Sites of Convergence: An Interview for Brazillian Academics

Vinicius Navarro has published an extensive interview with me in the current issue of Contracampo, a journal from Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil). Navarro and his editors have graciously allowed me to reprint an English version of the interview here on my blog. Done more than a year ago, Navarro covered a broad territory including ideas about convergence, collective intelligence, new media literacies, globalization, copyright, and transmedia storytelling.

Sites of Convergence: An Interview with Henry Jenkins

by Vinicius Navarro

Media convergence is not just a technological process; it is primarily a cultural phenomenon that involves new forms of exchange between producers and users of media content. This is one of the underlying arguments in Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, a provocative study of how information travels through different media platforms and how we make sense of media content. Convergence, according to Jenkins, takes place “within the brains” of the consumers and “through their social interactions with others.” Just as information flows through different media channels, so do our lives, work, fantasies, relationships, and so on. In Convergence Culture, Jenkins explores these ideas in discussions that include the TV shows Survivor and American Idol, The Matrix franchise, fans of Harry Potter and Star Wars, as well as the 2004 American presidential campaign.

Henry Jenkins is one of the most influential contemporary media scholars. In addition to his book on media convergence, he is known for his work on Hollywood comedy, computer games, and fan communities. More broadly, Jenkins is an enthusiast of what he calls participatory culture. Contemporary media users, he argues, challenge the notion that we are passive consumers of media content or mere recipients of messages generated by the communications industry. Instead, these consumers are creative agents who help define how media content is used and, in some cases, help shape the content itself. Media convergence has expanded the possibility of participation because it allows greater access to the production and circulation of culture.

In this interview, Jenkins speaks generously about the promises and challenges of the current media environment and discusses the ways convergence is changing our lives. As usual, he celebrates the potential for consumer participation, but he also notes that our access to technology is uneven. And he calls for a more inclusive and diverse use of new media. One of the places in which these discrepancies are apparent is the classroom. Jenkins believes that we need new educational models that involve “a much more collaborative atmosphere” between teachers and students. He also argues that we must change our academic curricula to fit the interdisciplinary needs of our convergence culture.

These are some of the questions we must confront in the new media environment of the twenty-first century, an environment in which consumer creativity clashes with intellectual property laws, Ukrainian TV shows find their way into American homes via YouTube, and transmedia narratives reshape the way we think about filmmaking.

In Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, you oppose “the digital revolution paradigm” – the idea that new media are “going to change everything” – to the notion of media convergence. You also say that “convergence is an old concept taking on new meanings.” What exactly is new about the current convergence paradigm? And what changes may we expect from the convergence (or collision) of old and new media?

The idea of the digital revolution was that new media would displace and, in some ways, replace mass media. There were predictions of the withering away of broadcasting, just as earlier generations of revolutionaries liked to imagine the withering away of the state. That’s not what has happened. We are seeing greater and greater interactions between old and new media. In certain cases, this has made new media more powerful rather than less. The power of the broadcast networks now co-exists with the power of the social networks. In some ways, this has pushed broadcasters to go where the consumers are, trying to satisfy a widespread demand for the media we want, when we want it, where we want it, demand for the ability to actively participate in shaping the production and circulation of media content. This is the heart of what I mean by convergence culture. The old notion of convergence was primarily technological – having to do with which black box the media would flow through. The new conception is cultural – having to do with the coordination of media content across a range of different media platforms.

We certainly are moving towards technological convergence – and the iPhone can be seen as an example of how far we’ve come since I wrote the book – but we are already living in an era of cultural convergence. This convergence potentially has an impact on aesthetics (through grassroots expression and transmedia storytelling), knowledge and education (through collective intelligence and new media literacy), politics (through new forms of public participation), and economics (through the web 2.0 business model).

What’s new? On the one hand, the flow of media content across media platforms and, on the other, the capacity of the public to deploy social networks to connect to each other in new ways, to actively shape the circulation of media content, to publicly challenge the interests of mass media producers. Convergence culture is both consolidating the power of media producers and consolidating the power of media consumers. But what is really interesting is how they come together – the ways consumers are developing skills at both filtering through and engaging more fully with that dispersed media content and the ways that the media producers are having to bow before the increased autonomy and collective knowledge of their consumers.

The concept of “convergence” brings to mind the related notions of co-existence, connection and, in some ways, community. In this culture of convergence, however, we continue to see a divide – social as well as generational – between those who participate in it and those who don’t. What can we do to narrow this gap and expand the promise of participation?

This is a serious problem that is being felt in countries around the world. Our access to the technology is uneven – this is what we mean by the digital divide. But there is also uneven access to the skills and knowledge required to meaningfully participate in this emerging culture – this is what we mean by the participation gap. As more and more functions of our lives move into the online world or get conducted through mobile communications, those who lack access to the technologies and to the social and cultural capital needed to use them meaningfully are being excluded from full participation.

What excites me about what I am calling participatory culture is that it has the potential to diversify the content of our culture and democratize access to the channels of communication. We are certainly seeing examples of oppositional groups in countries around the world start to route around governmental censorship; we are seeing a rise of independent media producers – from indie game designers to web comics producers – who are finding a public for their work and thus expanding the creative potential of our society.

What worries me the most about participatory culture is that we are seeing such uneven opportunities to participate, that some spaces – the comments section on YouTube for example – are incredibly hostile to real diversity, that our educational institutions are locking out the channels of participatory media rather than integrating them fully into their practices, and that companies are often using intellectual property law to shut down the public’s desire to more fully engage with the contents of our culture.

One place where the divide manifests itself very clearly is the classroom. In an interview for a recent documentary called Digital Nation (PBS), you said: “Right now, the teachers have one set of skills; the students have a different set of skills. And what they have to do is learn from each other how to develop strategies for processing information, constructing knowledge, sharing insights with each other.” What specific strategies do you have in mind? What educational model are you thinking about?

Last year, I had the students in my New Media Literacies class at USC do interviews with young people about their experiences with digital media. Because my students are global, this gave us some interesting snapshots of “normal” teens from many parts of the world – from India to Bulgaria to Lapland. In almost all cases, the young people enjoyed a much richer life online than they did at school; most found schools deadening and many of the brightest students were considering dropping out because they saw the teachers as hopelessly out of touch with the world they were living in.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, there are young people who lack any exposure to the core practices of the digital age, who depend upon schools to give them exposure to the core skills they need to be fully engaged with the new media landscape. And our schools, in countries all over the world, betray them, often by blocking access to social networks, blogging tools, YouTube, Wikipedia, and so many other key spaces where the new participatory culture is forming.

Over the past few years, I’ve been involved in a large-scale initiative launched by the MacArthur Foundation to explore digital media and learning. I wrote a white paper for the MacArthur Foundation, which identifies core social skills and cultural competencies required for participatory culture and then launched Project New Media Literacies to help translate those insights into resources for educators. The work we are doing through Project New Media Literacies (which was originally launched at MIT but which has traveled with me to USC) is trying to experiment with the ways we can integrate participatory modes of learning, common outside of school, with the core content which we see valuable within our educational institutions.

For us, teaching the new media literacies involves more than simply teaching kids how to use or even to program digital technologies. The new media landscape has as much to do with new social structures and cultural practices as it has to do with new tools and technologies. And as a consequence, we can teach new mindsets, new dispositions, even in the absence of rich technological environments. It is about helping young people to acquire the habits of mind required to fully engage within a networked public, to collaborate in a complex and diverse knowledge community, and to express themselves in a much more participatory culture. This new mode of learning requires teachers to embrace a much more collaborative atmosphere in their classrooms, allowing students to develop and assert distinctive expertise as they pool their knowledge to work through complex problems together.

Vinicius Navarro is assistant professor of film studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the co-author (with Louise Spence) of Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning (Rutgers University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book on performance, documentary, and new media.

Games By Day, Ska by Night: An Interview with Generoso Fierro (Part Two)

Apart from your work at GAMBIT, you have been gaining visibility as a documentary filmmaker who has specialized in exploring the history of Jamaican music. Where does your interest in this topic come from?

I became interested in Jamaican music in the early 1980s during a reggae concert that a friend’s older brother took me to in Philadelphia. The show was held in all of all places, a horse racing track that would sometime have the occasional concert back in the day. Setting excluded, I felt instantly connected to the music and shortly thereafter began to obsessively collect original recordings from the era of Jamaican music I adored the most.. Mento releases in the mid 1950s, through ska and rocksteady in the 1960s to the earliest sounds from reggae in the early 1970s.

In the mid-1990s I began to produce/DJ a show at WMBR 88.1FM in Cambridge called Generoso’s Bovine Ska and Rocksteady, the title taken from an animal that would best exemplify the physical union of the black and white motif commonly associated with ska from the 1970s. Over the last 14 years I have focused in on the aforementioned era of Jamaican music by not only programming the songs but providing background for all of the tracks provided.

In the early part of the last decade I began producing music for some of the local reggae bands which led to collaboration with Eli Kessler, a musician from New England Conservatory. Eli and I had a great admiration for Trinidadian born reggae guitarist Nearlin “Lynn” Taitt, who besides playing on thousands of essential recordings from 1962-1968 was also responsible for the creation of rocksteady, the precursor to reggae in 1966. Eli with a few other musicians from the area who also respected Taitt wrote and performed pieces with Lynn for what would be my first documentary, Lynn Taitt: Rocksteady. Appearing in the documentary is legendary musician Ran Blake, a senior faculty member of NEC, who donated a piece that he had written which he performs with Taitt in the film. Sadly, Lynn passed away in January of 2010.

Clip from Lynn Taitt: Rocksteady

Part of what emerges from your films is an attention to Jamaica as a crossroads for many different cultural traditions. For example, your current project centers on the historical exchange between Jamaica and China, which is an unexpected cross-current. What have you discovered so far about the cultural interplay between these two traditions?

