Transmedia Generation

Participatory culture is a global phenomenon. Young people all over the world are embracing the expressive and distribution resources of the computer to create and share their own cultural materials with each other. In countries all over the planet, they are mixing together local traditions of folk culture with the now globally accessible forms of digital expression in ways which could not have been imagined by previous generations. And as they do so, educators and parents are starting to recognize these creative communities as sites of informal learning which are transforming the ways these teens see themselves and the world. In every country, it is different. In every country, it is the same.

I was delighted to hear recently from a young scholar, Felipe G. Gil, from Sevilla, Spain, who shared with me some of his thoughts about new media literacy and education. In particular, he wanted me to read this account of his young cousin, whose filmmaking activities he had come to understand in relation to some of my writings. I am delighted to reproduce this blog post, originally written in Spanish, here for my readers in hopes that it may spark other international reactions around these important topics. Gil is justly proud of the range of different kinds of media productions this young man engages with in the course of his everyday life, and has sought ways to place them in a larger context.

Transmedia Generation

by Felipe G. Gil

It’s Christmas. A family is gathered around a large table set for sixteen. At one end sits the grandfather. At the other, one of his grandkids, Pep. While his parents, cousins and aunts and uncles start clearing up, Pep continues immersed in dissecting a piece of fruit with a surgeon’s precision. Suddenly, one of his cousins goes up to him and asks «What are you doing, Pep?» and he answers easily: «peeling a mandarin». What he has done is slice the peel in such a way that it forms a kind of orange underpants. What he is doing without realizing it is reinventing everyday life.

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.

Pep is 13 years old, he lives in Tarragona, Catalonia, and is in his second year of secondary school. In the afternoons, he goes to his theatre group. He loves dinosaurs, videogames and watching videos on You Tube. He doesn’t have an Internet connection at home, but there is one in his dad’s furniture store. He doesn’t have a computer of his own either: he shares a laptop with his parents and his younger sister. Since he was little, he has been fascinated by any audiovisual gadget that has come his way, using all of them to do what his generation is best at: play.

Play is one of the ways we learn, and during a period of reskilling and reorientation, such play may be much more important than it seems at first glance.

In the current educational system in Spain, only a few Language and Literature teaching units analyze the media. The Media Studies subjects that used to be in the secondary and upper secondary school syllabus are no longer taught. There is increasing talk of Education 2.0 and ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) but the politicians in charge of Education have paradoxically failed to notice that digital and audiovisual literacy is, to paraphrase author and academic Gutierrez-Martín, more than just a mouse and a keyboard. Fortunately, an expanded form of education is starting to emerge. As “We TV” claims, perhaps we are fulfilling the utopia of the caméra-stylo and people are transforming video cameras (and similar devices) into the writing implements of the future. So why shouldn’t a You Tube video be seen as a syntagm to be analysed in Language and Literature classes?

The “Angry German Kid” remix

Audiences, empowered by these new technologies, occupying a space at the intersection between old and new media, are demanding the right to participate within the culture.

Pep has a You Tube channel. One of the first videos he uploaded is «a remix of the popular “Angry German Kid” video».

The curious thing about this video is that most people thought it was made by the boy’s father, who wanted to capture his son’s rage as he played computer games… but it turned out to be a satire by a kid who was probably much more intelligent than the millions of viewers who laughed at his supposed antics (for an analysis in Spanish, see “El niño loco alemán: la verdad tras el mito”.)

More and more literacy experts are recognizing that enacting, reciting, and appropriating elements from preexisting stories is a valuable and organic part of the process by which children develop cultural literacy.

This phenomenon is paradigmatic of the age of convergence: one day, somebody uploaded a video with certain characteristics that led others to forward it, discuss it and, above all, remix it. Thousands of users downloaded the original video and created their own versions of it. One of these is Pep’s. His remix shows his synchronization and scripting skills, but, in addition, he has taken it into familiar territory (the videogame Super Mario Bros) and added two nuances: the sound of the game, and of a supposed porn film that suddenly crops up at one point. The voice in the video is Pep’s own imitation of heavy breathing. Pep thus takes three media sources and converges them into a new one: the “Angry German Kid” video, Super Mario Bros and a porn film.

Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with others. Each one of us constructs our own personal mythology from bits and fragments of information extracted from the media flow and transformed into resources through which we make sense of our everyday life.

As Pep himself explains in the interview, he had to work out how to hack the You Tube video (which currently doesn’t have a download option), how to load it into a video editing program (he uses Windows Movie Maker), how to synchronize the subtitles, how to export the video, how to create his own You Tube account, and how to upload his video. Given this whole process, there is an inevitable question: what drives Pep to do it? The Internet has boosted social intelligence, with its main premise being to generate specific-interest communities. Pep had seen dozens of different remixes of the “Angry German Kid” video before he began to consider adding one of his own. Before he felt the urge to become part of what he was seeing.

Our traditional assumptions about expertise are breaking down or at least being transformed by the more open-ended processes of communication in cyberspace. The expert paradigm requires a bounded body of knowledge, which an individual can master. The types of questions that thrive in a collective intelligence, however, are open ended and profoundly interdisciplinary; they slip and slide across borders and draw on the combined knowledge of a more diverse community.

Jurassic Park, Lego version

Animation is another of Pep’s hobbies. Somebody once explained the concept of persistence of vision to him. He soon grasped that moving images are actually the illusion of movement created when there is a rapid succession of still images. Since then, some of his small creations are linked to this.

Pep has made several animated videos using scenes or excerpts from Jurassic Park. This video is his own trailer for the third film in the series, and in the video he discusses in the interview he recreates one of his favourite scenes from the film.

New-media theorist Janet Murray has written of the “encyclopaedic capacity” of digital media, which she thinks will lead to new narrative forms as audiences seek information beyond the limits of the individual story.

Pep is part of the transmedia generation: he imitates a kind of popular form of creation (try doing a search for “Lego” on You Tube) in order to tell his own story in a video that mixes the original sound from a scene in Jurassic Park III with an animation he creates using his Lego pieces and other toys. Unfortunately, the mammoth audiovisual industry sees this as illegal divergence rather than cultural convergence. When will it be set down that a film’s users can remix it to their heart’s content?

Along with this industry aspect, this situation poses many questions: why do people have such a strong urge to tell their stories at this particular moment in history? can we develop a public dynamic for audiovisual culture that makes it legal to do what Pep has done, and encourages it? how can education open up in order to integrate children’s need to be audiovisual “prosumers” (producer+consumer)?

The power of participation comes not from destroying commercial culture but from writing over it, modding it, amending it, expanding it, adding greater diversity of perspective, and then recirculating it, feeding it back into the mainstream media.


One day, Pep discovered Spore, a game created by Will Wright, who is also behind the popular games The Sims and Sim City. Spore «allows the player to develop a species from a microscopic organism to its evolution into a complex animal, its emergence as a social, intelligent being, to its mastery of the planet and then finally to its ascension into space» (source: Wikipedia). In Spore, you have the choice of progressing in one of two ways: by cooperating with, or attacking, other civilisations. It is not only the specialist press that considers videogames to be the future-present of audiovisual narrative, given their capacity to integrate different stories in different media. Spore, for example, can be played online and allows users to show the community how their creatures have turned out, interact with other species, etc. And Spore has something in common with The Sims and Sim City: it is an alternative reality game.

ARG’s (alternative reality games) are generating “players who feel more capable, more confident, more expressive, more engaged and more connected in their everyday lives”. (…) “A good immersive game will show you game patterns in non-game places”.

The hyperlink is in us

Pep is currently editing a documentary he made at the beach during the summer holidays, in which he asked people what holidays meant to them. He has also discovered Game Maker, a simple program that allows him to design his own videogames. And who knows what other discoveries he will make in the coming months and years. The difference between our time and other moments in history is that Pep is not alone. You probably know somebody like him. And this is why it’s important to realize that we have to keep learning, together, to read and write audiovisually instead of taking it for granted that the millions of Euros the Spanish government is spending on putting computers in classrooms is automatically going to fix the problem. This is why we have to talk about the stories that we are passionate about, not business models. And this is why we should not think of art as something exclusive to artists, but as a game that we can all take part in. This is why we have to defend the remix as a cultural ecosystem.

In a hunting society, children play with bows and arrows. In an information society, children play with information.

There is a Pep inside each one of us, we just have to wake him up. We are the Transmedia generation.

This is an English translation of the article “Generación transmedia”. All the quotes interwoven into this text are from Convergence Culture(2006), the book in which Henry Jenkins coins the term “transmedia storytelling” and insightfully describes the changes that are taking place in the way we communicate, think, read, etc.

Felipe G. Gil, 28, lives in Sevilla (Spain) and is a member of the ZEMOS98 team, a cultural initiative which does research into expanded education, digital communication and audiovisual culture. He writes for, a publication about embedded audiovisual supported by Festivalito, Movil Film Fest, and ZEMOS98. He is also a Star Wars fan, a proam tennis player and a fanatic of the Libanese salad.

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More Talk of TRONSmedia

A week or so ago, I shared the first installment of a series of videos, produced by Mike Bonifer, based on a conversation which I had with Tron creator Steve Lisberger. I’ve jokingly compared the exchange to My Dinner with Andre, except we were both so busy geeking out that we forgot to order any food!

You never know what people will pick up on once your brain children move out and get their own apartments. Over the weekend, Ain’t It Cool News picked up on the series, focusing on a brief exchange early in the conversation where I referenced the Scott Brothers returning to Bladerunner as a parallel to Lisberger’s return to Tron. From there, fan speculation has grown that somehow I have inside information about the state of the Bladerunner sequel or that we were both confused and really meant to be refering to the Aliens sequel in production.

I can’t speak for what Steve was thinking about or might know, but for my part, I was drawing on a panel we did about Purefold at the Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT last November. Here’s the panel in question which went into some detail about their plans for this project. Unfortunately, the project has apparently been dropped, or so I learned by reading some of the fan blogs which were responding to this speculation. In this case, like so many others, fans were much more immersed in what was going on than the academics are and thus were closer to the truth than they realized.

