My Mary Sue: What Fanfic Noobdom Reveals about Scholarly Methods

This is the third in a series of “intimate critiques” or autobiographical essays produced by graduate students in the Comparative media Studies Program. This essay, in particular, works through some of the methodological issues we’ve been studying this term, having to do with what one sees as an ethnographer working inside or outside the group they are studying. It also connects to an ongoing conversation we’ve been having in the program about whether or not the concept of “fandom” can be applied to talk about our relationships to high art or middle brow culture. Here, Lana’s essay explores how seeing Les Miz on Broadway made her an active and appropriative fan of a literary character, even if she saw what she was doing as somehow distinct from fan fiction.

My Mary Sue:

What Fanfic Noobdom Reveals About Scholarly Methods

by Lana Swartz

When I was in the seventh grade, we went on a class trip to New York City. I attended a public arts magnet school, so our tour filtered the city into an art shrine. We went to all the museums, the concert halls, and of course, to see a Broadway show. It was 1993 or so, so Les Misérables was well into its long run at the Imperial Theater but had lost little of its gusto. I can remember thinking, a year or so later, that my life could be divided into two halves–the time before I saw Les Misérables and the time after. Yes, I actually did think that very phrase. I probably even wrote it down. Even now, as I joke about it, I don’t want to describe what it was like to see the play because the doing the work of that describing would be too emotionally intense. Seriously!

And here is list item #1– Be Respectful. See how terrifying this is? Everyone feels this vulnerable when they talk honestly about their lives. It is absolutely essential that we as qualitative researchers not cut corners, not totalize someone else’s life to fit into our academic goals. As hard as it is write about our passions, to be prepared to present them to our peers, it is a lot more difficult to read what someone else has said about them. Joan Didion, that scary lady, once wrote, “Writers are always selling someone out.” That may be unavoidable, but we can try. And maybe that’s the difference between writers and scholars? And maybe we–and by “we,” I mean, “I”– can remember the paralysis I felt just a few paragraphs up when I tried to write about something very pleasant that happened close to fifteen years ago.

But okay here goes. The most important thing about Les Miz is that there is a character named Enjolras. Enjolras is not a main character. He’s the leader of the young would-be revolutionaries who chastises a fellow would-be revolutionary, the dreamy Marius, for falling in love, as love simply distracts from revolution. Enjolras (he was played by Ron Bohmer–an actor whose autograph I currently possess) is tall and blond and uncompromising. He dies heroically, though, sadly, more as more of a symbol than an agent of change, atop the barricade, waving his big red flag. I was would say it was hot because is it ridiculously hot, but that would be a cruel understatement.

The rest of New York was a blur. The next thing I remember (at least in this reconstructed, narrativised memory) was being at home and tearing through Victor Hugo’s novel. In the book, Enjolras was even better. Check out what old VH had to say:

Enjolras was a charming young man, who was capable of being terrible. He was angelically handsome. He was a savage Antinous. One would have said, to see the pensive thoughtfulness of his glance, that he had already, in some previous state of existence, traversed the revolutionary apocalypse. He possessed the tradition of it as though he had been a witness. He was acquainted with all the minute details of the great affair. A pontifical and warlike nature, a singular thing in a youth. He was an officiating priest and a man of war; from the immediate point of view, a soldier of the democracy; above the contemporary movement, the priest of the ideal. His eyes were deep, his lids a little red, his lower lip was thick and easily became disdainful, his brow was lofty. A great deal of brow in a face is like a great deal of horizon in a view. Like certain young men at the beginning of this century and the end of the last, who became illustrious at an early age, he was endowed with excessive youth, and was as rosy as a young girl, although subject to hours of pallor. Already a man, he still seemed a child. His two and twenty years appeared to be but seventeen; he was serious, it did not seem as though he were aware there was on earth a thing called woman. He had but one passion–the right; but one thought–to overthrow the obstacle. On Mount Aventine, he would have been Gracchus; in the Convention, he would have been Saint-Just. He hardly saw the roses, he ignored spring, he did not hear the caroling of the birds; the bare throat of Evadne would have moved him no more than it would have moved Aristogeiton; he, like Harmodius, thought flowers good for nothing except to conceal the sword. He was severe in his enjoyments. He chastely dropped his eyes before everything which was not the Republic. He was the marble lover of liberty. His speech was harshly inspired, and had the thrill of a hymn. He was subject to unexpected outbursts of soul. Woe to the love-affair which should have risked itself beside him! If any grisette of the Place Cambrai or the Rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais, seeing that face of a youth escaped from college, that page’s mien, those long, golden lashes, those blue eyes, that hair billowing in the wind, those rosy cheeks, those fresh lips, those exquisite teeth, had conceived an appetite for that complete aurora, and had tried her beauty on Enjolras, an astounding and terrible glance would have promptly shown her the abyss, and would have taught her not to confound the mighty cherub of Ezekiel with the gallant Cherubino of Beaumarchais.

And then, comparing him to his comrade:

Enjolras was a chief, Combeferre was a guide. One would have liked to fight under the one and to march behind the other. It is not that Combeferre was not capable of fighting, he did not refuse a hand-to-hand combat with the obstacle, and to attack it by main force and explosively; but it suited him better to bring the human race into accord with its destiny gradually, by means of education, the inculcation of axioms, the promulgation of positive laws; and, between two lights, his preference was rather for illumination than for conflagration. A conflagration can create an aurora, no doubt, but why not await the dawn? A volcano illuminates, but daybreak furnishes a still better illumination. Possibly, Combeferre preferred the whiteness of the beautiful to the blaze of the sublime. A light troubled by smoke, progress purchased at the expense of violence, only half satisfied this tender and serious spirit. The headlong precipitation of a people into the truth, a ’93, terrified him; nevertheless, stagnation was still more repulsive to him, in it he detected putrefaction and death; on the whole, he preferred scum to miasma, and he preferred the torrent to the cesspool, and the falls of Niagara to the lake of Montfaucon. In short, he desired neither halt nor haste. While his tumultuous friends, captivated by the absolute, adored and invoked splendid revolutionary adventures, Combeferre was inclined to let progress, good progress, take its own course; he may have been cold, but he was pure; methodical, but irreproachable; phlegmatic, but imperturbable. Combeferre would have knelt and clasped his hands to enable the future to arrive in all its candor, and that nothing might disturb the immense and virtuous evolution of the races. The good must be innocent, he repeated incessantly. And in fact, if the grandeur of the Revolution consists in keeping the dazzling ideal fixedly in view, and of soaring thither athwart the lightnings, with fire and blood in its talons, the beauty of progress lies in being spotless; and there exists between Washington, who represents the one, and Danton, who incarnates the other, that difference which separates the swan from the angel with the wings of an eagle.

Yes, I know that Hugo writes in long paragraphs, and I know that I have done little to summarize them, and I know that this is supposed to be a five page paper, but when the opportunity arises to direct a reader–even a solitary one–to the experience of the description of Enjolras, I can’t resist.

But back to the story. Basically, I was in love. Certainly more in love than I’d ever been at 11 or 12, but, honestly, the feeling would certainly hold up against a few grown-up boyfriends I’d later claim to love. I felt almost immediately that Enjolras needed a woman. Someone… someone like me! Except better! Someone worthy of him. And this is where it gets embarrassing. I began to write stories that I thought belonged in the book, about a character that I thought, too, belonged in the book. Someone with, uh, long red curly hair and brilliant green eyes. Someone with a firey personality who must overcome her own pampered upbringing to come to understand the true meaning of the revolution. God! This is embarrassing. Knowing what I know now… You see, this person, this character I lovingly created and cared so much about? There’s a word for it. It’s not a nice word, either. Mary Sue.

Okay this is where I’m going to jump back into my list. #2 Don’t be afraid to be stupid or wrong or look silly. All semester, I have been terrified to put things in writing, even on our class’s weekly forum postings. When we write things down, they become relatively permanent. That which is posted to the internet should be thought of as never going away. But the fact is, we were all noobs once. Noobs to fanfiction. Noobs to scholarship. But we have to start somewhere and not be afraid to do so. Graduate studentship is nothing if not institutionalized noobdom. Also, fear leads to boring scholarship. What if Clifford Geertz or certainly Erica Rand had been afraid of looking silly? The earliest media thinkers at MIT–Bush, Wiener, and certainly the later Stallman and Negroponte–were objectively “wrong” about many things, but that doesn’t mean that their work and the ideas generated around their work, even (and especially) when those ideas pointed out problems, were useless. I know this all sounds simplistic and obvious, but I think that it should be acknowledged that doing academic work is scary. One feels vulnerable even when one is not writing about their own life, their own Mary Sue.

Did I ever get past my fanfic noobdom? Not really. I never wrote a non-Mary Sue fanfic story. I never really even became part of a fan community. I searched AOL profiles, because that was how I accessed the internet, and found someone named Heather. She was about my age and into the same things I was–Les Miz, War and Peace–and we both hated the same things–The Phantom of the Opera, anything having to do with the 1960s. In War and Peace, she liked Pierre and I like Andrei, who I saw as an iteration of the Enjolras archetype (a complex a very different iteration, an Enjolras without a cause). We had long IM conversations where we pretended that Pierre and Andrei had been transported to the future, were married to us, and fought over the Sizzler buffet was a good place to eat (Pierre says yes, Andrei said no).

But back to Angelique. Yes. Angelique. That was her name. Angelique de Cadinet. Did I mention that she was beautiful? And rich? And feisty… it’s so obvious now. Heather did not point out that Angelique was a Mary Sue. We didn’t really have that vocabulary. Though we didn’t know what to call it, and we didn’t know how to contextualize it as a larger cultural practice, we brushed up against fandom, but not usually very good fan fiction. Heather and I regarded those we met online who wrote Les Miz fanfic as lame. Of course, most wrote stories centered around Eponine, a character we did not like, and paired her romantically with Marius, a relationship of which we did not approve. Because we regarded this subject matter as immature at best, we looked at our own work as somehow more legitimate. I know now, of course, it’s pretty common for fandoms to split off into sub-fandoms in which certain relationships are verboten and that our persnickety preferences made us more like fan than less like them. In fact, we probably would have been able to criticize the Eponine stories as Mary Sue stories. Mine was, too, but maybe if I had been more overtly part of fan discourse, I would have been able to get past that.

Which brings me to lesson #3– Do your research and be merciless about your limits. Certainly, it is possible to get away with dilettantish knowledge when you are working outside the expertise of your audience. When I told people about my experience, I didn’t have the discourse to say fan or fanfic, so I would engage them in my experience on terms I felt were appropriate to the situation. Maybe I wanted to relate that I was a passionate but a quirky literary type person. Or maybe I’d use Enjolras or Prince Andrei to describe the kind of guy I liked, or the kind of guy I didn’t ever want to date again. Or maybe I’d frame it with a little hipsterish irony–what strange creatures we all were in our adolescence. Once, I was able to charm the professor of a Russian literature class into a better grade than I probably deserved on a paper by describing my Prince Andrei thing. Anyone cares that much about Tolstoy probably deserves another 5 points added to their grade, right? I even got some scholarship money for an essay I wrote about Angelique as “an influential person” in my life. In most cases, the novelty of my experience was a foregrounded. But at some point, all dilettantes will encounter someone who can see right through their bullshit, even if isn’t bullshit so much as lack of due diligence (though sometimes they amount to the same thing).

Years later, as a post-college almost grown-up person, I came in contact with academic writing about fandom and I began to realize that what I had been doing with Les Miz and War and Peace was a lot like fandom. I even began to consider myself a fan, even though my actual experience with fandom was clearly very limited. I even applied to CMS in part because I was excited about the way thinking about fandom liberated other kinds of thinking. The fan (perhaps as a metaphor?) reconciled and clarified a lot of frustrations I had– about how to acknowledge the emotional stakes we all have in the work, about appropriation and authorship, and about cultural hierarchies. Does this make me an acafan? Right now, I would feel a lot more presumptuous about saying yes than I would have a year ago.

It began to be clarified when I came to visit CMS at MIT5. I was sitting in an Au Bon Pain with some aca-fanboys. We were talking about–of course–fandom. I cutely (I thought) told my Angelique story. Everyone laughed. I caged the whole thing with enough “Ah, youth” to get away with it. And then one of the acafan-boys asked, “So you wrote Mary Sue stories?” Everyone laughed again and I faux-solemnly admitted to it. But the thing was, I had no idea what he was talking about. Dear reader, imagine the fate that would have befallen me if I had dared–DARED–to enter into some sort of research with that kind of hubris? Imagine, even, if it had been aca-fangirls that I was casually talking to? The gender dynamic is another issue entirely, but the question still stands.

