Sweet Valley Twins: Reading to Understand Contemporary Social Networks

This is the second in a series of essays produced for my graduate prosem on Media Theory and Methods last term. The essays are intended to fuse autobiographical and theoretical writing to address an issue of central interest to the student.

Sweet Valley Twins:

Reading to understand contemporary social networks

by Dharmishta Rood

I spent most of my youth surrounded by the pages of books. I read a lot of things, Babysitters Club, Anastasia, books about children and teens that loved animals. I tried to get caught up in the boxcar children, but I found it too old fashioned–I couldn’t identify with anything that was going on. I tried reading Tolkien, but became bored, not because I didn’t understand the text, but because of my boredom with an archetypal male power struggle through the singularity of objects and power derived from them, though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way then. After dabbling in other genres I returned to a world that was so wholly my own, yet so alien–the social life of young girls. I grew up reading Sweet Valley Twins books.

These books encompassed much of my life and youth. I would read while walking (much like Belle in Beauty And The Beast, but with awful glasses and braces). I would sneak pages in math class when the teacher would turn around to write on the board. I still to this day can imagine when I laughed aloud in math class at a hilarious passage confusing woks and walks. I still get a smile on my face thinking of the incident (though my math teacher was less than pleased).

I began reading these books at a time in my life where I was hungry to understand social interaction, yet at the same time seeking to hide from it. I was confused and unsure, wanting to learn by watching others yet shield myself from any hurt by covering my face from the world with a book and wrapping myself in the safety of pre-resolved existing plots, the way one finds comfort in familiar foods.

I actually have almost no recollection of doing homework (although I did well in school) but remember very vividly how I would come home and finish reading a book on the stairs directly inside the front door. Social life played a large role in my childhood, as a source of stress, but also as a main interest of mine.

The central draw of the popular clique at my elementary school, of which I was never a part, was their central sense of presence–by standing in a room and saying nothing, they could announce themselves as interesting. Perhaps this was my glorified understanding of their social presence but regardless, whatever they were doing was definitely working. Their popularity was self-affirming and generative.

I hungered for these interactions and the sense of presence that came with them and my need to understand these interactions was satisfied by these books, which had conclusive endings and allowed me as the reader to see into the social interactions, take them apart and live them, without having to actively create interactions myself. Had I been able read on social networks instead of Sweet Valley Twins books would I have been petrified or liberated? Would Elizabeth, the sweet shy romantic have been torn apart by them or Jessica the social butterfly have thrived in the midst of all the action? Whose narrative would I have chosen?

For Turkle, media have become a way for creating inquiries of the self, as both a mirror in as much as a window out (1984, 1995). “The computer creates new occasions for thinking through the fundamental questions to which childhood must give a response, among them the questions ‘What is life?'”(ibid, 1984, 16) Media can then be seen as objects that help us think about ourselves, and reflect what it is to be a thinking human being. Sweet Valley Twins books, like anything that signals meaning, have contained within them their own set of meanings and social structures and like anything mediated, they can be something to hide behind, something with which to escape from the “real.”

I read about a book each day during the school year, and read them all in order (minus, of course, the numbers missing from the public library), I read in free minutes, by the hour, filling weeks, then days and months with stacks of 20 books at a time, the limit from the library. It never occurred to me that I could have purchased the books with my allowance or put them on a birthday wish list. They were too disposable to me; by the time I would have gotten one it would have been one day old almost immediately. Perhaps this set the stage for me to create consumable media to be disposed when it becomes a day old, with my current identity as a blogger and journalist.

I remember how the books smelled and the way they felt; the way I could lie down on the couch and read one, and after a while the words melted away and there were only pictures. I was both identifying as the twins yet also watching them, finally at peace with social interactions I couldn’t seem to figure out at school, while negotiating the confusion between the side of me that could talk all day to strangers and the side that can barley leave the house.

The twins in the series came to be a representation of myself, although

I wouldn’t have articulated it that way then. Elizabeth was introverted, shy, romantic and thoughtful. Jessica was outgoing, social and bold. I often struggle to meld these two aspects of my personality into one person that can interact with the world. How can one be simultaneously sensitive yet bold? Shy and outgoing? The twins in the book seem to balance each other out, causing equilibrium of blonde purpose articulated through action and control.

People use virtual worlds to do these same things–social networks become many faceted representations of ourselves. danah boyd articulates this as a linearity from concepts of self and identity–one’s internal identity and one’s social identity. Within this social identity, identity management and impression management surface at the forefront of these social issues, in portraying many facets of one’s identity one must be careful not to expose too much of oneself (boyd, 21-30, 2002).

Users even use social networks to hold deceptive identities–posing as those that they are not, for reasons from benign to harmful. (boyd, Donath 2004) In a lot of my own personal social network research I’ve come across people that will say “this is a very not me experience.” When they are browsing photographs or profiles they are constructing a space, a universe external to themselves. One could describe this as traversing from fictional universes, such as the twins, to “networked publics.” In reading I got to experiment with fictional identities without an audience. Though online networks have “invisible audiences” (boyd, 2002), that allow for social network users to feel anonymity and perhaps even privacy, they are not truly alone. Social networks have identity performance, and identity performance was everything I was trying to understand, and everything I was trying to avoid.

boyd stresses the importance of impression management, something that is socially learned, signaling intentions, desires and actions (2004).

It never occurred to me to seek out other readers of these books and interact with them: these books were my own personal refuge and it would have been counterintuitive to share this private world with anyone. It was an escape more than a community. I was learning from the young girls in the book. When I was reading, I was no longer myself, I was Elizabeth or Jessica, interchangeably.

I used the books to discover and explore what creates the fabric of a social relationship, binding us next to each other and allowing us to return again to the same place in a relationship. I learned this page by page and was allowed to again return to what I had built in this (novel’s) community and the(se character’s) friendships I had formed.

Social organization and also interaction can be part of this self-regulating behavior. The books functioned in the same way that gossip does–as an extension of observational learning for learning rules and both teaching and affirming social norms behaviors. “On the surface, gossip consists of stories and anecdotes about particular other people, perhaps especially ones that reflect negatively on the target. We readily concede that some of the appeal of gossip is simply learning about other people. However, we think that a second, less obvious function of gossip is to convey information about social norms and other guidelines for behavior” (Baumeister and Zhang, 2004, 13).

Though the books differ from social networks in that there is no two-way interaction, the same social paradigms still exist and social norms are (re- and de-) constructed through the text. My fascination with social networks is similar to reading these books. The social interactions are visible and can be learned from, without having to say anything back. My social network use perhaps mirrors the way that I was able to stick with the series, meeting their lives at the intersection of my own. In online social networks, instead of furthering my relationship with Jessica or Elizabeth, and thus their social connections, I’m able to analyze my own and indulge in social learning without any of the anxiety that comes with it in real space.

In education, situated cognition is the “theory that learning is influenced by context. Cognition exists in the relations among people. Learning and knowing do not exist independently but are structured by interpersonal interactions and attempts to solve real-life problems in everyday settings” (Collins and O’Brien, 2003, 324). What I was experiencing through these books was learning about social interaction. They functioned as a safe reality to understand sociability. I was learning from these girls both to augment and also to replace relationships in my life.

At the end of the day I’m left with a few questions: how can social network “reading” be framed by my understanding of myself from reading Sweet Valley Twins books? What differences and similarities exist between the networked reading that are allowed in social network spaces

My current interest in social networks could be seen as directly related to my reading of these books. I’m interested less in the possibility of participation online and more in the fact that these are real people with real-life relationships. , Their networked relations within these social networks do not require interaction as a prerequisite for the consumption of social information.

Social networks differ from my Sweet Valley Twins books because they allow the possibility for feedback. Social networks are thus a more active space for social learning, yet still not completely social in the way that having a one-on-one conversation or going to a crowded social gathering shapes a social understanding in terms of social feedback mechanisms for situated cognition. They both sit in between realities and fiction, as a safe space to learn sociability without needing to know exactly how yet to interact. Before social networks, the Sweet Valley Twins series was a similar type of safety net, and the relations that were formed and explored throughout the series were, for better or for worse, my training ground for social interactions to this day.


Baumeister, R. F., Zhang, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2004). Gossip as Cultural Learning. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 111-121.

boyd, danah. (2008).”Why Youth Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. David Buckingham. (Ed.). The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 119-142.

Donath, J., & Boyd, D. (2004). Public Displays of Connection. BT Technology Journal, 22(4), 71-82.

Collins, J. W., & O’Brien, N. P. (Eds.). (2003). The Greenwood dictionary of education (p. 431). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Gunawardena, C. N., Hermans, M. B., Sanchez, D., Richmond, C., Bohley, M., & Tuttle, R. (2009). A theoretical framework for building online communities of practice with social networking tools. Educational Media International, 46(1), 3.

Turkle, Shery. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Turkle, Sheery. (1984). The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dharmishta Rood is receiving her Masters from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard this June, where she has been examining the cultural impact of networked environments and investigating how this affects learning and how the new technologies have changed the way people use and process information. Continuing her focus and

exploration related to online cooperation facilitates the generation of user-generated content, Dharmishta is a research assistant for Yochai Benkler at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She is co-founder of Populous, a Knight Foundation funded open source software project that allows newspapers to publish online, integrating social features and existing networks into news reading. She is also a Fellow at the Center for Future Civic Media. Currently she is particularly interested in the way that the option of participation in an online space changes readers’ interpretations of information, and

she is currently defining the notion of “networked reading” around this concept. Dharmishta holds a B.A. in Design | Media Arts from UCLA, and previously worked as Photo Editor at UCLA’s Daily Bruin and blogs at http://dharmishta.com.

Bouncing Off the Walls: Playing with Teen Identity

Off and on, over the next few weeks, I am going to be showcasing work produced last term for my Media Theory and Methods graduate prosem at MIT. In the class, we spend a good deal of time exploring how various theorists and critics situate themselves in relation to the cultural objects and processes they study. This issue surfaces especially in relation to ethnographic research but also matters when dealing with a range of critical practices, especially those which emerge from feminist or minority perspectives. I ask students to write one paper which forces them to tap into their own autobiographical experiences as they seek to theorize some larger aspect of contemporary culture. The results never cease to amaze me: this is the most personally engaged writing these students generate all year and each brings something fresh to my own understanding of popular media.

This year, there was a strong emphasis on educational issues — a biproduct of the work we have been doing through the New Media Literacies Project and the Education Arcade. Many of the students returned to moments in their life when they were learning how to become cultural participants, media makers, curators, or critics of popular media.

Bouncing Off the Walls: Playing with Teen Identity

by Hillary Kolos

If you’ve ever had the chance to observe a teenager use the web, it’s likely one of their browser windows was open to their Myspace or Facebook profile. Teens are constantly updating and customizing their profiles online, adding photos and songs, and posting to each other’s virtual “walls.” While this could be interpreted as just playing around, these activities can also be a means for teens to construct and experiment with their identity. In particular, it can be a space for exploring one’s gender identification and sexuality.

Gerry Bloustein proposed this view in her work on teen girls use of video to create personal representations. She notes:

“On the surface such attempts at representation…seemed like ‘just play’ but under closer scrutiny we can see specific strategies–‘the human seriousness of play’– providing insights into the way gendered subjectivity is performed.” (Bloustein, 165)

Serious play for teens is not necessarily something new to the digital age. Adolescence is often considered a time when rules are relaxed and young people can experiment with who they are or want to be. As new technology emerges though, some chose to blame it for distracting youth from what they see as the more important things in life, like education, physical fitness, or family relations. But teens’ playful activities, while fun, can often have the deeper purpose of identity construction, which may not be apparent to those who view play always as meaningless.

As a teen, my arena for play was primarily my bedroom. I remember once ripping out a black and white Calvin Klein ad from the latest issue of Vogue. In it, a young woman-not an All-American beauty, but striking in appearance-sat on the ground with her legs tucked under her. Her head was shaved and her face pierced. She wore just a black bra, a jean skirt and black tights. Most would not have read too much into this picture at all, but to me it represented a way of being, both in its content and form, that I wanted to emulate-down to earth, edgy, and beautiful.

At the time, I was a 14-year-old wannabe skater chick, living with my mom, dad, and brother in suburban Northern Virginia. Earlier, when I was 10, I had asked my parents to please take down the 1970’s nursery-themed wallpaper on my walls and paint them pink. While my parents are very loving people, they aren’t the quickest at finishing projects. So four years later (just enough time for me to outgrow my wall color preferences) I finally had a fully-painted pink room-and I totally hated it.

Tastes change, especially when you’re a teen trying on new identities, but there was no way I could ask my parents to change the color of my walls again. Instead, I began a playful experiment: I decided to hang the Calvin Klein ad on my wall. From a young age I loved fashion. As a teen, I had several subscriptions to fashion magazines, including Vogue, Elle, Bazaar, Allure, and W. What if I used their pages to cover up the pink that was just so not me anymore? I’d start in the uppermost-left corner and work my way around the room. Sure there’d be some pink poking through, but eventually I’d be free from that oppressive color. I was over my pre-teen days of loving unicorns and Top 40. I wanted to make myself into a new kind of girl – pretty and cool, but different.

I began my experiment right before the Internet boom in the mid-90’s. Email and AOL chat rooms were all the rage, but there was nothing like the social networking sites and new media tools that teenagers have today to express themselves. Using websites as their “walls,” teenagers today construct identities using collages of photos, music, and text online. Sites like Flickr, blip.fm, and YouTube make it simple to gather media of all kinds under profiles which stand for who you want to be on the web. My teen years were similarly saturated with media. In my case it was cable TV, pop radio, and glossy magazine, but my options for organizing and presenting the bits of media I wanted to represent who I was were limited. I made my outlet my bedroom walls.


Teenagers’ bedrooms are usually the only physical space they have all to themselves. I wanted anyone who walked into my room to know immediately the style I liked, the bands I thought were cool, and the boys I thought were hot. Not the deepest stuff, I know, but it was important to me then. My room was my identity lab. On my walls, I could play with how I wanted to be perceived by others, combining images to create something bigger than any single picture could depict.

My curatorial process didn’t have any strict guidelines. In general, the pictures were of women. (Though a cute, male model made it in every once in a while.) I was picky about what I added and it took me about a year to fill up just one wall. While the clothes in each image were an important aspect, there was often something else about the photo that made it special enough to hang-an interesting use of color, a unique composition, or a model whose appearance broke with convention.

My selection pool was limited to the mainstream magazines my mother would buy for me. Though I wanted to portray myself as on the edge of the mainstream, I had very little access to alternative media. I lived about an hour from Washington, DC where a sizable independent movement was occurring in the local music scene. While I heard about this from friends at high school, my parents’ strict curfew and exaggerated view of crime in the city prevented me from being a part of it. Instead, I spent time in my room creating my vision of the world I wanted to occupy. Using images from mass media, I created a collection of the most creative and attractive images I found and presented them on my walls.


But who exactly was I presenting this collection to? Who was my audience? I grew up in a neighborhood with few girls my age. My brother spent his time running a muck with a band of boys who lived down the street, while I busied myself inside with crafts, reading, and TV. Later in my adolescence, I attended a magnet high school that was 35 miles from my house, a distance great enough to prevent most friends from visiting me. The only people then who saw my room were my parents and the one local friend I had named Wendy. (She too had her walls covered in magazine pictures, but had more of a metal theme going.)

My mother was the person who saw my room the most. While I didn’t realize it at the time, she was most likely my primary audience. She hated it when I started to hang pictures on the wall. She prided herself on having a neat house and thought the pictures made my room look cluttered and trashy. Starting around the age of 12 on, I, like most teen girls, had an antagonistic relationship with my mother. Nothing too drastic, just a constant misalignment of taste. At the time, I felt like the biggest problem was that she didn’t understand me. I begged her to watch the TV show, My So-Called Life, with me because I strongly identified with the teenage main character, Angela, and her experiences. I thought maybe by watching the show my mother would understand me.

My mom never watched the show with me, and we rarely talked about things like fashion, music, or boys. She did however come into my room constantly to talk to me about other things or to clean. Since my mom and I didn’t talk much about my interests, I had to force them on her visually. What better way to show your mother what you’re into than to Scotch tape it to the walls of her house?

I was also my own audience. I stopped attending Catholic school around eighth grade, which is about the same time I started watching MTV. My worldview basically exploded wide open at that point. For the first time in my life, I saw that I could construct an identity with the clothes I wore and the music I listened to. Also my identity didn’t have to be static, I could play with the possibilities. I was initially intrigued by grunge music… then indie rock… then techno… then punk and ska… then hardcore. For me, high school was a playground for trying on different alternative identities.

The fashion ads I put on my wall became an amalgam of styles, but, in reality, I could never afford the clothes in the ads. Instead, I began to shop in thrift stores and create my own mix of styles influenced by the ads. I had limited resources, both in terms of money and selection at the thrift stores, which forced me to be more creative with my outfits. My high school peers were very tolerant of different looks and I took the opportunity to experiment with my style.


Many are concerned with the images that fashion ads portray and their impact on young women, especially in terms of body image. The mid-nineties could possibly have been the height of this fear, as “heroin chic” ruled and a super-thin Kate Moss was on every other page of fashion magazines. I was lucky to be naturally tall and thin and thankfully escaped the desire to radically transform my body to match the fashion world’s runway standards.

Instead, what I tried to emulate was the femininity in the photos. As edgy as some of the ads I hung on my wall were, they always possessed a sense of femininity and sexuality. Whether it was showing some skin or a wearing a flowing pant suit the women in the ads rarely represented traditionally masculine qualities. As I ventured into my teens years, I became less interested in being one of the boys and more interested in what it meant to be a woman.

I wanted a safe way to explore femininity so I tested the waters by dressing up and taking pictures. I did this solely in my room with my friend, Wendy, and it quickly became one of our favorite activities, better than our other options of wandering around Wal-mart or hanging out at Denny’s. We’d pull together some of the more extraordinary thrift store items, put on a ridiculous amount of make-up, and do our hair in a way we’d never be seen with in public. As I looked back at pictures we took, I saw a variety of styles that we explored. Sometimes we went for goth with dark lips and black clothes. Other times we obviously had the Spice Girls in mind with uber-glam makeup and fancy dresses. No matter what the genre though, the clothes we chose were always tighter and more sparkly than the torn jeans and baggy t-shirts we wore to school.

These photo shoots were our way to perform and practice what it meant to us to be a woman. The images on my walls and those that we had seen on MTV served as a starting point. We then translated elements from them into our photos of ourselves working with what we had available to us in my room. One picture we took stood out to me. In it, I have made myself up to look like one of the pictures on my wall-one where the model is dressed in a kimono-like dress with her lips painted like a geisha. In our picture, I sit in a wicker chair with the ad hanging just over my shoulder, which, as I remember, was unintentional. My lips are painted similarly and I am sitting like the model (my dress and hair are way off). While I knew next to nothing about what a geisha was historically, I had a strong desire to perform the look of the ad. I wanted to see myself with those same lips, in the same position. I wanted to see if I could look like that kind of woman.

As a teen, I used many resources to play with new identities. Fashion ads served as inspiration. My walls were a place to exhibit them. I did also, on occasion, leave my room where I had other experiences that helped shape the woman I am today. But having a space of my own to play and then reflect was very important to my process of identity formation. What seemed like goofing off at the time was actually a process of exploring who I thought I was at the time, as well as who I thought I should be.

My experience in my room is one of countless examples of how teens use their available resources to explore potential identities through play. This kind of play can happen in private, but often young people use media to capture their experiments and share them with others. In this way, they can gauge reactions and refine their performances. I used my walls to reach a limited audience, but today teens can easily reach millions of people online and receive feedback instantly on how they represent themselves. It will be interesting to see the new possibilities, as well as the new concerns, that emerge as teens use new resources to play with their identities online.

Bloustien, Gerry. “‘Ceci N’est Pas Une Jeune Fille’: Videocams, Representation, and Othering in the Worlds of Teenage Girls.” Hop on pop: the politics and pleasures of popular culture. Ed. Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 162-185.

Hillary Kolos completed a BFA at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU and worked in after-school programs, including one at the School of the Future, where she co-taught a high school filmmaking class. After graduating from college in 2002, she worked at a not-for-profit production company that produces documentaries on current issues in education for PBS. Seeking more experience in the classroom, she then worked as a media educator in New York City schools. She currently works as a media mentor for Adobe, advising teachers on how to incorporate media into their curricula. She was inspired to return to graduate school after reading the white paper produced by Project NML for the MacArthur Foundation. She has been working with NML this year around the classroom testing and refinement of our Teacher’s Strategy Guide, “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” She is currently developing a thesis centering on the gaming cultures of MIT, the notion of “geek mastery,” and the gender dynamics of technical expertise. In the future, she hopes to work as a consultant to help teachers incorporate new media literacy skills into their classrooms.

Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives: An Interview with Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Part Three)

Are the “vast narratives” created under commercial conditions different from some of the avant garde experiments or eccentric art projects (Henry Darger) also discussed in the book? In other words, do artists think about such world building differently removed from the marketplace?

Artistic considerations can be opaque at the best of times, and that’s especially true with someone like Darger. But it’s probably safe to say that commercial considerations played no part in his mind. His work was obviously a very private, very internal process. As far as we know, no one but he even knew it existed until after he died. But it’s impossible not to speculate, isn’t it?–why someone would spend their life creating something like In the Realms of the Unreal. He’s almost like a Borges character.

But getting back to the commercial considerations: Walter Jon Williams addresses this directly in his Third Person chapter, and goes into some detail about the commercial considerations of shared-world novels and novel franchises, and how they inform his artistic choices in different ways than his single-author series.

Monte Cook and Robin Laws also discuss this in regards to the tabletop RPG industry, and here we get into very interesting areas of artistic choice. Because what a tabletop RPG writer is doing is creating a kind of machine that other people can use to create stories. Speculatively, someone could write an entire RPG system from scratch, for their individual use, but they’d still be playing the system with other people. The primary consideration in any RPG design is: Does it work? In other words, does it create the kind of stories I want it to, in the way I want it to? And because the tabletop RPG hobby is an inherently social one, this question is very, very close to: Will other people want to play it?

Laws’ essay touches pretty directly on the commercial considerations that go into publishers’ decisions to go with one property or another, or create their own. And Cook’s essay focuses on the sequence of choices a gamemaster has to make in order to enact a particular rules system for the players. What we still don’t have much of, outside some of the other 2P and 3P essays (Hite, Hindmarch, Glancy, Stafford) are really nitty-gritty analyses of why designers have created particular rules systems. Why does Call of Cthulhu have a “Sanity” mechanism? Well, that’s an easy one, but why, for instance, does Dogs in the Vineyard have a dice pool system, with which players “bet,” “raise” and “call” against the gamemaster? Why does The Mountain Witch have a “Trust” mechanism? For every example like that, some designer or team of designers balanced genre appropriateness, individual preference, commercial potential, player familiarity, ease, elegance, playability, and on and on.

For comics, as much as we love them, there are serious narrative handicaps to anyone working within one of the established commercial universes. In particular, it’s rare that anything ever truly ends in any real sense. Storylines wrap up, series get cancelled, characters die–but the universe spins on. It happens in this way because DC and Marvel can still make money from it. It takes a huge apparatus of creators, editors, printers, distributors, retailers, consumers, etc., to keep these universes functioning.

You see something analogous in MMOs, although in that case it’s weighted much more heavily on the creative and consumer ends, with fewer middle steps. But in both MMOs and comics, there’s an unslakeable thirst for new content. You can’t just stop producing, or the whole thing dries up and blows away. The advantages MMOs have over comics in this regard are: 1) They are much, much more profitable, and 2) Consumers create a large part of the new content themselves, in the form of their characters, inter-character interactions, and user-created emergent storylines. Anyway, all of this exists in the marketplace, not the ivory tower; the final judgment is the commercial one.

Of course, the art world is also a marketplace–and even the competition for faculty positions (which support many of the more interdisciplinary and experimentally-oriented digital media artists) exerts what might be seen as a market-like pressure. But the pressures aren’t the same as those for commercially-oriented vast narratives.

Comics and science fiction fans have long stressed continuity as a central organizing principle in vast story worlds. Yet, you close your introduction with the suggestion that continuity is only one of a range of factors structuring our experience of such stories. Can you describe some others?

“Continuity” is a byproduct of telling a bunch of stories within the same setting. If someone writes a stand-alone novel, she doesn’t have to worry about it, except in the simplest sense of making sure that a character who dies on page 50 isn’t alive again on page 200. It’s only when an author writes a series of novels, or comics, or something else, or other people start writing in that world, or it otherwise grows longer and more complex, that continuity becomes an issue. On the most basic level, it’s a sort of contract between author and reader, showing that you care enough to keep the details straight (and aren’t engaged in a metafictional exercise or parallel-worlds plot). Too much sloppiness in this area breaks the trust and announces the story’s fictionality too directly.

That said, in certain genres, like big comics universes, maintaining continuity is hilariously difficult, bordering on impossible. Grant Morrison is probably right when he says that continuity is mostly a distraction in big comics universes, and will be as long as characters are not allowed to age and die away. No one is going to kill off Batman permanently, no matter what happened in Final Crisis 6, just as Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, Superman and the others all came back from the dead.

This speaks to a wider problem in comics continuity–without any real endings, and with no meaningful change that can’t be revised or done away with at any time, the DC and Marvel universes lack consequences. Any individual storyline might be good or bad, but because they all exist within this ceaseless flow of stories, any narrative power is slowly worn away. One of Pat’s favorite DC storylines is Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen’s 1984 “Legion of Supervillains” storyline, in which Karate Kid is killed. Now we see that Karate Kid is back in Countdown to Infinite Crisis. What does this do to our appreciation of the original story? Nothing has changed about the text, but now it’s been robbed of permanent consequence, and Pat’s pleasure in it is diminished. Maybe that’s a shallow way of appreciating narrative, but few comics readers will deny that it’s a significant part of their enjoyment. And not just comics: the same thing happens in all forms of storytelling. We don’t know of any literary critic who appreciates the narrative twist with Mr. Boffin near the end of Our Mutual Friend. You feel cheated; it’s arbitrary and it undermines everything that’s gone before, and robs the story of what James Wood calls “final seriousness.”

This is what made The Dark Knight Returns so powerful, when it was first published. By providing an ending to Batman’s story, it cast its shadow both forward and backward over Batman’s entire publication history. Suddenly it became possible to read a Batman story in light of where the character was ultimately going. Alan Moore tried to do the same sort of thing–provide a possible ending–for the entire DC universe in his unproduced Twilight of the Superheroes miniseries, a missed opportunity if there ever was one.

Even Agatha Christie recognized this, though her series novels are almost completely continuity-free, with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple staying essentially static thoughout her uncountable novels. But she still wrote Curtain (and kept it in a bank vault for over 30 years, until a few months before her death) to provide an end to Poirot.

Maybe the best approach to comics is to view them, as Grant Morrison seems to, as existing in a sort of permanent mythological or legendary space, in which the importance lies in the relationships between the characters and the ritual reenactment of certain actions, and not in the movement of these characters through time. We’re okay with Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripedes all giving us versions of the story of the House of Atreus, and we appreciate them on their own merits, as literary instantiations of the same story. We don’t spend much time trying to reconcile the discontinuities.

Greg Stafford’s 3P chapter discusses the process of distilling multiple sources of the Arthurian stories into a coherent, playable RPG campaign. This was a heroic undertaking, but it was possible because 1) Stafford had final authority to accept, reject, or reconcile discontinuous story elements, and 2) he was not working with a constantly-expanding data set, such as the DC Universe. The question is not so much “Could you coherently reconcile all of DC’s continuity?” as, “Why would you bother?” Without meaningful consequence, it’s better to view the whole universe as existing in a sort of timeless fugue state, with only transitory consequences.

Incidentally, Doctor Who exhibits a different strange mixture of semi-continuity, with irreconcilable story elements (e.g., the multiple histories of the Daleks) combined with actual, permanent consequences (e.g., the Doctor’s regenerations). A lot could be said about this, and what it means for narrative reception, and there’s certainly a lot of that discussion in Third Person, but we’ve gone on a bit long here already.

The issue of the “ending” is a recurring issue in the book with several essays promising us “my story never ends” or “world without end,” while others point to the challenges of sustaining creative integrity given the unpredictible duration of television narratives. Does the idea of a “vast narrative” automatically raise questions about endings and other textual borders?

Perhaps not automatically, given that we’re treating as “vast” projects that are both ambitious in scope and yet planned for a particular, bounded shape from early on. But it’s a very common move for vast narrative projects to make, and it’s probably an inherent part of those that are conceived as productive systems. Why turn the system off? Similarly, those that are connected closely to events in the world beyond their control, or which have important audience contributions, have something in their dynamics that resists not only the hard border (those are intentionally designed away) but also the ending. That’s why we’ve seen audiences attempt to continue projects that the authors bring to an end. But, of course, that’s just a current twist on an old phenomenon, one you’ve also seen in your work on fan cultures.

That said, and though it may betray a little stuffiness, Pat does prefer narratives that seem to have a traditional shape to them, with meaningful endings that pay off everything that’s gone before. And Noah thinks this is essential to a certain kind of project, even if some of his favorite fictions (from Mrs. Dalloway to Psychonauts) succeed on different terms. Commonly, comics and television structures work heavily against traditional narrative closure, but for commercial reasons, not even interesting modernist, postmodern, or currently-experimental ones. Which is why it’s so exciting to come across something like The Wire, which is a coherent literary work realized in the televisual medium, which until recently Pat at least didn’t think possible.

What demands do “vast narratives” place on the people who read them? Is a significant portion of the reading public ready to confront those challenges?

At this point, the question might actually be whether the expanding end of the reading public is willing to take on something that isn’t as vast as, say, the Harry Potter or Twilight books. Perhaps it’s just our skewed viewpoint, but it seems like large fictional projects, which either start with novels or have them as part of a cross-media environment, are a key way the reading public is growing. This reminds Noah of how his experience of being in the university is changing, now that even graduate students often can’t remember a time before the Web very clearly and most students think that games are “obviously” as important a media form as, say, television. Vast possibilities and large interaction spaces now seem a kind of media norm.

That said, the pleasures of our youths–e.g., reading Marvel and DC comics and playing Call of Cthulhu and Champions (not the forthcoming online version)–were pleasures that grew with extended engagement, with developing understanding and elaboration of fictional universes and their characters. Those could be thought of as “demands,” but we didn’t feel that way about them, and we don’t have the sense that people today reading a long series of novels or playing a computer RPG for 50+ hours (without even being completionist) feel that way either.

T-t-t-that’s all, folks!

Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives: An Interview with Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Part Two)

A reader asked me whether the book included a discussion of soap opera, which would seem to meet many criteria of vast narrative, but doesn’t fall as squarely in the geek tradition as science fiction series like Doctor Who or superhero comics like Watchmen. Pat does include a brief note about his own experience watching soaps with his grandmother. What do you see as the relationship between “vast narratives” and the serial tradition more generally?

Soap opera is definitely a missed opportunity for us. We had intended to have at least one essay on the subject, but it fell by the wayside as our contributors came aboard and our word count ballooned. We had also intended to have more essays on more purely literary topics; as it stands, Bill McDonald’s essay on Thomas Mann seems a little lonely in the middle of all that television. We had wanted at least an essay on Faulkner, probably one on Dickens, and some others. But it’s exactly there that Third Person would have started to tip over into more traditional areas of literary history, theory, and narratology. We think one of the strengths of the series is the unexpected juxtaposition of very different fields and genres. So in the end, we opted more for the digital.

The serial tradition seems to us to be a huge and maybe indispensible part of most “vast narratives.” Comic books and television especially follow very naturally from the serial tradition exemplified by Dickens. In all cases, the story unfolds in the public eye, as it were: David Copperfield appeared in monthly installments, as do most modern comic books; TV serials are generally weekly. In all cases there’s ample opportunity for the public to respond to plot developments and offer feedback.

In David Copperfield, for instance, you have the strange character Miss Mowcher, who appears first as a rather sinister and repulsive figure, but when she reappears is pixie-ish, friendly, and plays a role in helping David. What had happened in the meantime is that the real-world analogue of Miss Mowcher (Catherine Dickens’s foot doctor) had recognized herself in the installment and threatened to sue. And as we understand it, the characters of Ben on Lost and Helo on the new Battlestar Galactica were both intended to be short-term minor characters, but proved so popular with viewers that they were promoted to central recurring positions.

There are plenty of artistic problems that arise from serialized storytelling, one of the most serious of which is the potential for unbalancing the narrative. Writing an unserialized novel allows you to edit, revise and generally overhaul the story before the public sees it. To serialize a story forces you to go with your thoughts of the moment, which may change before you finish the story, whether because of new artistic ideas of your own or because of outside forces (TV cast changes, editorial shifts in direction, Miss Mowchers, etc.). The Wire is one of the strongest televised serials ever aired–arguably it’s simply the best–and that show was blessed with a strong writing staff with long-term narrative plans, substantial freedom from editorial direction, and as far as we’re aware, very few unplanned cast changes. David Simon and the other creators like to talk about Dickens in reference to the show, but The Wire is in fact much more narratively balanced and formal in structure than most of Dickens’s novels.

At the same time, a lot of exciting art happens in exactly the improvisational space that seriality provides. The writing staff on David Milch’s Deadwood seems to have, on a daily basis and under Milch’s direction, group-improvised nearly all of the Deadwood scripts. The end result is a constantly surprising story that still somehow appears as a tightly-structured drama, even down to following, more often than not, the Aristotelian unities of time and place. (And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Sean O’Sullivan does great work discussing seriality both in his Third Person essay, and in his essay in David Lavery’s collection Reading Deadwood.)

First Person experimented with placing a significant number of its essays on line and encouraging greater dialogue between the contributing authors. What did you learn from that experiment?

One thing we learned is that putting a book’s contents online, which previously had mostly been done with monographs, could also work with edited collections. MIT Press was happy enough with the results that we followed this practice with Second Person and will do it again with Third Person. We’d like to see this practice expand in the world of academic publishing, since we now have some evidence that it doesn’t make the economic model collapse (it’s other things that are doing that, unfortunately, to some areas of academic publishing).

Another thing we learned is that, while blogs were already rising in prominence by the time we started working with Electronic Book Review on this portion of the project, the kind of conversation encouraged by something like EBR isn’t obviated by the blogosphere. In general, blog conversation is pretty short-term. People tend to comment on the most recent post, or one that’s still on the front page, and this is only in part because blog authors often turn off commenting for older posts, as an anti-spam measure. EBR, on the other hand, solicits and actively edits its “riposte” contributions (returning them to authors for expansion and revision, for example) and ends up fostering a kind of conversation that still moves more quickly than the letters section of a print journal, but with some greater deliberation and extension in time than generally happens on blogs. These different forms of online academic conversation end up complementing each other nicely.

As you note, comics have had a long history of managing complex narrative worlds. What lessons might comics have to offer the new digital entertainment media?

Digital media has already absorbed a lot of helpful lessons. In Third Person this can be seen in Matt Miller’s chapter on City of Heroes and City of Villains, which goes into depth on how Cryptic translated comics tropes into workable MMO content.

The place to speculate might actually be the reverse of the question: what comics could take from contemporary digital media. We don’t have any idea what a Comics Industry 2.0 would look like, but we suppose it’s possible that DC and Marvel could take some of the pressure off themselves by integrating user-generated content of some sort; overseeing, funding and formalizing fan web sites, or who knows.

Every so often the industry does try something like this: back when we were growing up, there was a comic series called Dial “H” for Hero, in which a couple of kids had some sort of magic amulets that would turn them into different random superheroes when activated. The twist was that all of the names, costumes and powers of the heroes were reader-generated. Readers would send in letters with drawings and descriptions of superheroes they’d invented, and then those heroes would be integrated, with the appropriate credit, into later issues. This sounds extremely childish, and it was. There were no opportunities for readers to affect anything except the most replaceable elements of the story. (Although we do give DC credit for making it a boy-girl team, so that one of each pair of superheroes created would be female. Trying to build female readership is an ongoing problem for the big companies.) Later in the ’80s, DC did give readers the opportunity to alter the narrative, when they ran the “A Death in Family” storyline in Batman. In this case, the Joker attacks, beats and blows up Jason Todd, the unlikeable second Robin, and DC established a 1-900 number which readers could call to vote on whether Todd lived or died. Well, they voted for him to die, and so he did, but the whole thing is regarded, rightly, as pretty distasteful, and they never bothered with anything like it again.

So the impulse toward interactivity exists in the industry, though it’s never really gone anywhere. We suspect that some type of formalized interactivity will be a part of the comics industry going forward. What it will look like, we don’t know.

More to Come

Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives: An Interview with Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Part One)

One of the first classes I will teach through my new position at USC will be Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment. I’ve already started lining up an amazing slate of guest speakers and have put together a tentative syllabus in the class. The primary textbook will be Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, which was edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin.

Many of you who have been working with games studies classes may already know the first two volumes in the MIT Press series which Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin have edited. I’ve been lucky enough to be included in two of the three books in the series: my essay “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” was included in First Person and my student, Sam Ford, interviewed me about continuity and multiplicity in contemporary superhero comics for Third Person. So, I am certainly biased, but I have found this series to be consistently outstanding.

A real strength is its inclusiveness. By that I mean, both that the editors reach out far and wide to bring together an eclectic mix of contributors, including journalists, academics, and creative artists working across a range of media, and I also mean that they have a much broader span of topics and perspectives represented than in any other games studies collection I know. They clearly understand contemporary games as contributing something important to a much broader set of changes in the ways our culture creates entertainment and tells stories.

For my money, Third Person is the richest of the three books to date and a very valuable contribution to the growing body of critical perspectives we have on what I call “Transmedia Entertainment”, Christy Dena calls “Cross-Platform Entertainment”, Frank Rose calls “Deep Media,” and they call “vast narratives.” Each of us is referring to a different part of the elephant but we are all pointing to an inter-related set of trends which are profoundly impacting how stories get told and circulated in the contemporary media landscape. I found myself reading through this collection in huge gulps, scarcely coming up for air, excited to be able to incorporate some of these materials into my class, and certain they will be informing my own future writing in this space.

And I immediately reached out to Pat and Noah about being interviewed for this blog. In the exchange that follows, the two editors speak in a single voice, much as they do in the introduction to the books, but they also signal some of their own differing backgrounds and interests around this topic. The interview is intended to place the new book in the context of the series as a whole, as well as to foreground some of the key discoveries that emerge through their creative and imaginative juxtapositions of different examples of “vast narratives.”

Can you explain the relationship between the three books in the series? How has your conception of digital storytelling shifted over the series?

First Person was originally conceived as an attempt to reflect and influence the direction of the field, at a particular moment, while also trying to do some work toward broadening interdisciplinary conversation (in the vein of Noah and Nick Montfort’s historically-focused New Media Reader). As such, most of the essays grew out of papers and panel discussions from conferences, especially Digital Arts and Culture and SIGGRAPH. This is also why we used the multi-threaded structure–in order to preserve some of the back-and-forth of ideas characteristic of any emerging field. Unfortunately the book didn’t come out as quickly as we hoped, and we were a little worried that it would become more of a history. But it turned out that many of the issues the field was concerned with at the time (e.g., the ludology/narratology stuff) remained, and still remain, things that people entering the field have to think through–so readers still find the book useful today.

That said, we learned an important lesson about the potential for delay, and about thinking of the long-term relevance of a project, so for Second Person we very consciously tried to commission a book that we didn’t conceive of as trying to influence the conversation of a particular moment. Pat was working at Fantasy Flight Games when 1P was released, and had been thinking a lot about the relationship of stories to games, especially board games and tabletop RPGs. We both thought it would be an interesting area to explore, especially considering that there wasn’t much out there, to our knowledge, that covered similar ground. So the idea was to explicitly draw connections between hobby games, digital media, and other similar performance structures (like improvisational theater) and meaning-making systems (like artificial intelligence research). It was much less “of the moment” than 1P and to our minds, that’s when the series really started to take its shape.

Third Person wound up being something of a hybrid of the first two books. Like 2P, it addresses some underserved areas of game design and experience–such as Matt Kirschenbaum’s essay on tabletop wargames–but again we’re trying a bit to change the terms of the discussion, arguing for a broader conception of our topics. While 2P may have been one of the first books to integrate real discussion of tabletop and live performance games with computer games, its concept is one that goes down easily with most people in the field (we even got reviewed in Game Developer magazine). 3P is a bit of a challenge to digitally-oriented people who think about their field as “new”–or exclusively concerned with issues related to computational systems–because we believe people making digital work have something to learn from people doing television, comic books, novels and the other forms discussed in the book. And we also believe there’s something to be learned in the opposite direction as well, and from continuing to connect projects from “high art” and commercial sources. We’re very curious to see what the reception turns out to be for this volume, which we view as completing a kind of trilogy.

One striking feature of this series has been the intermingling of perspectives from creative artists and scholars. What do you think each brings to our understanding of these topics? Why do you think it is important to create a dialogue between theory and practice?

Broadly speaking, our scholarly essays often provide a big-picture view of a subject, providing context and analysis, and our artists’ essays provide a more detail-oriented, granular view, usually of just a single work or small number of works. Inevitably these distinctions become pretty blurry; for example, we intended John Tynes’s 2P essay to be strictly about the Delta Green design process, but he wound up providing a wide-ranging, highly analytical piece about game design philosophy–which is wonderful! Later, in 3P, we gave Delta Green co-creator Adam Scott Glancy the same mandate, and got something of the same result, with a history of the Delta Green property mixed in with wider ideas of narrative strategy.

This is one of the benefits of getting all these contributors side by side in the same series of books; you can see ideas from one person reflected in very different contexts, or, in the case of Delta Green, how the somewhat different design philosophies of two of the three Delta Green creators combined to create the property. This is then situated in the larger context created by the contributions of other creators and scholars, working in a variety of forms related to our themes, resulting in something far richer than one author could deliver.

Incidentally, one notable thing we’ve found about hobby games designers, is that they’re very willing to talk about what goes into their design process, but they’re seldom asked! That’s a result of the anemic academic attention paid to the field. For literary critics, a novelist’s or poet’s design process, philosophy, and narrative strategies are all legitimate areas of study (even if “author studies” is now rather out of fashion). Even video game designers are getting some respect these days. But the hobby games industry is too small, it seems, to have merited much attention. This despite the fact that many current video game designers started in the hobby games field: Tynes, Greg Costikyan, Ken Rolston, Eric Goldberg, etc.

While a central focus of the books has been on digital media, especially games, you have always sought to define the topics broadly enough to be able to include work on other kinds of media. In the case of Third Person, these include science fiction novels, comic books, and television series. What do we learn by reading the digital in relation to these other storytelling tradition?

When we talk about “digital media” or “computational media,” we’re talking about something that is both media and part of a computational system (usually software). As we see it, the lessons digital projects can learn from non-digital projects are both in their aspects that are akin to traditional media (for example, how they handle stories and universes constructed by multiple authors) and in their systems (how they function–and how these operations shape audience experience). The articulation between the two, of course, is key.

We’re certainly not the first people to note this. For example, it’s been suggested (Noah remembers hearing it first from Australian media scholar Adrian Miles) that digital media creators often fret about a problem well known to soap opera authors: What to do with an audience who may miss unpredictable parts of the experience? Obviously the problem isn’t exactly the same, because one case is organized around time (audiences may miss episodes or portions of episodes) and the other is organized by more varied interaction (e.g., selective navigation around a larger space). But there is a common authorial move that can be made in both instances: Finding ways to present any major narrative information in different ways in multiple contexts, so that the result isn’t boring for those who see things encyclopedically and doesn’t make those with less complete experiences feel they’ve lost the thread.

Of course, what the above formulation leaves out is that this problem doesn’t have to be solved purely on the media authoring side, and perhaps isn’t best solved there. Another approach is to design the computational system to ensure that the necessary narrative experiences are had, as appropriate for the path taken by any particular audience. This requires thinking through the authorial problem (“How do we present this in many different contexts?”). But ideally it also involves moving that authoring problem to the system level (“How can we design a component of this system that will appropriately deliver this narrative information in many different contexts, rather than having to write each permutation by hand?”). And, if successful, you don’t have to solve the difficult authoring problem of keeping your audience from being bored because they’re getting variations on the same narrative information over and over. Then you can use the attention they’re giving you to present something more.

Obviously, this isn’t easy to do. Computationally-driven forms of vast narrative are still rapidly evolving (at least on the research end of things). But the basic issues are ones that non-digital media have addressed in a rich variety of ways. Even the question of what kinds of experiences one might create in this “vast” space is one that we need to think about broadly–it’s a mistake to think we already know the answer–and looking at non-digital work broadly is a part of that.

You write, “Today we are in the process of discovering what narrative potentials are opened by computation’s vastness.” Is that what gives urgency to this focus on “authoring and exploring vast narratives”?

Personally, that’s an important part of our interest. But it’s certainly not the only source of urgency. As the variety of chapters in the book chronicles, in part, we’re currently seeing exciting creativity in many forms of vast narrative. One might argue that something enabled by computers–digital distribution–is part of the reason for this (e.g., television audiences and producers are perhaps more willing to invest in vast narrative projects when “missing an episode” is less of a concern). But we think of this as distinct from things enabled by computation (permutation, interaction, etc.), especially because some systems (such as tabletop games) carry out their computation through human effort, rather than electronically.

How are you defining “vast narratives”? What relationship do you see between this concept and what others are calling “transmedia storytelling,” “deep media,” or “crossplatform entertainment”?

Definition isn’t a major focus of our project, but there are certain elements of vast narrative that especially attract our attention.

First, we’re interested in what we call “narrative extent,” which we think of as works that exceed the normal narrative patterns for works of a particular sort. So, for example, The Wire doesn’t have that many episodes as police procedurals go (CSI has many more), but it attains unusual narrative extent by making the season–or arguably the entire run of five seasons–rather than the episode, the meaningful boundary.

Second, vast narrative is interesting to us in the many projects that confront issues of world and character continuity. Often this connects to practices of collaborative authorship–including those in which the authors work in a manner separated in time and space, and in many cases with unequal power (e.g., licensor and licensee).

Third, and connected to the previous, we’re interested in large cross-media narrative projects, especially those in which one media form is not privileged over the others. So, for example, the universe of Doctor Who is canonically expanded by television, of course, but also by novels and audio plays. On the other end of the spectrum, Richard Grossman’s Breeze Avenue project includes a 3-million-word, 4,000 volume novel, as well as forms as different as a website and a performance with an instrument constructed from 13 automobiles–all conceived as one project.

Fourth, the types of computational possibilities we’ve discussed a bit already, which are present not only in games (we have essays from prominent designers and interpreters of both computer and tabletop games) but also in electronic literature projects and the simulated spaces of virtual reality and virtual worlds.

Fifth, multiplayer/audience interaction is a way of expanding narrative experiences to vast dimensions that we’ve included in all three books–including alternate-reality, massively-multiplayer, and tabletop role-playing games. Here the possibilities for collaborative construction and performance are connected to those enabled by computational systems (game structures are fundamentally computational) but exceed them in a variety of ways.

Given all of this, it’s probably fair to say that our interests are a superset of some of the other concepts you mention. For example, your writing on transmedia storytelling certainly informs our thinking about vast narrative–but something like a tabletop RPG campaign is “vast” for us without being “transmedia” for you.

Patrick Harrigan is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. He has worked on new media projects with Improv Technologies, Weatherwood Company, and Wrecking Ball Productions, and as Marketing Director and Creative Developer for Fantasy Flight Games. He is the co-editor of The Art of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos (2006, with Brian Wood), and the MIT Press volumes Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (2009), Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (2007), and First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game (2004), all with Noah Wardrip-Fruin. He has also written a novel, Lost Clusters (2005).

Noah Wardrip-Fruin works as a digital media creator, critic, and technology researcher with a particular interest in fiction and playability. His projects have been presented by conferences, galleries, arts festivals, and the Whitney and Guggenheim museums. He is author of the forthcoming Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies(2009) and has edited four books, including Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (2007), with Pat Harrigan, and The New Media Reader (2003), with Nick Montfort. He is currently an Assistant Professor with the Expressive Intelligence Studio in the Department of Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

My Secret Life as a Klingon (Part Two)

So, there’s a second trip out to Hollywood, this time in order to try on the actual costumes, to make sure that they fit. And I got to wander around through the costume racks, taking note of references to a Cantina sequence and a Vulcan Tea Ceremony, among other things. I overheard the people working there chatting about what color lingerie the blue-skinned Orion girl should wear for the movie. (Pink really would have been a bad choice!) And I got fit for my costume.

Now, by this point, I was starting to get a little anxious about how I am going to pull off a Klingon part when the other Klingons were a good foot taller than me, sometimes more, and most of them naturally had much broader builds. I was going to be the scrawniest Klingon in the Galaxy. They kept reassuring me that they would build me up through the padded costume, though I am fully aware that they are going to be using padded costumes for the other guys too, so we were locked into an armour race that I was never going to win.

That said, the costume they gave me was breathtaking. They had designed helmets for the extras to wear which have built in head-bumps so that they wouldn’t have to spend hours in a make-up chair with each of us. I had a floor length great coat made out of a rubbery material designed to look like elephant skin or some alien equivalent. I have big shiny black boots.

Once I put all of this on and looked in the mirror, I felt Klingon down to the souls of my feet.

But there was one small problem: the pants they gave me were way too baggy and kept sliding down. There’s a reason why I always wear suspenders and it’s only partially a fashion statement. They took my measurements again and then promise me that they will take up the pants more so this won’t be a problem on the set. After all, this is the whole reason why I’ve flown out to LA just to do a costume fitting and am about to fly back to teach class the following morning.

A week later, I met the other cast and crew of the film on the piers at Long Beach for what was going to be an all night long shoot at the secret location they have transformed into a Klingon prison compound. There was an army of us sitting there, waiting, eating the best array of junk food I’ve ever seen, and trying to cope with what promises to be a “hurry up and wait” kind of evening. There was a minor crisis when the casting director comes around to ask us to take off our jewelry and I realize that there’s no way I can take off my wedding ring. It’s not that I wasn’t willing but after almost 30 years of marriage, my finger has grown around it, and it would take a jeweler’s saw to cut it off me. Luckily, just as they were about to throw me off the set, I remembered that my character is supposed to be wearing heavy black gloves and so no one will ever see my ring finger, and they let it pass.

We were led back to the make-up tent, where I spent about half an hour in the chair, as they blacken the bottom part of my face and add a bristle goatee on top of my already scraggly looking beard. From here, we were supposed to wear robes and hoods so that the spoilers who were camped out around the location can’t take our pictures. Once we got into costumes and make-up, we began to separate ourselves off by our races: the Klingons start to hang out with the Klingons, the Romulans with the Romulans, and then there are all of the other prisoners who represent an array of classic Trek races, including a guy in a really spectacular costume as a Salt Vampire.

Once everyone is in make-up, costume, and robe, we all wereloaded onto a bus and driven some distance away. As we steped off the bus, I set eyes on the set for the first time — there were cameras on cranes and huge lighting units; there were synthetic boulders and giant fans blowing across the set; and there were massive fire pits in the ground which erupted into flames as the crew test the equipment. It’s about this point that it occurs to me that Klingons are not known for their designer eye-wear and that I am very nearsighted. This was going to be the first and last chance I was going to get to see the set in focus. A few minutes later, someone circulated through and asked those of us who are visually impaired to remove our glasses.

You can ask me if J.J. Abrams was on the set that night and I couldn’t tell you because I never saw him. I did hear the amplified voice of someone who was directing the scene coming down from on high. I never met the man, though people kept saying that I really should see if I could meet him, if he had specifically asked for me in the movie. It was clear some of the other extras in the scene were there because they had been hardcore fans of the series. Some bragged that they had also done extra work for Battlestar, Star Wars, and even Doctor Who, so some of these fans get around. By this point, there were persistent rumors that I speak fluent Klingon. I do not. I barely speak English and have no gift for foreign languages. And even before I get into conversations with anyone, they are already calling me “the Professor.” I suppose that being a professor isn’t something I do: it’s who I am. In any case, it seemed that when people heard I had written a book on Star Trek, the only mental image they had was that I had written a book on the Klingon language.

They moved us out on the set and gave us our positions. We weren’t told very much about what’s happening in the scene. Everything is on a need-to-know basis. All we know is that we are Klingons who are guarding prisoners and that things are falling from the sky and exploding all around us. We were told that if we really got into our characters, we’d have a much stronger chance of ending up on screen in the final film, and there was a roving camera just trying to grab expressive closeups. We got no instruction on how to hold our weapons and as I look around, its clear that there’s not exactly trained consistency in things like whether guards hold the gun barrel pointing down or up. Some of the guys had military training and we consult with them trying to at least understand human practices in this regard. I don’t think I realized before how much extras really are improvising, creating their own characters, with very limited attention from the production staff. I find myself much more attentive watching extras in the backgrounds of shots having gone through this experience. But many of us had real fear that nit-picking fan boys were going to nail us for not holding our weapons the Klingon way!

And then they start staging a range of different vignettes — at one point, I am trying to keep a group of increasingly unruly prisoners at bay using a disrupter rifle; at another point, I am on guard duty looking out over the prison complex. The most spectacular moment came when I was handed a torch (which are heavier than they look!) and told to lead a group across the compound as the wind blows down upon us and things are blowing up on other sides. Of course, being near sighted, I can’t see more than a few feet ahead of me, so the group was zig-zagging like crazy as I try to avoid getting myself blown to bits or running into the blades of the giant fans. There was a real look of terror on my face for those sequences! I know I caused more than a little frustration for the assistant director who is trying to stage this little scene.

