On Monday, I spoke in Tampa at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Tech Forum. My central topic was on the ways that the new media landscape was enabling the emergence of new kinds of public intellectuals. I promised folks in the audience that I would provide them with links to some of the examples which I cited.
I began the talk with some thoughts about Marshall McLuhan as a model for what a public intellectual looked like in the 1960s — at a moment where mass media still was the only channel for reaching the public, when middle brow culture still embraced academics as part of the national culture, and when media studies was first forming as a discipline. I described the ways that McLuhan exploited mass media channels — from Playboy Magazine to Annie Hall — to increase awareness of his key ideas and developed the concept of the “probe” as a way of translating theoretical debates into effective soundbytes (“the global village,” “the Medium is the message.”) At the same time, I discussed McLuhan’s use of newsletters and recordings as looking towards more grassroots modes of communication such as blogs and podcasts.
I then argued that if there was a modern equivalent of McLuhan, it might be someone like Cornell West, who has made extensive use of mass media (from talk television to The Matrix Reloaded) to direct attention towards his critical perspective on American race relations. I referenced seeing West’s picture on a billboard in L.A. as well as his conflicts with Harvard President Lawrence Summers over some of his more “public” activities as an activist and as a hip hop recording artist.
I argued that one reason why there couldn’t be a McLuhan today is that there are so many other important thinkers about media change speaking from outside the academy, including game designers (Eric Zimmerman), journalists (Steven Johnson) Science fiction writers (Bruce Sterling), comic book creators (Scott McCloud), and sex activists (Susie Bright), to cite just a few examples. Each of these writers provide important perspectives on the mediascape, often with much greater impact on public perspectives than anything coming out of the academy.
I cited some examples of other academics and intellectuals who are effectively deploying participatory media, especially blogs and podcasts, to reach a larger public with their ideas, including:
Douglas Rushkoff, who has translated his insights into Biblical Studies into the Vertigo comic book series Testament, using the forums around the book to spark intellectual exchanges.
Howard Rheingold – Howard Rheingold’s Video blog and recent article for MIT Press/MacArthur book on using participatory media to increase civic engagement – has increasingly turned towards blogs and videopodcasts as a platform for what I call “just in time” scholarship, responding to contemporary debates and controversies from a theoretically informed perspective.
Alex Juhasz – interview on my Blog – has used YouTube as a platform to teach a class and frame a critique of YouTube’s particular vision of participatory culture.
Randy Pausch – Final Lecture on YouTube (Part 0, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10) and Blog – is battling terminal cancer. His public summation of his life’s work and his discussion of his life philosophy has enjoyed enormous circulation via YouTube, leading to his appearance on Oprah and a contract to produce a mass market book.
Peter Ludlow – Second Life Herald – helped to establish a “town newspaper” for the virtual world, Second Life, and in the process, helped the community reflect on its own practices.
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson – two distinguished film scholars, now retired – use their blog as an extension of their succesful textbook, offering real time responses to developments in contemporary cinema.
I referenced several young scholars who were gaining wide recognition for their work while still finishing off their PhDs through their public roles as blogger:
danah boyd recently announced that she would no longer publish her work in any journal which “locks down” content, a gutsy move for someone at the start of their professional career.
I mentioned that many of our own Comparative Media Studies graduate students have also built wider followings through their blogging activities:
Ilya Vedrashko — Ad Lab blog
Michael Danziger — Visual Methods blog
Sam Ford — Convergence Culture Consortium blog
I described several recent projects in media studies where scholars were trying to use new media platforms to offer more immediate reactions to developments in the media landscape and in the process broaden the public visibility of their work:
A central theme of my talk had to do with my belief that part of being a public intellectual in the digital age is allowing yourself to be appropriated by various publics, becoming a resouce for their ongoing discussions, rather than necessarily exerting top down control over the circulation of your own ideas. As you give up control, you in fact achieve greater public impact. I cited, for example, what happened when I released my account of my testimony to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and the ways it was picked up by diverse communities, representing very different ideological agendas but sharing a concern for the ways that political leaders and school officials were declaring war on popular culture. I pointed to the ways that my image, and that of other theorists, have been appropriated playfully through the practice of LOL Theorists, and I cited the ways that various reporters have projected alternative frames around my work, often radically different from my own understanding of who I am but opening the work up to audiences I might never have reached otherwise. And I described my visit to Teen Second Life at an event hosted by Global Kids and the ways that the youth group produced and circulated
a music video, which in the process spread the word about some of my thinking about new media literacies and participatory culture.
I made reference to a recent essay in Flow which compared my blog to Steven King’s columns for Entertainment Weekly, arguing that we need to offer a pithier style of writing if we want to be embraced by the general public. I suggested that some of the suggestions in the piece would require us to sacrifice what we as academics bring to the table that is potentially valuable to a larger public conversation about media change. I feel strongly that we do need to become more accessible but that accessibility was not the same thing as dummying down. It refers rather to the act of taking responsibility for giving the reader the information they need to follow our arguments rather than writing to a reader we assume is already inside academic conversations. As we do so, we can challenge them to think more deeply than they are asked to do by the popular press as long as we provide the scaffolding which will enable them to join the conversation.
Examples from My Blog
One of my goals for the talk was to describe some of the uses I’ve made of my blog to date. I see the blog as an ongoing experiment into how we can build bridges from the academy and the larger public. Some of the ways I use the blog are designed to serve the needs of the CMS program, some are designed to serve the larger discipline of media studies, and some are designed to serve a range of publics to which I feel a strong allegiance. Having a blog…
- provides me an opportunity to share works in progress with my readers and get feedback before I go to press. This also allows me to get my ideas out in a timely process as compared to the slow academic publishing time table. “The Tomorrow That Never Was”
- allows me to share ideas from conference presentations, sometimes on the same day as I spoke. “Nine Propositions Towards a Cultural Theory of YouTube”
- allows me to publish interesting “out takes” from my published works which would otherwise end up on the cutting room floor. “Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape”
- allows me to be more proactive, shaping media coverage.“Vidder Luminosity Profiled in New York Magazine”
- allows me to respond to media coverage or provide fuller context to the ways I am qouted by reporters.“Democracy 2.0 (Director’s Cut)”
- has given me a platform to advocate on the part of cases which matter to me. “Chris Williams Responds to Our Questions about FanLib”
- has expanded my contact to a global network of MIT alums, sometimes pulling them into the conversation.“City Blogging in Beirut”
- has allowed me to encourage students to continue to work on interesting assignments and introduce their perspectives to a larger public. “Ordinary Men in Extraordinary Times”
- allows me to showcase work by other interesting academics which I feel should be better known in the field. “Manufacturing Dissent”
- has allowed me to host important conversations amongst multiple scholars. “Gender and Fan Culture”
Comparative Media Studies Program online
The Comparative Media Studies has made a very strong commitment to public outreach, including the use of blogs to publish our research findings and to spark larger conversations in the field. Here are a few examples of CMS affiliated blogs: