Gender and Fan Studies (Round One, Part One): Karen Hellekson and Jason Mittell

As promised, we are going to be running a mega-event through my blog this summer — an ongoing conversation among some of the leading scholars of fan cultures and cult media. This conversation has grown out of a perceived disconnect in the ways that male and female scholars are writing about this phenomenon, though I hope that it will evolve into something else — a discussion of fan studies as a field, its theoretical groundings, its methodologies, and its most important insights. There has been an explosion in recent years of exciting new work on fan culture which is coming from an emerging generation of scholars — male and female. I am hoping that this event will help introduce this work to a larger public and that this discussion can be seen as a sign that fan studies is really coming of age.

Here’s how it will work: Every Thursday and Friday, we will introduce a new pair of scholars, who will continue the discussion, seeking to explore commonalities and differences in the ways they approach the work. Jason Mittell and Karen Hellekson have gotten things rolling here with some thoughts about the nature of fannish and academic authority.

Our hope is that this discussion will spill over into other blogs as well and I will try to post as many links to these other discussions as possible. So far, for example, Kristina Busse and Will Brooker have started a public discussion in anticipation of the series which Kristina is running over at her blog.

I am also encouraging other participants to add their thoughts and comments here whenever something in the public discussion sparks their interests. Karen and Jason suggested the use of numbered units to make it easier for people to refer to parts of the exchange.

So, let the fun begin.


by Karen Hellekson & Jason Mittell

1. Academic authority

[1.1] KLH: It seems that every discussion about fan studies somehow has something to do with authority – not only with establishing who has it (apparently not the fans, unless they appropriate it), but indicating the closeness of the relationship with the subject matter (apparently being an academic means you’re inauthentic if you’re a fan, and being a fan means you can’t be a properly dispassionate, disinterested academic). My problem with this led to my coediting, with Kristina Busse, a recent volume of new essFays about fan studies, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, all by academics who are also fans, because I think that this connection is a useful and good thing.

[1.2] Interestingly for this discussion, the academy does not employ me. I’m employed full-time as a copyeditor in the scientific, technical, and medical market – a good fit for me, because I prefer not to teach. My academic credentials include a PhD in English, with an emphasis in science fiction, and I’ve published some books and articles, some of which happen to be about fan studies. I write book reviews about SF titles for Publishers Weekly. However, I’ve found that a lack of an academic connection is terribly disenfranching. The simplest research project is fraught with annoyance and pain as roadblocks are thrown in front of me: it’s ridiculously difficult to get the books and articles I need, thanks to all the limits placed on me by the library; and I don’t have an affiliation to put on my abstract submissions, which results in their being kicked back to me for “completion.”

[1.3] My work in fan studies includes literary and historical readings of fan texts and/or the bits of the Internet given over to fan community. I’m currently interested in notions of authorship; of truth-claims, authority, and analysis; and ideas about constructing and editing reality (as, for example, editing blog posts to alter the historical trace). I’ve also done some work on the idea of fandom as a gift culture. I blog occasionally about my academic-type thoughts.

[1.4] JM: My aca-identity is comparatively traditional – I teach Media Studies at Middlebury College, writing about television primarily in the forms of books (author of Genre & Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture [Routledge, 2004] and a textbook in-the-works called Television & American Culture), articles (essays on TV narrative, genre, discourses about television as a medium), and blog (JustTV, where links to many of my other writings can be found as well). I’m primarily interested in the intersections between television programming, industrial strategies, and viewer practices, and have recently been focusing these interests on the development of new forms of television storytelling emerging in the past decade or so in the United States.

[1.5] Importantly for this discussion, I do not consider myself a scholar of fandom; although occasionally my research does peer into fan practices, such as a new essay on spoiler fans of Lost, my motivating question in such research is not focused on understanding fandom as a distinct set of practices – I’m not the least bit hostile to such scholarship, but it’s just not my primary interest.

2. Fannish authority

[2.1] JM: My fan-identity is a bit more muddy. While I’m an eager consumer of many types of media & popular culture (including TV like Lost, Veronica Mars, BSG, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, etc.; a lot of animation; much music; and a fair number of videogames), I would not self-identify as a fan per se. And to me, this cuts to the heart of the debate framing this discussion – what are the boundaries of being a “fan” and who is invested in the label as an identity? I’m interested in fans as part of my pedagogy, regularly teaching academic work about fandom and showing examples of fan creativity & engagement. I read fan studies, even blurbing the excellent new volume Fandom.

[2.2] But I have no real personal investment in the fan label, or the practices and communities that tend to coalesce around the notion of fandom. For me, fandom centers around three main aspects: fan creativity (paratexts, fanfics, vidding, etc.), fan community (in-person and/or online), and fan self-identification (prominent self-branding through fashion, online profiles, behaviors, etc.). I don’t really engage with any of these (save for wearing a Red Sox cap on bad hair days), so that’s why I don’t conceive of myself as a fan. (I realize that many people would argue that my notion of fandom is too narrow – I invite more discussion about those boundaries as they’re crucial to the debate.)

[2.3] KLH: I myself am an active fan, involved in newsgroups and blogs about my few primary fandoms. I write fan fiction under a pseudonym, and occasionally, I go to fan conventions. Although I’m a longtime fan – I was into Doctor Who first, in 1981, with a live-action fan club – I took some time off and got back into it in a big way in 2002, when I turned to fandom basically as a form of social engagement, because I live in an isolated, fairly rural area. I run a fanfic archive in my primary fandom. Within fandom, I do lots of large project type things – things that involve organizing the time and effort of others, because I can get such projects done. I spend fannish time in actor- and fan-specific newsgroups and in the LiveJournal blogsphere.

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Switching Channels: Branding Network TV in an Era of Mass-less Media (Part Two)

Yesterday, we ran the first part of an essay written by Sloan MBA candidate Eleanor Baird about the current fate and future branding of network television. Baird’s work calls attention to shifts in the ways that networks measure their audiences, shifts which are going to be played out in dramatic ways as the networks launch their new season this fall. A team of MIT students — graduate and undergraduate — will be monitoring closely the week by week fluctuations in viewership figures and the ways that the networks are adjusting their programming strategies and branding practices in response. Here’s the description of the course, which would be open to students from MIT, Harvard, or Wellesley, thanks to our various exchange programs. I hope to report on some of their findings here throughout the term.

Quantitative Research: Case Studies in the Fall 2007 Television Ecosystem

Alex Chisholm and Stacey Lynn Schulman

As creative development and business models change for television and cable networks making the transition from broadcasting to a mass market to immersing viewers in content across digital platforms, new opportunities to engage audiences in more meaningful ways are emerging as quickly as the underlying businesses that support production and distribution are outgrowing traditional valuation metrics and advertising currencies. There is a significant disconnect between what we know and can price versus what we’re learning and where businesses are headed in the years to come.

Using the Fall 2007 television season as a basis for discussion and exploration, this seminar and lab course are designed to introduce students to the research metrics and business issues associated with broadcast and cable television, as well is with a variety of digital content extensions across web, mobile, and other platforms, all intended to create additional revenue streams while engaging audiences. In the lab, students will apply their learning to an analysis and revenue forecasting exercise for the television season as it unfolds in real time. The goal of the course will be to enable students to explore new ways of thinking quantitatively as we attempt to bridge the gap that currently exists between the known and unknown.

Our aim will be to begin the course with summaries of the networks’ annual “upfront” presentations and programming strategies, immersing students in the creative and strategic pitches of the four major networks and explaining the corresponding business/programming rationale behind the new fall TV season. Then, in subsequent weeks, students will be introduced and become fluent in the mechanics and intricacies of rating points, Nielsen ratings, and other data to help understand the programming and business (e.g., marketing, advertising pricing inventories, sweeps strategies and case students, etc.) of the season as it progresses through the fall. Students will also be introduced to emerging strategies and tools to analyze “buzz” and other online behaviors — such as online video viewing, iTunes purchases, etc. — that now enable networks to better understand the “total” audience for their shows. While the course will focus on quantitative research methods and analysis, connections will be made to some new qualitative strategies and methods. Guest speakers from the major television networks, production companies, and advertising agencies will complement seminar discussions and readings.

As part of the weekly lab, students will work in teams representing the major television networks to “forecast” what the networks might and should do to revise their programming strategies and re-price their advertising inventories over the course of the fall season. The lab is supplemented by an online discussion/wiki where student teams will collaborate and collect data.