I was bemused by the idea that I somehow had access to the inner workings of Hollywood. This blog is not focused on scoops, folks; my focus is on analysis and insights into long-term developments. I am having more and more conversations with Hollywood types since moving to LA, but they rarely tell me anythng that isn’t already public knowledge. Those exchanges look more like this conversation — the trading of insights about media change and larger entertainment trends rather than the sharing of secrets. I am not the guy to go to if you are looking for spoilers, sorry. In any case, it would have been clear that we were talking about Purefold if people had watched the full conversation, since there was a segment devoted to it later in the series.

We finally start to dig into issues of transmedia in this segment, which uses District 9 and its park benches as a taking off point. In what sense are those benches part of the exposition for the movie and how do they help to shape our experiences before we enter the theater?

Here, we talk more generally about the basic functions which transmedia extension plays, including some consideration of what it might add to Tron and also why Avatar is less successful at deploying transmedia than District 9.

What does it mean to “geek out” on culture? And what do we learn by looking at cultural experimentation as both a fan and an academic?

We talk about what it means to make transmedia as James Cameron and what it means to make transmedia as Lance Weiler, i.e. as the producer of Hollywood blockbusters and as the creator of low budget independent genre films.

This next section deals with what we can learn about world building by looking at Martin Scorsese and the Three Stooges (I kid you not!).

Here, Steve and I talk about what it would mean to establish the basis of a story on the web rather than via a major film release.

Steve worries about the “democratization” of the arts and what it does to the creative process, while I talk about continuity and multiplicity as competing tugs on transmedia properties.

We finally get back to Bladerunner and discuss Purefold as a model for collaboration between fans and professional storytellers.

Steve talks about the way Hollywood calibrates around the Zietgeist and I connect this to the conception of genre.

Here, Steve builds out on the differences between science fiction focused around the alien and outer space and science fiction based within cyberspace.

And this leads us to a larger consideration of the politics of fantasy and fan engagement, using the Harry Potter Alliance as a point of entry.

And finally, we return to Tron with Steve explaining what sets his film apart from other science fiction works in terms of its exploration of inner space and our moral responsibilities as humans over what we create.

All told, this was a fascinating meeting of two minds, both obviously immersed in the worlds being created by science fiction cinema, each excited about expanding the expressive capacities of amateur and professional storytellers. I hope you enjoy watching some of these segments half as much as Steve and I enjoyed talking through these issues.

Thanks once again to Mike Bonifer for all the work he put into bringing this material to the public. This whole exchange was Bonifer’s brain child: he wanted to bring the two of us into the room to see what would happen; he made all of the arrangements and did all of the production work. And we all have him to thank for all of the creative labor which made these videos possible.

The author of GameChangers-Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, and the co-founder of GameChangers‚ LLC, Mike Bonifer has consistently been in the forefront of emerging trends in media and communication. Beginning with his role as the publicist for the gamechanging movie, Tron, through his work as a writer, director and creative executive, his work has explored new technologies and business processes, and has always been informed by storytelling. He has studied and performed improvisation at I.O. West Theater in Los Angeles. Mike is a really cool guy who has been very involved in the launch of a Transmedia LA meet up group and has been a big supporter of the work I am doing here at USC.

Is New Media Incompatible with Schooling?: An Interview with Rich Halverson (Part Two)

In this second installment of my interview with Rich Halverson, we explore some of the trends impacting contemporary schooling, including the significance of home schooling, his vision for transforming schools, his research on fantasy baseball leagues as a literacy practice, and his thoughts on how and why schools should foster failure. As always, Halverson remains a provocative and yet substantive thinker about technology and learning.

Your book writes extensively about home schooling as an alternative to the current educational system. What advantages do home schoolers have in dealing with technological change? What are the limits of home schooling?

Home schooling is an interesting phenomena on several levels. First, it represents an effort to sever the traditional ties of institutional schooling and learning, individualizing instruction while keeping many of the curricular goals and sequences in place. Second, it cuts across cultural boundaries – many families on the left home-school for academic reasons, while families on the right home often homeschool for predominately cultural and religious reasons. Finally, the integration of technology with homeschooling may well signal a new path toward individualizing instruction in traditional schools. The predominant instructional model in the K-12 world aims toward moving students toward common learning goals, playing down individual difference in the interests of standardized outcomes. Home schooling has clear limitations – it is clearly too expensive (in terms of time, materials and money) to be conducted at scale, and the virtual curriculum used by many homeschoolers is typically based on very conventional page-turning pedagogies. But homeschool communities use technological resources to provide instructional coherence while maintaining individualized attention in ways that is would be smart for traditional school designers to watch.

You describe in the book some aspects of what an emerging educational system might look like. Can you share some of that vision with my readers?

The current state of education looks like an unlikely federation of uneasy partners – some for profit, others non-profit; some non-denominational, others ideological – who provide services to students without apparent coordination. NCLB legislation alone has sparked a vast expansion of third-party tutoring, assessment and coaching services that threaten schools and can be seen as competitors for future school funding. Digital media production, social networking, mobile computing, gaming and blogging operate entirely outside the control or influence of schooling. This motley collection of education services appears more like a consumer-driven market that could not cohere into a an educational system.

However, there are several key steps that might be taken to link these services together into an emergent system. We’d like to highlight two possible steps: 1) when administrative information technologies come to integrate user-driven networking practices, and 2) when some classroom subject-matter areas move to embrace digital learning tools. Schools are developing sophisticated tools for tracking student learning and teacher quality – but these systems are largely constructed about, but not for or by students and teachers. Social networks would provide a personalized complement to such systems that could link technologies designed to measure learning with tools to facilitate the activities of learners. It is not hard to imagine profile software that students and teachers could use to link educational activities, calendars, support services, interest groups, etc. The emergence of these personalized information tools may help usher in an integration of where schools are to where they might be.

In the classroom, one key indicator may be the degree to which non-tested subjects in schools embrace new approaches. Most K12 systems are experimenting with new kinds of media-based extracurricular activities and clubs. A threshold will be crossed when core instructional efforts in vocational education, arts, physical education and language programs follow the extra-curricular example toward greater integration of learning technologies. These subject areas are currently on the fence between embracing the standards-and-accountability practices of literacy and math or moving in another direction. Significant changes in these vital disciplines could serve as an example for how digital media technologies may transform teaching and learning.

In your historical account of the evolution of American education, one key difference between the apprentice and public school systems was how they dealt with the possibilities of failure. You suggest that in the apprentice system, it was taken as given that most students would learn, eventually, what they needed to know, while the public school system starts from the premise that only a small portion of the population can fully master its expectations. Many argue that we learn through failure — through making mistakes and correcting them — but that for this to work, we have to lower the costs of failure. How can we do this?

The idea that the apprenticeship model was successful for individual learning is by and large true. Because the master could work closely with the learner in apprenticeship, most learning failures could be mitigated or averted. In contrast, the American public school system provided little guidance for individuals to learn from local learning errors. Public schools were expected to provide opportunities for interested students to learn, and students who took advantage of these opportunities were able to progress. Public schools structures have typically lacked scaffolded support for individual learners to learn from mistakes – particularly across grades and classes. At the system level, comprehensive public high schools, community colleges and undergraduate programs addressed the learning failure issue in part by providing abundant course and program options for learners who failed in their initial efforts. But the long-term individualized attention to learning-from-failure that came with apprenticeship learning was not a part of traditional public schooling.

The issue of learning from failure in public schooling became more complicated by the civil rights movement. In the early years of public schooling, students (and families) bore the responsibility of taking advantage of educational opportunities. However, beginning in the 1950s, public education priorities in the US began to shift. The 1954 Brown decision demonstrated that providing access to educational opportunities was no longer sufficient. The War on Poverty of the 1960s and the IDEA act and reauthorizations of the 1970s-90s shifted the national discourse from the opportunities to the outcomes of learning. It was no longer appropriate for states to provide schools where students could choose to learn (or not); instead states increasingly saw their role as creating schools that guaranteed learning outcomes. The 2001 NCLB Act make these new expectations into law by holding public schools accountable for improving the learning of all students. Thus the premise of the early public school model was turned on its head – instead of a system that created opportunities for all students to succeed now expected schools reach all students successfully. Public schools as institutions were expected to take responsibility for educational outcomes, while at the same time absolving students and families from responsibility for learning.

We can either learn from failure, or try to avoid it. Connecting high stakes consequences to institutional failure has led many public schools to pursue a risk-avoidance approach to instruction. This intolerance for failure at the system level has been translated into a similar intolerance to experiment at the classroom level. Contemporary public school policies insist that all students show learning progress, which has led to dominant models of instruction that emphasize efficiency, smooth learning trajectories and predictable outcomes. Schools are often reluctant to experiment with high-yield, high-risk, instructional practices. Innovation is risky – most innovations fail, and even the ones that succeed are usually fundamentally transformed before achieving wide dissemination. The federal educational research policies that emphasize “what works” seem to take for granted that we already know what we need to know to improve learning for all students, and that what is mainly needed is thorough vetting and rigorous implementation of tried-and-true instructional practices. Still, high school dropout rates have held steady, the achievement gap has not closed significantly, and the love of learning continues to drain out of schools that emphasize “what works” over genuine inquiry. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the tree of learning must be refreshed from time to time by the failures of policy makers, teachers and students. The wild market swings in digital media – in hardware, software and virtual worlds – continue to demonstrate the power of failure to spark new innovation. It seems that schools feel that walling themselves off from the digital media/learning circus will insulate a path toward eventual elimination of learning problems. A more likely scenario is that by cutting off opportunities for interesting failure, schools will continue to apply the same time-tested practices that resulted in contemporary institutional inequalities in the first-place.

Richard, apart from this project, you’ve been looking at fantasy baseball leagues as a site for learning and participatory culture, seeing them as a fusion of fan and gaming culture. What insights do you think educators can gain by looking at these kinds of alternative knowledge communities?

Participatory cultures, such as fantasy sports, highlight three critically important aspects of learning missing from many school learning activities: motivation, production and legitimate audience. Fantasy sports team owners are motivated to play because they are fans, and this (typically) far-reaching set of beliefs, passions and knowledge spark owner interest in competition. The development and maintenance of a team requires owners to produce a competitive roster and to iteratively adjust their production in terms of competitive feedback within the league. Other team owners present a legitimate audience for game play – owners are praised, ridiculed, emulated or resented based on moves against other players. Because typical fantasy leagues persist for months, owners get reputations for game play within the league. Owners acquire status as players, particularly in anonymous leagues, because of their demonstrated abilities within the game.

Many school settings have features of participatory cultures as well, but the participatory culture of schooling is often unrelated to the topics learned. Students are often motivated (or not) to succeed in academic contexts for non-academic reasons; production is typically valued (if at all) as a means toward other forms of reward (grades, etc.), and academic prowess often fares miserably as a path toward peer culture acceptance. Fantasy sports communities provide existence proofs of how learning activities can intrinsically connect motivation, production and audience in assessment rich contexts. It is not a trivial task to select the kinds of tasks around which school-based fantasy leagues can be organized, although activities such as stock-market games or Model UN can bring some common structures to bear in traditional schools. The question is not really how to make a direct translation of fantasy leagues to school settings, but for this and the next generation of educators to understand how the underlying principles of these kinds of learning environments work, then to think about how to design local environments around similar principles.

Allan Collins is Professor Emeritus of education and social policy at Northwestern University and formerly co-director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for Technology in Education.

Richard Halverson is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is co-founder of the Games, Learning and Society group.

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Is New Media Incompatable with Schooling?: An Interview with Rich Halverson (Part One)

This week, I want to use my blog to call attention to a provocative recent book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America. The authors of the book are Allen Collins, formerly co-director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for Technology in Education, and Rich Halverson, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is co-founder of the Games, Learning and Society group.

I have gotten to know Halverson through the Games, Learning, and Society conference, where I will be speaking this summer, so I was curious to look at this book when it came out. Given its authors, it’s no surprise that the book is well informed about contemporary debates surrounding new media and education, and like the best books that have come out in the past year or so (including those by Sonia Livingstone and S. Craig Watkins, which I have profiled here), it strives to balance between the inflated hopes of early digital advocates and the inflated fears of those who would lock technology out of the classroom.

The authors offer sage new proposals for how we might deal with the apparent tensions and incompatabilities between education as it has been conducted in this country and the new media landscape as it is lived beyond the schoolhouse gates. But the real surprise and strength of the book is the ways they are able to situate the contemporary moment of media transition in relation to the several hundred year history of American education. In doing so, we avoid the breathless sense of the “unprecidented” or “Inevitable” consequences of new media and we also avoid the sense that things have always been this way and are thus not subject to change. They show how American education’s processes, policies, and structures shifted over time in response to, for example, the industrial revolution and thus give us a context for imagining the gradual yet decisive transformation of schooling which will grow out of our current moment.

I was lucky enough to get Richard Halverson to agree to an interview about the book, which I will be running over the next two installments. Much of the interview focuses on the historical insights and how they contribute to putting the present into a greater perspective.

My father used to have the expression, “never let schooling get in the way of your education.” You make a similar distinction across the book. In what ways is schooling getting in the way of more informal kinds of learning today and why?

Your dad’s expression was really the state of the art once upon a time! The rise of institutional schooling in the 20th century- from preK to lifelong learning – can be seen as an effort to permanently weld schooling to learning. Beginning in the early 1900s, schools rooted in formal learning environments expanded to incorporate most areas informal learning as well (consider widely available classes on knitting, oenophilia and game design). On the other side, if you didn’t go to a class from a recognized institution, if you didn’t have some sort of certificate/credit statement of completing, then by the mid 20th century people came to question the legitimacy of your learning. This double-movement of expansion and legitimation came to define learning in terms of schooling.

The digital media era began to call this definition into question. The inertia of maturing institutions meant that early design decisions got locked in place, and it became more difficult for schools to change core assumptions. Digital media provides a path to personalizing and customizing learning that is often at odds with the batch processing model of, especially, K-12 schooling. This has meant that digitally literate young people have come to understand that there are at least two living channels for learning – 1) an institutional channel, and 2) a peer-driven, interest-driven, and unregulated digital media channel. The bifurcation of learning experiences for young people is bound to call the institutional identification of schooling and learning into question in the coming years. We don’t yet know the consequences of how this shift will play out, but unless schools figure out how to adapt to digital media our children may end up hearing their fathers say “remember when we went to school for an education?”

You open the book with the provocative statement, “There are deep incompatibilities between technology and schooling.” Explain. Are these incompatibilities insurmountable? If so, what is going to change — schooling or technology?

Our statement about the incompatibilities of schooling and technology was stated with a historical perspective in mind. There was a time, in the early 20th century, when schools were developed in concert with the most innovative technological advances. Schools grew up around the mass publication and dissemination of texts and the widespread availability of writing tools. More importantly, schools took full advantage of cutting-edge bureaucratic technologies. Although we now look back in horror at the eagerness with which early schools adopted industrial production and efficiency models, these then-innovative ideas provided important organizational techniques for delivering services at the scale required for the successful implementation of public schooling. It is difficult for us to remember just how daunting the task of mass schooling was for early school designers, who grew up with personalized pedagogies, one-room schoolhouses and agricultural-based school calendars. Early public schools took full advantage of cutting-edge technologies to gain quick and sure foothold in the American psyche.

Schools that emerged at the advent of the 21st century were, in a sense, victims of the success of the prior generation’s technology, and found it very difficult to adapt to new models of information production and exchange sparked by the Internet. Technological developments later in the century, such as computing and digital media, provided a level of individualization that ran directly counter to the mass-production technologies from earlier in the century. The new information technologies that have been easiest to adapt to prior industrial models, such as standardized testing, have made the most headway into established school practices. The technologies that called on schools to alter the basic classroom relationships between teaching, learning and curriculum have met with the most difficulty. The conclusion we want to draw is that schooling and technology are not necessarily opposed, but instead are necessarily related. When considered over time, we can see the effects of institutional resistance are a consequence of the embrace of prior technologies, rather than a simple opposition of stodgy old schools to hot new technologies.

Our current educational system emerged gradually overtime in response to the pressures of the industrial revolution. What parallels can we draw between the ways the current structure took shape and the prospects of transforming education to reflect the information/knowledge revolution your book describes?

We propose that the “seeds of a new system” are already emerging as pieces of an alternative approach to education. Home schooling, for example, provides a technologically-driven alternative to institutional schooling. Distance education and your idea of participatory cultures organized around a transmedia complex provide powerful alternative visions for education. The main difference between the eras is that the 1800s system seeds such as kindergarten, common schools, textbooks and land-grant universities, converged in an era without a monolithic institution already in place. It is a much different problem to define than to redefine an institution.

We feel that digital media will continue to spark alternative forms of learning environments and to push for change in traditional learning institutions. We must not underestimate the tenacity of our collective belief in the transformative power of education. Without a civil religion, common belief in education is as close as Americans come to a common creed. If we come to feel that digital media need to be a core aspect of the learning experience of our youth, then we will re-make our institutions accordingly. As a culture, though, we seem to carry ambiguous feelings about the value of digital media for learning. For every advocate who extols the potential of media production, programming, game design or social networking, concerned citizens highlight the dangers of porn, digital bullying, appropriate use policies, child predation and, of course, GTA. This split in the perception of the value of digital media and culture may, in the mean time, create a new kind of digital divide along cultural, rather than demographic, lines. Further, locating these alternative, digital-based approaches to learning outside of public education means that families with the interest and wherewithal will access new forms of learning will, and those who won’t or can’t will not.

Allan Collins is Professor Emeritus of education and social policy at

Northwestern University and formerly co-director of the U.S. Department

of Education’s Center for Technology in Education.

Richard Halverson is an associate professor of educational leadership

and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is

co-founder of the Games, Learning and Society group.

Talking TronsMedia with Steven Lisberger

A few weeks ago, I sat down for a conversation with Steven Lisberger, director of the original Tron, to discuss our shared passions for science fiction cinema and transmedia entertainment. Mike Bonifer organized the meeting, filmed the exchange, and edited the footage. He has gradually been rolling it out in short three to four minute chunks via YouTube ever since.

I have to say that it was thrilling to me to meet Lisberger — having long admired how far forward the thinking behind Tron had been about the directions games and digital culture might take. In the first few installments of this conversation, Lisberger shares with me some of his experiences in making Tron and also considers the current project to re-engage with these characters, their world, and their stories for the next generation. In case you’ve missed the news, a new Tron movie is going to hit the theaters later this year, and we are already seeing a fair amount of buzz build around it.

Tron took advantage of cutting edge digital graphics to imagine forms of computer gaming which were not yet technically possible at the time. Many of us struggled to even understand what was happening in the movie because it was so far out beyond our previous experiences with things digital. In many ways, subsequent generations of game designers and digital effects artists have helped to design and fully realize many aspects of that vision. So it is interesting to imagine what Tron would mean for today’s generation.

This second section discusses Tron’s light cycles and the challenges of communicating how they worked and what they could do to people who had yet to have an immersive digital experience. Along the way, he gives us a taste of what it was like to work with futurist designer Syd Mead.

In this next installment, he describes his meeting with one of the “old men” on the Disney animation team and what a break Tron felt with what Disney had done before.

And in this installment, he gets into the ways that the new Tron movie engages with the franchise, including the decision to make the new film in 3D.

By the fifth and sixth installments, we begin to broaden the discussion outward from Tron to the larger context of contemporary digital culture. In part five, I hold forth about the concept of participatory culture and how it is changing the way media gets produced and circulated.

And in part six, we discuss Avatar‘s impact on the culture, including beginning to talk about the coming wave of 3D films emerging from Hollywood in its wake. I should note here that I discuss Alice in Wonderland as a film conceived in 3D but I have since learned it was shot in 2D and thus does not fully exploit the potentials of 3D cinematography.

Part Seven includes some discussion of political activism that has originated around James Cameron’s Avatar and the way popular culture can become a catalyst for social change movements and Steve talks about how Cameron brought together radically different aesthetics from previous science fiction and fantasy films.

In the next installment, we get into the construction of the alien in contemporary science fiction and how this may reflect some shifts that are occuring in American society around race and culture.

By Part Nine, we are back onto transmedia, discussing the ways advanced publicity may help frame and shape audience expectations and how different audiences bring different kinds of knowledge with them into the theater when they engage with the new Tron movie.

This is not exactly My Dinner with Andre, but I think you will find it interesting. I will run a second installment when the rest of the material is up, but you can follow them as they are posted, one a day, on Mike Bonifer’s Game Changers YouTube Channel.