The Chinese came to Jamaica in the mid 1800s as indentured servants to work mostly in the fields. After their contracts were up many of these workers began to fulfill a desperately needed role on the island, that of shopkeeper. In the late 1940s a hardware shop owner, named Tom Wong (later to be known Tom “The Great” Sebastian) had a sound system built for him by a former RAF engineer named Headly Jones. Tom used his new sound system to attract people to his store but soon the sound’s popularity grew till eventually this led his spinning records at clubs and thus the sound system culture was born. Soon after, Ivan Chin, a shopkeeper who owned a radio repair service began recording local artists and releasing mento (known as Jamaican calypso) records which were very popular on the island. Leslie Kong, who operated an ice cream shop was the first to record a young Bob Marley, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff. Kong was one of the most creative and successful producers in the 1960s.

It was this merging of the musical traditions of African Jamaican and the shopkeeper tradition which the Chinese brought from their homeland that helped propel Jamaican music to the international stage. Though they were only a small percentage of the island’s total population, they had a huge impact.

Going into the project I was aware of their role in Jamaican music history but many people have also erroneously perceived their motive for participating in the music industry as entirely commercial based on the history as mercantilists. Through the many interviews I conducted along with my Associate Producer, Christina Xu and Editor, Garrett Beazley, we see that the Chinese Jamaicans possess a genuine love for the music they helped create and promote throughout the world. This assertion is quantified but not only the Chinese Jamaicans themselves but also through interviews with many of the prominent African Jamaican artists who have worked with them. The documentary is entitled Always Together and we hope to be submitting it to festivals in early October.

You’ve worked on portraits of two other leading Jamaica-based performers — Lynn Taitt and Derrick Morgan. Why did you choose these particular artists and what does each teach us about how music is produced and consumed in Jamaica?

As in the early work with the GAMBIT lab, I am forever interested in the creative process. The final product is fine to watch but its the moments observing the formation of that final product that made me want to make documentaries. In both of the Jamaican documentaries I have previously produced, we do see the final product but most of the time you are given a rare access into the process, the arguments and the successes.

With Lynn Taitt, it was a combination of his sound, which as one of the interviews in the doc states best, ” When you hear Lynn, you automatically know it’s him and that is one of the best things you can say about a musician you love”. The tone of Lynn playing is so absolutely beautiful and I wanted to know what went into his method and instrumentation. Also it was the sheer volume of tracks he arranged and played on which from 1962-1968 was roughly 2,000 songs. Some are of course average cuts but many are amongst the most beloved and repeated rhythms in Jamaican music.

Derrick Morgan was dubbed “The King of Ska” early in his career as he was the first superstar in Jamaica. On one occasion in the early 1960s Derrick occupied the top seven spots on the Jamaican top ten, a feat that has not been repeated since. I have always admired his voice, a voice that is both powerful and at times sentimental. He wrote, sang and produced an epic number of hits through ska, rocksteady and reggae. Always impeccably dressed and possessing a stage persona of that is so rare these days.

After bringing him to Boston for a concert in 2002, I had for years wanted to do a documentary on him and in 2008 I brought him back to Boston to film, Derrick Morgan: I Am The Ruler, the title coming from a track Morgan penned during the rocksteady era. During the island’s heyday in the 1960s it is said that between 200-300 singles were produced per month, which is incredible for a country that is roughly the size of Indiana. Though the purchase of music on the island has decreased over the last ten years as it has worldwide, the production of that music remains a constant from that era. As one of the major exports of Jamaica, reggae is an essential part of the island’s cultural identity and for many the only chance of rising above the crippling poverty that exists there.

These films are deeply respectful of the integrity of the musical performances, yet it would be wrong to describe them as concert films. They attempt to put the music into a cultural context. Can you tell us something of how you see your work relating to previous attempts to capture musical performances on film?

Thank you Henry. The environment that an artist creates in is crucial in understanding their process. The lyrics are usually reflective of their surroundings and without some cultural context added into the mix you are left with a partial idea of their work. Director Julien Temple did quite a sensational job with the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and The Fury as far as putting you in that time period by using archival footage of the political climate during the formation and career of the band. That footage combined with the past and present interviews and a significant amount of live music helped the audience fully understand how something like punk would’ve manifested and why The Sex Pistols were the band the media latched onto at that time.

Amazingly, Temple’s next film about Clash frontman, Joe Strummer The Future Is Unwritten failed miserably as Temple chose to showcase meaningless celebrity testimonials (Johnny Depp, John Cusack?) , a meager amount of Strummer’s music and the stylistic choice of not titling any of Strummer’s acquaintances over adding any content that would’ve created an accurate picture of that artist. Strummer had passed before the film had been produced but there is a large amount of existing interview and live footage of him that could’ve been used.

As there isn’t much in the way of musical footage from 1960s Jamaica I was left with the situation of having to bring the artists to perform and record so that we can see their unique style when they create. During the course of these interviews I draw heavily from articles from Jamaican publications from the day and rely on the artist themselves to comment on well known events from their lives. In the case of the Derrick Morgan documentary I produced, I relied almost entirely on Morgan to create the narrative of the film and I insisted on having no other talking heads in the film to tell his story, except for one, that of Prince Buster, a rival musician whom Morgan feuded with in the early 1960s. I felt that it would’ve been unethical to not hear his side of the story. Morgan’s interview, coupled with Pathe newsreel footage and Jamaican Gleaner articles and the music, were arranged in the film in chronological order. Understanding the changing face of the island’s politics, especially during a key rise in violence after Jamaica’s independence in 1962, was key in how Morgan’s music changed over time, not just in the rhythm but in lyrical content.

Clip from Derrick Morgan: I Am The Rule

The GAMBIT films are created to be consumed on the web, while your own documentaries are created to be watched on larger screens. What have you learned about the differences in producing work for these two different viewing contexts?

Oddly what I feel is the main difference is in sound. Though a web video needs to be of good audio quality, films for the screen need sound that captivates an audience. On the Morgan and Taitt docs I spent almost as much time and effort on post production sound editing as with the editing of the film as a whole. For that reason I have yet to put those documentaries on the web as most of the dynamics of the sound would be lost due to the rate of compression on the predominance of video hosting sites. The videos I create for GAMBIT are specifically edited for an m4v file that is easily downloadable to smart phones but are actually quite good in keeping color and sound at a high enough level that the information comes through in an entertaining manner.

Generoso Fierro is the Outreach Coordinator for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, where he organizes press initatives, creates video content for the website such as the recently produced ten part series,Making a GAMBIT Game which chronicles the step by step construction of the GAMBIT 2010 summer game elude. Currently, Generoso is at WMBR radio, 88.1FM in Cambridge, where he is the longtime DJ of a program Generoso’s Bovine Ska and Rocksteady. The show concentrates on the music of Jamaica prior to reggae (mento, ska and rocksteady) and has been on the air since 1997. A film maker and avid film fan, “Gene” has directed and produced two feature documentaries, Lynn Taitt: Rocksteady about the Trinidadian born guitarist who invented the rocksteady rhythm and Derrick Morgan: I Am The Rule, featuring the titled legendary “King of Ska” from Jamaica.

Games By Day, Ska By Night: An Interview with Generoso Fierro (Part One)

During a visit back to MIT in August, I had a chance to pay a visit to my old friends at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab and get a sense of the progress of this summer’s workshop. Each summer, the group brings about 50 Singaporean students to MIT to work with Cambridge-based students in an intensive process to develop, test, and post games which are designed to stretch the limits of our current understanding of that medium. The Lab has enjoyed remarkable success both as a training program for future game designers, with many of its alums helping to fuel the growth of the Singapore games industry, and as an incubator for new game titles, many of which are becoming competitive in independent games competitions around the world, and some of which have been springboards for professional game development. The project has assembled a great group of highly dedicated researchers who embrace the interesting challenges of training the students, doing core games research, and inspiring creative development. You can sample this summer’s games on the GAMBIT website.

This was the first summer I had not been able to participate in the design process — at least on the level of helping critique the student work — and I was very pleased to see the growing sophistication of the games in terms of the visual design (which looks and feels unlike anything you are apt to see from current commercial games), the sound design (which is always expressive and innovative in its own right), and the play patterns and game mechanics (which often embrace alternative interfaces or explore functions of the medium which fall outside the mandates of most game companies.)

One of the things that pleased me the most was the way the Lab was opening up its design process by sharing webcasts of key research presentations — part of the larger mandate the Comparative Media Studies Program had accepted to help expand access to its core research and public outreach activities. I learned that Generoso Fierro, a key member of the GAMBIT team, had launched an ambitious project to document the design process behind one of this year’s more provocative titles, elude, which is intended to be a game which explores issues of clinical depression and hoped to be a resource for patients and their families. The series is now running in installments through the GAMBIT website and is worth checking out, especially for those who are involved or would like to be involved in the game design process.

If Fierro spends 9-5 focusing on how to document and publicize the work of the GAMBIT lab (not to mention helping to stage key events that emerge from the lab’s process), he has on his own time been an important Cambridge-area DJ and documentary producer (who is gaining growing visibility on the film festival circuit) for his fascinating work on the Jamacian music scene. Fierro’s films manage to capture the process by which these musicians work, mixing together rehearsals and behind the scenes moments with the finished works in concerts, but they also have deep insights to offer into the cultural and historical contexts within which these artists work.

Fierro is, as this interview suggests, deeply protective of the integrity of his finished films — especially of their soundtracks — so it is a real privilege to be able to share some short clips from these productions here on this blog. In the first segment of this interview, I am focusing on his games-related work (his day job) and in the second part, his music-related documentaries (his night work).

The MIT-Singapore GAMBIT games lab has been producing a steady stream of interesting podcasts and webvideos. What has been the driving goal behind these projects?

