Aca-fandom and Beyond: John Edward Campbell, Lee Harrington, and Catherine Tossenberger (Part Two)

John: I can’t help thinking my provocation is an odd fit in this larger discussion. Although I once belonged to a gay Sci-Fi fan group (the Gaylaxians), have attended Sci-Fi conventions, and love speculative literature, films, and television shows, I’ve never been comfortable with identifying myself simply as a “fan.” I have always used the term in relation to a particular cultural text or practice. I also find I don’t identify with many people who do declare themselves “fans” in the general sense.

Furthermore, I’m not comfortable with the fixed sense of identity the term “fan” suggests to me. On a personal level, claiming to be a “fan” feels like committing to a particular model of identity that denies both my individuality and the diverse and changing nature of my tastes and pleasures. Today I enjoy watching True Blood, but I may not in ten years. When I was in my 20s I belonged to a Sci-Fi fan group and attended Sci-Fi conventions, but I don’t anymore. Those activities fulfilled a particular need at a particular moment in my life, but they hardly define who I am now. Thus for me, “fandom” is something fluid that one may move in and out of over the course of one’s life.

In some respects, my experiences of “fandom” converge with those of Lee Harrington. My expressions of fan behavior have also largely occurred in private. I would include in this private experience of fandom, intimate gatherings of friends to share the enjoyment of a particular media text, such as weekly get-togethers over a friend’s house to watch True Blood or Project Runway or Heroes. (What can I say; we all had a crush on the telepathic cop played by Greg Grunberg. Greg, if you’re reading this, call me.)

As with Harrington, I have not had to grapple with my own fan practices when studying various media fan communities. This is not to suggest that I fail to acknowledge how key axes of my identity shape both how I approach a particular subject and even what subjects I find worthy of study. However, that struggle has been in terms of gender, race, class background, and sexuality, and all those other social categories I was essentially assigned to at birth and I did not simply choose for myself. I have only ever known the world through the eyes of a white man who has felt different as far back as I can recall. Thus, in being reflexivity, I qualify my observations as coming from this very particular vantage point and that things may look very different indeed from another vantage point.

Unlike my gender, race, and sexuality, my tastes and those cultural artifacts from which I derive pleasure have changed over the course of my life. I was not (nor was anyone else) born into a particular vantage point on fandom. In fact, I currently occupy a very different vantage point on media fandom then I did in my 20s. Given fluid nature of tastes, it would be useful to explore how race, gender, sexuality, and class background all shape one’s desire to identify as a fan or “acafan.” Unfortunately, some of the fan scholarship I’ve read does not extend self-reflexivity beyond a claim to fan status. It is important to keep in mind that a claim to a shared fan identity, does not erase power inequalities between the researcher and the subject, nor does it negate the influence of race, gender, sexuality, and class not only on our analyses, but also on what cultural activities we deem worthy of analysis in the first place.

To clarify, by lack of fluidity surrounding social constructs such as sexuality, I am not suggesting our erotic desires and sexual impulses are fixed or that our sexual identity doesn’t change over the course of our lives. Rather, I’m referring to the way society seeks to lock our sexual identities into rigid and often binary categories: gay/straight, homosexual/heterosexual, deviant/normal. Basically, once you step over a certain line in our society, you’re no longer straight you’re “Other” and it’s wroth noting how invested our society is in policing that line. Obviously, sexual appetites and erotic desires do not fit comfortably within the gay/straight or any other binary model of sexuality. Even opening a space for such other categories of sexual identity as bisexual, pansexual, queer, or questioning, still does not adequately reflect the vastness and variability of the erotic universe.

Even though I do not identify myself as an “acafan,” it is not to say that I have not drawn from my passions in my work. For instance, while in graduate school I wrote an article on The X-Files. I was an avid fan of the series (well, OK, the first four seasons of the series) and discussed it extensively with those friends who also followed the show. I drew upon this cultural capital in writing my analysis of the text and what I saw as its complex ideological function. Indeed, researching and writing the article was a pleasurable practice in itself. In this sense, my understanding of a fan is much in line with Nancy Baym’s and Sam Ford’s – a fan is someone with an extensive amount of knowledge about and deep appreciation for a particular type of text (whether that be soap operas, Sci-Fi shows, sporting events, modern art, Broadway musicals, etc.). Here we can understand a fan as type of connoisseur; an individual with refined taste and specialized knowledge in some particular area. Arguably, it is this refined taste and specialized knowledge that underlies much of the enjoyment a fan experiences in consuming a particular text, what Barthes would identify as plaisir as opposed to jouissance.

I do have to agree with Catherine Tosenberger regarding the importance of “thinking through” our positionality in relation to the communities we study and representations we construct. This is certainly an issue that has been wrestled with extensively in LGBT studies and queer theory. Gay scholars have a professional responsibility not to present a sanitized or idealized image of the communities or individuals they study. For this reason, I am careful to note in my work on gay male communities how hierarchies of race, gender, and even beauty are (re)constructed in online environments. My goal as a critical scholar is to neither celebrate nor condemn the communities I study, but rather to understand them. My primary concern is constructing a representation that shows my subjects in all their complexities as individuals – individuals who are as flawed and noble as the rest of humanity.

It goes without saying that I have the added responsibility of considering the very real social, political, and economic ramifications of the representations I provide in my scholarship. Here the stakes are high indeed. Many of the individuals I interact with in the course of my research must conceal their sexual identity for fear of losing their employment, their families, and perhaps even their lives. Some of the individuals I have interviewed over the years have been victims of violent hate crimes and still carry the psychological scars from those attacks. And the majority of the individuals I’ve encountered in my research live in locations where there are no legal defenses against blatant forms of discrimination.

I would also ask that those who do identify as “acafans” be a bit more reflexive about comparisons of fans to sexual minorities. Would a LGBT individual be as ready use the language of “coming out” to describe identifying oneself as a fan? There is a way that sexual minorities growing up in this society must constantly police their behavior, their tastes, their gestures, even their subtlest glances to conceal their difference from mainstream society. If they fail to sufficiently conceal their difference, the consequences can be severe. As I write this, a trial is underway in the Los Angeles district of Chatsworth. The trail involves a 14-year-old boy, Brandon McInerney, who has already confessed to shooting one of his peers, Larry Fobes King, twice in the back of the head execution style in front of his teacher and a classroom full of students. The motivation for the shooting was the victim’s openness about his (homo)sexuality and his non-normative gender expression, which included wearing dresses and make-up to school. This story as well as those of Matthew Shepard and far too many others, remind me of how terrified I was in high school that someone would even suspect I was different. I didn’t yet have a name for this difference, but I knew nonetheless that it was something horrible which had to be hidden away from everyone. While I was very open about my love for all things Star Wars since seeing the first film, I was utterly silent about my love for men even to myself. Being a fan of Star Wars was cool. Being different was dangerous.

Catherine: Throughout this whole discussion, I’ve found it interesting how comfort levels with the term “acafan” seem to be correlated to different experiences of fannishness: the impression I have, listening to John and Lee and reading the previous postings, is that those fans who have the easiest time with the term are those whose fannish experience has been primarily transformational, rather than affirmational. If you’re a humanities/cultural studies scholar, especially, then the basic premise of transformational fandom — the source text is a springboard for your own creative and analytical work to share with others — dovetails with academia in many ways, as Joli Jensen pointed out ages ago; moreover, many transformational fan practices (like fanfiction) have obvious analogues with “respectable” mainstream practices (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, etc.), as John mentioned. If those types of fannishness, and those types of texts, are the ones that you as a fan and academic are working with, then the category of the “acafan” goes down easier.

But those fans whose experiences have primarily tended to follow affirmational patterns , or what Lee called “as-is” fans, I think understandably have been having more trouble with the idea. This is why I think we need to have these discussions, because the unmarked term “fan” covers so much ground.

I love those terms, affirmational/transformational, because they’re not setting up a hierarchy of “true fans” or whatever, but just describing general patterns of participation, ways of “doing” fandom; granted, they’re still talking about fans who are interacting in some kind of social way with other fans, as opposed to a wholly private experience, but I think it’s a good way of conceptualizing participatory fannishness.

And building on that, I think that it’s also important to talk about how these different forms of fannishness (and therefore conceptions of acafannishness) interact with existing systems of privilege and power. The original discussion of affirmational vs. transformational arose in fandom because of these observed culture clashes. Affirmational fannishness (and I’d include mainstream sports fandom here) generally fits more comfortably within existing cultural hierarchies, since it tends to reiterate the primacy of the official creator/institution; affirmational fannish spaces are also often (not always, but often) majority male. Transformational fannish spaces, as Kristina and others have pointed out, are more likely to be majority-female, and overtly queer or queer-friendly. Transformational fans were also likely to be treated as an even more pathological form of the pathologized fan: those fan boys fighting about the engines on the Enterprise might be hopeless geeks, but at least they’re not perverts writing gay porn about Kirk and Spock!, etc. The initial constructions of the acafan were responding to those larger issues just as much as to the construction of fans specifically, which is why there was so much focus upon female fans doing the most arguably “subversive” stuff (like writing erotic and homoerotic stories). I think for the term aca-fandom to continue to be useful, we need to really think through that history, and our own positions within that history.

John, some of my thinking overlaps with yours (and not just on the hotness of Greg Grunberg!), but I think it’s really important to point out that particularly in transformational fandom, sexuality, and fan production as a means of exploring and articulating sexuality, is a big deal — this is especially true for younger fans, whose expressions of sexuality are so heavily policed in institutional settings. While not every fan, transformational or otherwise, is focused upon sexuality or eroticism by any means, sexuality and sexual enjoyment is a major part of the discourse in all the fandoms I’ve been involved in, and a lot of discussion centers around the topic — especially in slash fandom, where, according to recent research by Anne Kustritz and others, the majority of slashers identify as somewhere on the queer spectrum, myself included.

Kristina, Robin Anne Reid, and Alexis Lothian wrote a fabulous article called “Yearning Void and Infinite Potential: Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space,” on just these issues of sexuality and fannishness, and the potential for fluidity of sexual desire and categorization of that desire. These are conversations that are important to have, and are being had both within fandom and within academia. A lot of this is centered around slash fandom though, so if you’re not plugged into that corner, or transformational fandom in general, it might fly under your radar. There are a lot of things that can be said about fandom and queerness in spaces beyond specific consideration of slash, of course, and I’d love to see that conversation spread.

It’s funny; I know I’m coming across as a bit “Rah Rah Acafandom!,” but I’m actually having something of a crisis — not so much about the concept itself, but all those issues of identification and “overinvestment” and such that go hand-in-hand with it. I’m working on an article on the tv show Glee right now; I’ve always joked that I overidentified (I was in show choir! In Ohio! It was just like the show, really!), but then Santana, who has been struggling with identifying her sexuality and coming out, happened. I basically was Santana in high school (though instead of a Brittany, I had a Quinn, which is a recipe for horror), complete with attitude problem and her methods of (not) dealing with her desires and their implications; I sometimes feel like, watching the show, that the writers somehow got hold of my teenage diary.

In a lot of figurations of fannishness and acafannishness, this should be my way into producing reams of material on Santana, but it hasn’t been the case. I have a hard time reading Santana fanfic, much less writing it, because I find myself going “That’s not right, that’s not how it was!”, projecting my own experiences on to her. And of course, Santana isn’t entirely me, not then and not now — I’m bisexual and white, among other important differences. But I struggle a lot with thinking and writing about her, because it’s too close, and too exposing; even talking about it here, I’m squirming a little (I’ve confessed to being a mean girl, omg). Fandom is so often treated as if it’s about uncritical adoration, but I find that I can only be a productive fan if I can maintain some distance, enough to be able to consider aesthetic issues and the like — if I can’t adopt a stance of critical engagement with a character, I have nowhere to move, no conflicting feelings to mine.

That, for me, gets at the heart of “what it means to be an “acafan” — it’s not some kind of binary between rational disengagement on one hand and slobbering emotion on the other, but about the ways we make different parts of the spectrum work productively in a variety of spaces.

Lee: Very interesting observation, Catherine, I hadn’t noticed a correlation between comfort level with the term “acafan” and types of fannishness (transformational vs. affirmational)….and I’m still mulling through how this might intersect with the “doing” vs. “being” distinction that John explores. When Denise Bielby and I wrote Soap Fans we were explicitly arguing FOR fandom-as-identity (“being”), as it seemed to be absent or downplayed in the emergent fan studies of the early 1990s.

I appreciate John’s discomfort with the generalized term “fan” (rather than fan of something) and what it potentially implies, though I guess I think of most identities, fan included, as fluid rather than fixed. I’m not overlooking the power of ascription (a nice old-fashioned sociological term) but rather highlighting the extent to which our multiple identities are visibilized and invisibilized in different interactional and social contexts…though not always a result of our own agentic choices, of course. In my undergraduate sociology courses I spend a lot of time exploring implications of the distinction John emphasizes – a person who engages in certain activities vs. a certain type of person – though admittedly I’ve never questioned fandom in quite the same way.

For me personally, fandom is both an identity (that we can claim or not, or have imposed on us or not, or express or not) and an activity (manifested in any number of ways including some not visible to others). I have no problem sharing my fan identity – the naming of it – with students and colleagues and even strangers, etc., but they’re sure as hell not going to “see” it very often. Or, rather, they might see (some of) the activity but the emotional basis of fandom for me, the sheer pleasure of fandom, is mine and mine alone.

I laughed when I read Catherine’s description of her squirminess and admire her both for having a teenage diary and for apparently keeping the damn thing (I prefer my 16-year old self to be as repressed as possible). And perhaps this is ultimately why I don’t consider myself an acafan – as I mentioned earlier I’ve never written from within my own fandom (see Catherine, above) and the claiming/naming of it has been minimally useful to me both personally or professionally.

I’ve been thinking of what Jack Halberstam wrote in an earlier post, that it’s hard to be a fan. For me it’s not hard, it’s just nobody’s business but my own – the emotional content of it, I mean. The “fan” Lee Harrington that exists publicly is about as real as the “teacher” Lee Harrington. There’s some authenticity to it but it’s also mighty partial and mighty varnished.

C. Lee Harrington is Professor of Sociology and Affiliate of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Miami University. She has published on fans and fandom since the early 1990s and is currently exploring aging audiences/fans. Her fan interests as of today include Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, General Hospital, all things cheese-related (since gifted a cheese-of-the-month-club, it’s fantastic!), Las Vegas, and – inexplicably to those who know her – Kate and William.

John Edward Campbell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Broadcasting, Telecommunications, and Mass Media in the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University. He teaches media theory, cultural studies, and popular culture. His current book project – Selling Belonging: When Online Communities Become Big Business – examines the cultural and political implications of the commercialization of online communities. His first book – Getting It On Online: Cyberspace and Gay Male Sexuality – represents an ethnographic exploration of the cultural practices of online gay communities.

Catherine Tosenberger is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she is attached to the Centre for Young People’s Texts and Cultures. She teaches children’s and YA literature, folklore, and cultural studies, and has been involved in the Harry Potter, Supernatural, and Glee fandoms. Her publications include articles on the Grimms’ tales, Harry Potter slash, and Supernatural fanfiction.

Aca-Fandom and Beyond: John Edward Campbell, Lee Harrington, and Catherine Tossenberger (Part One)

Lee Harrington: Very interesting discussion thus far……I think my own experience and perspective most closely aligns with that of Nancy Baym’s. I do not find myself struggling to reconcile any competing expectations or ethical codes in, as Nancy puts it, being a fan studying fandom within academia. I appreciated Henry’s backstory of where the term “acafan” came from. Even though I began writing about fans in the same time period he refers to, I came out of a very different disciplinary background (sociology) and training (sociology of emotions). Even though some of the early sociological pathologizing of media fans is exactly the body of scholarship that an acafan positioning responded to (bad grammar, sorry, it’s summer), the type of tension or dissonance inherent in the term does not reflect my own experience.

I am also, I suspect, a different kind of fan that most participants in this blog series. I’m definitely an “as-is” (not transformative) fan and for the most part my fandom is experienced privately not publicly — a distinction Denise Bielby and I first emphasized in Soap Fans (1995, thanks for the shoutout, Sam) and which I think remains overlooked in fan studies, admittedly due to the methodological challenges private fandom presents. My first fan event was a General Hospital fan club luncheon in the late 1980s which Denise and I went to in LA….that was a huge impetus for our soap book because I was STUNNED by the public display of emotion in the room, the naked joy fans expressed at mingling with the actors on GH. Not me and “my” fandom at all, then or now.

So the near-20 years of research I’ve done on fans and fan texts (mostly the former) has been fascinating because I’m talking with people whose emotional experiences are comparable to mine in many ways but who share it in ways I rarely do. That doesn’t mean I approach more expressive fans as “other” in my research – at least I hope I don’t. For me, the emotional experience is the shared common core of fandom rather than its expression.

So if acafan is an identity, I don’t claim it and haven’t felt the need or pressure to do so. If it’s an activity I don’t think I engage in it the way it’s discussed in this blog series, though I need to think through that assertion some more. I’ve never written from within my own fandom (my own fan pleasures), nor have I seen the need to either personally or professionally. The research ethics I adhere to stem from my disciplinary training and my qualitative research approach, not my fandom (not that it’s an automatic either/or, I’m just naming the source).

If acafan is a community I’m kind of a half-assed member, though that’s true of my membership in mainstream sociology as well (and forget about the sociology of emotions and its community, I feel terrible for my dissertation advisor who invested four years of his life in me and I promptly took a 45-degree turn and never looked back). If anything, I agree with Sam’s suggestion that acafandom now signals potential spaces of collaboration. That works for me.

I’m unsure of the usefulness of the term at this point in fan studies. I can see how it might be politically risky for some scholars to claim (e.g. untenured in a tenurable position, and/or in traditional social science disciplines, and/or by those trying to present/publish in traditional disciplinary outlets) while useful as an identity marker or authorial positioning in other contexts. If it (still?) has a hip-factor to it, I’m not sure. It can also (and has, I think) be used to justify some really sloppy naval-gazing, as Henry pointed out, and in that regard is akin to autoethnography at its ick-iest. I recognize and value the methodological rigor/ethics that the term implies for some scholars…..but it has also been used to justify some pretty crappy work.

John Edward Campbell: Although I appreciate that the term “acafan” was, in part, a strategic reaction to an older, and often elitist, approach to the study of media audiences (an approach that had largely fallen from favor by the time I entered graduate school), it remains a descriptor I hesitate embracing. My reservations surrounding the term are informed by my experiences as a gay man who has studied sexual minority communities. Given that in an earlier statement Henry Jenkins noted the influence queer theory had on his thinking about the relationship of media scholars to media fans, the work of Michel Foucault is useful in articulating my concerns surrounding some of the current conceptions of “fandom” in academia.

In his discussion of the construction of the “homosexual,” Foucault is careful to distinguish behavior from identity. Only recently in Western history did engaging in a particular type of behavior (sexual interactions with members of the same sex) become the basis of an entire identity (the homosexual as a separate species of person). For Foucault, the social construction of the homosexual is an example of the generative aspect of power (or what he refers to as “biopower”). Indeed, the construction of various classifications of human beings based on their (sexual) behavior, granted significant social, political, and economic capital to the fields of psychology, psychoanalysis, and medicine, as well as to those individuals who proclaimed themselves “experts” in studying such types of people.

Many scholars working under the rubric of LGBT studies and queer theory have interrogated this essentialist understanding of (homo)sexuality. Although these scholars approached the issue from diverse disciplines – Judith Butler from philosophy, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick from literature, Kath Weston from anthropology, and Larry Gross from communication to name but a few – they found related ontological and epistemological problems in claims of there being a fixed (essential) identity based on sexual behavior.

In critical gay scholarship, the researcher acknowledges the constructed nature of (homo)sexuality even as she or he sets out to study the practices of those that society has categorized as sexual minorities. Thus, the self-reflexive gay scholar rejects the claim of “insider” status. Indeed, such a claim necessitates the question: Inside what exactly? A heterogeneous, fragmented, amalgamation of disparate groups whose only true commonality is an exclusion from mainstream society?

Such scholarship is quick to point out that the “LGBT community” is more an imagined community (in Benedict Anderson’s sense of the term) than a tangible reality. There are social collectives of individuals who may share sexual sensibilities, but there is no singular “gay community” to which all sexual minorities belong by virtue of their sexuality. (Obviously, speaking of “the LGBT community” is politically useful in both fighting for fundamental civil rights and for gay scholars who must justify their research for the sake of tenure and promotion.)

Thus, it would be deeply problematic if I claimed in my work to either studying “the gay community” or “my community.” The former assertion would reify something that exists only in the abstract and deny the diverse and often contradictory experiences of those individuals identified as belonging to a sexual minority. The latter assertion would reduce my subjects and I to our sexual identity alone, ignoring both the porous nature of gay social collectives and the complicated ways sexuality intersects with other axes of identity (e.g. gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc.). It would also position me as some form of champion or spokesperson for a particular community.

Although such a gesture is understandable if I were an activist, it’s cavalier at best for a social scientist. Indeed, I have read the work of other gay-identified scholars who have referred to sexual minorities as “their people” (or in one case, “their tribe”) and my immediate response was: Who the hell does this person think they are? Besides our sexuality, we have absolutely nothing in common and I doubt we’d even be friends. It is for this reason that any scholar must be painfully careful when they claim to speak for a particular community.

So what has this to do with fans? When a researcher transitions from talking about “fans of” to simply “fans,” a shift occurs that parallels Foucault’s discussion of the homosexual. This seemingly minor discursive change transforms “fan” from signifying a type of behavior in relation to a particular cultural artifact to signifying a type of person. For instance, I am a fan of a great many media texts - Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson is God!), Harry Potter (I went to see the final movie twice in its opening weekend), True Blood (or as I call it, televised crack!), 30 Rock, Fringe, Dexter, and Disney theme parks (OK, I know the last one is not a media text) – but I am not a fan.

In the former use of the term (fan of) any individual may potentially experience a powerful emotional connection to some cultural text or practice. Given that one of the ways we construct identity in our society is through which cultural artifacts and practices provide us pleasure, we could argue every individual has a fan status much the same way every individual has a sexual status. (Keep in mind that in early academic studies of human sexuality, it was suggested that only non-heterosexuals had a sexuality much like early discussions of gender suggested only women were gendered.) Social hierarchy becomes apparent not in the pleasure an individual experiences, but rather in what cultural artifacts and practices are deemed worthy of such pleasure.

Of course, an essentialist view of “fans” as a type of person has significant professional advantages for the researcher. Such a view allows the researcher to speak about “fans” and the “fan community” in uncomplicated terms, as if these human beings have a fixed and singular identity as well as a distinct set of practices not shared by the rest of humanity. (When scholars speak of “transformative” fans, I can’t help wondering if that includes everyone who takes existing media content and reworks it into an original creation. If so, that would include all of the students in our program who, for various course assignments, create mashups, machinima, and various other original creations using existing media content.) An essentialist understanding of “fans” also allows the researcher to claim “insider” status, granting the scholar special knowledge about this species of human being. Most notably, an essentialist view allows the researcher to position the “fan” as a type of minority, granting the scholar a certain moral authority to speak on behalf of an oppressed group of people.

This underlies my reservations about the title “acafan.” Not only does it largely rest on an essentialist understanding of “fan,” it also allows some scholars to position themselves as arbiters of who does and does not constitute a “true” fan. When I read some fan studies, I have the distinct impression that if I don’t don a Star Trek uniform, attend Sci-Fi conventions, invest a significant amount of my time memorizing minutia surrounding each episode and reading fan fiction, then I cannot claim to be a Star Trek fan. Apparently, enjoying the series, collecting some Star Trek memorabilia, and discussing the series with friends who also enjoy the show is not enough to be a “fan.”

I find this as problematic as suggesting that if a man doesn’t march in gay pride parades, watch Project Runway, listen to Cher and Madonna, have a rainbow sticker on his car, and quote lines from Will & Grace (“Oh look, better people.”), then they are not a “true” gay man.

(I would not be entirely surprised if someone reading my words would think to himself or herself: He’s not a fan. He doesn’t understand. He’s an outsider. Of course, I would then have to ask, outside what exactly? Where precisely is the demarcation between fan and non-fan? And who gets to set the demarcation point?)

Yes, I don’t identify myself as an “acafan.” Rather, I find it more useful (and more in line with post-structuralist theory and queer theory) to deconstruct the notion that others do not have a fan-like relationship to some cultural artifact or practice. In other words, just as a queer theorist is quick to point out that straight people also have a sexuality, and that this sexuality is as constructed as the sexuality of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, I find it useful to point out that critics of media fans themselves experience pleasurable relationships to cultural texts. For instance, could we not argue that scholars who both study and enjoy the works of Joyce are “acafans”? Are they not studying something they feel passionate about? Do they not go to social gatherings attended by others who share their passions? Do they not invest considerable time and energy writing and discussing and critiquing cultural texts in which they are deeply emotionally invested? Are they not fans?

Catherine Tosenberger: In a lot of ways, my identity as an acafan — and I do find the label the most accurate description of my own understanding of my position as academic and fan — is pretty typical, if by “typical” you mean I’m a media fan who engages in transformational practices and has hooked up my understanding of those practices to my academic work.

Where it gets a little funky, for me, is that I never had the same kind of problems reconciling academic/fannish pursuits that many have reported, and never felt the same need to… justify myself? Not really. Part of that, of course, is the fact that I’m of a scholarly generation that benefited from Henry’s and other’s initial articulation of the concept of the acafan, so I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. But also, my academic work is in the fields of children’s/YA literature and folklore, fields which are directly concerned with audience and community; fandom studies, and my own acafannish identity, meshed very easily with the existing conversations going on in those fields.

As Karen Hellekson mentioned, there’s often this perception that literary critics primarily do some kind of New Critical “text is all” scholarship — we sit around talking about similes and metaphors and sometimes phallic symbols, and we only ever talk about audiences in terms of representation in texts. This isn’t entirely the case, but it is true that some disciplines are more audience-focused than others, and that those disciplines that are very audience-focused have tended to occupy a kind of marginal position within literary studies. Folklore, of course, straddles the boundary between humanities and social sciences, depending upon what you’re studying, how you’re studying it, and where you’re studying — folklore programs have historically often been attached either to literature or anthropology departments, which of course affects how the field is approached.

With children’s/YA literature, the issues of audience become even more intense: it’s the only literary genre that is defined in terms of its audience, rather than by the form or content of the text itself. But as Jacqueline Rose famously pointed out, children’s literature is produced by and for adults, and it has to satisfy adult desires and fantasies about what children are, and what they’re supposed to want, before it ever gets into the hands of a kid. So adults reading and studying children’s lit are in the weird position of being both the outsider audience AND the insider audience: we’re not the designated audience, but we are the ones that the text has to satisfy. And those ideas about the “proper” audience is completely overrun with fantasies, often Romantic, often nostalgic, about children and what they know and what they should know, what they want and what they should want.

As audiences, both young people and traditional figurations of the “folk” were (and are) often characterized as naïve, suggestible, irrational, and whether that’s presented as a bad thing or a Romantically good thing depends on the time, the place, and the speaker. But scholars in both fields have spent a long time interrogating these conceptions of audiences; to link fandom studies, and the conception of the pathologized fan, up to these conversations was the easiest thing in the world — fannishness was so consistently characterized as “adolescent” and/or “uneducated” behavior that the language already existed for questioning those ideas. Plenty of scholars in both fields have mentioned fan fiction in passing as a great space for further study; it’s especially relevant to children’s/YA lit, because, particularly in fandoms like Harry Potter or Glee that have a big audience of young fans, the responses of actual readers/viewers could be seen, which enables a move away from reductive, stereotyped figurations of how some imaginary “typical” young person is supposed to react.

Anne Kustritz talked about the self-reflexive turn in anthropology, which was mirrored in folklore in the 1960s, when Alan Dundes redefined the term “folk group” to mean “any group of people with one linking factor”; this moved folklore theorizing away from privileging outsider statements and theorizing. In children’s/YA lit, of course, this is much trickier across the board, since young people as a group don’t have access to institutional authority that enables this kind of speech. So, for me, coming into the fields of folklore and children’s lit, it wasn’t difficult at all for me to think through issues of representation, and my own positionality, because those questions were already being asked.

And I didn’t have any trouble “selling” myself as a children’s lit academic on those terms, not really. The static I received on the job market was mainly from people who thought children’s lit in general was a useless field — I never had to defend my fannishness, but I, like other genre scholars, had to defend why we should “waste our time” with picture books when there was Samuel Johnson to be read, and so forth. I also got a lot of kneejerk horror from the fact that I was talking about erotic narratives in Harry Potter fandom, but again, mainly from non-children’s lit people; children’s lit scholars are generally down with James Kincaid’s work on youth as an erotic category, and feminist and GLBTQ approaches to YA lit in particular are interested in issues of eroticism.

Erica Rand mentioned that there’s still this wide distrust of pleasure when it comes to talking about culture, and that distrust of pleasure is intensified when we’re talking about young people: kids should be learning, dammit, and they should only be learning about the “proper” things. Pleasure is something illicit even for adults, and vast amounts of cultural energy are expended policing young people’s pleasure — and policing what kind of pleasure adults can take concerning anything having to do with young people. Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer titled their super-important textbook on young people’s texts The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, specifically as a way of interrogating that distrust and policing: given that existing conversation, my acafannishness — my willingness not only to admit to fannish pleasure but to make it part of my work — was actually a factor in what got me hired at Nodelman and Reimer’s school, the University of Winnipeg.

I was massively lucky (and not only because UW had a job opening when I was on the market): I came into two fields where the conversations so relevant to acafannishness had evolved in a parallel way, and people in those fields were willing to listen, and to help me think through my own position.

C. Lee Harrington is Professor of Sociology and Affiliate of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Miami University. She has published on fans and fandom since the early 1990s and is currently exploring aging audiences/fans. Her fan interests as of today include Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, General Hospital, all things cheese-related (since gifted a cheese-of-the-month-club, it’s fantastic!), Las Vegas, and – inexplicably to those who know her – Kate and William.

John Edward Campbell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Broadcasting, Telecommunications, and Mass Media in the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University. He teaches media theory, cultural studies, and popular culture. His current book project – Selling Belonging: When Online Communities Become Big Business – examines the cultural and political implications of the commercialization of online communities. His first book – Getting It On Online: Cyberspace and Gay Male Sexuality – represents an ethnographic exploration of the cultural practices of online gay communities.

Catherine Tosenberger is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she is attached to the Centre for Young People’s Texts and Cultures. She teaches children’s and YA literature, folklore, and cultural studies, and has been involved in the Harry Potter, Supernatural, and Glee fandoms. Her publications include articles on the Grimms’ tales, Harry Potter slash, and Supernatural fanfiction.

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Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Christine Bacareza Balance, Jack Halberstam, and Sarah Banet-Weiser (Part Two)

Jack: Christine, I really enjoyed your piece – the compact way you account for the colonial context within which popular culture is absorbed, reviled and then transformed by those very people whom colonialism has reduced to the status of mimics. I also appreciate your effort to refuse the sharp distinction between fan and critic, poetry and prose, song and soundscape. In relation to your observations on “fandom” and “fanaticism,” I would love to hear you say more about excess, about over the top performances that go beyond the reproduction of the same. I also have struggled with that Sedgwickian notion of “reparative” and I wonder how you are using it. I love her take on the paranoid form of reasoning that dominates academic style but I never really believed in the reparative as an alternative…

Sarah: Jack, Christine, I’m also interested in this notion of excess–both in fan activities as well as in constructions of other subjectivities, including gender, race, sexuality. I struggle with how to articulate this in my own work, because accounting for excess (or spaces of ambivalence) is tricky yet vital, as this is where performances of identity, as you say, can go beyond the reproduction of the same. Excess allows us to imagine new spaces of possibility and transformation. . .

Christine: In response to Jack’s post and query and, in allegiance with her opening anecdote, I too have endured such distracting and annoying concert-going experiences (too many to name, in fact). The most recent example: this past June, I attended Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars’ concert at the Gibson Amphitheatre–the only Los Angeles stop on their national “Hooligans in Wonderland” tour–both as a critic (currently writing a review of their performance) and a fan (of both artists). Armed with the critical analytics–histories of labor and musical performance as re-cited in each artist’s performance (Monae and chitlin circuits, Mars and Hawai’i's tourist economies– that were going to frame my review of the show, I was first slightly peeved by the audience’s (mainly teenage girls and boys and their parents) lukewarm reception of Monae and then fully irritated about two songs into Mars’ set. In a similar fashion to Jack’s Radiohead experience, my seatmate decided to not just sing but, instead, scream the chorus to his hit single, “Billionaire,” sans irony or self-reflexivity. Needless to say, I had to switch seats in order not to inflict fan-on-fan, audience member-on-audience member violence. Indeed, the “fantasy and impossibility” embedded in fandom and being an academic is what makes such a scene difficult. But I try (after physically distancing myself), in such situations, to curb the critical desire to position myself as an omniscient or holier-than-thou audience member, for, it is precisely this stance–one generated and performed by collectors and critics in other settings–which forecloses any possibility of dialogue or conversation.

The “reparative” here becomes a call to stand alongside other fans, rather than above them, no matter how difficult it might be. It signals a type of ethical relationship. For me, the genre of performance–with its qualities of immediacy, ephemerality, improvisation, and liveness–is particularly generative in cultivating what Alexandra Vazquez (by way of Barbara Johnson) identifies as moments of “surprise”–on stage, in the classroom, on the written page, and in everyday life. These days, in my own work, I am finding the analytic of surprise–something unexpected that can incite various affective responses (fear, astonishment, wonder, and even violence)–to be more generative than “excess,” especially when (again) the subjects, objects, and performances I am most interested are being generated by a historical relationship (U.S. empire in the Philippines) otherwise deemed “invisible” in mainstream U.S. popular culture.

I also appreciate Sarah’s comments regarding “the fan as self-brand.” Needless to say, none other than this past weekend’s Comicon gathering brings to the forefront the ways that, as Sarah notes, the “fan is positioned and validated as a kind of product within a circuit of commodity exchange.” With the increasing presence of mainstream popular entertainment industries (such as films, television, video games) at this long-standing fan-centered event, it becomes quite obvious that Hollywood is present to capitalize on its fans–consumer-participants whose a) identities are themselves “products” of particular forms of consumption and b) fandom does the work of publicizing upcoming new releases (mainly, through social networking outlets such as Twitter and Facebook but also by wearing t-shirts featuring their favorite comic book characters or films). At the same time, by dressing up as characters from particular franchises (this year’s favorites: Black Swan, Harry Potter, and the tried-and-true standby, Star Wars), teenage and adult Comicon attendees inhabit and bring to life these particular pop cultural products. Fueled by a “desire for visibility,” I witnessed firsthand how these “dressed up” attendees actually extend and are part of the “long tail” of mainstream franchises in a manner similar to amusement parks, as parents photographed their children posed next to other attendees dressed like Tinker Bell or Wolverine.

But, again, rather than merely maintaining some type of critical arm’s length from the slew of (mainly) teenagers dressed up as characters and huddled together on the convention center floors, I allowed myself to hearken back to my own adolescent yesteryears, to the theatre competitions and showcases that colored my high school weekends. Where and how can we draw the line between dressing up like Lady Macbeth as opposed to Xena the Warrior Princess, Huckelberry Finn instead of Luke Skywalker, Stanley Kowalski rather than an Avatar? I believe that any attempt to draw lines of difference between such examples of “dressing up” recapitulates the age-old divide between “high” and “low” cultures while it prohibits the potential meanings made by both these performers and their audiences.

Jack: Sarah, I think your notion of the fan as brand and as a distribution point for the circulation of popular culture actually dialogues with my worry that the fan becomes a “celebrity subject” in training – in other words, we consume to learn how to produce well and then produce well in order to facilitate more production. At the same time that I am compelled by these critiques of fandom and the sense of fandom as a economic relay point, I still do want to hold on to some kind of resistant notion of fandom, one where the branding changes the meaning of self, consumption, branding, capital in the process of participating in it.

Sarah: Jack–yes! Your idea/worry about “celebrity subject” in training is truly in conversation with my worry about fan as brand (and self-branding in general). But I also hear both you and Christine about holding on to a concept of the fan as a resistant notion, or a resistant subject, or just in terms of the surprise of meaning Christine gestures toward when talking about dressing up and performing as an adolescent (and I appreciate the notion of surprise over excess). For me, the trick is to hold on to both of these notions simultaneously (fandom as economic relay point, and fandom as potentially resistant), without resorting to a commercial v. non-commercial binary. Which is why I think, Jack, that your last statement, about those moments where branding changes the self, consumption, capital in the process of participating within branding, is vital for me in thinking about how meaning circulates in advanced capitalism. how do we utilize the logic of branding for progressive (and I’m not talking about socially responsible corporations here) or resistant ways? Again, I’m not talking about culture jamming or detournement (though both certainly can have their uses in terms of resistance), but making and remaking brands and fans within new parameters of meaning and signification–that is, how branding can surprise you.

Jack: Christine – well, exactly, one wants to stand or sit alongside the annoying fan from an ethical point of view but in actual, material reality, one wants to get as far away as possible!! So, that is exactly why I mistrust the reparative – it is a gesture of the ethical, a way of knowing the right thing to do but it clashes with the instinctive gesture of, in this case, recoil and disconnection. Moments of surprise are similarly wonderful pedagogical opportunities but hard to come by in an age of self-branding, self-marketing and commercial child manipulation! The only cultural productions that have really been continuously surprising to me in recent years have been animated films for children, which I discuss extensively in The Queer Art of Failure, which manage to address the child viewer in non condescending and often non-normative ways…and then of course, the surprise and wonder of the animated landscape gives way to the banality of the tie-in action figure served up with the kid’s happy meal a few hours later. How do we extend the momentary surprise so that it has more affective intensity than the desire for the figure, the dress-up or the happy meal? Sarah – can you give us an example of when branding can surprise?

Sarah: Yes, well, that is the question, isn’t it? I love your question of how we can extend the momentary surprise so that creative and potentially resistant cultural forms don’t end up like happy meals. I don’t have the answer, but one interesting example might be the recent branding of Wikileaks (the Wall St. Journal covered this in February of this year), where Julian Assange’s organization began selling t-shirts, etc that said things like “Free Assange!” and “the truth is not treason.” The profit generated by the t-shirts supposedly went to Assange’s legal fund, or to the maintenance of the site, or somewhere (and of course, the “somewhere” is always the question–the company that made the Wikileaks t-shirts also made Spice Girls t-shirts). To brand something like Wikileaks and its subversive potential is simultaneously a bit of a surprise and entirely predictable. And I’m not sure if it has “more affective intensity than the desire for the figure;” there’s got to be a Julian Assange action figure out there for sale somewhere. I’m thinking, though, that this kind of move within branding represents a sort of bending or distorting of commodity exchange, that could possibly lead to different sorts of affective openings. . .

Christine Bacareza Balance is Assistant Professor in Asian American Studies (UC Irvine). Her research & teaching interests include: Filipino/Filipino American studies, performance studies, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in Women & Performance: a feminist journal, the Journal of Asian American Studies (JAAS), Theatre Journal, and In Media Res (online). One-ninth of the Polynesian power pop band The Jack Lords Orchestra, she is currently writing a book on popular music and performance in Filipino America.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007). Her current book project, Authentic TM: Political Possibility in a Brand Culture (New York University Press, forthcoming) examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. A co-edited book, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee, is under contract with New York University Press (forthcoming 2011).

Judith “Jack” Halberstam is Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Gender Studies at USC. Halberstam works in the areas of popular, visual and queer culture with an emphasis on subcultures. Halberstam’s first book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), was a study of popular gothic cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries and it stretched from Frankenstein to contemporary horror film. Her 1998 book, Female Masculinity (1998), made a ground breaking argument about non-male masculinity and tracked the impact of female masculinity upon hegemonic genders. Halberstam’s last book, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), described and theorized queer reconfigurations of time and space in relation to subcultural scenes and the emergence of transgender visibility. This book devotes several chapters to the topic of visual representation of gender ambiguity. Halberstam was also the co-author with Del LaGrace Volcano of a photo/essay book, The Drag King Book (1999), and with Ira Livingston of an anthology, Posthuman Bodies (1995). Halberstam regularly speaks on queer culture, gender studies and popular culture and publishes blogs at bullybloggers.com. Halberstam just finished a book titled The Queer Art of Failure due out 2011 from Duke University Press.

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Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Christine Bacareza Balance, Jack Halberstam, and Sarah Banet-Weiser

Christine Bacareza Balance

fan (n.): a person enthusiastic about a specified sport, pastime, or performer; devotee

fanatic (Latin, “of a temple”): unreasonably enthusiastic, overly zealous; a person whose extreme zeal, piety, etc. goes beyond what is reasonable.

I begin with these two brief definitions of “fan” and “fanatic”–from which the first term is typically derived–because they touch upon some of the topics I am interested in, both in my research and everyday life. As someone whose early scholarly training came by way of U.S. ethnic studies and postcolonial studies, my research today focuses on the labor (productive, consumptive, affective) of making music within Filipino America–a soundscape created by the historical relationship (imperial, postcolonial, neocolonial) between the U.S. and Philippines. It is an intimate yet oft-forgotten relationship and, thus, is charged with the racial/cultural invisibility of Filipinos within a U.S. racial imaginary. In other words, what is Filipino culture in the eyes of the U.S.?

Nothing but a merely mimetic nation, as evidenced by its most notable cover performers–Arnel Pineda, Charice Pempengco, and the hordes of cover bands playing in a global tourist circuit, the spectacular choreography of its prison inmates set to a Michael Jackson beat, and a deadly penchant for singing “My Way” on a karaoke machine.

Here, then, in a U.S. popular imaginary, Filipinos are fanatics–people who go beyond what is “reasonable”–when it comes to their relationship to their former colonizer’s popular culture. It is a type of affective charge that simultaneously places them outside of a certain modernity (and therefore, post-modernity, as well) seemingly located in a logic of culture industries–TV, film, popular music–the same industries which render them “invisible” (or, more likely, collapse them within a limited idea of “Asian-ness” as evidenced in the common occurrence of Filipino stars “playing” characters of other Asian races–Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, but never Filipino) within a landscape of U.S. racialization.

Instead, as Apl de Ap of the Black Eyed Peas–one of the most “visible yet invisible” Filipino Americans in U.S. popular music today–notes, these and other Asian Americans remain a “quiet storm” of music producers, songwriters, and simply undercover agents (note one of pop’s biggest stars today–Bruno Mars–is often noted for his Puerto Rican ancestry, Hawaiian upbringing but rarely, if ever, his Filipino heritage).

Along with this, however, I also sense a common belief within fan studies (and perhaps the term “aca-fan” specifically) that there can and does remain a divide between fans and performers–as if never the twain shall meet. Though my research has most definitely led me to examples of participatory culture–specifically, through the interactive communication technology (ICT) and everyday performance event of karaoke singing as well as the “viral aesthetics” evidenced in the recent emergence of Asian American performers on YouTube, from my interviews with and personal experiences interacting with musicians, events organizers/producers, club owners and DJs from Manila to the San Francisco Bay, I have witnessed the various forms of fan-dom these musical producers themselves inhabit.

Here, they are not only devoted the U.S. or European popular musics but, most especially, OPM (original Pilipino music)–from the 1950s up until today. In turn, my complicated relationship to this larger soundscape of OPM–as scholar, fan, and colleague–I believe, is not a rare incident. There a number of other popular music studies scholars in the U.S. and beyond who maintain a place in each of these (as well as other) categories of identification.

In the end, I am currently most interested in the styles of writing about musical cultures and sonic phenomena–in other words, the various ways that we, as critics, can attempt to write performatively–understanding our roles in the process of making meaning of culture–and, in the terms set by the late Eve Sedgwick, reparatively. Since many of the artists I choose to write about are generally people I have maintained an close relationship with–as a friend or fan or collaborator, the question of writing in a style legible to them is always there.

But, I believe that we should always be striving to be much more than just “legible” or “transparent” in our critical writing. Instead, we should, as Daphne Brooks once aptly stated, try to make the music sing in our writing. Or, as Josh Kun has shown us, we should imagine music creating places, bringing together worlds through both performance and listening. And, with their keen interest in the relationship between words and sound, Fred Moten and Alexandra Vazquez’s work always remind me, it’s not only that we try to capture the essence of music but, instead, that we travel inside of music’s poetry and allow it to show us other ways of seeing, hearing, and being.

Jack Halberstam

It is hard to be a fan sometimes: a few scenarios come to mind – I am at a Radiohead show circa 2004, miles from the stage and while I am trying to be absorbed by the live performance, I am deeply distracted by a young woman sitting on her boyfriend’s shoulders next to me and singing “Everything in its riiiight place” in the same tone that she may have been singing “give me what you want, what you really, really want” just a few years earlier while swinging her blond hair back and forth and whooping “oh yeah” in between little bursts of lyrics. I remember feeling really irritated, thinking to myself, well if she is a Radiohead fan, am I?

Or, a few years before that, probably the same year that Ms. Thing was screaming to the Spice Girls, I was going to drag king shows in NYC, heading out late at night to take in the queer night life scene of downtown New York. But instead of entering into dens of subcultural intimacy, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with gawkers, the beautiful people who were following a buzz and lining up now to take in the freak show before moving on to the next hot subcultural site.

And before that it was going to punk shows and pogo-ing alongside scary skinheads who may not have been attracted to the Clash, the Jam, the Slits, X-Ray Spex for the same reasons that I was.

Fandom is full of jeopardy and heartbreak, it is a jagged experience that confirms you and shatters you and often in the same location. It summons a sense of community but also calls forth snobbish and elitist modes of differentiation (why was I SO put out by the blond girl at the Radiohead concert? What made me SO sure that I and not she was the proper kind of Radiohead fan?). When we study fandom or bring our fannish commitments into our academic work, perhaps we are just trying to smooth out the rough edges of an experience that never quite delivers on what it promises – that precisely cannot deliver on that promise if only because fantasy and impossibility are the fuel upon which fandom thrives, burns and, ultimately, crashes.

I have succumbed to the siren calls of certain forms of fandom–punk, drag, gaga–and I will be called to plenty more in the future but I am now more wary and cautious of fandom than in my younger days. I am interested in thinking about forms of fandom that not only flirt with ecstatic pleasure but that also turn quickly to hostility and even violence when disappointed – think All About Eve, think about the killing of John Lennon or Selena. I would love to talk about fandom in an age of ubiquitous and mundane celebrity – if subjectivity, more and more, runs through the territory of everyday celebrity (everyone is a celebrity in their own mind), then what is fandom? A tutelage mode? A training in celebrity subjectivities? In academia and in the realm of popular culture, I think it is time to think about breaking with fidelity, devotion, discipleship (and other quasi-religious modes of practice) in favor of what I call “low theory” in my new book, what Foucault names as subjugated knowledge and what Fred Moten and Stefano Harny call “fugitive knowing.”

Fandom does encompass many of these modes already, but lets be clear that fandom can both reproduce the norm or neutralize all that opposes it. Fandom entails risk, danger, complicity and explosive possibilities; it’s hard to be a fan.

Sarah Banet-Weiser

I appreciate how Christine begins her post with two definitions of “fan” and “fanatic;” I am, I must confess, a person who often harbors unfair assumptions about the blurring of the two categories. This partly comes from the fact that I never really consider myself a “real” fan–certainly I’m a fan of popular culture in a broad sense, but I’ve never gone beyond the typical audience subject position to vote on contestants, to write fan fiction, to comment on a fan site (okay, once I voted on American Idol, but just for Adam Lambert).

So I’ve felt at times a certain (ir)rational distance when thinking about fans who position themselves in more active ways in relation to cultural texts, and am certainly guilty of occasionally merging the two definitions Christine offered, so that fans were often de facto fanatics in my mind.

Christine powerfully reminds us, though, that the merging between the fan and the fanatic is often complex and multi-layered, and certainly fans and fan activity do not circulate in culture in the same ways, across all boundaries. Fandom, as Christine points out, is often racialized, so that particular fans are seen as fanatics due to their racialization, their “irrational” or “cultural” bodies, such as the Filipino musicians Christine writes about.

Jack also reminds us that what fandom is isn’t always clear, and it can be many things at once. Fandom can entail risk and challenge, but it can also–and often does–reproduce the norm.

What I want to do in this post is to draw on this multivalent notion of fandom, and invoke yet another iteration: the fan as self-brand. I would say that all fans and fan activities are situated within a commercial context, though again, this means different things for different fans. That is, while the cultural and commercial economy is surely a framing or shaping context, it is not always a deterministic one. The fact that fans, texts, and fandom take place and are often enabled by a broad milieu of consumption does not mean that fans and their activities do not have cultural, political, and social meaning.

However, the commercial context of much fandom and fan activities also animates other processes by which the “fan” is positioned and validated as a kind of product within a circuit of commodity exchange. The practice of self-branding is an increasingly normative practice in US culture, where “building a brand” seems to more and more be the logical go-to strategy for marketing our personal and professional identities. There often seems to be a relationship between self-branding and actively constructing oneself as a particular fan.

That is, I’m troubled by the ways in which there seems to be an increasing collapse between business brand strategy and personal identity construction in digital spaces–and it seems that in this collapse, it becomes harder (at least for me) to always discern what it means to be a “fan.” Digital media, and the ways in which users are interactive within this space, offer flexibility for fans to not only produce their own media, but also facilitate strategies of self-branding.

Part of being a fan means contributing to the distribution and publicity of popular texts, especially if fan production is posted on-line. While this is not necessarily a negative thing, it does have a heightened significance in an economic context where the individual is privileged as a commodity, and where cultural and social life is increasingly organized and experienced through the terms and conditions of business models. This means that cultural values, such as morals and personal standards, can be harnessed and re-shaped within these same business conditions, so that building a brand becomes almost like a moral obligation to oneself.

In particular, I’m interested in the ways digital media and media production authorize the practice of self-branding for girls and young women, often in the name of self-empowerment, on social network sites, such as Youtube and Facebook. The practice of individuals becoming what Nikolas Rose calls “the enterprising self” has implications for women within the 21st century, where “putting oneself out there” and the quest for visibility is an ever more normative practice for young women.

So I suppose my contribution to this discussion is to ask the question: what happens when the fan becomes a kind of product? Or when the discourse of fandom and fan activities is not so much about individual tastes and desires, or belonging to a community, but is rather about fans laboring in the name of both the self-brand and a company brand? As Jack said, it is hard to be a fan.

Christine Bacareza Balance is Assistant Professor in Asian American Studies (UC Irvine). Her research & teaching interests include: Filipino/Filipino American studies, performance studies, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in Women & Performance: a feminist journal, the Journal of Asian American Studies (JAAS), Theatre Journal, and In Media Res (online). One-ninth of the Polynesian power pop band The Jack Lords Orchestra, she is currently writing a book on popular music and performance in Filipino America.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007). Her current book project, Authentic TM: Political Possibility in a Brand Culture (New York University Press, forthcoming) examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. A co-edited book, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee, is under contract with New York University Press (forthcoming 2011).

Judith “Jack” Halberstam is Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Gender Studies at USC. Halberstam works in the areas of popular, visual and queer culture with an emphasis on subcultures. Halberstam’s first book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), was a study of popular gothic cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries and it stretched from Frankenstein to contemporary horror film. Her 1998 book, Female Masculinity (1998), made a ground breaking argument about non-male masculinity and tracked the impact of female masculinity upon hegemonic genders. Halberstam’s last book, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), described and theorized queer reconfigurations of time and space in relation to subcultural scenes and the emergence of transgender visibility. This book devotes several chapters to the topic of visual representation of gender ambiguity. Halberstam was also the co-author with Del LaGrace Volcano of a photo/essay book, The Drag King Book (1999), and with Ira Livingston of an anthology, Posthuman Bodies (1995). Halberstam regularly speaks on queer culture, gender studies and popular culture and publishes blogs at bullybloggers.com. Halberstam just finished a book titled The Queer Art of Failure due out 2011 from Duke University Press.

Imagining Television’s Futures: An Interview with Intel’s Brian David Johnson (Part Three)

This is the final installment of my interiew with Brian David Johnson. Sorry for the delay in posting. I had some difficulty with email access during Comic-Con.

You talk in the book about “ubiquitous television.” Many readers will not know this concept, so can you explain what it means and how it represents a significant shift from our current relationship to content?

Ubiquitous TV is built off the idea of ubiquitous computing. This was a concept pioneered by Mark Weiser while he was at Xerox PARC. Weiser saw computing existing in three stages: Stage one was the old mainframe computer. These were the computer the size of an entire room. The second stage of computing was the personal computer. This is the Mac or PC that we all know and love.

Now we should point out that the shift from stage one to stage two was massive. This shift defines the world of computing as we know it today. There was a time when it was fantasy to think of a computer that could fit in your pocket. But of course we all know that happened. And Weiser made a leap to the next stage of computing.

For Weiser stage three was where computing disappeared and literally could be found everywhere. It would be invisible. It would be ubiquitous. This has been a long standing area of study in the academic and corporate research worlds. In my book I took this approach and showed how it was actually beginning to happen in the world of entertainment. I also expanded it to how consumers and people would experience TV in their lives.

The idea of ubiquitous TV means that people would live with TV throughout their day and across all the digital devices or “screens” in their lives. What I always found lovely about the idea of ubiquitous TV was that it shifted the focus of the definition and experience away from the devices and to the lives of consumers. No longer would you go to your TV just to get TV. You wouldn’t go to your PC to access the Internet and phones wouldn’t just be for phone calls. The idea of ubiquitous TV really is the foundation of my idea of Screen Future.

For consumers it’s not about the TV or the PC or the smart phone or any other devices. When our social scientists talk to consumers they hear that for real people it’s just about the screens and the entertainment and social communication that these screens give us. That is truly a ubiquitous experience. It’s not about one device to rule them all but about whatever device we have handy at the time. In this world of ubiquitous TV it is less about the device and more about how that device does, what we want it to do and how it gives us the experience we want.

When I think about ubiquitous TV now for me it is a real life actualization of Weiser’s theoretical ideas. The world of ubiquitous TV is happening and gives us a real world glimpse and application of what we can expect to see In the future.

One could argue that there is a core tension between the idea of media as “personalized” and the idea of media as “socialized,” something we consume through networks (whether old school broadcast or new school digital/social). This is not a new tension, but it seems hard for advocates for new models of television to keep both aspects in their heads at the same time. How do these two pulls impact the design of the next generation of television-related technologies?

You couldn’t be more right. It has been hard for people to keep both of these concepts in their heads at the same time. But for me I approach it differently. For me I think about what consumers and people are telling us. Because ultimately it’s about what they want and people have no problem managing these two ideas at the same time. The reason why it’s easy for them is because they want it both ways.

As we start to think about how to design for both the personalized state as well as the socialized state, I think we need to remember that for consumers both of these states are still TV. In the business of entertainment and even in the business of thinking and writing about entertainment, we like to create categories and systems for understanding what’s happening in the modern media landscape. This certainly is important as we need to have these discussions but even as we discuss and debate we have to remember that for consumers they don’t think this way. They are not thinking about the business or cultural implications of media. People are simply enjoying it as a part of their lives.

I realize this might sound a little over simplified but I’ve noticed over the past few years that many people I’ve been talking to forget this simple difference.

So as we start to think about designing for consumers we must remember that there is no line between personalized or socialized. It’s about access and communication. I’ve written a few times that the goal of my kind of futurism is to ultimately become mundane.

People often quote Arthur C. Clarke’s third law. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But I’d like to humbly add Johnson’s Addendum to Clarke. It would say that yes – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – But come next Tuesday evening that magic will be mundane.

For us to design in this landscape we need to understand how people move through their days interacting with people and entertainment. If we remember that people want it both ways. They want to interact and socialize sometimes AND they want to just sit back and be passive sometimes PLUS they want to switch between these modalities freely then I think we are starting to approach a proper design sense.

BUT this is just a start! What I’m most interested in is not their either or approach that we are taking. We always seem to be talking about New TV and Old TV. That’s fine. As I said above we have to remember that people want both and that’s a good thing. But what I’m really interested in is the landscape I’m between these two experiences. The uncharted territory around these TV experiences. I’m worried we are still encumbered by our past prejudices and experiences. This is why I typically tell my students that they are the future of TV– not me. I may be working out how people will be interacting with TV and computational platforms and screens and even you Henry will be writing about what’s happening and COULD happen but they are the ones who will actually build these experiences. They are the ones who need to be unencumbered by the past. We always need to appreciate what consumers what and respect the TV entertainment experiences but there are so many places to innovate and invent.

Much early writing on digital media implied that the era of mass media would be displaced by an era of niche media, yet there remains an ongoing engagement with our shared experience of broadcast media which has allowed television to weather the storm. What factors have allowed television to withstand competition from the net and the web?

I love the old ideas of where TV was going to go. People always said that it would all be personal; that mainstream broadcast media would shrivel and die. No longer would large corporation dictate to the people what they should watch. It would be a wild and wooly collection of intensely personal niche channels that would change and adapt to the needs and desires of people.

Well yeah that’s cool but it didn’t happen exactly like that. It turns out people love mainstream broadcast TV. People all over the world love watching American Idol or Pop Idol or Indian Idol… And there’s nothing wrong with this. Consumers love personalization and they also love watching Idol live. This is not hard for them to understand.

Look we have to be clear here. Our research shows that the majority of people all over the world still watch the majority of their TV on an actual TV in real time, in broadcast from traditional broadcast, cable or satellite. TV…traditional TV is still very important to people. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change. Obviously what has happened over the last few years with the delivery of entertainment via the internet to multiple connected computational screens clearly illustrates that people’s imaginations can get captured with new entertainment experiences. But that’s TV. It can be both things and it’s an experience that is strong enough and robust enough to be up to the task.

Part of the frustration of print publishing about emerging media practices is that the book is always out of date before it reaches the reader. What recent developments do you wish you had been able to discuss in the book?

Ah yes! At the end of Screen Future I wrote that I figured that by the time people read the book there would be a whole host of issues and technologies that were outdated.

But in Screen Future I really wanted to spend more time writing and talking to people in the gaming industry. I have always been a gamer. Pong and I were born in the same year. I grew up with a joystick in my hands. My generation is a generation of gamers and the affect that this has had on how we think about entertainment is massive.

I got to do a little writing in this in one of my columns. I spoke with a round table of gamers and game developers at the PAX convention in Seattle and that was really informative. Ultimately I think we need to rethink how we define gaming and that this could have a massive affect not only on the gaming industry but perhaps the entire media landscape.

I’ve joked that I could write an entire book on social TV. I feel in the book I barely scratched the surface. I really think the social activity is the future of TV and entertainment. Now really this is a bit of a copout because social experience has always been in the bedrock of TV but I do think there is so much more we can do.

What happens when TV and entertainment becomes the platform not only for being social for our friends and family? What happens when TV becomes the platform by which we are social with our government and with our culture and with education?

I’m thinking I should really explore this with you Henry. It’s an amazing area and one that I think we need to keep our eye on. The future is going to be really amazing here.

Imagining Television’s Futures: An Interview with Intel’s Brian David Johnson (Part Two)

What aspects of television can not change and have television remain the same medium?

That’s a tough one because TV, like any good system or organism, has survived for so long because it adapts. This is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the history of TV. TV as a collection of technical innovations, business models, story structures, cultural indicators and motivators is in a constant state of change. I could give you the long list most of us take for granted: Black and white to color. Sponsored shows to the 30 sec spot. The big three broadcasters to cable and satellite. TiVo! The complex web of broadcasters and affiliates. The birth and refining and reimaging of the half hour sit com. The sit com or more pointedly the American sit com is really strange and deeply interesting…but I’m gushing

When I think about what would not change so that TV remains TV. I could defer to USC’s own Jeffrey Cole from The Center for the Digital Future. He says TV is easy. TV is video. For most people they know TV when they see it and it’s simply video.

Now some might think of this a being a little too broad but I like it because it puts the burden of the recognition of TV on the people who are consuming it. Which fits really. I also love it because it defines TV as an audio visual medium. Which keeps it broad and allows us to include not just broadcast TV or even Internet delivered TV but any video or games or even applications that is intermingled with video.

You argue that a fundamental change occurred when the computer changed television into data. How so? How is this shift experienced by the everyday television consumer?

I should start off by saying that this fundamental shift to TV from digital to data has not happened yet on a broad scale. It’s certainly coming. Some folks I’ve talked to peg 2015 as a possible date from this but I’m thinking now for mass consumption it might be a bit longer. At the moment the average consumer isn’t experiencing the world that I described…yet.

But behind the scenes it’s certainly happening and happening right now. At Intel I’ve seen some really smart work in this area three years ago. I write about it in my book that we have been doing work in the fields of video analytics and computer vision. In a way you can think of it as computers warning TV. How do computers watch TV? What computers what TV what do they see and how do they see it?

In one of our labs in China we did some interesting work with computers watching soccer or football depending upon where you are from. The team created a system that would track the different players, identify them and even track the ball movement. The whole system would go crazy when one of the teams made a goal. It was great.

What was generated from this was a massive amount of data. Essentially TV, the football match, was turned from something that was a digital transmission to data. The tracking of the different objects in the frame and also the links that identified the players created a running data feed. This turned TV from digital to data and once you do that then we can do some really interesting things with. All this data allowed us to search the videos in ways we’d never been able to do before. We could also then pull that data apart and put it back together in some interesting ways. That shift from digital to data was key.

Now the real question is what do we do with that data? That’s the question that I’m not sure we know what to do with yet. It’s similar to the data mining and massive data set questions that are being discussed now. Practical examples might be the Net Flix prize (which I write about in the book). One way to look at this future of TV and entertainment is those who have the best algorithm to search this data wins. Fascinating!

But we aren’t there yet. Although there is some really interesting work going on in universities and companies all over world we haven’t got this technology to the point where we could take it to scale and roll the capability to the general public. But this isn’t really I think what you are asking.

We aren’t there yet. But we will be soon. It’s not a failure of technology at the moment but a failure if imagination. What I mean by this is that I really believe we don’t know what’s possible when TV and entertainment become truly data based. What do we do with that data? How do we organize it? How do we search it? Who owns it? Who owns that data about us using that data?

These are the issues that are just coming up as the algorithms and technology get to the point that they become a viable business option. Once this goes to scale and consumers really begin to see it like you asked I think it’s going to be really interesting.

Some are arguing that television is moving from an appointment-based medium to an engagement-based one. What roles will new technologies play in supporting and sustaining our engagement with television?

Oh this is an easy one. You are throwing me a softball here Henry. Technology, the very technology we have been discussing has brought about the transformation of entertainment from a broadcast model or an appointment based TV experience to a more personated and engaged TV experience. Technology did this. No question. In the early days of the DVR is way ReplayTV and Tivo. Heck even to a very limited extent the VCR.

(Side note: The original goal of the VCR was really trying the bring engagement TV into the lives of consumers. The original slogan for the Sony Betamax was: “You don’t have to miss Kojack because you’re watching Colombo.” But as we all know the VCR is a tale of unintended consequences. Although the VCR was originally designed to allow you to personalize your TV experience it really didn’t do this. Very few people were recording live TV. Where the VCR shined was allowing consumer to bring home movies and turn their living rooms into a movie theater. In fact what was actually time shifting wasn’t TV but the cinema. And it literally changed the underlying financial model of movies and Hollywood forever.

But this wasn’t TV. It took the digitization of the TV signal to turn appointment TV to engagement TV. Little upstart companies like Tivo and ReplayTV slowly but surely changed how we acted and interacted with TV.

Of course it wasn’t just being able to record TV that brought this change. It was also being able to manage the TV shows you liked (aka the season pass in TiVo) and also find new shows and even get recommendations. Although admittedly the initial accuracy of these recommendations was so questionable that it led to a sitcom spoof.

But even this was a perfect indicator that the world of TV had changed. Never before would the big broadcasters assume you were homosexual and change their broadcasting to meet you new preconceived likes and dislikes. That sitcom was a perfect mainstream digital marker that the world of TV had changed forever.

Enter the Internet. Hokey smokes. Think about all the various ways the Internet and it’s accompanying apps and services have literally changed the face of the world. The delay in applying this to the world of TV and entertainment hasn’t been technological. As we talked about earlier, the pressure from the technological changes have forced changes in other areas of business, unions, contract and distribution.

Now as I finish up here let me say that appointment TV is not going anywhere. Regardless of how technology transforms TV to an intensely personal experience, appointment TV will not go away. We will always have World Cup and the Olympics and American Idol.

The future is Brian David Johnson’s business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation, his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called “future casting”–using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data, and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction, Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices we Love, Fake Plastic Love, and Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.

Imagining Television’s Futures: An Interview with Intel’s Brian David Johnson (Part One)

Shortly after I arrived at USC, Brian David Johnson from Intel came to the office to interview me for a book he was developing on the future of screens and entertainment. I was giddy from having taught the first session of my Transmedia Entertainment class, and we had a great exchange about the relations between consumers and technology and how it might impact our future relations to television and other entertainment media.

The interview was included in Johnson’s book, Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices We Love, which was released last year. Johnson’s book combines interviews with key thinkers about media’s future from both academia and industry with his own reflections on recent technological developments being developed at labs and what their long term implications may be.

After years of teaching at MIT, I am often skeptical of work on media which starts from a technologist’s perspective since they rarely factor in the social and cultural dimensions of media. Johnson is a notable exception — a deep thinker who groks the interface between technology and culture, who may work for industry but also understands the consumer perspective on why we love television and what we want to get out of watching our favorite series. So, I recommend his book to anyone who wants to expand their thinking and learn about the visions of screen futures which are driving technological development at Intel and a range of other companies.

Johnson was nice enough to sign on to let me reverse the microphone, so to speak, and do an interview for this blog. Over the next few installments, Johnson will share some of his current thinking. Here, he talks about television in relation to such trends as ubiquitous computing and social media, and shares some of the factors which drove him to produce this book.

Here’s Johnson’s official bio which should give you a clearer sense of where he is coming from:

The future is Brian David Johnson’s business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation, his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called “future casting”–using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data, and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction, Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices we Love, Fake Plastic Love, and Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.

You begin the book with Isaac Asimov’s warning that predicting the future is a “hopeless, thankless task.” Given this, what do you hope to accomplish with this book?

I love that quote! I have tremendous respect for Asimov not only as a science fiction writer and a thinker but also as a person who brought science and conversations about science into the mainstream. When I was writing Screen Future I actually had two books always within reach. The first was Richard Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law – his collection of lectures and the second was a collection of Asimov essays The Planet that Wasn’t. Asimov was such a good writer, easy to understand and quite funny – that people had no problem reading about the intricacies of planetary motion or the theoretical planet of Vulcan. Both Feynman and Asimov were passionate communicators and conversationalists. Feynman was known as the great explainer, while Asimov was the great popularize of science.

Getting people to have conversations about science is certainly important. But I think getting people to have conversations about the future is even more critical. The future is not a fixed point in time that we are all hurdling towards. The future is not set. The future is made every day by the actions of people. The of the most significant ways that we can all affect the future is to have conversations about it. We need to ask ourselves: What kind of future do we want to live in? What kind of future do we NOT want to live in? Having these conversations, when they are based on sound science can have a real affect on where we are going. Science fiction can do this – I believe science fiction gives us the language so that we can have this conversation about the future. But nonfiction can do the same thing. Both Feynman and Asimov knew this. The ultimate goal of Screen Future and the future casting work I do is to have conversations about the future.

Ultimately what I want to accomplish with the book is twofold:

First we are in an incredibly interesting time when it comes to technology and storytelling. For quite a while now we’re been talking about telling stories, meaningful stories across multiple mediums, platforms and technologies. I don’t have to tell you this Henry – you’ve done some of the best writing in this area. But I think something changed in 2010 and I really recognized it when I was walking around the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in 2011. Wondering the floor of that massive show, looking at all these different connected devices and screens it became really obvious to me that we had passed a kind of technological tipping point. What I mean by that is that for years most of the reasons why we’ve not really been able to take this screen future mainstream or distributed widely was because of technological limitations – the processors were to slow, there wasn’t descent broadband connections, heck there really wasn’t a robust Internet – things like that. But ultimately that’s all changed.

We’ve really reached that tipping point where we have the processing power, battery life, storage, connectivity and human interfaces (small form factors, touch screens, etc) to be able to delivery people the entertainment and communication experience they want. And businesses have the ability to bring out not just one device – it’s not just Apple or Sony or Samsung – it’s a entire robust and sometimes zany collection of device manufactures that are bringing all kind of wonderful devices and screens and form factors to market. It’s not a technological problem anymore getting across these experiences.

I think where we are now is smack in the middle of a new set of challenges which are very different in nature but just as important. Right now I think we are seeing the gathering of a business tipping point and an experience tipping point. Now forgive me for overusing the tipping point metaphor here but I think it applies. Right now we’re watching some really interesting developments around the business of entertainment and computing. People a really beginning to explore what it means for their businesses to deliver these experiences. It has repercussions all over the world, in union negotiations, government regulations, mergers, long term strategic plans…anything that is touched by entertainment and computing industries. And what’ most exciting is that we a right in the middle of it – it’s happening right now.

I wanted to explore this in Screen Future. There’s a lot of culture, history, technology and economics in the book to give us some background on this – but when the book gets really good is when we start having discussions about where things might go, how businesses might change and what are the underlying factors to this change. Since the book has been out and I’ve been on the book tour I’ve had some really interesting and well informed discussions and sometimes arguments about the business of storytelling and the business of delivery those stories to people using technology.

The second goal for writing Screen Future is a little more broad. As you know I travel around the world talking to people about the future and I’m always struck with how passionate, interested and engaged people are when they talk about their visions for the future. I wanted the book to be a place to gather together a wide range of research and opinions and offer up a vision for where we might be going. My process of future casting really isn’t about prediction at all. Asimov was right THAT is a thankless task. Future casting is a little more pragmatic – I use things like social and computer science, global trends and conversations with experts and visionaries to construct a grounded vision for where we are headed. Then we use this vision to talk about what’s good and bad about that vision – like I said before. But ultimately we’re using this future casting to develop visions that we can build. In the book I wanted to capture the future casting process with all of its disparate inputs and show what a vision for 2015 might look like. Then use it as a way to have conversations with people about the future that they wanted and the future they were worried about

.

You describe yourself as a “Consumer Experience Architect.” What does this entail? What kinds of expertise and insight shape your models of the consumer experience? What factors are shifting the consumer experience of television? Are the changes being driven by shifts in technology, in business practice, or in social and cultural expectations?

I’m going to give the answer that I give to my engineering colleagues. But I have to warn you that they hate this answer. So I kind of like giving it to them. The answer to your question is….yes. The answer is yes. All of the above. The changes in consumers experience with TV are due to all of the factors you mentioned. Let’s look at each one and see if we don’t uncover some more.

Let’s start with “shifts in technology”. Because I work in an engineering company this is the easiest to tackle. I’ve watched the evolution of TV technology first hand for more than twenty years now. In the early 1990s I worked on interactive TV deployments in Europe and Scandinavia. Now to give you an idea of the types of things I worked on I should tell you about one of our most successful projects. It was a huge success and we thought it really showed the way forward for “interactive TV”. But thinking about it today in 2011 the sad truth is that it really illustrates the technical limitations of TV before recent improvements.

The project was done for British Airways. They were looking to sell vacation packages to Spain at the time. A big problem for them was lead generation, actually finding the right people who would be interested in the vacation package. Now the vacations they were selling weren’t super expensive but they also weren’t budget vacations either. They were right in the middle. So what BA wanted to do was use an interactive TV application to find the right people to market to.

To do this they produced a really slick commercial. I think it was about 5 minutes long. At the end of the advertisement the viewer was prompted to press a button on their remote control to request a glossy brochure for more information.

We launched the test in Cardiff Whales and it was a huge success as a pilot. We thought we were geniuses. The back end was pretty complicated. To actually make the thing work you had to send the request via the back channel on the set top box. It then had to interface with the head end, pull the subscribers address and information then send that information to the fulfillment center so that they could mail out the glossy brochure of beautiful beaches and smiling people. For BA it was great because they were gathering prequalified leads for their vacation packages, only sending the costly brochure to people who were interested. For many this type of lead generation is the holy grail of advertising. You actually get your potential customers to ask you for advertising materials.

Like I said it was a success and we thought we were geniuses ushering in the future of interactivity on TV. How pathetic is that? Press a button and get a brochure…that was the staggering brilliance of interactive design. A button that sends you a piece of paper mail!

Now I’m not trying to trivialize how difficult it was to pull off this project. It was actually kind of hard but I think it really illustrates the technical and infrastructure limitations of TV systems in the past.

Flash forward 20 years and look how far we have come technically. We all know the Internet really changed everything from a media and storytelling standpoint. But behind the scenes and inside the TV a lot of little and large changes have really turned the TV itself into a computational device. Two decades ago the TV technically look pretty close to the old RCA sets that used to bring I Love Lucy into American living rooms. Today TVs look more like computers and smart phones.

I guess that’s really the big shift and one of the main points of my book. Today technically speaking TVs and PCs and smart phones and any connected device is just that; a screen that can connect to the Internet and give people the entertainment and communications they want. It’s just a screen not a specific device. When you look at it this way the conversation is less about the TV or PC or whatever and more about the form factor, the size of the screen and they way it fits into your life; the way all the different screens you own fit into your life

That’s a huge shift! I’m a TV guy and recasting the TV and entertainment experience like this is worlds away from where we were 20 years ago. Much of this shift has been started and brought about by the technological advances to both TVs and PCs; which really I just think about as computational devices across the board.

This isn’t a completely linear story by any means but for the moment let’s pretend it is. So, after all they technological advances, the introduction and popularization of the Internet, the reduction in the cost of computational power to consumers and the expansion of meaningful broadband networks then it really got interesting. Well let me restate that…what got interesting is what people did with all of these changes. (Here’s a tiny aside: I wrote all of my notes for our conversation on my smart phone as I flew from London or LA or Mumbai – even how we compose and were has evolved!)

Few people have chronicled and explored these cultural shifts more fully than you Henry – so I’m not going to bore you with my poor summary of your work of which I am a huge fan. But let’s just say people got involved in their entrainment. They got involved in making it, finding it, talking about it and did it on their schedule and to better fit their preferences not the preferences of the companies and corporation that were producing, distributing and advertising with this content

Now the entertainment industry isn’t stupid. We often forget that these large companies are made up of many passionate intelligent people who mainly want to make the best stories possible on whatever medium they choose.

So around 2007 the media and technology industry really began to change and intermingle. A lot of writers cite the 2007 consumer electronics show (CES) in Las Vegas as the turning point where all industries realized the fact that the future of TV and the future of entertainment was digital or a mix of traditional delivery mingled with the Internet. This was massive realization for these large global companies.

This really brought about and is continuing to bring about the business practice changes you asked about. And it’s really these changes that we are witnessing and will continue to watch for the next few years. This is something I really came upon while working on my book. From a technological stand point we are there. When it comes to having technical capabilities to deliver the entertainment experience the majority of people want we have the engineering done. We might even be a little ahead. This of course will change but for today most of the technical hurdles have been solved.

We are now witnessing the business changes as they adapt to these technological advancements as they mix with expanded consumer expectations and habits. I find this fascinating! All you need to do is pick up The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Variety and even Entertainment Weekly and underneath many of the articles you will see the influences of these changes.

And the changes will come. They have to come. People want them. Now I’m not saying TV is going away or even that big budget entertainment is going away. That’s not going to happen either. The main reason for that is that people love it. People don’t want it to go away. They will still pay for it. But their habits and expectation for where they get it, how they get it and how they can participate with it are changing. The entertainment industry will adapt to this just as it has done the past. As I see it this is an exciting time full with a lot of juicy stories and incredible opportunity.

Acafandom and Beyond: Week Four, Part Two (Drew Davidson, Corvus Elrod, and Nick Fortugno)

Drew: I enjoyed reading both your responses to the provocation questions, and it seems like we have agreement for the most part around a lot of the issues involved with acafandom.

Corvus: I think I’d like to explore Nick’s definition of fan though to start our conversation. I’m not sure it applies as much today as it once did. I think fandom has evolved considerably and the “fanatic” connotations are being lost.

Nick: How so? I might be pointing to an extreme case in my initial thoughts, but I still see people defending Attack of the Clones.

Drew: And Comic-Con always reminds me that the relationship of fan and fanatic.

Corvus: Maybe it’s that I live in Portland, or that I self-select to not interact with the most maladjusted members of the many communities I participate in, but I think fandom has evolved a lot in the last 20 years.

Drew:

I think this brings up an interesting point in terms of pop culture. I have a general impression that Portland as a city/community has a vibe of being laid back and that fans are almost like friends. Whereas NYC is where you would find your elite connoisseurs.

Nick:

Well, what is a fan if not a person passionate about a piece of content? And being from NYC, I’m comfortable with the notion of being elitist. I wear that hand-designed, custom-made badge proudly. I don’t think the important part of the fanaticism is thinking your love is superior to other loves. I think it’s that you are rooting for your love. Which is an inherently not critical position.

Corvus:

Fair enough. It seems like everyone in Portland is very into their own thing, but very open to everyone else’s thing being different. I guess then it’s important to make a distinction between fan culture and enthusiast culture?

Drew:

I like this notion, particularly in the context of sports. You’re a fan, you root for your team regardless. Although you can be (highly) critical of how your team performs.

Nick:

Right, so is that an acafan position? The guy who thinks that Knicks are making a huge mistake by doing such and such rather than such and such.

Corvus:

I think a potentially severe problem of fandom is myopia, and lacking a broader perspective. Do you think that this is what the “aca” portion of acafan is meant to offset?

Drew:

I think so, although Nick brings up a great point about how acafan could possibly be a “nicer” way to be elitist.

Corvus:

Sure, but isn’t it also about objectively exploring your own subjective enjoyment? For instance, I learn a lot from my enjoyment of objectively bad media.

Nick:

Are you a fan of that bad media though?

Corvus:

Some of it I am! Star Trek is, on many levels, objectively terrible, but I consider myself a fan.

Drew:

This gets to the heart of it for me, I think acafan includes a more self-reflex look at what you’re doing. Like Nick notes (in referencing Derrida) it could collapse into a mess of relativity where everything is cool (which isn’t cool). And then you have the other end of the spectrum which is elitists who dictate canon

Corvus:

Right. I didn’t mention him by name, but I hope it was clear that I was talking about Ebert in my opening statement in regards to the elevation of subjective taste as objective assessment. I think he really helped establish this as a school of criticism, while the other movie critics at the time he began his career weren’t so blatant about it.

Nick:

He’s by no means alone in doing that. But to return to sports for a second, I think that sports is the border case that’s telling. If I’m a serious fan of baseball, and I love the Mets, I can objectively say that the Mets suck this year, for reasons objective to sports, and still love the Mets. So, is the educated sports fan the ideal acafan?

Drew:

I like this tact, and even thinking beyond sports (in how to be critical (and still feel the love) this is where aesthetics (in a classic sense) come into play for me. It’s how I work through my impressions and ideas to articulate my “judgment” of an experience. For example, take a movie like, The 5th element. Referencing Arnold Isenberg, to make an aesthetic judgment, you make a verdict, give a reason and cite a norm. So, to make a verdict (aesthetically) is to look at the movie in terms of the expression of its form and function. And the reason would be a detailed articulation of the experience how that related to the verdict. And finally, citing a norm would be placing it in the spectrum of movies in general or in specific (e.g. it’s a scifi action flick). Thinking this through helps me then make the claim that I appreciated The 5th Element (even though it had a rather rote plot) because of it’s art direction, set design and sense of fashion. (or something like that).

Nick:

That makes sense as a methodology, but it sounds a lot (no offense) like elitist fandom.

Drew:

Well what’s problematic (for me at least) is how negative the concept of “elite” has become. You “earn” an expertise by being well read (or well played even).

Nick:

Oh, I agree 100% about that. I’m not ashamed at all about being snobby about good work. Why should I like crap?

Corvus:

Well when you combine these two loaded pejorative terms (elitist fanatic) do they cancel each other out?

Nick:

No, they resonate into something even more powerful.

Corvus:

I’m going to immediately change my self-descriptor on all my social networks. But seriously, those are both the problematic ends of a spectrum of consumption, right? So to embrace both ends is to stretch yourself to cover the entire spectrum, and that has to be a good thing. For example, “I only eat the best” and “I only eat this one thing.”

Drew:

From sports to food, talk about some great territory for this discussion. “Let me tell you about the best place to get a burger in the world,” can start a heated deep conversation.

Nick:

I think where we’ve been evolving is to say this – Academic thinking has some claim to an objective standard. Or at least an intersubjective standard that’s formed from rigorous exposure to a history of a medium. And fandom is support for a particular entrant in the medium. And to your earlier point Corvus, that is different from the enthusiast, who just likes the medium. If the above definitions apply, there is nothing mutually exclusive between fandom and academic approaches to work. And you can certainly be fanatic about that. Only eat whole-grains or non-pasteurized cheese. Only read Martin when you read fantasy. Only play RTS by Blizzard.

Corvus:

Right, and now I want to Venn diagram this!

Drew:

http://store.dieselsweeties.com/products/elitism

Drew:

Running with the idea of foodies. Again, it becomes a way to discuss something you have a passion for (so much so that you get it a lot (say dark chocolate) and to better understand and express your appreciation, you do get “elitist” in that you learn and develop a specific language (for instance, to describe why this chocolate’s “snap” is better than that one’s., and it lingers on the palate so pleasingly).

Nick:

That’s where I end up too. Insofar as academia in part a refinement of taste from exposure and a particular heuristic, then it’s elitist by direct result.

Corvus:

Whereas a fan would only eat one specific dark chocolate because “it’s the best” while offering no justification necessarily.

Drew:

In some ways for me, acafan is a way to try and better express your appreciation in more general terms so that people outside of your field of expertise can understand what you’re saying.

Nick:

We can also fall right into radical relativism here (Look, I hate radical relativism. I’m just trying to be thorough). Why does an academic approach merit more respect than a fan’s? I think that’s where we have a desire to have academic mean objective.

Drew:

Well on a cultural level, there’s a general sense that “academic” as a term connotes consideration, rigor, thoughtful. And “fan” connotes passion, ” all in”, excitement.

Nick:

Do we accept those definitions?

Corvus:

If someone can recognize their own subjective experience and objectively discuss it, it gives greater weight (in my opinion) to their opinions, because I have to do less filtration myself.

Drew:

Interestingly, I think this ties into why Henry invited us to join this conversation. He thought the Well Played books were “acafan” and that video game criticism seemed to inherently be acafan (since the play experience is so individualized).

Nick:

Transient art is hard to critique. You can’t have a truly Apollonian relationship to it if you’re making it exist and a part of it.

Corvus:

I tend to agree there. Not only is the emotive experience radically different from one play to the next, but the structural experience can be as well. And because it’s easier to grasp that notion, it’s easier to accept the reality of the differing emotional and intellectual experiences as well.

Nick:

Sure. That’s the whole point of having agency.

Drew:

And that’s why I like to try and describe and define my “agency” in relation to the play experience (how much I played the game, did I reference GameFAQS, etc.)

Nick:

I agree about that aspect of agency, Drew Davidson. Very Baudrillard. So, Well Played is about applying rigor to evaluating gameplay. That’s the “aca” side. Is that fair?

Drew:

Seems so to me. And the fan side comes from that ephemeral play experience that we each have. Also, that the essays, while critical, are appreciative.

Nick:

Ok. I like that. You still cite flaws in the work, even while being appreciative.

Drew:

Plus appreciative in the sense that games are worth considering. 5-10 years ago that wasn’t the case, but now it feels more like a norm (so i think we don’t have to say it as much (or as loud)

Nick:

Yeah, true. I guess we still have to say that.

Corvus:

Now we add it to the conversation for clarification, rather than leading with it as our point. That’s progress

Drew:

In fact, when I started thinking about “well played” as an idea, I went with the assumption that it was.

Drew:

To wrap up, it’s been thought-provoking to write and read our response to the provocations. And I really appreciate working together to articulate our ideas around the concept of acafandom. And while we needed the text for this post, I think it would have been an even better as a conversation (I’ve been doing some video interviews on another project, and it makes me think that could be a great way to capture the back and forth discussion around this topic, but I think we had some good ideas here.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at hjenkins@usc.edu and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.

BIOS

Drew Davidson is a professor, producer and player of interactive media. His background spans academic, industry and professional worlds and he is interested in stories across texts, comics, games and other media. He is the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center – Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University and the Editor of ETC Press.

Corvus Elrod is a Semionaut and Narrative Designer. He is the co-founder of Zakelro! Story Studio and creator of The HoneyComb Engine, an upcoming open and extensible tabletop RPG framework. He has been designing participatory experiences for the better part of two decades, beginning with his exploration of improvisational theater. As he incorporated more and more game mechanics into his performances, he turned his attention to how video game mechanics communicate meaning and began formalizing a semiotic theory of game design. He has contracted for a broad spectrum of clients, from major game studios and publishers to installation artists, and has worked on several small game projects in collaboration with independent developers and artists.

Nick Fortugno is a game designer and entrepreneur of digital and real-world games based in New York City, and a founder of Playmatics, a NYC game development company. Playmatics has created a variety of games including the CableFAX award winning Breaking Bad: The Interrogation and the New York Public Library’s centennial game Find the Future with Jane McGonigal. For the past ten years, Fortugno has been a designer, writer and project manager on dozens of commercial and serious games, and served as lead designer on the downloadable blockbuster Diner Dash and the award-winning serious game Ayiti: The Cost of Life. Nick is also a co-founder of the Come Out and Play street games festival hosted in New York City and Amsterdam since 2006, and co-creator of the Big Urban Game for Minneapolis/St. Paul in 2003. Nick teaches game design and interactive narrative design at Parsons The New School of Design, and has participated in the construction of the school’s game design curriculum. Nick’s most recent writing about games can be found in the anthology Well-Played 1.0: Video Game, Value, and Meaning, published by ETC-Press.

Acafandom and Beyond: Week Four, Part One (Drew Davidson, Corvus Elrod, and Nick Fortugno)

Drew Davidson:

Not being deeply familiar with fan studies, my initial response to these provocations comes from my perspective on how to best do constructive criticism, which I believe resonates with the concept of acafan that Henry champions. I like to approach experiences as a fan, in that I want to like what I’m about to experience, and I’m looking forward to it. So whether it’s a movie, a show, a video game, etc, I hope I’m going to have a positive experience. Not to go into too much detail here, but I find it most useful to consider these experiences from an aesthetic perspective in order to best formulate an analysis and criticism of that experience. And to be as constructive as possible, I always start with what works well in an experience, and then follow with what could make it even better. This helps articulate how I think about the concept of acafan. It’s a way to do critical analysis that acknowledges appreciation as well. For me, it’s less about combining two different identities (that of academic and that of a fan) and more about the best way to be academic (having a passion for what one is studying). And I find that every experience we have is subjective and it’s best to address this in your criticism. Also, I believe that it is through stories that we make sense of the experiences we have, which lends itself to dialogic discussions as we perform critical conversations. This has become a guiding principle for the Well Played series of books (and nascent journal) in which academics, journalists, developers and players do close in-depth readings of the experience of playing video games. Throughout, the contributors share the stories of their gameplaying experiences in order to best analyze what makes a game work well, and what could make it even better. Editing these books and working with all the contributors has only helped illustrate for me that the act of critically sharing the stories of our experiences is an effective (and affective) method to do constructive criticism, and possibly the best way to be an acafan.

Corvus Elrod

As someone who isn’t steeped in academic tradition, I must confess that I initially felt overwhelmed by the prospect of addressing these provocations. Yet they sparked a flood of passionate responses that, once I sifted through them, were very informative about my own process of consuming and discussing media, but my impression of academia and acafandamia.

I have come to believe that the academic pursuit of objective truth regarding intangibles like human culture is a mug’s game. It’s certainly a noble pursuit, and ultimately very instructive about our own nature, but the goal of true objectivity cannot be obtained. This is true of when we study dead cultures and it’s even more true when we study a living culture of which we’re an active participant. Any views we may have on the role of media in our culture are inherently subjective and to imagine that we can somehow transcend a lifetime of cultural immersion and take some lofty objection position is hogwashhubris.

However, on the other side of the coin we have fandom, which often embraces highly subjective views as absolute objective reality. This is hardly a constructive approach to life–and the distinction between life and fandom is often blurred for fans–emotionally or intellectually, serving to accentuate the social discomfort and feelings of isolation and false superiority. This approach has been propped up by commercial media critics, who strive to lock in ratings–and therefore corporate sponsorships–by passing their subjective taste off as academically objective truth.

So if this is the problem, what is the solution? I’d suggest that a middle ground is imperative. We must strive to acknowledge, embrace, and account for our own subjective experience while both taking a long view and accepting the validity of others’ subjective experiences. This, from what exposure I’ve had to it, is the foundation of acafandom–a bridge between two fundamentally flawed approaches to understanding media, culture, and ourselves.