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On Brian Eno and Barry Lyndon: An Interview With Geeta Dayal (Part Two)

Eno seems to have been interested in cybernetics from a very early age. How did this interest impact his work?

Many artists, particularly in Britain, were interested in cybernetics. A lot of this can be traced to Roy Ascott’s infamous “Groundcourse” at various art schools in Britain in the 1960s. Pete Townshend of The Who underwent the “Groundcourse,” and so did Eno, and so did many others who would go on to be major names in their fields. Ascott’s curriculum was a systems-based approach to learning, inspired by cybernetics.

Most people associate cybernetics with Norbert Wiener, but what I found even more interesting was the British wave of cybernetics theorists that came a bit later on — people like W. Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask, and Stafford Beer. Beer’s book The Brain of the Firm, especially, was a major touchstone for Eno. Beer applied cybernetics to management, and Eno applied Beer’s management theories to the studio environment


Eno is most often associated with Ambient music. Can you share with us something of his understanding of this concept and where it came from?

Ambient music often has no discernible beats or melodies. It is music, as Eno once said, that is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Eno is the prime exponent of ambient music, but the concept has been around for a long time. The concept was established in the modern era by the composer Erik Satie, via his idea of “furniture music” — music that would mingle with the sounds of forks and knives at dinner, as he described it.

You have a great deal to tell us about Eno’s process, including how he thought of his collaborators, their tools and technologies, and even the space of the studio as “instruments” through which he created his music. What does this expansive concept of “instrument” tell us about Eno’s approach as a composer?

“Expansive” is a good word to use to describe Eno in general. Eno is not a traditional composer by any standard. Nor is he a trained musician. As I write in my book, he uses the “non-musician” label to his advantage. He doesn’t play by the rules and conventions of music theory, because he doesn’t really know the rules. But he has incredible intuition, and a lot of natural talent for music. And, as Eno’s frequent collaborator Robert Fripp told me, Eno’s playfulness in the studio is key. If an air compressor makes an interesting sound, why shouldn’t it be an instrument?

Think of how creative children are. When you were a small child, you didn’t know that pots and pans weren’t real instruments; you just played with them anyway because they make interesting noises when you hit them. Then you get older, and you learn that a piano is a real instrument and pots and pans aren’t, and you stop banging on pots and pans.

Part of the idea of the Oblique Strategies cards is to put you back into a playful environment. To drop the inhibitions of rigid classifications, strict hierarchies, and what’s “wrong” and what’s “right.”

You compare Eno’s music at one point to the work of Stanley Kubrick –especially in Barry Lyndon. What makes this analogy appropriate andinformative?

I read somewhere that Barry Lyndon was one of Eno’s favorite films. I wondered why. Then I watched the film closely a few times, and I started to understand. There were a few interesting coincidences between Barry Lyndon and Another Green World. One was that Barry Lyndon and Another Green World came out the same year — they both came out in 1975. Barry Lyndon doesn’t look like many other films out there. It looks very organic and natural, as if it’s shot with natural light alone, but Kubrick actually used the most advanced technology available at the time. In a similar way, Another Green World is full of imagery from the natural world — the album title alone seems to suggest lush, pastoral landscapes — but it was made using some of the most cutting-edge studio techniques, and lots of synthesizers and other electronic gear.

For Barry Lyndon, Kubrick searched the world for the the most high-tech lenses possible — lenses that would be capable of, say, photographing a scene in a dark castle lit with candles. No one else in the industry was using these super-fast lenses; Kubrick had to have them custom-built according to his crazy specifications. Kubrick also used custom lenses for A Clockwork Orange, but Barry Lyndon took the technology a step further. Instead of the stark visual effects you see in A Clockwork Orange — that dystopian, futuristic feel, which seems to suggest cutting-edge technology — Barry Lyndon is the exact opposite. It’s full of sweeping views of the Irish countryside, this gorgeous natural imagery. You almost feel as if

you could step right into the film; it feels so real.

I was struck by the phrase, “music as immersion,” in the book. What kinds of immersive experience did Eno try to create through his work?

There are a few ways. One of the tricks Eno uses, which I write about in my book, is long fade-ins and fade-outs, to make you feel as if the music is part of a larger continuum — as if you’re stepping into a scene that’s still happening when you leave it. In the classic U2 album The Joshua Tree, which Eno produced, the first song, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” fades in very slowly. The song takes a long time to start. That’s

on purpose. You’re stepping into a world; you become immersed in the album. It doesn’t start abruptly, like most rock albums do; it lures you in. You can hear the same thing in the classic David Bowie album Low, which Eno also produced; the first song, “Speed of Life,” takes a long time to fade in.

Another immersive technique Eno uses is that his ambient music often sounds like a slice taken from a larger whole — there’s no beginning/middle/end or traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure. It’s an ocean of sound, omnidirectional. This is interesting to me for

several reasons. There’s the feminine aspect — it’s quite the opposite of, say, the Rolling Stones, with a macho frontman shouting loud lyrics and a band bashing out the tunes.

And then there’s the textural aspect — Eno’s music is about textures, layers, timbres. Eno has a flair for a good melody, but his music isn’t about melody per se, nor is it necessarily about rhythm either. Some great German bands in the 1970s, like Can and Neu!, did a similar thing with their music, concentrating on texture.

Throughout, you describe Eno as an artist drawn towards both experimental and popular music. How was he able to find a balance between the two impulses and how have this merging of distinctive kinds of cultural production shape how critics and fans have responded to his work?

Eno’s great talent is in being able to travel both worlds. U2 once famously said that they didn’t go to art school; they went to Brian Eno. There’s some truth to that. Eno’s interest in experimental music started very early on, when he was a teenager. He started booking experimental musicians as a student in art school; he performed with avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. This was all before Roxy Music, and before his solo career.

But the pop mentality started early on, too. Eno grew up listening to American doo-wop records, and his first favorite band was The Who. Eno was more successful than a lot of others at merging experimental ideas with a pop aesthetic. That’s why so many bands go to him when they want to do something unexpected. You don’t go to Eno to get the best-sounding, best-engineered record on planet Earth. You go to get something interesting. To go somewhere you haven’t gone before. And at its heart, that’s what experimental music is all about — experimenting.

Geeta Dayal is an arts journalist and critic who writes frequently on the intersections between sound, visual art, and technology. Her book Another Green World, on the musician Brian Eno, was published by Continuum in 2009. She is the recent recipient of major funding from Creative Capital / The Andy Warhol Foundation, in the Arts Writers Grant Program. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, The Village Voice, The New York Times, Print, and Wired. She maintains a blog at

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On Brian Eno and Barry Lyndon: An Interview With Geeta Dayal (Part One)

I don’t write much on this blog about popular music. I have always said music and sports were my real blind spots when it comes to researching contemporary popular culture. So, I have the utmost respect when I find a writer who can take me inside the music and help me understand why a particular album matters for the culture. I am all the more delighted to find such a person in my own backyard. In this case, I do mean this more less literally — in my own backyard.

More acurately, I discovered that Geeta Dayal, one of the students who used to live in Senior House, the dorm where Cynthia and I were housemasters for fourteen years, has become a top notch music critic. Geeta was an undergraduate student in the Comparative Media Studies Program, she was one of the leaders in Senior House culture, and for a short while, she worked for me as we were launching the Center for Future Civic Media. But when she wasn’t hanging out in our dorm, she was studying journalism at Columbia, writing for the Village Voice and a host of other publications, and working on a book about Brian Eno or more exactly a book about one of Eno’s best albums, Another Green World, which shows us the many different layers on which his music works and situating it within the context of his life and his times.

I read the book with both pride in what my former student has accomplished and fascination with what she had to teach me about an artist who ranks very highly on my personal list of music preferences. I often use Eno’s music as a backdrop when I am writing and I like to listen to this strangely familiar (and I do mean strange) music when I have trouble relaxing in strangely familiar hotel rooms while traveling. I knew I liked Eno, but I didn’t have a language to explain why. I had to share my excitement about this book with my readers.

In this interview Dayal helps us to see the links between Eno’s sounds, his early experience as a painter, his fascination with cybernetics, his collaborations with other artists, his fannish engagement with Stanley Kubrick’s films, especially Barry Lyndon, and his ability to move fluidly between high and pop culture.

First, let’s go through some of the choices which shaped this book. Why Brian Eno? Can you tell us something about his importance to contemporary music and about your own interest in the subject?

I find Eno to be an endlessly fascinating figure. He has so many varied interests — creating ambient music, producing rock music, making video art, mixing up his own perfumes, gardening, cogitating about evolutionary biology and cybernetics, inventing iPhone apps — the list goes on.

I identified personally with Eno’s sprawling scope. When I was a student at MIT in the 1990s, I ran a magazine, had a radio show, organized protests, made dozens of short films, did neuroscience research, established a 24-hour video art telethon on the MIT cable channel, booked bands, taught high school students, and did about a million other things besides. It’s a miracle I graduated on time, and with two degrees at that.

Over the past decade, I focused myself on being a writer, because writing was a safe space to explore my wide range of interests, from visual art to science. Writing gave me focus and discipline, and a set of practical constraints to work within, which I found useful. But writing never restrained me creatively; if anything, writing a book helped my imagination to grow. Eno is very focused, too, with an almost laser-like intensity. But he is, as he likes to call himself, a “non-musician.” He uses music as a way to test out new ideas, with a sense of playfulness and an all-embracing perspective. Sometimes I joke and say I’m a “non-journalist.”

And why Another Green World? What made this particular album a key focal point for structuring your examination of his work?

I thought pretty seriously about My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album Eno made with David Byrne in 1981. But Another Green World told a better story. It signified a major transition in Eno’s aesthetic direction. The album was a bridge to Eno’s ambient works. It was composed almost entirely within the studio environment, which I thought was a very intriguing story to tell. It was made at around the same time as Discreet Music, an album that also had a great story behind it. And Another Green World was the first album to be composed with the help of the Oblique Strategies, and I found the Oblique Strategies cards to be a very interesting thing to talk about, as well.

The Oblique Strategies cards become a central motif running through this book and also played an interesting role in your writing process. What can you tell us about them? What do they show about Eno’s particular flavor of creativity? And how did they guide your own journey as a writer?