Whenever it’s brought up that I work for the game research lab at MIT, people usually follow that up with “So, does that mean you play games all day?” And although their assumption isn’t totally incorrect, it lead me to believe that the general public and even some of those who are involved in the games industry are still a bit unclear as to the nature of game research.

In the fall of 2009, the bulk of GAMBIT’s outreach initiatives were in the form of blog posts and events that mostly highlighted the final research, achievements and games of the lab but I felt that there needed to be more focus on the day to day creation of these efforts. In December of 2009 I began filming the weekly research meeting which is organized by our post-doctoral researcher, Clara Fernandez-Vara. These weekly meetings are a chance for the staff of GAMBIT to get feedback on current papers and research initiatives. Individual meetings were condensed on video resulting in the monthly GAMBIT Research Video Podcast Series. So far the subjects have ranged from a discussion of a paper by our Audio Director, Abe Stein (Episode 3) based on the flawed adaption of the game Dante’s Inferno (Episode 3) to the original research initiative that became the summer 2010 GAMBIT game, elude (Episode 5). The creation of that game, from its initial research, through the day to day creation of the final prototype over nine weeks during this past summer’s program became the ten part weekly series I produced entitled “Making A GAMBIT Game” .

Clip from GAMBIT Research Video Podcast Episode Five

Your most recent series focuses on the development of elude, a game about depression. What drew you to focus on this particular game? What did you discover about the game design process through following this title from conception through completion?

GAMBIT has handled some challenging research ideas over the last four years but the thought of a game which would aid the families and friends of people who suffer from depression was too intriguing for me not to document. My earliest thoughts centered around the team itself who are charged with making the final prototype and the myriad of issues they would encounter along the way. Our games are created every summer by teams made up of Singaporean interns, US interns from Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design and interns from M.I.T. Every GAMBIT team usually has to overcome the brevity of their time together, the usual cultural and subtle language issues and working within the particular game development system here.

With the elude project I immediately wondered how the team would deal with the challenge of making a game that had some fairly rigid goals for it to be successful. Specifically, a game that had to maintain a level of gameplay that would be interesting for a ten year old who plays games regularly to an adult who may have never played a game but are hoping to gain deeper insight into a loved ones depression. I was first stunned at the turnaround time of the team and their strong grasp of the task before them by their output of three early prototypes after only 8 days in the lab (two of them fairly involved digital prototypes, one paper). Early on I was impressed with the ease of the interns communication with the product owner Doris Rusch, the game’s director, Rik Eberhardt and the research consultant for the project, T. Atilla Ceranoglu, M.D from Mass General Hospital, who were on site to assist and comment on the game’s progression. The interns took direction extremely well but were not shy about offering their own opinions on the project. In fact the level of interpretation that the students had on the final prototype was more than I would’ve ever imagined.

“Making a GAMBIT Game” Episode Five Clip

This is a bit of a cliche as a question, but I am interested in this particular case. How do you think the presence of the camera impacted the design and training process these films depict?

To start off, I must say that the interns were extremely welcoming whenever I came into the lab and the game director and product owner were also key in letting me know when a meeting or milestone was about to happen that was outside of my normal shooting schedule. I found that early on I may have stifled some discussion within the team’s meetings where the product owner/game director were not in attendance as they did tense up a bit when I was in the room. For the record, I would always assure them that A) If something was said that you did not want to be included in the final video, I would not include it and B) These videos were to be released long after the team had disbanded so they wouldn’t have the episodes airing as a distraction from the creative process.

That said, I was never asked to remove something that was said by the interns during the entire shoot which leads us to episode five (week four of the US lab experience) A very frank discussion where the interns begin to have some serious issues with the progress of the games development. During that particular discussion I wholeheartedly felt as though my presence was not felt in the room and the freedom of what was said completely candid. There was at times a small amount of direct talking to the camera but mostly I felt outside of the games development process.

There are relatively few films to date which document the process of making a game. What do you think game design students might learn from following this series?

Most of the interns had never worked on a game start to finish prior to coming to GAMBIT. I think the series really benefits those who are considering an education in games. Unlike the game industry there is a unique challenge at GAMBIT where the client is also your supervisor and the concerns that arise from that situation. The elude project is a success, but still there are many moments in which the team had issues not understanding certain facets of the game and the supervisors failed in communicating the resolutions back to them in a way team could understand. This is not uncommon in this type of setting and seeing this might help a student who feels the same level of frustration while in a team like this at their game program.

Generoso Fierro is the Outreach Coordinator for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, where he organizes press initatives, creates video content for the website such as the recently produced ten part series,Making a GAMBIT Game which chronicles the step by step construction of the GAMBIT 2010 summer game elude. Currently, Generoso is at WMBR radio, 88.1FM in Cambridge, where he is the longtime DJ of a program Generoso’s Bovine Ska and Rocksteady. The show concentrates on the music of Jamaica prior to reggae (mento, ska and rocksteady) and has been on the air since 1997. A film maker and avid film fan, “Gene” has directed and produced two feature documentaries, Lynn Taitt: Rocksteady about the Trinidadian born guitarist who invented the rocksteady rhythm and Derrick Morgan: I Am The Rule, featuring the titled legendary “King of Ska” from Jamaica.

Avatar Activism and Beyond

A few weeks ago, I published an op-ed piece in Le Monde Diplomatique about what I am calling “Avatar Activism.”

The ideas in this piece emerged from the conversations I’ve been having at the University of Southern California with an amazing team of PhD candidates, drawn from both the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism and the Cinema School and managed by our research director, Sangita Shreshtova (an alum of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program). Every week, this volunteer army gets together and explores the blurring line between participatory culture (especially as manisfested through fandom) and participatory politics (with a strong focus on youth engagement). Collectively, we’ve begun to generate conference presentations and publications, including jointly editing a forthcoming issue of Transformative Works and Culture, which is going to deal with fan activism. We’ve now received funding from the MacArthur and Spencer Foundations to do field work looking at political organizations which are engaging youth with the political process often through unconventional means. Our current focus is on Invisible Children and The Harry Potter Alliance, though other members of our group have been looking at a range of other examples. You can see some of our earliest accounts of this process on the web here.

Those of you who follow my Twitter account will already have seen the Avatar Activism piece in its published form, but I thought I would share here the extended version, including the bits that ended up on the cutting room floor. And after the article, I want to talk about an interesting response to the piece which was recently posted.

Avatar Activism

By Henry Jenkins

In February, five Palestinian, Israeli and International Activists painted themselves blue to resemble the Nav’I from James Cameron’s science fiction blockbuster, Avatar, and marched through the occupied village of Bil’n. The Israeli military assaulted the Azure-skinned protestors, whose garb combined traditional Keffiyeh and Hijab scarfs with tails and pointy ears, with tear gas and sound bombs. The camcorder footage of the incident was juxtaposed with borrowed shots from the Hollywood film and circulated on YouTube. We hear the movie characters proclaim, “We will show the Sky People that they can not take whatever they want! This, this is our land!”

By now, most of us have read more than we ever wanted to read about Avatar so rest assured that this essay is not about the film, its use of 3D cinematography and digital effects, or its box office. Rather, my focus is citizens around the world are mobilizing icons and myths from popular culture as resources for political speech. Call it Avatar Activism.

Even relatively apolitical critics for local newspapers recognized that Avatar spoke to contemporary political concerns. Conservative publications, such as The National Review or the Weekly Standard, denounced Avatar as anti-American, Anti-military, and Anti-capitalist. A Vatican film critic argued that it promoted “nature worship,” while some environmentalists embraced Avatar as “the most epic piece of environmental advocacy ever captured on celluloid.” Many on the left ridiculed the film’s contradictory critique of colonialism and embrace of white liberal guilt fantasies, calling it “Dances with Smurfs.” One of the most nuanced critiques of the film came from Daniel Heath Justice, an activist from the Cherokee nation, who felt that Avatar was directing attention on the rights of indigeneous people even as Cameron over-simplified the evils of colonialism, creating embodiments of the military-industrial complex which are easy to hate and hard to understand.

Such ideological critiques encourage a healthy skepticism towards the production of popular mythologies and are a step above critics who see popular culture as essentially trivial and meaningless, as offering only distractions from our real world problems. The meaning of a popular film like Avatar lies at the intersection between what the author wants to say and how the audience deploys his creation for their own communicative purposes.

The Bel’in protestors recognized potential parallels between the Nav’I’s struggles to defend their Eden against the Sky People and their own attempts to regain lands they feel were unjustly taken from them. (The YouTube video makes clear the contrast between the lush jungles of Pandora and the arid, dusty landscape of the occupied territories.) The film’s larger-than-life imagery offered them an empowered image of their own struggles. Thanks to Hollywood’s publicity machine, Images from Avatar would be recognized world-wide. The site of a blue-skinned alien writhing in the dust, choking on tear gas, shocked many into paying attention to messages we too often turn off and tune out, much as Iranian protestors used Twitter to grab the interest of the digitally aware outside their country.

As they appropriate Avatar, the actvists rendered some of the most familiar ideological critiques beside the point. Conservative critics worried that Avatar might foster Anti-Americanism, but as the image of the Nav’I has been taken up by protest groups in many parts of the world, the myth has been rewritten to focus on local embodiments of the military-industrial complex: in Bel’in, the focus was on the Israeli army; in China, it was on the struggles of indigeneous people against the Chinese government; In Brazil, it was the Amazon Indians against logging companies. Without painting themselves blue, intellectuals such as Arundhati Roy and Slavoj Zizek have used discussions around Avatar to call attention to the plight of the Dongria Kondh peoples of India, who are struggling with their government over access to traditional territories which are rich in Bauxite. It turns out that America isn’t the only “evil empire” left on Planet Earth. Leftist critics worry that the focus on white human protagonists gives an easy point of identification, yet protestors consistently seek to occupy the blue skins of the Nav’I,.

