Writing Between the Cracks: An Interview with Interfiction 2 Contributors

This is the last installment in my series about the release of Interfictions 2. Today, I interview some of the authors who contributed short stories to the collection. Once again, the focus is on the complex and contradictory role of genre in contemporary popular fiction. (By the way, I am taking Friday off to spend time with my family so see you next week.)

Do you consider yourself an interstitial artist?

Carlos Hernandez – Definitely. I think there are two general impulses for the artist: the desire to innovate and the desire to communicate. Communication is vital, of course: art can’t happen without it. But since communication requires a certain quorum of similarity between writer and reader — e.g. a shared language — it tends to be the more conservative impulse. Innovation, by contrast, is where genius lives. It is the only legitimate reason to make new art. Otherwise, we should all simply go and enjoy old art exclusively. For me, writers who cleave too closely to a genre — and I would most definitely include “literary fiction” as a genre — are favoring communication over innovation: to the point where they are neglecting the most important reason for this new art to exist.

Jeffrey Ford — This has always been one of my problems with the term interstitial. I don’t believe that artists are interstitial or not. I only believe that works of art can be interstitial. An artist should, of course, always be willing to go anywhere and do or say anything necessary for the creation of a work of art. Sometimes it’s as daring to create something in a “traditional” structure and mode as it is to make something that could be labeled interstitial. Artists are artists — sometimes their art is interstitial. Besides, it’s the interaction of the materials and influences as they come together or play off each other in a work of art, not the artist. When artists operate in the marchland between genres or where media coincide it can be as lame and stale as traditional approaches to creation. I think there is great potential energy in these places, but if one were to strart out with the idea of, “OK, now I’m going to get interstitial.” That’s not following an idiosyncratic vision — which for me, is what art’s about. You shouldn’t know something is going to be interstitial before it reveals itself.

Alaya Johnson – I think I probably do a lot of work in interstitial spaces. I definitely see Jeff Ford’s point, though, about it being tricky to identify the artist as interstitial, as opposed to the art. And to some extent, perhaps one could argue that all art is interstitial in some way. The difference might be that in more conventional work, the interstices are narrower gradations of sub (or sub-sub) genres. For example: a novel about chain-smoking biker elves who fight vampires is pretty unequivocally interstitial, but the genres it straddles are so commonplace and predictable that it wouldn’t be particularly innovative. (And now I’m going to negate the forgoing entirely, and say that if you do something with enough intelligence and self-awareness, even the tritest plot line can be made into something innovative.)

What motivated your participation in this project?

Carlos Hernandez — I had written a strange story that I loved, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Cue the Interfictions II call for submissions. I nearly swooned for pleasure. The philosophy of the project was not only in line with this particular story’s aesthetic, but with pretty much everything I believe about art. The arrival of that call in my life, just when I needed it: it’s enough to make you believe in Flying Spaghetti Monsters.

ALAYA JOHNSON – That’s essentially what happened to me, too. I’d written a strange, fractured story I had a hard time finding a home for, and then I saw that Interfictions was doing a second anthology. I jumped with joy– especially when they bought it!

Brian Slattery: Like Jeff, I’d written my story before I knew that Interfictions 2 was coming out, and I knew I liked it (which is unusual for me regarding my own stuff) but didn’t know what to do with it, because I also knew that it was, well, kind of weird. Meanwhile, I’d read the first Interfictions collection and really enjoyed it; reading the stories, I had the sense that these were my people. So I was delighted to learn

that Interfictions 2 was happening, and of course I’m even more delighted to be a part of it.

Jeffrey Ford – I’d written the story before I’d heard that there was going to be an interfictions 2 anthology. I made some cursory attempts to publish this story, but had no luck. It was too wacky. I liked it, though. I thought it had something going for it, so when I heard about Interfictions I gave it a shot. The fact that the editors of this anthology accepted it gave me great encouragment to believe in the fiction I feel a personal connection to, even if it is perceived as too different by others.

Do you see the interstitial as a way of cutting across genres or escaping them all together?

Carlos Hernandez — I don’t think we ever escape genre. Genre is deeper than what our publishing industry has defined for us. I can meaningfully oppose the “personal essay” to a work of journalism because we all recognize that the different ways each has of producing truth and beauty. But I can cut across those genres, remix them, mash them up: I can write gonzo journalism or creative nonfiction or a hundred different other flavors of nonfiction subgenres. And fiction is, and should be, even slipperier, because fiction always begins with the following premise: “What I am about to tell you is a l

ALAYA JOHNSON — I’m with Carlos– I don’t think genre is something anyone can escape (even literary artists who pretend they don’t work in one). It’s very fundamental to how humans perceive the world, I think: categories and taxonomies are how we structure information. It’s crucial to our creative process. I see the purpose of defining the cross-genre impulse as “interstitial” as largely one of pollination. Of getting out of the constantly rehashed and well-plowed ideas in our most comfortable categories and exploring how others see things. My story cross-pollinates with a great deal of non-fiction, mostly of the political, polemical variety. I could never have written that story four years ago, before I started reading that sort of work. I became so immersed in it that, eventually, that story became something that I not only could write, but felt utterly compelled to create.I realize that my answer to this question is annoying, but here goes.

Brian Slattery: First off, I don’t have nearly enough of a sense of the breadth of

literature these days to make a sweeping generalization about any genre. And second, the question of genre seems more important to critics and marketing folks–who need them for very good reasons–but I’m not a critic or a marketing guy. From where I stand as a dude who writes stuff, the genres aren’t really well-defined enough to be cut across or escaped. The borders are so fuzzy that they aren’t really borders at all. In the past, I’ve used the analogy of genres as

neighborhoods in a city with no walls between them. But here’s another one: If the genres were countries, they’d be sort of quasi-failed states. The capital cities might be under control, but the farther from the seat of government you get, the less governed (governable?) the territory becomes. And there are wide stretches of land that are disputed, argued over, but never claimed outright; no genre has the power to assert its dominion over the others.

I understand the idea of genre better when it comes to certain types of plot or plot devices, character archetypes, or certain styles of writing, but even in that case, if I’m writing something, I see genre choices more as tools in a toolbox than as a series of constraints that one must work to stay within or break out of. Which is probably why the label “interstitial” applies so well to what I do.

Jeffrey Ford – Again, for me, the interstitial is not a method but only a product. I guess it can cut across genres. I don’t really know enough about genre to know if it can be escaped. I know about it, and many would say I’ve worked in specific genres for years, but genre has many facets and secrets, and if you were to escape genre, would your work then be in the genre of works that escaped genre?

Have you worked in genre fiction previously? If so, what had been your experience?

Carlos Hernandez — Yes, I’ve published several short stories in genre magazines and anthologies. But again, I think the question is tricky, since I think we are never outside of genre. The experience of writing genre fiction and of working with editors to publish my genre fiction have easily been the best writing experiences of my life. Never have I learned more, nor felt more like a writer doing honest work, than I have when working with an editor on a story. Also, let me add that genre editors are, to my mind, the best readers a body could ask for. They tend to be these prose-devouring polymaths who deal equally well in the nuances of art and the practicalities of production. It takes a kind of double-genius to do the job of editor well — a genius of both left brain and right — and I’ve been very lucky to meet and work with some of them.

ALAYA JOHNSON — If by “in genre fiction” you mean, “outside of the literary genre” then yes, that’s largely where I’ve found myself working. The tropes of fantasy (and, to a lesser extent, Science Fiction) speak to me most powerfully of all the various literary forms. Every once in a while, I contemplate stories that lie firmly in what we call “literary” but they never feel as compelling as the ones that cross more boundaries.

Brian Slattery: Yes. My first short story was published in Glimmer Train, and probably by anyone’s generic definition, it was an example of straight-up

literary fiction. At the time, I had given myself the assignment of seeing if I could cram a typical literary fiction novel’s story arc into the shortest story I could write. I have no idea if I succeeded,

but I was completely psyched that Glimmer Train’s editors saw fit to publish the result, and am still grateful to them today.

When I finished my first book, though, I really had no idea what I had written. It was either a science-fiction novel with literary-fiction stylings, or a literary-fiction novel with lots of science-fictional elements in it, and I was in no position to make the call. So I figured I’d let someone else decide, and submitted it to a few different places. The feedback I got taught me a lot. The

literary-fiction people I talked to seemed to like the quality of the writing (which was nice), but were very confused by the plot, number of characters, and other things that science-fiction readers don’t get thrown by. The science-fiction people, meanwhile, seemed to just like the book. So I figured that I’d written a science-fiction novel and didn’t think all that much more about it. My second book came out as even more clearly science fiction, which delights me. But in the

future? Who knows?

Can we produce works which appeal to popular readers without falling into genre formulas?

Carlos Hernandez — This is a deceptively difficult question, because it calls on action from both writers and readers. I feel that, in the United States at least, the media conglomerates and mega-bookstores that have taken over the publishing world have taught the American public to narrowly define genres and, more importantly, to narrowly enjoy works of specific genres. Readers now will often check the spine of a book to make sure it is of a genre they will enjoy — “if it doesn’t say ‘mystery’ on the spine, I won’t like it, because it’s not a mystery.” I know people speak disparagingly of Oprah’s Book Club, but c’mon people! She got millions of folks to read Beloved, which is not only one of the greatest books of the 20th century, but as interstitial a work of art as we could ask for. What’s unfortunate is that it takes a decree from Oprah to give popular readers the confidence and motivation to try something outside of their comfort zone. So, solutions? 1) Get publishers and mega-bookstores to stop insisting on narrowly-defined genres (near-impossible); 2) Get Oprah to endorse a lot more interstitial art (not exactly a reliable method); 3) Get writers to keep trying to write innovative work that eschews pretension while at the same time challenges readers — and hope for the best.

ALAYA JOHNSON — I agree that the issue of connecting readers to fiction has a great deal more to do with the juggernaut of the industry behind books than the works actual readers might enjoy if they could find them. Why else, for example, would book stores ghettoize literature by black writers in the “African American” or “urban” section of the book store? Not necessarily because white readers won’t buy these books, but because segregation is how the industry has constructed itself. I’ve had the experience of hunting through the Science Fiction section for a single Octavia Butler novel, finding none present, and eventually discovering them shelved next to True to the Game III or whatever in Urban Lit. In the latter example, the segregation is based on race, but it’s the same principle that means those readers who enjoy Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale will never find Sherri Tepper’s Grass without venturing into a completely different section of the bookstore. The ostensible reason for this segregation is that it makes it easier for readers to find works they like, but as in both examples, it also makes it harder for readers to find works they like. So, to answer your question, I don’t think “genre formulas” are the culprit here so much as an industry that makes it financially and practically impossible to look outside your own genre.

What kind of emotional experience do you think your story offers readers?

Carlos Hernandez — I picked up a term from a collection of medieval words and phrases called: “merry-go-sorry.” That phrase encapsulates my entire philosophy in three words: life is merry-go-sorry-go-merry-go-sorry-go-etc. Round and round we go, from moment to moment — life is bewildering, awful at times but also awe-ful, a relentless dogpile of bathos and pathos. So what do we make of it? What can we say about an existence like that? If my story offers any answers, they are emotional ones, because I take the word “fiction” very seriously. I lie like hell all the way through.

ALAYA JOHNSON — I’m not sure, really. I suppose I would hope a cathartic one, because issues of grief, guilt, redemption and eventual catharsis seem to run through most of my work. But because I have constructed it in such a way that the reader has to really work to find the story inside, it’s entirely possible that readers could find the experience of reading it rather emotionally cold or clinical. It’s hard to tell how people will react to things, especially when I as a writer have very deliberately eschewed most of the techniques in the writer’s arsenal for heightening pathos (the equivalent, in my mind, of sweeping strings and roiling storm clouds in, say, a Steven Spielberg movie).

What was the biggest challenge in writing interfiction?

Carlos Hernandez — Writing a relatable story that in its own small way tries to innovate. In short, writing a story that’s good.

