The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture: An Interview with Joe Saltzman (Part Two)

What do you see as some of the recurring themes in the popular representation of journalism? How much do these myths change over time and how much do they remain constant?

The surprising thing is that the image of the journalist hasn’t changed much throughout the centuries. In Antigone, Sophocles summed up the popular opinion more than 400 years before Christ was born: “None love the messenger who brings bad news.” About the same time, another popular play told the story of a herald bringing shocking news to the mad hero who is believed to be involved in a murder plot. The hero picks up the herald and dashes his brains upon a stone. No doubt the audience cheered. And so, the image began.

One of the most vicious portrayals of the journalist, for example, is Five Star Final made in 1931. The final shot in the film is the newspaper in the gutter being splattered by mud or something worse.

The basic image of the journalist from the silent days of the movies to the media-drenched days of the early 21st century is that of the flawed hero fighting everyone and anything to get the facts out to the public. The reporter or editor could get away with anything as long as the end result was in the public interest. The journalist could lie, cheat, distort, bribe, betray, or violate any ethical code as long as the journalist exposed corruption, solved a murder, caught a thief or saved an innocent. Most films about journalism end with the reporter or editor winning the battle, if not the war.

At the same time, the most indelible image may be that of the journalist as scoundrel, as evil, as the worst of villains because these journalists use the precious commodity of public confidence in the press for their own selfish ends. If the journalist uses the power of the media for his or her own personal, political, or financial gain, if the end result is not in the public interest, then no matter what the journalist does, no matter how much he or she struggles with his or her conscience or tries to do the right thing, evil has won out.

Betraying the public trust is one of the great sins in a democracy and whether it is a journalist or a politician who does the dirty deed, it is despicable. The corrupt media tycoon’s goals and tactics are familiar to everyone, and real-life parallels in modern media abound. That may be the reason so many people are skeptical of the motives of such media billionaires as Rupert Murdoch.

Perhaps the most dominant and damaging image of the journalist in popular culture is that of anonymous reporters chasing after stories. In countless movies, television programs and novels, they travel in packs, usually armed with television cameras and microphones. They cover fast-breaking news by crowding, yelling, shouting, bullying and forcing their way into breaking news events. There were always such packs of aggressive print journalists chasing after heroes in movies, and they made a negative impact through the years, but their zeal was usually taken in good spirits. Nowadays, they appear far more menacing and out of control because their lights, cameras, microphones and tape recorders are jabbed into faces of real people on television news and favorite actors in movies and entertainment television programs.

In the 1930s and 1940s, practically every popular actor eventually portrayed a journalist. By the 1980s, anonymous reporters were chasing popular actors. The audience, as always, identifies with the popular actor. For the most part, audiences now root against reporters who are chasing familiar and friendly faces. It isn’t Clark Gable or Barbara Stanwyck chasing after a story. It is now overzealous media newshounds chasing Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts.

This image of a harassing press with no valid reason undermines the public’s trust in the news media, conflicting with the movie and television image of the reporter as hero. One result is that the public has turned against reporters, concluding that journalists are obnoxious, interested only in their own egos, not the public interest, and that laws should be passed to stop reporters from harassing innocent people – innocent people often translated in the public mind to be a favorite movie or television star.

These conflicting images of the journalist contribute to the love-hate relationship between the public and its news media that is at the center of the public’s confusion about the media today.

The anger and lack of confidence most Americans have in the news media today is partly based on real-life examples they have seen and heard. But much of the image of the journalist as a money-grubbing, selfish, arrogant scoundrel is based on images from movies and television. And it is those images burned in the public memory that have turned the phrases, “the people’s right to know” and “First Amendment freedoms” into sick jokes rather than honored phrases. These images directly affect the public’s opinion and consequently its support of the freedom of the news media.

What are some of the early texts which helped to define the stories popular cinema tells about journalists and where did they get their ideas about the profession from? How important was the crossover that occurred as trained journalists sought jobs as script writers in Hollywood?

The early cinema stole from everywhere and everyone, from plays, novels, Shakespeare, mythology, the bible, you-name-it. Much of what the popular cinema knew about journalism came from novels and plays written by former journalists about their profession. There were many silent films made about journalism taken from popular 19th-century novels.

Two of the most popular talkies featuring journalists in the early 1930s were The Front Page and Five Star Final, both Broadway plays written by newspapermen. When sound came in, Hollywood raided Broadway to find writers who could write the words their new stars would say. Since newspapermen of the period were glib and hungry, an exodus of newspapermen and women left New York for Hollywood and wrote a good many of the scripts. Because they knew the world of newspaper journalism, many of the scripts featured reporters and editors in starring roles or in secondary roles. These journalists certainly knew what they were writing about and often took real-life anecdotes about editors and reporters and stuffed them into their scripts.

While the kernel of the idea was true, these writers were forced to exaggerate and expand the truth for dramatic effectiveness. For example, they would take 10 years of anecdotes and jam them into one film. Since many of the newspapermen and women were former reporters who hated their editors, they loved getting even with their former editors by revealing every drunken and angry anecdote they could remember.

So while these early newspaper films had a veneer of truth, they were exaggerated to the point where real-life newspaper reviewers condemned their efforts as unrealistic and ridiculous. But what did come through was a kind of affection for these newshawks that only a professional journalist could bring to the craft of screenwriting. That affection – even when the journalist behaved badly, even when the journalist had no ethics at all and would do anything to get a scoop – came through loud and clear and pretty much disappeared in the 1950s when the films about journalists became harder, rougher and less sympathetic. What used to be funny in the 1930s and 1940s – alcoholism among journalists, for example – became serious social problems in the 1950s through the rest of the 20th century. Films about journalists became less fun, and the newspaper world became a more serious place to do business.

You’ve written a book which specifically examines Capra’s Journalists. Why were journalists so central to Capra’s work? In what ways does his view of journalists reflect his own contradictory concerns between an embrace of collective action and a fear of mob rule, for example, or between individualism and community?

Capra loved the newspaper world and not only delivered newspapers as a boy but also wanted to be a reporter. He also worked with Robert Riskin, a playwright who while on Broadway spent a lot of time with reporters, especially drunken reporters, who used to spin tales about their lives and hates for hours on end. He soaked in all of this and put much of it into his screenplays for Capra.

The director also never missed a chance to put a journalist into his films – the original story for It Happened One Night didn’t have a journalist as its principal character (the Clark Gable role in the short story is a college-educated chemist). It’s impossible to imagine that film without a journalist as its major character. He also used reporters as commentators on a society and, while flawed, they usually were guys and gals with good hearts who ended up doing the right thing. Capra and Riskin saved their angry indignation for the publisher.

In Capra’s world, the hardworking male or female journalist might do anything for a story, but by the end of the film he or she usually does the right thing even if it means giving up his or her job. By contrast, Capra saved his venom for the owner of the newspaper, the publisher, the media tycoon. They are among the most vicious media villains in all of film history. They are the ones who create the moral chaos in which reporters and editors struggle to survive. Capra was far ahead of his time in seeing that the person who controlled the media was dangerous to any free society. Capra with Riskin’s great help was one of the first popular filmmakers to recognize the possibility of great evil on the part of those who own the media. He issued the first popular alarm against the media tycoon who could control the world by controlling information.

In Meet John Doe, for example, a ruthless publisher (whose personal security force resembles the Nazi military) who owns much of the nation’s media, plans to use it to create a dictatorship in America. He puts together a cartel of rich businessmen to do just that using the populistic John Doe movement to get elected into office. Only a Capra-contorted conclusion stops the publisher – for now. The ending, one of many filmed, seems to indicate that the media mogul has been stopped for now but will live to fight another day.

The scenes of decent, hard-working Americans turning into a mob when they are told John Doe deceived them is one of the most powerful in American film history showing the fear of mob rule. And while we are watching it, real-life radio commentators pulled off the airwaves and into Capra’s film are shown in silhouette, their familiar voices giving the vicious mob scene even more credibility and realism. The scene where John Doe tries to talk to the audience and speaks into a microphone that has been purposely disabled is one of the most terrifying images in the film – the hopelessness of the individual against the ones who control the media and the mob itself.

American journalism has undergone some profound shifts in recent years. How is this reflected in media representations of journalists?

Ironically enough, while the technology changes, the image pretty much stays the same. The reporter is either a hero exposing a crime or catching a crook, revealing some diabolical scheme to wrest power away from the people. Or he/she is a villain going against everything a journalist should be doing – helping people, exposing hypocrisy, fighting for the little guy. Instead, that journalist villain is using the media for his or her own economic or political gain. This is true whether they work for a newspaper, a magazine, a radio station, a television station or, now, the Internet. Bloggers seem to have the same image as their newspaper antecedents. It seems the Internet Journalist Hero is still working in the grand tradition of journalist heroes by exposing a conspiracy or solving a crime. The Internet Journalist Villain uses the new technology to gain economic or political power.

Joe Saltzman, the director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC) and the author of Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film, is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.

He received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California and his M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. After working for several years as a newspaper reporter and editor, Saltzman joined CBS television in Los Angeles in 1964 and for the next ten years produced documentaries, news magazine shows, and daily news shows, winning more than fifty awards, including the Columbia University-duPont broadcast journalism award (the broadcasting equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize), four Emmys, four Golden Mikes, two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a Silver Gavel, and one of the first NAACP Image Awards.

The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture: An Interview with Joe Saltzman (Part One)

If USC’s Nonny de La Pena is exploring new tools and platforms that will shape the future of journalism, another of my new Annenberg colleagues, Joe Saltzman, is using new media tools to make it easier for us to research journalism’s history. Specifically, Saltzman has launched a data base which indexes a vast array of films, television series, comic books, and other media texts which include popular representations of journalists. Saltzman has long been at the center of a growing academic research field focused on the study of the image of the journalist in popular culture.

As Saltzman explains in the interview here, much of our understanding of who journalists are comes from such popular representations. It is there we can see both heroic representations of the power of the press to bring down seemingly insurmountable institutions and more critical representations of how this power gets abused for commercial gains or cynical motives. These media encapsulate our dreams and our fears about the Fourth Estate.

I’ve become good friends with Saltzman since coming to USC — we have great conversations which range from why the Greek historians might have better been understood as prototypical journalists to the pleasures of watching old movies. He brings a veteran journalist’s salty skepticism to a lifetime of serious study of the history of his profession.

This interview will orient you to the new database and how you can use it in your research, but it will also span across some key representations of the press in popular culture, allowing Saltzman to share his unique perspective on some of my favorite movies and movie-makers.

Tell us about your new database. What kinds of information does it contain and what research purposes was it intended to address?

The mission of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is to investigate and analyze the conflicting images of journalists in film, television, radio, fiction, commercials, cartoons, comic books, music, art, video games and other aspects of popular culture. Through research and publication, we are able to examine their impact on the public’s perception of newsgatherers.