The Avatar activists are tapping into a very old language of popular protest. Cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis reminds us in her now classic essay “Woman on Top” that protestors in early Modern Europe often masked their identity through various forms of role play, often dressing as peoples, both real (the Moor) and imagined (The Amazons), who were a perceived threat to the civilized order. The good citizens of Boston continued this tradition in the New World when they dressed as native Americans to dump tea in the harbor. And African-Americans in New Orleans formed their own Mardi Gras Indian tribes, taking imagery from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, to signify their own struggles for respect and dignity (a cultural practice being reconsidered in HBO’s Treme).

In his book, Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy, media theorist Stephen Duncombe argues that the American Left has adopted a rationalist language which can seem cold and exclusionary, speaking to the head and not the heart. Duncombe argues that the contemporary cultural context, with its focus on appropriation and remixing, may offer a new model for activism which is spectacular and participatory, rejects the wonkish vocabulary of most policy discourse, and draws emotional power from its engagement with stories that already matter to a mass public. Duncombe cites, for example, a group called Billionaires for Bush, which posed as mega-tycoons straight out of a Monopoly game, in order to call attention to the corporate interests shaping Republican positions. Yet, he might have been writing about protestors painting themselves blue or Twitter users turning their icons green in solidarity with the Iranian opposition party.

Working with a team of researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, we have been mapping many recent examples of groups repurposing pop culture towards social justice. Our focus is on what we call participatory culture: in contrast to mass media’s spectator culture, digital media has allowed many more consumers to take media in their own hands, highjacking culture for their own purposes. Shared narratives provide the foundation for strong social networks, generating spaces where ideas get discussed, knowledge gets produced, and culture gets created. In this process, fans are acquiring skills and building a grassroots infrastructure for sharing their perspectives on the world. Much as young people growing up in a hunting society may play with bows and arrows, young people coming of age in an information society play with information.

The Harry Potter Alliance’s Andrew Slack calls this process “cultural acupuncture,” suggesting that his organization has identified a vital “pressure point” in the popular imagination and sought to link it to larger social concerns. The Harry Potter Alliance has mobilized more than 100,000 young people world wide to participate in campaigns against genocide in Africa, in support of workers rights and gay marriage, to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti, to call attention to media concentration, and many other causes. Young Harry Potter, Slack argues, realized that the government and the media were lying to the public in order to mask evil in their midst and he organized his classmates to form Dumbledore’s Army and went out to change the world. Slack asks his followers what evils Dumbledore’s Army would be battling in our world. In Maine, for example, the Alliance organized a competition between fans affiliated with Griffindor, Ravenclaw, and the other Hogwarts houses, to see who could get the most voters to the polls in a referendum on equal marriage rights. The group’s playful posture may mobilize young people who have traditionally felt excluded or marginalized from the political process.

Sack acknowledges that journalists are apt to pay much more attention to what’s happening at Hogwarts (or at least the opening of the new Harry Potter theme park) than what’s happening in Darfer. Such efforts may sound either cynical (giving up on the power of reason to convert the masses) or naïve (believing in myths rather than realities). Actually, these new style activists show a sophisticated understanding of how utopian fantasy often motivates our desires to change the world. In traditional activism, there has been less and less room to imagine what we are fighting for rather than becoming overwhelmed by what we are fighting against. In such movements, there is always a moment when participants push aside the comforting fantasy to deal with the complexities of what’s happening on the ground.

This new style of activism doesn’t necessarily require us to paint ourselves blue; it does ask that we think in creative ways about the iconography which comes to us through every available media channel. Consider, for example, the ways that Dora the Explorer, the Latina girl at the center of a popular American public television series, has been deployed by both the right and the left to dramatize the likely consequences of Arizona’s new “Immigration Reform” law or for that matter, how the American “Tea Parties” have embraced a mash-up of Obama and the Joker from Dark Knight Returns as a recurring image in their battle against health care reform.

Such analogies no more capture the complexities of these policy debates than we can reduce the distinctions between American political parties to, say, the differences between elephants and donkeys (icons from an earlier decade’s political cartoonists). Such tactics work only if we read these images as metaphors, standing in for something bigger than they can fully express. Avatar can’t do justice to the century old struggle over the occupied territory and the YouTube video the protestors produced is no substitute for informed discourse about what’s at stake there. Yet their spectacular and participatory performance does provide the emotional energy they need to keep on fighting and it may direct attention to other resources.

A growing number of people know how to Photoshop images, sample and remix sound, and deploy digital editing tools to mash up footage from their favorite film or television shows. This public is developing a new kind of media literacy, learning to read such deployments of popular icons for what they express about ourselves and our times. And where Photoshop fails us, protestors are turning to blue body paint in their effort to get the attention of potential supporters on Facebook and YouTube.

So, that’s where I left it in the original draft of the essay, but the great thing about the blogosphere is that others add to your ideas in unexpected ways and they do so with much more rapid turnaround than would be possible in the sluggish realm of traditional academic publishing. Over the weekend, a response to my essay appeared on line, written by an expert about the tactics and rhetoric shaping politics in the Occupied Territories, and placing the Avatar video from Bilen into the larger context of the ongoing tactics of the group of protestors who created it. The entire post is must-read for anyone who cares about either the politics of the region or the general theme I am exploring here, how activists can use participatory media practices in order to direct greater attention onto their struggles and engage with new supporters. But I thought I would share a few chunks here in the hopes of enticing more of you to check out what Simon’s Teaching Blog has to say.

Thus viewers of a video of the Bil’in demonstration on YouTube, or photographs of the same demonstration on Flickr might turn to text-based forms of communication as a means of informing themselves about why these images were produced. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites have suggested that the Abu Ghraib photographs disseminated internationally in 2004 encouraged people to read documents that were already in the public realm, but which had not gained as much attention as they should. Thus they state: ‘Strong images can activate strong reading.’ (Robert Harimen and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Chicago, 2007)

The organisers of the Avatar demonstration in Bil’in aimed to produce strong images that would have an impact upon those who saw them and would attract the attention of a much wider audience. The video of this demonstration posted on YouTube by Bil’in based video maker Haitam Al Katib has received 245,440 views, at the time of writing, as opposed to the video of Naomi Klein’s visit to Bil’in in August 2009 which has received 9,498 views. Taking the motif of blue aliens from a science fiction film and relocating it within the political reality of the West Bank could not be anything but a strong image, generating an uncanny effect and one hopes encouraging reflection and ‘strong reading’ that might help explain what was being seen. But the potential effects of strong images are not restricted to media audiences. The strength of these images can also shape how these audiences encounter them in the media. Thus Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples have argued that the strong images created by acts of symbolic violence performed by anarchists during the protests against the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in 1999 focussed the media spotlight on the concerns of the demonstrators, allowing their ideas to be aired and given a greater degree of serious attention (Kevin Michael DeLua and Jennifer Peeples, ‘From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the “Violence” of Seattle’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Volume 19, Number 2, June 2002). With these considerations in mind, it can be suggested that whatever loss of conceptual understanding occurs through the immediate impact of the images of ‘Avatar activism’ can be made up for in how these images relate to the written word.

Considering Jenkin’s fleeting discussion of Bil’in it should be added that the Avatar demonstration was just one instance in which demonstrators in the village appropriated motifs from other contexts, most of which were not related to popular culture. More usual has been imagery related to the broad historical frame of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and current events related to the occupation. Thus the Bil’in Popular Committee have set up demonstrations themed to reference, for example, the iconography of the Holocaust and the storming of the Free Gaza flotilla. This affirms that the image repertoire of the Bil’in demonstrators is much broader and more historically and politically aware than the appropriation of imagery from a Hollywood blockbuster might suggest.

The key point here is that the people of Bil’in have repeatedly appropriated imagery for their demonstrations that is in some way relevant to their cause and that enables them to not only keep going, but also to break out of their isolation. To do this they have had to constantly innovate themes for their demonstrations and develop new props that can become the focal point for demonstrators and the media alike. What this suggests is that although the imagery used in the demonstrations is often simple and involves the reinforcement of crude binaries between oppression and freedom defined in terms of a contrast between the Israeli state and the Palestinian struggle, this mobilisation of simple imagery is the result of a sophisticated understanding of what resources politically weak agents can mobilise in a long term struggle against the power of a sovereign state. The people of Bil’in have committed themselves to non-violence and consequently have had to turn to other media oriented means of resistance to the classic ‘weapons of the weak’ utilised in the armed struggles of guerrilla and national liberation movements.

It was fantastic to see someone place the Avatar protest in this larger context of other interventions and tactics deployed by this same group of protesters. As someone who lacks expertise on the Middle East, I didn’t know anything more about this situation than I had read in existing news reports, though it spoke to the global context where these appropriations are occuring. When we launched our paper call for the Transformative Works and Culture special issue on “Fan Activism,” we were surprised that the overwhelming number of submissions on this issue came from researchers working outside of the United States and recounting very powerful examples of such tactics being deployed all over the world. I look forward to sharing more about these issues in future blog posts.

From Fear to Facebook: An Interview with Matt Levinson (Part Two)

This is the second part of an interview conducted by Erin Reilly, Research Director, Project New Media Literacies.

Now that you’ve established a one-to-one laptop initiative at Nueva, do you see a need to think ahead on integrating mobile devices into the system as well, especially with the lure of the iPad being promoted for schools?

There’s always the need to think ahead, and of course with technology, it can be a challenge to keep pace. The iPad is cheaper and lighter than a laptop, it has a great screen, it’s fun to use, and the number of apps is growing.  There is no video creation capability, it’s hard to type on it (unless you have purchased the keyboard), you can’t take photos with it, though you can view and manage your photos.  Will it gain traction as a stand alone device for schools?  I’d like to think so, but it may take some time.

Will students really use the iPad exclusively and primarily for the “academic enhancement” of the courses?  Probably not.  The iPad will double as a learning and social/entertainment tool. Schools need to go into these endeavors with both eyes open to the possibility that students will take the devices in directions not anticipated or even imagined, and that’s what is exciting.

