From Rodney King to Burma: An Interview with Witness’s Sam Gregory (Part One)

I came back from the USC DIY Media Event with a whole range of new contacts. One hallmark of this outstanding conference was that it brought together people from very different social networks — people who are working in parallel across different communities to explore the potentials of participatory culture. I’ve already featured through this blog an extensive interview with independent filmmaker and critic Alex Juhasz exploring her efforts to teach through and about Youtube. Today, I want to showcase another participant in the USC event — human rights activist Sam Gregory. Gregory’s comments about the strengths and limitations of Youtube as a site for media activism were eye-opening to me and I hope you will find them equally illuminating. In the interview which follows, Gregory describes the evolution in the thinking of his organization, Witness, from the aftermath of the Rodney King video, to the recent use of Youtube as a platform for the Burmese democracy movement. Drawing a phrase from Jamais Cascio, Gregory speaks here about the “participatory panopticon,” the potentials of a world where citizens can use light weight portable cameras, including those built into their cellphones, and video distribution platforms to alert the world about human rights violations in their country. The past decade plus of DIY activism has taught veterans to be skeptical about some of the more utopian claims of the previous generation, even as they are learning to be more effective at exploiting every available opportunity to capture and distribute harsh realities that much of the world doesn’t want to watch.

Sam Gregory, Program Director, is a video producer, trainer, and human rights advocate. In 2005 he was the lead editor on Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism (Pluto Press), and in 2007 he lead the development of the curriculum for WITNESS’ first ever Video Advocacy Institute. Videos he has produced have been screened at the US Congress,the UK Houses of Parliament, the United Nations and at film festivals worldwide. In 2004 he was a jury member for the IDFA Amnesty International/Doen Award. He was a Kennedy Memorial Scholar at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where his Master’s in Public Policy focused on

international development and media. He has worked as a television researcher/producer in both the UK and USA, and for development organizations in Nepal and Vietnam, and holds a BA from Oxford University in History and Spanish. He is on the Board of the US Campaign for Burma, and the Tactical Technology Collective. He speaks fluent Spanish, conversational French and basic Nepali.

Can you tell us something about the thinking which led to the creation of WITNESS? How has your organization’s vision shifted over time in response to shifts in the nature of participatory culture?

In the late 1980’s, our founder, Peter Gabriel had been participating in the Amnesty Human Rights Now Tour, travelling the world and meeting human rights activists at each concert stop. And in many cases, it struck him that their stories were not being heard, and that new tools like the consumer video-camera could perhaps change that. Fast-forward a couple of years, and the Rodney King incident brought the possibilities home. From the window of his apartment George Holliday filmed a sequence of graphic human rights violations that generated massive media attention. That provided the impetus for the creation of WITNESS – founded in the assumption that if you could place cameras in the hands of the people who chose to be “in the wrong place at the right time”, i.e. human rights advocates and activists around the world living and working with communities affected by violations, then you would enable a new way to mobilize action for real change.

For the first decade of our work we wrestled with how best to operationalize this idea. In the early 1990’s we were focused on the technology. We distributed hundreds of cameras to human rights groups around the world, assuming that they would be able to gather footage that could get on television or be used as evidence -two polar extremes of usage, one very specialized and targeted at a judicial fact-finder or jury, the other playing to a vast, undifferentiated court of public opinion.

In those first years we learnt that without technical training, you could shoot raw video but you could not create the finished narratives that matter in most advocacy contexts outside of providing raw footage to the news media. We evolved to a strategy of working intensely with a select group of 10-12 ‘core partners’ – human rights groups on the ground who approach us to collaborate in helping them integrate video into their campaigns; as well as doing extensive trainings, producing online training materials like our Guide to Video Advocacy and writing books like ‘Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism‘ to promote effective ideas in our community. And most recently we embarked on a new project, the Hub, which is the most DIY part of our work – a participatory media site where individuals and organizations can safely upload footage of abuses and finished advocacy videos, share it, learn how to deploy it in their campaigns, and present clear context and links to more information, groups working to address the issues, and actions that viewers and supporters can take.

Over the past fifteen years, a number of factors came to characterize the WITNESS approach. We focus on the empowered voices of those who are closer or closest to rights violations – including victims, survivors, community members and engaged advocates on behalf of affected communities. And until recently we’ve generally sought to use “smart narrowcasting” rather than “broadcasting” to reach key audiences. So for example, the video ‘Bound by Promises‘ was framed for and used in screenings to government officials and legislators in Brazil to push them to prioritize concrete programs to reduce rural slave labor. Our work has also always blurred the line between amateurs and professionals in terms of using video -we are training human rights workers, and now concerned citizens, to use video as an everyday facet of their work, rather than to turn them into documentary film-makers.

We’ve seen a progressive expansion of the participatory possibilities of video: first, increased access to cameras, the increased access to editing capacity, then the dramatic growth of online video-sharing for distribution. And in the past three years we see the possibilities for increased collaboration in editing and production, for online distribution, and for more immediate and widespread filming – all facilitated by a digitally-literate youth, by mobile technology with still image and video capability and by new online tools.

What role does do it yourself video play in heightening public awareness of human rights issues around the world?

I would identify three spheres of usage of DIY video in raising awareness of human rights issues around the world: advocacy videos, witness documentation and perpetrator video. All three are facilitated by ubiquitous technology for documentation (via video-cameras, digital still cameras with video functionality, and cell-phone cameras), by increasing digital literacy, and by increased opportunities for sharing, remixing and re-circulating.

To date most of our focus has been on advocacy video and on working to find the spaces where bringing the visual story into the virtual or real room can make a difference. Here we’re trying to change the vernacular language of human rights advocacy, to make a space for the voices from outside, and to push a new way of communicating around rights abuses.

Frequently we’ve promoted an approach that’s all about smart narrow-casting, speaking to a particular audience at a particular time, and seeking a distinct change in policy, behavior or practice. Videos are always part of a continuum of action — and a strategy — rather than stand-alone. Here we’re working in the middle ground between the extremes of undifferentiated mass media attention and direct evidence in the courts. This could include showing video to an international or regional tribunal (we’ve been involved in a precedent-setting case to present video before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, on land rights in Kenya), it could involve bringing to the voices of victims and the visual evidence of abuses in Burma into a Congressional briefing or a meeting of Security Council representatives, and it can involve engaging communities themselves to take action on a rights issues, for example by showing a video on voluntary recruitment of child soldiers in villages across eastern Congo. Videos always provide a ‘space for action’ by the audience, encouraging them to participate in solving the problem.

The scope of this use of video is increasing by the day, alongside more traditional human rights documentaries. We can see it on the Hub, where many of the videos uploaded are produced by NGOs, both at a national and an international level – for example, Video Volunteers’ ‘Stop the Privatization of Water, films by Amazon Watch, and ‘Drying up Palestine.

The two modes that we’re seeing now in increasing prevalence are witness documentation and perpetrator footage. Both are circulating increasingly in online video sharing contexts, and in the blogosphere. It’s partly in response to the radically increased possibilities for participation in creating human rights video online that we’ve created our Hub project. In some senses with both witness documentation and perpetrator footage you’re revisiting a Rodney King moment – only this time, there is a potential global audience of both activists and publics who can have access to the footage, and there are distribution options to get it to them, and knowledge about how to frame action around them. It’s an exciting moment as people experiment with what can work with this radically expanded access to production and distribution.

Our founder, Peter Gabriel talks sometimes about “little brothers” and “little sisters” watching Big Brother, and this world of the ‘participatory panopticon‘ as Jamais Cascio calls it – is one filled with emancipatory potential as long as we can make sure that the footage that circulates helps facilitate voice and change, rather than enable repression.

You’ve written that the project was initially shaped by assumptions about the “transparency” of the video medium. Explain. What happens to human rights video as we become more self conscious about the properties of the medium and the ways that it can be manipulated?

Our starting point was what the scholar Meg McLagan has succinctly termed a moment of “1990s technophilia and (with a) model of change based on the transparency of media”. So it was very technology-focused and grounded in a perhaps naïve belief in the indexicality of the image – a firm conviction that ‘seeing is believing’ and that seeing would create action, in the same way that the Rodney King had seemingly inspired mass outrage and in the same way that at first.

Our initial assumptions about audience and how footage would be perceived and used, were not correct. In those days before widespread online video sharing, the modes to access broad publics were ineffective. We focused on video in judicial processes, and sharing video with the mass media – both of which are premised on the ‘evidentiary’ value of human rights footage. Yet both news media and evidentiary settings were challenging to access. The Rodney King experience was anomalous. Although George Holliday’s footage permeated the mass media and was used in the subsequent state and federal trials, the overwhelming majority of human rights video cannot and does not reach those venues. And if it does, as many marginalized groups have experienced in their media advocacy, it is often presented in ways that are contradictory to the desires and intentions of the communities affected by the rights violations. The reasons for this – of course — vary. But the result is the same. In some countries it may be that media is government, or corporate-controlled, or won’t screen graphic imagery — or is only interested in screening graphic imagery. And in many cases news media focuses on episodic framing that emphasize individual actions, victims and perpetrators, and is less interested in structural violence, systemic challenges or the ongoing problems that characterize many of the most pernicious abuses, and especially violations of economic, social and cultural rights. So, for example, a group I work with in Papua, Indonesia documents the systematic, ongoing and pervasive exclusion of indigenous Papuans in an economy dominated by migrants from other parts of Indonesia, and in a justice system that moves rarely against the powerful. In seeking widespread media attention they will face the triple barrier of government censorship, popular neglect and an issue that is not easily reduced to blow of a security force baton.

Similarly, trying to use the video as evidence frequently does not work. The rules of evidence are hard to navigate. And even if the evidence is admitted, we need only see how the Rodney King footage was flipped around and manipulated both to prove that the Los Angeles Police Department officers were following the training they had been provided to deal with a resisting suspect, and to demonstrate the grotesque abuse of power evident in the fifty-six strikes delivered on Rodney King.

So what this boiled down for us – alongside some re-thinking on audience — was the need for framing and narrative to create effective advocacy videos. This framing can come both within the video and in the way it is presented within a campaign. Rather than relying on the ‘visual evidence’ in and of itself, you have to place this in a rhetorical framework that explains it, and offers ways to act. Seeing may be believing, but it may also lead to pessimism, and compassion fatigue in the absence of opportunities to act. We’re not promoting a journalistic model of studious neutrality – our experience is that marginalized voices are excluded enough, without the need to balance their voices in a one-for-one ratio to the voices of authority or perpetrators. So most advocacy videos do have a point-of-view and an outcome in mind, but the best do this with clear respect for the facts of the situation.

You’ve argued that some of the most effective videos for dramatizing human rights issues have come not from activists but from the oppressive regimes themselves. Can you cite a few examples? Why were these videos produced in the first place? What new significance has been ascribed to them as they move into new contexts?

The futurist Jamais Casco has suggested that the ‘Rodney King’ moment of the digital camera era may hav e been the Abu Ghraib photos, and I would argue that the analogue for cell-phones was the footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution. Yet both sets of images were filmed by perpetrators or by insiders, not by concerned citizens, advocates or observers. More broadly we can see a proliferation of images, particularly of torture by police, security force and military personnel.

One of the most viewed videos on the Hub is a redacted version of footage shot by Egyptian police in which they humiliate a Cairo bus driver by slapping him repeatedly. These and other more graphic videos that include the sodomization of another driver were filmed by the police themselves. They were then used to humiliate the victims – including by sending the images to other drivers— and to intimidate other people by demonstrating what would happen if they didn’t follow police orders. They share many similarities with the psychology of happy-slapping: adding for the victim the humiliation of the act of filming, as well as the humiliation of the probability of preservation, and allowing the perpetrator to relish the memory, and share it with their friends. Similar cases have galvanized debate in Greece, Malaysia (the notorious Squat-gate incident) and a number of other countries. And of course, footage is also shot increasingly by government to document and apprehend protestors and dissidents – here in the US, there has been the contentious suit around the NYPD and activists filming at the Republican National Convention in 2004, while most recently we can see official cameramen in the footage of protests from Burma and Tibet (for example, at 00:32 in this clip).

What happens is that these videos then circulate beyond the circles for which they were intended – and are re-ascribed new meanings. For example in Egypt, bloggers and journalists lead by Wael Abbas and Hossam el-Hamalawy circulated leaked cell-phone videos to challenge repeated denials of accountability for police brutality and torture by the government. By circulating the videos, and connecting online to both a local and international audience, they were able to generate media attention, and force an official response. Although the government initially tried to discredit the activists, it was very hard to deny the truth of the images, and for the first time, there was an investigation into the conduct of police officers in two of the leaked videos leading to a prosecution.

One issue that does arise is around the re-victimization of individuals featured in the footage. They are often doubly humiliated in the first instance – by what happens to them in custody, and by the act of filming, and then they are further exposed as the footage achieves widespread circulation. We’ve tried to address this in our own practice – for example, by respecting the victim’s wishes in the Squatgate case and not re-posting the video on the Hub pilot project, but I think the most important thing we can do institutionally is to support the growth of norms in the online video community that are respectful of individuals’ dignity and rights (the Transmission community has been leading on this concept)

Human rights videos, you’ve claimed, need to be thought of as “transnational stories.” What are the implications of that statement? What factors insure that the video will achieve its desired effect as it encounters alternative audiences?

Much human rights activism is still about speaking to distant audiences, often to generate a ‘boomerang’ effect in your home country. In these cases you are telling transnational stories that must speak to an audience inevitably less grounded than you in the everyday realities of the oppression. So, the footage in the video produced by our partners working undercover in Burma ‘Shoot on Sight’ must speak to activists not only within Asia, but to government officials, decision-makers and solidarity supporters in North America and Europe. Most human rights situations are embedded in contexts of structural complexity, long histories of repression and reaction and many actors with different agenda. As activists and concerned citizens create human rights advocacy videos they face a dilemma. They want to resist a globalization of local images stripped of their meaning, by keeping intact local voices in local contexts, and in a way that is faithful both to the direct visible violence of a situation as well as the underlying structural causes. But at the same time as you move testimony and images between different advocacy and media arenas it often ‘helps’ to strip out some of the markers of specificity. From experience, I know that with many audiences too much analysis of the particularity and nuance of a testimonial story may undermine it as an advocacy call.

You are balancing the ethical demands to be true to the people who speak out, a recognition of the real complexities and the desire to make viewers genuine ethical witnesses, against the need to convince, shame or horrify a distant audience with a medium whose power often lies in directness both visually and in narrative. You also have to make tough choices in balancing the visceral power and problems of raw visual evidence (for example, of graphic violence) with the use of testimony.

Now as human rights video circulate increasingly unmoored from its original location – i.e. embedded, shared, remixed – it becomes key to place context and ways to act within the video and imagery itself rather than outside it since no sooner has your video been forwarded from YouTube, the Hub or elsewhere it becomes de-coupled from options to act unless those are built into the video itself, and unless your message comes through loud and clear.

Links, Links and More Links…

I have been pulled in so many directions lately that I’ve been having trouble finding time to blog about everything that has been happening. So consider this post as a chance to catch up on some materials which may be of interest to my regular readers.

A few weeks ago, I joined my CMS colleague Beth Coleman for a conversation about virtual worlds, hosted by the MIT Club of Boston and webcast to alumni around the country. You may recall that Coleman and I were two participants in a three way conversation with Clay Shirky about virtual worlds a while back. Coleman is in the process of writing Hello Avatar!, which is intended as a primer about virtual worlds. She regular writes about such topics over at her Project Good Luck Blog. The fine folks at the MIT Alumni Office offer a streaming version of the conversation. And Ravi Mehta, VP of Publishing for Viximo, a virtual goods start-up, has posted a thorough and perceptive account of the event over at Virtual Worlds News

Those of you who have been engaged by my recent posts on “The Moral Economy of Web 2.0” might be interested in the podcast of a recent colloquium CMS hosted which focused on “viral media.” Berkman Center Fellow and C3 Consulting Researcher Shenja van der Graaf moderated a candid converation with Natalie Lent from Fanscape and Mike Rubenstein of The Barbarian Group. The session offers some rich insights into the thinking behind contemporary branding and advertising practices.

For those of you more interested in the world of games, check out this podcast of our event last week with Dennis Dyack, the founder and president of Silicon Knights. In this capacity, he oversees the creation and development of games, and continues to further the growth of the company. Under Dyack’s direction, Silicon Knights has evolved into one of the top independent interactive software developers in the world. Working with Nintendo as a second party, Silicon Knights created the critically acclaimed Eternal Darkness. Together with Nintendo, Silicon Knights worked with Konami to create Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes. In this podcast, Dyack discusses his views on why video games may represent the 8th Art and describes some of the thinking going into their Too Human trilogy, currently under development. This event was sponsored by the MIT-Singapore GAMBIT Lab.

You might also be interested in listening to recordings of two other recent events hosted by the MIT Communications Forum:

A conversation with John Romano, writer and producer on more than a dozen shows including Hill Street Blues, Party of Five, and Monk as well as creator of Class of ’96, Sweet Justice, and Michael Hayes.

A discussion of the globalization of contemporary television featuring CMS’s co-director William Uricchio, Utrecht University’s Eggo Müller and University of Nottingham’s Roberta Pearson.

Both events are moderated by David Thorburn, the director of the MIT Communications Forum.

Coming up soon: two events jointly hosted by the MIT Communications Forum and the Center for Future Civic Media: one featuring a conversation between Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler; the other a program on Youth and Civic Engagement (which features Lance Bennett, editor of Civic Life Online: How New Media Can Engage Youth; City Year’s Alan Khazei; and MTV’s Ian V. Rowe).

Catching Up on Project NML

I am currently in New York City participating in a range of sessions at the American Educational Research Associaton conference designed to showcase the work which we are doing on New Media Literacies. Yesterday I participated in a panel discussion with James Paul Gee, Nichole Pinkard, Howard Gardner, and Connie Yowell. Last night, at a MacArthur Foundation reception, our team showcased some of the work we’ve been doing on the NML Learning Library (see below). Today, we are showcasing our collaboration with Harvard University’s Good Play Project (Under the supervision of Howard Gardner) which is designed to encourage reflection on the ethical challenges young people face as they navigate through the complexities of the online world. All of this is part of an effort by the MacArthur Foundation to publicize the creation of a national network of researchers, scholars, educators, and activists who are focusing their attention on Digital Media and Learning. This has been one of the most exciting collaborations of my academic career. I love working with all of these people. Individually, collectively, we are starting to make a difference in the conversations that impact young people’s relations to new media technology and participatory culture.

Project NML recently launched a new blog designed to create greater “transparency” around the development of curricular materials and activities supporting the teaching of new media literacies. An early highlight is a post by Jenna McWilliams, our outreach coordinator, talking about how working on a teachers strategy guide designed to support the teaching of Moby Dick has forced her to reconsider this great American novel. She writes:

Before I came to NML, I had long lived among the multitudes who for many reasons–actually, for me it was mainly out of guilt and the heavy weight of cultural duty–keep a copy of Moby-Dick on a bookshelf with the really truly honest intention of getting through it some day. My guilt was compounded by my personal history as first an English major and then a student-writer in an MFA program. Every time I looked over at that fat little book sitting plumply on my bookshelf, I got just a little miserable all over again. But then I thought, you know, it’s a very long novel. And hard. And word on the street is that it’s kind of…boring. But then I joined NML and started in on this teacher’s guide and I figured, okay, it’s time to end the shame. And I took a deep breath and I jumped in….

There’s no doubt that reading Moby-Dick is not the same kind of rollicking good time as, for example, reading Harry Potter. I won’t argue about the degree of concentration, deliberation, and discipline required to make it through…

When I started the book, I prepared myself for serious tedium, determined to charge through for the good of the project (good-hearted team player that I am). But–I promise you I’m telling the truth–I actually had a really good time. I think this is mainly because as I started to read, I was surrounded by some very smart people (Henry Jenkins and Melville Scholar and MIT professor Wyn Kelley) who framed the novel for me as the work of a kind of proto-fan–a writer who channeled a lifelong love of literature, science, mythology, and the tiniest details of whaling culture into the classic text we engage with today. I couldn’t help but imagine Melville as a sort of geeky fanboy, running around from library to museum to shoreline to dock and collecting information that he couldn’t wait to share with readers…. When you picture Melville like that, and when you think about the book as evidence of his fandom, it starts to get really fun. You can even slog your way through the pages and pages of whaling history and lore, because you understand that Melville has collected all the information he could possibly find and is presenting it to you, the reader, because he thinks it’s really, really neat.

McWilliam’s post captures beautifully the excitement we are all experiencing reading Moby Dick through the lens of participatory culture.

I have long argued that the New Media Literacies should not be conceptualized as an add on subject or as something teachers do on Friday afternoon if the students have been good all week. It requires a paradigm shift on the same order as the ways schools have started to confront the challenges of multiculturalism and globalization. It impacts everything schools teach. In this project, we are focusing on Literature and Language Arts. Our hopes is to provide a model for how we teach authorship and classic literature differently in an era of remix culture. For more of my thoughts on this project, see earlier blog posts — The Whiteness of the Whale (Revisited) and Was

Herman Melville a Protofan?

MIT’s Tech TV site is also showcasing some of the materials Project nml is producing for its forthcoming learning library. As Erin Reilly explains in the blog:

The Exemplar Library that was once documentary videos highlighting best practices of participatory culture is now an integration of learning activities embedded into multimedia material. In addition to videos, the Exemplar Library now has animated data visualization, flash movies, and other motion media as launching points. The learning activities are a combination of online activities that teens can do on their own to group activities that can happen both in and out of the classroom. This new informal approach to learning through the Exemplar Library encourages teens from passive viewing into interactive participation… and we saw just that in our first focus group of the semester.

The featured videos include several segments focused on what young people are learning through their participation in cosplay, some thoughts about the value of simulations and visualizations including a segment dealing with animation.

We welcome your feedback on these works in progress — especially from Educators (whether based in schools or after school programs) or Librarians.

I will be giving two talks next week focused on these materials — on Weds. as part of a webcast for Association of College and Research Libraries and on Friday before the New England Educational Media Association. Hope to see some of my regular readers there.

The Moral Economy of Web 2.0 (Part Four)

Prohibitionists and The Moral Economy

“The world of Web 2.0 is also the world of what Dan Gillmor calls “we, the media,” a world in which “the former audience”, not a few people in a back room, decides what’s important.” – Tim O’Reilly (2005)

“Our entire cultural economy is in dire straights….We will live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” — Andrew Keen (2007)

Despite the apparent long-term necessity of the entertainment industry reshaping its relations with consumers (both in the face of new technological realities that make preserving traditional control over content difficult and in the face of new models of consumer relations which stress collaborations with users), media executives remain risk-averse. Andrew Currah (2006) argues that the reluctance of studio executives to risk short term revenue gains accounts for their reticence to experiment with alternative content distribution models despite growing data that suggests some forms of legal file-sharing would be in the industry’s long-term best interests. Many executives at public companies are paid to draw incremental increases in revenue from mature markets rather than to adopt more long-ranging or entrepreneurial perspectives. New ventures might violate agreements media producers maintain with big-box retailers, decrease revenues from established markets (DVD, PPV), or spoil the balance of release windows and the geographic management of content distribution. According to Currah (2006, pp. 461-463), the executives best placed to authorize such changes are not likely to be around to see the long-range benefits and thus they opt for the stability and predictability of the status quo.

Both industry leaders and creative workers worry about a loss of control as they grant audiences a more active role in the design, circulation, and promotion of media content; they see relations between consumers and producers as a zero-sum game where one party gains at the expense of the other. For the creative, the fear is a corruption of their artistic integrity, according to what Deuze (2006) calls an editorial logic (where decisions are governed by the development and maintenance of reputations within the professional community). For the business side, the greatest fear is the idea that consumers might take something they made and not pay them for it, according to a market logic (where decisions are governed by the desire to expand markets and maximize profits). A series of law suits which have criminalized once normative consumer practices have further inflamed relations between consumers and producers.

If the hope that consumers will generate value around cultural properties has fueled the collaborationist logic, these tensions between producers and consumers motivate the prohibitionist approach towards so-called “disruptive technologies” and practices. If the collaborationist approach welcomes fans as potential allies, the prohibitionist approach sees fans as a threat to their control over the circulation of, and production of meaning around, their content. Consumers are read as “pirates” whose acts of repurposing and recirculation constitute theft. The prohibitionist approach seeks to restrict participation, pushing it from public view. The prohibitionist response needs to be understood in the context of a renegotiation of the moral economy which shapes relations between media producers and consumers.

The economic and social historian E.P. Thompson (1971) introduced the concept of “moral economy” in his work on 18th century food riots, arguing that where the public challenges landowners, their actions are typically shaped by some “legitimizing notion.” He explains, “the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights and customs; and in general, that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community. In other words, the relations between landowners and peasants, or for that matter, between contemporary media producers and consumers, reflect the perceived moral and social value of those transactions. All participants need to feel that the involved parties behave in a morally appropriate fashion.

Jenkins (1992) introduced this concept of “moral economy” into fan studies, exploring the ways that fan fiction writers legitimate their appropriation of series content. Through their online communication, fan communities develop a firm consensus about the “moral economy”; this consensus provides a strong motivation for them to speak out against media producers who they feel are “exploiting” their relationship or damaging the franchise. The growing popularity of illegal downloads amongst music consumers, for example, reflects the oft-spoken belief that the record labels are “ripping off” consumers and artists alike through inflated prices and poor contractual terms. The controversy surrounding FanLib spread so rapidly because the fan community already had a well articulated understanding of what constituted appropriate use of borrowed materials. Fans objected to profiting from fan fictions both because they saw their work as gifts which circulated freely within a community of fellow fans, and because they believed rights holders were more apt to take legal action to shut down their activities if money was changing hands (Jenkins 2007a).

In a review of the concept of the “moral economy” in the context of a discussion of digital rights management, Alec Austin (et. al. 2006) writes, “Thompson’s work suggested that uprisings (or audience resistance) was most likely to occur when powerful economic players try to shift from existing rights and practices and towards some new economic regime. As they do so, these players seem to take away “rights” or rework relationships which were taken for granted by others involved in those transactions.” A period of abrupt technological and economic transition destabilizes relations between media producers and consumers. Consumers defend perceived rights and practices long taken for granted, such as the production and circulation of “mix tapes”, while corporations try to police behaviors such as file sharing, which they see as occurring on a larger scale and having a much larger public impact. Both sides suspect the other of exploiting the instability created by shifts in the media infrastructure.

This moral economy includes not simply economic and social obligations between producers and consumers but also social obligations to other consumers. As Ian Condry (2004) explains, “Unlike underwear or swim suits, music falls into the category of things you are normally obligated to share with your dorm mates, family, and friends. Yet to date, people who share music files are primarily represented in media and business settings as selfish, improperly socialized people who simply want to get something — the fruits of other people’s labor — for free.” Industry discourse depicting file-sharers (or downloaders, depending on your frame of reference) as selfish doesn’t fully acknowledge the willingness of supporters to spend their own time and money to facilitate the circulation of valued content, whether in the form of a “mix tape” given to one person or a website with sound files that can be downloaded by any and all. Enthusiasts face these costs in hopes that their actions will generate greater interest in the music they love and that sharing music may reinforce their ties to other consumers. Condry says he finds it difficult to identify any moral argument against file sharing which young people find convincing, yet he has been able to identify a range of reasons why people might voluntarily choose to pay for certain content (to support a favorite group or increase the viability of marginalized genres of music). The solution may not be to criminalize file-sharing but rather to increase social ties between artists and fans.

Contemporary conflicts about intellectual property emerge when individual companies or industries shift abruptly between collaborationist and prohibitionist models. Hector Postigo (2008) has documented growing tensions between game companies and modders when companies have sought to shut down modding projects which tread too closely onto their own production plans or go in directions the rights holders did not approve. Because there has been so much discussion of the economic advantages of co-creation, modders often reject the moral and legal arguments for restraining their practice.

Some recent critics of Web 2.0 models deploy labor theory to talk about the activities of consumers within this new digital economy. The discourse of “Web 2.0” provides few models for how to compensate fan communities for the value they generate. Audience members, it is assumed, participate because they get emotional and social rewards from their participation and thus neither want nor deserve economic compensation. Tiziana Terranova (2000) has offered a cogent critique of this set of economic relationships in her work on “free labor”: “Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited….The fruit of collective cultural labor has been not simply appropriated, but voluntarily channeled and controversially structured within capitalist business practices.”

Consider, for example, Lawrence Lessig’s (2007) critique of an arrangement where LucasFilm would allow fans to “remix” Star Wars content in return for granting the company control over anything participants had generated in response to those materials. Lessig, writing in the Washington Post, described such arrangements as a modern day version of “sharecropping.” Fans were embracing something like this same critique in their response to FanLib, rejecting the idea that the company should be able to profit from their creative labor.

On the other end of the spectrum fall writers like Andrew Keen (2007), who suggests that the unauthorized circulation of intellectual property through peer-to-peer networks and the free labor of fans and bloggers constitute a serious threat to the long-term viability of the creative industries. Here, it is audience activity which exceeds the moral economy. In his nightmarish scenario, professional editorial standards are giving way to mob rule and the work of professional writers, performers, and media makers is being reduced to raw materials for the masses who show growing contempt for traditional expertise and disrespect for intellectual property rights. Keen concludes his book with a call to renew our commitment to older models of the moral economy, albeit ones that recognize the new digital realities: “The way to keep the recorded-music industry vibrant and support new bands and music is to be willing to support them with our dollars — to stop stealing the sweat of other people’s creative labor” (Keen 2007, p. 188).

Lessig, Terranova, and others see the creative industries as damaging the moral economy through their expectations of “free” creative labor, while Keen sees the media audiences as destroying the moral economy through their expectations of “free” content. Read side by side, the competing visions of consumers as “sharecroppers” and “pirates” reflects the breakdown of trust on all sides. The sunny Web 2.0 rhetoric about constructing “an architecture for participation” papers over these conflicts, masking the set of choices and compromises which need to be made if a new moral economy is going to emerge.

Final Thoughts

Rebuilding this trust relationship requires embracing, rather than resisting, the changes to the economic, social, and technological infrastructure we have described. The prohibitionist stance adopted by some companies and industry bodies denies the changed conditions in which the creative industries operate, trying to force participatory culture to conform to yesterday’s business practices. While prohibitionist companies want to maintain broadcast era patterns of control over content development and consumer relations, they hope to reap the benefits of the digital media space. NBC enjoyed the viral buzz that came with fans sharing the Saturday Night Live clip “Lazy Sunday” but issued a take down notice to YouTube to ensure the only copies available online came from NBC’s official site (within the proximity of their branding material and advertising) (Austin et al 2006). The network’s prohibition of file sharing reflects NBC’s discomfort with YouTube drawing advertising revenue from consumer circulation of its content. While perhaps completely defensible within broadcast era business logic, the decision ignored the ways that the spread of this content generated viewer interest in the broadcast series. For the network, the primary if not soul value of the content was as a commodity which could collect rents from consumers and advertisers alike. In attempting to re-embed “Lazy Sunday” within the distribution logics of the broadcast era, locking down both the channel and context of its distribution, NBC also attempted to re-embed the clip within an older conception of audience impressions. Many viewers responded according to this same logic – skipping both commercials and content in favor of producers who offered them more favorable terms of participation.

Navigating through participatory culture requires a negotiation of the implicit social contract between media producers and consumers, balancing the commodity and cultural status of creative goods. While this complex balance has always shaped creative industries, NBC struck down their fans in order to resolve other business matters, such as their relationships with advertisers and affiliates, sacrificing the cultural status of creative goods for their commodity value. The alternative approach is to find ways to capitalize on the creative energies of participatory audiences. Mentos’ successful management of the Mentos and soda videos that emerged online in 2006 represents a more collaborative approach. Noticing a fad around dropping Mentos mints into bottles of soda and filming the resulting eruption, Mentos permitted, supported and eventually promoted the playful use of their intellectual property. Mentos could have issued cease-and-desist notices to regulate their brand’s reputation, as FedEx did after a college student built a website featuring his dorm furniture made out of free FedEx boxes (Vranica and Terhune 2006). Instead, Mentos capitalized on the cultural capital its product had acquired, collaborating with audiences to construct a new brand image. Engaging and promoting fan engagement offers media companies a more positive outcome than attempting the wack-a-mole game of trying to quash grassroots appropriation wherever it arises. Doing so also brings corporations into direct contact with lead users, revealing new markets and unanticipated uses.

The renegotiation of the moral economy requires a commitment on the part of participatory audiences to respect intellectual property rights. We see the potential of rebuilding consumers’ good will when anime fans cease circulating fan subbed content when it is made commercially available or when gamers support companies that offer them access to modding tools. Collaborationist approaches recognize and respect consumer engagement while demanding respect in return. Working with and listening to engaged consumers can result in audiences who help to patrol intellectual property violations; though their investment may not be measured according to the same market logics as the production and distribution companies, fans are likewise invested in the success of creative content. In doing so, media companies not only acknowledge the cultural status of the commodities they create, they’re in a position to harness the passionate energies of fans.


Anderson, C. (2006) The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Hyperion, New York.

Ang, I. (1991) Desperately Seeking the Audience. Routledge, New York.

Askwith, I. with Jenkins, H., Green, J., & Crosby, T. (2006). This is Not (Just) An Advertisement: Understanding Alternate Reality Games. Report Prepared for the Members of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, Cambridge.

Austin, A. with Jenkins, H., Green, J., Askwith, I., & Ford, S. (2006). Turning Pirates into Loyalists: The Moral Economy and an Alternative Response to File Sharing. Report Prepared for the Members of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, Cambridge.

Banks, J. (2002) Gamers as Co-creators: enlisting the Virtual Audience – A Report from the Net Face. In: Balnaves, M., O’Regan, T., & Sternberg, J. (eds.) Mobilising the Audience. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, pp.188-212.

________ (2005) Opening the Production Pipeline: Unruly Creators. Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views – Worlds in Play. University of Vancouver, Vancouver.

Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Boutin, P. (2006) Web 2.0: The new Internet “boom” doesn’t live up to its name. Slate, 29 March,

Brabham, D. (2008) Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14, 75-90.

Bruns, A. (2007a) Produsage, Generation C, and Their Effects on the Democratic Process. Media in Transitions 5: Creativity, Ownership, and Collaboration in the Digital Age, MIT, Cambridge.

________ (2007b) Produsage: Towards a Broader Framework for User-Led Content Creation. Creativity & Cognition Conference: Seeding Creativity: Tools, Media, and Environments, Washington DC.

Camper, B. (2005) Homebrew and the Social Construction of Gaming: Community, Creativity and Legal Context of Amateur Game Boy Advance Development. Thesis, Comparative Media Studies Program, MIT, Cambridge.

Condry, I. (2004) Cultures of Music Piracy: An Ethnographic Comparison of the US and Japan. International Journal of Cultural Studies 7, 343-363.

Currah, A. (2006) Hollywood Versus the Internet: The Media and Entertainment Industries in a Digital and Networked Economy. Journal of Economic Geography 6, 439-468.

Dena, C. (2008) Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14, 41-57.

Deuze, M. (2006) Media Work and Institutional Logics, Deuzeblog.

________ (2007) Media Work. Polity, London.

Fiske, J. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture. Routledge, New York.

Ford, S. with Jenkins, H. & Green, J. (2007) Fandemonium: A Tag Team Approach to Enabling and Mobilizing Fans. Report Prepared for the members of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, Cambridge.

________ with Jenkins, H., McCracken, G., Shahani, P., Askwith, I., Long, G., & Vedrashko, I. (2006) Fanning the Audience’s Flames: Ten Ways to Embrace and Cultivate Fan Communities. Report Prepared for the members of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, Cambridge.

Frank, B. (2004) Changing Media, Changing Audiences. Remarks at the MIT Communication Forum, Cambridge.

Hartley, J. (1987) Invisible Fictions: Television Audiences, Paedocracy, Pleasure. Textual Practice 1, 121-138.

Hatcher, J. S. (2005) Of Otakus and Fansubs: A Critical Look at Anime Online in Light of Current Issues in Copyright Law. Script-ed 2, 514-542.

Horowitz, B. (2006) Creators, Synthesizers and Consumers. Elatable, 17 February,

Humphreys, S., Fitzgerald, B. F., Banks, J. A., & Suzor, N. P. (2005) Fan Based Production for Computer Games: User Led Innovation, the ‘Drift of Value’ and the Negotiation of Intellectual Property Rights. Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy 114, 16-29.

Jenkins, H. (1988) Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Fiction as Textual Poaching. Reprinted in Jenkins, H. (2006) Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York University Press, New York.

________ (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge, New York.

________ (2006a) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press, New York.

________ (2006b) From a ‘Must’ Culture to a ‘Can’ Culture: Legos and Lead Users. Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 4 October,

________ (2006c) So What Happened to Star Wars Galaxies?. Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 21 July,

________ (2006d) Snake Eyes. Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 24 August,

________ (2006e) Triumph of a Time Lord: An Interview with Matt Hills. Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 28 September,

________ (2007a) Transforming Fan Culture into User-Generated Content: The Case of FanLib. Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 22 May,

________ (2007b) Four Eyed Monsters and Collaborative Curation. Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 19 February,

Keen, A. (2007) The Cult of the Amateur: How the Democratization of the Digital World is Assaulting Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values. Doubleday, New York.

Koster, R. (2006) User-Created Content. Raph Koster’s Website, 20 June,

Kozinets, R. (2007) Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia. In: Cova, B., Kozinets, R., & Shankar, A. (eds.) Consumer Tribes. Elsevier, London, pp.194-211.

Lessig, L. (2007) Lucasfilm’s Phantom Menace. Washington Post, 12 July,

Leonard, S. (2005) Progress Against the Law: Anime and Fandom, with the Key to the Globalization of Culture. International Journal of Cultural Studies 8, 281-305.

Levy, P. (1997) Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Plenum Trade, New York.

Levy, S. & Stone, B. (2006) The New Wisdom of the Web. Newsweek, 3 April, pp.46-53.

McCracken, G. (1997) Plenitude: Culture by Commotion. Periph: Fluide, Toronto.

________ (2005) ‘Consumers’ or ‘Multipliers’: A New Language for Marketing?. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics, 10 November,

O’Reilly, T. (2005) What Is Web 2.0?: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software. O’Reilly, 30 September,

Perryman, N. (2008) Doctor Who and the Convergence of Media: A Case Study in ‘Transmedia Storytelling’ Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14, 21-39.

Postigo, H. (2008) Video Game Appropriation through Modifications: Attitudes Concerning Intellectual Property among Modders and Fans. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14, 59-74.

Pine, B. J. and Gilmore, J. H. (1999) The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage. Harvard Business School Press, Boston.

Roberts, K. (2004) Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands. Powerhouse Books, New York.

Rosen, J. (2006) The People Formerly Known as the Audience. PressThink, 27 June,

Shirky, C. (2000) RIP The Consumer,1900-1999. Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet: Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source, May,

Squire, K. D. & Steinkuehler, C. (2000) The Genesis of ‘Cyberculture’: The Case of Star Wars Galaxies. In: Gibbs, D. & Krause, K. L. (eds.) Cyberlines: Languages and Cultures of the Internet. James Nicholas Publishers, Albert Park, Australia.

Taylor, T. L. (2006) Does WoW Change Everything?: How a PvP Server, Multinational Player Base, and Surveillance Mod Scene Caused Me Pause. Games and Culture 1, 318-337.

Thompson, E.P. (1971) The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century. Past and Present 50, 76-136.

Terranova, T. (2000) Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy. Social Text 63, 33-58. Retrieved online at:

Toffler, A. (1980) The Third Wave. Collins, London.

Vranica, S. & Terhune, C. (2006) Mixing Diet Coke and Mentos Makes a Gusher of Publicity. Wall Street Journal, 12 June,

Von Hippel, E. (2005) Democratizing Innovation. MIT Press, Cambridge.

The Moral Economy of Web 2.0 (Part Three)

The Value of Engagement and Participation

“Corporations will allow the public to participate in the construction and representation of their creations or they will, eventually, compromise the commercial value of their properties. The new consumer will help to create value or they will refuse it… Corporations have a right to keep copyright but they have an interest in releasing it.” –Grant McCracken (1997)

At the most basic level, the distribution and publicity mechanisms of networked computing renders visible the often “invisible” labor fans perform in supporting their favorite properties. As Jenkins explains:

If old consumers were assumed to be passive, then new consumers are active. If old consumers were predictable and stayed where you told them, then new consumers are migratory, showing a declining loyalty to networks or media. If old consumers were isolated individuals, then new consumers are more socially connected. If the work of media consumers was once silent and invisible, then new consumers are now noisy and public (Jenkins 2006a, pp. 18-19).

Fans act as “grassroots intermediaries,” shaping the circulation of media content at a moment when the industry is concerned about market fragmentation. The result has been a revaluing of fan loyalty and participation based on “affective economics” (Jenkins 2006a). Older audience measurements were based on the concept of “impressions,” counting the number of eyeballs watching a particular program at a particular time. Scaling up via samples said to be statistically significant, this counting determined the potential number of people exposed to advertisements. An impressions model assesses the frequency of exposure and contexts where ads are placed. Over time, “impressions” have been supplemented by demographic measurements, seeking more precise information about the kinds of viewers watching particular programs, given that different “demos” hold different value for different brands.

These same companies now search for signs of audience activity and “engagement.” For example, research done by Initiative Media found that less than ten percent of the viewers of most network television shows regard the program to be a favorite, while some shows — especially cult programs — are regarded as top choices by as many as 50 percent of their viewers (as described in Jenkins 2006a). The research, further developed through a close study of viewers of American Idol, suggests that viewers watching a favorite series were twice as likely as more casual viewers to pay attention to advertisements, less likely to switch channels during commercial breaks, and had significantly higher brand recall. Almost half of loyal American Idol viewers search the web for more information about the show and thus had more extensive exposure to affiliated brand messages. The researchers advised their industry clients that a show with a high level of engagement may be a better investment than a program with higher overall ratings but only superficial audience interest.

Under this model, the value of consumer loyalty is still being read primarily in relation to traditional consumption roles: watching television programs and purchasing advertised products. Other companies push further, developing feedback mechanisms which tap consumer’s individual and collective insights to refine the production process. In his book Democratizing Innovation, Eric Von Hippel (2005) describes how manufacturers have enabled low cost innovation by closely engaging with their “lead users.” The earliest adopters frequently adapt products to their particular needs and interests. By incorporating these “lead users” into the design process, Von Hippel argues, companies can discover new and unanticipated uses for their products or locate untapped markets. Von Hippel talks about the emergence of an “innovation commons” as companies monitor social networks for user insights. In some cases, companies actively solicit such feedback throughout their design and development process; Lego engaged its most hardcore fans in a feedback loop when improving its Mindstorms product (Jenkins 2006b). “Crowdsourcing” constitutes a more formalized version of the innovation commons: companies such as Threadless, iStockphoto, and InnoCentive solicit design ideas from their consumers, using their online community to weight their attractiveness, and sharing revenue with the amateur creators whose products the companies produce and distribute (Brabham 2008).

While Von Hippel writes about manufacturing processes, similar practices occur within the creative industries. Historically, fan cultures have most often involved what the industry regarded as “fringe viewers” who fell outside of the desired demographic — for example, the most active reworking of program content came from female fans of action-adventure series or adult fans of children’s culture (Ford et al. 2006). Increasingly, more sophisticated companies pay attention to such “surplus” consumers because they represent ways of extending their potential market. Modest shifts in the program content, for example, spending more time on a beloved secondary character or adding more serial elements, can broaden interest while spin-off products sometimes directly target these consumers. Similarly, some video game companies (Jenkins 2006a) allow player access to development tools , resulting in a “mod” culture where amateur designers produce and circulate “skins” for characters, new levels of game play, or animated films (machinima). Mods provide a low cost, minimal risk way of determining what refinements might generate consumer interests. Minimally, these practices extend the shelf life of the original products (since the amateur content can only be played with the original software) and in some cases, these companies have hired these amateur designers or contracted to distribute their mods as part of official expansion packs (Camper 2005).

As John Banks (2002; 2005) discusses, Brisbane-based developer Auran distributes player-modded elements of their train simulator Trainz. The company develops a “third party developers” relationship with these amateur co-creators, enabling Auran to better align their product with the community’s desires. Auran has effectively expanded its workforce by releasing design guidelines and production tools and providing enthusiasts access to Auran’s professional design team. These amateur teams sometimes generate labor intensive features the company couldn’t otherwise afford to produce. This model has been so successful for Auran that they also use the fan network to manage the distribution and promotion of their product at gamer events.

Harnessing productive fans is not always so straightforward. Raph Koster, the man in charge of the development of the multiplayer game, Star Wars Galaxies, incorporated the fans of George Lucas’s science fiction saga as clients in the design process, making early specs for the game available via the web (Squire et al. 2000; Jenkins 2006a). Koster’s early courtship of these fans resulted in an immediate fan base when the game launched but power struggles within the company (2006c) resulted in significant deviations from the recommended policies. Retooling the game in hopes of expanding its market, the company alienated the original players without generating new interest. Van Hippel (2005) acknowledges that the earliest adopters are not necessarily representative of the larger market and thus their insights need to be weighed carefully in predicting market interest. Moreover, incorporating users into the design process requires trust; companies risk alienation and backlash when they pull back from what consumers perceive as commitments.

Tapping a creative user-base requires balancing market and non-market motivations. Discussing the Auran example, Humphreys et al. note that hobbyists often operate along different timetables than publishers. Motivated by passion, interest, and social rewards, amateur developers often fall behind timetables and they demand more attention than companies can afford. Humphreys et al argue this relationship reveals not the exploitative nature of mobilizing users as co-creators, but the complexity of the power relationships shaping participatory culture.

In other cases, fans play curatorial roles. For example, American fans of Japanese anime grab content which has not yet been imported, circulating copies through an underground circuit with their own amateur subtitles. While some companies might shut down such “piracy,” the Japanese companies watched this black market closely but allowed it to continue. These “fansubbing” practices are credited with identifying properties with American appeal and educating consumers about unfamiliar genres (Jenkins 2006a; Leonard, 2005). Commercial distributors often draw heavily on titles with fan bases established through underground circulation. In many cases, fans have stopped circulating their amateur versions to ensure a viable market (Hatcher 2005). Sam Ford (et al. 2007) argues something similar has occurred among fans of American wrestling, where the underground circulation of wrestling tapes indicated a market for the World Wrestling Entertainment’s archives.

Accordingly, Wired Magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson’s (2006) idea of the “Long Tail” has become a major preoccupation within the creative industries. Drawing on examples such as Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes, Anderson argues that rather than focusing primarily on a small number of expensive properties with generalized viewership, media producers should produce and distribute lower cost materials which may appeal to a range of niche audiences. While most physical stores can only stock those titles which quickly move units, online distribution can sustain a vast backlist. Anderson argues that the “long tail” of storehouse titles will collectively generate greater revenue than the most popular titles. Anderson’s model suggests profit from niche markets depends on lowering promotional expenses (by relying more heavily on “buzz” from impassioned and empowered consumers) and distribution costs (through online exchanges). MySpace represents a good example of how this process works: the social network site is a favorite among bands — big and small — who want to identify and get information out to their most hardcore fans; here fans form “friend” groups, whose music they like, and then pass cuts along to their friends. Bands, in turn, use their sites to get word out about concerts or allow fans to sample new releases. Similar ideas have been embraced by independent media producers of all kinds. For example, the producers of the independent film, Four Eyed Monsters, have used a range of different Web 2.0 platforms to generate public awareness of their production (Jenkins 2007b). They have, for example, encouraged potential viewers to register their interest in seeing the film. As they identify sufficient numbers of interested viewers in any given locale, they solicit exhibitors, demonstrating a ready market in their area. Some television producers have proposed that fans of cult media producers might sign up in advance, funding the production and distribution of new properties (Jenkins 2006a). A smaller number of shareholders or subscribers might sustain programs which otherwise didn’t meet the Nielsen ratings bar required for broadcast television.

If media companies were monitoring fan conversations, they still didn’t necessarily understand what they were hearing. In mid-2006, New Line Cinema responded to online anticipation for B-grade horror-thriller Snakes on a Plane. Based on fan feedback, the film went back into production six months after principal photography had concluded to re-shoot scenes to up the films rating to an R (from PG-13) and add dialogue that emerged from fan discussions. Most famously, star Samuel L. Jackson delivered the line, “I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane,” which originated in a popular Internet parody. Taking a hands-off approach to fan use of Snakes intellectual property (IP), the studio showcased mash-up trailers, artwork, and t-shirts through their official website and relied heavily on the buzz rather than critics previews or expensive marketing campaigns to “open” the movie. This online buzz generated its own interest, both online and off, setting up high box office expectations.

When it failed to deliver a blockbuster opening, Snakes was quickly declared a bomb. This measurement of achievement, however, seems a narrow assessment of its success. While domestic box office didn’t match inflated expectations, the energy around the property created by grassroots intermediaries produced pre- and post-opening revenue streams in the form of marketing, merchandising, and ad-sales opportunities a B-grade film like Snakes might not be expected to generate, and, as Jenkins (2006d) notes, a significant measure of the film’s success will come further down the tail as Snakes succeeds or fails to generate more revenues as it is released on DVD or shown by campus film societies. The media confused the internet fan following for a focus group, expecting it to scale out across the general population, rather than trying to understand the committed niche audience it attracted. Accounting for its success as a cultural phenomenon requires a more nuanced mode of measurement than box office revenue.

In each of these examples, companies are re-appraising the value of fan engagement and participation — in some cases, openly collaborating with fans and in others, allowing fans some free space to repurpose their content towards their own ends. Yet, each also suggests potential conflicts since fan and corporate interests are never perfectly aligned.

The Moral Economy of Web 2.0 (Part Two)

Convergence Culture

“The historic role of the consumer has been nothing more than a giant maw at the end of the mass media’s long conveyer belt, the all-absorbing Yin to the mass media’s all-producing Yang….In the age of the internet, no one is a passive consumer anymore because everyone is a media outlet.” — Clay Shirkey (2000)

Push-button publishing, citizen journalism, and pro-amateur creative activities dominated early conceptions of the ways digitization would change media production. Newer, so-called “Web 2.0” companies integrate participatory components into their business plans. These activities run from feedback forums and beta-tests to inviting audiences to produce, tag, or remix content. Online services regularly collected under the banner of ‘Web 2.0’ such as photo sharing site flickr, social networking sites MySpace and Facebook, and video uploading sites such as YouTube and Veoh, have built entire business plans on the back of user-generated content. Software companies engage users as beta-testers and co-creators of content (Banks 2002). Marketing departments build puzzles, scavenger hunts, and interactive components into websites and mixed-media campaigns to generate buzz around branded entertainment properties. Technological, cultural, and marketplace changes make such tactics a necessity.

Henry Jenkins (2006a) describes many of these changes in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The book’s argument might be reduced to the following core claims – that convergence is a cultural, rather than technological, process; that networking computing encourages collective intelligence; that a new form of participatory culture is emerging; and that skills acquired through ‘leisure’ activities are increasingly being applied in more “serious” contexts.

1. Convergence is a cultural rather than a technological process. We now live in a world where every story, image, sound, idea, brand, and relationship will play itself out across all possible media platforms.

Convergence is understood here not as the bringing together of all media functions within a single device but rather as a cultural logic involving an ever more complex interplay across multiple channels of distribution. A decade ago, people predicted the digital revolution would displace older one-to-many broadcast media systems with newer many-to-many modes of communication. Today, the major changes emerge from the interactions between old and new media, sometimes working in concert (as in transmedia storytelling or branding efforts) and sometimes in opposition (as when consumers use new media channels to talk back to media conglomerates.). This convergence is being shaped both by media conglomerates’ desires to exploit “synergies” between different divisions and consumer demands for media content where, when, and in what form they want it.

2. In a networked society, people are increasingly forming knowledge communities to pool information and work together to solve problems they could not confront individually. We call that collective intelligence.

This capacity of consumers to work together across geographic and social distances has been at the heart of Web 2.0 discourse. Networked communities, as Pierre Levy (1997) has suggested, represent an alternative source of knowledge and power which intersect, but remain autonomous from, the transnational reach of consumer capitalism and the sovereignty of nation-states over their citizens. Web 2.0 companies incorporate and embrace (in Tim O’Reilly’s (2005) terms, “harness”) this collective intelligence rather than allowing it to exist as an independent source of consumer power and critique.

3. We are seeing the emergence of a new form of participatory culture (a contemporary version of folk culture) as consumers take media in their own hands, reworking its content to serve their personal and collective interests.

Patterns of media consumption have been profoundly altered by new media technologies that enable us to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content. An increasingly more digitally enabled and media literate population has taken tools once the reserve of professional media producers and made reworking photographs, video, and music a routine practice. The “remixability” of media content, shared platforms for the distribution of grassroots media, and the social networks that have grown up around media properties are reshaping audience expectations about the entertainment experience.

4. We are acquiring skills now through our play and recreational lives which we will later apply towards more serious ends.

This logic of participation is extending from consumer relations within the entertainment industry towards a broader range of interactions, including the interface of political candidates and government agencies with consumers, ministers with congregations, corporations with their employees, and educators with students. Indeed, as Yochai Benkler (2006) argues in his book, The Wealth of Networks, the emergence of new media technologies, platforms, and practices results in a hybrid media ecology, where commercial, amateur, nonprofit, governmental, and educational media producers interact in ever more complex ways, often deploying the same media channels towards very different ends. These groups come together at YouTube, which has provided a distribution channel, or Second Life, which has provided a meeting ground for diverse companies, institutions, and subcultural communities. A model based purely on amateur consumers and commercial producers can’t adequately account for the diverse points of intersection between these various stakeholders. Far from the frictionless economy envisioned by some corporate gurus, there seems to be rather a lot of friction when one looks closely at any point of contact between these groups.

Produsers and Other Participatory Audiences

“The term multiplier may help marketers acknowledge more forthrightly that whether our work is a success is in fact out of our control. All we can do is to invite the multiplier to participate in the construction of the brand by putting it to work for their own purposes in their own world. When we called them “consumers” we could think of our creations as an end game and their responses as an end state. The term “multiplier” or something like it makes it clear that we depend on them to complete the work.” — Grant McCracken (2005)

How audiences are imagined is crucial to the organization of media industries (Ang 1991; Hartley 1987), which rely on such mental models to shape their interface with their public. Convergence culture brings with it a re-conceptualization of the audience – how it is comprised, how it is courted, what it wants, and how to generate value from it. Increasingly, audiences are valued not simply based on what they consume but also on what they produce. The audience is no longer the end point along an industrial chain, and as Bruns (2007a n.p.) argues, they no longer need to “resort to auxiliary media forms.”

There are many new labels for “those people formerly known as the audience” (Rosen, 2006). Some call them (us, really) “loyals,” (Jenkins 2006a) stressing the value of consumer commitment in an era of channel zapping. Some are calling them “media-actives,” (Frank 2004) stressing a generational shift with young people expecting greater opportunities to reshape media content than their parents did. Some are calling them “prosumers,” (Toffler, 1980) suggesting that as consumers produce and circulate media, they are blurring the line between amateur and professional. Some are calling them “inspirational consumers” (Roberts 2004), “connectors” or “influencers,” suggesting that some people play a more active role than others in shaping media flows. Grant McCracken (2005) calls them “multipliers,” stressing their role in proliferating the values and meanings that get attached to particular brands. Each label describes audience practices related to, but significantly different from, the construction of the active audience within media and cultural studies’ discussions in the 1970s and 1980s. To talk about participatory audiences now is to talk about how differently-abled, differently resourced, and differently motivated media producers work in the same space. Consumption in a networked culture is a social rather than individualized practice.

Describing the productive consumption within collaborative projects such as the Wikipedia and online news sites, Axel Bruns (2007 a, b) introduces the concept of the ‘produser’, a “hybrid user/producer” (2007a n.p.) involved in “the collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in the pursuit of further improvement” (2007b n.p.). Produsers contribute to the iterative improvement of goods and services, whether explicitly, in the form of online news sites (Slashdot, Digg) or knowledge projects (Wikipedia), or perhaps without their conscious knowledge, as happens when user purchase decisions contribute to Amazon’s recommendation services.

Bruns (2007b) outlines four characteristics of produsage, describing a system built on community logics of re-use and permission rather than commercial logics of ownership and restriction. Produsage relies on the belief that with enough size and diversity, the

community can achieve “more than a closed team of professionals” (ibid.). This community is flexibly organized and affords fluid participation. Not only do users move between status as producers and consumers, they participate as much as they are able to, depending on their skill, time, desire, interest, and knowledge. This fluidity reflects the ‘ad-hoc’ basis of collective intelligence and the ways participatory audiences self-organize to achieve complex tasks. It also means the community is invested in

the re-use and continued development of the “unfinished artifacts” it produces. Rather than commercial products, the fruits of produsage are open to iterative development and re-development. As such, produsage privileges what Bruns describes as “permissive

regimes of engagement”, where artifacts are licensed under copyright schemes that allow community re-development but prohibit the commercial uses, especially those that in close off these development rights.

Just as Bruns’ category of the produser suggests a blurring of the role of producer and user, these trends also suggest a blurring of the historic distinction between fan and “average” consumer. As the web has made fan culture more accessible to a larger public and as digital tools have made it easier to perform such activities, a growing portion of the population now engages in what might once have been described as fannish modes of consumption. Describing pyramids of participation, some commentators note that the most labor intensive activities are still performed by a self-selected few, while more casual modes of participation extend to a larger population (Horowitz 2006; Koster 2006). It matters that these more casual consumers have the option of a more intensified engagement even if they choose not to participate at that level. But research needs to extend beyond the most visible members of fan communities to encompass more mundane and casual modes of consumption.

While Bruns links produsage to collaborative news gathering, citizen journalism, and the Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) movement, these core characteristics also describe fan behaviors around branded entertainment. Robert Kozinets (2007) uses the term “wikimedia” production to describe the behavior of Star Trek fan filmmakers, who, in backyards, basements, and home-made studios, have been creating and distributing unofficial “episodes” using high quality equipment and state of the art special effects. Star Trek: New Voyages, for example, hopes to complete the original Enterprise’s intended five-year mission (cut short after three seasons) while others raise questions not addressed on the air (including, for example, satisfying a long standing but never fulfilled promise of explicitly queer characters). Kozinets compares this production process, where fans add not only to the original text but also correct, comment on and contribute to other fan productions, to the collaborative process that is generating Wikipedia, a user-built online encyclopedia. Wikimedia is the application of an open source model to branded entertainment – often operating outside but in dialogue with the processes that generate commercial culture (Kozinets 2007, p. 198).

These “collaborative media creators”, like produsers, are motivated by a desire to enrich the community of fellow fans. In doing so, Kozinets argues they are also promoting the Star Trek brand, strengthening and prolonging its market value. Looking towards the future, these amateur productions are also providing a training ground from which writers, directors, and producers of any future Star Trek series might be recruited. Something similar occurred around the British television series, Doctor Who, which was off the air for more than a decade but rebounded, in part, based on talent recruited from the fan community (Perryman 2008; Jenkins 2006e). Several of these fan media productions have involved active collaboration with the original creators (actors, writers, and technical crew) from the official Star Trek franchise. Kozinet’s description of Star Trek fan cinema challenges the ways that fans have been depicted both within the political economy tradition (as passive consumers of mass generated content rather than as active participants in cultural production and circulation) and within the cultural studies tradition (as autonomous or resistant subcultures rather than as collaborators with commercial shareholders).

The roles of producer and consumer are being blurred further within the new media landscape. Mark Deuze’s Media Work (2007) traces these shifts in the relations between media producers and consumers across the advertising, film and television, news, and games industries as part of a larger pattern of changes in the ways creative work is organized and monetized. Deuze notes, however, that companies often feel threatened by the ways this shift of power and responsibility towards consumers disrupts older practices; many companies limit participation, even as they recognize its potential for generating revenue.

The Moral Economy of Web 2.0 (Part One)

I wrote the following essay on the cultural politics around web 2.0 with Joshua Green, a post-doc in the CMS program, who is speerheading the Convergence Culture Consortium and who is my partner in crime in organizing the Futures of Entertainment conferences. Green came to us from the Creative Industries program at Queensland University of Technology. This paper blends work out of Queensland on creative industries with work out of MIT on Convergence Culture. Green is currently completing a book manuscript about Youtube with Jean Burgess, who was interviewed here at my blog earlier this year.

The Moral Economy of Web 2.0:

Audience Research and Convergence Culture

Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins

“The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence….The lesson: Network effects from user contributions are the key to market dominance in the Web 2.0 era.” — Tim O’Reilly (2005)

please describe web 2.0 to me in 2 sentences or less.

you make all the content. they keep all the revenue.” —

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, fans were emblematic of audience resistance (Jenkins,1992; Fiske, 1989), understood as actively appropriating and transforming mass media content as raw materials for their own cultural productions. Mass media depicted fans as living in the shadows of mass culture (if not the basements of their parent’s suburban split-level houses), and media companies saw their tastes and concerns as “unrepresentative” of the general population. By the early 21st century, fans have been redefined as the drivers of wealth production within the new digital economy: their engagement and participation is actively being pursued, if still imperfectly understood, by media companies interested in adopting Web 2.0 strategies of user-generated content, social networks, and “harness[ing] collective intelligence.” (O’Reilly 2005)

This new talk about “putting the We in the Web” (Levy and Stone 2006) was initially embraced as granting consumers greater influence over the decisions that impacted the production and distribution of culture. By 2007, contradictions, conflicts, and schisms have started to appear within the Web 2.0 paradigm around the imperfectly aligned interests of media producers and consumers.

Consider, for example,, a start-up company that included established media players such as Titanic producer Jon Landau and entertainment lawyer Jon Moonves as advisors, and former Yahoo CMO Anil Singh as Chairman (Jenkins 2007a). FanLib began by hosting officially sponsored fan fiction competitions around The L Word and The Ghost Whisperer. Soon, the company sought to become a general interest portal for all fan fiction, actively soliciting material from leading fan writers, deciding not to solicit prior approval from the studios and production companies. The company’s executives told fans they wanted to promote and protect fan fiction writing and informed initial corporate investors that they would teach fans how to “color within the lines.” When fans stumbled onto the corporate pitch online, there was an intense backlash which spread across blogs, LiveJournals, and various social networking sites.

Fans raised a number of objections. The company wanted to profit from content fans had historically circulated for free (and adding insult, they refused to share the generated revenues with the fan authors). This debate revealed a rift between the “gift economy” of fan culture and the commodity logic of “user-generated content.” At the same time, the company promised to increase the visibility of once cloaked fan activities, thus, fans argued, heightening the legal risk that media producers would put the entire community under closer legal scrutiny. (There has been an unofficial truce between fans and producers: most producers weren’t going after fan fiction sites as long as they didn’t intend to make money off of what they created.) Yet, denied that it bore any legal responsibility to defend fan writers against cease and desist letters from studios and networks. All of this fit within a growing debate about whether corporate distribution of user-generated content constitutes a form of unpaid outsourcing of creative labor, contributing to the downsizing of internal production teams (Scholz and Lovink 2007). These fans refused to be the victims of corporate exploitation, quickly and effectively rallying in opposition to FanLib and using their own channels of communication to inflect damage on its nascent brand. At the same time, did attract more than 18,000 participants (personal correspondence with Chris Williams, March 2008), including both those new to the world of fan fiction and thus not part of existing communities and those who, for whatever reason, felt disenfranchised from the existing fan fiction groups (Li, 2008).

This example shows how media companies are being forced to reassess the nature of consumer engagement and the value of audience participation in response to a shifting media environment characterized by digitization and the flow of media across multiple platforms, the further fragmentation and diversification of the media market, and the increased power and capacity of consumers to shape the flow and reception of media content. The result has been a constant pull and tug between top-down corporate and bottom-up consumer power with the process of media convergence shaped by decisions made in teenager’s bedrooms and in corporate boardrooms.

Mass media are increasingly operating in a context of participatory culture, but there is considerable anxiety about the terms of participation. Some media producers adopt what we are calling a collaborative approach, embracing audience participation, mobilizing fans as grassroots advocates, and capitalizing on user-generated content. Others adopt a prohibitionist posture. Frightened by a loss of control over the channels of media production and distribution and threatened by increasingly visible and vocal audience behavior, some companies tighten control over intellectual property, trying to reign in the disruptive and destabilizing impact of technological and cultural change. Most companies are torn between the two extremes, seeking a new relationship with their audiences which gives only as much ground as needed to maintain consumer loyalty.

This essay focuses on the resulting reworking of the “moral economy” that shapes the relations between producers and consumers. “Moral economy” refers to the social expectations, emotional investments, and cultural transactions which create a shared understanding between all participants within an economic exchange. The moral economy which governed old media companies has broken down and there are conflicting expectations about what new relationships should look like. The risks for companies are high, since alienated consumers have other options for accessing media content. The risks for consumers are equally high, since legal sanctions can stifle the emerging participatory culture.

To understand this debate, we must bridge between the historically separate spheres of audience studies and industry research. Industry research – at least within academic circles – has taken a top-down approach, emphasizing the power of media companies and the impact of the decisions they make upon the culture; audience research has historically taken a bottom-up approach, emphasizing audience interpretation and cultural production read in cultural rather than economic terms. The result has been two conflicting claims about the current state of our culture: one emphasizing media concentration and the narrowing of options; the other emphasizing the expansion of grassroots participation. This essay proposes to read these two trends against each other and in doing so, provoke a conversation between two sets of literatures – one derived from business research, the other derived from cultural and media studies. This conversation, in our case, is a literal one, since many of the ideas here emerged from work done through the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, which facilitates regular dialogues between academics and industry insiders. This conversation also reflects the increased focus on social and cultural factors, even among tech industries, as people come to grips with the implications of “web 2.0.” This conversation might also be understood in global terms as this article combines work done by American researchers interested in “convergence culture” with that done by Australian researchers focused on “creative industries” and “produsage.” Historically, both audience research and industry studies have concentrated on single media industries rather than examining trends which cut across different media sectors and platforms. Our contention is that this research increasingly needs to adopt a comparative or transmedia approach because of the increased flow of media content and audiences across every available platform and the speed with which developments in one media sector impact thinking in every other corner of the entertainment industry.


GDC Roundup 2008: Diversity and Innovation in the Contemporary Games Industry

Every Friday afternoon, the team at our GAMBIT Lab hosts a game critique session. Lab staff and students pick a theme, bring out a range of contemporary examples for people to play and pick apart, as the lab seeks to develop their own strategies for game design. GAMBIT’s remit commits it to trying to expand and diversify our understanding of games as a medium of expression. A few weeks ago, Eitan Glinert presented the group with his perspectives on the games which had been nominated or won awards at the recent Game Developers conference and they individually and collectively generated a lot of buzz and excitement in our group.

There is especial interest here in games which manipulate time and space in creative ways. Some years ago, I was part of a group which organized a series of Creative Leaders workshops for Electronic Art. One of the exercises we did was have game designers read passages from Alan Lightman’s novel, Einstein’s Dreams. Lightman, a physicist, was interested in describing worlds with radically different structures of time and space and then playing out how they would impact the lives of their residents. Our conversations with game designers focused on how they might giv e players the experience of “visiting” such worlds, though I have also had fun in class discussions getting students to imagine what it would mean to design media for the inhabitants of such worlds

Much of the creativity which Eitan saw exhibited at this year’s conference emerges from the newly revitalized indie games movement — a topic which we explored here through a series of interviews with Greg Costikyan, Stephanie Barish, and Eric Zimmerman a little over a year ago. I have long argued that games need a strong independent sector if they are going to escape the constraints which a studio mode of production can impose on artistic expression. This seems to have been the year where that surge of creativity was felt in the games industry much as this year’s Oscars reflected the continued creative dominance of independent films (not to mention the globalization of the movie industry, another topic for another day!)

In any case, the conversation which Eitan has started aroung GAMBIT was so interesting that I wanted to share it with my readers.

GDC 2008 Round Up

by Eitan Glinert

The Game Developer’s Conference, GDC for short, is the annual meeting of the entire video games industry: from studio executives to indie developer to academics, just about everyone who works with games for a living either attends or follows the proceedings. Last year I covered some of the more interesting presentations; this year I’ll discuss some of the prevalent themes to come out of the conference.

Conventional wisdom tells that commercial video games are generally derivative. Almost all first person shooters inherit huge portions of their gameplay from Doom, which in turn borrowed from Wolfenstein 3D. Most of today’s racing games have the same core game mechanics as Pole Position, an Atari offering from early 1980’s. Now, this isn’t to say there say that there hasn’t been any innovation; surely, objective based missions, multiplayer capabilities and narrative storylines have improved the FPS genre, likewise realistic graphics and physics engines have made racing games far more enjoyable. However, it seemed that these innovations tended to be incremental in nature, and that the best selling games tended to be the ones that didn’t stray too far from prior accomplishments (the Madden football series comes to mind).

Well, at least that was the conventional wisdom. Recently there has been a shift in the industry, and it seems like this year more than most innovation has been greatly rewarded. This was especially evident at the Game Developer’s and Independent Game Festival awards ceremonies, the video game world’s version of the Oscars. Many of the winners and nominees were relative newcomers with interesting new game mechanics, and these games frequently beat out competition from large studios with long standing franchises. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the “game of the year” category, in which Portal, a short puzzle game in which you use a personal wormhole generator to escape a prison-like lab, beat out favorites like Super Mario Galaxy and Rock Band.

I feel that much of what I saw can be grouped into three non-exclusive themes: Games as art, space/time manipulation games, and user generated + independent games.

Games as Art

I’ve heard a lot of talk about whether or not games can serve as art, and apparently several developers have tried to address this issue in the past year with games that have heavily artistic components. Nominated for just about every award out there, Everyday Shooter is a game by Jon Mak which, on it’s surface, is just a regular “shoot anything that moves” game. However, it presents itself in album format – each level has a unique song track that marks the level’s progression, and gameplay that reflects the mood of the song. When the song ends, so does the level. Jason Rohrer’s Passage, downloadable here, is a short and interesting game that has a lot to say about life. Winning the best downloadable game of the year, flOw is a beautiful game that has you exploring an ocean, eating other fish, and probably enjoying the relaxing experience. Finally, The Night Journey is an interesting experimental offering that really is more of an art piece than a game. In it, the player explores a strange valley during the last minutes of dusk before nightfall, meditating upon past experiences along the way.

Space/Time Manipulation Games

A second theme I noticed was the prevalence of games that focus on manipulating space and time in interesting new ways. The most well known of this group is Portal, which made huge waves this year with it’s puzzle/FPS/comedy mix. In the game you have a portal gun, which can shoot two sides of a wormhole upon (just about) any surface. These two sides are then linked in space, allowing users to rapidly hop between two remote locations. If the concept sounds confusing, pick up the game or watch one of the myriad youtube videos and it’ll make more sense. Another game called Fez has the user taking the role of a 2D avatar in a 3D world, shifting the world viewpoint to solve spatial puzzles.

Playing with time was also prominently showcased, with many popular games like Cursor x10 and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. In both these games, a single player is faced with what is essentially a multiplayer game, and needs to control different versions of himself in time to accomplish certain goals. Need to get over a gap? No problem, just clone yourself several times, and stand on a tower of you!

User Generated + Independent Games

With all this focus on new and innovate games, it should come as little surprise that the game dev environment is becoming much friendlier for indie developers (i.e. anyone with a computer, some talent, and the desire to make their own game). Microsoft announced the creation of the XBox community, which promises to be the youtube of the games world. Of course, it is only available on the Xbox 360, but at least it will give burgeoning developers the chance to release their work to the greater community. Microsoft should also be commended for releasing useful toolkits for these indie developers, the only real problem as I see it is the lack of a payment structure in which the person who made the game can actually make money off their work. Then again, youtube doesn’t have a payment structure, and there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of people clamoring to put their content out for the world to view.

Beyond the Microsoft announcement, many of the award winners and nominees were small, interesting games made by small or single person teams. Audiosurf, Crayon Physics, and World of Goo all took big honors, and show the creativity people can have when they think outside the realm of what’s normal for games. Even Portal started out as a small student project, with a few Digipen students creating the prototype as a Half Life 2 modification. Valve was smart enough to pick them up and now, two years later, they won best game of the year. Will other big developers follow their example?

What Will be Next?

So that’s my analysis of the big themes from this year’s GDC. I’m now going to do something dangerous and potentially foolish, and hazard a prediction about one interesting theme we’ll be seeing in coming years: new user interfaces. We’ve been playing video games for years with roughly the same interface – joystick(s), buttons, mouse, keyboard. But that’s now changing. We’ve already seen how new controllers like the Wiimote or Guitar Hero guitars can radically change how we interact with games. I suspect that the future games will really drive in this direction, and we’ll start seeing incredibly intuitive new user interfaces that are so natural that you don’t even need instructions to play. Several companies had their own take on head tracking virtual reality displays, copying work by Carnegie Mellon grad student Johnny Lee, and despite some hiccups during a live demo Emotiv had some interesting new brain motoring hardware which could be used as controller input. I think this is the tip of the iceberg, and that over the next few years we’ll see some really engaging new interfaces that will make today’s controllers seem quaint by comparison.

Eitan Glinert is a MIT Computer Science Master’s student, graduating this May. He’s worked on educational and accessible game titles like Immune Attack and AudiOdyssey, and most recently helped create Zen Waves, a digital take on the Zen garden. After graduating he will be doing a startup to explore how to make games with meaningful new user interfaces. For more information you can check out his blog at

If You Saw My Talk at South By Southwest…

On Saturday, Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good For You) and I delivered the opening remarks at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. Conference organizers told me that we were heard by around 2000 people, including those in the large auditorium and in various overflow rooms. So, I’ve got to figure that a certain percentage of those people are going to be visiting this blog for the first time in the next week so I am pulling together a guide to where they can read more about some of the topics we discussed. For the rest of you, you might want to check out this very elaborate chart which was “live drawn” during our discussion and which does a reasonably good job of mapping out some of the core topics.

For those of you who want to learn more about the New Media Literacies, you might want to check out the white paper my team wrote for the MacArthur Foundation which identifies 11 core skills and cultural competencies which we think young people need to acquire to become full participants in this emerging media culture. The MacArthur network has generated a series of books on key topics surrounding digital media and learning which can be downloaded for free.

If you’d like to read more about the politics of fear and the ways it blinds us to what’s really going on as young people engage with media, you should consider this blog post and this document which danah boyd and I co-authored in response to the push to regulate school and library access to social network software.

I discussed the concept of collective intelligence in relation to Wikipedia in this post, which is an early draft of an article which will appear soon in The Journal of Media Literacy. For the distinction I raised between “collective intelligence” and “the Wisdom of the crowds,” you might read this post which considers how both might be tapped through serious games.

Steven and I chatted a bit on the relative merits of The Wire (which I described as one of the best shows “inside the box”) and Lost (which I characterized as one of the best shows “outside the box”). Here’s an earlier discussion of Lost in relation to shifts in how we process television content. For a fuller consideration of Lost as a new form of television, you might check out CMS alum Ivan Askwith’s Masters Thesis on engagement television. For an interesting take on The Wire, see Jason Mittell’s essay here. And of course, Johnson’s own Everything Bad is Good For You brought the debate about complexity in popular culture to a much larger public.

I spoke at some length about Harry Potter fandom. These ideas are more fully developed in the “Why Heather Can Write” chapter of my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. I expanded my thinking on Harry Potter fandom this summer here at the blog. The remarks on Harry Potter were inspired in part by the fact that I appear in a new film (which I still haven’t seen), We are Wizards, which was premiering at the South by Southwest film festival.

I’ve had several people ask me about what I meant when I suggested that the amount of energy and creativity that surrounds fan culture might be understood, at least in part, in the context of a culture which fails to tap the full intelligence and creative energies of its citizens. I suggested that many of the women I had met in the fan fiction writing community, for example, held jobs, such as those of a librarian, school teacher, nurse, or nanny, which require high level of education for entry but often do not tap that knowledge as regularly as might be ideal. Many of these women use fan fiction as an outlet for their surplus creative energies, as a way of getting recognition for their accomplishments outside of the workplace, and as a means of forming community with others who share the same frustrations and fantasies. The same is true for fans of many other types: they are able to do much more outside of the workplace than they are allowed to do in their jobs. Someone asked me if I had meant women. Well, women are certainly as a group devalued and under-utilized in our society and this may account for why such a large number of them are participating in online communities of all kinds and accomplishing extraordinary things. But the same would be true of many other groups, including a larger number of young men. The point is that we look in the wrong direction when we pathologize fans for finding creative outlets through participatory culture rather than asking why America is not more actively cultivating that intelligence and creativity through every aspect of our society. (None of this is to suggest that fan activities are meaningless in their own right or need to be justified by appealing to more ‘serious’ values. As I also said during my remarks, humans do not engage in activities that are meaningless. If you think you see people doing things you find meaningless, look again and try to understand what the activities mean for them.)

We talked about the Obama campaign and its relationship to collective intelligence and social networks, a topic that I explored in my blog very recently. From there, we extended to talk about the concept of civic media, a topic which allowed Steve to talk about his new project,, and for me to talk about the work we are doing through the newly launched Center for Future Civic Media at MIT.

In response to a question from the audience, I spoke about the newly created Organization for Transformative Works, a project by and for fans, in response to the commercial exploitation and legal threats surrounding their culture. It’s a good example of how we can use the mechanics of participatory culture to exert pressure back on other institutions.

And if you want to hear my conversation last year with danah boyd, you can find it here.

For those of you who are new to this blog, welcome. Explore the backlog of posts. Stick around for more conversations on participatory culture, collective intelligence, and new media literacies.

Multimedia in Spanish Classrooms: Harry Potter Comes to School

The Comparative Media Studies Program often provides a temporary home to scholars from all over the world who want to learn more about our approaches to research and teaching. At the present time, we have scholars in residence from Spain, Denmark, Austria, China, and the Czech Republic. Spain’s Pillar Lacasa has come back for a second stay with us. Her background is in psychology and her current interests center around the educational use of computer games and other digital resources. She and her collaborators shared some of this research during the Media in Transition conference a year ago. Here, she shares some more of her impressions and insights based on field work in Spanish schools — in this case, work which involves teaching children and adults to think about what we call transmedia navigation. Here, she is using the Harry Potter franchise to encourage a closer attention to what each media platform brings to our experience of this popular adventure saga.


by Pilar Lacasa

Recently, Henry shared some field notes about the place of digital media in Chinese society, considering not just how particular people use these media, but also how this use has a specific meaning in the Chinese political and cultural context. He was speaking about the rhetorical use of the “games addiction” concept, which specifically considers that “playing games is problematic precisely because it is unproductive” i.e. that game-playing is taking up the time of young people that they could better be spending doing their school homework and preparing for standardized testing. Henry’s comments suggested to me that very similar reflections could be made about these debates in many other parts of the world.

Let me explain a little bit about Spain, my own country. Our team has been working in Spanish schools as participant researchers and ethnographers, exploring how games and other digital tools might be used to enhance education. Many families, some teachers and even school principals have complained to us about how children waste their time playing games or surfing the Internet looking for information that adults do not regard as very suitable for children. What are the reasons for these opinions? Put simply, many adults are afraid to approach these new worlds and digital universes that they don’t know how to explore or don’t find interesting.

When chatting with such adults and exploring these thoughts in more detail, we begin to understand than behind this less than enthusiastic approach to digital tools lie much stronger beliefs about what learning in and outside of school actually means. For many we spoke with, the idea of learning is related only to schoolwork, the content of the curriculum, and particularly those specific materials that have almost always been present in the classroom: books, paper and pencils, textbooks, etc. All of these cultural tools are associated with the academic culture and the school context. What people think is learning is closely related to the formal context in which people have traditionally always learnt; that is, the schools and the tools that have been used there for centuries. However, as educators we believe that an important challenge today is to redeploy certain technologies that were originally designed for leisure-time use towards educational purposes.

How can digital technologies, not just computers, be of value as learning tools? This is the question. To recognize the question is easy, even simplistic, but, for the time being, to achieve this goal demands the participation of teachers, families, investigators, companies and, not least, children. One of the first steps in meeting this challenge will be to introduce digital tools other than computers into classrooms, not just occasionally but on a permanent basis, at least as much as other traditional objects. But how can they be used? Could specific tools that have being designed just for fun also be used in schools? From our perspective new ways of teaching and learning need to be explored, enabling children’s and adults’ activities as active learners, capable of creating new knowledge by using the tools that they use in their everyday life.

Adopting this perspective, our team of researchers in Spain are exploring the possibility of constructing these new educational innovative settings, in which families, children, teachers and researchers, and even industry, working together, learn to use some of the digital tools that are present in everyday life. Why are these digital technologies especially appropriate for supporting new approaches to learning? Through our project, teachers and researchers begin to prepare relatively innovative school homework in which parents and children could collaborate in interesting tasks that motivate them to bring to the schools topics and ideas from their everyday life, such as family stories, real problems people need to solve in their own work, and so on. We were thinking about how to open the school doors to topics beyond the curriculum. This homework was usually presented in the form of paper and pencil tasks. What happened in these families after they had been working for at least three months in this way with their children? We recorded many conversations at home when parents and children were working together, but contrary to our expectations, no innovative educational settings appeared. Family members were acting at home as teachers do into the classrooms, but in an even more traditional way. They were evidently using the same strategies by which they were taught many years ago.

After this experience we began to look for new educational tools, which we found in the mass media. We brought Newspapers, television, videogames, consoles and any other new technology that the children use in everyday life into the classrooms. But how should we use these new tools? In the course of the past ten years many questions have arisen in our classrooms that discussions and readings at the Comparative Media Studies are helping us to answer. It is obvious that it is not enough to introduce all of them in the classrooms. It is also necessary to design new educational settings within which to develop the new media literacies in order to deal with these new media in a critical, creative and responsible way.

When teachers bring movies, newspapers, television programs, or the internet into their classes, one of the most important conditions for a successful experience in terms of children’s motivation and reflective processes is that the teachers should feel secure with the materials that they are using. But bringing commercial videogames into the classrooms is still an especially challenging experience. At the moment, adults are much less familiar with games than other entertainment mass media. Today, commercial videogames are far from what many families or even teachers think could be used in classroom instruction.

Given our starting goals, it was clear that we wanted to integrate games into learning, but we weren’t sure how to do so. Our previous work in Spanish schools tell us that at least three main conditions need to be present for innovative experience to be successful in both teaching and learning processes:

  • First, to establish close relationships between teachers, families and researchers
  • Second, to be involved in a multimedia context in which games are only one of the possible tools we can use
  • Finally, to establish a working methodology that attempts to bring into a multiplicity of expressive multimedia codes that children and adults can learn to use together.

Let us show you how these three conditions are present in the Spanish classroom in which we are working. I will try to help you to observe this situation and to construct the meaning that the situations has for us as ethnographical researchers. Please, think for a moment of the context involved. It is January 2007 in a working-class neighbourhood near Madrid. The children and their teacher are waiting for the “new video game teachers”, this is the name that the children give to the University of Alcalá research team. They have become used to meeting once a week with some people who do not belong to their school, but who are participants in their classroom; the children understand that we teach in other schools where they are going to be teachers in the future. For the whole of the school year we have been coming to work with them once a week, with the goal of learning together, children and adults, using new media.

This particular day we are going to begin a workshop on Harry Potter; in the previous session we had chosen the topic by reflecting on the pros and cons in a large-group discussion. We all voted for our favourite video game. By this time each of us had different expectations about what would happen on subsequent days in the workshop. Given our previous experiences with other children, the teacher and the researchers tried to find a common task for the workshop: after having talked, played and reflected about Harry Potter, we will write our opinions of the game in our blogs, so that other children should know about our adventures with Harry Potter. Both children and adults will be journalists; people who write so that others members of the community and all over around the world will know the opinions of the class.

During the next three or four session the children were playing at home and in the classroom with the PlayStation 2, with family members and the research team, to find out much more about Harry and his world.

Now let us move on a little further in our schedule by observing a more advanced session during this workshop. As always, this new session begin by talking about Harry Potter. The children knew more than the adults about him. They even bring from their homes objects related to his adventures; they all belong to the popular culture based on Harry and represent this heroic figure, who is very popular in Spain at the moment. For example, there is a game of chess designed with the main characters of the Harry Potter books, films and games, an album of stickers, T-shirts with his image, card games, etc. By showing these treasures to all the participants in the workshops and discussing them, the children showed that they were conscious that Harry is not only the main character of a video game, but it is also present in other media.

In order to look in more depth at Harry’s presence in various media, a new activity was designed. We decided to compare selected parts of the film and game based on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. After an introductory discussion on the film, we all watch together the chosen chapter. Later, we talk about Harry and invented a new collective oral story about him. By doing so, the children learn not only to tell stories but also to understand how stories spread across media systems. Moreover, by writing in their blogs the children understand that many other people, such as their families and friends, will be able to read the work that they have done in class, and in that way they begin to understand that there exists an audience that can read their texts and look at their drawings although it is not present in the classroom.

Let us see now the text that two children wrote together to be published in their blog after watching a small part of the film and discussing its relationship with the game.

Blog of Sergio and Miguel

Session 8, 02-06-07

Hello, we are Sergio and Miguel:

In the class today we played with the videogame Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and have seen a little bit of the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Today we learned what are the differences and similarities between the video game and the movie. They look alike in that the characters are the same, as are the magic spells and the adventure involved. And they differ in that in the video game you move the characters and in the movie they move by themselves. The movie is more fun, thinks Miguel. Sergio prefers the video game because you can play.

This brief description of the experience enables us to comment on what conditions need to be in place when introducing entertainment games into the classroom.

First, the text shows that the children are conscious that stories can be told via several different channels of communication. Moreover, the children also knew that each of them has different, ways of expressing particular messages. At that time they were exploring various ways of being in touch with Harry Potter’s adventures; e.g. the movie, the video game, the objects that the children had brought to school, the information that they had found on the Internet and the texts that they themselves have published. But what did they learn? I would want to interpret this text by considering that these children show an understanding that each medium has its own rules. Conversations with teachers, researchers, and other students, helped to increase their grasp of abstract concepts such as audience, messages, and the different affordances of different media. How have they learned this? By talking, reflecting and publishing about new media, always being supported by teachers, researchers and families, as more expert members of the community. Doing such tasks at school helped them to understand their lives beyond the schoolhouse walls.

In order to understand this educational innovative experience a little better, something more needs to be emphasized. Let us focus now on the interpersonal relationships among participants. Collaboration between the teacher, the children, their families and the research team was probably the main driving force behind these experiences. This becomes clearer when we study the video-recordings of the workshop sessions or analyse our field notes taken as ethnographers and participant observers. Two main ideas emerge:

  • First of all, the classrooms were transformed not only through the introduction of games but also because relationships among participants changed in the course of the workshop. Both children and adults were learning from each other. In many cases, they adopted new and different roles. The relations between children and adults were much more symmetrical at the end of the workshops than they had been at the beginning, even though what each of the participants were teaching was really different. While the children were focusing on the procedural dimensions of the games (e.g. how to solve a specific problem to go to another game screen), adults were orienting the conversations towards a much more reflective level, e.g. how the individual media related to each other, what were their specific messages, who were the people for whom the children were writing in their blogs.
  • Secondly, extensive observations of recordings of the classroom conversations show that the participants’ goals also differed according to their own particular roles. For example, when the games consoles arrived in the classroom, or when we compared the video game and the movie, the teacher’s interest was vividly aroused by the way in which the children can learn from the game certain content that is closely related to the curriculum. In contrast, and just as was to be expected, the most important goal of the children was just to play the game; to become immersed in it. Their families, who know of their classroom work by reading their blogs or because they were working with their children at home became interested in the games consoles as learning tools. What is was our goal as a research team? We think that we tried to be “good mediators”. At the end, we came to a deeper appreciation of just how difficult it was to address these different goals through a common workshop.

Pilar’s background is in Psychology and Media Education. During the past ten years she has been working with her students at the University of Alcalá (Spain), collaborating with teachers and families to facilitate the acquisition of new forms of literacy that enable children and adults to develop as global citizens in their community, as producers as well as active receivers of media content. She’s a visiting scholar at CMS where she’s looking for new theoretical and methodological approach to a transmedia education. At this moment they are working on a collaborative project with Electronic Arts to define innovative educational settings, introducing specific video games and other new media into the Spanish classrooms so that they can be used as educational tools in both formal and informal contexts. She recognizes that when she was lost, looking for new perspectives to design these new educational contexts, it was very useful to discover Ravi Purushotma’s work and the MacArthur Foundation’s report.