Clearly, this lesson (as I hope all in this paper do) applies to entering any kind of community. For me, a Mary Sue in fandom puts the matter under scary fluorescent lights. Perhaps this is why so many writers, before talking about fandom, include a disclaimer or caveat about the extent to which they might be considered fans. We might assume that (and this would follow the logic of Camille Bacon-Smith’s work) that it’s because they’re nervous about associating themselves with a marginalized subculture. But it may be (and this would follow the logic of many fan reactions to Camille Bacon-Smith’s work) that the writers are justly nervous about overstating their level of insider status. Fans have the ability to write back. And they’re often really good at it. What if all ethnographers worked were required by their “subjects” to be so responsible?

The mention of Bacon-Smith’s work brings up another point. #4 The kind of answers you get depend on the kind of questions you ask. A lot of what happened between Angelique and I (if I can put it that way) impacted my adolescent development. Angelique, as is the partial definition of Mary Sue characters, was a stand in for me. And though she was beautiful and rich and French and perfect, she was sort of like me. Or like the me I wanted to be. Particularly, Angelique was sexual. And everyone (yes, everyone) wanted to have sex with her. And she usually went for it. Through her, I was able to imaginatively play with my own emerging sexuality. “Being” her in fiction enabled me to actually get closer to being like her. I was able to play with my identity and reflect upon the way I conducted myself in my everyday life. What Would Angelique Do? This experience resonates with James Paul Gee’s idea of “projective identity” in gaming. I was able to, as Gee describes, “project [my] values and desires onto the virtual character” and “see the virtual character as [my] own project in the making.” Writing and thinking about Angelique, and her indeed her life after Enjolras’s death, allowed me to have an immersive experience in which I questioned and projected my own sexual values and lifestyle as I hoped and expected it would be.

Between Heather and I, it was a way of interacting with texts socially. But it was definitely not for, as Bacon-Smith writes, “mutual healing, for protection from the outside, or to ponder the most pressing questions of our lives.” I was learning something about how to be myself, but I wasn’t converting the risks I’d have to take as an emerging adolescent into fanfiction. There was pain, yes. I walked around everyday with the pain of Enjolras’s death in my heart, and to a lesser extent the pain of not being the same world as him. To be honest, I sometimes thought I was crazy! But the purpose of entering into that world was certainly not to ask, ask Bacon-Smith suggests of the fans she studies, “why does life hurt so much?”

Yes, my narrative might have fit into my understanding of Bacon-Smith’s schema–a kinda’ nerdy 7th grader uses fanfiction and (a two person, in this case) community to sublimate the fear of my own emerging identity as confident sexual being–but it doesn’t really ring true for me. And, more importantly, it doesn’t really ask the questions I’m most interested in. As someone who is most interested in the social and cultural process of fandom, my own story looks, at least until I start asking new questions, to be too psychological oriented to be of much interest.

As I interrogate even my own experience, I am compelled to look at things more culturally and less psychologically. Sometimes, as is true in this case, those questions push me beyond my personal experience. And I have to remember that all data points, even mine, are singular and thus may not individually reflect the most interesting aspect about a given phenomenon. #5 Your own experience should not limit the kind of thinking that you do.

In retrospect, it seems possible that, if Heather or I were aware of the word at all, we thought of the Eponine/Marius stories we detested as fan fiction and our own process as something else, something more “original.” During that time of my life, I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be able to publish my finished work as my own sovereign creation. I know now that I was caught up in notions about authenticity and authorship that I would probably feel a lot more ambivalent, at the very least, about today. I thought that in order to make my work real, to make it count, I would have translate it into something unrecognizable as rooted in Les Miserables. I tried everything–converting it to the American Revolution but keeping the characters essentially the same, which didn’t really work because that time period just didn’t do it for me. Eventually, I began to get bored. I knew what I was writing would never be publishable, and my interest began to drift. If Heather or I had made the write social connection with the right fan–or perhaps if Les Miserables or War and Peace had a larger fandom–I would have found the community to help me appreciate the value of the appropriative work that I was actually doing, but I didn’t. My idiosyncratic experience limited me from extracting–at least not until years later–some of the more intriguing potential meanings I could have made out of it.

Heather and I remained in touch, but we began talking about other things–starting High School, getting involved with new kinds of music and subcultures. Soon I wanted to be Courtney Love or Kim Deal, the amazing female bass players from the Pixies. And soon after that I wanted to be Joan Didion. Funny, now, at 26, I find myself again needing a fictionalized avatar self. Maybe she could give me direction toward one of these careers–and, really, lifestyles–that do not yet exist. Got any suggestions? Another methodological journey never hurt anyone

Deja Elana Swartz

University of Florida, BA English, 2002

Deja Elana Swartz grew up on a houseboat in Miami, Florida. She graduated with a B.A. with Highest Honors in English from the University of Florida in 2002. After graduation, she taught high school English in Houston, Texas as part of Teach For America. She’s also worked in nonprofit development and in autism education and research.

Here at CMS, she is a researcher specializing in learning and user insights at Project New Media Literacies and serves as the liaison to the Harvard GoodPlay Project. She is fascinated by taste-making. Her own tastes currently include nail-art, knock-off fashion, fast food breakfast sandwiches, soap opera comic strips, and Tolstoy.

Who Do You Think I Am?: My Life as a Cartoon Character

Shortly after South by Southwest, I got a note from Rafi Santo from Global Kids calling my attention to the fact that my likeness had become a cartoon character, thanks to a new site called Bitstrips, which has used the festival to broaden its public visibility. Bitstrips is a site which supports the production and distribution of user-generated web comics. More recently, reader Jordon Himelfarb, a Canadian journalist wrote to tell me that the Henry Jenkins character had been deployed more than 95 times. I am one of a small selection of icons supposed to represent “famous figures”, including Steve Jobs, Moby, and Doogie Howser. (The narrow range of options here suggests how deeply embedded this project has been in geek culture to date.)

As someone who is interested in the ways images get appropriate and transformed over time, not to mention a notorious ego-maniac, I was very interested to see what uses were being made of this iconic representation of me. For what it’s worth, I think I am funnier in real life than in the comics.

It is clear that the first few uses were from people who attended South by Southwest and were somewhat familiar with who I am and what kinds of things I am apt to say or do.

bitstrips 1.png

bitstrips 2.png

Quickly, though, the character begins to take on a life of its own. Certain aspects of the iconography (the bald head, the glasses, the beard) lend themselves to use to represent someone of a certain generation, as in this cartoon which depicts me as a father confronting his daughter’s boyfriend for the first time.

bitstrips 4.htm

Something in my image conjures up a certain kind of knowledge and expertise. Thus, the character can be cast as a psychiatrist or doctor.

bitstrips 6.png

Or as a talk show host talking about psychology.

bitstrips 9.png

Or as a teacher.

bitstrips 8.png

Or as a mad scientist:

bitstrips 11.png

As a “high brow”

bitstrips 10.png

bitstrips 12.png

I’m even cast as the PC in a cartoon which plays with the Mac/PC template.

bitstrips 7.png

In short, the character got deployed many times not because people knew who I was in any specific sense but because my iconography constructs a particular kind of character which fits well within the classic formulas of the comic strip. This helps to explain both why my likeness becomes so spreadable and why it still carries a surprisingly narrow range of meanings, all things considered. I wonder what would have happened if the original “Henry Jenkins” character had shown me in my characteristic suspenders and not in a suit and tie.

This character, the expert, carries with it certain connotations and expectations. He is often a stuffed shirt or kill joy figure, that is, he deploys his authority to put others in their place and can thus in return become the object of ridicule. He is often portrayed as absent minded and befuddled, so that the comic situation can be used to suggest the limits of what can be comprehended. The familarity of this figure makes him a resource especially for professional humor including that involving medicine, computers, or education, themes clearly of interest to Bitstrips’s first generation of users. It will be interesting to see what other ways this character gets deployed as the audience for Bitstrips diversifies. Already we can see examples of this figure getting used in other national contexts, though the stereotype seems to speak in languages that I don’t personally understand. Even in the non-English language cartoons, though, I am most often depicted in an office setting suggesting that the character is seen as a professional and not as, say, working class.

bitstrips 3.png

bitstrip 14.png

I encourage my readers to see what they can do with the tool and send me a link to the results. In the meantime, see you in the funny pages!

I HEART Mutants (Except for That Shameless Mary Sue, Jean Grey)

This is the second in a series of “intimate critiques” produced by masters students in my Comparative Media Studies proseminar on media theory and methods. Each essay tries to blend personal narrative with larger theoretical issues as a way of digging deeper into the place of popular culture in our everyday lives. This year’s set can be seen as a series of narratives of “coming out” as fans and how this process relates to other aspects of one’s personal identity.

I HEART Mutants

(Except for that Shameless Mary Sue, Jean Grey)

Lan Xuan Le

Spring 2008

I met the X-Men for the very first time on Saturday, October 31st, 1992. It was 9 AM, prime time for the grade school demographic, and the Fox Network was debuting its second attempt at an animated cartoon series based on a comic book of the same name. The first episode opened in the midst of the government’s Mutant Registration Program, an initiative to find and round up all the human beings who possessed genetically-enhanced superpowers. In a recent, unexplained evolutionary burst, people across the world had begun manifesting unusual abilities at the onset of puberty. Pyrokinesis, telepathy, super-strength, invulnerability – the public had been waging a campaign of repression on these so called “mutants” out of a fear of their superior abilities. The first episode dumped the audience right into the middle of a long-standing conflict between homo sapien and “homo superior.” It was in this political climate that Professor Charles Xavier and his band of select mutant followers have been fighting to preserve mutant rights against the human government and other mutants who would enslave humankind.

Running for a total of five seasons, X-Men was Fox Kid’s second most successful show after Batman The Animated Series and continued airing reruns for a year after the release of its final episode. X-Men began as a popular serial comic book under the Marvel Publishing arm of Marvel Entertainment in 1963. Created by the legendary duo, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Uncanny X-Men told the story of a band of humans who struggled to protect a “world that hated and feared them.” Although it was an established, long-standing franchise in American popular culture, the television show was my first point of entry into this universe.

I was not quite 12-years-old, the daughter of Vietnamese-American political immigrants, and a “gifted and talented” student in the mid-Western educational system. It seemed inevitable that the idea of mutant alienation and political struggle would ignite my young imagination. At the heart of the X-Men mythos lies a powerful metaphor of marginalization. Race, gender, sexuality – mutation stood in for and made visible the oppressions suffered by a class of people, of which I was a part. It spoke to the systematically, discursively constructed category of “othering” I suffered as a racial minority, de-naturalizing and exposing them. It spoke to my experience of systemic exclusions as a girl in America and a daughter in a family with Confucian values. X-Men represented my nascent political consciousness, the burgeoning understanding of myself as part of a larger grouping of people and an agent acting within a system of conflicting pressures. The story of X-Men became powerful to me in a way that the individual struggle of a character such as Batman could not.

The idea of mutation, a flexible metaphor, resonated with many of my experiences of exclusion. But race and gender remains, even today, the most powerful level of my experience of the mutation metaphor. Race is often discursively inscribed upon the bodies of racial minorities, like the “oversexed and savage” stereotype of black, male bodies or the sexual, pliant bodies of Asian women. So too is mutation a bodily “othering.” This “otherness” of the mutant body often takes physical form, like with Doctor Hank “Beast” McCoy’s hairy, animal-like appearance. Similarly, racialized or mutated bodies become the difference against which white or human bodies are visually and discursively normalized.

Some mutants in the X-Men universe, however, do not wear their differences on their bodies. Their abilities manifest in subtler ways, allowing them to “pass” as human. The conflict that arises between the obviously mutated and the “pretty” mutants erupts periodically in the story. In the X-Men universe, the physically mutated characters gathered into an underground, sewer-based community called the Morlocks after a similar, villainous society in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. They could not avoid the political experience of mutancy and became angry at those who remained sheltered and apolitical in their appearance of humanity. This, for me, mirrored the way my Asian girlfriends used the increasing invisibility of their race to avoid or even deny themselves as racialized subjects, often as gendered subjects as well. Those were precisely the moments that I understood my decisions through the mutant metaphor. By choosing to be a Morlock, I chose to openly live a fraught political reality that would act upon me whether or not I confronted it.

The metaphor of mutation, especially as applied to bodies, became a very powerful expression of the ways in which my own body had been re-written without my permission. As an Asian woman, my body is all too visible and yet my “color” has receded, being neither white nor black. I too have been inscribed upon, defined into my very DNA. But for mutants, their power lay precisely their differences. The very performance of their differences gave them the power to resist. The heroes of X-Men were those mutants who could come to accept and judiciously use their powers, not those who remained silent. That proved an important idea for me at the age of twelve, the ability to appropriate the performance of difference in some way, to reclaim the language of these performances to empower myself. It gave me a option to act, to vocally resist the silencing and naturalization of my exclusions.

While the characters in X-Men fight against the teleological framing of “mutation” in the same way I do as a woman of color, the metaphor to race and gender is imperfect. What I find most unsettling about the mutation metaphor, and the differences this represents, is the struggle between the biological reality and socially constructed nature of “mutation.” Linking differences to the term “mutation” implies a kind of biological determinism. Within the story, however, these genetic changes actually produce an incontrovertible difference in the X-Men. The ability to mentally levitate objects is not comparable to the experience of race, gender, class, and sexuality, which are socially determined. Many groups have struggled to shift the debates of difference from biological determinism to social construction, and I remain ambivalent about how powerful this imperfect metaphor is for me.

I read more than just race into the bodies of these mutant characters. The bodies of women take on another significance in the X-Men television show for me. The idealization and display of female bodies is a standard part of the comic book industry’s practice, which is dominated by a male culture of production. But female bodies often become sites of social anxiety. Asian female bodies, for example, were considered dangerous during earlier immigration to the US, because reproduction is the power of a marginal, feminine body to spread and contaminate the normative political body.

One of the most interesting women in the X-Men universe is Rogue, a member of the X-Men. Rogue is lushly beautiful, possessing super-strength, flight, invulnerability, and the ability to steal the life force of anyone she touches skin to skin. I envied Rogue because she represented the impenetrable female body. Rogue has the appearance of a woman who is sexually permissive, but the body which denies penetration. The markers of Rogue’s class – her Southern “trash” stylings – are intimately linked to this perceived sexual permissiveness. Rogue’s yearning to touch and be touched, especially when expressed in the presence of her on-again-off-again boyfriend Remy, yield to both innocent and lascivious interpretations. But because of her powers, she remains a non-reproducing body, one that is safely neutered, a contagion contained. Whether or not I understood it as a child, Rogue has always represented to me a site where masculine anxieties about women found expression.

Just as I found Rogue and the text’s relationship to her body intriguing, I found the character of Jean Grey equally repugnant. In all the ways that Rogue embodies ambivalence, Jean Grey equally and oppositely represents the heteronormative forces within the text. Beautiful and in control, Jean Grey’s cerebral powers mirror her middle-class origins, which stands in contrast to Rogue’s physical (and blue collar) powers. Jean Grey’s empathic social role in the team was to mediate the tensions of class, gender, and sexuality. She invoked her authority as the mother, the sanctioned, reproducing body, to quell insurrection and unify the group under a liberal morality invested in the feminine as a site of cultural reproduction. She became a symbol of the ways in which liberalism’s promise of social justice sacrificed so many marginal voices to speak from a unified position. In a story that allowed me discursive reprieve, that provided catharsis in its simple acknowledgment of my exclusions, Jean Grey violated the agreement offered by the text.

I followed the television show until its end in 1997, at which point I sought to find the “original,” the comic books, and continue my relationship with the story. I quickly discovered that the series had been running for nearly 40 years, the whole of it beyond my reach both economically and logistically. The serial nature of the comic book defeated my ability to master the canon as thoroughly as did my economic circumstances. The Internet, however, offered a different way into the X-Men history.

In 1998 I discovered fan websites, places where pieces of the X-Men story came together, character by character. But I found these dry, journalistic recitations insufficient to approximate the experience of reading the comic books, of knowing the X-Men first hand. It was during my web surfing that I found fan fiction, the resource that finally opened up X-Men to me. These stories became a snapshot of the fan’s ongoing experience of reading, problematizing, and subsequent (re)writing of the X-Men comic books. It seemed a recursive, cyclical process carried through many stories, probably extending to other media properties. Whatever they represented to the fan author, for me as a reader, fan fiction became a constant renewal of the X-Men text. Through these stories, I could read X-Men anew through the lens of another fan’s love. I began a two-year journey into the collective imaginary of X-Men, a historiography of myth and memory.

These fan stories explored the tensions of the comic book, perhaps further than the original format would have allowed. Dozens of stories addressed the same events in canon, correcting, changing, darning over the snags and tangles of plot holes. I had access to a collective record of the major shifts in the X-Men franchise and the fan reaction to them. Reading fan fiction was like mining the secondary sources of an historical event. Fan fiction, for me, became a record of what could never be part of the comic book canon, the discourse of an experience. The “truth” of the canon became irrelevant compared to reading the fantasy of the reading.

Fan fiction transformed my experience of the X-Men story, turning it from a monoglossic text into a multiple, unstable, heteroglossic pleasure. Every character, every relationship took on a complexity impossible in a single text, even a serial one. Although the series was multi-vocal, containing a diverse, international cast and expressive of a range of views to begin with, the very nature of fan fiction and individual interpretation allowed me a far broader experience. I adore, for example, not the canonical character of Gambit, but a layered memory of Gambit as can only be possible through people who both love and loath him. And so he is even more fascinating, engaging, and ultimately satisfying a character than any single text could offer.

By early 2000, the tide of fan fiction on the web had begun to ebb, bringing my journey with the fan community to an end. I attended college later that year and moved on to other media properties, but the X-Men would remain an essential part of my cultural imaginary. But my relationship to the franchise continued to change nonetheless. In 2000, Marvel released a full-length, live action film adapted from the comic books followed by two sequels. The same year, the X-Men: Evolution cartoon began on television, aiming to recapture the popularity of the original by re-imagining the X-Men’s beginning in the present day. In 2001, the X-Men comic books spun off another alternate universe under the title of Ultimate X-Men that again re-imagined the beginning of the X-Men, but in a completely different universe from the Evolution cartoon.

The increasing number of alternate universes validated my increasing distance from the “canon” that I was originally so keen to obtain. It only added to the multiplicity and richness of the X-men text. While this move inspired fan anger for “selling out” the franchise and violating the integrity of the story, I saw this move as a way for the franchise to preserve its heteroglossic mythology. Each one of these re-imagined beginnings was designed for me, the interested audience that found itself excluded from the long-running history of the comic book. I finally felt courted by a universe that likely was not speaking to me, but from which I had appropriated strategies of resistance. While these alternate universes aimed to renew my relationship to the series, the ties had faded over time. I now possessed academic theories and frameworks through which to parse my experiences and exclusions.

In early spring of 2008, a fan group, in defiance of copyright, scanned and released all the volumes of the X-Men as PDFs online. Through the magic of peer-to-peer downloading, I finally acquired the whole of the X-Men canon. But in the end, I could not come to love them. With the exception of Joss Whedon’s short stint at the helm of the Uncanny X-Men, the story was written predominantly by men for an audience that was not me, nor necessarily a group that included me. Fan fiction, on the other hand, was written primarily by women with whom I shared many salient experiences. In the end, I chose not to read the comic books lest they fundamentally change the relationship I had already nurtured with the franchise. The potential loss of that wonderfully unstable text could not ultimately compare to the gain of the comic book itself.

Lan Xuan Le

Swarthmore College, BA Biology and Asian Studies 2004

Boston University, Masters of Public Health 2007

Lan Xuan Le, who has BAs in both Biology and Asian Studies from Swarthmore College (2004) and a Masters in Public Health from Boston University (2007), has been part of the “games for health movement,” conducting a qualitative study and co-authoring a white paper for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the use of games to combat childhood obesity. She also has a strong interest in the globalization of media and the construction of alternative understandings of what it means to be Asian and Asian-American through popular culture, an interest which led her to design, research and execute a library exhibition of anime and manga for Swarthmore’s McCabe Library. She wrote an undergraduate thesis on problematic gender and sexual representations in Japanese popular culture with a particular focus on Card Captor Sakura, a paper which won the Swarthmore College Asian Studies Program’s top writing prize.

The Videocassette or: How I Became a Fanboy and Learned to Love Explosions

Every year, I challenge my Comparative Media Studies Masters Students to tackle a piece of autobiographical prose which describes something of their own relations with media. This may at first glance seem like a pretty cushy assignment, most of us start our writing career on personal essays, but most of the students discover it can be extremely difficult to reconcile the competing modes of autobiographical and theoretical writing. On the one hand, the language of media theory is often highly abstract and for many, alienating. On the other hand, many of us fall into the trap of “overshare” when asked to recount of our own experiences, being so interested in the process of personal revelation that we don’t necessarily think through why we are sharing or how autobiography might enable us to make more meaningful generalizations about media.

In preparation for this assignment, we read and discuss such essays as Erica Rand’s introduction to The Ellis Island Snowglobe, Annette Kuhn’s discussion of a family photograph from Family Secrets, Sharon Mazer’s discussion of the power relations she encountered in doing an ethnography of professional wrestling, Robert Drew’s account of karoaki which draws heavily on his own experiences as a performer, and Geraldine Bloustein’s work on “girl-making.” (The last three can all be found in Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, which I co-edited with Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc.) Each of these writers make effective use of “intimate critique” as a way into dealing with complex aspects of personal identity and popular culture. As we suggested in the introduction to Hop on Pop, there are questions which we can only address through holding a lens up to our subjective experience of media — the tendency of academics to hold popular culture at a distance may distort their understanding of the work it does for individuals and the society at large.

This assignment produces some of the most exciting writing I see all year and this year’s crop of first year masters students produced work which I felt was especially rich and evocative. Last year, I shared some of the work my students produced for this assignment, including essays on what our lists on Netflix tell about us and about the world of Mexican comics. Over the next few posts, I plan to share some of the highlights from this year’s crop. This year, there was a strong focus on cult media, fandom, and personal identity formation. I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, given my own interests, so what is surprising is how very different each of these narratives about early fan experiences turned out to be.

The Videocassette or: How I Became a Fanboy and Learned to Love Explosions

by Abhimanyu Das

The cultural artifact I have chosen for this paper is the VHS tape. It is an object of resonance on two levels – it possesses enormous personal significance and, on a wider scale, it is the embodiment of a technological development that transformed the film culture of urban India. Given that videocassettes and the material they carried were a “companion for emotion and a provocation to thought” from an early point in my life, they were to me what Sherry Turkle categorizes as ‘evocative objects’.

Until the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, films made outside India were very difficult to access legally. Urban centers generally contained only a few theaters (multiplexes did not arrive till the 21st century) and these were mostly dedicated to screening Bollywood fare that guaranteed more ticket sales. A tiny number of foreign films were exhibited every year, usually releases that were a year or more past their original theatrical dates. The situation for Indian cinephiles was dire. All this was transformed by the VHS boom of the mid to late 80s. The introduction of videocassette technology to Indian markets did not, however, signal the beginning of the home video release boom that was witnessed by countries like the United States. The heavily protectionist economy did not lend itself well to studios releasing foreign films on a home video market and availability of video recorders was initially too limited for any kind of real profitability from the exercise. This, however, did not preclude the burgeoning of a system of piracy and peer to peer sharing that was working well in Indian cities long before any of us had even heard of the Internet and was to survive till the cable television boom of the mid 1990s.

The first manifestation, according to my father, was the appearance in many neighborhoods of the local ‘video parlor’. Some of these were larger establishments with proper storefronts while others were holes in the wall that could only be found via word of mouth. All of them, however, were stocked with pirated VHS copies smuggled in from east Asian countries. Given that the foreign studios had practically no presence or representation in India and that the police did not care the least bit about enforcing copyright laws, these parlors were free to operate. In addition to the regular Blockbuster-style services they provided, they could (at a price) copy your favourite film on to a blank videotape or even ‘order’ an ‘official’ copy of the film for you (these being a first or second generation shinier print of the film in a case adorned with color xeroxes of its American packaging as opposed to the generally fuzzy affairs in generic slipcases available for rent). The larger shops presented even more options, offering up ‘camera prints’ at half the usual rental for fans on a budget (the unwatchable prints of movies recorded in a theater) or ‘family’ versions of films with the sex scenes dubbed out (profanity and violence remained gloriously intact).

A vibrant popular film culture was to grow in the cities within years. My father tells stories of how Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone became household names within a year and I can remember passing by, on my way to school, scores of streetside hawkers selling Rambo and Terminator t-shirts when just a year previous, they had been peddling religious iconography. School-children (like myself) started up movie sticker collections that were traded aggressively. The interesting side effect of the viral nature of the VHS phenomenon was the fact that the parlors were simply one of the available options. People would copy tapes that they had rented from these parlors and circulate them amongst friends and family who would, in turn, copy them. The picture and sound would degrade with each degree of separation but this did not dissuade the enterprising cinephiles that felt like they had put one over the Man (‘the Man’ presumably being the video parlor guy that rented smuggled goods) by watching the movie for free. Neighborhoods would organize community screenings of films where they would set up a television set in a local clubhouse, rent a tape from the nearest video parlor and charge a nominal fee for entry. The transformation, then, was beginning. India had always had a rich history of movie-watching in the Bollywood tradition and the arrival of VHS expanded the film-goers horizons to include the Western market. Cinema clubs popped up across the cities, catering to tastes across the board, from a weekly dose of 80s action drama to one of Bergman or Antonioni (two especial Calcutta favourites). Indian youth culture was impacted as the fashions, music and slang of the Americans they saw on their television sets (which had hitherto exhibited nothing but the two mostly soul-crushing public TV channels) crossed over into the urban lexicon. This intrusion of globalization (for better or for worse) into a relatively closed cultural space was accelerated manifold by the advent of cable television but I would argue that this particular event was primed by the preceding decade of VHS supremacy.

On a personal level, the VHS tape could be said to have shaped my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are of my father bringing home our first VCR from a business trip abroad and the subsequent weekend film-watching ritual. The homework would get done, be checked over and the approving nod would be the cue for the Disney film du jour to begin. Just as Turkle’s closet full of memorabilia shapes the way she thinks about her family, my memories of our weekly congregation around the joys of VHS shapes the way I think about mine. In addition, these experiences contained within and associated with the tapes were to have a profound effect on my identity and interests. Pat or even cliched as these conclusions may seem, it was the memories of those early movie sessions that formed the seed for my later affinity for everything cinematic and helped push me toward the academic, personal and professional direction I am taking now. My love of music began with VHS tapes as my parents would record music videos from the half hour Western music show that aired past my bedtime on the aforementioned public television channel. I would then proceed to play these tapes all day, forming a soundtrack to my childhood that originates as much from VHS as it does my father’s LP/audiocassette collection. My affection for everything narrative probably sprang from the multiple viewings of the same films (on the same tape) that we would rent repeatedly when nothing new had come in that week, as plot threads started to get embedded into my skull, complete with dialogue and interrupted by video snow where the tape had been damaged. Even my first induction into the enticing world of ‘adult language’ was thanks to the verbal clashes (in stereo!) between the working class New York accent of John McClane and the cultured delivery of Hans Gruber. Thanks to Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, I knew how to swear in English before I learned the equivalents in any of the Indian languages.

The actual physical form of the videotape was also important. The tapes from the parlor that we rented from all had a particular smell (that I could never identify) – the first indication of an impending movie experience. Close at its heels was the mystique of the cassette itself, as my brother and I would open the protective tab and stare at the magnetic tape underneath, making wise pronouncements about the quality of the print based on the number of crinkles we could see in it. Despite our carefully performed expertise, however, we were completely in thrall to the inherent mystery of the incomprehensible machine, simultaneously imagining ourselves as a new generation of technopriests through our ability to perform a ritual around these objects and as slaves to our ultimate lack of knowledge about the object itself. The packaging was equally important (when there was any). Familiar faces of actors we were starting to recognize would create patterns in our choices. These packages were generally xeroxes of US or UK poster art and we learned to recognize the MPAA’s Restricted logo or the BBFC’s ’18’ and ’15’ symbols (ironically our parents were too frazzled and rushed to notice such things) and felt the twinge of anticipation for the forbidden darkness that we learned to anticipate within (the films rated such for sexual content were, however, generally pointed out by the ‘video parlor man’ for the benefit of our parents).

Finally, as the title of this piece indicates, the fanboy in me can actually be traced back to the magic of VHS as well. I still remember with relative clarity, the first defining cinematic moment of my life – my first viewing of Superman II. It was in 1988 and I was six. It was not the first film I had watched on our new VCR but it was the first one to leave an indelible stamp on my still-developing mind. The wonder of Superman’s flight to the Eiffel Tower, the foreboding of the criminal Kryptonians’ surprisingly brutal assault on the astronauts, the frustration of the beating suffered by humanized Clark Kent at the hands of the diner bully and – above all – the pure adrenaline rush of re-powered Superman’s return and climactic clash with the villains in downtown Metropolis are all emotions that I am reasonably sure I remember accurately from that first viewing. This may well be owed to the fact that I replicated this experience countless times over the next few years, goading my hapless parents into renting the same tape to the extent that ‘the video parlor man’ automatically reached for it when we walked in. The reactions, however, were always echoes of my original visceral responses to what remains, to this day, one of my favourite films and the reason why I instinctively associate villainy of all sorts with General Zod. Superman II was the reason I picked up my first American comic book and marks the beginning of my lifelong fondness for fantastical narratives across media platforms, bringing us to the possibility that my presence at MIT may actually be traced back to the work of Richard Lester (or Donner, according to preference).

It is important to mention that a significant aspect of this anecdote is the fact that I managed to watch Superman II through the eyes of an impressionable young child, thanks to the convenience of VHS. Had it not been for this particular technological marvel, my exposure to pop culture (as embodied by Superman) would have really begun in the mid-90s with the appearance of cable television, by which point I would have been a teenager and – undoubtedly – indoctrinated into the way of the sciences by the ever reliable biases of the Indian educational system as it deals with male students. It was VHS that made the difference between a goggle-eyed child internalizing an epic, life-changing mythology and an engineering-track teenager laughing at a campy movie about an alien in a red cape and underwear fighting two British actors (and an ex boxer from Philadelphia) dressed like dominatrices while Gene Hackman delivered one-liners in the background. And for this, I am thankful.

Abhimanyu Das

Franklin and Marshall College, BA English, 2005

Born and raised in Kolkata, India, Abhimanyu Das graduated in 2005 with a BA in English from Franklin and Marshall College. Gradually, his interests in new kinds of media texts (such as computer games, graphic novels, and serialized fiction) began to push against the outer limits of proscribed curriculum of his English department. His struggles with core questions about transmedia storytelling, the audiovisual elements of texts and social context of genre narratives led him to develop a secondary concentration in Film Studies, during which he did archival research at the British Film Institute and also read a lot of comics. His relevant professional experience includes writing about film and literature as well as a brief stint in publishing.

At MIT, he hopes to pursue a thesis project that studies “the confluence of post-colonial influences and the effect of globalization on two rapidly expanding media movements, the Indian independent film and the Indian comic book.” He is currently working at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media as an RA. His long-term goal is to be able to make a living as a cultural journalist with the clout to make a few people do more than just smile indulgently while he talks about movies and comics.

Children as Storytellers: The Making of TikaTok (Part Two)

Last time, I shared with you an interview with CMS alum Neal Grigsby and MIT Media Lab alum Orit Zuckerman, two of the key players in a new startup company, TikaTok, which is working to encourage children to create their own books and share them with other young readers. This time, we get a bit more personal as the two share their sense of how their MIT education contributed to their current projects.

Your site also seems to promote opportunities for collaboration between young authors and illustrators. Is this a way of introducing young people to the world of collective intelligence?

Neal: It certainly is, and although it was always on our road map to add this feature, necessity made us move it up the schedule. Our users demanded it. Drawing, and getting an illustration up on the site, can be a creative and technical challenge for many. The team went back and forth for a very long time about the possibility of providing a digital drawing tool before finally coming to the conclusion that it was a bad idea for several reasons. But if you could use the illustrations that other kids had already provided and pledged to the community, if only until a time that your own drawings would be ready, it would really help.

Now we are seeing writing and illustrating as potentially two separate modes of participation, and it is quite exciting. Of course there will always be children who enjoy writing more than illustrating, and vice versa, and this gives both groups the ability to engage deeply on the site and not feel like they’re missing a big part of the experience. I also suspect that for many users their first experience with collaboration will be almost accidental: they will use someone’s illustration, or someone will use theirs, and the system will automatically attribute the illustration credit. And then once those two kids see the power of this passive collaboration, it may pave the way for a more deliberate collaboration like co-authorship of the text, which the site also supports, or even “massively multiplayer” co-authorship with a large group.

It is certainly possible that we will provide even more modes of participation in the future–one could easily imagine introducing analogs to the traditional roles of editor, copy editor, layout and design artist, and even publicist–but we haven’t determined yet which of these would be the most meaningful to our community.

In a “Mother’s Welcome,” Sharon Kan suggests that this project emerged from the experience of “two mothers who wanted to create a place where children can write, illustrate, publish and print their own books.” What specific experiences did you have as mothers which pushed you to start this company?

Orit: As mothers you see your children grow and their brains develop. It is one of the most fulfilling experiences to look at the world from a child’s view. From very young age children try to express themselves in pictures and in stories. When I sat with my daughter and we created a story together, she knew exactly what she wanted to say and draw; she enjoyed creating a story and was very happy when it was presented to the world by her proud parents. Even though it wasn’t storytelling as we see in books that are written by adults, the ideas that come out and the simplicity of the storyline was very interesting. I also noticed that through kindergarten she was always encouraged to draw, but when she went to first grade the emphasis went to reading and writing only, and all that talent of telling stories by pictures was neglected. Then I looked at my daughter’s bookshelf. She loves books, yet all of her books were written by adults, edited by adults, and published by adults with adult priorities in mind. Why aren’t there books for kids by kids? They clearly tell stories differently but no one publishes it? This is what led us to think that creating a platform where kids can tell their stories, bind them into real books, and be active in a community of book lovers would be a great thing to build.

Neal, you are in the process of becoming a father yourself. How is that impacting your perception of this project? What would you say in a “Father’s Welcome” to the site?

Neal: In an interesting coincidence, the day that I learned I was becoming a father was the same day that we launched the private alpha release of the site. So you could say that both baby and website have been gestating for about the same amount of time. As you might expect it has been an incredibly busy and exciting time, and I approach the future with a sense of deep responsibility but also optimism.

Since learning of my impending fatherhood, I have been following blogs like Parent Hacks and GeekDad, and have been inspired by the ways those sites integrate this resurgent DIY culture with parenthood. From the stereotypes, one might expect a geeky parent to be particularly disengaged or self-absorbed, but these blogs almost show geek parents as the best hope for our future; they show passionate and caring parents who involve their children in projects of investigation, exploration, and invention.

If I were to write a “Father’s Welcome,” then, I would express my hope that the families who use our site embrace the opportunities it provides for parent and child to share a creative experience together. I am fully aware that, especially when he becomes a teenager, computers and the Internet will become tools of autonomy for my son. The old man will be embarrassingly uncool, as it is my destiny to become, and he will forge his online identity largely outside my direct supervision. Many sites for young children already reinforce this model, requiring the parent only for his blanket permission or his credit card. I hope on Tikatok a parent can hone a different facet of his relationship with his children: he can assist, collaborate, and inspire.

Orit, you recently completed a degree at the MIT Media Lab. Can you describe the work you did through the lab and what you learned there which has contributed to the current venture?

Orit: Part of my research in the media lab was creating a unique communication system for kids to involve remote relatives with their daily routines. Communication systems as we know them were designed for business use, later on they were adapted to home use, but without any changes to the basic design. Looking at what children need to communicate led to the development of a very unique video system that created contextual video correspondence between relatives. For example, a grandmother would read a story to her grandchild on the other side of the world; and then the grandson would get that message when he went to bed. The system would know the right time to connect between the relatives and thus create a more meaningful connection between them. Looking at things from the user’s point of view creates a different product all together. With Tikatok, I tried looking at storytelling from a childs point of view and create something that would be easy and fun to use.

Neal, you recently completed a Masters through the Comparative Media Studies Program. Can you describe the work you did with us and how it has contributed to the current venture?

Neal: All of my work at CMS was united by the program’s commitment to multidisciplinary thinking, and for putting theory into practice. It was really invaluable experience to me as I began work on Tikatok.

The research project I worked most on was the Project for New Media Literacies. As your regular readers well know, it is a project very much created to address the challenges of participatory culture. As a graduate student researcher it was my responsibility to create educational media and associated curricula that would illuminate media production practices for a youth audience. I produced materials around blogging and science fiction authorship (using BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow as an exemplar), public art and graffiti, Wikipedia, and video games. The project forced me to think of creative ways to teach both the practical and ethical dimensions of media production, and that experience has certainly come in handy for designing materials that engage and instruct our users. The project also trained me to see these processes of creation and expression not only as individual processes, but as social process that occur within a context. This perspective has frequently come in handy when, as a team, we discuss new features and priorities for the company. The community illustration database is the perfect example. Do we solve the problem of illustration uploading with a tool that allows individual children to create digital drawings instantly? Or do we provide a more powerful way for kids to work together and take advantage of their unique abilities? My work with NML helped me provide an informed opinion on this decision and others.

I also worked briefly at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab as the design lead for a team of Singaporean and MIT students charged with creating a multiplayer video game for mobile phones. GAMBIT really prepared me for the kind of rapid, iterative product development within a small team that is characteristic of many startups, including our own. My GAMBIT experience also gave me a heightened appreciation for the extreme importance of user interface design and QA. I believe that video games really have some of the best user interfaces of any interactive media. There are design principles common to video games that designers of websites and virtual worlds should ignore at their own peril. The multidisciplinary approach I learned at CMS has allowed me to recognize relevant connections between these different media modes.

Finally, there was my academic work. My thesis explored “Narrative of Adolescence Across Media” and its final chapter, which imagined video games as a platform for a new kind of player co-authored coming-of-age story, articulates many of the same goals that we are trying to meet with Tikatok. For someone whose thesis was inspired by Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, in which a young girl is aided in her development by, essentially, a digital platform for collaborative storytelling, it has been exciting to bring my research to bear on one of the closest real-world examples of such a platform that I have encountered.

What has been the biggest surprise as you’ve explored the intersection between these two MIT-based approaches to media?

Neal: The biggest surprise to me, I suppose, is how compatible the two approaches have been. If I were to believe the Media Lab stereotype, it would be that the folks there put too much faith in technological solutions. Certainly there is a huge technological optimism behind projects like the One Laptop Per Child, and it’s important to peel away the layers of hyperbole to assess its potential impact. In starting a new company, it puts you in the position of having to promote yourself and your ideas, and it can be tempting to let your high aspirations get the best of you and let the hype flow unchecked. But I have never found myself battling Orit over unrealistic expectations. I think because the project is so grounded in her commitment to making something cool and worthwhile for her children, it makes her a sharp judge of what really works vs. what we want to work. She’s not making something for “the children,” she’s making something for her children.

And while Orit works on a very intuitive level, the CMS approach has allowed me to bring a multitude of theoretical frameworks to the project, and helped me articulate what we are trying to achieve, sometimes to people on the outside, but sometimes even to the team. In that sense it is a nice marriage of a more bottom-up, creative approach with a top-down, analytical approach. But even that is a simplification – I think we both bring creative and analytical skills. As MIT media scholars I think we definitely speak the same language.

Orit Zuckerman – Co-founder and CTO

Orit has designed online communities since 1996, when she worked for Gizmoz Networks. In 1999, Orit co-founded uTOK Inc., a San Francisco-based Internet startup that created a “decentralized blogging community.” She designed the community product, and supervised the R&D team. Most recently, Orit earned her Master’s Degree from the MIT Media Lab, where she designed and implemented an innovative communication system for children. Orit has also exhibited her interactive portraiture installations in Milan, Monaco, Boston, British Telecom headquarters, and the National Portrait Gallery in London, England.

Neal Grigsby – Director of Online Community

Neal Grigsby worked for seven years at, where he managed volunteers on a user-generated Web directory, co-managed partnerships and developed content for FindArticles, and designed education-themed search verticals. Neal recently earned his Masters Degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where he produced educational media for the Macarthur-funded Project for New Media Literacies, and

designed video games for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Neal also

holds a BA from UC Berkeley.

Children as Storytellers: The Making of TikaTok (Part One)

When our son was three years old, we began the practice of having him compose stories for us before bed. We traded off nights. Some nights we’d read him a story. Some nights he would make up a story which we typed out on the computer for him, word for word, without changes. Sometimes he would take a few friendly prods to get moving but we were very careful to preserve the structure and details of his imagination. We would print out the stories and have him draw pictures to illustrate them. We would then photocopy the whole and send them to his grandparents on birthdays and other major holidays as a time capsule of his creative life. The process emerged, no doubt, because both his mother and father were fans and we knew the value of fan fiction. It benefited us as a family because it gave us a regular time when we could talk about the media he was consuming — trust me, key themes of the stories came from television shows, movies, and from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyworld, which was a core influence on his thinking from early on. It allowed us to share our values with him, including the sense that he was empowered not simply to consume media but to rewrite it. And it helped him develop skills and a self identity as a writer which he has carried over into his adult life. I included an essay we wrote together in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. He also wrote and published an essay about his evolving relationship to professional wrestling in Nic Sammond’s Steel Chair to the Head.

All of this came back to me when I went on a walk recently with Neal Grgisby, who graduated a year ago with a Masters from the Comparative Media Studies Program, and has now taken on a job as the Director of Online Community for a startup company, TikaTok, which is trying to promote the idea of children writing, illustrating, and editing stories to share with other children. Interestingly, he’s ended up working for a company started by an alum of the MIT Media Lab, so part of the story he shared with me had to do with the value of collaborations between the two groups. In the interview which follows, Neal and Orit Zuckerman, the company’s CTO, talk about what they are trying to accomplish and in the process, they share some cutting edge thinking about how and why we can help children discover the power of authorship.

Tell us about your goals for Tikatok. What do you see as the core needs your company serves? What age groups are your targeting and why?

Orit: Tikatok’s goal is to give young children (ages 5-12) a stage to show their creativity, cultivate it, and create a continuum of creativity and creation into their adult life. Young kids are encouraged to draw, to tell stories, and to let their imaginations go wild, yet when they start going to school this creativity tends to fade away (unless they have exceptional talent). We find that every child has a story to tell and a picture to show, and you don’t need to be an exceptional talent to interest other kids in what you have to say. We believe that an active community of kids who like books can support this activity and give each other the confidence and help they need in the book making process.

Neal: I would add that we provide a space for younger kids to get in on what many of their teen siblings already enjoy: the ability to share their creative content on the Web. Due in part to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, children under 13 are explicitly prohibited from contributing to sites like YouTube and MySpace, and the sites made for younger children like Webkinz are so restricted that meaningful personal expression is nearly impossible. We believe that it’s possible to protect the privacy of children without depriving them of their voices. Picture books provide a form that they are very familiar with and that can grow out of the kinds of activities they already enjoy. It is essentially taking digital what children have always done at their kitchen tables.

What do you see as the value of allowing young people to become authors at

such an early age? Are there any disadvantages?

Orit: The value is showing to the world the amount of creativity that this age group has in telling a story. If you look at their stories, especially the younger ages, you see they are truly creating from within with much less external influence than older kids have, and the results are fascinating. The disadvantage is that in many cases the stories are not in a format or quality we expect a story to be, and sometimes the stories make sense only to the parents. I believe, though, that we are not in a place to judge those stories because we look at it with an adult’s eyes while they are intended for the eyes of children.

Neal: Right, the advantages and disadvantages are nearly one in the same. Their lack of experience and prejudice gives them such a fresh and unadulterated perspective, but it also means they haven’t fully developed the strategies and tricks that an author uses to work through a story. The blank page can be really intimidating, so we try to provide them some support and structure if they want it. Also, children are computer novices at this age, so we can’t overwhelm them with complicated tools – the editor has to be very elegant and intuitive, which is a huge design challenge.

How does Tikatok fit within the ongoing conversations about the value of participatory culture? For example, what similarities and differences do you see between what you are doing with younger children and what teens and adults do through fan fiction?

Neal: I definitely see Tikatok as helping to lower the barriers to creation and circulation of creative works for this cohort of kids Like many fan fiction communities have done, I hope we can encourage a culture of peer support on the site that will help kids refine their abilities in a less formal or judgmental atmosphere than they may be used to at school. And of course, writing is not a niche cultural practice, so I believe we can really foster multiple affinity groups within the community around any number of genres and styles, that is, we can bring kids with similar tastes and goals together in a way that will be very motivating.

Recently some members of the team were browsing the magazine Stone Soup, which is a really amazing thing: a literary magazine that publishes the best writing and illustrations of authors up to 13 years of age. I think we share many of the same ambitions of the editors of that magazine: to show that children can create works of real value, to give those works visibility, and, as a result, to give other children the confidence to create. But equally meaningful to us is the work that doesn’t necessarily meet universal editorial standards, work that may be of more personal value to the child or the parent, or that may just represent a small step in a child’s writing development. On the Stone Soup website they claim that they receive, and therefore reject, tens of thousands of story submissions from children a year. That figure really brought home the importance of an approach that is different but complimentary to theirs, one that only digital media and print-on-demand can provide.

What kind of relationship do you picture evolving between readers and writers? What do you see as the values of kids reading and responding to each other’s work?

    Orit: I believe that some people will be more active writers waiting for fans and critique, while some will be avid readers that collect favorite books and authors. The immediacy of the internet will evolve this relationship to more of a co-dependency rather than that of a remote creator-reviewer. The creations of the writers will be highly influenced by the readers because they can see the unfinished product and even be part of the creation. The readers are not just bystanders, they are more involved and as such their reading experience is completely different.

Neal: First of all, I can personally admit to being surprised by just how excited kids are to read books by other children that they don’t know. I think my niece and nephew have literally read every book that has been shared with the community (authors have the option to keep their books to themselves or to their network of friends), and when they find a book that they like they become filled with curiosity about the author; it has really been great to see them so engaged.

My own hope is that reading will become a way into writing for our users–that a child will be sent a book by a friend, or will spend some time browsing and reading the books on the front page, and will eventually become inspired or provoked enough to respond with his or her own story. Of course there is no contradiction between being a writer and a reader–far from it–and we hope that the community of writers will grow to support each other by posting constructive criticism, making creative suggestions, and becoming fans of each other. It is a huge motivator for kids just to know that other people are reading their books.

I think it will be incredibly valuable, personally and intellectually, for these kids to get and give feedback. Commenting and contributing to discussion is another vital form of participation on the site, and it forces a child to put into words what may begin as a gut feeling about a given book. Even if the initial way of giving feedback is just to say “I like this,” eventually he will run into an author who will respond with, “thanks, why?” And there he will have the beginning of a conversation that will likely get both the reader and writer to reflect and articulate something about their tastes and develop their ideas about storytelling and design. Especially if a child is both an engaged writer and a reader, having to shift perspectives from one to the other will likely make him better at both. It will give them a more personal stake in their literacy learning.

And as a site for the youngest of Internet users, I think the reader/writer model is a fairly powerful one for learning about the ethics of online participation. Like many online communities our site has community guidelines–the rules for participation–but instead of just providing a simple list of do’s and don’ts, I tried to ground our rules with reference to this paradigm. So instead of decontextualized commands like “don’t copy another user’s work,” the guidelines begin with some thoughts about how great writers stick together and respect each other. We still have rules, of course, but we try to show how they grow naturally from an ethical framework, and hope that they will remain relevant to our users as they discover other communities and have other opportunities for participation.

You describe Tikatok as “where kids channel their imaginations into stories.” How would you respond to critics who felt your templates did too much to “channel” young imaginations into particular narrative formulas. Some evidence suggest that children conceive stories in different terms than adults. Do your templates teach them to find what adults see as stories or allow them to articulate their own imaginations?

Neal: It can be a thin line between scaffolding a child’s ability to express herself and shoehorning her into a certain mode of expression, and we try to be very sensitive to this in our designs and the creation of the templates, which we call StorySparks. The templates themselves are relatively minimal: a smidgeon of character and setting, the beginnings of a conflict, and some hints about where they might want to take the story next. Few provide guidance beyond what you might call the “first act” of a story. They are written to be inspirational rather than prescriptive.

We do have plans to add other ways of scaffolding that are less textual. Probably the way that most kids tell stories is not through writing or drawing at all, but through objects. You put GI Joe in the Barbie dream car and put Barbie in the tank, and you have a scenario just ripe for a story. I’m very excited about our designs for a story scaffolding system that is more improvisational and object oriented.

Until then, user choice has really been an overarching design principle. Using a StorySpark is optional, and for those that do choose to write with a template, we have a huge library to choose from. In writing the templates I tried to pull ideas from everywhere to compliment any personality: mythology, fairy tales, classic literature, pop culture, etc. Once a template is chosen, we prompt the child to personalize it with their own character names and genders. Any aspect of it can be changed or ignored, and we have good evidence to show that kids are comfortable with taking what they need from a template and going in their own direction. At Tikatok you can definitely draw, and write, “outside the lines.”

I absolutely hope that the children will write stories that fly in the face of adult logic and I can’t wait to read them. It is really the reason for the site to exist: to publish the authentic expressions of child authors. But for the kids that want the help, the StorySparks can be very useful in allowing them to overcome the tyranny of the blank page, or for getting them to think about conflict and resolution. Research shows that even very young children can recognize good stories–or, if you like, stories that track with what adults consider good stories–but that their ability to generate those kinds of stories lags behind. I think it would be presumptive of us to assume that children do not want to progress to more adult-like stories. It is the same with drawing: it is fascinating to see how children process the world visually and translate that into an illustration, and often the final result is far more colorful and beautiful than the most realistically rendered landscape. But at some point in one’s learning, to take a completely random example let’s say when an individual reaches his 30s, it is just frustrating to him that he can’t draw better, and he wishes someone would have given him some tips.

Finally, I believe that adults are the ones who are most anxious about transgressing boundaries and authority. It comes naturally to kids. I am sure they will subvert whatever story idea I had in mind when I wrote these templates, and I welcome that.

One of your story templates features the arrival of a new and unknown game console. Many book lovers set up an opposition between reading/writing and game playing. Yet, here you are using young people’s interest in games as an opening into writing. How do you think about the relationship between these two modes of engaging with stories?

Neal: That template has been the most popular choice for kids participating in our offline workshops, by far. Mostly I think it gives them the opportunity to follow that ages-old maxim: write what you know. Here is a topic that they are experts in, and they are so excited to have a chance to put their knowledge and experience to use.

The success of that template gives a certain credence to the theory that the experience of playing a game has some similarities to the task of authoring a story. Where there is overlap we have tried to exploit it in our designs. For example our decision to prompt kids to pick character names and genders for their templates was influenced by the fact that this is a standard practice in games; and we hoped it would help ease them into a situation where they have to take more control over the story. I would say you can put reading, writing, and playing videos games on the same spectrum where the axis is control. Reading a book gives you very little control over the outcome of the story, whereas writing a book gives you maximum control. Playing a video game, or at least a video game with a narrative, is somewhere in the middle. You and the designer are co-authors of the narrative experience.

But there is definitely a critical point along that spectrum that video games have not crossed, and maybe can never really cross. There are non-trivial differences between firing up the Wii to play Super Mario Galaxy and writing a story on Tikatok, even when using a template. At times we have been tempted to push further towards the gaming model, to give kids tools for point and click, branching-path story generation, but that is just not what our site is about. We want to challenge kids to really use their imaginations and focus. I see our task as not trying to make writing easy, because if it was easy it wouldn’t be writing. Our task is to make it less intimidating and more rewarding.

That said, the success of games among kids has really paved the way to allow many people to understand why it is the right time for a site like ours. A decade ago maybe no one would agree that kids would be willing or able to do for fun something as complex as making a book, or that it would be a product for a very small niche of gifted children. Now we can point to games and say: kids routinely master incredibly complex systems and can’t get enough. Not only are they willing to engage with these participatory forms of culture, but they will soon demand it from all of their entertainment.

Orit Zuckerman – Co-founder and CTO

Orit has designed online communities since 1996, when she worked for Gizmoz Networks. In 1999, Orit co-founded uTOK Inc., a San Francisco-based Internet startup that created a “decentralized blogging community.” She designed the community product, and supervised the R&D team. Most recently, Orit earned her Master’s

Degree from the MIT Media Lab, where she designed and implemented an innovative communication system for children. Orit has also exhibited her interactive portraiture installations in Milan, Monaco, Boston, British Telecom headquarters, and the National Portrait Gallery in London, England.

Neal Grigsby – Director of Online Community

Neal Grigsby worked for seven years at, where he managed volunteers on a user-generated Web directory, co-managed partnerships and developed content for FindArticles, and designed education-themed search verticals. Neal recently earned his Masters Degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where he produced educational media for the Macarthur-funded Project for New Media Literacies, and

designed video games for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Neal also holds a BA from UC Berkeley.

Ethics and the New Media Literacies

All this week, the collaboration between MIT’s Project nml and Harvard’s Good Play Project is being spotlighted over at the MacArthur Foundation’s Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning. If you don’t know Spotlight, you are missing out on some of the best conversations these days about the ways that young people are learning in the context of the new participatory cultures. The two groups made a joint presentation a few weeks ago at the American Educational Researchers Association Conference in New York City.


As part of that presentation, Erin Reilly, NML’s project manager, used her photoshop skills to put together this vivid representation of the collaboration we’ve started to build together.

The following text was written jointly by John Francis, Andrea Flores, Sam Gilbert, Lana Schwartz, and Steve Schultze

Meeting of the H’s

In 2006, Henry Jenkins (Comparative Media Studies, MIT) and Howard Gardner (Harvard Graduate School of Education), both grantees of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiative, met to discuss their mutual interest in ethical issues around digital media and possible opportunities for collaboration–and why not, being situated only two subway stops apart in Cambridge? More important than geography, though, were emergent complementary themes and research questions of Gardner’s and Jenkins’ work, which made a collaborative effort seem promising.

How has this meeting of the H’s faired, and what has come out of the combined effort of Henry and Howard’s teams? This week, we hope to give you an inside look at our collaboration through a series of blog posts highlighting our present accomplishments and future plans. Today, we’ll start with a bit of background about our teams and the goals of our collaboration.

Two Projects, One Mission

As youth grow up in an increasingly connected environment, they are presented with a diversity of challenges. Many of these challenges arise in the context of new technologies of communication and creativity. How does digital copying relate to legacy notions of property? What do I need to know in order to collaborate with my online peers? How do I present myself online? What do I do when I encounter new communities with unfamiliar norms or ideas? In many cases, there are helpful analogies in “age old” practices. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom of the analog world can seem like an ill fit. A more appropriate approach might frame the core skills and ethical issues within already established structures, but recognize the complications and opportunities of the contemporary media environment.

Project New Media Literacies (NML) headed by Jenkins at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program is guided by two questions:

  1. What do young people need to know in order to become full, active, creative, critical, and ethically responsible participants in a media-rich environment?
  2. What steps do we need to take to make sure that these skills are available to all?

NML uses digital media and new network technologies to help young people think about the role of media in their lives as consumers, producers, and participants

Gardner’s GoodPlay Project, part of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is similarly concerned with the roles that youth assume online. More specifically, the GoodPlay Project seeks to understand the ethical issues that youth face in the virtual frontier of new digital media. How models of ethics transfer from the offline to the online world–especially in the five areas of identity, privacy, authorship and ownership, credibility and participation–and how young people understand their roles and responsibilities in digital contexts are key concerns.

Together, it was decided that NML and GoodPlay would produce learning tools that help youth understand the connections between the digital media skills they learn and their roles and responsibilities as “good” cyber citizens. By integrating the GoodPlay ethical framework with the new media skill set defined by NML, the collaboration would develop activities that encourage reflection about ethical issues raised in various forms of media participation. These activities would draw on materials from the NML Exemplar Library and on data collected by the GoodPlay research team.

Let’s Collaborate

In the summer of 2007, the NML and GoodPlay project teams set out to explore exactly what form our collaboration would take. We divided ourselves up into four “SuperTeams” to discuss compelling intersections between the two projects. After several weeks and many meetings, the entire group decided on a course of action for the fall: we–the “SuperQuartet” of Andrea Flores, John Francis, Steve Schultze and Lana Swartz–were challenged to generate ten high-level prototypes. After meeting with the full teams from NML-GoodPlay, we selected the best components of those prototypes for further refinement into two full learning modules. During this process, we began by considering the five core ethical issues identified in the GoodPlay white paper.

  • Identity: exploring and ‘playing’ with different identities
  • Privacy: choosing when and how to share information to whom
  • Ownership/Authorship: understanding issues of control and credit for intellectual work
  • Credibility: being authentic when representing one’s competence and motivations
  • Participation: accessing communities, understanding codes of conduct, and engaging proactively

We chose to focus on Ownership/Authorship for this first prototype development and refinement phase. This issue highlights the challenges youth face in navigating questions like “who owns the output of my work?”, and “what are the appropriate means of giving credit?” Offline, these issues have a long history of legal and social norms but ethical indiscretions are commonplace. The opportunities for transgressions are compounded online by the absence of clear-cut and well-understood norms, facile technology and a multi-author model of online creation. Within this core issue of Ownership/Authorship, we integrated several skills from the New Media Literacies white paper, such as:

  • Simulation: the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
  • Appropriation: the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
  • Collective Intelligence: the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
  • Networking: the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
  • Negotiation: the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms

In our activities, simulation helps students set up and understand real-world scenarios of ethical ownership. When facing an opportunity to sample or remix media content, students must decide what makes for acceptable and meaningful appropriation. In several instances, they must pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal. In so doing, they must exercise the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information. Because ownership/authorship is a complex issue with different expectations in different situations, the activities encourage students to discern and respect multiple perspectives, and to engage alternative norms.

The combination of these issues and skills led us to four themes that we sought to address:

  • Collaboration/Co-Creation/Knowledge Communities: Developing models of how to work together effectively and ethically.
  • Responsibility: Highlighting the ways in which a creator has responsibilities to his/her audience, to the broader community, and to the original content and its creator (if he/she is a remixer).
  • Copyright: Understanding the proper use of materials by the individual and the individual’s understanding of his/her rights as a creator of content.
  • “Inspired by ” vs. Plagiarism: Identifying the difference between using content as a jumping off point for remixing/ creating new ‘inspired by’ materials vs. usurping materials as one’s own creation.

We are excited with the progress that has been made, and the ways in which insights from both NML and GoodPlay informed the process. In some ways, we experienced the very concepts we were designing for, as we relied on the collective intelligence of all involved, easily negotiated differences and drew from a wide network of knowledge. It is clear that the shared authorship process can generate something greater than the sum of its parts, and that remixing and appropriation helped us iterate toward more effective activities.

But enough about us, we want to show you what we’ve made!


When you’re doing research or creating a work of art, the line between original work and copying is sometimes blurry. This activity helps “highlight” these distinctions.

In The Inspired Highlighter, students review different media samples in which one work is influenced by a former work. The two samples are presented side-by-side, and students identify the various tools that the latter author draws upon elements of the first work–characters, point-of-view, wording, theme, etc. We provide several options for teachers, such as Emma and Clueless, Gone with the Wind and Wind Done Gone, Moby Dick and a contemporary stage adaptation, Harry Potter fan fiction, and more. Students are also provided with simple summaries of concepts such as plagiarism, inspiration, copyright, public domain, and fair use. Working in groups or individually, students make comparisons across different genres, media forms, and authorial communities. This involves judging what makes for acceptable appropriation and what does not. Students identify the difference between using content as inspiration versus straightforward plagiarism.

The activity uses two conceptual tools to guide students through this process. First, the students themselves place the particular instances that they discover in a simple grid that helps them the tools the author, the nature of the appropriation, and the possible motivations of the second author. The second conceptual tools is a simple graph, featuring “unacceptable copyright” on one axis and “acceptable norms” on the other. Together on the board, the class discusses where on this axis they would place the specific examples they found. Perhaps some examples are acceptable with respect to copyright law but unacceptable when it comes to authoring an original academic work. Perhaps some cases are unacceptable with a strict interpretation of copyright, but seem perfectly acceptable when considered in light of social norms.

By the end of the activity, students should be able to identify norms of ownership, tools of authorship, and instances of clear and not-so-clear plagiarism. Going forward, we hope that students will be able to highlight and consider these dilemmas not only in their school work but also in day-to-day situations.


The themes of authorial responsibility and copyright are difficult concepts for many young people to grasp. In this activity, we let cows do the teaching.

In Mad Men, students role-play as advertising project managers for the ‘Vegetable Growers of America’ (VGA) in a campaign promoting vegetarianism. In the activity, students choose photos and music for the campaign, considering both the licensing and original intent of the musical and visual creations. For example, students have to decide whether or not using an “agency” owned photo of a cow statue at the Sri Mariamman Temple in Singapore is appropriate in this context. While the photo can be used appropriately from a copyright perspective, students must weigh the needs of the campaign, the original intent of the photo’s creator, and the photo’s religious context. Mad Men, then, does not simply ask students to consider copyright violations, but also encourages them to think about the potential consequences of using media for different purposes than the original artist intended.

After creating their advertising campaigns, students engage in a discussion about their decisions. In light of the music and photo choices they made for the ad campaign, they are asked to consider and articulate the likely views of different stakeholders–the VGA, the viewing public, and the original creator. Students are also prompted to consider how their concerns would change were they tasked with creating an anti-vegetarianism campaign using the same images and music. Our hopes in crafting this curriculum were twofold: 1) to expose youth to ownership norms and conventions of authorial responsibility; and 2) to scaffold youth to thoughtfully reflect on the meaning of ethical authorship and ownership decision-making in their everyday experiences.

Mad Men poses issues of responsibility and copyright in a fun and engaging role-play and a substantive experience of making distinct ethical choices. Who knew that cows could do all that?

Privacy and Publicity

Now that we’ve developed curricular activities that address issues of ownership and authorship, the NML-GoodPlay collaboration is focusing on to another ethical issue salient to digital youth: privacy. The Internet has changed how youth find and share information about themselves and others, challenging existing conceptions of privacy. These changes result in a lot of uncertainty about what constitute good privacy practices. Our hope is to create a curriculum that gives young people thinking tools that help them to 1) understand both the promises and the perils of disclosure online and 2) consciously adopt a set of values around what to share and what not to share online.

To start things off, the NML and GoodPlay teams recently got together for a ‘group think’ about privacy issues and strategies for encouraging reflection about privacy. Here are a few themes from that brainstorm that we feel will be important to address through the curriculum:

  • Digital media technology has made it possible for individuals to share more about themselves to more people than ever before. It has also made it harder than ever before for individuals to control what personal information gets shared with others. Thus, while young people may have more outlets to share their thoughts, receive support and feedback, and build relationships, it’s much easier for them to be taken advantage of online.
  • Many young people use deception as a way of maintaining privacy. One teenager interviewed for the GoodPlay project, for example, changes the hometown listed on his facebook profile every couple of weeks so as to throw off people who might try to locate him.
  • Managing privacy is rarely as simple as knowing “what to say” and “what not to say” online. It involves managing one’s information across diverse communities and contexts. Often, sharing an intimate part of oneself to others online can be a positive and rewarding experience; it’s when such information is copied and pasted into a new context–or shared with an unintended audience–that problems arise.
  • For young people, many conflicts over privacy revolve around gossiping practices. Information is power, and young people are sometimes imprudent about sharing information so as to lift their standing in the social group.

Our heads are swimming with ideas about privacy, but we’d still love to hear some more. Do you have a great concept for an activity that capitalizes on these ideas? Any thoughts on how privacy issues manifest themselves online? Write something in the comments and continue our brainstorm!

For those of you who can’t get enough of talk about new media literacies, you might want to check out this recording of a public conversation between Howard Gardner, James Paul Gee, Nichole Pinkard, Connie Yowell, and myself at AERA. Thanks to Barry Joseph and the fine folks at Global Kids for sharing this link.

Librarians, YouTube, and the New Media Literacies

I recently gave talks to two groups of librarians about their role in promoting the New Media Literacies: first, I did a webcast to more than 500 members of the Association for College and Research Libraries and then, I spoke in person to a meeting of the New England Educational Media Association and the Massachusetts School Library Association.

Across both conversations, it was clear that librarians are on the front lines, dealing with those who have been left behind by the participation gap, struggling to deal with those opposed to or frightened by the participatory turn in our culture, helping anxious academics understand the value and limits of wikipedia, and so forth. In the question sessions at both talks, I heard some of the concerns they are facing on their ground as they try to keep pace with the changes in our understanding of literacy and in the ways that information circulates and knowledge is produced.

I was especially struck by some questions from libraries whose school districts require them to block such key sites of participatory culture as Youtube, MySpace, and Second Life — in part out of fear of the content they will bring into their schools but also out of concern about their liability over what students may post during school hours. I was struck all over again by the tension between the rich pedagogical benefits we see through the effective deployment of such sites and the pressures schools face from those in their community who are anxious about the directions their culture is taking.

I tried to explain to them about the ways that YouTube has become an incredible archive of materials of invaluable use in the classroom. I cited for example the website, realclearpolitics, which everyday not only gathers together key articles about the presidential campaign from newspapers and newsmagazines all over the country but also collects major clips from the campaign trail, mostly posted on Youtube, so you can quickly catch up with everything from Saturday Night Live skits to the latest interviews on Sunday Morning talk shows, from advertisements to internet parodies, which help us to understand what’s happening in American civic life. This site does a great job in curating the contents of Youtube yet it would be impossible to generate such a resources without the open ended platform for sharing media content that Youtube represents. As a media scholar, I think we should be teaching students ways to understand what’s going on within Youtube and how it is impacting our culture. But I also think that regardless of what subject you teach, we can learn through YouTube. At the same time, producing and sharing media can be a powerful motivator for other kinds of academic research, can be a good way to get students to take greater responsibility over their own learning, and can be a way of introducing students to the rewards and challenges of civic engagement and cultural participation. The response to the risks posed by this new media platform is not to ignore them and let young people face them on their own outside of school but to insure that there are well informed adult mentors to watch their backs rather than snoop over their shoulders. So, I urge librarians and teachers to continue to struggle to insure that they have access to this resource in their schools.

I know that a number of teachers and librarians regularly read this blog so I’d like to invite you to share your stories and perspectives on this issue. Which sites does your local school board block access to? What rationales are they giving? To what degrees is it possible to work around those restrictions? Or conversely, what uses have you made of these sites for your teaching?

As you can probably tell from the reactions to the anonymous post, we now seem to be back on track in terms of processing reader responses: it does require a one time registration process but it allows you to post directly to the site without waiting for me to clear each post. So, let’s see if we can put the system to a test.

If you follow these links, you can find a podcast version of the ACRL talk (if you want to cut to the talk itself, it starts about 12 minutes into the podcast) and an interview with with College & Research Libraries News editor-in-chief David Free, which follows up on some of the core ideas in the talk.

Both talks allowed me to share some of the materials we are developing through Project nml, including our Teacher’s Strategy Guide on Moby Dick, our Learning Library, and the Ethics Casebook we are developing with Harvard’s Good Play Project. You can find out more about all three projects at our Project NML blog. We are still looking for schools and after school programs which might want to test some of our materials next year. I am going to share more on the Ethics casebook project later this week.

Persepolis: The Video Game?

The following essay by Matt Weise appeared late last week on the blog for the Singapore-MIT Gambit Games Lab. My readers who are interested in games might well have encountered it there. But what he has to say is apt to be of interest to those of you who are interested in comics and animation, so I wanted to cross-post it to this blog. I read this essay with a certain pride: Weise was a Master’s Student in our program before he went into the games industry (and then came back to play a central role in the operation of our games lab). His master’s thesis (look under the class of 2004) dealt centrally with issues of how meaning and emotion get expressed through games, themes to which he is returning to within this post.

Here, you see an example of a particular mode of games analysis which has become more wide-spread in our program through the years: Rather than writing an ideological critique which stressed the limits of the original text (or in this case, of games a medium), Weisse engages in a thought experiment — first, comparing the game Just Cause to what he sees as a more rewarding media experience, Persepolis, and then imagining how games as a medium might be able to more fully realize what he sees as lacking in the text under examination. This is a mode of analysis which doesn’t simply point out limitations but also imagines alternative possibilities; it doesn’t just accept the text as given but rather writes beyond the ending of the text, reconstructs an alternative version of it to show what might be missing in the original. We’ve found that these kinds of thought experiments can generate more concrete discussions and may become the spring board for more creative interventions. In a space like Gambit, which is involved in developing playable prototypes which stretch the games medium, this ability to move between current examples and alternative versions can be a springboard for design activities. It represents one way that we can blur the lines between theory and practice.

Persepolis for Xbox 360?

by Matt Weise

Last week I bought a game I swore I wouldn’t buy: Just Cause. I swore I wouldn’t buy this game when I read that its politcal premise–the overthrow of a corrupt South American regime through guerrilla warfare–would involve the typical American rhetoric that, it would seem, no war-themed game can exist without: the protection of American interest. Thus a game that could have been, provocatively, Che Guevara meets Grand Theft Auto became yet another emulation of Chuck Norris barf bag cinema, the kind where some helpless country needs a swaggering yank to pull it, kicking and screaming if necessary, to democracy. This is why in Just Cause you are some CIA dude, and not just a suffering citizen of the (fictional) country who’s finally had enough. One might imagine that a horrific dictatorship would be reason enough to go guerrilla, but in Just Cause we need the threat of WMD’s which could possibly be used on America to justify ass kickery. Viva la Revolucion!

The notion fills me with disappointment. I know better than to expect a serious, documentary-like experience from a mainstream videogame, and yes many games are just elaborate power trips. But what’s wrong with a power trip in which the indigenous population gets empowered in a way that isn’t filtered through America’s big brother mythology? Ugh. Still, I bought it last week.

I bought Just Cause because I played it at a friend’s house, and it turned out to be pretty fun. The American aspect of the story is more or less in the background. Your avatar is Latin American at the very least, though he does appear to work for the CIA. The story itself is still moronic, full of Hollywood cliches. But those cliches make for fun gameplay at times, like when you perform all manner of ridiculous stunts. My friends and I had a ball riding cars, boats, and even planes like surfboards as we ran from government stooges. After that, I decided to swallow my political angst and pick it up for cheap.

Then, yesterday, my girlfriend and I went to see Persepolis.

The movie had a huge effect on me. I actually didn’t know much about it, aside from the fact that it was based on a comic and was an autobiographical account of an Iranian woman’s life. I wasn’t expecting it to go so far into the politics and cultural fallout of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. I found the film deeply moving for many reasons, but I think what affected me most was how the protagonist was portrayed, as a wonderfully intelligent girl who was just trying to have a normal life while simultaneously dealing with a deeply repressive political shift. It humanized the recent history of Iran form me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. On another level the film worked simply as the story of a promising life tragically complicated by authoritarian religion… a concept that, at least in the abstract, strikes home for me.

I came home after watching this movie and didn’t feel like doing anything. I just needed to sit and let the film sink in. My girlfriend kept asking me if I was okay because I basically stared into space for the rest of the evening. I thought maybe I could break out of my reflection by playing some videogames, but I stopped short at the thought of playing Just Cause. In light of something as moving and personal asPersepolis, the idea of playing a game that dealt with repression and revolution like Just Cause did made me recoil. My initial revulsion at the game’s shallowness came surging back even more intense than before. Disgusted, I asked myself why it seemed impossible to make a game that dealt with social upheaval the way Persepolis did. Why couldn’t Just Cause have been like Persepolis? Did I have to be embarrassed at the thought of picking up a controller every time I came home from a movie like Persepolis?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, suffice to say that if it’s not possible to make a game like Persepolis I’ve clearly been wasting my time with this garbage we call videogames. I wonder what it would take to make a game like Just Cause express ideas closer to what Persepolis is expressing. Leaving aside the typical objection of “you’d never get a game like that funded!” it seems a game design question worth exploring.

One striking aspect of Just Cause is how, for a game about a repressive regime, the regime doesn’t actually seem to be repressing anyone. The NPC’s–whom you see everywhere going about their daily lives–don’t seem to do anything other than walk around and drive cars. They don’t seem particularly unhappy. They are, essentially, exactly like characters in GTA: more of a decoration than a meaningful aspect of the virtual world. In GTA this is fine since the world is not about the NPC’s, but in a game that’s about revolution and freedom in the name of The People you’d think The People would be… well, people. Not that we need hyper-advanced A.I., but we at least need a game design where political repression is part of the world you are trying to simulate.

How do you do this? There’s obviously no single, right way to do it. But we can start by observing that repressive states are, in essence, extremely limiting rule systems that every citizen must learn and deal with. This is something that Persepolis illustrates extremely well, especially in the first half where the protagonist is struggling to deal with all the new rules that are being imposed on women in the first years of the Islamic Republic. The women in the film learn to survive by quickly mastering this rule system, by learning exactly when to wear the veil, how to behave towards men in public, etc. As time goes on both men and women learn the system well enough that they are able to subvert it in small ways, such as having illegal parties with alcohol and banned western music.

It’s easy to see how one can take the logics of state repression and model them as a game system. Because a citizen in a police state is in a game of sorts, a game with extremely dire consequences. But citizens try to game the system in order to survive, to express their sense of self and hope. A select few of those citizens might go further,and game the system with the intent not just to survive it but to change it. When the rules of the game are successfully rewritten, you’ve had a revolution.

Why can’t Just Cause follow a model like this? One can imagine a virtual world in which citizens have simple behaviors. They wake up, eat, socialize, work, and go to bed… sort of like in The Sims. But they have to do all these things within a strict framework of government rules that sometimes conflict with their desires. For example, citizens might be expected to dress a certain way, stand at attention during a patriotic hymn, etc. If any deviation from this behavior was witnessed by patrolling police, citizens might be arrested, which would affect the happiness levels (like in The Sims) of the citizens around them.

The goal of a game like this, from the player’s perspective, would involve two distinct


Firstly, the player would have to learn the behavioral rules of the repressive society.This would be necessary so that the player could be invisible within the society in order to be able to subvert it. This layer would be somewhat like a stealth or spy game,in which players must learn to dress, act, and talk a certain way in order to avoid suspicion. Only instead of some military espionage scenario, the environment would just be everyday life.

Secondly, the player would have to perform acts that would affect the happiness levels of the society at large. This could be manifest concretely as a list of civil liberties which the citizens don’t have. Restoring each one of these liberties would be a goal of the game, like a series of non-linear missions. Once all the liberties were restored,the society would be transformed.

This idea is interesting for its emergent possibilities. I am not imagining a game where society changes instantly, as the hard-coded result of a cut-scene or boss battle. I’m thinking that each “rule” that the police enforce (i.e. what clothes you can wear) correspond to a certain civil liberty on your list. Once that liberty is restored, the police stop enforcing it, changing the dynamics of the game. Thus “freedom” is something you experience as a player by having restrictions removed, and it is also something you see in the citizens around you because they no longer have to deal with those restrictions (i.e. there are less arrests, therefore happiness levels increase.)

And how exactly do you restore all these freedoms? Well, that’s the real trick. Do you assassinate and intimidate? Do you organize peaceful protests in secret? It might be interesting to have a game where you could do both kinds of things, and each would have an affect on the citizens you are trying to help. For example, if you want to assassinate a government official by blowing up his house, that might work. But if you blow up his house, it will also affect the happiness levels of the population. Is the trade off worth it? What if you affect political change but end up alienating the population? Have you accomplished your goal? Is your goal to check all the liberties off your list? Or is it to make the population as happy as possible?

I don’t know if the game I just described is subtle or complex enough to do justice to the personal nature of something like Persepolis. Of course, Persepolis isn’t about being a revolutionary. It’s about a citizen trying to keep her life and identity from falling apart under repressive rule. A game where you played a citizen under a repressive regime could be its own kind of game, with maybe some similarities to the game I described above.

Perhaps we’re not ready for a Persepolis game on Xbox 360. Perhaps we’re not ready for a Persepolis game at all. Perhaps I am dishonoring the reality of the author‘s life experience by even suggesting that we entertain such a notion. But I hang onto the notion that I am not doing that, that games are not somehow intrinsically superficial in their engagement of political ideas. Political and social ideas need not be trivial in videogames. They are not trivial by default. They are full of reality, tragedy, and emotion. The only reason they become trivial in videogames is because the makers of games choose to trivialize them.

I have no idea if a game like the one I described would work, but I believe that a Hollywood bubblegum crapfest like Just Cause could only benefit from such an experiment. Then maybe I could come home from a movie like Persepolis and not feel like a moron for having spent $400 on an Xbox 360.

I could feel proud.

Matthew Weise

Producer, Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab

Matthew Weise is equal parts gamer and cinephile, having attended film school before segueing into game studies and then game development. Matt is a producer for GAMBIT and a full-time gamer, which means he not only plays games on a variety of systems but he also completes (most of) them. Matthew did his undergrad at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he studied film production before going rogue to design his own degree. He graduated in 2001 with a degree in Digital Arts, which included videogames (this was before Game Studies was a field). He continued his research at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, where he worked on Revolution with The Education Arcade. After leaving MIT in 2004 Matt worked in mobile game development for a few years, occassionally doing some consultancy work, before returning to work at GAMBIT.

A Critfan Yearns for the World As It Was

One of the more unorthodox policy decisions we’ve made at the Comparative Media

Studies Program is to allow students to include non-academics as outside readers on their thesis committees where they can demonstrate that the person has relevent experience and expertise. This has opened to door to bringing alternative kinds of knowledge into the thesis process. When Sam Ford, who now runs the blog for the Convergence Culture Consortium, wrote a thesis about soap operas and convergence, I ended up sitting on a committee which included both a veteran soap opera writer Kay Alden (The Young and the Restless, now writing for The Bold and the Beautiful) and a long time soap fan who had written for Soap Opera Weekly, Lynn Liccardo. Needless to say, it was a fascinating discussion — one which allowed Sam to test his ideas against real world feedback from within both the industry and the fan community. As one of the the non-soap people in the room (along with William Uricchio), I learned a great deal from listening to both of

our visiting experts. This term, Sam Ford has been teaching a course through our program on soap opera and the blog for the course has attracted a range of outside participants, including, once again, Lynn Liccardo. I asked Lynn if I could share with you some thoughts she has about what has happened to the soap opera genre in recent years and why she is becoming increasingly frustrated with a genre which has been part of her life for decades.


by Lynn Liccardo

Over the past few weeks I’ve been checking in on the blog Sam Ford set up for his class on The American Soap Opera: here. The student comments touch on many of the issues that underlie the current, sorry state of the American Soap Opera. Of course, being only a few weeks into the course, and from what I can tell, relatively new soap viewers, they lack the contextual understanding to connect the dots.

They’re watching As the World Turns, a show I’ve watched since it premiered in 1956, the year I started kindergarten. But they’re watching and studying ATWT as it exists today; I’m watching the same show and yearning for the show it used to be. So when a student comments on how certain characters are either actors or reactors, I hesitate to respond. I could reiterate Sam’s point that characters often switch between actor and reactor depending on the circumstances. He’s absolutely right. But that barely scratches the surface; what I really want to tell them is that there used to be a time on soap opera when characters might switch between actor and reactor in the course of a single conversation.

It’s been a good long while since that happened on ATWT, certainly not in the time that they’ve been watching. So long in fact, that I’m hard-pressed to think of a specific example to give them, one downside of the sheer volume of soaps’ text. Then, is there available video, or do you have to try to explain the context? And even with video, how to capture the full depth of a story that ran over months, if not years, by showing just a few isolated episodes?

All of which brings me to Ryan’s Hope, a show that ran from 1975-89, and is currently shown on SOAPnet, a digital cable channel created by ABC to rebroadcast their soaps. (How the channel has evolved from its original mission is a subject for further discussion.)A few months ago, just as when the RH‘s 1982 episodes were to begin, the show went back to its 1975 premiere. There was a huge hew and cry from viewers; SOAPnet claimed that they couldn’t clear the rights to the music used in shows after 1982. While I appreciated the outrage, I was thrilled; RH was a show I’d dipped into now and then over the years, but had never really watched. When it premiered in 1975, I had a fulltime job, no VCR and had just begun working on my undergraduate degree at night. I could barely keep tabs on ATWT, but could depend on my mother to fill me in – Guiding Light, too.

Since I’d already been watching RH for a while before the switch, there was little about the actual opening story that surprised me since I already knew how much of it had turned out. What did shock me was just how awful the first few episodes looked – flat and dull – dreadful lighting. The graphics were amateurish, and have only slightly improved. And, I have to say, Frank Ryan, the show’s ersatz hero, in a coma for weeks on end was less than scintillating storytelling. But that first day, when Mary Ryan met Jack Fenelli in her family’s bar, I was in for the duration.

As I write this (March 2008), what’s currently on screen is just over a year into the show’s run. I have to say, as much of a pleasure it’s been to watch the first year of RH, it’s been a bittersweet experience since in that year’s worth of episodes (they run two a night Monday-Friday) I’ve seen more genuine soap opera drama than I have in I don’t know how many years of ATWT and, occasionally, GL. In the soap opera of recent memory, I have to settle for a moment here, some subtext there. In RH, I get to see fully-developed characters and fully-integrated storytelling – albeit, 30-years old. But, has it ever held up.

However, what’s truly jarring – surreal, actually – is the juxtaposition between the down-to-earth Ryans, et al – characters who actually wear coats and scarves in the winter – and the SOAPnet promos featuring the current crop of soap opera characters where women’s most important piece of clothing is a pushup bra and men often go shirtless – regardless of the weather. And then there are the promo taglines: “Ruthless people who will do anything to get what they want.” That one’s for Y&R. The OC‘s described as “Pretty people, pretty messed up.”

This is not to say there aren’t ruthless people on Ryan’s Hope: Roger Coleridge comes to mind. But the insecurity that underlies Roger’s behavior is so transparent, it’s hard to think of what he’s doing as pure ruthlessness. Even the local gangster (and neighborhood undertaker), Nick Szabo is clearly a devoted and loving, if infuriating, father and when a major character died, he behaved decently and compassionately.

And there are certainly pretty people on Ryan’s Hope, and yes, some of them are pretty messed up, but messed up in ways that real people can identify with, not just watch agog. Anyone who grew up without a family can understand the behavior of those characters on the outside looking in: Jack, who’s been so traumatized by growing up in an orphanage that he never misses an chance to sabotage his relationship with Mary and her family – a tension the writers continued to play years down the road as Mary’s father, Johnny, never forgot how much pain Jack’s fears created for Mary, and her mother, Maeve, never forgot the cause of Jack’s fears. I always wondered if those early conversations between Johnny and Maeve discussing their concerns about Jack resembled conversations my own parents has about my boyfriends

And then there’s Delia, who also lost her parents young. Dee’s so unhappy in her marriage to Frank Ryan (and who can blame her, he was cheating on her for years, yet being the golden boy, no one ever really blamed him), so in need of the love that Roger Coleridge wants to share with her (cruel as some of Roger’s actions seem, he really does love her), and yet she’s willing to give it up to remain a Ryan.

But my all-time (thus far) favorite juxtaposition between Ryan’s Hope and the SOAPnet promos came during the most recent mindless bloodbath on General Hospital. Bruce Weitz, best know as Mick Belker on Hill Street Blues, played Anthony Zacchara, leader of said bloodbath. Back in 1976, Weitz also had a one-day gig on RH playing an assistant district attorney prosecuting a euthanasia case (the love story between Seneca and Nell Beaulac remains a powerful testament to forgiveness, reconciliation, and the real meaning of love between grown-ups). In a single conversation with Seneca’s lawyer, Jill Coleridge a very young and smooth-faced Weitz expressed compassion for, and understanding of, a tragic situation while making it clear he intended to win the case. I had really looked forward to seeing how Weitz would play the trial and was disappointed to see another actor playing the role. Seeing Weitz as Zacchara in the GH promos stood in stark contrast to the depth and complexity he brought to his one day on RH.

The issues underlying those juxtapositions explain a lot about the current sorry state of soap opera and I’ll be writing more about how down the road. But back to my initial point: how characters might switch between actor and reactor in the course of a single conversation. I’ve always believed that the higher one’s tolerance for ambiguity, the better one can experience the full emotional impact of soap opera. What happed on RH recently provides a perfect example:

Frank has found out about Delia’s affair with Roger and wants to use that information to divorce her and win custody of their son, Little John. Except that Frank cheated on Dee with Jillian first, but since Dee took him back she can’t use that first adultery to block the divorce Frank wants so desperately. So she enlists Frank’s brother Pat (they were an item in high school), to find evidence that Frank has resumed his affair with Jillian. The repercussions play out among all the characters, including the deeply-Catholic Johnny and Maeve, who don’t believe in divorce, yet know that the marriage was never right. They want to defend Frank and blame Dee, but Pat never lets his parents forget that it was Frank who cheated first.

These scenes are long enough (another big change; the short choppy scenes currently on ATWT and GL make me dizzy) that the characters move from actor to reactor seamlessly, and the camera shows each character’s ambivalence in the reaction shots. And viewers get to experience the real life emotions of characters far more real than those on any reality show.

I know these kinds of moments happened on As the World Turns in the past, most recently, during the Douglas Marland era. Marland was ATWT‘s headwriter from 1985 until his untimely death in 1993. One of his best stories involved legacy characters Bob and Kim Hughes, Kim’s ex-husband, John Dixon, their son, Andy Dixon and Susan Stewart, a longtime rival of Kim’s.

I’ve always believed that the most powerful and compelling drama is created when all of the characters involved in a storyline are trying to do the right thing – the right thing for the situation, not necessarily the right thing for their character – and it’s their efforts that come into conflict. The situation in this case was John and Kim’s son, Andy’s alcoholism. So, of course Kim and John were spending time together; their son was in trouble. And, of course, Bob wanted to help, but he wasn’t Andy’s father; John was. Susan may have been a troublemaker in the past, but here, she was Andy’s AA sponsor. And so when Bob and Susan finally hit the sheets, viewers were sighing to themselves, “oh no,” not screaming, “what the fuck!,” as is all too often the case with current daytime soaps.

Sad to say (sad for soap viewers, anyway), these days the only place to see this kind of character-driven drama routinely played out, with the depth and intimacy that used to be the hallmark of soaps, is on primetime: Friday Night Lights; Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money are three examples of the best of what primetime has to offer. In these shows, as in the soaps of old, conflicts between and among characters begin with the emotional conflicts within the characters; as the audience watches the former unfold, they are never permitted to lose sight of the latter.

The question of whether these primetime shows are in fact soaps came up last summer in the follow-up to a discussion between Abigail Derecho and Christian McCrea here, which led to further discussion on Just TV here and C3, here. And Sam has opened up a discussion with his students as to what exactly defines a soap opera here.

Given the deep-rooted stigma long attached to daytime soaps, it’s not too surprising that fans of primetime serials invest time and effort parsing the textual and structural differences between daytime and nighttime soaps. What did surprise me, though, was the resistance that came from within daytime, in particular the daytime media. One daytime critic actually said, “Daytime drama and primetime drama are two very different genres with two very different audiences,” an understandable, albeit specious, argument. I would argue (and will in an essay for the book Sam, Abigail and C. Lee Harrington are co-editing that grew of last summer’s discussion) that daytime would do well to understand what is working on primetime soaps, and why, because it’s what used to be working on daytime. And right now, daytime soaps are in so much trouble that none of us can afford to be territorial if it stands in the way of figuring out how to save this long-marginalized segment of popular culture.

Lynn Liccardo began writing about nursing after graduating from Harvard

University in 1983 with an undergraduate degree in the humanities. Her articles appeared in The Boston Globe, Revolution: The Journal for Nurse Empowerment, and Soap Opera Weekly, where she published a piece on how nurses are portrayed on soap operas. In the early 1990s, she wrote several articles for SOW, including, “Who Really Watches Soap Operas,” a

demographic analysis cited in numerous scholarly articles. She currently posts on several soap boards and media blogs and still watches As the World Turns, as she has since its premiere in 1956, the year she started kindergarten. From 2005-2007, she also advised on a Master’s thesis project on soaps at MIT. Lynn is also a playwright and screenwriters, with short plays performed in greater Boston, New York and Los Angeles. She’s completed one screenplay, Never Can Say Goodbye, and a treatment for a second, The Good Father. In 2007, her one-act play, Settling In, was broadcast on Somerville Community Access Television (MA).