The iPad is a fantastic, alluring consumption device, and transforms navigation, reading, and viewing.  The key question is how to turn it into a content creation tool.  That will be the challenge for schools to face as they move to adoption of the iPad.

Can you share more about how the iLab at Nueva School works?  …From how you established a relationship with Stanford University, to how you work with them on going, to how the iLab is used in students’ learning.

The iLab opened its doors in 2007, the same year we launched the laptop program.  We have a superb iLab director who partners with teachers to create curriculum that embeds design thinking and incorporates engineering principles.  Our iLab director is an engineer, and she is working to develop a K-12 design thinking curriculum.  The exciting part about the iLab is the way teachers bring an interdisciplinary lens into their planning and approaches, and design thinking asks kids to step out of their comfort zones to go deeper into idea development.  The premise of the iLab is to be explicit about teaching creativity.  Beyond class projects, kids also have the opportunity to explore in the iLab during lunch recess with robotic arms, for example.  Each summer, we send teams of teachers to Stanford’s Design Thinking Workshop, and that has helped with teacher development and curricular implementation. 

How do you encourage your teachers to push the boundaries?  Can you provide an example of an exemplary teacher? 

Nueva is about pushing boundaries for kids and for teachers.  We love it when teachers come up with new ways of looking at curriculum or have a new idea about how to implement technology.  One teacher in particular, a science teacher, has been a self-starter and leader with technology from the start of the laptop program.  This past year, she was a Google fellow.  She is always thinking about technology, and bubbles with ideas and implementation.  She is eager to figure out how to make iPads work in the classroom.  Her whole class is digital – lectures, labs, assignments – and she takes pride in the “green” aspect.  Her enthusiasm has spilled over to others and there is an organic approach to teacher development with technology.  Also, there is nothing better than to see a teacher beaming with being able to imagine possibility with kids and technology.  

In talking with other schools and teachers, we’ve heard that bringing in experts or other adult role models into the classroom are one of the hardest things to do.  Do you find this the case at Nueva?  And if not, can you share some insight to others on how to facilitate these connections?

One big lesson we’ve learned at Nueva is that you can’t go it alone.  Reach out to experts in the field.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  We try to foster an environment at Nueva where we are all learners.  We have speakers come and speak to parents, teachers, and kids and we hear similar messages. It sends a signal to kids that we are all trying to learn.  During the first year, we reached out to Common Sense Media, and to cyber safety experts like Steve DeWarns.  In the second year, we brought Alan November to work with our teachers, and to inspire our students.  The big takeaway is that we are comfortable knowing what we don’t know and then we try to learn more.  Technology is endlessly fascinating, and there are always new iterations.  We want to keep learning along with the kids. 

I completely agree that “finding the balance between appropriate oversight and student’s rights and needs for privacy is anything but easy”.  In your chapter on Privacy and Little Brother, you talk about how Nueva School uses ARD (Apple Remote Desktop) technology to monitor what the student is doing on his / her laptop. How do you respond to those who might argue that this is a violation of student privacy? Another concern that could arise with use of ARD in schools is the removal of teachers having to discuss with students what they are doing on their laptops during class time.  How would you address this concern?

The key thing about ARD is that it cannot serve as a stand alone to manage student behavior in the classroom.  It’s so critical to invest time in the classroom with kids to create the culture and build the relationship.  It’s also so important to be transparent with kids about why ARD is being utilized by the school.  The ultimate goal is for kids to gain the ability to regulate their behaviors.  At times, it can be a challenge for kids, particularly in their first year of the laptop program, to control their use, and to keep the focus on using the laptop as a tool to enhance teaching and learning.  A big challenge for schools, and we’ve seen this with Lower Merion in Pennsylvania, is the issue of transparency and communication.  We have ARD as one tool to use, but the most effective tool is the relationship among student, teachers, and parents.

A graduate of Teachers’ College, Columbia University, Matt Levinson is the assistant director and head of the middle school at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, California. Prior to moving into school administration, he taught middle and upper school history for fourteen years at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey. Matt Levinson is the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey, published by ISTE in August 2010. He writes and thinks about technology, parenting, and schools.

From Fear to Facebook: An Interview with Matt Levinson (Part One)

Today, I am cross posting an interview which Erin Reilly, the research director for the New Media Literacies Project, did for our blog.

From Fear to Facebook

by Erin Reilly

Matt Levinson recently released his book, From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey.  I had a chance to interview Matt on his journey of moving from New Jersey to California in 2007 to start a 1-to-1 laptop program at the Nueva School. 

This book is a must-read for any school grappling with the questions of what it means to meaningfully support teaching and learning with technology.  Matt shares the promises and perils that he and the Nueva Community faced as they integrated a laptop program. It is an interesting, holistic road map that takes into account each stakeholders position whether it was the teachers to the parents to the students.

Let’s begin with expectations… When you started the 1-to-1 laptop program at the Nueva School, what were your goals for the initiative and how did they play out?

I had just moved to Northern California from New Jersey in 2007 at the start of the laptop program, and approached the rollout with confidence that the community, which is made up of tech-savvy teachers and parents in Silicon Valley, would handle the transition smoothly.  Even though most families had home computers and were technologically sophisticated, and the teachers had lived with laptop carts for several years, none of us were prepared for the culture clash that occurred between kids and adults.  Parents and teachers felt overwhelmed by the laptops initially, and we all struggled to figure out how to map out acceptable boundaries, set limits, and also seize on opportunities to enhance teaching and learning with technology.  

From Fear to Facebook shares many of the challenges the Nueva Community overcame when implementing the one-to-one laptop program, but now that it is underway, what are new promises and challenges with the program?

We are now entering year 4 of the laptop program and progressing in our use of technology.  Teachers are more confident now and create curriculum with technology at the forefront of their thinking. The school culture has also been established with buy in from all stakeholders.  We are still taking steps to build a more powerful participatory culture with the use of blogs and wikis, discussion forums, and digital portfolios.  We are running programming and podcasting classes, and further integrating curriculum across multiple disciplines.  The challenge is how to leverage new opportunities with new tools – flip video cameras, iPads (a few teachers have the now and are beginning to think of ways to implement curriculum with iPads).  

Can you share with us an example of one of the most difficult obstacles Nueva has faced in this journey, how you overcame it and the unexpected positive outcomes that resulted?  How did you foster a participatory culture whereby dialogue between all stakeholders in the Nueva Community happened and all voices were heard?

The first two years of the program, we approached the laptop program from the outside looking in.  In year two, we learned the valuable lesson that we had to include the kids in our discussion and planning and develop a model from the inside out.  The kids resisted the boundaries of the acceptable use policy, but at the root of the issue was their feeling that rules were being imposed without their consideration and voice.  We had many community discussions with kids at lunch, with parents at parent coffees, and we held parent education evenings with our very talented Social and Emotional Learning teachers facilitating discussion with parents about how to create agreements in the home.  This turned the tide.  

Parents often break into two sides of connecting children to the world outside of the school walls. One side would like to have less restriction and provide students the freedom to explore while the other side would rather have more restrictions put in place.  In what ways do you and others at Nueva School navigate the school / home relationship and balance between parents of differing viewpoints?

This is a constant, ever evolving challenge and opportunity.  We try to give parents the ability to customize their homes with laptop restrictions, but we do not implement a one size fits all program.  Our Social and Emotional Learning Team is critical to this part of the laptop program.  They serve as a vital resource for parents, and incorporate digital citizenship into their curriculum.  They communicate constantly with parents about what they are doing in the classroom and how parents can follow up at home.  We tell parents that we want to know about their frustrations and challenges with laptops and we want to be a helpful resource for them.  The key thing is for parents to feel that the school is partnering with them on the perils and possibilities of parenting in the digital age.  There will always be different parenting styles, and we learn as much from parents as they learn from us, and it’s critical to listen to parents on opposite sides of this type of issue.  It helps us to frame our approaches.   

There is a tension between participatory learning and how schools currently provide a “one size fits all” approach to instruction that can be standardized, measured and assessed.  There also is a certain notion of what the role of both teacher and student looks like which is very prominent in the United States Public Education System.  Knowing Nueva is a private progressive school, do you think the current public education school system can radically change?  What are some characteristics they could adopt from progressive schools to have schools like Nueva can become the norm rather than the exception?

I think there are so many exciting possibilities out there right now.  We can begin to break down the walls of schools with technology, deepen and personalize learning for students, differentiate instruction, and meet the needs of students of all abilities.  One of the virtues of a progressive school environment is that student-centered learning is valued and honored.  Laptop learning is perfect for this environment because it allows and fosters the role of student as engineer, designer, and architect of their own learning with guidance from a teacher.  We need to move to the idea of learning playlists and digital itineraries for students.  With tools like Google Apps for Education, schools can create a participatory culture within their school walls, and depending on comfort with security issues, can open up the school to communities around the worlds.  Also, with tools like Skype, learning world languages can look different and individualized learning can happen more and more.  We need to shift to one size fits each as the operating premise for schools, and that can be applied in every community.    

A graduate of Teachers’ College, Columbia University, Matt Levinson is the assistant director and head of the middle school at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, California. Prior to moving into school administration, he taught middle and upper school history for fourteen years at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey. Matt Levinson is the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey, published by ISTE in August 2010.  He writes and thinks about technology, parenting, and schools. 

Doing Drag in Wal-Mart and Other Stories of Rural Queer Youth: An Interview with Mary L. Gray (Part Three)

You argue that queer identities are “achieved, not discovered.” What do you see as the process by which youth outside the metropolitan areas “achieve” a sexual orientation?