And, oh yes, my pants kept sliding lower and lower down my butt: at first, it was hip hop style but in one scene, I had to grab my waist to keep my pants from sliding off altogether. I suppose that the Klingon army like other military organizations is indifferent to matching guards with the right size uniforms. Periodically throughout the evening, I had to have a costume girl try yet again to stitch up the costume so it didn’t slide off me. But they never seemed to fully solve the issue.

By this point, between my clumsiness with the guns, my near-sightedness, my slight size, and my baggy pants, I am starting to think of myself much more as a comic than a heroic figure. I am K’henry the Hapless! Fear my fumbles!

As the evening went along, everything starts to become more and more casual. The Salt Vampire is letting us feel his rubby tentacles and everyone seems to want to hold my disrupter. If at first we sorted ourselves by race, we start to just collapse in the green room between takes, indifferent to whoever is sitting next to us. If at first we take everything too seriously, a row of Klingons started singing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story or doing the “Crank Dat Soulja Boy” dance.

At one point, they planted me on a rock to wait for instructions and forgot about me in the fog of war. I ended up dozing off in the wee hours of the morning and woke up vaguely disoriented, sitting in a Klingon prison compound, holding a disrupter in my hands.

At another point, they lined us all up in various action poses for photographs and we started to joke that we were posing for the action figures, and indeed, the set up reminded me of those little green army guys I played with as a kid.

Somehow, we all managed to stay more or less awake through the night, though I gradually started to feel a level of exhaustion I hadn’t felt in decades. They loaded us on the buses, collected our costumes, and sent us along the way.

No, I didn’t meet any members of the cast, though I did see some of the Romulans characters with tatooed faces and so I am starting to wonder if one of them was Nero. No, I never met J.J. Abrams. And No, I don’t have any photographs of myself dressed as a Klingon. They didn’t allow any cameras on the set because they didn’t want any of us leaking images prematurely to the media.

I had been telling friends that I had played one of the classic alien races in the film: some imagined a Vulcan, some suggested a Ferengi, but for months, there were no reference to Klingons in the build up to the movie, there was no Klingon footage in the previews, and I got really anxious. I knew from the beginning that as an extra in a scene which involved more than 60 extras, my odds of ending up on screen were pretty small, and I had to keep lowering expectations from the students and staffs who imagined something bigger. I figured that once we had some footage of Klingons, I could start to tell people, but I didn’t want to be the blogger who spilled the beans. Eventually, Abrams announced through the blogosphere that he was going to cut the Klingon sequence from the film: “There was a big Klingon subplot in this and we actually ended up having to pull it out because it confused the story in a way that I thought was very cool but unnecessary. So we have these beautiful designs that we’re going to have to wait and do elsewhere I guess.”

I’ve read various reasons for his decision, having to do with trying to streamline the character motivations, trying to avoid confusion about the current relationship between Klingons and the Federation for those viewers who only know some of the later Treks where the Klingons are our friends, and having to do with keeping the opening of the film crisp and taunt. It’s pretty clear from the dialogue included more or less where the Klingon sequence would have gone. And I’m personally hoping we get to see this footage as a DVD extra.

My biggest disappointment is that we probably will never see Klingon action figures for this film. I had fantasies of getting a figurine of a Klingon in a floor-length elephantine coat holding either a torch or a disruptor.

So, now you have it, the saga of K’Henry the Hapless, the most scrawny Klingon in the Galaxy, and how he ended up on the cutting room floor.

My Secret Life as a Klingon (Part One)


Artist’s Approximation created by Ivan Askwith

At long last, I can share with you, oh loyal reader, the utterly true, sometimes comical story of how I became a card-carrying Klingon in the new Star Trek film (well, almost). I’ve been itching to share this yarn for the past year and a half but had wanted to wait until the film was in the theaters and many of you would have had a chance to see it.

The adventure began with an unexpected e-mail: a Hollywood casting director wrote me to say that J.J. Abrams wanted to include me in the then upcoming Star Trek reboot. At first, to be honest, I thought it was a joke. I had no idea that J.J. Abrams knew who I was. We had not and still haven’t ever had any direct contact with each other, though my mind starts to race trying to figure out the chain of events which might have led him to discover me. Might J.J. be a reader of this blog?

My loyal and trustworthy assistant, Amanda, did some followup and got on the phone with the Hollywood type to try to determine what would be involved in shooting “my” scene for the movie. Doing so would require me to take three trips to Los Angeles in a little under a month — not a small demand given the number of long-standing commitments I had — and I would need to do so on my own dime. What I was being offered was a chance to become an extra and in Hollywood, in some cases, as I would discover, extras are literally recruited off the streets, and all of them are paid only a minimal wage.

The idea of a full professor at MIT flying to Hollywood to appear as an extra was absurd, but given my life-long love of this particular media franchise, which had inspired two of my books and several more articles, not flying to LA to be an extra in a freaking Star Trek movie would have been equally absurd.

I had to do it, even though it meant postponing some significant meetings, ducking out early from academic conferences, and taking a series of red eye flights, not to mention spending several thousand dollars. I have often joked about boldly going where no humanities scholar has ever gone before and this was going to be a wild ride.

So, I flew out to Hollywood and made my way, straight from the airport, to the Paramount Studio backlots, dragging my suitcase behind me. I was greeted by the casting agent, and was then led along with an army of other people out to what literally amounted to a cattle call. I was lined up against the wall with about fifty or sixty other men as people with clipboards moved along the line, discarding some, shifting some to another wall, and otherwise sorting us out into smaller groups. I was trying to make sense of the patterns: along my wall were men who are for the most part bald and have ample facial hair. So far, I fit the category they were looking for.

But then I became acutely aware that I needed to strain my neck to see the tops of the other men’s heads. Most of them looked like they were tall enough to play professional basketball and most of them were black. Indeed, by the time the sorting out process was done, I was the shortest, whitest guy left standing. They then took us one by one into a dressing room area to take our measurements and to get us to try on some costumes for size. I was fit with some heavy leather gloves, some pants which looked like they come from a military uniform, some tall black boots, and a helmet. I glanced down at a clipboard when the costumer wasn’t looking and saw the notice, “Klingon Guard,” and my heart beat a bit faster. It wasn’t until the second trip out to Hollywood that the costumers confirmed that I was indeed going to be given a chance to play a Klingon part. (Indeed, some of the other extras only learned they were in a Star Trek movie when they arrived on the set for our actual shoot.)

Now, keep in mind that being a Klingon has been one of my life-long ambitions. When I was in high school, I went to the DeKalb County Honors Camp, where I majored in drama. I spent the summer in the company of some of the most wacky friends I ever had, doing skits and plays, and when we were not doing that, just cutting up in the hallways. One of the girls in our cohort was a hardcore Trek fan. At this point, I had watched the series as a casual viewer but I had not taken the plunge. But she decided she was going to adapt the script from David Gerrold’s “Trouble with Tribbles” for the stage and we were all going to play parts. I met a guy, Edward McNalley (who is still one of my best friends) when he got pulled in from another group to play Spock. I was cast as the Klingon officer who sparks a bar fight with the Enterprise crew when he insults first its captain and then the ship itself. In getting ready to play the part, I started reading every book I could find on the series — The Making of Star Trek, The World of Star Trek, Star Trek Lives, and of course, the James Blish novelizations of all of the episodes, even the photonovels and the viewmaster slides. That’s how you kept up on a series back in the days before any of us had a VCR, though my wife still has audio tapes recorded through alligator clips attached to the television sound system, which she recorded when the series was first being aired. It was through all of this reading that I discovered not only Star Trek but also the fan culture around it.

Flash forward several decades to when I was doing research for Science Fiction Audiences, the book I wrote with John Tulloch. That’s when I became a Klingon for a second time. I was trying to do research on Klingon fan culture as a contrast to the female fanzine writers, the GLBT actvists, and the MIT students who figured prominently in that study. In true participant observation fashion, I joined a Klingon role-playing group, seeking to better understand what it was like to walk that particular swagger. In many ways, this Klingon fandom was a branch of the men’s movement which was taking shape around Robert Bly’s Iron John. Most of those I met were working class men who were embracing a warrior mythology to work through anger and frustrations they had encountered in life. Both men and women involved struck me as experimenting with power and trying to reclaim aspects of masculinity which they saw as under threat elsewhere in the culture. In the end, my research on Klingons was a failed project which never found its way into the final book.

I never really could figure out how to perform Klingon masculinity in a convincing manner and I got lost in the role-play activity. I had been cast as a Klingon ambassador, which I took to be an oxymoron, and so I was proceeding by insulting and abusing the Federation ambassadors with whom I was interacting, much as my character in “Trouble with Tribbles” had intentionally picked a fight with the Enterprise crew. But the guy representing the Federation took it all too personally, could never grasp that I was playing a character, that we were operating in a magic circle, and eventually filed a protest against me, which led to the Klingon high council suggesting that I step down from my post. I guess I played too rough to be a Klingon, go figure.

Skip forward a few more years and I’m being profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The photographer is scoping out my living room when he stumbles on my Bat’leth, a Klingon battle sword, which I have propped up against my fireplace. And he asks if I would be willing to pose with it for a photograph. As a long-time fan, I smell a trap. After all, I’ve written critically about the ways news coverage depicts fans in costumes with program-related trinkets as people who can’t separate fantasy from reality. Even with the release of the new film, I am reading lots of prose about “rubber Vulcan ears” and the like, despite two decades of trying to dismantle those hurtful cliches. But I also relished the absurdity of appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education showing off my Klingon cutlery and so, once again, in for a penny, in for a pound.

So, given that history, I can’t tell you the excitement I felt when I called my wife, a fellow lifelong Trekker, to tell her that I was about to become an official Klingon. She was jealous, of course; what wife wouldn’t be? But she also was really supportive of this fantasy-fulfilling opportunity.

Next Time: Going on Set, Shooting the Scene, and How the Klingons Ended Up on the Cutting Room Floor.

Five Ways to Start a Conversation About the New Star Trek Film

Spoiler Warning: The following post assumes you saw the new Star Trek film this weekend. If you didn’t, you probably shouldn’t be reading this post. You should be heading to a multiplex.

Cynthia and I went to see the new Star Trek film this weekend. We have managed to see every Star Trek film together as a couple on opening weekend since the film franchise lost with Star Trek: The Motionless Picture in 1979.

So, the two of us proceeded to spend the better part of the evening going through the film scene by scene armed with a lifetime of fan and critical perspectives on the franchise, trying to figure out what it signals about the future of Trek.

We certainly went into the film with high hopes but also with a certain sense of dread. J.J. Abrams has worked hard to demonstrate to the world that “this is not your father’s Star Trek,” and the problem is that we are, well, sorta, when you look at our birth certificates and all, part of ‘your father”s generation. People like ‘Your Father’ and even more likely ‘Your Mother’ have kept Star Trek a viable franchise for more than four decades. None of us object to bringing in new souls for the faith or attracting younger followers but you don’t have to write off the old fans to do so.

We certainly were not opposed to the recasting of cherished characters: quite the opposite, many of the franchises we care about — Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Cyrano, Hamlet, Sam Spade — have been recast many times with differing results but always with new discoveries to be made. We certainly hoped that having someone other than William Shatner playing the part would rekindle our respect and affection for Kirk, as a character, for example, while we remained skeptical that a new actor could capture the complexity which Leonard Nimoy has achieved through his portrayal of Spock through the years. As a fan of the new Battlestar Galactica series, I’d be hypocritical if I objected to them rethinking the characters or revamping the worlds depicted on the series.

When Cynthia was asked what she thought upon walking out of the theater, she responded that it felt like a Star Trek movie precisely because there were things we loved and things we hated about it. It’s been like that from the beginning and it will always be thus.

Rather than write a review of the film, though, I figured I’d throw out some discussion topics. After all, it’s exam season around here and so the genre of essay questions comes readily to hand. The following are some of the things we’ve been debating since we saw the film:

1. For us, the coolest thing in the movie was the image of Vulcan educational practice, which is consistent with previous representations (most notably the scenes of Spock retooling himself in Star Trek III) but also gave us new insights. Vulcans seemingly learn in isolation yet immersed in a rich media landscape. Each climbs down into a well surrounded by screens which flash information, allowing them to progress at their own rate, dig deeper into those things which interest them, and at the same time, develop a certain degree of autonomy from other learners. There are no teachers, at least none represented in the segment we are shown here, but rather the individual learner engaging with a rich set of information appliances. In some ways, this is the future which many educators fear — one where they have been displaced by the machine. In other ways, it is the future we hope for – one where there are no limits placed on the potentials of individual learners to advance.

But if learning is individualized, why do people come together into what can only be described as a school? Why not locate the learning pod in each home? Why have a structured school day?

In the midst of all of this well-considered if somewhat alien pedagogy, we are introduced to the issue of Spock’s bullying by his classmates. The scene where he confronts the Bullies is oddly ritualized, as if he was reporting to them for today’s insults and abuses, and as if they were testing his ability to develop the toughness and emotional control to push aside those insults. It’s clear elsewhere that he faces a certain degree of prejudice as a result of his half-human/half-Vulcan background — see the casual deployment of race as a handicap as he is admitted to the Vulcan Science Academy. But here, it is as if there is a system of ritualized bullying designed to test and toughen each student. What if bullying was incorporated into the pedagogical regime as it is more or less in several other educational systems on our planet? Certainly the content of the insults would be different in each case, but the logic of ritualized insults as a way of developing emotional control is not actually alien to the way Earth cultures operate.

2. I’ve read reviews which suggest that the Uhura in this film represents a progressive reworking of the character from classic Trek. I’m not convinced yet, even though I very much liked the actress who played the part. However limited her role might be (“hailing frequencies are open, Captain”), the original Uhura was defined first and foremost by her contributions as a member of the Enterprise Crew. Whatever subtext there was suggesting a Kirk/Uhura romance, it was just that — a subtext — left for fans to infer from a few telling moments in the trajectory of the series, among them, the first interracial kiss on American television — albeit executed under mind control — albeit an implied projection of one or both of the character’s actual desires.

In the new film, Uhura asserts her professional competence but she never really demonstrates it. How does that make her different from many of the female professionals in classic Trek who are introduced in terms of their professional abilities and then reduced to being the girlfriend of the week for one of the primary characters? Here, more screen time is devoted to her but she’s ultimately a love object in some kind of still to be explored romantic triangle between Kirk and Spock. Basically, she’s been inserted into the story to discourage fans from writing slash stories, though most of us won’t have any trouble figuring out how the exchange of women facilitates an expression of homosocial/homoerotic desire.

The classic definition of a Mary Sue is someone who is claimed to have extraordinary mental abilities, who manages to gain the romantic interests of multiple members of the crew, and who manages to have the information needed to save the ship. In way sense, then, is the new Uhura anything other than a Mary Sue figure in the body of an established character? Surely after forty plus years, Trek can imagine a more compelling female character.

3. I’m still trying to make sense of the implications of Kirk’s absurdly rapid rise to command in this version of the story. In the past, we were allowed to admire Kirk for being the youngest Star Fleet captain in Federation history because there was some belief that he had managed to actually earn that rank. Here, he manages to gain command in large part because Captain Pike was an old family friend, and because he had one really successful mission. It’s hard to imagine any military system on our planet which would promote someone to a command rank in the way depicted in the film. In doing so, it detracts from Kirk’s accomplishments rather than making him seem more heroic. This is further compromised by the fact that we are also promoting all of his friends and letting them go around the universe on a ship together.

We could have imagined a series of several films which showed Kirk and his classmates moving up through the ranks, much as the story might be told by Patrick O’Brien or in the Hornblower series. We could see him learn through mentors, we could seem the partnerships form over time, we could watch the characters grow into themselves, make rookie mistakes, learn how to do the things we see in the older series, and so forth. In comics, we’d call this a Year One story and it’s well trod space in the superhero genre at this point.

But there’s an impatience here to give these characters everything we want for them without delays, without having to work for it. It’s this sense of entitlement which makes this new Kirk as obnoxious as the William Shatner version. What it does do, however, is create a much flatter model for the command of the ship. If there is no age and experience difference between the various crew members, if Kirk is captain because Spock had a really bad day, then the characters are much closer to being equals than on the old version of the series.

This may be closer to our contemporary understanding of how good organizations work — let’s think of it as the Enterprise as a start-up company where a bunch of old college buddies decide they can pool their skills and work together to achieve their mutual dreams. This is not the model of how command worked in other Star Trek series, of course, and it certainly isn’t the way military organizations work, but it is very much what I see as some of my students graduate and start to figure out their point of entry into the creative industries.

4. If the narrative makes it all look too easy for the characters, the narrational structure makes it much too easy for the viewers. There’s a tendency not so much to ask questions as to hand us answers to the questions fans have been struggling with over the past four decades. So, for example, classic Trek was always carefully not to fully explain how Sarek and Amanda got together, allowing Vulcan restraint to prevent Sarek from fully articulating what he feels towards Spock’s mother. As a consequence, there were countless fan fiction narratives trying to imagine how Sarek and Amanda got together — Jean Lorrah, for my money, wrote the best of these narratives, though there were other great fan novels out there on precisely this theme. Yet, here, the question is asked and answered, overtly, in a single scene.

Ditto the issue of whether Vulcans are incapable of feeling emotion on some biological level or if they have simply developed mental discipline to bring their emotions under their control. Again, this question inspired decades of fan fiction writing and speculation and is here dispatched with a few short sentences.

The mystique that surrounded Spock from the start had to do with things he was feeling but could not express: he is a deeply divided character, one who broods about where he belongs and how he relates to the other Enterprise crewmembers. But this film makes it look ridiculously easy for him to get a girl friend and he is surprisingly comfortable necking with his pretty in the transporter room, an act that it is impossible to imagine Spock prime doing. The original Spock was a deeply private person. It isn’t that the new film has made Spock Sexy. The old Spock was a whole lot sexier than the new Spock for all of his hidden depths and emotional uncertainties: the new Spock is just too easy all around and there’s no real mystery there. He isn’t sexy; he’s having sex and that’s not the same thing at all.

5. As a stand alone film, it’s reasonably engaging: I like most of the cast and think they achieve good chemistry together. The pace is, as has been suggested, good, though most of the action scenes — except for the free fall sequence — seem pretty average. It’s a flawed work but I’m certainly in for more adventures. My problem is that the film didn’t give us much to anticipate for the sequel. In answering its mysteries so easily and not setting up new ones, there’s just not that much room for speculation and anticipation.

This would work if it were the pilot episode of a new television series. I haven’t loved any of the pilot episodes but they gave me enough reasons to like the characters that I kept watching. It usually takes a good number of episodes for the cast to jell with their characters, for the writers to figure out what they are doing, and for the audience to figure out what is distinctive about the new series. I think I need more momentum to get over the hump than a movie every few years and that’s why television would have worked better to relaunch the franchise than a feature film is going to do.

Is this a space where transmedia storytelling practices can create a bridge between this film and the next? Is there other ways that they can allow us to have encounters with these characters as embodied by the new cast? If so, what strategies will be the most effective at strengthening what ever level of identification was created for this new film?

Finally, if there are new fans who are created through this relaunch of Star Trek, which is certainly what Abrams and company are claiming is their goals, what has the film left them to do? What are the gaps and kernels they will work with? It’s clear enough what the cultural attractor here is but what is the cultural activator?

Then, again, there’s nothing wrong with this film that couldn’t have been improved by the addition of Klingons. I will explain later in the week.

What Is Learning in a Participatory Culture? (Part Two)

Today, I am running the second part of an essay written by Erin Reilly, the Research Director of the New Media Literacies Project (NML) in which she tells you more about our new learning library. If you have not yet checked out the learning library, you can find it here. And if you want to learn more about how it is starting to be deployed across a range of educational settings, check out the special issue of Threshold magazine about “Learning in a Participatory Culture.”

Exploring New Media Literacies

My work on Zoey’s Room was an ideal segue to applying practice to Project NML’s research into how a participatory culture facilitates learning in the 21st century. Outside their classrooms, which largely still follow a top-down model of teachers dispensing knowledge, today’s children learn by searching and gathering clusters of information as they move seamlessly between their physical and virtual spaces. Knowledge is acquired through multiple new tools and processes as kids accrue information that is visual, aural, musical, interactive, abstract, and concrete and then remix it into their own storehouse of knowledge. Describing how learning and pedagogy must change in this new cultural and multimedia context, the think tank New London Group argues that “literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies.”

Indeed, they describe how “the proliferation of communications channels and media supports” sets up a need for “creating the learning conditions for full social participation.” The media-literacy movement has effectively taken the lead among educators in this regard by teaching students to analyze the media they consume and to see themselves as both consumers and producers of media. However, even this learning often is relegated to electives or to after-school programs rather than being integrated across curricula. The new media literacies allow us to think in very different ways about the processes of learning, because they acknowledge a shift from the top-down model to one that invokes all voices and all means of thinking and creating to build new knowledge. For many educators, however, this raises issues of maintaining control, building trust, and providing an open-source culture of learning that allows students to share their own expertise in the classroom. At the same time, the mindsets and skill sets of the new media literacies are changing the discipline itself. In effect, we are teaching an outdated version of literacy if we do not address the sorts of practices that new media and new technologies support.

Invitation to Participate

Integrating the new media literacies into learning echoes the concept of syndesis presented by social anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong in “What’s Red, White, and Blue and Syndetic?” (1982). Syndesis is a process that strings together self-contained moments or increments of what Armstrong calls “presence” to form a whole. Syndesis has important applications to today’s learning environment because it ensures that educators and students contribute to the body of knowledge being formed by the group. The end result is an environment that shares information in multiple formats that become similar only when the group pulls them together.

One major approach to the new learning paradigm at Project NML is the Learning Library , a new type of learning environment that embraces the characteristics of syndesis and participatory culture. The Learning Library is an activities-based model that aggregates media from the Web–such as a video, image, or audio file–and provides tools for users to integrate that media into a learning objective. Educators are encouraged to load their own media or draw on media by others that already exist in the Library to shape new learning challenges and to collaboratively build and share new collections based on particular themes. These challenges range from playing a physics game designed to experiment with problem-solving, to developing collaborative ways to bring innovation into the classroom, to learning about attribution while exploring issues involving copyright, public domain, fair use, and Creative Commons.

Project NML has seeded the Learning Library with its first collection of 30 learning “challenges” so that users can explore and practice applying the new media literacies to their classroom activities. One example from our first collection of challenges, called Expressing Characters, uses the new media literacy of transmedia navigation. In this activity, a student learns how plot can be extended across media by following the adventures of Claire Bennet, a character from the TV show Heroes. After exploring how Claire is already portrayed on television, in a graphic novel, and on MySpace, learners practice transmedia navigation by adapting and extending one of their own favorite characters into media forms in which the character does not currently exist. Bringing their own experiences to this challenge, students then load their creations into the Library, where they can be viewed and remixed into a different learning objective by others. By exploring and practicing the new media literacy skill of transmedia navigation, students learn to make meanings across different media types–not just in relation to print text. In this way, these new modes of communication are highlighting the need to teach new ways of expression and new methods of understanding the digital world.


A prime goal of Project NML is to understand what happens when multiple forms of media are fully integrated into processes of learning. The new media literacies build upon existing print literacy practices, making possible new literacy practices where, according to the New London Group, “the textual is also related to the visual, the audio, the spatial, the behavioral, and so on.” And these practices offer new resources and pathways for learning the disciplines.

Our students are already appropriating information from the Web and turning it into new knowledge. They are already learning from each other and participating in the learning of their peers. They already connect, create, collaborate, and circulate information through new media. The goal for us, as educators, is to find new ways to harness and leverage their interests and social competencies to establish a participatory learning environment. Teachers and administrators must learn to leverage this new learning paradigm to engage our students, and we encourage you to use the Learning Library and see if it works for your context.


Armstrong, Robert Plant. “What’s Red, White, and Blue and Syndetic?” Journal of American Folklore, 1982.

Building the Field of Digital Media and Learning. MacArthur Foundation.

Jenkins, Henry et al. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” MacArthur Foundation, October 2006. digitallearning.macfound.org

The New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” In Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, edited by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis. Routledge, November 1999.

Erin Reilly is a recognized expert in the design and development of educational content powered by virtual learning and new media applications. As research director of MIT’s Project New Media Literacies, Reilly helps conceptualize the vision of the program and develop a strategy for its implementation. Before joining MIT, Reilly co-created Zoey’s Room, a national online community for 10- to 14-year-old girls, encouraging their creativity through science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2007, Reilly received a Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award for her innovative approach to learning and was selected as one of the National School Boards Association’s “20 to Watch” educators.

Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Zoey’s Room.

What Is Learning in a Participatory Culture? (Part One)

The “Learning in a Participatory Culture” conference last weekend was hosted by Project New Media Literacies in part to showcase the work we’ve been doing over the past year with teachers who were field testing our curricular materials and in part to publicly launch our Learning Library.

The Learning Library is intended as a multimedia activity center where people can come to learn more about the new media literacies, acquiring skills and testing them through challenges, and ultimately, producing and sharing content with other users. Much as the Media Lab’s Scratch project has enabled hundreds of thousands of young people around the world to learn about coding by building, sharing, and remixing projects with each other, we hope that the Learning Library will provide young people and educators alike a chance to remix the materials of their culture in order to learn what they need to do to become full participants in the contemporary media landscape.

The library started with short documentary segments we produced on topics such as cosplay, wikipedia, graffiti, dj culture, and animation, but it was increasingly clear that if we were to put our theories into practice we needed to create a more robust system for active participation in the learning process. The result was the current learning library where the materials we produced — and countless other sites of cultural production and participation which are already in the web — become resources for challenges which require a mixture of exploration, experimentation, self reflection, and communication. We are now moving to work with existing organizations — from the Organization for Transformative Works which produced segments on fan vidding to the Center for Social Media which has done segments on interviews and citizen journalism — to produce their own materials which can form the basis for future challenges.

We are encouraging teachers to build challenges as class projects — as I have already been doing through some of my classes this year. And we hope to see international content which can be shared with schools around the world — we’ve been working to get some challenges not simply translated into Spanish but also rethought for a Latin American context. We are finding that teachers are using these challenges in a range of different ways: some are using the challenges themselves in order to get a better grasp on the new media literacy concepts and practices; some are taking the challenges directly into their classrooms; but many more are adapting them to different curricular contexts, taking their core principles to develop their own challenges, and in short, appropriating and remixing them for their own ends.

The challenges are designed to be modular — to be able to fit into classroom and after school learning contexts or to be embraced by home schoolers and others for self learning. The challenges are designed to be flexible so they can be used in a range of disciplines with young people at different stages in development. Many of them are designed to have low-tech variants for those classrooms where there is no laptop per child since our emphasis is on the skills and mental models as much as on the tools and techniques of new media. I will be sharing more about the learning library in the weeks ahead and I am very much looking forward to hearing your reactions to this new center of media literarcy resources. So far, we’ve built more than 30 challenges and have produced almost a hundred videos which can serve the basis for future challenges. Check them out.

Below, I am sharing the beginning of an essay written about the library for Threshold magazine by Project NML’s research director Erin Reilly. You may recall an interview with Reilly which I ran on this blog at the beginning of the process of developing the learning library. Check out the online edition of the special Threshold issue on Project New Media Literacies for other discussions of the challenges and opportunities for learning in a participatory culture.

What is Learning in a Participatory Culture?

by Erin Reilly

Educators are learning how to engage today’s digital kids to share

and distribute knowledge within learning communities.

Today, we have endless possibilities for taking media into our own hands to connect with others in meaningful ways. We have new ways of working together to develop knowledge, and new ways to use media to shape how we present ourselves to others and learn from them. To connect and collaborate with each other to produce and circulate information in this new participatory culture, we have developed new tools such as game engines and new institutions such as YouTube and Facebook.

In the white paper, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” the Project New Media Literacies (Project NML) team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology addressed the need to engage learners in today’s participatory culture. Young people are actively creating and circulating media content within social networks that extend from their circle of friends to those in the virtual world community. However, the team believes that young people also must learn to reflect upon their new media creations in ways that encourage the important learning skills of teamwork, leadership, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity.

Our education system also is in the midst of this paradigm shift, where new methods, environments, and assessment models need to be acquired to keep pace with our increasingly networked culture. As the conversation about the digital divide shifts from questions of technological access to ones concerning participation, educators must work to ensure that every young person has access to the tools, skills, and experiences needed to join in this new participatory culture. Educators also have a chance to give students the cultural competencies and social skills they need in their future roles as 21st-century citizens and workers.

Formal schools have been slow to react to the emergence of the participatory culture, however, due to an exaggerated interpretation of the perils of social media and to a lack of understanding of the promises and affordances of a networked society. In their stead, after-school programs and informal learning communities are stepping in with programs and activities that demonstrate the learning potentials of participatory culture accelerated through social media. To help educators and learners become more proficient in adapting to today’s rich media landscape, the white paper identified 11 social skills that we all must acquire if we are to be active participants in our own life-long learning. And since then, Project NML has expanded the original list to also include the skill of visualization. These social skills and cultural competencies–the new media literacies–shift the focus of traditional literacy, for example, from individual expression to also encompass community involvement. The new media literacies then can be understood as offering ways of thinking (mindsets–for example, “collective intelligence”) and ways of doing (skill sets–for example, “transmedia navigation”) that recruit the traditional literacies of reading and writing into new kinds of literacy practices.

Learning in Zoey’s Room

The Digital Youth Project, a grantee of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, recently completed a three-year study of the learning and innovation that accompany young people’s everyday engagements with new media. The goal of the study was to understand the ways youth use new media, focusing on how they play, communicate, and create, and how these interactions affect their friendships as well as their aspirations, interests, and passions. In its final report, the project team, led by anthropologist Mimi Ito, explained that children use digital tools and broadband media to “hang out” with friends, “mess around” with programs, and “geek out” as they dig deeper into subjects they love, from rock stars to rocket science. Beyond what they are learning in school, they are connecting socially and are being influenced by each other’s knowledge. These informal mentors have effectively taken their place among the many sources influencing children’s processes of knowledg-building and identity-forming.

I began to understand this new way of learning in 2001 when I co-created an online community for middle school girls called Zoey’s Room. Armed with the knowledge that 93 percent of tweens and teens are using the Internet and that girls are the power users of social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube, we launched Zoey’s Room as an interactive technology club for girls in Maine. The project quickly expanded into a national mentoring community that creatively engages girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities through peer-to-peer learning and mentoring by female employees at companies such as National Semiconductor and Microsoft who volunteer their STEM expertise.

Today, Zoey’s Room is a social network and blended learning environment in which teens learn STEM subjects via online interaction and through offline practical applications of science and math challenges in after-school programs run by organizations like the YWCA. The collaborative environment allows girls to feel safe to explore and tinker, fail and try again, and rely on a group of peers and mentors who will circulate STEM material, support their learning, and build ongoing relationships. Learning occurs as girls move between the online community and their extended community of peers and mentors, who validate the results of their experiments. In short, Zoey’s Room allows young women to “geek out” on their love for girlhood and STEM projects.

Zoey’s Room‘s blend of the social aspects with a positive learning environment has demonstrated that access to a participatory culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum. In a sampling of 100 Zoey’s Room members in 2007, 46 percent participated via an after-school club and 54 percent participated on their own at home–showing that school is just one of the nodes in these students’ learning eco-system. When these 100 girls answered very specific science, technology, engineering, and math questions we put to them in the survey, the majority of girls got 12 out of 13 of the answers right–proving that they actually learned terms, concepts, and principles of certain STEM topics by doing the various activities in the program.


Erin Reilly is a recognized expert in the design and development of educational content powered by virtual learning and new media applications. As research director of MIT’s Project New Media Literacies, Reilly helps conceptualize the vision of the program and develop a strategy for its implementation. Before joining MIT, Reilly co-created Zoey’s Room, a national online community for 10- to 14-year-old girls, encouraging their creativity through science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2007, Reilly received a Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award for her innovative approach to learning and was selected as one of the National School Boards Association’s “20 to Watch” educators.