Public Media, Public Education, and the Public Good: An Interview with Heather Chaplin (Part Two)

Editor’s note: This is my last post of 2009. See you in the new year. I am going to take some time off with my family.

Much of your discussion centers around the impact of public media on public education. How would you describe the ideal learning environment for the 21st century and what blocks us from achieving that ideal?

One could write a book on that topic! Well, one of the intriguing things about creating a more intimate relationship between public media and public education is that public media is in possession of a national treasure of historical materials. Part of NPL would be assisting public media in digitizing that material and retooling it for teachers to use while teaching.

So imagine a science class where the teacher can pull out a segment from Nova on the spot to illustrate the answer to a particular question asked by a student. Or using a bit of an interview from a Jim Leher interview to make a political point. The examples could go on for ever. And, unlike the archives of corporate-owned media, these arches belong to the American public. We paid for them and we should take advantage of them.

There are also real opportunities for public media to be involved teaching kids media skills. Imagine a local PBS station also being a hub where kids could take classes on video editing, or putting together sound pieces, or making videogames. Part of public media 2.0 calls for local stations to take a greater role in serving their local communities directly.

In terms of the classroom of the future in general, I see digital media as a huge opportunity. I don’t believe, however, that digital media tools replace things like smaller teacher-to-student ratios. And I do worry, on some level, about having so much of our lives mediated by machines. I see these digital media tools being used when appropriate to enhance the teaching experience and not as a replacement for teacher to student contact. For example, the idea of using 3-D models of molecules to teach science: that’s probably just a better and more effective way of teaching what a molecule is than giving a lecture on one. Therefore, since it’s something we can do, we should. On the other hand, discussing a great novel is probably best done by teacher-student discussion. That should go away. It’s a matter of understanding the technology now at our disposal and making good choices of when to use it.

What blocks us from achieving these goals? A lot of things. The public school system in this country is messed up almost beyond belief and on every level. Bush’s push towards more standardization certainly didn’t help – it meant teachers teaching kids to pass certain standardized tests, and not teaching them to be critical thinkers, to be genuinely literate in the sense of being able to create meaning. Our schools are wildly underfunded, and even when money is available, the resistance to change is staggering. I asked one former state school superintendent what she’d do to fix the public education system in this country and she – a mild-looking women in a tweed suit – said she’d blow the whole thing up and start from scratch.

What’s so scary is how high the stakes are. Democracy requires an educated citizenry. Without that, you regress to mob rule. Part of being free is knowing how to use your mind.

You are calling for improvements in the broadband infrastructure to bring richer media content into schools but schools are also seeking to police the flow of content into the classroom, blocking off access to social networking and media sharing sites, for example. How might we resolve this tension between the desire to broaden and to regulate access to information in the 21st century classroom?

Another excellent question and I wish I had the answer. It is true that schools and teachers fear the Internet desperately. In part, I think people fear the lack of control the vastness of the Internet implies, I think they fear the new, and I think on some level they simply fear and distrust new technology. People tend to think the things they didn’t grow up with are somehow bad.

To me, however, it’s like we’ve built a high-way system, said hey! our whole world is now going to be based on this new highway system – but we’re not going to teach anyone to drive. It’s sheer lunacy.

I think schools need to learn to teach kids how to use the Internet, not hide them from it. The reasons for this are too numerous – and too well elucidated by you, Henry!, to even go into right here. As to some sort of solution, I can’t help but think the answer is working with teachers and parents.

We need to educate people as to what 21st century literacy will require – because being literate in the 21st century is going to be very different from being literate in the 20th century. You simply will not be literate in the future if you don’t know how to handle the Internet in a meaningful way. I teach journalism, and I do several classes where everybody brings in their lap top and we do experiments on Internet research, for example. But then that’s at the college level and I have freedom over what I get to teach. Again, I can’t say enough how high I think the stakes are.

Think of the kid growing up in a small rural town that doesn’t even have Internet access. How is that kid going to manage as an adult competing against kids who’ve been using the Internet since they were toddlers? If the schools don’t take this on, children in rural and poor areas will suffer the most and will be left behind even more than they already are.

You argue that concerns about “station by-pass” have sometimes placed public television at war with the new digital tools and participatory culture. Explain. How might we resolve this conflict?

Local public media stations are afraid for their existence. If everything is digital and handled via the Internet, and broadcast becomes a thing of the past, the question does arise of why they even exist. What is their purpose?

The answer to this lies in re-envisioning the role of the local station in its community. A lot of the public media community is starting to image the local station as a community hub, doing serious local journalism, creating forums and town-hall-style meetings, and providing resources for solving local problems. Also, as I mentioned above, taking a greater role in teaching youth to be media literate. The network of local stations is an infrastructure aimed at serving the public good already in place; we shouldn’t waste it. But we do need to re-imagine it.

A decade ago, the push to respond to the digital divide led to the wiring of classrooms often without adequate pedagogical goals or professional development. We wired the classroom-now what? How do we avoid the replication of this same problem where the expansion of technical infrastructure outstrips the educational vision needed to use these tools towards meaningful pedagogy?

This is another great question and I feel woefully unqualified to answer it. It’s so easy to say what ought to happen, and another thing entirely to actually make something happen.

I think you put your finger on it before when you asked about teachers’ wanting to keep the Internet, social networking, etc. out of the classroom. Or Jim Gee talks very eloquently about classrooms very methodically making kids leave everything they’re interested in at the door, thus essentially ensuring the kids will be uninterested in the classroom, and, most obviously, failing to take advantage of a kid’s natural interests to facilitate learning. Or I love the example I’ve heard you give of your Moby-Dick project getting stymied because the word “dick” had been blocked by school administrators from Internet searches.

I totally agree with you that having fancy technology is of no use whatsoever if there’s no vision of how to use it.

Part of what NPL advocates is also providing content for teachers to use in the classroom and a major push for teacher training when it comes to digital tools. But I know that’s kind of a cop-out answer, because how do you actually implement these things? How do you inspire vast change in a system notoriously mired in bureaucracy and seriously allergic to change? This is one of those questions of the ages.

It’s probably worth remembering that we are in a period of transition. In another ten years or so, the people signing on to become teachers will have grown up with digital technology and may feel more comfortable using it. In the meantime, I think an assault from all sides is necessary – pressing the Obama administration, which seems pretty savvy and progressive regarding digital technology, to get involved; working with parents to understand what’s at stake in terms of their kids’ education; educating teachers, etc


Educational games figure prominently in this report. This is not surprising given your previous work on games. Why might games be a particularly rich test case for the kind of expanded public media system you are describing?

Yes, I am very passionate about using games to teach and foster civic engagement. One example: right now simulations exist at all levels of the government for all kinds of things, from weather predictions, to budget issues, to military scenarios. Simulations can be incredibly powerful tools for learning how things work – why not take these simulations, which already exist and which we, as tax payers, financed, and turn them into games made available to the public to play with?

It would be cheap, could reach vast amounts of people quicly and easily, and could educate people about important things like how tax cuts or break will effect the economy, what the potential outcomes of military decisions might be, etc. In other words these could be powerful tools for fostering transparancy, which is key to a real democracy. We now have more data than we know what to do with.

Making games so that people can play with the data is one way to help people make sense of everything that is out there. Government data should be available to the public so that we can make informed decisions about what our government ought to be doing. Taking something that already exists- government-created simulations – and making them available as games to people seems a really obvious way to foster democracy.

I also think public media needs to begin funding games in the same way it funds educational television. The inspiration for the act of Congress that funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and created PBS and NPR in the first place was this idea that here was this new media – TV – and that we ought to be using it for more than just entertainment purposes. Well, that was 1967. It’s more than 30 years later and there’s a new new media on the block and that’s the videogame. Why leave such a powerful tool in the hands of corporate entertainment companies? As a society we want it in our arsenal of tools to educate the next generation of Americans to be active and engaged participants in our democracy.

Heather Chaplin is a professor of journalism at The New School and author of the book, Smartbomb: The Quest for Art Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution. She recently participated in a Ford Foundation grant looking at issues of the public interest in the next generation of the Internet. She also works with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on issues of digital literacy and journalism. She has been interviewed for and cited in publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Businessweek, and The Believer and has appeared on shows such as Talk of the Nation, and CBS Sunday Morning. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, Details, and Salon. She is a regular contributor on game culture for All Things Considered.

Public Media, Public Education, and the Public Good: An Interview with Heather Chaplin (Part One)

Heather Chaplin is one of the good guys — she wrote one of the best books about the place of video games in contemporary culture; she’s doing journalism which challenges some of the preconceptions about youth and new technology that run through most mainstream coverage; and she’s been doing consulting work with some leading foundations — MacArthur, Ford, among them — as they think through what needs to be done to reallign public institutions with the risks and opportunities of the digital age.

Heather interviewed me recently for the Digital Media and Learning project website, talking about participatory culture and public engagement. She was nice enough to allow me to turn the microphone (or in this case, the keyboard) the other way to talk with her about her recently published white paper, National Public Lightpath: Documentation and Recommendations, which seeks to map some future directions for how the internet might serve the public good.

Here’s part of the summary of the white paper:

It’s hard to remember life before the Internet. In the span of two decades it has entirely reshaped the way we do business, gather information, shop, play, and socialize. It’s all moved so quickly, it’s been hard to even stop and think. But do for a minute. Stop. Think. In all our rush to buy books and shoes online, and to find our lost high school friends on Facebook, we have failed to consider one thing. What part of the Internet is going to be devoted to the public interest?”

In part one of this interview, Heather offers some frank and provocative comments about how the internet might better serve the public good and critiques the “libertarian” perspective on how the web should grow. In the second part, which will run later this week, she shares some thoughts about digital literacy and public education.

Your white paper opens with the provocative question, “what part of the Internet is going to be devoted to the public interest?” How would you answer that question?

It’s actually a really hard question to answer, based on what your notion of “in the public interest” is. I mean, NPR and PBS have presences on the Internet. And I suppose you could argue that there are probably millions of sites out there that serve the general public good. So, if I were to play devil’s advocate against myself, I suppose I would argue that the very nature of the Internet – the anyone-can-publish idea – is in itself a public good.

But here’s the thing, I’m not really the libertarian type. I don’t believe that things will necessarily just sort themselves out if left alone. When I talk about creating a piece of the Internet in the public interest, I’m really talking about both public ownership of the infrastructure and content created specifically to educate, enlighten and enrich in the interests of genuine literacy and civic engagement.

I think ownership of the infrastructure is important here. There is no inherent financial incentive to create something like NPL so there is no reason on earth for Verizon or AT&T to get involved. As it is they want to create a pay structure where people pay more for faster connections, which would in effect wipe out any chance for the “little guy” to compete with corporate players. People forget in this country that corporations despite their sunny logos and appealing products, are not our friends. They have a PROFIT MOTIVE. This means, as the phrase would imply, they’re motivated by profit not the public good. In fact, they’re legally set up so that they’re breaking the law if they stop to consider the public good over profits.

I have a real bee in my bonnet about the way the Internet infrastructure belongs to these companies when it was created by tax payer dollars. It’s the same with the pharmaceutical companies – they make billions off drugs, the research for which was done by public universities funded by public citizens like you and me.

But now I digress.

What was the original question? Ah yes, well, in reality, I FEAR no part of the Internet will be devoted to the public interest in any sort of “official” capacity. I HOPE, however, that we are able to build an infrastructure that would, at first, connect public media to the schools, for educational purposes, and then build out from there to people’s houses, libraries, museums etc.

Your paper proposes what you are calling the National Public Lightpath. What specifically are you advocating?

NPL proposes creating a publicly-owned piece of the Internet that links together important institutions devoted to the public good, such as public media, the public schools systems, and, eventually, museums and libraries. Ideally, it would eventually spread so that people could plug into NPL at home as well, to , say, complete a homework assignment given at school.

What many people don’t understand is how the Internet works – that there are different modes of connecting households and institutions. Some Internet connections, for example, are still run over copper wires, even though copper wires don’t permit for very fast transmission. The reason? In the early 1990s, a couple of the big providers bought a lot of copper wire, and don’t want to lose out on their investment. NPL advocates using high speed fiber optic cable, which in essence means the “pipes” to your house or school or whatever, would be fatter and thus capable of transmitting a greater amount of data at faster speeds. This is something Japan, Korea and many European countries already have. Many scientific universities are also connected on a network they own communaly called National LamdaRail, a non-profit set up specifically for that purpose. (NPL would build off of the National LamdaRail infastructure, as it already circles the country.) Fatter pipes gives you the ability to transmit vast amounts of data in real time. Imagine your kid in school learning biology by playing with 3-D molecular models being piped into the classroom from a university on the other side of the world – or engaging in peer-to-peer learning by sharing, in real time, virtual worlds they’d built with kids in other country. The possibilities are endless.

Your talk about “empowering an agency to oversee these efforts and become the steward of the internet in the public interest” speaks of a centralized model of public media which is precisely what the internet has in many ways sought to overthrow. Have we gone too far towards decentralization and if so, what areas do require governmental intervention to promote the public interest?

This is a great question. As I mentioned, I don’t really go with the whole libertarian thing. I don’t have a problem with a society deciding, you know what, education is really important and we’re going to create a way to make sure that kids all over the country, no matter where they’re from or what color they are get a top notch one. I do think the culture of the Internet is so gung-ho on this idea of “freedom” that they sometimes forget what that word even means. I would argue that the kid who isn’t given the skills she needs to be a functioning and engaged part of her society because she wasn’t given the critical thinking skills for independent thinking is not really free. That’s more important to me that making sure that no agency anywhere ever gets to decide about anything. I’m sick to death of the post-deconstructionist idea that nothing has any inherent meaning, that everything is subjective, etc. It’s led to a lot of very smart people adopting a hands off attitude that I think is very dangerous to our future.

You note that most of the key tools which now support public discourse are owned by companies that are “designed to serve shareholders — not the public.” In what ways are these systems being deployed in ways which hurt rather than facilitate the public good?

Well this goes back to my earlier rant. I just always think it’s worth pointing out what an organization’s goal is. The goal of a for-profit corporation is to earn profits. That is its legal responsibility. So, if making money happens to coincide with the public good, than fantastic, everybody wins. But what happens when it doesn’t? Say, keeping drug prices so high that most people in the world can’t afford to buy them? Or letting cars go out on the road known to be dangerous because a recall is more expensive then settling law suits?

In the case of the Internet, one needs look no farther than the issue of Net Neutrality. The providers want to be able to charge more for faster speeds. Sounds OK. But all you need to do is think about it for one minute and realize that that’s the end of the wonderful, brilliant democracy of the Internet right there and then. Why are they doing this? It’s certainly not for the public good; it’s to make money. Which, again, is their mandate.

I don’t have a problem particularly with a company making money – we live in a capitalist society – I just don’t think we should kid ourselves about the implications. We’ve gone so far towards being market-worshipers, and we’ve come to view anyone who wants to see the government get involved in any way as being anti-“freedom,” that I think we’ve gotten ourselves into a bit of a mess. With this mind set, we’ve handed over a vast amount of power to extremely large entities who dont’ even nominally have our best interests at heart. This is a problem.

Heather Chaplin is a professor of journalism at The New School and author of the book, Smartbomb: The Quest for Art Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution. She recently participated in a Ford Foundation grant looking at issues of the public interest in the next generation of the Internet. She also works with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on issues of digital literacy and journalism. She has been interviewed for and cited in publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Businessweek, and The Believer and has appeared on shows such as Talk of the Nation, and CBS Sunday Morning. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, Details, and Salon. She is a regular contributor on game culture for All Things Considered.

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How Fictional Story Worlds Influence Real World Politics

Last time, I shared with you the first of a series of occassional field reports and thought pieces from a team I have been putting together at MIT and USC to reflect on what we perceive as a potential continuum from engagement with participatory culture (especially fan communities and practices) and public participation in civic and political activities. As we described last time, this work is currently at a conceptual level as we gather examples of groups which are using elements from popular culture to provide a bridge into real world social and political concerns. Eventually we hope to do more indepth case studies working with organizations and their members to identify best practices that may be increasing young people’s civic engagement and from there, develop materials which may foster even greater public participation. This reserarch has been funded in part by the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT (funded by the Knight Foundation) and reflects my involvement in a new John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation initiative focused on youth, new media, and public participation.

This time, Flourish Klink, a Master’s Candidate in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, shares some of our current thinking about “fictional story worlds” which offer resources that these groups are deploying to think through and intervene in complex real world problems.

The idea may seem radical at first — breaking with the largely rationalist drive of most contemporary activism. We have had less trouble accepting the premise that works of realist literature — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath — can become the focal point for movements for social change than we have buying the idea that fantastical realms may do so, even though there is a long history. As someone who has spent much of my life in fandom, I have long seen examples of science fiction inspiring fans to rally support around NASA and manned space flight, say, or more recently, slash fans being moved to actively engage with issues of concern to the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transsexual community or to join fights against censorship and for free expression.

But what has intrigued me the most in recent years is the way fan communities, especially around fantasy texts, are inspiring activism around human rights issues. The green politics often implicit in Anime has sparked growing awareness of environmental issues while J.K. Rowling’s background in Amnesty International helps to explain why the Harry Potter books are leading young people to be concerned with repressive governments and human dignity.

The temptation is to evaluate such movements through a focus on the author’s implicit or explicit political commitments, yet we may also explore how fans have used these popular platforms as raw materials for their own public engagement, seeking inspiration there for ways they might work through complex real world issues. It is this focus on fandom as a site for exploring and engaging with social concerns that is the central focus of this second installment in the series.

If you know of any groups who are doing interesting work which fuses participatory culture and public participation, please contact me at We are trying to identify as many examples as we can at this stage in our research.

How Fictional Story Worlds Influence Real World Politics

by Flourish Klink

Once upon a time, a hare saw a tortoise ambling along, and began to mock him. The hare challenged the tortoise to a race, and the tortoise accepted. When they began, the hare immediately shot ahead. After running for some time, the hare was very far ahead of the tortoise, so he decided to sit down and have a rest before continuing the race. Sitting under a shady tree, the hare soon fell asleep. The tortoise, plodding on, overtook him, and by the time the hare woke up, the tortoise had already passed the finish line. The moral of this story is that slow and steady wins the race.

As they read stories like this one, out of Aesop’s fables, children are primed to seek meanings and morals in the stories they read. What we are taught as children follows us throughout our lives. As teens and adults, we continue to look for meanings in the stories we read. “That was such an inspiring book,” we say, or “that movie was so depressing. It really made me feel like there’s nothing I can do to fix this messed-up world.”

Sometimes, we are inspired to emulate aspects of our favorite stories. For example, when reading The Lord of the Rings, a fan might be inspired by Frodo’s willingness to embark upon a long, perilous and dangerous journey, even before he really knows what it will entail, and even though every part of him wants to take the easier route:

A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

Frodo’s self-sacrifice and bravery might inspire us to take a chance – to try something new, perhaps. One can imagine that a person might read about Frodo’s choice and decide that they, too, can take a journey to a dangerous place for the good of mankind – and sign up for the Peace Corps. Or, on a smaller scale, someone might just decide to start serving the homeless and mentally ill, overcoming her cultural revulsion against and fear of people less fortunate than herself.

This kind of inspiration really relies on you “buying into” the story’s world. It doesn’t matter whether Frodo is saying heroic things if you find Lord of the Rings boring and Tolkien’s style dry as dust. In some sense, if you really care about a story, the characters in it become figures that live in your mind, role models, if you will.

Now think of a different situation. Imagine that, instead of our fictional do-gooder being inspired by Frodo’s speech, she is inspired by a persuasive person. Perhaps she goes to a lecture about the issue of homelessness in her town, and at this lecture she meets a woman who runs a soup kitchen and who convinces her to overcome her nervousness at volunteering there. How is this situation different from the first? How is it the same? Is the first situation even realistic? Is the second situation? These are some of the sub-questions we’re struggling with in our civic engagement research.

It is well known that people who are involved in the high arts are more likely to volunteer in their communities. However, the reasons for this correlation are not clear. Are people actually inspired to volunteer by high arts? Is it only high arts that can inspire people to become more civically engaged, or can popular culture do it, too? Or is there a more complex situation underpinning the NEA study and these questions?

As Anna ably chronicled in the last post in this series, there are plenty of civically engaged organizations which, to a greater or lesser degree, have formed around particular pop culture texts. There’s a wide variety of ways that these organizations activate popular culture. Some of them grew organically out of a fan culture; others were concerned with a particular issue and then decided to use a story to make that issue more compelling. Some started off as very tightly focused on one issue – for instance, Racebending began life as a protest against white actors being cast in Asian roles in the movie The Last Airbender – and eventually branched out into more concerns. Others have always cast their net a bit wider. Still others began as tightly focused and continue to be tightly focused, such as Verb Noire, an e-publishing company dedicated to publishing fiction about groups that have been historically underrepresented in sci-fi and fantasy. What all these organizations have in common, however, is that they mobilize stories to encourage people to become more civically engaged – and in many cases, they were inspired and mobilized by stories.

There’s a lot more complexity in the way that these organizations deal with the stories they refer to than might initially meet the eye. In Textual Poachers, Henry refers to fandom as a mix of “fascination and frustration.” Never is that more clear than in these organizations. Some of them, like Verb Noire, are dealing directly with aspects of their fandom that they don’t like. Other organizations have to negotiate complex and differing understandings of their core story: the Harry Potter Alliance’s “What would Dumbledore do?” campaign relies on a perception of Dumbledore as a positive or “good” character, which not all Harry Potter fans share. Some, like Racebending, are dealing with multiple instantiations of a single story and their slight variations, drawing inspiration from some but not all of these versions.

Then, too, relatively simple fictional worlds often provide a starting point for hard thinking about the nuanced real world – hard thinking that goes beyond just “I want to be like Frodo.” For example, the Harry Potter Alliance is doing this sort of hard thinking about the issue of witch hunts in Nigeria. In these witch hunts, parents are persuaded to ostracize and abuse their disobedient children, calling them “witches,” in the name of performing an exorcism. The pastors who perform the exorcisms frequently charge a great deal of money for the service; if the parents cannot pay, they are told their only option is to completely ostracize or even kill their child. The children who survive often have suffered horrific wounds and incredible emotional trauma, and they are left alone in the world, if they aren’t lucky enough to be taken into an orphanage or shelter.

Naturally, witches and wizards are an important part of the Harry Potter books – and the persecution of witches and wizards is an important part of the Harry Potter books. In fact, Harry’s aunt and uncle subject him to fairly horrible neglect as a result of his wizarding talents. On the surface, there would seem to be a very direct correlation between the witch-hunts in Nigeria and Harry Potter’s childhood in the Harry Potter books, a correlation which the Harry Potter Alliance might rally around.

In reality, however, this correlation was only the start of the conversation. Rather than simply seeing the similarities between Harry’s life and the life of a persecuted African child, members of the Harry Potter Alliance also looked for the differences. They discussed, and are still discussing, how the cultural differences between Africa and the developed West might be clouding their understanding of the issue. They discussed the differences between the witch hunts in Nigeria and persecution of Wiccans in the United States (and came to the conclusion that Harry Potter fandom’s typical claim – that the books don’t lead to witchcraft – is, on some level, complicit with the idea that it is wrong to be Wiccan). And they discussed the ways that cultural flows between churches in the United States and churches in Africa may have contributed to the increased number of witch hunts that are taking place today. In fact, the conversation is still continuing, as they struggle with the question of how to make an intervention without behaving paternalistically towards the African groups involved.

