Aussie Comedy: A Taste Americans May Soon Acquire

I have friends who get excited about the latest Japanese anime and manga. I have other friends who are avidly following Asian drama from Korean, Japan, and China. And Of course, I have many friends who are convinced that BritComs and science fiction are vastly superior to anything produced for American television. Each of these groups has, in their own way, exploited the potentials of digital media to expand their access to entertainment content from some other part of the world, content which it would historically have been difficult to consume with any regularity in the context of the American entertainment media. Well, OK, PBS has relied heavily on British television content for several decades now; it’s become the staple of their pledge drives, but we still aren’t seeing very much British content on American prime time network programming. By comparison, many parts of the world struggle to insure than 15-20 percent of their prime time hours are occupied by local content, while American shows dominate much of the airtime.

Well, I’m a fan of Australian comedy. I’ve fallen under the spell of programs from the Australian Broadcasting Company during my many previous trips to the country. And I’ve long believed that these quirky, unexpected, and highly original series would gain wider popularity in the American context if they were more widely available in this country. Australia has been producing compelling films since the Silent Era yet for most of that time, it has had difficulty getting its content seen in other parts of the world. Early on, it was cost prohibitive to ship heavy film canisters from the South to the North, or so it was claimed, while others saw the content as too nationally specific to be understood in a broader context. So far, some Americans have learned to love Neighbors, Prisoner in Cell Block H, Bananas in Pajamas, and Crocodile Hunter, but for the most part, we’ve never given a chance to sample the best of what this country producers. Yet, as digital distribution begins to remove some of the barriers to entry, I’ve long predicted that Australia would begin to compete for eyeballs across the English speaking world and beyond.

The ABC produces a smaller number of new programs each year than the American networks, focusing on programming which they think will have local appeal and which offers a compelling alternative to imports from the United States. In particular, they have tapped the comedy clubs around Sydney and Melbourne to find hip, off the wall talents and turned them loose to produce original comedies which are unlike anything I’ve seen on television before. Far from politically correct, these comedies adopt an in your face, no holds barred approach which fits the country like a glove. In their own way, they are as intelligent and crafted as the best shows coming out of the BBC, yet they are unafraid to draw on the raw vitality of popular culture, allowing them to merge high and low with unpredictable results.

I had a chance to catch up with four contemporary ABC comedies during my flight back from Australia this past weekend — The Chaser’s War on Everything, Summer Heights High, The Librarians, and Frontline.

Of these four, Frontline was the most like an American series — reminding me very much of Sports Night or 30 Rock. In this case, the series is set behind the scenes at an Australian news network, combining humor at the expense of self-centered Anchors with reflections on journalistic ethics. The scripts were smart, the characters well drawn, and the storylines each had something to contribute to our overall understanding of how the news is produced.

Qantas Airlines allowed me to watch the full run of The Librarians — all together six episodes or three hours worth of material. As the title suggests, the series is another workplace comedy, taking place at a local library in a somewhat seedy neighborhood as the staff struggles to deal with patrons who deface their books, get ready for special programs to serve their community, and deal with internal conflicts which threaten to have them all at their throats by the time the curtain falls. The trajectory of the series focuses on two estranged childhood friends who end up working at the same place years later and have to confront their unresolved feelings for each other (which combine competitiveness and lust). Here’s a promo for the release of the series on DVD:

And here’s a “previously on” segment from early in the series which suggests some of the character interactions which made the show so compelling:

The supporting cast is first rate, each taking what could be a broad comic type and giving them nuance and vitality. I particularly enjoyed Nada al Farhouk, an dignified and outspoken Moslem woman who has to suffer no end of small minded comments from head librarian Frances Obrien. It was delightful to see a sympathetic Islamic female character on television, something the U.S. media hasn’t pulled off yet. Other standouts include a dyslexic male librarian who was hired as eye candy for the boss; a wheel chair bound librarian who keeps rolling over everyone and everything in sight; an ex-convict doing his community service; a hip gay librarian far too sophisticated for the people around him; and a pompous local poet who loves to brag about his commitment to nudism.

As for The Chasers, imagine what would happen if news comedy we associate with The Daily Show spilled over into the streets. The Chasers gained some limited news coverage here when they got access to the APEC meeting in Australia in part by trying to pass themselves off as Canadian.

They take contemporary issues and insert themselves into very public places. Here, for example, they follow up on news reports about a gay club which refuses to admit heterosexuals by using the bouncer’s “gaydar” to determine once and for all whether Tinky Winky is or is not queer.

Many of their most provocative stunts center around the security consciousness (or lack thereof) of the Post-9/11 world. Here are a few examples:

The series does some of the best commercial parodies since the original Saturday Night Live days.

And they also try to literalize the absurd claims made in television commercials in the real world, often with hysterical results.

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And one of my favorite recurring segments, “If Life Were a Musical,” stages elaborate production numbers in real world settings just to watch how unsuspecting bystanders respond. Some try to get away quickly, some get into the show, and some look totally bug-eyed.

There are so many clips from the show on YouTube in part because the ABC and the Chasers have made a conscious decision to use the platform to generate visibility, hoping, in part, to break into the global media marketplace.

Summer Height High is a mockumentary very much in the spirit of Waiting for Guffman or The Office. In this case, it depicts a year in the life of an Australian public school through the eyes of a troubled young man with anger management issues from Tonga

a caring and idiosyncratic drama teacher

and a prissy young woman who recently transfered from a private school.

As it happens, all three characters — different ages, races, and genders — are all played by actor Chris Lilley. The comedy can be awkward and painful, sometimes raising troubling issues, but that’s part of the point: Lilley uses comedy to challenge preconceptions about class, race, gender, sexuality, and education. He’s also a very gifted shapeshifter who manages to totally occupy each of the parts he plays and looking for other Lilley clips on YouTube suggests that the show doesn’t come anywhere near exhausting his range.

You can see many more at the series website. In this case, the series has already been picked up for distribution via HBO and BBC Three. The series was consistently in the middle of controversy but it also proved to be a huge ratings success, especially among hard to reach Australian teens.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed hoping we will see more ABC series on American television or that we will get fuller access to them online. Meanwhile, you should check out just how much material from some of these programs can be found at YouTube.

What Happened Before YouTube?

G’day Mates.

The following op-ed piece, which I co-authored with John Hartley, appeared yesterday morning in the Sydney Morning Herald. The text is a mash up of two pieces — one by me, one by Hartley — which will appear in a forthcoming book on Youtube being written by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green and due out by the end of this year. I am here in Brisbane, Australia this week participating in a conference being hosted by Queensland University of Technology’s Center of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. The conference’s theme is “Creating Value: Between Commerce and Commons.” And this editorial is a pretty good representation of the core themes of my talk. I want to place YouTube in a larger historical context and in the process, to call attention to the conscious decisions being made by a variety of groups to Youtube or not to Youtube, rather than treating YouTube as the origin point for participatory culture and as the inevitable hub around which all amateur media making orbits. The plentitude of YouTube can leave us with the sense that everything and everyone is there, not inviting us to ask questions about which groups have opted out or been excluded and why, or to question whether YouTube represents the best possible model for supporting participatory culture. The longer version of this piece contains an extended discussion of some of the choices being made in the fan vidding community around these issues and describes some of the concerns that the history of women’s role in remix video may be written out of the history of YouTube. All of this was informed by conversations I’ve had in and around USC’s DIY conference earlier in the year.

I have long regarded the Creative Industries program here as a sibling of what we are doing in Comparative Media Studies. I have featured a number of QUT folks in the past through my blog — Alan McKee, Axel Bruns, and Jean Burgess. They are doing extraordinary work in the areas of civic media, new media literacy, participatory culture, intellectual property law, globalization, and creative industries, that is, on many of the themes which also animate our own work at MIT. It’s been great to be here so far, getting to know more of the researchers at the Center and what they are doing, and cementing relations with long time friends and colleagues.

YouTube: home port for lip-syncers, karaoke singers, trainspotters, birdwatchers, skateboarders, hip hoppers, small time wrestling federations, educators, third wave feminists, churches, proud parents, poetry slammers, gamers, human rights activists, hobbyists. It gets 10 hours of new content every minute.Where did all that come from?

There is much that is new about YouTube, but there is also much that is old. The emergence of `Do-It-Yourself’ cultures of all kinds over the past several decades paved the way for the early embrace, quick adoption, and diverse use of new media. YouTube has gone from nowhere to cultural ubiquity in a couple of years because we already know what to do with it.

Among its precursors were the zines of the political and cultural avant garde of the 1970s and 80s, closely tied to the growth of punk rock and the emergence of `Riot Grrl’ feminism. They were also part of a much larger history of amateur publishing. In the case of the science fiction fan community, this could be traced back to the 1920s.

And these DIY or DIWO: `do it with others’ impulses spilled over from print zines to include the production of mix tapes and home videos.

Modern cyberculture can trace its roots back to the 1960s, with `people’s radio,’ early video activism, underground newspapers and comics; all efforts to deploy low cost media tools and practices towards alternative ends.

Many early netizens explicitly embraced the value of participatory culture. These utopian pioneers would greet YouTube’s amateurs not as mindless kids but as the fulfilment of their own hopes and a validation of their predictions.

The rhetoric of the `digital revolution’ has assumed that new media displace the old. But YouTube exemplifies what Henry Jenkins calls a `convergence culture,’ with its complex interactions and collaborations between corporate and grassroots media.

YouTube does not so much change the conditions of production as it alters the contexts of circulation and reception. Amateur, activist and avant garde works now reach a larger public. Yet, many of those earlier advocates remain skeptical that a commercial firm like YouTube can truly enable alternative politics. If we want to see a more democratic culture, they argue, we need anti-corporate outlets, greater diversity among participants, more debate about whose work gets seen and how it is valued.

But as Geekcorps founder Ethan Zuckerman says, any medium sufficiently powerful to enable the distribution of cute cat pictures can also, under the right circumstances, be deployed to bring down a government.

Right now, people are learning how to produce, upload and circulate content. What happens next is up to us all. With YouTube, there is almost infinite scope for creative content and new ideas to be produced by just anyone, without the need for avant

garde leadership, expert filtering or institutional control. The so-called `long tail’ of self-made content is accessible to anyone near a computer terminal.

While most people can read, very few publish in print. Hence active contribution to science, journalism and even fictional storytelling has been restricted to expert elites, while most of the general population makes do with ready-made entertainment.

But the internet does not distinguish between literacy and publication. So now we are entering a new kind of digital literacy, where everyone is a publisher and whole populations have the chance to contribute as well as consume.

We can certainly use the internet for daydreaming, mischief and time-wasting, but it is equally possible to move on to other levels of functionality, and other purposes, including science, journalism and works of the imagination. You can already find all this on YouTube.

If we see YouTube as operating without a history, we erase the politics behind those struggles to prepare the way, and we may end up accepting far less than what we bargained for, or what might be possible if we participate.

By reclaiming what happened before, we will have a basis for judging how well YouTube really is serving the cause of participatory culture and the growth of knowledge among all sections of society. We may also find openings for `a critique, a goal, a community, and a context’ of the kind that motivated earlier DIY media-makers.

As they say in The Matrix: `I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin.’

Professor Henry Jenkins co-directs the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tomorrow he will speak at the Australian Research Council Centre for Creative Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology, where Professor John Hartley is the research director.

Designing Accessible Games

Last Week, I spent some time going around the GAMBIT lab with game designer Warren Spector (System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex, now working for Disney) to talk with the teams who will be developing this summer’s games. You may recall that every summer some 60 Singaporean students and faculty from ten different institutions come to MIT to work with our students to develop playable games. Each team of eight students has about eight weeks from conceptualization to user testing to develop a game which we hope will be, in some sense, innovative. Some are trying new game mechanics or testing new genres; others are designed to be technically innovative. I can’t tell you anything about this year’s games: it’s a lab policy not to talk publicly about games still under development. But I can tell you that Warren and I were both very excited about we saw and I can’t wait to introduce some of these games to my readers in the fall. You can check out some of the lab’s work last summer here.

In the meantime, I wanted to share with you some thoughts from Eitan Glinert, who has contributed to this blog several times in the past. Eitan is a friendly neighborhood computer science major who has become very much a part of the Comparative Media Studies Program in his two years at MIT. Last summer, he was part of the team that developed AudiOdyssey, a sound based game designed for the visually impaired. The game provided the basis for his master’s thesis which explores issues of accessibility and game design. I know this topic will be of interest to many of my regular readers who work in and around the games industry, so I asked him to offer a preview of the thesis.

Hi everyone, it’s Eitan Glinert. In the past I’ve guest blogged here covering video gaming conferences and talking about important developments in the gaming industry. Well, I just finished MIT and Henry has agreed to let me write one last post about my thesis concerning accessibility in video games. Today’s post will be a bit more technical than usual as my thesis is intended to serve as a tool for game developers to use to make better games, however I think it is an interesting read as it provides insight into how one designs and creates a game interface.

For those of you interested you can read the entire thing here.

Accessibility refers to who can play a game, and is generally used to describe opening games up to disabled users. In contrast, usability refers to how well a user interface can be used by the target audience(s). While most developers agree that usability is important, many also feel that making accessible games is an altruistic mission, and that the benefits of accessibility do not outweigh the added costs. This is not the case! Aside from humanitarian reasons here are many important justifications for making games accessible:

    - Any added cost is certainly offset by an increased potential market, as an accessible game is one which impaired individuals can purchase. Furthermore, accessibility design themes tend to make games more usable for everyone, resulting in a game which will be easier to use for a broad section of the

population.
    - While making a game accessible may incur extra costs it is likely not as high as one might expect, especially if accessibility is considered from the outset. This post outlines several design principles which, if kept in mind from the beginning of development, can have big payoff for little

investment.

    - Even those who are not disabled now

might be someday. The sad fact is that impairments tend to be acquired as people grow older, and as the age of the gamer increases, so does the likelihood that he or she has accessibility concerns.

Of course, it is not possible to make every game user interface accessible to everyone, nor is it advisable to attempt to do so in all cases. What is usable for some may be unusable for others, even within the same disability group! Consider visual impairments – some people have trouble viewing high contrast elements, while others are unable to view low contrast details. Rather than implying that accessibility is some sort of magical solution to usability woes, the goal of this post is to impart two key ideas onto the reader:

Key Idea # 1) When developing a game one should think about which user groups could play an accessible version, and which interface changes could help achieve that end without changing the core game aesthetic or incurring huge added costs.

Key Idea # 2) Even if it is not clear how to make a game accessible, there are certain design principles which can be followed that tend to increase usability across the board. This increase in usability may in turn lead to accessibility.

Here are some of the basic design principles which can be followed to increase usability and accessibility:

Probably the easiest rule to remember is the importance of simplicity. Keeping the game output simple is helpful as it reduces confusion and makes it easier for the user to pick out critical information. For many impaired individuals the interface bottleneck

lies in discovering what the system is saying – legally blind people tend to slowly scan the screen for information, the completely blind use screen readers to read text, and mentally impaired individuals might need longer to parse given options. A simplified output helps reduce the time spent in this phase.

On the input side simplicity is still important, but even better are configurable or alternate control schemes. Configurable control schemes are especially important for motor impaired individuals as frequently they are unable to use all of the elements of an interface controller. Some motor impaired individuals have specialized controllers which are easy to remap with configurable controls. Impaired individuals are also generally willing to spend more time configuring controls. Many computer games offer such functionality, but consoles titles seldom do. Alternate controls tend to make the largest difference when the control schemes are highly varied.

Even better for some people than configurable controls are partial artificial intelligence (AI) controls. While rare now, there are several such schemes on the horizon, perhaps most notably EA’s family play controls. Passing sections of control over to the AI not only helps impaired users but also novices who haven’t had a chance to

learn how to play the game. A great example of this is Gordon’s Trigger

Finger, a Half Life 2 modification that has AI auto-movement and aiming, while the user just worries about shooting. The result is a first person shooter which motor impaired users can play with only one switch.

All modern games have two main forms of output, audio and video. Two of the broad disabled groups are visual and hearing impairments. Therefore any system that outputs information in only one format will always be inaccessible to one of these groups. Redundant audio for all visual effects, and vice versa, is the ideal way to overcome this

problem. Closed captioning for all audio can make most games accessible to the hard of hearing, while sound effects and speech output can make a large number of games usable by the blind. An added benefit of redundant audio and visual output is that the game feels more natural to all users, as humans are used to hearing a noise when an action takes place; think how odd it sounds watching fireworks to see the explosions, but only hear them a split second later.

There are several common game elements and mechanics that tend to hurt accessibility. Mandatory timers that cannot be disabled greatly reduce usability as they require the user to quickly uptake and process information, and punish those who cannot do so rapidly. Complicated controls with large numbers of commands are highly

problematic, but can be mitigated through menu browsing as the user won’t need to mentally recall all the options and fewer buttons are required for action selection.

Two disabilities that affect large portions of the population and are relatively easy to accommodate are hearing impairments and colorblindness. Closed captioning of both speech and sound effects removes reliance on audio, and has many benefits for groups beyond the hard of hearing. As for colorblindness, games should avoid relying on

color alone to convey information, and instead should also use secondary cues such as position, shape, and texture for differentiation purposes. Red and green with the same saturation should especially be avoided, as these colors are generally the hardest to tell apart.

Finally, user centric design and development, or having people who are actually in the targeted user group involved in the development process, is critically important and cannot be overstressed. When designing accessible UIs it is crucial for the developers to remember that they are not the users, and to actually get impaired users involved from the beginning. Design advice from these users is generally valuable, and can save time and money by pointing out accessibility issues before they are even implemented. Once the UI actually exists, it is just as important to conduct broad testing across all potential user groups who might want to play the game. Testing always brings the worst usability bugs to light, and once identified the developers can make appropriate decisions about the value of implementing changes.

While these general rules are useful for developing highly usable games which tend be accessible to many groups, they certainly do not cover every nuance of game design for all user groups. For more on universally accessible game design I highly recommends reading Unified

Design of Universally Accessible Games or playing Game Over! which teaches

several of these design points.

Recap of design themes:

    - Simplicity

    - Alternate and configurable

control schemes

    - Redundant audio/visual output

    - Partial AI control where possible

    - Browse and select for actions

    - No mandatory timers

    - Closed Captioning

    - Never rely on color alone, especially

red/green

    - User centric design

    - Broad user testing

    - Think about usability and the UI

from the beginning

For more information check out my

website or send me e-mail at eitan -at- eitanglinert [dot] com.

“Fighting Evil — So You Don’t Have To”

So, this post is mostly me going all fan boy on you, so if you have a low threshold for the freaky and geeky aspects of this blog, you may want to move along. But if you are looking for something fun to check out this summer, then let me recommend a new series, The MiddleMan, which has shown up on ABC Family, of all places.

The Middleman is based on a cult comic book series for Viper Comics, created by written by Javier “Javi” Grillo-Marxuach with art by Les McClaine. “Javi” was a producer and writer for the first two seasons of Lost, was the Co-Executive Producer for Medium, and contributed to Charmed and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. According to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, “Javi” had originally conceived of The Middleman as a television pilot before deciding that he would transform it into the comic book medium because it would cost to produce a “tentacled ass monster” for television.

There’s three graphic novels worth of The Middleman comics out there, which I grabbed from my local shop after watching the premier episode of the series last week. I basically inhaled the three books on the first leg of a trip to Australia, still wrapped up in the afterglow of what turned out to be a really good first episode of what I hope is going to be a very fan-worthy television series.

Don’t worry if you missed the first episode because it is available online from ABC Family for free (if you call being forced to watch almost a dozen commercials for the American Girl movie in a row “free”) or from iTunes for a modest fee. You might also simply read the first graphic novel, given that the opening episode is an incredible faithful, more or less line by line recreation of the story from the comics.

How do I explain what this series is about? The Middleman is an all-American hero, a former Navy SEAL, who works for what the comics calls O2STK, The Organization Too Secret To Know. His job: “fighting evil — so you don’t have to.” As he explains to the series female lead, Wendy, “Ever read comic books?….You know how there’s all kinds of mad scientists and aliens and androids and monsters and all of them want to either destroy or take over the world. It’s all true.” Wendy is a snarky young art student temping at a scientific research center who finds herself staring eyeball to tentacle with a massive bug-eyed monster and she doesn’t blink: she grabs a letter opener and fights back. Her plucky and matter of fact response to the stuff that makes most people turn inside out wins her the respect of the Middleman, who offers her a job as his assistant when it is clear that she’s been blackballed from all other temp companies in the aftermath of the firey explosion that blows up her previous place of employment.

From there, things get a little weird — although nothing that a regular reader of indie comics can’t handle. In the opening episode, she confronts a hyperintelligent monkey who has based his whole world view on contemporary gangster movies like Scarface and Goodfellas and wants to rule the mob realm. After all, everyone knows that us comic fan boys go ape over super-intelligent apes. In the graphic novels, each book parodies a different genre, with the second volume devoted to a spoof of Mexican wrestling culture and the third book taking down every cliche from the James Bond franchise and a few from giant robot anime.

The scripts for the series, not to mention the comics, are full of one laugh out loud one-liner after another, most of them playing on precise and pithy references to popular culture: I haven’t seen a script this dense with injokes since early Joss Whedon. The opening episode draws a strong parallel between the central protagonists and The Avengers (Emma Peale, not Marvel), and it’s a hoot watching the ape tell us to “say hello to my little friend.” The tone manages to be campy without being too campy: it doesn’t take itself seriously but it also manages to make you care about the lead characters, which include not only the Middleman, who “Javi” aptly describes as “Dirk Squarejaw”, and Wendy, but also Wendy’s “not gay — just a film student” boyfriend, her sex kitten and performance artist roommate, her seriously weird next door neighbor who speaks in lyrics from Johnny Cash songs, and Ida, the android who has gotten permanently stuck in the persona of a little old librarian with an attitude. (If the television version is half as good as what they do with Ida in the comics, we are in for a big treat.)

The performances consistently live up to the quality of the script: everyone gets a few memorable lines and moments in the spotlight in the opening episode and I can’t wait to see where the characters go from here. While the opening episode is straight from the comics, it sounds like the second episode, which airs Monday night, will be original, best I can tell from the spoilers out on the web. I might have guessed this anyway because I don’t think ABC Family is going to allow them the budget to do the spectacular battle royale featuring a legion of Mexican wrestlers from book 2 or depict the slug-fest between giant robots or the genetically engineered shark man from book 3 of the comics series. I wish I had something really profound to tell you about this series, but it’s hard to reach profundity after only one episode (not to mention while sitting jetlaged in a hotel in Brisbane.)

But I did want to share my current fan boy excitement with those of you who regularly read this blog and may be looking for something fresh and a little different. When The Middleman asks Wendy if she reads comics, she rattles off “Astro City, Box Office Poison, Demo, Hellboy, Dead@17…” Those aren’t bad as a set of cultural coordinates. I’d say that if you read and enjoy any of these books, then you should probably give this series a shot. And if you don’t read comics, think Ghostbusters or Men in Black with a bit more hardcore indie edge than either of those Hollywood blockbusters.

You can get a taste of the performers and the show’s sense of humor from these mock PSAs promoting the series.

Here’s Wendy:

And here’s The Middleman:

Searching for America in the Era of Web 2.0

Hitting the open road “in search of America” is a grand American tradition. Think On the Road! Think Easy Rider! Think National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation!

This summer, Alex, David, and Danbee, three MIT students are traveling across America, trying to get a sense of what the country is thinking, on the eve of a historic election, and they are reporting on what they see and hear using videoblogging, Twitter, and Flickr, among other digital tools. They even have a way that online readers can chip in towards gas money. You can follow their adventures over at This American Summer.

Here’s how they describe their project:

Q: What do you hope to accomplish?

A: Collect stories, walk through a field of corn, see mountains, eat raw oysters, tour breweries, and talk to people. We want to see what this country has to offer. Gain a deeper understanding for the way people live their lives and interact with their neighbors.

Q: That sounds cool. Can I come?

A: Unfortunately our van is at maximum capacity, but thanks the power of the Internet you can still join us. With the help of wireless broadband, we will be online and hoping to hear from you. We have a forum where you can discuss issues you want us to address or just chew the fat. Our route is posted and flexible so if you know a fun or interesting place, drop us a line and we might take a look. We will be posting video, pictures, journals, GPS data, music playlists, and even our budget information.

Q: I thought the Internet was just for funny pictures of my cat. How can you do all that?

A: Let me break it down for you. We have a Canon Rebel XT digital camera for photos and Canon Vixia HF100 digital camcorder for video. Our editing is done in Final Cut Express HD 3.5. The online services we are using include…

* WordPress: The blogging software we’re using to run the whole show

* BBPress Forums: A place where you can post questions for us and all our audience members to see

* Blip.tv: The web service that is hosting our webisodes

* Flickr: Where we will have our online photo collection

* Google Maps: With a GPS tracker, we can show you exactly where we’ve been

* Twitter: For the most up to date information on what we are doing

* Last.fm: A playlist of every song we listen to in the van

* Facebook: A way for fans to keep in touch

The students involved are from East Campus, a dorm which is across the street from Senior House, where I am housemaster. I met them recently when I gave a talk at East Campus on the role of new media in the current presidential campaigns and I was very impressed by their ambition and persistence. I certainly plan to check in on their travels from time to time this summer and hope that some of my readers will find this project of interest.

Of course, they are not the only ones trying to get a sample of what America is thinking and doing this summer. Here are a few other projects that might interest you:

Think MTV — MTV has brought on a team of 51 young citizen journalists to help them cover the presidential campaign. Here’s some background:

Using short-form videos, blogs, animation, photos and podcasts, the reports will be distributed through MTV Mobile, Think.MTV.com, more than 1,800 sites in The Associated Press’ Online Video Network and a soon-to-launch Wireless Application Protocol site. The Street Team ’08 reporters were carefully selected after an extensive nationwide search, and they represent every aspect of today’s youth audience — from seasoned student-newspaper journalists to documentary filmmakers, the children of once-illegal immigrants and community organizers.

They are conservative and liberal, from big cities and small towns, but all are tied together through a passion for politics and a yearning to make the youth voice heard during this pivotal election. The correspondents will begin reporting early next month after an intensive MTV News orientation in New York, during which they’ll be armed with laptops, video cameras and cell phones and challenged to uncover the untold political stories that matter most to young people in their respective states.

“Recent MTV research shows young people believe their generation will be a major force in determining who is elected in the upcoming local and national elections,” said Ian Rowe, MTV’s vice president of public affairs and strategic partnership, “and Street Team ’08 will be a key way for our audience to connect with peers, as well as get informed and engaged on the local and political issues that matter to them most.”

Patchwork NationThe Christian Science Monitor wants to move beyond the “Red State/Blue State” cliches and follow the campaign from the perspective of Eleven different kinds of communities. They explain:

We’ve identified 11 places across the US that represent distinct types of voter communities. They are Monied ‘Burbs, Minority Central, Evangelical Epicenters, Tractor Country, Campus and Careers, Immigration Nation, Industrial Metropolis, Boom Towns, Service Worker Centers, Emptying Nests, and Military Bastions. For example, Sioux Center, Iowa, typifies Tractor Country.

As the 2008 campaign progresses, the Monitor will write about what issues matter in each of these communities, how the issues affect residents’ votes, and how the candidates tailor their messages to a particular audience.

This site is based on evidence that people’s voting patterns are at least partly informed by where they live. People of the same race and age and family situation may vote differently depending on whom they connect with and what they see on their streets and in their local news. In some areas, people live for NASCAR; in others, residents like opera. Some towns open for business early and some stay up late. Some cities see Sunday mornings as church time, others see it as $30 brunch time or more work time. And Starbucks and Wal-Marts aren’t everywhere … yet.

Off the Bus — In an effort to break out of the themes and ideas most often covered by the professional media, the Huffington Post is offering what it calls “ground level coverage” of the presidential campaign. News is filed by bloggers across the country and periodically they are tapping the collective intelligence of their readers. Here’s a description of a recent project they launched in concert with newstrust.net:

Think of this ‘news hunt’ as a scavenger hunt for good journalism on John McCain. All week, from Monday, June 2nd, through Sunday, June 8th, we will collectively review hundreds of news articles and opinions about the candidate, using the NewsTrust review tools. Together, we will rate the news based on quality, not just popularity — by evaluating each article’s fairness, sourcing, context and other core principles of good journalism. This focus on quality information and news literacy can help us all make more informed decisions as citizens, as well as re-build the trust that has been lost between the news media and the public.

So, want to ‘find” America this summer? You can do so using the web! And given current gas prices, that’s not a bad idea!

What Does Popular Culture Have to Do With Civic Media?

The following post originally appeared on the Media Shift Idea Lab blog, which is run by the Knight Foundation as part of their ongoing focus on civic media and citizen journalism. If you don’t know this blog, you should. Regular contributors include such key thinkers in this area as Dan Gilmor, Jay Rosen, Gail Robinson, Ian Rowe, J.D. Lasica, Leslie Rule, Mark Glaser, Lisa Williams, and many others. It is a great space to go and learn about how new technologies and cultural processes are being deployed to enhance civic engagement. I had the chance to hang out with many of these folks last week at a conference we hosted at MIT.

The Center for Future Civic Media is collaborating with the MIT Communications Forum to host an ongoing series of conversations about media and civic engagement. This past term, we hosted two such exchanges — “Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” an exchange between University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein (Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge) and Harvard University law professor Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks) and “Youth and Civic Engagement” with University of Washington political science professor Lance Bennett, actvist Alan Khazei (Be the Change), and our own Ingeborg Endter (formerly with the Computer Clubhouse project, now a key player at the Center for Future Civic Media.) These events are now available on audiocast: you can find “Our World Digitized” here and “Youth and Civic Engagement” here. What follows are some personal reflections on a theme touched upon in the first exchange and explored more deeply in the second — the relationship of popular culture to civic engagement.

Despite its title, the goal of the Benkler/Sunstein exchange was not to sort through which of us was “the good, the bad, or the ugly” or even to present a debate between an Internet critic and an advocate. My own sense is that both Sunstein and Benkler have more complex, more multivalent perspectives on contemporary digital culture than is generally acknowledged. I know that both writers are ones I regularly teach in my classes and both raise questions which we need to address if we are to develop a sophisticated understanding of how and why civic engagement operates in the digital era. Our discussion was far reaching and defies easy description or summary here. You will have to listen to it yourself.

Near the end of the session, one of my graduate students, Lana Swartz (bless her soul!), asked a question about how popular media and participatory culture fit into their ongoing discussion about the state of American democracy. Neither speaker was fully prepared to address this question, though Sunstein showed in the process a previously unsuspected enthusiasm for Lost. As a moderator, I had not felt it was my place to introduce my own perspectives on this question so I wanted to take advantage of this space to spell out a bit more about why I think Sunstein should pay more attention to the way popular culture gets discussed on the web.

A core premise running through Sunstein’s two most recent books, Republic.com and Infotopia is this concern that despite or perhaps even because of the dramatic expansion of the information environment brought about by the introduction of the web, most of us are accessing a much narrower range of opinion than previous generations in part because of our tendency to filter out news that is not personally interesting to us, in part because many of the forums we frequent do not have strong mechanisms for insuring diversity of perspective, and in part because such groups tend to develop very firm yet polarizing consensus over time which further narrows what gets said. I first read Sunstein’s argument when I was asked to be a respondent to his article, “The Daily We,” for Boston Review.

At the time, I wrote:

Sunstein assumes that we join virtual communities primarily on the basis of ideological identifications. Yet, many, if not most, Net discussion groups are not defined along party affiliations but rather around other kinds of shared interests–hobbies or fandoms, for example–which frequently cut across political lines. The fact that you and I both watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer may or may not mean that we share the same views on gun control. Many ideological questions may surface in such contexts: aviation buffs debate the naming of an airport after Ronald Reagan, the fans of a particular soap opera debate the moral choices made by a character. Sometimes these exchanges produce flame wars, sometimes mutual understanding. Still, they bring together people who would have had little or no prior contact and thus constitute contexts where more diverse opinions can be heard. We should not underestimate such exchanges by maintaining a crisp separation of political dialogue from other kinds of social interaction.

Then as now, I find Sunstein’s argument most convincing when he is speaking about those communities which are defined explicitly around political communication, i.e. the kinds of communities that law professors are most likely to spend time studying. Yet, they seem to break down as we move towards other kinds of communities, such as the fan communities which I most often explore.

While ideological perspectives certainly play a role in defining our interests as fans and media consumers, they are only one factor among others. So, we may watch a program which we find entertaining but sometimes ideologically challenging to us: I know conservatives who watched The West Wing and laugh at The Daily Show; I know liberals who enjoy 24 even if they might disagree about the viability of torture as a response to global terrorism. Television content provides a “common culture” which often bridges between other partisan divides within the culture, even in the context of culture war discourses which use taste in popular media as a wedge issue to drive us apart.

So, a fan group online is apt to be far more diverse in its perspectives than a group defined around, say, a political candidate or a social issue. This is not to suggest that fan communities do not form firm consensus perspectives which block some other ideas from being heard, but they form them around different axis — such as desired sets of romantic partnerships between characters — which may or may not reflect ideological schisms. There may be rich discussions, then, about the philosophy of education which should rule at Hogwarts, just not on which character constitutes the most appropriate life partner for Harry Potter.

At the same time, the nature of popular culture means that it continually raises social, political, and ethical issues; popular media projects something of our hopes and fears and as such, it provides us a context for talking through our values. Research for example shows that fans of reality television shows spend more time talking about ethical issues than trying to predict the outcomes. Indeed, on a fan discussion group, there is an active desire for diversity of background and perspective to sustain the conversation and allow all participants to get new insights which refreshes their relationship with the series. In some cases, the community is engaged in a collective activity of problem solving, as in the case of the Survivor spoilers I discussed in Convergence Culture or for that matter, the various groups online trying to figure out the mysteries of Lost.

In many cases, these groups are seeking to make predictions which have, in the end, right or wrong answers: someone’s going to win Survivor; someday, we hope, we will know what’s really going on on that island. As such, they split around competing theories, often adopting perspectives which are adversarial in the same sense that a court of law is adversarial: competing sides contest each claim made in the hopes of getting closer to the truth. Such communities, thus, have mechanisms built into them that insure that competing truth claims get heard and that the relationship between them get played out at a fairly deep level. Many of these mechanisms look very much like the solutions which Sunstein proposed for insularity and polarity in Infotopia, but they are being applied to less “serious matters.”

Again, though, we can’t assume that no important civic discussions take place here. Consider, for example, the representation of an American political campaign depicted in the final season of The West Wing, which was depicted as a contest between Alan Alda as a thoughtful maverick Republican (closely model on John McCain) and Jimmy Smitts as a minority candidate who refuses to play old style race politics (modeled on Barack Obama). In the course of the season, both fictional candidates rehearsed themes, issues, and rhetorical styles which were designed to play to a “purple America” and were intended to be a utopian alternative to the 2004 campaign cycle. More and more, it looks like this fictional campaign was in fact a rehearsal for our current presidential season and that the program, in effect, market tested a range of new ways of framing the relationship between the two parties. Surely, we have to see such a process as deeply bound up with our contemporary understanding of civic engagement. The program both educated us about core civic concerns and gave us a new framework for thinking about what a good candidate might look like. And because the program was watched by people from all ideological stripes, it offered a context for a bi-partisan or “post-partisan” exchange at the same time we were incapable of talking to our neighbors about politics in the real world.

In Convergence Culture, I argue that we are learning through play skills which we are increasingly deploying towards more serious purposes: in this case, a generation of young people may have found their voice in online debates and discussions around their favorite television programs. In this space, they felt empowered to express and argue for their points of view, precisely because talking about popular culture lowered the stakes for everyone involved. And it was through these conversations that they developed a strong sense of social ideals and values which they carry with them as they venture into real world political debates. I am unshamed to say that much of what I now believe about diversity and social justice I learned growing up watching Star Trek in the 1960s, watching a multiracial crew operate as friends and team members on the bridge, seeing how they responded to the challenges posed by alien societies radically different from their own.

And this brings us to the second of the MIT Communication Forum events on youth and civic engagement. For me, one of the most exciting development of the past year has been watching the dramatic increase in youth participation in the Democratic and Republican primaries, seeing so many young people vote for the first time. Our speaker, W. Lance Bennett, edited an important new collection of essays for the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning and Youth series at the MIT Press, which is essentially reading for anyone who wants to understand what current research tells us about young people’s civic lives online. You can read the book for free online.

In his introduction to that book, Bennett outlines conflicting claims about young people’s relations to civic life: one which sees them as apathetic, ill-informed, and disinterested because they tend to shy away from traditional civic organizations, tend to get news from nontraditional sources, and tend to be skeptical if not cynical about the claims made by political leaders. The other sees strong signs that their experience as media producers and participants in online communities, are giving them a much greater sense of empowerment, creating a stronger sense of shared social responsibilities, and are leading them to feel more comfortable speaking out about what they believe in. Bennett argues that those who want to get young people more involved in the political process, including the designers of future civic media or the developers of school curriculum about politics, need to spend more time studying the kinds of civic lives young people do find engaging and examining the language which speaks to this generation.

Bennett notes that most campaigns spend little time addressing young people’s concerns because they are seen as a hard to reach demographic which rarely makes a difference in elections. We will see whether these patterns hold, given the amount of attention now being paid for the centrality of the youth vote to the Obama campaign. As we look back through the aftermath of the current campaign season, we will certainly want to think long and hard about what impact YouTube parodies, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert had on young people’s engagement and participation in this election and will want to pay attention to how each of the major candidates have tapped into references to these shows as a way of reaching young voters.

So, what does popular culture have to do with civic media? More than many law professors might assume…

Is Obama a Secret Vulcan?

The following is adapted from my opening remarks at the Future of Civic Media conference we hosted at MIT last week.

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by National Public Radio about Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock for their “In Character” series. Midway through the interview, the reporter asked me a question which in retrospect was an obvious one but which I had never really given much thought before: What contemporary figure has the same qualities as Mr. Spock?

The fan boy in me immediately went searching through contemporary science fiction television. I considered and then discarded Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica as probably too obscure to make sense to an NPR audience. I thought about Syler from Heroes as another prospect, no doubt influenced by the casting of Zachary Quinto to play Spock for the forthcoming Star Trek prequel movie. In both cases, you had characters who are defined through their otherworldly intelligence. Syler, like Spock, is someone who can bitch slap you with his brain. And in both cases, there is a deep distrust of that intelligence and their rationality is seen not as impartial but as self-absorbed and antisocial.

But, then, my mind went in a very different direction and before I quite knew what I was saying, I found myself talking about Barack Obama. Now, I grant you, I’ve got Obama on the mind these days but hear me out.

At the time, my main point was that Spock was an explicitly mixed race character on American television at a time when most programs hadn’t come to grips with identity politics. Star Trek’s Spock was born of a human mother and a Vulcan father. Throughout the course of the series and especially in the feature films, he struggles to make his peace with the conflicting pulls on his identity. And because he is a man literally of two worlds, he is seen as being capable of translating between Terrans and many of the other races they encounter as they “boldly go where no man [one] has gone before.”

A similar construction of multiracial identity has taken shape around Obama who has sought to construct himself as not only post-partisan but also post-racial. It’s striking what a high percentage of media coverage of Obama describes him as African-American, despite the fact that he has a white mother. Early on, there was a lot of press about whether he would be “black enough” to gain the support of African-American voters, just as the press was quick to remind us that Toni Morrison had once described Bill Clinton as the first Black President (a phrase now totally removed from its context). Now, the press is trying hard to get us worried about whether white voters are ready to support an African-American candidate for president. But, if you look at how Obama has constructed himself, it is as someone at home with both blacks and whites, someone whose mixed racial background has forced him to become a cultural translator, and thus he is someone who can help America work through some of its racial divides. This was very much a subtext in his speech about race in the wake of the Rev. Wright controversy and it is precisely this sense of Obama as a man of two worlds which was called into crisis by those videos.

Listen to the speech which Amanda, Spock’s mother, delivers in the NPR broadcast about being beaten up as a child because the others don’t think he’s Vulcan enough and you will hear echoes there of some of the stories we’ve heard about Obama’s struggle to figure out who he was growing up.

I’ve been surprised by how quickly the blogosphere picked up on the Spock/Obama comparison. Almost immediately, I started to see people construct graphics around the Spock/Obama theme, which clearly resonated with people other than myself.

Obamawhite1.png

This image predates the interview and was submitted to a contest to depict what would happen if Trekkers ruled the world, so I am certainly not the only one to see a connection.

obama spock 2.jpg

I have to say I would have chosen a picture where Obama wasn’t smiling. A smiling Vulcan is just plain creepy!

Take a look at these two photographs and see if you don’t start to think that Spock and Obama were separated at birth.

rolling_stone_obama.jpg

spock2.GIF

After all, editorial cartoonists are already starting to play up Obama’s over-sized ears as the feature they can get away with caricaturing, because it wasn’t part of the minstrel show stereotypes through which racists have historically constructed images of African-Americans. Add to this the long and angular shape of his face and the way he turns his face slightly upward as he speaks and you have someone who looks like he could have been born a Vulcan and had an “ear job.”

But from there, we can see more complex analogies: for example, might we see his search for his spiritual identity in an Afro-centric church as a parallel to Spock’s return to Vulcan to participate in the purifying ritual of Kolinahr as a way of reclaiming his roots in his father’s culture? Is there any question that McCoy sees Spock as an “elitist,” because he is frightened by his intelligence and because he is uncomfortable making small talk? And surely we can see Obama as the living embodiment of the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC (“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination”?)

Gene Roddenberry, the producer behind the classic Star Trek series, consciously modeled James T. Kirk (JTK) after the qualities that he admired in John F. Kennedy (JFK) and that he saw the series as a way of keeping the ideal of “Camelot” alive during the more cynical LBJ era. Kirk is the youngest captain in the history of Star Trek, much as Kennedy first burst of the national consciousness as a charismatic, courageous, P.T. Boat captain and was at the time the youngest person elected as president. The original Star Fleet was modeled in part on the Peace Corps and was also clearly intended to build on growing public interest in NASA’s plans for putting a man on the moon, both aspects of the JFK agenda. And there’s some possibility that the “Final Frontier” was a self conscious reworking of JFK’s “New Frontier.” Much as Kennedy’s foreign policy sought to win over unaligned developing nations through “weapons of peace” in a cold war context, Classic Trek sees Star Fleet as doing ideological battle with the Romulan-Klingon Alliance and trying to hold onto the loyalty of unaligned and developing planets. So, in so far as people are reading Obama in relation to our shared myths about the Kennedy era, then it also makes sense to think of his campaign through the lens of Star Trek.

For me, the connection makes sense on a somewhat deeper and more personal level. I am a first generation Star Trek fan and I’ve long argued that many of my deepest political convictions – especially those surrounding equality and diversity – emerged from my experience of watching the program as a young man growing up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights era. In many ways, my commitments to social justice was shaped in reality by Martin Luther King and in fantasy by Star Trek. Star Trek did this not through the explicit and heavy handed social commentary in episodes like “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” which featured aliens who were half white and half black (in the most literal sense) but because of the idealized image of a multiracial community depicted on the series. Later generations have looked upon the figure of Uhura as tokenism, pointing out rightly that she never got to do anything more than tell the captain that “hailing frequencies” were open. Yet, Nichols has long told the story of talking with Martin Luther King during a civil rights march and being told that her mere presence on the Bridge was a visual reminder that his dream might come true in the future. Star Trek featured the first inter-racial kiss on American television. My colleague, Shigeru Miyagawa, tells the story of growing up in Alabama and having Sulu be the only Asian-American character he saw on American television. And then there’s Chekov, a Russian character on American television, in the midst of the Cold War – a friendly acknowledgement of the Soviet contributions to space exploration.

So, we should read Spock in this context – as one more example of the ability of the Enterprise crew to embrace diversity. The program often fell short of its ideals, then and in subsequent decades, and it is easy to find points to criticize Star Trek‘s racial politics. For a good discussion of these issues, check out Daniel Bernardi’s Star Trek and History: Race-Ing Toward a White Future. But for me and many others of my generation, it held up a set of ideals; it encouraged us to imagine a more utopian society which escaped the limitations which I saw all around me growing up in a South which was actively struggling with the legacy of segregation. And I have found through that years that this idealized image of a multiracial and multicultural, hell, multiplanetary community, was part of what Star Trek meant to a large number of first generation fans of the series. For more discussion of this theme, check out my essay on the Gaylaxians movement, originally in Science Fiction Audiences, later reprinted in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers.

In its own small way, Star Trek and Spock may have helped to prepare the way for Obama’s victory in the Democratic primaries, helping us to imagine a different set of relationships between the races. Nowhere was this social utopian vision more fully expressed than the “great friendship” between Kirk and Spock and so we can see some legacy of this theme of acceptance across racial boundaries emerging through the slash fan fiction which became one of the major legacies of early Star Trek fan culture. The other “non-white” characters may have been more suggestions than fully developed figures – at least on the original series – but Spock was someone we got to know and care about because, not despite, his differences. This is one reason why so many fans of my generation were upset when Kirk praises Spock for being “the most human” person he has ever known during his funeral eulogy in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Can you imagine the uproar if someone praised Obana’s “whiteness”?

Of course, Roddenberry’s embrace of science fiction as a vehicle for the utopian imagination was itself informed by more than a century of science fiction being deployed as a political tool – going back to the novels of H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, taking shape around 1950s novels like Space Merchants and City, and extending into the feminist science fiction of the 1960s, all of which shaped Star Trek in one way or another. Given this tradition, it was scarcely a surprise when I stumbled onto a whole line of SF-themed shirts supporting Obama, including not only one linking him with Spock, but also those connecting him with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, and The Matrix. And surely, we can see the political uses of science fiction when we see how the Anonymous movement is deploying Guy Fawlkes masks clearly inspired by V for Vendetta. Or, for that matter, is it any accident that Rolling Stone describes Obama as “A New Hope,” evoking the title of the original Star Wars film.

I wish I could say all of this flashed in my mind when I started babbling about Spock and Obama. In reality, I was improvising, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more helpful the analogy has become as a way of thinking about why Obama’s candidacy has so sparked my imagination.

And, by the way, check out this video on Youtube from one of Leonard Nimoy’s appearances at a science fiction convention in which he describes an encounter with none other than Barack Obama. So, Obama is not a “secret moslem,” he’s not a “secret vulcan,” but he may be a secret Trekker! :-)

YouTomb: Monitoring the Limits of Participatory Culture

While we have been focusing lately on issues of remix culture, it seems an opportune moment to give a shout out to a very worthy project of the MIT Free Culture organization. Known as YouTomb, the project seeks to monitor which videos get taken down from YouTube and why. As the FAQ for the site explains:

When a user-submitted video is suspected to infringe copyright, the rights holder is contacted and given the option to take down the video in question. In addition, rights holders can submit DMCA takedown notifications at any time that cause YouTube to immediately remove alleged infringing content.

MIT Free Culture became especially interested in the issue after YouTube announced that it would begin using filtering technology to scan users’ video and audio for near-matches with copyrighted material. While automating the takedown process may make enforcement easier, it also means that content falling under fair-use exceptions and even totally innocuous videos may receive some of the collateral damage.

As YouTube is not very transparent with the details surrounding this process and the software used, YouTomb was conceived to shed light on YouTube’s practices, to educate the general public on the relevant copyright issues, and to provide helpful resources to users who have had their videos wrongfully taken down.

The data being collected by this team of student researchers should prove extremely useful in future legal battles over whether currently filtering technologies violate fair use provisions and thus constitute a form of unjustifiable censorship of participatory culture.

Keep up the good fight!

MC Lars, “Ahab,” and Nerdcore

My major focus this month is on developing a teachers strategy guide for Project nml on “Reading in a Participatory Culture,” which uses as its major case studies: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley’s Moby Dick: Then and Now. I’ve written about this project here before in essays on “The Whiteness of the Whale” and “Was Herman Melville a Proto-Fan?”

A central theme in the project has to do with how we bring contemporary cultural concepts of remix culture into conversation with the study of more traditional literary texts. We want to get teachers to think a bit more about writers as existing in conversation with their cultures rather than as original creators. Teachers have long asked students to write about Biblical Allusions in Moby Dick, say, without fully working through what it means that Melville draws upon, reworks, and ascribes new meaning to the story of Jonah, who surfaces directly through sermons or discussions of whaling lore and implicitly through the fate of Ahab’s crew.

As I was speaking on this project recently, a member of the audience shared with me via his iPod a recording of MC Lars’s song, “Ahab,” which has now become an integral part of my work on the project. I thought I would share with you today some work in progress which looks at MC Lars and the Nerdcore movement as a way into thinking about contemporary remix culture. Hope you Enjoy.

MC Lars, along with Sir Frontalot, mc chris, Optimus Rhyme and Baddd Spellah, is widely considered to be a founder of the so-called “nerdcore” movement. Nerdcore refers to a subgenre of hip hop music whose themes and images are drawn from subject matter generally considered of interest to geeks: games, science and science fiction, computers and digital culture, and cult media in particular. Like other nerdcore performers, MC Lars often incorporates allusions to films, television shows, comics, and novels into his work.

For example, consider his video for “Space Game” which not only celebrates the virtues of early arcade games but also makes references to characters from Star Wars (Darth Maul, Boba Fett, Sith girls, etc.), Lost in Space (Dr. Smith), Classic Star Trek (Captain Kirk, Scotty, Spock) Star Trek: The Next Generation (Q, The Borg) , 2001:A Space Odyssey (Hal), The Matrix (Neo and Morpheus), X-Men (Magnito), Superman (Zod), even Doctor Seuss (“The Obleck”). In the later verses, the song lays claim to being “postmodernist” (under the banner of Robert Ventura and Andy Warhol) and lays smack down on modernists such as T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Wolfe, Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stephens, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Watching this video with your students might be a good way to help them understand what an allusion is and how it creates a juncture between old and new stories and in this case, between high art and popular culture.

Several of MC Lars songs, including “iGeneration” and “Download this Song,”constitute manifestos for those who have grown up in a world where music is easy to access and where remix is part of what it means to consume popular culture. As one critic explained, “MC Lars is a member of what he dubs the “iGeneration,” a group born and raised in the time of the Ninja Turtles, cassette tapes and new wave music, who now live in the age of Desperate Housewives, Sidekicks and screamo bands. These are the kids who have grown up using the Internet as a part of their every day life. They can conveniently carry 5,000 songs in their pocket, but are faced with the glooming fact that the world’s oil supply and Social Security will both run out in their lifetime. MC Lars is the hero of this new generation, addressing their thoughts and every day struggles in his music.”

The “iGeneration” has in return deployed all of the resources of participatory culture to do their own mash-ups to MC Lars songs, such as this version of “iGeneration” which combines characters from the Japanese Anime, Naruto, with a visual style associated with iPod advertising, and another fan video which deploys images from advertising, news, The Matrix, and Battleship Potemkin. So, how do the two different image tracks deployed here change the meaning or bring to the surface different aspects of the original song?

“Ahab” should be understood in this larger context, one of several songs which MC Lars, has composed based on cannonical literary works which he reads with the same playful irreverence with which he approaches icons of science fiction culture. “RapBeth” represents his hip hop ode to William Shakespeare, while “Mr. Raven” signals his respect for Edgar Allen Poe.

MC Lars has a degree in English Literature from Oxford University and has said that he would have pursued a career as an English teacher if he hadn’t found success as a hip hop performer.

He jokingly told one interviewer, “I read Moby Dick, and I thought it was a great book but it was really long, so I tried to put it into three minutes.” “Ahab” does manage to include a high number of reference points in the novel, some of which are expressed through the lyrics (such as the reference to the gold doubloon which Ahab nails to the mast or the shoutouts to Queequeg), some through the visual iconography of the video (for example, the scar on Mc Lars’s face or his peg leg). For example, the line, ” Hey Ishmael… can I call you annoying?,” plays upon “Call Me Ishmael,” which is probably the single most famous phrase in Melville’s novel. The repeated chorus, ” Peg leg, sperm whale, jaw bone, what!,” not only refers to some of the recurring icons of the narrative but also hints at the novel’s linkage of Ahab’s leg with the Ivory of the whale. The conflict between Ahab and Starbuck is hinted at by “You’re Never going to find him! He’s a big sperm whale. The ocean is enormous!” while other lines hint at Ahab’s self absorption and solitude, “excuse me while I go be melancholy in my room!” Another lyric neatly captures a key subplot in the novel: “Pip went insane when he almost drowned, So profound when he shrieks like a little sailor clown.” The visual logic of the video, which takes us under water and then into the mouth and through the belly of the whale, may hint at the story of Jonah, who is swallowed by a great fish, which Melville reads as a whale, while the hectoring figure in the turban here may suggest Elijah’s warning.

What other references to the novel do you and your students identify here?

Would the song even make sense if the listener did not have at least a broad exposure to the major themes and plot twists of this classic American novel? That’s the essence of an allusion: MC Lars is able to shorthand Moby Dick because so many of his listeners will already know the story through other media representations if not through a direct experience of the book. MC Lars simply has to point us in the right direction and our mind fills in all the rest with much of the humor here stemming from the brevity with which he is able to sum up elements of such a vast and intimidating work.

Yet, the song also suggests some of the interpretations of the song which arise in high school literature classes. Ahab described himself as a “monomaniac,” draws parallels to Oedipus, talks about “hubris” as his “tragic flaw,” defines the book’s conflict as “man vs. beast,” and sums up the book’s message as “revenge is never sweat.” All of this is the stuff of Spark Notes and bad high school essays, suggesting a work which isn’t simply familiar to us the first time we read it, but also may come predigested, neatly broken down into familiar modes of literary analysis.

The sense that “Ahab” is responding to the rituals of the English classroom is further hinted at through the visuals here, which depict a group of students re-enacting Moby Dick, and ends with a shot from the wings as the performance concludes and the audience applauds. The Nerdcore movement, in general, tends to embrace low tech and amateur looking graphics in many of its videos, hinting at the Do-It-Yourself culture which inspires them and their audiences. Ironically, here, the stagecraft is more elaborate than would be likely to be seen in any school play, making, perhaps, a reference to the spectacular and equally unlikely high school productions of films like Apocalypse Now depicted in the cult classic, Rushmore. Either way, though, the visuals reinforce lyrics which connect Moby Dick back to the classroom, suggesting that the video may be in some sense a thumbing of the nose at the practices of secondary education, even as it is also an affectionate tribute to the novel itself.

Like many examples or remix, the song combines its primary source — Moby Dick — with a range of other allusions. “Ahab” evokes a range of contemporary reference points which would have been anachronistic in Melville’s novels, such as Steve Wozniak, the Mariana Trench, Titanic, and Finding Nemo (suggested by the clown fish at the end of the video) Is the suggestion here that the novel remains relevant to contemporary concerns or that it is hopelessly out of date?

A tossed off reference to “a Supergrass beat” acknowledges another group whose music MC Lars has sampled for this song. Remix often gets described as “plagiarism,” yet in fact, it can be seen as the opposite of plagiarism: plagiarists usually seek to cover their tracks, masking the sources of their material, and taking claim for them. Remix, on the other hand, depends on our recognition of that the material is being borrowed and often depends on our understanding of the specific contexts it is borrowed from. This song would be meaningless if we did not recognize its references to Herman Melville. And it says something about the ethics within this community that the songwriter wanted to acknowledge the beats that he sampled, even if the reference makes little sense within the context of its re-purposing of Moby Dick.

So, the above discussion suggests some questions which you and your students might want to ask about any remix:

What was the context within which the remix was produced?

In this case, we read “Ahab” in relation to Nerdcore as a specific subgenre of hip hop, one which makes extensive use of allusions to forms of culture which are valued by its “nerd” audience, including video games, science fiction, and cult media. In this case, we also saw it as part of a larger strand in MC Lars’s work which appropriates themes from works commonly taught in high school and college literature classes, acknowledging his own educational background and professional experiences.

What content is being repurposed here?

In this case, the primary source material is Moby Dick and to beats taken from a song by Supergrass. The song also makes a series of topical references.

What relationship is being posited between the remix and the original work?

“Ahab” is a good natured parody, one which deflates the elevated reputation of the original novel, even as it pays respect to its potential continued relevence to the present day. The song may be harsher towards some of the ways novels get taught through schools. Like several of MC Lars’ other songs, “Ahab” blurs between high art and popular culture, suggesting an ongoing criticism of cultural hierarchies.

Are the works of the same or different genre?

Moby Dick is a literary epic with tragic overtones; “Ahab” is a music video with comic overtones.

Are the works of the same or different media?

Moby Dick was a printed novel; “Ahab” was a music video distributed primarily through YouTube.

How does the remix tap or transform the original meaning?

Some of both. The song remains surprisingly faithful to the themes and narrative of the original novel, even as it shifts the tone by which we understand these elements.

What techniques are deployed in reworking the original?

There’s a lot going on here. First, the song compresses the complex and lengthy novel into a series of evocative phrases which summarize key themes and plot elements. Second, the song relies on anachronisms to hint at the relationship between past and present. Third, the song incorporates key phrases from literary analysis to suggest a particular set of interpretations of the novel. Fourth, the staging of the music video is intended to evoke a school pageant, again hinting at the relationship of this text and higher education. Fifth, the song’s bouncy beat transforms the tone and spirit of the original book, inviting us to have fun with the story rather than taking it totally seriously.

I welcome any feedback from serious nerdcore fans: “Ahab” was really my introduction to the genre and I want to get this right. I’d also love to be in touch with MC Lars, if he’s out there reading this.

“What Is Remix Culture?”: An Interview with Total Recut’s Owen Gallagher (Part Two)

What criteria should we use to evaluate good and bad remixes?

I think that, as with any work of art, the criteria for judging whether a remix is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is largely subjective and what some people passionately love, others will think is a complete waste of time. I believe there is no artistic work in existence that everyone on planet earth would unanimously agree is ‘good.’

Having said that, for the purposes of the Total Recut Video Remix Challenge, I have set some general criteria for the public and for the judges to use as guidelines when rating the videos. These are overall impact, which will account for 50% of the marks, creativity for 25% and communication for the remaining 25%. If you were to analyse a video remix that is generally accepted as being ‘good’, for example Titanic 2: the Surface by Robert Blankenheim, we can see that the video is exceptionally well produced, so much so that you could easily believe that is a genuine trailer for a new Titanic movie! The basic idea behind the piece is very clever and well executed on every level. Personally, I think that believability is a recurring theme in many of the most popular and well received video remixes. For these types of remixes, it is a huge challenge to convince the viewers that what they are watching is real. There is a long history of people messing with media channels to communicate a message effectively, e.g. Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast and I feel that speaking to an audience in a language that they are intimately familiar with, e.g. movie trailers, is an excellent way to communicate a message. The Adbusters movement have been ‘culture-jamming’ for decades, mostly in the medium of print, but I expect a lot of video remixed work to emerge in this niche in the future.

But what about ‘bad’ remixes? Well, it is fantastic to see that so many amateur video makers are trying their hand at producing video remixes, however, as with every art form, the ratio is usually about 10% quality, 90% garbage. The ratio holds true in the case of video remixes. Here is an example of a particularly poor effort, but hopefully the creator will stick at it and improve as they produce more work. Having said that, production skills are not necessarily the be all and end all. Sometimes, the idea is strong enough to bring the video popularity even if the production values are not 100%.

An interesting debate has sprung up around so-called ‘YouTube Poop’ videos. To some people, these types of videos seem to make no sense, are offensive and are even difficult to watch. People said similar things about punk. Personally, I think that YouTube Poop videos are some of the most potent examples of remixed videos out there, and although they may not be attempting to communicate a particular underlying message, bearing more resemblance to stream-of-consciousness poetry, they have their own artistic merit. But I am certain that many people would consider them to be ‘bad’ remixes.

The statement above implies that you think the current influx of remixes and recuts is a product of shifts in the technological environment. Yet, we could point to a much older history of cut-ups, collages, montages, scratch video, fan video, running back across much of the 20th century. Remix was part of 20th century life well before digital tools and platforms arrived. What factors do you think have given rise to our current remix culture?

I agree with you that remix itself is by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, it dates back as far as we can trace human history. The earliest example I am aware of is the anagram, which is essentially taking the building blocks of a word, i.e. the letters, remixing them into a new order that creates a new word and a secondary meaning and association by connecting the first word to the newly formed second word. There have been examples of remix in every creative art since time immemorial. For example, in art, the obvious one is collage. In music, folk music was spread by word of mouth, and so when one person would learn a new song from someone else, they would often apply their own variations to it, essentially remixing it to suit their own style.

In more recent times, in the history of recorded music, music remixes date back at least to the 1950′s, when Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman remixed Orson Welle’s War of the Worlds with various musical snippets. In the world of film and video, recuts and remixes have been in existence since the art of editing was invented. Some of the most well known filmmakers that experimented in the field of remix and montage as far back as the 1920s include the Russians, Sergei Eisenstein and his mentor Lev Kuleshov. Joseph Cornell and Hans Richter also experimented in the genre in the early part of the 20th Century.

The distinct difference between the work that was produced by these masters and the video remixes that we see today on Total Recut and YouTube, are that now the tools of production have been democratized. What was once an art form confined to professionals who could afford expensive film-making equipment and distribution companies with established networks and connections, is now affordable to the majority of creators in the western world. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection today can produce and distribute their work for costs close to zero. Every new computer comes shipped with editing software, video content is widely available on video sharing networks like YouTube and the Internet Archive, and it is easy to reach a potentially large audience by uploading your video to one of these sites.

The net result is that the medium is evolving. Video remix includes everything from movie trailer recuts, political parodies, music mash-ups, subvertisements, fan made vids, machinima, overdubs and many others. There is no doubt in my mind that many other sub-genres will evolve as more and more people begin to experiment in this area.

In your thesis, you suggest that video recuts are “stifled by overzealous copyright owners who are over-protective of their work.” What can you tell us about current legal responses to the remix community? Are there any signs that the studios are becoming more accepting of remix culture as remixes become more widespread on sites like YouTube and are finding their way back into commercial media channels?

Of recent times there has been a serious crackdown on video sites like YouTube where copyright owners have made claims of copyright infringement and the videos have been taken down, in compliance with the DMCA. Unfortunately, many remixed videos that legitimately make fair use of copyrighted content are being caught in the crossfire of outright piracy. I feel it is very important to highlight the distinction here as this is possibly the number one reason why the remix community gets targeted and bullied by ‘overzealous’ copyright owners. If somebody rips an episode of Lost from DVD, for example, and uploads five ten minute segments of the episode to YouTube unchanged and without permission, this is piracy and should definitely not be condoned. ABC Studios would be completely within their rights to request that YouTube remove these infringing videos from their site. However, if someone were to sample small clips from various episodes of Lost, recut them, add effects and overlay a soundtrack from the classic 80′s TV show The A-Team, this would clearly be a fair use of the copyrighted material.

Unfortunately, the filtering technology that has been developed to track copyrighted material cannot distinguish between these different types of videos, and fair use video remixes are being wrongfully taken down from YouTube every day. One of the problems here is that the creators of these ingenious videos are unaware that they are within their rights to file counter notifications against copyright infringement claims that they believe to be false. In my own case, I had three of my remix videos removed by the BBC, Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox, which led to my YouTube account being disabled. Three strikes and you’re out. Each of the videos were less than three minutes long, and the use of copyrighted material in them was clearly fair use. I filed counter notification claims with each of the allegators through YouTube, which is a relatively straightforward process. The BBC conceded that my video was a fair use and the other two companies did not respond within the DMCA time limit and so my three videos were put back up and my account was reinstated.

I am certain that there are many other people out there who have had similar experiences but did not realise they could do anything to get their videos put back up. I would encourage anyone who feels that their work is fair use to file counter notifications and to make sure that their videos are put back online. Alternatively, they can upload them to Total Recut!

On a more positive note, I have noticed a trend among some of the larger media corporations that suggests that they are becoming more accepting of user generated remix videos that sample from their copyrighted material. Some, including Sony Pictures, Lionsgate and Warner Bros have even dabbled with remix contests of their own to coincide with the release of their movies including School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly and Rambo. We have also recorded a significant exponential increase in the number of video recuts being uploaded to the web every day and less being taken down, which suggests that more people are getting interested in the area and that copyright owners are beginning to realise the potential benefits of allowing, and possibly even encouraging their fans to play with the content they produce.

In my opinion, video remixes are a free form of advertising for copyright owners and also create more devoted fans of the original work. In a few years, we will all look back and it will be mind boggling to think that big media companies tried to stop fans of their content from creating remixed videos that actually served to promote the original work, as well as being entertaining pieces in themselves.

Your site features a space for political remixes. Do you see remix as an important form of political speech?

I personally feel that remix is one of the best ways for people to voice their opinions and increase their chances of being heard. What better way is there of communicating how you would like George Bush to act than to literally change the words that come out of his mouth? With the current build up to the presidential elections in the United States, we are seeing and hearing a lot of media surrounding the actions and words of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. A plethora of remixed videos have sprung up with Obama , Clinton and McCain as the subjects. I think that having the tools to be able to create videos like these and express personal opinions to a wide audience is extremely empowering for individual users in the digital age. Members of Obama’s campaign realise the potential power of grass roots creativity and a video contest has been hosted this month by the folks at moveon.org with a view to creating a 30 second spot for the presidential candidate that will air on national television. No doubt, many of these will be video remixes and we look forward to seeing the finished pieces.

Many people use political parodies as a way to highlight the issues that particular politicians are facing and suggesting courses of action. When Tony Blair was considering his resignation as Prime Minister, a fantastic remix appeared illustrating Blair’s internal debate. Another classic video that has done the rounds is the Blair Bush Endless Love remix. This video is interesting in that it pokes fun at the perceived notion of the apparently odd relationship between a submissive Tony Blair and a dominant George Bush.

I have tried my own hand at one or two political remixes in the past. Being from Ireland, I decided to poke a little fun at the two candidates for the Irish General elections last year, Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny, the two candidates for Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the country at the time. One video showed Enda Kenny as if he was auditioning for American Idol and coming up against a decidedly unimpressed Simon Cowell. The other clip showed Bertie Ahern as if he were pitching a business idea in the Dragons Den I think it is very important that citizens of a country can air their views about their political leaders, and I feel that video remix is one of the most powerful ways to do this.

What are your hopes for the future of remix culture? How do remixes relate to the larger Free Culture movement?

I see remix gradually becoming more mainstream and more widely accepted as a creative form in its own right. Ever more examples of commercialised remix are appearing on our TV and computer screens every day. Many people involved in remix culture detest the idea of the commercialisation of this type of work as they see it as a grass roots, perhaps even rebellious movement, and one that gives a voice to the individual. I don’t see this going away. Even if a lot more commercial remix work is created, the tools that enable individuals to transform and recreate the media and culture around them and the new channels of free distribution that enable their work to reach huge audiences are here to stay. My hopes for the future of remix culture would be for this type of work to seep into all walks of life. I would love to see even more educational institutions adopting it as a technique of learning, for example, asking students to create a remixed video about George Washington rather than handing in a written report. In the professional arena, I would love to see more video remix artists being headhunted by studios based on the remix work they showcase online or being commissioned to create new work.

Before this can happen, however, remix artists need to stop being afraid of frivolous legal threats. A large number of remix artists are very careful about revealing their true identities online and use anonymous alter-egos for fear of being sued. I would hope that remix artists will eventually feel as though they don’t need to do this anymore, as it could be stifling potential opportunities for them. The copyright issues surrounding remix work are a headache for everyone interested in freely expressing themselves using digital media. Of course, fair use enables the use of small samples of copyrighted material for non-commercial purposes, but I envisage new business models emerging around copyright cleared remix work in the not too distant future.

In terms of the larger Free Culture movement, there are many people and organisations doing fantastic work to help combat the ongoing problem of corporate greed that has seen the copyright term extended to a ridiculous degree in the latter half of the 20th century. Organisations such as Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Social Media, the Convergence Culture Consortium and FreeCulture.org are all doing incredible work to prevent the scales from tipping too far in the wrong direction and of course individuals, such as our judging panel for the Total Recut Video Remix Challenge, provide invaluable insights through their written and spoken words that help to raise much needed awareness of the issues surrounding remix culture.

We are hosting the Total Recut Remix Challenge primarily to the same end, and we invite anyone with an interest in this area to enter the contest and help us to raise awareness of the changes that need to take place so that we can build a society where copyright owners are fairly rewarded for their artistic labours and artists can freely express themselves by drawing inspiration from the culture around them. Every voice counts.