I find the Oblique Strategies cards to be extraordinarily useful; I’ve been using them for years. I keep a deck on my desk at all times. When I get stuck while writing — which is often — I pick a card. “Are there sections? Consider transitions,” a card might advise. “Use a different color.” Sometimes this advice is not useful at all, but it always makes me laugh, rearranges my perspective, and helps to shakes me out of my rut. Each

chapter in my book is named after an Oblique Strategy — “Honor thy error as a hidden intention,” for example. “The tape is now the music.” It seemed natural to use the Oblique Strategies cards to write the book; I was often stuck while writing this book. My book is a short one, but it was an extremely ambitious project. I was trying to distill a lot of research, and a lot of ideas from the last forty years, into a very short

space. Some of these ideas were very challenging ones, and I really tried hard to explain them in as clear terms as possible.

I think the Oblique Strategies cards tell you a lot about Eno’s quirky sense of humor, and also about his approach to making music — both in his sense of play, and his faith in the artistic process. But the Oblique Strategies didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. In my book, I write about many other creative techniques that were similar to the Oblique Strategies — from John Cage’s use of the I Ching, to the Fluxus movement’s inventive use of cards, to Marshall McLuhan’s “Distant Early Warning” cards. The late artist Peter Schmidt developed the Oblique Strategies cards with Eno; Schmidt was making paintings based on hexagrams from the I Ching in the late

1960s. There was a lot of interest in chance at around that time, and in systems. The Oblique Strategies cards, in their own way, were a systems-based approach to creativity.

How much access did you have to Eno and his collaborators in developing this book?

One way to write this book would have been to do an extended interview with Eno, and base the book solely around his observations. But Another Green World was made quite a long time ago, now — 35 years ago! — and Eno is a bit exhausted with talking about his work in the 1970s, and doesn’t remember much about the ins and outs of the making of Another Green World, anyway. I don’t blame him. And Eno always surrounds himself with interesting people, and works with so many people. So it made sense to talk to them.

Part of what made the book interesting, I think, was that I didn’t base the book around a big interview with Eno. Instead, I did a lot of archival research; I read thousands of pages of interviews and reviews. I read dozens of books, from topics ranging from the history of cybernetics to gardening to visual art to British experimental music. I spoke to a lot of Eno’s friends and collaborators, past and present, who were very open in talking with me. I wanted to meet everyone, not just his collaborators onAnother Green World. I wanted to talk to people along the entire spectrum of Eno’s life. I was interested in collaborators, assistant engineers, ex-girlfriends, friends. In that way, you create an outline of the person that might be more nuanced and surprising than just going straight to the source.

I had experience with doing a lot of digging. When I was starting out as an arts journalist, almost ten years ago, I spent a year working as the research assistant to Simon Reynolds for his book Rip it Up and Start Again, a major history of post-punk music. An incredible amount of research went into that book: around 125 new interviews, plus hundreds of archival interviews, cut out from old press clippings, and rare zines and so on. Simon taught me how to research and write a non-fiction book, based on original research. It’s a painstaking and sometimes painful process,

but I think the results are worth it.

I was interested to learn that Eno started out hoping to be a painter and only later turned his attention to music. What led to the change? Is there a way in which we can describe Eno’s music as “painterly”?

I think that painting and music are interrelated. Kandinsky, for instance, had huge ties to the music of his time; he was very inspired by composers like Schoenberg, and expressed this in his work. And many musicians were into painting; composers like Scriabin were deeply synaesthetic, and described their music in terms of colors and so on. Messiaen, the famed composer, once walked out on a performance of Beethoven because he felt that the purple colors on the stage clashed horribly with G major!

Eno’s first favorite painter was Mondrian; he had a small book of Mondrian prints as a child, and became fascinated with it. For Eno, the shift to music happened in art school — and as I write in my book, art school in Britain in the 1960s was an incubator, of sorts, for many of the leading rock musicians of the time, from The Who to Roxy Music. It was a safe environment to test out new ideas. Painting seemed to be stagnating a bit, compared to the huge explosion of ideas in painting in the first half of the 20th century. But here was rock music, in the late 1960s in Britain; of course a young, creative person would want a piece of that. Even Andy Warhol, the coolest painter in New York, was aligning himself with rock and roll, and hanging out with the Velvet Underground.

Geeta Dayal is an arts journalist and critic who writes frequently on the intersections between sound, visual art, and technology. Her book Another Green World, on the musician Brian Eno, was published by Continuum in 2009. She is the recent recipient of major funding from Creative Capital / The Andy Warhol Foundation, in the Arts Writers Grant Program. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, The Village Voice, The New York Times, Print, and Wired. She maintains a blog at

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What the Chinese Are Making of Avatar

Several years ago, I met a remarkable young man named Lucifer Chu in Shanghai. Chu had been the person who first translated the works of J.R.R. Tolkien into Chinese, after a considerable push to convince publishers that there was a market for fantasy and science fiction in China. He took the proceeds from the sales of the Lord of the Rings to launch a fantasy foundation, which promoted fantastical literature in Taiwan and mainland China, and he translated more than 30 fantasy novels for the Chinese market. As of a few years ago, almost all of the fantasy novels and role playing games available in Taiwan were translated by Chu and he was making in roads into getting these same works published for the mainland. He argued that the fantastic played crucial roles in Chinese folk and literary traditions but the genre had largely been eradicated there as a consequence of Maoist policies during the Cultural Revolution which promoted socialist realism and saw fantasy as western and decadent. Chu argued that bringing fantasy literature back into China was a way of helping his people rediscover their dreams and reimagine their future.

As I have been speaking with my USC student Lifang He about her work on the fan cultures which have quickly grown up around Avatar in China, I’ve wondered what connections, if any, exist between these two efforts to promote the fantastical imagination in that country. Are the young men and women we read about here the offspring of Chu’s efforts? Are they connecting with western fan culture on line? This piece offers us some tantalizing glimpses into the many different ways Chinese fans have mobilized around and fantasized about James Cameron’s blockbuster.

The American press has been following the commercial success of Avatar in China primarily as a business issue — exploring what it might tell us about other opportunities for selling media in this country, using it to shadow Google’s turmoil in the country, and marginally exploring why China was pushing the film from many of the nation’s movie theaters. Yet, this piece takes us inside the world of Chinese Avatar fans, helping us to better understand what the film looks like from their perspective.

Avatar and Chinese Fan Culture

Lifang He

James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is breaking the box office record in China. It is the highest grossing movie in Chinese movie history, achieving around 1.02 billion USD (Xinhua News, 2010). The influence and popularity of Avatar is spectacular and fans were crazy about the movie. Because of the limited IMAX 3D theaters in China, the movie tickets are in short supply and the price is very high. The tickets are officially priced at USD 18-26 but resold at up to USD 60. There are only11 IMAX 3D theaters in China.

Despite the ticket prices, Chinese fans waited overnight outside the store for many hours, similar to people waiting outside the Apple Store for the new iPhone. White collared professionals in small cities took their annual leave and made group trips to nearby big cities for the IMAX 3D version. Enthusiastic fans watched it multiple times in three different versions: IMAX 3D, 3D and 2D.

Being a fan of Avatar goes beyond the theater screens; it floods into a variety of online fan activities. When the Chinese government wanted to pull the 2D Avatar off most of the theaters to provide screens to the new released movie Confucius, many online fans called for a boycott of Confucius. Chinese audiences are becoming more and more active, embracing aspects of participatory culture and fandom, and seeking to more directly shape their entertainment options.

In this essay, Chinese fan culture will be discussed by examining various Avatar fan activities on one of the growing online communities, Baidu Tieba, a user driven network. Fan produced media will give us some clues as to how the young people react to the movie Avatar and why they are enthusiastic about the movie.

Collecting and Sharing Information

As of February 2010, users at Baidu Tieba generated 36,187 topics and 452, 509 posts about Avatar (Baidu, 2010). These posts involved the sharing of relevant information and the discussion of the characters, director, story, plot and other interests.

The planet Pandora draws most of the attention. Fans are very interested in the Pandora world because the movie only provides a glimpse of its ecology and culture. Fans established an online study group to learn the Na’vi language, planet, trees, customs, colors, lifestyle in Pandora etc. A fan bought an English version of Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora and shared the content with other fans (link). Some fans can’t understand English very well, so they are waiting for the Chinese version of the book. As one fan explained “no matter how expensive the book is, I still want to buy the Chinese version although my monthly salary is only 800 RMB (120USD) a month.”

Some fans complained that the Chinese translation of the movie were really bad and posted the correct translation for other people. Similar to the Chinese translation team who volunteered to work on English and Chinese translation of American TV shows like Lost, 24, and CSI, they are very dedicated.

As Neytiri draws many discussions on the web, fans wanted to make Jake as popular as Neytiri so they tried to build the buzz online. In these efforts, they collected all kinds of pictures and posters from the movie and other media. They also discussed Jake’s hair, dress style, facial expression, and his pure smile in the movie. For instance, fans chatted about when Jake had the best smile in the movie. The first time Jake ran out of the research institute when he first got his avatar, his smile was regarded as the most pure and innocent.

Fans were also eager to explore all kinds of information from the production, back-story to the reception process. For example, they talked about the sex scene that was cut off from screen, explored the different versions of trailers, the couple’s relationship in the movie, and their stories in the future. Other interesting discussions included the best time to use the restroom during the movie. They indicated that it is better to go to the toilet when the movie was at 56 minutes so they won’t miss a lot of exciting moments.

Fans share the knowledge with all the members of Tieba community, circulating the information and inviting other members to participate in the discussion. As Pierre Levy wrote “no one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity” (Levy, 1998).

Fan Writing

Besides collecting and sharing information about the movie, fan writing is another emerging form of fan activity on the web. Because of the restrictions of the Chinese publication rules, the internet provides more free space for fans to publish their work and most of their work is much better than what has been written by the professional journalists, covering comprehensive stories about the evolution of IMAX 3D technology, the background of director, back-stories of the characters.