Stacey Lynn Schulman is CEO, Chief Insight Officer of Hi: Human Insight, a media consultancy practice that specializes in unearthing insights that drive better connections between consumers and content. Through January 2007, Ms. Schulman was the president of The Interpublic Group of Co.’s fully-dedicated Consumer Experience Practice, which advised marketers on how to effectively connect with consumers in the evolving media landscape. Widely respected in the industry, she is an award-winning professional who is routinely quoted in trade and consumer media outlets, including appearances on CNN, CNBC and FOX News Channel to discuss media trends.

Alex Chisholm is founder of [ICE]^3 Studios, a media research and development consultancy that creates transmedia entertainment and educational properties, and is currently developing several projects with NBC News, NBC Olympics-Beijing 2008, and The Children’s Hospital Trust. Over the past seven years, he has collaborated on research, product, and program development with Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Interpublic Group, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, Children’s Hospital Boston, and the MacArthur Foundation.

Now for Part Two of Baird’s essay:

Switching Channels: Branding Network TV in an Era of Mass-less Media

by Eleanor Baird

Digital downstream

Even if audiences are not planning to sit in front of a network television affiliate for hours on end, networks hope, as they probably always have, that the consumer will be at least be engaged with the some of the content and keep coming back for more. The interactive, on-demand nature of the Internet seems to make it a natural medium for audience engagement for a consumer who could access the content from a wide variety of channels at a variety of times. Network executives and programmers hope that enhanced and more interactive experiences through the “ancillary channel” of the Internet will increase retention, engagement and, time spent viewing the show and related content and ultimately, revenue going back to the original program source. With a network branded site, this strategy is another opportunity to have consumers interact with the meta brand

Caldwell argues that television styled itself a “pull” medium, while bidding to make the Internet a “viable ‘push’ medium” . The relationship between television and Internet may seem natural and complimentary in this way, but it is problematic in others, requiring the interaction of content created by a few and consumed by many to adapt to a medium where greater participation in consumption and production of the content and flow are the norm. Moreover, this relationship has implications for a network trying to maintain a clear brand identity in an environment where users expect to be able to repurpose content in ways that the producers may never have intended. In contrast to television, this medium gives the network far less control of the image of both the sub-brand (the content) but also the meta brand, then context in which the sub-brand is experienced (the network).

So, although consumption of digital content may engage the viewer more, there is no guarantee, given the nature of the technology and the norms surrounding it, that the engagement will be with the network brand, the show’s sub-brand, a combination of the two, or other factors entirely. That said, a recent study suggest that, if presented through a number of media channels, network affiliation awareness seems to grow stronger, echoing multiple studies on marketing messages and consumer retention.

Although there is certainly potential for branding and revenue generation online, interactivity is not the silver bullet that will save the networks from a consumer standpoint either. Various companies have tried to launch costly interactive television initiatives since the 1970s, all of which failed because they overestimated the audience interest in the service.

The public’s interest in interactivity does not seem to be much better for network websites. Even though the vast majority of homes have a television and Internet penetration in U.S. households is quite high, there are estimates that as little as 5% of broadcast networks’ viewers actually watch streaming video, in contrast to the 15% of cable channel viewers who do. A recent study of cable network website users found that they enjoyed using the website, but did not see it as the “Internet brand of the network” or as a “functional alternative to television”. In fact, the usage of the cable television websites was heavily dependent on if they had been mentioned on air – a factor that accounted for about two thirds of visitors – and, not surprisingly, the popularity of a cable network’s website mirrors the popularity of the network’s broadcasts.

This raises the question of the utility of focusing branding efforts on these channels at all. If the users are highly engaged “content junkies” who usually learn about the site through watching television anyway, is network brand development online a worthwhile area to explore?

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Switching Channels: Branding Network TV in an Era of Mass-less Media(Part One)

In the June 1 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Jeff Jensen asks the provocative question, “Are you killing TV?” The article starts with a discussion of how Heroes returned from a seven week hiatus to find that they had lost roughly 20 percent of their viewership, a jaw-breaking drop of 2.6 million viewers, from its September debut to its final few episodes of the season. Many other popular and cult series have experienced similar drops this season, including Jericho (as a result, the show was canceled), The Sopranos, Lost, The Shield, Desperate Housewives, and 24.

The magazine offers a range of theories about why the networks are experiencing such dramatic drops in viewership including:

The competition of American Idol which whips out pretty much all other competition.

Creatively uneven seasons, which resulted in mis-steps and lulls in the dramatic pacing of some key series.

The shift towards daylight savings time three weeks earlier this year.

A loss of interest and attention due to the extended hiatuses (an experiment in having continuous blocks of programming followed by periods of downtime). The result of this factor has been the fact that Heroes is actually producing a second spin-off series, Heroes: Origins, which will be a placeholder or miniseries during the downtime between episodes of the original series.

Shifts in the mechanisms by which fans access television series, ranging from timeshifting to downloads and waiting for the boxed sets. EW reports that 1.7 million viwers of Heroes do not watch it during its regularly scheduled time and an additional 2 million viewers watch Lost on DVR within seven days of its original airing. These numbers do not include those watching legal or illegal downloads of the series. About a third of the viewers of Lost don’t watch during the regular series but catch up with it on DVD exclusively. Major shifts are occurring in how networks measure their audiences in response to these shifts in when and how we are accessing their content but in the short term, these shifts may leave some cult shows vulnerable.

This debate about the viewership of cult television programs is part of a larger discussion about the fate of the networks in an era where methods of content distribution and access are shifting dramatically. Eleanor C. Baird, a Sloan MBA student, took my graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods this term. She wrote a very solid analysis of the future of network television for the course, one which mixes modes of analysis common to business schools with those we teach through our media studies classes.

Switching Channels: Branding Network TV in an Era of Mass-less Media

by Eleanor C. Baird

No matter how hard they try to convince us otherwise, the big four U.S. broadcast networks are, at their core, a mass medium that fits awkwardly into our newly democratic and participatory media ecosystem. Their marketing strategy follows the widely outmoded “push” model of consumer promotions and advertising to draw viewers. Even as they become increasingly integrated into the media industry’s value chain, broadcasters are challenged by new cultural norms of consumption and engagement that are combining with technological change to create a “perfect storm”, an environment where they are creating more value, but scrambling to capture it.

What is happening? It is not that people are not watching network television or becoming engaged with the content anymore. New ways of consuming television content are challenging the old revenue generation models. Consumers are turning to DVDs, DVR, and digital alternatives on the web to fit more television viewing into their lives. Advertisers, enticed by the prospect of more affluent and targeted audiences on cable and online, are beginning to spend their budgets on content sponsorship along the long tail. Broadcast networks are consequently in the strange position of having a strong collection of sub-brands – the individual programs – under a relatively weak primary brand – the network itself.

TV and the big four may not be going anywhere for now, but the future is becoming less and less certain.

In this essay, I will explore how broadcast networks can respond to this changing and converging media environment by promoting themselves as distinct brands of television. To do so, I will address three questions. The first question is one of focus, if the primary role for a broadcast network in this environment is content production or advertising aggregation channel. The second question is one of consumer loyalties and identification, if the consumer’s relationship to the content is stronger than their relationship to the channel through which they receive it. The third question is, can a channel such as a network be branded, and how can that be done successfully.

In order to answer these questions, I will begin by defining the broadcast networks and then analyze the major issues at play for them today – advertisers and audiences, content, channels, metrics, and digital distribution. Then, using Raymond Williams’ concept of flow, as well as the writing of John Caldwell as a framework, I will address the macro issues of the role of the medium and the impact of branding, and then proceed to an analysis of the strategies of the four networks. The paper will conclude with some preliminary answers to the three questions based on my analysis.

What is a network?

Networks can refer to cable and broadcast channels, however, in this paper, the term is used to refer to the four major U.S. broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. These four properties are linked by their intended mass appeal and accessibility, their advertising-based revenue model, “push” programming and promotion, center-affiliate operational model and reliance on the network-mediated model of content delivery, based on a set flow of programming. Another key commonality is their lack of a clear and consistent brand identity, in contrast to many of the more popular cable networks – including CNN, A&E, MTV, Discovery Channel – which have very clear value propositions.

With what I am calling the network-mediated flow model, there is an implicit contract between the consumer and the network to provide some editorial control over the content, to choose which programs to broadcast, when, and in what order to provide a unified viewing experience. This experience can stem from engagement with the brand, but also with a need for a completely passive viewing experience, something that sets this medium apart from the Internet, which is intrinsically interactive. Networks, with a relatively wide variety of programs airing on a particular night, are uniquely suited to appeal to those habitual and/or passive viewers.

