Acafandom and Beyond: Alex Doty, Abigail De Kosnik, and Jason Mittell (Part Two)



In reading over Alex and Gail’s excellent provocations, I find myself reading fairly fannishly – not because I’m an admirer of their work (although I certainly am), but because even though they each present arguments that might seem to contradict my own stated position, I highlight and (to evoke our host) poach the moments and examples that confirm my own ideas. In Alex’s post, I see evidence of the usefulness of writing what you believe and feel without a label – he might be framed as an acafan fore-parent, but the work that inspired so many of us didn’t need that label to forge a model.

And his post points to another example of a slippery term that has had much more semiotic utility than either acafan or postmodern: queer. As we all know, this was not a term coined for academic convenience or trendiness, but rather a reclamation of an already powerful signifier that has come to define a field in seemingly (for a sideline observer like myself) coherent, pragmatic and politically efficacious ways. The semantic history of queer proves that terms can matter, but suggests that we should also engage with terms that already matter and fight the important fights, rather than coining and squabbling over new ones.

Both Gail and Alex’s posts highlight the role of affect in writing about culture, and the importance of owning up to our personal engagements. But while Alex chose to “inject the I” into his work through both political and emotional investments, Gail chooses to speak Vulcan over Klingon, tempering affect while foregrounding her taste and identity. I’m sure that adherents of the term acafan would allow for both styles of fannishness under its rubric, but that points to challenges of the concept: either you must delineate the category in a way that excludes some significant modes of engagement, or you create a large umbrella that loses its explanatory power. I’m left unsure why labelling either of their approaches, or those of the many others who have participated in this series, as “acafan” helps us understand or justify the resulting work.

So I’m left with a question for both of my esteemed co-provocateurs: what would be different for the type of work you do without the term acafan to categorize it?


Oh, quite simply, I think of myself as an “acafan” because Henry employed that term. He could have called it “lorax” and I would have said, “Yes, that’s what I’m trying to do with my work, with my career. I’m trying to be a lorax!” As Alex is the fore-parent of so much great cultural studies and queer studies work, so Henry is the fore-parent of so much great work in fan studies. (Thus it is so great to have these two strands of genealogy touch points through this conversation, though of course their work has always been relevant to each other’s.) I came into fan studies through the Henry route, and so Henry’s terminology is mine.

But actually I would like to take up the question of using “queer” as a possible descriptor for “acafan.” I know that’s not literally what you suggested, Jason, but I have often wondered about drawing a connection between the two terms. On the one hand, “acafan” “queers” both academic and fan, Henry has explicitly referenced the origins of his early fan studies work in the emergent queer studies movement, fans generally use terms like “outed,” there is something real at stake for those of us who are academics who “come out” as fans, and one of Henry’s landmark contributions was showing that it could be done with respect to popular media, that one could and maybe MUST “out” oneself in academic work as a fan.

On the other hand, earlier in this discussion, John Edward Campbell asked “those who identify as ‘acafans’ to be a bit more reflexive about comparisons of fans to sexual minorities,” emphasizing rightly that the dangers for people who “out” themselves as sexual minorities are far more acute and severe than for people who “out” themselves as fans.

If either of you has any thoughts on the intersections of “queer” and “acafan,” as two terms that could be brought to bear on one another or may support or serve one another, or as two terms that are and must remain very distinct and separate, I would be really interested in them.


I’ll begin with Gail’s provocation about how she tries to have her academic work speak critically about fandom and things she is a fan of rather than have her speaking as a fan, and how this particular positioning as an acafan (one I think most acafans take on) runs the risk of reinforcing “the old equivalences” of fan with “irrationality” and “overemotionalism” and academic with “rationality” and critical “distance.” I agree with you, Gail, that this positioning may be a matter of “tone,” and I will add “degree,” rather than a wholesale denial or repression of emotion, but I have always been frustrated by how deploying this position always seems to demand we “control” our expressions of enthusiasm because they are, somehow, antithetical to the intellectual work we do. Is it really be impossible to conceive of a piece of work that veers between Photoplay and “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and that is taken seriously in the academy?

Jason, you really are being a provocateur when you ask if we would really lose anything in terms of how we go about our business without the term “acafan” (or “postmodern”). I suppose I would say “no” and “yes.” No, in the sense that those of us who were/are intent on combining “the personal is the political” type investments in our work would have proceeded (and did proceed) without a concept to work within or under.

But, yes, in the sense that it is handy to have a term like “acafan,” or the earlier “scholar-fan,” to indicate a “performance” option (as you put it, Gail) for scholarship. Once a term like this is established, it can provide some added weight to the struggle to legitimate certain types of scholarly performance. (I know, even while writing out “legitimate” I was cringing, but a girl’s got to eat, so. . .) While, as Jason points out, this term (whether applied to a person or to a product) can mean many things to many people, it does gesture toward a group of people (self-identifying and not) and body of work that has attempted to expand and complicate just what constitutes a “scholar” or a piece of “scholarly” or “academic” work. And I do feel a kinship with these folks and with this project–though I guess don’t really need a term to describe all this, I suppose. How’s that for equivocating?

As to understanding acafandom, the acafan, and acafan production as “queer” somehow, I don’t see why not, for the reasons Gail outlines, primary among them the impulse to critique categories with an eye to deconstructing them. Following this line of thinking, then, the queer goal of acafandom should finally be to trouble the categories of “fan” and “academic” (and academic and fan discourse) so much that we are left with exactly what Jason is calling for–a space that allows “our arguments and ideas to speak for themselves” no matter what their approach, methodology, for form. So, Jason, maybe you can just wait a while for acafandom to do its queer work!


I appreciate that both of you equivocate about my question, and even though I’m skeptical of the term, I’m similarly on the fence. Such labels certainly have their uses for community-building, group identification, and signalling a set of sympathies so that others can find like-minded fellow travellers – I imagine that on some social network like, tagging yourself as an acafan could be useful (as would tagging ourselves as Loraxes for that matter!). But as academics in the critical humanities, we need to be careful in how we use our labels, as today’s marker of convenience is tomorrow’s site of political factioning or terminological warfare: when will we see articles positing that we are now in the era of post-acafandom, to be followed by neo-acafandom?

To pull out another term that emerged from the theoretical stew of postmodernism (but I’d argue need not be labeled as such to be useful), what I think is going on around these acafan conversations is a form of strategic essentialism. There is a tactical utility for scholars, especially in vulnerable untenured positions, to be able to grasp onto a term like acafan and highlight how prominent figures in our field like Henry & Alex embrace it – it helps situate ones work & identity within an area of study that has validity and legitimation. But what happens when a hiring or review committee asks “so what does that mean?” I think it’s most useful and honest to be able to embrace labels not just for their pragmatic utility, but because they actually help explain what it is you do and how you do it.

As for the queer question, I get the parallel in terms of issues of visibility and categorical instability, but echoing John Edward Campbell’s point that Gail cited, I fear that it might unintentionally belittle the huge power differentials between being a fan and being a sexual minority. The odds that someone would suffer tangible discrimination or violence for being a fan are so much less than for being queer, and the fandoms that would probably carry the greatest stigma are themselves already queered. In other words, nobody’s going to care that I “outed” myself as a sysop for a Lost fan wiki, but a scholar who writes BDSM slash fanfic has legitimate reasons to keep that aspect of her fandom closeted – but I’d argue that’s less because it’s a fan activity than because it’s a queer type of fandom. Might a strategic use of the term acafandom would help her by validating such activity within an established community? Perhaps, and if so, that’s as good of a justification for the term as I could imagine – although my skepticism about the incoherence of the category remains.

Gail: Jason, you’re such a hater! It’s awesome – I like the “hater” position and use it very frequently myself (cf. Jonathan Gray’s outstanding work on “anti-fans” and “non-fans”). You’re a non-fan of the “acafan” term and an anti-fan of the potential for terms like “post-acafan” (!) and I respect that. I actually don’t use the term “acafan” to refer to myself in any promotion review-type situation, or to define myself or my work to non-acafen, but I do *think* of myself as an acafan and I like that a term exists as a “tag” that other scholars use so that I can find them and their work and understand something about their methodologies and what their goals are.

“Acafan” works well for me as a kind of search term (though I’ve never typed that into Google) – if someone is called an “acafan” or refers to themselves using that term, even in passing, it’s helpful for me to recognize them as someone whose work may have some relevance and importance to my own work.

But just going back to the lorax example quickly, I am also fine with other tags like “fan studies scholar,” “scholar-fan,” “fan theorist,” “fan cultures scholar,” etc. And that circle of terms can widen outward quickly to “cultural studies scholar,” “media studies scholar,” “digital culture theorist,” “Amy Pond who studies online communities,” etc. I just find terminology useful for a quick assessment of whether someone’s essays or books or blog entries or LiveJournal posts or conference papers are worth time and attention – Are they working on projects that are of interest to me, or not? Are they using approaches and frameworks that I might want to learn about, or not?

But I do think that as the acafan approach gets to be more and more common, with new generations of scholars emerging for whom the question of whether or not they should declare their fandoms is not even a question, that the term may become specific to a time frame. “Some scholars and fans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, sensing commonalities and overlaps in their theoretical and critical work, used the term ‘acafan’ to define themselves. Today, it is well-known that everyone who studies media of any kind is a fan, a non-fan, or an anti-fan, and that anyone who thinks that passion and emotion are not integral to media criticism and analysis is an idiot.” (from the Future Encyclopedia of Media Studies, copyright 2042).

I do hope, though, that if and when “acafan” goes away, that we who were acafen remember that academics and fans can and should talk to one another, that they/we are not that different from one another, that the “meta” done in fandoms and the “studies” done in academia are similar kinds of work. I am especially concerned here about fans’ possible marginalization from future academic discussions, since academics have access to (some) institutional legitimacy and research funds that many fans do not.

Thank you both, Alex and Jason, for weighing in on whether “queer” can or mustn’t be thought of as pertinent to “acafan.” Both of you suggest that much acafan work can do, and is already doing, queer work – and so inspires discomfort and encounters disapprobation because of its queerness, not because of its acafanishness. To me, that means that it is useful to think about “acafan” and “queer” together, and to articulate their relationships, but that in any discussion of the two concepts together, it is crucial not to mistake the social positioning of one for the social positioning of the other.

Alex: Well it looks as if I am bringing up the rear (to coin a phrase). It seems as if where we are leaving “acafan” is understanding it as a concept that might have certain uses for academic fans if not for “civilian” fans (sorry, I was an Army brat) when it is used carefully and strategically–but that it may have a shelf life, so we shouldn’t get too attached to it. I think that between and among them, our provocations and responses have compellingly suggested some of the potential benefits of using “acafan” as well as some of its limitations or problematic aspects.

Reading both of your follow-up comments on “acafandom” and/as “queer,” I realized that I probably sounded a bit flippant in my last response on this. As a queer and an acafan–yes, I will hold onto that label for a while longer though I don’t really need it to do what I do, even though I still think it helps explain what I do to some extent, although Jason is correct in suggesting that sometime you need to define “acafan” for people before talking about your specific acafan work– I agree that while as concepts they can be interestingly compared to each other, this should not suggest that “open” acafans leave themselves open to anything like what “open” queers do–except, possibly, as Jason suggests, when the acafan/acafan work is itself queer.

I like Gail’s encyclopedia entry for “acafan(dom),” especially the final sentiment, which is an interesting reversal of what many undergraduate students think: that analysis and criticism have no place in expressions of (their) fan enthusiasms. That is, they will no longer enjoy (or enjoy less) popular culture texts or personalities once they have certain (academic) critical and analytic tools. Hey, this might be something else the concept and products of acafandom are useful for–showing students that you can simultaneously think critically and emote when you watch a film, listen to a song, contemplate a celebrity, etc. etc. etc. A carefully selected acafan article or two–along with a general discussion of “acafan(dom)”–have done wonders in my undergraduate classes along these lines.

Abigail (Gail) De Kosnik is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She has a joint appointment in the Berkeley Center for New Media ( and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies ( Her current LJ userpics are: The Beatles, Don & Peggy, Starbuck & Apollo (Kara & Lee), Rogue, Blair Waldorf, Torvill & Dean, Lisbon & Jane, Tony & Pepper, Daniel & Betty, and Mal & Zoe. At this time, she’s looking for a good Arya Stark icon.

Alexander Doty is Chair of the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and a Professor in this department and in the Department of Gender Studies. He has written Making Things Perfectly Queer and Flaming Classics, co-edited Out in Culture, and edited two special issues of Camera Obscura on divas. An old fogey, he is currently not active in any web-based fan communities, but in the past he has been known to put his 2-cents up on, and to indulge the consumer side of his fandom by buying risque postcards of 1920s stars George O’Brien and Ramon Novarro on Ebay–and, yes, he will end up writing something on at least one of them in order to justify these purchases to his “aca” side.

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College, and a Fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen, Germany, for the 2011-12 academic year. As an aca, he’s written Genre & Television (2004), Television & American Culture (2009), Complex TV (in process) and the blog Just TV (ongoing). As a fan, he’s been active in the Lostpedia community, transforms Wilco songs for the mandolin, and calls his fantasy football team The Heisenberg Helmets.

Acafandom and Beyond: Alex Doty, Abigail De Kosnik, and Jason Mittell (Part One)

Alexander Doty:

Reading through the posts, I realized that some of my earlier work is considered part of the pre-history of acafan(dom). It is not really self-reflexively working at the intersection of scholarship and fandom, but it gestures towards this space by making a case for lesbian and gay and queer reception of mainstream film and popular culture as an intense and conflicted “fannish” site for articulating marginalized identities and communities, as well as a site within which to challenge notions of (fixed) identity and (unified) community.

This early work suggests that LGQ film and popular culture enthusiasms were also almost always what might now be called acafan-like as they simultaneously negotiated pleasures while generating critiques from positions that were at once inside and outside the dominant culture that produced these film and media products. As the sometimes “gay,” sometimes “queer,” sometimes “femme,” sometimes “butch” scholar and fan considering all this, I was also articulating an approach to film and popular culture that I hoped to deploy in my own writing.

Inspired by Robin Wood’s “Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic,” I wanted my academic work to more clearly and consistently reveal my “personal-is-the-political” gay/queer investments in film and popular culture. As I moved in this direction, I discovered that the addition of “gay” or “lesbian” or “queer” or “bisexual” to even legitimated academic approaches to film and popular culture–such as auteurism, genre studies, film history, etc.–resulted in this work often being considered unscholarly and unsubstantiated “wish fulfillment” or “fantasy. In effect, a gay reading of any film or TV show that didn’t represent gay men in “obvious,” denotative ways was a subcultural fan reading to many in the academy. Things are somewhat different now, though I find that the academy still frequently asks LGBTQ film and media acafans to go the extra mile in order to overcome resistance to what might be perceived of as doubly fannish positions.

I suppose I got so tired of attempting to inject aspects of the autobiographical (-as- political) into my scholarly writing only to have it rejected or patronized, that I returned to my English Department roots and hid behind close textual readings that were theoretically, culturally, and historically informed, but largely devoid of any obvious sense of personal investment or enthusiasm–unless you sensed it in the sometimes breathless and colorful prose stylings, or, read my first book’s introduction. A (re)turning point for me involved Henry Jenkins and one of the other co-editors of Hop on Pop, Jane Shattuc, who said my lesbian reading of The Wizard of Oz was all well and good, but where was I in all this? That is, what brought this particular gay fan and queer academic to this particular lesbian understanding of the film?

Forced to fess up, I examined my personal and professional “archives” and discovered that a longtime sense of fluid gender and sexuality, combined with annual (or bi-annual) viewings of The Wizard of Oz since childhood, combined with teaching the film in various contexts, combined with lesbian feminism, combined with queer theory, combined with a particular drag performance I attended involving “Judy Garland” and lesbian fans, led me to see the film as a lesbian coming of age (if not coming out) story.

In short, my whole life had led me to that piece on The Wizard of Oz. Only by drawing together aspects of autobiography, fandom, pedagogy, and academic training could I express (and, for some, justify) my “queer reception” love for the film, while also recognizing its ideological lapses–largely centered on the butch Elmira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West, I might add.

So, while I have previously used the term “scholar-fan” to describe the kind work I do–or that I prefer to do–I am now ready to drop the hyphen that separates these two terms, take up “acafan,” and deal with the tensions and negotiations that might arise from this hybrid term (though I did notice that Henry’s blog does use the hyphenated “aca-fan” in its title–what gives Henry?). Yes, being and acafan and doing acafan work can be somewhat “elitist” as some have pointed out, but it can also be a site for meaningfully mingling the academy and “the streets.” I know I never felt that my life was more consistently integrated than when the queer film/media scholarship and teaching I was doing as a post-doc at Cornell were being fed by actions I participated in as a member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation–and vice-versa. When is the next time that my Nancy Sinatra fandom will express itself as part of a City Hall protest done to the tune of “These Boots are Made For Walking,” or when most of my students will be integrating their activist art and video-making into term projects that deploy “high theory” and cultural studies approaches to contextualize and analyze their work?

P.S. I apologize for this Me-centered opening statement. My plan was to go over all the posts before our groups’ entries and cherry pick ideas with which to engage. But after landing on comments that positioned some folks in my academic cohort as the foremothers and forefathers of the acafan, I got nostalgic–and you got this aca-autobiographical opening statement. I hope you can forgive it as a form of Grandpa Simpson-like ramblings about the (not-always-so-good) old days. I will resist further Memory Lane wanderings in our subsequent conversation.

Abigail De Kosnik:

Firstly, I would like to say that I am an “acafan” of many of the participants in this wonderful debate (is that correct usage of the term?), and my enthusiasm for the work of Alexander Doty is one of the longest-lasting fandoms of my life. Alex’s scholarship – the kinds of interventions that he describes in his “provocation” above – were key inspirations for me to seek out training in cultural studies, queer studies, and media studies, none of which were taught in any deep or concerted way when I was an undergraduate at Stanford in the 1990s. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement at being assigned to his group! Along with Jason Mittell, whom I consider a friend and colleague, and whose work I also think of as foundational to my media studies training. What luck!

This is one of my favorite rewards of academia: sometimes the structures and operations and networks that academics create and operate (I am thinking of public performances of academic-ness such as conferences, symposia, and Henry’s blog – Henry’s blog being more consistently entertaining than the former two formats) put you (me) in direct contact with the objects of your (my) fandom. I mean, I remember the first time that Henry Jenkins saw me and remembered my name. I had introduced myself to Henry a couple of times at conferences to say that I was a graduate student who was a huge fan of his, but the first time Henry greeted me by name, I thought, My God, Henry Jenkins KNOWS WHO I AM.

Today, as an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley, I actually *arrange* for fannish encounters with senior scholars on campus under the auspices of academic events. In other words, I totally “acafan” (I’m using that as a verb now) Linda Williams, Judith Butler, and others. I put myself into academic situations where these luminaries are basically forced to read my work and give me feedback. And after I have met another star in my constellation, I have this wonderful moment of “Wow. Judith Butler just gave me notes on my paper.”

But you know, I contain my fannishness. I don’t gush. Or I limit my gush to two sentences, when speaking to my academic idols, and when speaking to my colleagues about my academic idols. And in my scholarly writing, I also attempt to contain “the squee.” In my scholarship, I try not to be too sycophantic to any one theorist, too beholden. My fandoms come across anyway. Everyone knows, after attending one of my seminars or just speaking to me about any of my fields, who “my people” are, whose work I draw upon the most. But I try (not always sure if I succeed, but I do try) to not write with a “fannish” voice, to not let my emotional investments and deeply felt affinities be the starting point of my analyses of cultural phenomena.

I am an acafan with a set of rules, applicable (as far as I am concerned) only to myself. My personal brand of acafandom is one that says, that even announces/proclaims, “I am a fan,” but dispassionately. If a student or colleague or audience member at an academic conference wants to know about my fandoms, I will gladly list them, an entire litany. I have many, many fandoms, of every media format and nearly every historical period and many geographical regions. I will talk films if you want to talk films, I will talk astrolabes if you want to talk astrolabes, I will talk Atari or medieval bestiaries or printings of The Communist Manifesto. My fandoms are innumerable, and I am happy to discuss them. But – at an academic event, or in an academic context – I will speak of my fandoms not from the perspective of a fan, but from the perspective of an academic.

That doesn’t mean that the “academic I” aims to appear devoid of passion, but she (the “academic I”) does aim to appear to be somewhat Spock-like: the rational is what meets you right away, up front; the emotional is there, but buried deep. Spock’s emotions inform his decisions but he tries not to get lost in them, and keeps them out of others’ sight as much as he is able. The feeling, the affective power, of my fandom, fuels all of my academic work – I could not bear to delve deeply enough into any given topic or text without a kind of fannish devotion to, obsession with, it – but I try to keep the knowledge, the information, the analysis, up front, and leave the feeling out, for the most part.

In other words, I conceive of “acafan” as a term that designates a certain professionalism, a certain demeanor (a “seeming”) of critical distance, a certain coolness and calmness in discussing all the many facets and valences of fandom. This does not mean denying, covering, or burying my personal fannish affinities – for those affinities are fact, they exist, and I will gladly state them at every turn – rather, I am speaking here of performance, of attitude, of tone. I think of myself as an “acafan” insofar as I say, everywhere I go, “I am a fan,” but in Vulcan rather than Klingon.

Why my emphasis on tone, attitude, performance? Not only because I am housed in Berkeley’s (Theater, Dance and) Performance Studies Department, but also because frankly, an even tone is what makes it possible for academics to communicate with one another. Keeping open channels of communication – keeping one’s listeners and readers receptive – is so crucial when one is speaking or writing about topics that might be balked at as ridiculous, marginal, or unworthy of academic study. I have taken on this concept of “acafan” for myself completely because of my straddling a number of disciplinary fields, and almost never being a total “insider” to any one academic field. As a media studies person, I am an outsider to performance studies; as a Marxist cultural studies person, I am an outsider to new media studies; and so on. My experience in academia, traveling across many disciplinary borders and constantly visiting academic territories that are more or less foreign territories, has taught me that, if I want to talk about fandom, if I want to talk about texts and topics that are (still) somewhat unsettling to my audiences, that I must at least sound like “one of them” – like “one of us” – which is to say, I must sound/seem/perform like “an academic.”

Once again, this does not mean that I am advocating a shift away from the personalization of theoretical, scholarly writing, in which Alex was a pioneer. In fact, Alex’s work is a fantastic example of how fannish writing can be deeply serious academic work, and be taken seriously, received as significant and meaningful. I also have an essay coming out soon in an anthology (edited by Bill Aspray and Megan Winget of UT-Austin’s School of Information) advocating that, in the digital age, we need more humanities writing that is theoretical and highly personal at the same time – the essay is called “Personal Theory” – because most of our students are learning most of what they know in media (social media/online communication) that emphasizes first-person perspective, that applies the “I” as a lens to almost every subject matter.

I am only sharing my personal incorporation of the subject position of “acafan” in my life, which is to be openly a fan, writing plentifully about fandom, and presenting myself and my work with the most professional affect I can muster. If this reinstates or simply reinforces the old equivalences between fan and irrationality and overemotionalism, and the opposition of fan and academic, and the equivalences between academic and rationality and distance, well then, I suppose I still live in this world, and must do my best to navigate and negotiate it. But if I try not to “seem” a fan when I speak or write in an academic forum, I do aim to argue for fans and fandom – not for their inherent goodness or creativity, but for their interestingness, for their value, for their importance.

Funny, these arguments are of the same bent as the arguments I am currently making for academics in the humanities: they are interesting, they have value, they are important. Fans are not nothing; they are so many things, they are significant. Same with humanities scholars. And as Karen Hellekson said so well earlier in this conversation, academics are nothing if not fans. So ironically, though I really believe that academics and fans are the same, they do not seem the same. Performing “fan” is (still, still) so so different than performing “academic.”

But you should see me when I get home. Or when I am on LiveJournal. Or when I am in a mostly- or all-fan space (online or f2f). In those sites, I squee and squee.

Jason Mittell:

I should begin my “provocation” about the concept of acafandom with a caveat that I don’t feel particularly provoked or provocative about this topic. I do have a take on the debate, but don’t feel like I have much of a stake in it. While I certainly align myself with both of the categories fused in acafan, I don’t feel like the term speaks to or about me.

Instead, I find myself looking on this debate as an outsider, asking pragmatic questions about the terminology and semantic politics: Who uses this term beyond the people participating in this discussion? Does this term do something useful that other more established labels do not? And what would be lost without it? And I’m left with the answers “not sure”, “not really”, and “not much”.

The parallel that comes to mind is the term “postmodern,” a label with much broader academic currency than acafan but that similarly leaves me feeling ambivalent. While most humanists for the past twenty years have probably spent time immersed in various theories of postmodernity, postmodernism, and postmodern conditions, I’m not sure to what end. That’s not to say that great work has not been done under the rubric of postmodernism – it certainly has – but now that it is less liberally applied to every example of contemporary theory or culture, I’m left thinking that the term has probably done more harm than good (except perhaps to the major academic presses in cultural studies, who certainly boosted sales through the strategically applied use of “postmodern” in book titles).

Because there was no academic consensus on what “postmodern” meant (by design, I believe), the label obscured rather than illuminated, marking academic work as “cutting edge” without hinting on what was being cut or doing the cutting. Looking back on seminal scholarship focused on various flavors of postmodernism, I think we could eliminate the fuzzy label and strengthen our understanding of the core arguments and analyses without losing much of intellectual value.

I’d argue the same is true about acafandom. While that term will certainly never have the transdisciplinary currency of postmodernism, I do feel like the time spent debating what it means, what it does, who it includes (and excludes), and why it matters could be better spent doing the scholarly work that each of think matters most. And while that work may very well explore the intersecting identities and practices of academia and fandom, I do not think labeling it acafan research helps situate it in a larger conversation or subfield in a productive way. Instead, I’d contend that avoiding using a term that means such different things to so many of us would allow our arguments and ideas to speak for themselves, rather than being labeled in a way that can be easily dismissed or marginalized (or kneejerk embraced since the author is “part of the club”).

So my ultimate provocation, to which I welcome debate: we should not hide our investments in the structures and identities of either academia or fandom, but we shouldn’t hang our identities on a such a slippery signifier as “acafan.”

Abigail (Gail) De Kosnik is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She has a joint appointment in the Berkeley Center for New Media ( and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies ( Her current LJ userpics are: The Beatles, Don & Peggy, Starbuck & Apollo (Kara & Lee), Rogue, Blair Waldorf, Torvill & Dean, Lisbon & Jane, Tony & Pepper, Daniel & Betty, and Mal & Zoe. At this time, she’s looking for a good Arya Stark icon.

Alexander Doty is Chair of the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and a Professor in this department and in the Department of Gender Studies. He has written Making Things Perfectly Queer and Flaming Classics, co-edited Out in Culture, and edited two special issues of Camera Obscura on divas. An old fogey, he is currently not active in any web-based fan communities, but in the past he has been known to put his 2-cents up on, and to indulge the consumer side of his fandom by buying risque postcards of 1920s stars George O’Brien and Ramon Novarro on Ebay–and, yes, he will end up writing something on at least one of them in order to justify these purchases to his “aca” side.

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College, and a Fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen, Germany, for the 2011-12 academic year. As an aca, he’s written Genre & Television (2004), Television & American Culture (2009), Complex TV (in process) and the blog Just TV (ongoing). As a fan, he’s been active in the Lostpedia community, transforms Wilco songs for the mandolin, and calls his fantasy football team The Heisenberg Helmets.

Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Rhianon Bury and Matt Yockey (Part Two)

Matt Yockey:

Rhiannon, I very much enjoyed reading your thoughtful post, especially since you come to this topic from a very different background than I do. You say that earlier in your academic career you identified as a feminist but also say that you don’t consider yourself an acafan because you resist labels. Assuming that you still identify as a feminist, this suggests that in academia we remain very much invested in labels that carry a certain cache, diminishing the potential value of other labels.

Yes, any label will to some degree homogenize but they remain a necessary mode of understanding ourselves and engaging with the world (and certainly “feminism” as a label has had a long history of homogenizing and excluding). And this is not pick on feminism, as I identify as a feminist. I don’t see this identification as allowing me a certain privileged position with women, any more than being queer-friendly allows me to fully affectively understand the experience of being queer. But both labels define who I am, both inside and outside of academia. So the label is important to me as a means of overcoming the schisms produced by the public/private divide

Love the Shatner SNL reference. I remember laughing hysterically with my Trekkie friend Mike in college when that first aired. It allowed some easy disavowal but also identification. For me, since then, I’ve grown increasingly invested in making meaning out of and between the things that move me, which have always been good ideas, whether they come in the form of a smart science fiction film or a really good cultural theory book.

All the various labels indicate the composite nature of my larger understanding of self, which is always in conversation with a larger public sphere. That hybridity of self is very important to acknowledge, I think, because it helps us engage with the complexities and contradictions of other individuals and the public sphere.

Rhiannon Bury:

Good on you Matt for calling me out on my own contradictory use of labels, specifically my troubling of ‘acafan’ just after my seemingly straightforward embrace of ‘feminist’. Of course the latter has been questioned, challenged and critiqued since the early 1990s by anti-racist and postmodern and postcolonial scholars for privileging the issues and experiences of white, western, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied women. And yet while I recognize the importance of an intersectional analysis and the incommensurable differences among women, the identification of feminist’ is still meaningful and necessary to me at a time when women’s rights are being continuously eroded by neoliberal and globalization agendas.

I found compelling your honest discussion of academic work and affect. (I am a Buffy fan but fear not; I do not hold your dislike of the series against you!) Affect is a dirty word in the academy, with pressure continuing to be exerted on those who study popular texts and fans regardless of whether they label themselves acafans or not. I recall one (former) colleague’s facial expression change from puzzlement to relief when I answered his inquiry about whether I wrote fan fiction in the negative. Yet to be a writer in an English Department is a creative pursuit that is highly valued.

If I am totally honest, I distance myself, in part, with the acafan identification because of my desire to be taken seriously not only by my direct colleagues but by the feminist scholarly community where the study of female fan communities seems rather trivial when measured up against the more “pressing” issues of violence against women or other oppressions and resistances.

Matt Yockey:

I agree that in many circles within academia, the kinds of study scholars such as you and I engage is placed at the margins, making for a oftentimes uncomfortable sense of our own value as academics. I too have sometimes felt the need to somehow gloss over what exactly it is that I study. I have taken this up as a challenge to more explicitly engage with the political capacity of fandom in my work (for example,

considering the progressive interventions made by fans via their fan object – a recent piece I did looks at fans’ use of Wonder Woman as a vehicle for supporting womens’ shelters and for promoting gay rights). Perhaps the old saw, ‘the personal is the political’ is ultimately what I’m on about here but I think the notion has real value in considering why I am affectively and professionally invested in fandom.

Rhiannon Bury:

It is interesting how we adjust our rationales depending on the discipline. With colleagues in English, it is a matter of demonstrating that we have not lost our “objectivity” and our ability to distinguish “quality” texts from “popular” texts. In feminist, Marxist and/or or queer scholarly communities we justify our work, consciously or not, by emphasizing its political relevance– in your case the progressiveness of Wonder Woman fans and in one of mine, the heterosexism and homophobia of Six Feet Under fans.

Matt Yockey:

The essential liminality of the acafan label works for me because of this need (and desire) to exercise mobile identity formations. But those moments in which the aca and the fan more directly intersect (as at the recent conference where I presented my work on Wonder Woman) are the most affectively satisfying. I only wish I had those moments when I am engaged with a non-academic fan community. In those situations I often feel that underlying suspicion and hostility that others have commented on here. I suppose that utopia I was speaking of would be characterized strongly by a real dissolution of that wall between academics and non-academics.

Rhiannon Bury:

You draw an interesting connection between your fandom and utopian ideals. I have never thought of fan spaces in this way as a fan and/ or as a scholar. In Cyberspaces of Their Own, I conceptualized female fan spaces as potentially heterotopic. Foucault specifically states that the heterotopia is not a utopia but a space of inversion or reversal of normative spaces.

Matt Yockey:

Foucault’s notion of the heterotopia works for me but really as a means of thinking about the processes of utopian desire, as opposed to utopian plans. I think that this desire is instrumental to the affect of a lot of fandom, the process of becoming someone better while acknowledging that such a project can never be completed and is suffused with contradiction. In this way I certainly see the value of considering fan spaces and fan subjectivity as, at their best, working out the meaning of and working toward a notion of the utopian. It is this which gives me a sense of home, in that it is a space that allows me the freedoms to be a fully contradictory, ever-striving person.

Rhiannon Bury:

Interesting. When I think about it, I did feel “at home” with members of the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigades who joined the listserv I set up for my first ethnographic case study. As one of the participants noted, it was like “hanging around someone’s kitchen shooting the breeze.” So this home was a very much a domestic, gendered space.

I would like to go back to the earlier comment you made about the parallels between academic communities and fan communities. I’d go a step further and say that scholarly communities are the ultimate fan communities, with deep emotional investments in their particular objects of study that are hidden under the veneer of objectivity. While I do not study the fan practices that surround every text that I am a fan of, it is unlikely that I would study those surrounding texts in which I have no interest or actively dislike. For instance, I think the study of reality tv is important on an intellectual level in terms of the representations and performances of race, class and gender as well as the pleasures it produces. When I was in a Communications Department, I would never dream of not including a discussion of it in a television or media class. But like you said Matt, my heart is really not in it enough to pursue anything further.

Matt Yockey:

I couldn’t agree more regarding scholarly communities as fan communities. I find it difficult to understand the desire to study a text if one does not already have some degree of appreciation for it. I do think we get too hung up in academia being apologetic about actually having an emotional investment in what we study. For me it simply carries over into my affective investment in teaching and when I teach I’m not really being objective at all – I think the media texts that we study in my classes all matter because representation matters and we should care about their consequences.

Rhiannon Bury is an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Athabasca University, Canada’s Open University. Her book, Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online was published by Peter Lang in 2005. She is currently analyzing survey and interview data collected for her current research project, Television 2.0: Shifting Patterns of Audience Reception and Participatory Culture. Updates coming soon via

Matt Yockey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Toledo. He has published articles in Transformative Works and Cultures, The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, CineAction, and The Velvet Light Trap. His book on the Batman TV series is forthcoming from Wayne State University Press.

Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Rhianon Bury and Matt Yockey (Part One)

Rhiannon Bury:

It has been a bit of a challenge putting together this “provocation” in the final weeks of the Acafan and Beyond debate. I hope I have succeeded in responding to the original set of questions without covering too much of the same ground as earlier posts. Let me start by saying that I really am an accidental fan studies scholar. As late as 1995, when I was doing my PhD in Education with a focus on Cultural Studies, I was still heavily invested in the high/low culture binary. I whole heartedly agreed with William Shatner’s “get a life” cri de coeur to fans. I identified strongly as a feminist so my “discovery” of the three David Duchovny Estrogen Brigades (DDEBs) while surfing the web for X-Files information and subsequent engagement with some of the members forced me to interrogate and reevaluate my elitist attitudes. Sixteen years later and an academic career made possible by the kindness and generosity of participatory fans, I do not consider myself an acafan or even a fan-scholar (overlapping but not interchangeable terms).

My reservation is in part a discontent with labels and their effects. As others have already remarked, they serve to homogenize the heterogenous, to constrain and erase difference and to draw boundaries that mark out who is an insider and who is an outsider. To be fair, “acafan” gestures openly to its hybridity and instability as a category but as the discussion over the weeks has made clear, it has historical linkages to a particular set of fan practices that involves the production of secondary texts such as fanfic or vids. Despite fannish interests in a number of primary texts and a number of professional and personal relationships with fanfic writers and vidders, my highest level of non-academic participatory engagement has been reading and posting a few comments on Television Without Pity for Battlestar Galactica (reimagined) and Dexter. As much as I like the idea of making a vid, I just don’t have the creative commitment to follow through.

Drawing on queer studies and activist discourses while recognizing the dangers in doing so, I am mulling over another term that might be a better fit for me and perhaps others: fan-ally and, by extension, an acafan-ally. As previous contributions to the debate have indicated, being an acafan may be a fraught, complicated, even contradictory identification but its legibility and legitimacy must ultimately be determined by those who articulate it. I suspect a good number of those who identify as acafans are also on the margins of academia– as women, as students, and/or as contingent, independent or untenured scholars. “Objective” criticisms and dismissals from those who do not identify as acafans but hold positions of authority can have a silencing effect, even if unintentional.

The other issue I wish to touch on is the issue of self-defined acafans “sitting too close” (Jenkins, 1993). I agree to a point with Nancy Baym’s statement that the inability of acafans to distance themselves critically “is a failure of their academic training, not of their being fans.” Part of this “failure” may be attributable to graduate degrees in the humanites not the social sciences. I had an MA in CompLit and was fortunate to have had a linguistic anthropologist on my thesis committee in addition to taking a qualitative methods course as part of my doctoral coursework.

Working out of a critical paradigm, I strongly believe that the location of the researcher, not just training, affects knowledge production. Being an insider both enables and disables certain forms of knowledge production. The same is true for the outsider. Researchers who put themselves in the frame of the research are not being subjective; they are being responsible knowledge producers.

Matt Yockey:

Responding to these provocations has proven much more challenging than I originally anticipated, perhaps in large part because it requires the kind of candor and reflexivity I’ve tried to dodge in my own work on texts of which I am a fan. The problem for me is my own struggle with identifying as a fan, as if this some sort of monolithic construct. For similar reasons I’ve often resisted the label of academic. The acafan label limits my identity as an academic (I do more than study texts of which I would consider myself a fan) and as a fan (I don’t perform academic analyses of many objects of my fandom, such as the Red Sox, Robyn Hitchcock, or The Rockford Files). Curiously, however, the designation acafan has both emphasized my ambivalence regarding such labels and reconciled some of the problems I’ve had with them.

I don’t explicitly identify as an acafan but the term is important to my sense of self; I keep it as a reminder of my own (perceived) liminality. Yet it also allows me access to certain communities when I choose to, or need to, use it for such a purpose. This was brought home to me by a recent trip to Australia. My trip was purely academic in purpose: I researched a comic book archive at the National Library and presented a paper on Wonder Woman fandom at a conference on the female superhero at a university in Melbourne. In the first instance I found a perfect commingling of my academic and fan selves, as I not only found valuable research information but quickly bonded as a fan with some of the staff members who enthusiastically brought out box after box of comic books and volunteered their own fannish interests to me.

I found a similar rapport at times with my fellow attendees of the conference, where the term “acafan” was never spoken but was certainly realized on every panel about Xena, Buffy, the Powerpuff Girls, etc. As with any conference, I found that my level of engagement with the presentations waxed and waned according to whether the paper was intellectually engaging and/or the topic was of general interest to me. For example, when panelists presented papers on Buffy, I listened attentively (and even took notes and asked questions), but my heart wasn’t really in it because I actively dislike that show (and by admitting this, I know I’ve now alienated 75% of the academics reading this).

The trip confirmed for me why I am both an academic and a fan: because in academia and fandom I can engage with a community that confirms my own sense of self and legitimates my own utopian desires. I suppose the academic side of equation simply intellectualizes the affective fan side of it, for I’m compelled to turn to theorists to explain myself. Cornel Sandvoss, in particular, comes to mind when he writes in Fans: The Mirror of Consumption: “Fandom best compares to the emotional significance of the places we have grown to call ‘home’, to the form of physical, emotional and ideological space that is best described as Heimat” (64).

Sandvoss argues that the fan sense of Heimat as fluid is different from the traditional understanding of home as a stable signifier. I would argue that what attracts me to academia is its potential (much less often realized than in fandom) to confirm a sense of Heimat through an individual, affective response to a text (in the case of the academic, an object of study and/or the theory applied to an analysis of such an object).

I say less often realized because in the “acafan” equation, the academic side is the one that I most frequently find wanting. Academia is as suffused with its own coded jargon, internal hierarchies, and privileged texts as the most pathologized fan community. In fact, I use my fandom to more comfortably take on the role of academic. And I am an acafan because I believe that, at its best, my affiliation with an academic community offers as much potential for utopian transcendence as the fan communities with which I identify.

The (ideally) perpetual intellectual pursuits of academia mirror the ongoing, transformative engagements fans make with texts. Both are motivated (at least for me) by the utopian pursuit of Heimat, an affirmation of my identity through a group affiliation. And Heimat is mobile because I am always searching for the utopian ideal away from home and only by separating myself from home can I then re-imagine home as potentially utopian. It’s my own fort/da game with self located within the fluid structures of academia and fandom. The term acafan has allowed me to bridge the gaps produced within this dynamic and be more comfortable in my own skin(s).

Rhiannon Bury is an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Athabasca University, Canada’s Open University. Her book, Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online was published by Peter Lang in 2005. She is currently analyzing survey and interview data collected for her current research project, Television 2.0: Shifting Patterns of Audience Reception and Participatory Culture. Updates coming soon via

Matt Yockey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Toledo. He has published articles in Transformative Works and Cultures, The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, CineAction, and The Velvet Light Trap. His book on the Batman TV series is forthcoming from Wayne State University Press.

How Can We Understand Code as a “Critical Artifact”?: USC’s Mark Marino on Critical Code Studies (Part Two)

What do you see as the relationship between critical code studies and platform studies as approaches to understanding digital artifacts?

These approaches are tightly intertwined. On the one hand, you can talk about code independent of platform. That happens in computer science classes all the time. However, if you take the example of a forthcoming book project, you will see how platform plays a key role or rather how the code can point to an understanding of the platform. Over the past year, I have been working on a book under contract with MIT to analyze a single line of code, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10. This line of code generates an image that resembles a maze. I should say, rather, that the code generates this image when executed on a Commodore 64 because in addition to using BASIC, which came installed on C64s, it also uses a custom set of ASCII code called PETSCII, which included two characters (2 diagonal lines), to create this image. Our exploration of this code, then, has led us to discuss the platform and its context. So to talk about the code is not to exclude a discussion of the platform, hardware, or larger systems, but rather to use the code as the central axis.

Currently, the various approaches to digital objects are associated with specific critics, projects, and publishing series. As a result, “Software Studies” and “Platform Studies” will be defined by the kinds of things these critics publish, the kinds of readings they perform, and their own theoretical predilections. Comparing these first readings could skew the way the approaches are perceived. Taking the long view, I believe these terms will eventually become abstracted from the readings of those particular critics and will become part of rich assemblages of approaches to digital objects that look at the software, at the platform, at the hardware, and, of course, at the code.

What has been the response of programmers to the kinds of work you are doing?

Many of the people who do CCS readings are programmers, so I would say on the whole it has been very positive. You know, there are a lot of misconceptions about what humanities people do, particularly regarding interpretation. When I first began suggesting this idea to professional programmers some voiced skepticism because they thought I was advocating treating their code like poetry. They doubted such a study would yield very much. Once I explained that I was interested in, for example, why programmers chose one programming paradigm over another, their process of writing the code, or even why they were laughing when I would show them some code written by someone else, what was the joke – they started to get more of a sense of what I was after. Once we reach that understanding, they typically offer their own critical observations, reflections they’ve formulated but haven’t had an opportunity to discuss.

You’ve written, “The distance between the Haiku and the can of Coca Cola as texts marks the shift between the study of artistry and the broader study of signification.” So, what does it mean to study code as a kind of “signification”?

Code is a medium of communication, and like other communication substrates, its meaning is not restricted to what its author intended. The way someone writes a line of code, the language they choose, the programming architecture and paradigm, the code they borrow, the libraries they use – all these factors produce meaning in code. That is when code is taken as a sign system with its own material conditions.

At the 2011 CCS Symposium, UCLA Computer Science professor Todd Millstein explained that computer scientists already see code as an aspect of a program that is meant primarily for human readers. It is not, then, heresy to say that code is written for other people to read. By extension, once it is circulated, its meaning expands and changes depending on who is doing the readings. Jeremy Douglass gave a terrific demonstration of this in the second week of the Critical Code Studies Working Group (, when he showed how two opposing sides of the Climate debate used the source code associated with Climategate to support conflicting points of view.

Code is a semiotic medium. It has rhetoric, style, art. It is a sign of a process and is in-process in terms of its own development. It circulates within discourse realms. It also bears marks of its authorship, signs of communal affiliation, remnants of its history, and notes and stubs for future development. Code has a special relation to the computational system in which it circulates. To make a legitimate utterance with code, one must comply with and conform to many restrictions that do not exist in, say, spoken language. Moreover, code is typically part of a chain of command, a layer of information represented in a form more easy for humans to read than machine language and binary (though my electrical engineering wife does tell binary jokes). Yet, as Wendy Chun has observed, source code is not the same as the executed code.

To explore the significance of code, though, as you suggested, is not merely to look at what it says but to delve deeply into what it does and how it does it. While the signs themselves can produce meaning, for example in their relationship to natural language constructs (Print, function, if, then, void) as well as in comments and variable names, by constituting the algorithms of the program, the code also represents the logic of the program. Here too lies significance in a way analogous to but not exactly like other sign systems. Discovering the particularities of how code signifies is one of the chief challenges of CCS.

What kinds of work do you see your center contributing to the growth of Critical Code Studies?

The HaCCS Lab has two chief goals: to develop and promote the methodologies of Critical Code Studies and to foster dialogue between computer science and humanities scholars. This summer we hosted our first conference and have several events planned for the coming academic year geared toward bringing a diverse array of scholars together. Also, in the Spring, we plan to host another online forum, the third in three years. More importantly, the lab will serve as a hub for scholars interested in working on CCS, a source for news on the latest publications, and perhaps even a venue for provocations in the current debates surrounding code. We are currently investigating publication venues and are examining opportunities to create new courses and to offer workshops for those interested in joining our broader research community.

Mark Marino is the Director of the newly launched Humanities and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS) Lab at USC, named for a field he initiated in 2006. He is the Director of Communication for the Electronic Literature Organization (, as well as a writer and critic of experimental interactive forms, including “a show of hands” ( and the LA Flood Project. He blogs at Writer Response Theory and is Editor of Bunk Magazine, an online humor zine. He currently teaches for the Writing Program at USC. He is currently working on two collaborative book projects using CCS methodologies. His portfolio can be found here.

How Can We Understand Code as a “Critical Artifact”?: USC’s Mark Marino on Critical Code Studies (Part One)

The Humanities and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS) Lab opened this summer at the University of Southern California with the specific goal of developing the field and fostering discussion between the Humanities and Computer Science. Current members include USC faculty and students and a host of affiliated scholars from other institutions, including and international advisory board. The HaCCS Lab sponsored its first conference this summer and will be sponsoring other get togethers both on campus and online. Central to its mission is to develop common vocabularies, methodologies, and case-studies of CCS, while promoting publications in the field.

Mark Marino, who teaches in the USC Writing Program, is the Director of the new center. He was nice enough to agree to an interview during which he explains what he means by Critical Code Studies, how it relates to other humanistic approaches to studying digital culture, and what he thinks it contributes to our understanding of Code as a cultural practice and as a critical artifact.

What do you mean by critical code studies?


The working definition for Critical Code Studies (CCS) is “the application of humanities style hermeneutics to the interpretation of computer source code.”  However, lately, I have found it more useful to explain the field to people as the analysis of technoculture (culture as imbricated with technology) through the entry point of the source code of a particular digital object. The code is not the ends of the analyses, but the beginning.

Critical Code Studies finds code meaningful not as text but “as a text,” an artifact of a digital moment, full of hooks for discussing digital culture and programming communities. I should note that Critical Code Studies also looks at code separated from functioning software as in the case of some codework poetry, such as Mez’s work or Zach Blas’ trasnCoder anti-programming language. To that extent, Critical Code Studies is also interested in the culture of code, the art of code, and code in culture more broadly.

At this nascent stage, I also find it useful to point out the plurality and variability of the methodologies that have been already used to analyze code whether in the Critical Code Studies Working Group, at our two conferences, in the HASTAC Scholars Forum, at MLA, and elsewhere. These preliminary readings demonstrate that Critical Code Studies is not an approach but a wide range of approaches that use code as a starting point for a larger discussion. Scholars seem eager to talk about code and are experimenting with ways to unpack it.

Critical Code Studies answers a call from N. Katherine Hayles and others for media specific analysis by taking up for analysis an aspect of digital objects that is unique to the computational realm. Back in 2005 and 2006 when I first began talking to people about code, there weren’t many examples of critics, working then under the title “new media,” who discussed code, which struck me as unusual since it’s such a rich semiotic realm. There just weren’t enough critical readings that demonstrated for how to talk about that component of the work. At the time, I was working on my dissertation and was trying to produce readings of conversation agents, or chatbots. That led me to write that initial essay in electronic book review.

For my work, the “critical” component is also crucial because it evokes “critical theory.” I don’t want to limit the types of theory or philosophy that can be applied to code, but I do want to push for critiques that challenge, that remain sensitive to the socio-historic contexts of the code, the institutional investments, the ideologies and ontologies of code. Code is already studied in the contexts of computer science, while the humanities have something unique to offer in the form of critical analysis and explication or, if you will, exegesis.

Your published definition of the field stresses the “extra-functional significance” of code. Why separate out meaning from effect? Why not study the relationship between significance and function?


The “extra” in “extra-functional” does not mean “outside of” or “beyond” but rather “growing out from.”  Function is certainly an important component of the way code signifies, but it is important to distinguish CCS from the study of code that concentrates primarily on function.  Perhaps more important to this moment of CCS is to discuss the difference between an interpretive approach that seeks implications and meaning rather than a utilitarian approach that is primarily concerned with making code function. Again, while I agree with you that the two aspects are inseparable, the search for meaning goes beyond denotation into the connotations, resonance, implication, evocation, et cetera.

How much technical skill and knowledge is required to look at code critically?  Is this a potential space for collaboration between the humanities and the technical fields?

It is the contention of CCS and the newly formed Humanities and Critical Code Studies lab that everyone should have at least some literacy in how code works, whether at a base-level understanding of algorithms, some basic knowledge of programming principals, and/or a basic ability to parse code in whatever language.  That said, the HaCCS lab is working to foster dialogue and collaboration between the Humanities and Computer Science scholars because more engaged critical readings come from the fullest understanding of the culture out of which that code emanates.  Without that dialogue, CCS could become a kind of imperialist project, subject to the same kinds of over-writing, misinterpretation, and misreading that such relationships engender.

In my own readings, I tend to engage in lengthy discussions with programmers, including the authors of the code, so that I can get a more nuanced understanding of how they perceive the code. Again, part of what I’m after are the layers of meaning that code has as it circulates through different discourse communities in different contexts. I look forward to courses in Critical Code Studies co-taught by Humanities and Computer Science faculty to students from across the university looking at code together using the lenses from all their disciplines.

At the same time, CCS tends to attract the programmer-scholar, the hacker-theorist, critics who build things. Being versant in both programming and critical theory helps these critics to apply the theoretical approaches without doing violence or overwriting the ways in which coding conventions are understood within programming circles.


Is the goal to develop an “aesthetics” of “good code”? Is critical code studies a kind of formalism?


No, Critical Code Studies is not primarily focused on “good code,” although the discussions of the aesthetics of code or Don Knuth’s formulation of  “beautiful code” offer an opening for a conversation that will be familiar to Humanities scholars, namely who defines the aesthetics of beautiful code, why have they chosen this criteria, and what alternatives have been surpassed.  Such discussions often turn to programming anomalies such as the obfuscated code contests. Nonetheless, the discussion of aesthetics makes a fundamental notion of CCS clear: code is not a pure, inevitable formulation.  As Knuth said in his Turing Award lecture, programming is an art. 


As to the second question, Critical Code Studies is not formalist, but instead requires a deeply contextualized reading.  On one of the earliest pages we published on, you will find a list of ways to read code that includes reading code against the factors of its creation, it funding source, its composer’s work, its implementation and circulation in cultural as well as material contexts such as the platforms on which it operated, and the other code with which it interacts.    Critical Code Studies focuses on examining the code in its historical moment to better understand the culture out of which it developed. 


Mark Marino is the Director of the newly launched Humanities and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS) Lab at USC, named for a field he initiated in 2006. He is the Director of Communication for the Electronic Literature Organization (, as well as a writer and critic of experimental interactive forms, including “a show of hands” ( and the LA Flood Project. He blogs at Writer Response Theory and is Editor of Bunk Magazine, an online humor zine. He currently teaches for the Writing Program at USC. He is currently working on two collaborative book projects using CCS methodologies. His portfolio can be found here.

Announcing Futures of Entertainment 5 Conference

Registration Open for Futures of Entertainment 5

By Sam Ford

We’re excited to announce that registration has officially opened for our fifth Futures of Entertainment conference, which will begin on 11/11/11. The conference–which will run Nov. 11-12–will be held at the Kirsch Auditorium on the first floor of the Frank Gehry-designed Ray and Maria Stata Center on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, MA.

Full details on the line-up as it stands is below. Registration is available here. Please keep in mind that seats are limited, so–if you plan to attend–register soon.

The Futures of Entertainment conference brings together professionals from academia and the marketing and media industries to discuss how communication between media producers/brands and audiences are changing, and how the nature of storytelling is shifting in a digital era.

On Friday, we will tackle some of the pressing questions and new innovations on the media horizon: new models of media creation and distribution–and challenges/questions related to participation–in a “spreadable media” landscape; new models aimed at representing fan interests in media production; innovations in crowdsourcing for content creation, funding, and distribution; the impact of location-based technologies and services; and privacy concerns raised by these developments. On Saturday, we will look at particular media industries to how these innovations are evolving: serialized storytelling; children’s media; nonfiction storytelling; and music.

The conference will run from 8:30 a.m. until 6:45 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with a reception scheduled for Friday evening.

On Thursday evening, Nov. 10th, from 5-7, MIT will be hosting an “eve of FoE” Communications Forum event on “Cities and the Future of Entertainment” in the Bartos Theater in MIT’s Wiesner Building.

Cities and the Future of Entertainment. Today, new entertainment production cultures are arising around key cities like Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro. What do these changes mean for the international flow of media content? And how does the nature of these cities help shape the entertainment industries they are fostering? At the same time, new means of media production and circulation allow people to produce content from suburban or rural areas. How do these trends co-exist? And what does it mean for the futures of entertainment?

  • Moderator: Maurício Mota (The Alchemists)
  • Panelists: Parmesh Shahani (Godrej Industries, India)
  • Ernie Wilson (University of Southern California)
  • Eduardo Paes (Mayor of Rio de Janeiro)



  • William Uricchio (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • Ilya Vedrashko (Hill Holliday)

Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society. How are the shifting relations between media producers and their audiences transforming the concept of meaningful participation? And how do alternative systems for the circulation of media texts pave the way for new production modes, alternative genres of content, and new relationships between producers and audiences? Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green–co-authors of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media–share recent experiments from independent filmmakers, video game designers, comic book creators, and artists and discuss the promises and challenges of models for deeper audience participation with the media industries, setting the stage for the issues covered by the conference.


  • Henry Jenkins (University of Southern California)
  • Sam Ford (Peppercom Strategic Communications)
  • Joshua Green (Undercurrent)

Collaboration? Emerging Models for Audiences to Participate in Entertainment Decision-Making. In an era where fans are lobbying advertisers to keep their favorite shows from being cancelled, advertisers are shunning networks to protest on the fans’ behalf and content creators are launching web ventures in conversation with their audiences, there appears to be more opportunity than ever for closer collaboration between content creators and their most ardent fans. What models are being attempted as a way forward, and what can we learn from them? And what challenges exist in pursuing that participation for fans and for creators alike?

  • Moderator: Sheila Seles (Advertising Research Foundation)
  • Panelists: C. Lee Harrington (Miami University)
  • Seung Bak (Dramafever)
  • Jamin Warren (Kill Screen)

Creating with the Crowd: Crowdsourcing for Funding, Producing and Circulating Media Content. Beyond the buzzword and gimmicks using the concept, crowdsourcing is emerging as a new way in which creators are funding media production, inviting audiences into the creation process and exploring new and innovative means of circulating media content. What are some of the innovative projects forging new paths forward, and what can be learned from them? How are attempts at crowdsourcing creating richer media content and greater ownership for fans? And what are the barriers and risks ahead for making these models more prevalent?

  • Moderator: Ana Domb (Almabrands, Chile)
  • Panelists: Mirko Schafer (Utrecht University, The Netherlands)
  • Bruno Natal (Queremos, Brazil)
  • Timo Vuorensola (Wreckamovie, Finland)
  • Caitlin Boyle (Film Sprout)

Here We Are Now (Entertain Us): Location, Mobile, and How Data Tells Stories. Location-based services and context-aware technologies are altering the way we encounter our environments and producing enormous volumes of data about where we go, what we do, and how we live and interact. How are these changes transforming the ways we engage with our physical world, and with each other? What kind of stories does the data produce, and what do they tell us about our culture and social behaviors? What opportunities and perils does this information have for businesses and individuals? What are the implications for brands, audiences, content producers, and media companies?

  • Moderator: Xiaochang Li (New York University)
  • Panelists: Germaine Halegoua (University of Kansas)
  • (other two panelists still being confirmed)

At What Cost?: The Privacy Issues that Must Be Considered in a Digital World. The vast range of new experiments to facilitated greater audience participation and more personalized media content bring are often accomplished through much deeper uses of audience data and platforms whose business models are built on the collection and use of data. What privacy issues must be considered beneath the enthusiasm for these new innovations? What are the fault lines beneath the surface of digital entertainment and marketing, and what is the appropriate balance between new modes of communication and communication privacy?

  • Participants: Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard University)
  • Helen Nissenbaum (New York University)



  • Grant McCracken (author of Chief Culture Officer; Culturematic)

The Futures of Serialized Storytelling. New means of digital circulation, audience engagement and fan activism have brought with it a variety of experiments with serialized video storytelling. What can we learn from some of the most compelling emerging ways to tell ongoing stories through online video, cross-platform features and applications and real world engagement? What models for content creation are emerging, and what are the stakes for content creators and audiences alike?

  • Moderator: Laurie Baird (Georgia Tech)
  • Panelists: Matt Locke (Storythings, UK)
  • Steve Coulson (Campfire)
  • Lynn Liccardo (soap opera critic)
  • Denise Mann (University of California-Los Angeles)

The Futures of Children’s Media. Children’s media has long been an innovator in creating new ways of storytelling. In a digital era, what emerging practices are changing the ways in which stories are being told to children, and what are the challenges unique to children’s properties in an online communication environment?

  • Moderator: Sarah Banet-Weiser (University of Southern California)
  • Panelists: Melissa Anelli (The Leaky Cauldron)
  • Michael Levine (Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Sesame Workshop)
  • John Bartlett, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Futures of Nonfiction Storytelling. Digital communication has arguably impacted the lives of journalists more than any other media practitioner. But new platforms and ways of circulating content are providing vast new opportunities for journalists and documentarians. How have–and might–nonfiction storytellers incorporate many of the emerging strategies of transmedia storytelling and audience participation from marketing and entertainment, and what experiments are currently underway that are showing the potential paths forward?

  • Moderator: Ellen McGirt (Fast Company)
  • Panelists: Molly Bingham (photojournalist; founder of ORB)
  • Chris O’Brien (San Jose Mercury News)
  • Patricia Zimmermann (Ithaca College)
  • Lenny Altschuler (Televisa)

The Futures of Music. The music industry is often cited as the horror story that all other entertainment genres might learn from: how the digital era has laid waste to a traditional business model. But what new models for musicians and for the music industry exist in the wake of this paradigm shift, and what can other media industries learn from emerging models of content creation and circulation?

  • Moderator: Nancy Baym (Kansas University)
  • Panelists: Mike King (Berklee College of Music)
  • João Brasil (Brazilian artist)
  • Chuck Fromm (Worship Leader Media)
  • Erin McKeown (musical artist and fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Univeristy)
  • Brian Whitman (The Echo Nest)

On Skepticism, News Literacy, and Transparency: An Interview with Dan Gillmor (Part Two)

Some have argued that the criteria for evaluating news has shifted from

impartiality to transparency. How would you rank mainstream news and citizen

media in terms of their embrace of transparency as a civic virtue?

An effort to be impartial – or “objective,” to use the word most journalists revere – is not a bad thing. The problem is that it’s impossible to achieve in the real world. We all come to our jobs with life histories, world views, and sometimes outright biases.

That said, transparency is a definite virtue. It’s one of several principles – though not enough by itself – that information providers of all kinds should embrace. Add transparency to thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and independent thinking, and we’re getting somewhere.

I would rank traditional media organizations low on the transparency scale. They’re still among the most opaque institutions around. But there are glimmers of openness, here and there, that give me some hope that journalists are beginning to understand why they need to do this. Bloggers and others we might put in the “citizen journalism” sphere vary in their openness, too, though I’d say bloggers tend to be somewhat more transparent than professional journalists.

It’s about trust in the end. For people who are honorable in the way they work, transparency inspires greater trust.

What role should the news media itself play in fostering basic civic skills,

including those of critical reading and thinking? For example, how should

the news media be responding to persistent rumors about Obama, such as those

promoted by so-called Birthers? Is this a “teachable moment,” as one would

say in the Education Schools, and if so, how should teaching taking place

via the news media?

I wish the news media had made this a core mission a long time ago. They didn’t, and still haven’t. That’s a real shame; it would have helped not just their audiences but themselves – because audiences would have gotten a better idea what it takes to do quality journalism and had more respect for it.

If I ran a news organization and learned that a sizeable percentage of people in my community believed something that was false – birtherism, for example – I would make it part of my mission to help them learn the truth. That sounds easier than it would be, because people who believe lies are invested in those beliefs, but teachable moments abound in today’s world.

You also advocate in the book that in an era where many of us are playing

more active roles as citizen journalists, that the status of journalism

classes in colleges and universities shifts from training professionals to

training all citizens. Should journalism now be a required subject as part

of a newly configured liberal arts education?

The principles and skills of journalism map extremely well to every other endeavor, when you think about it. They’re part of being an engaged citizen in a variety of ways.

So, yes, I would make some kind of 21st Century media literacy – call it journalism or whatever – a part of the core curriculum. At several schools, “news literacy” is becoming a required course, though in the ones I’ve seen the emphasis (for practical reasons) is on consumption of news. The emphasis should be on critical thinking as consumers , but we are not literate unless we are also creators.

Many argue that the key difference between citizen and professional

journalism is the role of fact checking. Yet, your book describes many

different mechanisms on the grassroots level which are designed to check

facts and otherwise insure the integrity of information, while, for many

reasons, the place of fact checking in professional journalism is declining.

So, how long can we frame this as a meaningful distinction? And if this is

not the best way to think of the differences between amateur and

professional journalism, what would be productive ways of understanding

their relationship?

I don’t agree that the key difference between citizen and pro journalism is fact-checking. It can be a difference, but as you note, sloppiness is growing in traditional media and lots of bloggers are doing work that I trust a great deal.

The real issue is that we all have to take more responsibility for what we know, and what we say. Certainly we have to trust some sources more than others, but we have to be skeptical in varying degrees of everything, and the more important something is to us the more we need to look deeper. I don’t buy a car based on an advertisement, and if I see a story about some alleged medical breakthrough – especially if I am personally a candidate for that treatment – I’ll check further.

I’m trying to blur the distinctions between “pro” and “amateur” in the information world rather than highlight them, by improving the practices of both and encouraging audiences to take more responsibility.

Your book maintains a healthy faith that the current shifts in journalism

are going to not only maintain but expand diversity. As you know, many would

disagree with this claim, suggesting that core news organizations are

eroding amidst waves of consolidation of ownership and that this is going to

result in a much narrower range of information and opinion. What would you

say to those critics and skeptics of the current news ecosystem?

There’s no question that traditional journalism is in trouble as a business, and that some parts – vital parts – of what these organizations have done will go missing for a time. Consolidation of the traditional media into an ever-smaller number of corporate hands is also a reality.

At the same time, there’s never been more quality information about all kinds of things in some profitable niches, such as politics, technology, fashion, sports and a host of other things. Meanwhile, in a host of unprofitable (as media companies) niches, domain experts are telling us what matters. And new techniques for providing information, using APIs and databases among other tools, are leading to an explosion of social news gathering and dissemination.

We’re also starting to see some genuine innovation in business models, That’s key to what needs to happen.

Are we where we need to be? Not even close. But I have to stress that we’re very early in this transition. If it’s a baseball game we’re in the bottom of the second inning or top of the third.

What practices might emerge around citizen journalism which would increase

its accuracy and reliability?

The main one would be a recognition on the part of the information provider that it’s better to be trusted than distrusted – and that following some basic principles (the ones outlines above) are the road map to be trusted.

I stress principles because they don’t change much, if at all. The rest is simply tactics, which do change, but if tactics have principles as a foundation, we’ll be fine.

Dan Gillmor is founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. The project aims to help students understand the startup culture, and ultimately to help them invent their own jobs.

Dan’s latest book, Mediactive, aims to encourage a better media supply in part by creating better demand — to spur people to become active media users, as consumers and participants. His last book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People was the first to explain the rise of citizen media and why it matters. Dan also writes an online column for the Guardian and blogs regularly at

Dan has been a co-founder, investor and advisor in a number of media ventures in the for-profit and non-profit worlds. From 1994 until early 2005 he was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper, and wrote a weblog for He joined the Mercury News after six years with the Detroit Free Press. Before that, he was with the Kansas City Times and several newspapers in Vermont.

More about Dan at

On Skepticism, News Literacy, and Transparency: An Interview with Dan Gillmor (Part One)

“We’re in an age of information overload, and too much of what we watch, hear and read is mistaken, deceitful and dangerous. Yet you and I can take control and make media serve us — all of us — by being active consumers and participants.”

This language appears at the top of the website Dan Gillmor, long time advocate for citizen journalism, has constructed around his most recent project, Mediactive, and beautifully captures his particular contribution to the media literacy movement. Gillmor’s approach acknowledges the challenges and opportunities the new media landscape presents us in a way which is at once pragmatic and empowering. He certainly knows the risks to democracy posed by waves of misinformation and disinformation being spread across an array of media channels and the challenges of a context where we do not always know who created the media we are consuming. He also recognizes the value of expanding who has access to the channels of communication and thus the democratization which occurs when a broader range of citizens are producing and sharing media with each other. What he demands is that we each take ownership over the information we consume and share with each other, and taking ownership for him starts with skepticism.

Gillmor’s book provides a solid foundation for anyone wanting to work with young people or adults about news literacy, one which is as invested in new forms of civic media and citizen journalism as it is concerned about the future of professional news. In this interview, we get a glimpse into Gillmor’s current thinking about what it means to be a discerning citizen in the digital age and what the obligations of journalists are to help foster core civic skills and competencies.

Your new book, Mediactive, seeks to encourage “skepticism” about news and information. What do you see as the core virtues of skepticism and how does it differ from cynicism, which some would argue is wide spread in the

current context?

Skepticism is an essential part of being well-informed. It starts us off in the right place: assuming nothing but learning to trust some sources of information more than others.

Skepticism differs from cynicism in one key way: A cynic has essentially given up any hope that an information provider can do a good enough job to ever earn trust. A skeptic recognizes that there will be flaws, but also believes that trust can be earned.

Throughout the book, you use the concept of a media or news “ecosystem.” Can

you explain this concept and suggest ways that the ecosystem we inhabit

today is different from the one which other generations confronted?

Let’s look at agriculture as an analogy for a second. American factory farming is an ecosystem, but highly non-diverse – nearly a “monoculture” in many crops where a single variety overwhelmingly dominates the market.

The news ecosystem has been something of a monoculture in recent years, at least in the newspaper business in most U.S. communities that support daily papers, where typically there’s a single surviving one. Broadcast is close to that – just a few entities with government-granted airwaves that no one else can use.

We’ve come to understand the danger of monocultures. They’re inherently unstable, because when they fail they do so with catastrophic results. (Remember Wall Street in 2008.)

A diverse ecosystem, by contrast, isn’t as threatened by individual failures, because the parts of the ecosystem are less dominant. If the dominant food variety fails, we can end up with a serious food shortage, or worse. If a few big banks can kill the global economy when they fail, similar forces are at work.

In a diverse and vibrant agricultural system or capitalist economy, the failure of a specific crop varietal or business is tragic mostly for the farmers who planted it or that business. It doesn’t cause a wider catastrophe.

That’s the kind of news/information ecosystem we need, and which is coming. It’s why I’m optimistic.

You have historically been a key advocate of citizen journalism, but here,

you are also offering some important cautions, calling for citizens (as

readers and news producers) to take greater responsibility over the

information they are exchanging. Is this a shift in position or a shift in


It’s much more a shift of emphasis. I was cautious about quality in my last book, which some folks misconstrued as an uncritical celebration of citizen media. I continue to celebrate the fact that so many more people are creating media, but while the quantity is surging, it would be crazy to declare victory when it comes to quality.

In the book, you advocate what you call “slow news.” Can you explain this

concept and why you think the speed of current journalism is partially to

blame for the circulation and perpetuation of myths, rumors, and other


I’ve been a fan of the “slow food” movement for some time (even if I don’t adhere as well as I should to its ideas). Slow news, a term that was coined in this context by Ethan Zuckerman, is the notion that we should not hurry to assume we know what’s actually happening, certainly not when we’re getting news at the rapid pace we hear and see it today.

When you combine the amount of information pouring over us with its high velocity, the need to take things a little more slowly – as information providers but especially as info consumers – becomes obvious. And it’s not just random blog posts and tweets that can lead us astray.

We need only look to last January’s horrific shootings in Tuscon, Arizona, for evidence. NPR and a number of other news outlets (most relying on NPR as a source) reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died in the supermarket parking lot. She had not died, as we learned fairly quickly.

My own approach is to force myself to consider how sensational a report is along with how soon it comes after the alleged event. And the closer it is to the event, the more I put it in a category of “interesting if true” – with emphasis on “if”.

I recognize that this goes against human nature to some degree. But if we can persuade ourselves to keep in the back of our minds that sliver of skepticism, we’ll be fooled less, at a time when the consequences of being fooled are growing.

Dan Gillmor is founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. The project aims to help students understand the startup culture, and ultimately to help them invent their own jobs.

Dan’s latest book, Mediactive, aims to encourage a better media supply in part by creating better demand — to spur people to become active media users, as consumers and participants. His last book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People was the first to explain the rise of citizen media and why it matters. Dan also writes an online column for the Guardian and blogs regularly at

Dan has been a co-founder, investor and advisor in a number of media ventures in the for-profit and non-profit worlds. From 1994 until early 2005 he was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper, and wrote a weblog for He joined the Mercury News after six years with the Detroit Free Press. Before that, he was with the Kansas City Times and several newspapers in Vermont.

More about Dan at

Back to School Special 2: Syllabus for my Transmedia Entertainment Class

One of the challenges of teaching cutting edge subject matter is that you need to totally revamp your syllabus each time you teach a class. The following is the updated syllabus for the class on Transmedia Entertainment I am offering this term through the USC Cinema School. Our long-range hope is that a significant number of the students studying film production at USC will end up with a basic conceptual vocabulary in transmedia storytelling and will thus enter the industry already able to collaborate across media platforms in a meaningful way. Indeed, I would argue that the “movie brats” who have long been poster-children for the Cinema School, the guys whose names are on the buildings — Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, were never “pure filmmakers” in the classical sense but had always worked across media platforms and indeed, paved the way for contemporary transmedia practice. So, USC is the appropriate place to be developing such a subject.

As you will see, the class relies heavily on guest speakers from across the media industry and it also relies on a simulation activity in which our students develop transmedia proposals (including Bibles) and pitch their approach to a panel of industry experts. I am not a designer and so can not teach the design and production aspects of transmedia fully, but I try to tap the full range of creative talent in the class to see how far we can push their thinking, using a model I developed at MIT where I taught an interactive design class from the late and much missed Sande Scordos from Sony Imageworks.

Transmedia Entertainment

CTSC 482

Tuesdays 10:00 am-1:50 pm

We now live in a moment where every story, image, brand, relationship plays itself out across the maximum number of media platforms, shaped top down by decisions made in corporate boardrooms and bottom up by decisions made in teenager’s bedrooms. The concentrated ownership of media conglomerates increases the desirability of properties that can exploit “synergies” between different parts of the medium system and “maximize touch-points” with different niches of consumers. The result has been the push towards franchise-building in general and transmedia entertainment in particular.

A transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of different media platforms. A story like Heroes or Lost might spread from television into comics, the web, computer or alternate reality games, toys and other commodities, and so forth, picking up new consumers as it goes and allowing the most dedicated fans to drill deeper. The fans, in turn, may translate their interests in the franchise into concordances and Wikipedia entries, fan fiction, vids, fan films, cosplay, game mods, and a range of other participatory practices that further extend the story world in new directions. Both the commercial and grassroots expansion of narrative universes contribute to a new mode of storytelling, one which is based on an encyclopedic expanse of information which gets put together differently by each individual consumer as well as processed collectively by social networks and online knowledge communities.

Each class session will introduce a concept central to our understanding of transmedia entertainment that we will explore through a combination of lectures, screenings, and conversations with industry insiders who are applying these concepts through their own creative practices. The readings for this class are organized into required readings, which every student should read in order for us to have a shared basis for discussion, and recommended readings, which are intended to be resources for the group project as they dig deeper into the course concepts. My recommendation is that the members of the group divide these readings between them and make sure that the core concepts be in the shared pool of knowledge for each team.

In this course, we will be exploring the phenomenon of transmedia storytelling through:

  • Critically examining commercial and grassroots texts that contribute to larger media franchises (mobisodes and webisodes, comics, games).
  • Developing a theoretical framework for understanding how storytelling works in this new environment with a particular emphasis upon issues of world building, cultural attractors, and cultural activators.
  • Tracing the historical context from which modern transmedia practices emerged, including consideration of the contributions of such key figures as P.T. Barnum, L. Frank Baum, Feuillade, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, Walt Disney, George Lucas, DC and Marvel Comics, and Joss Whedon.
  • Exploring what transmedia approaches contribute to such key genres as science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero, suspense, soap opera, teen and reality television.
  • Listening to cutting-edge thinkers from the media industry talk about the challenges and opportunities that transmedia entertainment offers, walking through cases of contemporary projects that have deployed cross-platform strategies.
  • Putting these ideas into action through working with a team of fellow students to develop and pitch transmedia strategies around an existing media property.

Required Book:

Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and How We Tell Stories (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011)

Recommended Book:

Matt Madden, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (New York: Chamberlain Brothers, 2005)

All additional readings will be provided through the Blackboard site for the class.

Grading and Assignments:

Commercial Extension Paper 20 percent

Grassroots Extension Paper 20 percent

Final Project – Franchise Development Project 40 percent

Class Forums 20 percent

In order to fully understand how transmedia entertainment works, students will be expected to immerse themselves into at least one major media franchise for the duration of the term. You should consume as many different instantiations (official and unofficial) of this franchise as you can and try to get an understanding of what each part contributes to the series as a whole.

COMMERCIAL EXTENSION PAPER: For the first paper, you will be asked to write a 5-7 page essay examining one commercially produced media extension (comic, website, game, mobisode, amusement park attraction, etc.). You should try to address such issues as its relationship to the story world, its strategies for expanding the narrative, its deployment of the distinctive properties of its platform, its targeted audience, and its cultural attractors/activators. The paper will be evaluated on its demonstrated grasp of core concepts from the class, its original research, and its analysis of how the artifact relates to specific trends impacting the entertainment industry. Where possible, link your analysis to the course materials, including readings, lecture notes, and speaker comments. Please email a short paragraph describing your project to Prof. Jenkins and Shawna by September 27th. (Due Oct. 4) (20 Percent)

GRASSROOTS EXTENSION PAPER: For the second paper, you will be asked to write a 5-7 page essay examining a fan-made extension (fan fiction, discussion list, video, etc.) and try to understand where the audience has sought to attach themselves to the franchise, what they add to the story world, how they respond to or route around the invitational strategies of the series, and how they reshape our understanding of the characters, plot or world of the original franchise. The paper will be evaluated on its demonstrated grasp of core concepts from the class, its original research, and its analysis of how the artifact relates to specific trends impacting the entertainment industry. Where possible, link your analysis to the course materials, including readings, lecture notes, and speaker comments. Please email a short paragraph describing your project to Prof. Jenkins and Shawna by October 25th. (Due Nov. 1) (20 Percent)

FINAL PROJECT – FRANCHISE DEVELOPMENT PROJECT: Students will be organized into teams, which for the purpose of this exercise will function as transmedia companies. You should select a media property (a film, television series, comic book, novel, etc.) that you feel has the potential to become a successful transmedia franchise. In most cases, you will be looking for a property that has not yet added media extensions, though you could also look at a property that you feel has been mishandled in the past. You should have identified and agreed on a property no later than Sept. 13th. By the end of the term, your team will be “pitching” this property. The pitch should include a briefing book that describes:

1) the core defining properties of the media property

2) a description of the intended audience(s) and what we know of its potential interests

3) a discussion of the specific plans for each media platform you are going to deploy

4) an overall description for how you will seek to integrate the different media platforms to create a coherent world

5) parallel examples of other properties which have deployed the strategies being described

For a potential model for what such a book might look like, see the transmedia bible template from Screen Australia, available here: Or visit: If you use either as a model, include only those segments of their Bible templates which make sense for your particular property and approach.

The pitch itself will be a group presentation, followed by questions from our panel of judges, who will be drawn from across the entertainment industry. The length and format of the presentation will be announced as the term progresses to reflect the number of students actually involved in the process and thus the number of participating teams. The presentation should give us a “taste” of what the property is like as well as to lay out some of the key elements that are identified in the briefing book. Each team will need to determine what are the most salient features to cover in their pitches as well as what information they want to hold in reserve to address the judge’s questions. Each member of the team will be expected to develop expertise around a specific media platform as well as to contribute to the over-all strategies for spreading the property across media systems. The group will select its own team leader who will be responsible for contacts with the instructor and will coordinate the presentation. The team leader will be asked to provide feedback on what each team member contributed to the effort, while team members will be asked to provide an evaluation of how the team leader performed. Team Members will check in on Week Ten and Week Fourteen to review their progress on the assignment. The instructor may request short written updates throughout the term to insure that the team is moving in the right direction. (40 percent)

CLASS FORUM/PARTICIPATION: For each class session, students will be asked to contribute a substantive question or comment via the class forum on BlackBoard. Comments should reflect an understanding of the readings for that day as well as an attempt to formulate an issue that we can explore with the visiting speakers. Students will also be evaluated based on regular attendance and class participation. (20 Percent)


Transmedia Storytelling 101

Required Readings:

● Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, March 22, 2007

● Henry Jenkins, “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling,” Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 93-130.

● Nick DeMartino, “Why Transmedia Is Catching On Now,” Future of Film Blog, Parts 1, 2, 3.

Recommended Readings:

● Geoffrey Long, Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company, Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007

● P. David Marshall, “The New Intertextual Commodity” in Dan Harries (ed.) The New Media Book (London: BFI, 2002), pp. 69-81.

Speaker: Jeff Gomez, Starlight Runner Entertainment

Jeff Gomez is the world’s leading producer of transmedia entertainment properties. He is an expert at incubating new entertainment franchises, strategic planning and production for cross-platform implementation. As CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, Jeff leverages intellectual properties into global franchises that successfully navigate an array of media channels. Jeff has worked on such blockbuster universes as Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Microsoft’s Halo and James Cameron’s Avatar. He sits on the board of the Producers Guild of America East, as well as on the PGA New Media Council. A Latino, raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jeff earned degrees in Film Studies and Communication Arts & Sciences at Queens College, CUNY.


A Brief History of Transmedia

Required Reading:

● J.P. Telotte, Disney TV (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), pp. 61 – 79.

● Frank Rose, “How to Build a World That Doesn’t Fall Apart,” Art of Immersion, pp. 289- 320.

Recommended Readings:

● Neil Harris, “The Operational Aesthetic,” Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 61-89.

● Carolyn Handler Miller, “Using a Transmedia Approach,” Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment (Amsterdam: Focal Press, 2006), pp. 149-164.

Speaker: Alexander Seropian, Disney Interactive

Alexander Seropian is the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Core Games for Disney Interactive Media Group. He is responsible for building interactive franchises with major brands such as Mickey Mouse, Pixar and Marvel. Prior to his position at Disney, Alex founded Wideload Games, an independent game developer that utilized an external development model similar to film production. Wideload Games produced award-winning titles such as Stubbs the Zombie. In 2009, the studio was acquired by Disney Interactive Media Group. Alex began his career in videogames in 1991 as the founder of Bungie Studios. Under his guidance, Bungie created some of the most celebrated game franchises in the industry, including Marathon, Myth, Oni, and Halo. Alex also serves as the Game Designer in Residence for DePaul University’s College of Digital Media.


High Concept and the Franchise System

Required Reading:

● Justin Wyatt, “Critical Redefinition: The Concept of High Concept” High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994), pp. 1-22.

● Jonathan Gray, “Learning to Use the Force: Star Wars Toys and Their Films,” Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010), pp. 177-187.

● Christy Dena, “Chapter 2: Art, Commerce, Media and Environments in Transmedia Practice,” from Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environment, pp. 26-55.

● Frank Rose, “Deeper,” The Art of Immersion, pp.47-76.

Recommended Readings:

● Derek Johnson, “Learning to Share: The Relational Logics of Media Franchising” a White Paper

● Aaron Smith, “The Era of Convergence,” from Transmedia Stories in Television 2.0

Student Team Meetings


The Logic of Engagement

Required Reading:

● Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, “Chapter Four,” Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming)

● Frank Rose, “The Dyslexic Storyteller” and “Television: The Game,” The Art of Immersion, pp. 9-30, 169-198.

● Christy Dena, Selection from “Chapter 4: Narrative, Game and Interactivity in Transmedia Projects” from Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments, pp. 223- 259

Recommended Reading:

● Ivan Askwith, “The Expanded Television Text”, “Five Logics of Engagement,” “Lost at Televisions’ Crossroads,” Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium, Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007, pp. 51-150.

● Kim Moses and Ian Sander, selections from Ghost Whisperer: The Spirit Guide (New York: Titan Books, 2008).

Speaker: Kim Moses, Sandermoses Production

A principal in Sander/Moses Productions, she has both developed and served as an executive producer on over 500 hours of prime-time television programming. Kim has co-created (with Ian Sander) the “Total Engagement Experience”, a new business and creative model for television, which uses the television show as a component of a broader multi-platform entertainment experience that includes the internet, publishing, music, mobile, DVD’s, video games and more, establishing an infinity loop driving ratings and increasing revenue streams. Moses was Executive Producer and Director of the hit CBS drama Ghost Whisperer, and she has co-authored the show’s companion book, Ghost Whisperer: Spirit Guide. She has also co-created and written the award winning Ghost Whisperer: The Other Side webseries.


Media Mix and Multimodality

Required Reading:

● Frank Rose, “Fear of Fiction,” The Art of Immersion, pp. 31-46.

● Christy Dena, Chapter Two, Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments, pp. 55-95.

Recommended Reading:

● Anne Allison, “Pokemon: Getting Monsters and Communicating Capitalism,” Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), pp. 192-233.

● Mizuko Ito, “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix,” Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 97-110.

Speaker: Brian Clarke, GMD Studios

Brian is an award-winning New York City-based experience designer, the a founder and former publisher of independent film news daily, and the CEO of the 16-year-old media innovation lab GMD Studios ( His integrated experience clients have included advertisers (including Audi, SEGA, Microsoft, Ford), broadcasters (IFC, Fox Television, PBS, Showtime), publishers (New York Times, Scholastic) and film studios.


Continuity and Multiplicity


● William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, “I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise,” in Roberta E. Pearson (ed.), The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to A Superhero and His Media (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 182-213.

● Sam Ford and Henry Jenkins, “Managing Multiplicity in Superhero Comics,” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 303-313.

● Christy Dena, “The Who of Transmedia Practice” and “Continuity Documentation,” Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments, pp.124-147.

Recommended Reading:

● Alec Austin, “Hybrid Expectations,” Expectations Across Entertainment Media, Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007, pp. 97-127

● Jason Bainbridge, “Worlds within Worlds: The Role of Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe,” in Angela Ndalianis (ed.), The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 64-85.

● Matt Madden, 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (New York: Chamberlain Brothers, 2005)

Speaker: Dan Didio, DC Comics

Dan DiDio was named Co-Publisher of DC Comics alongside Jim Lee in February 2010. Previously to being named Co-Publisher, DiDio served as Senior Vice President and Executive Editor, overseeing the editorial department for the DC Universe line of comic book titles, and charting the ongoing adventures of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Flash and scores of heroes and villains; he also worked to develop new titles with the industry’s premier writers and artists. Before joining DC in January 2002, DiDio was with the computer animation company Mainframe Entertainment where he served as freelance story editor and scriptwriter for the television series Reboot and War Planets. Later he became its Senior Vice President, Creative Affairs, overseeing the development, distribution, marketing, and promotion as well as merchandising and licensing of all Mainframe’s television properties. Among the television projects he developed were Weird-Ohs, Beast Machines, Black Bull’s Gatecrasher and Jill Thompson’s Scary Godmother. He began his television career in 1981 at CBS, where he worked at a variety of positions before moving to Capital Cities/ABC in 1985. At ABC, DiDio served as Public Relations Manager for the three New York-based daytime dramas, then moved to Los Angeles to become Executive Director of Children’s Programming. In this post, he was responsible for Saturday morning programs and After School Specials and served as Program Executive on such series as Tales from the Cryptkeeper, Hypernauts, Madeline, Dumb and Dumber, and Reboot.


Immersion and Extractability

Paper One: Commercial Extension Due


● Jeff Gomez, “Creating Blockbuster Worlds” (unpublished).

● Henry Jenkins, “He-Man and Masters of Transmedia, “ Confessions of an Aca-Fan, May 21, 2010

● Christy Dena, Selection from “Chapter 5 Dramatic Unity, Versimilitude, and the Actual World in Transmedia Practice, “ Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments, pp. 277-316

Speaker: Geoffrey Long, Microsoft

Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and author exploring transmedia experiences and emerging entertainment platforms as a Transmedia Producer and Program Manager in the Narrative Design Team at Microsoft Studios. He is an alumni researcher with the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT, a co-editor of the Playful Thinking book series from the MIT Press, and an executive board member of the Interstitial Arts Foundation. His personal site can be found at


World Building


● Derek Johnson, “Intelligent Design or Godless Universe? The Creative Challenges of World Building and Franchise Development,” Franchising Media Worlds: Content Networks and The Collaborative Production of Culture, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009. pp. 170-279.

● Frank Rose, “Open Worlds,” The Art of Immersion, pp. 121-144.

Recommended Reading:

● Walter Jon Williams, “In What Universe?” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 25-32.

● Henry Jenkins, “The Pleasure of Pirates And What It Tells Us About World Building in Branded Entertainment”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, June 13, 2007

● Christy Dena, “Chapter Five Dramatic Unity, Verisimitude, and the Actual World in Transmedia Practice”, Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments, pp. 260 -277.

Speaker: Alex McDowell

McDowell trained as a painter in London in the Seventies, and opened a graphic design firm where he built his reputation designing album covers for seminal groups in the London punk scene. Since moving to Los Angeles from London in 1986, he has designed film productions for directors as diverse as Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, David Fincher, Zack Snyder and Steven Spielberg. It was on Minority Report that McDowell built the first fully digital art department, and developed a prototyping process that has evolved into a new narrative design methodology. Currently McDowell is working on a new Warner Brothers franchise project with director Zack Snyder, and he has recently completed design of a dystopian future for In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol. He continues to work as visual development consultant for projects, both live action and virtual. With many awards for his film design, McDowell was named Royal Designer for Industry by the UK’s most prestigious design society, the Royal Society of Arts, in 2006. McDowell serves on several Advisory Boards for design and technology groups and institutions. He currently serves on the AMPAS Science and Technology Council. He is adjunct professor at the School of Cinematic Arts, USC and is a Visiting Artist at MIT’s Media Lab, where he has worked for several years with Tod Machover’s Opera of the Future Lab. McDowell is co-founder and creative director of the immersive design conference 5D | The Future of Immersive Design, a global series of distributed events and a knowledgebase for an expanding community of thought leaders across all narrative media.




● Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling, and Procedural Logic,” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 429-438.

● Neil Perryman, “Doctor Who and the Convergence of Media: A Case Study in Transmedia Storytelling,” Convergence, February 2008, pp. 21-40.

● Frank Rose, “Forking Paths,” The Art of Immersion, pp. 103-120.

Recommended Reading:

● Jennifer Haywood, “Mutual Friends: The Development of the Mass Serial” Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1997), pp. 21-51.

Speaker: TBD, Campfire



Paper Two: Fan Extension Due


● The 9th Wonders, Chapters 1-9

● Henry Jenkins, “‘We Had So Many Stories to Tell’: The Heroes Comics as Transmedia Storytelling,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, Dec. 3, 2007.

Speaker: Mark Warshaw, The Alchemists

Mark is a transmedia storytelling writer/producer/director. Before co-founding The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co., Warshaw developed and produced the transmedia experience for the TV series Heroes. During his tenure, Heroes 360 became a financial and critical success. Forester Research has estimated the value of the initiative at $50,000,000 and it won an Emmy for Excellence in Interactive Programming. Before joining Heroes, Warshaw spent six seasons on the TV series Smallville where he produced all the show’s transmedia content and integrated advertiser initiatives. The Smallville websites and projects won various awards, helped build a large fan community, and became a major source of revenue for the property. Warshaw has created and produced on projects with Volkswagen, Ford, Sprint, Toyota, Verizon Wireless, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, TRESemmé, Coca-Cola, Nokia and Nissan. He has written for television and comic books and produced and directed webisode series for Warner Bros, The CW, NBC, Elle Magazine and the NFL. He was born and bred in Los Angeles, California with a stopover at the University of Georgia for a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication.


Drillability and Spreadability


● Bob Rehak, “That Which Survives: Star Trek‘s Design Network in Fandom and Franchise,” (unpublished), pp. 2-79.

● Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership?: The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling” (forthcoming).

● Frank Rose, “The Hive Mind and the Mystery Box,” The Art of Immersion, pp. 145-168.

Recommended Reading:

● Kristin Thompson, “Not Your Father’s Tolkien,” The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), pp. 53-74.

● C.S. Lewis, “On Stories,” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (New York: Harvest, 2002), pp. 3-21.

● Aaron Smith, Chapter 4-5 in Transmedia Stories in Television 2.0

Speaker: Tim Kring

76 million Heroes fans around the world know the name Tim Kring, and tuned in weekly across broadcast TV, cable, online and mobile to follow plotlines about ordinary people who discovered they possessed extraordinary abilities. As part of the most watched television program in the history of television, Heroes Evolutions set the bar high for multiplatform storytelling when it won the Primetime Emmy® for Interactive Television in 2008. In April, 2010, Kring received the Pioneer Prize at the International Digital Emmy® Awards in Cannes in recognition of his industry-leading creativity in multi-screen storytelling. During the summer of 2010, Kring teamed with Nokia to launch the Conspiracy For Good, a global movement that allows the audience to become part of the story to create positive real world change. The pilot engaged an audience online, through Alternative Reality Gaming elements, Nokia mobile apps, and on the streets of London while incorporating charitable and social benefits with Room to Read and the Pearson Foundation. Through this unique blend of entertainment and philanthropy, Conspiracy For Good delivered funding to build five school libraries in Zambia, more than 10,000 books to stock the library shelves, and created 50 new scholarships for deserving schoolgirls. Kring’s Conspiracy For Good is nominated for an International Digital Emmy® Award this April in Cannes. Later this year, Kring begins production on his latest TV pilot Touch for FBC and 20th Century Fox studios, with Kiefer Sutherland attached to star.

Tuesday, November 8th



● Francesca Coppa, “Women, Star Trek, and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding,” Transformative Works and Cultures 1, 2008, .

● Frank Rose, “Control,” The Art of Immersion, pp. 77-102.

Recommended Readings

● Robert Kozinets, “Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia,” in Bernard Cova, Robert Kozinets, and Avi Shankar (eds.), Consumer Tribes (London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007), pp. 194-209.

Student Team Meetings


Independent Approaches


● Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Chapter Seven, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming).

Student Team Meetings


No Class

Work on Student Presentations


Student Presentations