This sort of discussion can take place because the Harry Potter Alliance exists in the context of participatory culture. Rather than receiving information from a central source, group members have access to a social network and to easy email communication with organizers: there’s plenty of opportunity for group members to become engaged in debate about the organizations’ understanding of the stories they’re focused on, and the organizations’ actions. This increased communication can sometimes lead to unending debate, it’s true: in some more decentralized groups, it can be difficult to come to a decision. When making choices quickly is important, there’s nothing like centralized authority. But sometimes, like when the Harry Potter Alliance was thinking about witch hunts in Africa, a longer, slower thought process is appropriate, leading to better decisions. To quote a story with a moral: “slow and steady wins the race!”

On Chuck and Carrot Mobs: Mapping the Connections Between Participatory Culture and Public Participation

One of my proudest moments at the Futures of the Entertainment 4 conference was moderating a session on Transmedia for Social Change, which closed off the first day of the event. This panel brought together a number of people who I have encounter recently through my research on the relations between participatory culture and public participation: Stephen Duncombe – NYU, author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy (The New Press); Andrew Slack – The Harry Potter Alliance; Noessa Higa – Visionaire Media; Lorraine Sammy – Co-creator Racebending; and Jedidiah Jenkins-Director of Public & Media Relations, Invisible Children.

For many attending this event, their discussion of new forms of activism that have emerged around the borders of transmedia entertainment were particularly eye opening While we were able to draw connections across these various projects, none of the panelists had met before and most did not know what the others were doing. It was exciting to see the shift in tone at the conference as we moved from talking about business plans to talking about human rights and social justice. I wanted to share the video of this session with you here.

During my introduction to the panel, I referenced the research we’ve begun to do trying to better understand how engagement with participatory culture, especially with fandom, may be teaching the skills and creating identities which can be applied to campaigns for social change. This project has launched since my move to California and is being conducted jointly with researchers at USC, MIT, and Tufts. What follows is the first of a series of reports on this still new research initiative, written by members of my team. Anna Van Someren, who wrote this first installment, joined the team having already served as the production manager on Project New Media Literacies, and with a background in media production, media literacy instruction, and social activism. Here, she gives an overview of what we are trying to do.

On Chuck and Carrot Mobs: Mapping the Connections Between Participatory Culture and Public Participation

by Anna Van Someren

I was on my 8th (excruciating) rep, struggling with some kind of bowflex-looking machine when my personal trainer asked what I do for work. As usual, I had the fleeting wish that I could say something short and concrete, something like “preschool teacher” or “novelist”. Because really, did this woman care any more than the typical dentist who asks such questions with both hands inside your mouth? Could I finally come up with something a little less opaque than “researcher at MIT”? If I did, could I for once muster the self-discipline it takes not to ramble incomprehensibly?

I tried a new approach, and asked if she had a favorite television show. “Battlestar Galactica!” – her face lit up as she described the Starbuck costume her friend was helping her create for Halloween. “Well, say a Battlestar Galactica fan group became interested in doing some work for social change, work that maybe addresses an issue brought up by the show. The group I’m working with is looking at how people who organize around a story they love, and then decide to take some kind of public action.” She seemed genuinely interested, so I continued with more detail during front lunges. I think I may have gotten a bit rambly, but I’ll try not to here.

As readers of this blog know, Henry has moved to LA and is now the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California. Although he has relinquished his role as principal investigator at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media (funded by the Knight Foundation), his work on participatory culture and civic engagement has spawned a new research project supported in part by the center. This project is bi-coastal; on the east coast we have myself, research advisor Clement Chau and research assistant Flourish Klink. Representing the west coast out at USC with Henry we have research director Sangita Shresthova (CMS alum ’03) along with more than a dozen Annenberg School students whose work relates directly to our research interests.

Our early conversations circled around the skills needed to become involved in public discourse. We discussed emerging forms of engagement, such as the Carrotmob project, which might be considered civic because of its socially beneficial goal of protecting the environment. Carrotmob organizes competitions in which local businesses pledge to make ecological improvements to their practices. The business with the best pledge enjoys an environmentally-motivated flash mob: ‘carrotmobbers’ receive instructions via blog posts and twitter about where and when to show up and spend.

The ‘Finale & a Footlong’ Save Chuck campaign is another recent initiative working to leverage consumer power. In April 2009, organizers mobilized fans of the television show Chuck to buy footlong sandwiches at Subway, a main sponsor, on the night of the show’s finale. Fans were instructed to leave a note in the Subway suggestion box mentioning the campaign, and Chuck star Zach Levi described it as “a way for non-Nielson fans to show their love of the show by directly supporting one of Chuck‘s key advertisers”.

These two projects have entirely different goals, and some might say Save Chuck is a far cry from civic engagement, but it’s interesting to note that the skills and strategies being used are so similar. We began to wonder if participants in campaigns like Save Chuck might stand to gain some of the skills and knowledge needed to become active citizens. With so many young people so engaged with popular culture, this potential is critical to understand. In Convergence Culture, Henry describes how popular culture can function as a civic playground, where lower stakes allow for a greater diversity of opinions than tolerated in political arenas. “One way that popular culture can enable a more engaged citizenry is by allowing people to play with power on a microlevel …popular culture may be preparing the way for a more meaningful public culture.”

Of course, there are differing definitions of what an ‘engaged citizenry’ looks like. CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement, works with three primary categories: civic activities, electoral activities, and political voice activities. In Civic Life Online, Kate Raynes-Goldie and Luke Walker define civic engagement broadly and simply as “any activity aimed at improving one’s community”. In his book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam considers civic engagement to be on the decline, and bemoans the social ties we’ve lost now that we spend more time “isolated” in front of the television. Some share his pessimism, worrying that the millennial generation lacks an interest in the workings of government, but it’s important to remember that we’re not talking about something static or stabilized. In their paper Young Citizens and Civic Learning: Two Paradigms of Citizenship in the Digital Age Lance Bennett, Alison Rank and Christopher Wells remind us that “citizenship is a dynamic social construction that reflects changing social and political conditions.”

So how does the dimension of popular culture fit into our understanding of citizenship? Voting, joining a political party, or doing community service are concrete, measurable activities that have long been defined as civic. What does loving a television show have to do with any of this? It’s helpful here to consider two opposing views of democracy described by Stephen Coleman in Civic Life Online. Although he’s talking specifically about youth e-citizenship here, he offers a useful model, describing the conflict between democracy viewed as “an established and reasonably just system, with which young people should be encouraged to engage” and as “a political as well as cultural aspiration, most likely to be realized through networks in which young people engage with one another”. The second view is expansive; it describes a realm where citizens are empowered not only to participate in the public arena, but to shape it. It’s a view that does not contain activity within a strictly political sphere, but embraces cultural citizenship. This aligns well with Peter Levine’s definition of civic engagement as not only political activism, deliberation, and problem-solving, but also cultural production, or participation in shaping a culture.

If we want to see how engagement with popular culture can fuel social action, Loraine Sammy and her activities with provide a rich case study. Fans of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: the Last Airbender animation series were frustrated and disappointed by the casting process for the live-action movie version. Paramount cast the main characters, who are Asian in the original series, with white actors. Avatar fans came together to create the LiveJournal-based Aang Ain’t White campaign, which attempted to pressure Paramount with a letter-writing campaign. Loraine, who spoke on the Transmedia for Social Change panel at Futures of Entertainment 4, helped grow Aang Ain’t White into the racebending movement, “a coalition and community dedicated to encouraging fair casting practices”. She and other participants volunteer their time, talents and skills to advocate on behalf of this cause, which has now reached beyond the Avatar movie and may begin to play a watchdog role in Hollywood.

There are so many aspects we want to explore about the racebending community, and others like it. It’s intriguing to think about how fiction and fantasy can captivate us on an emotional level, providing a narrative structure that can motivate us to seek change in the real world. We’re also curious about how individuals develop their identities as citizens – is it possible that participants in the Save Chuck campaign were developing a sense of empowerment and efficacy in the world – exercising their civic muscles, as it were? Our primary interest right now lies with the nature of participatory culture communities, like racebending.

We consider a participatory culture to be one where:

  1. there are relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. there is strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. there is some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. members believe their contributions matter
  5. members feel some degree of social connection with one another

How do these characteristics work together to encourage and support civic engagement? To find out, we’ll be looking at participatory culture communities engaged in some type of social or public action. We’re specifically interested in groups which originally gelled around shared interest in popular culture and then become somehow involved in public discourse. Racebending is an excellent example, and is one of our planned case studies, along with the Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, Browncoats, Anonymous, and possibly the hacktivism inspired by Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother.

This winter we’ll be conducting interviews with members and founders of these groups, asking questions about their operations, their membership, and their activities. By spring we hope to have a stronger grasp on our research question, how do the characteristics of participatory culture environments support the kinds of social learning, deliberation, debate, and advocacy practices that allow entry into a shared public discourse? In order to share our thoughts and findings in advance of our white paper, we’ll be posting updates here. This introduction marks the start of our series, so stay tuned for more from our team, and please share your ideas, critiques, and comments.

If you know of other groups or projects who are deploying fan culture/popular culture as a springboard for social change, please let us know. We are trying to cast a wide net right now to identify examples which might help us better understand these emerging forms of activism. We are especially interested in examples from outside the United States.

If you are interested in this discussion of civic engagement and participatory culture, you might also want to check out this video produced by the MacArthur Foundation and showcasing the thinkin of Joe Kahne, who is part of the new research hub MacArthur is creating to think about these issues.

Joe Kahne on Civic Participation Online and Off from Spotlight on Vimeo.

Harry Potter: The Exhibition, or what Location Entertainment Adds to a Transmedia Franchise

While in Cambridge for the Futures of Entertainment conference, my wife and I stopped over at the Boston Museum of Science which is currently playing host to Harry Potter: The Exhibition. We had both attended a fascinating presentation about the design and development of this exhibit during last Summer’s Azkatraz convention in San Francisco and so we had high anticipations for the show and were not disappointed.

If you live anywhere near Boston, you should definitely try to make it there for the exhibit which runs through Feb. 21. The exhibit is pricy since you have to pay a fee above and beyond the price of admission to the museum itself, but we found it more than worth it.

Since my head was still filled with thoughts from two days of conversations about transmedia entertainment, the exhibit gave me some chances to reflect upon what location based entertainment can contribute to a larger cross-media franchise. Throughout, I will be making reference to some of the principles I introduced in my “The Revenge of the Oragami Unicorn” posts, so if you missed them, you may want to pause now and catch up. We’ll wait up for you.

First, we might think of the exhibit as an example of immersion. That is, from the very start, we are encouraged to enter into J.K. Rowling’s universe as manifest in the feature film franchise. Before we enter the exhibit, one or two children are asked to step up, put on the sorting hat, and get placed into the proper “house.” The museum has lovingly recreated some of the key settings, filled them with costumes and props, and thus offer us a chance to tour the fictional environment. We can, for example, enter into Hagrid’s Hut and even sit in his giant chair which dwarfs even the adults in the party, or we can enter the Great Hall as it is decorated for one or another of the festive ocassions depicted in the story. The designers went to some length to minimize the number of glass cases we have to look through, prefering to situate props and costumes in their “natural” settings, such as the Gryfindor Boys Dormatory or a Quiddich Trophy Room.

Some of the professor figures — such as Lockhart or Umbridge — get represented through their living quarters. We see the life size self portrait of Lockhart or experience directly the pink monstrosity, complete with mewing cat plates, which is Umbridge’s personal quarters. As we enter and exit the exhibit, we must pass the interactive portraits which figure so strongly in the films and our entrance also takes us past the railroad car that the students take from Paddington Station to Hogwarts School.

Often, a sense of being embedded in the world gets created by scale as we find the dementors towering above us when we meet Voldemort and his minions or when we see how much larger than lifesize Hagard’s costumes are. There was something magical about the time spent inside the exhibition precisely because it felt as if we had left Boston and entered into the territory of the imagination. Everything was familiar because we knew them so well from the books and films so this sense of immersion was a kind of homecoming.

As may already be suggested from the above, the exhibit focuses primarily around the Harry Potter books and films as a world rather than as a story. We can imagine, for example, a trip which took us through a series of vignettes which lay out the memorable moments from the narrative as a series of spectacular spaces. To a large degree, this sense of transforming events into spaces would characterize many of the earliest exhibits in Fantasyland at the Disney Theme Parks — the Peter Pan or Snow White rides come to mind as the most obvious examples of this process. And something similar occurs often when films are adopted into video games. After all, games, amusement parks, and museums are organized spatially and our primary experience is a movement through compelling landscapes, but what gets represented in those spaces may have strong or weak narrative hooks.

I will bow here before the ludologists who would argue that such spaces are not narratives — yet we may see them as evoking familiar narratives, as part of a storytelling system, as alternative ways we experience exposition which alters our relationship to the more overtly narrative manifestations of the franchise.

There are some examples in the Harry Potter exhibition which point to very specific moments in the films — for example, there’s an arrangement of the costumes which the primary characters wore to the Yule Ball which unmistakingly refers to specific events. But most of what is showcased here are recurring elements from the fictional world, scenes which appeared across multiple books or films, even if they are more central to some installments than others. There is a sense of the passing of time contributed by some exhibits which juxtapose the costumes worn by the primary characters over time, allowing us to watch the characters grow up across the series.

The exhibit rewards our sense of fan mastery, both by allowing us to recognize and place for ourselves various costumes and props, thanks to relatively nonintrusive signage. It allows us to examine each artifact closely and often gain new insights into the characters, as we learn by studying Lockhart’s exams and realizing that they ask about nothing other than the teacher’s own exploits, or scanning the wrappers of the candies or the covers of the textbooks to see details which never really were visible on the screen but help to flesh out the world of the story. This is often what is meant when tourists comment on the attention to detail — not simply that we get every detail we expect to see there but that looking more closely teaches us things about the world we would not know from consuming the other media manifestations of the franchise. So, we might see this attention to detail as part of the drillability Jason Mittell has described as a property of complex narrative systems.

There was some tension here between the desire to immerse us in a fictional realm and the desire to provide the kinds of annotation and background we anticipate from a museum experience. There are thus video monitors at various points throughout the exhibit, creating a sense of hypermediacy (see Bolter and Grusin’s Remediations). These videos offer us just in time glimpses into key scenes from the films which are evoked by the costumes, props, and settings on display. In some ways, seeing the film footage alongside the costume deepened our sense of immersion, while in other senses, it pulled us out of the suspension of disbelief since these monitors had little to do with the world of Hogwarts and everything to do with our experiences as museum goers.

A greater sense of disjunction was created for me by the experience of taking the audio tour where key production people comment on and provide background on the design choices which went into the construction of these costumes and props. After all, the only justification for this exhibit occupying space in a Museum of Science, other than because of its crowd appeal, has to do with showcasing the technical skills and industrial design which went into the production. We might think of the audio tour as something like a director’s commentary on the film world — except that I always find it hard to listen to the director’s commentary and remain absorbed in the fiction at the same time. In the case of a DVD, they represent different kinds of experiences, different modes of interpretation.

Yet walking through the immersive exhibit space and listening to the audio tour invited us to think about what we see as real (through suspension of disbelief) and constructed (through our behind the scenes perspective). In some cases, the information provided was illuminating, inviting us to look closely at the costumes as personifying different aspects of the character’s personalities, or explaining why lifesize models were created for some of the mythological creatures, like the Horntail dragon. But it always competed with the fantasy I was constructing in my head about getting to visit Hogwarts and its grounds. This is not a challenge that faces amusement park designers, for example, who are able to simply allow us to immerse ourselves in an entertaining fantasy without feeling compelled to offer educational background.

The exhibit clearly functioned as a cultural attractor — creating a shared space for Harry Potter fans to gather and have common experiences. I found myself engaged in conversations with many of the other patrons in ways I would have been reluctant to do at an art museum, say, or at the science museum in its normal mode. We had a common relationship to this fiction and in one way or another, we were fans.

The exhibit also was a cultural activator, giving us some things to do — get sorted upon entrance (if you are lucky enough to get picked), rip up a mandrake root and watch it squirm, through a quiddich ball through a hoop, and so forth.

But many of us came into the museum with our own fantasy investments as well. For example, I strongly identify with the Ravenclaw House and its most famous character, Luna Lovegood. I have been “sorted” through a variety of mechanisms through the years and always end up getting placed in Ravenclaw. Over time, I’ve discovered many of my closest friends in Harry Potter fandom are also self-identified Ravenclaw, which put us in a minority within the fandom, which veers towards Slytherin (and Snape/Malfoy fans) or Griffyndor (with Harry and friends). Indeed, of the two children being sorted on my tour, both had proclaimed fantasies about being Gryffindor, and were so sorted.

Because of this identification, though, I found myself increasingly annoyed that my house was under-represented in the exhibit — most blatantly in an area which shows the uniforms of three of the four Quiddich team captains, but makes no mention of the Ravenclaw captain. I suppose even in fantasy you can’t be an intellectual and a jock at the same time. :-{ We could accept that Luna is a sufficiently secondary character that she would not necessarily be represented but many of the other secondary characters on the same level of obscurity do find at least token acknowledgement here. The “houses” are so central to fan identifications within the Harry Potter world that it strikes me as odd that one house would be so totally neglected — except for occassional banners — and it suggests to me the one major misfire in an otherwise respectfully and lovingly created exhibit.

Next time: Transmedia for Social Change

Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: The Remaining Four Principles of Transmedia Storytelling

3. Immersion vs. Extractability

These two concepts refer to the perceived relationship between the transmedia fiction and our everyday experiences. At the Studio Ghibli Museum outside of Tokyo, there’s a fascinating exhibition on the history of motion pictures. Much of what is there could have been in a western museum on the same topic – various motion toys designed to capture and exploit the persistence of vision. Yet, there are also panorama boxes – little minature worlds which you have to kneel down to look inside, worlds constructed of plastic figurines in front of cellophane backdrops. On the wall, there’s a quote from animator Hayao Miyazki, who explains,

“just as people wished to make pictures move, they wished to look inside a different world. They yearned to enter a story or travel to a faraway land. They longed to see the future of the landscapes of the past. The panorama box with no moving parts was made much earlier than the Zoetrope.”

Miyazki is making the case, then, that immersion – the ability of consumers to enter into fictional worlds – was the driving force behind the creation of cinema and has fueled the development of many subsequent media. It is certainly not hard to move from the microworlds constructed in the panorama boxes to the microworlds created for contemporary video games. But if we step outside the museum proper and into the gift shop, we see another principle at play. Here, one can buy tiny figures and massive models of key characters, props, and settings from Miyazki’s films, or we can buy props and costumes which can become resoures for Cosplay. Ian Condry has made the case that the toy industry in Japan and its need for extractable elements has dramatically shaped the development of anime and manga.

In immersion, then, the consumer enters into the world of the story, while in extractability, the fan takes aspects of the story away with them as resources they deploy in the spaces of their everyday life.

Again, neither principle is new: just as we had panorama boxes in Japan, the movie palaces which sprung up in the United States in the 1920s were instruments of immersion, offering fantastical environments within which to watch movies which were themselves often exploring exotic or faraway worlds, and we might extend immersion to include more contemporary amusement parks, such as the soon to open theme park that seeks to reconstruct the world of Harry Potter or the Dubai based theme park focused around Marvel superheroes to open in 2012 (assuming either Dubai or the world doesn’t end before then). On the other end of the spectrum, we can see early examples of extractable content growing up around Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Buster Brown, or Charlie Chaplin, to cite a few examples, even around Nanook of the North (which helped to introduce the Eskimo Pie to the American buying public).

4. Worldbuilding.

In Convergence Culture, I quoted an unnamed screenwriter who discussed how Hollywood’s priorities had shifted in the course of his career: “When I first started you would pitch a story because without a good story, you didn’t really have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. and now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media.” This focus on world building has a long history in science fiction, where writers such as Cordwainer Smith constructed interconnecting worlds which link together stories scattered across publications.

We can point towards someone like L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz books, as someone who had a deep investment in this concept of the author as world builder. For most of us today, The Wizard of Oz is a story – really reduced to a single book from the twenty or so Baum wrote and from there, to only those characters and plot elements that appeared in the MGM musical. Baum would have understood Oz as a world and indeed, he presented himself as the “geographer” of Oz, giving a series of mock travelogue lectures, where he showed slides and short films, which illustrated different places within Oz and hinted at the events which had occurred there. Oz as a place got elaborated not simply through the books but also through comic strip series (recently reprinted), stage musicals, and films, each of which added new places and characters to the overall mix. Some of the Oz books were novelizations and elaborations of stories introduced through these other media. And consistently, the logic of these stories were focused on journeys and travel, so that the Oz franchise was constantly uncovering more parts of the fictional world.

This concept of world building is closely linked to what Janet Murray has called the “encyclopedic” impulse behind contemporary interactive fictions – the desire of audiences to map and master as much as they can know about such universes, often through the production of charts, maps, and concordances. Consider, for example, this map of the character relations which have unfolded in the X-Men universe over the past 40 plus years and compare it to the complex social dynamics ascribed to the great Russian novels, such as Tolstoi’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Pushing back even earlier, we can see this world building impulse at work in something like the Sistine Chapel Ceiling Murals, which seek to stitch together characters and stories from across many different parts of the Bible into a single coherent representation.

The concept of world building seems closely linked to the earlier principles of immersion and extractability since they both represent ways for consumers to engage more directly with the worlds represented in the narratives, treating them as real spaces which intersect in some way with our own lived realities. Witness the production of travel posters for fictional locations, for example. Many transmedia extensions can be understood as doing something similar to Baum’s travel lectures as offering us a guided tour of the fictional setting, literally in the case of a real estate site created around Melrose Place, or simply flesh out our understanding of the institutions and practices.

Increasingly, transmedia producers are creating the media which exists in the fictional world as a way of understanding its own logic, practices, and institutions – so we see, for example, the production of fictional pirate comics within Alan Moore’s original Watchmen graphic novels to show us the fantasies of a world where superheroes are a reality, or the newscasts created around the film version of Watchmen, which help us to understand the altered history created by the superhero’s intervention into 20th century events.

These extensions may take physical forms, as in the park benches for District 9, which helped us to experience the segregation between humans and aliens. They might include mock advertising campaigns, such as those for Tru-Blood, or political posters, such as those created in support of alien rights in District 9 or vampire rights in True Blood. And they might extend to the production of fictional media franchises and fandoms, such as Jesse Alexander has created for Sargasso Planet in his upcoming Day One miniseries.

5. Seriality

The idea of seriality has an equally long history, which we can trace back to 19th century literary figures, such as Charles Dickens or the Dumas factory, and which took on new significance with the rise of movie serials in the early 20th century. Indeed, Kim Deitch’s Alias the Cat graphic novel uses this earlier historical moment to comment on our current push towards transmedia entertainment, with his protagonist gradually drawing connections between events depicted in movie serials, comic strips, live theatrical events, and news stories, suggesting ways that an earlier media system might tell a story across multiple platforms.

We might understand how serials work by falling back on a classic film studies distinction between story and plot. The story refers to our mental construction of what happened which can be formed only after we have absorbed all of the available chunks of information. The plot refers to the sequence through which those bits of information have been made available to us. A serial, then, creates meaningful and compelling story chunks and then disperses the full story across multiple installments. The cliff-hanger represents an archtypical moment of rupture where one text ends and closure where one text bleeds into the next, creating a strong enigma which drives the reader to continue to consume the story even though our satisfaction has been deferred while we await the next installment.

We can think of transmedia storytelling then as a hyperbolic version of the serial, where the chunks of meaningful and engaging story information have been dispersed not simply across multiple segments within the same medium, but rather across multiple media systems. There still is a lot we don’t know about what will motivate consumers to seek out those other bits of information about the unfolding story – ie. What would constitute the cliffhanger in a transmedia narrative – and we still know little about how much explicit instruction they need to know these other elements exist or where to look for them. As we work on these problems, there is a great deal we can learn by studying classic serial forms of fiction, such as the serial publication of novels or the unfolding of chapters in movie serials or even in comic book series.

Early writing on transmedia (mine included) may have made too much of the nonlinear nature of the transmedia entertainment experience, suggesting that the parts could be consumed within any order. Increasingly, we are seeing companies deploy very different content and strategies in the build up to the launch of the “mother ship” of the franchise than while the series is on the air or after the main text has completed its cycle. So there’s work to be done to understand the sequencing of transmedia components and whether, in fact, it really does work to consume them in any order. We are, however, seeing some very elaborate plays with time lines and seriality occurring as the stories of television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, or Supernatural extend into comics, or consider the ways that each of the Battlestar Galactica films has added some new chunk to the timeline of that particular universe.

6. Subjectivity

Transmedia extensions, then, may focus on unexplored dimensions of the fictional world, as happens when Star Wars games pick up on particular groups – such as the bounty hunters or podracers – and expands upon what was depicted in the films. Transmedia extensions may broaden the timeline of the aired material, as happens when we rely on comics to fill in back story or play out the long term ramifications of the depicted events (see for example the use of animation in the build up to The Dark Knight or The Matrix Reloaded). A third function of transmedia extensions may be to show us the experiences and perspectives of secondary characters. These functions may be combined as they were with the Heroes webcomics, which provided backstories and insights into the large cast of characters as the series was being launched. These kinds of extensions tap into longstanding readers interest in comparing and contrasting multiple subjective experiences of the same fictional events.

We may learn a good deal about this aspect of transmedia by looking at the tradition of epistolary novels. Works like Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, or Dracula, constructed fictional diaries, letters, even transcripts. While they are contained within a single binder, they can be described as transmedia works insofar as they imitate multiple genres, including both manuscript and print forms of prose, and thus invite us to construct the fictional reality from these fragments. Typically, the author constructed himself or herself as having found these documents rather than constructed them, much as ARGs often refuse to acknowledge that they are games or works like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity pretend to be constructed from found footage.

As we read such works, we are encouraged to be aware of who is writing and who they are writing for, thus using the letters or diaries to help further construct the relationships between characters. Something similar occurs when we look at the mock websites constructed around transmedia fictions – for example, District 9 was accompanied by a website for an alien rights organization which directly challenges some of the claims made by the government characters in the film and in some cases, we are seeing mock government propaganda footage as it is being “read against the grain” by these resistant organizations, thus creating a layered subjectivity. If Ghost Whispererr, the television series, is about a human woman who speaks with ghost, the webisode series, “The Other Side,” shares the perspective of ghost who speak to human women. The promoters of 2012 recently sparked controversy when they created a mock educational website that while clearly marked as tied to a fictional film represented “scientific” perspectives on why the world was ending, a site which provoked responses from NASA who were concerned that it might be misleading the public about actual scientific thoughts and theories about the state of the universe.

This focus on multiple subjectivities is giving rise to the use of Twitter as a platform through which fans (Mad Men) or authors (Valmont) can elaborate on the secondary characters and their responses to events represented in the primary text. We even saw this focus on multiple subjectivities extend into reality television this season when Project Runway, which focuses on the designers, added a second series, which focused on the same events as experienced by “The Models of the Runway.”

Transmedia texts often rely on secondary characters because it is too costly to bring the primary actors over to work in lower yield media like mobisodes and webisodes. Yet, we have a lot to learn about how to turn this into a strength by exploiting the audience’s desire to see through more than one set of eyes. Battlestar Galactica‘s webisode series, “The Face of the Enemy,” showed some of this potential in focusing around Felix Gaeta, a previously marginalized figure on the series, and creating interest as they lead into a season where he was going to play a much more central role; the episodes fleshed out his backstory, explored his motivations, and hinted at some of the future developments, all within a short and largely self-contained storyline.

7. Performance

In Convergence Culture, I introduced two related concepts – cultural attractors (a phrase borrowed from Pierre Levy) and cultural activators. Cultural attractors draw together a community of people who share common interests – even if it is simply the common interest in figuring out who is going to get booted from the island next. Cultural activators give that community something to do. My classic example would be the map flashed in short bursts in the second season of Lost. Hardcore fans were motivated to create their own screengrabs, share them online, construct their own maps, and try to decipher the cryptic text and figure out how it related to the depicted events. Increasingly, producers are being asked to think about what fans are going to do with their series and to design in spaces for their active participation. Sharon Marie Ross discusses these as invitational strategies, suggesting that these can be explicit (as in the appeals to vote on So You Think You Can Dance) or implicit (as in the depiction inside the series of fans in The O.C. or mobile social networks in Gossip Girl.)

But even without those invitations, fans are going to be actively identifying sites of potential performance in and around the transmedia narrative where they can make their own contributions. Indeed, much of the discussion at Futures of Entertainment this year centered around various ways that producers were engaging with these fans, supporting, “harvesting,” or shutting down their own creative contributions. In my original talk, I refer to “fan performance” but it was pointed out through these discussions that producers are also “performing” their relationship to both the text and the audience through their presence online or through director’s commentary. We typically think of these director commentaries as “nonfiction” or “documentary” breaking down the fiction to show us the behind the scenes production process, yet some authors – Ron Moore in the case of Battlestar Galactica or JMS in the case of Babylon 5 – deploy these platforms to expand our understanding of the fictional worlds, the characters, and depicted events, suggesting that they may also be understood as an expansion of the narrative and not simply an exposition on its conditions of production.

As Louisa Stein noted at the conference, there’s still much to be explored as we expand the discourse of transmedia entertainment to engage more fully with issues being raised by those working in the fan studies tradition. I can’t fully elaborate on these issues now, but in the talk, I simply pointed to some examples of these fan-made extensions, such as the performance videos on YouTube where fans re-enact or lip sinc musical numbers from Glee which Alex Leavitt discussed on the Convergence Culture Consortium blog recently, or The Hunt for Gollum, a fan constructed extension of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, or Star Wars Uncut, where each fan is allowed to reconstruct a single shot from the George Lucas film, which no unfolds through a giddy array of representational strategies (claymation, lego, drag queens, manipulated or re-enacted footage).

I also suggested that we can understand transmedia activism, such as that illustrated by the HP Alliance, which deploys themes, characters, and situations from the J.K. Rowling narratives to motivate real world social change, as a logical extension both of performance and of the tension between extractability and immersion. All of these represent unauthorized forms of extension which are not directly acknowledged in the primary text. Yet, a central theme running through the conference centered on how these fan productions and performances might feed back into the creation of the commercial transmedia franchise itself, with Purefold being held up as an emerging model which deploys crowdsourcing and Creative Commons liscensing to encourage viewer contributions to thinking through future directions in the series.

So there you have them – seven core principles of transmedia storytelling. Is this an exhaustive list? Probably not. Some of them weren’t even fully on my radar at the start of the semester. These represent insights into the various transmedia experiments we’ve seen so far. Some of these have drawn a good deal of critical attention, while others represent new and unexplored spaces. Most point to ways that transmedia connects to historic cultural practices and thus can draw insights from historical and critical writing on those practices. Most point to ways that the study of transmedia narrative needs to reconnect with the study of commercial industries and fan communities if we are to really understand the dynamic being created by these interventions. And most of them point to new spaces for creative experimentation.

If you are enjoying this discussion of transmedia, stay tuned. More is coming next week including some previews of the work we are doing on transmedia activism. For now, you can check out two more of the sessions from Futures of Entertainment 4 which deal with transmedia issues.

Session 1: Producing Transmedia Experiences: Stories in a Cross-Platform World

Moderator: Jason Mittell – Middlebury College

Panelists: Brian Clark – Partner and CEO, GMD Studios; Michael Monello- Co-Founder & Creative Director, Campfire; Derek Johnson – University of North Texas; Victoria Jaye – Acting Head of Fiction & Entertainment Multiplatform Commissioning, BBC; Patricia Handschiegel – Serial Entrepeneur, Founder of

Case Study: Transmedia Design and Conceptualization – The Making of Purefold

Moderator: Geoffrey Long – Gambit-MIT

Panelists include: David Bausola – Co-founder of Ag8; Tom Himpe – Co-founder of Ag8; Mauricio Mota – Chief Storytelling Officer, co-founder The Alchemists; C3 Consulting Practitioner; Leo Sa – Petrobras

The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (Well, Two Actually. Five More on Friday)

Across the next two weeks, we will be rolling out the webcast versions of the sessions we hosted during the recent Futures of Entertainment 4 conference held last month at MIT. (see Monday’s post for the session on Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer). Many of the conference sessions were focused around the concept of transmedia entertainment. The team asked me to deliver some opening remarks at the conference which updated my own thinking about transmedia and introduced some basic vocabulary which might guide the discussion. My remarks were largely off the cuff in response to power point slides, but I am making an effort here to capture the key concepts in writing for the first time. You can watch the recording of the actual presentation here and/or read along with this text.

Many of these ideas were informed by the discussions I’ve been having all semester long within my Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment class at the University of Southern California.

Revenge of the Oragami Unicorn: Seven Core Concepts of Transmedia Storytelling

[Electronic Arts game designer] Neil Young talks about “additive comprehension.” He cites the example of the director’s cut of Blade Runner, where adding a small segment showing Deckard discovering an origami unicorn invited viewers to question whether Deckard might be a replicant: “That changes your whole perception of the film, your perception of the ending…The challenge for us, especially with the Lord of the Rings is how do we deliver that one piece of information that makes you look at the films differently?” — Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collides (2006).

I first introduced my concept of transmedia storytelling in my Technology Review column in 2003 and elaborated upon it through the “Searching for the Oragami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling” chapter in Convergence Culture. For me, the origami unicorn has remained emblematic of the core principles shaping my understanding of transmedia storytelling, a kind of patron saint for what has emerged as increasing passionate and motivated community of artists, storytellers, brands, game designers, and critics/scholars, for whom transmedia has emerged as a driving cause in their creative and intellectual lives. We all have somewhat different definitions of transmedia storytelling and indeed, we don’t even agree on the same term – with Frank Rose talking about “Deep Media” and Christy Dena talking about “Cross-media.”

As Frank has put it, same elephant, different blind men. We are all groping to grasp a significant shift in the underlying logic of commercial entertainment, one which has both commercial and aesthetic potentials we are still trying to understand, one which has to do with the interplay between different media systems and delivery platforms (and of course different media audiences and modes of engagement.)

Whatever we call it, transmedia entertainment is increasingly prominent in our conversations about how media operates in a digital era – from recent books (such as Jonathon Gray’s Show Sold Seperately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts and Chuck Tryon’s Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence) to dedicated websites (such as the Narrative Design Exploratorium which has been running a great series of interviews with transmedia designers and storytellers) and websites created by transmedia producers, such as Jeff Gomez, to explain the concept to their clients. We are seeing senior statesmen across multiple disciplines – from David Bordwell in film studies to Don Norman in design research – weigh in on the aesthetics and design of transmedia experiences. All of this influx of new interest invites us to pull back and lay out some core principles that might shape our development or analysis of transmedia narrative and to revise some of our earlier formulations of this topic.

Six years ago, fans and critics were shocked at the idea of transmedia as they first encountered what the Wachowski Brothers were doing around The Matrix. Now, there is almost a transmedia expectation, as occurred when fans of Flash Forward complained recently because the series introduced a Url on the air and then only provided impoverished extensions to those fans who tracked down the link. Have we reached the point where media franchises are going to be judged harshly if they do not sustain our hunger for transmedia content?

Let me start with the following definition of transmedia storytelling as an operating principle: “Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” Some of what I will say here will complicate this conception of a “unified and coordinated entertainment experience,” as we factor in the unauthorized, grassroots expansion of the text by fans or consider the ways that franchises might value diversity over coherence in their exploration of fictional worlds.

We should be clear that narrative represents simply one kind of transmedia logic which is shaping the contemporary entertainment realm. We might identify a range of others – including branding, spectacle, performance, games, perhaps others – which can operate either independently or may be combined within any given entertainment experience. During the conference, Nancy Baym asked us to think about when and how music has gone transmedia. We struggled to come up with examples – everyone of course immediately latched onto the ARG created around the Nine Inch Nails; I proposed the Comic Book Tatoo where artists and writers used Tori Amos songs as their inspiration. The question looks different, though, if we ask about transmedia performance, because most contemporary musical artists perform across multiple media – minimally live and recorded performance, but also video and social network sites and twitter and…

We might also draw a distinction between transmedia storytelling and transmedia branding, though these can also be closely intertwined. So, we can see something like Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader as a extension of the transmedia narrative that has grown up around Star Wars because it provides back story and insights into a central character in that saga. (Thanks to Geoffrey Long for this example) By comparison, a Star Wars breakfast cereal may enhance the franchise’s branding but it may have limited contribution to make to our understanding of the narrative or the world of the story. The idea that Storm Troopers might be made of sugar sweet marshmellow bits probably contradicts rather than enhances the continuity and coherence of the fictional world George Lucas was creating.

Where does this leave the Star Wars action figures? Well, they represent resources where players can expand their understanding of the fictional world through their play. Minimally, they enhance transmedia play, but in so far as coherent stories emerge through this play, they may also contribute to the expansion of the transmedia story. And indeed, writers like Will Brooker and Jonathon Gray have made compelling arguments for the specific ways these toys expanded or reshaped the transmedia narrative, adding, for example, to the mystique around Boba Fett.

While we are making distinctions, we need to distinguish between adaptation, which reproduces the original narrative with minimum changes into a new medium and is essentially redundant to the original work, and extension, which expands our understanding of the original by introducing new elements into the fiction. Of course, this is a matter of degree – since any good adaptation contributes new insights into our understanding of the work and makes additions or omissions which reshape the story in significant ways. But, I think we can agree that Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet is an adaptation, while Tom Stoppard’s Rosencranz & Guildenstern Are Dead expands Shakespeare’s original narrative through its refocalization around secondary characters from the play.

My own early writing about transmedia may have over-emphasized the “newness” of these developments, excited as I was to see how digital media was extending the potential for entertainment companies to deliver content around their franchises. Yet, Derrick Johnson has made strong arguments that the current transmedia moment needs to be understood in relation to a much longer history of different strategies for structuring and deploying media franchises. Indeed, when I head to University of Southern California each morning to teach, I am given a forceful reminder of these earlier stages in the evolution of transmedia entertainment in the form of a giant statue of Felix the Cat which has sat atop a local car dealership since the 1920s and has become a beloved Los Angeles landmark. Felix, as Donald Crafton, has shown us was a transmedia personality, whose exploits moved across the animated screen and comics to become the focus of popular music and merchandising, and he was one of the first personalities to get broadcast on network American television. We might well distinguish Felix as a character who is extracted from any specific narrative context (given each of his cartoons is self-contained and episodic) as opposed to a modern transmedia figure who carries with him or her the timeline and the world depicted on the “mother ship,” the primary work which anchors the franchise. As I move through this argument, I will connect transmedia to earlier historical practices, trying to identify similarities and differences along the way.

1. Spreadability vs. Drillability

At last year’s Futures of Entertainment conference, we unrolled the concept of “spreadability” which is the central focus of my next book, which is now being written with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Spreadability refered to the capacity of the public to engage actively in the circulation of media content through social networks and in the process expand its economic value and cultural worth. Writing in response to that argument, Jason Mittell has proposed a counterveiling principle, what he calls “drillability” which has some close connection to Neil Young’s concept of “additive comprehension” cited above. Mitell’s discussion of drillability is worth quoting at length here:

“Perhaps we need a different metaphor to describe viewer engagement with narrative complexity. We might think of such programs as drillable rather than spreadable. They encourage a mode of forensic fandom that encourages viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the compleity of a sotry and its telling. Such programs create magnets for engagement, drawing viewers into the storyworlds and urging them to drill down to discover more…The opposition between spreadable and drillable shouldn’t be thought of as a hierarchy, but rather as opposing vectors of cultural engagement. Spreadable media encourages horizontal ripples, accumulating eyeballs without necessarily encouraging more long-term engagement. Drillable media typically engage far fewer people, but occupy more of their time and energies in a vertical descent into a text’s complexities.”

A key phrase here may be “necessarily” since we’ve seen that helping to spread the message may well be central to enhancing viewer engagement and may encourage further participation – as we’ve seen in the past few weeks where the release of Susan Boyle’s album, more than six months after the participatory circulation of her original video, has broken sales records this year, swamping by something like seven to one the release of an album by American Idol winner Adam Lambert.

Yet, Mittell invites us to think of a world where many of us are constantly scanning for media franchises that interest us and they drilling down deeper once we find a fiction that captures our imagination. Both potentials may be built into the same transmedia franchise, yet they represent, as he suggests, different dimensions of the experience, and there may well be cases where a franchise sustains spreadability without offering any real depth to drill into or offers depth and complexity without offering strong incentives to pass it along through our social networks. More work needs to be done to fully understand the interplay between these two impulses which are shaping current entertainment experiences.

2. Continuity vs. Multiplicity

I mentioned earlier that some of my recent thinking about transmedia starts to challenge the idea of a “unified experience” which is “systematically” developed across multiple texts. It is certainly the case that many transmedia franchises do indeed seek to construct a very strong sense of “continuity” which contributes to our appreciation of the “coherence” and “plausibility” of their fictional worlds and that many hardcore fans see this kind of “continuity” as the real payoff for their investment of time and energy in collecting the scattered bits and assembling them into a meaningful whole. We can see the elaborate continuities developed around the DC and Marvel superheroes as a particular rich example of the kind of “continuity” structures long preferred by the most dedicated fans of transmedia entertainment.

Yet, if we use these comic book publishers as a starting point, we can see them pushing beyond continuity in more recent publishing ventures which rely on what I described in my contributions to Third Person as a logic of “multiplicity.” So, for example, we can see Spider-Man as part of the mainstream continuity of the Marvel universe, but he also exists in the parallel continuity offered by the Ultimate Spider-Man franchise, and we can see a range of distinctly separate mini-franchises, such as Spider-Man India (which sets the story in Mumbai) or Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (which stands alone as a romance comic series for young female readers). And indeed, some of these experiments – Spider-Man India, the DC Elseworlds series – use multiplicity – the possibility of alternative versions of the characters or parallel universe versions of the stories – as an alternative set of rewards for our mastery over the source material.

Multiplicity allows fans to take pleasure in alternative retellings, seeing the characters and events from fresh perspectives, and comics publishers trust their fans to sort out not only how the pieces fit together but also which version of the story any given work fits within. We can compare this with the laborious process the producers had to go through to launch the recent Star Trek film, showing us that it does indeed take place in the same universe as the original and is part of the original continuity, but the continuity has to be altered to make way for the new performers and their versions of the characters.

This pleasure in multiplicity is not restricted to comics, as is suggested by the recent trend to take works in public domain, especially literary classics, and mash them up with more contemporary genres – such as Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, or Little Women and Werewolves.

The concept of multiplicity paves the way for us to think about fan fiction and other forms of grassroots expression as part of the same transmedia logic – unauthorized extensions of the “mother ship” which may nevertheless enhance fan engagement and expand our understanding of the original. For those franchises where there is a strong desire to police and preserve continuity, fan fiction can be experienced by producers as a threat, something which may disrupt the coherence of their unfolding story, but where we embrace a logic of multiplicity, they simply become one version among many which may offer us interesting insights into who these characters are and what motivates their behavior.

In my class and at the conference, this concept of multiplicity has been experienced as liberating, allowing us to conceive of alternative configurations of transmedia, and lowering some of the anxiety about making sure every detail is “right” when collaborating across media platforms. My key point, though, would be that there needs to be clear signaling of whether you are introducing multiplicity within the franchise, as well as consistency within any given “alternative” version of the central storyline.


From Cool Hunters to Chief Culture Officers: An Interview with Grant McCracken

One of the high points of our recent Futures of Entertainment conference was a presentation by Anthropologist/Consultant/Blogger Grant McCracken on his new book, Chief Culture Officier: How to Create a Living Breathing Corporation. McCracken is a lively and engaging speaker and one of the most provocative thinkers I know when it comes to addressing the social, cultural, technological and economic changes shaping the world around us. McCracken has long been part of the brain trust behind the Convergence Culture Consortium and he writes an exceptional blog, This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.

I had a chance to read Grant’s book in draft form and have been eagerly awaiting its release because of the conversation it is going to spark both within universities and within corporations about the value of cultural insights for modern business and where those insights were likely to come from. When we launched the Comparative Media Studies Program a decade ago, one of our early backers encouraged us to train our students for jobs that didn’t have names yet — jobs which depended on their ability to think across media and to understand the intersection of culture, technology, and industry. Through the years, many of our best students went into industry, often into jobs created around their expertise and talent. Recently, we’ve called them “thought leaders.” I’ve seen these same kind of students through the professional programs in Annenberg and the Cinema School at USC. I constantly meet prospective students with this kind of vision for their future, but so far, few academic programs have embraced this alternative professional trajectory for their students or have developed curriculum which encourage a more applied perspective.

McCracken proposes a new title, “Chief Culture Officer,” and argues that the most powerful companies in th world need to have people in the top ranks of their leadership whose primary job is to attend to the culture around them. While some may disagree, I would contend this expertise is most likely to come from programs in media and cultural studies, anthropology, and other branches of the humanities and the qualitative social sciences. It certainly is not the expertise fostered in most business schools. If we take McCracken’s arguments here seriously, they have implications for how we train our students — not limiting them for an increasingly constipated academic job market but giving them the background and experience they would need to navigate through a range of other sectors being impacted by media change. And it also has implications for how companies think about their consumers, how they anticipate new developments and how they pay respect to more stable, slower changing aspects of their culture.

All of these issues surfaced during the panel discussion which followed Grant’s presentation. Respondents included am Sam Ford – Director of Customer Insights, Peppercom, and C3 Research Affiliate; Jane Shattuc – Emerson College; and Leora Kornfeld – Research Associate, Harvard Business School. The moderator was William Uricchio, chair of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program. You can watch the video of the event here.

I was lucky enough to get Grant McCracken to address some of the key issues in the book in an exclusive interview for this blog conducted earlier this fall. Here, he lays out some of the key premises of the book and its implications for how companies and universities think about the future.

What do you mean by a “chief culture officer” and what role would such a person play within the modern corporation?

Corporations have been notoriously bad at reckoning with culture. They manage the “problem of culture” with ad hocery of many kinds. They call on ad agencies, consultants, gurus and cool hunters and, when all else fails, the intern down the hall. But there is no single person and, worse, there is no senior manager. Even as culture grows ever more dynamic, various, demanding, and participatory. So that’s my argument: there ought to be someone in the C-Suite who’s job it is to reckon with culture and to spot the opportunities and dangers it represents.

Your professional training was in anthropology yet you’ve spent much of your career as a cultural consultant. What kinds of advice have companies sought from you? What has been the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make from anthropology as it exists in the university to ethnography as a basis for making business decisions?

Sometimes I am supplying the ethnography, and this means quizzing consumers about how they see the world. This is culture from the bottom up, as it were. Sometimes I am supplying anthropology and this means reporting on the categories, distinctions and rules that make up our culture. This is culture from the top down, so to say.

As to the adjustment, it was a horrible slog for awhile, like riding uneven circus ponies. But eventually my academic self and my consulting self found a way to work together. There are moments of surprising coincidence and the interactive effect can be terrific. And then of course you find a way to respect the demands of Christ by forgetting Caesar (and the other way round.) The good news is that consulting forces a grueling pace of problem solving that builds skills for one’s academic work, I think. And vice versa.

You cite “Cool Hunters” as enemies of the Culture Officer. What are the limits of the current “cool hunting” process and how does it lead companies astray?

The trouble with cool hunters is that they are a little like cats. Cats have more rods in the retina than we do and this gives them the ability to see movement better than we do. The price that cats and coolhunters pay for this adaption is that they are not very good at seeing things when these things are still. Which is a too elaborate way of saying cool hunters are maximally responsive to culture in motion and disinclined to take an interest in culture when more static. Actually, we can go further than this. Cool hunters are generally pretty hopeless when it comes to the deeper, slower and more static aspects of culture. They don’t even appear to know that they exist. If one had to guess at a metric only something like 30% of our culture is fad and fashion. That means the better of our culture escapes the grasp of the cool hunter and the corporation who relies on him/her.

What is the argument for embedding cultural expertise within the company rather than outsourcing it through some kind of consulting firm?

There are two problems with hiring in culture expertise. Culture is increasingly various and changeable. Corporations are increasingly complex and changeable. To find the fit between them takes an exquisite knowledge of both. Hiring culture knowledge in gives the corporation a collection of partial views as rendered by people who may or may not understand the corporation. No corporation would dream of handling finance, technology, human relations this way. It’s something that has to be done in-house to be done well.

What should humanities programs be doing differently in order to fully prepare their students for the position of chief culture officer?

Humanities programs turn out to be the heroes of the piece. It gives people the frame-shifting, assumption-jumping, intellectual nimbleness they need to reckon with the complexities of culture and the corporation. We spend a lot of time these days looking at new developments and asking, “is this something or nothing really?” and if it’s something, “Ok, is this X1, X2 or notX at all?” The liberal arts are wonderfully good at cultivating this gift. Certainly, engineering and finance create formidable intellectual abilities. The most fluid, the most elegant mind I trained at the Harvard Business School was a product of the British military. So, clearly, many cognitive styles qualify. But the humanities have a certain advantage. They seem to endow people with the pattern recognition the CCO needs. Of course, the humanities have problems of their own. Postmodernism has turned many minds to mush.

One model for cultural analysis which has gained some traction in the corporate world is Eric Von Hipple’s concept of the lead user. Von Hipple encourages companies to use early adapters as test-beds for their products, often looking there for insights which may allow them to innovate and refine their offerings. How does this model align with your claims for the value of ethnographic perspectives in the board room?

Lead users are useful. The trouble is they are so enthusiastic about an innovation they are perfectly happy to make any adjustments necessary to adopt it. And as Geoffrey Moore says, this makes them a bad guide to the larger market of later adopters. These people expect the innovation to conform to them. And this takes another order (and probably another round) of product development, which development must be informed by our knowledge of the cultural meanings and practices in place. Without cultural knowledge, the innovation cannot “jump the chasm” to use Geoffrey Moore’s famous phrase. (All of this is Moore’s argument.) Ethnography is especially useful as a way of discovering what this culture is.

You write about the “Apollo Theater effect,” as you try to explain the shifting relations between cultural producers and consumers. Explain. Why may we be outgrowing the concept of consumption?

I take your lead here, Henry. As you demonstrated so early and so well, more consumers are becoming producers, and this makes us as Apollo theatre audience of us all. Because we make so much culture, we have become more observant and critical, and less passive in our consumption of other’s productions. And on these grounds I’ve suggested that perhaps its time that we start called “consumers” “multipliers.” I except your wisdom here: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.”

Some companies are now monitoring Twitter to try to see how consumers are responding to them. What are the strengths and limits of this approach?

This is a good and necessary idea, as a way of spotting emergent concerns around which consumers are organizing themselves. On the other hand, Twitter is very like a key hole. It’s hard to see very much and unless we follow up with some more thorough inquiry, we are missing a great deal.

Many executives assume that cultural knowledge is “intuitive,” something they absorb by growing up in a culture. Yet, you are arguing that cultural knowledge requires a certain kind of expertise. Why is intuition not enough?

Intuition is indeed the instrument by which we often deliver cultural insights, but it is also a way for the corporation to diminish cultural intelligence by calling them “soft” “vaque,” and “impressionistic.” As we become more expert, more professional and more disciplined about our study of culture, I hope we will encourage a new comprehension of what culture knowledge is and how it adds value.

Does the cultural knowledge companies need become even more of a challenge as companies start to do business on a global scale?

Indeed, this is a challenge. How do we speak to several cultures and many segments with a single voice. There is a global culture in the works. It will be a long time coming, but it is coming. But as you and others have pointed out, the real opportunity for the world of communications is to move from the monolithic message to the nuanced, multiple one. We can speak to many communities with many voices, and this really takes a virtuoso control of knowlege and communication. The good news is that as we engage more consumers in acts of cocreation, they will help.

You’ve argued for advertising and branding as activities which are involved in the management and production of meanings. How would branding change in a world where more companies had chief culture officers?

Yes, that’s my hope, that the presence of a CCO would make the corporation better at the production and management of meanings. At some point, I think, our destination must be this: a living, breathing corporation, that fully participates in and draws from and gives to the culture around it. We will have to teach the old dog many new tricks to make this possible. Old asymmetries and boundaries and assumptions will have to be broken down. The good news is that many of the old models are just not working and the corporation in its way has always been keenly interested in what works. I’m hoping the book will help a little here.

Grant McCracken holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in cultural anthropology. He is the author of Big Hair, Culture and Consumption, Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning and Brand Management, Flock and Flow, The Long Interview, Plenitude: Culture by Commotion, Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture, and Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation. He has been the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge and he is now an adjunct professor at McGill University. He has consulted widely in the corporate world, including the Coca-Cola Company, IKEA, Chrysler, Kraft, Kodak, and Kimberly Clark. He is a member of the IBM Social Networking Advisory Board.

Inside the Computer Clubhouse (Part Three of Three)

Would it be possible to do what the Computer Clubhouses do in the context of more formalized educational structures? Why or why not?

YASMIN: We have many examples of schools that adopt the premise of self-directed work for students who with assistance of teachers and other peers dig deeply into projects rather than to follow textbooks. Schools and classrooms like these think about themselves as communities of learners rather than as a collection of individuals. Examples are the recently opened “Quest to Learn” school in New York City; here in Philadelphia, I know of the Science Leadership Academy.

But to become a school like this requires some fundamental changes in how we organize learning in general, what the roles of students and teachers are, and what the role of technology is – how it’s being used for research, exchange and production. The Computer Clubhouse also reconceptualized the role of the coordinator. We conducted many interviews with coordinators, community organizers and network administrators to get a better sense on what a job description for clubhouse coordinator would be like – part social worker, youth support, art teacher, mentor – it’s not a traditional role when you’re there to support youth in creative endeavors. I think the same would apply to teachers, principals, and administrators who want to adopt the principles of the Computer Clubhouse model in their schools.

You write, “The Computer Clubhouse is not a computer lab.” Explain the difference.

YASMIN: Actually Gail Breslow, the director of the Computer Clubhouse Network made this statement in an interview that we conducted with her. The picture that people have of a computer lab is one with rows of computers facing walls and students not interacting with each other as they’re running programs. The picture of a Computer Clubhouse is very different: computers in clusters so that youth can talk to the person right next to them and see what they’re doing and a green table in the middle with no computers on it that serves as play and meeting space.

ROBBIN: Computer labs provide an invaluable service by making digital technologies available to its clients. These labs, however, are not designed to generate a learning community and to respond to needs and situations outside of the use of computer equipment and computer resources. The Clubhouse provides access to digital technology, but that is just the beginning. In fact, the Clubhouse is primarily a learning community, both for learning to use technology for creative expression and becoming a lifelong learner.

You place a strong emphasis on helping young people to learn how to program. What do you see as the value of programming, as opposed to other kinds of digital skills, such as networking or storytelling?

KYLIE: It’s not really an either/or proposition. Certainly, social networking and digital storytelling are important skills in the 21st Century. Learning to computer program is really about learning the language of the computer. Now, I’m an artist and not a programmer by trade, so it’s probably surprising that I would see the value in learning to program. By championing programming as a critical skill for today’s youth, I’m not advocating for a generation of hackers insomuch as I’m seeing programming as a key step in moving youth from consumers to producers, and learning to program provides transparency into how software and computers operate and give youth some degree of control over their interactions with the computer. Casey Reas and others have called this “software literacy” because at the heart of using the computer as a creative medium is learning how to manipulate it and to create your own software in a sense. You really don’t need to look far to see how people are taking up this type of literacy on a widespread scale–The iPhone app phenomenon is one example where everyday people are creating their own apps. This is also catching on in youth communities. It’s not as hard to do as it might seem–As the book illuminates, the field has produced several shortcut tools (see for example Scratch or Processing) that allow youth (and adults alike) to use programming concepts in a way that is more user-friendly to novices. As evidenced by burgeoning online communities of tween/teen game designers, animators and digital artists, learning to code creatively is becoming to today’s generation what learning to read and write was to those growing up in the 20th Century. Furthermore, media projects (like the Scratch projects described in the book) emphasize graphic, music and video — media at the core of youths’ technology interests and thus provide new opportunities to broaden participation of under-represented groups in the design and invention of new technologies.

ROBBIN: Programming constructs can be viewed as another instance of Papert’s “gears.” In Papert’s case, his play with gears gave him insight into more powerful mathematical ideas of differentials, etc. Programming can give learners insights into more powerful ideas such as convergence, iteration, etc. However, I disagree with the phrasing of your question, as it presupposes storytelling is not as important an activity at the Clubhouse as programming. Storytelling, or more specifically, being able to tell a good story, is important whether you’re a researcher telling the story of your data or a Clubhouse member telling the story of your learning. Storytelling embodies many powerful ideas, including non-determinism. Storytelling also engages learners in various modes of critical reflection.

You write that when the Clubhouses started in 1993, 70 percent of your visitors had never used a mouse before. How have the users of the Clubhouses changed over this time and what shifts have you needed to make to keep pace with the nature of your learners?

ROBBIN: Members come into the Clubhouse with a greater familiarity and comfort with computer technologies. There are regional variances, of course. As a result, members can dive right in to using the equipment. At the Clubhouse, it is important that mentors support the members starting “where they are” along the user spectrum. What is unique about the Clubhouse experience is members are challenged to create and be expressive with rather than just use technology. If a member wants to play computer games, she must first create a computer game to play.

What processes have you built into the Computer Clubhouses to insure that participants reflect on their own practices and share what they have learned with others?

ROBBIN: At the Flagship Clubhouse, members use software called, Pearls of Wisdom, to share their meta-learning and creative experiences around their project development. There are also project showcases and presentations that take place at the Clubhouse. Additionally, the Clubhouse-2-College/Clubhouse-2-Career program provides opportunities for members to reflect on how their Clubhouse learning can leads to job and education opportunities beyond the Clubhouse itself.

How have you been able to tap the international network of Clubhouses to help foster greater global consciousness in your participants?

KYLIE: One experience that really stands out in my mind is the Teen Summit in Boston in 2006. I attended this summit along with several of the youth from the Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Inc. Computer Clubhouse in South Los Angeles. To give you a bit of background, the Computer Clubhouse Network hosts a teen summit every couple of years. Every Clubhouse is able to send a couple of their top members (15 years and older) to the event as well as one or two members of their staff to help with supervision. The youth come from across the globe and speak a variety of languages. Keep in mind that Clubhouses are mostly located in very low-income areas by design, so this is the first time that most of the youth have been outside of their city, let alone on a plane to another country or state. The youth coming from the Los Angeles Clubhouse really blossomed as a result of this experience and met youth from South America and elsewhere. Like with most similar experiences for teens, the intense amount of time spent together day and night forge deep bonds that were made deeper as they engaged in meaningful collaborative work during the workshops. Participating youth signed up for a range of workshops to explore new types of software and project ideas, including video workshops where they learned interview and editing techniques, Adobe Photoshop workshops, robotics labs, social network analyses labs and the list goes on and on. All of the youth participated in multiple workshops and were also able to visit local college campuses, museums, and stay in campus dorms. Some of the groups made videos about their darkest fears or learned new programming skills to put the latest Chris Brown dance video together. When the youth returned to Los Angeles, you could see their horizons had expanded and they worked hard to remain in contact with their new friends. The book highlights many other examples, including how a traveling puppet named Cosmo, which was based on the Flat Stanley books, moved between Clubhouses worldwide, bringing together youth from all over the world to create a collective narrative about the puppet’s journeys in each country. Youth’s stories were well documented on the intranet and new chapters (as well as Cosmo’s arrival) were much anticipated by the youth. Additionally, in countries like Israel, there are Clubhouses in the Israeli and Palestinian areas of the country, which are geographically close to one another. Coordinators use creative projects to bring youth together and foster cross-cultural tolerance in meaningful ways through creating musical compositions or fostering meaningful dialogues among participants.

Yasmin Kafai, professor of learning sciences at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has led several NSF-funded research projects that have studied and evaluated youth’s learning of programming as designers of interactive games, simulations and media arts in school and afterschool programs. She has pioneered research on games and learning since the early 90’s and more recently on tween’s participation in virtual worlds, which is now supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. She has also been influential in several national policy efforts among them “Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the Computer Age” (AAUW, 2000). Currently, she is a member of the steering committee for the National Academies’ workshop series on “Computational Thinking for Everyone”. Kafai is a recipient of an Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation, a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Academy of Education, and the Rosenfield Prize for Community Partnership in 2007.

Kylie Peppler is an Assistant Professor in the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University, Bloomington. As a visual and new media artist by training, Peppler engages in research that focuses on the intersection of the arts, media literacy, and new technologies. A Dissertation-Year Fellowship from the Spencer Foundation as well as a UC Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship has supported her work in these areas. Her research interests center on the media arts practices of urban, rural, and (dis)abled youth in order to better understand and support literacy, learning, and the arts in the 21st Century. Peppler is also currently a co-PI, on two recent grants from the National Science Foundation to study creativity in youth online communities focused on creative production.

Dr. Robbin Chapman is currently the Manager of Diversity Recruitment for the MIT School of Architecture and Planning and Special Assistant to the Vice-Provost for Faculty Equity. She is responsible for strategic leadership and development of Institute-wide faculty development programs and graduate student recruitment initiatives. She is PI on a Department of Education grant project that is underway in schools in the Birmingham, Alabama public school system.

Inside the Computer Clubhouse (Part Two of Three)

What do you see as the biggest impact the Computer Clubhouse movement has made on our current pedagogies around new media?

ROBBIN: When I think of pedagogies and new media one thought is that new media can serve as a powerful amplifier of human sociality, in this case around learning. Such new media pedagogies should catalyze, facilitate, and propagate individual and collective learning and teaching experiences. The Clubhouse has been a test bed for exploring how learners and mentors can engage learning from each other through digital media. One outcome has been how members and mentors come to view digital media as a material for expressing their ideas about learning and their community.

The MacArthur Foundation will be hosting an upcoming conference on Diversifying Participation. What lessons might we take from the Computer Clubhouses about how to support diversity in access and engagement with digital media?

KYLIE: The Clubhouse definitely serves as a great model for successful scale-up across diverse contexts, including across racial, gender, religious and national boundaries. One of the programs that the Network has adopted to foster diversity within the Clubhouses is “Girls Day”. Girls Day sets aside particular times and days where the Clubhouse is an all-girls site, where girls can feel comfortable learning new skills and trying out new projects in a safe space. As a result, the Computer Clubhouse Network has historically appealed equally to both boys and girls, which is uncommon in technology-rich settings.

It also seems to me that Clubhouse’s emphasis on creative production allows for both local adaptability and the ability to make something personally meaningful. The tools that are available at the Clubhouse sites have been chosen precisely because they allow youth to design their own projects and give them flexibility in the process. For example, at the LA Clubhouse site, a popular activity was to manipulate digital pictures of expensive cars, inserting a picture of yourself next to “your” ride. A young bi-racial African-American and Latino youth named Dwight extended this practice by creating a culture of “Low Rida” interactive Scratch projects. A Low Rida (or lowrider) is a customized car associated principally with the Mexican American community that first emerged amongst migrant workers during World War II. Lowrider art is now an established art form where youth draw or depict lowriders and is featured in magazines, like Lowrider magazine, along with pictures of customized cars, political reports, and advertisements for parts and accessories. In one of Dwight’s first projects, “Low Low,” the viewer controls the hydraulics on two cars using arrow and letter keys. Dwight’s contribution to the Clubhouse was to expand the genres of work in Scratch and incorporate new genres that are inclusive of his social practices. This resonated with others in the Clubhouse community, eventually drawing in several first-time users of Scratch who may have not otherwise engaged in this type of creative production. Low Ridas represent a conscientious and literate practice that stands in opposition to the pressure to assimilate into the American mainstream culture. In sum, the Clubhouse’s emphasis on design and tools for design seems to facilitate the ability to adapt to local contexts more so than, say, games that are by nature more embedded in the culture that produced them.

Early in the book, you describe your goal as to “inspire youth to think about themselves as competent, creative, and critical learners and citizens.” Break that down for us.

ROBBIN: Clubhouse member self-identification as critical thinkers is a product of their experiences in deep learning activities such as debugging, critical reflection, etc., and their exchanges with others learners in the Clubhouse. There are many ways to practice these skills, whether utilizing software (Pearls of Wisdom, for example), hardware (robotics, Legos, etc.), and people (working on team projects, exchanging ideas with other leaders, reacting to project feedback from other learners, etc.).

While the Clubhouse supports young people pursuing their own interests and projects, you also see adults as playing a strong role in the process. You describe these adults as “mentors” and not “teachers.” How do you characterize the distinction?

KYLIE: While there is considerable overlap, the distinction is important with regard to two factors: the nature of afterschool learning environments and support for the constructionist philosophy of the Clubhouse. On the first point, when we think of the role of a “teacher”, we’re envisioning the type of direct instruction that is common in schools. While direct instruction has merit, there are numerous characteristics of afterschool learning spaces that don’t look like those of your typical classroom–youth moving freely between activities in the Clubhouse, sporadic attendance, and the often irregular times that parents drop in to pick up their kids are a few of these factors. As a result, using a direct instruction model for projects that youth work on for a few days or weeks doesn’t really work. The second, and perhaps more important, factor in this distinction between our view of a “teacher” and a “mentor” is the role of a mentor as a muse, someone who supports the kids on self-directed projects, even if the mentor has very little expertise in the area. Being a mentor extends way beyond helping members to debug their projects; it’s about social networking and connecting youth with resources outside the Clubhouse; it’s about listening, advice giving and supporting; and it’s about co-creating with the youth. Some of the times that were most exciting for me at the Clubhouse in South LA were the times when neither of us (the member or me) knew the answer to a given problem. At one point, I was working with a youth that wanted to make a side-scrolling video game using Scratch. I had absolutely no idea how we were going to do this! We each came up with several ideas – none of them really worked, but he seemed to build some confidence in the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing either and I was getting a Ph.D. at UCLA at the time. That evening he continued to work after I left. The next day, he was soooo excited to show me the solution that he had come up with – one that neither of us had originally thought of. You could see it in his eyes that he was beaming with pride and shortly thereafter he told me that he wanted to be a professional game designer. These types of experiences made me realize that you really don’t need to know how to do everything in order for kids to discover new things. Being open to exploring the materials alongside youth is equally, if not more, valuable.

ROBBIN: I view the exceptional mentoring that takes place at the Clubhouse as a function of four core mentor “strengths;” mentor as model, cultivator, peer and network. While it is rare for a single individual to embody all these strengths, it is the combination and distribution of these attributes that determine the “feel” of a Clubhouse and the breadth and depth of the learning activities that take place. The “mentor as model” represents mentoring behaviors that expose members to how the adult goes about problem solving, learning new things, and how they articulate their meta-learning experiences. Members tend to be particularly drawn to mentors that exhibit this strength. The “mentor as cultivator” speaks to how mentors seed many of the “firsts” members discover during their time at the Clubhouse, including expectations of going to college, involved community citizenship, and connecting Clubhouse lessons to their dreams and aspiration. The “mentor as peer” is the person who encourages members to teach what they know to other Clubhouse members. These mentors tend also to encourage members to problem-solve and provide moral support while the member navigates this process. The members are then encouraged to share their understanding of meta-learning with their peers. Finally, the “mentor as network” refers to the mentor as a key resource, to people and ideas previously unavailable to the member through his or her personal networks. Exposure to a “larger world” than that experienced in their local neighborhood is a critical part of the learning and teaching that occurs at the Clubhouse.

You talk about the Computer Clubhouse as a “community of learners.” How important is it that they function as communities rather than provide services to individual learners?

KYLIE: This question is really at the heart of what makes the Computer Clubhouse unique. During one of our interviews for the book, one of the Clubhouse Coordinators put it in terms that really resonated with me. He was someone who had made quite a bit of money in a former career as a computer engineer in the .com era but was increasingly dissatisfied with his former job. As a result, he quit his job and started working at a local Computer Clubhouse, sharing his knowledge about computer programming and engineering with the Clubhouse youth. His daughter, on the other hand, was still attending a wealthy private school. He noted that despite having access to all of the same equipment at home and at school, the crucial ingredient that was missing was the community of learners engaged in shared activity. Even learning about technologies en masse in a computer class in school doesn’t provide the same arena for the development of personal interests, nor the amount of time to work in depth on your projects, using these technologies. Without it, he argued youth didn’t have the support from adults and peers to creatively engage with the technologies as youth have at the Clubhouse. It’s really not about the technologies, the communities and practices that emerge around the technologies are what are most important for meaningful and continued long-term engagement, which ironically is not part of technology programs even in wealthy and more well-off neighborhoods.

ROBBIN: A defining characteristic of a vibrant, productive community is its resiliency and strength. Such communities are themselves the “safety net” that protects its members and ensures their personal and professional development. Service providers may provide various safety net functions; however in most cases this requires the person being serviced to fit within a framework particular to the service provider. Clients must use the programs and services in particular ways that are determined by the service provider. The Clubhouse, as a learning community, provides a safety net without an excess of program constraints. Kids are members of the Clubhouse community. The resources of the Clubhouse belong to them and are their responsibility. They have a say in how their Clubhouse manages itself and how it grows. The Clubhouse is the launch point for new, future opportunities, including higher education and creative, successful careers based on the learning lessons of the Clubhouse. Also, the Clubhouse community is more than a group of learners and is deeply connected. Members and mentors develop lifelong relationships.

Yasmin Kafai, professor of learning sciences at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has led several NSF-funded research projects that have studied and evaluated youth’s learning of programming as designers of interactive games, simulations and media arts in school and afterschool programs. She has pioneered research on games and learning since the early 90’s and more recently on tween’s participation in virtual worlds, which is now supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. She has also been influential in several national policy efforts among them “Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the Computer Age” (AAUW, 2000). Currently, she is a member of the steering committee for the National Academies’ workshop series on “Computational Thinking for Everyone”. Kafai is a recipient of an Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation, a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Academy of Education, and the Rosenfield Prize for Community Partnership in 2007.

Kylie Peppler is an Assistant Professor in the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University, Bloomington. As a visual and new media artist by training, Peppler engages in research that focuses on the intersection of the arts, media literacy, and new technologies. A Dissertation-Year Fellowship from the Spencer Foundation as well as a UC Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship has supported her work in these areas. Her research interests center on the media arts practices of urban, rural, and (dis)abled youth in order to better understand and support literacy, learning, and the arts in the 21st Century. Peppler is also currently a co-PI, on two recent grants from the National Science Foundation to study creativity in youth online communities focused on creative production.

Dr. Robbin Chapman is currently the Manager of Diversity Recruitment for the MIT School of Architecture and Planning and Special Assistant to the Vice-Provost for Faculty Equity. She is responsible for strategic leadership and development of Institute-wide faculty development programs and graduate student recruitment initiatives. She is PI on a Department of Education grant project that is underway in schools in the Birmingham, Alabama public school system.