Another defining feature of the network is that it uses a “hub-and-spoke” model of distribution; most content developed and chosen at the center then distributed by local affiliates. Although the interaction in the consumer’s mind between the identity of the affiliate and the larger network are not heavily studied, keeping strong affiliates in major markets is a key priority for networks to secure viewers. A recent study also found that there was no evidence that a more media-rich environment weakened the branding of a network affiliate to the parent, meaning that the common use of new media did not affect the television stations association to the network.

Yet another shared characteristic among the networks is their strong reliance on metrics, particularly some form of the Nielsen ratings, to entice advertisers to purchase time on air.

Audiences and Advertisers – No more “monolithic blocks of eyeballs”

Audience attrition is not a new problem for the broadcast networks, but it is still worrying for net executives, advertisers, and media buyers. Five percent of the share of the lucrative adult 18-49 demographic has slipped away from the broadcast networks in the last year (from 15. to 14.3). FOX leads the broadcast networks in ratings for this demographic with just fewer than 5 million viewers, ahead of ABC and CBS. NBC is by far the weakest in this demographic, with just under three million viewers.

At the same time, ad-supported cable’s share of advertising spend grew by 3% and continued to garner a higher rating (from 15.5 to 15.9). As early as 2004, Nielsen Media reported that cable owned a 52% share of the market in contrast to broadcast’s 44%.

In other words, there is a discernable trend away from mass media advertising. Part of the problem is that advertisers are seeking out more specific demographics, diverting advertising budgets to more specialized and targeted media channels. According to Eric Schmitt of Forrester Research, “[m]onolithic blocks of eyeballs are gone…in their place is a perpetually shifting mosaic of audience micro-segments that forces marketers to play an endless game of audience hide-and-seek.”

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Nine Propositions Towards a Cultural Theory of YouTube

The following is adapted from remarks I made at the International Communications Association conference in San Francisco this past week. I was asked to be part of a plenary session organized by Fred Turner, “What’s So Significant about Social Networking?: Web 2.0 and Its Critical Potential,” which also featured Howard Rheingold, Beth Noveck, and Tiziana Terranova. We had ten minutes to speak so I took this as a challenge and offered nine big ideas about the place of YouTube in contemporary culture. Many of these ideas will be familiar to regular readers of this blog since most of them have evolved here over the past year, but I thought you might find them interesting distilled down in this form. (For those who may be joining us from the ICA crowd, I’ve included links back to the original posts from which these ideas have evolved.)

1. YouTube represents the kind of hybrid media space described by Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks — a space where commercial, amateur, nonprofit, governmental, educational, and activist content co-exists and interacts in ever more complex ways. As such, it potentially represents a site of conflict and renegotiation between different forms of power. One interesting illustration of this is the emergence of Astroturf — fake grassroots media — through which very powerful groups attempt to mask themselves as powerless in order to gain greater credibility within participatory culture. In the past, these powerful interests would have been content to exert their control over broadcast and mass market media but now, they often have to mask their power in order to operate within network culture.

2. YouTube has emerged as the meeting point between a range of different grassroots communities involved in the production and circulation of media content. Much that is written about YouTube implies that the availability of Web 2.0 technologies has enabled the growth of participatory cultures. I would argue the opposite: that it was the emergence of participatory cultures of all kinds over the past several decades that has paved the way for the early embrace, quick adoption, and diverse use of platforms like YouTube. But as these various fan communities, brand communities, and subcultures come together through this common portal, they are learning techniques and practices from each other, accelerating innovation within and across these different communities of practice. One might well ask whether the “You” in YouTube is singular or plural, given the fact that the same word functions for both in the English language. Is YouTube a site for personal expression, as is often claimed in news coverage, or for the expression of shared visions within common communities? I would argue that the most powerful content on YouTube comes from and is taken up by specific communities of practice and is thus in that sense a form of cultural collaboration.

3. YouTube represents a site where amateur curators assess the value of commercial content and re-present it for various niche communities of consumers. YouTube participants respond to the endless flow and multiple channels of mass media by making selections, choosing meaningful moments which then get added to a shared archive. Increasingly, we are finding clips that gain greater visibility through YouTube than they achieved via the broadcast and cable channels from which they originated. A classic example of this might be the Colbert appearance at the Washington Press Club Dinner. The media companies are uncertain how to deal with the curatorial functions of YouTube: seeing it as a form of viral marketing on some occasions and a threat to their control over their intellectual property on others. We can see this when Colbert and his staff encourage fans to remix his content the same week that Viacom seeks legal action to have Colbert clips removed from YouTube

4. YouTube’s value depends heavily upon its deployment via other social networking sites — with content gaining much greater visibility and circulation when promoted via blogs, Live Journal, MySpace, and the like. While some people come and surf YouTube, it’s real breakthrough came in making it easy for people to spread its content across the web. In that regard, YouTube represents a shift away from an era of stickiness (where the goal was to attract and hold spectators on your site, like a roach motel) and towards an era where the highest value is in spreadability (a term which emphasizes the active agency of consumers in creating value and heightening awareness through their circulation of media content.)

5. YouTube operates, alongside Flickr, as an important site for citizen journalists, taking advantage of a world where most people have cameras embedded in their cellphones which they carry with them everywhere they go. We can see many examples of stories or images in the past year which would not have gotten media attention if someone hadn’t thought to record them as they unfolded using readily accessible recording equiptment: George Allen’s “macaca” comments, the tazering incident in the UCLA library, Michael Richards’s racist outburst in the nightclub, even the footage of Sadam Hussein’s execution, are a product of this powerful mixture of mobile technology and digital distribution.

6. YouTube may embody a particular opportunity for translating participatory culture into civic engagement. The ways that Apple’s “1984” advertisement was appropriated and deployed by supporters of Obama and Clinton as part of the political debate suggests how central YouTube may become in the next presidential campaign. In many ways, YouTube may best embody the vision of a more popular political culture that Stephen Duncombe discusses in his new book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy:

Progressives should have learned to build a politics that embraces the dreams of

people and fashions spectacles which gives these fantasies form – a politics that employs symbols and associations, a politics that tells good stories. In brief, we should have learned to manufacture dissent…. Given the progressive ideals of egalitarianism and a politics that values the input of everyone, our dreamscapes will not be created by media-savvy experts of the left and then handed down to the rest of us to watch, consume, and believe. Instead, our spectacles will be participatory: dreams that the public can mold and shape themselves. They will be active: spectacles that work only if the people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire. And, finally, the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality

and truth but perform and amplify it.

Yet as we do so, we should also recognize that participatory culture is not always progressive. However low they may set the bar, the existing political parties do set limits on what they will say in the heat of the political debate and we should anticipate waves of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry as a general public, operating outside of those rules and norms, deploy participatory media to respond to a race which includes women, African-American, Hispanics, Mormans, Italian-Americans, Catholics, and the like as leading figures in a struggle for control over the White House.

7. YouTube helps us to see the shifts which are occurring in the cultural economy: the grassroots culture appropriates and remixes content from the mass media industry; the mass

media industry monitors trends and pulls innovations back into the system, amplifying them and spreading them to other populations. Yet as they do so, they often alter the social and economic relations which fueled this cultural production in the first place. We will see increasing debates about the relations between the gift economy of participatory culture and the commodity relations that characterize user-generated content. There is certainly a way that these sites can be seen as a way of economic exploitation as they outsource media production from highly paid and specialized creative workers to their amateur unpaid counterparts.

8. In the age of YouTube, social networking emerges as one of the important social skills and cultural competencies that young people need to acquire if they are going to become meaningful participants in the culture around them. We need to be concerned with the participation gap as much as we are concerned with the digital divide. The digital divide has to do with access to technology; the participation gap has to do with access to cultural experiences and the skills that people acquire through their participation within ongoing online communities and social networks.

9. YouTube teaches us that a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse culture. As John McMuria has shown us, minorities are grossly under-represented — at least among the most heavily viewed videos on YouTube, which still tend to come most often from white middle class males. If we want to see a more “democratic” culture, we need to explore what mechanisms might encouraged greater diversity in who participates, whose work gets seen, and what gets valued within the new participatory culture.

Chris Williams Responds to Our Questions about FanLib

As of a few minutes ago, I have received Chris Williams’ response to the questions we collected here. I promised him that I would run his answers in full and I have accordingly made no changes here except to format this in a way that will make it readable on the blog. I should warn people that I am tied up with a conference this afternoon and this evening. I will put through comments from readers as quickly as I am able to do so but I may be off line for extended periods of time, so please be patient. As always, if you get an error message, send your comments directly to me and I will post them myself.


Dr. Jenkins,

Thank you for the opportunity to address the questions and share the unedited answers in full with your readers. I would like to apologize to the fan fiction community for creating confusion, being insensitive, sending some inappropriate communications, and acting in an unprofessional manner. I acknowledge that some of my answers below are repetitive but I wanted to make sure the answers are complete and in context for those readers that may only be interested in certain questions. Now to the answers…


What is your own background in fandom? Have you had a history of involvement in this community? More generally, are there people working for your company who come out of the fan fiction world and have an understanding of its traditions and practices?

I am a complete media junkie. I love stories and since 2003 I have involved over 100,000 people in online fan fiction events. Because of my involvement in these events I’ve definitely spent the most time with Harry Potter and L Word fan fiction. As you see from my response in the forums, I am not a great writer.

Several people in our small company come out of the fan fiction world. All of us are now involved in the community.

What led you to create this site? What first gave you the idea and why did you carry through with it? What are you hoping to achieve? What sold your investors that this was a good idea and that this was the right time to move forward?

I was deeply involved with the ongoing online revolution at Yahoo for a long time and I have always had a passion for film. In 2001, my friend and I had an idea, inspired by many people we knew with creative movie ideas, who didn’t have the means or access to realize them. So we tried to create a collaborative event for fans to write an original script and produce a feature film from it. It quickly became apparent to us that online storytelling was about more than script writing: entertainment fans were also looking for venues to showcase their talent, and media companies were wrestling with how to best operate in a changing world. So we started by testing the waters with fans by running special online storytelling events and found that many of the participants loved fan fiction. We went to the media companies, talked to them about how they wanted to work with online communities and found that many wanted to connect with fan fiction readers and writers. FanLib started running special events in partnership with media companies and publishers in a moderated, controlled environment. These events were so successful with both fans and the media companies that we decided to create a venue for online storytelling based upon fan fiction.

In this broadly changing landscape FanLib (the company, not the website) is meant to be a positive agent of change for fans, media companies, and rights holders. I want (the website) to become a venue for fans who want to showcase and share their work, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in creative storytelling events.

Our investors recognize the tectonic shifts taking place in the digital/media/consumer/entertainment landscape. I won’t fill space here with the facts and research about media convergence, user generated content (UGC) and personal media consumption and I certainly recognize fan fiction is not your “vanilla” UGC. I know you and your readers are very well aware of these modern media phenomena and changes that are occurring everywhere. Our investors believe FanLib can play an important role.

What is the basic value proposition you are making? Who is making money here? Why are the fans not being compensated for the work they produce? In what other ways might fans receive benefit from their participation in your site?

The value proposition for fans is a free venue where they can pursue their passion by creating, showcasing, reading, reviewing, sharing, archiving, discovering stories, and by participating in fun events in a community with similar interests. For those that are interested, they can also get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms through official special events we create with media companies, like we just did with the TV show Ghost Whisperer.

The value proposition for media companies and publishers is to connect, engage, and entertain fans of their media properties in a new online storytelling environment.

Right now, in the early stages, no one is profiting. We are on the leading edge of the changes, and this is an evolving model. Media companies pay us to create the special events that I’ve described and advertisers pay to sponsor them. Like many sites on the web, users don’t pay us and we don’t pay them. We want to introduce fans to online storytelling, where fan fiction plays an important role and where they can share in a particular experience provided at the website.

What does FanLib offer a fanfic writer that other ad-free sites run by people from within the fanfic community do not?

FanLib offers four things:

First, we provide a venue for people who want to showcase and share their stories, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in fun events.

Second, for people who want it, we provide the opportunity to be recognized and discovered by a wider audience and by our media partners. For example:

– FanLib has run two online storytelling events resulting in twelve winning authors being published in e-books distributed by HarperCollins.

– FanLib is currently running an event where authors have their parenting stories produced into short video episodes with major stars that are distributed on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and online. These videos have already been viewed over 2,800,000 times online, and we are only on the second episode with three more to go.

– FanLib launched the first ever collaboration between a television creator and their fans resulting in an original episode screenplay for The L Word. One of the winning authors secured literary representation as a result of the contest.

– FanLib has given away more than $50,000 in prizes to winning participants in our online storytelling events.

– FanLib has secured local and national press coverage for winning authors of FanLib events.

We have many more special fan events coming. You’ll see us shortly announce and launch: a fan event with a major media company around one of the most popular fandoms, a collaborative feature film screenplay and movie, a partnership with a major talent management company to identify star writers from the community and create opportunities for them.

Third, we have highly responsive customer support.

Lastly, no other site – whether they have ads or not – offers all of the features listed below. Our beta site also actively solicits member feature requests and implements them.


+ Massively scalable, reliable archiving platform (backed up daily)

+ Easy submission creation and editing, including:

o WYSIWYG editing

o Import from another website

o File Upload with support for .doc, .txt, and .rtf formats

o Auto-save (i.e., your work is safe if your connection drops or computer crashes)

o “Make Private” option (your fic will be completely hidden from all but you)

o Add chapters over time

o Easily assign up to three fandoms to each submission

+ Advanced searching and filtering tools: Easy to add multiple criteria and build a filtered query with simple clicks

+ Featured Fanfics and Members: They will appear on the site homepage as well as at the top of searches

+ Syndication and Sharing Tools: Including RSS feeds, invites, and the ability to easily embed customized promotional badges on other sites

+ Customizable Member Profiles: You can build your profile with your fanfics, favorites, descriptions and feedback, deciding which elements will be public

+ Story Views:

o Paginated with bookmarking

o Single-page (printer-friendly) and ad-free

+ QuickLists (save a fic for later viewing)

+ Favorites

+ Subscriptions (see the latest from your favorite fandom or author)

+ Fandom FastFind: The ability to type a few characters from the name of a fandom, hit return and go directly to a page with only stories from that fandom

+ Tagging of fanfics

+ Customized Fanfic themes and images (with the ability to disable themes when browsing and searching)

+ Auto-Recommendations

+ Private messaging

+ Full Featured Message Boards

+ Content blocking based on age ratings (e.g., mature-rated submissions may be completely hidden)

+ Star Readers and Writers

+ Rate submissions (1-5 stars)

+ Leave multiple comments

+ Strong search engine optimizations

And, coming soon:

+ Email notifications

+ Multiple Author submissions

+ Banning individual members from leaving you comments

+ Ability to associate other media (e.g., video, more images)

+ Social networking tools

To our knowledge is the only site with ALL of these features. Our site is designed so that you don’t have to use all these features – in fact it’s also a great private archive.

Who is the target audience for the site? Did you do a market survey and identify who they wanted, and what is the demographic breakdown of that audience?

The site is for people who want to showcase and share stories, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in fun online events. Let’s call that the “site mission”. Our market research showed that the site mission has great potential in a surprisingly broad demographic range. So the site design was not principally driven by a specific demographic, it was much broader than that and was designed for those people who like to use the new online tools and services. Obviously, anyone can use the site and we recognize that it is definitely not what the traditional fan fiction community is used to. Many of the features are a result of requests specifically from our ongoing beta test.


What rights is your site claiming over the fiction that gets posted there? What rights remain with the authors? Can fans post the same stories on other sites, for example, or are you claiming an exclusive right to the material? Fans note that the original terms of service implied you had the rights to edit the material or republish it in other places. Is this true? members do not give up any ownership rights when they use the website. Neither do they acquire any additional ownership rights to characters and settings owned by someone else. FanLib does not own any rights to a member’s content; the members only authorize us to share it on our own website and allow other members to make use of it for their own noncommercial purposes. By submitting a story on, they do not give up any rights to post it on any other website. FanLib imposes no restrictions on what you do with your content outside our website. The old beta terms of service (TOS) did have the word “edit,” which caused a lot of confusion and has been removed. The new TOS has been posted at [] and reflects many of the comments from the fan fiction community.

Fanfic remains in a legal gray area because there has yet to be a precedent set stating that it is or is not, legal. Many fans worry that FanLib changes the terms by which fan fiction is being produced and circulated by charging money and pushing it further into the public eye and that this increases the risk of legal action against it. A court battle could adversely impact the entire fan community by basing case law on the most commercial rather than the least commercial forms of the practice. How might you respond to this concern? What risk analysis have you done here?

We have done an extensive risk analysis and are comfortable with supporting fan fiction through our website. As some of our members have already acknowledged, the landscape is changing. Fan fiction is already on the radar of media companies and publishers. For example, Lucasfilm, which has traditionally been conservative about fan-generated content, has even added, this year for the first time, a fan fiction category to their annual “Official Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge,” and NBC has invited fans to submit their theories around the TV show Heroes.

We want to be positive agents in this change by working with fans, media companies and rights holders. We are going to do whatever is feasible to assure people that posting on does not somehow add to their liability. Our goal is build a great venue, open to everyone, that allows people to showcase their work, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in fun events. We think that by building a collaborative model, we will positively impact the fan community and will avoid needless litigation. We believe that we will be seen as an online community that goes to great lengths to protect everyone’s rights in a positive, collaborative way. For those members or prospective members who are worried, I encourage them to look at our new TOS, which we feel are very fan-friendly. is a free service for users, and we do not charge fans to read or post fan fiction.

Statements in the original FAQ and comments from FanLib representatives that “we assume fanfiction is legal fair use” and “it’s not in the copyright holder’s interest to sue” have many fan authors concerned. In some cases, you are publishing stories in universes where there have been explicit statements made by creators that they do not consider fan fiction to be fair use. Have you researched the individual fandoms involved or are you treating them each the same?

First, I want to apologize for our poorly written FAQ and our old beta terms of service (TOS), all of which resulted in an understandable uproar in the fan fiction community. We have posted a new FAQ [] and new terms of service (TOS) []

Our policy is to not accept submissions in fandoms for which the right holders have explicitly stated they do not consider fan fiction to be fair use. Since we don’t actively police the site, as stated in our TOS, we will remove any such stories that come to our attention.

Yes, we have researched the individual fandoms, and no, we are not treating them all the same.

Your previous efforts around The L Word and The Ghostwhisperer involved working directly with production companies to authorize certain kinds of fan fiction. Why have you shifted strategies with this new initiative? And can you reconcile the two models?

The premise of this question is 100% false. We have not shifted strategies. As noted above, fan fiction is already on the radar of media companies and publishers and being pushed into the public eye. We want to be a positive agent in this changing environment by collaborating with fans, media companies and rights holders. We’ve already experienced significant success on this front through our series of special storytelling events, and we intend to build on that success with the venue where all the parties can participate in fan fiction. We believe we can help reconcile the two models, but changes are coming with or without us.

How is the site planning to deal with the (inevitable) first complaint from a copyright holder?

FanLib complies with the DMCA. Please see our> for more details.

Your TOS requires writers to “defend, indemnify and hold harmless FanLib” in the case of legal action. What efforts do you plan to take to inform writers about the risks they are taking? Many fans are concerned that your company will make all of the money here while leaving fans to take all the risks. How would you respond to this criticism?

Again, our old beta terms of service (TOS) was not a good expression of our intent. The new TOS has been posted at [] and reflects many of the comments from the fan fiction community, including this issue. Indemnification clauses are a standard part of most website TOS. For your convenience, here is the language from our new TOS:

“You agree to indemnify and hold harmless FanLib, its officers, directors, employees and agents, from and against any and all claims, damages, obligations, losses, liabilities, costs or debt, and expenses (including but not limited to attorney fees) arising from any violation of the Terms. This indemnification obligation will survive these Terms and your use of the website for 12 months.”

Our new FAQ also helps address some of these issues. [] This is an ongoing process, and we know there is more work to do.

So, how would I respond to this criticism? I would respond by asking if you truly think that the fans are the only ones taking the risks. To accomplish the mission I’ve described above and be positive agents of change for all parties involved requires enormous commitment, investment and substantial risk for us. To some extent we’ve tried to mitigate the risk for fans by being extremely flexible in our new TOS, but we’ll never be able to make everyone happy and there are always some risks.


FanLib allows adult content under an “ADULT” rating, but the Terms of Service say that the website must not be used to publish any material “obscene, vulgar, or indecent.” Isn’t there an inherent conflict there? What happens when a parent finds his-or-her child reading an ADULT-rated Harry Potter fic?

These words, which were included in our old beta TOS and caused understandable confusion, have now been removed. The new TOS has been posted at [] and reflects the input of the fan fiction community, including this issue. Naturally, we will do whatever we must to abide by law.

First of all we know that in the past J.K. Rowling has expressed her disapproval for certain kinds of adult Harry Potter fan fiction. We don’t presume to know her boundaries about what may be acceptable or unacceptable in a Harry Potter fic, but if she notifies us we will take down the story. As it relates to the situation where a parent finds his-or-her child reading ADULT-rated Harry Potter fic, I can’t speak for the parent. What we’ve done on the site is completely hide all adult content so that the user must actively seek it out by changing filter settings with explicit warnings. This far exceeds what a lot of other sites do, and our process will continue to evolve.

In your marketing brochure — — you assure the copyright holders that FanLib is “managed and moderated to the max,” and that “as with a coloring book, all players must “stay within the lines.” Can you explain what you mean by that statement? One of the reasons so many fans write fanfic is so that they can deliberately step out of the “lines” and do their own creative thing without any interference from the copyright holders.

I’d like to clear up some confusion around the FanLib brochure you’re quoting from. First, it was produced three years ago – in 2004. Second, as a company, we have two distinct parts:

1. The beta site, (launched in March 2007); and

2. Official online storytelling events. In this second part, which we actually started years ago, we work with other companies and sponsors to create special online fan events. Each event is governed by its own clear rules and terms of service that are separate from those for the beta site referred to above. This is necessary because contests, sweepstakes, prizes etc. need their own rules and regulations. The brochure that people are referring to was written for potential companies and sponsors and relates only to these special events and not the beta site. At the time we published the brochure, our URL linked to a site that essentially described the events for companies and sponsors in more detail. These special events are managed and moderated and “missions” are provided so that players “stay within the lines.” This brochure has NOTHING to do with fan fiction submitted on the site, where we provide a venue for anyone to be as creative as they want as long as they don’t violate our policies. We totally understand that general fan fiction doesn’t fit in the process described in the brochure, which is ONLY for certain special events we create.

I hope that addresses the confusion.


Fans note that someone named “Naomi” was used to send out the original invitation letters to fan writers, but fans have been unable to find out who this person is. Is it a real person or a sock puppet? Why was a female name used for this purpose, when the board of directors for the company seems to be all male? Why has the initial advertising with its play on the Charles Atlas bodybuilding campaign adopted such a masculine metaphor for what has been and remains an overwhelmingly feminine cultural practice?

I acknowledge the way we sent out certain invitations was flawed. Our objective was to invite fan fiction authors to participate in our beta test and, if they chose to, join our beta team testing the site and providing feedback. As I hope you can appreciate, I am not going to publicly discuss personal details about our employees. We do not use sock puppets, no gender criteria were taken into account during the process and nobody at FanLib is pretending to be of a different gender.

The advertisement you mentioned was one of four that we tested during the beta, and we ran it on a site targeting a younger audience where it performed very well. We also put the ad in a general rotation on our beta site as a “house ad.” In my considerable experience in online advertising unless you do some profile related targeting you’re going to expose an ad to people for whom it isn’t suitable. Because this ad was in a general rotation unfortunately this is what happened. We pulled the ad in order to be sensitive to some of the complaints. We are acutely aware that fandom is predominantly female, just like the users of the beta site, who seem to like its design and features.

Many fans feel that the company has done a poor job so far in community relations. What steps are you taking to turn this around? Are you rewriting the terms of service and FAQ based on the feedback you’ve received? Are you planning to develop an advisory board composed of members of the fanwriting community?

I’ll be the first to admit we’ve done an awful job with community relations. I think the good news for us is that we have lots of feedback from the beta site and community, far more than we expected. As a result we have rewritten our terms of service and FAQ. We’ve taken some extraordinary steps to make our policies more fan-friendly and we are currently putting together final plans for a fan advisory board, which will be published on our beta site shortly.

What, if anything, do you think you can do to enhance the credability and responsiveness of FanLib to the people who have invested their energy into fan fiction in some cases for several decades?

First, I want to apologize for my own idiotic post across multiple blogs and for my offer to open a dialogue that I was unable to follow through on due to overwhelming community response. As a first step, based on the feedback from our current beta test, we have rewritten our terms of service and FAQ, revised some of our policies, and are creating a fan advisory board. We are in this for the long term to make a venue where anyone who wants to, can showcase and share their work, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in fun storytelling events,

This last question is a bit awkward for both of us but it has come up a number of times and so I feel I need to ask it: Isn’t it somewhat symptiomatic of FanLib’s problems that the spokespeople are more willing to talk to a man with credentials rather than some of the female fan writers who have approached you?

I do think your question is a bit unfair, but I’ll answer anyway. I am here because you hold dual citizenship in fandom and academia, you maintain credibility and integrity in both worlds, and you told me I you would get a fair hearing and you would share the unedited results of our interview in its entirety with those interested in the matter. Meanwhile, we’ve been listening to the many comments we’ve received from the community and taking action. For proof check out our new TOS and FAQ on our website.

We intend to continue the conversation with the fan fiction community through our developing fan advisory board and, as time permits, by responding to other inquiries, comments and requests that we receive from interested individuals – obviously, regardless of gender.

Thanks again for your willingness to be interviewed.

Thank you for the opportunity.

Cartoons — Modern and Postmodern

Having spent much too much time this week setting up the Fan Boy/ Fan Girl Detante and getting involved in the debates surrounding FanLib, I hope I will be forgiven for a post which is mostly a series of interesting links that I have had stumbled on recently, all surrounding one of my favorite topics — comics and animation.


I recently had the pleasure of introducing CMS graduate student Andres Lombana to the astonishingly original cartoons which came out of UPA studios in the 1950s, including my personal favorite, Gerald McBoing Boing, or their highly stylized version of The Tell Tale Heart or their adaptation of James Thurber’s The Unicorn in the Garden or the oft-neglected Christopher Crumpet and Family Circus or… Andres returned the favor by introducing me to a really interesting blog that author Amid Amidi has created around his book, Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation. The blog is a treasure trove of classic commercials and cartoons, often obscure early works by important animators, as well as storyboards, sketches, promotional materials, and the like, surrounded by interesting critical commentary. I strongly recommend this site to anyone who shares my interest in 50s animation or who is simply interested in understanding the intersection between modern art and popular culture.

Postmodern 1

Have you seen A Fair(y) Use Tale? It’s a provocative video circulating on YouTube and where-ever else fine mash-up videos can be found which explains core concepts in American copyright law, including, of course, fair use, through the appropriation and re-contextualizing of segments from classic Disney movies. The film was produced by Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University. The video is being distributed by the Media Education Foundation. (I don’t always like the films produced by the MEF, which often seem to be heavy-handed and pedantic and tend to demonize both media producers and consumers, but this seems like an especially valuable contribution to our teaching about the current copyright wars and came just in time to be a welcome relief from grading papers.)

As the closing moments of the film suggest, Disney as a company has been the big bad wolf of American copyright law, bullying everyone from local daycare centers to the Academy Awards which seeks to quote images from their films. Some have gone so far as to describe the current copyright statues as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act because it essentially keeps expanding the period covered by copyright to insure that the rodent never falls into public domain. So, it seems only fair that Disney sounds and images be used to help the public understand its rights and responsibilities under current intellectual property law. That said, I’d watch this one now before the Cease and Desist letters start to fly.

Postmodern 2

The Apple vs. PC advertising campaign has become one of the most quoted themes in contemporary popular culture. Not since the “Whazzup” madness of a few years ago have we seen a commercial which provided such a rich and recurring template for grassroots appropriations. So, it is not surprising that fan boys are using it to comment on the ever-green debate about the relative merits of DC vs. Marvel superheroes. You can see the results in two very different videos making their rounds these days — the first focuses on the two companies and their products, the second pits Batman against Spider-man, suggesting that Peter Parker has a way to go before he can match Bruce Wayne’s record for pain and personal trauma.


CMS and Media Lab Get Knight Grant to Start a Center for Future Civic Media

The John and James L. Knight Foundation announced today that the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Media Lab would receive a grant of $5 Million over the next four years to create and operate a Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM). The money comes as part of a new initiative the foundation has launched to deploy new media technologies to foster greater civic engagement.

Here are some excerpts from the press release announcing the award:

MIT, MTV, top young computer programmers and bloggers are among the 25 first-year winners of the Knight News Challenge, announced today at the Editor & Publisher/ Mediaweek Interactive Media Conference and Trade Show in Miami.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the contest with $25 million over five years to help lead journalism into its digital future.

The first-year winners all proposed innovative ideas for using digital news and information to build and bind community in specific geographic areas.

* The Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology receive $5 million to create a Center for Future Civic Media to develop, test and study new forms of high-tech community news.

* Journalist/web developer Adrian Holovaty, creator of, receives $1.1 million to create a series of city-specific web sites devoted to public records and hyperlocal information.

* VillageSoup in Maine receives $885,000 to build free software to allow others to replicate the citizen journalism and community participation site VillageSoup.

* MTV receives $700,000 to establish a Knight Mobile Youth Journalist (Knight “MyJos”) in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia to report weekly – on cell phones, and other media – on key issues including the environment, 2008 presidential election and sexual health.

* Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism receives $639,000 for nine full journalism scholarships for students with undergraduate degrees in computer science.

* The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University receives $552,000 to create an incubator where students will learn how to create and launch digital media products.

18 more winners receive prizes between $25,000 and $340,000. Nine bloggers will receive grants of $15,000 each to blog about topics ranging from GPS tracking devices to out-of-the-box community publishing solutions. All winners will maintain blogs about their projects.

Says Alberto Ibarguen, Knight Foundation’s President and CEO: “We want to spur discovery of how digital platforms can be used to disseminate news and information on a timely basis within a defined geographic space, and thereby build and bind community. That’s what newspapers and local television stations used to do in the 20th century, and it’s something that our communities still need today. The contest was open–and will stay open next year–to anyone anywhere in the world because ‘community’ is something we all can define.”

Background on the winning entries:


With its $5 million Knight News Challenge award to the Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Knight Foundation teams up with one of world’s premier technological innovators. MIT will create a Center for Future Civic Media to test and investigate civic media in local communities. The center pairs the technological innovation of the Media Lab with the social and cultural expertise of the Comparative Media Studies Program.

“We are moving to a Fifth Estate where everyone is able to pool their knowledge, share experience and expertise, and speak truth to power,” says Chris Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-me-hi), MIT’s director of the Computing Culture Research Group, who will lead the center as co-director, together with Henry Jenkins, co-director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. Says Jenkins: “We now have more than a decade’s worth of research into the kinds of online communities which emerge within networked cultures. With this project, we seek to draw on that research to strengthen people’s ties to their own local communities.” The Center will develop new theories, techniques, technologies and practices that support and foster community news and civic engagement. “All good journalists worry about what the digital revolution is doing to the news citizens need to run their communities and their lives. Now, the awesome array of science and technology at MIT will focus on this question. From their experiments we expect to see a new generation of useful community news technology and technique,” says Eric Newton, Knight Foundation’s vice president/journalism program.

…The Knight News Challenge is open to anyone. Applications for the 2007 Knight News Challenge round can be submitted at starting July 1. Application deadline will be Oct. 15.

I am personally looking forward to the partnership with the MIT Media Lab. I have joked through the years that I should have “outside reader, Media Lab” printed on my business cards because of all of the times I have served on thesis and dissertation committees within the Lab, starting within days of my arrival at MIT 16 years ago. I co-edited From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games with Justine Cassell when she was part of the Lab’s faculty. But this will be the first formal research collaboration between the two groups.

It gives me a chance to work closely with Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Mitchell Resnick, two faculty members in the Lab, who I have known and respected for many years. Together, we are going to create a new research center which will host events designed to showcase the best practices among community leaders and educators working in the emerging field of civic media and transmit their perspectives via blogs and podcasts; we will be drawing on those insights to inform the design and deployment of a range of new technologies and practices which are designed to help people in communities learn more about their local governments, get to know their neighbors, and form new social relations; we will be taking those technologies and practices into the field to test them in communities across the country; and we will be running training programs to help spread these ideas even further.

By civic media, we don’t simply mean citizen journalism, though clearly that is part of what Knight sees as our mandate. We mean all kinds of practices which bring community members together and give them a reason to interact with each other. We have ideas for projects that effect groups as diverse as high school journalists, senior citizens, and new immigrant populations.

We are very grateful for the support of the Knight Foundation which will give us a chance to put some of our ideas about civic media into action. We hope we can make a difference on the ground — where people live — and through these efforts, further realize the vision of “applied humanities” that has been a core ideal of the Comparative Media Studies Program since its inception.

There’s a great deal more to tell about this new initiative and I will be sharing information here in the weeks and months ahead.

What MIT Students are Learning about Communicating Science to the Public

One of the truly remarkable things about teaching at MIT are how many of our best students are crossing over from the sciences or engineering programs to take classes in media studies. They hope to use what they learn in our courses to improve their capacity to communicate scientific ideas with the general public.

Here are two examples:

For the past few years, the Comparative Media Studies Program has been partnering with Terrascope, a freshman year program run by faculty from Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Terrascope students spend the year focusing on one of the world’s leading environmental problems, pooling together research, talking to experts, and taking a trip to the site to see for themselves the nature of the problem. Historically, they have learned to translate their findings not only into research papers but also into museum exhibits designed to communicate with the general public. A few years ago, Ari Epstein, a faculty member in the program, approached me to see if our students might be able to help them teach the Terrascope participants how to use radio as a medium to convey their ideas to an even larger public. This year, CMS Masters student Steve Schultze served as a teaching assistant in the class. This year’s focus was on how New Orleans should deal with the consequences of Katrina. The result: “Nerds in New Orleans.”

The other was a paper I received from one of the undergraduate students in my Media Systems and Texts class which manages to combine his passion for climate issues with some of the things we’ve been learning this term about YouTube and participatory culture. The issues are ones which I have addressed here before — the controversy which emerged as Al Gore’s Penguin Army was revealed to be astroturf, but the student connects this debate to the larger context of media coverage of global warming issues in a way only a MIT science geek could.

Analyzing the Role of Media in the Climate Change Debate Through the YouTube Video, “Al Gore’s Penguin Army”

by Garrett Marino

Climate change, or long-term changes in average weather conditions, signifies an important issue impacting the contemporary media landscape. The two-minute YouTube video criticizing Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Penguin Army, now viewed over 500,000 times, offers a compelling example to analyze the role of media in the climate change debate. A framework of questions can be asked around this video, with the intent of progressively working outward to link media with broader cultural trends on climate change: What can be learned from this video? How does it critique An Inconvenient Truth? What were the motives and goals of the video’s producer(s)? Why use YouTube to respond to the movie? How do the contents of the YouTube video fall within broader efforts to discredit climate change science? The information presented in An Inconvenient Truth and Al Gore’s Penguin Army that individuals digest and the opinions developed through related media will arguably impact policy during the coming decades.

Released on May 24, 2006, the same release date for An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Penguin Army serves largely to discredit Al Gore and his movie. In the video, Al Gore is dressed in an outfit reminiscent of Batman’s enemy Penguin, who could be described as a gentleman of crime. The crime being committed by Al Gore, according to the video, is his promotion of climate change science and dictating what people should do to combat this problem. The video opens with penguins assembling into an ice cave to listen to Gore’s global warming slide show. On the wall of the ice cave, a sign depicts a part human, bear, and pig figure with a slash through it titled “Manbearpig.” The poster references a South Park episode where Gore speaks at South Park Elementary about the Manbearpig, a monster who roams the Earth. Gore begins his talk and quickly the penguins lose interest at the illegible charts and fall asleep. Gore continues his discussion, apparently oblivious to his audience’s indifference, and shows outrageous material, such as blaming the skinniness of Lindsey Lohan on global warming. At the end of the video, Gore says that “you must take action to stop global warming!,” and immediately a list of “things you can do to stop global warming” appears, including “stop exhaling,” “become vegetarian,” “walk everywhere (no matter the distance),” and “take cold showers.”

In addition to barraging the viewer with material despicable for a critique of a serious climate change movie, Al Gore’s Penguin Army has no roots in reality throughout. The opening quote in the video supposedly quoting Newsweek editor Eleanor Clift as saying, “If you liked March of the Penguins, you’ll love An Inconvenient Truth,” was fabricated, although she did interview Gore a month before the film’s release on April 28, 2006, the same date given in the video’s quote (Clift).

Another misrepresentation in the video was the penguins themselves. They were all created to resemble Tux, a Linux mascot that does not accurately portray any known species of penguin. Even seemingly credible weather facts in Al Gore’s slide show were also grossly exaggerated or untrue, such as “Coldest Day in NYC (January 2005)” and “Record rain in New England (May 2006).” In no day during January 2005 did the temperature at New York City’s Central Park (the official site for National Weather Service observations since the 1800’s) fall below 5 degrees Fahrenheit, while the all-time record low for NYC was minus 20 degrees set in February 1934. In May 2006, some areas such as Newburyport, Massachusetts did receive all-time May monthly rainfall records, but this record is far-surpassed by rains that occurred in 1936, 1938, and 1955.

Now that the video has been discredited, there needs to be an analysis of the motives and goals of the producer(s) of Al Gore’s Penguin Army. The video’s YouTube page shows the poster as a member by the name of “Toutsmith,” who identifies himself as a 29-year-old from Beverly Hills. An email exchange between Toutsmith and the Wall Street Journal enabled the paper to originate the email to a computer registered to DCI Group, a Washington public relations and lobbying firm whose clientele include Exxon Mobile Corp. When contacted by the Journal, DCI Group refused to say whether or not they had a role in the release of the anti-Gore video: “DCI Group does not disclose the names of its clients, nor do we discuss the work that we do on our clients’ behalf,” said Matt Triaca, DCI head of media relations. Despite their denial, DCI has a history of raising doubts about the science of global warming, placing skeptical scientists on talk-radio shows and paying them to write editorials. DCI client Exxon Mobile announced that they did not participate in the creation of the video and did not help release it, according to the Journal article.

[Read more…]

Transforming Fan Culture into User-Generated Content: The Case of FanLib

You say “User-Generated Content.”

We say “Fan Culture.”

Let’s call the whole thing off!

The differences between the ways corporations and fans understand the value of grassroots creativity has never been clearer than the battle lines which have been drawn this weekend over a new venture called FanLib.

FanLib — “Where the Stories Continue”

I first learned about FanLib’s latest plans about a week ago when Convergence Culture Consortium analyst Ivan Askwith reported on their efforts in our blog: launched as hub for “fan fiction” writers. The idea is to provide a home for creators of one of the first “user generated” genres, fan stories written using popular movie and TV characters and storylines. Members can upload stories, embed promos and build communities around their favorite shows. FanLib, founded by Titanic producer Jon Landau, Jon Moonves and former Yahoo CMO Anil Singh, is also currently sponsoring the Ghost Whisperer Fan Finale Challenge on the site asking fans to write their own conclusion to the show’s two-part finale.

Ivan concluded his post with some concerns about whether fans were going to eagerly embrace such a project:

Since fan fiction seems to be one of the last traditional forms of fan creativity that hasn’t been widely coopted and encouraged (within specific, copyright-friendly parameters) by the entertainment industry…My offhand guess would be that fan fiction, unlike mashup videos, tribute songs, and so on, are harder to ‘control’, and leave a lot more room for individual fans to take characters, or narratives, in directions that producers and executives aren’t comfortable with.

FanLib started promisingly enough, courting the producers of programs like The L Word and The Ghost Whisperer, and getting them to run official fan fiction contests. Fans would be able to write in these universes, safe in the knowledge that they would not receive Cease and Desist letters. They even worked with a book publisher to try to put together an anthology of amateur romance fiction.

But, FanLib didn’t emerge bottom-up from the fan culture itself. It wasn’t run by people who knew the world of fan fiction from the inside out. It was a business, pure and simple, run by a board of directors which was entirely composed of men. This last point is especially relevant when you consider that the overwhelming percentage of people who write fan fiction are women — even if there has been some increase of male writers as fandom has gone on line. To give you a sense of scale, there were more than 700 people who attended the Harry Potter fan convention I wrote about yesterday — most of them readers, many of them writers of fanfic set in J.K. Rowling’s world. By my count, there weren’t more than 20 men in the group. That’s about 18 more men than would have been there if this was a fan fiction oriented convention 16 years ago when I wrote Textual Poachers! To suggest how out of touch with this community they were, their original ads featured the transformation of fandom from a 90 pound weakling to a more robust and muscular form, leaving many women to wonder if this implied a move towards a more masculine conception of the practice. The company later did produce a female spokesperson who expressed confusion about why gender was an issue here in the first place.

Historical Background

Keep in mind there’s a history here of previous attempts by companies — some affiliated with the production companies, some not — to create a commercial space for the promotion of fan culture. Most of them have ended badly for the fans.

Consider, for example, this story in Salon in 2000 which describes a company called (“by fans, for fans”) which asserted a claim to have trademarked the word, “fandom,” and then tried to use its corporate control of the concept to try to shut down any amateurs who wanted to share their public via the web. Salon reported on a cease and desist letter that had sent out to a fan named Carol Burrell. As Salon reported at the time: serves as an umbrella site for numerous “fandomains” — formerly independent Web sites dedicated to popular, merchandise-friendly topics such as Star Wars, The X-Files and Lord of the Rings that now run under the banner. Each site contains the same structure and design, and there’s a large copyright disclaimer placed at the bottom of every page….

The initial premise of was straightforward: to protect individual fan site owners from studio censorship (and sell a lot of nifty merchandise and advertising in the process) … seemed to make sense — by joining together the little guys, it would create an institution that could defend itself from the heavy hitters. But’s letter to Burrell appeared to indicate something entirely different. was accusing Burrell of trademark violation — a fact that was ironic on at least two levels. First: may not even own a trademark for the word “fandom.” Second: A company whose individual sites flourished by pushing copyright laws to the legal limit was now turning around and itself playing the role of intellectual property bully.

Which leads to the question currently raging in the fan community: Who will protect the fans from Fandom?

Or consider another such effort which Lucasfilm created to “protect” Star Wars fans, one which was described in more detail in Convergence Culture:

In 2000, Lucasfilm offered Star Wars fans free Web space and unique content for their sites, but only under the condition that whatever they created would become the studio’s intellectual property. As the official notice launching this new “Homestead,” explained, “To encourage the on-going excitement, creativity, and interaction of our dedicated fans in the online Star Wars community, Lucas Online is pleased to offer for the first time an official home for fans to celebrate their love of Star Wars on the World Wide Web.” Historically, fan fiction had proven to be a point of entry into commercial publication for at least some amateurs, who were able to sell their novels to the professional book series centering around the various franchises. If Lucasfilm, Ltd. claimed to own such rights, they could publish them without compensation and they could also remove them without permission or warning.

Elizabeth Durack was one of the more outspoken leaders of an campaign urging her fellow Star Wars fans not to participate in these new arrangements: “That’s the genius of Lucasfilm’s offering fans web space — it lets them both look amazingly generous and be even more controlling than before….Lucasfilm doesn’t hate fans, and they don’t hate fan websites. They can indeed see how they benefit from the free publicity they represent — and who doesn’t like being adored? This move underscores that as much as anything. But they’re also scared, and that makes them hurt the people who love them.”

As far as long-time fans were concerned, the announcement that FanLib was going to create a commercial portal to support the publication of fan fiction was read as more of the same. Under the circumstances, there was going to be healthy skepticism within the fan writing community no matter how the company approached them, but so far, the company has approached the fans in all of the wrong ways.

What Went Wrong

There’s an excellent summary of the issues surrounding this venture written by a fan. I don’t want to repeat all of the details here. But here’s how Icarussancalian summarizes the company’s initial pitch to the fan community:

The founders of saw no reason they couldn’t cash in on the internet traffic. Formerly from Google, Chris Williams, the CEO and co-founder of FanLib, has an impressive resume. FanLib has corporate backing and $3 million of venture capital invested into the site.

“My colleagues and I want it to be the ultimate place for talented writers like you,” Naomi of FanLib wrote to fan fiction writers. “In case you’re wondering, FanLib’s not new to fan fiction. Since 2001, they’ve been producing really cool web events with people like CBS, Showtime and HarperCollins to bring fan creativity into the big leagues.”

FanLib did their homework. “We scouted for serious fan fiction authors on various sites and invited only a few hundred based on their writing and impact in the community,” co-founder David Williams says, and fans agree that their search focused on popular writers. What’s a “serious” fan fiction writer? A serious fan fiction writer could have anywhere from 30 to 100 stories, with upwards of 700 regular readers subscribed to their blogs or LiveJournal accounts. Currently, fan fiction writers do their own marketing through networking with other fans, posting in blogs, fan-run archives, and various fan fiction communities targeted to their readers.

Unfortunately, FanLib did little more than ask the writers to hand over the product.

FanLib’s creators immediately ran into trouble with fans critical of FanLib’s plans to turn profits on their freely provided fan fiction with no compensation to the authors, beyond t-shirts and prizes. Fan fiction writers were also unhappy at a clause where FanLib owned the rights to any fiction they posted…

This post also notes that FanLib was emphatically not going to take any legal risks on behalf of the fans here, leaving the writers libel for all legal actions that might be taken against them by any production companies that felt that fan fiction was in violation of their intellectual property rights. Fans were going to take all of the risks; the company was going to make all of the profits, all for the gift of providing a central portal where fans could go to read the “best” fan fiction as evaluated by a board of male corporate executives. (Taken at face value, the company was trying to “cherry pick” the top writers from the amateur realm. At worst, they were imposing their own aesthetic judgments on the community without any real regard for existing norms and hierarchies.)

To add insult to injury, the company surrounded itself with self congratulatory rhetoric about taking fan fiction into the “major leagues,” which showed little grasp of why fans might prefer to operate in the more liberated zone of what Catherine Tossenberger, an aca-fan who spoke at Phoenix Rising this weekend, calls the “unpublishable.” Or the producers talked about making fan fiction available to “mainstream audiences,” which clearly implied that the hundreds of thousands of fan fiction writers and readers now were somehow not “mainstream.” This is a debate which has long surrounded fan fiction. Some seek to legitimize it by arguing that it is a stepping stone or training ground for professional writers as if commercialization of creative expression was the highest possible step an author could take. Others — myself among them — have argued that fan fiction should be valued within the terms of the community which produces and reads it, that a fan writer who only writes for other fans may still be making a rich contribution to our culture which demands our respect.

FanLib had done its homework by the standards of the VC world: they had identified a potential market; they had developed a business plan; they had even identified potential contributors to the site; they had developed a board of directors. They simply hadn’t really listen to, talked with, or respected the existing grassroots community which surrounded the production and distribution of fan fiction.

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Everybody Loves Harry?

The following comments are reflections upon a really intense and delightful weekend spent at Phoenix Rising, a Harry Potter Conference held in New Orleans. Thanks to my hosts and to all of the other fans I met at the conference. I am sure that I will be having further reflections on what I learned this weekend in future posts.

Harry Potter in the Mainstream

Shortly after I arrived in New Orleans, I was interviewed on camera by a producer for Dateline. Among the many questions he asked me was whether we would ever see something like the Harry Potter phenomenon again in our lifetime. The question was relatively banal but for some reason, it caught me off guard, as I realized that according to many theories, we shouldn’t be seeing anything like the Harry Potter phenomenon now. Harry Potter is a massive mass market success at a time when all of our conversations are focusing on the fragmentation of the media marketplace and the nichification of media production. There has been so much talk about the loss of common culture, about the ways that we are all moving towards specialized media, about the end of event based consumption, and so forth. Yet very little of it has reflected on the ways that Harry Potter has bucked all of these trends.

I got into my taxi from the airport and had the usual conversation you have with a taxi driver in a convention city. He asked where I came from and why I was in town — as if following a script — and then asked me what kind of conference I was attending. But when I told him I was going to a Harry Potter conference, his eyes brightened up, his voice grew more intense, and he told me how very very much he was waiting for the final novel to come out this summer. I checked into the hotel and went across the street for some late lunch and played out more or less the same conversation with the waitress. When she saw I had a conference program, she brought several of her friends around — including some from the kitchen — who wanted to flip through the program, who wanted to sneak across the street and attend a session or two, who wondered aloud who I thought might be killed in the final installment and whether or not Snape was an evil person. Some of them had stories of the lengths they had gone to celebrate their affection for and affiliation with these books. These folks weren’t simply the readers of a best-selling book series; they had all of the passion and at least some of the expertise one associates with the most hardcore fans of any other media property, only they had no direct affiliation with any kind of fan culture or community.

I tried explaining this to the television producer, worried that the final documentary, when it airs later this summer, will fall prey to the usual stereotypes of crazed and obsessive fans, totally outside of the cultural mainstream. But statistically speaking, the people who are not fans of Harry Potter are outside of the mainstream. According to Wikipedia, the six books have so far sold 377 Million copies and been translated into more than 63 different languages. Harry Potter will be widely recognized by people all over the world, including many who have not read the books but watched the movies or simply read a newspaper over the past decade.

A fair number of those Muggles are very aware that the new novel is coming out in a matter of weeks and many of them will race out to the stores or put in an advanced order so that they will be sure to get a copy the moment it becomes available. More than 500,000 pre-orders had been placed at last count and those numbers are continuing to grow everyday. One can’t help recall the stories of the mobs that swamped the docks awaiting the latest shipment of Dickens serials from London. And a fair number of them also know that the new film is coming out this summer and plan to wait in long lines to see it on opening day. Each of the films claims a place on the list of the top 20 money-earners of all time. All of this is part of the Harry Potter phenomenon which suggests the mainstream nature of its success. The conference brought together some of the people responsible for that mass market success including Electronic Arts’ Danny Bilson who has helped to supervise the Harry Potter games.

Harry Potter as Niche Media

But in many other ways, the success of Harry Potter demonstrates the power of niche media. Start from the fact that this is a children’s book, after all, and a fantasy, two genres which historically have attracted only niche readerships. Scholastic surely wouldn’t have predicted this level of popular interest when it chose to publish the original novel. By traditional industry talk, much of Harry Potter‘s success came from so-called “surplus consumers” — that is, consumers who fall outside of its target demographic. Traditionally, much of fan culture involves these kinds of surplus consumers — female fans of male-targeted action adventure series, adult consumers of children’s media, western consumers of Japanese popular culture, and so forth. Indeed, it is this attraction to works that are in some ways mismatched to our needs that encourages fans to rework and rewrite them.

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