Some fans also wrote a parallel story based on the Chinese current social issues. As a famous blogger, Chenpeng Li wrote, the story of how the alien Na’vi are pulled off their homeland by humans is similar to Chinese residents being forced to leave their homes and land by the Chinese government (, 2010). Avatar is a great metaphor of nail house dwellers against big property developers. “Nail House” refers to home or buildings of people who refused to move when the property needs to be demolished by the government for development (Wiki, 2010). In Li’s blog, he wrote

“in 2154, a land development company RDA went to Pandora to get more land and living resources with the assertion that the residents who agree to move out can get attractive compensation. The residents refused to move out since they have lived there for many generations, just like the Na’vi people who didn’t want to move because their roots were under the tree. RDA has a strong relationship with the government and also has other supports such as city managers acting as low-level government officials, responsible for maintaining city laws and rules. A disagreement erupted and started a fight between the RDA and the residents. “

Li regarded Jake as the leader who betrayed the Housing Demolition Office, referred Colonel Quarles as the chief city manager and the Na’vi people as the Chinese residents who are pulled off their land. The last scenario about Neytiri beating Colonel Quarles represents the extreme military power that was defeated by the Chinese mass residents.

Chinese fans also associated themselves with another Hollywood movie UP, which tells a story of a 78-year-old man Carl Fredricksen who refused to move out from his neighborhood. He made his house as a makeshift airship to fly to his dream place Paradise Falls using thousands of the balloons. A popular Chinese blogger, Han Han commented on his blog:

UP provides the Chinese citizens with a new perspective toward house demolition. Chinese residential tenants only have the right to use the land for 70 years, and after 70 years the land use rights belong to the government and the houses are regarded as private owned property. Both the movie UP and Chinese government provided us a solution to cope with the house demolition. UP tells us to lift the house off the ground by the helium balloons; and the Chinese government tells us that don’t think too much because after 70 years, the houses will probably collapse” (Han, 2009).

In recent years, China has been experiencing a fast period of urbanization and many old buildings and neighborhood have been torn down for modern shopping malls and skyscrapers. Over 30 million residents have been forced to move from their homes (Hays, 2008). Li referred the movie to some cases in China that residents refused compensation deals and fighted with the government. Fuzheng Tang who poured gas and burn herself to protect her three floor home from Chengdu violent home demolition, Pan Rong who threw self-made petrol bomb to the demolition crew, and Chongqing nail house are the all real cases for anti-demolition.

Avatar and UP are a good reflection of recent Chinese social problems, showing a lack of citizen rights and choices. As Han said ” brutal demolition can only happen in foreign planets and China, which foreigners can’t image” (, 2010). Chinese fans found both movies quite related to their life and both provide them with a story that they can share and discuss. The only Chinese popular TV series Snail House (Wo Ju), also titled Dwelling Narrowness, that can truly reflect their life tells a real story about how average Chinese people became house slaves in Shanghai in an environment of rising home prices and official corruption, was eventually banned by the government. Li regarded Avatar as the best movie that eulogizes the nail house successfully fighting against forcible demolition in China. The forcible city managers, house demolition office, Chinese City Demolition Ordinance was vividly analogized in the movie (Sina, 2010).

Fans Creative Work

Besides collecting and sharing knowledge and fan writing, fans also use other ways to create their own works such as costume play, Avatar paintings, etc. One of the most popular works online is the costume play by a couple from Chongqing. They dressed like Jake and Neytiri and posted their Avatar pictures online, which has over 94630 viewers (Baidu, 2010).

Vidding is another way for them to participate in the creation. Three kinds of videos will be shown here to showcase the vidding culture in China. The first one is a theme song vid, which remixes the video “I See You” and “My Heart Will Go On.” Fans find that the stories of two theme songs are very similar: both are love stories and the main actors in the two movies both died. For example, the lyrics of “My Heart Will Go On” has the words “I see you” that can match with the content of Avatar. Here is the video of “I See You.”Also fans made another version of Titanic with “I See You.”

In another video, fans used photoshop to make Avatar posters for the celebrities such as Obama, Yao Ming and Li Yuchun and used their Avatar photos as materials to make the video, which can be played here. Similar to the fans of Kung Fu Panda, they like using Photoshop software to make posters with different themes such as Harry Potter, Lust, Caution, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.

Another vid is created by a World of Warcraft fan J J. Because the worlds of Warcraft and Pandora are very similar, he incorporated the video clips from the WOW game and made a WOW version of Avatar, which is very popular among Chinese fans. Here is the video.

Why fans are so enthusiastic?

The Internet and digital technology has given fans unprecedented access to information and has changed the concept of freedom of choice and creative expression. Because of the national system and media censorship, Chinese people can not say anything they want. But online community provides a good platform for the fans to say something they can’t in real life.

Online community also provides them a way to relieve the stress and escape from the reality because they face so much pressure from all aspects of society such as intense high school graduation examination, competitive job hunting, etc. In addition, playing around in the Internet is not regarded as a serious hobby by Chinese old generation who are very realistic and more concerned about their children’s future such as going to a good university and having a decent job.

Chinese youth are tired of Chinese serious mainstream film culture because Chinese films lack the creativity that American TV shows and movies have. Avatar created a dream and an ideal world that Chinese fans can’t have in reality. As a famous movie director Lu Chuan said, “Avatar made me realize that what we lack is not technology. I suddenly realized how far away our films are from simple beauty, crystal-clear purity and passionate dreams” (, 2010).


Since its launch, Avatar has developed a huge enthusiastic fan base in China. Although Chinese fans are not exposed to as much media products as Americans because of the unequal international distribution, they are very active in learning and understanding what’s happening with the movie. Internet and new technologies provide them a medium to participate in the media production and distribute their work online. They collect and circulate information, participate in the discussion, and create their own works to contribute to the Avatar community. It is a great representation of creativity and self-expression.

Avatar has also had a revolutionary impact on Chinese movie industry, stimulating the development of the local movie making. Chinese Film Association and Chinese Film Art Research Center hosted a conference meeting in January 2010, discussing how to improve Chinese movies. The professor Shixian Huang from Beijing Film Academy criticized the famous Chinese film director Yimou Zhang’s recent work A Simple Noodle Story, which was only taken several months to be finished and is a very low quality movie. The secretary-general from China Movie Forums indicated that the main film audience is generation 80s and 90s who are enthusiastic with the non-reality films which lacks in China. He appealed to the Chinese government that China should give support and help to such kind of films. Some other interesting questions are also raised in this meeting such as how to nurture the audiences by the series films, how to cultivate the young talents, how to bring the technology to the movie making, etc.

China is in a transition period where old system and new system are colliding and they haven’t developed a very stable system yet. In the future, with political and social policy more and more open and transparent, there will be more freedom for movie production. It will be also be easier for the Hollywood filmmakers to promote their films and other media extensions.

Lifang He is from China, where she received her undergraduate degree in Journalism. After college, she was hired by two global advertising agencies Wieden & Kennedy and Euro RSCG Worldwide. At these agencies, she worked as a strategic planner for a variety of international brands including but not limited to Nike and Nokia and gained experience in consumer and market research and developing brand strategies. Since August of 2009, she has been pursuing her Master’s degree in Communication Management at USC Annenberg School for Communication. It was while attending a USC class taught by Henry Jenkins that her academic interest turned toward transmedia planning and studying fan culture. Her specific areas of interest in these fields revolve around digital culture, brand communities, and how brands relate to and engage fans.


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Baidu Tieba (n.b.). Retrieved Jan.20, 2010

Chuan, Lu (2010). Avatar Critics. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010.

Han, Han (2010). Sina Blog. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010, f

Hays, Jeffrey (2008). Urban Life in China. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010

Itzkoff, Dave (2010). You Saw What in Avatar? New York Times.

Jenkins, Henry (2006). Fans, bloggers, and gamers: exploring participatory culture.

Levy, Pierre (1998). Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace.

Li, Chenpeng (2010). Story of Avatar and Nail House. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010.

Nail House. Wikipedia. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010.

Sentinel, Asia (2010). Avatar vs. Confucius in China. Korea Times. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010.

Xin Hua News (2010). Retrieved Jan. 20, 2010.

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Vidding Kung Fu Panda in China

From time to time, I use this space to showcase the global dimensions of the kinds of participatory culture which so often concern us here. When I first started to write about fan culture, for example, the circuit along which fan produced works traveled did not extend much beyond the borders of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and perhaps Australia. American fans knew little about fan culture in other parts of the world and indeed, there was often speculation about why fandom was such a distinctly American phenomenon.

Now, fans online connect with others all over the world, often responding in real time to the same texts, conspiring to spread compelling media content from one culture to the other, and we are seeing a corresponding globalization of fan studies. Yet, some countries remain largely outside of field of view, because of language barriers, cultural differences, political policies, and alternative tech platforms.

Consequently, most of us know very little about how fan production practices have spread to China — which is too often described in terms of its piracy of American content and too little discussed in terms of its creative repurposing of that content to reflect their own cultural interests. So, I am really excited over these next two installments to share some glimpses into fan culture in China — specifically focusing on the vidding community there (but also discussing other forms of fan participation.)

These two posts were created by Lifang He, an Annenberg student who took my transmedia entertainment class in the fall and who is doing an independent study with me this term to expand her understanding of the concept of participatory culture. Here, she talks about how Kung Fu Panda got read in relation to the economic crisis in China, and next time, she will tackle the array of different fan responses to Avatar.

Kung Fu Panda vidding and Chinese fan culture

Lifang He

In this paper, I’m going to write about a Chinese vid based on a movie Kung Fu Panda as it is a great example of fan made extensions in China. I’ll introduce the background of the movie, discuss the relationship between the vid and the original movie, and also I’ll talk about fan’s role in the vidding and Chinese fan culture.

Kung Fu Panda is a 2008 animated comedy movie directed by John Stevenson and produced by DreamWorks Animation SKG, Inc. It tells a story of a clumsy panda bear Po, who unenthusiastically works as a waiter for his father’s noodle restaurant and eventually achieves his dream and becomes a master of martial arts.

According to Sina Entertainment (2008), this movie achieved significant monetary success after it was released on July 20, 2008 in China, which had hit approximately 14 million USD box office sales in the first ten days.

This Hollywood made Chinese movie is much better than other Chinese made Chinese movies, which proves American’s leading ability to create entertainment and market Chinese culture. The movie is filled with Chinese elements. The key character Panda is China’s national treasure and the other characters in the movie such as the monkey, snake, red crowned crane, tiger and mantis are the classic representatives of Chinese martial arts. Moreover, the Chinese imagery was used so well that Chinese audience felt very excited to discuss how great the movie is. As a famous Chinese film director Lu Chuan commented on his blog, ” the movie brought big laugh to Chinese people. It was a big surprise. Our familiar culture is no longer a burden for the creativity, instead it becomes an active and vivid entertainment” (Lu Chuan, 2008).

In response to the success of the movie, a lot of discussion was generated online between the audience and the animation filmmaker after its first release. Fans posted reviews on their blogs and discussed their favorite characters on Bulletin Board System (BBS). Also hey used Photoshop software to make posters with different themes such as Harry Potter, Lust, Caution, Pirates of the Caribbean, which attracted a lot of buzz. They also created music videos and wrote lyrics to compliment the movie, which were posted on social networking sites. After knowing that The Kaboom of Doom, a sequel of Kung Fu Panda, has been currently in pre-production and will be released in 2011 (Wiki, 2009), fans started to make their own versions of the movie.

Among all of these fan activities, producing vids and sharing with other fans on Chinese social networking sites is one of the most popular ways for them to express their love to the movie. They wrote scripts, re-edited video clips using the original footage and did the voice over to tell a new story. Unlike American viding culture that has a relatively long history, Chinese vidding only emerged a couple of years ago owing to the video sharing websites such as, There’s no centralized grassroots community for vidding in China and Chinese vidding culture is very casual. An example to help exemplify how fans use this to publicize their opinions is a vid called Gu Piao Panda (Stock Panda), which is widely spread online and applauded by the fans.

Gu Piao Panda is a three-minute short film, which links Po to China’s unsound stock market and tells a parallel story about stock panda. The story starts from a scene that Po was a legend in the stock market, but it turns out that it is just a dream. In reality, he is a rookie stock investor and his money is all tied up in stock because of the global recession. Po is so sad that he goes back home to talk to his goose father and his father persuades him to withdraw money from the stock market because of the bearish market situation. Po has a strong belief that he will become a guru in the financial world someday and the only reason he hasn’t achieved that yet is because he hasn’t met his teacher. His father has no choice and encourages him to attend a stock master competition at somewhere in the mountain. Po tries so hard to get into the competition and there are three competitive groups — the happiness group with monkey in it, the fighting group with tiger in it and the desire group with red crowned crane in it. These three groups represent the three different types of stock operators. Then, Po attends the competition and finally his teacher finds him and teaches him how to become a successful fund manger. In the vid, the creator doesn’t show an ending in the video, and instead he poses a question that if Po will become a stock master finally.

There are many similarities between the original movie and fan made vid. First of all, both of the film and fan vid chose Po as a main character as he is a good character to conceive the new stories and has become a prototype based on which fans have developed distinct characters in various contexts. In Kung Fu Panda, Po is an every Panda who masters some area through his persistent effort. Gu Piao Panda is a rookie stock operator and finally achieves success as a stock master. In other vids such as Real Estate Price, the key character panda is portrayed as a junior real estate developer who finally becomes a hero to save the real estate from subprime lending crisis. Moreover, the storylines of the two movies are very similar. Specifically, Gu Piao Panda creates a story that Po is a rookie stock operator who wants to become a stock master. In Kung Fu Panda, Po is a worker at his father’s noodle restaurant who wants to become a kungfu fighter. Also, they both fight for an evil in the two videos. In Gu Piao Panda, he fights for the stagnant stock market. In Kung Fu Panda, he fights for Tai Lung. Furthermore, Po attends the competition to become a master in two movies either as a kung fu master or financial guru. In the original movie, he fights for a kung fu secret book. In the vid, he fights for two cars as the competition awards. When examining the video clips, it is apparent that fans use the same video clip to convey the same meaning in the different context. They just choose the video clips they like from the original movie to tell their stories. Other vids such as Real Estate Price, Kung Fu Competition, Certificates are all associated with the current social issues to tell different stories.

Real Estate Price

Kung Fu Competition


This parody is so popular that fans keep spreading it online because there’s so much fun in the video. Some popular terms and events used in this vid are funny in the context of Chinese culture. For example, they use the word “Niu Bi” (newby) to describe how successful Po is in the stock market in his dreams. They also use the word “Tao” (trapped in the market) to explain that his money is all tied up to the stock account. Real figures are also incorporated to make the audiences feel more attached to the story. For instance, Po’s goose father persuades him to withdraw the money because the current stock index is above 2000 points – which is where the Chinese stock market was registering at that time when this vid was made. In addition, they use Dong Bei language, a northern Chinese dialect that often associated with Chinese cross talk to voice over the video. This brought more joy to the audiences, especially during the global depression era.

Gu Piao Panda and other vids are great examples showing that Chinese fans’ role has changed from audience to active producers. They are not just passively receiving the information, but becoming publishers. The Internet has become a platform for them to distribute their works. This emerges an Internet culture called kuso, which is very popular in China. Kuso, originated from a Japanese word, is a popular subculture in China that deconstructs serious themes to entertain people (Wiki, 2009). Some interesting quotes from ESWN Culture Blog that can explain the popularity of Chinese kuso culture are, “Kuso is people deconstruct burning satire.” “Kuso is an art criticism loved by people”. “Kuso is people’s ordinary, yet interesting, spiritual pursuit.” (Soong, Roland & Qing, Huang, 2006)

The most classic case of Chinese Kuso culture is a fan-made short movie called The Bloody Case That Started From A Steamed Bread based on a famous movie Wu Ji (The Promise) directed by Kaige Chen. A Chinese fan, Hu Ge, felt disappointed with Wu Ji and made his own spoof right after the movie was released. This fan-made movie joked about the film Wu Ji and dominant serious journalistic work, attracting huge fan following. From this fan made film, kuso has become more and more popular in China and represents a type of Chinese fan culture in the Internet.

There are two main reasons can account for the popularity of kuso culture in China. One important reason is that Chinese youth are suffering from social pressure and kuso provides a way for them to relieve themselves from the real pressure. They are a new generation who is tired of serious mainstream culture and kuso becomes a way for them to express themselves online. Moreover, kuso requires less technical skills and technology requirement and cheaper cost of movie production makes it possible for fans to make their own videos. Also the video sharing websites give the audiences a good platform to distribute and create a huge opportunity to show their own works.

Lifang He is from China, where she received her undergraduate degree in Journalism. After college, she was hired by two global advertising agencies Wieden & Kennedy and Euro RSCG Worldwide. At these agencies, she worked as a strategic planner for a variety of international brands including but not limited to Nike and Nokia and gained experience in consumer and market research and developing brand strategies. Since August of 2009, she has been pursuing her Master’s degree in Communication Management at USC Annenberg School for Communication. It was while attending a USC class taught by Henry Jenkins that her academic interest turned toward transmedia planning and studying fan culture. Her specific areas of interest in these fields revolve around digital culture, brand communities, and how brands relate to and engage fans.


Chuan, Lu (2008). Kung Fu Panda and Hollywood Movie. Retrieved Dec.10, 2009

Kung Fu Panda Ticket sales(2008). Sina entertainment. Retrieved Dec.10, 2009

Kung Fu Panda. Wikipedia. Retrieved Dec.10, 2009

Kuso Culture. Baidu. Retrieved Dec.10, 2009.

Maureen Fan (2008). Kung Fu Panda Hits A Sore Spot in China: Why a Quintessentially Chinese Movie Was Made in Hollywood. Washington Post Foreign Service. Retrieved Dec.10, 2009.

Qi, Cai & Ying, Xie (2009). The Internet kuso culture in China. CulChina.Net. Retrieved Dec.10, 2009.

Qing, Huang (2006). Parody can help people ease work pressure. ESWN Culture Blog. Retrieved Dec.10, 2009

Soong, Roland (n.d.). The Bloody Case That Started From A Steamed Bun. ESWN Culture Blog. Retrieved Dec.10, 2009.

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On Anti-Fans and Paratexts: An Interview with Jonathan Gray (Part Two)

In the second part of the interview, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Jonathan Gray talks about his new book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. Don’t know what a Paratext is — you will soon, as Gray explains how everything from “Oscar Buzz” to action figures help to shape the meanings and emotional experiences we have in relation to the films and television shows we watch. There was not an Oscar given last night for best paratext — as long as the evening was and as outraged I was to see that Roger Corman (who happened to have trained two of last night’s best director nominees — Cameron and Bigelow — as well as such recent winners as Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard) and Lauren Bacall (Lauren Fraking Bacall) were given their special Oscars at a separate event! Yet, it is hard to imagine Avatar making the money it did, a low budget genre film like District 9 making the list at all, or for that matter The Hurt Locker building up the critical support it did in the absence of well-crafted campaigns designed to warm us up to these particular projects. And given the huge grosses that Alice in Wonderland took in this weekend, we certainly might pause to pay respect to the creative promotion that the film has received in the months building up to its release, even though much of the press is going to ascribe the box office purely to the growing public interest in all things 3D. So, this interview seems particularly well-timed, even though, in fairness, I should note that Gray answered these questions some weeks ago and might have new things to say today precisely on these topics.

Your new book, Show Sold Separately, centers around “media paratexts.” While this concept has a long history, it is apt to be unfamiliar to many of my readers. Can you define it and explain why you prefer it as a category to other ways of talking about these phenomenon?

I draw the word from a book of that title by Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist. He was interested in all those things that surround a book that aren’t quite the “thing” (or “the text”) itself. Things like the cover, prefaces, typeface, and afterwords, but also reviews. His subtitle to that book – “Thresholds of Interpretation” – is the intriguing part, since it suggests that meaning might be constructed and might begin at these textual outposts, not just at the site of “the thing itself.” And that in turn offers a pretty radical proposition, namely that the item that we’re studying, whether it be a film, television show, book, or whatever, becomes meaningful and is interpreted in many sites, some arguably even more important than the site of thing itself. The purpose of the book, quite simply, then, was to examine those sites.

I prefer the word paratext precisely because it has a pretty academic background, and from within textual studies at that, and thus isn’t encumbered by a lot of the connotations that surround many of the other words that we usually use. Your readers may be more familiar with “hype,” “synergy,” “promos,” “peripherals,” “extratextuals,” and so forth. But hype and synergy frame paratexts too definitively as wholly industrial entities. Certainly, paratexts are absolutely integral in terms of marketing, and in terms of grabbing an audience to watch the thing in the first place. But we’ve often stalled in our discussion of them by not moving beyond the banal observation that hype creates profits. What I wanted to look at is how they create meaning, how our idea of what a television show “is” and how we relate to it is often prefigured by its opening credit sequence, its posters, its ads, reviews, etc. Meanwhile, “peripherals” belittles their importance, since they’re not at all peripheral, at least in potential. “Promos” is fairly innocuous, and yet I’m interested not just in how the things that surround a film or show create an image of it before we get there, but also in how reviews, DVD bonus materials, fan creations, and other after-the-fact paratexts might change our understanding later on, so that too seemed inadequate. And though I like “extratextuals” (the title of my blog!), “extra” means “outside of,” whereas “para” suggests a more complicated relationship to the film or show, outside of, alongside, and intrinsically part of all at the same time. Hence my fondness for that word in particular.

You write in the introduction, “While many consumers deride the presence of hype and licensed merchandise as a nuisance, we also rely upon it, at least in part, to help us get through an evening’s viewing or a trip to the multiplex.” In what sense? In what ways do such materials shape our experience of films and television programs?

Let’s take the trailer as an example. We’ve all seen thousands of them. And when you do, you often hear evaluations from the crowd around you. That’s because everyone is judging the film before it’s even been released. But they’re not just saying “wow” or “ugh” – they’re learning something about the characters and whether they can identify with them, about the genre of the film, about the kind of world that it’s set in. In short, they’re getting a pre-view of the film’s basic components, and it’s thus being constructed as a meaningful entity for them. When the film finally comes along, it doesn’t begin with a fresh slate; rather, its viewers have a history with it. They’ve come with expectations, with engagements with certain characters, and with an idea of how to make sense of it. Indeed, in many cases, they’ll already be enjoying the film, as played with in a beautiful way by an Onion News Network parodic item about Iron Man trailer fans being worried about the studio making the trailer into a feature-length film.

But all sorts of other things might happen along the way too. Perhaps the trailer confused us into thinking that the film was something different, and so we sat down to watch an action film and got a drama instead. Or perhaps the hype and paratexts annoy us, and so we decide that we don’t want to see the film – we don’t need to, since we already know it to be junk. Or perhaps paratexts clash – the trailer looks awful, but then you hear an interview with the director and you’re fascinated. The frame of mind that we bring with us to any viewing experience is remarkably important, and paratexts often play the key role in creating those frames. Meanwhile, the story doesn’t even end after watching, since other paratexts might reframe an experience. Perhaps a “making of” special or a podcast asks us to think of it in a new light, maybe a fanvid, item of fanfic, or other fan creation challenges our understanding of a character. The great Russian theorist of narrative, Mikhail Bakhtin, poetically wrote that no meaning is ever dead, and that every meaning will have its homecoming. So too with all items of media, which aren’t just framed; they can be reframed.

I’ve spent some time in the blog over the past few months reflecting on the benches that were erected in anticipation of District 9 and the ways they contributed to narrative exposition and shaped emotional reactions to the film, well beyond their roles as pure promotion or publicity. I take it you would read these as classic examples of paratexts. How would you explain their contributions to District 9?

Those are great examples, since they put you into the world. When you’re faced with a bench that tells you one kind of being isn’t allowed there, it opens up a history, at least in the U.S., of segregation, and of racial intolerance. We like to pat ourselves on the back and think that it’s all behind us, but such benches haunt us with the notion that it’s not. If you’re Black, I’d guess there’s a sore wound that’s opened. And if you’re liberal and White, there might be some liberal White guilt over your potential complicity with the segregation: do you really want to sit on that bench now?

All that can happen before you even know there’s a movie. Now when you’re told there’s a movie, and that these benches are part of it, they’ve given you an experience of that world. You’ve set foot in it and had an experience in it. The narrative, in other words, has begun. Your allegiances are being pulled on. Or, to point to another classic example from film history, the Jaws poster scared the crap out of me as a kid. I couldn’t swim without thinking that a massive great shark was about to gobble me up, as I moved on unaware, just as with the woman in the poster. So the horror and fear began long before the film (and, damn the designer, continued long after!).

You note that paratexts can be “entryway” or “In medias res.” Early discussions of transmedia storytelling focused on nonlinearity — suggesting that the parts could be consumed in any order — but more recently there’s been a focus on notions of seriality and temporarily. What might your book contribute to that discussion?

What I’d hope readers would see is how many different media the story can be told over. It’s not just the “big” media, like film, television, books, comics, and videogames – trailers can also play a part here, as can opening credit sequences, or DVD bonus materials, posters, ad campaigns, or, as we’ve discussed, benches. When we recognize that, we move towards realizing how audiences have always been intimately familiar with serial storytelling and with transmedia. We’re all already well-trained to keep shows on hold for years, inbetween trailers and film and bonus materials, so I’m dubious when I hear complaints about audiences being unable and unwilling to deal with seriality and transmedia.

But if I talk of “us” needing to realize that, meaning “us” as analysts or fans, it’s also production cultures that need to learn from it. Towards the end of the book, I draw on several interviews I conducted with transmedia producers, and they all point to an industry that isn’t currently set up to facilitate discussions between the marketing department, the writers, the DVD producers, the videogame designers, and so forth. Let’s imagine a future in which communication improved, and thus one in which all these paratexts and sites didn’t work against each other or simply in spite of each other, but instead contributed to the serial development. Then, as audiences, we could have a much richer product, and I imagine the producers would be much richer too.

You suggest that audience-produced artifacts — such as fan vids or spoilers — can be paratexts that help shape the meaning of the work. Your emphasis there is not so much on how they resist official meanings but rather how they shape our interpretations of the primary text. An old school cultural studies approach might talk about this as a struggle over meanings or as competing bids for interpretations. How do you think about the relationship between commercial and amateur paratexts in the age of participatory culture?

I don’t mean to foreclose the possibilities of resistive readings. But someone very smart and way more knowledgeable about fandom already wrote Textual Poachers, and if there’s only one thing that many people in cultural studies know about slash fanfic it’s that it’s supposed to be doing interesting, resistive things with gender and sexuality (I say “supposed to” only because some don’t believe that). So when I came to the chapter on fan-created and -circulated paratexts, I didn’t need to make that point. Instead, I wanted to focus on how one can use paratexts to cut one’s own groove through a text in a way that isn’t necessarily working against the producer’s version, but that is personalized nonetheless. Many relationship and character study fanvids, for example, don’t necessarily repurpose a character, but they do ask us to stop and think about that character and his or her history in ways that the official text, in its breathless progression, may not have time to do. I don’t mean to suggest that this is either the dominant form of fan use of paratexts, or even one that’s necessarily changed in a more obviously convergent media era. But it might help cultural studies to back away from some of the desires for an orcs vs. hobbits style bad-and-good battle between The Industry and The Fans, and to focus on smaller, humbler moments of repurposing.

Critics in the 1980s talked about television series such as He-Man, Masters of the Universe as half hour commercials for toy lines, suggesting that the commercial tie-ins stripped them of any real meaning or narrative interest. Your work suggests something different — that the toys become vehicles for extending the meanings of a series into everyday life. How have action figures impacted our interpretations of blockbuster movies like the Star Wars franchise?

Star Wars is a great example here, since what we had was a text that was seemingly put on ice (or should I say put in carbon-freezing?) for three years between each film. That’s a long time in a child’s life, so excellent or not the trilogy likely wouldn’t have held the attention of those of us who were kids at the time if it weren’t for the toys. The toys kept Star Wars alive by transferring the story and the world to the playground, and hence by keeping that galaxy from drifting far, far away.

However, precisely because the text entered the body of the toys for such a long time, we need to ask how they contributed to the popular understanding of Star Wars. On one level, for instance, I think they worked to gender the text. When all the toy boxes and ads were showing boys playing with them, when FAO Schwarz in New York required one to march through a tunnel of GI Joe figures to get to the boys’ palace that was their Star Wars section, and when all the figures had guns (even when all we see them do is drink or press buttons in the films), the toys were strongly framed as for boys. The toys also helped, I’m sure, to amplify fans’ nostalgic feelings towards the texts, since those of a certain age can think back to countless days spent playing in school yards or excitedly opening a Millennium Falcon for Christmas or so forth, and all of a sudden Star Wars seems such a huge part of our childhood … courtesy of the toys as much if not way more than the films. So toys contribute to how we make sense of all these films and shows, and to the cultural meanings that surround them.

But more than that, they also teach kids to expect transmedia and participatory culture. When I talked to Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof about what got him into transmedia, he told me the tale of the Boba Fett toy. When I asked Jesse Alexander of Heroes and Day One the same thing, he too waxed eloquently about Star Wars. Licensed toys let us into fictional worlds, and I’ve yet to hear of a company send a cease and desist letter to kids for playing with toys, even if they’re wedding Han to Luke. So if many of us grew up expecting to be able to play with texts, and move their characters into new realms, let’s look to toys for where it may’ve all started.

We’ve just ended The Oscar season. To what extent is “Oscar buzz” a kind of paratext for more “serious” or “middlebrow” forms of cinema?

I’m glad you asked, since I find it amusing when people hear the topic of my book and quickly pronounce that they hate “that stuff” (hype and paratexts). They’ll often list the blockbuster of the moment for illustration, so right now everyone claims to despise Avatar when they want to impress me with the height of their brow. But there is no such thing as a text without paratexts. So it’s not a question of preferring a text without paratexts – it’s a question of which paratexts are one’s poison. Oscar buzz is great for the middlebrow audience, New York Times reviews, buzz at Cannes, or even what their film prof says works for some, and for others it’s trailers and huge billboards. So there’s no escaping paratexts. If we think we live in a media saturated world, the films and shows are only a fraction of that world – the paratexts are everywhere.

Jonathan Gray is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he researches and teaches on various aspects of television, film, and convergent media, including satire, comedy, audiences, and textuality. His most recent book is Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010), though he has also written Television Entertainment (Routledge, 2008) and Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006), and is co-editor with Jeffrey P. Jones and Ethan Thompson of Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era (NYU Press, 2009), with Robin Andersen of Battleground: The Media (Greenwood, 2008), and with Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World</em>. He also blogs at The Extratextuals and Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture.