success is measured. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of people thinking about these issues in media companies. But the day-to-day production demands make this most frequently the conversation in the hallways or before meetings start, and the first thing to fall off the radar as the demands-of-the-month pile up. And, as long as an impressions-based system remains the logic of the system, skewing from it is especially tough. Yet, the signs are everywhere that a breadth-based model of measuring success isn’t particularly tenable, even for the for-profit media industries. The question is just what point of distress, or breaking down of old models, we have to hit before new ones become enough of a priority to receive time and resources.


I made very little progress over last year in sharpening my thinking about the geographies of media circulation, interesting though this question remains to me,  and thus, I am eager to have the others push my thinking a bit on these questions.  I think it's safe to say that the 2016 election and its aftermath shook the stuffing out of a great many of us, forcing us to think more deeply about the mechanisms and logics shaping American politics today. Few presidential candidates have understood the dynamics of social media and its mechanisms of circulation more fully than the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has demonstrated the capacity to upend traditional journalism with a simple if high-intensity tweet.

From the beginning of the campaign, he dominated new cycle after new cycle, closing off the oxygen for anyone else in the race. It is scary to think about how effectively he was able to exploit the cable news networks’ 24-7 news cycle through his cagey exploitation of spreadability. Trump and his supporters often talk about the ways social media allows them to speak to the American public above the heads of (but not behind the backs of)  the major news organizations. Yet they also sought to actively discredit any group with the clout and resources to fact check their claims or challenge their underlying logic. It is not simply that they have found a way around editorial judgments but they have sought to dismantle the last trappings of legacy journalism.

At the same time, we are seeing the rise of alternative and niche-oriented media, whether the alt-right realm of Breitbart or the diversity represented by contemporary podcasts. And we're seeing the capacity of grassroots networks to rapidly mobilize large-scale protests against the current regime, such as the epic women's march on Washington. Sam asks about the breakdown of old models -- which seems to be happening much faster than any of us anticipated, and so we need urgently to understand how news and civic discourse is going to travel in this current environment.

My current  interest in the civic imagination pushes us beyond a focus on issues of circulation and mobilization to look at the way media messages reframe current debates to spark more intense commitments from potential supporters. My USC based research group, Civic Paths, seeks to better understand the roles that imagination plays in fostering civic engagement and inspiring struggles over social change. At the most basic level, before you can change the world, you have to imagine what a better world looks like, imagine a process to bring about change, imagine yourself as capable of making change, imagine a collective that shares  your interests and concerns, develop empathy and solidarity for others whose experiences are different from your own, and in the case of the marginalized and dispossessed, imagine freedom and equality before you experience it directly. We have been especially interested in how resources drawn from popular media resurface through grassroots media as part of the imaginary of various protest movements around the world. The kinds of “cultural acupuncture” that seemed extraordinary when we first began researching the Harry Potter Alliance now seems much more normative as we look out across the tweets and YouTube videos the document contemporary protest movements. These social movements are engaging with struggles with power while dressing as superheroes, plastering their signs with Princess Leia images, and flashing the three finger salute from Hunger Games.

Just as Trump uses social media to gain access to mainstream news organizations, these protesters are using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, using the attention economy generated by global mass media to create a new rhetoric that speaks to and for those who have far fewer resources. In my last book, we describe this approach as “by any media necessary”, stressing the ways that these groups deployed any and all resources within their grasp to spread their messages for social justice. Today we are more interested in the how worldbuilding and storytelling reshapes the ways people understand the issues and how they assess the potential for change.

We've been drawn to Stephen Duncombe's description of “the tyranny of the possible,” which recognizes that our perceptions of the current situation limit our ability to imagine the possibilities of change.  As current situations have become so dire around the world, post Trump, Post-Brexit, post the collapse of the Brazilian government, post the rise of right-wing governments across Europe, post the Syrian refugee crisis, we have by necessity needed to expand the scope of our imagination to maintain hope for the future.

Some of this new imagery circulates far and wide, having a very limited shelf life but an enormous reach. Some of it remains anchored in the local, like images on a hand-drawn protest sign or a flyer pasted on the wall. Much of it falls somewhere in between, reaching those who need to know, inspiring those who have access, but remaining hidden from view to mainstream audiences who get their news only from mass media channels.

What makes the current moment challenging to understand is the unpredictable porousness of this new media ecology, as so-called fake news produced in outer Moldavia enters our Facebook feed as if it emerged from American media, and our inability to know where some of this news is coming from tests our ability to discern credible from incredible information. We need to own up to the fact that the fake news phenomenon represents one of the darker aspects of the current spreadable media landscape, a byproduct of a culture where anyone can forward anything to anybody and where fewer people, even American presidents, take ownership over the reliability of the  information they pass along. Now more than ever, we need to be discussing whether spreadability is good or bad for democracy.


I am probably not the only person whose current research was turned inside out and upside down by the recent election cycle. Insert, if you will, a clip from the 1986 movie THE FLY. An orangutan surrogate for scientist Seth Brundle naively enters a time travel chamber. The door closes for moments and then opens to a dramatic reveal.  Guts everywhere. Immediate reformulation is needed should Brundle ever move forward in his research.

If you’ve seen the film, you know that despite Brundle’s best efforts to rectify his experiment following this disaster, when he finally enters the chamber himself, a pesky fly is hiding there, leaving Brundle ultimately transformed: part human, part fly. (Apologies if this is a spoiler—I am just assuming that the statute of limitations has passed on this particular text!).

For me, the recent election was like Brundle’s orangutan experiment. Just as I was about to hand over my book manuscript (which includes a chapter on the research I discuss above) for publication, my approach and argument felt like it had exploded in its 30,000-word compartment. Orange hairs coated the intestines and heart of my work. I recalibrated. And as I finally felt ready to remerge and finish my book, I realized that that both me and my topic had mutated on an ontological level.

The through-line of my research and teaching has been to critically examine empowerment discourse as it has been taken up in the study of participatory media culture. I have tended to focus on the places where this discourse pervades, such as the It Gets Better Project, which have typically been efforts emerging from more liberal individuals or groups. While I was seeking to recuperate more radical progressive uses of participatory media, the alt-right was mobilizing, using participatory media to promote Trump’s candidacy and ideological positions. LGBTQ youth safety and vulnerability has been infinitely compounded by this election, especially for those who are undocumented, Muslim, and of color. This has left me to question my choice to turn a critical eye in the direction of those seeking to support them in the first place. When I sat down to write again, I realized I had a fly in my chamber.

I had been examining participatory media culture as it emerged in resistance to power, but a blind-spot that I realized I have had as a researcher and perhaps as a teacher as well, is the ways in which the far right has imagined themselves as resisting power too. As Sam and Henry have noted, we are seeing shifts in how news and civic discourse are circulating in this moment, which many of us are scrambling to understand. Civic imagination and a focus on futurity in general may be central to these changes, but the players aren’t always oriented towards social justice. Yes, protesters are dismantling the master’s house towards social justice aims, as Henry’s research so nicely illustrates, and, at the same time, it’s becoming apparent that Trump supporters and the far right in general are using the same media to build and reinforce the master’s house too.

The new culture war is fought with memes and hashtags. When my filter bubble burst, it was too late. Is spreadable media “good or bad for democracy,” as Henry asks? This wasn’t even a question on my radar until a few months ago. But, perhaps the question isn’t altogether different than one that we raised as a panel at the 2016 SCMS conference as to the ways in which celebrations over spreadability are often short-sighted and mask the potential for harm through circulation. Since November I have been working to revise my book to include the various ways in which LGBTQ youth are using the tools and tactics of participatory media culture to produce particular forms of subjectivity and community that don’t necessarily require media spread. In the years since I first began this project in the form of a dissertation, critiques of the It Gets Better Project abound, to the point that youth themselves have in many cases become critical of the trap of visibility that very spreadable mainstream media projects engender. I am now asking ‘what are ways in which LGBTQ youth are activating and animating local publics through media to perform identity and community?’

If there is any silver lining I can find in the recent election cycle, it is that the tumult has made it much easier in my research and teaching to locate and illustrate the existence and power of participatory media culture and the complex political undercurrents that shape it.  

At the same time, though, let’s not kid ourselves, there are still a few inches of orange muck at my feet, and I’m looking to you all for strategies for how to pull up and out.


When I sat down to write this response, my head was thrumming with the low level of panic that news consumption has been causing since Comey’s “October surprise.” I drafted a short meditation on the guilt I have been feeling over what I was seeing as my own slacktivist culpability for the results of the election: my own blindness to the kinds of “vectors of customization and control” that I unpack in my presentation. The blind spots that Lauren describes are also my blind spots, and I was feeling particularly stupid for having spent last fall teaching news bias, aggregation, and propaganda during the day while spending my evenings forwarding, retweeting and liking within my deceptively like-minded media bubble. The gap between my critical apprehension and practical application of the issues surrounding spreadable media was wide before the election, and after the election the gap began to feel so great that most of the thoughts I mustered up around the topic seemed to rise up only to be sucked swiftly and decisively into that gap, never to be thought again.

So, while procrastinating writing this response, I got on Facebook (something I keep promising myself I will stop doing) and saw a post from We Are Seneca Lake, the activist group whose campaign to stop the storage of methane and propane in unstable salt caverns beneath Seneca Lake that I spoke about in my presentation. The post revealed that the gas storage conglomerate Crestwood Midstream has decided not to store methane at the Seneca Lake site. The activist community was hailed as “victorious.” The more than 650 arrested protesters and countless other supporters of the We Are Seneca Lake/Gas Free Seneca movement were cited as instrumental in the demise of Crestwood’s plan. The dedicated local activists showing up to block trucks in the snow, screenprint their own protest t-shirts, and post their DIY videos on YouTube had scored a victory.

Of course, it is an incremental victory. Crestwood Midstream continues to push for the storage of propane in the unstable salt caverns, and the work of the activist groups on this hyperlocal environmental cause is far from over. But, an incremental victory is a victory. And, it provides a model for the kind of strategy that Lauren is asking for above. As Henry points out in his reflective response, world building is taking place at the local level. And, as the We Are Seneca Lake/Gas Free Seneca activists have demonstrated, that world building continues to rely on an ever-evolving mixture of grassroots strategies and social media affordances. As a model, it’s not incredibly successful at mitigating panic or at pushing back against reactionary appropriations and mobilizations of progressive activist practices, but it is a model. And, in the example of We Are Seneca Lake/Gas Free Seneca it has had limited success.

The insights around spreadable interfaces, the politics of reach, and the potential for local change outlined in Sam, Henry & Lauren’s presentations make persuasive arguments about the radical potential of media distribution systems and structures. As I re-read our presentations and reflections and think about what to do next, I find I am thinking about the pink pussy hat that women and men across the globe wore on January 21st. The plan to wear the hat and the various patterns for knitting the hat are potent examples of spreadability: without Facebook and Twitter, we would not have the persuasive “optics” of millions of people resisting the rise of white supremacy and rape culture en masse on that day. Where the idea and image were virtual, global and spreadable the knitting and wearing were hyperlocal. The pink pussy hat is an instructive example of the possibilities that inhere to mixtures of traditional grassroots strategies and new social media affordances. The actions of the folks engaged in resistance practices reflect that potential. Perhaps one way forward is to find ways to forge what we might identify as a more intersectional spreadability: to amplify and engage with the potential of the mix, even where the mix, itself, pushes back against the message being spread.

Lauren S. Berliner is Assistant Professor of Media & Communication Studies and Cultural Studies at University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches courses on media praxis and participatory media culture. She is also a filmmaker and the co-curator of The Festival of (In)Appropriation annual showcase of experimental media. Her forthcoming book, LGBTQ Youth and The Paradox of Digital Media Empowerment, combines participatory action research with LGBTQ youth media makers along with textual analysis of youth-produced videos to examine how youth negotiate the structural conditions of funding and publicity and incorporate digital self-representations into practices of identity management.  Her latest research is a collaboration with medical anthropologist Nora Kenworthy on a project that seeks to understand the phenomenon of crowdfunding for healthcare, focusing on how Americans are utilizing participatory media to solicit new forms of care and support.

Sam Ford consults and manages projects with leadership teams in journalism, media/entertainment, academia, civic engagement, and marketing/communication. In addition, he is lead producer of the MIT Open Documentary Lab s Future of Work initiative and a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project  Sam serves as a research affiliate with MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and as an instructor in Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program. He writes on innovation in the media industries, fan cultures, immersive storytelling, audience engagement, and media ethics. Sam co-authored, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, the 2013 NYU Press book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.  In 2015, he launched and ran the Center for Innovation & Engagement at Univision’s Fusion Media Group (as FMG’s VP, Innovation & Engagement), which he ran through the end of 2016. He has also been a contributor toHarvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Inc.

Leah Shafer is an Associate Professor in the Media and Society Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where she teaches courses that explore the culture and history of television, film, advertising, and the Internet. Her criticism appears in journals including FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Afterimage, and Film Criticism as well as The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Media Quarterly, and Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier. A scholar/artist, she was recently awarded a research residency with the experimental media art collaborative Signal Culture, and her experimental documentary Declaration of Sentiments Wesleyan Chapel was included of the Iterations as Habitats exhibition of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.

Unspreadable Media (Part Four): The Broadcast Ghost

The Broadcast Ghost: The Persistent Logic of Traditional Media Industries Metrics

by Sam Ford

NOTE: Portions of this piece expand on issues I explore in “Public Diplomacy’s (Misunderstood) Digital Platform Problem,” written as part of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy’s May 2017 report, Can Public Diplomacy Survive the Internet?: Bots, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation, edited by Shawn Powers and Markos Kounalakis.

Last spring, I had the great pleasure to convene with a fantastic set of colleagues in Atlanta for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ annual gathering to hold a panel on the topic of “unspreadable media.” Alongside my Spreadable Media co-author Henry Jenkins, our esteemed host for this exchange as well, it was in part a chance to revisit our book in light of the directions our career paths have taken since then. And I had the great pleasure of getting a chance to speak for the first time alongside the fabulous Lauren Berliner, whose dissertation chapter on the “It Gets Better” campaign for LGBTQ youth provided some very productive critiques of campaigns focused heavily on spreadability of a message, and Leah Shafer, with whom I share a passion for carving out space for talking about pedagogy at academic conferences that too often undervalue it.

Without concentrated coordination, we found so many parallels across our presentations that we decided to take to the digital sphere to share our work and find some way to continue this discussion of “unspreadable media.”

The larger theme of this piece is simple: The “broadcast ghost” haunts my work. By that, I mean the lingering legacy of how media companies and marketers structured their business models in a previous era continues to heavily shape how they continue to approach success in a digital world. From my academic work in media studies/fan studies, to my consulting in the marketing and corporate communication space, to my work in the media industries, the most persistent frustration I run into—and sometimes find myself guilty of—is too easily letting the logics that defined the broadcasting world continue to persist, even when and where their logic has long become outmoded.

The Overvaluation of Spreadability

Back in 2014, Henry and I joined a fantastic panel of academics for a roundtable published in full in Transformative Works and Cultures, and excerpted for Cinema Journal, focused on discussing issues raised by Spreadable Media.

Melissa Click, one of my colleagues in the roundtable, writes, “So to be tongue in cheek with the phrase, are people who don't spread dead? I absolutely value Spreadable Media's recognition of everyday activities online and its suggestion that often we are active and passive in different places/times online. I think that's right on—but I'm concerned about reproducing a hierarchy between ‘folks who spread and those who don't.’”

In that roundtable exchange, I responded:

However, this question of whether people, and texts, are dead if they don't spread is one that is a vital corrective toward any overvaluation of spreadability. Despite the pithiness of the "if it doesn't spread, it's dead" mantra…we have to push back against that statement's oversimplification (and hope that we did, through the course of the book). One of my primary goals in cowriting this book was to challenge the notion that producing "texts" should somehow become the definition of participation and push back against the belief that less visible activities of sharing and circulation can somehow be defined as passive audience practice. In response, though, we also can't define value solely in terms of spreadability.

As Melissa points out in our roundtable exchange, we don't want to create new hierarchies that say that audience members who spread texts—or who spread them via certain (online, "surveillable," "monitizable") ways—are somehow more important than those who don't, or whose means of circulating are less visible. And, as Paul Booth writes in our exchange, “If the designers of technology are enabling the grassroots spreadability, is it a concept rooted in manufactured interactivity? Are we swapping the freedom to print whatever the hell we want in a zine and pass it out to 100 people for the ability to repost a clip of American Idol or Breaking Bad to a thousand?”

And, of course, we don’t want to forget that people are apt to have different types of relationships with different types of media texts, even those that they are intensely passionate about. People may find great value in reading their e-mail, watching pornography, or listening to international news but be more likely to share on Facebook that clip of American Idol or Breaking Bad that Paul writes about. While the former texts may have strong individual engagement, the latter may be perceived as having a greater degree of cultural/social value. We don't want to risk conflating the two.

The Overvaluation of Breadth

But, beyond concerns about prioritizing spreadability too heavily over other aspects of participation in and around media texts, there’s also the matter of what we prioritize within spreadability. Since the release of Spreadable Media, I’ve been concerned that our opening statement’s logic—taken too simply—implies success should be defined primarily by breadth…by reach…by impressions. Our goal was to argue for much more than that. Yet, in our desire to demonstrate that audience driven acts of circulation can often reach or exceed the traditional distribution capabilities of large media corporations, we perhaps made it too easy for media and marketing industries readers to focus on the spreadable soundbite opening phrase and ignore more nuanced points.

Perhaps no better illustration of this phenomenon is the ways in which many reactions to the book focused most heavily on replacing the word “viral” with the word “spreadable,” most heavily in the marketing/advertising/corporate communication space.

(Images above from here, here, here, here, and here.)

At its core, that debate of replacing “viral” with “spreadable” drove interesting discussion. It caused people to reflect on what the viral metaphor actually meant, and how it might be shaping their thinking. But, like Lurpak’s supposedly spreadable butter, it also too often felt like a “spreadable failure” to me. As I consulted in the marketing world, I watched some people switch out the terminology while forging ahead, emboldened by the same practice of valuing breadth/reach over all else.

But spreading widely is not the only way that material can be highly spreadable. Indeed, the ghost of broadcast haunts the media industries more broadly.

In Spreadable Media, we write about a 2007 example where CBS’ mantra of viewing “everywhere, anywhere” conflicted with statements from the network and from the producers of Jericho that the only way to “save the show” from cancellation was to watch live, because the industry’s continued reliance on having an immediate broad audience, in a way that could easily be counted by Nielsen ratings, was still the primary way they knew how to value a show. Ten years later, at the time I’m writing this, a letter from one of the creators of NBC’s Timeless is circulating, arguing that the only way to save the show from cancellation might be to “Watch live.” Even as Netflix introduces new models for thinking about how to value media texts over time rather than based on immediate reach (For more on that, see Amanda Lotz’s new treatise, Portals.), the problem still persists that media companies need audiences to bend to their inability to shift their business models to current reality, rather than the other way around, to keep shows which have audiences from getting cancelled.

The situation is especially dire in the digital publishing world. In his 2014 piece for The Atlantic called “The Internet’s Original Sin,” Ethan Zuckerman looks at how the longstanding logic of advertising-supported models have thoroughly seeped into supposedly “new” media industries. Writes Ethan:

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see.

In particular, Ethan says that online advertising “creates incentives to produce and share content that generates pageviews and mouse clicks, but little thoughtful engagement.”

Reflecting on My Experiences in the Media & Marketing Industries

For most of the past two years, I worked at Univision/Fusion Media Group, running a group called the Center for Innovation & Engagement, as VP, Innovation & Engagement. In that time, speaking with executives across a broad range of digital journalism sites, I saw a common refrain across the industry—a continued need to sell based on breadth and reach. To even get into the game of getting programmatic digital advertising buys, publications had certain traffic thresholds they needed to hit. So business models tend to set monthly goals for unique visitors and pageviews and then measure daily against hitting those goals. The result is websites focused on headlines that entice as many people as possible to click on an article, or share it. As media companies invest more in creating original video for their social media channels, they likewise focus on getting as many views as possible.

Nowhere in most of these calculations is a significant focus or accounting for depth of engagement, or bounce rate/completion rate (how quickly someone actually departs from a story or video). Instead, the writers/producers who create the content that gets the most clicks are held up as the exemplars in the newsroom, at the exclusion of other ways of valuing content.

As Lucia Moses at Digiday writes, “Many media plans have an arbitrary cutoff point for participating publishers. So publishers need to show big numbers. But this can in turn rewards tricks to inflate the size of their audiences and make them appear younger than they actually are.” And that leads to all sorts of strategies focused on making that reach number as big as possible.

One approach is for a big media company to handle the advertising inventory for other sites and then count those other sites’ pageviews as part of their ComScore listing for the portfolio of brands. (See, for instance, Brian Steinberg’s Variety piece on Vice from around this time last year, which notes that at the time half of Vice’s online traffic on ComScore doesn’t actually come from Vice.) Another regular tactic is that publishers are paying to promote their stories via promoted posts on social media and content amplification widgets on other publications, aimed at hitting those reach goals. If you can take out ads on your story to drive traffic for a nickel, and then sell that traffic to your advertisers for a dime, then you make a profit in the middle.

We can debate our feelings on these tactics. My point here, though, is that considerable human and financial capital ends up devoted to these types of activities above, to hit those numbers in order to get those programmatic ad buys. And that work comes at the exclusion of something else.

And it does little to build a brand to audiences who engage with those individual stories on a social media site, nor trust in that brand. As my former Fusion colleague Felix Salmon writes:

The result has been a rise in social teams, some of whom concentrate mainly on getting traffic from Facebook to their website, and some of whom concentrate on building stories which live natively within social apps. (That would include Instant Articles on Facebook.) All of this is good for boosting engagement metrics…But it’s not necessarily good for building a brand. In the news business, if you want to build long-term value, then you need to build a robust brand. Traffic is great, as far as it goes, but it isn’t enough. If you have lots of traffic but little brand value, then you can disappear more or less overnight.

When it comes to online video, consider this. If a 1 min. 45 sec. video produced for a publisher’s Facebook page is seen by 6 million people, that’s not only a bragging point and will lead to some cumulative monthly number for the publisher to brag about its overall reach to viewers.

Never mind if the video had, let’s say, an 18% completion rate, meaning that the average of those 6 million views stuck around for 19 seconds. (Many videos published on Facebook that rack up a lot of views have a lower average completion rate than that.)

A mentality built on total reach says, “Even if this isn’t the era of broadcasting anymore, we can reach a mass audience through spreadability.” The reality of the situation indicates rather, “Six million people started to check out our video and on the whole deemed that it wasn’t worth sticking around the less than two minutes before.” That sounds like a stat I would want to bury at the bottom of a report, rather than lead with.

But, as Ethan convincingly argues, these metrics aren’t there for accurate measurement. They are there for “storytime”: for investors and for advertisers. If reach keeps more investors happy, or attracts new ones, all the better. And, if big aggregate numbers can convince advertisers to spend with the right story around those numbers, then publishers will continue along these lines.

Look no further in how newsroom growth is being driven by creating more and more teams for social video, despite headlines from places like Nieman Lab and Poynter, like “Video Isn’t as Popular with Viewers as It Is with Advertisers.”

        In an era where everyone is discussing the proliferation of “fake news,” I believe it’s vital to look at how these industry practices, and this broadcast ghost, is leaving organizations destined to continue solving the wrong problems, and continue selling based on industry logics carrying over from an era where it was much harder to measure beyond broad reach and circulations. In a piece I wrote as part of Harvard Nieman Lab’s 2017 Predictions for Journalism, I argue that not much else matters if the journalism and media world can’t spend this year addressing “our awful metrics”:

The industry is running on metrics that serve no one well, but we continue chugging along because we all equally accept the lie. In the current model, publishers measure what’s easiest to capture, no matter how reflective of real engagement; production budgets go toward things that generate the best numbers for this so-called “reach” or “impressions” or “uniques,” even when they do little to create revenue or build a brand (especially when on platforms the publisher doesn’t own and can barely monetize); and advertisers accept inflated numbers industry-wide and continue putting the most funding behind stories which may have the least ongoing resonance.

Thus, audiences too frequently get served with unmemorable stories thin on nuance, heavy on provoking knee-jerk response, and with misleading packaging that causes them to bail two sentences, or fifteen seconds, into the piece (assuming the company doesn’t actively measure and talk about bounce rates, completion rates, and/or time spent on site).

 Of course, at least media companies have the excuse that they are still making money off the old model. Perhaps the most frustrating part of all is that the broadcast ghost still haunts marketers, organizations, and independent producers outside the media industries that publish media texts. These creators, despite not being saddled with needing to “monetize” that content, still often adopt breadth of views as the metric for success—no matter what the actual goal of their communication might be.

        In a 2016 essay I wrote for Public Relations and Participatory Culture: Fandom, Social Media, and Community Engagement, entitled “Public Relations and the Attempt to Avoid Truly Relating to Our Publics,” I argue that marketers/public relations professionals have in fact embraced these strategies of reach and data to measure success, rather than looking at depth of participation or impact, because—even though their “content strategy” may not be saddled by having to figure out how to make money off their media texts, but rather to get people to meaningfully engage with the stories they produce, they are likewise operating off metrics of success shaped by decades of the “broadcast mentality.” Advertisers determined success based on reach of their ads; PR professionals by the audience numbers of the outlets who covered stories about their company. Even when they have less direct business incentive to remain tethered to the metrics of yesteryear, these industries still gravitate to the impressive numeric aggregation of reach.

These questions even plague organizations focused on social impact. In a piece on “Measuring Success” on the Knight Foundation’s review of its Tech for Engagement initiative, the foundation writes, when considering the challenges of thinking about measuring the success of digital campaigns: “Digital technology generates lots of data sets…What gets counted becomes what counts…Engagement, however, is about being ‘attached, committed, involved and productive.”

In an era of Big Data, all the focus continues to be on the metrics easiest to gather, rather than those most meaningful for the media text.

Concluding Thoughts

The situation media and marketing professionals find ourselves in means a few things.

It means that media organizations’ metrics are not only set up to the detriment of their audiences and to producing the most meaningful material possible. I’d argue that they are set up to the detriment of their own financial success. The question is how much of a crisis mode media companies will have to enter before they find more meaningful ways to measure success.

It means that many stories aren’t being produced, because the metrics of media companies don’t know how to support them. Resources are diverted from stories that may have longevity, in order to continue building teams that are wholly focused on building short, quick, thin, and controversial material.

It means that, even if stories are being produced that may have a long shelf life, the machines that are built to support them too often focus on pushing new things out constantly, rather than supporting the continued shelf life of stories that might be relevant for years to come. In other words, organizations may spend nine months on creating a piece of content and one week on supporting its circulation.

And it means that organizations continue to be driven by getting as many passersby as possible, without much thought to audiences coming to them on purpose, and with purpose. To borrow a line from Nicco Mele, the director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, how do media organizations focus on a CRM approach rather than a broad reach approach?

My own thoughts are now on the types of spreadability beyond “spreading wide.” Perhaps the kernel of the answer lies in a provocation from Jonathan Groves I often return to, from 2014, on the importance of valuing the longevity of content.

How do media companies and other organizations prioritize models for content that might spread deeply within a particular community but not outside it? Often, the content that resonates most deeply with people is one specifically for them, that may mean little beyond their group. And, in return, the content that means the most within a community might be that which the community actively does not want to have spread beyond its original context.

How do organizations create metrics for success that prioritize content that spreads over time, rather than focusing on how accelerated the spread is? When organizations focus on what spread widely quickly, they lose out on material with a long shelf life that may eventually gain breadth, but through sustained traffic?

How do organizations consider content that might spread through its residual value—particularly stories that may actually be more valuable later than when they are first published? Media companies in particular do not have processes well-suited to resurfacing stories from the past that gain newfound relevance. In fact, if that happens, it’s often due to the ad hoc institutional memory of an individual who happens to be following the cultural/news trends of the moment and also happens to remember a story from months ago or yesteryear that ties into it—meaning lots of valuable content remains buried in the archive. In industry parlance, “lots of money is being left on the table.”

And how do organizations better value content that “spread drillability,” even if they don’t spread widely? In other words, how about stories that have a high rate of conversion to driving people deeper into following a publication, exploring a story world, etc.?

When I returned to the world of journalism two years ago, I heard people talking about “viral engines.” Media and marketing professionals are still chasing reach, even as it becomes increasingly transparent how little that often means and even as—in the journalism realm—we are seeing the erosion of trust and the various effects of what chasing those metrics mean for the long-term viability of news brands.

I once told a set of media executives that media companies can’t “make something spread,” but they can make sure something doesn’t spread. Media companies themselves are producing a lot of unspreadable media, because of all that’s wrong with the metrics governing their content producers. In chasing reach, media organizations are producing a lot of ephemeral content whose “spreading” doesn’t have much longevity, and producing far too little of—and supporting even less—the stories whose spreading might have not only ongoing worth to the community, but the potential for ongoing economic value as well, if the business models were optimized to support it. 

Sam Ford consults and manages projects with leadership teams in journalism, media/entertainment, academia, civic engagement, and marketing/communication. In addition, he is lead producer of the MIT Open Documentary Lab s Future of Work initiative and a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project  Sam serves as a research affiliate with MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and as an instructor in Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program. He writes on innovation in the media industries, fan cultures, immersive storytelling, audience engagement, and media ethics. Sam co-authored, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, the 2013 NYU Press book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.  In 2015, he launched and ran the Center for Innovation & Engagement at Univision’s Fusion Media Group (as FMG’s VP, Innovation & Engagement), which he ran through the end of 2016. He has also been a contributor toHarvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Inc.

Unspreadable Media (Part Three): You Can't Stop a Frack Truck with Thumbnails

You Can’t Stop a Frack Truck with Thumbnails: YouTube’s interface and the “individually wrapped” viewing public

by Leah Shafer

On October 23, 2014 a group of protesters opposed to the storage of highly pressurized methane, propane, and butane in the abandoned salt mines beneath Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of NY linked hands and blocked the trucks of the Texas-based company Crestwood Midstream from entering their lakeside worksite. The act of peaceful resistance was organized by a diverse group of local citizens who had formed a coalition called “We Are Seneca Lake” to oppose gas storage in the historically unstable salt caverns. The We Are Seneca Lake movement is partly composed of a pre-existing network of citizens who’d been involved in New York’s successful anti-Fracking movement, so there was an organizational infrastructure in place to support the arrestees and to plan future actions. This organizational structure has yielded a group that employs both time tested old school grassroots techniques and the use of digital tools for activist activities. The group created a robust website ( that offers links to relevant environmental information and showcases photos of the nearly daily stream of committed activist citizens who are ready to get arrested in the name of protecting Seneca Lake’s supply of drinking water and the rural character of an area known for its organic farms, thriving wine industry, and agri-tourist attractions. The website also links to We Are Seneca Lake’s YouTube channel. As the We Are Seneca Lake movement has gained momentum, more and more self-produced videos have been posted on the YouTube channel where they remain, basically un-watched. These videos have not spread.

I teach at a college situated right on Seneca Lake. Several faculty and students are deeply involved in the We are Seneca Lake movement, so it seemed to me that the media produced by the group would be an excellent choice for inclusion in my Intro to Media and Society syllabus for our unit on amateur video.

When I pulled up the video “We Are Seneca Lake Teacher Arrestee” so we could screen it and talk about the different ways that the video frames the protesters and the ways that its amateur video aesthetics do and do not reflect the aesthetics of other amateur video we’d studied, several things caught my students’ attention. First, a student raised her hand and asked why the video had so few hits, given the robust activities of the activist community and the real threat to our local water systems, The second question I got was from a student who asked if we could watch the Stephen Colbert video after we watched the local activist video. So, what I thought was going to be a discussion about We Are Seneca Lake’s activist video aesthetics quickly became a discussion of the YouTube exhibition interface and the ways that targeted marketing shapes our experience of watching video on YouTube: especially video with activist content.

YouTube’s recommended video thumbnails appear to promote exhibition experiences with hyperlocal, affectively alluring, personal specificity. As there are roughly 20 recommended videos on each watch page, we might read the thumbnails as the metonymic appearance of the viewer’s hands within the interface. The sense of personal connection is obviously part of YouTube’s brand identity: it’s not called OurTube or GoogleTube. But, the figurative invocation of the personal, which is clearly meant to form an affective connection between the user and the tool is only a fractional part of the site’s actual organizational architecture. According to, a site that provides advice on how to get your video selected as a recommended video, suggests that only one or two out of the 20 or so recommended videos are actually related to the user’s viewing history. Most of the videos are placed there by YouTube’s algorithm that predicts which videos viewers will watch based on the length of time other viewers have spent watching them: because the longer folks watch a video the more advertising revenue is generated by that view.

So, the larger question here is: what happens to activist content when it is framed by an exhibition interface organized by advertising architectures that present themselves as archives of personalized recommendations. My experience in the classroom is anecdotal, but it brings to the foreground a constellation of issues raised by the YouTube interface, and I will spend the rest of this brief post teasing out what I see as the preliminary implications of these issues, all of which circle around spreadability versus unspreadability, but which apply those terms less to the actual content of the videos and more to the way that algorithmic marketing shapes the YouTube interface in a way that I am now thinking of as the unspreadable, or, individually wrapped exhibition experience of interacting with the YouTube interface.

The phrase “individually wrapped” originates in some research I was doing for an unrelated project on Amercan television advertising of the 20th Century. While working on that project, I came across the patent filed by Arnold Nawrocki in 1956 for an “apparatus for producing individually wrapped cheese slices” – this apparatus was meant to counteract the stickiness of processed cheese slices by providing a method for wrapping a “slicelike slab of cheese in a transparent, pliant wrapper.”

When Sam Ford, Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green write about spreadability in Spreadable Media, they note that the idea “originated in relation to ‘stickiness’” (3) which is a term that they trace to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point which “uses ‘stickiness’ to describe the aspects of media texts which engender deep audience engagement and might motivate them to share what they learned with others.” (4) In the case of my students’ responses to the We Are Seneca Lake watchpage, they were sharing information about their own media consumption habits and engagement, but they were not paying attention to the activist content and, due to the lures of the interface’s apparent personalizations, they were primarily experiencing distraction, rather than attention. If you will forgive the logic of the pun here, instead of being rapt, the interface made the students wrapped: like Nowrocki’s transformation of the slab into the slicelike, the packaging of the activist video made it less sticky.

When the students were presented with the YouTube interface, they looked across the surface of the page to the thumbnails of recommendations. They looked with what Jinying Li, in her essay, “"From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls," calls “an animated shopping gaze.” (203) Li suggests that the animated shopping gaze reflects the “heightened experience of consumerism” of a visual field dominated by walls and windows. (214) As Li points out, monetized personalization creates a visual field in which our gaze is “databased and computerized:” a visual field “in which our identities are nothing more than a list of products that the computer, or the website, decides we’d like to purchase.” (216) The YouTube interface forms an exhibition space that draws our gaze to its synecdochal representation of our person: the siting of our hands and our algorithmically generated preferences alongside the primary video.

YouTube’s interface appears to suggest that it offers a limitless archive of related materials with the added function of personalization, and that appears to reduce the effects of what John Ellis calls “choice fatigue.” But the appearance of transparency and actual transparency are quite different. YouTube closely guards and makes invisible the systems and algorithms that determine which videos are added to the recommended thumbnails. As Lauren Berliner has pointed out in her essay “Shooting for Profit: The Monetary Logic of the YouTube Home Movie,” “the invisibility of these systems helps to naturalize the appearance of YouTube as a democratic platform driven by users’ tastes and interests.” (293) But, of course, the architecture of the site is neither “natural” nor “democratic.”  YouTube’s architecture uses personalization as a way to control user attention, and as a way to generate data that can be monetized.

YouTube’s superflat, monetized design is not precisely an invention of the digital age. As Jeremy Groskopf point out in his study of “Silent Era Precursors of Online Advertising Techniques,” in 1916 Frank C. Thomas patented the design for a “collection of light diffusers flanking a movie screen that would allow for the stacking of advertisements along the screen in basically the same way that YouTube’s thumbnails of texts that are ‘recommended for you’ appear on the right side of the YouTube interface.” (86)

Of particular concern to early advertisers was the creation of an easily viewable system that added to the theatergoing experience without annoyingly distracting viewers from the primary cinema content and which offered a way to distinguish not only between the primary content and the advertisements, but between the advertisements, themselves. On YouTube, this two-pronged directive (to focus on primary content and to distinguish between different ads) is accomplished through scale and with visible metadata, though the advertisers’ imperative to not annoy, distract, or mislead the viewer is no longer a primary (or even secondary) concern. In fact, the interface’s display of metadata and its emphasis on personalization appear to be designed precisely for distraction and misdirection: two things that are not plainly useful to the site’s tertiary function as an exhibition space for activist video.

The interface appears to offer transparency – it is very indexical about its personalization, and it offers phrases like “recommended for you” in order to forge an affective connection between the viewer and the data being produced by their immaterial labor.  But it is precisely the customization, the “individual wrapping,” of the YouTube interface that marks its slicelike-ness. The deck is stacked. Where it appears to offer unlimited avenues for viewer choice, the YouTube interface is, instead, ordered by what Daniel Chamberlain, in his essay “Television Interfaces,” calls “vectors of customization and control” (85)

When YouTube was established in 2005, they identified themselves as a personal online archive with their tagline, “Your Digital Video Repository.” To be certain: the existence of an easily accessible archive with free storage and a professionally designed interface is of great use to activist organizations. For We Are Seneca Lake, for example, it offers a “free” space for the archiving of their videos. Since the advent of Web 2.0, activists have used consumer-oriented social media tools to mobilize viewing publics and to archive their labor. Further, as Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory of Internet Activism posits, “Internet tools designed to let ordinary consumers publish non-political content are often useful for activists because they are difficult for governments to censor without censoring innocuous content.” Videographic activism that employs consumer tools for its spread, for example, has the ability to reach larger audiences and does not have to rely on untested technology for the spread of its media. So, the members of We Are Seneca Lake who are working tirelessly to protect the Finger Lakes region from becoming a fracked gas transportation and storage hub for the entire Northeast, use YouTube as a repository for videos that chronicle their movement.

YouTube switched its tagline from “Your Digital Video Repository” to “Broadcast Yourself” the year it was purchased by Google. The switch from emphasis on being an archive to being an exhibition space is reflected in the changes to its interface and its emphasis on recommended videos. Even as the site has become more invested in the promotion of revenue-generating personalization features, it has provided a space for the circulation and distribution of activist video content. And, the availability of that space facilitates activist labor in the digital age. But, the consumer-oriented, individually wrapped, exhibition interface with its ingratiating and coercive targeted personalizations affects the viewer experience of activist content by fragmenting attention and by offering the suggestion of curatorial choice where that choice is limited at best. It models a type of viewing that anticipates pliant consumers rather than activists. If we look to the protests of the We are Seneca Lake activists as a model of vital activism, we see the way that the YouTube interface’s promotion of ad-driven thumbnails drives attention and intention away from activist-driven linked hands.

Leah Shafer is an Associate Professor in the Media and Society Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where she teaches courses that explore the culture and history of television, film, advertising, and the Internet. Her criticism appears in journals including FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Afterimage, and Film Criticism as well as The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Media Quarterly, and Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier. A scholar/artist, she was recently awarded a research residency with the experimental media art collaborative Signal Culture, and her experimental documentary Declaration of Sentiments Wesleyan Chapel was included of the Iterations as Habitats exhibition of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.  

Unspreadable Media (Part Two): The Best LGBTQ Youth Videos are the Ones You’ll Probably Never See

Lauren S. Berliner

The Best LGBTQ Youth Videos are the Ones You’ll Probably Never See

My current research began in the fall of 2010, in the wake of the highly publicized suicides of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, and several other teens who had been bullied because they were perceived to be gay. At the time I was working with LGBTQ youth in a media production program that I had designed and was facilitating at a local teen center and was paying close attention to the rise of anti-gay-bullying discourse, and the ways in which spreadable youth-produced video was being exalted by educators, activists, and other allies a potentially emancipatory practice for LGBTQ youth.

Most notable has been the It Gets Better Project (IGBP) online video campaign, started by columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller, in which participants give personal testimonies that encourage struggling youth to believe that their circumstances will eventually improve. The premise of each video is that life as an LGBTQ youth is inherently filled with pain and oppression, but if you just hold on, it will get better.

We can see from the high numbers of views of IGBP videos and its derivatives that participation in this form of production means sharing the virtual stage with the likes of Pixar employees, celebrities, and even President Obama. .And when reviewing videos on YouTube we can see that some of the most circulated by LGBTQ youth around the world follow in the step with the IGBP narrative formula. 

Across the hundreds of related videos that exist online, there are striking consistencies in the message (‘stop bullying!’ or ‘hold on if you’re being bullied, life will get better!’), the positive tone, the call to action, and the digestible approach to the topic of violence and oppression. I will be referring to these kinds of videos as pedagogical videos, which I define as pedagogical. Pedagogical videos share the following characteristics:

  •  Social value is located in the content
  • Message-oriented (similar to broadcast PSA campaigns)
  • Aimed at enhancing LGBTQ visibility
  • Often based in oppression-based narrative
  • Aim to be highly spreadable

At present, the “success” of LGBTQ youth-produced pedagogical videos is measured by the extent of its circulation. When videos circulate widely through peer networks and achieve notoriety on a global scale, as many of the most famous LGBTQ youth videos have, one might assume there to be a straightforward connection between the video content and its social, cultural, and personal significance.

But one particular video, made in 2011 by 14-year-old Buffalo native Jamey Rodemeyer, prompted me to question this logic.

So, how to read this video? Jamey’s words claim empowerment, but perhaps you’ll agree that there is something unsettling here too, as if he is trying to convince himself that it gets better. Sadly, it’s hindsight that confirms this reading because just five months after posting the video, Jamey took his life.

Why would someone like Jamey produce a video like this that didn’t reflect his lived experience?

Jamey’s video prompts us to ask how the prerogatives of spreadable media shape, and potentially impede, a maker’s narrative and expressive possibilities. I would like to suggest that video production that is intended from the outset for wide circulation in the pursuit of visibility encourages youth like Jamey to participate in a particular set of production practices that risk masking their emotional and resource needs. 

If we examine the guidelines the It Gets Better Project provides its contributors we can see content normalization explicitly encouraged. These guidelines outline the visual and narrative parameters of successful (posts that won’t be blocked) video contributions. These sanitizing guides and requisite “positive tone” are likely motivated by practical concerns, such as a perceived danger of posting videos that suggest justifications and techniques for LGBTQ youth suicide. 

Contributors are offered advice on how to achieve the highest quality sound and lighting for their video. These aesthetic suggestions are based on a normative framing--the testimonial, seated, medium shot documentary style that Savage and Miller first initiated. It is assumes that contributors will be shooting in a similar fashion and tacitly encourages such emulation. In addition, the IGBP website suggests “talking points” that contributors should cover. The broad categories include “’Positive Messages of Hope for LGBTQ Youth,’ ‘Using Safe Messaging Practices,’ and ‘Suggested Resources, Help, and Support.’ The campaign requests that contributors seek to “inspire” young people, while staying “positive” and “uplifting” and avoiding any “language that could be interpreted as negative or that specifically mentions self-harm.”

Disqualified subjectivities or pathologized subject positions cannot be contained by this dominant narrative form. One’s participation in such a video, therefore, inevitably becomes a performance of a particular position with regards to the pain associated with (LGBTQ) youth and suicidal ideation. When one films, views, or circulates a pedagogical video, one identifies as the “not-bully,” “the ally,” or “the survivor” while also furthering a master narrative about LGBTQ experience. The dominant narrative circulating on YouTube about LGBTQ youth describes this demographic as especially vulnerable to violence (particularly bullying) and suicidal ideation, in part due to the ubiquity and reach of LGBTQ youth pedagogical videos like the It Gets Better Project. These videos eclipse other types of videos by and for LGBTQ youth that achieve less visibility online.

Yet when we disentangle the spread and mainstream visibility that pedagogical videos enjoy from the sheer number of videos that exist for and about LGBTQ youth, we begin to see a profuse and diverse representation of LGBTQ youth life that effectually counters the homogenizing, oppression-based narrative that the IGBP campaign and its derivatives further.

A second category of videos can therefore be characterized as more informal, improvisational, and typically posted for an already-invested local public of viewers (rather than an imagined, homogenous LGBTQ youth public). These videos, which I call performative, are characteristically disjointed, non-linear, and work against any particular script. In so doing, they direct the viewer away from notions of any essentialized interiority associated with being LGBTQ. So rather than describing a universal narrative of what it means to be LGBTQ, as pedagogical videos are apt to do, performative videos actively enact LGBTQ publics. Through a multiplicity of narratives, styles, tone, and genres, the sphere of LGBTQ legitimacy and identity is cast much wider. This is not to say that LGBTQ youth contributors to YouTube always produce videos with the explicit intention of providing counter-narratives, but rather, that the sheer range of content produced, in aggregate, provides a multiplicity of narratives and representations that in effect contradict any attempts to homogenize LBGTQ youth experience. Indeed the filming styles, content, metadata, and circulation of performative videos consummate LGBTQ youth publics online, and in turn complicate the proscribed, teleological narrative that the It Gets Better Project and similar pedagogical videos further. It thus moves us away from monolithic narratives rooted in violence and oppression and towards multiple narratives of possibility.

Here are some of the kinds of performative videos we can expect to find online:

Emo boy hair swoop and my coming out story

 They range from from local community collaborations, informal peer-education video blogs, videos shot in the home mode of production, to what I call “slam-book videos” based on the middle-school fad of group journaling to a set of open-ended questions. Taken together, performative LGBTQ youth videos confound the narrative of a singular public that IGBP seeks to cohere. In so doing, they point to different forms of queer sociality and futurity, evidencing multiple queer publics that are responsive to change and invested in transformation. To wit, these videos encourage alternative ways of thinking about the potential role of participatory video in the lives of LGBTQ youth. As the sheer variety of performative LGBTQ youth videos illustrate, YouTube is a site where marginal positions, narratives, and experiences are performed and circulated. These appear to emerge from local publics that have pre-existing audiences and knowledges that are embedded in the production process.

It is for these reasons, such videos rarely circulate beyond an already-invested viewership. This is in part due to the sheer ubiquity of videos online, but also because most of these videos do not follow the templates that seek to ensure spreadability, as the pedagogical ones do. 

But as local LGBTQ youth publics continue to utilize YouTube, the multiplicity of narratives, coalitions, symbolic representation and mimetic re-imaginings they create can help form the basis for transformative social change. These videos realize a world in which many other possibilities and ways of being LGBTQ emerge; de-emphasizing bullying, violence and suicidal ideation as the most legible, shared narrative.

Pedagogical videos require spreadability because their social value is imagined to be located in the content (a message). Performative videos, on the other hand, are typically more directed towards representing community and LGBTQ diversity, while activating local publics. Performative LGBTQ youth videos take many forms, reflecting the overall diversity of existing online production genres.

If pedagogical videos work to reinforce cohesive narratives about LGBTQ lives, LGBTQ youth video blogs (vlogs) and webcasts confound them. Whereas pedagogical videos ultimately work to fix particular kinds of understandings of what it means to be LGBTQ youth, performative videos reflect varied and sometimes even contradictory ways of identifying as LGBTQ. The range of video representations produce a diverse set of meanings about what it means to be LGBTQ and in effect, realizes the potential for joy, connection, and social action, often precluded by pedagogical videos that center around violence and oppression.  While violence and suicidal ideation are indeed very real concerns for the LGBTQ youth population, they are not necessarily central to, or definitive of, the experience of being a young LGBTQ person. In this way, performative videos challenge the pedagogical video genre’s ability to speak to and about LGBTQ youth. Performative videos position themselves less as panacea for LGBTQ youth pain, but rather as just one of many possible outlets for expression, social cohesion, and perhaps even reflexivity. These videos perform the narrative multiplicity that exists among and between LGBTQ youth and in so doing, encourage us to divest in the master narrative of oppression-based experience that is proffered by pedagogical videos such as those of the It Gets Better Project and recognize the heterogeneity in LGBTQ youth experience.

Lauren S. Berliner is Assistant Professor of Media & Communication Studies and Cultural Studies at University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches courses on media praxis and participatory media culture. She is also a filmmaker and the co-curator of The Festival of (In)Appropriation annual showcase of experimental media. Her forthcoming book, LGBTQ Youth and The Paradox of Digital Media Empowerment, combines participatory action research with LGBTQ youth media makers along with textual analysis of youth-produced videos to examine how youth negotiate the structural conditions of funding and publicity and incorporate digital self-representations into practices of identity management.  Her latest research is a collaboration with medical anthropologist Nora Kenworthy on a project that seeks to understand the phenomenon of crowdfunding for healthcare, focusing on how Americans are utilizing participatory media to solicit new forms of care and support.

Unspreadable Media (Part One): The Geographies of Public Writing

At the 2016 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Atlanta, I participated in a panel, “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead?: Finding Value and Meaning in Unspreadable Media”, which was chaired by Sam Ford and included perspectives by Lauren Berliner and Leah Shafer. The discussion which emerged there was highly generative, allowing Sam Ford and I to clarify and revisit some of the key assumptions behind our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society, and introducing us to the work of a new generation of researchers exploring the politics of circulation as it relates to civic and activist media. We hatched a scheme to translate the panel into a series of entries for my blog, where we could share and discuss our work. It’s taken longer than expected to get to this point, but over the next four posts, I am going to share the original papers presented at the conference, and then, we will share some reflections from the panelists about how their thinking has or has not shifted over the intervening months, especially in light of the election results this fall, which shook up so many of our assumptions about the state of American politics. I would welcome hearing from other researchers who are exploring some of these same questions through their work, as would the other panelists, so let us know what you think.


The Geographies of Public Writing: Genres of Participation and Circulation in Contemporary Youth Activism

By Henry Jenkins 

This essay is intended to map points of intersection between two of my books -- Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society (With Sam Ford and Joshua Green) and By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism (with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman). My goal here is to show the relationship between the concept of circulation discussed in Spreadable Media and the concept of mobilization discussed in By Any Media Necessary.

This essay is also inspired by John Hartley’s now classic essay, “The Frequencies of Public Writing,” which first appeared in my edited collection, Democracy and New Media.

“Time in communicative life can be understood not merely as a sequence but also in terms of frequency…Time and news are obviously bound up in each other. The commercial value of news is its timeliness.”-- John Hartley

John Hartley’s “The Frequencies of Public Writing” maps the different time scales upon which communication operates, with public writing being deployed to describe a broad range of forms of cultural production which seeks to inform and mobilize public thought. In the essay, Hartley defines “frequency” in terms of: 

  • The Speed of Creation: How long a text takes to be produced
  • Frequency of Circulation: Intervals between publication
  • The Wavelength of Consumption: How long before the text is superseded.

Hartley charts a spectrum of communicative frequencies which runs from the instantaneous to the eternal, a scale inspired in part by the focus on temporality and spatiality in the writings of Harold Innis.

Frequencies of public writing

  • Before the Event Previews, Leaks, Briefings, PR, "Spin"
  • High Frequency 
    • Instant/Second Internet, Subscription News: e.g., Matt Drudge; Reuters Financial TV,
    • Minute "Rolling Update" News: e.g., CNN, BBC-24/Choice, Radio 5-Live
    • Hour Broadcast News: e.g., CBS/ABC/NBC, ITN/BBC, Radio 4
    • Day Daily Press: e.g., The TimesNew York TimesSunNew York Post
    • Week Weekly Periodicals: e.g., TimeNew StatesmanHello!,National Enquirer
  • Mid-Frequency
    • Month Monthly Magazines: e.g., VogueCosmopolitanThe Face,Loaded
    • Quarter Scientific and Academic Journals: e.g., International Journal of Cultural Studies
    • Year Books, Movies, Television Series: e.g., Harry PotterStar WarsAlly McBeal   
  • Low Frequency  
    • Decade Scholarship, Contemporary Art: e:g, "definitive" works, textbooks, dictionaries, portraiture, fashionable artists  
    • Century Building, Statue, Canonical Literature: e.g., Sydney Opera House, war memorials, Shakespeare
    • Millennium Temple, Tomb: e.g., Parthenon, Pyramids
    • Eternity Ruins, Reruns: e.g., Stoneh

Innis, as we discussed in Spreadable Media, identifies the “biases” of different historical cultures in terms of the ability to spread information rapidly across large distances (those based around Papyrus) and the ability to preserve information unchanged across large spans of time (those based around marble). Hartley’s model, on the other hand, is based on genres, with contemporary cultures developing a broader array of different forms of communication which allow them to circulate information over different geographic scales and preserve information across different chronological scales.  

Hartley’s use of the term circulation above reflects a classical understanding of the concept which stresses the intended or achieved audience for mass-produced content. In Spreadable Media, we adopt a somewhat different use of the term to refer to the hybrid systems --partially top down, partially bottom up -- through which content spreads within an era of social media, a term we use in contrast with distribution, which describes the now mostly corporate and planned mechanisms for spreading content.

Hartley is interested in the ways that different genres of public writing contribute to the development of core civic identities and basic social agencies, the ways that our ability to act as citizens is bound up with the circulation of information. Hartley writes, “Once virtualized, a sense of civic or national identity is also rendered portable.  It can be taken to all comers by contemporary media, which is centrifugal, radiating outward to find spatially dispersed addresses—the ‘imagined community’—at any moment.”

 Hartley’s use of the term, “imagined community,” here is helpful, evoking Benedict Anderson who also had developed a conceptual framework for thinking about acts of publication and forms of collective identification. His best known example is the ways that the London Times developed a collective sense of belonging across the British Empire. For now, we can think of the global reach of the British Empire, then, as representing perhaps our most expansive understanding of the scale on which public writing can occur.  

To adapt a more recent example, we might think about Michelle Obama’s participation in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign directed against Boko Haram. Here, the first lady of the United States deployed social media, participating in a popular form of hashtag activism, in order to send a message to a terrorist group operating in Nigeria, relayed along the way informally via social media platforms and formally via more traditional news media.

Write here...

As we suggest in By Any Media Necessary, such exchanges, which require the active mobilization of large communities of people and often creative acts to repurpose and reframe existing memes, might best be understood in the more active sense of imagining communities rather in Anderson’s more passive formulation, imagined communities.

Another spectacular example of global or at least transnational circulation of information was Kony 2012, a public awareness campaign conducted by the organization, Invisible Children, in order to call attention to the activities of an African warlord known for his ruthless efforts to kidnap children from villages in Uganda and turn them into soldiers in his resistance movement. As Sangita Shresthova discusses in By Any Media Necessary, Kony 2012 helps us to understand the consequences of a dramatic shift in the geographies of public writing. The campaign’s organizers had estimated that the video might reach as many as half a million viewers over roughly two months of circulation; instead, it spread to more than 100 million viewers during its first week.   

The organization was in no way ready for this level of circulation, which had destructive effects in both the short run and the long run. In the short run, the expanded circulation crashed their servers, brought the messages to many unintended audiences, rushed ahead of their efforts to build web resources around the campaign, lead to the nervous breakdown of the organization’s leader. As the group’s leaders circled the wagons to deal with the crisis, many of the more outlying participants were ill-prepared to respond to the backlash the video would generate. The group had felt so strongly that their message was “common sense” that they did not train members to anticipate and respond to objections. In the longer term, the high visibility of this one message led many to imagine the group was more fully established than it was, and as a consequence, donations slowed as many assumed the group no longer needed their support.

The example of Kony 2012 illustrates two potential negative consequences of the unpredictable nature of today’s circulation practices: The Digital Afterlife,a term coined by Lissa Soep, refers to media content that remains in circulation longer than intended and thus re-emerges in unanticipated contexts. For example, in the case of Kony 2012, photographs of the IC leaders taken during an earlier trip to Africa and showing them holding machine guns were rediscovered and turned into a meme that was deployed to ridicule their self-aggrandizing tendencies. We might think of this problem as arising from shifting temporalities of communication. On the other hand, danah boyd and Alice Marwick, among others, have used the term, “context collapse,” to refer to what happens when a message travels beyond its intended audience, a problem having to do with the geographies of public writing. In this case, IC had intended the Kony 2012 message as helping to mobilize a community that they had already initiated into their movement through previous grassroots recruitment efforts at schools, college campuses, and churches. As the message reached many more who did not understand the group’s history and mission, there were questions raised the group was unprepared to answer. Or consider, for example, what happened when the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, posted on line to be shared with worshippers in his congregation, became more widely spread and surfaced as a divisive issue in Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency.  

There has been a tendency, as people have read Spreadable Media, to assume that the only communicative acts that matter are those which occur on this most expansive scale -- in part because, as Sam Ford suggests here, we still tend to measure success according to the standards of the broadcast or mass media paradigm. Yet, in fact, meaningful communication can occur on the hyperlocal scale -- so imagine a high school newspaper or a website focused on sharing the news of people living in a particular apartment building or neighborhood. Here, the scale of circulation is much more limited, but still reaches the local audience for which the information was intended, and this exchange can have the desired result of mobilizing people to act on their shared interests and producing a collective civic identity. So, rather than assume all public writing today is designed to reach the largest possible audience, we might assume organizations are making choices about how wide a geographic reach they hope to achieve, albeit choices that can not be enforced upon those circulating their content given the dual threats of digital afterlife and content collapse. 

Such intentions about the scale and speed of circulation, about temporal and geographic dimensions of public writing, might be understood as one aspect of what social scientists have begun to describe as “genres of participation.” As Marie Dufrasne and Geoffrey Patriarche tell us, genres of participation refer to “a type of communicative action recognized by a community…as appropriate to attain a specific objective.” Genres of participation express “collective convictions” by describing particular sets of actions (in this case, communicative practices) which provide templates that can be performed by diverse sets of participants. These genres of participation address central questions regarding why, how, what, who/m, when, and where. These genres of participation provide those who join these actions with a sense of shared purpose and practice, increasing their sense of collective civic agency.  Consider, for example, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which offered a script to participants in terms of what actions should be taken, what messages should be delivered, how this media should be directed towards particular networks, how to motivate those who receive the message to re-perform and recirculate the message, etc. As a result, this communicative action reached very large scales of participation and raised massive amounts of money for its cause. While there was some degree of social embarrassment built into the Ice Bucket Challenge, it was ultimately designed to be understood and embraced across diverse communities and networks.

By comparison, in her research on the Nerdfighters, a youth movement that grew up around the online personalities, John and Hank Green, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik encountered examples of much more localized genres of participation. For example, young people often produced videos addressing political topics while spreading peanut butter on their faces, a gesture meaningful within their subculture but that limited the comprehensibility of the message to the outside world, especially in terms of institutionalized authorities who might have the capacity to act upon their social concerns. This is a genre of participation, then, which strengthens ties within a community but does not serve its cause as it spreads beyond its intended context.  

Of course, the expansion of genres of participation do not always bring about negative effects or insure incomprehension. #Itooamharvard was initially a hyperlocal genre, as Harvard students of color were photographed holding signs that shared negative, stereotypical, and hyper-aggressive comments directed against them on the basis of their race, gender, or sexuality during their time on campus. The goal was to stir debate about campus climate at a specific location, but the template for this activity has proven highly generative (resulting in similar efforts on many different college campus), especially at a time when campus climate issues are gaining greater visibility across the country.  

This concept of genres of participation helps us to distinguish between campaigns which are directed inward towards would-be participants who already see themselves as part of a specific community and those which are directed outward towards a more generalized public. For example, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik’s account of fan activism in By Any Media Necessary makes a core distinction between fannish civics (where elements of fictional storyworlds are deployed in ways that depend on the deep expertise of the fan community) and cultural acupuncture (where campaigns tap more broadly recognized aspects of popular franchises in order to create more generalized interest.) She locates examples of both sets of practices within campaigns conducted by the Harry Potter Alliance, Imagine Better, and the Nerdfighters.

Some groups increase their leverage the more visible their public writing becomes, often seeking to expand beyond an initiated dedicated core to signal more widespread support (through retweets, for example) as they seek to move a more powerful institution. Consider, for example, #iftheyshouldgunmedown, a protest effort that emerged in the wake of the Ferguson shootings.

The group wanted to call out the news media for choices it made in how it chose to represent the victims of police violence, in particular the tendency to use “thugish” images to illustrate their stories, images selected from a broad range of representations of these young men and women found within their social media flows.  This effort provided participant with a clear template for what they were meant to do: each participant selected two photographs, one that might be seen as grubby, the other as more respectable, which were tweeted together to illustrate that the same person might adopt a range of personas across their everyday interactions. The goal was to let the news media know that there was broad disappointment across their community about their selective bias.

Yet, for many activist groups, there is also a risk that comes from expanded circulation.  Arley Zimmerman and Liana Gamber-Thompson have documented in By Any Media Necessary the efforts of the DREAMers, undocumented youth fighting for greater educational and citizenship rights, to use confessional videos to expand their reach. As their movement began, many potential participants did not know each other because they were hiding their immigration status, so the practice of “coming out” via a video and in the process, telling their stories, was seen as an effective tool for fostering solidarity. The videos also had a positive impact in that they could be circulated within a range of other communities and networks to which these youth claimed affiliation. Most Americans did not know they knew anyone who was undocumented so hearing stories of people who shared their interests or backgrounds, people who they might already know, helped to pull many new supporters to the cause.

But the more widely the videos circulated, the more likely they were to have negative effects, since coming out exposed undocumented people to greater scrutiny from immigration authorities or left them vulnerable to third parties who might report or harass them.  Here, expanded circulation, then, is a mixed blessing, and the group hoped to direct the flow in such a way to maximize benefits and minimize risks.

Sangita Shresthova identifies similar tensions between the desire to bring their message to more diverse audiences and anxieties about forms of surveillance brought about by such exposure that shaped the communication practices she observed amongst American Muslim youth  (another case study in By Any Media Necessary). Often, the result was a series of lurches as participants pushed for expanded reach during what they felt were relatively safe times and more constructed circulation during times of heightened risk and scrutiny (for example, following the Boston Bombing).

Just as the same culture may support communication with different degrees of frequency, each serving different functions, the same social movement may develop practices intended to reach different geographies of circulation, sometimes even using the same platforms to post and spread their content. So, a recent study of the Occupy Movement’s use of social media, found tens of thousands of videos posted on YouTube and publicized through Twitter and Facebook. In some cases, these videos reached only a small number of viewers, since the movement was using YouTube, in these instances, primarily as an archival media rather than as a mechanism for publicity. Videos might be posted to allow people at different Occupy sites to share practices or report on outcomes, thus the scale of exchange was modest, reaching only people already known by the video’s producers. In other cases, though, YouTube videos reached a much wider circulation, since the movement was using the platform as an alternative mechanism for reaching the public at a time when their protests were receiving only limited attention through the mainstream media. Many of the videos fall someplace in between: the potential of broader reach, of context collapse and digital afterlife, surrounded all of these videos, but in practice, only certain videos broke free of their intended spread.

Much more research and reflection needs to take place before we can develop a map of the potential geographies of media circulation that are as robust as Hartley’s chart of the frequencies of public writing. I hope that in tapping some of the cases we’ve identified around our book, By Any Media Necessary, I’ve modeled what such an analysis might look like. The first step is recognizing that people intend their public writings to reach communities on a variety of scales and that negative consequences can occur when they move beyond their intended audience. 

The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part Three)

Late in the book, you consider Trump and his alt-right supporters. What can the book’s approach teach us about the newly elected American President and his often trollish conduct online and off. Even his supporters are telling us we should not take what he says, for example, in his tweets “literally” and suggesting that his words might better be understood “symbolically,” phrases that evoke the questions around authenticity and sincerity that run across your book.

Fun story: we hadn’t set out to write much about Trump. In fact in the book’s first draft, due to the press in June 2016, he was merely one among many public figures in the chapter on public debate. But as we revised the book during the late summer and early fall of 2016, Trump’s campaign took one bewildering, ominous turn after another. Trump’s behavior had always been…Trump’s behavior, but the things he was doing and saying were aligning more and more conspicuously with our underlying arguments. 

So we felt we had to carve out more space for his campaign, even if revisions at that point were meant to be light. We’re sure this drove our editor crazy, since we were making updates—often major ones, including discussion of the infamous Access Hollywood tape—as she was busy making her own editing passes of our manuscript (sorry Leigh). 

Working frantically to keep up, we asked if we could turn in the final edited draft by noon on November 9th (one day after the U.S. election, and one day after our original deadline) because we wanted to include the results. And then we all know what happened next. Trump the candidate—and we readily admit that we were writing about him assuming he would only ever be a candidate—became Trump the President. But that was it; we were out of time. We were also at a point in the process where we couldn’t impact existing pagination, or else we’d risk missing our spring publication window. Our compromise with the press was to change a handful of verb tenses, tinker with the structure of a few paragraphs, and insert a shellshocked footnote. And that’s how we accidentally wrote a political time capsule. 

Of course, subsequent months would reveal just how much overlap there was between Trump the President and the book’s main points. The most striking of these, as we’ve since argued, is the fact that Trump takes Poe’s Law to the highest office of the land; Trump is the Poe’s Law president. Who knows if he’s saying things because he believes them to be true, if he’s sowing calculated disinformation, if he’s just ranting about whatever’s on the television, or if he is, and we say this with some trepidation, “just trolling.” The fact that what Trump says may or may not be a lie, or at least may or may not be earnestly meant in the moment, is what makes figuring out how to respond to him so difficult. 

For us, and just as it is when confronted by Yiannopoulos’ logical gymnastics (“We’re obviously just joking, so the joke’s on you if you take us seriously, but also, please take us seriously, because the entire joke hinges on you not thinking it’s a joke”), the trick isn’t figuring out what Trump really means. Whether Trump and the administration more broadly is, to quote a recent game (“game”) played by Foreign Affairs, “stupid or nefarious?” (alternatively, “Veep or House of Cards?”), the result is the same. And so the result should be the focus. 

What do you see as some of the core tensions or fault lines within online political discourse? How does this reflect structural and systemic issues in contemporary democracy in this country?

As we maintain in the book, many of the tensions cited as unique to online spaces are so much bigger and so much older than the internet. The overlap between then and now, online and offline, is particularly striking when considering online political discourse. It is tempting, for example, to argue that online hostility, presumably caused by anonymity (or at least the ability to hide behind a computer screen), is why, to quote the title of Phillips’ book, we can’t have nice things

Before Twitter was even a gleam in the President’s eye, however, the American political system had long been marred by precisely the kind of antagonism, impoliteness, and incivility presumed to be the purview of internet pot-stirrers, as politicianspundits, and private citizens alike stooped to a whole spectrum of identity-based antagonisms and schoolyard absurdities. It is also tempting to argue that the 2016 election was evidence of, to quote Milner’s book, a world made meme

On this point, we actually agree. But as we explained in an essay directly following the election, it wasn’t internet memes—like Ken Bone’s sweaterMarco Rubio’s baby chair, or Ted Cruz’ alleged serial murders—that most conspicuously characterized the election. It was age-old memes—regressive stereotypes, blinding misogyny, blanket anti-elitism, and good old fashioned fear of the other—that made 2016 the meme election. Digital media certainly influenced what people were able to share with whom and how, and what the stakes of that sharing might have been. 

But overestimating the role the online plays in online political discourse, in this election or any election, overlooks the fact that these discourses are, first and foremost, a reflection of the broader world that contains the internet, not a reflection of the internet that is somehow detachable from the broader world. Underscoring the point that incivility and misinformation are people problems, not strictly platform problems, a recent Pew report found that a whopping 40 percent of Trump voters cite Fox News as their main source of election information. 

Given the network’s obvious role as a right wing spin machine, its dominance suggests that even if it were possible to eradicate fake news online, there are much deeper wells of misinformation. Failing to address those wells, and further, failing to address the reasons why certain stories resonate with certain audiences, means concerns over fake news online can only ever be concern over symptoms, not causes. 

Of course, online political discourse is also subject to its own specific tensions; the “brave new world” side of the “nothing new under the sun” coin. Digital spaces and tools—from entire social networking platforms to these platforms’ specific affordances to the overall ability to search for indexed content, and on and on—have an immediately democratizing effect, allowing people from across the globe to connect with the issues, media, and people most important to them. These spaces and tools also have an immediately destabilizing effect, as they allow antagonists to find what they want, and who they want, often as quickly as they want. 

Ditto for the flow of information: the same online communication channels that can shed light on an issue or clarify the facts, the same channels that allow average citizens to participate in unfolding news stories, not just consume them, can utterly muddle the facts through the spread of false information and targeted media manipulation (see Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis for their analysis related to the 2016 election). 

This results in an internet that is equally capable of empowering and diminishing not just voice, but a basic sense of grounded, shared truth. Donald Trump and #ResistTrump, white nationalism and Black Lives Matter, falsity and truth—online all can correspondingly thrive, as participants use the same platforms, the same tools, the same materials, the same memes, the same everything, to accomplish their objectives. The only consistent difference is what impact these behaviors have, outcomes themselves dependent on an audience whose bounds can’t easily be parsed, whose identities can’t easily be tracked, and whose motives can’t easily be known.

As you note, some groups have different access to power and privilege which shape what gives them Lulz and what they can and do say online. A high percentage of the jokes you reference here are misogynistic, suggesting how often online culture gets directed against women, issues that have surfaced especially powerfully around recent online trends such as #gamergate. How might we apply your theories and methods to understanding the kind of popular misogyny that fuels this movement?

To appreciate the full impact of misogynist hate and harassment campaigns like Gamergate, you have to consider just how far back misogynist hate and harassment goes. This speaks, again, to the kinds of narrative seeds that folklore has cast across the generations. Pre-internet urban legends—stories presented as true accounts of things that happened in another town over, or to a friend of a friend—are one outcropping of such culturally normalized sexism. As we explore in the book, many urban legends are outright misogynist, for example the countless stories (some with direct ATU prototypes) of women and girls meeting gruesome fates for not adhering to expectations for how “good girls” behave, namely demurely—itself echoing a millenias-old injunction against women asserting themselves, especially in public

Other motifs are more subtle, but still maintain rigid gender hierarchies, including the tendency for women in these legends to be punished far more often than their male counterparts for stepping out of line, to be placed in constant danger, often requiring protection by men from the men that seek to harm them, and to be sexually pathologized at almost every turn, exponentially more often than men, whose sexual appetites are framed as natural. In short, what unfolded during Gamergate is much, much older and much, much deeper than Gamergate. Gamergate, like the memes Trump successfully harnessed, is a genetic outcropping of all the seeds that have come before. 

Claims about the pervasiveness of misogynist motifs, whether subtle or explicit, online or off, might seem at odds with earlier claims about the difficulty of positing the meaning and intention of folkloric expression. Our analysis is not a post-structuralist free for all, however; you don’t lose the ability to make claims (in our case, explicitly feminist and anti-racist claims) just because some of the data is unavailable. Personal meaning might be impossible to universalize, individual motives might be impossible to verify, but even then it is possible to extrapolate broader collective resonance from what is most frequently shared by individuals; if it doesn’t spread it’s dead, indeed. 

It is also possible to show how the recasting of these old seeds further clog the atmosphere with misogynist (or racist, or xenophobic, or anti-Semitic) messaging. This brings us right back to the claim that folklore is always a reflection of the culture in which it flourishes. It is critical to focus on the specific unfolding folkloric traditions themselves, and to explain as much about these traditions and their audiences as possible. But the question folklore ultimately addresses is what ends up being reflected, and how the reflections of today are rendered all the brighter, all the harsher, all the more revealing, when considered alongside the reflections of the past.

Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies,and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University’s Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.

The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part Two)

Much academic work on digital culture focuses on questions of meaning, yet as you note, it is often hard, if not impossible, to determine meaning and intent within online spaces and some of the groups you study refuse to ascribe meaning or sentiment to their otherwise overwrought content. So, if meaning is not your focus, what is?

Not being able to objectively confirm meaning or intent—even in individual instances of remix or sharing, to say nothing about the assessment of an entire memetic life cycle—might seem like a research roadblock. It certainly can be frustrating, particularly when the goal is to push back against a false claim or expose (what appears to be) a coordinated hoax, like the White Student Union Facebook groups. At the same time, not knowing who created what, what the(se) creator(s) meant to accomplish, or what a given text “really” means, forces one to stay empirical and focus on the things that can be known and confirmed. These questions can focus on logistic issues, like where the participation occurred and over what time period the resulting folklore traveled. 

Most critically when considering identity-based harassment, these questions can also focus on political and ideological issues. For example, who was empowered to speak as a result of an action, and who was silenced or minimized? Was this speech an instance of punching up, in which underrepresented groups were empowered to speak truth (and/or snark) to power? Or was it punching down, in which members of dominant groups further minimized already marginalized identities? What existing cultural norms were reinforced and what cultural norms were challenged? 

These questions are particularly helpful when attempting to unpack antagonisms that are—or seem to be, or are claimed to be, big question mark—couched in irony. White nationalists operating under the euphemistic banner of the alt-right as well as fascist apologists like Milo Yiannopoulos are conspicuous proponents of this approach. We don’t buy it, though. Whatever someone is trying to accomplish, however thick the layers of “lulz” they claim to be antagonizing under, does not matter to the final analysis. 

What matters to the final analysis is what seeds a person casts into the air. In the case of white nationalist antagonisms, these are seeds of bigotry and hatefulness. The more of these seeds there are, for whatever reason they may have been thrown, the more clogged the atmosphere becomes. And the more likely, in turn, that everyday people will end up with an itchy eyeful. 

Ultimately, this is the benefit of the ambivalence frame, and employing agnosticism when considering  motive. Saying that something can go either way, or has gone either way, or could go either way, might be true, but such a framing doesn’t—such a framing can’t—posit any further universalizing, broad stroke conclusions about any inherent personal or textual meaning. Whatever conclusions there are to draw hinge, necessarily, on what happens next. 

You explore throughout precedences for contemporary digital culture genres and practices within earlier moments of the history of folklore, but there is also a sense here that it matters that this is taking place through digital media. In what ways does the digital matter? What would surprise Alan Dundes were he to be able to read your book?

We’d frankly be surprised if any of the case studies we featured in the book surprised Dundes, who justified his 1966 analysis of latrinalia, i.e. anonymous bathroom scrawlings, by asserting that “the study of man must include all aspects of human activity.” Nor can we imagine he’d be surprised by the similarities between contemporary internet folklore and the folklore he collected in the latter half of the 20th century. People exhibited very familiar WTF-ness long before they were making internet memes. Indeed if there’s one thing that remains true across eras, it’s that human beings are pretty strange creatures, however or wherever this humanity unfolds.

Dundes’ and Carl Pagter’s 1975 study of Xeroxlore—jokes and images spread between and across American offices via copy machine in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s—provides one example of this overlap. A year before Richard Dawkins even coined the term meme, Dundes and Pagter were describing precisely the same kinds of memetic processes underscoring the quirky, crass jokes that have become so prevalent online. Like memetic jokes shared on the internet today, the humor of Xeroxlore stemmed from its resonant reappropriation. Office memos were cut and pasted together to mock incompetent bosses; existing “dumb blonde” jokes evolved into  “dumb secretary” jokes with the intent of demeaning a specific coworker, entire gender, or both at once; and sexually explicit drawings of pop culture staples like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, or Charlie Brown and Lucy, were traced, retraced, photocopied, and passed around with great aplomb. 

Trust us, anything you’ve done to PBS’s Arthur has been done by your memetic forebearers.       

But of course there’s an equally strong counterpoint (ambivalence and all). Age-old folk practices, and the age-old ambivalence that characterizes these practices, are sent careening into overdrive thanks to the affordances of digital media. The fact that it is exponentially easier now to find, modify, and share a specific text or image, coupled with the fact that more people have more access to the tools required for remix and poaching (these days you don’t have to be a white-collar office worker to degrade Wile E. Coyote), exponentially accelerates the spread and audience of ambivalent folkloric expression. For example, as prevalent—and potentially scandalous—as prurient Looney Tunes Xeroxlore may have been in certain offices in 1960s and 70s, lewd Arthur content become so prominent so quickly across so many different social media platforms in the summer of 2016 that the show’s producers had to issue a statement asking people to cut it out

People, of course, did not, and news stories about the statement only amplified the practice further. Such amplification also affords rampant decontextualization, in this particular case and more broadly. Xeroxlore certainly ripped texts from their original contexts, but still tended to ground those reappropriations within smaller, more insular, word of mouth collectives. 

Internet memes, on the other hand, can very visibly and very publicly turn someone from an actual person into an abstracted, fetishized object of laughter. Just ask anyone who’s ever become “internet famous” by virtue of someone else taking the wrong photo of them at the wrong time. That notoriety can spiral out in frightening ways, sometimes instantaneously. That is the one thing that might come as a surprise to Dundes, or any folklorist who worked in a pre-internet context. 

Embodied folklore like latrinalia, denigrating jokes, and workplace hijinks certainly had their own problems—ones Dundes assesses thoroughly—but the ethical stakes shift when those practices can spin hopelessly out of control with a few clicks of a button.

Are people often too nostalgic in their understanding of traditional folklore, given what you tell us here, that 80 percent of it is obscene? What are the consequences of this overly romantic conception of the folk?

When people talk about traditional folklore, a few things tend to happen. First, the word “traditional” is often used interchangeably with “old” (rather than with the act of passing down cultural elements to the next generation, which technically can happen across era and media). Second, these traditions—from dances to foodways to oral traditional tales—are frequently lauded as being purer or at least more authentic than contemporary mass mediated culture. This contrast is especially pronounced alongside assumptions about digital media, and how thanks to the internet, or anonymity, or Facebook, or whatever, everything is terrible now. 

The fact is, things were just as ambivalent back in the presumably halceon pre-industrial days as they are in our contemporary world. Yes the tools of communication are different. Yes these tools affect ethical stakes. But folklore didn’t suddenly get obscene or weird or harmful because it was mediated through a screen. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale-type index, a massive collection of the most successful narrative elements in the history of human storytelling. As we discuss in the book, much of the content collected in the ATU—including stories of violence, murder, corpse-eating, assaultive sentient skulls, and various sexual grotesqueries—would be right at home on any 4chan thread. Much of the content collected in the ATU would also be immediately recognizable as the basis for literally every Disney princess movie (here’s some background on Beauty and the Beast, one of countless “animal as bridegroom” narratives collected in the ATU). 

Placing pre-modern folklore in its own little box risks downplaying these points of continuity. Again, yes, there are significant differences between folklore now and folklore from two hundred years ago. But as much as ours is a brave new world, there is also nothing new under the sun. The same tensions—between formal and populist elements, between the laughing us and the marginalized them, between those whose voices carry the loudest and those who fight every day to be heard—remain as pervasive as they ever were. 

Considering how and why helps isolate the cultural elements that are truly new, and what the implications of that newness might be. Folkloric nostalgia has a much more insidious consequence, however. The assumption that pre-industrial folklore was reflective of a simpler, purer past overlooks the kinds of regressive, damaging seeds—from racism to xenophobia to homophobia to breathtaking levels of paternalism and misogyny—these stories cast. 

Not just then, however, but now; contemporary stories across a variety of media continue to employ regressive folkloric elements, even those—like Disney’s latest crop of seemingly more progressive princess movies—that don’t as obviously forward problematic ideologies. These seeds are so densely concentrated, yet are such a common sight, that it is easy to mistake them for air. When restricted just to fictional narratives, these clouds might seem like nothing to worry about. 

Just whiffs of folkloric tradition; how quaint. Narratives aren’t just the stories we tell, however. Narratives are how we see the world. So when someone like Donald Trump shows up with the political equivalent of a box of Miracle Gro, feeding into too many people’s fears of the other, the different, the screw-em-they’re-not-me, then suddenly all these clouds of seeds take on a much darker cast.      

Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies,and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University’s Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.

The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part One)

Two of the most promising young scholars writing about digital culture today -- Whitney Phillips (This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture) and Ryan M. Milner (The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media) -- have collaborated to produce an important new book that is being released this week -- The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online. They are making a case for why folklore studies might provide us the conceptual tools we need to make sense of some of the most peculiar, twisted, perplexing, and problematic dimensions of contemporary online culture. I feel a certain sense of pride in what Phillips accomplishes here, having first met her when she was a somewhat befuddled graduate student, featuring her work on my blog and via our Spreadable Media website, and having provided her with mentorship off and on through the years. With her first book, Phillips has already displayed a nuanced understanding of people and practices that others would have dismissed with a well situated swat of the hand: instead, she helps us to understand what motivates trolling, how it is integrated into a much larger set of media practices (including those shaping professional journalism), and why it matters. This work seems all the more urgent as Trump and his minions, who in many ways embody aspects of the trolling subculture, has taken over the White House, with his disruptive tweets and outrageous claims.

I am just getting to know Milner but I am definitely going to keep my eyes on him from here.  Milner's work on memes as political speech is every bit as subtle and every bit as urgent, so I was excited to see what would happen as they join forces.

The resulting work is accessible to a broad range of audiences (including, of course, our undergraduates) so it is sure to be widely adopted as a textbook: it combines a rich gloss on existing literature in folklore with case studies drawn from the two researchers' own research.

In the interview that follows over the next three posts, I will grill them about both the larger methodological implications of this project and some of the particulars of their case studies. Both brought their A-game to this exchange, so look forward to some thinky responses.

The concept of ambivalence seems to be cropping up everywhere in contemporary cultural theory and appropriately it gets used to mean a wide variety of things. What aspects of ambivalence do you mean to evoke in the title of your book?

Our use of the ambivalence framework evolved out of what we thought we wanted to write a book about—online behavior that wasn’t entirely positive or entirely negative. We were thinking the title would be something like Between Play and Hate, to reflect that in-between nature. But as we started sifting through possible case studies, both online and off, we realized that so much of what we were looking at wasn’t cleanly falling within those bounds. Much more often, the behaviors in question were positive (world building, identity-reinforcing, fun) for those participating, and negative (alienating, identity-antagonising, upsetting or just plain annoying) for outsiders. And a whole range of reactions along that good/bad spectrum, as different groups encoded different meanings onto different texts for different reasons, for better and for worse and everything in between.

The simultaneity of these reactions, and fact that one couldn’t be designated as the definitive account, brought us to the concept of ambivalence. Not the colloquial sense of the term, which is more closely aligned with indecision (“Meh I’m ambivalent about going out to dinner; I’d be fine either way”) or ambiguity (“I’m not sure what they mean; it’s a pretty ambivalent message”). Rather we approached the term etymologically, with particular emphasis on that Latinate prefix ambi-, meaning “both, on both sides.” Coupled with its valeo root, meaning strong (think “valor”), ambivalence as we employ it is strong tension between opposing forces. So when we say that a particular behavior, message, or tool is ambivalent, we mean that it is equally capable of helping and harming, making laugh and making angry, and being both vessel for diverse expression and hindrance to diverse expression. In a way it takes on a verb’s role, implying a polysemic social process. This framing underscores our broader point that, when it comes to digital media, there are no easy solutions, and no simplistic, one-size-fits-all answers to pressing questions about free speech, collective participation, and basic safety—because these media don’t just go either way, they can go any way all at once, depending who might be participating, how, and why.

You also suggest here that the internet researcher needs a certain amount of ambivalence to pursue their work, suggesting the ethical choices that get made about what content to discuss often fall at fault lines between concerns about amplifying content that can cause harm or pain and the desire to critique and explain content that might otherwise be taken for granted. What insights does this work offer about how researchers navigate those ethical challenges? On what basis did you decide which cases to discuss here, what images to use, etc., issues you flag consistently across the book?

First, we’d back up and say that these questions aren’t solely the purview of internet scholars. Researchers exploring fully embodied folk practices have faced similar kinds of conundrums in their studies of bigoted, offensive, or otherwise ambivalent cultural content, for example Alan Dundes’ analyses (one conducted with Thomas Hauschild in 1983 and another with Uli Linke in 1988) of Auschwitz jokes popular in post-WWII Germany. As Dundes concedes, publishing these kinds of jokes continues their circulation, and risks further normalizing their bigotries. But not publishing would mean that the jokes couldn’t be held up to the full light of reason, with the implicit assumption that fresh air disinfects.

The same sorts of debates unfold around digital content, though with markedly heightened stakes: unlike the paper-copy, somewhat access-restricted academic studies Dundes was describing (i.e. his own articles, which no offense to Dundes weren’t exactly the hottest new trend for America’s teens), potentially destructive folklore can travel so much further and so much faster online than in embodied contexts. More problematically, this folklore is so much more easily unmoored from its original analytic context, whether academic or popular press; any published account collating and critiquing bigoted expression can be instantaneously employed as remix fodder for further bigotries. This is the main problem with listicle-type articles that collect the best (i.e. worst) examples of specific racist memes or disaster jokes or instances of antagonism. It puts the content in front of so many more eyeballs, and such a range of eyeballs at that, allowing for an equally broad range of remix and play.

As a result, we maintain (surprise) an ambivalent perspective on issues of amplification. We emphatically maintain that identity-based hate, harassment, and violence—and we’ll go right for an objectivist moral claim—is wrong. Not speaking out against these kinds of injustices risks signaling complicity (“you folks are on your own”), and might even facilitate further injustice. Buying into either option is morally irresponsible. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know when and if and how amplification, even with the very best, most earnest intentions, will ultimately make a problem worse, say by extending the half life of a story, or attracting more participants to a coordinated harassment campaign, as was Phillips’ concern in the wake of the sustained attacks against comedian Leslie Jones.

In short, by amplifying hateful content, particularly online, you never know whose water you might inadvertently end up carrying—a fact that should give everyone, and not just researchers, pause about how or if to respond to hateful content. As this relates to the book, we did our best to weigh the potential costs (amplified exposure or harm) against the potential benefits (amplified pushback against injustice) of including specific examples. And when we felt that discussing a case was warranted, like the attacks against Jones, we were careful to approach the people affected holistically—not as dry case studies to analyze, but as fully fleshed out individuals with friends and families and feelings. We may not have struck this balance perfectly every time, but we did our best to pay attention.

This book can be read as an introduction to core concepts in folklore studies and a demonstration of how they can be applied to digital culture. What do you see as the value of this disciplinary approach as opposed to, say, one grounded in cultural studies?

First and most basically, what’s happening on the internet—all the situated vernacular, all the creative expression, all the remix, all the slang; every in-joke and hashtag and portmanteau—is folklore; it’s exactly the sort of traditional expression (that is to say, expression that communicates traditional cultural elements, i.e. passes traditions along) that folklorists have focused on for over a century. Because folklore is what’s happening on the internet, folkloric approaches provide an obvious lens for exploring the internet—an opinion many folklorists share, as illustrated here by Lynne McNeill and here by Robert Glenn Howard. There are, as a result, all kinds of useful folkloric tools to employ when analyzing online behavior, including Dundes’ discussion of amplification, Toelken’s twin laws of conservatism and dynamism, Brunvand’s multiple variation, Oring’s appropriate incongruity, the list goes on and on.

The usefulness of folkloric tools runs much deeper than their applicability to online spaces. They are useful, much more significantly, because of why these tools were developed in the first place—namely, to contend with the fact that the lore of the folk has always been deeply, intractably, often head-explodingly ambivalent. At the most basic level, folklore is ambivalent because, to quote the ubiquitous folklorist Alan Dundes, it’s “always a reflection of the age in which it flourishes,” for better and for worse and for everything in between.

This isn’t the only source of folklore’s ambivalence. Because folkloric expression falls outside of or stands in some degree of conflict with formal culture, a significant percentage of this expression is quite literally not safe for work (or school, or church, or any other seat of institutional power); American folklorist Barre Toelken, for example, estimates that up to 80% of folkloric content is obscene, or at least would be regarded as such by outsiders looking in. Toelken wrote this in the 90s, and was referring to fully embodied behaviors. But the fact that folklorists have been exploring subversive, difficult, profane, and, sure, weird* behavior for generations, and furthermore, because these studies have focused specifically on the ebb and flow of traditions between and across social collectives, the discipline of folklore is uniquely equipped to deal with the ambivalent contours of the internet.

*With the gentle reminder that one person’s weird is another person’s Tuesday.

For example, most work in cultural studies might rely on the notion of subculture and of resistance, yet neither word has a very strong presence here, despite Whitney’s earlier work on the Troll subculture. So, how do you define the space where these forms of cultural expression emerge and the ideological positioning of these provocative works?

One of the main reasons we didn’t focus on subculture or resistance was because we couldn’t have been sure when those words were even applicable. These complications hinge on one of the book’s primary theoretical concepts: Poe’s Law, an online axiom stating that online—particularly in contexts where participants are unable to fully contextualize others’ messages—it is often difficult, if not impossible, to definitively parse sincerity from satire. This doesn’t just complicate questions about who is actually resisting what, but who is actually doing what, what their messages are even meant to mean. Something might appear to resist something, or appear to cast off “subcultural batsignals,” a term Phillips used when describing the (at the time) bounded community of subcultural trolls. And maybe it does for some participants. But maybe it’s doing the opposite for others. Maybe both things are true simultaneously. In any case, it’s just not possible to make universal claims about where subcultures end or begin, or where earnest subversion gives way to ironic play. What ground can you even point to, when it’s ambivalence all the way down?   

One example of this shakiness is 2015’s rash of White Student Union Facebook groups. As we discuss in the book, these groups—the first of which was purportedly affiliated with NYU—might have been the handiwork of real racists really enrolled at NYU and the other universities who were really concerned about creating “safe spaces” for (what they described as) historically trodden-upon white people, whose lands have been unfairly usurped, and whose heritage has been minimized (again, that’s their professed argument, not ours, dear god). But because the group emerged just as contemporary white nationalism—and critically, pushback against that white nationalism—was reaching critical mass, it was difficult to say exactly what was happening.

The groups could have been the handiwork of, or at least been amplified by, anti-racists eager to make white nationalists look as stupid as possible, or sincere white nationalists (maybe college students, maybe not) employing ironic rhetoric as a sincere send-up of so-called PC culture, or good old fashioned shit-stirrers (also maybe college students, also maybe not) looking to exploit emerging concern about white nationalism for laughs. Without knowing which was which—and allowing for the possibility, if not likelihood, that each possibility could have been true simultaneously—it’s not possible to say anything definitive about what was being resisted or what subculture was being represented. And so we didn’t try.


Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies, and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University's Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.

Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell (Part 3)

Samantha Close: So, thank you all so much for coming. This is really interesting. So, we’ve talked a lot about what we may call it primary texts and primary authors and originators. But one of the things that’s always interested me a lot about the science fiction and fantasy genres is the fandoms and the way that readers become writers and start to interact. And there’s been a lot of conversation in fandom recently about, you know, issues of what does it mean if you take a character and change their race, what does it mean, you know, to reimagine worlds this way, why is this something that hasn’t been done. If we can imagine alien biology, why not a character of a different skin color? And so, I was wondering about the fandoms around these kinds of works. Nalo: And what specifically about the fandoms are you wondering?

Sam: I guess, we talked a certain amount about this being kind of more underground and more, you know, artistically focused. And so, is that kind of more the mode of fandom where people are reading text and analyzing them or are people kind of transforming, is there interchange between the artists and with the writers and the readers?

Nalo: Some of them, some of them not. They’re not, as far as I have found a lot of people in fandom doing fan writing based in my work. I have found people doing illustrations. And that’s always cool to see how somebody else imagines your work. But it’s also a bit of a shock. What I like about fandom in the science fiction is the ways that it can -- they don’t have to have breaks. So, saying earlier that they can imagine stories into places that we might feel we might not want to or might not be able to get published or -- and when I first discovered what the term slash came from, which was a fan writing Kirk/Spock fiction where Kirk and Spock were lovers. It made so much sense, I almost stopped breathing. It was, oh my God, of course, I’ve never seen it that way. Of course, that’s what’s going on.

So, I value that. I have to say for myself there is also the reaction of often there isn’t the type of craft I would -- that I prefer.

I like the energy of the discussion that happens because they don’t have to deal with the kinds of considerations a published author does. I remember when the last Bordertown anthology came out, it’s a shared world anthology. The world is established and writers are invited to write stories in it. The creative board of talents specifically says, you can write fan fiction, listen, I have no problem with that, you’re not allowed to publish it. And finding a fan discussion board where they’re saying, well, why not, what’s the difference. The writers we’ve invited are writing fan fiction. And they’re getting paid for it.

William: I think the indigenous film and literature sci-fi genre is already so marginal that there’s not a lot, I think, that might be categorized exactly as fan fiction. But I think going back to the idea of imagining and the image, there’s a lot of parody through art. So, if anyone knows Bunky Echo-Hawk, he’s an incredible artist and he’s got a lot of takes on Star Wars. He has this image of Yoda which is titled “If Yoda was an Indian he’d be chief.”

He also engages Darth Vader as Custer, and the mustache works right with his mask. The imperials are the Americans, are the Europeans. So, he plays on that imagery to take it one step further than metaphor. And Walking the Clouds is just great compendium of lots of indigenous science fiction literature. It’s not fan fiction, it’s the canon.

And then there are some things that are parodies, like we watched earlier, the Star Blaks which is from the show Black Comedy in Australia, which is a parody of Star Trek. I think you have more fandom when there is a center to be marginal from.

Muhammad: There’s a lot of re-imaging of familiar western sci-fi. Many things like that are going on in the Muslim world. So, one that I would highly recommend is -- there’s a series of paintings by this Turkish artist, Murat Palta. He reimages a lot of western movies like Star Wars, Scarface, Inception, but done in the style of Persian or Ottoman miniature paintings. And those are really amazing. You should -- I highly recommend checking them out.

And also in Turkey, I’m not sure if that was intentional, but Turkey -- in the 1970s and 1980s, Turkey has this tradition of -- reimaging is, I guess reimaging not necessarily the right word, but they re-made some of the western movies like Star Trek and Star Trek, and they have this quality of it’s so bad that it’s good. Those are really interesting to watch.

More recently, there’s a -- they just came out just a few months ago. There’s a British-Pakistani artist who reimages Superman but the difference is that his pod lands in Pakistan instead of Kansas. And he actually takes, one could argue that Superman closer to his original looks as compared to what we have been seeing in Superman lately. So, for example, the one thing that -- it becomes a political commentary on the Pakistani society as a whole.

So, one thing that Superman -- this version of Superman does is that -- he does not actively use violence, for example. But during the drone attacks on Afgan-Pakistani border, he actively destroys those bombs which are going to hit civilians, for example. So, it becomes interesting commentary in its own right.

Audience 2: Yeah. I had a question actually for William. And it kind of jumps off a little with Professor Jenkins’ asking regarding the colonizing of genres. And it has to do with whether you could talk a little bit about the circulation of skills like production skills in one of your book that you’re working. And I was wondering about kind of the emergence not only of stories or scripts for the films that people are making but whether they are also envisioning kind of aesthetically a different way of telling them or whether they’re kind of like quality and patterns and it’s like western aesthetics or -- basically whether the idea of creating science fiction is also -- does it come with kind of like a visual kind of reimagining also of how to tell the stories or is it just --

William: Yeah. It’s a good question. This gets into my dissertations, which followed the social life of film projects in indigenous organizations in Australia. There were two outlets, one outwardly focused on production values and end products, and one by, for, and about remote Aboriginal communities.

And so, there’s a long answer. But to quickly answer, when people are making sci-fi films, they’re high budget productions. They usually come out of a Sundance or an imagineNATIVE initiative. But these are unsual and sleek productions. And so it’s not necessarily that people are making anything they want. It has to be discernibly science fiction, perhaps as utopian, dystopian, alien—recognizably in that genre even if it’s radically departing from it as well. So, in the sort of world of indigenous media, these are anomalies in that they’re highly funded and that’s a reason that most of them are very short.

These programs have been very successful in general. People who made these shorts tend to go on to make features, and not necessarily more sci-fi films. At the very least it’s a great career launch pad because people love sci-fi. And I think that they end up having the more freedom after they do these projects to make other media. I can’t think of anyone whose career hasn’t been significantly furthered after producing one of these sci-fi films.

Audience 3: I’m a film director. I just finished a feature-length animated film called Birds Like Us. And it’s inspired by a 11th century Persian poet Farid al-Din Mohammad 'Attar -- and the book that it’s based on is called Conference of the Birds. And I come from Bosnia, from Sarajevo. And I’m raised as a Muslim. I was also growing up in a multicultural society, multi-religious place. I actually had been exposed to all kinds of religions. And my actually first comic books was a comic version of The Bible.

And for me, growing up in a religious environment, I always have felt that the ultimate science fiction actually comes from the holy books where you have a creature who is reaching out to you and saying here I am, your all-seeing, omnipotent creator of everything, every living thing and you can be like me and this is how. And then, in these books, there are set examples of King Solomon who ruled everywhere and there are -- where I’m going with this, there is so much of inspiring fiction, and beyond physical evidence of ideas in the holy books, in religious writings.

But somehow we have the communities, the human mankind actually colonized the race color that -- and created actually these smaller parts while the higher idea is actually a very inspiring and moving form from -- between asking yourself what is actually science fiction and what’s the difference between the fiction, science fiction and the fantasy and all that. Well, it’s purpose is to inspire and move forward and explain, provide a better living inside of your senses, with your perception of the world.

And do you think that your role as writers and contributors to this vision, is it possible to set yourself free from the boundaries of being Islamic science fiction or Jamaican or native Aboriginal or -- can you maybe, I don’t know --

Nalo: I do have an answer and that’s that it does -- whatever we identify -- whatever particular cultural, ethnic or racial version of science which we’re interested in has no boundaries. It’s talking to things that we all care about. So, I don’t feel like I’m boundaried. I mean, I can write whatever I want and do. But I think it’s not as boundaried as you’re fearing that there’s -- I want so -- Sherman Alexie was at a literary event and somebody in the audience asked him if he ever felt limited. The wrong thing to ask Sherman Alexie. He blasted her. But his basic answer was any great story you can imagine is happening in my community, I can write it.

And that’s been useful for me to think about. So, no, I don’t feel that there is a boundary. I feel that there is this particular set of interest in philosophies and aesthetics, but it’s all over.

Muhammad: Right. And then to that I’ll add that -- continuing on same line of thought that there are certain modes of thoughts, philosophies, aspirations, fears that all human cultures and religions throughout space and time that they share. It’s just that in the concept one must include who indigenous people, are Muslims, are Christians, are atheists. It’s through their life experiences, their histories that that’s the metaphors that they use on their cultures to describe those ideas. So, that’s not necessarily the limiting factor. It just shows where they come from.

So, just may we take the example of Farid al-Din 'Attar’s Conference of the Birds. Although at one level it’s the cultural product of newly Islamized Persia, and the method to express was using metaphors. But that’s a product of its times but at the same time, it also speaks to universal human feelings of, for example, longing for the divine, for example, which regardless of whatever culture we are in, we can share and appreciate.

William: I think that radical assumptions provides a good definition for science fiction in this realm. I’m thinking of my own family not that many generations back, subjected to genocide in German gas chambers—radical assumptions are sometimes as simple as making it to the next year. It’s very relative and science fiction helps you define what radical is by giving the filmmaker the power to normalize things strategically.

But also, driving from the airport and seeing those Hollywood signs was exciting to me. It made me think about how there’s all of this money in Hollywood. There’s endless money and more that I can imagine. And while I like being on production teams with large projects, the biggest film anyone I ever worked on had a $100,000 budget, and that’s just a rounding error in Hollywood.

Yet, despite the endless money in Hollywood, somehow that can’t find a good script. They’re making the same movie a thousand times, with some notable exceptions. But in Aboriginal communities like the one I was working in, there are endless incredible stories to tell, though there’s very little funding.

It’s interesting just how different what the limited resource is in different places. And I think in a lot of Indigenous communities around the world, people have such complicated histories, and very difficult but incredible lives that it is no surprising just how many stories there are to tell. The problem is that there are not enough hours in the day because there’s so much. And while at the genre level there are sybolic boundaries, when people are making things on the ground, I don’t think that many worry about those boundaries and just follow the story.

Nalo: One more thing to add to that in that as somebody creating it, one of the things that science fiction fantasy teach you is if that place that you’re thinking you don’t dare to go, that’s where you should be going. So, if you think there’s a boundary there, what happens if you break it? And see what happens.

Henry: That’s a perfect note to end this session on. So, go on and break some boundaries.

Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell? (Part 2)

Tok: You talked about your own particular areas of expertise. But what -- you know, having heard all these speakers, how do you think that your own projects sort of intersect with each other? How do they speak to each other’s projects? Nalo: Well, as writers we talk to each other a lot, particularly people who are writers of color or women writers, we see the commonalities in what we’re trying to write about. And we talk to each other. And last year, at UCR, my science fiction research cluster caught a Mellon grant to have a year of discussions about alternative futurisms.

So, for a year, we brought in -- our idea was that we have this almost -- got Afro futurism, we’ve got other types of ethnic futurisms and that the scholarship about talking to each other, this was a thing that we could start to foster. So, we brought people in, we brought in scholars, I brought in writers, we brought in film directors. And people just shared their work and talked about what they were doing. In a way it’s starting to generate some more connection amongst all these various visions, philosophy, scholarship. So, yes, we are talking to each other.

William: Yeah. I think it’s a great point about generalizing and engaging. This discussion is very difficult in the native studies world. I’m not native myself, and the feeling I get having been in this realm for a while is there’s sometimes a reasonalbe reaction against such inclusionary discourses. One of the reasons that indigenous science fiction is so relatively new, especially in film, is because there’s a sense that there’s been a silencing of people, which is part of settler colonialism and the imperial imagination in which indigenous peoples are relegated to a past in a way that other groups haven’t been—not that this is more or less vicious, but it’s a different process relating to time, history, and existence into the future.

And I think like many things with native studies, the genre is new and developing, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of groups, united by a similar dynamic in relation to history of settler and resource extraction colonial states. Often what the films share as far as a common thread is that they represent indigenous people as more complicated than popular depictions have done. So, it’s not reactionary, but rather shares a common language.

There’s a way in which they can be generalized a little bit more, speaking back to utopian, dystopian, and alien encounters. But that’s changing quickly. I think the first step into a genre is to learn the scales, and new films that are coming out, are much more outside of the typical subgenres. I think that a decade down the line, there’ll be a lot more of that. Because of the history of native studies as becoming relegated to the margins, there is perhaps a hesitancy to engage other futurisms before having a chance to further develop this genre.

Muhammad: My experience is that empathy is usually the key. If you can get people in these different communities to empathize really on their own or to seek out commonalities, if people are more willing to dialogue or even be more engaged in the other communities. And just to give you some examples, like within the Muslim community in the U.S., there’s a whole subgenre of sci-fi coming out, not just science fiction but whole ideology is inspired from what we would recognize as sci-fi themes coming out of the African-American community in which many of the other Muslim communities are not Arab or South Asians are not even aware of.

Yusuf Nuruddin has a really excellent article. It’s called -- urban -- it’s the approximate title, urban mythologies and -- extraterrestrials, urban mythologies and sci-fi jihad. It talks about, for example, some -- what I recognize as some of the fringe religious movements within the African-American Muslim communities in the last hundred years -- which are inspired from or which have sci-fi elements in them.

Another thing is that there’s actually a lot of material, as I mentioned earlier, that just because we are not aware of it does not mean that it doesn’t exist. So, for example, when we talk about sci-fi produced by Muslims, people generally tend to think about Arabs. But Arabs are actually just a small minority of Muslims around the world, for example. Or even in the U.S. Recently, I’m discovering that there’s sci-fi or proto sci-fi literature which has stories from 1930s in Eritrea, 1940s in Nigeria. I mean, I was not really aware of this until recently and I’ve been looking into this for the last 12 years or so, and I was really surprised that such material actually existed.

And part of the problem is that even the reason that I was surprised that such material exists. I think that it sounds problematic that we assume that such material does not exist. I should have not have assumed that. It’s just that we are conditioned to think in such a way. But I think things are changing. There’s more scholarship with respect to the areas or parts of the world that are previously neglected. So, I’m actually hopeful about the future.

Henry: So, we struggled with how to name this panel. And ended up with the term “foretell” to describe the relationship of science fiction to reality. And we worked through “predict,” “depict,” “imagine,” “recount,” “anticipate”, et cetera. All of which suggest slightly different relationships of science fiction to reality, none of which seems quite adequate to the task of explaining.

So, I think, running through your comments have been some implicit assumptions about how those things connect. But could you lay out a little more what models you have of the role of the imagination in relation to real world conditions and the potential for change?

William: A thought came to mind when you were mentioned that there’s very little Islamic imagery and representation in the science fiction canon, where there’s lots of indigenous representation. It’s just really bad representation, from wise elders like Yoda to any sort of evil and alien communal society such as the Borg. It’s in almost everything. It’s just very one-dimensional and from the point of view of a colonial society.

Going from that on to answer the question, imagining seems to be the word to me. The Facebook group that engages this genre is called imagining indigenous futurisms. Imagination is something that comes up all the time in that it relates to the image of film itself. If anyone’s heard of the imagineNATIVE film festival, it’s the now the premiere native film festival in the world and half of that word is imagine.

So, the word imagine is really important, I think, partly because it doesn’t give as much of a sense of linear time and progress. It doesn’t seem to have as many baked-in assumptions about western notions of what the future means at a fundamental level. Furthermore, re-imagining is the word I hear a lot.

This is partly because of the implicit assumption that indigenous peoples are not there in the future, at least in a substantial way. They just don’t exist. And I think it’s the battle of ideas that people are often engaged in. It’s very practical in Australia especially as they’re de-funding many Aboriginal communities and organizations. Imagination matters, where on the far right you have kind of vicious desires just to de-fund and overt racism; on the far left there is a liberal imagining of communities as dystopian and beyond repair, and a desire to save kids from suffering and then bring them into cities.

For progressives, if they can’t imagine an indigenous future, their policies will be just as assimilatory, just through a more humane and muted process, but assimilation nonetheless, and in the long scale of history, will lead to similar outcomes.

So, it’s about reimagining what is possible, what should happen, and what can happen. If you can imagine a future through these visceral filmed worlds, then you start thinking about different types of policies. And if you don’t imagine any future, it almost doesn’t matter what your politics are in a way. It’s almost irrelevant.

Nalo: I think one of the things I can do and my friends who are writers do as writers of text-based science fiction, there’s been scientific research that shows that when you read a metaphorical description of a sensation, your nerve endings relevant to that sensation fire. I’m not a scientist so I’m putting this in very, very lay terms, I’m sure it could be correct. But when you read a straight up depiction of that sensation, those nerve endings don’t fire.

So, to say she ran across the room gives you a very different picture than she galloped across the room. You say she galloped and all of a sudden your legs are starting to try and feel those -- what that’s like. If you take a literature that imagines -- literally imagines what does not exist yet and does that to you, all of a sudden, you are at a somatic level living in that new world. You’re having an experience of a culture you haven’t experienced. You’re having experience of ways of doing things you haven’t experienced.

So, I think this is one of the things that makes science fiction and fantasy very, very powerful because fantasy reimagines the past and imagines our relationships as cultures to myth. And myths are very, very powerful. We use them as driving images. We make new ones, completely new ones, all of a sudden, you have at a physical level a new way of experiencing the world.

I think a lot of science fiction writers will say we don’t try to foretell shit. Often you see in the press people say, well, 1984 predicted this. I think he was trying really hard to not predict it. So, it isn’t really a game of prediction. It’s a game, as you say, of imagination.

Muhammad: That’s a really excellent point about prediction. I guess in my experience it’s like a lot of writers project when you’re imagining certain worlds how things should be. That’s not necessarily always the case. So, if I, for example, take, say, these utopias or the dystopias that have come up of the Arab world, for example, in the last 150 years or so, a lot of times they just project the aspirations of the people around that particular era and time.

Thus during the height of colonialism, for example, a lot of these utopias are actually focused on a better idealized societies. A lot of these writers were Muslims, so they imagine societies which are run by Islamic principles and everyone was happy. If we move forward in time, so they’re just subgenre of sci-fi utopias written by people affiliated with the Muslim brotherhood who were in Egyptian jails in the 1960s and 1970s.

And one common thing about these utopias is that they envision this idealized Islamic government which is running -- ran according to the brotherhood’s version of what an Islamic state should be, and contrast that -- and we can contrast that with some of the utopias that came out of Turkey around the same era, again by people who were imprisoned by the Turkish state.

A lot of these also imagine idealized Islamic societies. But what is really interesting is that the ones that came out of Turkey imagine a future or the societies which have a more mystical, more metaphorical bend towards their interpretation of Islam. In both of these cases, they’re imagining idealized Islamic societies, but one is more, for lack of a better term, more legal-oriented, and the other is more oriented towards personal relationships, more mystical in nature. And then fast forward that to more recent things where -- say, the recent events of the past, especially the failure of the Arab Spring, we have more dystopian outlook about what the future world would be.

Tok:  So, science fiction most often speaks about the future, it’s what we generally think of a science fiction. But in what ways might this be important to groups which have historically been perceived by white America almost entirely in relation to their past or their traditions? How is thinking about the future allow us to rethink the past? I’m also sort of inspired, too, by, for instance, you mentioned the One Thousand One Arabian Nights and all the contributions from Islamic society into Mesoamerican society, the contribution from native America to the contribution by African-American society. So, this is the past that perhaps were past that perhaps we’re not focused on. So, I’m kind of curious, what does science fiction tell us about the past?

Nalo: One of the more powerful stories for me is a piece of Taíno folklore, Taínos being the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. And the story goes that they used to live on the moon. And that they could see all around them floating in the sky other circular bodies which were like the one that they were living on. And one of those -- they were all bright and shiny, they were all lovely, except for the Earth. The Earth who’s this big, round, dirty thing. And they felt embarrassed because the Earth was their neighbor and they should have been looking after it.

So, they get into sky boats made of clouds and they sail down to the Earth and they spent a bit long time cleaning it up. And the story goes on and on, there are various things that happened. The sky boats go away, and so, they’re stranded on Earth, so they have to call to God for help and God sends down the tree that has every edible thing growing on it. And they each take pieces of it and this is how peach and gardens came to be, that kind of thing.

But what I love about this story is that the first thing it does is it dispels any notion that indigenous peoples are primitive and incapable of scientific reasoning. Because these are people who have looked at the things in the sky, have that their body is similar to the one they’re on and then have generated a story about it.

The second is this idea of stewardship. The idea that we live next to this place, it is our responsibility to keep it from getting dirty, getting dysfunctional. And so, we should be cleaning it up.

So, that’s the kind of thing, I think, some of these science fiction and fantasy can do. This is a folktale that I ended up using in one of my own novels. The other thing it can do, it can re-center the story. So, when my friend, Tobias Buckell writes a short story about the Caribbean space program, and it’s about the first Caribbean black astronaut going out and story ends with the line -- he names all the people already up there, all the nations and says we coming up, too. And that puts tears in my eyes every single time, that last line.

When Toby released that story, one of the first responses he got was from someone saying, well, the story was implausible because Caribbean people will never make it into space. We don’t have enough technology. So, the kind of imagining we do, the kinds of stories we tell can re-center the conversation that could say, look, start from the basis of this culture. This culture is capable, people who are already in it know what we’re capable of, let’s start talking about that.

It also can put you in a place where you are not necessarily paying attention to what you think the mainstream can handle. So, a lot of times I write in a version of -- there are many Caribbean English vernaculars as many as there are Caribbean nations. I’m most familiar with Jamaican and Trinidad and a little bit of Guyanese. Sometimes I mix all three and I write in vernacular.

Caribbean people will get it. It’s a bit of an extrapolation for them but they’ll get it. People who aren’t Caribbean have to take a little more effort. But by the very act of writing that way, I’m not twisting myself into not squiggle what can they understand, what can they not.

And I’ve had readers who really resist that, who -- let’s not call them readers because they’d end up not finishing my stuff. And I’ve had readers who’ve told me what that was like for them. If they’re Caribbeans for the first time experiencing a science fiction story told in their modes of speech or fantasy stories told in their modes of speech. If they’re not a Caribbean, how do they relate to this way of speaking and way of thinking and the foods I bring in, the cultures, the colors. So, it can re-center the conversation.

Mohammed: So, I guess part of reimagining the future is actually reimagining the past as well. But the way that we imagine the past is -- can describe who we are with ourselves and through others. So, part of recovering, I think there is also this project for a lot of -- especially people who were colonized which is basically most of the planet, is describing who they are is also part of recovering their past or pasts, I should say.

So, some of the projects that I found really fascinating is that this research on the print technologies, which are not necessarily lost but we don’t really talk about them anymore from different regions in the world, for example, in the Middle East. There’s a long history -- and we were talking about this earlier -- there’s a long history of automatas which a lot of people in the west, for example, don’t know about.

One of the most famous ones were done by two groups of people. So, one is the Banū Mūsā family, the Mūsā brothers are very famous. And another one is by Al-Jazari. And so, they had automatas and we’re talking about 12th, 13th century. We had drawings on multiple descriptions of this where -- so the most famous one is we have this group of five musicians, automatas, different musical instruments part of an orchestra on a boat. And when the boat moves through the Euphrates River right next to Baghdad, water falls to the automata and then that’s how they play their music. That’s really fascinating.

Al-Jazari had humanoid automatas which move from one side of the room to the other side of the room. Most likely they had blinded mechanisms. So, things like that just tell us that it’s -- that other cultures had important contributions to make through science and technology throughout history. And it’s not just that it’s not well-known in the west, but because of the experience of colonialism, part of that actually has been lost to them also. So, recovering the past and whilst recovering some of those things is a part the stories that we tell ourselves with respect to who we are.

William: Yeah. And just going along those great answers, I would re-emphasize that in Australia Aboriginal people are widely known as the oldest living societies, going back at least 50,000 years. And it wasn’t long ago that anthropologists were using them as windows into human evolution, essentially as caveman, and there’s still hints of that. I think that’s deeply embedded that they’re windows in the past like an endangered species. So, that is deeply embedded even if the politics have changed, that core structure is there still.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of temporal sovereignty. The time has been captured like territory and land. I’m still thinking through exactly how sovereignty relates to temporality.

In native science fiction studies, Grace Dillon talks a lot about slipstream exists in other parts of sci-fi. It’s really important in native sci-fi, getting away from the future as the linear progression. Slipstream plays with time and space, where past is ahead of us as much as the future is, in terms of family and kinship.

There’s an amazing VR project through the Initiative for Indigenous Futures at Concordia University directed by Jason Lewis. It’s an amazing project. Time traveler is a VR second life game where you go in and you play a Mohawk character. You can go between 1491 and deep into the future, and it’s all integrated. There’s nothing categorically distinct about pre-contact or the deep future in this. It’s all one interlaced thing in which these demarcations of history are what we project on to something that doesn’t necessarily mean all that much outside of Western history.

And there’s another great series called the Anamata Future News by Maori TV. And they do future news, reporting as though it’s happening in the time period. They go from 50 years from the future all the way to 2,500. In the last episode, there is this interstellar voyaging by the Maori, in which they’re essentially running their interstellar voyages, not like Star Trek, but like Pacific Islander Wayfinding, using that traditional logic with high technology.

I recently published a short story called Planeterra Nullius. It’s a parable replacing Aboriginal Australian history with white Australian history, to increase empathy regarding what it would be like if all of these things happened to Westerners.

Henry: You’ve really talked a little bit of the colonial history in the ways Aboriginal science fiction has to work beyond that or indigenous science fiction has to work beyond it. The metaphor – “space the final frontier” introduces the connection of science fiction to frontier mythologies.

I mean, historians of the pulp magazine era in science fiction tell us that a lot of our ideas around Mars emerged from the fact the writers were reselling stories. And if they couldn’t sell story to the western magazines, they revamped it and sold it as a Martian story to Hugo Gernsback. They couldn’t sell a story about an Amazon to a fantasy exotic adventure story, they set it on Venus and sold it as science fiction.

So, in some ways the whole building blocks of science fiction as a genre in the west starts with colonialism and white supremacy as is true for most of the pulp genres we’re working with today.

So, I wanted to get your thoughts on how we de-colonize genres. What does it take for us to take something that that’s so baked into the DNA, that’s been there from the very beginning and re-imagine it from a new perspective and get that to place where audiences will engage with it in new ways?

Nalo: I’m going to say that just because you don’t experience something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And so, one of the things I find all science fiction and fantasy teach me to do as a creator is to question my own assumptions and to assume that if I can conceive something, somebody else probably has. So, with my very first novel, I had been reading about Detroit, what happened to Detroit. And at that time, economists were calling it the hole in the donut syndrome where civic support, government support is withdrawn and you have this -- they were calling it a vacuum. And you have white flight to the suburbs and breakdown of institutions.

And they were writing about it as though there was nothing there. I’ve been to Detroit. There’s plenty there. At that point I hadn’t yet been to Detroit but I knew what it was like to be living in a situation where services were being withdrawn. I was at that point living in Brian Mulroney’s Toronto. He was our Prime Minister for a while and he had this notion that you should avoid duplication in city services and he was busy withdrawing support.

Engineers have another name for duplication. They call it efficiency. So, I was living in a world in which this was happening, I thought I don’t think it’s right to imagine Detroit as being a hole -- there’s got to be something there.

And I began to imagine what it must be like to be -- what it could be like to be living in that situation to transport it to Toronto. So, part of what it does is it gives you a way of thinking about the thing that you are taught that is an absence, the thing that you have no paradigm for thinking about. Science fiction gives you ways of mapping that, to start trying to imagine yourself into that space.

And it’s one of the things, I think, that is truthful for lots of activists. I was one of the guests at Ferguson is the Future which was a symposium at Princeton that was about art and activism particularly in the living through the experience of state and police violence against black men here.

And the guest speakers started off with Alondra Nelson and she talked about Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, which is fantasy novel in which a black woman in the 1970s keeps getting punted back to plantation era past and has to deal with what she finds there, being assumed to be a slave. And Alondra said the thing about Kindred is that black people, and particularly black men living here know that at any moment, they can be snatched back to the past. They can be snatched back to the plantation and be living that nightmare again.

And so, science fiction fantasy can give you a way of (coding that experience so that you have a little bundle of knowledge for what that might be like where before you had nothing. It’s my theory. I just made it up.

Muhammad: I think past can be a really good resource with respect to imagining alternate ways of encounters between different cultures, so that we go outside of this whole colonial encounter. So, for example, if you look at the encounters between non-Muslim cultures and civilizations throughout history, there are a lot of things that can be learned. So, one of my favorite examples is how a lot of Chinese Muslims actually categorize their history.

So, there is this founding myth amongst Chinese Muslims, and don’t quote this in your history class because, again, this is a myth, where in this story the Chinese Muslim community was founded when the Prophet Muhammad himself sends some emissaries to the emperor of China and he received these emissaries and he was really impressed. He did not convert himself but he allowed these people to live and live in his domain.

There’s another story which one can even conceptualize that as an alternate history which talks -- so, in classical Islamic scholarship, the emphasis is that the prophet is this illiterate person so that all the knowledge he has must be divine. But within the Chinese context, they take -- the Chinese Muslims take Confucius or Lao-Tze or the classical Chinese sage as a model, and turns the Arab or the non-Chinese Muslim model on its head where the prophet is depicted as this really wise man/philosopher. And in his lifetime he wrote a large number of books and these books were spread far and wide throughout the world and a lot of people were impressed by his knowledge.

Again, none of that actually happened. But again, this is a myth which gels well with a particular mode of thinking. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why within the Chinese Islamic culture you have things which are very uniquely Islamic and very uniquely Chinese. So, for example, they have -- so within the Chinese (inaudible) 01:10:01, for example, even the Chinese language was traditionally written with the Arabic script. And that’s very unique, that’s very different.

In China, you have a 600-year old tradition of female-only mosques. I mean, you don’t have that in any other part of the world. They don’t have -- even the imam of the mosques were women and still now. And again, that’s a very uniquely Chinese phenomenon. You would have things like writing Arabic calligraphies but with Chinese strokes and Chinese style.

So, I mean, encounters like these, I think, these are really the goal in mind in trying to understand or trying to extrapolate what could have been or what could be in the future when different cultures interact.

William: I have three quick points. The first relates directly to the idea of the frontier. I’ve been in conversation with the Anthropology of Outer Space. There’s a great book that just came out called Placing Outer Space by Lisa Messeri and David Valentine does a lot of great work as well. What they’re finding is folks like Elon Musk and astrophysicists are using analogs from the colonial Western frontier to think through what outer space is and what the future is going to be like off Earth.

I think these ambitions are not always thought through. There’s this obsession by someone like Musk to get to Mars, but there’s no real thought of, why if we’re getting to a new planet that’s harder to live on, would the same type of society have a better result. There’s no real answer to that; in fact, why wouldn’t it be worse? Martian movies don’t usually end well. It’s that progressive fantasy that if only we could just ascend to the next leve,l there’s a utopian ideal which is always the shadow of something dystopian as well.

I imagine the goal of academics as trying to create these conversations between worlds that wouldn’t always converse. So, just as an example, I just released this blog, Navajos on Mars on which is sort of an imagined science film festival online forum. People like Musk, very, very smart people, get caught up in the fantasy because they’re so objective in their technical attempts.

At a deeper level, one point of sovereignty is to not have to explain yourself to everyone, to not be included, to not have to be assimilated. So, there is a way in which these might be a little internally focused. While the broader culture may get something out of it, I think the deeper idea is very practical.

Indigenous futures are not about technology, it’s survival. It’s not being poisoned by mercury. It’s having a place to live and not being de-funded and not having meth come into the community. So, I think it’s very practical at a certain level. Of course what people really care about are their kids. Are their kids going to feel like they have a future, a place in the world? If it can have an effect on the broader society, I think that’s great, but there is a deeper priority for sovereignty.


Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell? (Part One)

Earlier this year, the Civic Imagination Project hosted a forum focused on diversity, science fiction, and the civic imagination. Here's how we framed the event:  

Science fiction has long provided resources -- compelling narratives, rich metaphors -- through which we might explore alternative possible directions for technological and social change, especially at a time when profound and prolonged periods of change disrupt established ways of thinking. Throughout most of the 20th century, science fiction, however, was a genre by, for, and about white men and thus offered a narrow range of visions of tomorrow. In recent years, though, a range of groups have sought to speak their truths through speculative fiction and used its language to map past and future trajectories. In this session, we will explore a range of different movements within science fiction that reflect the perspectives of post-colonialist, Afrofuturist, Indigenous, and Muslim creators and audiences, each making claims for the future through their particular deployments of the genre’s core building blocks. This forum will engage the multiple strands of futurism in contemporary science fiction which have helped to diversify what voices can be heard and opened up new modes for thinking through contemporary issues and future aspirations in American society.  Bringing these diverse and alternative conceptions of the future together allows us to debate more richly the directions we want to see our society take.

Here are the bios of our core speakers:

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad is an Affiliate Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Washington, Visiting Research Scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology and Senior Data Scientist at Groupon. He is the founder and editor of the Islam and Science Fiction Project that focuses on Science Fiction from the Muslim world as well as depiction of Islam and Muslims in Science Fiction especially in the Anglo-American world. It is the most comprehensive resource on this subject. He has been running the project since 2005. He also edited the first ever anthology Science Fiction set in Muslim cultures in 2008. Recently he launch first in a series of such anthologies titled Islamicates.

Dr. Nalo Hopkinson is an Afro-Caribbean author and sometime editor of science fiction and fantasy (speculative fiction). A Canadian citizen, she moved to California in 2011 to become a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside, where she is a member of UCR's research cluster in science fiction. Recognition for her writing includes the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, and the Andre Norton Award for young adult science fiction. She was recently the fiction co-editor of a special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, "People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction," and an invited guest at Princeton University's symposium "Ferguson is the Future — Incubating Alternative Worlds Through Arts, Activism, and Scholarship." Her current novel-in-progress, Blackheart Man, is historical speculative fiction which takes place in an imaginary Caribbean island nation founded by escaped enslaved people and defended successfully for over 200 years.

William Lempert is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. With the support of Fulbright and the Wenner Gren Foundation he recently completed his fourth and primary research trip of 20-months to Northwestern Australia where he worked on the production teams of two Indigenous media organizations. He followed the biographical social life cycles of their films as they travelled between remote communities, regional towns, and national festivals. His dissertation aims to understand the paradoxical emergence of two contrasting national Aboriginal television networks amidst the mass defunding of Aboriginal Australian communities and organizations by articulating the tensions of contemporary indigeneity embedded within the daily practices of diverse film projects. Building on his previous work on the rise of the Native American sci-fi film genre, he is particularly interested in understanding how Indigenous filmmaking can imagine and generate alternative futures. More broadly, he argues for the temporal reorientation of anthropological projects toward futures, especially in relation to Indigenous peoples so associated with mythic pasts and fraught presents. To engage broader publics, he has published blogs, stories, videos, and podcasts through the Medium, Fulbright, Sapiens, Savage Minds, Cultural Anthropology, Visual Anthropology Review, and Australian Broadcasting Corporation websites.

Tok Thompson was born and raised in rural Alaska. At the age of 17, he began attending Harvard College, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. In 1999 he received a Master’s degree in Folklore from the University of California, Berkeley, and three years later received a PhD in Anthropology from the same institution, all the while studying under the late great folklorist Alan Dundes. After receiving his PhD, Tok engaged in a two-year postdoctoral position with the Centre for Irish-Scottish Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, where he helped launch a new M.Phil. in Translation Studies. He also researched Irish language traditions in County Fermanagh on behalf of the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, and the District Council of Fermanagh. In the Fall of 2006, Tok came to USC, where he has been teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in folklore and related topics. Additionally, he has taught folklore as a visiting professor at universities in Northern Ireland, Iceland, and Ethiopia. While still in graduate school, he co-founded and co-edited the journal Cultural Analysis: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Folklore and Popular Culture, which he co-edited for 15 years. From 2013-2017 he was the editor for Western Folklore. He is currently working on a textbook for World Mythology (with Greg Schrempp), and a casebook entitled Posthuman Folklore.

Over the next two posts, I am going to share a transcript of this exchange. Enjoy!

Henry: Hi. I’m Henry Jenkins. I’m one of the two moderators for this event. The other one is Tok Thompson from USC Anthropology Department. This event is being put together by the Annenberg Innovation Lab and Civic Paths research group with funding from the USC Collaboration Grant.

Over the past few years, the Civic Paths group has been spending some time thinking about the concept of a civic imagination. Before you can change the world, you have to be able to envision what a better world looks like. And that’s led us to think very deeply about speculative fiction as a space for political change. What does speculative fiction offer us as activists and as citizens as events in the world are requiring us to think about social justice in new ways. Our group is also taking inspiration from the methodologies of speculative fiction -- particularly world building -- to think about how communities might work together to determine what a better world might look like, one which supported our shared goals and values.

Samantha Close, a PhD candidate, called my attention to the work of William Lempert, who is an anthropologist who has done interesting work on indigenous forms of science fiction. Zhan Li, an alum from our group, brought our attention to the work of Muhammad Ahmad, who has been doing interesting thinking, writing and curating around Islam and science fiction. And I have known Nalo Hopkinson off and on since I brought you to MIT at the beginning of both of our careers some 20-plus years ago. So, we thought this was a really interesting mix of people to think about the question, whose fiction does science fiction foretell.

So, with that, let me turn over to Tok who had a few things he wanted to say at the opening.


Tok: Sure. Well, thanks, first off, for pulling me into this project. It is a big interest of mine. And when I heard the idea for this, I was just really excited to be a part of it. We’ve also had an opportunity last couple of hours to kind of hang out at Professor Jenkins’ labs and had some very fascinating backward-forward discussions about some of the larger things that we’ve been looking at.

I think my introduction to this as a genre began a little while ago. I read a book by Ursula Le Guin, whom you probably all know for her work. She had a book called Always Coming Home. That was just a fabulous book. And it was a sort of a vision of California. And it was a vision of California where there is super high tech, so super that you really didn’t notice it. That’s how super the high tech was.

And people have these lives that were much more locally based. They were living locally. They were harvesting locally. When they needed to know some information, it was always there. Their lives, although there was, of course, plot drivers of problems in the book, it was a pretty nice lifestyle and became clear, gradually, that this was an indigenous lifestyle, although she never came out and said it. It became clear as you read it. It was all based on indigenous lifestyles pre-colonization, sort of almost an alternative present, or perhaps an alternative future: that, I think just has a lot of promise, when we’re thinking about this. Ursula Le Guin is the daughter of Alfred Kroeber who started anthropology in California, of UC Berkeley.

So, I’ve been thinking of her a little bit. She recently won a very major award for writing. And I just have a little quote from her here that she delivered. This is her quote. “I think hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voice of the writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. We can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom, poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.

Profit motive is often conflict with the aims of art. And we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begins in art, and very often, in our art, the art of words. I’ve had a long career on a good one, one in good company and here at the end of it I really don’t want to watch American literature gets sold down the river. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

So, in this issue of freedom, freedom to imagine futures, freedom to compel each other to discuss what we like this world to be in a few years, these are some of the more compelling issues that -- and again, within a sense of hope, always a sense of hope-- that we can imagine what the future might be.

And so, with that, I’m very, very happy to be in the company of people who are working directly with artists, writers, who are imagining our potential futures.


Henry: So, each of the panelists are going to do about 10 minutes opening comments, reflections, on our core theme. Tok and I have some questions, framing questions to get the panelists talking amongst themselves. And then we’ll open up to the floor for questions . So, Nalo, you want to get us started?


Nalo: Oh, good. So, Henry asked us to do sort of an opening introduction to ourselves and why we’re drawn to this genre. I’m originally from the Caribbean. So, I was born in Jamaica, lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, also briefly lived in Connecticut as a child of six when my dad was in a theater program at Yale University and my mother was pregnant with my brother. And the only play they could think of to put my actor father in was Othello.

I’ve always read and enjoyed the fantastic, be it Gulliver’s Travels or Homer’s Iliad because my dad was an English teacher and was teaching those. My first genre science fiction was Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House, which I found in the pages of a Playboy magazine I stumbled on to when I was eight years old. And being me what I concentrated on was the fiction.

In that same time period, I remember reading a children’s novel I’ve never been able to find since. It was a fantasy novel. A handful of young children from all walks of life have to power through various trials. And their reward is going to be that they get to a place where any wish they want will be granted.

So, they all succeed and they get to this magical place. The white children wish for things like castles and horses, in other words, wealth, property. Then the book revealed that there had been a black child who’d also won through to this magical place. He hadn’t been mentioned in the book earlier. He was quite poor. He wore torn, patched clothing. And what did he wish to have for all eternity? A watermelon patch of all the watermelon he could eat.

So, as the book closes, one of the last scenes we have the children riding their horses and, you know, examining their jewels. And this little boy with not even a roof over his head, sitting in a watermelon patch, eating slice after slice of watermelon.

Now, I love watermelon, I still do. But I suspect that that children’s book was a big part of the reason why when I moved to Canada from the Caribbean at age 16, it was a while before I would let a non-Caribbean white person see me eating watermelon.

So, some of my earliest connections to science fiction and fantasy and I love epic stories that have ghosts and monsters in them. On the one hand, you’ve got deep racism. On the other hand, you’ve got these adventure epics, Iliad, the Odyssey, you have the coded social critique of Gulliver’s Travels -- I don’t know what to Welcome to the Monkey House.

And I got to -- since, you know, Playboy was my initiation threw in the wide-eyed innocence of Little Annie Fanny. I don’t know if any of you are old enough to know that regular Playboy strip. It’s about a clueless ingénue who’s frequently surprised to find herself naked and sexually compromised. It was played for humor.

But being a kid, I read Little Annie Fanny as -- because I could tell that she was being made fun of, I understood her as the holy fool. You know, the guileless, naïve -- through her guilelessness shows up the creepiness of the more worldly people around you. So, this is my intro to science fiction and fantasy.

And I think people ask me what drew me to it and there’s no way to give an honest answer to that. But a large part of it was difference. Science fiction fantasy told different stories than the ones -- the real world around me with its pesky laws of physics and its systemic biases and systemic injustices did.

And as I grew older, I desperately needed models for different ways to do things. Science fiction fantasy provided me with some of those. It takes our unquestioned narrative and it calls them into question. It tells stories about how -- about and with those cherished narratives and it messes with them. A well chosen neologism, a coinage of a new word, can lay bare all the assumptions that are buried in the word that we would use in its place.

So, I find that people assume that’s why I like science fiction -- that it’s a political reason. And I find -- I kind of resist that. It’s partly true but that is buried in the fact that as a creator of it, as a reader of it, I want a story that works. I want a story that on a fictional level works. And in order to do that, it’s got to think about the underpinnings of the world. So, it’s not that -- I covered it first, I think, from the creative. And I think the creative needs to take all of this into context.

I have ended up a novelist, short story writer, sometimes a fiction editor. I now teach creative writing at the University of California Riverside. I am part of a science fiction research cluster. And one of the lovely things about it is that you see the student body is something like 77% non-white. For many of the undergrads, whatever their racial or ethnic background, it’s the first time anyone in the family has gone to university.

And to be able to bring this idea of science fiction as something that can help think about how the world could be different, and therefore, how to make it a very powerful place to be doing that.


William: First, I want to start by thanking you for bringing me to campus. It’s been wonderful trip from Colorado. To follow up on a question I was asked after my earlier talk related to how well-known indigenous science fiction actually is, and the short answer is it’s not very well-known. So, I’m always compelled, if I have captive audience, just to try to in very broad brushes to lay out some of the things that are happening in indigenous science fiction because it is quite amazing and expanding quickly.

I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. I’ve been thinking about and writing along with indigenous science fiction for about six years now. I also just came back from two years of field work in Northwestern Australia working with Aboriginal filmmakers and media makers in the outback.

I am really pleased to be in this discussion. We shared some great chats in the office just before. I was struck when I saw my first couple of science fiction films made by indigenous producers. When most people think of indigenous peoples, they imagine an ideal past, a tragic history, and a troubled present. I come from the world of anthropology. I don’t know if there’s any anthropologist in the room, but continues to have legacies of the savage slot of the past and the suffering slot of the present. There’s not a lot about the future. This seemed especially clear to me when I started seeing some of these films.

So, more and more filmmakers have begun drawing explicitly on the science fiction genre while reimagining it in quite new ways. Relating to science fiction, native or western or anything else, today we’ve been talking about all sorts of certain sub-genres. It’s a very powerful format that creates an unusually effective cross cultural register and language, and it’s great to hear about some of your projects along those lines of the civic imagination as a way to discuss our deepest hopes and fears about technology, humanity, and climate change.

Film has it has the particular ability to demonstrate world making. David MacDougall makes the argument that there’s something different about creating a world that you see, hear, and can almost touch—and perhaps will in the future—that makes a different kind of argument, not just an intellectual argument but an emotional and visceral one as well.

And so, there are many types of alternative futurisms. A main difference in comparison to Afro and feminist futurisms—which have decades-long literatures and are very developed in ways that indigenous futurisms are not—is not an accident, but because they’ve been structurally silenced by the imperial imagination.

One point I like to make echoes Grace Dillon, the pioneer of indigenous science fiction studies, which is that another main difference in this genre in comparision with other alternative futurisms is that people want sovereignty from the settler state as a higher priority than they want equitable inclusion, justice, or equality as they are imagined in multi-cultural liberal discourse. So, that’s a very seemingly subtle, but important distinction that plays out in this genre.

As Gregory Benford notes, you cannot have a future you do not first imagine, and I often think about this. You can’t have a future you don’t imagine, but also, the futures you do imagine are consciously and unconsciously created based on what we assume to be possible, desirable, or inevitable. So while science fiction—especially if you’re not in a room of people inherently interested in it—might seem to be a sort of fringe interest, actually it’s incredibly relevant because it has to do with the sort of subconscious ideas about possibility through which politicians and bureaucrats enact policy.

So, what I think makes for a good reference is to think about the Western science fiction canon, which you might divide up into utopian and dystopian films. You have lots of self-destruction and alien encounter films, and the alien films perhaps makes this argument most succinctly. Virtually without exception they all replicate colonial encounters. Even in the buddy films like ET, the larger context is that the government that can’t find that extraterrestrial would torture them or do all sorts of horrible things to them if they could, even if it’s in the backdrop.

Where in opposition, native science fiction films are doing things that are very different. As far as utopian films go there’s The Sixth World, which is about the Navajo Nation as the leading partner in the trip to Mars, saving the mission with their sacred corn pollen over the GMO corn which fails. There’s also a film titled File Under Miscellaneous, which shows a dystopian future in which indigenous peoples surgically remove their skin and have it replaced with white skin in a 1984-like dystopia.

And films such as The Visit, a very short film we watched earlier, is a short animated story of a flying saucer visiting a remote reserve in Canada, asking why aliens would necessarily visit New York or some other western metropolis. The policemen don’t know what to do, but the father starts playing his drum and it pulses along with the beat. There is no colonial encounter. It’s an interaction.

There are many ways in which we project through science fiction. As much as there’s a diversity in all Western alien films, in a way, there’s very little ideological diversity. Even exeptions suc as Arrival, which we talked about earlier are only a tiny bit different but still have the same backdrop.

To conclude, I’ve been thinking a lot about what is happening today. We live in this global era defined by apocalyptic rhetoric around climate change, ISIS, Middle Eastern wars, specters of deregulation-induced financial global collapse, the political mobilization of populism and record-high first world income inequality.

With everything going on, something that I mentioned earlier that caught my attention is that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved the minutes to midnight, from 3 minutes, 30 seconds forward to 2 and a half minutes to midnight, which is closer than we’ve been since 1953 when we were testing hydrogen bombs in the South Pacific on the Bikini Atoll.

And so, while the world looks opaque and potentially disastrous in the West, I would point out that indigenous futures today encompass Standing Rock, Lakota futures, climate change, planetary futures, and species futures. Increasingly, they’re all interconnected. And if anyone’s been to Standing Rock actions, I think that this is becoming increasingly clear. This is not just happening in science fiction; it’s happening in many ways, which are good in the sense that people are paying attention in a new and broader way.

The way that indigenous peoples see the future has never been more relevant not only for their communities, but also for everyone else. Really what could be more relevant than the imagined futures of people who have lived through the apocalypse and survived it, and who aren’t 2 minutes to midnight but 10 minutes after midnight. So, perhaps they have something really important to say and the medium of science fiction and film provides a really compelling and visceral way to get that point across. Thank you.


Muhammad: Thank you for organizing this, Henry. I’m from Seattle, so it’s good to be in a place where the sun actually comes out. I’m the founder and editor of the Islam and Science Fiction Project also at the University of Washington, and a senior data scientist at Groupon. So, I’ve been interested in science fiction as far back as I could remember. Must have been six or seven when The Next Generation came out, so I used to watch it and I got hooked into the original series.

But my real interest in the intersection of science fiction and Muslim cultures came, I would say, around 2004-2006. That was when I became really fascinated with intersection of science fiction and religion in general. It is my personal opinion that some of the best science fiction novels which are out there have just very strong religious themes. So, a few that comes to my mind are Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny and his work in general. Lord of Light has very strong Buddhist and Hindu themes. There’s a lot of really good Catholic sci-fi out there. The novel Canticle of Saint Leibowitz comes to mind that does have a strong religious, mainly Christian, presence. There’s also the Case of Conscience by James Blish.

So, that’s how it started -- it got me thinking about the intersection between science fiction with Muslim characters or Islamic themes in science fiction. I started digging around in books, libraries, different forums online, and I discovered that there was almost no material on this subject. I even found one article where the author, who I will not name for certain reasons, actually went to say that as far as our science fiction is concerned, it [Science Fiction in Islamic background] does not even exist.

And years later I came across an article by an African-American scholar, Yusuf Nuruddin, who diagnosed the problem with saying that just because something has not been covered in certain academic western scholarship that it should not be taken to mean that it does not exist. So, with that, I started collecting material on this subject and that’s how the Islam and Science Fiction Project was born.

So, if you look at history of fiction with fantastical elements that came out of the Islamic world, the most famous is, of course, the Arabian Nights, also known as the One Thousand and One Nights. A number of stories in that collection have what we now recognize as having broad science fiction elements. So, for example, you have invisibility cloaks, you have travel to other planets, you even have stories with time travel, so on and so forth. John Campbell, I believe he’s at University of Alabama is doing some scholarship on a project about -- which he describes as one of the first sci-fi novels which was written in Arabic in 14th century by Ibn Al-Nafis.

Ibn Al Nafis’ claim to fame was actually that he was one of the earlier discoverers of circulation of blood in the human body. And the other -- not just the fiction or fantastical elements but if you look at other parts of the Islamic worlds in South Asia actually have the largest epic fantasy ever written. And when I say that this is not an exaggeration I actually mean it. So, the whole collection is called TAilsm-Hoshruba or magic that takes your senses away or in other words, mind-blowing magic.

It’s a collection of -- it’s a novel or a collection which consists of -- literally of one hundred thousand pages. We can safely assume that nobody has read it or at least nobody alive has read it. And it takes a very liberal -- especially from contemporary times view of early Islamic history. So, it’s settled in this alternate world where the protagonist is actually the uncle of Prophet Muhammad, Hamza, who unlike real history did not die in a war but became this epic hero [in this story] and went on to fight demons and dragons and other creative creatures in Persia and China and other parts of the world.

The story has a very multicultural cast. Part of his entourage are people from India and China, Persia, a couple of his friends are even Romans. So, it also gives us a very interesting window into a past of the Middle East which was much more color and much more open-minded and much more diverse, one could even argue.

Lets talk about [fiction] closer to the modern era. It’s difficult to say that there’s -- it’s even impossible to say that there’s such a thing as the Islamic world, they have multiple cultures which have this belief system as a commonality. They have their own -- a lot of them have their own literatures which sometimes intersect. So, for example, a lot of recent literature with respect to sci-fi which is coming out of the Arab world has many dystopian themes which is in light of the events -- especially in the light of events which have been going on in the Arab world in the last years or so.

If you look at 19th and early 20th century sci-fi literature in the Arab world, we do have many more examples of utopias. More recently, there’s this award-winning novel which came out of Egypt. It’s called Utopia. It’s written by Ahmed Towfik. Although it’s set in the near future very dystopian Egyptian society bereft with class war and class distinctions.

There’s another novel that came out after the Arab Spring also from Egypt. I believe it’s called The Queue. And it’s set in an unnamed country where a people’s revolution has failed and the government is very authoritarian and controls each and every single thing that people -- that citizens are allowed to do or not allowed to do. And one of the more interesting recent novels that came out -- actually came out of -- from Iraq by this author whose name is evading my mind right now. It’s called Frankenstein in Baghdad.

The premise is that the Frankenstein monster is actually created from people who have died because of the -- first because of the invasion and then after because of the civil war. Once the Frankenstein monster, this monster gets animated, it sets itself as its goal to take revenge on people who constitute its body parts. It’s supposed to be a commentary on the invasion of Iraq and the sectarian and religious violence which is going on in Iraq right now.

And if you look at the other parts of the Arab world, so for example, there is this thing called Gulf futurism. Mainly centered around Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai and the other emirates, where the idea is that if you actually look at Gulf even now, it has a very cyberpunk/dystopian feel to it. So, we have -- we literally have the tallest buildings in the world and some of the biggest construction projects in the world which appear to be found right off a sci-fi novel. But at the same time, we have a very large underclass of people who are barely getting minimum wages and trying very hard to survive.

Crossing the water, if you look at places like Saudi Arabia, it’s interesting. So, there’s -- a couple of years ago there’s these two brothers who even started a publishing house centered around science fiction. They came up with this novel, its translation is actually available freely on the Internet. It’s called HWJN. So, part of the Islamic belief is belief in the supernatural creatures called djinns or in the west we call them genies.

The novel tries to give a naturalistic explanation for them that they live in this parallel universe. And one of the protagonists who is this creature falls in love with a human female who lives in our world. And then, it uses that as a launch pad to explore class divisions within the Saudi society and also religious extremism, religious tolerance. And not surprisingly it got banned within Saudi Arabia. And after the ban that they actually made the novel freely available on the Internet both in Arabic and in English.

And it was hugely popular -- I should say, at the underground level it was hugely popular a couple of years ago. So, if I were to make like one generalization about sci-fi coming out of the Islamic world, it’s that it’s the local conditions and the histories that inform what people are envisioning about the future. So, the future is -- so one could even argue that the future is actually about the present. We project our hopes, fears and aspirations about what future could be or what future cannot be.

Another place surprisingly where we actually have sci-fi inspired from Islamic cultures, they’re having Islamic influences is actually the United States. The most famous sci-fi novel ever is Frank Herbert’s Dune is inspired from the Middle Eastern culture. Many of the terms that Frank Herbert actually uses are directly lifted from the Islamic religious canon, for example. There are a couple of authors which are well-known, G. Willow Wilson, she’s actually a Muslim convert. So, her novel -- her graphic novel is called Alif the Unseen.

It’s set in this cyberpunk setting where the genies that I described, they actually have a way to interact with our modern technology. That’s a pretty interesting read. There’s another sci-fi fantasy author, Saladin Ahmed, is actually the first American Muslim to be nominated for the Hugo. So, he has this novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, it’s part of trilogy that’s coming out. A lot of interesting work which has been done.

I would end with the note, as I described earlier, that it’s difficult to generalize about such a large mass people. But at the same time, there are certain things and commonalities that we see, basically hopes and aspirations of people which are projected about the present and the future.

And one thing that I would say is much needed is that as we are moving from a western or Euro-centric view of science fiction, we should also not get into the trap of when we are talking about, say, sci-fi from the Muslim world or from China or indigenous sci-fi or from Africa that these are not necessarily bubbles but there should be a cross communication across these different worlds. Because if we really think about it, that actually has been the rule throughout history that cultures have never been born by isolation. There’s always been cross fertilization.



Exercising the Imagination Muscle: Notes from the Imagine 2040 Symposium on April 7, 2017

I wanted to share this report on some of the work being organized by my research team at USC. Our work on the Civic Imagination Project has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation. This research grows out of our last book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which was published by New York University Press. We are hard at work on a new book which will expand our understanding of the concept of "the civic imagination" and the events described here are, among other things, part of the process of ideation around this research. We would love to hear from other research groups that are exploring related themes and topics.

Reposted from the Civic Imagination Project website.

Photo by RB Photography

April 7th, 2017 marked an important step forward in the emerging work that the Civics Path Group is carrying out around the idea of the Civic Imagination. With support from the USC Collaboration Fund and the MacArthur Foundation, Civic Paths and the Civics and Social Media research groups convened a one-day symposium on the USC campus called “Imagine 2040.” The event brought together a widely diverse set of scholars, practitioners and activists from across the country and Mexico to think about the civic imagination and to consider key questions that have emerged from our initial work in this area.

We will be continuing to explore the outcomes and ideas from this day for the next several months and will have more in-depth analyses to share as we go forward. But we wanted to get things started by giving a quick account of the event along with some high-level takeaways and reflections from the organizers. For more background on the civic imagination and previous activities please see our About section and Chronicles page.

Photo by RB Photography

The Event

Although many of the participants of “Imagine 2040” are already harnessing civic imagination in their work in one form or another, we wanted to create a shared foundation of concept and experience to ground the event so we began our day with a brief presentation from Henry Jenkins and an abbreviated worldbuilding exercise. Dr. Jenkins provided an overview of how we define the civic imagination within our work and how that definition aligns and diverges with others. From there, Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro led the group through an abbreviated version of a worldbuilding workshop similar to one that Civic Paths ran internally in the fall of 2016 in which we collectively imagined the world we’d like to live in in the year 2040.

After a wide-ranging whole-group brainstorm about the future, participants worked in smaller groups to develop and share back narratives about how that world came to be that included stories about sentient birds, participatory pedagogy and sustainable agriculture. Before breaking for lunch we spent a little bit of time reflecting on the process from the morning. Participant Susu Attar, who also helped create the very first worldbuilding workshop that we ran as part of the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, shared these thoughts:

I think the thing that I really love about the design of this is that you’re considering life on earth and then you’re engaging people through  imagination and creativity about future problems but also future solutions. And that requires listening and building consensus and then making something together….It exercises all the tools you need to really ever do anything in this life.

On our return from lunch we organized the afternoon based on The World Cafe model of discussion. Civic Paths research assistants Samantha Close, Raffi Sarkissian and Yomna Elsayed each led a round of discussion. Each round started with the introduction of a topic related to our collective inquiry into civic imagination, framed with a brief introduction and key points for consideration. Participants then spent 20 minutes discussing these points in small groups around their tables. Notetakers from Civic Paths stayed at the tables to share back summaries of the discussions from each group after each round. For each subsequent round, participants would move to new tables creating new discussion groups.

Discussion leaders Close, Sarkissian and Elsayed share their topics of inquiry and brief accounts of participant responses in the following sections below.

Photo by RB Photography

Round One: Imagination from escapism to escape - Yomna Elsayed

Topic Introduction

 To many parents and educators, daydreaming is negatively viewed as a sign of withdrawal, a kind of solitary confinement by choice that should be resisted for the sake of better involvement with the world around us. Inspirational videos circle the web urging young people to stand up and do something, anything. Somehow doing is more valued than imagining. The rapid pace of our modern lives, and the severity of much of our modern day tragedies, be it the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, transnational migration crisis, all push us to act, and act quickly. After all, we cannot see what someone is imagining, even our tools of description be they language, art or technology repeatedly fail us at capturing the exact details and at the same time vividness of our imagination when constrained by words, materials, colors or what is technologically possible. But like world events have become ephemeral phenomena, so have many of our actions and their effects. How can civic imagination slow us down to come up with civic, possibly better, alternatives that work to reimagine the world we live in, rather than just mend it?

In his 2013 talk, English author and fiction writer Neil Gaiman urged us “We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”

To Gaiman, “pretty much every form of fiction [including fantasy] can actually be a real escape from places where you feel bad, and from bad places. It can be a safe place you go, like going on holiday, and it can be somewhere that, while you’ve escaped, actually teaches you things you need to know when you go back, that gives you knowledge and armour and tools to change the bad place you were in. So no, they’re not escapist. They’re escape.” (link)

These divergent views on imagination got us asking: when is imagination ‘escape’, and when is it ‘escapist’, and if there is a difference between the two? Whether imagination is self-sedating or if it can be used to pass critique and/or question reality? And if so, when does imagination become civic?

Key Insights From Round One

Imagination is an active process.

Initially, someone lost in their thoughts, a fiction book or a game, might seem to be a passive contributor to this world, occupying physical space without really contributing to it. Participants however, suggested that imagination can be a processing space, one that is suitable for building fiction, which can itself move us one step closer to a solution. In building up a fiction, authors have to strip away constraining details, thus allowing themselves, even in imagination, to move beyond physical limitations, noted one of the participants. In other words, to many, imagination can be a safe dynamic space for experimenting with ideas.

Participants suggested that even technologies that are often accused of distracting people from “real-life” such as social media and virtual reality sets, have a double function, to both engage and escape. Virtual reality technologies for example, can be used as escapism but also as a tool for empathy, they noted.

Imagination is crucial for activism.

With many of our participants working in activists spaces, the question “does escapism contradict with being woke?” came up more than once. Asked differently, can escapism or even escape be valuable to activism?

While the literal meaning of staying-woke may sound contradictory to the image of someone lost in their thoughts or daydreams; figuratively, however, staying woke is about staying informed and aware of the underlying workings of systems of power, which does not necessarily stand in contradiction with the act of imagination. As one of the participants suggested: escape in itself can be a retreat, a recharging period to reflect, make sense of the world and imagine alternatives.

For marginalized communities, imagination becomes a necessity when reality does not seem to be offering them much to work with. Therefore, they have to start by first pushing boundaries in their imagination: one has to imagine themselves in a particular space first before they can participate in it; it thus takes a leap of faith, sometimes. A similar tension occurs between art and activism, where art needs room to dream and imagine while activism needs a space to act.

Our participants partially concluded that instead of pitting escapism and “woke-ness”, art and activism, against one another, we should view them not as goals in and of themselves but as active and dynamic processes that work together to enable action. Once imagination is actionable, noted one of the participants, it is transformed from being an escapist route to becoming an escape route.

Round Two: Civic Imagination as a mechanism? Civic Imagination as a valence? - Samantha Close

Topic Introduction

Carrying on the thread from the last prompt, one of the enduring debates about both media and technology are whether they are, at their basic levels, empowering for everyday people and conducive to progressive political change or empowering for existing governments and corporations and conducive to conservation of the status quo.  Others argue that media and technology are fundamentally neutral; means that can be turned to a variety of ends.

You could ask a similar question about the civic imagination.  But this might not be the most productive question to ask—at least at first.  Rather than starting off debating if the broad idea of a civic imagination is just a tool, a way of doing things, or if it carries an inherent political and ethical charge, we are interested in when and how particular civic imaginations have been thought up and put out into the world in particular moments.

We asked participants to think of examples of civic imagination that scare, worry, or repulse them—what kind of civic world do they imagine?  How is that imagination expressed?  Then we encouraged them to think of some civic imaginations that inspires them or in which they share.  How are those imaginations expressed rhetorically or put into material practice?  Do these different examples of civic imaginations share anything, either in the ways in which they are expressed or put into practice?  In what is imagined?  If not, where do they diverge—what are the differences in how they are expressed, what they imagine, and how they are materialized?

After considering these questions we asked participants to try to pull back to the abstract level.  If civic imagination is like a mechanism, a way of thinking and doing, what are its key components?  What does an idea need to have or do to be both civic and imagining?  Is it possible to distinguish the progressive or inspiring civic imaginations from those that scare and concern you, to say something like “an ethical civic imagination will have these things”?

Key Insights from Round Two

Imaginations are civic when they are shared.

Participants had little trouble coming up with examples of civic imaginations, pulling together civic imaginations from current politics, history, and popular culture genres from music videos to video games.  But there seemed to be a minor divide over a deliberative/collectivist view of civic and an aesthetic, somewhat solitary, view of civic. According to the first view, when imagination is shared, it moves from the private space of our own minds to a shared public space in which it is engaged in conversation. Some ventured to suggest that even sharing one’s imagination is action in itself (and to a member of a marginalized community, an act of courage). The second view however, suggested that even private imagination is value unto itself, as it is also changing the person who is doing the imagining.

Collectivity is a necessary means but not a good end.

A sense of collectivity is a necessary means, part of the mechanism of any civic imagining, but it is not an ethical end.  Ethical civic imaginations must be built on the fact that there are and will be important differences between people—there will always be people fighting for what they believe in.  Civic imaginations that scared the group generally had in common that they imagined a collectivity of sameness, futures where everyone was alike in the most important ways.

To imagine a civic world, you must also imagine power.

It is essential to imagine power: what it is and where it comes from.  This is a shared feature of many civic imagination examples.  There does not need to be only one kind or source of power, but knowing what they are and how they are accessed is essential.

Round Three: From Imagination to Civic Imagination to Action - Raffi Sarkissian

Topic Introduction

The final prompt brought the discussion of the civic imagination to the work that each of the participants do in their professional and civic lives. In this round, we asked each table to think about how the ideas and approaches discussed throughout the day reflect or reinforce the principles and practices of their own projects. Is the civic imagination active or compatible with their own work? Alternatively, we wanted the groups to discuss potential obstacles to adopting the tenets of the civic imagination across the fields and spaces, both physical and digital, they occupy and intersect. Ultimately, we wanted them to think through ways we can put the ideas of the symposium into practice.

The ensuing conversations around each table were rich with inspiring work participants were already engaged in and raising important provocations as they synthesized the collective thoughts and experiences that informed the discussion throughout the day.

Key Insights from Round Three

Many of the participants shared that key principles of the civic imagination were already present in their work. The discussion around several tables centered on the role of media-makers in creating narratives of the civic imagination beyond what is available in existing popular (and often hegemonic) texts and formats. For instance, one group gave pushback to the confines of the traditional, linear model of storytelling, which included the world-building exercise from the morning session. They raised questions on how to tell stories about individuals doing great work in marginalized communities but avoid the hero/leader trope. How can we expand existing stories and avoid fixed narrative structures in order to tell stories about collective action?

Several groups brought up social media and technology as double-edged swords in that they can foster networked communication but also act as obstacles often slowing us down, whether by trolls, distractions, or exhaustion. Some cited the need to keep resistance alive but push it to the backdrop and instead use imagination to move us forward. Others noted the constant pressure they feel for civic content and outreach to be entertaining. Another table discussed the trade-off between depth of content and breadth of its reach in regards to alternative media narratives, especially in local artist communities. A few others discussed the challenges of inclusion when considering the reach of the civic imagination--how can the civic/political be inviting without being prescriptive?--and recognizing that some groups have been consistently fighting for these goals way before November 2016.

To put much of this work into context, one of the tables likened the civic imagination to a muscle, which needs exercise to grow and see its full potential. While many activists are already engaged in this work, those who are not as attuned to practicing imagination need to work out and flex that muscle. This was an apt analogy to cap off the productive day of collaborative imagination.

Connecting Imagination to Action needs a nudge.

One of the workshop participants, an educator by profession, noted that sometimes all students need is a nudge, possibly referring to constraints of an assignment or a project that encourage students to flex their imagination muscles and equips them with tools for tying their imagination to action. However, the nudge can be anything from a symbolic to a physical limitation that pushes people to experiment with other creative ways of circumventing their apparently constrained realities.

This is of course is not an encouragement for educators or decision makers to become more authoritarian so as to breed creativity, but it is an illustration of how civic imagination need not be only a goal, but also a starting point, better a methodology, whereby imagining civically is one of the ways for carving out an “escape route”.

Photo by RB Photography

Conclusions and Next Steps

One of the primary challenges of conducting such a rich and wide ranging event with so many thoughtful people is to harness and catalog the ideas and energy that emerged from that day. Our group is currently in the process of conducting one-on-one interviews with symposium participants. This gives us and them a chance to let some of the ideas settle and to reflect in depth on the themes and questions of the day as well as to explore possible future collaborations across the emerging network seeded at the event. This work is ongoing but we are already excited to hear from participants about ways the work of that day has stayed with them and about the kinds of creative actions that we are already beginning to plan going forward.

In addition to interviews and written work that we will continue to grow and share on this website, we were also fortunate to have the talented Greg T. Whicker with us as a graphic recorder. Throughout the day, John listened closely to the ideas and conversations flowing through the room and at a steady and focused pace, translated those words into colorful visual representations. Beside being a recommended component of World Cafe, we found the participation of a graphic recorder to be a valuable tool and wonderful complement to our engagement with civic imagination; helping to bring ideas to life in the visual realm and to expand a collective sense of vision and action.

The “Imagine 2040” symposium was a valuable experience for our work and has already influenced the direction of our next steps, helping us to continue to expand and hone our theoretical frameworks around the civic imagination. We are also looking forward to running more events in this model, bringing new voices and perspectives into conversation and growing the network as much as we can. We want to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who participated in our April event and who helped to make it possible. And we want to encourage any readers who may be intrigued by this account and these ideas to reach out to us for more information or to get involved.

Summary by: Gabriel Peters-Lazaro

Videos from Transforming Hollywood 8: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture

The videos are now available for our May 5 conference at UCLA. 9:00-9:15 a.m. - The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture.  Welcome by Transforming Hollywood by co-directors Denise Mann (UCLA) and Henry Jenkins (USC).


9:15-10:20 a.m. - Keynote Presentation,” by Ted Striphas, “Algorithmic Culture.” 


10:30-12:00 p.m. - Panel One: Playing with Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces, moderated by Denise Mann, Professor, School of Theater, Film, Television, UCLA.


  • Larry Fitzgibbon, CEO and Co-Founder, Tastemade
  • Thomas Jorion, Head of Strategy and Innovation, Havas 18
  • Rob Kramer, CEO and Founder, PurposeLab
  • Kym Nelson, Senior VP of Sales, Twitch
  • Ted Striphas, Professor, Colorado University

TH8 Panel 1: Playing With Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



12:15-1:45 p.m. - Panel Two: Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation, Moderated by Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor, Annenberg Communication and School of Cinematic Arts, USC.


  • Mark Andrejevic, Professor of Media Studies, Pomona College
  • Brooke Borel, journalist and Author of The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking
  • Hannah Cranston, host and executive producer of ThinkTank and guest host ofThe Young Turks.
  • Jon Passantino, deputy news director for BuzzFeed News, Los Angeles.
  • Ramesh Srinivasan, Associate Professor, Department of Information Studies and Design/Media Arts, UCLA.
  • Laura Sydell, Correspondent, Arts Desk, NPR.

TH8 Panel 2: Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.


2:45-4:15 p.m. - Panel Three: Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing Cultural Curators, moderated by Gigi Johnson, Founding Director, The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.


  • Matthew Adell, CEO and Founder, MetaPop
  • Shanna Jade, Director of Community, Stem
  • Alex White, Head of Next Big Sound at Pandora

TH8 Panel 3: Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing, Cultural Curators from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



4:30-6:00 p.m. - Panel Four: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV,”Moderated by Neil Landau, author of TV Outside the Box and The Showrunner’s Roadmap.


  • Jessie Kahnweiler, creator, The Skinny (Hulu)
  • Zander Lehmann, creator, Casual (Hulu)
  • Dawn Prestwich, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything(Amazon)
  • Nicole Yorkin, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything(Amazon)


TH8 Panel 4: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Four)

HJ: Can the immense amount of backstory produced by serial texts become a drag on the future development of the story? Are audiences less likely to jump onto a story when they feel like they need to do a lot of homework to get up to speed? FK: I think aligning audience desires with backstory management is always a balancing act. More than that, it’s a balancing act that continually has to readjust itself to a current state of technological capabilities and role differentiations (i.e., how audiences understand themselves as audiences). This being said, serial texts have always defined their backstories selectively and strategically. Any serial narrative tends to change its pasts in the act of moving forward; backstory evolves just like the story itself evolves. This is what is meant by “recursive progression” in the book’s first chapter.

This particular feature of serial storytelling didn’t pose such a big problem as long as serial stories could count on audiences simply “forgetting” all those things and elements that didn’t make it into the current version of a backstory. After all, evolving narratives are defined by the fact that they produce more information than is required by the simple need for coherence and continuity, because such excess information then provides potential connecting options for future usage.

Conversely, everything that’s not repeated, reanimated, or re-presented will not be “remembered” in the current backstory. And that’s okay, because this surplus usually doesn’t challenge a narrative’s evolving sense of consistency: it’s simply not part of the past that’s present. But how do you deal with audiences that conceivably remember everything that has ever been told in a story, so that all connecting options ever presented on screen or paper become potential backstory?

This is a real dilemma for current series. Serial texts in the digital age have to deal with audiences that are often capable of accessing every bit and piece of serial narration. Such audiences are likely to put much higher demands on internal logic and coherence. But then, the more a series tries to meet these demands, the more complicated its narrative will become until it’s just not that attractive to newcomers anymore. As you say, people have to do “homework” to fully enjoy—or even to comprehend—what is being narrated.

HJ: If this is so, what might a better theory of seriality help us understand about the challenges and opportunities this extensive backstory represents?

FK: One way of dealing with the dilemma of extensive backstory is to invite audience members to understand themselves as contributors to a collective game of sense-making. Lost had a good run with this strategy for most of its duration, continually producing more information than a single human mind could possibly process (which is, of course, the very definition of “complexity”). As a result, audience engagement shifted to collaborative acts of playful story reconstruction that mirrored and reinforced the complexity of the series itself. In order not to overtax individual audience members, Lost offered them roles as part-time storytellers in a huge division of narrative labor. It worked quite well until this game had to come to an end.

Another strategy consists in not even trying to connect everything, because this will result in byzantine structures that still won’t cohere in the end. Such overtly complicated (not necessarily “complex”) backstory constructions can also become supremely boring, as the Star Wars prequels demonstrated when they traded storytelling for fastidious myth management.

To avoid this, a serial text can branch out into unexplored narrative spaces, opening up side-worlds or parallel universes that are connected only at one or two plausible points of transfer with established story lines. So that’s stressing the serialization of world-building over the serialization of narrative, and it seems to be a fairly sustainable strategy right now. Taking my cue from your own contribution to the book, I would dare to predict that in some media and some genres, serial storytelling will perhaps be increasingly eclipsed by serial word-building. We’re certainly seeing something like this happening in certain digital games, as Shane Denson and Andreas Sudmann suggest in their chapter.

HJ: How do we situate reboots of media properties in our understanding of the ways seriality operates in contemporary popular culture?

FK: Rebooting is another strategy of dealing with the dilemma of byzantine boredom versus quasi-omniscient audiences. Con Verevis says in his chapter that the reboot may be the film-remaking format of choice for the digital era, because it doesn’t try to cancel earlier versions but feeds on them, operating according to the logic of co-existence.

But there are different rebooting strategies. Kathleen Loock is currently writing this amazing history of film remaking practices, in which she argues that all these formats—the sequel, the prequel, the reboot, but also the classical “remake” in the sense of a re-filming—are best understood as historically flexible praxeologies rather than formal categories. This means that they always bleed into each other, so that even the most faithful “remake” will always also contain aspects of sequelization in a kind of second-order seriality.

The same with reboots: there are many practical options. Reboots can serially reanimate storyworlds that have lain dormant for a long time, almost in an act of archeological rediscovery. They can do so with storyworlds that were originally serialized or not. But reboots can also turn to recent complex multiverses and then return them to an initial state of enforced simplicity. And many other possibilities.

One of the most interesting cases lately was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which looks like a cross between a prequel (situating itself in a timeline before a recently concluded series) and a tie-in or spin-off (filling in, or creating, blank spaces in the original narrative), but then it’s really more of a reboot, because tonally and ideologically, this film offers not just a variation but a decided alternative to existing Harry Potter stories (much more so than most previous spin-off series have done, I would argue). Unlike Rogue One, which implicitly re-makes the first Star Wars film in the form of a prequelized side-story, Fantastic Beasts really tries to re-think—and actually to qualify—the original series. That’s a risky move, but highly interesting. We will have to wait and see how it continues and how far this can be pushed (or not).

HJ: Do you have any thoughts about Rogue One as an intervention in the Star Wars universe, given the degree to which George Lucas’s original inspiration for the franchise emerged from classic movie serials of his youth? What kinds of interventions does this new film make into the serial structure of the series as a whole?

FK: I’ve heard the term “legacyquel” used for The Force Awakens—and I think it fits Rogue One as well. If this is indeed the film’s goal, the result is fairly successful. Formally, Rogue One achieves a largely convincing balance between remembering and renewing, fan service and pacing. If we consider how many Star Wars films have sunk under the weight of their accumulated narrative cargo, this one is pretty agile. But it’s also a bit redundant, after The Force Awakens already stressed the remaking aspects of sequelization.

So you wonder why Rogue One doesn’t make more use of the freedom provided by its sideway position in the series. But then, versioning and modernization—rather than revision—seem to be key ambitions of both films: both The Force Awakens and Rogue One basically revisit the same narrative template and then try to update it for a new media generation.

In a word, these are tightly franchised films, perhaps more so than seems necessary. So we get all these dialogues which reference irrelevant names and events, and such dialogues are always more obtrusive than visual Easter eggs, because unlike something you simply see or don’t, a dialogue always takes up time and it potentially confuses viewers who don’t know if this information is significant for the story at hand or if it merely seeks to place the film within the franchise. Even in Rogue One, there were some moments early on when I feared another retconning disaster, but then the film quickly got its act together.

Of course, the emotional climax comes in the end, when we find ourselves at the beginning of the franchise again—but not in terms of performative coherence because the 1977 film looks hopelessly obsolete now, not like something that could possibly “follow” Rogue One in terms of film style or technological standard. So, the emotional force of this prequel effect truly resides in second-order seriality (as Kathleen Loock and myself have called it). Which is to say that this scene touches audiences at the level of their media memories, their generational belonging, their biographical brand attachments.

I watched Rogue One the day after Carrie Fisher died, so the appearance of her digital avatar in the end was both poignant and creepy—almost obscene, in fact. But my fifteen-year old daughter didn’t think this moment was particularly important or powerful, although she knows the original Star Wars, but for her it’s nothing special, just some old film. For many viewers of my generation, that’s different.

In terms of modernization, then, the chief variation—or intervention—of this new version really occurs at the level of representational politics. Dan Hassler-Forest has written insightfully about this. I agree with him that Rogue One’s progressive casting policy allows the film to discard the metaphysical quest plot of earlier versions and the hokey Freudian family drama. But even without these elements, Rogue One is ruled by the same media nostalgia that animated George Lucas’s original, only that this time it’s not nostalgia for classical Western and adventure serials but for earlier Star Wars movies.

And I would argue that this strongly shapes the film’s political structure as well, above and beyond its diversity activism—which is a little compromised anyway by the sacrificial death of its entire non-white cast, as if we’ve watched a one-off redshirts saga. Either way, exchanging white Jedi knights for multicultural rebels simply doesn’t change the fact that this film is still telling the same story of populist uprising that in many Anglophone countries passes for antifascism.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to downplay the importance and timeliness of Rogue One’s representational achievements—it’s the best thing about the film—but Rogue One is performing this innovative move in a slightly gimmicky fashion, while simultaneously reproducing the same generic (almost genetic) script that’s been organizing American political storytelling across party lines for a long time now, the script of “the people” vs. the evils of centralized government. This also explains why the film’s innovatively cast characters turn out to be such easily recognizable figures. Jyn Erso, but also Rey in The Force Awakens or, for that matter, Katniss in The Hunger Games are all variations of one type—a fact that considerably qualifies the originality of casting a female lead.

So, regarding the film’s politics—and I hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes here—Rogue One’s understanding of fascism is pretty much the same well-intentioned but ultimately inane understanding of fascism that has been dominating Hollywood films from classical sound serials through Star Wars and Indiana Jones all the way to The Hunger Games. And I wouldn’t even complain about this, because a lot of it is fun to watch and told tongue-in-cheek, so that ideology-critical “decoding” isn’t a particularly appropriate method for reading these texts, but in 2016/17, all of this is happening at a time when we’re in dire need of more accurate theories of neo-fascism and when we could use some mature political storytelling in our popular media. I’m not sure this is what the conspicuous self-politicization of Rogue One provides. In the end, it’s a film about Heldentod with digitally resurrected celebrities. That’s scary stuff, if you think about it.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Three)

HJ: From an audience point of view, the greatest enthusiasm for serial texts seems to come mid-stream when there are many different directions for interpretations and speculation. Why have so many serial texts had difficulty sticking the ending? FK: As with all living things, the end is a sad affair, at best a moment of relief, but hardly ever an occasion for joy and celebration. I’m exaggerating, of course, but only slightly. As commercial products—and that’s an important “preposition” of this material: its openly commercial nature—popular series would like to go on forever. A successful television series is renewed; that’s the mark of its success, as Jason Mittell says: being successful means being able to continue.

Of course, all parties involved know that there is no such thing as real infinity, not even for very successful prod­ucts. All television series must end sooner or later. But when they do, this almost never happens because everything that was meant to be told has been told now. On the contrary, in most cases, television series do not “end” at all, in any strict sense of the term, but they simply disappear. This shows them as what they are: popular commodities, profitable only for so long. The narrative simply doesn’t return from its seasonal commercial break.

Sometimes a series knows in advance that it will be written off, but the result of such knowledge is often some flimsy sense of finalizing structure, usually imposed in a rather forced manner. In fact, it was relatively rare until recently that final seasons would be announced as final seasons—and even in that case, carefully prepared closure typically consists in making the series look retroactively like a multi-part work, and even then, there are often oblique options for future continuation. (Miniseries are different, of course, but only at first glance, because they, too, are frequently serialized now with a second season.)

All in all, there is no satisfying ending to a story that is structurally premised on its own return and continuation. Long-running mystery series—like Lost, where the secrets proliferated along with the show’s various narrative identities—will never be able to answer all the questions they have spawned. Even largely episodic programs, like sitcoms, reach a moment of narrative crisis when the final episode arrives. Seinfeld reacted to this challenge by brilliantly looping back to a remote beginning, but many people didn’t like that either, because they wanted the show to go on, not to eat itself up.

So, Sean O’Sullivan has a point when he says that satisfaction is not such a useful concept when we talk about serial storytelling. But then it’s an empirical fact that many viewers are dissatisfied or angry or sad when their favorite series disappears from their daily lives. In terms of audience attitudes, there are probably two extreme poles here: there are those audiences who would like to see their series as self-contained artifacts, closed and coherent “works,” like bourgeois novels, and so they expect a certain resolution in the end, a final “payoff” for all the time they’ve invested in watching or reading. And then there are those who relish precisely the challenges of storytelling on the go. Those are perhaps the ones most likely to engage in public storytelling themselves, be it fan fiction, be it audience activism, be it some more bureaucratic or academic type of narrative account keeping.

These para- and post-textual activities can go on for a long time after a series’ core text has stopped moving forward. And interestingly, this type of receptive production often tends to perform a switch from valuing satisfactory storytelling to valuing satisfactory world-building, because the pleasures of world-building are potentially endless too. This is what you discuss in your contribution to the book: an imaginary map will never be completely filled with information. There will always be blank spaces for future exploration.

HJ: How might a better understanding of how seriality works contribute to our grasp of transmedia storytelling?

FK: I would say seriality has an almost natural affinity to transmedia storytelling. Popular series are not easily contained within their core texts and media. Again, this has to do as much with their commercial mode of existence as with their narrative practices, because both are related and mutually reinforcing. Christina Meyer writes about this in her chapter on the Yellow Kid, one of the first serial comics figures. And Con Verevis in his chapter points out that remade blockbuster films in the digital age are almost necessarily intermedial.

Of course, when a story is told across media, the challenges of recursive sense-making proliferate tremendously: serial continuity management and serial self-observation are confronted now not only with a constantly growing number of episodes but also with different technologies of storytelling. What’s interesting about this process is how it can prompt serial storytelling to become explicitly modular. This is especially visible in contemporary trends, so I’m tempted to say that modularity might become the most likely form of seriality within our digital media ecology.

And again, there will be viewers who will cherish modular consistency, hoping (and even demanding) that a story’s transmedia manifestations fit into each other like the pieces of a puzzle—and there will also be viewers who will be fine with parallel processing, seeing modules as building blocks with different functions that can be rearranged or ignored in changing constellations. In both cases we can expect very intricate and controversial “canon” constructions to evolve. Of course, much of this has been prepared and pioneered by the expanding Star Wars universe.

HJ: Audiences have long used the gaps in the flow of serial texts as points for discussion and speculation. How might today’s social media contribute to these forms of engagement? Does binge viewing alter the dynamic by which consumers engage with serial texts?

FK: A number of issues are at work here. First of all, I would say that any type of large-scale reception practice does indeed alter the dynamic of popular seriality, especially when it concerns the temporality of story engagement. So, yes, eliminating the time gaps between episodes potentially changes both story consumption and storytelling. In the case of Netflix original series, with their full-season dumps, the result is paradoxically to slow down the reaction time for collective discussion and serial self-observation, because this business model shifts seriality from the level of the episode to the level of the season.

But that’s not an entirely new phenomenon. After all, this is what serial storytelling does, in terms of social practice: it organizes time and it does so for very large collectives, virtualized collectives. What we call “binge watching,” for example, is only the latest—perhaps we should say: the timeliest—manifestation of serial culture’s interest in continuous reception and production.

But in the history of mass media, every new medium has provoked such discourses of addiction and substance abuse, all the way back to social-hygienic concerns about novel reading in the 18th century. And I’m not saying this to mock the motivation behind such concerns; as with anything that we feed our bodies, there are good reasons to think about questions of dosage and long-term effects. But historically, there is nothing inherently disruptive about binge viewing or social media. These developments are evidently attuned to the current techno-state of our physical existence.

So when we think about audience-text-hookups, I find evolutionary accounts more convincing than revolutionary ones. The self-understanding of serial audiences really coevolves with the affordances of serial media.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Two)

HJ: A key claim here is that seriality in its modern sense emerges from 19th-century print culture. Explain. Doesn’t Homer produce works that can be understood in terms of their seriality? FK: Stories told in installments are probably as old as human culture. So, yes, manifold structures of repetition and variation can be identified in Homer, in medieval story cycles, in picaresque and chivalric novels, and so on. The specificity of modern (or “popular”) seriality reveals itself when we begin to think of seriality not as a narrative device but as a cultural practice. The medium of print and its affordances are crucial here, because print allows for a heretofore unimaginable production of “intimacy at a distance” (as Horton and Wohl called it). As Daniel Stein shows in his chapter, this is exactly what we witness in the first newspaper novels of the 19th century, starting with Les mystères de Paris.

Newspapers are important in this regard because they tremendously speed up the process of synchronizing the most heterogeneous spaces and demographics—a process which then comes to describe itself as “modernization.” This, at least, was Benedict Anderson’s point, when he argued that the print revolution afforded the idea and the reality of the modern nation. And Harold Innis had something similar in mind when he said that large territories first became governable with the invention of modern communication machines that coordinate time and space.

HJ: How do the stories published there differ from, say, story cycles involving recurring heroes, found in the Classical world for example?

FK: It’s certainly possible to compare narratological structures in classical storytelling with popular seriality, but in the early 19th century, we see an entirely new and distinct temporal regime come into existence that has everything to do with a media revolution that leads us from periodical newspapers to broadcasting media to digital media, each with their own specific synchronicities and non-synchronicities: with their distinct seriality practices, that is. We can call this larger system of continuous reading/viewing “print capitalism” or “media capitalism” or simply “popular culture”—and depending on which description we choose, we can critique it or celebrate it—but in all cases it’s important to see that serialization takes on different functions, and hence different meanings, when it operates within new technologies, even if their formalisms resemble earlier conventions.

For instance, think about the news as one of our most ubiquitous serial forms, and then think about what it meant for the evolving function and the evolving meaning of something appearing as “news” when the technologies of newsmaking switched from event-based media (such as the pamphlets of the early modern era) to increasingly fast-paced periodical accounts (such as weeklies and dailies). Ever since this happened, the newsworthiness of a piece of information has been heavily co-determined by the media logic of regular publication, and not just by the novelty or relevance of the information itself. In other words, the modern newspaper, as a serial publication, is forced to produce news even when nothing strikingly new has happened. And after a while it needs to do so daily—it needs to do so always, not just on certain ritualized occasions. Newspaper novels and almost all later types of popular seriality follow similar time constraints: episodes are typically written under a strict deadline, and the deadline very much modernizes the good old game of repetition and variation, encouraging new practices of standardization and multi-authorization, for example.

HJ: How might we think about the cultural status ascribed to serial texts?

FK: For the longest time, popular-serial texts have not been particularly interested in cultural status—and when they have achieved it, they commonly did so in non-serialized form, for example, when a serialized novel was republished and reworked as a bound book. So, historically speaking, if popular-serial texts have resisted canonization, this is because they’ve often not sought it.

If you think of traditional serial formats—newspaper novels, dime novels, comic books, TV shows of the network era—it becomes clear that in their aesthetic self-conception, indeed in their very materiality, these products never meant to become validated objects of cultural memory. Instead they aimed at rapid reception. As commodities, their prime interest was to attract as many readers or viewers as possible, in as short a time as possible, and then to quickly make room again for new offers.

That’s why, materially, they didn’t even imagine the possibility of future storing or archiving. Printed on cheap, almost deliberately unsustainable paper, or broadcast without back-up copy into the living rooms of anonymous viewers, entire genres and periods of popular seriality have become unavailable to us, because they were never meant to be seen again, let alone be analyzed by future historians. Popular culture always has this deep investment in the present moment.

So, whenever canonization takes place, it has to circumvent certain formal, material and experiential features of the canonized material. An important technological prerequisite is the existence of sustainable and generally accessible storage media. Derek Kompare, Jonathan Gray, and Jason Mittell have written about how the DVD box set has helped canonize certain TV shows—and, even more importantly, how the prospect of DVD releases has prompted TV serials around the turn of the millennium to try out, or in some cases to mimic, narrative techniques that can be aligned with culturally validated practices, such as complex but coherent plotting, narrative closure, overt stylistic experimentation, deep psychological characterization of figures, and so on.

But that’s not the end of the story. Clearly there’s another change underway in our own time, when the notion of cultural status itself is becoming increasingly problematical, because a text’s value now isn’t necessarily dependent anymore on the material distinctions of specific media forms but can also be associated with a text’s interfacing accomplishments in a system of textual co-presences within one and the same medium (acting as a super-medium).

HJ: Seriality seems to be one of those traits that gets dismissed when talking about soap operas but praised as one of the defining traits of today’s “quality television.”

FK: It is telling that in the 1990s and 2000s, many academic observers of the new “complex” television shows of the time thought that they were reading “novels.” Unsurprisingly, this comparison was particularly widespread among scholars who were trained in doing exactly that: reading and teaching novels. So, for a while it became a topos almost in certain intellectual circles to preface your professional interest in, say, HBO series by declaring that you usually don’t watch television or that you don’t even own a television set. The term “quality television” is best understood here as a legitimating term, not a descriptive term, because it implies that the most valuable type of television is the one that looks the least like television. But TV seriality, even in explicitly artistic programs, is usually not about epic scope or integral completion but about explorative movement. Twin Peaks understood this early on.

So when seriality gets dismissed in soap operas but praised in supposedly novelistic shows, the meaning of seriality itself is shifted toward more oeuvre-like notions, especially the notion of a whole that is made up of parts. And this is not just a question of literary scholars starting to watch a few television shows. We find similar moves within television studies.

Issues of gender and class play an important role here, I would say. They always do when we talk about legitimacy and prestige. I think this largely explains why soap operas—very complex and highly self-reflective narratives—have seen so little cultural valorization, even within television studies, at least in the sense of valuing soaps in their aesthetic and formal achievements as serial television (rather than valuing their populist use-value).

Conversely but accordingly, the “soapy” qualities of shows like The Sopranos or The Wire—say, their employment of melodramatic scripts and effects—have been systematically overlooked until critics like Robyn Warhol, Linda Williams, or Amanda Lotz pointed out that the most highly acclaimed (early) examples of digital-age television all shared one characteristic: they all told sentimental tales of white masculinity in crisis. Jason Mittell takes up this point in his chapter on Breaking Bad, when he discusses the melodrama of Walter White as a “‘women’s film’ told in reverse.”

HJ: Jason Mittell here suggests the challenges of interpreting serial texts, since meaning often rests on how an idea gets worked through across the entire work, and the full implications of an action may not be revealed midstream. So, what are critics to do with serial texts?

FK: I think whatever they do, they should try to respect the fact that they are dealing with serial texts. I wouldn’t want to argue for a unified methodology or research agenda. Marxist critics will do Marxist work, ethnographers will do ethnographic work, feminists will ask feminist questions. But in every case, the material comes with certain praxeological traits—Latour would say: with certain “prepositions”—that should be respected and accounted for, so that we don’t turn our objects of study into mere illustrations of pre-established assumptions or arguments.

And that’s where Jason Mittell’s point about endings becomes important, because when Jason reminds us that critical assessment of a serial text must remain fluid as long as that text is progressing, he’s not saying that we have to wait for the finale to uncover “what it all means,” like the last scene of a whodunit. Rather, the final episode is important for our assessment of the series “as a whole” because afterwards, no more additions can be made, at least not by the narrative itself, not until this narrative is revived again or reinterpreted in later versions.

So, the ending of a serial text is not necessarily its conclusion, and certainly not its solution. But it is the moment when the narrative—at least for a while, sometimes for a very long while, sometimes for ever—stops being able to react to its own effects, as serial narratives are wont to do. The feedback loop turns into a concentrated point of dispersion, so to speak, a launching pad. If storytelling continues, it has to continue now outside the bounds of the original core text—consider the many different versions of The Wire that have been circulating in public arenas after the show’s final season.

So, what are critics to do with serial texts? I would say, anything that seems important but let’s remember that we are dealing with moving targets. This means that even when these stories have come to rest now, they once existed as lively networks of multi-authored practice. This has always been their textual reality too.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part One)

In the summer of 2012, I paid a visit to my friend Jason Mittel who was spending his sabbatical year in residence at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, where he joined a group of researchers working on historical and contemporary forms of serial entertainment, headed by Frank Kelleter. While I was there, we discussed an advanced copy of the chapter on media engagement for my then forthcoming book Spreadable Media and I did a public lecture sharing early ideas about Comics and Stuff, which I hope to finish up the summer. But for me the most valuable part of the encounter was getting to know the members of the research unit on "popular seriality – aesthetics and practice":  they gave me a glimpse into their individual and collective research, around which we had a lively and rigorous exchange.

Some years later, Frank Kelleter has released a new anthology, Media of Serial  Narrative, which brings together a collection of outstanding essays that emerge from the research group over its multiyear history. Contributors include Jared Gardner, Daniel Stein, Christina Meyer, Scott Higgins, Jason Mittel, and yours truly (an essay about world building in and around L Frank Baum's Oz books). The collection ranges  from print culture in the 19 century to Hollywood serials to contemporary television, games and Transmedia franchises. The book makes the case for the centrality of seriality as an underlying aesthetic principle shaping much popular entertainment, offering new critical and theoretical vocabularies for understanding its narrative logic and cultural functions. Such work contributes much to our comprehension of the formal, industrial and ideological dimensions of popular entertainment.

Over the next few installments of this interview, Kelleter provides a cogent overview of some of the book's core insights about serial narrative, moving back and forth between contemporary and historical examples, between theory and application in ways that represents the strength of the collection as a whole.

HJ: Let’s start with a bit of back story. What can you tell us about the origins and history of the Popular Seriality research network?


FK: The Popular Seriality Research Unit started in 2010 as a group of 13 scholars from different German universities. We came from different disciplines, too, but all of us were fascinated by stories that never seem to end but then simply disappear one day, or stories that always come back looking the same, but then after the tenth time, or the hundredth time, they’re not the same anymore. The German Research Foundation gave us a large grant for six projects, and so for three years we got to watch a lot of television and read a lot of comics. But most importantly, we used these first years to hook up with like-minded scholars from all over the world—chiefly the US, however—and suddenly, we found ourselves immersed in this amazing international network of people and projects and schools of thought, all trying to understand serial popular culture. Our sponsor was satisfied, too, and we received another generous grant for three more years. At the time, we already knew that this would be the final season, because that’s the allowed maximum for Research Units in Germany, six years. So we added another seven projects, some of them reaching back into the 19th century, others about digital games, non-fictional seriality, and other topics.


HJ: How did this book emerge from the network’s ongoing investigations?


FK: In 2013, when we got the follow-up grant, the group’s core activities moved from Göttingen to Berlin. The book was conceived at this time, at the moment when we were both branching out and already beginning to think about the end. All in all, it seems appropriate that Media of Serial Narrative is coming out now, shortly after our big valedictory conference in 2016, but it’s not a conference volume. The book almost feels like a condensed summary of the Research Unit’s work, within and without the German core group. So we’ve got collaborative chapters that are based on projects from our first funding period, such as Ruth Mayer and Shane Denson on serial figures, or Christine Hämmerling and Mirjam Nast on what they call “quotidian integration.” And then there are chapters that are more explorative, because they’ve emerged from brand new projects, such as Kathleen Loock and me writing on film remakes as serial forms. Some of the contributors were Fellows of the Research Unit in Göttingen or Berlin or both, such as Jason Mittell, Sean O’Sullivan and Con Verevis. And we’ve got chapters by close collaborators, such as Jared Gardner, who’s been a tremendous inspiration for our comics projects, or Scott Higgins, a good friend of our cinema projects.


HJ: Why study popular seriality across genres, media, nations, and historical periods?


FK: To study seriality means to study things in motion. It’s more of a kinesiological task, if you will, not so much an ontological one. So the study of seriality is often the study of specific temporalities. Rhythms, speeds, frequencies, the timing or non-timing of pauses, intermissions, and gaps, but also larger historical conditions like the timeliness or untimeliness of modes of production and reception—all these kinetic concerns are essential to make sense of how serial stories make sense.


HJ: How are you defining the concept of popular seriality?


FK: I would preface any definition by pointing out that serial stories usually move forward in adaptive feedback loops with their own effects. This kind of feedback can be more or less direct; it’s not necessarily a matter of audiences immediately influencing a narrative—there are also more indirect forms of interaction between storytelling and story consumption. So I’m not making a populist argument for fan autonomy here, but I want to highlight that serial storytelling is evolving storytelling. And evolving storytelling is always dispersed storytelling. In other words, seriality (both in its episodic and its progressive manifestations) necessitates a certain division of labor and it usually provokes all kinds of authorization conflicts.

So, pointing out the importance of feedback loops is not the same as claiming that serial storytelling is democratic storytelling. Rather, we’re saying that series and serials can observe their own effects. They watch their audiences watching them—and they are able to react. As developing and proliferating stories—as stories that are not easily programmed toward a predetermined ending or an ending that would be really final, without potential further resurrections—series and serials are virtually forced to adapt to their own consequences, to the changes they effect in their cultural environments.

Here is a definition, then (with the term “series” referring to both episodic and progressing formats): series can be defined as self-observing systems. And self-observing systems always produce theories about their own motions—they do so in order to keep moving. Likewise, series usually experiment with formal identities and they “think” about their own possibilities of continuation. However, when I say that series are “doing” these things, I don’t mean that they are intentional entities. Of course series do not act like human beings—or instead of human beings. But they involve people and intentions. Just think about what it means that the producers of a specific serial text—the writers, illustrators, actors, photographers, marketing managers, and so on—are sometimes much younger than the series in question, and that they will often express a sense of practical commitment to “their” series rather than a sense of originating authorship.


HJ: What can popular seriality teach us more generally about the nature of popular culture?


FK: The larger argument here is that all serial forms are such entities of distributed intention and that they all tend to generate, in historically specific ways and forms, what I would call reproductive intelligence. In fact, this process can be observed not only in the evolution of individual series but in the evolution of popular culture at large. So when we focus on seriality in our study of popular culture, we will sooner or later be looking for vocabularies that help us describe popular culture’s systemic dimensions, its reproductive intelligence … which can include all kinds of reproductive stupidity too—and representational violence and injustice.


HJ: Given the centrality of seriality to many different media, why has there been so little scholarly writing on this topic?


FK: A lot of scholarship uses serial texts to make some argument or other. But it’s rare for these studies to truly engage with the seriality of their material. So you get a lot of articles and papers and talks about “the representation of this-or-that in X,” with X being a serial text. And that’s valid research but it’s not seriality studies.

At the other extreme, you find the scholasticism of both narratology and axiomatic master-thought. So there are formalist typologies that basically see seriality as a narrative device, with all sorts of classificatory problems and solutions in tow. In rhetorical competition with this approach but following a similar logic, you have the writings of Sartre or Deleuze or Adorno and their continuations in academic storytelling.

Both types of scholarship have given us absolutely useful vocabularies to make certain distinctions—tempting vocabularies, too, because they’re so easily re-applicable once you’ve overcome the initial difficulty of learning their production code. Narratological terminology and philosophical rhetoric are great time-saving machines. But they also tend to define seriality as a fairly abstract “principle” or “force” or “structure”—or, in the case of Sartre, as an axiological term that serves to uphold a somewhat questionable theory of “mass culture.” For Sartre, the concept of seriality is basically a scholastic tool to solve a scholastic problem, the problem of aligning an existentialist script with a Marxist script. And that’s true for a lot of theoretical employments of terms such as “series” or “seriality” or even “repetition” and “variation.” Philosophies of art and culture often take the concept of seriality as a given: as something that can be used to explain things rather than something in need of explanation, something in need of historical retracings. It’s like the reduction of kinetics to ontology again.


Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

What Ever Happened to the Promise of Participatory Television?: An Interview with Adam Fish (Part Three)

While your book relies heavily on interviews with more than 80 people -- men and women -- involved in the television industry, you also rely on participant-observation -- your own experiences as a contributor to Current and Free Speech Television. What can you share of your experiences there and how did they contribute to your analysis of these forms of civic media? Why did Current, for example, fail to achieve its goals of democratizing television news?  

Between 2006 and 2009, I worked as a freelance documentary video producer for Current where I made 15 short videos on issues such as Iraqi refugees, divided cities like East Jerusalem, and religious contestation in India for UK, US, Irish, Italian cable and satellite television. This provided a valuable position from which to view the technoliberal ideals. It this was a heady time for the network as they were not being driven by economic liberal principles as much as by social liberal principles, meaning they didn’t have to worry about money too much and instead were burning their venture capital in an attempt to build hype around the very web 2.0, participatory culture ideals of media democratization, citizen video journalism, and other forms of technological empowerment.

As a go-to producer for Current I was at the front-lines of both receiving the propaganda about how networked technologies and new television-grade video cameras were transforming television—while at the same time receiving the precarious and unsufficient paychecks which enabled me to travel the world uninsured and unsupported. Fun, crazy, dangerous, and great for research. My position enabled me to embody the technoliberal paradox of technoliberalism. I was also able to see the weight of the contradiction eventually destroy the social liberal idealism as the market pressures mounted with the global financial crisis of 2008 and the exhaustion of the VC funds. (So, following the excellent work and guidance ofSherry Ortner and John Caldwell, I advocate that graduate students interested in the media industries attempt to work in those industries. No better access can be had!)

Current failed in terms of both economic liberalism and social liberalism, exposing the fallacy of that the technoliberal digital discourse can ameliorate this liberal paradox. The social liberal media democratization failed because there were not the global armies of camera-wielding activists and storytellers capable of making even remotely television-grade programming. Current did everything it could at film festivals, film schools, online and off, and found all of us and frankly there were not that many, a few hundred.

Democratization wasn’t the result but rather professionalization. Our content wasn’t that good, to be frank, and wasn’t scheduled but was randomly shuffled, so the audience didn’t develop around shows and stars so advertisers and cable providers weren’t interested. Eventually owners Gore and Hyatt sold the network to Al Jazeera for $100 million and a substantial personal profit, so it worked for these techno-elite and their technoliberal digital discourse apparently worked as well.

One of the most interesting chapters here deals with debates about the origin of the internet which erupted in the face of campaign statements by Al Gore and Barack Obama. What are some of the alternative understandings of digital history proposed? Who advocated them? And what do you see as the stakes in this debate?


Most people are familiar with former Vice President Al Gore’s statement about the internet while campaigning, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet,” uttered on CNN on March 9, 1999. But former President Obama also aligned himself with the internet on the campaign trail, saying on July 13, 2013: “The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.”

My argument is that aligning with the internet and all the good it symbolizes is a technoliberal political ploy. Gore fetishizes the internet while Obama mythologizes it and in the process both hope that their star will rise along with the NASDAQ and the hype of Web 1.0 for Gore and Web 2.0 for Obama.

But than a degradation ritual began in which both politicians are lambasted in the press. The different approaches used by the critical journalists expose the various types of technoliberal digital discourse. L. Gordon Crovitz at The Wall Street Journal started the polemic by going against the accepted wisdom and saying that former President Obama was wrong, it was Xerox PARC, and therefore corporations and not the government made the internet. Farhad Manjoo of Slate rebutted that the President was correct, the state did fund and support what became the internet. Harry McCracken of Time added to the debate by bringing back an old idea that never gets old in technology journalism, that it was not the state or corporations, but brilliant individuals like Tim Berners-Lee who created HyperText Markup Language (HTML), who should be thanked for creating the internet. Finally, Steven Johnson writing in The New York Times said it was not states, corporations, nor smart individuals but the people, namely, a public of open-source coders that should be thanked for building the software with which states, corporations, and individuals access the inter- net. These four liberal historiographies form contradictory dyadic pairs between economic and social liberalism.

What is at stake is what is always at stake in historiographical revisions: the path dependent direction of the present and future. And there is a clear winner, Crovitz.

Though likely the least accurate of the four historiographies, Crovitz’s argument is winning the present direction of internet — into the hands of the neoliberal elites and the politicians that support them. It is important, to differentiate the technoliberal and the neoliberal elites. Much like corporate liberals, technoliberals give lip-service to social liberalism and corporate, social, and self responsibility. Not so with the neoliberal elites whose ideology is non-contradictory. It is a pure breed of efficient economic liberalism without the baggage of social liberalism. Considering the ascent and present domination of technocapitalism in the last two decades, to read Crovitz is to hear the gloating of a victor. News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal in which Crovitz gave his technocapitalist historiography that falls directly in line with the neoliberal principles which governs News Corp. and Murdoch’s longtime relationship with governments and other media corporations. With the 2008 US Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission, enabling unlimited economic contributions by corporations to political campaigns, on the premise that money is speech, the centrality of economic liberalism in US representational democracy is secured. While civil society groups like the Media Reform Coalition in the UK and Free Press in the US advocate for network neutrality and against media conglomeration, they have been largely omitted from power. This had been going on for decades but with the assignment by Trump of Ajit Pai to be the FCC Chairman, the final assault on socially liberal regulation of television and the internet will begin.

The media reform movement in the United States has often been divided between those who reach fatalistic conclusions based on the analysis of media ownership/concentration and those who maintain somewhat more optimistic perspectives based on expanded access to the means of production and circulation. Does your book offer any alternatives for thinking about what forms of media reform we should be advocating? What should we be fighting for?

As a cultural anthropologist, I need to oscillate between empirical case studies and broader theoretical interpretations and socio-political contexts. Hopefully, this regular movement between the micro and the macro dissolves the binaries, dualities, and other reductive absolutes. At each of the poles it is easy to be either cynical or optimistic.

At the political economic structural level the media landscape appears to be one in which the scale is winner-takes-all, resistance is coopted, and there is less and less opportunity to speak and be heard. On the ethnographic level one can participate in inspiring actions of media empowerment. If one adds the element of time, ebbs and flows of relative openness and closure become evident.

But in order for the openness which is necessary for robust participatory culture to survive and thrive activists need to focus on developing both the micro-level hacker-like skills of technological use and misuse as well as macro-level policy interventions. That way, if the trends toward closure and technocapitalism continue to dominate the present age of television and internet convergence in a mode of negative liberty and economic or neoliberalism than we are at least preparing to develop the next transmission system which can create a disruptive opening for temporary amateur and activist voicing.

I think the present is more about this form of subversion than it is about counter-hegemonic resistance and policy activism. We shouldn’t be fighting, but rather just getting on with making the subversive media we want to make, legal or not. In the memory of Aaron Swartz, we should just do what is right regardless of legality. Illegal downloads/uploads, radical free speech, whistleblowing, exfiltration, dark net uses, TOR encryption, DDoS—these practices are illegal while the NSA and GCHQ and other cyber-state cops are regularly using them against citizens in unwarranted investigations. States have become hackers while hackers are being thrown into state and federal prisons.

This is one of the issues taken up in my other 2017 book, After the Internet, and will be the single focus on my new book with Luca Follis, Hacker States (a continuation of concepts developed here and here): what rights will remain and what will be the future of democracy if nation states continue to prosecute hackers while hacking, leaking and depositing scandalous material, and using bots to pollute the public sphere?

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about "elemental media"--atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia. This project deploys drones to map the undersea fibre optical cable system as seen here at Landeyjasandur, Iceland.