I think that what makes queer youth identities organized outside metropolitan areas so different is that they must be negotiated in communities where everyone assumes a deep familiarity with each other. If anonymity, access to critical masses of queer folks, and unfettered exploration of queer-controlled counterpublics define urban queer identity formation (and I think they do for white, middle class queers in major cities), familiarity, an absence of visible queer presence, and circumscribed sharing of boundary publics shape the achievement of rural sexual orientations and gender identities. So, crafting and articulating a sense of queer self where one has, as a talk about in the book, never met a stranger is a vastly different project than what young people able to access a city’s LGBT Center or youth program can do.

Rural youth and young adults definitely travel beyond their small towns to larger cities to recreate the sense of being in the majority (and just to find dates!) but their day-to-day lives gives them fewer tools on hand to build an identity that approximates what they see in popular media. And, at the end of the day, many of the youth I met were trying to achieve queer identities that looked like what they saw on television or in film.

The hard part was that rural places, if depicted at all, are not part of that queer achievement. Small towns and rural communities play out like evil characters (think Deliverance or Boys Don’t Cry or Brokeback Mountain). So young people in Rural America have to enact their identities in ways that don’t disparage their small towns so much so that they become inhospitable. In that regard, popular media has left them little they can use.

You challenge many preconceptions about how small town gay youth use the web to find a world beyond the paroachialism of their own communities in favor of a much more complex picture. What roles does digital media play in the kinds of struggles you account in your book?

I did start out my research assuming that youth simply used digital media to escape their dreariness of their lives. Isn’t that what most of us assume?

What I found was that rural youth used digital media to interject their own voices and experiences into the mix. So I follow the case of one young trans-identifying person who used a website to chronicle his gender work. He shared this website with family and friends–both local and living elsewhere. Digital media were at once his tools for articulating his experience and for finding resources and support that weren’t available to him locally. In short, they use digital media not to find a queer world elsewhere but to augment the world they queer through their presence and actions.

How does rural youth’s “complicated, and often, compromised, access to computers and internet connections…hamper” their capacities to engage with online spaces that are meaningful to them?

I think what worried me most is that queer organizers will believe that the internet is the window through which we will see the lives of rural queer youth. In fact, the majority of youth I worked with did not have access to a personal computer in their home. Several communities still did not have household broadband service available in their area. Schools were the only institutions that had reliable net access but all them, without exception, had both monitoring software and filtering software installed so that students could not search for information with the word “gay” in it without receiving some sort of sanction. Most of the public libraries in these communities have recently started blocking the most common social networking sites.

All of these social barriers to access deepen what DiMaggio and Hargattai describe as digital inequality. It’s no longer about whether the hardware is present or not (even though, in several cases, that digital divide still persists); if our social understandings of youth culture increasing involve young people’s capacity to build out social spaces for themselves through networked connections, these rural young people will be left even further marginalized by the mainstream. To make my point concrete: the more queer-specific content, whether commercial or non-profit, tracks to an imagined consumer who’s cruising with the speed of broadband and looking for hook ups through geo location applications that only exist for the city connoisseur, the further distanced rural queer youth will be from taking part in creating what “queer culture” means.

As you worked on the book, you were often pulled into these local controversies as an outside resource or consultant for local queer activists. How did this dual role complicate and/or enrich your research process? Has the book’s publication changed your status as a public intellectual working on these issues?

This book came out of my desire to see what the internet did and could mean to rural queer youth. It’s a very personal project in that I was an aged-out former queer youth activist from the sticks of the Central Valley and I wanted to know what would make life better for someone like me if I hadn’t left my hometown.

Carrying my commitments to queer organizing into my fieldwork meant that there were some people who would not want to talk with me and would not let me in. So, for example, I did not spend anytime in schools or with many teachers uninvolved in LGBT organizing so I lost a sense of how they fully fit into the lives of the youth I did work with. But I know I gained quick access and found the number of teens I did because I had a backstory that looked something like their lives.

My commitment to seeing what my work could bring to their lives also gave me a focus beyond an academic conversation. It’s allowed me to feel like this work can and will have a life of its own as it makes its way to queer rural organizing projects and media activists trying to think through how to reach those with socially compromised access to information. It has been so surreal to see other scholars pick up what I’ve learned from these rural queer youth and their communities. It’s really a dream come true for me to be able to make a living bringing legitimacy to these questions and model the kind of scholarship that inspired me to go into this wacky line of work we call “the academy.”

Mary L. Gray is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research looks at how everyday uses of media shape people’s understandings and expressions of their social identities. She is the author of In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth (1999). Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press) examines how young people in rural parts of the United States fashion queer senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media–particularly the internet–play in their lives and political work.

Doing Drag in Wal-Mart and Other Stories of Rural Queer Youth: An Interview with Mary L. Gray (Part Two)

You pose some critiques of the way national gay rights organizations are structured based on an assumption of large urban bases of supporters. How has this limited their ability to serve the needs of the kind of communities you discuss in your book?

The limits of current national organizing models really hit home for me as I watched rural LGBT Kentuckians attempt to battle an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment campaign. It was 2004 and the elections were heating up. Like so many other states that year, Kentucky not only had the Presidential candidates on the ballot, it also had this amendment to contend with. Every effort spent on fighting this amendment looked like the best of legislative politics–voter drives, campaign fundraisers, door-to-door campaigns to not only get out the vote but also educate voters about the incendiary amendment likely to hurt unmarried opposite-sex couples as much as it would ban same-sex couples from marrying.

But these strategies so central to how most non-profit organizations “do” social justice organizing don’t have legs in rural communities. Voter drives in communities where the same wealthy, landowning families have controlled elected seats for generations; fundraisers in communities where unemployment rates hover around 40%; and door-to-door campaigns in communities where publicly debating or disagreeing with a neighbor threatens the “getting along” venire necessary to daily life are all strategies that work against queer organizing in rural communities.

What national gay rights organizations need to do is identify what needs and values they share with rural communities. And this cannot happen until national gay rights organizations identify the ways they have privileged building movements on not only an urban base of supporters but also an upper middle class to wealthy, overwhelmingly white base that prioritizes issues from that vantage point. Arguing for marriage equality because it will give partners equal access to their inheritance and healthcare benefits falls flat in communities where the median income is below the poverty line and communities do not have access to medical care let alone health insurance. Most urban-based gay rights organizations imagine that their key constituencies live in Chicago, Miami, or New York City. That limits how much they pay attention and therefore how much they can effectively address the needs of the youth living in the communities I discuss in the book.

You write, “Historically, an unspoken agreement operated in rural communities: queer difference was allowed to quietly exist, if not flourish, as long as it did not interfere with one’s commitments to family and community.” How has that “unspoken agreement” impacted the kinds of arguments which must be made as queers struggle to find acceptance and tolerance in small town communities?

I think this ethos of “live and let live, quietly” has, until now, defined what acceptance and tolerance look like for queers living in small towns because to do otherwise threatened the reliance on familiarity that I talk about in the book. But it might also define how any queer person, who lacks unconditional, uncompromised social privilege, has to live as well.

I would argue that we haven’t examined the utility of this ethos in rural communities or communities at the margins of social privilege. There are few people who can afford to live unconditionally, without compromise and have the social power to set the terms of how they are to be treated. The ethos of letting queerness exist quietly serves a critical role in maintaining community solidarity while still creating room to queerly roam in places that often cannot count on the nation-state for any kind of social safety net but demand everyone’s allegiance to each other, first and foremost.

To know someone, for decades, is to feel you can rely and call on them for help. But as our broader cultural expectations of what made for a “good gay life” began to incorporate the notion of being visibly out and acknowledged as a queer person–when we began to define queerness as an intrinsic part of our identities rather than something we can or should have the right to do–that created a fundamental tension between rural communities and queer communities and allies based in cities. Demanding respect for a queer-identifying person, noting, again, that this, in part, came out of academic trends in psychology and sociology, became fundamental to much of the social change and acceptance we see today.

I wouldn’t argue that we should return to requiring that queer difference remain unspoken. However, that means that queers struggling for acceptance in small towns or in any communities that demand allegiance to other social identities (being part of a community of color, for example) must fight to maintain their status as locals while also making a case that the kind of difference they bring to their communities is an asset rather than a harbinger of all the bad that “outsiders/citydwellers” have wrought on their communities.

As I note in the book, rural-based organizers have the best outcomes when they use the salient notion of “family” to remind local communities that these queer kids in their midst are still valued local sons and daughters. Organizing fails whenever it smacks of outsiders from cities providing education and outreach to rural folks assumed to be just plain ignorant and hateful. It’s much more complicated than blind hate. We’ve done very little, academically or politically, to see rural queerness in more complicated terms.

You argue that in small town America, the issue is rarely about visibility but often about familarity. Can you explain the difference? How does a small town politics based on familiarity allow us to form a critique of an urban politics based on visibility?

This is a tough one to answer. I think a small town politics based on familiarity allows us to critique single issue urban politics invested in solely queer visibility. If the only right I fight for is my right to be queerly me, I can’t work in solidarity with anyone beyond the class of individuals who also consider the right to queer identity their primary goal.

Small town politics require coalitions and translation. For example, a small town high school might have 2-3 students interested in environmental justice; 2-3 students interested in racism and social justice; another 2-3 students interested in LGBT rights. Together, these students can form a working coalition that has to constantly explain to each other and potential members what these different movements share in common and why they should help each other. There will never be enough “critical mass” for any of these single issues to gain the attention and sway the hearts and minds of the majority of students at any one school but as a bloc, students invested in these issues as a set of concerns that speak to something bigger can not only survive but thrive and maintain the presence.

Gay and lesbian organizers might look at the queer students in that social club and say “but where’s your gay-straight alliance?” Small town politics that use the familiar of longstanding friendships and relationships to build their strength have something to teach us about the place and value of visibility vs. the place and value of transforming what seems like someone else’s concern into something akin to my own issues.

I am fascinated by your concept of “boundary publics.” In what ways does this push us not only beyond Habermas but also beyond the critiques of Habermas posed by Frazier and Warner?

