comics and convergence part three

This is the third of a series of out-takes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide which centers on convergence within the comics industry. This segment explores the ways that online communities are altering the ways that comics readers and publishers interact. A small portion of this content found its way into the book’s conclusion in a significantly altered form, but the rest of it is appearing here for the first time.

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Survivor: The Race Wars?

Last week, the producers of Survivor announced that this season, they would feature what is almost certainly the most racially diverse cast in the history of reality television. The contestants would initially be organized into four tribes defined around their race — African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and White-American. The announcement has provoked controversy from the very outset with even CBS Early Show host Harry Smith challenging Survivor M.C. Jeff Probst about the story line on the air.

Today’s post is intended as a primer of sorts to the debates about race which this announcement have set into motion.

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Tracking the MySpace Generation…

The Los Angeles Times recently completed a first rate series describing the media consumption practices of the contemporary youth market. “Tracking the MySpace Generation” reflected the results of a large scale survey of 12-24 year olds that shatters many of the myths that have emerged around the so-called digital generation, while at the same time focusing attention on some very important shifts in the ways people relate to media content.

Youth and Civic Media

Contrary to the myth (which I debunked here a few months ago), young people are not more apt to vote for the next American Idol than to participate in the next presidental election.

Only 21% of poll respondents ages 18 to 24 said they had voted for an American Idol contestant. But 53% said they had voted for a candidate for public office.

This is consistent with other research that has shown that young people are civically engaged, care about political issues, but often seek out information through different channels than older generations.

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Fan Activism in a Networked Culture: The Case of Stargate SG-1

Last week, on the eve of its 200th episode, the Sci-Fi Channel announced that it would not be renewing Stargate SG-1, ending a run that extended across 10 seasons. The series began on Showtime, where it was canceled after five seasons, and then, as the result of fan activism, got picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel, where it ran another five season and spawned a successful sequel, Stargate: Atlantis.

One might imagine that the series was dying a natural death after a run which is far longer than the vast majority of series — science fiction or otherwise — in the history of American television or that the network and creative artists are performing a “mercy killing” of a series that might be well past its prime but as far as its most hardcore fans are concerned, the series is “not dead yet.” They are seeking to rally the troops one more time and their efforts to do so demonstrate the potentials for audience activism within networked culture.

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Getting Lost

I’ve been sitting out the conversation that Jason Mittell, Jane McGonigal, and Ian Bogost have been having about Lost, Twin Peaks, serial fiction, and puzzles until now. I have had limited time to write new content the past week or so.

One of the thing that interests me about this conversation is that it suggests what ludologists and narrativists can learn from each other if they actually talked amongst themselves. I am finding myself pulled back and forth as I read this discussion in part because both groups have valid points and a lot rests on how one reads the series. I m learning so much by looking at television through the eyes of game designers like Jane and Ian.

Puzzles or Enigmas?

Lost is a series that works on multiple levels:

1) There are indeed puzzles (defective ones, perhaps, but ones that seem engaging to an awful lot of folks who watch the series): what’s inside the hatch, what’s the status of the Island (social experiment, purgatory, what have you), what can we learn from deciphering the map, what do those numbers mean, etc.

2) There is all of the well-constructed backstory — with each character allowing us a point of entry into a slightly different genre and into a different world.

3) there is the unfolding life of the castaways and the world they are building for themselves on the island — all of the interpersonal politics, the stories of redemption or corruption, the issue of how they are going to deal with the Others, etc.

Lost is very very good at pitting these differebt pleasures and interests against another, with some new information added at each level in any given episode and the satisfaction of one level of interest being used to defer resolution on another level. Lost is a very well constructed serial fiction in that regard. Some of these pleasures are game-like in their dependence on puzzles, mazes, and ciphers; others are narrative in their dependence on enigmas.

The combination of puzzles and enigmas seems especially effective at motivating fan engagement and participation. This accounts for how Lost can work, in my book’s terms, both as a textual attractor (drawing together a community that shares a common interest) and a textual activator (feeding that community something to do, some information to process, some knowledge to gather).

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Snake Eyes

Squawk. Slurp.

Squawk. Slurp.

This is the sound of me eating crow. I’ll admit that I fell prey to some of the hype about the Snakes phenomenon when I predicted several months ago that it might result in one of the strongest opening weekends this summer.

Now that the dust has settled, it is pretty clear that this isn’t what happened. In fact, Snakes did manage to be the top box office earner last week but it barely broke beyond $15M, there’s some dispute as to whether it really came out on top of the Talladega Nights, and there were three other films (none of them huge box office champs) that were only a few million dollars under it. All told, it was a pretty lackluster weekend at the box office — as might be predicted by a late summer release date.

At the moment, New Line is getting caught by the expectations game. The media has turned the Snakes box office into a referendum of sorts on the new kind of collaborative relationship between media producers and consumers. They are taking its “failure” to meet some inflated expectations as evidence that internet based marketing doesn’t work. I suppose we should use the below expectations performance of any number of films this summer as signs that movie previews and television commercials just aren’t enough to open a movie.

Let’s be clear that the hype surrounding Snakes was partially built on line and partially built through traditional media channels. What portion of you first learned about Snakes on the internet and what portion read about internet interest in the film in Entertainment Weekly or USA Today? The new seems very good at innovating and experimenting; the broadcast channels though play a crucial role in amplifying those voices and getting them in front of mainstream consumers. In the case of Snakes, the double whammy of internet activism and media hype has succeeded in creating a very high level of awareness of this particular film but was not enough to overcome some core skepticism about the core premise. I found this out talking to my mother-in-law and sister-in-law this weekend: neither is much of a film buff; most films pass through town without registering on their radar; but both knew about s Snakes and knew that it was the film that was generating such interest on line. That’s no small accomplishment for viral marketing.

Of course, one might well question the motives of traditional journalists who have jumped with such glee on the Snakes phenomenon and tried to flatten the idea that fans might play an active role in promoting a motion picture. Here’s a sample of some of the scorn thrown at fans of the film following the box office returns:

The Internet buzz over “Snakes on a Plane” turned out to be nothing to hiss about. (Yahoo)

The horror-comedy starring Samuel L. Jackson took in $15.2 million last weekend, a tepid opening that dashed the hopes of Hollywood and especially of New Line Cinema, which released the movie, that vigorous marketing on the Internet would be a powerful new way to propel fans into theaters at a time when movies are working hard to hold their own against other forms of entertainment. ( *Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Despite a year of blog-fueled fanatacism that spilled over into the mainstream media in recent weeks, Snakes on a Plane didn’t exactly sink its fangs into the box office. (E Online)

Of course, such writers may have a personal motive for proving that the public may not be ready to decide for itself which new releases are worth getting excited about. After all, these are the people who have historically played a gatekeeping function within our culture.

At the same time, fan groups are lining up to suggest that the low box office was actually the product of the studio’s efforts to capitalize on the grassroots buzz rather than letting things play out on their own, as reader Stefanie Kechayas, a media student at the University of Melbourne doing thesis work on movie marketing and the online community, explains:

SoaP has not been released in Australia yet (is released Thursday), but I wanted to add what I thought was a really interesting trend on the websites I’m looking at. Yesterday, all the sites began to Devin Faraci at CHUD, in particular, (just as he was with here suggests that many of them liked what they saw. They are going to go back and reassure their friends. We need to wait and see whether the film has legs — whether it’s pattern is closer to the classic sleeper that holds steady over a number of weeks. We need to see whether the high awareness of the film translates into strong dvd sales. We need to see how the film performs internationally. We need to see how the film does on college campuses and on the midnight film circuit. Only then will we really be able to judge how much and what kind of impact the online phenomenon had in terms of shaping the success of this film.

David Edery makes a similar point in his discussion of the film at Game Tycoon:

To be blunt: the naysayers are wrong. What they don’t seem to realize is that this movie could very well have been a disaster. The premise was ridiculous. Critics, not primed to think of the movie as camp, might have panned the hell out of it. Online fan communities gave this movie’s creators a remarkable opportunity to turn a zero into something more. And they did!

Industry observers like John Hamann of Box Office Prophets seem on the cusp of understanding this, even as they question the film’s “disappointing numbers.” A quote from Hamann: Snakes won’t change anything, but it could start a decent-sized franchise for New Line, with huge revenue from DVD in the cards. With a reported cost of only $35 million, this will be an okay performer for a studio that has struggled since the last of the Lord of the Rings films.

Huge revenue from DVD in the cards? That isn’t a consolation prize — that’s a real win (and perhaps a miracle for a film as poorly conceived as this one.)

Keep in mind that all of this rides as much on expectations as on realities. Suppose this had been a documentary, a foreign film, or an independent film: this level of performance would have been seen as spectacular. Suppose this was a few decades ago when something like Snakes would have been a B Movie playing at the local drive-end: the idea that this film could be the top money earner would have seemed astonishing. In another era, this film might have gone straight to dvd and certainly would have taken longer to reach the current level of success. We still haven’t adjusted to a world where there will be hits and there will be niche successes (and of course there will be flop.) No matter how you cut it, Snakes isn’t a flop: it simply isn’t a blockbuster.

We are at a transitional moment: web communities are capable of generating strong support for niche products but they still can’t compete with the mass market success generated from broadcast media. We need to learn to be more adept at thinkiing about the relations between the two. And we need to curb our enthusiasms enough to lower expectations.

Squawk. Slurp.

comics and convergence part two

This entry continues the series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Again, the primary focus is on comics. Here, the focus is on the ways comics content is moving into film and television as well as the ways that television and film content increasingly is moving into comics.

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Spelling Bees and Scrabble

Earlier this summer, I posted notice of a podcast featuring Scot Osterweil, the research manager of our Education Arcade initiatives and the creator of the Great Zoobinis game series. There are now two new installments on the web featuring Scott and his work on Zoobinis. This is part of a series focused on the people who are working together at MIT and at Maryland Public Radio on a new initiative called Learning Games to Go. (I recently taped some segments talking about my interests in games and education which will appear at some point down the line). These materials will be of interest to anyone who has been following the discussions here about serious games.

One of the most interesting segments in the new podcast with Scott Osterweill includes a comparison between the Spelling Bee and Scrabble as two models for how one might integrate games or contests into the learning process. It helps to distinguish between early edutainment products which had a drill and practice logic and more recent attempts to develop learning games which sees learning as a process of experimentation and exploration:

In a spelling bee, a kid is challenged to memorize a lot of word, there’s a fair amount of pressure, and it’s kind of grim. If they get a word wrong, the buzzer goes off, they’re told they got it wrong, and they are out. There’s never a discussion about why they got it wrong, how they could have reasoned about the word to get it right. There’s never really much of a discussion about how that word could be used in speech. In fact, the goal for a spelling bee is to learn all sorts of words that you will never use in common speech. Compare that with a game of Scrabble where the kid sits with the letters in front of them and is moving them around, thinking endlessly about all of the different combinations of words and which ones are real. They try to play one and there’s a discussion about whether that’s a real word or whether that’s a real form of the word. Through that process, kids are engaging deeply not just in spelling but in word usage and they’re having fun while they are doing it. There’s very little penalty for making a mistake. In fact, the game invites kids to take a risk. ‘I’ll try a word that I think I heard an adult say. I am not sure it is right but if I get it wrong, I am not out of the competition the way I am in a spelling bee.’ So a child can play Scrabble and have a lot of fun at it and laugh at it and not even necessarily need to win to feel like they have accomplished something. That’s the experience a game can provide a kid in terms of learning.

This comparison really resonated with me. Anyone who has read this blog has no doubt caught me make one or another really awful spelling mistake. I have struggled all of my life with being a bad speller. I still recall some of the humiliation I faced participating in spelling bees in school. I think I would have preferred having my teeth extracted in public rather than being asked to spell words in front of my classmates. The Spelling Bee may be a game but it isn’t a fun or motivating game except for those kids who become very good at it. The Spelling Bee is a game where there are clear losers and it is no fun losing. On the other hand, I got to watch my nine year old nephew play Boggle this summer and I was amazed by the pleasure he took in identifying words from the random pile of letters in front of him. He could more than hold his own with players twice his age and I would hear him introduce words that he learned from game play into his conversation, sometimes weeks later. He would drag out the box and want anyone and everyone to play the game with him. I would have been a better speller today if my education looked more like Boggle or Scrabble and less like spelling bees.

The podcast does a great job capturing Scott Osterweill’s unique perspective on the importance of developing learning games that are fun and motivating, that encourage kids to learn by taking risks and testing out new approaches, and that so engage the imagination that kids end up drawing pictures or writing stories about their avatars. The new set of podcasts also feature students and teachers who have been using his games in their classes as they share their thoughts about the value of a more playful approach to learning. The teachers offer a compelling case for the ways games can be integrated into curricular standards and why it matters that educational games feel like real video games.

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Good News for Aca/Fen

Some of you have asked what the phrase, “Aca/Fan” means. Basically, it is a term I made up some years ago to refer to people like myself who have one foot in academia and one foot in fandom. It is a hybrid identity — Aca for Academic, Fan for, well, fan. The fen in the title above is a longstanding bit of fan slang — essentially the plural of fan.

In my forthcoming book, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, I reproduce excerpts from a public dialogue I had some years ago with fellow aca/fan researcher Matt Hills for the now defunct online journal, Intensities. In that conversation, we talked a bit more about the relationship between fans and academics. Unfortunately, the interview itself is no longer online:

I think we need to consider different generations of scholars within fandom, and moments within which those scholars are working. I think there are at least three moments of fan studies that get conflated together as if they are a unified body of theory. There is a body of work that began to stress active audiences and the use of ethnographic methods, derived in part from sociological methods, and I would put early John Tulloch, John Fiske and Janice Radway in this body of work – they come from different places and so I don’t want to lump them together as representing one totally unified body of work.

But it was important for these writers to be outside what they were writing about, to be free of any direct implication in their subject matter. They begin to acknowledge that audiences have an active role, but their prose is very depersonalized, there’s often no acknowledgement of any affection they feel for the objects of study, or if there is, it’s a token gesture. And there’s sometimes an attempt to pull back from the fan community at the end of such writing and say, right, now we can arrive at the truth that the fans don’t yet recognize about their own political activity. I’ve taken Radway to task for the closing chapter of Reading the Romance for that kind of gesture. That’s the first generation.

I see myself and others writing at the same time, Camille [Bacon-Smith] to some degree , as a second generation that comes to a discourse already formulated around these axes of active/passive, resistance/co-opted. We’re trying to find a way to alter that perception based on insider knowledge of what it is to be a fan, and struggling to find a language to articulate a different perspective that comes out of lived experience and situated knowledge. And it proves very difficult – there’s a lot of resistance because the first generation are the readers responding to our manuscripts, the editors deciding whether they get published or not, the faculty deciding whether we get hired. So you end up struggling to negotiate between what you want to say, and what it’s possible to say at a particular point in time, in order to get your work out at all. And there is a level of defensiveness there. When I was writing Textual Poachers I was so frustrated by how badly fans had been written about. As a fan I felt implicated in that writing and I wanted to challenge it; there are passages in the book that are just out-and-out defenses of fandom, and others that are trying to pull back and describe, analyze, critique….

Now, I think all of that work paved the way for a whole generation of aca-fen, as I like to call them; that is, people who are both academics and fans, for whom those identities are not problematic to mix and combine, and who are able then to write in a more open way about their experience of fandom without the ‘obligation of defensiveness’, without the need to defend the community. Therefore they can take up things like contradictions within it, disputes within it, re-raise awkward subjects that we papered over in our earlier accounts, and now there’s a freedom to have real debate among ourselves about some of these core issues.

For those of you who have come to my blog in search of insights into participatory culture, you already know that I think fan culture is a particularly rich spot to understand ways that new media can be used to transform our relationship to mass media. I was asked about this by the fine folks at the British webzine, Big Shiny Thing, last week. Here’s part of what I had to say:

Fans have been and are likely to continue to be the shock troops in this transformation of our culture — highly motivated, passionately committed, and socially networked. They are early adopters of new technologies and willing to experiment with new relationships to culture. (We might also throw into this category other highly motivated groups such as bloggers and gamers.)

There are signs that fan culture practices and products are spreading throughout the culture. Recent statistics from the Pew Center of Internet and American Life found that more than half of teens online produce some form of media and many of them shared what they produced by others. They are part of the participatory culture I am describing. So are people who join discussion forms or sign up for RSS feeds to get more information about their favorite band or television program.

As writers like Will Wright and Raph Koster have suggested, there is a pyramid of participation. Not everyone will want to spend massive amounts of time generating new content — some will simply want to engage with content others have produced. Not everyone will write fan stories — some may share critical responses with the authors. Not everyone will want to spoil reality television programs — some will simply enjoy the new relationships to the program the spoiler community helps to create for them. But the expansion of this participatory culture changes the context in which media content gets produced and distributed and thus it impacts all of us one way or another. Given this, I would imagine fans may still enjoy a privileged status in participatory culture but more and more people will benefit from the once invisible cultural work of fans.

New Blog on Online Fan Cultures

Given that, it should be good news to many of you that Nancy Baym, a prime example of that third generation of fan scholars I talk about above, has launched an interesting new blog focused around online fandom and designed to explore the intersection between fans and academics. Baym wrote one of the first and best studies of the ways that digital media was altering fan culture, Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community (1999). She is a classic example of a scholar studying their own fandom and coming away with intimate knowledge that would be closed to many outside that community. For a more recent book that deals well with the question of online fandom, let me also recommend Rhiannon Bury’s Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online (a book that deals primarily with fans of Due South and The X Files).

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Monitoring Snakes on a Plane

I know a good many people who are reading this blog will be going to see Snakes on a Plane this weekend and that you are scattered in cities and towns around the globe. I would like to ask that you send me your observations about the film’s reception by 9 pm est weds. night and I will compile them and post them to the blog. Some of the things we will be interested in hearing: When and where you saw the movie; what the attendence was like (packed, sparse, some place in between); memorable examples of interactions between the audience and the film; some sense of the tone of the audience response to the film; some clue as to why the people there came (this may be hard to gleam without talking to people but you can certainly listen to conversations around you, etc.); your own response to the movie. I see this as an experiment in whether we can use blogs to get a nationwide, perhaps world wide snapshot of the public’s response to a film. Your notes don’t have to be lengthy or sophisticated but your impressions may help us all to better understand the film’s reception. Post your responses in the comments section here. (I will do my best to keep rescuing them from the evil Spam Catcher.)