The benefits of drawing upon the strengths of academia and fandom while, hopefully, minimizing their weaknesses is considerable. The primary benefit, as I see it, is the impact a more open-handed interaction has had on the fandom community has been stabilizing and elevating. For example, the even-tempered public discourse around video games and the social issues inherent in their portrayal of violence and sexuality has become far more prevalent over the last five years. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the maturation of the fan base, but a large part of it is due to the accessibility of critical theory in the fields of race, gender, and media. This serves to make the benefits of academic rigour immediately accessible to the culture it studies. And if academia doesn’t serve to elevate all aspects of our culture, it will continue to lose relevance as our increasingly-accelerating culture overtakes its intellectual market share.

Nick Fortugno

Following on Drew’s impulse, I guess the issue of subjectivity in academic pursuit has always been suspicious to me. I grew up as an academic in Literature studying Derrida and not taking it that seriously. Are we really supposed to ignore the magic of the texts we read? Why did we start reading them in the first place? Similarly, I think every academic field starts with a genuine passion for the practitioner for that field, and trying to eliminate that love would be tantamount to removing all motivation from research and teaching.

That said, it’s not fandom. Fandom is passion for a particular instantiation of a medium or narrative. Fandom is about loving Harry Potter, not loving reading, and that leads to a different consumption pattern. I don’t think there’s any more subjectivity in fandom at least in terms of the choice of object of passion, but I do think there’s a lack of critical perspective. “Fankids” are most extreme version of this flaw — people who slavishly watch everything labelled Star Wars despite widely varying quality or people who argue that Wheel of Time is just as good at the end as it is at the beginning have lost an ability to see the work they are looking at and evaluate it either for merit, or more critically to this conversation, for its meaning or position in the medium.

It leads me to wonder is acafandom is oxymoronic, or whether (more likely)acafandom is an elitist position. It seems like taking a critical perspective on work and judging it on “objective” standards of the medium as a whole means that an acafan would only consider objects that have a requisite level of depth or quality as worthy of consumption. Is an acafan just a fan whose rarefied taste precludes certain work from consideration? Is it just a reconstitution of the high art debate for a new medium? As an academic of a former life, I have no problem with canons and gates on inferior work, but that makes it no less elitist.

And if the opening sentence here isn’t true, what does that mean? Do we have some masochistic desire to consume work we think is trashy or flawed? Are we doomed to be Doug complaining about how Scratchy’s rib plays two different notes?

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at hjenkins@usc.edu and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.

BIOS

Drew Davidson is a professor, producer and player of interactive media. His background spans academic, industry and professional worlds and he is interested in stories across texts, comics, games and other media. He is the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center – Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University and the Editor of ETC Press.

Corvus Elrod is a Semionaut and Narrative Designer. He is the co-founder of Zakelro! Story Studio and creator of The HoneyComb Engine, an upcoming open and extensible tabletop RPG framework. He has been designing participatory experiences for the better part of two decades, beginning with his exploration of improvisational theater. As he incorporated more and more game mechanics into his performances, he turned his attention to how video game mechanics communicate meaning and began formalizing a semiotic theory of game design. He has contracted for a broad spectrum of clients, from major game studios and publishers to installation artists, and has worked on several small game projects in collaboration with independent developers and artists.

Nick Fortugno is a game designer and entrepreneur of digital and real-world games based in New York City, and a founder of Playmatics, a NYC game development company. Playmatics has created a variety of games including the CableFAX award winning Breaking Bad: The Interrogation and the New York Public Library’s centennial game Find the Future with Jane McGonigal. For the past ten years, Fortugno has been a designer, writer and project manager on dozens of commercial and serious games, and served as lead designer on the downloadable blockbuster Diner Dash and the award-winning serious game Ayiti: The Cost of Life. Nick is also a co-founder of the Come Out and Play street games festival hosted in New York City and Amsterdam since 2006, and co-creator of the Big Urban Game for Minneapolis/St. Paul in 2003. Nick teaches game design and interactive narrative design at Parsons The New School of Design, and has participated in the construction of the school’s game design curriculum. Nick’s most recent writing about games can be found in the anthology Well-Played 1.0: Video Game, Value, and Meaning, published by ETC-Press.

Now Available: Transmedia Hollywood 2 Videos

Due to technical difficulties, we’ve been delayed in sharing with you the videos from our April Transmedia Hollywood 2 conference, jointly sponsored by the cinema schools at USC and UCLA, and hosted this year at UCLA. We hope to be back next April at USC with a whole new line up of speakers and topics, which we are just now starting to plan. In the meantime, check out some of these sessions, which should give the ever expanding Transmedia community plenty to chew on this summer. As for myself, I’m flying down to Rio, even as we speak.

Welcome and Opening Remarks

Denise Mann, Associate Professor, Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Transmedia Hollywood 2, Visual Culture & Design: Denise Mann Opening Comments from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC. (Some of my comments here got me into trouble at the time and I hope to post something here soon which explores the issue I raise here about the role of radical intertextuality within the same medium.)

Transmedia Hollywood 2, Visual Culture & Design: Henry Jenkins Opening Comments from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 1: “Come Out 2 Play”: Designing Virtual Worlds–From Screens to Theme Parks and Beyond

Hollywood has come a long way since Walt Disney, circa 1955, invited families to come out and play in the first cross-platform, totally merchandised sandbox — Disneyland. Cut to today and most entertainment corporations are still focused on creating intellectual properties to exploit across all divisions of the Company. However, as the studios and networks move away from the concrete spaces of movie and TV screens and start to embrace the seemingly limitless “virtual spaces” of the Web as well as the real-world spaces of theme parks, museums, and comic book conventions, the demands on creative personnel and their studio counterparts have expanded exponentially.

Rather than rely on old-fashioned merchandising and licensing departments to oversee vendors, which too often results in uninspired computer games, novelizations, and label T-shirts, several studios have brought these activities in-house, creating divisions like Disney Imagineering and Disney Interactive to oversee the design and implementation of these vast, virtual worlds. In other instances, studios are turning to a new generation of independent producers — aka “transmedia producers” — charged with creating vast, interlocking brand extensions that make use of a never-ending cycle of technological future shock and Web 2.0 capabilities.

The results of these partnerships have been a number of extraordinarily inventive, interactive, and immersive experiences that create a “you are there” effect. These include the King Kong 360 3D theme park ride, which incorporates the sight, smell, and thunderous footsteps of the iconic gorilla as he appears to toss the audience’s tram car into a pit. Universal Studios and Warner Bros. have joined forces to create the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a new $200 million-plus attraction at the Islands of Adventure in Florida. Today’s panel focuses on the unique challenges associated with turning traditional media franchises into 3D interactive worlds, inviting you to come out 2 play in the studios’ virtual sandboxes.

Moderator: Denise Mann

Panelists:

  • Scott Bukatman, Associate Professor, Stanford University (Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century)
  • Rick Carter, Production Designer (Avatar, Sucker Punch, War of the Worlds)
  • Dylan Cole, Art Designer (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland)
  • Thierry Coup, SVP, Universal Creative, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, King Kong 3D
  • Craig Hanna, Chief Creative Officer, Thinkwell Design (Wizarding World of Harry Potter-opening; Ski Dubai)
  • Angela Ndalianis, Associate Professor /Head, Cinema Studies, University of Melbourne (Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment)
  • Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive, Disney Imagineering (elecTronica, Toy Story Mania)

TH2 Panel 1: “Come Out 2 Play” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 2: “We’re Looking For Characters”: Designing Personalities Who Play Across Platforms

How is our notion of what constitutes a good character changing as more and more decisions get made on the basis of a transmedia logic? Does it matter that James Bond originated in a book, Spider-Man in comics, Luke Skywalker on screen, and Homer Simpson on television, if each of these figures is going to eventually appear across a range of media platforms? Do designers and writers conceive of characters differently when they know that they need to be recognizable in a variety of media? Why does transmedia often require a shift in focus as the protagonist aboard the “mothership” often moves off stage as extensions foreground the perspective and actions of once secondary figures? How might we understand the process by which people on reality television series get packaged as characters who can drive audience identification and interest or by which performers get reframed as characters as they enter into the popular imagination? Why have so few characters from games attracted a broader following while characters from comics seem to be gaining growing popularity even among those who have never read their graphic adventures?

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists:

  • Francesca Coppa, Director, Film Studies/Associate Professor, Muhlenberg College; Member of the Board of Directors, Organization for Transformative Works
  • Geoffrey Long, Program Manager, Entertainment Platforms, Microsoft
  • Alisa Perren, Associate Professor, Georgia State University (co-ed., Media Industries)
  • Kelly Souders, Writer/Executive Producer (Smallville)

TH2 Panel 2: “We’re Looking for Characters” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Game On!: Intelligent Designs or Fan Aggregators?

Once relegated to the margins of society, today’s media fans are often considered the “advance guard” that studio and network marketers eagerly pursue at Comi-Con and elsewhere to help launch virtual word-of-mouth campaigns around a favorite film, TV series, computer game, or comic book. Since tech-savvy fans are often the first to access Web 2.0 sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Second Life in search of a like-minded community, it was only a matter of time before corporate marketers followed suit. After all, these social networking sites provide media companies with powerful tools to manage fans and commit them to crowd-sourcing activities on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. Two corporate leaders–Warner Bros. and Disney — have entered the fray, pursuing disparate routes to monetize the game industry, each targeting a different type of consumer. While WB is investing in grittier, visually-arresting, adult-oriented, console games like Batman Arkham Asylum, Disney is banking on interactive entertainment like Club Penguin’s online playground built for kids and family members. Hard-core gamers worry that the kid-and family-friendly Disney approach will neuter the video game industry; however, the unasked question is whether these interactive playgrounds linked to corporate IP are training next-generation consumers to bridge the gap between entertainment and promotions.

A similar revolution is taking place in the post-network television industry as creators form alliances with network marketers in an effort to reach out to engaged fans. Many of the cutting-edge creative team at Smallville forged this path in the wilderness, creating innovative on-line campaigns that they later took to Heroes. Fans avidly pursue TV creators who incorporate an arsenal of visual design elements derived from films, comic books, games, web-series, and theme park rides in the series proper and in the online worlds. Experimenting with ways to reinvent an aging medium and buoyed by a WGA strike that assigned derivative content to showrunners, the question remains whether these creators won the battle but lost the war as more and more network dot.coms have asserted control over the online interactive entertainment space. Do web-series like Dr. Horrible and The Guild represent the next frontier for enterprising creators or can creative personnel learn to play within the confines of the corporate playground?

We will ask creators from both industries — gaming and television–to explain their philosophy about the intended and unintended outcomes of their interactive properties and immersive entertainment experiences. Marketers clearly love it when fans become willing billboards for the brand by wearing logo T-shirts, deciphering glyphs, or joining mysterious organizations such as Humans for the Ethical Treatment of Fairies, Elves, and Trolls, and then sharing clues, codes, and supporting content across a virtual community. These and other intriguing questions will be posed to the creative individuals responsible for designing many of these imaginative and engaging transmedia worlds.

Moderator: Denise Mann

Panelists:

  • Steven DeKnight (Spartacus, Smallville, Buffy, Angel)
  • Jeph Loeb, EVP/Head of TV, Marvel Entertainment (Heroes, Smallville)
  • Craig Relyea, SVP, Global Marketing, Disney Interactive (Epic Mickey, Toy Story3-The Game)
  • Avi Santo, Assistant Professor, Old Dominion University (co-creator of Flow: A Critical Forum on Television)
  • Matt Wolf, Double 2.0, ARG/Game Designer (Bourne Conspiracy, Hellboy II ARG, The Fallen ARG)

TH2 Panel 3: “Game On!” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

“It’s About Time!” Structuring Transmedia Narratives

The rules for how to structure a Hollywood movie were established more than a century ago and even then, were inspired by ideas from earlier media — the four-act structure of theater, the hero’s quest in mythology. Yet, audiences and creators alike are still trying to make sense of how to fit together the chunks of a transmedia narrative. Industry insiders use terms such as mythology or saga to describe stories which may expand across many different epochs, involve many generations of characters, expand across many different corners of the fictional world, and explore a range of different goals and missions.

We might think of such stories as hyper-serials, in so far as serials involved the chunking and dispersal of narrative information into compelling units. The old style serials on film and television expanded in time; these new style serials also expand across media platforms. So, how do the creators of these stories handle challenges of exposition and plot development, managing the audience’s attention so that they have the pieces they need to put together the puzzle? What principles do they use to indicate which chunks of a franchise are connected to each other and which represent different moments in the imaginary history they are recounting? Do certain genres — science fiction and fantasy — embrace this expansive understanding of story time, while others seem to require something closer to the Aristotelian unities of time and space?

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists:

  • Caitlin Burns, Transmedia Producer, Starlight Runner Entertainment
  • Abigail De Kosnik, Assistant Professor, UC, Berkeley (Co-Ed., The Survival of the Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era; Illegitimate Media: Minority Discourse and the Censorship of Digital Remix)
  • Jane Espenson, Writer/Executive Producer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica)
  • John Platt, Co-Executive (Big Brother, The Surreal Life)
  • Tracey Robertson, CEO and Co-founder, Hoodlum
  • Lance Weiler, Founder, Wordbook Project

TH2 Panel 4: “It’s About Time!” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.