Thank you! The notion of “boundary publics” is meant to do two things: it forces us to consider how critiques of Habermas’ Public Sphere, Fraser and Warner’s notion of counterpublics in particular, implicitly reinforce a reliance on material wealth to imagine public dialogue. The other goal I had in mind was to draw on the analytic power of “boundary objects”–a concept developed by Susan Leigh Star, a sociologist and extraordinary thinker–to get at how enmeshed “online” and “offline” experiences are for the youth I worked with.

On the first point: if Habermas hoped to theorize the ideal possibilities of deliberative democracy and Fraser and Warner attempted to account for who was left out of those deliberations and how they responded to those exclusions, I wanted to offer a conceptual rubric for examining the metrocentric underpinnings of how we have imagined the Public Sphere and responses to it and consider what people with little access to public space and place do to stand their ground and eek out social recognition.

My hunch was that media, a range of media not just the emergent kind, are a part of the contemporary construction of our sense of social space. Rural areas and small towns have such limited access to capital–privately organized or publically mobilized–that they underscore the kinds of resources necessary to set public discourse in motion. In fact, rural areas and small towns are arguably left out of national debates (or spoken about rather than spoken with) because they have such a tentative hold on anything that resembles a robust Public Sphere or counterpublic as imagined by the theorists you note above.

The sociological tradition of symbolic interactionism has traditionally paid keen attention to how people navigate their social worlds. The late Susan Leigh Star was one of the first to consider how different groups might approach a specific set of tools and lay claim to them in ways that made those tools or objects brokers or translators among social worlds.

Media, for me, are the perfect example of this process. The youth I worked with used media to translate and therefore transform the different social worlds they inhabited. They did not have the option to create a stand-alone counterpublic of their own as they had neither the capital to start them nor, as minors, the social standing to legally maintain them. But youth could experience media as a space that stretched the boundaries of their local queer scene. As I discuss in the book, they could do drag in the aisles of Wal-Mart and post the photos of their experiences online to sew together their different social worlds. So, my hope is that the model of “boundary publics” helps media scholars attend to the ways individuals’ ideas about media, their everyday experiences of media, and the broader social structures and institutions that both extend and constrain media’s possibilities intersect.

You describe the ways that a group of queer high school students engaged with Wal-Mart to illustrate the fragility and instability of these boundary publics. Can you walk us through that case study and what you learned from it?

In the course of my research (2 years with 14-24-year olds in rural parts of Kentucky, TN, West Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois) I came across a group of young people who regularly went to a Super Wal-Mart in their region and catwalked up and down the aisles of the store either in drag or putting on clothes and make-up at the store to build a drag persona on the fly. I was utterly shocked that they did this yet they found it so mundane and were surprised that I was surprised. After all, where else could they go after 9pm to hang out together and have fun with friends from different counties?

They were also friends with young people who worked at the store so it increased their sense of belonging and safe access. And, as they told me, this was “their Wal-Mart” their backyard, really, so they felt it was a place they knew and were known locally.

At the same time, they did not and could not completely control this space. It was a “borderland,” as queer theorist Gloria Anzaldúa might say, in that the Wal-Mart was a place beyond binaries–most everyone in the area circulated through that store as it was one of the only resources for basic commodities in a 50-mile radius. Their access to the store and any tolerance of their queer presence was tentative at best, certainly impermanent.

But it was this fragility and instability–they could be asked to leave or chased out by antagonists any moment–that, paradoxically, set the terms for them to occupy the Wal-Mart in the first place. As long as they tacitly agreed to share the space rather than own it as queer-only turf and as long as they agreed to have their fun but, ultimately, leave the space when their antics pushed others to the limits of their patience, these rural queer youth could hold regularly court. If they had tried to make this space exclusively and permanently theirs, they would have certainly been barred from the store altogether.

These kinds of compromises and brokering of resources define their rural lives. Unlike their urban or suburban peers, they cannot muster the means to create a stand-alone space of their own but through their willingness to accept the delicate and ephemeral nature of their time in Wal-Mart they can be queens for a day and come back to do it again when the timing is right.

Mary L. Gray is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research looks at how everyday uses of media shape people’s understandings and expressions of their social identities. She is the author of In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth (1999). Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press) examines how young people in rural parts of the United States fashion queer senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media–particularly the internet–play in their lives and political work.

Doing Drag in Wal-Mart and Other Stories of Rural Queer Youth: An Interview with Mary L. Gray (Part One)

Mary L. Gray’s Out in The Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America is an extraordinary book — accessible, engaging and engaged, combining vivid storytelling and sophisticated theory-building. Gray captures the powerful stories of young people of varied sexuality as they construct and defend their identities in parts of the country which have been overlooked by most previous scholars focusing on queer culture and politics. They took Gray into their lives and she in turn shares with us what their world looks and feels like in ways which will challenge many of our preconceptions about what it means to be gay-les-bi-trans in America. You will learn here about the fragile publics that get constructed by these youth when they gather in Christian bookstores, church basements, even the aisles of Wal-Mart and seek to find common cause with each other. As she does so, she avoids the temptation which ensnares so many academics to score cheap yucks at the expense of the Red States and “flyover country.” Instead, Gray tries to help us to understand what is happening in rural America, why this region has become culturally enbattled as it becomes economically and demographically at risk, and why some of these queer youth will continue to live there even given the contradictions shaping their own experiences. This is what good cultural analysis should look like.

This book should be read by anyone who is shaping the lives of American young people because it tells the stories we don’t hear about the people we often don’t see or think about. Gray makes the case that many of our current theories about sexual politics have a deep urban bias, which in turn impacts the policies and tactics we use to address these concerns. What does it mean to push for visibility in a world where, as one young man explains, everyone in his community already knew he was gay well before he had a language to describe what that meant to him?

Gray has much to say in the book about media — about the ways these young people form their sense of what it means to be queer through media constructions, about how they struggle to find narratives which they can use to reconcile their loyalties to and their differences from their local communities. She pushes us beyond the cliche of rural queer youth seeking escape or refuge on line to examine what they are doing with digital media that allows them to survive where they are.

What follows is a three part interview with Gray which will challenge many of your preconceptions. As they say in The Matrix, what happens next is up to you.

Your opening chapter can be seen as a critique of what you call “metronormativity” within queer studies discourse. Why do you think queer scholars and activists have been so preoccupied with the urban experience? What do you help to learn by digging deeper into the experience of queers living in small towns and rural areas?

I would argue that queer scholars’ and activists’ preoccupation with urban scenes is two parts serendipity and one part willful ignorance.

First the serendipity: Around the late 1980s, queer scholarship gained traction and visibility in universities through its historical and literary studies of urban-based gay and lesbian networks. This scholarship, inspired by feminist scholars seeking a similar recognition for the depth and richness of women’s lives, highlighted the lives of queerly-identifying people in cities. In part the focus on urban lives was because the scholars doing this work were queer-identifying people living in cities! Describing the historical urban migrations of gay and lesbian-identifying people post World War II or discovering/recovering the queer subtext that shaped the Harlem Renaissance put queer studies on the map as a viable body of knowledge contributing to broader disciplinary conversations worth attention. No one really noticed that history, literary studies, and other humanities-based scholarship seemed fixated on urban subjects. Queer scholars probably didn’t notice that they were following suit.

At the same time, disciplines like Anthropology and Sociology, and particularly Psychology, played key roles in recognizing and validating the social justice and civil rights efforts of gays and lesbians fighting for the decriminalization of homosexuality and, later, protections for gay and lesbian-identifying people. When the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the 1973 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) list of mental disorders, it literally redefined homosexuality. Emboldened by politically progressive civil rights movements of that era and the previous decade, psychology and psychiatry no longer sought cures for homosexuality. Instead, those disciplines looked for fundamental differences that could explain the origins of homosexuality. That led to a spate (what social psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams has called a “cottage industry”) of stage theories to map the coming out process.

Here’s where the willful ignorance comes in. Most of the studies we have of queer life reinforce the belief that individuals start out different and find others who share their sense of difference and move on to create a queer life together out of the “family we choose.” To be sure, pioneering scholarship in queer studies had good reason to examine urban centers, particularly as gay and lesbian liberation movements gathered momentum and political clout as early as the mid 60s to form vibrant communities and chosen families to replace the biological families they left behind to come out as queer.

These movements gained steam by drawing on the resources and alliances available to them in cities. For example, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco City Supervisor and one of the first widely known, gay-identifying men to enter politics, relied on his connections to local unions, businesses, and other burgeoning civil rights campaigns, to win his seat on the Board of Supervisors and take a leading role in coordinating a countermovement to the now infamous Proposition 6 (or Briggs Initiative), a measure that proposed banning gay and lesbian people and their advocates from working in California’s public schools. Local and statewide legislative action on behalf of gay and lesbian-identifying people has, historically, come out of the confluence of the material, political, and physical presence of gay and lesbian people that can only amass in a city.

What queer scholars and activists did not do and are only now beginning to do is reexamined what life might have been like or could be like for someone who doesn’t live in a place that fosters or values standing out as queerly different. We have never considered how our origin stories about queer life implicitly privilege the visibility of cities and the visibility of queer individuals in those landscapes. Until now. I think the main reason we now ask the question “What is life like for those living beyond the city limits?” is because it is now imaginable that someone can (and many do) live a queer life in non-metro areas.

By digging more substantively into the lives of queers living in small towns and rural areas, I hope to accomplish two things: 1) I hope that my work allows us to examine how lives without the material and cultural benefits that many city dwellers and upwardly mobile folks take for granted can still be rewarding, beautiful, and models of a “good queer life” and 2) I hope that my work helps queer activists in particular see the limits of assuming we need (only) the specific resources of cities to expand queer rights. Until we understand why our political strategies work well in NYC but not in rural Maine, for example, we will be unable to advance the causes or needs of anyone living outside a metropole.

What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions we have about the experience of growing up queer in Rural America?