When I started researching the image of the journalist in popular culture almost 20 years ago, no one was much interested in the subject. Seven years ago when I started the IJPC, it wasn’t considered an academic discipline and few universities offered courses in the subject. Today, the IJPC Web site ( and the IJPC Database are considered the definitive worldwide sources for this subject and are used on a daily basis by scholars, students and professionals who want to do more research in this area. By having the IJPC Database now online, it means anyone can access it and this means there are no limits to how far the field can grow.

Before the IJPC Database went online only 250 IJPC Associates had access to it. Now anyone can use the database. That means all 75,000 entries on journalists, public relations practitioners and media are now available to everyone, anywhere in the world, to use for research, scholarship, study or just for fun.

The IJPC Database includes:

  • Print journalists (from large urban newspapers to small country weeklies and the Internet, including editors, reporters, photojournalists, correspondents, columnists, publishers, newsboys, bloggers)
  • Broadcast journalists (from networks to local stations including reporters, anchors, correspondents, producers, writers, technical personnel, news directors, station owners, network executives and management).
  • Public relations practitioners (from press agents to publicists)
  • News media (anonymous reporters who show up in countless films and television movies ranging from press conferences to packs of reporters shouting questions or chasing after the main character to individual reporters asking questions).

The IJPC Database can be referenced by year, title, type, occupation, country and author as well as key words in the comments section. It’s been said that there are thousands of scholarly papers to be written out of the database. As one professor put it, “I don’t see how anyone can write anything in this field without referring to the database. There is nothing like it and it is an indispensable reference.”

The entries include:

  • Television (27,000 items)
  • Films (19,500 movies, movies made for TV and miniseries)
  • Fiction (12,300 novels, 1,550 short stories, 500 plays and 200 poems)
  • Cartoons, Comic Books & Comic Strips (5,900 items)
  • Non-Fiction (Documentaries-News-Sports) (3,150 items)
  • Radio (2,900 items)
  • Humor (710 items)
  • Commercials (350 items)
  • Games (140 items)
  • Early References (120 items)
  • Music (Songs-Compositions) (95 items)
  • Internet-Websites (90 items)
  • Art (40 items)

We also redesigned the website making it easier for users to read the thousands of articles and materials we offer on the site. The “Resources” section includes an invaluable collection of hard-to-find articles and books on this subject. The IJPC Student Research Papers include IJPC subjects never before researched. The sections on “The Image of the Gay Journalist in Popular Culture,” and “Sob Sisters: The Image of the Female Journalist in Popular Culture” are unique areas of study. The seven video compilations, available only to IJPC Associates, are used in classrooms all over the world. (You can join the IJPC Associates by going to the website and filling out the online form.)

The concept of the IJPC Database was to collect every image imaginable of the journalist in popular culture so scholars, researchers, students, professional journalists and anyone interested in the subject could take this information and use it as the basis for articles, books, blogs and other multimedia publications.

You can have great fun searching the database. I enjoy looking up real-life local reporters (in the Comments section) and seeing all the movies they made as themselves or as generic types (i.e. Newscaster #1). Other things to do with the database queries:

  • If you want to see the full database, simply click Submit and all 75,000 items come up. You can then order the database by year, title, author, or occupation (in the Comments section).
  • Looking up a favorite actor to see how many times they played a journalist (Clark Gable played more leads as a journalist than any other actor, and an actor named Lester Dorr played more reporters in movies than anyone else I can find).
  • Try typing in “Deadline” in the Title category and see how many entries show up.
  • Type in your favorite author (last name followed by a comma and then first name) and see how many journalists were included in their body of work (Anthony Trollope is a good one to check).
  • Type in “Advice Columnist” in the Comments category.
  • Type in a specific country such as Spain in the Reference/Country category.
  • Highlight a Type such as Cartoons or Comic Books or Commercials to see everything in that category.
  • Check out every episode of Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Smallville, Ugly Betty or How I Met Your Mother, just write in any of those titles in the Title category and all will pop up within seconds.
  • Type in a certain type of journalist – a columnist or investigative reporter or war correspondent – in that occupation in Comments category and see what pops up.

You can literally spend all day looking up things and still not even touch the surface of what’s included in the IJPC Database.

The categories that cause me the most difficulty are soap operas and romance novels because journalists are poorly chronicled in soap operas and it seems as if a romance novel is published every three seconds and then disappears in months. I’m looking for experts in both areas to help me out. I’m also looking for correspondents from every country to send me lists of films, novels, comic books and so on featuring journalists, especially someone in India to send me a complete list of journalists and the news media in Bollywood films.

Can you share some of the process of pulling together this data base?

Like many things, the IJPC started in tragedy. When my youngest son David developed Hodgkin’s disease as a senior at Yale in 1998 and died a year-and-a-half later. 11 days before his 23rd birthday, I needed a research project to get my mind off the tragedy. I started spending hours in the library studying the subject. Five years later, I came out of my depression realizing that I had more than 10,000 pages in my computer on the subject covering the image of the journalist from the 21st century to ancient times. And so the IJPC was born.

There were a few early writings on the subject, but they focused mostly on films featuring journalists and some novels. The many books by Howard Good, a professor of journalism at SUNY and Richard Ness, Associate Professor of Journalism at Western Illinois University’s seminal filmography on the subject (From Headline Hunter to Superman) along with a book by Alex Barris called Stop the Presses! The Newspaperman in American Films in 1976 were the pioneers in the field although often we were writing on the subject simultaneously without any of us knowing about the other. Both Good and Ness are now involved in the IJPC, as is another early writer on the subject, Matthew Ehrlich, Professor of Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Journalism in the Movies.)

I obviously went through their books as well as thousands of others on film genres, surveys of novels, short stories, plays and poems in various centuries and any other reference book that simply listed films or novels and characters. But without the Internet, the work would be much harder. I am constantly using the Internet to discover new databases on comic books, cartoons, romance novels, soap operas, commercials, music and every other aspect of popular culture.

I also go through various established Internet databases – the Internet Movie and TV Database,, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, TV Guide, etc. And every day I do various Google searches (I have a search vocabulary of 57 words that can turn up references to journalists appearing in various aspects of popular culture) looking for entries not in the database. I spend about five hours a day searching for new entries for the database, adding about 5,000 entries per year.

In addition I record more than 80 hours a week on four DVRs chronicling journalists on television, in commercials and in movies made for television.

You’d be surprised at how many journalists are featured in TV programs and are never mentioned in the summary of the show itself. Besides the obvious programs such as Ugly Betty, How I Met Your Mother, The Daily Show, there is, for example, the Law & Order franchise that often features journalists. There are also many TV shows and movies that show anonymous journalists chasing after the major characters and I want to document all of those. I add all of these programs to the database on a daily basis.

I also make DVD copies for IJPC Associates and we now have more than 12,000 DVDs and tapes, more than 5,000 hours of audiotapes and MP3 files, more than 8,500 novels, short stories, plays and poems (the largest collection of novels and short stories featuring journalists ever assembled), scripts, research materials, articles, art works and other artifacts

You’ve been the leader of a new field of research centering on the academic study of popular representations of journalists. What do you see as the value of this approach for the students of journalism? What do you think it contributes to the study of cinema more generally?

The IJPC goes far beyond cinema in evaluating the image of the journalist in popular culture. One of the things that amazed me was that most of the writing about the IJPC involved film and the 20th century. But the images of the journalist were really being solidified in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the images in early cinema, for example, come from 19th century novels on journalism.

The first question I’m asked when I tell people that I’m director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC) is who cares about the image of the journalist and why do you waste your time studying it?. And the simple answer is this: Because the images of the journalist you see in films, watch on television and read in novels influence the public’s opinion about the news media and the effectiveness of that media. And the ramifications of how the public perceives and judges the media can have a profound effect on the success or failure of our American democracy.

Think about that. When your favorite aunt asks you why would anyone go into journalism, a profession filled with arrogant, impolite reporters who invade people’s privacy, make up stories and sensationalize the news, where is she getting her information? She probably doesn’t know any journalists, has never visited a newsroom, and has no idea how reporters work. Yet she has very specific ideas about who journalists are and how they behave. And she learned this by watching journalists in the movies and on television and reading about them in novels.

Surveys continue to show that most Americans want a free press that is always there to protect them from authority, from Big Business and Big Government, and give them a free flow of diverse information. But those same surveys also show that most Americans harbor a deep suspicion about the media, worrying about their perceived power, their meanness and negativism, their attacks on institutions and people, their intrusiveness and callousness, their arrogance and bias. And many of the reasons for this dichotomy can be found by studying the image of the journalist in all aspects of popular culture.

By looking at the image of the journalist in popular culture, we can better understand why the public feels the way it does about journalism and the people who practice it.

Joe Saltzman, the director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC) and the author of Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film, is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.

He received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California and his M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. After working for several years as a newspaper reporter and editor, Saltzman joined CBS television in Los Angeles in 1964 and for the next ten years produced documentaries, news magazine shows, and daily news shows, winning more than fifty awards, including the Columbia University-duPont broadcast journalism award (the broadcasting equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize), four Emmys, four Golden Mikes, two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a Silver Gavel, and one of the first NAACP Image Awards.

Designing the Futures of Journalism: An Interview with USC’s Nonny de la Pena (Part Two)

You are especially interested in issues of bodily presence and affective immediacy that arise in response to immersive environments, qualities which make our experiences in such worlds expecially intense and memorable. Yet there’s a long tradition of science fiction writing which worries about the use of such devices for propaganda and social control, suggesting that we may find it hard to separate virtual and real experiences. What do you see as the benefits or dangers of this level of immersive experience when applied to political debates and social policies?

If only I could use this technology to brainwash my kids into cleaning up their room! Joking aside, propaganda can be an extremely effective and manipulative tool and print, radio, television have all been used throughout history for this purpose. I do hope, however, that this technology will be adopted by reputable news organizations and well-trained journalists who can help establish best practices for telling news stories. This will also enable them to have the skills to undercover when mistruths are being fed to the public.

That said, the intensity of immersive environments lends itself to creating exciting news stories. In much the way cameras in Vietnam helped shape what we saw and felt about the war, virtual worlds can potentially create powerful connections to stories. Imagine if we had built a virtual Iraq at the start of the war – audiences would have been able to experience events like marketplace bombings in much more visceral way in that they could “visit” the scene. Of course issues about the legitimacy of recreation now arise – should the audience “feel” the force of the blast?

Clearly there are practical challenges surrounding immersive journalism, given the time and money required to create such robust simulations. Does this mean that “immersive journalism” is most apt to be used for certain kinds of stories — those which have prolonged significance for the culture?

We are at a very nascent stage in immersive journalism and we may find that certain stories work better than others. My own work tends to focus on human rights and empathy and so I tend to build pieces around those issues. For example, I am currently gathering the necessary physical world audio for a piece that will focus on hunger in California. However, the future remains wide open. In explaining my work, Ernest Wilson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism described one possibility: Imagine when you get your home and garden section in the morning and you could just walk around the gardens. I like the beauty of that vision.

How do you respond to critics who suggest that such simulations must necessarily be partial, giving a simplified version of the way the real world works, given the limits of the program’s ability to deal with the complexity of human experience?

Nothing will ever replace the experience of being face to face with another human or actually being in a physical location where an event unfolds. Moreover, before the advent of virtual reality, distortion of factual scenarios in text accounts, photographs or video has a long history. It is true that the rise of digital tools has made faking it much easier and even trusted news sources have been caught using technology for questionable alterations. For example, in 2006 a Reuters’ photo editor digitally manipulated photographs from the Israeli-Lebanon conflict and released them as real. In fact, we often accept photos that are “image corrected” or “image enhanced.”

What really seems to bother critics about virtual worlds is the cartoon-like animation. But as these spaces become increasingly photorealistic, with more details drawn from data obtained in the physical world through various techniques such as 3D reconstruction, image-based rendering, and motion capture, immersive journalism can become a much more accurate representation of physical world stories. Of course, immersive journalism will then be subject to the same potential manipulation as video and photographs, but it will be certainly not any less ‘real’ than video.

By allowing for more immersive experiences, if generated according to the principles advocated here and using ethical, best journalistic practices, immersive journalism has the potential to constitute a much more faithful duplication of real events. Being in the middle of a scene can be much realistic and powerful than watching it from the audience or sitting, completely removed from the action, in your living room.

With Stroome, you are turning your attention to what remix culture might have to contribute to journalism. What can you tell us about this project?

Remix is an old culture in newsweekly journalism. For example, as a correspondent for Newsweek, I would join other Newsweek correspondents around the world in contributing material for a single story. We would all send in our individual reports to headquarters in New York where a “writer” would edit our material into the piece that would appear in the magazine. Stroome is based on the same principles. Multiple people can contribute to one story by uploading their video onto Stroome and it can be remixed right in the browser into a finished piece that can be quickly shared across the web. Stroome pushes the newsweekly idea even further, creating a social networking site that celebrates what’s possible on the web today. Multiple people can remix any story and that means any contributor can choose to have a voice on how the story should be told. Stroome also tries to be sensitive on how people feel about their content – users can designate that their content only be shared by a small group or kept private until they feel ready to push their work across the web. Finally, Stroome users can quickly search for video they can use to make their remix complete. For example, when reporting on a story, one minor element might be missing such as a sunset shot. Stroome provides a clip pool to access those missing elements.

While Stroome has recently launched, you are already seeing global impact. Can you share with us some of the early reports you’ve gotten on how journalists around the planet are using this tool?

We launched the site first at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and bloggers across the web quickly picked up on the launch. Suddenly, we had users joining from Uruguay to Tunisia, Brazil to Ireland. Just last week the Tiziano Project, which provides community members in conflict, post-conflict, and underreported regions with the equipment and training necessary to report local stories and improve their lives, announced they’ll use Stroome to create a series of video vignettes bridging war and geography. The first piece–a look at the lives of those living in the streets of Mogadishu and Los Angeles’ skid row–will go into production next week.

Neon Tommy and USC Annenberg have started to use Stroome on a regular basis. Do you have any reports yet on the impact it has had on how they are covering stories?

We are still at the initial stages of the launch, but already these USC student reporters have begun to use the site by working from different locations and uploading and editing from wherever they are – home or newsroom. For example, if you go to Madeline Scinto’s piece, you can see she reported both from home and in the Neon Tommy newsroom and had fun doing it. Annenberg TV News (ATVN) had one reporter filming at the airport during the volcano-induced chaos and another pulling AP photos while back at USC and posting them to the piece so they could achieve a quick turnaround. These were test cases, but they proved how readily news could be produced on Stroome.

What do you see as the primary implications of Stroome for citizen journalists?

Not only does Stroome makes it much for journalists of all stripes to quickly get their stories across the web, but it also provides a place where collaborations can spawn more robust pieces. For example, during a protest rally, Stroome can be the “meeting point” on the web, where anyone shooting video at the rally can post their material. Now everyone can use different clips from the rally to remix the story as they see fit and push it out across the web. In fact, the same stories can take different shapes, with diversified viewpoints sharing the same space. We also hope to make it possible to stream video straight to the site from cellphones – which means no one can ever confiscate a camera and censor footage before its reached the public. I

Ultimately, we hope Stroome can contribute to a more robust democracy by creating new avenues for information access and delivery. Also, I hope it can help break down the fears that often accompany lack of understanding about those who might be different than you are. Now people from across the planet can tell stories, side by side. Perhaps that sounds idealistic – but Stroome provides the tools to make that possible.

Nonny de la Peña is a Senior Research Fellow exploring Immersive Journalism, a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. Her recent projects include, “Gone Gitmo,” a virtual Guantanamo Bay Prison in Second Life, which was prototyped with funding from the MacArthur Foundation and employs first person experience and spatial narrative. Another project, “IPSRESS”, is a collaboration with the Event Lab in London and Barcelona which investigates the use of head mounted display technology to evoke feelings of presence in reportage. A former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, de la Peña has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Time Magazine, Hispanic and others. She has also directed and produced a number of feature documentary films that have been screened on national television and at theaters, festivals, and special events in more than 50 cities around the globe.

Designing the Future of Journalism: An Interview with USC’s Nonny de la Pena (Part One)

My Journalism colleagues at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism are on the cutting edge of national and international conversations about the Future of Journalism. Our school is a site of experimentation and deliberation, sketching and testing new models, which see the emerging media environment not simply as a challenge to traditional forms of news but also as an opportunity to expand resources available to reporters. The School has the right mix of vision and pragmatism — trying to imagine new possibilities, trying to test them against current realities. Or as Annenberg’s dean Ernest Wilson likes to put it, the school is a place where “cool stuff happens.” (Well, sometimes he puts it in a bit more colorful language.)

This past week, one of my Annenberg colleagues, Nonny De La Pena, received a Knight News Challenge grant to support the work she is doing around Stroome, a web platform which provides tools and communities to support the collaborative production and remixing of news content.

I had known De La Pena for some yearss and was delighted to find her here when I moved to the west coast. She’s constantly probing, trying to imagine new affordances for presenting information to publics in compelling ways, and she’s got the hacker instinct to prototype and test her ideas as soon into the process as possible. She has long sought to promote and map the space of immersive journalism. Don’t know what that is? You will soon.

The following interview was conducted about a month ago, when Stroome had first launched, and it lays out some of her key research initiatives — from Gone Gitmo, which uses Second Life to explore human rights issues, to Stroome, which provides citizen journalists new tools for collaboration.

What do you mean by “immersive journalism”? What are some examples of work which falls under this description?

Immersive journalism is a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. These stories can be set in online virtual worlds such as Second Life or produced using a head-tracked head-mounted display system that puts the individual into a virtual body or with a body-tracking Cave. Capitalizing on the sense of presence that comes with well-made virtual reality scenarios, these platforms provide an immersive experience that can offer unprecedented access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions that accompany the news.

Participants move through the story as a digital representation of themselves or as one of the subjects about which the story is being told. Visual and audio primary source material from the physical world reinforce the concept that participants are experiencing a nonfiction story, with the video, sounds or photographs acting on the narrative. For example, video that triggers at key points in the virtual landscape remind a participant that the computer generated environment is grounded in the physical world. Scripted events that create a first person interaction with the reportage can also help create a feeling of “being there.” Also, participants can query or interact with the elements around them to learn more about the details or context of the news story.

In collaboration with digital media artist Peggy Weil, we have built several prototypes. Gone Gitmo, a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison built in Second Life, allows participants to explore a place that is inaccessible to the average American citizen and press. (In fact, the Pentagon just kicked out four reporters who have been covering the prison for years.) Gone Gitmo includes an experience on what it might be like to be detained, hooded and then imprisoned in Camp X-Ray. It also examines the ramifications of losing habeas corpus rights. Another prototype using Second Life, Cap & Trade, is a news report on the carbon market that sends people on a journey to follow the money in order to try to better understand the complexities and human consequences of trading carbon credits.

A third prototype is based on the interrogation logs of Detainee 063, Mohammed Al Qahtani, who had been declared tortured by the Bush. Built at the Event Lab in Barcelona with Mel Slater and his team, we used head mounted display (HMD) technology to put participants into the virtual body of a detainee who is held in what is referred to as a “stress position.” When the participants look around, they see a virtual mirror and the figure in that mirror, a digital avatar who looks like a detainee, moves in unison with the participant. Participants also wear a breathing strap that programs their avatars to breathe at the same time, further enhancing the sense of virtual body ownership. Throughout, the sounds of the Al Qahtani interrogation plays as if it is coming from the next room. While research data was not collected on this particular prototype, every participant anecdotally reported that their body was hunched over in a stress position when in fact they were sitting upright.

What relationship exists if any between “immersive journalism” and “news gaming”?

News games embrace gaming protocols. The player undertakes a task or pursues a goal, voluntarily constrained by agreed upon rules, and must take action to advance position. Progress is often measured by indicators such as levels or points. In contrast, a participant in immersive journalism isn’t playing a game but is put into an experience where she is participating and affected by events but may or may not have agency to change a situation. Immersive journalism also parallels a news narrative playing out in the physical world much like a piece in a newspaper or segment on television and while one might experience the story from different starting points, the story itself should not shift. Of course, that makes immersive journalism less available for irony or political commentary that news games like Gonzalo Frasco’s September 12 achieve so successfully. In that game, you try to shoot terrorists on a crowded street, which means bystanders are always at risk. Moreover, whenever you launch a missle, the game spawns multiple replacements until the screen is overrun with terrorists.

How do we overcome the association which often exists between virtual worlds and play/fantasy? Given these associations, will people seek out virtual experiences which are potentially unpleasant or emotionally disturbing? Will they enter into these experiences with the “wrong” mental attitude?

It is exactly because of these issues that we recognized we would have to deal sensitively with questionable interrogation practices in Gone Gitmo — we do not torture your avatar. We knew that there were many ways torture could become trivialized. However, as these environments become as ubiquitous as the 2D internet is today, I believe these spaces will become a natural environment for experiencing both fiction and non-fiction. Already children are growing up using avatars in populated virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Pixie Hollow. Our web, which uses Google or other 2D spaces as a point of entry, is quite lonely for them — nobody is there.

Nonny de la Peña is a Senior Research Fellow exploring Immersive Journalism, a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. Her recent projects include, “Gone Gitmo,” a virtual Guantanamo Bay Prison in Second Life, which was prototyped with funding from the MacArthur Foundation and employs first person experience and spatial narrative. Another project, “IPSRESS”, is a collaboration with the Event Lab in London and Barcelona which investigates the use of head mounted display technology to evoke feelings of presence in reportage. A former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, de la Peña has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Time Magazine, Hispanic and others. She has also directed and produced a number of feature documentary films that have been screened on national television and at theaters, festivals, and special events in more than 50 cities around the globe.

Transmedia Education: the 7 Principles Revisited

Last week, I participated in one of the ongoing series of webinars for teachers which is being conducted by our Project New Media Literacies team. The series emerges from an Early Adopters Network we are developing with educators in New Hampshire to drill down on the skills we identified in our white paper for the MacArthur Foundation and to think through how teachers in all school subjects and at all levels can draw on them to change how they support the learning of their students. Vanessa Vartabedian is the coordinator who has been running this series. Each month, they focus on a different skill. This month’s focus was on Transmedia Navigation. The webinars are open to any and all participants and are drawing educators from all over the world. The webinars are also available after the fact via podcast. The Transmedia Navigation discussion involved not only some remarks by me but also a conversation with Clement Chau from Tufts University and Mark Warshaw from the Alchemists who has developed transmedia content for Smallville, Heroes, and Melrose Place, among other properties.

Our Ning site is where our community of educators are exchanging ideas and trying out resources. You simply need to sign-up and fill out a short profile to access the schedule of upcoming webinars, as well as links to the archived recordings for previous webinars.”

The focus of transmedia navigation offered me a chance to think a bit more deeply about what it might mean for us to produce transmedia education and I thought I would share some of those insights with you.

Let’s start with some first principles:

Transmedia needs to be understood as a shift in how culture gets produced and consumed, a different way of organizing the dispersal of media content across media platforms. We might understand this in terms of a distinction I make between multimedia and transmedia. Multimedia refers to the integration of multiple modes of expression within a single application. So, for example, an educational cd-rom a decade or so ago might combine text, photographs, sound files, and video files which are accessed through the same interface. Transmedia refers to the dispersal of those same elements across multiple media platforms. So, for example, the use of the web to extend or annotate television content is transmedia, while the iPad is fostering a return to interest in multimedia.

Multimedia and Transmedia assume very different roles for spectators/consumers/readers. In a multimedia application, all the readers needs to do is click a mouse and the content comes to them. In a transmedia presentation, students need to actively seek out content through a hunting and gathering process which leads them across multiple media platforms. Students have to decide whether what they find belongs to the same story and world as other elements. They have to weigh the reliability of information that emerges in different contexts. No two people will find the same content and so they end up needing to compare notes and pool knowledge with others. That’s why our skill is transmedia navigation – the capacity to seek out, evaluate, and integrate information conveyed across multiple media.

The push for transmedia is bound up with the economic logic of media consolidation. Yet, there is a push to transform this economic imperative into an aesthetic opportunity. If entertainment experiences are going to play out across multiple platforms, why not use this principle to expand and enrich the experience which consumers have of stories? Why not see transmedia as an expanded platform through which storytellers can deploy their craft? As we think about transmedia in the classroom, there are several key justifications/motivations for integrating it into our learning and teaching practices.

First, as modes of human expression expand and diversify, then the language arts curriculum has to broaden to train students for these new forms of reading and writing. If many stories are going to become transmedia, then we need to talk with our students about what it means to read a transmedia story and as importantly what it means to conceive and write a transmedia story. This is closely related to what Gunther Kress talks about in terms of multimodality and multiliteracy. Kress argues that we need to teach students the affordances of different media through which we can communicate information and help them to foster the rhetorical skills they need to effectively convey what they want to say across those different platforms.

I’ve had good luck at getting students to think in these terms through assignments which ask them to propose ways of translating an established story into a new medium – for example, translating a novel or film into a computer game. This practice requires them to develop critical skills at identifying the distinctive features of specific stories and worlds and it requires them to think about the affordances and expectations surrounding other media. Check out my earlier blog post on this practice.

As educators, we need to model the effective use of different media platforms in the classroom, a practice which would support what Howard Gardner has told us about multi-intelligences. In this case, I am referring to the idea that different students learn better through different modes of communications and thus the lesson is most effective when conveyed through more than one mode of expression. We can reinforce through visuals or activities what we communicate through spoken words or written texts. Doing so effectively pushes us to think about how multiple platforms of communication might re-enforce what we do through our classrooms.

Some will object that this skill takes a mode of commercial production as a model for what takes place in the classroom. Didn’t I note here just a few weeks ago the dangers of talking about “learning 2.0” because it confuses a business plan for a pedagogical approach. I think we need to be careful in this regard and if it were only Pokemon or Lost that operated according to transmedia principles, I might be much slower to advocate integrating these same principles into our teaching.

But here’s the thing: Obi-Wan Kenobi is a transmedia character, so is Barrack Obama. In both cases, readers put together information about who this character is and what he stands for by assembling data that comes at us from a range of media platforms. In such a world, each student in our class will have had exposure to different bits of information because they will have consumed different media texts. As a result, one child’s mental model of Obama may include the idea that he was not born in the United States, that he is a Moslem, that he is a socialist, or what have you, and we need some way of communicating across those mental models, we need a way of understanding where they came from, and we need to help students expand the range of media sources through which they search out and assess information about what’s happening in the world around them. To some degree, teachers emphasis similar skills when they tell students to seek out multiple sources when they write a paper, yet often, they mean only multiple print sources and not sources from across an array of different media. All of this suggests to me that we need to make the process of transmedia navigation much more central to the ways we teach research methods through schools.

Vanessa asked me to share with the group the Seven Principles of Transmedia Entertianment which I presented through this blog last fall and suggest how they might relate to learning. I wanted to express some cautions about this exercise. Transmedia Storytelling is one of a range of transmedia logics, which might also include transmedia branding, transmedia performance, and transmedia learning. There is sure to be some overlap between these different transmedia logics, but also differences. I don’t doubt that some principles carry over but we need to keep in mind that there may also be some core principles for transmedia teaching/learning which will not be explored if we simply try to adopt what we know about transmedia entertainment for this space. I hope that this blog can start a conversation which helps us to identify other principles which are specific to the learning domain.

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Here goes.

Spreadability vs. Drillability Daniel Thomas Hickey wrote a series of posts (Part One, Part Two) which explore how the circulation of educational media might be described and improved by our model of spreadability. They are worth checking out.

But for the moment, let’s think of this in a somewhat broader way. Spreadability refers to a process of dispersal – to scanning across the media landscape in search of meaningful bits of data. Drillability refers to the ability to dig deeper into something which interests us. A good educational practice, then, encompasses both, allowing students to search out information related to their interests across the broadest possible terrain, while also allowing students to drill deep into something which matters to them. This requires us as educators to think more about motivation – what motivates students to drill deeper – as well as class room management – how can we facilitate their capacity to dig into something that matters to them.

Continuity vs. Multiplicity The media industry often talks about continuity in terms of canons – that is, information which has been authorized, accepted as part of the definitive version of a particular story. Education has often dealt in the range of canon – not only the canon of western literature which deems some books as more worth reading than others but also the structures of disciplines and standards which determine what is worth knowing and how we should know it.

Multiplicity, by contrast, encourages us to think about multiple version – possible alternatives to the established canon. So, for example, Kurt Squire in his work on adapting Civilization III for the classroom talks about the value of asking students to think through “what if” scenarios about history – what if the Native Americans or Africans had resisted colonization, for example – that can be played out in the simulation game and which can help us to understand the contingencies of history. Asking what if questions both force us to think about the impact of historical events as well as the different factors which weighed in to make some possibilities more likely than others. As Squire notes, playing Civilization III encourages students to master the logic of history rather than simply what happened. The same thing happens when we explore how the same story has been told in different national contexts. It helps us to see the different values and norms of these cultures as we look at the way the story has been reworked for local audiences.

p>Immersion vs. Extraction In terms of immersion, we might think about the potential educational value of virtual worlds. I don’t mean simply having classes in Second Life which look like virtual versions of the classes we would have in First Life except with far less human expressivity. I mean the idea of moving through a virtual environment which replicates key aspects of a historical or geographical environment. I am thinking about Sasha Barab’s Quest Atlantis< or Chris Dede’s River City as examples of fully elaborated virtual learning environment which rely on notions of immersion. I am also thinking about activities where students build their own virtual worlds – deciding what details need to be included, mapping their relationship to each other, guiding visitors through their worlds and explaining the significance of what they contain.

Extractability captures another principle which has long been part of education – the idea of meaningful props and artifacts in the classroom. In a sense, every time we have show and tell, everytime a student brings an element from their home culture into the classroom, every time a teacher brings back a mask or a tool from their visit to another country and displays it as part of their geography lesson.

World Building World Building comes out of thinking of the space of a story as a fictional geography. I’ve mentioned here before that L. Frank Baum described himself as the Royal Geographer of Oz. In this case, we do not simply mean physical geography though this is part of it. Books with a strong focus on worlds often include maps – whether it is the large scale map of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien or the much more local map of the rigigng of the ship found in many of Patrick O’Brian’s books. Part of the pleasure of reading those books is mastering that fictional geography. But world building also depends on cultural geography – our sense of the peoples, their norms and rituals, their dress and speech, their everyday experiences, which is also often the pleasure of reading a fantasy or science fiction narrative. But it is also part of the pleasure of reading historical fiction and a teacher can use the activity of mapping and interpreting a fictional world as a way of opening up a historical period to their students. This moves us away from a history of generals and presidents towards social history as the key way through which schools help us to understand the past. And many traditional school activities encourage students to cook and eat meals, to make and wear costumes, to engage in various rituals, associated with other historical periods. If we develop ways of mapping these worlds as integrated systems, we can push beyond these local insights towards a fuller, richer understanding of past societies.

Seriality The media industry often discusses seriality in terms of the “mythology,” which offers one way of understanding how we might connect this principle to traditional school content. At its heart, seriality has to do with the meaningful chunking and dispersal of story-related information. It is about breaking things down into chapters which are satisfying on their own terms but which motivate us to keep coming back for more. What constitutes the equivalent of the cliffhanger in the classroom? What represents the story arc which stitches a range of television episodes together? Or by contrast, what has to be present for a story or lesson to have a satisfying and meaningful shape even if it is part of a larger flow?

Subjectivity At heart, subjectivity refers to looking at the same events from multiple points of view. When we were going through my late mother’s papers, we found a school assignment from the 1930s when she wrote the story of Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the wolf. When I mentioned this at the webinar, others mentioned Wicked which tells the Wizard of Oz from the vantage point of the Wicked Witch of the West. Matt Madden’s book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Excercises in Style is a great way to bring these issues into the art or language arts classroom: he tells the same simple story 99 times, each time tweaking different storytelling variables, including those around tense and perspective. In the history classroom, there’s a value of flipping perspectives – how were the same events understood by the Greeks and the Persians, the RedCoats and the Yankees, the North and the South, and so forth, as a way of breaking out of historical biases and understanding what lay at the heart of these conflicts.

Performance In speaking about entertainment, I discuss performance in terms of a structure of cultural attractors and activators. The attractors draw the audience, the activators give them something to do. In the case of the classroom, there are a range of institutional factors which insure that you have a group of students sitting in front of you. But you still face the issue of motivation. When we were doing work on thinking about games to teach, we often had to ask the content experts to tell us what the information they saw as valuable allowed students to do. To turn the curriculum into a game, we had to move from information on the page to activities which put that information to use.

This is at the heart of any process-driven approach to learning. What are you asking your students to do with what you teach them? How are they able to adapt it in a timely and meaningful fashion from knowledge to skill? And tied to this is the idea of adaptation and improvisation, since in the entertainment world, different fans show their different understandings and interest in the entertainment content through very different kinds of performances. So, how do we create a space where every student can perform the content of the class in ways which are meaningful to them? In short, how might teachers learn to think about cultural activators in designing their lessons?

When Dora the Explorer Met INS: Playing with Popular Icons

As part of my lecture at the Fiske Matters conference, I shared many images of contemporary activist groups which drew upon images and icons from popular culture as “resources” which help them to capture the imagination and motivate the engagement of broader publics. As Fiske wrote,

“These popular forces transform the cultural commodity into a cultural resource, pluralize the meanings and pleasures it offers, evade or resist its disciplinary efforts, fracture its homogenity or coherence, raid or poach upon its terrain.”

Fiske saw such struggles over the meaning of cultural texts and commodities as part of the larger process of political transformation. If the power of the status qou was often exercised through the construction of political fictions and the regulation of our access to particular narratives, meanings, and identities, then the ability of grassroots communities to highjack such images and processes towards their own ends was part of the struggle for social change. The mechanisms of the culture industry work to spread them across different subcultures and across national borders. That recognition makes them effective for expressing alternative conceptions in ways which carry an affective force and are immediately accessible to diverse publics.

For example, we’ve seen Dora the Explorer get mobilized in multiple ways on both sides of the debate about the Arizona immigration bill. Dora is one of the best known Latina characters in contemporary American popular culture so it is no surprise that people would use this sympathetic figure to represent what might happen under the new law. In these images, she is abused for no other reason than her color – and here, the innocence of her original context speaks to the sense of outrage many feel about the potential consequences of a law which allows police to stop any person thought to be an illegal alien and demanding her papers, a practice which is apt to rely heavily on racial profiling.


These are another powerful set of images which have emerged around the debate about immigration. Dulce Pinzon has taken photographs which depict superheroes doing jobs which are often assigned to illegal immigrants in our society to suggest the hard work, the strength, the endurance, the speed and agility, that immigrants have to possess in order to do work that often nobody else wants to do. These images work in part because so many of the superheroes are themselves visitors from other worlds, outsiders who have had to adopt secret identities in order to function within contemporary American society. The superhero story is often an immigrant story in the United States. There’s also a connection to be drawn between these images and the ways that masked wrestlers in the Lucha Libre tradition function as champions of the oppressed in Mexico. Here, also, the supernatural or spectacular aspects of popular culture get deployed as vehicles for making sense of structures of inequality and for inspiring struggles for social justice.


One of the examples which I explored in depth in the lecture was the phenomenon of Avatar activism. Here’s a remarkable video of Palestinian protestors who both enact the plight of the Na’vi and remix footage from James Cameron’s film as a way of getting into the global media flow. I wrote a much longer piece on this example for Le Monde diplomatique which will appear later this summer and I will share an English translation at that time. For the moment, I want to suggest two key points: first, the ways that this protest fits within a longer tradition of conducting protests through adopting the identity of racial others (the Moors and Amazons in Early Modern Europe, the Native Americans at the Boston Tea Party, etc.) and second, the ways that re-enacting Avatar created content which could spread more immediately across national and cultural borders, offering a set of metaphors which might make sense to people who knew and cared little about the specifics of the occupied territories.

Finally, we might see some examples of how popular culture can become a semiotic resource for political struggle when we look at some of the images which have been created around the BP Oil Spill off our Gulf Coast. These images combine dark humor with witty appropriations from Mario Brothers, from superhero comics, and a range of other sources, to help us think about the environmental devastation caused by the environmental disaster. There have been concerted efforts to make it harder to circulate images of the actual damage of the leaks on wildlife, so these highjacked and transformed images stand in for the images we are not seeing. This rhetorical process is effective because these popular culture figures have personal, cultural, even mythological significance for so many of us.

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Fiske’s work had described a world where struggles over cultural meanings could pave the way for political struggles. These illustrations are among countless examples of how politics, on the right and the left, is now being conducted in and through the language of popular culture. We can connect this to earlier examples I’ve already discussed on this blog, such as the Obama/Joker trope which has been taken up by the Tea Party movement, the Harry Potter Alliance‘s effort to use J.K. Rowling’s characters to model human rights activism, and the ways that concern over the construction of race in the film version of The Last Avatar has lead to new political consciousness. I still believe that Fiske’s work offers us the best language to describe what’s going on at such moments.

John Fiske: Now and The Future

Last week, I was honored to be one of the keynote speakers at the Fiske Matters conference which was held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. John Fiske has been and continues to be one of the most important intellectual influences on my work. His strong defense of popular culture as offering a series of resources through which active audiences struggled over meaning was a foundation for my ongoing investigation of participatory culture and new media literacy. His work was controversial at the time he introduced it – in part because he challenged the tendency of left academics towards cultural pessimism which had motivated so much of American cultural theory in the late 20th century. Fiske struggled to get us to look closer at the lives of ordinary people and the ways that they struggled to assert aspects of their own needs and desires through their relationship with mass produced culture. For Fiske, mass culture was culture produced by commercial industries, while popular culture was culture at the moment it became a resource for ordinary people through the process of consumption.

Fiske retired more than a decade ago, just as the digital revolution was helping to make the agency of grassroots cultural producers and consumers much more visible than it had been before. To some degree, the shock of the culture war which surrounded Fiske’s works had left many of us uncertain how to carry that tradition forward. We had lost his mentorship and intellectual leadership; we didn’t know how to face down his critics; and we didn’t want the backlash to cripple our own professional development.

But this conference represented a rallying of the troops, a gathering of the tribes. It felt like a homecoming party or a family reunion for a particular strand of cultural studies that had made such a difference for each of us in the room. For a good recap of the event, read this blog post by Bill Kirkpatrick who delivered an eye-opening talk about what Fiske’s ideas have and could contribute to debates about media policy.

We were honored that Fiske came out of retirement to share one last lecture with his students – in this case, a talk about how shifts in social consciousness were reflected in the material culture of the 16th and 17th century, which in the end turned out to also be a provocation to think about how our own relationship with self and community were changing in the digital age. This was a talk by a man who had spent the last decade of his life running an antique shop in Vermont and who was clear he was no longer reading cultural theory still managing to share some insights to scholars very much confronting the challenges of understanding his own time. Fiske suggested that antiques were physical reminders that people had thought and live differently in the past and that they had often done so in ways which were meaningful and satisfying to him; it was a suggestion that there were always alternatives to the current configuration of culture and power and thus, if things had changed in the past, they could and would change in the future. We hung on every word, reminded of his lively wit, his provocative personality, his attention to each phrase, and his systematic development of thought.

And as the weekend continued, we learned more about how he had impacted each of us – through his teaching inside and outside the classroom, through his writing, and through his work as an editor and leader in the field. He stitched together through his travels a network of people which scanned across Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and the Americas. And we saw how his students had taken his ideas to Asia and Africa as well. We saw Fiske’s own students and contemporaries as well as the next generation – our students can be seen as Fiske’s intellectual grandchildren, those who had found his writings through our own teaching and scholarship, all of whom still saw Fiske’s ideas as a living presence in our thinking. Fiske made clear that he saw his legacy not in the continued circulation of his ideas, which he had seen as contributions to contemporary debates and conversations about culture and politics, but through the minds and personalities he had influenced. I certainly know that I channel Fiske all the time in both conscious and unconscious ways. It felt liberating to be able to talk with others about the importance of this man and his work.

I was asked by Routledge to write a general introduction to Fiske’s scholarship which will accompany the reissue of some of his key books later this year. I also helped to pull together roundtable discussions of his former students around each of the books, feeling that it was far better to represent his works through conversations and colloquiums rather than lectures. I wanted to give just a little taste of this material here – part of my discussion of Fiske’s relationship to technology and politics:


“The technology needed for them [The Right] to establish the total surveillance upon which to base their moral totalism is already available. Fear will increase the likelihood of that technology’s use and the probability of right-wing forces being in power to use it. It is, therefore, in their interests to confine as many of us as they can to our cultural and geographic enclaves. Is this what we want?” — John Fiske, Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change, 1994 (MM, 253)

The above four sentences constitute the final words in John Fiske’s final book before his retirement. It is telling that Fiske ends the book on a provocation — “Is this what we want?” No matter how dark his vision of the society had become, Fiske believed we have a choice, that we have the capacity to change our social conditions , and he called upon academics to deploy their expertise and institutional power in the service of social change.

He asks explicitly: Is this what we want?

He asks implicitly: if not, what are we going to do about it?

The question culminates in a chapter devoted to what Fiske describes as “technostruggles,” one of the few places where Fiske wrote extensively about technology as an agent of cultural change. Fiske wrote about arcade games, well before his contemporaries, in Reading the Popular (1989). He discussed the ways people were using channel changers to exert greater control over television in Television Culture (1988). And he described how the widespread deployment of photocopiers were causing anxieties about copyright regulation, even as copying television programs and music was becoming more “socially acceptable” [TC 311]. In each case, his arguments were ultimately less about the technology than about its popular uses. In such passages, Fiske suggested the complex interplay between technological and cultural change, but he never developed a theory of oppositional use of technology until the final chapters of Media Matters.

Fiske’s relative disinterest in technology (and often, in media ownership) drew sharp criticism from political economists, who felt that he underestimated the structuring power of entrenched capital. He explains in Understanding Popular Culture that his theoretical perspective is “essentially optimistic, for it finds in the vigor and vitality of the people evidence both of the possibility of social change and of the motivation to drive it.” [UPC,21] We’ve heard so much over the past decade and a half about the democratic potential of new media technologies and practices that it is easy to forget that Fiske saw the Internet as simply another battleground through which ongoing struggles over meaning, pleasure, knowledge, and power would be conducted. But he also did not accept a model which saw certain media technologies as forces for cultural domination:

“Information technology is highly political, but its politics are not directed by its technological features alone. It is, for instance, a technical feature of the surveillance camera that enables it to identify a person’s race more clearly than his or her class or religion, but it is a racist society that transforms that information into knowledge.” [MM 219]

The affordances of new media could be deployed towards certain ends, but ultimately, how they were used reflected their cultural context.

Fiske saw the promises of a digital revolution but did not declare a premature victory over mass media:

“New technologies cannot in themselves produce social change, though they can and do facilitate it.” [MM 115]

“Power is social, not just technological, and it is through institutional and economic control that technology is directed.” [MM 137]

“We can make our society one that is rich in diverse knowledges, but only if people strive to produce and circulate them. Technology will always be involved and, if its potential is exploited, its proliferation may make the control over knowledge less, not more, efficient.” [MM 238]

“Technology is proliferating, but not equally: its low-tech and high-tech forms still reproduce older hierarchies, and although it may extend the terrain of struggle and introduce new weapons into it, it changes neither the lineup of forces nor the imbalance in the resources they command.” [MM 239]

“The multiplication of communication and information technologies extend the terrains of struggle, modifies the forms struggle may take, and makes it even more imperative that people grasp the opportunities for struggle that the multiplying of technologies offers.” [MM 240]

Yes, Fiske tells us, media matters, but media change does not overcome other social, cultural, political, and economic factors…..

When I brought John Fiske to MIT shortly after Media Matters was published, I remember the disappointment and frustration some of my students felt that Fiske was “not ready” to embrace the promise of the digital, because at the epicenter of the digital revolution, we were full of hopes that the new media would lower the barriers to entry into cultural production and distribution, allowing many more voices to be heard and putting greater power (political, economic, cultural) in the hands of “the people.” I was surrounded by early adopters for whom the transformative capacity of new media was an article of faith. In this context, I often had to work hard to resist technological determinist arguments and to insist, as John had taught us, that cultural and social factors shape technology far more than technology shapes culture….

Confronted with the assertion that the wide availability of new tools would enable greater public participation, Fiske wrote, “In premodern Europe,… everyone had a larynx, but few were able to speak in public and political life.” [MM 238] Technological access was not sufficient in the absence of efforts to overcome those social and cultural factors which blocked full participation — what we now would call “the participation gap.”

Fiske typically followed claims about grassroots resistance with an acknowledgment of the powerful forces which were stacked against us. For example, Fiske was interested in the unequal status of high tech and low tech uses of communication technology, contrasting the “videohigh” of the broadcast industry with the “videolow” of citizen camcorder activism, a contrast which paves the way to a consideration of how broadcast and grassroots media competes with each other for attention and credibility. Fiske wrote “technostruggles” in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial. As Fiske notes, the original video showing the Los Angeles police beating suspect Rodney King, captured via a home movie camera by a passerby George Holliday, possessed high credibility because it displayed so little technological sophistication:

“George Holliday owned a camera, but not a computer enhancer; he could produce and replay an electronic image, but could not slow it, reverse it, freeze it, or write upon it, and his videolow appeared so authentic to so many precisely because he could not.” [MM 223]

The LAPD’s defense attorneys deployed a range of technical and rhetorical tricks to reframe the King video and change how it was understood, at least by the jury, if not by the general public. For Fiske, this struggle over the tape’s meaning suggested what was to come — an ongoing competition between those who have access to low-tech, everyday forms of cultural production and those who had access to high-tech communication systems. If new media technologies were expanding the resources available to those who have previously seemed powerless, they were also expanding the capacities of the powerful.

In Media Matters, Fiske’s embrace of participatory media practices was suggested by his enthusiasm for low-bandwidth “pirate” radio stations within the African-American community. At the same time, Fiske was quick to link networked computing with institutions of government surveillance. Fiske warned that the same practices deployed by companies to construct a “consumer profile” could be applied by governments to construct a “political profile”: “The magazines we subscribe to, the causes we donate to, the university courses we register for, the books we purchase and the ones we borrow from the library are all recorded, and recorded information is always potentially available.” [MM 219] Fiske predicted that conservatives might intensify the power of the government in response to their “fear” as America became a minority-majority country in the coming decades. Fiske anticipated that increased controversy around racial conflict would be embodied through “media events” such as the Rodney King tape and the LA Riots, the battle between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, and the murder trial and acquittal of O.J. Simpson. A decade plus later, we are more apt to ascribe the growth of surveillance culture to the “terror” produced by 9/11 and its aftermath, though Fiske would have pushed us to consider the ways the War on Terror is linked to racial profiling and may mask other kinds of conflicts.

The Future of Teenagers: My Interview in O Globo

Here is the interview I did with Bruno Porto of O Globo, a publication targeting youth, during my time in Rio. The newspaper devoted three full pages to this interview which was prominent on its cover and I heard lots of great responses to it as I traveled around the country. I suspect what will be striking to readers in the United States is how much the questions being asked there by parents, teachers, and others about new media are very much those being asked in our own country. For those who prefer to read this in Portuguese, here’s the link.

What´s the main difference between the teenagers that lived in 2000 and the ones that live nowadays? Do you see them as completely different beings or the prior generation already had cultural elements that are present in the next one?

First, the continuities across generations are much greater than the differences. Young people today listen to different bands and often acquire music through different platforms than teens a decade ago, yet one’s taste in music is still a key indicator of one’s personal and social identity for teens. Young people play different games on different game platforms yet young people acquire and display mastery through competitive play. Young people use different social networking platforms and communicate with their friends through text-messaging, yet forging a place for oneself within the social system of their schools remains a central goal of adolescence. We can go down the list and most of the new digital practices which seem alien to older people are serving purposes which, if they are being honest, they recognize from their own teen experiences. That said, there are also significant differences, which I know we will get to as this interview goes forward. What does it mean to have immediate contact with your friends as a support system as you move throughout your day, to know that you will remain connected with your friends no matter where you move in the planet, and that you can form intense, intimate social ties with people who you may never meet face to face? Or to know, but not yet fully grasp, that those pictures you shot at a party when you were 16 could resurface at a job interview when you are 25 or end up being used against you in a political campaign when you are 45 because they have persistence online and can be accessed by many unintended audiences? These are some of the questions that contemporary teens face which are different from those confronting previous generations of teens.

Do you think that the leap between the 2010 generation and the 2020 will be as significant as the leap between the 2000 and 2010 generations? Or have the main, structural changes, already happened?

We are in the midst of a profound and prolonged period of media transition which is inspiring changes on every other level — economic, social, cultural, political, legal… and I don’t see the rate of change slowing anytime soon. Youth are often the earliest adapters and adopters of those emerging technologies and cultural practices as they seek out some place they can call their own, some place where their parents and teachers are not going to be nagging at and snooping on them. Young people, thus, embody the change that media is bringing and they are thus likely to be the advanced guard for most cultural practices. (Interestingly, this is not true for Twitter which has spread from the professional classes outward and downward to reach youth rather than the other way around). As this happens, they are going to create differences in style and taste which signal their differences in identity and affiliation. So, yes, I think that youth ten years from now will be significantly different from youth today — with my above caveat that it will still be the case that the continuities in experience and interests will far out distance the differences.

Which aspect of the DIY/collaborative philosophy, that transformed the youth (and the world), seems more intriguing and relevant for you now?

For the past three decades, I have studied fan cultures as the springboard for grassroots creativity. Fans are people who are inspired by the stories that circulate through the mass media, who take elements of those stories and deploy them as the raw materials for their own creative expression, and who bond together over their shared investments in these rich cultural materials. I don’t call this “do-it-yourself” but rather “do-it-ourselves,” because of the deeply collaborative nature of these forms of cultural production. They are collaborative both in the sense that they build on existing stories, including those of mass media, within our culture and because they depend on each other to create the infrastructure which supports their creativity. Fan fiction is collaborative from conception — as fans talk through story ideas as cafe table conversations, as they give each other feedback through Beta-Reading (peer-review) processes, as they read and comment on each other’s shared works, and as they build the very platforms through which they circulate their creations. The fan fiction writer exists alongside the cosplayer who creates costumes and embodies characters, the fan musician who creates, records, and circulates songs, the vidder who re-edits and remixes footage, and so forth. All of them form communities which embrace new participants, which generate new forms of creative expressions, which teach each other the skills needed to participate, and who support each other’s creations. This kind of participatory culture has existed for more than a hundred years, but the web has made it accessible to a much broader array of participants. Because it can innovate outside the constraints of the market or the art world, it is endless generative and thus a source of ongoing fascination to me.

The transformations that the web caused are already present in almost all the Western world, but parents and teachers are still trying not only to understand it, but to accept it. Why do you think they´re still in denial?

Some parents are in denial; some are in a state of panic. The first sees no change occurring, the second fears the change that is coming. Few are finding the middle ground between the two which allows young people plenty of space to navigate between neglect and constraint. I just heard the story of a young man, who came from a conservative religious family, who was told by his parents that he could not watch Family Guy or other Fox shows on television. The kid watched it on the internet instead without guilt, since his parents hadn’t set up any restrictions on what he did on line. As someone who is the parent of a 29 year old son, I can tell you that most of parenting is reactionary. You are uncertain about the right way forward and so you fall back on what your parents did, even if they were dealing with different times and situations. You end up saying everything you thought you would never say to your kids because the script you have in your head bears the early imprint of your parent’s philosophy. And you have to make a very conscious effort to change or reverse those impulses. You may change it some of the time, through sheer act of will, but then you will find yourself reverting back on other fronts. Most parents now do not have a script in their heads for thinking about what young people are doing with their iPhones. The young people are encountering situations which seem on the surface totally different from anything they faced growing up. That’s why I always stress the continuities first. They may not know what the value is of having lots of friends on Orkut, but they do know that forming friendships is a vital part of adolescent culture. As the next group of parents grows up, they will have a better mental framework for thinking about these issues but unfortunately, their kids still won’t believe they have any clue what they are talking about. 🙂

During years journalists, teachers and other specialists considered videogames as a media that causes much more damages than benefits. Do you think that that perception changed?

Yes, somewhat. The good news is that the group of people entering the teaching profession over the past five or so years probably grew up playing Super Mario Brothers and so they have a much more normative understanding of what games can be used for. The bad news is that research shows that of ten different professional classes, teachers are the least likely to still be playing games today. Teachers are consumate creatures of the book and if anything, they are becoming more defensive about these new media as they fear that print culture may be displaced by digital. So, you have some teachers who do get the value of games as recreational and teaching tools, that want to see better games developed which they can deploy through their teaching, that may respect and value the kinds of teamwork and leadership skills being fostered on World of Warcraft, who may understand the simulations of history and government offered by Civilization or Sim City, We are seeing libraries embracing gaming as a community building activity for their patrons. And among educational researchers, games for learning constitute a high growth area of research. On the other hand, you see schools locking out most forms of participatory culture, closing out not only games but also Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia. You are less likely to see teachers who believe that playing Grand Theft Auto is going to turn their students into school shooters, but you are more likely to see teachers who believe video games are simply distractions from real learning, rather than recognizing how at least some games can be vehicles for the learning process. I will be happy when our government officials stop telling kids to turn off their XBoxes and do their homework, and start telling them to turn on their XBoxes and do their homework, but that’s going to be a long time coming.

Survivor, The Matrix and American Idol are some of the franchises you used as example in Convergence Culture. Any other relevant examples appeared recently?

Franchises still dominate our media production. If I were writing the book today, I might have chapters focusing on Lost, Heroes, Glee, Avatar, and District 9, each of which represent a somewhat different way of thinking about the media’s relationship to its consumers. Indeed, each of these franchises plays a role in my next book, which I hope to be writing later this summer, on spreadable media. So, let’s take Lost. On the one hand, Lost represents one of the biggest hits on contemporary commercial television. When the Lost finale airs later this week, it is going to attract a massive audience. It is event television on a global scale. People will gather in large theaters all over the United States to watch it. They were flood Twitter and the other social networking sites with their responses. On the other hand, Lost represents all of the properties we would have associated with niche television a decade ago. It is a complex and demanding program. It draws a hard core, socially active, culturally generative audience. It challenges the collective knowledge and thinking of large scale social networks of people who pool their knowledge, compare notes, and try to figure out the mysteries of the island. And as they do so, they follow Lost through podcasts, websites, wiki projects, alternate reality games, and countless other platforms. Lost is television outside the box — television in a transmedia environment. Each of the other examples I cite represent the further move of television into a transmedia and participatory world. With Glee, we might pay attention to it as a vehicle for selling music — in that sense very much like Rock Band and Guitar Hero — and we might talk about it as inspiring lots of amateur performances — check out all the amateur performances of the songs from Glee which spring up on YouTube within hours of the airing of a new episode. With Avatar, I am of course interested in 3D but also in the ways that activists around the world have embraced the identity of the Na’Vi and their struggle against the cloud people as a language through which to talk about their own local struggles to protect their environments and their way of life. With District 9, I am interested in the ways that a small scale movie gains the level of public interest this film did through strategies which rely heavily on the most engaged and socially networked segments of their audience. And the list continues.

Ten years ago, in Brazil and many other countries, kids found it hard to feel attracted by their schools. Now, with their connection with technology and the internet, it´s ten times worse. Do you think that most countries are facing this problem properly?

I teach a class at USC on the New Media Literacies. One of the assignments is to have my graduate students interview a teenage student or a teacher they know. My students come from all over the world and since they tend to interview people in their own families, I see projects on people who live in many different countries. Almost without exception, every young person they interviewed had a more intellectually rich life outside of school than inside. The things they cared about, they things that provoked their curiosity and passions, were often things which had no place in the current configurations of schooling. The ways they learned best often involved tools and platforms which were blocked in the classroom. And they felt like what was turning them on intellectually was largely unknown by the adults in their lives. The teachers also expressed frustration about how much new technology they needed to absorb or about how hard it was to change the presumptions of school administrators that such tools were distractions from the core business of learning. This is bad enough as a global problem if we think about schools shutting down the brains of our most networked young people, but we might feel that they still get extra educational opportunities and cultural experiences outside the school hours. But then consider all of those young people who only get access to these technologies at school, for whom the teacher or librarian may be the only adult they know who has any understanding of the technical, social, cultural, and ethical challenges and opportunities they represent. If we shut these practices out of our schools, we will have denied those young people the support they need to meaningfully engage as citizens, workers, learners, and expressive individuals in a world where these technologies are going to be taken for granted. Young people are not better off being told to learn about technology on the street corner the way my generation learned about sex. Our schools need to develop a coherent, informed, creative approach to technology which incorporates the best tools and practices into their pedagogical approaches.

How do you think that the new generation is absorving so much information? Do you think they absorb less – after all, the information is at reach all the time – or less?

First, I think there is a shift away from an emphasis on learning information towards learning how to find information. The emerging generation tends to offload much of what they know into technological devices which they use to enhance their thinking. Take away my laptop and you chop off a chunk of my brain. This is not necessarily a bad thing because the information is changing at such a rapid pace. Yet, it only works if we don’t fill our heads with misinformation, if we develop skills at evaluating information and recognizing what kinds of information we need to solve particular kinds of problems. Second, they are learning to depend on each other for information they may lack. This is what we call collective intelligence — a world where nobody knows everything, everybody knows something, and what an individual knows can be shared with the group as needed. Young people are learning to recognize the expertise of their friends and others in their networks and learning to work together to solve complex problems which they would not be able to tackle on their own. So, there are two ways of processing the massive amount of information which the web makes available to us — deploy tools which sort and filter the information or tapping into collaborative communities which appraise the information together from many different perspectives. The later, for example, describes how I use Twitter. I subscribe to the feeds of the smartest people I know in many different fields and trust them to insure that I at least get exposed to the key developments in those fields each day. Young people are tapping this in a more informal way, which is why young people often know a lot about current events without ever seeming to read a newspaper or watch the news. A lot falls through the cracks this way, which is why we need to foster these skills more, but it is still a pretty shrewd approach to dealing with what previous generations have described as information overload.

As schools, many companies that hire young people are not prepared for all the changes that are happening. How does that affect young people? They will try to adapt or look for new kinds of jobs?

Our young people have much more to give the world than they are being allowed to contribute. No question about it. When we read reports of fans developing online reference works for Lost, say, there’s often a dismissive response that says they had too much time on their hands. I don’t want to undercut the value of this grassroots production of knowledge and culture on its own terms, but I also want to ask – whose fault is that? Such activity emerges in a world which undervalues the creativity and knowledge, the skills and intelligence, of every day people — undervalues it in school, undervalues it in the work place. As a result, young people create alternative spaces where they can learn and share what they learn with each other. It can be enormously frustrating to watch the company where you work make bad decisions because it is ill-informed about alternative possibilities, even as you sit there, knowing about new ways forward, and not being solicited to contribute, or sitting there going through mind-numbing repetitive activities while you know a high tech way which would be more effective and efficient. Just as schools need to change to embrace new ways of learning, companies need to change to embrace new ways of working. The most forward thinking companies have relatively flat organizations which allow new ideas to emerge bottom up from any corner of their staffs. They reconfigure teams so that everyone has a chance to lead and people can contribute based on their skill and expertise. As we think about who might be best at working in such an organization, it may well be someone who grew up playing massively multiplayers games, swaping roles, trying new identities, tackling new challenges. Hell, don’t just hire an individual gamer. Hire an entire squad or guild, since this team of people already knows how to work together to achieve its goals, already knows what each member can contribute, and already trusts each person to carry their own weight. It isn’t just that companies need to embrace new technologies; they also need to recognize and value new cultural processes which come out of young people’s experience of growing up in a networked society.

Last week Rio received his first TEDx (a version of the original TED) and the main attraction was a 13 years old boy that knows how to program apps for iPhone and iPod Touch. Many scientists are trying to understand the brains of people like that boy, that could be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Do you think that makes sense, that they´re treated that way? Or in some years there will be thousands of kids like that one everywhere?

Our focus should not be on prodigies. There have always been child prodigies. There will always be child prodigies. That tells us little about the state of our culture. What we need to pay attention to are the remarkable achievements of perfectly normal girls and boys who are doing things that would have been inconceivable for earlier generations. Their ability to tap into social networks, to deploy new tools and technologies, to process complex information, is astonishing, yet often dismissed by their parents and teachers because it doesn’t fit within the grids through which we evaluate their educational performance. It may well be the case that what this young man is doing will become much more widespread in another generation’s time, especially as the processes for designing aps are better understood and toolkits more user friendly. In any case, I would want to understand not just how the boy’s brain works but also the social support system around the child. What kinds of help has he received from parents, teachers, other adults along his path to this level of accomplishment, since no kid gets to this point alone. In general, we need to understand such developments not as singular cognitive accomplishments but as windows into the kinds of learning ecology which is needed to make it possible for every young person to achieve their full potential.

Down Argentina Way…

If my trip to Brazil ended up focused primarily on convergence culture and transmedia storytelling, the second leg of my trip — to Buenos Aires — was much more directed towards my work on new media literacies and issues concerning education. I was invited to Argentina by Ines Dussel, an educator and public intellectual, who is one of the co-authors with Luis Alberto Quevedo of a new white paper exploring the impact of new media on education in Latin America, Educacion y nuevas technologias: los desafios pedagogicos ante el mundo digital. The report was being released at the VI For Latinoamericano de Educacion, hosted by the Fundacion Santilla. It was an event attended by education ministers and educational researchers/policy makers from many of the Latin American countries. I was asked to give a keynote address which shared with the group some of the perspectives on new media literacies, participatory culture, and informal learning we have developed through Project New Media Literacies, including some discussion of the curriculum we have developed around “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” A key concern throughout the discussion was the distinction between introducing technology into the classroom and developing the skills which would enable young people of all economic and cultural backgrounds to participate more fully in the emerging media landscape. Ines and her associates have promised me an interview for the blog, which I hope to share with you soon.

I ended up using two examples from my family history to illustrate my key points. First, I talked about my father’s tool box. My father spent much of his life in and around the construction trade. He was the son of a sheet metal worker. For both of those generations, their tools were vitally important to them, but their knowledge consisted of how to deploy those tools and could not be contained in the tools themselves. If my father sat his tool box on the table and told me to build a house, I wouldn’t know what to do. Trust me, we went through this many times when he was alive. I never could think using hand tools. It isn’t just that I didn’t know how to use the tools well — how to use a hammer or a saw — but rather, I lacked the skills needed to use them effectively and I lacked the larger understanding of how a house — or in my case, a bookcase — would be put together. I had the tools but I lacked the competencies which would allow me to use them in meaningful ways. I lacked the sense of my own empowerment to take those tools out in the world and construct something with them.

So, we can bring computers into the classroom but unless the tools are accompanied by other kinds of knowledge — and I don’t just mean how to use the keyboard and some basic software — then they are not going to be able to deploy those tools in meaningful ways. For some of my friends back at MIT, the key knowledge is how to code — and that’s certainly part of what I mean — but also I think that knowledge involves how to network, how to participate in new structures of culture and knowledge, how to read a Wikipedia page, how to assess the credability of information. And a technically focused curriculum which is not met with the integration of those skills into how we study culture and society will only get us so far in terms of closing the digital divide and the participation gap. That’s the heart of the white paper I wrote for MacArthur.

The second story I drew on heavily there had to do with my grandmother, who, among other things, made quilts, growing up in rural Georgia. We might think of quilting as a kind of remix practice. She took bits of cloth left over from other sewing projects, sometimes drawing on the shared reservoirs of the female community, to create new works. In doing so, she was also building on a shared tradition with its own patterns and formulas. And she was producing an artifact which was designed for sharing — often the quilts were made as gifts to mark social occasions of significance in the life of the community. My grandmother would have known how to engage with a participatory culture.

We can imagine moving from stitching together and remixing textiles to stitching together and remixing media content. Indeed, Francesca Coppa uses the metaphors of “cutting” and “stitching” to talk about the work that goes into producing a fanvid. In the United States, these folk traditions were radically disrupted by the rise of mass production and mass media. Today, quilt making is a specialized skill, more often trained in art schools than passed along from one generation to the next. And the logic of folk production has become disassociated from our understanding of the media.

One of my speculations about digital culture in Latin America is that because it exists alongside a still vibrant folk culture, a new model for thinking about remix may emerge. And this is part of what I am trying to understand through my travels to the region. I don’t want to romanticize this possibility since it is also the case that many Latin Americas worry that the web may simply open up another gateway through which North American influences will be felt upon their traditional ways of life, and it is hard talking to people there to dismiss those concerns.

These next two images suggest some of the complex ways that these two ideas — remix as part of the logic of folk culture and the importation of Northern culture on the south — interact on a regular basis in Argentina. My brother owes an affinity to the brand community around Coca Cola, living in Atlanta, so I was especially interested to see the many ways that Coke’s presence was felt in Buenos Aires. And yet, as cultural theorists might suggest, Coke is localized — not only by the decisions made in the boardroom but also by the ways it is inserted into a distinctly Argentinian context.


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As I traveled around the city, I was struck by the graphic arts of Buenos Aires, the expressive ways that paint — especially bright primary colors — was used to transform the urban landscape.

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This focus on street art carried over to a strong tradition of murals and graffiti, such as the soccer related image, which also reminds us of how intense the country’s connections are to sports fandom.

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And this pub sign depicts Carlos Gardel, Tango performer who became a key figure in Argentinian cinema of the early sound era. I was introduced to Gardel’s music while visiting Argentina, along with a wide array of appropriations and remixes of Tango music as it gets absorbed into jazz, hip hop, and techno/dance musics.

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Gardel remains a key figure in Argentinian popular culture — if you look closely, you will see his image on the wall behind these contemporary street performers who were in their own ways keeping the Tango tradition alive.

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Ines and her husband took me to visit a curio market on Sunday, which is full of cultural debris, some reflecting the local traditions of Argentina, others suggesting the flow of goods and brands from the North. This still life suggests the complex assemblage of objects (and the cultural traditions they embodied) on every table.

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The one thing I was taught about Argentina growing up in American public schools of the 1960s was that it was the land of the Gaucho, so I could not resist capturing this image of a Gaucho selling ropes and bolos in the marketplace. I am sure some of this was performance for tourists, but there was still something fascinating about confronting an icon which previously had lived for me only on the pages of battered and largely forgotten textbooks. Besides, I always loved a song Lupe Velez sings in one of the Wheeler and Woolsey comedies that “You can keep Harpo and Chico. I love my Gaucho.”

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And during this same trip, I was intrigued by these street performers. Like so many living statues, I have seen in the United States, they were frozen in a pose, defying the attempts of visitors to make them move from their static composition. Yet, what amused me here was the attempts to create what seems in still photographs to be a highly dynamic image — they used a variety of illusions to convey a sense of movement, even as they remained absolutely still.

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Pardon me for what has devolved into a series of tourist snapshots which fail to capture the complex thoughts and feelings which this trip stirred within me, but part of what I carried away with me was a real affection and fascination for the kinds of folk and popular culture practices I observed in Buenos Aires.

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My Big Brazillian Adventure

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Of the foreign language editions of Convergence Culture, probably the best selling one was the version published in Portuguese and distributed primarily in Brazil. Thanks to the support of Mauricio Mota and the Alchemists, a transmedia company which works in Rio and Los Angeles, my book has stimulated enormous interest in that country, with companies such as Globo and Petrobras buying hundreds of copies to give to their employees and clients as Brazil seeks to better understand the digital age at a moment of deep cultural and technological transition.

Why Brazil? Two primary reasons: First, Brazil is at the center of the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), countries which economists believe are going to be dominant economic (and I suspect, cultural) powers in the 21st century. These are countries on the rise, countries which have embraced new media and are surfing it to gain greater influence over the planet. Much as China has gained greater visibility in recent years through the Olympics and the current Shanghai Expo, Brazil is positioned to gain wider attention by hosting the Olympics and the World Cup in the next few years. It is a country with a strong digital infrastructure and thriving creative industries.

Second, unlike the United States, Brazil has held onto strong folk and participatory traditions, despite the rise of modern mass media. Seymour Papert famously used the Samba Schools as his illustration of how informal and community based learning works and that example has stuck in my head from my early days at MIT:

If you dropped in at a Samba School on a typical Saturday night you would take it for a dance hall. The dominant activity is dancing, with the expected accompaniment of drinking, talking and observing the scene. From time to time the dancing stops and someone sings a lyric or makes a short speech over a very loud P.A. system. You would soon begin to realize that there is more continuity, social cohesion and long term common purpose than amongst transient or even regular dancers in a typical American dance hall. The point is that the Samba School has another purpose then the fun of the particular evening. This purpose is related to the famous Carnival which will dominate Rio at Mardi Gras and at which each Samba School will take on a segment of the more than twenty-four hour long procession of street dancing. This segment will be an elaborately prepared, decorated and choreographed presentation of a story, typically a folk tale rewritten with lyrics, music and dance newly composed during the previous year. So we see the complex functions of the Samba School. While people have come to dance, they are simultaneously participating in the choice, and elaboration of the theme of the next carnival; the lyrics sung between the dances are proposals for inclusion; the dancing is also the audition, at once competitive and supportive, for the leading roles, the rehearsal and the training school for dancers at all levels of ability.

From this point of view a very remarkable aspect of the Samba School is the presence in one place of people engaged in a common activity – dancing – at all levels of competence from beginning children who seem scarcely yet able to talk, to superstars who would not be put to shame by the soloists of dance companies anywhere in the world. The fact of being together would in itself be “educational” for the beginners; but what is more deeply so is the degree of interaction between dancers of different levels of competence. From time to time a dancer will gather a group of others to work together on some technical aspect; the life of the group might be ten minutes or half an hour, its average age five or twenty five, its mode of operation might be highly didactic or more simply a chance to interact with a more advanced dancer. The details are not important: what counts is the weaving of education into the larger, richer cultural-social experience of the Samba School.

My Student Ana Domb Krauskopf recently wrote a fascinating white paper for the Convergence Culture Consortium on Techno Brega, a form of popular music in regional Brazil, which operates under a radically different model of production and distribution which is being studied by many in the Free Culture movement.

If you accept my premise that digital participatory culture is what happens when we apply folk culture logic to the content of mass culture in an era where we have expanded capacities for circulation, then it makes sense that digital culture is going to take a very different shape in Brazil than in the United States. Given this history, my work seems especially resonant with Brazilian readers and I am feeling a strong tug to spend more time in that country.

I spent the last week and a half of May in Brazil, speaking with several key players there in the efforts to make the country a key digital player, including Petrobras, the leading oil company, and Globo, a key media producer and distributor. While I was there, I was interviewed by half a dozen or so of the leading print and television journalists.

The key event during my stay in Rio was a talk to creative workers inside Globo’s Project, their primary production facility on the outskirts of the city, at the foot of a truly spectacular cluster of mountains and on the edge of the rain forest. I was consistently impressed in Rio by the ways that the natural world was fully integrated into the life of the city.

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I was able to go to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and look down on the city. Scattered throughout Rio are massive outcroppings of exposed rock — to call them mountains, though they are mountain sized, does not really capture the oddness of these protrusions. They are much closer to Stone Mountain in my native Atlanta (of course without the carvings of Confederate generals!) than anything else I had ever seen. The city is wrapped in and around these mountains. In some cases, the Favela run up the sides of mountains. The more desirable land is at their foot. They are contained by the beaches and oceans that surround much of the city. And threaded through these pockets of development remain large forests. The effect is close to the technological utopian conception of the city as an integrated environment where nature and technology can co-exist. It is hard to go far in Rio without confronting the natural world and the companies where I spoke were very overt about their commitments to Green policies.

The event at Globo was simply spectacular. The production people had turned a soundstage into what can only be described as a set. Not only had they taken a key motif from the cover of my book and blown it up to the size of a wall, adding in massive television screens on either side, but they had taken other elements from the book’s design and decorated the entire hall. It was packed with hundreds of people who wanted to learn more about convergence and transmedia. And the event was being webcast and live-blogged so the words were being transmitted to many who could not be physically present. I presented an opening talk on transmedia which drew upon my recent He-Man essay and my 7 Principles of Transmedia Storytelling paper, both of which have already been shared on my blog, and ended with some thoughts about future challenges confronting transmedia producers which I hope to share with my readers soon.

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Afterwords, I was joined on stage by Mark Warshaw, who had developed transmedia for Heroes and Smallville and now is a key partner in The Alchemists, and Florish Klink, a recently minted graduate of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program who is becoming the group’s Chief Participation Officer (their expert on fan relations). And we were hit with all kinds of thoughtful questions from the audience, questions which showed just how carefully they had listened and absorbed the insights from my work and how much they were thinking through the future of media in their country. In some ways, they are a step behind developments in North America — for example, the DVR has not yet come to Rio — but they are learning the lessons of the early adapter countries and will be ready as they reinvent their media system for the 21st century.

Afterwards, we went on a tour of the production facilities. In many ways, they resemble the classic film studios of the Golden Era of Hollywood, except that they are managed by digital dasebases. So, there are large backlots and vast sound stages. We were shown, for example, a scale reconstruction of a Sao Paolo shopping mall which was used as the setting for a youth-oriented telanovela.

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And we were driven through a lovingly recreated neighborhood from the south of Italy which is the setting of another of their popular series. I am posing here with Mauricio Mota and Flourish Klink from The Alchemists.

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We toured a vast warehouse holding props which were in storage from previous productions and could be called up from the database when needed for new series and another warehouse where costumes were stored, organized by the decade where the stories were set. Alongside the storehouses, there was a factory of workers sewing new costumes to be used, often in just a few hours, on one or another of the projects they were filming and there were construction crews that could build and breakdown sets on a daily basis.

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We walked through the soundstages and saw Passione, a telanovela, being shot. We met briefly the young and very attractive stars Mariana Ximenes and Reynaldo Gianechinni, who have been called the Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt of Brazil. And we were able to watch them shoot a scene from an upcoming episode, standing in the booth with the director as they swapped between five cameras which were filming the scene. It was one of fifteen scenes for the series that were scheduled to be shot that day amongst ten or so settings in the studio devoted to Passione‘s production. The scenes were shot out of sequence 4 or 5 episodes at a time to allow them to complete their needs of a setting, break it down, and make way for the next setting, all in the course of a 1-2 day period of time. The folks with us who worked in Hollywood were astonished at both the attention to detail in the production design but also the efficiency of the operation over all.

(Next Time: Down Argentina Way)

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