ALAYA JOHNSON — One of the purpose of genres, and taxonomies and categories in general, is that it provides an in-group/out-group structure. It, by virtue of exclusion, creates a community and a community creates a shared language. Many science fiction writers, for example, have had the experience of writing a story that is perfectly comprehensible to their in-group of SF readers, and utterly enigmatic to those familiar with other communities and literary languages. So the greatest challenge of truly interstitial writing, I’d argue, is that you both need to have mastered the various languages of the genres you want to straddle while making the foreign tropes comprehensible to all parties. Out of the labor of this communication, though, comes particularly gratifying rewards.

Carlos Hernandez is a writer and English professor living in New York City. He was the co-author of Abecedarium.

Jeffrey Ford’s The Physiognomy won The World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for 1997 and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Ford has since finished the other two books of the trilogy, Memoranda (99 NY Times Notable Book of the Year) and The Beyond (2001).

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s novels include Racing the Dark and The Burning City, the first two installments of The Spirit Binders trilogy and the forthcoming Moonshine, a vampire saga set in the 1920s.

Brian Slattery’s novels include Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America and Spaceman Blues: A Love Song .

Editing Interfiction 2: An Interview with Delia Sherman

Last week, I shared with you the introduction I wrote for Interfiction 2, a collection of interstitial literature. The piece offered some reflections on the value and limits of genre categories in shaping our relationship with popular fictions. Today, I am offering an interview with the editor of that collection — Delia Sherman, who is best known as a fantasy author, but who has been consistently pushing to create a space for diversity, experimentation, and innovation within popular literature. I have considered Delia and her oft-time partner in crime Ellen Kushner good friends for a long time so it is a great pleasure to be able to share her thoughts and her current project with my readers. Next time, I will share some thoughts from some of the contributors to the collection, rounding out my multi-part focus on the concept of “interstitial art.”


How would you define “interstitial art”?

DELIA: For me, interstitial art is anything that frustrates genre expectations, turns my ideas of genre on their heads, and teaches me how it works as I interact with it. It’s art that is hard to categorize easily, hard to describe, impossible to generate an accurate elevator pitch for.

Does the interstitial primarily refer to works which cross genres or might they also cross media or cultural hiearchies (high, popular) or audiences?

DELIA: Because the IAF started with a bunch of writers talking about cross-genre fiction, that’s where our discussion of interstitiality necessarily started. Now, as more artists from different communities and disciplines join the conversation, it’s perfectly obvious that you can’t talk about crossing artistic boundaries without talking about crossing media, cultural hierarchies, and even media platforms. Jewelry that responds to and comments on fiction [currently available in the Interfictions Auction: http://iafauctions.com/]; websites that bridge information, entertainment, art, and networking; performances that blend music and art and words and movement in unexpected ways (or even unexpected venues)–these are interstitial, too.

What are your goals for the Interfictions collection?

DELIA: We began Interfictions simply as a concrete answer to the question, “What do you mean by interstitial fiction?”–and as an outlet for authors who had been writing fiction that was too popular for literary markets, too literary for popular markets, or simply too odd to find a comfortable home in any genre. What we hoped (and continue to hope) is that the stories we publish will provide a sense of the directions in which short fiction is developing, giving readers and academics and writers new texts to discuss, analyze, and be inspired by.

What do you see as the limitations of the current market for popular fiction?

DELIA: Historically, hard times tend to foster conservatism in the arts. And the uncertainty of how the internet is going to impact the publishing and music industries is making it even worse. If a big company doesn’t know how to market something, they won’t buy it. Which leads to endless iterations of teen vampire romances, mystical conspiracy thrillers, heroic fantasies, and chick lit novels with pink covers. It also leads to worthy fiction that is none of these things being packaged as if it were, which leads to puzzled and often hostile reviews, and to readers who don’t know where to look for the kind of fiction they like–especially if they like fiction that doesn’t hew to the most popular forms and conventions. In this market, Shakespeare probably wouldn’t be able to get a play produced, nor Franz Kafka sell a story to a major magazine.

What roles does the Interstitial Arts Foundation play in promoting the concept of interfiction?

DELIA: We make it available, of course. And we call attention to the fact that these stories are different, a fact that other markets might prefer to elide in the hopes that nobody notices. And I hope that we open a conversation among our readers, in which they argue with our choices and definitions, and go on to make their own, and even create stories that are completely different again, which maybe they’ll send to whoever is editing Interfictions at that time, taking the conversation to the next step.

How were you able to locate authors who wanted to produce interstitial works?

DELIA: We put the word out on every writing list-serve we knew about. We wrote authors whose works we thought tended to the interstitial, and asked them to spread the word. We mentioned it to writers we met at conferences, random parties, cafes, and the subway. We blogged on social networking sites, like Live Journal and FaceBook, and asked our readers to spread the word. We got a lot of highly literary fantasy, SF, horror, and one Western. But we also got more genuinely strange and self-defining work than I would have believed– that is, if I hadn’t already edited the first Interfictions anthology in 2007 and seen then that there was a lot of it out there. And of course, people knowing about the first anthology helped the second one.

You faced a challenge in designing a cover for a book of fiction which defies most categories. How did you develop the cover art and what does it communicate about the book’s project?

DELIA: We didn’t develop the cover art. We discovered it. One of our board members suggested that we start a Flickr pool where any artist could post work to be considered for the cover. We got lots of beautiful, if not especially interstitial, photographs, a certain number of definitely interstitial pieces that were too busy, too dark, too three-dimensional, or too distracting to make good cover art, and a solid handful of pieces that fit our purposes perfectly. The piece we ended up choosing (after many emails and discussions with the Cover Committee) is by Alex Myers. It’s part of a series painted in gouache on torn-apart cereal boxes, destined to degrade with the cardboard, which struck us as being kind of interstitial in and of itself. The image references popular culture, advertising, science, and politics, and (coincidentally) seems to echo themes and images of several of the stories we’d already bought. And it has a natural space for a title, even though it wasn’t painted as a cover. All of which makes it an ideal introduction to the kind of fiction it is introducing to the world: unexpected, puzzling, beautifully executed, appealing (to the kind of audience it appeals to, of course), and finally, evanescent. Because the interstitial story of today is very likely to be the genre-establishing seminal work of next year, as Terri Windling’s punk elf Bordertown anthologies back in the 80’s planted the seeds of the current Urban Fantasy craze.

Delia Sherman was born in Tokyo, Japan, and brought up in New York City. She has spent a lot of time in schools of one kind or another: Vassar College for undergrad, then Brown University where she earned a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. While she was writing her dissertation, she started teaching, first at Boston University, where she taught Freshman Composition and Fantasy as Literature, and then at Northeastern University, where she was a Lecturer in Composition. She also worked in a bookstore for a while, and her short fiction appeared in WeirdBook and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

While she was still teaching, she wrote her first novel, Through a Brazen Mirror, which led to a 1990 nomination for the Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer. Her second novel, the historical The Porcelain Dove, was listed in The New York Times Notable Books, and won the Mythopoeic Award in 1994.

Delia also publishes short fiction for adults, most recently in Realms of Fantasy and Poe. Her short stories for younger readers have appeared in numerous anthologies. “CATNYP,” a story of a magical New York Between, inspired her first novel for children, Changeling. The sequel, The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen followed in 2009. The Freedom Maze, a time-travel fantasy set in Louisiana, will be published by Big Mouth Press in 2010.

As an editor of books and anthologies, Delia’s continuing quest is to get more of the kind of fantasy she likes out to readers. She has worked as a contributing editor for Tor Books and has co-edited the fantasy anthology The Horns of Elfland with Ellen Kushner and Donald G. Keller, as well as The Essential Bordertown with Terri Windling. She had co-edited two anthologies of Interstitial fiction: Interficitons 1, with Theodora Goss, and Interfictions 2, with Christopher Barzak.

Delia lives with fellow author and fantasist Ellen Kushner in a rambling apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City.

On the Pleasures of Not Belonging, or Notes on Interstitial Art (Part Two)

Most current academic thinking dismisses the idea that genres are stable and essential categories, that we can determine what genre a work belongs to once and for all, and that doing so tells us all we need to know about the example in question. Instead, this new scholarship talks about what genres do rather than what genres are and describes the processes by which works get classified and reclassified over time.

When these categories are deployed as a system for regulating the production and distribution of culture, The publishing industry is misusing genre theory. As music critic Simon Frith notes, “genre maps change according to who they’re for… A committed music fan will soon find, for example, that she’s interested in sounds that fit into several categories at once and that different shops therefore shelve the same record under different labels…. It’s as if a silent conversation is going on between the consumer, who knows roughly what she wants, and the shopkeeper, who is laboriously working out the pattern of shifting demands. What’s certain is that I, like most other consumers, would feel quite lost to go to the store one day and find the labels gone – just a floor of CDS, arranged alphabetically.”

So, for Frith, genre categories have some temporary use value in helping consumers find the music they want to hear. But those categories are also subject to recall and modification without notice and are often deployed in idiosyncratic ways, reflecting the personalities of the owners of different record shops or even the whims of the clerks who shelve particular titles. If you print the genres on the book jacket, you automatically limit their shelf life by restricting your ability to shuffle the pieces to reflect changing tastes and perceptions. The result will be as much bad business as bad art.

Of course, on the consumption side, we all adopt very idiosyncratic systems for shelving our books anyway: that’s the pleasure of reading someone else’s bookshelves as a map of their mind, displaying what things interest them and the perceived relationships between the parts.

You might think that this “shelving” metaphor for thinking about the cultural work of genres would break down quickly in a world where fewer and fewer books are purchased in brick-and-mortar bookshops and more and more of them are being bought online, where listings can be easily reconfigured, where the same book can be listed in an infinite number of categories.

Paradoxically, though, genres have had a tighter hold on our imagination in recent years as the range of cultural choice has broadened and audiences have fragmented. Film historian Rick Altman tells us that far from imposing rigid boundaries between genres, the old studio system depended on the idea that the same film could appeal to multiple audience segments at a time when pretty much everyone in the country went to the movies once or twice a week. Hollywood films rarely fit into some narrowly composed category: the same film had to appeal to men as well as women, the young as well as the old, by signaling different entertainment elements (“Comedy. Romance. Action. Exotic Locales. Singing. Dancing….”)

Over the course of the 20th century, however, genre categories have become ever more specialized as media industries refine techniques for monitoring and targeting particular clusters of consumers. These more rigid and precise subgenres are the product of a more general tendency towards what anthropologist Grant McCracken calls “specification.” Subcultures break down into smaller subcultures, niches become smaller niches in an eternal dance between our desire to differentiate ourselves from and affiliate ourselves with others who share our tastes. There are more different categories of books, records, and films than ever before; all that diversity produces an anxiety that is being met by more aggressive policing of boundaries. Using more sophisticated tools, media consumers are trying to find the “perfect choice,” rather than taking for granted that a work designed for a general audience is going to contain some things we like and some things we don’t.

And where the market doesn’t impose such specifications, we add them ourselves. Catherine Tosenberger has argued that the best fan fiction is “unpublishable” in the sense that it operates across the genre categories, aesthetic norms, and ideological constraints that shape commercial publishing. Fans self-publish in order to step outside those filters. Yet, the fan community also imposes its own categories, which help readers find the “right story” through author’s notes that tell us, for example, which “ships” (relationships between specified pairs of characters) are being explored, offer a rough sense of their sexual explicitness or emotional tone, warn us about vexing themes, and so forth. And if you read the letters of comment, there’s enormous anger directed at any writer who asks a reader to read a story that doesn’t deliver what was promised and, even worse, gives them something they didn’t ask for.

All of this focus on using genres to classify and shelve works assumes that we know where one genre ends and another begins and that genre works stay where we put them. Genres may be optical illusions, which come and go like mirages, depending on the ways we look at the texts in question.

In one formulation, genre classifications offer reading hypothesis: we start a book with the assumption that it will follow a certain path; we read it “as” a mystery or as a romance or as a fantasy, and as we do so, we look for those elements that match our expectations: depending on our starting point, we may notice some things or ignore them, make certain predictions or avoid them, value or reject certain elements, form or dismiss certain interpretations. Start from a different hypothesis and you will have a different experience.

Some critics are rereading familiar texts through alternative logics: so, for example, queer cultural critic Alex Doty has made the case for The Wizard of Oz as a power struggle between butch and femme lesbians, Jason Mittell has read the HBO series The Wire as a video game, and Linda Williams reads pornography in relation to Hollywood musicals. Might we see such essays as interstitial criticism?

For some readers, there is a certain pleasure in playing a game where all the parts match our templates (much as a sparrow feels more like a bird than an ostrich does). For other readers, there may be a pleasure in the unanticipated or the indeterminate. Let’s hear it for the duck-billed platypus!

Tzvetan Todorov has talked about the “fantastic” as playing with this uncertainty about classification. For instance, most ghost stories create a special pleasure from our uncertainty about whether we are supposed to believe there really are ghosts or whether we are to come up with a natural, logical, real-world explanation for the events. The pleasure, he says, is in toggling between multiple interpretations, not knowing what kind of story we are reading: there was a ghost; the narrator was crazy; or in the Scooby-Doo version, it was all a scheme by the guy who runs the old amusement park.

Even when we kinda knew where the ghost story was going, the process of hiding and unveiling can be as much darn fun as a good old fashion striptease. What if we were to imagine the interstitial as another kind of indeterminacy, one that flits between genres in the same way that the fantastic flickers between levels of reality. Maybe this is what Heinz Insu Fenkel is getting at when he writes, “Interstitial works make the reader (or listener, or viewer) more perceptive and more attentive; in doing so, they make the reader’s world larger, more interesting, more meaningful, and perhaps even more comprehensible. The reader, who has been seeing black-and-white, suddenly begins not only to see color, but to learn how to see other colors.”

Just as there are systems of cultural production where audiences express confusion if a work straddles genres, there are others where artists thrive upon and audiences anticipate mixing and matching genre elements. Take for example the so-called “masala films” that come out of the Bollywood film industry in India and are popular across Asia, Africa, and increasingly the west. The same film might move between historical and contemporary settings, might mix comedy and melodrama, might follow an intense (and disturbing) action sequence with a musical number, might mix the most sudsy romance with social uplift and political reform, and might acknowledge both Hindu and Islamic traditions. The descriptor “masala” refers to a mixture of spices used in Indian cooking. Just as one would be disappointed if an Indian dish only contained one spice, the Bollywood spectator would be disappointed if a Hindi film contained only one genre.

We are seeing greater cultural churn as more and more works move across national borders, get picked up by new artists and audiences, get combined in new ways, paving the way for nouvelle culture in the same way that the global availability of spices and ingredients has led many of our best chiefs to experiment with radical departures from and reinventions of traditional cuisines. The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has contrasted a classic understanding of cultures as so many exhibits in an ethnographic museum with a more contemporary notion of cultures as garage sales, where people push, pull, and paw over other people’s used stuff before taking it home, trying it on for size, and altering it to suit their needs.

Many young American consumers are using the web in search of Korean dramas, Japanese anime, Latin American telenovelas, or Bollywood films, anything that takes them outside the parochialism of their own culture. The result really does defy any classification: look at something like Tears of the Black Tiger which starts as a classic Thai novel, throws in a little opera, adds a much more intense color palette, and tells the man’s story as a western and the woman’s story as a ’50s style melodrama to suggest that the two protagonists are living in different worlds.

Globalization is simply one of a number of forces which are breaking down the tyranny of genre classifications and paving the way for experimentation within popular storytelling. In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson makes the argument that the most popular forms of entertainment today are popular because they make demands on our attention and cognition. For example, a television show like Lost, one of the top ratings successes of the past decade, demonstrates a level of complexity that would have been unimaginable on American television a few decades ago; with its large scale ensemble casts of characters, its flashes forwards and backwards in time, its complex sets of puzzles and enigmas, its moral ambiguities and shifting alliances, but also its uncertain and unpredictable relationship to existing television genres.

If we knew what the operative genre model was, we might figure out what’s really happening on the island, but without such a clear mapping, we remain pleasurably lost. Such dramas thrive in part because they support robust internet communities where readers gather online to compare notes, debate interpretations, trace references, and otherwise have fun talking with each other. Its interstitial qualities are essential to Lost‘s success, even as they account for why other viewers got frustrated and gave up on the series convinced that it was never going to add up to anything anyway.

Lost illustrates another tendency in contemporary popular culture towards what I call transmedia storytelling. Lost is not simply a story or even a television series; Lost is a world that can support many different characters and many different stories that unfold across multiple media platforms. As these stories move across media platforms, Lost also often moves across genres: not unlike early novels, which might be constituted through mock letters, journals, and diaries, these new stories may mock e-mail correspondence, interviews, documents, websites, news magazine stories, advertisements, computer games, puzzles, cyphers, and a range of other materials which help make its world feel more real to the reader. These transmedia works will add a whole new meaning to the concept of interstitial arts.

So, to borrow from Charles Dickens (who borrowed from everyone else in his own time), this is the best of times and the worst of times for the interstitial arts. In such a world, the interstitial thrives and it withers. It finds receptive audiences and harsh critics. It gratifies and grates. It inspires and confuses. Above all, it gives us something to talk about. It opens us up to a world where nothing is what it seems and where little belongs, at least in the narrow sense of the term. We’re going Out There!

What happens next is in your hands. Read. Enjoy. Debate. Tell your friends. But also create. Write. Appropriate. Remix. Transform. Just leave your cookie cutters and jelly molds at home. We can figure out what shelf this belongs on later.

 

Bibliography

Ellen Kushner, “The Interstitial Arts Foundation: An Introduction,” in Nebula Awards® Showcase 2005, edited by Jack Dann (ROC/PenguinPutnam, March 2005), http://www.interstitialarts.org/essays/kushner_iaf_an_introduction.php

Delia Sherman, “An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/intro_toIA.html

Susan Stinson, “Cracks,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/reflectionStinson.html

Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (University of Texas, 1982).

Heinz Insu Fenkl, “The Interstitial DMZ,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/why/the_interstitial_dmz_1.html

Barth Anderson, “The Prickly, Tricky, Ornery Multiverse of Interstitial Art,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/reflectionAnderson.html

Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard University Press, 1998).

Rick Altman, Film/Genre (British Film Institute, 1999).

Grant McCracken, Plenitude 2.0: Culture by Commotion (Periph: Fluide, 1998).

Catherine Tossenberger, Potterotics: Harry Potter Fan Fiction on the Internet, Dissertation, University of Florida, 2007.

Alex Doty, Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon (Routledge, 2000).

Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (MIT Press, 2009).

Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (University of California Press, 1999).

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Cornell University Press, 1975).

Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Reworking of Social Analysis (Beacon Press, 1993).

Charles Vess, “Interstitial Visual Arts: An Impossible Marriage of Materials,” http://www.interstitialarts.org/what/marriage_of_materials.html

Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You (Riverhead, 2006).

Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1988).

John Caughie, Theories of Authorship: A Reader (Routledge, 1981).

Peter J. Rabinowitz, “The Turn of the Glass Key: Popular Fiction as Reading Strategy,” Critical Inquiry, March 1985.

On the Pleasures of Not Belonging, or Notes on Interstitial Art (Part One)

Last January, I wrote the following essay to run as the foreword for a recently published collection of short fiction — Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing — which was edited by an old friend, Delia Sherman. The essay offers my explanation of what we mean by “interstitial writing” and my exploration of the deforming and informing value of genre in contemporary storytelling. Over the next installments, I will also be featuring an interview with Delia about her goals for the book and an interview with some of the contributors about their relationship to the genre conventions of popular fiction. I am hoping that this series of posts will serve to introduce readers of this blog to the work of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, a really wonderful group of writers and thinkers, who are on the frontiers of contemporary popular fiction.

This pendant, inspired by my introductory essay, was produced by artist Mia Nutick as part of an auction being organized around the book. For more, see http://iafauctions.com/

On the Pleasures of Not Belonging

Henry Jenkins, 2009

interfict spoon.jpg

(Note: The following essay appeared as the introduction to Interfictions 2, the recently-released anthology of interstitial fiction from the Interstitial Arts Foundation.)

“Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

– Groucho Marx

Let’s start with some basic premises:

  1. I do not belong in this book.
  2. The contributors also do not belong.
  3. You, like Groucho Marx, wouldn’t want to belong even if you could. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have picked up this book in the first place.

Let me explain. The editors of most anthologies seek stories which “fit” within prescribed themes, genres, and topics; the editors of this book have gone the opposite direction – seeking stories that don’t fit anywhere else, stories that are as different from each other as possible. And that’s really cool if the interstitial is the kind of thing you are into.

At the heart of the interstitial arts movement (too formal), community (too exclusive), idea (too idealistic?), there is the simple search for stories that don’t rest comfortably in the cubbyholes we traditionally use to organize our cultural experiences. As Ellen Kushner puts it, “We’re living in an age of category, of ghettoization – the Balkanization of Art! We should do something.” That “something” is, among the other projects of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, the book you now hold in your hands.

Asked to define interstitial arts, many writers fall back on spatial metaphors, talking about “the wilderness between genres” (Delia Sherman), “art that falls between the cracks” (Susan Simpson), or “a chink in a fence, a gap in the clouds, a DMZ between nations at war” (Heinz Insu Fenkel). Underlying these spatial metaphors is the fantasy of artists and writers crawling out from the boxes which so many (their publishers, agents, readers, marketers, the adolescent with the piercings who works at the local Borders) want to trap them inside. Such efforts to define art also deform the imagination, not simply of authors, but also of their readers.

All genre categories presume ideal readers, people who know the conventions and secret codes, people who read them in the “right way.” Many of us – female fans of male action shows, adult fans of children’s books, male fans of soap operas – read and enjoy things we aren’t supposed to and we read them for our own reasons, not those proposed by marketers. We don’t like people snatching books from our hands and telling us we aren’t supposed to be reading them.

One of the reasons I don’t belong in this book is that I’m an academic, not a creative artist, and let’s face it, historically, academics have been the teachers and enforcers of genre rules. The minute I tell you that I have spent the last twenty years in a Literature department, you immediately flash on a chalkboard outline of Aristotle’s Poetics or a red pen correcting your muddled essay on the four-act structure. Throughout the twentieth century, many of us academic types were engaged in a prolonged project of categorizing and classifying the creative process, transforming it to satisfy our needs to generate lecture notes, issue paper topics, and grade exam questions. After all, academics are trapped in our own imposed categories (“disciplines” rather than “genres”) which often constrain what we can see, what we can say, and who we can say it to. Academics are “disciplined” through our education, our hiring process, our need to ‘publish or perish’, and our tenure and promotion reviews. Most academics read or think little outside their field of study. As Will Rogers explained, “there’s nothing so foolish as an educated man once you take him out of the field he was educated in.”

I may gain a little sympathy from you, dear reader, if I note that for those twenty years, I was a cuckoo’s egg – a media and popular culture scholar in a literature department – and that I am finally flying the coop, taking up an interdisciplinary position at a different institution, because I could never figure out the rules shaping my literature colleagues’ behavior.

Many literature professors may hold “genre fiction” in contempt as “rule driven” or “formula-based” yet they ruthlessly enforce their own genre conventions: look at how science fiction gets taught, keeping only those authors already in the canon (Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon), adding a few more who look like what we call “literature” (William Gibson, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick), and then, running like hell as far as possible from any writer whose work still smells of “pulp fiction.” Here, “literature” is simply another genre or cluster of genres (the academic mid-life crisis, the coming of age story, the identity politics narrative), one defined every bit as narrowly as the category of films which might get considered for a Best Picture nomination. I never had much patience with the criteria by which my colleagues decided which works belonged in the classroom and which didn’t.

What I love about the folks who have embraced interstitial arts is that some of them do comics, some publish romances, some compose music, some write fantasy or science fiction, but all of them are perfectly comfortable thinking about things other than their areas of specialization. In that sense, I do very much belong in this collection as a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler, both phrases that signal someone who does and does not fit into some larger movement. Maybe we can go to each other’s un-birthday parties and not belong together.

To be sure, academics are not, as Buffy would put it, “the big bad.” We may have gotten inside your head but with a little mental discipline, you can shove us right back out again. Most interstitial artists ritually burned their old course notebooks years ago. They started to write the stories they wanted to be able to read, only to be told by their publisher that their book would sell much more quickly if it could be positioned into this publishing category for this intended audience and to achieve that you just need to cut back on this, expand on that, and add a little more of this other thing. I often picture James Stewart in Vertigo gradually redressing, restyling, and redesigning Kim Novak’s entire identity, all the while creepily asserting that it really shouldn’t make that much difference to her. That’s the process those of us who sympathize with the concept of interstitial arts are trying to battle back into submission or at least push back long enough so that we can demonstrate that there are readers out there, a few of us, who want the stuff that doesn’t really fit into fixed genres, though it may bear some faint family resemblance to several of them at once. Viva the mutts and the mongrels! Long live the horses of a different color!

So, you are now about to enter the Twilight Zone, where nothing your freshmen literature teacher taught you applies, where we eat with the wrong forks and wear white shoes after Labor Day. But it doesn’t mean that academic genre theory has nothing to contribute to our efforts as readers and writers to step across the ice floes and navigate the shifting sands of the interstitial. For the next few pages, I will be proposing a more contemporary account of how genre works in an era where so many of us are mixing and matching our preferences and defying established categories. The work of genre is changing as we speak – in some ways becoming more constraining, in others more liberating – and genre theorists are rethinking old assumptions to reflect the flux in the way culture operates.

To start with Genre Theory 101, all creative expression involves an unstable balance between invention and convention. If a work is pure invention, it will be incomprehensible – like writing a novel without using any recognizable language. Don’t worry: a work that is pure invention is only a theoretical possibility. None of us, in the end, is all that original; we borrow (often undigested) bits and pieces from the already written and the already read; we all construct new works through appropriation and transformation of existing materials. As Michel Bakhtin explains, we don’t take our words out of the dictionary; we rip them from other people’s mouths and they come to us covered with the saliva of where they’ve already been spoken before. Sharing stories is swapping spit.

However, If a work is pure convention, it will bore everyone. While most of us feel gratified when a work sometimes meets our expectations and most of us feel somewhat frustrated when a work fails to deliver those particular pleasures we associate with a favored formula, none of us wants to read a book that is predictable down to the last detail. All artists fall naturally somewhere on the continuum, in some ways following the dictates of their genres, in other ways breaking with them. And most readers pick up a new book or video expecting to be surprised (by invention) and gratified (by convention).

As they seek to satisfy our desires for surprise and gratification, genre conventions are both constraints (like strait jackets) and enabling mechanisms (like life vests). They are constraints in so far as they foreclose certain creative possibilities, and they are enabling mechanisms in so far as they allow us to focus the reader’s attention on novel elements. In the Russian formalist tradition that shaped my own early graduate education, we didn’t speak of “rules”; we spoke of “norms,” with the understanding that a work only achieved its fullest potential when it, in some way, “defamiliarized” our normal ways of seeing the world and ordering our experience. Or in another familiar paradigm, the auteur critics embraced those filmmakers who were “at war with their materials,” that is, who followed the expectations of genre just enough to continue to be employed by the Hollywood studio system but also sought to impose their own distinctive personality by breaking as many of those rules as possible.

Now, let’s consider how some of the writers featured on the Interstitial Arts Foundation website are confronting these competing pulls towards convention and invention as they think about their work. Some are seeking to break with the conventions of genre more dramatically than others; they each lay claim to different positions on the continuum between convention and invention.

Here, for example, is Barth Anderson: “If the work comforts, satisfies, or generally meets the expectations that viewers might carry of a genre in question, then the work is genre. This might even apply to works attempting to redefine genre or works which introduce alien elements and disciplines into the genre mix… Interstitial art should be prickly, tricky, ornery. It should defy expectations, work against them, and in so doing, maintain a relationship to one or more genres, albeit contentiously…. Interstitial art is often upsetting. It rocks worldviews, political assumptions, sacred cows, as well as bookstore shelves.” Anderson values surprise and sees genre primarily as a constraint.

Susan Stinson, by contrast, sees the artist as moving between the pleasures of operating within genres and the freedom of escaping their borders: “The gifts of being in a genre – reading the same essays and stories; seeking out the same mentors; publishing with the same magazines and presses; writing books that share shelf space; gathering at workshops, retreats, and conferences often enough to know each other – create a common language… I’ve felt both embraced and constricted by the conventions of those worlds…. The interstitial idea of thriving in cracks and crevices feels like [another] kind of home. Nurturing active, creative, receptive, demanding relationships and institutions that welcome genre-bending and respect a wide range of sources, traditions, and affinities sounds so good that it scares me. The expanded possibilities for joy are worth the risks.” Stinson acknowledges the gratifications of consuming genre entertainment and understands genre formulas as both enabling mechanisms and constraints.

Anderson speaks about the interstitial as “prickly, tricky, ornery,” while Stinson sees it as welcoming, “nurturing,” joyous, and “receptive.” One stresses radical breaks from the genre system, while the other is negotiating a space for singular passions within the system.

MORE TO COME

How Do You Sell an Artsy Board Game?

Part of the pleasure of relocating to the University of Southern California has been the chance to meet a whole new cast of characters, to discover just how intellectually diverse and interesting the students are here — especially when you factor in that my classes attract students from across the two schools, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and the School of Cinematic Art — where I have an appointment. It has always been my pleasure to help introduce some of my students to my readers and give you a glimpse of the kind of conversations that take place in my classroom.

A few weeks ago, James Taylor, a student in my Transmedia Entertainment class, booked time during my office hours and came in bearing a beautifully crafted box, proceeded to unpack a game board and pieces, and asked if I wanted to play. We had a great conversation about his project — The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands — and the thinking behind his design. What I got a glimpse into was someone who was turning the oft-neglected and modest craft of designing board games into an expressive artform. The game was one which encouraged us to reflect on the nature of play, of representation, and of gender. It was a delightful and engaging provocation, and I wanted to share it with you now. I got even more interested when I asked him what he planned to do with his game and he described the process by which he was putting the game onto the market via a microfinancing website. I thought even those of you who are not into games might enjoy learning more about the new kinds of entrepreneurship which are emerging within a networked culture.

Microfinance and the Market for Independent Board Games

by James Taylor

The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands is a fantastical board game with a rich history, an unusual narrative, and surreal Victorian-style artwork. It is a board game that sits comfortably at the intersection of art, logic and literature. It pushes boundaries and opens critical discussions in each of these realms: the board art needs to stand on it’s own, but also remain subservient to the game play; the story provokes questions of gender, desire, master-servant relationships, reliable narration, and the permutations of the game over a questionable 200 year history; and the game itself has a rule set that structures a peculiar mode of courtship.

Yet, can a small, provocative game ever make it in the (somewhat stalled) American board game industry? Is there a market for small, art-house board games?

How the Game Works –

The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands (TGSSI) is an absurd logic puzzle about crossing bridges. The bridges determine how many people can cross. The gentlemen are each trying to strain the group in order to converse with Lady Ashley alone.”

It is worth noting that the game is based on an old riddle. In the riddle, a farmer is trying to cross a river in a canoe with a fox, a chicken and a sack of corn. He can only take one at a time so he has to carefully plan his trips back and forth, without ever leaving the fox with the chicken, or the chicken with the sack of corn. TGSSI is a two-player game with a similar feel. Each of the gentlemen characters is trying to speak with the lady Ashley alone, and must use the bridges to constantly separate and recombine the group. A mathematician friend of ours calculated about 300,000 possible arrangements for the pieces on the board.

TGSSI_Box_cover_with_new_text_copy.jpg

Matters of Academic Interest –

Art & the Dilemma of Perspective -

After refining the rules for several months, I met with the board artist, Dan Gray. We knew we wanted a top-down view of the islands, because that’s what’s best for the game-play. But we quickly found that a matter-of-fact, top-down view of the islands wasn’t visually interesting – we were losing a lot of the detail and character of the locations by only showing them from above. After some thought, we decided it would be best to take a lesson from the cubists, and crack the perspective in order to accommodate the top-down play-view, while also managing to include the buildings, monuments, and ruins of the islands at mixed angles. The scale of the locations is also mixed. (For example, the octopus is bigger than the cathedral and the boat is larger than the volcano.) The result is a gameboard with a rather warped perspective. It is a top-down vantage point of the islands as though seen through a piece of wavy, distorted glass, and this distortion for the board would later serve as the inspiration for the themes of distortion that run throughout the narrative.

TGSSI_Board_v1_original_dots_+tunnel.jpg

Making the Game British –

There were two reasons for making the game British. Looking back, it now seems like an obvious choice because of the high level of politeness built into the rule structure (the group typically moves together as a matter of decorum because it would be impolite for a character to walk off in a different direction), but there was another reason as well that had more to do with the objective. The core mechanic of the game is about stepping aside with a lady – and this is an objective that can be read the wrong way, to say the least. In light of this complication, we insisted on the word “Gentlemen” in the title, to squash any accusations of underhanded intentions. Given the high-level of social decorum, and the word “Gentlemen” in the title, the game just seemed British, so we decided to run with it.

Questions of Gender and the Focus of Desire –

At first glance, the game appears to be a simple, perhaps ridiculous, love story in which two men are competing for the attentions of Lady Ashley. Simple enough. But questions of sexism are distributed, alleviated and then further compounded throughout all of the materials of the game. The representations of gender are contradictory because these questions are mixed with questions of the reliability of the character descriptions and the permutations of the game over it’s 200 year history. Whether the game is played in a male-centric universe is a fertile ground for debate.

Soon after opening the box, a player will discover that no one controls the female characters. The rules state: “the Ladies move on their own turn and move independently of the group.” The phrasing (deliberately) implies that the girls are aloof and disinterested, that they do not care about this and have other places to be. But the problem of gender is unavoidable: if no one controls the Lady characters, then they do not have creative agency. Instead, they move along a set path. The question of gender in the rules sends the players outwards to explore the character booklet.

According to the narrative materials of the game, it was invented by two wealthy (and perhaps mildly insane) gentlemen living on an island. They devised the rule set. This means that we are not looking at the “official rules” of a courtship, by any means, but rather we are looking at what two gentlemen, in their paired delusion, imagined those rules to be. The gentlemen characters are ridiculous enough that it’s hard to take them seriously. If they weren’t getting gender right, then, well, nor were they very adept at anything else. Jules is a manufacturer of distorted glass and Hodge’s “maps might find their best place in a childrens’ coloring book.” Again, the theme of distortion (originating with the game board art) runs deep throughout the narrative and the game.

A more nuanced look at gender and desire reveals even more. At the end of the character booklet, Jules suggests to Hodge that they should save themselves the “legwork” of chasing after her. He suggests that Hodge “draw up a map of these islands” so that they may resume in the “cool shade of representation.” The implication here is that Hodge (the cartographer) drew up a map to serve as the game board, and that Jules (the manufacturer of distorted glass) provided the melted marbles for the pieces. The final image in the character booklet shows them playing the board game. At this stage, Lady Ashley is nowhere to be found. She has been pushed out of the frame and nearly out of the scope of the game. In the image, it is as if the two gentlemen are content to compete with each other over her as an imagined trophy and this might have been the case all along. Is Lady Ashley simply a cipher in order for the 2 gentlemen to keep score with each other? Or rather, is she a canvas on which to paint their affections for one another? Once they reach the stage of playing out the courtship as a board game, one gets the sense that the game is less and less about her.

To determine if the game is in fact sexist – if the world is in fact a male-centric universe – we can find more information in the descriptions of the characters. As we know, Lady Ashley is described as an absent-minded wanderer. This is not a particularly empowering, or redemptive view of the female character, but it’s hard to say whether the narrator’s description is at all reliable. On a page of direct quotations, Lady Ashley states: “I simply find it odd, that not one person on these islands has asked me even a single question … Yet clearly I am in the middle of something…” So if we can trust this quotation, and if no one has asked her a single question, then how can we possibly believe the narrator’s three-paragraph description? Especially when there is evidence that contradicts even his basic description. A publisher’s footnote from a 1925 version of the game reads:

According to the partial memoirs of J.T. Trotwood, there was indeed a Lady Ashley who briefly visited these isles. In reality she was a naturalist commissioned by the British Royal Society to collect flower specimens.

This is a more empowering view of her, but without a firm grounding in truth, one can simply not say who (between the narrator and the gentlemen and the multiple editors) is providing trustworthy information. If in fact there was a Lady Ashley to visit these islands, her true identity might be lost forever under a history of unreliable male narration. While gender remains an issue, perhaps it is easiest to allay the concerns of sexism by discounting the men. The epitaph introducing the game seems to speak on Lady Ashley’s behalf. It reads,

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”

The Layers of Story –

Owing to the loose “facts” of the game, it is quite difficult to determine the exact history, or even to count the number of diegetic layers. However, a rough estimate turns up between six and eight layers of story. We start with the original competition on these islands that was played (on foot ) by crossing bridges to speak with the lady. Because it is hard to say if there was ever a woman on these islands, the second diegetic layer is possibly what Jules and Hodge imagined in order to occupy their time. We know that at some point, the gentlemen decided to sit down and create a representation of the game, at which point Hodge drew up a map of the islands and Jules provided the pieces. Later on, the game and several historical documents from these islands were discovered, and the game was brought back to England and published by Edward B. Tickert. 100 years later I myself played a beat-up, depleted copy of the game in a pub in England and decided to seek out more information (which makes me perhaps the 4th or 5th diegetic layer.) Long-story short, I acquired the rights to republish the game. The players who buy the game are acting out the roles of Jules and Hodge as they play, well, the characters Jules and Hodge in the game. Finally, if I pass the game to a larger publisher, they will create yet a seventh layer of editorial commentary; and if we include essays and comments about the game to be included in the box…then the public discourse becomes yet another layer.

The game’s history relies on an elaborate, interlocking web of historical documentation surrounding different episodes in the game’s discovery and development. The layers of the game create the following epistemological paradox: one can only sort through the facts of the game’s history by referring to other questionable facts of the game’s history.

Much like Freud’s dreams, every element followed will lead to another significant element in a vast web of significance.

Going Transmedia –

There is a nice array of transmedia elements surrounding the game. Perhaps most noteworthy is the upcoming documentary, in which several historians and professors discuss the origins of the game and it’s 200 year history. We wanted to build up a rich environment of critical discourse surrounding the game. We wanted to tease out the details of this absurd British colony in the midst of which the game was created. In essence, we wanted to take a simple game and discuss it not only as a historical artifact, but also as a game based on a real events. The fun in the short documentary is in taking a fantastical game and discussing it as a very real representation of an antiquated courtship. It’s an anthropological approach to a strange, fictional culture.

The documentary about the islands gestures toward the game, while the game raises questions that demand further exploration in the documentary. Both of them point to other media properties. Kim Moses (co-producer of The Ghost-Whisperer TV series on CBS) describes this type of cross-referencing media as an Infinity Loop.

Marketing, Micro-funding & KickStarter.com

Basically, on our financial budget, it doesn’t make sense to print 500 copies of the game unless we know we have 500 buyers.

We have chosen to assess the level of public and investor interest in The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands by posting it to a microfunding site called Kickstarter.com. On this site, people can preorder the game, or become benefactors. If there is enough interest in the game from the public, then we will move forward and print the first 500 copies.

According to the website, “Kickstarter is a funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, explorers…” They advertise their website as a way for project creators to “pool” their social networks and turn them into an micro-investment community. It is highly encouraged on the site to offer incentives for different levels of investment.

Another unique aspect of kickstarter is that it is all or nothing. People who post projects set a funding goal for the project. If the goal is met in the two-month time period, everyone who contributed is charged the amount that they pledged. But f the goal is not met, no one is charged, and the project receives no money to move forward. The website offers three reasons for it’s sink or swim approach:

1. It’s less risk for everyone this way. If you need $5,000, it can suck to have $2,000 and a bunch of people who expect you to be able to complete a $5,000 project.

2. It allows people to test concepts (or conditionally sell stuff) without risk. If you don’t receive the support you want, you’re not compelled to follow through.

3. It motivates. If you want to see a project come to life, it helps to spread the word.

The site encourages creative marketing, and necessitates spreading the link to the site as far as possible. Here are the things they encourage potential project creators to consider:

1. How will you tell people about your project? The key to a successful project is asking your networks, audience, friends and family for help. Kickstarter is a tool that can turn your networks into your patrons; it is not a source of funding on its own.

2. Rewards are very important. Offer something of real value for a fair price. And more experiential rewards, things that loop backers into the story, are incredibly powerful. Most of the successful projects include them — take a look around the site and you’ll see some great examples. PS: Three or four reasonably priced rewards seems to work quite well (think of it as S, M, L, XL).

3. Include a video. It’s more personal.

4. Be clear and specific about your project’s goal.

5. And finally, when it comes to your funding goal, raise as little as you’ll need to move forward. Projects can raise more, but never less.

In order to preserve the integrity (and strangeness) of The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands (TGSSI), we have found this micro-investment site to be the best approach. We are selling a fantastical board game with a deep, rich story across multiple platforms. Moreover we are selling it in a country that has slim-to-no independent market for board games.

It seems that the game could find it’s home in high-school or college classrooms, but one can’t help but notice that studying games is not a common practice in our education system. But why is that? Perhaps this last question is better left to someone more qualified to answer it.

James Taylor is graduate student in Interactive Media at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Resisting the current of digital media, he has chosen to work primarily with board games. You can order the game here.

Counting on Twitter: Harvard’s Web Ecology Project (Part Two)

Last time, I shared with you some of the work being done by Harvard University’s Web Ecology Project, specifically focusing on the use of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iran Elections and around the death of Michael Jackson. Through qualitative and quantitative research, the team is seeking to develop a better understanding of the flow of ideas through the social networking world and how different participants exert influence on Twitter. My respondent last time was Dharmishta Rood, who I worked with when I was back at MIT. Today, I am showcasing the research being conducted by three other researchers on the Web Ecology team — Erhardt Graeff, Tim Hwang and Alex Leavitt. I asked them each to share some of their current research and explain why they think it can contribute to our understanding of the new media environment. For more on the Web Ecologies Project, check out Alex Leavitt’s recent post on the Convergence Culture Consortium Blog.

Erhardt Graeff: One of our hopes for Web Ecology is a fusion of quantitative and qualitative approaches to studying social media phenomena. Our goal of constructing a scientific framework for tackling quantifiable data online is only possible when we recognize the cultural contexts. In Web Ecology, we see the formalization of these contexts as web ecosystems such as LiveJournal, Facebook, and Twitter.

Inspired by the ethnographic work of a number of researchers, including danah boyd, Mimi Ito, and Keith Hampton on Netville, we are beginning to profile individual social media networks. We call the outputs of our research “Web Ecosystem Profiles”. The goal of each profile is to characterize the cultural landscape of a web ecosystem. As you might expect, much of this is done through participant observation.

Of course, the boundaries of each ecosystem are negotiable as in any study of a community. More importantly, a web ecosystem’s state is in constant flux with users joining and leaving, new features being introduced, and memes propagating the network. Thus, Web Ecosystem Profiles must be dynamic documents. And to guide our work, we rely on a few of the central tenets of Web Ecology, first laid out in Reimagining Internet Studies:

• Interdependence: code and users are part of an inseparable aggregate web phenomenon;

• Boundedness: the web is constrained by various forces and configurations;

• Significance: content on the web retains inherent value.

Here is an abbreviated version of the outline we are currently using to build profiles. The full version is on our wiki (requires registration):

• Introductory Overview of the Ecosystem

• Common language for discussing components of the ecosystem

• “Typical” reasons that users register / access the ecosystem

• Technical affordances / Constraints of the ecosystem

• Requirements of site usage

• Landmarks of the ecosystem’s evolution (e.g. eternal septembers, jumping the shark)

• Defined user cohorts

• Ecosystem-specific lexicon

• Phenomenology of ‘Typical’ Sessions in an Ecosystem

• Describe general experience of using the site

• Key use cases

• Possibilities for Quantitative Analysis

• Introduce available APIs

• List of atomized site components / activity that could be quantified (e.g. tweets, likes)

• Documentation of successful and unsuccessful approaches to this ecosystem

The last section is unique to the quantitative research Web Ecology hopes to undertake. On Twitter, this is easy because they provide a very open API, with decent documentation, and also the forms of interaction are easily quantified. For Twitter, a web ecosystem profile is particularly useful to help formalize the documentation of unconventional use cases (see excellent examples in danah boyd’s draft of “Tweet, Tweet, Retweet“). Charting all the different ways users retweet can enable a better quantitative study of retweeting behavior by ensuring that we: 1) catch all of the various forms of retweets and 2) understand what the different forms might signify.

A more straightforward use of a Web Ecosystem Profile is when a social network has not been explored by many researchers. A few weeks ago, fellow Web Ecologist Seth Woodworth started to use the profile framework to document aspects of LibraryThing, which no one else in our community was using at the time. Did you know that the key demonym in the community is a “thingabrarian”, or that one unconventional practice is the creation of fakester libraries for popular, dead authors?

Web Ecosystem Profiling is at a very early stage of preparation. But we believe the need for a peer-produceable way to continually document the contexts of social media phenomena is obvious and immediate. Hopefully, a larger community of researchers are willing to contribute and offer feedback.

Tim Hwang: The Era of Social Media has gifted us with two Big Ironies. First, there’s the Big Irony of Business, where extensive practical experience with communities online hasn’t successfully translated to the emergence of a science (or even a cluster of useful, concrete reliable methods) around building vibrant social spaces on the web. Second, there’s also the Big Irony of Academia, where massive amounts of data, talent, and research on the dynamics of social networks fails to make it into informing the day-to-day practice of businesses (or, indeed, the popular discourse).

In both worlds, the irony is the same: we do in some sense have the key information right in front of us (either in terms of practical experience or reams of qualitative and quantitative research), but a notable lack of ability to convert it into specific, actionable knowledge.

Indeed, this has led us to kind of a sorry state, where good people — some seriously sharp, brilliant people — can spend hours talking about the really beautiful research about the social nature of the web. But when the key questions come down the pipe, “So what can I do to foster a community?,” “So what factors are responsible for promoting the propagation of culture?,” most folks are reduced to wandering generalities and the mantra-like suggestion that the person in question should really consider starting a Twitter account. Where we should be sifting through the available data and offering specific ideas, we’ve largely only got vague philosophies and anecdotes. Depressingly, the Emperor has no clothes. At the point we’re sitting, he’s not even really the Emperor, either.

And perhaps most scarily, there’s a kind of superstition I feel that’s starting to circle around the research, a suspicion that the whole idea of digging deep with data and getting scientific with our prescriptions is, in fact, a largely misguided idea. Social media expert Chris Brogan recently wrote about the quantitative side of things:

I’m writing this from a conference full of researches [sic]. They are all talking passionately about numbers, and I get this. I understand that they’re passionate about exacting a science out of the crazy data of human passion. And yet, part of me thinks that numbers often serve us as little life rafts. […]

We cling to numbers. In business, we use numbers as our primary gauges. But in relationships, we don’t. Right? Do you count who hosted the holiday party and do you measure just how delicious the meal was on a chart? (If you do, I take it you like sleeping on couches.)

And he’s dead on. But about the wrong point. It’s true: you’re are in fact a serious jerkface if you behave in the robotic way he’s talking about. But we probably wouldn’t , for example, blame the host for meticulously keeping track of what people liked and didn’t like — and using it to plan the menu for the next holiday party. This is a simple way of saying that, rigorous exploration isn’t bad when it improves our results in a real way. And so, the responsibility for the flaw in Chris’ voiced skepticism doesn’t fall on him at all. I think it’s a natural response to the failure of the research to actually step up to the plate and deliver some implementable knowledge beyond the generalities. If all of our experience and hard data can’t come to anything practical, it’s easy to believe that it might not be a worthwhile approach to rely on.

So how do we finally step up to the plate? And, before we get to that: how did we get here?

Largely, I’m willing to argue that the Big Ironies have emerged because there’s no good space where people can playtest, experiment, and rapidly iterate on a variety of strategies, particularly where influencing the social space online is concerned. There’s no good place to measure success, or even compare various approaches against one another to assess their usefulness. There’s no way to prove that your methods and data mining can actually produce repeated success. Without that kind of lab, it’s tough to take insights from both the research and business world, and try them again and again. Without trying and trying again, we never get to know how information might actually be transformed into useful, applied knowledge.

One of the big projects of the web ecology community has been to see if there’s a way of providing that exact environment. Specifically, we’ve been talking about the concept of competitive games, and the fact that they provide the ideal social structure that we’re looking for. Games create repeatable scenarios, allowing us to identify and test a given situation over and over again. Competitive games require measurable goals, and a structured way of assessing success. Finally (and, perhaps best of all) games are good experimental zones, places to try out tactics and strategies on low stakes.

Add the involvement of real people and social structures to take it out of an abstracted lab scenario, and you’ve gotten to an experiment that we’re starting to undertake, something we call social wargaming.

The general premise is simple: beginning with a “battlefield” population of users (who are unaware that a game is going on — indeed, revealing the existence of the game is against the rules of the game), teams compete to effect specific changes in their behavior. This goes from as simple as getting a social network to pass around a piece of content, to as complex as attempting to bridge the structural gaps between two unconnected clusters of users. We’re starting out with single platforms, but the eventual idea is to level up to testing the ability of teams to create certain effects across various networks, and in the social ecosystem of the web as a whole.

The open, implicit challenge is equally simple, though perhaps provocative to the point of being considered trolling: if you’re really so good at understanding what culture and community online is all about, if you’re really so good at “engaging communities” and being a “trust agent,” why not put the money where the mouth is and see if you can’t straight up just do it?

The first iteration of this game, entitled “Triangles,” builds around this premise. Essentially, teams are given a “terrain” of contested target users to study on Twitter that are connected in some way. The competition is for them to start fresh with an “ego account,” which will compete with other groups to create as many tightly linked triangles of connection between their account and two other target users in a short period of time. Over a series of games, we can also change up the terrain and rules to ask other questions — what tactics work best when trying to build new connections in an already tightly interconnected social group? Can robots achieve the same results as humans in fostering certain types of behavior?

The rules in more depth are available here (Social_Wargaming_Triangles.txt,) and we’re actively looking for participants who want to play a role in this. First round begins November 20th, and will be running during the first week of December. Definitely drop an e-mail to tim@webecologyproject.org, if you’d like to be involved. And, with any hope, we’re hoping that the outcome of this gaming will be something in actuality quite different that just mere entertainment: experiments towards forging an applied science of cultural and community spaces online.

Alex Leavitt: A primary goal of the Web Ecology Project aims to analyze how the relationship between social networking platforms and its users affects and is affected by the cultural practices of online communication and community building. To approach this goal, we had striven to establish a set of first principles for the Web on which to base our future research. Our analyses of influence on the Web usually started with these first principles. For example, the smallest units of communication might be a page view or a click. Using these measurements, how could we make declarative statements about how people interacted in mediated spaces like Twitter (which structure communication based on how the programmers design the platform)?

However, designing first principles proved a bit difficult, and when I wrote “The Influentials” I realized that we would have to shape sets of “elementary particles” (like chemical atoms and molecules) per each system. Basically, because each platform controls the possible modes of communication, first principles for Facebook are inherently different than those of Google Reader, for example. For Twitter, the platform analyzed in “The Influentials,” these elements begin with the ordinary tweet, out of which we see related particles, like replies, retweets, and mentions.

For the elements on Twitter, I established an operational definition of influence (meaning that our analysis is ultimately separated from any theories of influence previously researched in academic circles). Tweets became actions on which replies, retweets, and mentions were enacted. Thus, we organized our arguments around influence as those messages sustaining a large amount of responses.

The focus on response is key to our results. The Web Ecology Project has attempted to respond to extremely generalized analyses of social media phenomenon, particularly with large amounts of quantitative evidence to support our claims. In “The Influentials,” we wanted to criticize those analyses of influence that had primarily focused on follower counts, which of course are important; however, if a user has 10,000 followers and none of them respond to the user, then can we claim that this user is influential? Of course, we couldn’t ignore follower counts, so we included equations and calculated graphs that accounted for both responses and numbers of followers, to weigh users that had smaller follower networks.

Probably the more interesting aspect of our initial analysis of influence of Twitter lay in our categorization of the cultural practices that lay underneath these interactions between popular users on Twitter and their followers. We split the ten users into three groups: celebrities, news outlets, and social media analysts. For the most part, the trends show that the members of these groups act fairly similarly (with discrepancies, of course, usually based on the number of followers).

The under-appreciated piece of our research ended up being our visualizations. We generated a colorful graph that illustrates the density of tweets and responses for each user in our report. It’s intriguing to analyze our statistics visually, because you can occasionally pick out exceptional instances of response explosions. Although in our visualization our code could not parse out which responses corresponded to which original tweet, we can suppose that most of the wild groups of responses that follow occasional tweets are immediate responses that eventually ebb away.

To move beyond this initial, basic analysis of influence on Twitter, we would like to look closer at the networks of followers behind these mega-users. Looking at hypothetical extremes hints at the problems we might foresee in future research: If a user has a follower network that responds at an ordinary rate, but each of those users have extremely active responding networks (ie., the original user’s secondary follower network), then that certainly affects how we might provide ratings or levels of influence for specific users.

Erhardt Graeff is a Lead Researcher and Developer for the Web Ecology Project, and also a social scientist and entrepreneur with an MPhil in Modern Society and Global Transformations from Cambridge University and a couple of bachelor’s degrees from RIT. In addition to researching social media, he has studied rural internet use and social capital, digital divides, e-government, networked public spheres, and new media literacy. Beyond the Web Ecology Project, Erhardt is the Director of Technology and Strategy for BetterGrads, a startup aimed at preparing high school students for college life, and is a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, studying OER and the political economy of the textbook industry.

Tim Hwang is the Director of the Web Ecology Project and an analyst with The Barbarian Group — where he works on issues of group dynamics and web influence. He is interested in building a science around measuring the system-wide flows of content and patterns of community formation online. He is also the founder of ROFLCon, a series of conferences celebrating and examining internet culture and celebrity. He currently Twitters @timhwang, blogs at BrosephStalin, and is in the process of watching every homemade flamethrower video on YouTube.

Alex Leavitt is a Lead Researcher for the Web Ecology Project. His interests include geographical, linguistic, and transnational subcultures; the hybridization of popular culture and online humor; and the emergent cultural practices of (un)controlled online social networks. Alex also works as a research specialist with the Convergence Culture Consortium in the Comparative Media Studies department at MIT, and has previously worked with the Digital Natives Project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society (Harvard Law School). In addition to his weekly articles on the Convergence Culture blog, Alex writes long-form about Japanese popular culture at The Department of Alchemy and short-form on Twitter (@alexleavitt).

Counting on Twitter: Harvard’s Web Ecology Project (Part One)

Anyone who has read my blog long knows that I am not big on counting things. Some of it is that I have math anxiety — a serious vulnerability for someone who spent the first 20 years of his career at MIT! Some of it is that I think people often act as if counting things is the same thing as analyzing things or that the only things that count are things that came be counted. I often wage a one-man struggle against the push to quantify the universe — perhaps as if (arbitrary science fiction reference warning) the world would end if we could just capture all of the billions of names of God. That said, I am finding myself mellow more than a little now that I am at USC, am watching my former graduate students struggle to grasp quantitative methods, and getting to know some of my office mates and colleagues who count things for a living.

And there is a particularly value in trying to understand the scale on which certain changes in our communication environment are occurring — at least to capture some order of their magnitude. And that’s why I have been following with some interest the emergence of a research team at Harvard focused on understanding Twitter and its place in the “web ecology.” Many members of the team are graduate students I worked with in a range of capacities during my time at MIT and have come to value their insights into digital media. Their data is already helping me to reframe some of the thinking I am doing about spreadable media and knowing how many people come to this blog now through my tweets, my bet is that you will find what they are doing interesting as well. In this first installment, the responses come from Dharmishta Rood, who I met through the Knight news challenge a few years ago and who took several of my classes during my final year at MIT. I featured one of her essays on the blog last spring. Next time, she will be joined by some other members of the research team.

What do you mean by web ecology? What does the name of your group tell us about the assumptions guiding your research?

We summarize our research by the statement that Web Ecology studies the relationship of the nature of data and the behavior of actors on the internet.

Web Ecology as a field, rather than focusing on the Internet from various fields such as Sociology, Humanities, Business or Media Studies, focuses on the Web itself, combining methodologies from multiple, often interrelated disciplines, to decipher activity online both quantitatively and qualitatively. In our personal research practices we frequently use large-scale data mining to inform our research questions and to further our understanding about the cultures and communities evident online. In addition to providing quantitative analysis about the social layer of the web, we see our role as Web Ecologists to provide tools for other Web Ecologists in an open manner for the community of researchers. We also see the advantageous position of this type of resarch for businesses interested in marketing and online presence.

What can you tell us about the core methodology you are applying to understanding how Twitter works?

We try to break down Twitter into quantifiable interactions. We understand that there are many factors outside of Twitter–both time specific, such as breaking news, the hour of a TV show or a holiday, but also new trends and information being spread throughout the web. We try to look at all of it within the ecosystem of Twitter itself. At Web Ecology we try to look at what we can measure–namely retweets, mentions, @replies, #hashtags and common keywords within the sea of tweets.

We understand that the web is constrained by various forces and configurations. Rather than a utopian or deterministic perspective, Web Ecology recognizes that the web is not limitless or truly divorceable from various geographic, social, historical, and other realities.

Web Ecology endorses the systematic creation and testing of models, which leads us to a heavily quantitative approach, that can then be paired with a qualitatitive exploration of these findings. We also don’t overlook Internet phenomena as transient cultural fads–we see cultural creation on the Internet as impartially as possible, and also that code and users are part of an inseparable aggregate web phenomenon.

Some of your earliest results dealt with the role of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iran elections. What kinds of data emerged from your investigation? What did that tell us we didn’t already know about the twitter traffic surrounding these events?

Our report cites much of the popular media that both creates the term yet also criticizes the hasty declaration of a “Twitter Revolution” in Iran.

Using 12 keywords and hashtags, we found that 58% of relevant twitter conversation did NOT contain the common hashtag #iranelection. This allowed us to get a much more comprehensive overview of the Twittersphere during the Iranian election.

One of the most interesting findings to emerge out of the report were these two facts in conjunction: The top 10% of users in our study account for 65.5% of total tweets and one in four tweets were retweet of another user’s content, showing that the users who tweet the most are not always the most influential.

twitter mj_dies(2).jpg

You’ve also looked at the Twitter traffic following Michael Jackson’s death. What similarities and differences did you find in the discussion surrounding these two events?

Similarly to the Iran election, with Michael Jackson’s death on Twitter there were many keywords. One of the most interesting findings was the trajectory of each event over the Twittersphere. In the case of Michael Jackson’s death, there were over 279,000 tweets within the first hour of mainstream news reports of Jackson’s death, whereas with the Iranian election, there were 2,024,166 tweets total (over eighteen days), but never more than 17,500 tweets in any given hour. These tweets fluctuated during times of unrest.

Since the excitement on twitter decreased over time, especially after the first hour, the type of content was inherently very different. We spent time hand-coding tweets (in the Social Science sense, having individuals read and analyze the tweets according to certain metrics) rather than strictly doing data analysis. The Michael Jackson report sought to understand sentiment on Twitter, rather than the trajectory of a real-time event spanning many days.

twitter mj_iran(2).jpg

How important is retweeting to the ecology of the web?

Within twitter specifically, retweeting is only one of the many ways people can interact with content. It becomes important when new audiences see content from users they do not follow, but another important feature of Twitter is search. Users following a particular topic of interest can come across new content to consume and share.

What do you think Twitter is doing that is different from other kinds of social networks?

Twitter allows users to follow one another asymmetrically, meaning that users do not have to follow those that follow them. From this an interesting dynamic emerges wherein follower counts are meaningful in a separate way than the number and type of people a user follows. A user is often valued more for the amount of followers–an account with immensely more users they are following than follow them is likely spam, whereas a user like Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) only follows ~300 users but has almost 4,000,000 followers.

Twitter, as it’s been deemed many times over is a “micro blogging service,” meaning the updates contain news and information like blogs, but with many fewer characters. This micro-update style is now a relevant part of other social networks, both during and after the increase of Twitter’s userbase.

Dharmishta Rood is Director of Research Relations at the Web Ecology Project and a recent graduate Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Her work deals with large scale and interpersonal communication systems like social networks and news. These types of platforms allow users to generate and consume information in ways that further social connections and learning. She is a 2008 Knight News Challenge winner for Populous Project, a free and open-source platform for online news, holds a degree in Design | Media Arts from UCLA and is a Fellow at the Center for Future Civic Media. She tweets @dharmishta and blogs at dharmishta.com.


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Click Click Ranger: A Transmedia Experiment for Korean Television (Part Two)

Circular Nexus of Screens

Why does Click Click Ranger need this complicate maneuver over multiple forms of screens, and for what purpose? In order to dissect the discursive logic behind this nexus of screens, we need to understand the current configuration of these screens in Korea.

Mobile Phones: The prodigy of Korean IT mythology.

Click Click Ranger‘s experiment of incorporating the mobile phone into a television show directly corresponds to the recent development of Korea’s mobile phone industry in the convergent media paradigm. Since ETRI and the consortium of corporations launched the world’s first commercial CDMA mobile phone service in 1996, Korea has been a step ahead in exploring CDMA based technological innovations and the latest mobile media services including mobile TV (DMB: Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) and Wibro (the first wireless high-speed broadband). Following SK telecom (the major wireless network provider in Korea)’s 3G mobile content service June in 2002, Korean wireless companies have explored the diverse forms of mobile multimedia content. I conveniently categorize content for mobile phone into two types: “migrated mobile content” which refers to repurposed and repackaged content from conventional media and “original mobile content” that is initially produced for mobile screen devices such as mobile cinema and mobile drama)(Ok, 2008). In the midst of industrial effort to find the ‘right’ content for mobile screen, these new hybrid forms of moving images explore the aesthetics of convergence that continues and at the same time disrupts the conventions of existing media forms. Mobile TV has expanded the horizon of the mobile screen by combining mobile telecommunication technology and broadcasting.

While mobile phone content service and Mobile TV serve as extended venues for conventional media, the conventional media have also tried to incorporate mobile screen technologies into their formats in many different ways. Overall, the most heated concern for both parties is how to develop ‘new’ content that fit the condition of media convergence, which is often expressed as a ‘media big bang’ and ‘content war’ in popular media in Korea (Kim & Lee, 2005). Click Click Ranger is an early attempt to tackle this challenge on the television network side, which continued to the fever of UCC (User Created Content). Following Click Click Ranger, other television networks and popular media organizations launched similar programs such as SBS’s “Uporter” system. Literally, “Uporter” means “ubiquitous reporter” and it mobilizes citizens to capture news on the street with their digital camera or mobile phone camera, which are then selectively shown through regular News shows on SBS.

Click Click Ranger‘s use of mobile phone imaging directs attention to the multifaceted nature of the mobile phone. Notably, MSM (multimedia short message) which allows users to attach pictures or short video clips to a mobile phone message is generally discussed as a private communication tool or a vehicle to expand private space with the combined practice of blogging. Although the formation of shared ‘community’- whether it is exclusive or relatively open to the general public- has also been discussed, the prevailing assumption is on the practice of ‘private imaging’ among individuals. Compared to this model of private imaging, Click Click Ranger’s adoption of mobile phone imaging is closer to and continues the practice of “citizen journalism” only with changed technologies- from the (video) camera and to the mobile phone-. Hence, while being true to the technological premise of the medium that provides ‘personal mobility’ (for the mobile rangers and citizen reporters), their mobile phone imaging resides in and further serves to reinstate the value of the public. Most of all, it is the particular use of the outdoor screen with the mobile screen that distinguishes Click Click Ranger from other home-video shows or citizen reports programs and enables it to construct a broader discourse of the ‘public space’ out of mobile screen usage in Korea.

Outdoor Screens

City Hall Square during World Cup Soccer in 2002

Okay. Click Click Ranger was able to find a way to connect the mobile phone to the television. Now, what makes this nexus of screens unique is the presence of the large LED screen as an integral part of the television show. Simply put, in Click Click Ranger, the large LED Screen technically functions as an additional outdoor TV to broadcast its program. Although the use of the mobile screen is also equally unconventional, the potential of mobile phones as screen media has already been explored in diverse ways. Yet the large LED screen, in spite of its ubiquity in urban landscapes of the global metropolis, has received little attention in the conventional media industry other than in the outdoor advertising business. Becoming one of the latest form of screen media, the Large LED screen not only succeeds the function of the commercial or public advertising that outdoor billboards once fulfilled but also continues the visual pleasure of the urban spectacle. Since 2000, the LED screen in Korea was moved from the category of ‘outdoor advertising’ to the ‘LED display screen broadcasting,’ becoming one of the ‘broadcasting-telecommunication convergent media’ that would be governed under the new broadcasting laws.

Compared to the traditional TV at home, the experience of outdoor TV is deeply conditioned by the material condition of place, as TV screen is usually an implemented part of the architectural surroundings. That is, the location where outdoor TV displays, whether it be waiting room, subway/train station or rooftop of building, tends to predetermine the content and flow of content on outdoor TV screens. At the same time, the meaning of place is also rendered by the viewer’s activity of watching TV: If in Seoul, the subway station might turn into a living room momentarily for the passengers who enjoy entertainment show clips on ubiquitous screen panels installed inside the train and/or waiting area, beyond its practical functions. In Click Click Ranger, it is the symbolic meaning of ‘public space’ (as in the location of Seoul City Hall) that the commercial LED screen in City Hall Plaza embodies and that Click Click Ranger systematically appropriates and reproduces. Then, why is the location of Seoul City Hall Plaza crucial for linking up-to-date screen technologies?

Physically located at the busy intersection of the political and economic center of the downtown Seoul, the Seoul City Hall Plaza has served as a central place for many important national events. By running the show on the rooftop of city hall building following the fashion of ‘live news report on spot,’ Click Click Ranger successfully appropriates the sense of ‘liveness’ and intentionally adds ‘moral weight – news-worthy-ness-‘ to the clips. This simulated urgency and liveness that supports the show’s goal of being connected to everyday realities of Korea is intensified on the symbolic level since for Koreans the Seoul City Hall Plaza is the emblematic center for national identity as manifested during the World Cup Soccer tournament in 2002.

The image of the Seoul City Hall above illustrates the scene of World Cup Soccer frenzy during which, with the unexpected achievement of the Korean national team going on to the semi-final, crowds gathering in front of the large electronic screens to cheer reached the point of becoming a nation-wide ritual. The intensity and enthusiasm represented by the image of the ‘wave of Red Devils’ (the official name of Korean team supporters as well as the icon of 2002 World Cup) left an unforgettable impression on Korean popular imaginary. In fact, many Korean scholars agreed that World Cup Soccer frenzy in 2002 does not simply reflect interest in a national sports match but rather represents a demarcating historical moment in Korean society- a culminating point to celebrate regained national pride and strength after the collapse of the economy in 1997. More interestingly, the 2002 World Cup syndrome parallels the increasing self-awareness of Korea’s position as a world- leading player in the global information technology industry.

It is not a mere coincidence that the ‘mobile phone’ and the ‘screen’ were two of the primary export products of Korea at the time. Led by the semi-conductor chip, various sorts of screens (PDP, LCD/LED screens, computer screens, and the traditional electronic screens) and mobile phones ranked among top three export products in 2005 (Ministry of Information and Telecommunication, 2005). The first pivotal moment when large LED screens came into the public media awareness in Korea was also around the World Cup Soccer in 2002, when it served as a key display venue for broadcasting the Korean national team’s matches in public places. The large LED screen that Click Click Ranger deploys is one of the several LED screens that drew large crowds around Seoul City Hall Plaza. In its pilot episode, Click Click Ranger explicitly delivers this intertwined discourse of the screen and the nation. The show dwelled on the significance of City Hall Plaza by inserting clips of City Hall Plaza scenes during World Cup Soccer 2002 and charts with the statistics of mobile phone exports sales. In this way, the culturally accumulated meaning of the particular place of Seoul City Hall Plaza- a center of the civil and nationalistic ideology- enhance Click Click Ranger’s attempt to replicate the sense of ‘liveness’ of live broadcasting and foreground the ‘collective’ meaning of being networked.

All Together: Networked Public in Wired Korea

Overall, Click Click Ranger represents multilayered meanings of the physical and the discursive movements of images within current Korea: images migrate from the ‘micro’ screen to the ‘macro’ screen, from private space to public space and as a result, individuals are assumed to occupy the position of citizens. For instance, in Mobile Ranger, the implication of ‘private imaging’ constantly changes as it travels across diverse screens: from private imaging to public exhibition on outdoor screen, and back to the private viewing on Mobile TV. In this circulation, mobile phones and Mobile TV, which represent personal screen devices, are mobilized into the formation of ‘public space’ by conventional media. By creating public space within the domain of private space, Mobile Ranger inevitably questions the fixity of the boundary between private and public space which is considered to be contingent on the specificity of media. When the show is eventually broadcast in mobile TV, the flexibility of the public and private space becomes more intensified. Due to the mobility given to the viewer, the previously established and spatially fixed ‘public’ dimension of the outdoor screen in city hall square is disrupted as the diverse viewing situations of individual Mobile TV viewers multiply the meanings of space for themselves.

In the end, Click Click Ranger‘s complicated exhibition process does not simply aim to increase the pleasure of experiencing images, but to foreground the very technological competency of appropriating new technologies. The realization of the idea of ‘connecting’ these up-to-dated screen technologies symptomatically reveals the social discourse about the importance of ‘networked public in wired Korea’. Considering that mobile technology becomes a source of national pride, the cultural use of mobile technology in Korea, especially mediated through the conventional media practices, often invites the individual to the formation of national identity. Not only doesClick Click Ranger resonate with the popular techno-nationalistic discourse around the mobile and new media technologies but it also reproduces it through its construction of imagined citizen within networked screens. In this way, mobile phone imaging meets television and the outdoor screen in City Hall Plaza and in this more or less blunt self-explanatory gesture, Click Click Ranger conjures up the mobile phone exactly at the center of the ‘current’ Korea.

Works Cited

de Certeau’, Michael, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)

Kim, Taek-Hwan & Lee, Sang-Bok, Media Big Bang: Korea changes, (Seoul, Korea: Knowledge Supply Publishing Company, 2005)

Jenkins, Henry, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, (NYU Press, 2007)

McCarthy, Anna, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space, (Duke University Press, 2001)

Ministry of Information and Telecommunication, “Suchiro Bon IT 2005 ( IT 2005 by Statistics),” 29 December 2005.

Ok, Hye Ryoung, “Screens on the Move: Media Convergence and Mobile Culture in Korea,” ph.d dissertation, Department of Critical Studies, School of Cinema-Television, University of California, 2008

HyeRyoung Ok is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, Irvine, working for the Digital Media and Learning Hub. Currently she is carrying out research for the Public Participation Research Network led by Joe Kahne. As a cultural studies scholar, HyeRyoung looks at newly emerging transmedia culture from interdisciplinary perspective, with a focus on the transition of cinematic tradition to digital media, mobile media culture, and transnational flow of cultural content, particularly in East Asian context.

Click Click Ranger: A Transmedia Experiment for Korean Television (Part One)

I am offering today’s post as part of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having throughout the semester about transmedia storytelling practices. Below you will find the first of two installments written by HyeRyoung OK, a recently minted USC PhD, who I have met through my work with a new MacArthur Foundation Research Hub on Youth, New Media, and Public Participation. She has done some groundbreaking research on the deployment of transmedia practices in Korean television, projects which have gotten very little attention on this side of the world, but which have a lot to offer as an alternative model for how mobile technologies and public space can be deployed as part of a transmedia strategy.

Click Click Ranger: A Transmedia Experiment for Korean Television

by HyeRyoung Ok

By now we all know that the mobile phone is not simply a phone anymore. Since its introduction, the mobile phone has evolved into something that constantly broadens and transforms its boundary. Indeed, it is one of the most convergent media devices available that materializes the paradigm of media convergence. In most countries where mobile technology is widely adopted, the mobile phone is rapidly becoming a new outlet for traditional media industries responding to the “visions of wireless phones becoming hand-held entertainment centers.” Yet the mobile phone’s entry into the existing media environment is not a natural and homogeneous process. Continuing, disrupting, and mixing existing media practices to a newer form, rather, it came to terms with conventional media in heterogeneous ways depending on the socio-culturally specific contexts.

Then, here comes the story of the mobile phone in Korea, the country recently known as “IT powerhouse” where the adventure of the mobile phone ever continues. The mobile phone in Korea is literally a focal point where technical, industrial, and cultural innovations to explore the ‘newer’ forms of media service converge (see my blog posts on general review of Korean IT practices). What is particularly unique about Korean mobile culture is the continuing emphasis on the potential of mobile phones as ‘screen’ media. It is not surprising phenomenon considering the weight of ‘screen’ related – all dimensions of hardware and software – industries in Korean society. I would like to illustrate how the mobile screen is positioned in the flux of these transmedia experiments across new and old media in a culturally specific way through the case of Click Click Rangers: aka Mobile Rangers, an entertainment program on channel MBC in Korea.

Click Click Rangers: aka Mobile Rangers, is an interesting case that shows how the media content is designed to be produced/consumed based on the principle of “connecting” multiple forms of screens: mobile screen, television screen, and outdoor LED screen. Click Click Ranger is one of three sections in the popular Sunday prime time entertainment show, titled !: Exclamation Mark which was broadcast from December 2004 to August 2005 on channel MBC – one of three major television networks in Korea. In Click Click Ranger, the mobile screen is used in two significant ways: mobile phone imaging for moving image production and mobile TV for moving image circulation. Although it was short-lived, this show set up a model for employing mobile phone technology thematically as well as formally into the television program format and inspired other shows in competing networks. As a prototype, Click Click Ranger raises several interesting issues on the relation between new media technology, the existing media conventions, and culture. Taking Click Click Ranger as a starting point, let’s begin to explore how Korean television mediates the mobile screen as part of the larger outdoor screen culture and thus complicates the issue of ‘convergence of spaces.

Click Click Ranger (aka Mobile Ranger): Capture Korea’s Today

Click Click Ranger’s catchphrase of “Capture Korea’s today” literally and symbolically sums up the goal and the structure of the show: To report the present realities of Korea. In terms of content, Click Click Ranger presents several short video clips of anonymous do-gooders and misbehaviors on the street in a fashion similar to citizen reports. These clips are captured and sent by random citizens and “mobile rangers,” a group of pre-selected young college students and volunteers (in total, 100 members). Technically, mobile rangers and anonymous participants capture videos on the street and send clips ‘in real time’ to the studio while the program is being pre-recorded. It is reported that ninety percent of participants use a mobile phone camera and send clips through the wireless internet on their mobile phone. Most interestingly, Click Click Ranger adopts a multi-screen format of display that tackles the paradigm of media convergence by manipulating the ‘flow’ of content across media (Jenkins, 2007). The clips captured by mobile phone camera and selected for showing on regular television are simultaneously broadcast on a large LED screen installed over Seoul City Hall Plaza. In fact, the program itself is shot on the rooftop of the city hall building, where two MCs run the show as if they were news reporters as is illustrated in the picture above. Hence, what the viewers on a regular television set at home actually watch are alternating shots between the outdoor screen display, the MCs, and small video clips in quick-time movie format. Later on, the program re-runs on Mobile TV, particularly on the channel BLUE of Satellite DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcasting) service on the following Monday. Following this path, the clips of Click Click Ranger finish their journey from the street to multiple screens encompassing all hot spots (‘hot screens’) in the current mediascape of Korea as diagram below illustrates.

diagram(HR)(3).png

Creating the Public: Private Imaging and Public Exhibition

To the savvy viewers, who got used to all sorts of strategies to utilize the mobile phone for the television show by now, early attempt of Click Click Ranger may not look so fresh. What makes this show unique is the way in which it attempts to employ the mobile phone, an icon of personal media, in the service of constructing the ‘public space’ within a commercial entertainment. As a matter of fact, from the beginning, ! : Exclamation Mark has built a reputation for being a ‘public value concerned entertainment’ program. Previous and current sub-sections of the show have adopted ‘human documentary’ or ‘news report’ format in which show hosts visit and follow various people, with the goal of promoting the ‘good civilian life and consciousness’ in the fashion of a public service campaign. So far, its campaigns have been successful in generating issues in public discourse and have had real consequences in social life in Korea. Some of its famous campaigns include: “Let’s read books,” “Let’s obey the traffic sign,” “Let’s eat Breakfast,” “Street Lessons,” “Open your Eyes (Donation/Transference of cornea for the blind),” “Asia Asia (Illegal worker’s home visiting project)” and so on.

Partially, the show’s strategy to foreground public good within entertainment content reflects the unique hybrid characteristic of its network, MBC: MBC is private but at the same time closer to a public broadcasting network. It runs as a private company but is in fact indirectly owned by the government (by KBS, a major public network) and under the direct control of the Commission of Television Broadcasting. This dominant discourse of the program not only circumscribes the content of the clips in Click Click Ranger but also affects its program format. Typical clips of Click Click Ranger would feature various incidents such as violation of minor civil laws, misdemeanors, or good samaritans who help weak, elderly people at the subway station and so on. In each episode, if the best citizen is chosen among the good samaritans, the show’s host calls up the mobile ranger on the scene and runs to there to give the samaritan a reward-a golden badge.

(To be continued)

HyeRyoung Ok is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, Irvine, working for the Digital Media and Learning Hub. Currently she is carrying out research for the Public Participation Research Network led by Joe Kahne. As a cultural studies scholar, HyeRyoung looks at newly emerging transmedia culture from interdisciplinary perspective, with a focus on the transition of cinematic tradition to digital media, mobile media culture, and transnational flow of cultural content, particularly in East Asian context.

Strange Overtures: Vodephone, Tchaikovsky, Ernie Kovacs and the “Wowness” of New Media

One of the great joys of our present moment is waking up to some delightful gift — a compelling bit of media content — sent to you by friends, family, or in this case, a former student (Eric Schmiedl). Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about the ways that YouTube has brought back many aspects of the vaudeville aesthetic that I discussed in my first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic:

The video below is a great example — an advertisement produced in New Zealand for Vodephone which offers us a spectacular technological performance, one which calls attention to the emerging properties of our media environment in several ways.

First, of course, the video demonstrates some of the expressive potentials of mobile phones, not to mention the prospects of using digital media to coordinate signals within a complex structure. This is a compelling example of technological virtuosity. My first response was to go “Wow” and in our modern age, “wowness” is a hard earned quality. Here’s what I wrote about it in my recent book, The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture::

Consider the singular beauty of the word ‘Wow.’ Think about the pleasure in forming that perfectly symmetrical phrase on your tongue. IOmagine the particular enthusiasm it expresses — the sense of wonderment, astonishment, absolute engagement. A ‘Wow’ in something that has to be earned, and in the modern age we distribute standing ovations far too often when we are just being polite, but we have become too jaded to give a wow. The term takes on a certain irony, as if it can only be uttered in quotation marks.

This immediate, visceral response makes this the kind of content you want to “spread” to others in your social network. Eric forwarded it to me; I’m posting it on my blog and sending it out through my Twitter feed; and perhaps you will like it well enough that you will pass it along further. This is at the heart of what we are calling “spreadable media.” And trust me, the folks at Vodephone are not going to be heartbroken at our circulation of their commercial message. They no doubt think this video has gone “viral” — It didn’t, god forbid. But a bunch of us did decide, for our own reasons, to keep it in constant and varied circulation.

One of the ways that Vodephone has found to extend our engagement with this video has been to create a “Making Of” segment which is in many ways just as fascinating as the original. That’s the great thing about technological virtuosity — we can admire it even when the magician invites us behind the red velvet curtain and shows us how he does his tricks. I am reminded of what the French media theorists Christian Metz wrote about “trucage” or what we Americans call “special effects.” That they are “artifaces” that are not so much hidden as proclaimed. When we all watch Avatar in a few weeks, we are not going to simply be immersed into the world of the film; we are going to stand back and gasp at the spectacular breakthroughs in special effects which have been publicized around the making of the film. And this fascination with how they did it will in no way diminish, may in fact increase the emotional impact of what we are seeing.

This being the age of participatory culture and interactive media, Vodephone takes this a step further on the webpage they’ve constructed around this advertisement, which allows us to take the basic building blocks behind this spot and remix them towards our own ends. This thus completes the process of technological amazement — allowing us to experience first hand the delights of expressing ourselves through ringtones.

When I first saw the Vodephone spot, though, I was reminded of a much earlier moment of technological virtuosity and the vaudeville aesthetic. Take a look and you will see why.

Ernie Kovacs was a spectacular visual comedian who worked in the early days of American television. Kovacs exploited for comic effect our heightened awareness of the visual properties of this new and emerging medium. Television was not yet ambient; we had not yet started to take the visuals (which, after all, are what separated television from radio) for granted. Kovacs counts on us not being able to take our eyes off the screen.

So, why do both of these artists draw upon Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1880 composition, 1812 Overture, as the basis for their spectacular performance. I suspect there are many reasons, starting with the fact that the 1812 Overture embodies the high art status we ascribe to classical music. New media seeking to gain recognition often signal their cultural ambitions by drawing on works which we already respect from older media traditions. They do Shakespeare or Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Second, these works at the same time poke fun at the cultural hierarchies they seek to transcend — there’s something really profoundly silly about the ways they are performing or illustrating the 1812 Overture in these segment. And finally, at least in the case of the Vodephone ad, they respect the complexity of this particular composition as a way of demonstrating their own mastery over the new technologies involved. The Vodephone ad would not be nearly as absorbing or engaging if the phones were playing Chopsticks or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

So, if you want to learn more about our concept of spreadable media, check out the webinar which I will be conducting with Sam Ford and Joshua Green on Friday 6 November (from 12-1 pm EST). Registration is free!

Moving from “Sticky” to “Spreadable”: The Antidote to “Viral Marketing” and the Broadcast Mentality

Based on years of researching how and why people spread news, popular culture, and marketing content online through the Convergence Culture Consortium for the past several years , our speakers are currently working on a book entitled Spreadable Media. This Webinar will look at what “spreadable media” means, why the concept of “stickiness” is inadequate for measuring success for brands and content producers online and ultimately why marketers and producers should spend more time creating “spreadable material” for audiences than trying to perfect “viral marketing.” In this one-hour session, the speakers will share the ideas and strategy behind “spreadable media” and a variety of examples of best–and worst–practices online for both B2B and B2C campaigns.

This panel will address:

— The concept of “stickiness” and why it cannot solely be used as a way to measure success online;

— How and why viral marketing does not accurately describe how content spreads online;

— Why a “broadcast mentality” does not work in a social media space;

— The strategy companies should undertake when creating material for audiences to potentially spread online;

— Companies that have learned difficult lessons and/or gotten the idea of “spreadable media” right;

— Trends in popular culture/entertainment one which brands should keep a close eye;

— How “spreadable media” might apply to B2B audiences.