Our biggest misconception is that growing up queer in Rural America is, by definition, awful. Our second biggest misconception is that it must be uniformly better for queer youth living in cities. And the third misconception: that the Internet must make it better for all these kids.

I would argue that growing up queer anywhere in the United States presents challenges. Nothing is more punishing and potentially soul crushing to queer youth than the experience of navigating the institutionalized heteronormativity that defines the primary and secondary education experience. Simply put, our nation’s schools are in the business of producing young men and young women. We are still (and likely will be for some time) brought up to believe that what defines men and women are 1) the differences that distinguish them and 2) the sexual attractions that bring them magnetically together. Any young person that troubles the clarity of these core beliefs–suggests that masculinity and femininity aren’t so easily or naturally separated or that sexual attractions might not be so clear cut–threatens an entire social system built around these 2 suppositions.

Now, the assumption is that Rural America is more invested in these gender and sexual norms than its city cousins and that is what makes them more hostile to queer difference. While I think there are different investments in these norms in rural communities, I wouldn’t argue that their investments in norms are more heartfelt. The issue for rural areas and small towns is that they have been ravished over the past century as sources of raw materials and expendable extraction. They rely on each other and their deep familiarity with locals to keep their communities alive and afloat.

When rural young people identify themselves as queer, they not only mark themselves as different, they link themselves with identities that are unequivocally associated with city life. They also upend and potentially undo the most important identity they have in their communities: a familiar son or daughter, a local from that town. When Rural America seems to reject queer folks, whether with its voting record or in sound bites from its townspeople, we are witnessing a much deeper tussle over who rural community members feel they can trust and who they feel they can turn to in times of trouble (which, in this economic crisis, they feel everyday).

And this is why the Internet, and emerging media more broadly, can make a difference to rural queer young folks but it cannot change their overall experience of oppression. For the youth I worked with, the Internet did 3 things: 1) it helped rural queer young people tell their own stories so that there was something other than bleakness to be said about rural queer life; 2) it allowed young people to feel connected to broader communities of LGBT-identifying people that could not physically, demographically be present in these young people’s daily lives; and 3) it allowed young people to plant a queer flag locally that said “I’m here” and strengthen existing networks of queer-identifying youth in the region. What the Internet could not do is address the underlying poverty that made even Internet access hard to come by and it could not make advocacy around difference more palatable to communities defined by and organized around (and deeply invested in) sameness and familiarity.

Mary L. Gray is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research looks at how everyday uses of media shape people’s understandings and expressions of their social identities. She is the author of In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth (1999). Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press) examines how young people in rural parts of the United States fashion queer senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media–particularly the internet–play in their lives and political work.

The Reconfigurable Culture of Contemporary Music: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part Two)

Throughout, you suggest that the DJ is a particularly contested figure in contemporary music culture. Why? How does the DJ’s performance straddle some of the categories by which we’ve historically organized discussions of music-making?

I chose to interview DJs for this book because they were among the first people to cope with the destabilizing influence of configurability on our understanding of culture and society. They can’t help but break the rules, and they do it with such style!

Our understanding of music within the modern framework is characterized by stark black-and-white dichotomies, none of which existed recognizeably before a few centuries ago. Artist and audience are treated as separate classes of individual, architecturally divided by stage, pit, proscenium, and so forth. Performance and composition are understood to be entirely different roles in music production, with the intellectual, “white collar” labor of composition preceding and trumping the more physical, “blue collar” labor of performance. The difference between original and copy is key to our judgment of artistic merit, market viability and property rights. From a formalistic standpoint, figure and ground are fundamental to both musical meaning and copyright enforcement–the melody is generally far more highly prized than the mere “arrangement” that supports it. And the distinction between materials and tools is fundamental to our understanding of music as a commercial, industrial process–like any other product, music is understood to be mined, refined, packaged and sold.

Clearly, DJ music–in its many forms–challenges each of these dichotomies. The DJ is located firmly in the grey area between artist and audience. The acts of sampling, cutting, scratching and remixing can’t be easily categorized as performance or composition, at least not by the old definitions. While technically every sample is a copy of the work it was taken from, the resulting work couldn’t exist without original creative input from the DJ. The foreground of a sampled song may become the background of the remix, and vice-versa. And if we inspect a DJ’s laptop, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to say on the face of it which sound files and applications are materials, which are tools, and which are finished products.

The interesting thing is that, unlike the rest of configurable culture, DJs have already dealt with most of these inconsistencies, and developed ethical and aesthetic systems that take them into account. They haven’t thrown out the modern framework entirely, but neither have they given up on doing stuff that violates its basic principles. Their solutions to these problems, which range from elegant to kludgey to paradoxical, give us an interesting glimpse into how our society at large might solve the larger metaphorical and definitional problems it faces from configurability.

The DJ is also an interesting figure because it’s used, both linguistically and taxonomically, as kind of a negative category. Over and over, my interviewees would tell me: “oh, that’s not composition, it’s just DJing,” “that isn’t performance, it’s DJing,” “he’s more than a fan, he’s a DJ,” and “he’s not a musician, he’s a DJ.” And yet these same interviewees would often self-apply the term, using a nom-du-laptop like DJ Drama, DJ Food, DJ Axel, and so forth. In other words, they were self-identifying as “other than.”

Similarly, my interviewees often used a strawman they referred to as “some kid in his bedroom” (or a variation on that theme) to discuss a hypothetical music maker that didn’t rise to a requisite level of musicianship, artistry, or any given stratum of legitimacy. This was especially true of the music industry execs I spoke to, but also quite common among DJs themselves. It’s almost as though they needed the strawman to acknowledge that their methodologies are inherently suspect, thereby validating themselves in contrast to the proverbial “kid.” And yet, these same interviewees would often extol the virtues of “bedroom producing.” I challenge you to find a published interview with Danger Mouse (of Grey Album and Gnarls Barkley fame) in which he doesn’t use the word “bedroom” at least once.

To me, this strange admixture of pride and deprecation, otherness and selfness, is astoundingly reminiscent of the “double-consciousness” that W.E.B. DuBois described as the cornerstone of the African American experience–and, in fact, I’ve borrowed and mashed the term up in my book. To me, configurable culture is marked by “DJ consciousness,” a state in which we are all now required to see (and hear) ourselves simultaneously from within and without, as both subject and object. This has its benefits and drawbacks; gone is the privilege of pure subjectivity that once characterized the American (white) middle class experience. But what we are gaining in exchange is a broader set of communicative tools, a more modular creative economy, and, ultimately, a way out of the confining, atomistic vision of the individual that characterized modernity.

You note that the remix practices associated with music and technology are heavily coded as male. What would we learn if we examined them alongside characteristically female forms of remix, such as fanvids?

That’s a very interesting question. In our society, both musical production and computer hacking are traditionally coded as male, so configurable music comes to the table with a double-helping of sexist privilege. And, though I tried to develop a balanced methodology, nearly all of the DJs I was able to interview were men (although Mysterious D, one of the two women I spoke to, pulled far more than her weight in terms of pithy insight!).

In my book, I take this enduring disjunction as a sign that, although configurable culture may be changing our social expectations and parameters, it doesn’t wipe the slate clean. We will lurch into our collective future with many of our old biases and stereotypes intact, and maybe even pick up some others along the way (for instance, we have an ugly new stereotype in the form of the “booth bitch,” the woman who tags along and interferes with her DJ boyfriend at the club).

Yet, as you point out, many newer forms of digital fan culture and participatory culture are either coded female (e.g. slash, fanfic, fanvids) or are more balanced (e.g. AMVs, fansubbing, wikis). So there’s nothing inherently male-coded or sexist about configurability. If anything, I think that the challenges configurable culture poses to our traditional understanding of what’s known as the “modern individual” will undermine the male/female gender identity dichotomy much as it has opened grey areas between artist and audience, production and consumption, and so forth. If the mechanism by which we construct and perform our identity is becoming more multifaceted, plastic and permutable than it was in the past, it seems likely that our identities themselves will soon follow suit.

As Mysterious D told me, this blending of identity is, for her, one of the most important facets of mash-up culture. She sees her global mash-up dance club, Bootie, as one of the few places where people “that would never hang out together” can “have something in common.” And this covers the entire spectrum of party people: “gay, straight, alternative, mainstream, you know, the whole everything.”

I’m currently fielding a follow-up to the 2006 survey on configurable culture that provided some of the data in my book. When the results are in, my coauthors and I will definitely publish some findings surrounding gender, identity and emerging technologies. Among other things, we’ll test Mysterious D’s “whole everything” proposition against actual data trends. In the meantime, researchers like Mimi Ito, Nancy Baym, Eszter Hargittai and Steven Shafer have done some of the best existing work in this area, and I encourage any interested readers to seek them out.

Aram Sinnreich is a writer, speaker and analyst covering the media and entertainment industries, with a special focus on music. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Rutger’s School of Communications and Information. Named an “Innovator and Influencer” by InformationWeek, Sinnreich as written about music and the media industry for publications including The New York Times, Billboard, and Wired News, as well as academic journal American Quarterly. Sinnreich is the co-founder, with Marissa Gluck, of Radar Research LLC, a Los Angeles-based consultancy firm aimed at the nexus of media, technology and culture. As a Senior Analyst at Jupiter Research in New York for over five years (1997-2002), he produced research reports covering the online music and media industries and provided hands-on strategic consulting to companies ranging from Time Warner to Microsoft to Heineken. Sinnreich also writes and performs music, as bassist for groups including seminal ska-punk band Agent 99 (Shanachie Records) and dancehall reggae queen Ari Up (former lead singer of The Slits), and as a co-founder of NYC soul group Brave New Girl, jazz band MK4, and LA dub-and-bass band Dubistry. Sinnreich earned his B.A. in English at Wesleyan University, an M.S. in Journalism at Columbia University, and an M.A.and Ph.D in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles.