Gone But Not Forgotten, I Hope…

This blog is going to be shutting down temporarily starting Oct. 1 to allow for the transfer from an MIT to a USC server. We expected to be fully operational again in a few weeks time. During the down time, it is my belief that you will still be able to access old posts but will not be able to make new comments and I will not be able to update the blog’s content. Sorry for any disappointment this may cause anyone, but it is part of the process of my move from East to West Coast. I will still be posting links and tips regularly to my Twitter followers. Otherwise, this will give you a chance to catch up on the rich backlog of material that we’ve accumulated around the blog over the past few years. See you soon.

PBS’s Digital Nation: Another Great Resource For Teaching the New Media Literacies

Early last summer, I sat down with a production crew from PBS’s Frontline at the Games for Change conference in New York City. They were producing web-based content for a new documentary, Digital Nation, which was intended to be a follow up to their Growing Up Digital documentary. To be honest, I had some concerns about the depiction of young people’s online experiences in the earlier production. It seemed to me to be sensationalistic in its choice of topics, mostly depicting generational conflicts around the use of the web. In most cases, there was a bias towards the adult perspectives offered by parents and teachers over those advanced by young people, who often lacked a language through which to defend experiences which were clearly meaningful to them. In this case, the decision not to include academic experts worked against having a fair hearing for young people, since the adults were advancing arguments which were oft staged through other news outlets while the young people were trying to get grown-ups to reconsider entrenched biases.

In many ways, the Digital Nations site is correcting this over-sight, providing a rich array of indepth interviews with some of the top thinkers about young people’s online lives. I was very pleased to see extensive use made of my interview, talking about the value of multitasking in an era of information overflow, how collective intelligence may displace the ideal of the Renaissance Man, participatory culture, parents and video games, the myth of game addiction, the nature of virtual reality, what schools are misunderstanding about the new media literacies and why so many teachers are ding book culture at the expense of embracing new skills and experiences. (Unfortunately, the site’s producers have made it extremely difficult if not impossible to embed clips from this site onto blogs, showing how much they still have to learn about how to communicate ideas through digital media. So I am not able to offer you clips directly here on the blog but have to rely on links to direct you back to the PBS site. Trust me, if the content wasn’t so good, I wouldn’t bother!)

I’ve already found the site a useful resource for teaching my graduate seminar on New Media Literacies, finding the short segments an ideal length to spark discussions and provide students access to key thinkers, sharing their ideas in their own words. I haven’t watched every segment yet but here are some of the ones I would highlight:

Marc Prensky, who is widely credited with coining the terms, “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” sums up his perspective about how young people learn and process knowledge differently than previous generations, thanks to their time spent engaged with new media.

Second Life‘s Philip Rosedale on the ways that we are using virtual reality’s contributions to human evolution.

danah boyd on our shifting understanding of privacy and young people’s desires to control disclosure in the world of Facebook and other social networks and her critiques of the anxieties about internet safety being fostered by sensationalized news reports on “stranger danger.”

Net Family New’s Anne Collier talks about the challenges of parenting for the digital age.

James Paul Gee on the kinds of learning that take place through computer and video games and on the ways that schools are regulating youth’s access to participatory culture.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the responsibility schools carry to help close the “opportunity gap” surrounding digital literacy.

The Dumbest Generation‘s Mark Bauerlein on why digital media threatens traditional literacy skills and may leave us knowing less rather than more.

“Old School, New School,” a documentary segment showing the very different ways teachers understanding what it means to read in an age of digital media.

These short segments are provocative; they ask hard questions and offer contradictory advice, and that’s why they represent such a valuable resource for the classroom. I am using them to start discussion; you may use them as probes for writing; but the topics they raise are ones we need to be discussing with our students.

You might want to bring one of these segments into your class as the world pays its respect this week to “One Web Day” and calls attention to the need to diversify and expand opportunities for participation in the new media landscape.

Is Facebook a Gated Community?: An Interview With S. Craig Watkins (Part Two)

Today, I am sharing the second part of my interview with sociologist S. Craig Watkins about his recently released book The Young & The Digital.

From the moment I read his manuscript, I knew that his chapter, “Digital Gates: How Race and Class Distinctions Are Shaping the Digital World” would be the one which generated a lot of the heat and the controversy here. Those of us who see the web as key to our vision of a more participatory culture have to be concerned with the obstacles which block many from full involvement. And those of us who celebrate the “virtual community” being achieved through digital media need to be especially concerned with the various forms of exclusion running through our online lives. Indeed, one could argue that for many, going digital involves a kind of “white flight” as they escape the “dangers” of their real world communities by seeking out other like-minded people in cyberspace. Watkins joins a growing number of writers who are asking in what ways our social networks online replicate — for better and for worse — our friendship networks offline, networks we know are shaped by continued segregation.

I was struck by a chart Watkins offers showing the language people use to describe and distinguish between Facebook and MySpace, language with long historical associations to our assumptions about race and class in the American context.

MySpace is described as “crowded, trashy, creepy, uneducated, immature, predators, crazy” while Facebook was praised as “selective, clean, trustworthy, educated, authentic, college, private.” In other words, MySpace takes on values we associate with inner city slums, while Facebook is tied to the values one might associate with a gated community.

In this installment, I ask Watkins to reflect on these findings and how they might add another layer to our understanding of race in America; I also ask him to discuss the relationship between this new project on youth’s digital lives and his earlier work on hip hop culture.

What challenges are educators facing as they try to teach the generation which has come of age in the era of web 2.0?

This is a fascinating question and, I believe, one of many that we are just beginning to reckon with as educators, researchers, and society. Part of my research included spending some time in the classroom and talking with teachers and school administrators.

What I soon discovered is that they are on the front lines of the move to digital. Teachers face a generation of students armed with more personal media than any other generation. Most teachers will tell you that the trend of permitting students to bring mobile phones, iPods, and other devices to school is a big mistake. Just think. The idea that I would have been permitted to bring a personal media device to school would have been out of the question. But it reveals how our values, behavior, and culture are shifting in the digital age.

The main concern among teachers is the degree of distraction these devices encourage in the classroom. It turns out that parents insist that their children carry mobile phones–easier to communicate and coordinate family schedules that are growing more challenging.

In The Young and the Digital I deal with some of the learning and educational challenges/opportunities posed by digital media. There are two kinds of technologies in today’s classroom– technologies that pull students away from the classroom, and technologies that pull students into the classroom. I give some examples of both.

But I am also interested in the social and behavioral challenges educators face in regards to technology. These include issues like citizenship, community, and helping students and educators make smart decisions regarding their engagement with digital media.

Most schools are being forced to deal with student conflicts that occur online and away from school. More and more, administrators are having to contend with issues like cyberbullying or the circulation of photos that reveal some sort of misconduct. These kinds of issues raise questions about privacy and authority (i.e., when is a student’s behavior away from school an administrator’s concern?) Their are no rule books or precedence for what is happening in the digital world and online lives students build.

I was surprised to learn that many principals are struggling not only with the online behaviors of students but of teachers also. A growing number of teachers and practically all recent college grads going into the profession maintain a personal profile. As you can imagine this raises many questions about the conduct of teachers away from school. Some teachers “friend” their students in places like MySpace and Facebook while others vehemently reject the idea. Like the rest of society schools and the people who run them are learning what it means to “be digital.”

Building on work by danah boyd and others, you argue that Facebook has operated not unlike a “gated community” and may directly contribute to racial and class segregation in the online world. How can scholarship on race in the physical world help us to better understand how race operates in the virtual world? What steps should be taken to combat segregation in the online world?

It is easy to get caught up in the wonders of what scholars have variously referred to as “being digital,” ‘life behind the screen,” or the “second self”. But as the Web has become a more common experience it has also become a more local experience. That is, we use the World Wide Web to communicate most frequently with our friends, work colleagues, and acquaintances–that is, people we know, like, and trust. To use Putnam’s language regarding social capital we use the Web to “bond” more than “bridge.” This is certainly true with race.

When danah distributed her blog commentary about the class divisions in MySpace and Facebook, it struck me as a reasonable even predictable outcome, especially if you understand that what happens in our lives online is intimately connected to our lives offline. Some Web enthusiasts, however, were either surprised or annoyed by her claims.

But as your work and that of others show there is still a real “participation divide” that creates varying degrees of Internet engagement. No matter if we are talking about virtual worlds, mobile technologies, or social network sites race matters in the digital world. Most of the movers and shakers in the branding and marketing of the current generation Web show little, if any, interest in the social divisions that still mark the digital world. Mentioning the social divisions that are a part of the social Web is a kind of inconvenient truth. We learned a lot while studying young collegians embrace of Facebook. In reality, most of us use Facebook to connect to people that we know–we “friend” friends not strangers in our computer-mediated social networks. And who our friends are is usually influenced by race, class, education, and geography.

In examining the hundreds of surveys and one-on-one interviews we collected my grad assistant and I noticed a strong preference for Facebook among young white collegians and students more generally with a middle class orientation. It was more than a casual preference; it was also an intense rejection of MySpace. Our research found an interesting “racialization” of MySpace and Facebook among young people.

I began reading some of the research on the rise of gated communities in America and found some interesting parallels in the language used by residents living in physical world gated communities and young white collegians who preferred Facebook (a kind of virtual gated community) over MySpace. They both use words like “safe,” “clean,” “private,” and “neat” to describe attachment to their communities. They both practice what cultural anthropologists call “gating,” that is, the tendency to build physical/virtual, social, and cultural walls that are exclusive.

I also turned to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work. I’ve used his work before to think about the kinds of cultural capital that young people accumulate, especially in the places that they create and inhabit, and how it works as a source of power, pleasure, and mobility. But in this case I was interested in what Bourdieu refers to as the “distinctions”, that is, matters of taste, aesthetics, and values that middle class communities reproduce to maintain social and even physical separation between them and those that they view as below their own social status and class position.

When we began our work it was common to see college students switch from MySpace to Facebook. Among other things, the switch was also a bid for a social status upgrade, a move up the digital ladder. Today, middle class students in middle and high school are moving straight to Facebook. Social class distinctions like everything else in the digital age are trickling down to younger and younger users.

I was also intrigued by Bill Bishop’s “Big Sort” argument. In short, Bishop argues that starting around the 1970s Americans underwent a massive social experiment that changed one of the most basic features of everyday life–where and with whom we live. The change in geography, Bishop maintains, is really a sorting by lifestyle. Racial and class segregation have been a fact of American life since the early 20th century (see Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s work on residential segregation). But Bishop argues that American neighborhoods are now being stratified along ideological and lifestyle lines–not simply “red” and “blue” states but even more carefully sorted and homogenous neighborhoods. There are some interesting parallels in the digital world.

I’m a trained sociologists so I find it quite natural and instructive to look at wider sociological trends to understand what is happening in the online world. I simply can not separate the two.

Finally, social network sites do not cause racial divisions or the desire for homogenous online communities. Insofar as what we do online is intimately connected to the lives we lead offline the fact that a kind of digital sorting is happening is not that terribly surprising. Still, it is striking that among a generation that played a key role in electing America’s first Black president race plays a crucial role in their use of social network sites and who they bond with online.

Tell us about the group you call “Four Pack.” What did they help you to understand about the social dimensions of gaming?

The four pack is a group of young gamers I got to know quite well while working on the book. I first met Derrick. I interviewed him about his use of social network sites. During our conversation it was clear that most of his media time is spent playing games. I asked Derrick to identify a handful of his peers to join a panel of gamers I wanted to put together. The idea was to get to know them and follow them for a period of time to learn more about their experiences with games. Several young men in Derrick’s peer group responded to my inquiry and I eventually settled on four of them.

I affectionately began calling the group the “four-pack.” I visited them in their residential hall and established a rapport with them that lasted about six months. The four-pack provided me with what amounts to a life-history of their engagement with interactive media. Every two weeks I issued them questions via email to address in the media journals that they agreed to keep. One week the diaries, for example, may have been devoted to games, and the next week, to television. The diaries were honest, rich in detail, and provided intimate access to a group of young men who embody the rising generation of gamers. Each of the diary entries were followed up with one-on-one conversations.

I learned a lot from the four-pack–their thoughts about addiction, virtual worlds, and the appeal of games. I witnessed up close what many game scholars and industry insiders refer to as “social gaming.”

Gaming among the four-pack and their peers was mainly a social experience. Rarely, if ever, did they play games alone. Often games were a way to have fun and also spend time with friends. In their own unique way, each member of the four-pack talked a lot about games as both a social lubricant and a social glue. The former refers to how games can make it easier to strike up conversations with new acquaintances, while the latter is a reference to how games give established friends a fun way to grow closer to each other. Games, it turns out, are the common denominator in their strongest and most meaningful social ties.

Some of your earlier work dealt with hip hop culture. What similarities and differences do you see between the technological and social practices of the hip hop culture and that you’ve found in your work on digital youth culture?

I’ve spent all of my academic career studying young people’s relationship to media industries and technologies. The work I’m doing on digital youth culture is greatly informed by my earlier work on hip hop culture.

As you know their has been a substantial change in the way scholars examine the cultural practices and identities young people produce. Hip hop, like digital culture, is participatory and performative. Hip hop, like the social media practices of youth today, has always been about young people expressing themselves, building community, while also finding places of leisure, pleasure, and empowerment.

In my last book, Hip Hop Matters, I wrote a chapter titled “The Digital Underground.” It was really an attempt to understand how the Web has become the new town square in hip hop culture–the place to find relevant and urgent dialogue about a host of issues facing young hip hoppers. To engage a community of young hip hop enthusiasts about a host of important social issues today you don’t turn on corporate radio or read a corporate run magazine. You go online.

The innovative use of technology has been a part of hip hop’s story from the beginning. That’s how everything from graffiti art to mix tapes has been produced bearing a striking resemblance to the DIY culture of social media today.

My work has maintained a steady focus on understanding the world young people create and inhabit. It’s clear that if you want to understand that world today you have to dig deep into the digital practices, identities, and communities young people are building. Writing The Young and the Digital gave me an up-close look at this world. The book and the blog we will be building is an effort to share what we are learning.

S. Craig Watkins teaches in the departments of Radio-Television-Film and Sociology and the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

His new book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future (Beacon) explores young people’s dynamic engagement with social media, online games, and mobile phones. Craig participated in the MacArthur Foundation Series on Youth, Digital Media and Learning. His work on this ground breaking project focuses on race, learning, and the growing culture of gaming. He has been invited to be a Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford).

Currently, Craig is launching a new digital media research initiative that focuses on the use and evolution of social media platforms. For updates on these and other projects visit theyoungandthedigital.com.

Is Facebook a Gated Community?: An Interview With S. Craig Watkins (Part One)

Earlier this year, I was asked to write a blurb for `S. Craig Watkins’s book, The Young & The Digital: What the Migration To Social-Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means For Our Future. The book was an eye-opener as Watkins brings a sociological perspective to the kinds of social lives young people are building for themselves through their deployment of a range of new technologies and emerging cultural practices. Here’s what I ended up writing about the book:

Why does Facebook have the same appeal as gated communities? Is distraction more concerning than addiction? How do video games like World of Warcraft value friendship? Bracing yet reassuring, often surprising, and always substantive, Craig Watkins acts as an honest broker, testing the contradictory claims often made about young people’s digital lives against sophisticated fieldwork.

I don’t agree with everything the book says — that’s probably what “bracing” means here — but it shook up some of my own preconceptions and has stayed with me since I first read it.

We are seeing an explosion of significant new books on young people’s digital lives — in part inspired by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiatives, in part by the pervasiveness of digital culture all around us. I am trying to feature as many of these books and resources as they come out through the blog.

Watkins’s book ranks among the best I’ve read on this topic. The Young & The Digital especially stands out for his close attention to the perspective of teachers as they grapple with the ways new media change how young people learn and to the perspective of young people who may not have the economic and social capital to fully participate in the digital and mobile realm inhabited by their more affluent and priviledged counterparts.

Watkins does not simply celebrate the “democratizing” impact of new media; he also looks at it as a space of social exclusions and in doing so, he calls attention to those factors which make it harder for some to participate more fully in the new media landscape. That’s why I have chosen to highlight this interview as part of my contribution to this year’s One Web Day with its theme — “One Web. For All.” And that’s why I chose to include this book on the syllabus for the graduate course on New Media Literacies I am teaching at USC this fall.

In this installment, he takes on one of the senior figures in the sociological study of media, Robert Putnam, describing the ways that online participation may be paving the way for greater civic engagement, but he also ponders whether the online world may be making us “too social” for our own good, again striking a balance between utopian and dystopian arguments about the impact of digital media on young people’s lives.

The Young and the Digital complicates in some important ways the arguments which Robert Putnam makes in Bowling Alone about the impact of electronic media on our social lives. Why did your field work lead you to reappraise Putnam’s arguments?

The fieldwork did force me to reconsider some of the more enduring arguments about media and, especially, the well-traveled “Bowling Alone” thesis by Putnam. From the very beginning of the Web as an everyday tool, researchers have openly speculated about its influence in our social lives. Does the growing amount of time we spend in front of a screen make us more or less social, more or less interested in our friends, neighbors, and the world around us? Putnam’s most compelling evidence regarding this questions is based on television. Among researchers who study TV as a leisure activity, the medium’s greatest legacy is how it influences our connection, or lack thereof, to our neighbors, communities, and civic life. Putnam argues that TV watching comes at the expense of nearly every social activity outside the home, resulting in the erosion of social capital–a sense of neighborliness, mutual trust, and reciprocity that binds people and communities together. The big fear, of course, is that we will all retreat into our own media fortresses, forgoing any valuable social interaction with friends and acquaintances. While I understand the concern, the research evidence simply does not support it. This was certainly true in our research.

As we began talking with young people and combing through our survey results it became clear that their engagement with technology is first and foremost, a social activity. Conventional wisdom contends that time spent at home with TV is time spent away from friends and public life. But computer and mobile phone screens represent very different kinds of experiences than the ones traditionally offered by TV. Among the teens and young adults that we talk to, time spent in front of a computer or mobile screen is rarely, if ever, considered time spent alone. Screen time, increasingly, is time to connect with friends and acquaintances.

It’s true, connecting via a mobile or Facebook is a different way of bonding, but, as I argue in the book, these practices are expressions of intimacy and community. We tend to get caught up on how much time young people spend with their computers and mobile phones. But what I came to understand is that their true interest is not in the technology per se, but rather the people and the relationships the technology provides access to.

Finally, I believe that young people’s move online is also forcing us to reconsider another argument made by Putnam’s regarding decreasing political participation. The final chapter of the book considers how young people’s use of social and mobile media appears to be reversing some of the disturbing trends Putnam documents regarding a once decisive shift among Americans from political participation–for instance, attending political events, signing petitions, or writing an editor or politician. While establishing their support for President Obama, young people used Facebook, mobile phones, YouTube, and digital cameras to essentially redefine what electoral politics will look like in the future. Their use of digital media was social, communal, and in its own distinct way, political.

Throughout the book, you have a good deal to say about the ways digital media is reshaping young people’s relations to traditional media (newspapers, television). What insight can you offer people working in the television industry about their prospects of attracting or holding the attention of younger Americans?

I’m glad you asked me about television. My interests in young people’s engagement with the social Web is driven, in part, by a desire to understand the shift from television to screens that are more social, mobile, and personal. It’s a historic shift and one that breaks from a more than fifty year cultural institution and experience–television as the first and most dominant screen in our lives.

Our research indicates that among persons ages thirty and under television is not the first or most preferred screen in their lives. They are just as likely to view their laptop or mobile phone as their “go to” screen. Young people still watch television but in ways that are quite distinct from previous generations–they watch it while media multitasking, on the go, and online. Moreover, kids are being socialized to engage TV in ways that are distinct from the generations that grew up in TV-centric households. These and other changes have forced a group of executives accustom to the dominance of TV in the household to rethink their business and programming models.

The television industry is diligently struggling to avoid what has happened to the pop music and newspaper industry. The TV business is struggling with what most of the corporate media world is struggling with and that is the question, “who will control content?” It’s a hard lesson to learn but the rules of engagement really are changing.

It will be really interesting to see what network television looks like in about ten years. There is no doubt that it will look different but it will largely be outside forces–the ways our viewing and media behaviors shift–that will provoke change. Everything from rethinking the prime time schedule (NBC’s decision to decrease scripted dramas and the impending Leno experiment) to the scaling back of the up-front presentations that once defined the industry’s premium status among media buyers.

The biggest thing that the industry has to realize is that they can no longer control content or our viewing habits like they did in the past. It took a while but they began putting their shows online and making them available as downloads. Hulu– a network response to the rise of YouTube–has shown signs of early success for long-format online video. But there is still a debate within the industry regarding this question of control. That is, should the network partners in Hulu make their content exclusive or, as some contend, make it available everywhere. I think it’s clear that if network TV is to have a meaningful future it will have to permit its audience to not only access content across multiple platforms but also encourage audiences to shape and influence content, too.

You question the argument that digital media has had an anti-social impact on young people. Are there ways that these new media technologies and practices have made us “too social”?

I think so. Still, I realize that the idea of being “too social” is peculiar. Here is what I mean. The assertion that the Web and mobile phones are making us less social, caring, and involved with others is baffling when you consider the preponderance of evidence that actually compels a substantially different question: is today’s “always-on” environment making us too social, too connected, and too involved in other people’s lives?

In an “always on” world we are constantly communicating with each other via social network sites and mobile phones. It was interesting to learn that part of the initial appeal of Facebook among college students, for example, was the opportunity for constant status updates as well as the chance to gaze into the backstage world of friends and acquaintances. Young college students consistently made references to what they called, “e-stalking,” that is the degree to which their peers frequently use social-network sites to track people’s lives, activities, and relationships. Twitter and this idea of what Clive Thompson refers to as “ambient awareness” is another example of a technology that promotes a desire to be in constant connection with others.

In the digital age the idea of being out of touch or disconnected from family and friends is practically obsolete. No matter where we are–in class, at work, driving, or on vacation–the idea of being connected to our social networks is now a constant opportunity and, quite frankly, a constant challenge.

Rather than worrying about the likelihood of becoming anti-social I wonder if the reverse outcome–being too social–is a more legitimate concern. Talk to teachers in high school and you will learn that students are constantly connecting via their mobile phones while sitting in the classroom. Talk to university professors and there is a growing belief that students are constantly connecting with each other via platforms like Facebook while sitting in class. Again, it’s the idea that we are using these emerging technologies in ways that are inventively social and dare I say excessively social.

S. Craig Watkins teaches in the departments of Radio-Television-Film and Sociology and the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

His new book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future (Beacon) explores young people’s dynamic engagement with social media, online games, and mobile phones. Craig participated in the MacArthur Foundation Series on Youth, Digital Media and Learning. His work on this ground breaking project focuses on race, learning, and the growing culture of gaming. He has been invited to be a Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford).

Currently, Craig is launching a new digital media research initiative that focuses on the use and evolution of social media platforms. For updates on these and other projects visit theyoungandthedigital.com.

Diversifying Participation




February 18 – 20, 2010

Cal IT2

University of California, San Diego

La Jolla, California

We are pleased to announce the first Digital Media and Learning Conference, an annual event sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. The conference is meant to be an inclusive, international and annual gathering of scholars and practitioners in the field, focused on fostering interdisciplinary and participatory dialog and linking theory, empirical study, policy, and practice.

For this inaugural year, the theme will be “Diversifying Participation”. Henry Jenkins is the Chair of the Digital Media and Learning Conference.

We invite submissions for session proposals that speak to the conference theme as well as to the field of digital media and learning more broadly. Those wishing to present work should look to propose or participate in a panel topic (see submission process outlined below).


A growing body of research has identified how young people’s digital media use is tied to basic social and cultural competencies needed for full participation in contemporary society. We continue to develop an understanding of the impact of these experiences on learning, civic engagement, professional development, and ethical comprehension of the digital world.

Yet research has also suggested that young people’s forms of participation with new media are incredibly diverse, and that risks, opportunities, and competencies are spread unevenly across the social and cultural landscape. Young people have differential access to online experiences, practices, and tools and this has a consequence in their developing sense of their own identities and their place in the world. In some cases, different forms of participation and access correspond with familiar cultural and social divides. In other cases, however, new media have introduced novel and unexpected kinds of social differences, subcultures, and identities.

It is far too simple to talk about this in terms of binaries such as “information haves and have nots” or “digital divides”. There are many different kinds of obstacles to full participation, many different degrees of access to information, technologies, and online communities, and many different ways of processing those experiences. Participatory cultures surrounding digital media are characterized by a diversity that does not track automatically to high and low access or more or less sophisticated use. Rather, multiple forms of expertise, connoisseurship, identity, and practice are proliferating in online worlds, with complicated relationships to pre-existing categories such as socioeconomic status, gender, nationality, race, or ethnicity.

We encourage sessions that describe, document, and critically analyze different forms of participation and how they relate to various forms of social and cultural capital. We are interested in accounts of the challenges and obstacles which block or inhibit engagement to different forms of online participation. We also encourage session proposals that engage with successful intervention strategies and pedagogical processes enabling once marginalized groups to more fully exploit the opportunities for learning with digital media. Conversely, we are interested in hearing more about how marginal and subcultural communities find diverse uses of new and emerging technologies, pushing them in new directions and navigating a complicated relationship with “mainstream” forms of participation. Specifically, we seek to understand the following:

* What can research on more diverse communities contribute to our understanding of the learning ecologies surrounding new media?

* What are the technologies, practices, economic, and cultural divides that lead to segregation, “gated” information communities, and differential access?

* When and how do diversity and differentiation in participation promote social and cultural benefits and opportunities, and when do they create schisms that are less equitable or productive?

* What strategies have proven successful at broadening opportunities for participation, overcoming the many different kinds of segregation or exclusion which impact the online world, and empowering more diverse presences throughout cyberspace?

* Are there things occurring on the margins of the existing digital culture that might valuably be incorporated into more mainstream practices?

In addition to these questions directly addressing the conference theme, we welcome submissions that address innovative new directions in research and practice relating to digital media and participatory learning.


Submissions should be in the form of full session proposals. Proposed sessions may range from 1 to 2 hours in length and may include traditional paper presentations, hands-on workshops, design critiques, demos, pecha kucha, or roundtable discussions. We welcome and encourage submissions of innovative formats, but request that the proposals come in the form of session proposals rather than individual papers or presentations.

The goal of the event is to foster dialog and build connections. To that end, sessions should have at least three to four presenters and/or discussants. Session organizers should reserve substantial amounts of time for open discussion and exchange.

We have established an open wiki for potential participants to engage in session organizing. The wiki can be used to call for contributions to a briefly outlined session topic, to seek out partners to develop a topic together, to brainstorm about co-presenters, and any other functions potential participants find valuable. The wiki can be accessed at: http://dmlconference2010.wikidot.com/forum:start

Session organizers should submit proposals that consist of a title and a 200-word abstract (including proposed presentation topics and formats and the speakers and/or discussants). In addition, names and contact details for the session organizers and participants will be required. The submission system will be available at the end of September 2009.

Each individual will be limited to participation on no more than two panels at the conference. Participants will be expected to fund their own travel and accommodation. Registration for the conference will be free.

Conference Website: http://dmlcentral.net/conference

Conference Wiki: http://dmlconference2010.wikidot.com/forum:start


Submission System Available: September 30, 2009

Deadline for Submissions: October 30, 2009

Notification of Acceptance: November 30, 2009

Registration System Opens: December 15, 2009

Conference Program Announced: December 15, 2009

Registration Deadline: January 15, 2010

Evening Reception: February 18, 2010


Digital Media and Learning Research Hub

UC Humanities Research Institute

University of California, Irvine

Email: dmlhub@hri.uci.edu

Over the next week, I am going to be focusing this blog on issues of digital inclusion, which is the theme of this year’s One Web Day. A global event, One Web Day has been celebrated each year since 2006 on September 22. Bloggers all over the world are using their space to call attention to the value of the web in our everyday life and to some of the issues which are blocking full participation. This year’s theme is “One Web. For All.” So it seems particularly appropriate to be announcing this conference call in the midst of the blogosphere’s growing focus on issues surrounding the “digital divide” and the “participation gap.” For more on One Web Day, go to their homepage.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part Three)

This is the third and final segment of my response to David Bordwell’s thoughtful analysis of some of the pitfalls and challenges associated with transmedia storytelling. Thanks to David for sparking what has been a fascinating exchange, one which has forced me to sharpen my thinking about certain key issues that I am working through for my class.

Bordwell writes:

Another drawback to shifting a story among platforms: art works gain strength by having firm boundaries. A movie’s opening deserves to be treated as a distinct portal, a privileged point of access, a punctual moment at which we can take a breath and plunge into the story world. Likewise, the closing ought to be palpable, even if it’s a diminuendo or an unresolved chord. The special thrill of beginning and ending can be vitiated if we come to see the first shots as just continuations of the webisode, and closing images as something to be stitched to more stuff unfolding online. There’s a reason that pictures have frames.

Again, I’d argue that Bordwell is describing a specific kind of filmmaking, one that may gain very little from transmedia expansion. Yet, as I said earlier, the aesthetic properties of texts that lend themselves to transmedia experience are world-building (as we’ve been discussing) and seriality. By definition, a serial text is not self-contained. It resolves one chapter and immediately plants the book that will draw us into the next. It is, as Angela Ndalianis stresses in Neo-Baroque, a work which pushes beyond its frame. Now, to be clear, the cliffhangers which have shaped many classic serial forms do depend on an understanding of where one text stops and another begins. But we can see this as an art of chunking rather than framing. They know how to break the story down into meaningful chunks which are compelling emotionally within themselves but which gain greater urgency when read in relation to the other installments of the story. We still have a lot to learn about how to create meaningful chunks and link them together across media platforms. As such, I am watching more and more vintage serials to see how they balance between self-containment and openness.

This may be why transmedia seems so far to work best in relation to television, which is increasingly relying on seriality (and back story) to create a particular kind of aesthetic experience, and where it is applied to film, it seems to work best for franchises which will have a series of increasingly preplanned sequels. No one would take away the aesthetic pleasures of closure and containment, but there are also aesthetic pleasures in seriality, openness, and especially, for me, a pleasure in suddenly understanding how a bit of information consumed in one medium fits into the puzzle being laid out for us in a totally different platform.

So far, transmedia texts have been most compelling while they are mid-process and have tended to disappoint when they reached their conclusion. This phenomenon may tell us something about the degree to which they rely on open-ended and serialized structures rather than the kinds of closure which is the pleasure of a different kind of fiction. The anxious fan wants to know that the producers of Lost isn’t making it up as they go along, though of course, on one level, every storyteller is making it up as they go along. The hope though is for a certain level of integrity and continuity between the pieces which allows us to find the coherent whole from which the many parts must have once broken adrift.

For me, though, I am also intrigued by the moment when the story is rich with possibilities, when fan speculations span out in many different directions, and when each of us has taken the parts as resources for constructing our own fictional world. I wrote about this almost 20 years ago in response to Twin Peaks: I was much more interested in the hundreds of complex theories about who killed Laura Palmer that invested fans constructed individually and collectively than I was in the official version which David Lynch and Mark Frost were forced to add under pressure from the networks.

Bordwell writes:

In between opening and closing, the order in which we get story information is crucial to our experience of the story world. Suspense, curiosity, surprise, and concern for characters–all are created by the sequencing of story action programmed into the movie. It’s significant, I think, that proponents of hardcore multiplatform storytelling don’t tend to describe the ups and downs of that experience across the narrative. The meanderings of multimedia browsing can’t be described with the confidence we can ascribe to a film’s developing organization. Facing multiple points of access, no two consumers are likely to encounter story information in the same order. If I start a novel at chapter one, and you start it at chapter ten, we simply haven’t experienced the art work the same way.

Transmedia storytellers are becoming increasingly skilled at deciding when extensions should be rolled out in relation to the franchise’s “mother ship.” Some plot developments do require careful sequencing. There’s a pleasure to be had in watching Robert Rodriquez’s Shorts in making fun of a schoolboy who claims that sharks ate his homework in an early scene and then looping back in time to discover that he is telling the truth. Even though the plot of the film shifts around the story information so we see events out of sequence, there is still a larger rationale determining why we experience these events in a particular order.

The same may be said for the difference between materials released to the web before we encounter the film or television series, which often are designed to help us manage the complexity of an unfamiliar world or an ensemble-centered narrative, and those which come later in the unfolding of the franchise. Enter the Matrix comes at a particular juncture in the film series, while the multiplayer game based on The Matrix comes only after the film series was completed and the Wachowskis wanted to cede greater creative control back to the consumers to take the world in new directions. The Battlestar Galactica webisodes , “Face of the Enemy,” which came on the eve of the final season went back in time to refocus us on the character of Felix Gaeta, who had been a secondary figure for most of the run, showing us the events from his point of view and revealing previously unknown aspects of his motivation, just in time to set us up for the character to play a much more central role in the series’s final year. This is why transmedia “chunks” often tell us explicitly where they fit into the larger time line and why many of us prefer to read those chunks within a narrative sequence.

So, we may simply be over-stating the degree to which the dispersal of information is open-ended. Certainly, once the information moves beyond the borders of a single text, there’s no control over what order the spectator encounters it. And it may not matter in which order we encounter certain aspects of the world building. But it may still be the case that the release and roll out of transmedia content is carefully timed and structured to construct a preferred reading sequence. Geoff Long has called for navigational tools that help viewers to find relevant content and to identify at what point it fits into the unfolding of the larger transmedia story. Given this, I believe that it would be possible to do a formalist reading of a transmedia narrative which mapped the functions of different bits of information and for me, that would go beyond simply a list of joints and citations. It would simply be a task of enormous complexity. Much as Roland Barthes could apply his methods to only a small segment of a Balzac story, Geoff Long has been able to apply the narrative analysis to only a short segment of Jim Henson’s transmedia texts.

Bordwell writes:

Gap-filling isn’t the only rationale for spreading the story across platforms, of course. Parallel worlds can be built, secondary characters can be promoted, the story can be presented through a minor character’s eyes. If these ancillary stories become not parasitic but symbiotic, we expect them to engage us on their own terms, and this requires creativity of an extraordinarily high order.

Well, yes, and these are the functions of transmedia extensions which interest me the most — and for that matter, the ones which spark the most excitement in the industry types who seem to grasp the concepts the best. It isn’t simply about the narrative; it isn’t simply about filling in gaps in the plot. “Gap-filling” seems to be a special case: the parlor trick that The Matrix franchises plays with the delivery of information from the doomed Osyrus which unfolds across three different media platforms. More often, transmedia is about back story which shifts our identifications and investments in characters and thus helps us to rewatch the scenes again with different emotional resonance. More often, it is about picking up on a detail seeded in the original film and using it as a point of entry into a different story or a portal into exploring another aspect of the world. And yes, to do this well is creativity of an extraordinarily high order, which is why most transmedia extensions disappoint; they fail to achieve their full potential. Transmedia is appealing to artists of a certain ambition who nevertheless want to work on popular genre entertainment rather than developing avant garde movies or art films. It appeals to intellectually engaged viewers who are more at home with popular culture than with gallery installations.

I’m curious to hear what other transmedia critics and creators are thinking about this exchange.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part Two)

Today, I continue to share my responses to David Bordwell’s recent blog post on transmedia storytelling. It is worth stressing that these are still early days in the evolution of transmedia narrative practices and even earlier in terms of our theoretical understanding of those practices. Exchanges like this one have the potential to help both critics and practitioners think more deeply about these developments. Every time I step in front of my transmedia class at USC, I feel like I am playing without a net and that’s what makes the classroom experience so exciting. We are really thinking through a relatively new phenomenon together. And each set of questions which get posed will push all of us to dig a little deeper.

Bordwell wrote:

For one thing, most Hollywood and indie films aren’t particularly good. Perhaps it’s best to let most storyworlds molder away. Does every horror movie need a zigzag trail of web pages? Do you want a diary of Daredevil‘s down time? Do you want to look at the Flickr page of the family in Little Miss Sunshine? Do you want to receive Tweets from Juno? Pursued to the max, transmedia storytelling could be as alternately dull and maddening as your own life.

There aren’t that many films/franchises that generate profoundly devoted fans on a large scale: The Matrix, Twilight, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, maybe The Prisoner. These items are a tiny portion of the total number of films and TV series produced. It’s hard to imagine an ordinary feature, let alone an independent film, being able to motivate people to track down all these tributary narratives. There could be a lot of expensive flops if people tried to promote such things.

Well, actually, my bet is that Diablo Cody’s penchant for snarky one-liners might have been better served if Juno had unfolded via Twitter rather than on the screen, there are many excellent comic book stories which center around the “downtime” of superheroes and thus focus on their alter egos, but I catch David’s drift. I don’t think that every fictional work should become a transmedia franchise, though I think the approach lends itself to a broader array of genres than simply the fantasy and science fiction franchises that have been its primary home to date.

For me, the core aesthetic impulses behind good transmedia works are world building and seriality. For this reason, the transmedia approach enhances certain kinds of works that have been udged harshly by traditional aesthetic criteria because they are less concentrated on plot or even character than more classically constructed narratives. It’s long been a charge directed against science fiction works that they are more interested in mapping complex environments than in telling compelling stories. Many of my favorite SF novels — Snow Crash for example — break down into near incoherence by the end, yet they offer us richly realized worlds which I would love to be able to explore in greater detail than any one narrative allows. I might make the same argument about Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York: Marty got so invested in the historical background of his film that it sometimes swamps his characters and as a history buff, I kept wanting to stop the film and chase background figures down the street so that I could learn more about who they are and what they are doing. In some scenes, I was more interested in the extras than the protagonists.

I recently read an outstanding dissertation written by a recent UW-Madison graduate, Derick Johnson, who talks about “overdesign” as a principle driving contemporary media franchises: his example is Battlestar Galactica, which he suggests overflows with throwaway details which convince us that the depicted vents are unfolding in a world as rich and complex as our own. Speaking at last year’s 5D event, I argued that the art director takes on new importance in transmedia franchises, becoming almost as central as the screenwriter or the director, in terms of adding to our understanding of the fictional world. We could go back to Syd Mead’s contributions to Bladerunner for an example where much of our appreciation of the film stems from a complex and well considered rendering of a plausible future society. So, we can see many of the extensions around transmedia narratives as examples of this “overdesign,” adding greater “texture” (to use a concept Johnson draws from Ron Moore) to our over-all experience. Such extensions may or may not add something key to the unfolding of the narrative, but they nevertheless impact our overall aesthetic experience.

All of this is to say that not every work should become transmedia, but we may not yet know enough to prejudge which works can be meaningfully enhanced through such an approach.

Bordwell writes:

film viewing is already an active, participatory experience. It requires attention, a degree of concentration, memory, anticipation, and a host of story-understanding skills. Even the simplest story gears up our minds. We may not notice this happening because our skills are so well-practiced; but skills they are. More complicated stories demand that we play a sort of mental game with the film. Trying to guess Hitchcock or Buñuel’s next twist can engross you deeply. And the very genre of puzzle films trades on brain strain, demanding that the film be watched many times (buy the DVD) for its narrational stratagems to be exposed.

Here, I can only agree. Indeed, Bordwell’s teaching shaped my own investment in the cognitive and social/cultural activities of film consumers, giving me a theoretical vocabulary to make sense of some of the things I’d experienced in and through fandom. I don’t buy the “Lean back”/”Sit Forward” distinction offered by many transmedia advocates. That said, I do think that there is an increased awareness of audience activity driving the push towards transmedia storytelling.

Bordwell and others in the formalist tradition make a distinction between story and plot. The plot of the film is the sequence in which we encounter specific bits of information, while the story of the film is our mental construct which rearranges that information into a coherent sequence. So, a mystery may begin with the discovery of the body and work backwards (to show us the events which motivated the death) and forward (to show us how the detective put together the clues.) If we take this distinction between the sequencing and structuring of information, transmedia storytelling simply expands the scope of the process, allowing us to continue to collect and assemble clues once the specific unfolding of the film is completed.

Yet, in a networked culture, this ongoing process of information gathering, hypothesis testing, and interpetation/evaluation takes on a more profoundly social dimension. It is no longer something that occurs in a single mind during the two hours the film is unfolding; it is something which we do together, pooling resources, and comparing notes. Mimi Ito describes this as the “hypersocial” logic underlying Japanese media mix. Clearly this process is most vividly suggested by the Alternate Reality Game, where the information scavenger hunt becomes the driving force of the entertainment experience, but we can understand the dispersion of videos about the world of District 9 as also setting a similar process in motion.

Bordwell writes:

No narrative is absolutely complete; the whole of any tale is never told. At the least, some intervals of time go missing, characters drift in and out of our ken, and things happen offscreen. Henry Jenkins suggests that gaps in the core text can be filled by the ancillary texts generated by fan fiction or the creators. But many films thrive by virtue of their gaps. In Psycho, just when did Marion decide to steal the bank’s money? There are the open endings, which leave the story action suspended. There are the uncertainties about motivation…..Many art works exploit that impulse by letting us play with alternative hypotheses about causes and outcomes. We don’t need the creators to close those hypotheses down.

Geoff Long, a CMS graduate, has long advocated the use of the concept of “negative capability” to understand how gaps in the fiction incite certain forms of aesthetically pleasing speculations and anticipations. There is of course a complex dance between gaps and excesses where we are talking about narrative information. Johnson’s “overdesign” may seem to provide “too much information” about the story world, yet for every new bit of information given, there are new spaces for speculation opened. We become like nagging five year olds who follow every explanation with a new question.

That said, most good transmedia artists know that there are certain gaps which should not be filled if they want to maintain interest in the series as a whole. There are certainly reasons to create ambiguities and uncertanties. We may offer more clues through other media, but we certainly don’t want to destroy the mystery which makes such characters and worlds compelling in the first place. Fans resent the addition of information simply to close down avenues for speculation — take, for example, the closing chapter of the last Harry Potter novel which amounted to J.K. Rowling spraying her territory telling us who married who and what they named their children even though most of that information had limited narrative impact and simply felt like she was trying to foreclose certain strands of fan expansion. In some cases, authors are better off allowing fans to create their own narratives, since the community will generate multiple explanations, much as critics will offer multiple accounts of what motivates Hamlet or Travis Bickle to do what they do.

Bordwell writes:

Storytelling is crucially all about control. It sometimes obliges the viewer to take adventures she could not imagine. Storytelling is artistic tyranny, and not always benevolent.

To me, the key word here is “sometimes.” Bordwell is describing a particular kind of storytelling. It’s no accident that critics of transmedia and interactivity almost always fall back on Alfred Hitchcock to illustrate their point. Hitchcock’s works are certainly about control, shaping not only the sequencing of events and unfolding of information, but also playing around with the hierarchy of knowledge between the characters and the shaping of the point of view shots through which we see each moment of the film. Hitchcock famously slept on the set because he had thought all of this through before the cameras roll. So, yes, let’s give Bordwell Hitchcock.

But, then give me Tim Burton, whose films are often sprawling messes, because he is so much more interested in art direction and world building than storytelling. I have limited interest in the plot of his version of Planet of the Apes, say, but I never cease to be amazed at the complex thinking which went into every aspect of the Ape cultures — a classic example of Johnson’s “overdesign” and “textures” in action. The human characters amount to cursers we deploy to navigate the fictional space and in that case, I would be quite happy to be free to explore this world on my own, digging deeper into details that don’t happen to be required for the unfolding of a particular story but which deepen my experience of this imaginary culture. We can call Tim Burton a bad filmmaker because he doesn’t need to exert this kind of “tryanical control” over the unfolding of information, but then how do you explain the pleasurable anticipation I have for his version of Alice in Wonderland, even though I know he will once again disappoint me as a storyteller.

So maybe Planet of the Apes is not a film I would go to the mat for. But if we shift media, I would argue that works like War and Peace or Moby-Dick or Dante’s Inferno are much more invested in world-building than story-telling and that their authors seemed content to stop their novels dead in their tracks for pages on end as we wander through their fictionalized geography, trying to map its contours or understand the connections between scattered events. In both cases, what frustrates high school students who want them to get on with their stories is what has made them of lasting interest to critics who want to better understand the realms they are depicting. (It’s no accident, I think, that some enterprising producer out there is trying to adopt the Divine Comedy into a transmedia franchise. Surely, that was Dante’s plan all along.)

Clearly the author always exerts a certain degree of control over the unfolding of story information, but there are some authors who seek to create a more open text and others who seek to close down varying interpretations. I would say that so far transmedia storytelling has appealed to storytellers who want to open up greater freedom of interpretation rather than those who want to totally shape the reception of their work.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part One)

David Bordwell, my graduate school mentor and one of the leading figures in academic film studies, joined the conversation about transmedia storytelling the other week with a typically thoughtful and engaging entry that explored the strengths and limits of transmedia as an expansion of the cinematic experience. Personally, I read Bordwell’s analysis as a friendly amendment and generous “shout out” to the work I’ve been doing on this topic, not to mention a timely one since it arrived on the eve of the start of my Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment class at USC. His greatest contribution here is to raise a series of constructive objections and challenging questions any filmmaker would need to think through before moving their film — mainstream or independent — in a transmedia direction. To keep the conversation on these topics flowing, I thought I would respond to some of Bordwell’s arguments.

Bordwell writes:

Transmedia storytelling is very, very old. The Bible, the Homeric epics, the Bhagvad-gita, and many other classic stories have been rendered in plays and the visual arts across centuries. There are paintings portraying episodes in mythology and Shakespeare plays. More recently, film, radio, and television have created their own versions of literary or dramatic or operatic works. The whole area of what we now call adaptation is a matter of stories passed among media….

What makes this traditional idea sexy? … Some transmedia narratives create a more complex overall experience than that provided by any text alone. This can be accomplished by spreading characters and plot twists among the different texts. If you haven’t tracked the story world on different platforms, you have an imperfect grasp of it.

I can follow Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories well without seeing The Seven Percent Solution or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. These pastiches/continuations are clearly side excursions, enjoyable or not in themselves and perhaps illuminating some aspects of the original tales. But according to Henry, we can’t appreciate the Matrix trilogy unless we understand that key story events have taken place in the videogame, the comic books, and the short films gathered in The Animatrix.

I would certainly agree with Bordwell that transmedia storytelling does not begin with The Matrix. When Jeff Gomez (Starlight Runner) spoke to my students last week, he repeatedly used the phrase, “mythology,” to describe the structure of transmedia narratives and others adopt a long-standing industry term, “Story Bible,” to describe the documentation that organizes the continuity. Both metaphors pay tribute to earlier forms of branching or encyclopedic narrative. In Gomez’s case, we might trace the concept of “mythology” backwards from the D&D games he played as a young man into the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien who clearly conceived of Lord of the Rings as modeled on structures found in folklore and mythology. I’d also argue that C.S. Lewis’s writings on stories contain a lot of great insights onto the value of telling details in fleshing out fictional worlds, suggesting that modern transmedia fans might have enjoyed a rich exchange if they were able to sit down in the faculty room at Oxford in the early part of the last century.

If I was having an imaginary conversation about the origins of this concept, I’d also want to include L. Frank Baum, who unfolded the world of Oz across a range of media platforms. What we now might read as a series of novels that fleshed out the Land of Oz began life as short films produced by Baum’s studios, Broadway musicals, and comic strips. (See the recent republished edition of The Marvelous Land of Oz which collects the comic strip elaborations of his “mythology.”) Indeed, you could argue that the shifts across media give the book series a kind of wacky incoherence, involving radical shifts in tone or theme, inconsistent conceptions of characters, and so forth.

I might also want to invite Cordwainer Smith, a science fiction writer who I’ve long been convinced was a time traveller, since his works prefigure many of the key themes and motifs of cyberpunk. Smith developed a complex and interlocking “mythology” which links together dozens of short stories published across a range of different magazines, and he specifically depicted many of his stories as “versions” or “installments” of a narrative the reader is already presumed to understand from encountering it across a range of previous media incarnations. Smith himself wrote only prose narratives, but in his fictions, he imagines explicitly how his tales would take shape on stage or television.

I would argue that the contemporary moment of transmedia has heightened our awareness of these earlier moments of authors unfolding stories across media, much as the rise of digital media more generally has led to a revitalization of the study of “old media when they were new” or the history of the book. We certainly want to understand what is new about our current push for transmedia entertainment, which to me has to do with the particular configuration of media systems and the push towards a more participatory culture.

Tolkien, Lewis, Baum, and Smith all sought to model contemporary fictions on the dispersed, episodic, yet interlocking structures of classic mythology — creating a folklore for a post-folkloric society. And so, yes, there are going to be many resemblances to be drawn between transmedia stories, informed by these creative figures, and traditional religious or mythological works.

That said, many of Bordwell’s examples above are simply adaptations of works produced in one medium for performance in another platform. And for many of us, a simple adaptation may be “transmedia” but it is not “transmedia storytelling” because it is simply re-presenting an existing story rather than expanding and annotating the fictional world. Of course, this distinction assumes a pretty straight forward adaptation. Every adaption makes additions — minor or otherwise — and reinterpretations of the original which in theory expands our understanding of the core story. These changes can be read as “infidelities” by purists but they may also represent what I describe in CC as “additive comprehension” — they may significantly reshape our understanding of what’s happening in the original work. Still, I think there is a distinction to be made between “extensions” to the core narrative or the fictional universe and adaptations which simply move content from one medium to another.

Bordwell continues:

The “immersive” ancillaries seem on the whole designed less to complete or complicate the film than to cement loyalty to the property, and even recruit fans to participate in marketing. It’s enhanced synergy, upgraded brand loyalty.

For the most part Hollywood is thinking pragmatically, adopting Lucas’ strategy of spinning off ancillaries in ways that respect the hardcore fans’ appreciation of the esoterica in the property. Caranicas quotes Jeff Gomez, an entrepreneur in transmedia storytelling, saying that for most of his clients “we make sure the universe of the film maintains its integrity as it’s expanded and implemented across multiple platforms.” It would seem to be a strategy of expanding and enriching fan following, and consequent purchases.

As best I can tell, then, in borrowing this academic idea, the industry is taking the radical edge off. But is that surprising?

I’ve long ago given up trying to separate the creative and commercial motivations of transmedia entertainment, but then, all popular culture, no, all art depends on a complex balance between the two. From the start, most transmedia has been funded through the promotional budget rather than being understood as part of the creative costs of a particular franchise, even where it has been understood as performing key world building or story expanding functions. This was a central issue in the Writer’s Strike a few years ago. Indeed, in so far as Hollywood has grasped transmedia, it has been in the context of a growing awareness of the urgency of creating “consumer engagement” that has been a buzz word across the entertainment industry in recent years. This is why the transmedia chapter in CC follows so closely after the discussion of “affective economics” and American Idol.

Yet, as I suggested in my recent discussion of District 9, one man’s promotion is another man’s exposition. Increasingly, transmedia extensions are released in advance of the launch of major franchises and do some of the basic work of orientating us to the characters, their world, and their goals, allowing the film or television series to plunge quickly into the core action. Yet, even at this level, they can do other things — creating a more layered experience by introducing us to conflicting points of view on the action (as when we learn more about alien rights protesters through the District 9 promotional materials). Most of the people in the industry who take transmedia seriously are open about the fact that they are highjacking parts of the promotional budget to experiment with something that they think has the potential to refresh genre entertainment as well as reward viewer investments.

On another level, I’d say we are still at a moment of transition where transmedia practices are concern. Each new experiment — even the failed ones — teach us things about how to shape a compelling transmedia experience or what kinds of tools are needed to allow consumers to manage information as it is dispersed across multiple platforms. In some ways, the transmedia stories may need to be conservative on other levels — adopting relatively familiar genre formulas — so that the reader learns how to put together the pieces into a meaningful whole, much as the first jigsaw puzzles we are given as children take shape into familiar characters and do not have the challenges found in those designed for hardcore puzzlers.

(Two More Installments To Come)

Hightlights from My Conversation With J. Michael Straczynski

Late last spring, I moderated a public lecture and interview with J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), the writer and producer known for his contributions to television (Babylon 5), comics (Thor, The Twelve), and film (The Changeling). Straczynski was speaking as part of the Julius Schwartz Lecture Series which MIT hosts in tribute to a long-time editor at DC Comics who spent his lifetime supporting genre entertainment.

Straczynski was, as always, engaging in addressing questions posed by me or by members of the MIT audience and the discussion ranged across his career and addressed everything from his experiences interacting with fans online to the challenges of sustaining continuity across the full run of a complex science fiction series and explored everything from his early work for animated series such as He-Man and Ghost Busters and what he learned from Rod Serling and Norman Corwin to his forthcoming work on Ninja Assassian and Lensman.

The Comparative Media Studies program recently posted videos of the full event on line. They are broken down into three parts — the first features Straczynski’s opening remarks to the audience which center on the importance of being willing to risk failure in order to achieve creative rewards; the second features my one on one interview with Straczynski and the third features the question and answer period with the audience.

Altogether, the original program ran for 2 1/2 hours, thanks the persistence of the audience and the endurance of the speaker. The webcast version offers more extensive highlights from the significant longer exchange.

Today, I thought I would share some highlights from the exchange with you. In this first segment from the audience question/answer period, JMS speaks about how his ability as a showrunner to preserve continuity on Babylon 5 have been core to his personality since childhood, although he has not always been awarded for this obsessive attention to detail.

Here, JMS offers his predictions about what serialized television drama will be like five years from now and it sounds very much like what many of us are calling transmedia entertainment — a form which breaks down the barriers between platforms and taps into the desire of audiences to more actively participate in the life of the franchise.

Here, I asked him about the persistence of themes of religion across his writing for Babylon 5, Jeremiah, and Twilight Zone. He describes it in terms of playing fair with his characters and his audiences.

JMS speaks about the “breakthroughs” Babylon 5 made in its representations of alien cultures on American science fiction television.

JMS explores how the innovations of Babylon 5 reflected his own tastes and interests as a fan of British television SF series such as Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and The Prisoner.

These segments do not begin to scratch the surface. There’s a lot more to learn from this gifted creative artist who has done substantive work across multiple media and genres.

Henry’s [Comic] Book Club: My Personal Rec List of Graphic Novels

Look, if Oprah can have a Book Club, I figure I can have a Comic Book Club.

One of my wife’s friends has recently been smitten by Scott McCloud’s Zot!. As someone who read through the recent collection of Zot! in almost a single sitting (albeit in a hospital bed), I was highly sympathetic with her plight. I offered to draw up a list of recommendations for some other graphic novels she might enjoy, using Zot! as the starting point for calibrating her tastes. Having put in enough time to develop such a list, I figured it was worth passing along to my readers here. So, keep in mind that this was never intended as an all purpose set of comic recs. My bet, however, is that even many of you who have been known to pick up a comic from time to time will find some works here you didn’t already know that you will find worth reading. This list consists of Anglo-American graphic novels which for one reason or another have emerged as personal favorites. Eurocomics and Manga would require whole separate listings, another project for another day.

If you like stories of everyday life, then the following might be your cup of tea:

Blankets – Craig Thompson – charming autobiographical comic of first love among conservative Christians, conveyed with idiosyncratic and expressive visual style. Warm, affectionate, charming.

FunHouse – Alison Bechdel, Another autobiographical comic – this one dealing with the shifting relationship between an eccentric father (a closeted gay man) and his daughter (who is in the process of coming out as a dyke). Full of personal quirks and literary allusions.

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi – published in two volumes -autobiographical comic focused on the experiences of an Iranian woman from childhood in Tehran through time spent in Europe and America, a child’s eye view on the events that have shaped Iranian politics over the past three decades.

Bottomless Belly Button – Dash Shaw – Shaw was last year’s big discovery – a semi-autobiographical account of a family reunion in what may be one of the world’s most dysfunctional families, reminds me of a Wes Anderson movie (like The Royal Tanenbaums)

It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken – Seth – personal narrative about a man who becomes obsessed with a cartoonist who published in popular magazines in the 50s and 60s and his efforts to track him down – done in a retro style.

Alice in Sunderland – Bryan Talbot – nonfictional comic albeit very idiosyncratic and more than a little obsessive – one man’s attempt to trace the local history of Sunderland (a British city) and its relationship to Alice in Wonderland. Of the comics in this category, it is the most out there formally. If you like it, you should also check out Talbot’s Tale of One Bad Rat, which is about a runaway and his relationship to the fairy tales of Beatrix Potter.

Chiggers — Hope Larsen — nostalgic, bitter-sweet story of two young women who become summer camp friends.

If you like superheroes with a more mature twist, then check out the following (I am assuming that you either know your way around DC/Marvel or have decided this is not to your taste):

Concrete – Paul Chadwick – A political speech writer finds his brain transplanted into a massive concrete hulk and tries to figure out what he’s going to do with his life. One part love story, one part superhero fantasy, one part political drama.

The Works of Alan Moore – the key ones are Watchmen (the basis for the recent film), League of Extraordinary Gentleman (literary figures like the Invisible Man and Dr. Jeckel function as 19th century superheroes), V for Vendetta (Anarchist tries to bring down a totalitarian regime), Top Ten (Hill Street Blues in a superhero universe).

Astro City – Kurt Busiek – A veteran superhero author, best friends with Scott McCloud, explores the stories that can’t be told through traditional superhero comics – themes about work, love, labor. Busiek also did Marvels which is about a photographer living in a world dominated by Marvel Superheroes.

Demo – Brian Woods – a much more alternative character-driven take on the superhero — with the genre functioning more as a metaphor than as a story structure. Woods tends to do more realist comics often with a dark or depressing undertow.

Ex Machina – Brian K. Vaughn – a superhero ends up stopping 9/11 and gets elected mayor of New York City – much more West Wing than Superman.

Ultra – Luna Brothers – how the gossip mags would deal with a world where superheroes are the primary celebrities. The Luna Brothers have a cringe-worthy tendency towards Cheese-cake but underneath the glossy exteriors are complex characters and a barbed perspective on contemporary life.

Alias – Brian Bendis – a private eye story set in the world of Marvel Superheroes with a troubled female protagonist – owes as much to Sarah Paretsky as to Spider-Man. If you like Bendis, there’s lots of good stuff out there, but this is a good introduction. You can enjoy it if you don’t know Marvel universe, but it helps if you do.

Noble Causes — Jay Faerber — a soap opera about the conflicts, loves, scandals, and triumphs of the country’s leading superhero family — in this case, the model is probably the Kennedy family.

MadMan — Mike Allred — the superhero genre as a “fish out of water” comedy full of snarky injoke references to contemporary popular culture.

If you like science fiction, fantasy or Horror, then here’s where to start:

Transmetropolitan – Warren Ellis – Hunter S. Thompson in a cyberpunk universe – dark, raunchy, acerbic. If you do like Ellis, also check out Global Frequency (about a volunteer army in the future which confronts all forms of science run amok.)

The Middleman – Javier Grillo-Marxuach – The Avengers (the British tv show) meets Men in Black – campy, zany. Basis of a good but largely neglected television series.

The Sandman – Neil Gaiman – an exploration of the power of stories and myth – the protagonist is the god of dreams and his family of immortals, though we get to know some richly drawn human characters along the way.

Fables – Bill Willingham – Characters from classic fairy tales and rhymes live a very real and mature life on the edges of human civilization

Y the Last Man – Brian K. Vaughn – Some traumatic event has destroyed the male population of the planet, one male survivor is trying to figure out why he survived and make his way to Australia to reunite with his girl friend, while struggling with various political factions he encounters along the way.

Black Hole – Charles Burns – a macabre story, very much a tribute to 1950s horror comics, about teens dealing with a sexually transmitted disease which causes them to mutate.

The Walking Dead – Robert Kirkman – only if you have a pretty high tolerance for gore – a story about humans surviving in a world increasingly dominated by Zombies, much more about the social and emotional consequences of global trauma than about monsters per se.

Age of Bronze – Eric Shanower – historically accurate, detailed account of the Trojan War. Shanower has also done a lovingly detailed series of original Oz books which are worth reading if you like L. Frank Baum.

White Out – Greg Rucka – a female officer working in Antarctica deals with murder and sabotage, taunt story for people who like mysteries set in odd places.

Sandman Mystery Theater – Matt Wagner – Not to be confused with The Sandman, series about a pulp detective (in the same mode as The Shadow) solving crimes in 1930s New York. If you enjoy sword and sorcery, check out Wagner’s Mage series.

Bayou — This is the most recent book to make it on my list — just finished reading it a few days ago and my head is still spinning. Bayou takes us into the dark, haunting world of a young black girl growing up in the segregated south who goes on an adventure in search of a missing white girl. It manages to combine southern folklore with a blistering depiction of race in America — it’s a comic where images of lynching and Brier Rabbit may appear side by side.

These don’t fit comfortably in any category I can think of but they’d be high up on my list:

Maus – Art Spigelman – The story of how Spigelman’s parents endure and survive the holocaust as represented through Mice, Cats, and Pigs.

Jimmy Corrigan – Chris Ware – formally dazzling, bleak and lonely story about a grown man who doesn’t know where to go next and how he lost his way.

Love and Rockets – The Hernandez Brothers – you will either love it or hate it and odds are you will know which before you are more than a few pages into it – Really two separate sets of stories, one set south of the border in a small Mexican village, the other set amongst hipsters living in contemporary Los Angeles.

Alias the Cat – Kim Deitch – Deitch shares most of my own obsessions with early 20th century popular culture – this story moves from contemporary eBey and collector’s culture to silent serials, early comics, and side show freaks. Again, you will either love it or hate it. If you love it, there’s much more where this comes from.

Ghost World – Daniel Clowes – charming coming of age story about two snarky hipster adolescent girls – made into a good movie.

Strangers in Paradise – Terry Moore – This one took a wrong turn about half way through, but the first few graphic novels are funny and engaging in their depiction of the ups and downs in the friendship between two outspoken women.

Amelia Rules — Jimmy Gownley — Wonderful comic about a middle school girl and her colorful group of friends, very playful in its use of the vocabulary of cartooning — especially strongly recommended as a point of entry for younger readers into graphic storytelling.

I’d love to get some new recommendations from readers. What books do you think others should be reading?