Slash Me, Mash Me, Spread Me...

A while back, I mentioned that Jonathon Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, and Men and Cartoons, had poached a passage from Textual Poachers in an article he wrote for Harpers about copyright and creativity. Since Lethem, along with Michael Chabon ( The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), has emerged as one of the poet laureates of fanboy lit, I was delighted to discover that my work on fan culture had made it onto his radar screen. But it just keeps getting better. Annalee Newitz was interviewing Lethem for Wired and asked him directly about his relationship to Textual Poachers, as she reports in her blog:

Lethem, always a fan of art that exists in a copyright gray area, is eager to encourage fanfic writers of all stripes. He admires Henry Jenkins' seminal book about fanfic, Textual Poachers, and champions the creative appropriation of pop culture icons. "Fanfic is a beautiful allegory of appropriation," he said. "But that doesn't mean the exact gesture is the most aesthetically promising one." Translation: Fanfic rules because it tweaks copyright law, but it's not always good art. Maybe Lethem just hasn't read some of the fantastic Harry Potter fanfic that's out there?

Moreover, Lethem has laid down a challenge to the fan writing community, which I am happy to help publicize here:

The award-winning nerd novelist revealed that he'd love to be in a slash fiction story. Whom would he want to be paired with? "I want to be surprised! I want to see ones I wouldn't think of!" he enthused, eyes wide with anticipation -- or possibly fear. Lethem believes he's been "slashed" only once, paired with fellow geek novelist Michael Chabon in a "sublimated homoerotic comic by Patricia Storms that was just an inch away from being Kirk and Spock."

Lethem may well be the first celebrity in my memory who has publicly campaigned to be the subject of a slash story. I can certainly think of plenty of examples where stars and writers not to be subjected to the slash treatment. (Personally, I am rooting to see Lethem climb into bed with The Goatman, the aptly-named character from one of his short stories, but then what do I know...)

I became aware of the Lethem effort to encourage people to slash him about the same time that I learned about the latest efforts of Steven Colbert to encourage his own brand of grassroots creativity. As his website at Comedy Central explains:

For Your Editing Pleasure

It all started when House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel told freshmen Democratic congressmen not to appear on the Colbert Report. The complaint? That Stephen gets final cut on interviews. So in the interest of playing fair, Stephen has decided to put it all out there for you. And by "it," we mean footage of an interview with Stephen that you can edit any way you like.

Download the footage at The knife is in your hands, Americans. Wield it wisely.

So, at a time when other producers are sending out cease and desist notices to shut down mashups of their content, Colbert is encouraging you to re-edit and recontextualize incriminating statements from his show (and believe me, what made the sketch so funny when it first aired was the whole series of potential meanings behind seemingly innocent statements once he planted the idea in your head.) Of course, none of this has stopped Viacom from trying to get Colbert Show segments removed from YouTube in what is surely a classic example of a media company speaking out of both sides of its mouth at once.

And all of this recalls the contest launched awhile back by A Ok Go, the pop group which has risen to fame primarily on the basis of some pretty compelling videos distributed on YouTube. The group used YouTube to launch a contest to have their fans do their own version of their "A Million Ways" video, again encouraging their fans to have their way with them.

Of course, not everyone gets a clue. For several months now, I've been hearing about a short-lived Veronica Mars preview competition launched by the production company: fans were to make their own shorts promoting the series but one small catch, for copyright reasons, they weren't allowed to use any actual footage from the show. Supposedly, the competition died a quick death when very few people submitted videos, feeling justly frustrated by the mixed messages involved in that particular set of rules.

So, we now have celebrities from literature, television, and pop music who want us to slash them, mash them, but above all, spread them. Indeed, we can see each of the above as reflecting the sensibilities of a generation of popular artists who have grown up in an era of cult media and participatory culture. They know what fan creativity can accomplish and they want to be part of the game rather than sitting on the sidelines.

At the same time, we can see this as reflecting the growing appreciation within the media industry of what often gets called "viral marketing": that is, they recognize the buzz that comes when grassroots intermediaries embrace a property and pass it along to their friends. C3 research associate Joshua Green and I have begun exploring what we call "spreadable media." Our core argument is that we are moving from an era when stickiness was the highest virtue because the goal of pull media was to attract consumers to your site and hold them there as long as possible, not unlike, say, a roach hotel. Instead, we argue that in the era of convergence culture, what media producers need to develop spreadable media. Spreadable content is designed to be circulated by grassroots intermediaries who pass it along to their friends or circulate it through larger communities (whether a fandom or a brand tribe). It is through this process of spreading that the content gains greater resonance in the culture, taking on new meanings, finding new audiences, attracting new markets, and generating new values. In a world of spreadable media, we are going to see more and more media producers openly embrace fan practices, encouraging us to take media in our own hands, and do our part to insure the long term viability of media we like.

Indeed, our new mantra is that if it doesn't spread, it's dead.