When Outlaws are Innovators: An Interview with Jonathan Taplin (Part One)

My new USC colleague, Jonathan Taplin, is like the cool older cousin that everyone of my generation always wished they had. He was at Woodstock and was hanging out with Bob Dylan and his mob at the Newport Folk Festival the day Dylan went electric. He organized The Concert for Bangladesh and produced Mean Streets. He went on tour with The Band and he was behind the scenes helping to negotiate the deal which saved the Disney Corporation. Now, he’s best buddies with T. Bone Barnett and he’s the founder of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

And he lived to tell the tale. In fact, his new book, Outlaw Blues: Adventures in the Counter-Culture Wars, recounts these and many other events which changed popular culture (especially popular music). His memory is vivid, his attention to detail is sharp, and his writing is compelling.

But, Outlaw Blues is more than simply Taplin’s memoirs, fascinating though it is to read these stories. Taplin sees the big picture, and he uses the book to document what he calls the “American Vanguard”, which he traces back to Emerson, Thoreau, and Twain (suggesting that these “dead white guys” were as lively and controversial in their own times as Eric Clapton was in his.) He writes about Louis Armstrong, Upton Sinclair, Orson Welles, Jackson Pollack and Edward R. Murrow, with the same vivid attention to details and personality as he describes what happened when Jimi Hendrix took the stage at Woodstock or discusses a young Martin Scorsese’s uncomfortable reactions tof Hollywood hedonism.

His account connects these phenomenal artistic accomplishments to issues of technological innovation, shifting business models, and above all, the dramatic social, political, and cultural debates of the period. Before everything is said and done, Outlaw Blues ends up being the hidden history of America from the mid-19th into the early 21st century, one full of lessons for those who are trying to make sense of the media changes that are helping to define our present moment.

But, Outlaw Blues is still more than that, because it is the first publication of a new Annenberg Innovation Lab initiative which is seeking to re-imagine the affordances of the book. Most existing ebooks slavishly and mechanically reproduce printed books and utterly fail to take advantage of the properties of this emerging platform. So, when they made the Kindle version of Convergence Culture, my publishers had trouble reproducing the sidebars, which are a central feature of the book, and were designed to approximate the juxtapositions we associate with the web. But the Annenberg Innovation Lab believes that ebooks can be media rich and interactive, even participatory, experiences. But, they can achieve that goal only if they are “born digital,” only if they are designed for this platform from the get-go.

Outlaw Blues, thus, included hundreds of clips, allowing us to see parts of the musical performances the book describes, and thanks to Taplin’s behind-the-scene’s perspectives, watch them with new eyes, because we have a clearer sense of what the people on stage are thinking. And the musical bits exist alongside bits of interviews, documentaries, and other key media texts of the period. Here’s where you go to learn more about this “innovative” project.

In this interview, I asked Taplin to focus on some of the larger themes — about the nature of creativity and popular culture, about art and politics, about technological change and personal expression — which run through the book.

Throughout Outlaw Blues, you describe the “American Vanguard.” What do you see as the characteristics of this tradition? What roles did it play in shaping American Arts and Letters?

I guess I prefer the term “vanguard” to French “Avant Garde”, but I think they have the same intent. Webster’s defines it as “An intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts”. Emerson returned from Europe in 1837 and said that we had had quit our “extreme Eurocentrism” and celebrate a unique American culture. Almost from the beginning, that literature found itself in cultural and political opposition to the establishment. Whether it was Emerson’s break with Protestant theology or Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, where he took on both slavery and imperialism; the Vanguard was ahead of even the most progressive politician in America. And I think this tradition continued up through Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger—all the way to Bob Dylan’s famous song “Oxford Town”, with these lyrics:

Oxford Town in the afternoon/ Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune/

Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon/Somebody better investigate soon

But beyond the political, I think the more important element was their role in experimentation. Two trumpet players, Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong basically invented the idea of improvisation and the solo in jazz. Jackson Pollack helped invent the language of abstract expressionism. Orson Welles reinvented both the radio drama (with War of the Worlds) and the motion picture (with Citizen Kane). So somehow the combination of experimentation and willingness to stand in opposition to the conventional wisdom are the defining characteristics of the American Vanguard.

You often define the “American Vanguard” is opposition to the commercial culture of the same period, yet many of those you discuss — from Louis Armstrong to Dylan, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis — are among the most popular artists of all time. So, what relationship are you positing between being an “outlaw” artists and the commercial marketplace?

The funny thing is that when Bob Dylan started making records, Frankie Avalon and Fabian were on top of the hit parade. When Elvis first started making records, Frank Sinatra, who was the king of pop music in 1955 said that rock and roll, “is sung, played and written by cretinous goons.” The difference between what we think of as mainstream culture and what the kids were liking has of course been with us for a long time.

When Mezz Mesrow and Eddie Condon, two white kids from the suburbs went down to a black club in Chicago in 1935 to see Louis Armstrong, they were both pissing off their parents and potentially the patrons of the club. The fact is that youth culture did not became the dominant commercial culture until the mid 1960’s. Mitch Miller and his Orchestra were the largest selling act for Columbia Records in 1963. So in a sense the Vanguard musical artists changed the nature of commercial culture. As Andy Warhol pointed out, what was weird about the 1960’s was not that artists became more commercial, but rather that commercial culture became more artistic.

What motivated you to write Outlaw Blues through a combination of memoir and historical perspectives? What relationship are you positing in this way between what happened in the late 20th century and the broader history of popular culture?

I had been studying what the Austrian economist Schumpeter called “Long Waves”—the notion that history and economics move in 60 year cycles. This was all part of his theory of creative destruction. So I definitely felt like I had been lucky enough to live and work in one of those periods of creative revolution from 1963-1982 and so I was curious about those other periods when Vanguard artists were really altering the cultural dialogue.

So I started with the Transcendentalists in the 1830’s and then sixty years later there was Twain, the invention of cinema and radio, the phonograph record, Buddy Bolden, jazz. And then sixty years later were the beats and bebop, leading to the sixties cultural explosion. I’m not saying the Long Wave is a perfect way to look at cultural history, but these upheavals do tend to come in waves.

So from that basis I tried to put the book together. I didn’t want it to be a memoir, per se, but I knew my own personal experiences with some of the important artists of the late 20th century could add to the story.

In that sense, Dylan is really carrying on a poetic tradition from T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound, who so radically changed the nature of narrative poetry in the early part of the Century. I had studied poetry at Princeton with Walton Litz, a truly inspirational teacher and he gave me such an appreciation for Auden and Eliot that I felt that somehow I could carry my own students back to an appreciation of that work. After all, the poetic tradition of hip hop has roots that could even be traced back to Gertrude Stein and Dada. It’s just that a lot of kids don’t have much sense of where their culture came from. It’s like Jay Z and Tupac are in a “folk” tradition, just like Robert Johnson was. They are just taking from the past and reinterpreting it.

Your chapters are structured around a series of moments or scenes where a number of artists, often working in different media, seemed to thrive. What do these scenes have in common? What factors contribute to the emergence of these kinds of creative moments?

This is such a fascinating topic. Jacques Barzun has a wonderful theory about the Renaissance. You had all of these amazing artists living literally down the street from each other in Florence. They went to each other’s studios and probably drank together in the evenings. So they were both rivals and friends and that rivalry pushed them to experiment more. The physical proximity—the scene—was critical.

I certainly witnessed the same thing with The Band, Dylan, Clapton and Van Morrison. They hung out together and they pushed each other to really excel. My reading tells me the same thing was going on in Paris in the 1920’s and certainly in New York in the 1940’s when both Abstract Expressionism and Bebop were being birthed in very close quarters. In fact I could name the bars, Mintons for the jazz scene and the Cedar Tavern for the artists. This leads me to wonder if all these notions of virtual communities can have the same creative juice as the physical presence of jamming at 2 AM in Harlem.

So if the first factor is the competitive scene, then the second factor is a general sense that the “canon” of the moment is moribund. The only reason Marty Scorsese, Terry Malick, George Lucas and Bob Rafaelson got to make their first films in the early 1970’s was that the Hollywood system, that had been turning out failing movies like Hello Dolly and The Molly McGuires, was bankrupt. The studios had no money, so they were open to this new generation of film school brats that were willing to work for peanuts and make films for $500,000.

I think a lot of what you write about and study—the rise of Transmedia—comes out of this same kind of Interregnum. As Gramsci said, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Much of the underpinning of the music, TV and Film businesses are being destroyed by the digital revolution. The DVD sell through business that created 55% of movie revenues is dying. The album, which allowed music companies to sell you 12 songs when you only wanted one, has been unbundled. TiVo completely is undercutting the advertising revenue of TV.

What we need to see is if new scenes will arise to reinvent these businesses. I guess that is part of our task at the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

Jonathan Taplin is a Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Taplin is Director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab . Taplin’s areas of specialization are in international communication management and the field of digital media entertainment. Taplin began his entertainment career in 1969 as Tour Manager for Bob Dylan and The Band. In 1973 he produced Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Mean Streets which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival. Between 1974 and 1996, Taplin produced 26 hours of television documentaries (including The Prize and Cadillac Desert for PBS) and 12 feature films including The Last Waltz, Until The End of the World, Under Fire and To Die For. His films were nominated for Oscar and Golden Globe awards and chosen for The Cannes Film Festival seven times.

In 1984 Taplin acted as the investment advisor to the Bass Brothers in their successful attempt to save Walt Disney Studios from a corporate raid. This experience brought him to Merrill Lynch, where he served as vice president of media mergers and acquisitions. In this role, he helped re-engineer the media landscape on transactions such as the leveraged buyout of Viacom. Taplin was a founder of Intertainer and has served as its Chairman and CEO since June 1996. Intertainer was the pioneer video-on-demand company for both cable and broadband Internet markets. Taplin holds two patents for video on demand technologies. Professor Taplin has provided consulting services on Broadband technology to the President of Portugal and the Parliament of the Spanish state of Catalonia. In May of 2010 he was appointed Managing Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

“The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged”: The Visual Culture of the Occupy Movement

Since September 17, the Occupy Wall Street movement has produced an overwhelming array of visuals, offering a significant lens on the movement itself, its ties to history, its divergent voices, perspectives and styles, as well as its multiple distribution channels from mainstream outlets to social media. Despite the criticism from experts who do not necessarily see much potential in Occupy’s “brand,” the visual aspects of the protest clearly have impact and traction. Although it would be impossible to fully assess this rich visual output, this blog post attempts to understand its emergent themes as well as the potential uses and value attached to visual commentary and protest.

Throughout history, visual culture has played an important role in protest and social change. Although “high” art had long been used to venerate political figures as well as members of the upper classes, with the revolutionary tides of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America, we see a shift and an increase in pictorial depictions of political resistance. These historical examples demonstrate the way visual culture has been fundamental to the politics of protest. They serve as witness and document. They can incite and instigate action.

Thus begins a rich, compelling, and timely post over at the blog maintained by the USC Civic Paths Research Group. Dr. Alison Trope, Clinical Associate Professor, and Lana Swartz, PhD Student, both in USC Annenberg, have assembled an amazing archive of images drawn primarily from the Occupy rallies from around the country and across the globe.

As this opening suggests, their primary emphasis is on visual media — the signs, costumes, spectacles, which have been deployed to define the terms of the debate. Given the visual rich nature of their post, I can’t cross-post it here, so I can only send you there to examine it more closely. But, believe me, it is worth hitting the link…

The Civic Paths team has been studying alternative forms of activism, especially those which involve the intersection between popular culture, participatory culture, and youth, for more than two years. We are affiliated with a research hub focused on Youth and Participatory Politics funded by the MacArthur Foundation and led by Mills College’s Joe Kahne. Our own involvement stems from my long-standing interest in fan activism, the theme of a special issue our group is editing for Transformative Works and Culture, which will come out early next year. But, our interest has grown far beyond this.

Our current case studies include work on the young activists who are working to pass the Dream Act to give greater educational and citizenship rights to undocumented youth (Arely Zimmerman), research on youth involvement in Libertarian politics (Liana Thompson), research on Nerdfighters, the Harry Potter Alliance, and Imagine Better (Neta Kligler-Vilenchik), and research into Muslim-American politics post-911 (Sangita Shreshtova). Along the way, though, we have also been looking closely at a broader range of case studies — from Racebenders to labor organizing in Madison, Wisconsin. This site looks at some of our preliminary examples, which helped pave the way for our current research. Altogether, we have nearly 20 PhD and Masters students contributing to this research, many of whom have posted some preliminary insights through the Civic Paths blog, so if you come to visit the Occupy archive, stay around and check out some of their other contributions.

I was lucky enough to have been able to pay a visit to Washington Square, the home of Occupy Wall Street, a few weeks ago, when I was in New York for the Mobility Shifts conference. An army of people in Zombie costumes, many of them from Zombiecon, a horror fan convention, had arrived at the Park just a few minutes before I did, and they were mingling with folks dressed up like characters from Game of Thrones and carrying signs warning that “the Winter is Coming.” Elderly tourists were stopping them and seeking to better understand why they were dressed the ways they were and how they were connected with the Occupy moment, resulting in a series of exchanges which would further spread awareness of the protest. And that’s part of the point.

Occupy is not so much a movement, at least not as we’ve traditionally defined political movements, as it is a provocation. If the mainstream media has difficulty identifying its goals, it may be because its central goal is to provoke discussion, to get people talking about things which our political leadership has refused to address for several decades now — the profound shifts in economic wealth which have created conditions of gross inequality in opportunity, the role of what Sarah Palin has called “crony capitalism” (and which is really an indication of the role of capital in shaping our political process), and especially the degree to which economic policies under both Republican and Democratic presidents have been written with more regard for Wall Street than Main Street.

The values that Occupy represents are shared by the vast majority of Americans, if recent surveys are any indication, yet they are rarely expressed by mainstream political leaders or the mass media. So, part of the point of these protests is to provide what Stephen Duncombe might call an “ethical spectacle” as a means of focusing attention. And the old women who are asking Zombies questions are part of that process, no doubt sharing what they saw with their friends back home, and thus providing yet another chance to talk about what’s been going on here.

The blurring between fan and activist that I observed demonstrates a different relationship between popular culture and politics than we saw in previous protest movements. The Popular Front in the 1930s sought to influence the development of popular culture, giving rise to Aaron Copeland, Norman Rockwell, Frank Capra, and many others, whose work shaped our current image bank of what democracy looks like. The protest movements of the 1960s sought to tap into the language of popular culture — especially those of rock and comics — to create an alternative culture, one which was implicitly and often explicitly critical of corporately-owned media and which sought to express the worldview of a younger generation. The protest movements of the early 1990s embraced a DIY aesthetic, giving rise to the Indie-Media movement, and helping to fuel talk of a digital revolution which might democratize access to the channels of communication.

The Occupy movement, by contrast, has laid claim to the iconography of existing popular culture as a set of cultural resources through which to express their collective identities and frame their critiques. Thus, we see a much more playful style of activism, one which owes much to the traditions of fan culture, one which assumes that images and stories from superhero comics or cult television series are shared by many of the participants (and will be understood by a larger public which has not yet joined the protests). So, they are dressing up, designing signs which re-ascribe meanings to familiar characters, creating their own videos, and sending them out into the world, where they will be seen by many who are not going to go to Washington Square, Los Angeles City Hall, or any other site of occupation.

This is protest media designed to spread through social networks — one which has the homemade qualities of the DIY movements of the past (thus, as Trope and Swartz note, the cardboard signs), the high tech qualities of digital activism, and the playful engagement of fan activism, all rolled into one heady combination. These tactics are not without their contradictions — Trope and Swartz note that the Guy Fawkes masks, inspired by Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and now symbols of the Anonymous movement, are based on IP owned by Warner Communications who profits for everyone sold in this country.

But, it does seem to reflect the way we are conducting politics in the early 21st century. We saw some of these same images “test marketed” as it were during the pro-labor protests in Madison, as Jonathan Gray noted a while back, and we are seeing these tactics play out on an even bigger stage with Occupy.

There are many other aspects of the Occupy movement we recognize from our ongoing research. More and more contemporary political movements are decentralized, claiming loose affiliations with each other, yet playing out on very local levels, often with significant differences between the various chapters. This approach has proven highly effective for the Dream Activists, for example, where the struggle shifted from Federal to State and Local levels when Congress failed to pass the national Dream Act. These activists have tapped into social networking tools in order to be able to quickly learn from each other, allowing images, messages, and tactics to evolve rapidly. If traditional immigrant rights groups tended to observe ethnic, racial, and national boundaries, these young people have formed coalitions across different immigrant populations, and something similar is going on with Occupy, where many different ideological interests are organizing around the shared frame which Occupy offers.

These groups are refusing to create a simple unified message of the kind that are familiar from “disciplined,” hierarchical, and established political movements. Rather, they seek to multiply the messages and to expand the range of different media framings so that they may speak to a broader range of different participants. No one piece of media reaches everyone; rather, media is produced quickly and cheaply and spread widely so that each piece of media produced may speak to a different set of followers.

As Sasha Costanza-Chock, a recent transplant from USC to MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program, wrote in his thesis about the Los Angeles Immigrant Rights Movement:

Effective transmedia organizers are shifting from speaking for movements to speaking with them. Transmedia mobilization thus marks a transition in the role of movement communicators from content creation to aggregation, curation, remix and circulation of rich media texts through networked movement formations. Those movement formations that embrace the decentralization of the movement voice can reap great rewards, while those that attempt to maintain top down control of movement communication practices risk losing credibility.

Occupy, if anything, pushes tactics of transmedia mobilization even further. Refusing to anchor a singular meaning behind the movement keeps the conversations alive, allows for more people to join and help reshape the message, enables quick and tactical responses to outside challenges, and supports creative responses from all participants. As they chanted in the 1990s, this is what democracy looks like. Or as Trope and Swartz write, “The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged.”

In the case of the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, there has been a move away from single issue activism to create structures that can be quickly deployed in response to a broad range of concerns and participatory structures that allow local chapters or even individual members to identify and take action around their own issues.

All of this can be confusing to media that keeps looking for the one cause, the one message, and the one spokesperson. Such efforts also compound some of the division within academic thought, since the message of Occupy seems to come from the realm of Critical Studies and Political Economy, where-as much of the tactics and imagery reflect the domains of Cultural Studies.

All of this suggests that we need to rethink the ways we’ve discussed the relations between politics and culture in the past. That’s a central goal of the Civic Paths research group and we invite others to join us in researching not simply the Occupy movement but the ways it illustrates the nature of political engagement in a networked culture. We’d welcome hearing about what other research groups are doing to document and analyze the Occupy protests in their local areas.

Making My Peace with The Bicycle Girl: Reflections on The Walking Dead Web Series

Earlier this semester, I was asked by Scott Walker to be the guest speaker at the Los Angeles Transmedia Meetup, an event which brought together a roomful of artists and entrepreneurs who are invested in making the concept of “transmedia entertainment” into a reality. Today, I wanted to share with you the webcast version of this exchange.

If this whets your appetite for further discussions of these issues, it’s not too late to register to attend the Futures of Entertainment conference being hosted by MIT on November 11-12. I will be speaking there on a panel with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, the co-authors of our forthcoming book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society, and you can find more information here.

In my opening remarks to the Transmedia group, I responded to the news that The Walking Dead was launching some webisodes in anticipation of their Second Season. My remarks were based on a news story I had seen that morning, which contained very little information about what was planned other than the news that it would center on “Bicycle Girl,” a very memorable zombie character introduced in the series’s opening episode. This news seemed to me a mixed blessing and as such, offered us a way to think about when and where transmedia extensions are appropriate or desirable. The discussion was a hypothetical one, a thought experiment, not intended as a criticism of the series producers, and I can now follow it up with some thoughts about the actual execution of the webisodes.

On one level, the choice of “Bicycle Girl” as the focus is inspired. The character originates in Robert Kirkman’s original graphic novel and despite appearing on only a few pages, remains a “haunting” figure. She is the first zombie we really get to know as an individual when Rick exits the hospital and his decision to, in effect, commit a mercy killing on this zombie punctures any easy divide between humans and zombies. I’ve long wanted to know more about this character and particularly I wanted to know whether there was any previous relationship between Rick and the human who had changed into this hideous monster. Clearly the producers also were fascinated with this figure since they devoted a video segment on The Walking Dead dvd release specifically to the making of this sequence.

I would make two claims about why she was the right starting point for a web extension:

1. She is an iconic figure. She’s a character we remember. Her situation speaks to the larger themes and conflicts which structure The Walking Dead as a series. Often, transmedia extensions, for budget and contract reasons, end up working with secondary characters rather than the series leads. This is fine if the secondary characters are ones we care about, if they are ones who have a compelling role to play in the series. In fact, introducing alternative points of view on the action may be one of the most valuable contributions transmedia extensions can make. A series which did this right was The Wire, where they produced only a few highly memorable and meaningful webisodes, each focused around characters and character relationships which were meaningful and memorable in the context of the original series. Too often, producers work with who-ever is available and the results seems arbitrary and disappointing.

2. The moment is one which taps what Microsoft’s Geoffrey Long would call “negative space.” The original moment created a gap or hole which viewers wanted to fill in. In the most generative cases, the audience taps its own “negative capability” to flesh out what must have occurred. This is one of the core processes which generate fan fiction (in its most formalized cases) or simply conversation and speculation (in more informal cases). The challenge for the producer is that when you attempt to fill in these gaps later, once fan speculations have been entrenched, you end up working against rather than with your fan base. We often call this the Boba Fett paradox in reference to a much-beloved secondary character from Star Wars, whose on-screen execution disappointed rather than rewarded a decade or more of intense fan interest. So, to use myself as an example, I very much wanted to see a story where Rick already knew the “Bicycle Girl” and was thus touched by seeing her laying there dismembered and zombified: this is why it matters that he takes the time to go back and take her out of her misery.

Why might it not be a good idea to return to the “Bicycle Girl” story? I have been finishing up an essay which explores the ways that The Walking Dead is and is not “faithful” to the original comic book series. In doing so, I argue that fans are ready to accept expansions and elaborations, even major changes in the continuity (especially those which allow them to explore other aspects of the character conflicts) as long as they are consistent with “the rules” (to borrow from Scream) which were established by Robert Kirkman. In this case, the “rules” are explicit; they emerged over time as Kirkman engaged with his fans through the letter column in the back of the comic.

One of the core rules which Kirkman established was that we would never be given an explanation for why there are zombies and we are never going to go back and fill in the first 20 days of the zombie apocalypse. Here’s one of the many times that Kirkman has explained his rationale:

As far as the explanation for the zombies go, I think that aside from the zombies being in the book, this is a fairly realistic story, and that’s what makes it work. The people do real things, and it’s all very down to Earth…almost normal. ANY explanation would be borderline science fiction….and it would disrupt the normalness. In my mind, the story has moved on. I’m more interested in what happens next then what happened before that caused it all.

Some in the original audience for my remarks assumed I was saying that there was a hole in Kirkman’s construction that he was seeking to work around. I don’t think so. I think this goes to what I call the active production of belief. I never much liked the phrase the suspension of disbelief, which seems to me far too passive to explain what happens when we consume a fiction. For me, belief is something that is achieved (not something simply accepted) and it is achieved through choices made both by the storyteller and the listener.

In this case, Kirkman’s impulses as a storyteller is that any explanation for the zombies would damage the credibility of the fiction he was constructing. This is not a problem with his story: it’s a challenge in working with the zombie genre more generally, one all storytellers run up against, and especially a challenge of a version which strives for emotional realism in the ways Kirkman did. Given this particular “rule,” which we might see as an informal contract between the producers and consumers, fans were understandably upset when the final episodes of last season took us to the Center for Disease Control and threatened to provide a “rational explanation” for the zombie attacks — one grounded in the idea of contagion and epidemic. So, I was also defensive at the thought of telling the “Bicycle Girl” story which would mean going back to a time prior to Rick’s awakening and thus increase the likelihood of the producer’s trying to explain why there are zombies.

As it turned out, I should not have worried. The producers of “Torn Apart” (as the Bicycle Girl webisode is called) were well aware of audience expectations around this issue and as a consequence, they take steps to avoid giving us anything substantive which might explain the outbreak. We get one dubious theory from a somewhat crazed neighbor that the zombie attacks might have been caused by “terrorists.” We get a few snippets of news coverage before the power grid goes down and all communication gets cut off. We get the suggestions that whatever happened occurred very swiftly, allowing no time for people to prepare, and catching most of the population off-guard. None of this breaks the underlying logic of the “rule” even if it may push up against the letter.

I spent a class session in my Transmedia Storytelling seminar walking episode through episode through “Torn Apart”. The initial response was that the quality was not as high as was routinely achieved on the television series: the acting was more heavy handed, the scripting and camera work more obvious in calling out certain key plot points, and there was less time to fully explore the emotional consequences of certain moments of intensified drama. As we talked as a class, though, we came to a deeper understanding of how these aspects of amplification and simplification emerged from the specifics of production for the web. There were production constraints, in terms of budget and time, which made it hard to achieve the same quality in the web productions as could be achieved on the show itself, and this becomes an issue when what happens on the web is intended to be read as “part” of the television series, a problem which transmedia producers of all kinds will need to address. We discussed the similarities and differences from how these problems are confronted by student filmmakers (at USC film school and elsewhere) and exploitation filmmakers, both of whom dealt with limited time and money, and worked within short form as opposed to long form storytelling. And we discussed the very different interpretive frames consumers bring to such work, excusing imperfections in favor of ambitions in both cases, because we understand the constraints on what could be done.

A second discussion centered around the compression which occurs here. The more closely we looked at the construction of this web series, the more impressed we were by how tightly integrated the details were. Every line, every plot point connected to something else, so that by the end, this was a very classically constructed story with many intensely melodramatic moments and with no loose ends. There are choices here the class debated, such as the decision to recenter or decenter key aspects of this story from the “Bicycle Girl” onto her ex-husband or other members of her family, or the relative arbitrariness of how the “Bicycle Girl” becomes a zombie, despite the elaborate back story with which we were presented (and whether this was consistent with the sense that anything could happen at any time that is part of the logic of The Walking Dead series as a whole.)

The short length of these segments seems to suggest a prevailing industry logic that people only want to watch things on the web which are less than five minutes long (shorter depending on which web expert you talk with) but we can start to question this logic when more and more of us are watching full episodes or feature length movies on our computers through Hulu and iTunes. In the class setting, it quickly became tiresome to have to wade through a pre-roll commercial and credits before getting into the next chunk of the story, and in this case, all of the episodes were released on the same day which means that the serial process was perhaps wasted on this content. That said, part of what we were trying to discuss in class was the twin logics of seriality, which depend on chunking (the creation of meaningful bits which cohere in any given chapter) and dispersal (the shifting of interests and attention onto what is coming next through cliff-hangers and enigmas, both of which are well illustrated in the construction of this particular series).

Some of the more interesting discussion centered around the placement of this episode in the overall flow of The Walking Dead series — as a bridge between the first and second series. I often hear people talk about the nonlinear quality of transmedia, saying that the parts can be consumed in any order. This is technically true in the same sense that we can read any chapter in a book in any order we want, but we often choose to read the book in a desired sequence. Or we can read any book in a series we want, but again, most readers choose to follow the author’s preferred order. Transmedia (at least as Hollywood currently practices it) has to be designed so that any given extension can function as a point of entry into the series and so that only the “mothership” is essential to the experience, but that does not mean that there is not considerable thought put into the timing with which different extensions are introduced into the franchise.

In this case, there is a conscious decision to create something which refers back to the very first episode of The Walking Dead rather than following on from the end of season one, especially in the context of a series which has been sparing with flashbacks and which tends to have a strong forward momentum. We also felt that the focus here on children at risk connected very strongly to the core themes which surfaced in the opening episode of the second season, with certain moments in the webisode having direct parallels in the television episode many of us would watch shortly after.

Beyond this, there is a nice balance in the webisodes between relying on information hardcore fans have acquired through watching the series (such as what happened in Atlanta or what they know at CDC, both plot points here which were already answered in the series) and creating something which could be an “attractor,” a point of entry for first time viewers which might draw them into watching the series itself.

There is a lot more that transmedia producers and consumers can learn from looking closely at this example: indeed, my hope is that we can move the conversation about transmedia from broad definitional debates to this kind of close reading, which helps us to learn what works and what doesn’t in the current work being done in this space.

Acafandom and Beyond: Concluding Thoughts

Louisa Stein: I feel the need to start off by saying I never wanted or felt we needed a referendum on the term “acafan”; when I initially proposed the “Future of Acafandom” workshop at SCMS, I had in mind that we’d talk about the practices of acafan methodology and pedagogy, and perhaps also the shifting terrain for acafan scholars in graduate school and on the job market. But it became clear in that conversation that the term mattered to people, that the term itself was fractious, and that we couldn’t engage with the concepts inside the term, so to speak, without poking at the term itself. I found myself asking why the term was so fractious; indeed, we originally talked about wanting these conversations to be dialogues rather than the debate structure of the Fan Girl vs. Fan Boy debates, hence the three participants, and yet it seems like we’ve found ourselves back in debate territory. I still don’t feel like I have a full answer to this question: why is the term acafan something people feel so strongly about, or that causes discomfort?

I’ve come away from these conversations, both the in person ones and the blog dialogues, with an increased sense of the power of terms, of the way in which internalized definitions can link ideas and the people thinking through those ideas, but can also prevent dialogue and create miscommunication. So if acafan means one thing to me–and I say so and say it visibly, that doesn’t mean others will embrace my definition over theirs (and indeed, why should they?) and may indeed continue to read my work from within their definition of the term. To make this more concrete: for me acafan is all about emphasizing the necessary synthesis of academic and fan–it’s never been an exclusive term (again, to me), nor a term meant to raise rational academic discourse on fandom above emotional, non-academic fandom (indeed, quite the opposite!) But if acafan signifies these things to others, then those meanings may frame my work if I use the term.

But does that mean that I should give up the term? To me the answer is clearly of course not (I know, I’m sure everyone’s very surprised about this!) because it still has methodological and personal resonance, and still offers the power to connect networks of scholars and fans. But perhaps more centrally, for me it still comes down to the fact that like it or not, the term is here with us, in the present if not the far future.

We can’t just declare language dead–despite my spurious blog post title about “not-hosting the workshop that killed Acafandom.” No single workshop could ever have that power. Spurred by the conversation between Jason, Alex, and Abigail, I googled acafan (why had I never done this before?) and found that in colloquial online use, the term bridges silos and boundaries. Yes, most of the first page of hits are Henry’s blog, with Ian Bogost’s declamation of acafan positioning making an appearance as well. But there’s also fan fiction–a Sherlock Fan Fiction, no less, entitled “The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan” (!) And there are blog posts, twitter accounts, a fan lore entry, livejournal posts, delicious bookmarks, podcasts, etc. with varying levels of academic and fannish affiliation. To me there’s a value in all that boundary crossing, and moreover it demonstrates simply that the term has a cultural life, and it’s up to each of us to perform and model it as we see fit, in multiplicity, rather than to proclaim a single definition.

I want to close by building on Alex Doty’s concluding point about the value of acafandom for teaching. For me, this is absolutely key, and a way my individual acafan perspective manifests every day. Depending on the course context, I don’t necessarily spell this out to my students (because again, the label isn’t all or even most of what matters here) but I am most acafan when I model to my students engaged critique and critical engagement. And no, we don’t need the term to define this synthesized position, but the terms serves as a thread connecting my work to my teaching, and reminds me of what I value in media culture as a whole, as a scholar and a teacher, and for that matter as a student of media and fan culture who still has much to learn.

Henry Jenkins: I am not sure what I expected when I opened this particular can of worms. In many ways, I found the resulting exchanges fascinating — especially hearing the diverse ways that contributors positioned themselves in relation to both academia and fandom, the ways that those relationships did or did not inform their work, and the other ways they were taking up some of the issues which for me are central to the use of the aca-fan concept — especially those having to do with our subjective experiences as consumers and participants always implicated in the popular culture we study, one way or another, whether or not we want to admit it.

Progress has been made on some of the issues which spawned the term, but not others. I still hear about students who are hurt and confused when teachers write “too fannish” on their papers, with the implication that they do not demonstrate the appropriate amount of distance and rationality, that they are too emotional invested, and therefore, the chain of assumptions goes, that they are not sufficiently critical. I still get questions which imply these things when I speak outside of circles where Fan Studies has become a long accepted paradigm, as happened to me during a recent talk at Indiana University, where someone in the audience wanted to know in what sense a fan could be a critic.

This is no doubt part of what we mean when we talk about the pedagogical value of the term, that it allows certain kinds of work to be done, that it allows students and teachers another way of addressing these issues, that it allows students, especially those who may not have mentors involved in fan studies, an identity to rally behind and a means of justifying the work they want to do. For that reason, if for no other, we should hold up a banner for the acafans. It’s so easy to feel isolated, the odd one out in those circumstances, and if acafan may offer too easy an affiliation as some have suggested, that is still better than no affiliation at all.

The post that has had me struggling the most with my own assumptions was John Campbell’s critique of the essentialism implicit in refering to oneself as a fan rather than as “a fan of.” We come at this question from such a different place, yet with such shared values, that this one got under my skin and I am still scratching at it. Most early writings about fans sought to essentialize them by defining them in terms of their singular relations to particular texts. So, a “Trekkie” (rarely a Trekker for such writers) was someone who loved Star Trek. There was no sense that they might be interested in other texts, that their biography might connect across a range of fan communities, that fan culture might have a tradition that extends beyond the single text, and so forth. In Textual Poachers, I stressed that fans were nomadic, that they “traveled across” texts much as De Certeau describes readers as “traveling across” lands they have not cultivated. The nomadic dimensions of fandom keep getting dropped from accounts of the book in favor of the concept of poaching — titles do shape readings, after all — but it is key to imagining the reader as structuring their relationships with texts and each other through choices made about which materials to borrow.

To me, going back to the “fan of” formulation means ascribing too much authority to the text, not enough authority to communities. I get John’s points that there is no essential fan, that we are never just fans, that fans are not alike, etc., and these are useful correctives to our current use of the term. But, for me, when I speak of fan, I am thinking of being a fan as a subcultural identity, one defined through loose affiliations and shared traditions, as well as by shared debates and tensions, which run through the history of fan practices. There is not just one fan community, but most fan communities, in some ways, tap into the shared traditions of fan culture as they are defining themselves in relation to particular texts in particular social and technological contexts. I am not sure I have fully resolved the issues John raises (and I would welcome his response), but in many ways, this was one of the posts that most pushed the conversation forward.

In terms of my disappointments, I think the biggest one was that we did not make more progress in exploring in productive rather than dismissive ways the relationship between the identity of the acafan and that of the gamer-as-scholar. Most of the gamers here seemed to come into the conversation with very strong defense mechanisms against really entertaining that parallel and often with certain stereotypes about what it meant to be a fan. Some of those defense mechanisms emerged from the experience of stigmatization which surrounds the concept of being a gamer, stigmatizations which in some ways parallel those surrounding the fan, except that the gamer stereotype is often hypermasculine while the fan stereotype is so often feminized.

I had been struck by the essays in Drew Davidson’s Well Played series, where gamers describe very specific play experiences which they had with specific titles: the argument is that there is no game text, only game experiences, and thus, criticism of games needs to preserve the process of playing them. As you do so, the player’s own experiences are brought forward and with them, the player’s own subjectivity, their identity, their history as players. I see strong parallels here with the trajectory of fan studies and the identity of the aca-fan. And I think the two movements have much that they can learn from each other. So, why do fans and gamers end up talking past each other, as I think has generally occurred here?

Drew, I would really love to get your reflections on this dynamic which occurred not only here but also in the discussion in Ian Bogost’s blog which helped to inspire this one. Having tried and failed to bring the two groups together through this series of exchanges, I want to use my parting shots here as, well, a parting shot to push one more time to see if we can explore the similarities and differences between these two forms of cultural criticism and academic identity.

Drew Davidson: This has been an interesting experience, particularly since I wasn’t deeply familiar with the term “acafan.” And during the round of discussions in which I participated, I think all three of us were concerned about a lack in this regard, which we worried we had kept our conversation scratching at the surface of the ideas involved. And to be honest, due to lack of time, I followed the other rounds obliquely at best. That said, even at a high level I believe we all felt a resonance between the idea of being a fan and being a gamer, maybe the sense of defensiveness came from struggling to articulate the connections, but I don’t think any of us felt overtly defensive (looking back I can see how it reads that way though).

Thinking of Henry’s question, I think it comes from this lack. As with any academic field, acafan has developed a deep and rich set of issues and terminology that in some ways can become a barrier to newbies. Similarly, gamers-as-scholars are developing as a field (and it’s an area where newbies would feel barriers in the terminology as well as playing ability). And so, I agree with Henry in that there is an opportunity to learn a lot from each other (and regret that it seems like we were part of the sense of talking past each other).

That said, it brings me back to the sense of a lack of time (the most finite of things). When this whole idea kicked off, there were bigger plans and more people involved, but as the reality of life set in, people dropped out here, got busy there, and a different thing evolved than initially was planned. For our round, we ended up having to squeeze in our discussion as we had wildly divergent schedules, and we weren’t sure what to say really. Regardless, it seems to have inspired all involved to think anew about ideas and assumptions, so I think it’s been an overall success. But it is easy to see how we will now scatter back to our daily schedules and pursuits, and having the time to better make and articulate connections across fields is a real challenge. But one worth striving for.

Just in the way Henry articulated why he was interested in inviting some gamers to join this discussion got me to think in a new light about what we’ve been doing with the Well Played series, and how the act of playing a game, and trying to discuss that act, is full of interesting agency on several levels. And it got me thinking about how I’m an acafan of Henry (and by extension his work), and that’s why I joined in on this conversation (and often is how connections can be made).

Also, Henry’s comments on how John discussed the distinction between being a “fan” and being a “fan of,” got me thinking of how it can be both, particularly in terms of acafan. I think I am an acafan in general (in terms of approach), and I’m an acafan of videogames (in terms of expertise). Like Louisa notes in her closing comments, I think I’m most acafan when I’m engaged and modeling the agency in interactions with students and colleagues. And being an acafan resonates for me as an honest stance through which to consider the media and games that I both study and enjoy.

Kristina Busse: In psychology, there exists the concept of confirmation bias, which describes the informal fallacy whereby more information confirms our entrenched belief rather than expand our minds. This is a quite depressing concept for academics, because mostly our modus operandi dictates that more facts, more opinions, more positions are better and open our minds.

Sadly, I feel a bit like this reading over the acafandom conversations this summer. Personally, I came into this discussion wanting to narrow the term rather than expand it: to me acafans describe actively in the community involved fans who, at the same time, also do academic work on these very communities. Unlike Louisa, for example, I wasn’t deeply invested in the larger concerns of and for the discipline but instead was quite happy to narrow the term and employ different concepts for other aspects of fan studies. The difficulties of the acafan to me were the negotiation of following competing rules of dissimilar community norms; it was the decisions of whether it was worth the CV line to expose one’s friends’ embarrassing debates; it was the constant explanation of fandom to academics and of academia to fans.

And yet we never really seemed to get to these difficult decisions and negotiations: Should we consciously create a canon of academically-approved fanworks that, in turn, will affect the value of these texts within fannish spaces? Do we (ab)use our role as fans when we exploit our fannish connections for academic work? Or do we, in turn, do a service to fandom by telling the better story? And do we compromise our role as academics when we focus on certain things but not others, pick the more accessible story, the more traditionally aesthetic vid, the classically trained artist’s piece? Do we compromise our role by focusing on the good over the bad and ugly? And do we do harm by talking about one show and its fandoms rather than about others? What unconscious fannish and academic biases do we bring to our work, and where do the two cancel one another out and where do they amplify each other?

Those were the questions and moral dilemmas I had hoped we’d address and yet I felt we mostly were stuck in Acafandom 101: Hadn’t we all agreed sometime in the nineties that academics exhibited clear fannish behaviors–that those folks at Faulkner and Hemingway and Woolf conferences clearly were quite affectively invested in their chosen writers? At the same time, hadn’t Hills a decade ago convincingly argued that we can’t facilely project our academic values onto fans, foregrounding the behaviors we recognized and valorized and overlooking those that were less like our own? Finally, did we really need to dismiss fannish behavior and communities in a conversation on acafandom?

The two things that most struck me was the resistance of several of the game scholars to embrace the questions and ideas that they might, in fact, be acafans and the willingness of various queer scholars to interrogate these positions and questions I raised above–even as they clearly weren’t acafans in the more traditional sense.

Which brings me back to the original SCMS conversation and some of the more convincing arguments I heard there: to some, one of the strongest objections to the focus on acafans seemed to be the erasure of other central questions and the danger of studying a limited group of texts at the expense of equally culturally important ones. Then, my personal solution to that was to narrow the term down to the point where not every watercooler convo analysis, not even every user-generated YouTube response would automatically be about fans and, by extension, acafandom would define a subset of fan studies only (which, in turn, would be a subset of media studies only).

Reading Doty and Halberstam in particular, however, I wonder whether an alternative answer might not be to open up acafannishness to the point where indeed every academic is a fan (of sorts) and every fan (on some level) an academic. Borrowing from the amorphously defined and ineluctably changing concept of queerness, I wonder whether acafandom might not be better thought of as a set of parameters that circumscribe descriptors and questions and behaviors and identities while nevertheless avoiding certainties and resolutions. Because these initial questions I raised deserve not one answer but demand repeated revisiting. they are important questions, whether we are deeply embedded in a tightly self-defined and self-described community or analyze YouTube vids we stumble upon.

And maybe that made this conversation both difficult and frustrating. We tried to discuss these issues in the abstract but possibly they can only ever be presented in media res. If I take anything away from these conversations, it is my renewed investment in addressing this self-reflexive meta level of acknowledging and investigating the methodological and ethical concerns of studying fans and fan texts in everything I write. Not only can I not take anything for granted, I shouldn’t assume that yesterday’s procedures and theoretical framework still hold today. Just as fandoms and fans are changing, my own approach as a scholar must continue to interrogate my position and role within the academic and the fannish communities I inhabit.

Karen Tongson: Although I’ve taught introductory courses on fan cultures and fan studies in a general education context since graduate school–making some of the rudimentary, but necessary links between “fans” and “critics” that Kristina rightly insists we move beyond–I’ve never really considered myself a true fan studies scholar. Nor have I really identified as an acafan; at least not until this series of conversations transpired. In part, I think my reticence has to do with my own sense of the tremendous expertise and commitment that attends to “true” acafandom and vigorous involvements in participatory cultures. In other words, I had a sense (as both Louisa and Kristina gestured to) that the terms were narrower, or had reached the point of naming a more specific set of procedures, practices, and archives.

I also think my “primary academic orientation”–if there can be such a thing–as a queer studies scholar, kept me immersed in different conversations about affect and participatory engagements, even though I always felt and understood the tremendous overlap between acafan practices and queer cultures. All this to say that my familiarity with fan studies from the 80s onwards offered a particular lens for me to view queer studies, and vice versa. Yet my own disciplined docility to the concept of “expertise” and commitment to other identificatory practices kept me from assuming the subject position of the acafan in ways that I ultimately understand, through this summer’s conversations, were rather unnecessary. In fact, it wasn’t until I read this same reticence in some of the responses from my own colleagues in queer, ethnic and American studies (I’m thinking in particular of Christine Bacareza Balance’s, Jack Halberstam‘s, Jayna Brown‘s and Sarah Banet-Weiser’s pieces), that I realized how cordoned off many of us have been from the expansive possibilities of acafandom wherein, as Kristina phrased it, “every academic is a fan (of sorts) and every fan (on some level) [is] an academic.”

More than anything, I valued this summer’s conversation, and the invitation to consider in greater depth some of the practices we either rightly or falsely assumed belonged to the rubric of acafandom from an “outsider’s” perspective. It brought to the surface how even certain, more established interdisciplinary fields (like the ones I listed above), are still very bounded, insular and unconsciously averse to the multiplicity of identifications. Acafandom, as I’ve come to understand it through this series generously hosted by Henry on his blog, is not simply a subset of Fan Studies, or Media Studies, but an orientation of sorts–at once methodological and affective–that can inform practices otherwise situated firmly within other disciplinary formations and their imperatives. I’m heartened by the extent to which emerging young scholars like Alexis Lothian and Suzanne Scott understand their work as part and parcel of the formations of both their “home” disciplines and acafandom in ways that shed the residual hang-ups (for lack of a better word) that continue to hold some of us back.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. She has published on audiences and transmedia engagement in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and the Flow TV anthology (Routledge, 2011). Louisa is co-editor of Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008), and of the forthcoming collection Transmedia Sherlock. Louisa is also Book Review editor of Transformative Works and Cultures.

Henry Jenkins blogs…here. He is the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Art, and Education at the University of Southern California. He has recently completed Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, due out in 2012. His current fannish interests include comics, Disney, silent movies, The Walking Dead, Castle, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who

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

Kristina Busse

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (2006), and of the forthcoming collection Transmedia Sherlock. She is founding coeditor of the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Her book on race, sexuality, popular culture and the suburbs, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press), is forthcoming in August 2011. She is co-series editor for Postmillennial Pop with Henry Jenkins (NYU Press), and is also co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies (Wiley-Blackwell) with Gustavus Stadler.

Acafandom and Beyond: Will Brooker, Melissa A. Click, Suzanne Scott, and Sangita Shreshtova (Part Two)

Will Brooker:

Here’s the problem, for me. I like reading about Sangita’s sari pleats and Suzanne’s Nerf battleaxe, and recognising similar fan experiences from different fan communities, but those enjoyable moments, those connections and those stories don’t make me feel more able to answer the broader questions posed by Melissa. I don’t feel entitled to, and I don’t feel inclined to.

Somehow, in the last ten years, I’ve gone from being a kid who couldn’t believe he was actually writing a book about Star Wars to some middle-aged man of fandom who gets reverently approached by PhD students, telling me they were inspired by that book I couldn’t believe I was getting away with. I’m happy to give advice, but I don’t feel comfortable telling anyone what to do, except: do what you want to do, do what you love.

I have my own answers to Melissa’s questions — I feel entirely open-minded about different types of media fandom, I feel anti-fandom is a love-hate variation on traditional fandom, and I have few hang-ups about ‘quality’ versus ‘camp’ — I studied 1960s Batman in the 1990s, and got over those snobberies a long time ago. But these are just personal opinions, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t like the words ‘geek’ or ”nerd’ because I feel they describe what would be simply called scholarship, expertise or ability in most other areas of life; I don’t like the word ”fen’ (why are we adopting this twee, sub-Elven term when we have the word ‘fans’?), and ‘squee’ makes me squick. ‘Squick’ makes me squick, too. I don’t feel we’re helping our cause, such as it is, by using baby-talk and sleepover squealing. But then, for all my love of Legally Blonde, I’m a straight white guy, and as enough of our official vocabulary is decided by straight white guys, I don’t want to make any rules for fandom’s vocabulary based on my own preferences.

I don’t feel it’s for me to make rules or recommendations about anything in fandom or aca-fandom. To be frank, I don’t know if any of us should be deciding what ‘we’ should do. Are we even a coherent community? For all our pleasurable connections — the recognition of love for a text, a story and character, and the recognition of having that love mocked or derided — I think the differences between us are more obvious, and perhaps more interesting, than the similarities. Deciding on labels, rules and titles risks making something that was always inherently a lot of fun, born out of passion and enthusiasm, into just another departmental committee meeting.

So, drawing up an agenda and writing the minutes of aca-fandom isn’t for me. But if that was what everyone else wanted to do, I’d book a room, bring the coffee and offer my advice.

Melissa Click:

I think I know where Will is coming from. We were both on the 2011 SCMS panel organized by Louisa Stein on “Acafandom and the future of fan studies.” Some on the panel (and some in the audience) were taken aback by the idea that some “fan scholars” don’t particularly identify with and/or use the term “acafan” when describing their own work. That panel spawned this blog series and though I have found the discussions invigorating, I feel most of the entries in this series have raised more questions than they’ve answered–and given the minimal comments on each entry, it doesn’t seem like many feel as though they wish to engage with this topic (which I think itself is interesting). While these questions can be productive, they can also leave one wondering what use or relevance “acafan” has in fan studies, especially when its boundaries aren’t particularly clear.

That said, we did agree to discuss the term and its relevance in this forum–and I think the variety in our responses suggests the difficulty (or perhaps futility?) in pinning “acafan” down. However, it seems that despite wanting to make proclamations about acafans and what “we” should be doing, Will’s made quite a few, particularly gendered, proclamations here, for example, calling some scholars’ use of fan slang in academic discourse “baby talk and fan squealing.” It strikes me that it’s this dismissal of the melding of the fannish and the academic (also in conjunction with gender) that gave rise to acafan identity–so while Will suggests the term is unnecessary for him, he also demonstrates why it might be useful for others.

The questions I raised in my provocation were not intended to have us decide what others should do, they were intended to provoke discussion about the application and relevance of a term. I am under no illusion that we’ve been asked to tell everyone else to do–instead we’ve been asked to join a conversation about work that we all do. Though the questions raised in this entry of a bigger conversation about acafandom may feel like a departmental meeting to Will, I do believe that some feel it is an important conversation to have. I still think there’s a lot for us to learn about the work we do and what we bring to that work–and I’d like to focus on that discussion, if possible!

Will Brooker:

I don’t really see a contradiction in what I say above, Melissa. It’s because I know I have personal preferences and prejudices that I don’t want to make any broader proclamations. You’re right that the behaviour I mentioned tends to be gendered, but I feel equally, if not more alienated, by the codes and conventions of male sports fans: I could have railed against those, but the truth is, they’re further from my experience and feel alien to me, whereas my resistance to squeeing, shipping and geeking out is more complex, and more bound up with trying to deny that aspect of my own fandom.

This wasn’t meant to be a dismissal of certain types of expression; more a demonstration of why I’m in no position to suggest rules for other people, because fan studies is so bound up in the personal, and I (like all of us, I expect) have irrational likes and dislikes. A lot of mine, I’m sure, are a complex love-hate dynamic that, despite my attempts at honesty, I haven’t fully admitted to myself: I was in happy, secret, silent tears during the first act of Legally Blonde, which no doubt counts as a kind of squeeing.

I’m under no illusions that what works for me will work for anyone else, which is why I hope I made it plain that I welcome and support the continuation of these discussions, for what my support is worth. And you’re right to suggest that I was unfair to compare it to a committee meeting. I was just getting bored of my own voice in monologue. Your response and your challenges make it into a conversation, and remind me that it can still be fun, as it should be.

I should also admit to myself that I’m very bad at shutting up.

Sangita Shresthova:

As I have not tended to think of my work as based in fan studies, I come to this debate with less knowledge about the acafandom discourse. I do, however, find it extremely useful as I consider current work being done on Bollywood audiences and fans. I am, in particular, struck by the unintentional hierarchies of fandom that Melissa brought up. When does a dance choreographed by a Bollywood fan become “worthy” of study (as opposed to many, many others) and what expectation does this place on other fans who may encounter the scholarly analysis of this fan production? As my work connects Bollywood dancers in disparate parts of the world, who may or may not have encountered each other otherwise, I am especially conscious of the power dynamics that are associated with my role as a researcher of cultural practices. In fact, I would dare say that being an acafan becomes akin to a research method – one that allows a researcher to establish a subjectivity based on rapport without compromising academic integrity.

Suzanne Scott:

I don’t think that any of us are interested in codifying acafandom to the extent that it sucks the fun out of the term, or to the point that it alienates some modes of fan scholarship and canonizes others. I’m certainly not interested in policing language, or methodology, or taste. Still, my gut response to some of the gendered language in your response, Will, echoed Melissa’s, particularly the bits on “baby talk and sleepover squealing.” We all have our personal “squicks” and “squees” when it comes to fan discourse and scholarship, but from where I’m standing what will really hurt our cause is a failure to embrace the inherent diversity and subjectivity of the term, or consider its applications beyond classifying a body of literature. The expansions that Melissa initially proposed are just one possibility.

To attempt to tie some of these threads together, and to root this in a quick anecdote, one of the chapters of my dissertation focuses on the 2009 “Twilight ruined comic-con” protests. Full fannish disclosure, I absolutely loathe Twilight. Attending comic-con as a fan that year, I was alternately annoyed by the frequent conflation of “fangirl” and “Twi-hard,” horrified by the thinly veiled sexism that underpinned the protests, and disappointed that I, too, felt compelled to distance myself from those genres and texts that comprise our cultural “pink ghetto.”

As a scholar, my autoethnographic reflection on these anxieties openly informed my analysis of comic-con as a microcosmic reflection of the fanboy’s place of privilege in this industrialized space, and the re-marginalization of the fangirl within media convergence. My initial resistance towards writing about Twilight was equally indebted to both sides of my acafan identity. I was terrified of having one of those closed-throat moments Sangita describes. I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of the “squealers,” and I didn’t want my work (especially as a scholar fresh on the market) to be dismissed or trivialized. Just as Sangita rightly notes the need to be aware of the power that accompanies our roles as cultural researchers, I became acutely aware as I wrote that chapter of the residual power that my fan identity affords me (as someone with more stereotypically “masculine” taste in media texts, modes of engagement, and so on).

All of that said, it was important for me to write that chapter, both as a fan and a scholar, and I bring it up because it (hopefully) speaks to these intersecting issues of taste, shame, professionalism, and power that accompany the “unintentional hierarchies” that exist within our field and beyond it. I’m an avid reader of aca-fannish work on Twilight precisely because work like Melissa’s forces me to confront my own anti-fan biases and interrogate them. I may hate the franchise, but I will defend its fans to the bitter end. I recognize their affect, even if I don’t always understand what motivates it. Collectively, I can acknowledge their importance, even if their individual expressions of fandom don’t resonate with my own.

I think a similar logic motivates my staunch defense of the term “acafan.” I have always viewed acafandom as an extension of the mentorship and communal support that we’ve always celebrated in fans. And, just as in fandom, tensions and fissures, debates about the canon or about codifying a scholarly identity, will always be a part of that. We might find that we’re no longer interested in a media property, or a piece of terminology, and move on to a new one. But I, for one, am still shipping aca/fan, and will always be happy to debate its significance, its boundaries, and its limitations.

Will Brooker:

I feel like I’ve been duly schooled, which is good and how it should be — thanks Suzanne. I may have taken ‘provocation’ a bit too literally above, and I could have tempered my language, although again, it was meant as an example of why I don’t think I’m in a position to make any broader recommendations. This is a good example, like your Twilight story, of why it’s more helpful to try to engage with the tensions in our fannish identities (that is, I’m probably embarrassed by shipping because I recognise it in my own approach to narrative and character, and snobbish about squeeing because I’m jealous of it as a shared emotional response that I find it hard to admit to) than to go with initial and more superficial, perhaps defensive reactions, as I did above.

Suzanne Scott:

To briefly contextualize my own moments of defensiveness here, I think how we approached the provocations says a great deal about the stages we’re at in our respective careers. I feel like I’m still cementing what sort of acafan I want to be, or coming to terms with the fluidity of that identity and its applications outside of fan studies. Part of my excitement about how we might realize the participatory and transformative ethos of fandom in our own work, or apply those ideas to an interdisciplinary discussion about pedagogy and scholarly communication, is because I’m just starting out. And, I know that in a year I’ll be back on the market, where my acafan identity will intrigue some institutions and alienate others, and I’m personally and professionally invested in proving its worth. Reading Sangita’s provocation, it’s clear that there are spaces where that work still needs to be done, and without question part of the reason I refuse to shut up is because I’m not in a position to do so yet.

Melissa Click:

Perhaps without meaning to, we’ve just performed one form of utility “acafan” holds for fan scholars as our field of study grows and shifts. One important component/use of the term is to understand how our fan identities/preferences inform our scholarship. Will, Sangita, and Suzanne have all demonstrated how our affiliations and preferences can inform our work and the positions we take in relation to others’ work. I think it’s really important to try to find linkages/overlaps in our work as well as noting where our differences lie. Will’s initial response suggested a feeling that our work and positions were too disparate to warrant further discussion, but I think that the ensuing discussion has pointed out that in fact it is our differences that fed our discussion and (hopefully) helped us come to a more complex sense of how our own positions affect what we study and how we evaluate others’ work.

Will Brooker:

I thought I knew where I stood, and what I felt, but this discussion has challenged me in a very interesting and valuable way — as a scholar and as a fan. So, thanks very much to the three of you.

Melissa A. Click is an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Missouri. She is co-editor of Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media and the Vampire Franchise. Her work on media audiences and messages can be found in Popular Communication, Women’s Studies in Communication, Transformative Works & Cultures, and in NYU’s anthology Fandom.

Will Brooker is Director of Research at Kingston University, London. His work on popular culture and audience includes Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, The Audience Studies Reader and The Blade Runner Experience. His next book is Hunting the Dark Knight.

Sangita Shresthova is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths Project at USC. A Czech/Nepali dancer/choreographer and media scholar, she holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, and a MSc. degree from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Sangita’s book on Bollywood dance (Is It All About the Hips? Bollywood Dance Around the World) has just been released.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning and Research at Occidental College. She currently serves as a symposium editor for the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, and her work has been published in the anthologies Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica and The Routledge Handbook of Participatory Cultures (forthcoming). She blogs on fandom, the politics of participatory culture, and teaching fan studies at suzannescott.wordpress.com.

Acafandom and Beyond: Will Brooker, Melissa A. Click, Suzanne Scott, and Sangita Shresthova

Will Brooker:

Why I Spoke About Myself, and Why I Shut Up

I identify as male, white, straight and middle-class. Anyone who has read my first monograph, Batman Unmasked (2000) will know that, as I helpfully pointed it out in the introduction. I also included extracts from my diary, reproductions of a story I wrote when I was seven years old, and a history of my own involvement with Batman. ‘I love that man,’ I wrote. ‘I love Batman.’

In 2011, I wrote another book about Batman, called Hunting the Dark Knight. In this new book, I have barely mentioned myself or my fandom at all. This short piece tries to explain why I spoke about myself, and why I shut up.

As a white, straight, heterosexual, middle-class man, I can’t help feeling that white, straight, heterosexual, middle-class men have enough chances to speak about themselves, and that we hear enough from them. But I’ll need to talk about myself a little more here, before shutting up again.

Why I Spoke About Myself

Batman Unmasked was originally my PhD thesis. Part of the research process was, therefore, about learning the traditions of my discipline, and situating myself within those strands and approaches: becoming aware of a heritage, demonstrating that awareness, choosing an affiliation, and identifying as a scholar.

My declaration of identity was shaped and inspired by the Cultural Studies work I particularly liked or aspired to, from the previous decades: Janice Radway with her romance readers, Paul Willis and his school-lads, John Fiske and his unembarrassed enjoyment of 1980s trash culture. I was encouraged by Fred Pfeil’s White Guys, with its Nineties-New-Man self-examination, and provoked by Andy Medhurst’s opening statement, in ‘Batman, Deviance and Camp’, that he was gay, thirty and not a particularly devoted follower of the Dark Knight. It was Medhurst’s (then) youth and his bold anti-fan position that prompted me to interrogate his work so doggedly in my own thesis: at 26, I saw him as someone I had to take on, a contender to challenge.

And that’s another reason for the foregrounding of my own identity in that book. I was 26 when I started it. With hindsight, that seems not much more than a teenager, with a potent mix of anxiety and arrogance driving me to make my own mark on the world. Batman Unmasked was my brand: it was my first, and for all I knew, my only chance to stamp my name somewhere on scholarship. So it’s not just got my name on the cover; it’s got my personality all through the text. It was my first book, and I thought it might be my best book or my last book, so it became personal: a missile of the self, carefully aimed, and designed to become a small monument.

Why I Shut Up

A few years after the publication of Batman Unmasked, I was asked to review Scott Bukatman’s book, Matters of Gravity. I knew of Scott Bukatman; he was young, smart and successful, an academic superhero. I was envious that he had a collection of his miscellaneous articles published, and while part of me was thrilled and energised by his roller-coaster writing and laser-sharp thought, another part was perversely glad to find so many self-congratulatory asides and personal confessions. No doubt I recognised in Bukatman something I disliked in myself. Grouped together in my review, and joined up through my sardonic, ungenerous commentary, his autobiographical reflections looked pretty self-indulgent. Soon afterwards, I received an email from Scott Bukatman. He wasn’t happy. He said it seemed I had liked the book, but didn’t like the person who wrote it.

It doesn’t matter now who comes out best from that exchange. I don’t think I come out well. It was a faintly pathetic spectacle: two geeks locked in superhuman combat, like Bruce Banner battling Peter Parker. ‘If I KILL YOU… I DIE!’ By squabbling with Scott, I was only knocking myself.

In Hunting the Dark Knight, I mention once, early on, that I’m a fan. I do it for much the same reason I foregrounded my fandom in my work on Star Wars audiences, and in the questionnaires I circulated for this recent book: to reassure my respondents and fan-readers that they’re in safe hands, and they – and the things they love – are going to be treated with respect. That I still feel a need to do this is, I guess, a reflection on the shoddy way that popular journalism still treats popular culture and its followers: decades after Trekkers were mocked on Saturday Night Live (Jenkins, 1992), we still have to let people know they’re not going to be satirised and belittled for enjoying something.

But the truth is, I don’t have to tell people I’m a fan, and that I love Batman. It’s there on every page. Any Dark Knight devotee reading my discussion of Red Robin, Kathy Kane, Owlman and Bat-mite will know they’re in safe hands, that I’m one of them. Just as Coleridge doesn’t have to declare ‘I love that man: I love Shakespeare’ at the start of his essays, because his devotion and understanding speak from every word of his analysis, so, arguably, our work should be steeped in respect and commitment to our objects of study. As in so many loving relationships, the bond can come across subtly as a constant presence, and doesn’t have to be shouted aloud, like a teenage crush.

I want to end this piece with a quotation.

This dress needs to seal the deal

Make a grown man kneel

But it can’t come right out and say bride

Cant look like I’m desperate or

Like I’m waiting for it

I gotta leave Warner his pride

So bride is more implied…

Elle Woods, ‘Omigod You Guys’, Legally Blonde: The Musical (O’Keefe, Benjamin, Hach, 2007)

I can quote all of that song from memory: I can sing all the different parts, though not very well. I don’t have to tell you that I love that musical, or how many times I’ve seen it and listened to the soundtrack. I don’t have to tell you what kind of white, straight, middle-class guy I am. The fact that I can recite Legally Blonde word for word surely tells you enough.

To paraphrase Harvard scholar Elle Woods: the ‘fan’ can be more implied.

Sangita Shresthova:

I come to acafandom from a slightly tangential, yet to me, closely connected perspective. I am a dancer (one trained predominantly in Indian classical dance) and a media scholar who has spent many years studying Bollywood dance. I also boldly claim my affinity for the energizing stories and shimmies that, to me, define Bollywood dance that I have had many occasions to indulge in as an audience-dancer, dance instructor, and on the now very rare occasion, even as a performer. Mixing academic research with fannish practice has not been easy, or even welcomed, in some of the scholarly company I have kept over the past years. That said, I want to open my provocation on aca-fandom with a brief excerpt from an article I wrote for Pulse Magazine (a South Asian dance magazine published out of the United Kingdom):

“As I run towards the studio, the sound of chanting fills the early evening air. I glance at my watch and sigh. I am late again. I change into my dance sari, and hurriedly check that my pleats allow for a full Aramandhi (a classical pose). Cautiously, I pull back the sliding door and step into the a room filled with dance students stamping in unison to the driving commands of their Bharat Natyam (Indian classical dance) teacher, Viji Prakash. I settle into a position in the back of the room, rush through my salutation, and prepare to join the class. But just then, the sequence ends and the students disperse briefly. Viji-auntie, as she is deferentially called by her students, looks at me with a teasing smile. “Miss Bollywood is here,” she exclaims. Several students snicker and laugh. “No seriously, she is writing her Ph.D. on Bollywood,” Viji-auntie explains. An incredulous student in her late teens asks me, “Is that right?” I nod, suddenly very preoccupied with my sari pleats. I am angry at myself for feeling embarrassed by this superficial, playful exchange. “You should show us some Bollywood some day,” another student comments teasingly. “Well, Bollywood dance does actually have a very interesting history…” I begin to justify myself. Viji-auntie laughs as she moves her hips side to side looking to the side seductively. The class convulses in a burst of laughter. I smile but feel my throat tighten ever so slightly. I have been once again singled out as a Bollywoodized Bharat Natyam dancer. So, why would a Bharat Natyam dancer take Bollywood seriously and even (gasp) admit to enjoying some of the choreographies?” (Pulse Magazine 2010)

Re-reading this introductory paragraph as I collected my thoughts about acafandom, I was once again overcome with the profound sense of discomfort I faced in my Indian dance class that day and how that feeling really followed me throughout my research on Bollywood dance. I initially embarked on my research on Bollywood dance as a graduate student the Comparative Media Studies department at MIT where I was allowed to explore Bollywood as the natural symbiosis of my areas of interest (dance and media) and my own mixed-race South Asian background. The fact that I actually took great pleasure in watching (re-watching), discussing and choregraphing movements to Bollywood songs – to me clearly defining me as an acafan in this space – was seen as definite plus. I left MIT with a conviction that aca-fandom was a welcome breath of fresh air to the largely dismissive scholarship on Bollywood dance that pre-dated my work. Sharing my enthusiasm, my friends joined me in starting a largely fan-driven Bollywood Film Festival in Prague, Czech Republic.

In the years that followed, I have gone through a series of battles around my enthusiasm and willingness to foreground my Bollywood fandom. Very early into my dance-based doctoral program at UCLA, I was told that I would have to “put my love of Bollywood aside to write well about it.” In translation, this implicitly suggested that the best way to approach Bollywood dance was to critique it for its commercial nature and underpinnings, rather than engage with the fandoms it inspired. This stance contrasted starkly to the much more importance that was afforded to my classical Indian dance training and the ties and investments I had to that community as a result. In retrospect, it was this training in Indian dance (not my years of attention to, and experience with, Bollywood dance) that allowed me to position myself as a credible scholar in this field in the department and beyond. This is also probably why I no longer fully identify as a dance scholar. As I progressed towards completing my dissertation and sought to establish myself as a scholar in dance studies, I often found myself foregrounding my classical dance training when presenting at conferences and otherwise sharing my work. I was often silent about my own affinities towards Bollywood (unless explicitly asked).

It has taken me quite a long time to get past this disconnect, but its resolution finally came last year when I was invited to curate and speak at a Hindi film dance symposium convened by Akademi, one of, if not the most, prestigious Indian dance institutions in the United Kingdom. Speaking there, I took a bold step and decided to starkly differentiate Bollywood from Indian dance, positioning Bollywood as a hybrid rather than Indian dance form. To do this, I drew on my own early experiences with Bollywood, once again, best summarized by an excerpt:

My first introduction to Hindi cinema took place many years ago at my cousin’s pirated video rental store in Kathmandu (Nepal) where I would, on occasion, watch anything that was playing on the VCR. Most of the time, it was some Hindi movie. As the plots and stars slipped by me, it was the dances that were etched in my memory. As the product of a Czech/Nepali mixed marriage, my childhood was defined by a constant, at times painful, cultural negotiation. Born in an era that preceded the current more tolerant approaches to interculturalism, my life was littered with constant reminders of my outsider status in both Nepali and Czech societies. Strangely, it was in watching Hindi film songs and dances that a world of cultural mixing first welcomed me into its midst. In the remorseless blending of movement sources and costume-styles, I found a messy, yet appealing, reflection of my own scattered cultural identity. (Pulse 2010)

To my surprise, my approach to Bollywood dance as a hybrid dance form struck a cord among a generation of younger scholars and dancers, who have felt constrained by the restrictions of Indian classical dance practice and discourse. But it was really my position as both a scholar and a fan, as someone who both studied and experienced Bollywood dance, that allowed me to get to this moment. Clearly my research on Bollywood dance would not have been possible without the personal connections I was able to form with dancers around our shared experiences in this space. At the same time, it was my ability to downplay my fandom as foreground my training in Indian classical dance that allowed me to get to where I am now. So to me, the term acafan is at times a support, and at other times a challenge. It is, however, always relevant.

Melissa Click:

I’m a bit ambivalent about whether I’d use “aca-fan” to describe myself. If I were to use the term, it would be only in the most limited of applications to denote that I am an academic who studies fans. To be clear, my ambivalence stems from the ways comparison to transformative cultures diminishes my fan practices. I am what Anne Kustritz describes as an “as-is” fan, not a “creative fan,” and I usually study “as-is” fans as well. Because of this distinction, I often feel (in both aca and fan circles) as though my interests and behaviors are too vanilla to signify “true fandom.” Indeed, Kustritz’s distinctions, though instructive, demonstrate the value normally given to (or removed from) particular fan practices–who wants to be the “as-is” fan?

My work on Martha Stewart and Twilight fans further separates me from my fellow fan scholars. I don’t study “quality” media texts or groups of people deemed particularly interesting. My topic choices, as a result, offer me little credibility in academic or fan circles–adult women obsessed with Stewart’s homekeeping advice and teenage girls who debate the merits of vampires and werewolves are seen as dupes who waste their time on lowbrow (and feminine) texts, and my interest in studying them, as a result, is dismissed as inconsequential and uninteresting.

That said, my ambivalence about the term should not signal that I am not doing many of the things this discussion has pointed out that aca-fen do. What I find most useful about “aca-fan” is the focus on self-reflexivity and the insistence on maintaining a dialogue between our aca and fan selves and communities. I think a discussion about the role of value and taste in our work is long overdue. In this spirit, I wish to reflect upon some areas I hope we can discuss about the ongoing application and function of “aca-fan”:

* Is there a way we can recognize the distinctions among fans as differences of kind and not value? If we can agree that there are different kinds of fans, might we too have different kinds of aca-fen?

* How can we (should we?) expand our work to incorporate different kinds of fans? How might anti-fan studies and anti-aca-fen contribute to the study of fans?

* How do taste and value affect the kinds of texts and fans we study and the terrain of the field? What might be gained from studying fans of texts that aren’t viewed as “quality” (or at least campy/ironic)?

Our field began in defense of fans ridiculed in mainstream culture, and to support our arguments about fans’ value and activity, fan scholarship has focused on fan creativity and invention–but it seems that by selecting the fans we deem most interesting for study, we have created hierarchy a new, leaving fans we deem uninteresting to be derided as too ordinary, too dim-witted to appreciate quality texts, and too uninteresting to be worthy of study. Underscoring our dedication to reflexivity, I think we need to ask ourselves how aca-fan identity impacts the scholarship we produce and value, and what is lost when our scholarship overlooks fans who are not like us.

Suzanne Scott:

I come to this conversation at an interesting professional juncture, but a fitting one considering the topic. Last year, I completed my dissertation, which broadly focuses on the demographic, representational, professional and academic “revenge” of the fanboy within convergence culture, and the potentially marginalizing effects this has on fangirls. I also braved my first pass at the academic job market. Suffice it to say, I have spent the bulk of the past two years contemplating, writing about, marketing, explaining, and (occasionally) defending my scholarly identity.

“Acafan” is a label that I embrace, and one that I will always remain deeply indebted to professionally, pedagogically, and personally. It has granted me access to a network of brilliant scholars I’m lucky to also call my friends. Acafandom has allowed me to connect with my students and assure them that affect is not the arch nemesis of critical thought and compelling analysis. I think it has helped my work embody the qualities of immediacy, accessibility, particularity, and situationalism that Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc called for in their manifesto for a new cultural studies. Perhaps most importantly, it has helped that work travel outside of the walls of the academy and attract a wider readership whose feedback I’ve found invaluable.

It also helped me get a job (and may have lost me a few along the way…a Nerf battleaxe did make a regrettable appearance in the background of a video conference interview).

This July, I began a two-year appointment as a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow at Occidental College’s Center for Digital Learning and Research. This was not a conventional tenure track position, and accordingly the interview process was far more transparent. I was given a list of questions to consider for my Skype interview, so that we might have a more substantive dialogue about what I would bring to the position. In addition to the usual suspects (tell us about your teaching, research, etc.), I was asked to consider the “possibilities for hybrid academic careers.” The question stuck out because I hadn’t ever heard anyone ask it before, but also because hybridity was already so deeply embedded in my scholarly identity. I had, for better or for worse, approached prior interview questions about acafandom with Admiral Ackbar echoing in my head. I recognized immediately that, this time, it was not a trap; it was a call to think about acafandom in more expansive terms.

Henry wondered in his post whether the term “acafan” is still useful, and the contributors to this series have been thoughtfully tackling that question. But I have to wonder if that question ultimately misses the point. I personally consider the term to be useful, but I’m ultimately more interested in developing and discussing new uses. Instead of calling for the discontinuation of the term, shouldn’t we be discussing how we might deploy it in new ways? If, as Karen Hellekson has argued here, the term’s “power lies in the academic’s power; the fan gains little or nothing from its deployment,” then shouldn’t we begin thinking about how to empower fans (or our students, or other scholars) though its use?

Sam Ford noted that he longed to “see the insights of media studies academics reach audiences outside journal readership and media studies conference attendees.” In my experience, acafandom has facilitated this sort of outreach. In 2007, I served as the chair of programming for Phoenix Rising, a massive Harry Potter symposium designed to draw in a mix of academics, professionals, and fans. We offered both academic and exploratory (fan creativity oriented) programming tracks, and I found the conversations and collaborations that emerged out of that space to be richer and more rewarding than the bulk of academic conferences I’ve attended. In 2009, I joined the symposium editorial team of Transformative Works and Cultures, a section of the open access, peer-reviewed online journal designed to promote a dialogue between academic and fans. Has my involvement and labor in these participatory, acafannish spaces made me more attractive on the tenure track job market? Would they count towards tenure once I landed a job? The answer at most institutions might still be a resounding no on both counts. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

In my current corner of #alt-academia, a hybrid identity is no longer something to be defended, but desired. A fannish sensibility isn’t a quirk that must be concealed, but something that can be wielded strategically to think about how to model transformative scholarship, or design more participatory pedagogical models. Am I being naïve? Will I ultimately have to cautiously explain or subtly veil the “fan” component of my acafan identity when I go back out on the tenure track market in a few years? Perhaps, on both counts. But I also get to spend the next two years in a place that actively expects my aca-fan identity to shape my work and how I share it. So, while I completely agree with Will that we don’t need to continually pronounce our fan credentials, and instead allow them to permeate our work, I also feel lucky to be in a position where I’m not expected to shut up about it.

Melissa A. Click is an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Missouri. She is co-editor of Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media and the Vampire Franchise. Her work on media audiences and messages can be found in Popular Communication, Women’s Studies in Communication, Transformative Works & Cultures, and in NYU’s anthology Fandom.

Will Brooker is Director of Research at Kingston University, London. His work on popular culture and audience includes Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, The Audience Studies Reader and The Blade Runner Experience. His next book is Hunting the Dark Knight.

Sangita Shresthova is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths Project at USC. A Czech/Nepali dancer/choreographer and media scholar, she holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, and a MSc. degree from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Sangita’s book on Bollywood dance (Is It All About the Hips? Bollywood Dance Around the World) has just been released.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning and Research at Occidental College. She currently serves as a symposium editor for the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, and her work has been published in the anthologies Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica and The Routledge Handbook of Participatory Cultures (forthcoming). She blogs on fandom, the politics of participatory culture, and teaching fan studies at suzannescott.wordpress.com.

A Virtual Bullpen?: How the USC Cinema School Has Embraced ARGS To Shape The Experience of Entering Students (Part Two)

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A key concern of the Cinema School recently has been to encourage greater integration across the different tracks (production, screenwriting, animation, critical studies, interactive). How has this game helped to support this goal?

Tracy Fullerton: This was part of the mandate given to the committee that initiated the project. The school is making an integrated effort, of which this game is only one part, to bridge divisional barriers and encourage thinking, working and team-building across the school. One way the game does this is simply by eliminating divisional identifiers on the site. We give students an area to talk about their skills so they can find each other to work with, but we don’t identify them as coming from any particular part of the school. Also, more directly, we have cards in the deck that reward them for working interdivisionally, and even across other universities.

In the first few weeks of play, we had a writing student who had never done any programming pick up GameMaker on the advice of other students, teach himself some simple coding, and make a simple video game. We have a group that has created a transmedia ARG, and interactive students who have tried their hand at creating an animation flip book. The game rewards groups equally for either trying something new or adding a person with know how to the team, so it is up to players how to approach and solve a problem.

One thing that stands out to me about this project is that it isn’t mandatory. Students don’t get graded on their work, and they don’t have to participate if they don’t want to. How has this worked in practice, and what was the thinking behind making engagement optional?

Tracy Fullerton: Yes, this is a voluntary experience. We were very clear about this from the outset of the design. In fact, when we first showed the game concept to some of the staff, the reaction was “great, we can use this to make students do things we want them to do, like fill out these forms or go to this office, etc.” But we very nicely pushed back on those ideas because we wanted the game to have an energy that could only come out of students’ passion for making media together. It was important that it not feel in any way like an assignment or an extension of the orientation process. We felt that the tone and the sensibility had to recognize personal expression as being intrinsically motivated. Incoming SCA students have already self-selected as creative individuals, so for that kind of student, the idea of taking away that intrinsic motivation could actually be potentially harmful to their development as creative professionals.

Jeff Watson: We actually went to some pretty extreme lengths to keep the game a secret around the time that we were launching it. This was a bit nerve-wracking at first, because only a handful of students even noticed that the game existed at all. But in the end, this strategy paid off. It made the game a “pull” experience, drawing students in of their own accord. Players gradually began to appear at the Game Office, and they did so because they were curious and they wanted to be involved. As more and more students came in, the game acquired more and more evangelists, since each new player was personally invested. This approach is well-trod territory for marketers and ARG designers, but is something new in education, and we’re excited to be breaking that ground.

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How do you deal with students who aren’t willing or able to get involved in creative production? Are there ways to engage that don’t require large investments of time or social capital?

Simon Wiscombe: We figured that the level of engagement would vary from person to person, so this came up during our design sessions constantly, and we created four tiers of engagement. The top tier is for those who engage in all the ARG elements along with making creative projects–these are our “hardcore” players who seem to be able to solve all of our puzzles in a fifth the time we estimated they would. The second tier is for those who engage in the projects and enjoy creating, but aren’t necessarily interested in scouring SCA or the website for the hidden ARG clues. To tackle the last two tiers, i.e. those who wouldn’t engage as much as the others but still wanted to feel a part of the community, we drew from some inspiration we took from old photographs of the SCA in the 1960s and 70s. Jeff was particularly interested in one photograph of a space known as “the Bullpen.”

Jeff Watson: The Bullpen was the central workspace of the Stables, the building which used to house the cinema school back in the day. It was a wild, unruly place, covered in graffiti, littered with junk, and full of creative energy. We felt like that kind of space was missing from the SCA of today, and so we decided to re-create it — virtually, as a kind of social networking system on the game’s website.

Simon Wiscombe: In the Bullpen, players are can comment on both deals and cards, participate in impromptu discussions, and upload pictures. Some of this is publicly visible through the site’s “Photoblog” feature, but much of this discussion is kept in a walled garden, both to create a safe space for venting, and to extend the “exclusive” and “mysterious” narrative that envelops the game. Finally, there’s a whole slew of other forms of engagement, much of which we can’t track (but we know is going on), such as collecting sets of cards, lurking on the website, participating in deals without registering for the game, and so on.

Essentially we wanted to foster an awesome interconnected community of already amazingly talented people, and it seems to be working for players at a variety of engagement levels.

What roles do faculty and staff play in this process? How might the kinds of playful interaction the game is encouraging shift the relations between students and faculty? How have faculty integrated aspects of the game into their own curriculum?

Tracy Fullerton: When we designed the cards for the game, we purposefully included some prominent faculty, past and present, in the deck — as you know, since you’ve given your own card out to students as part of our “Hey, Henry convergence” meet-up. It’s a nice opportunity for us to involve faculty from all over the school in the game. We’ve found that the faculty have a tremendous curiosity and interest in what’s going on in the game. Some are participating on the site, commenting on deals or cards, joining in the general discussion. Some are coming to the class to hear speakers, and some have helped with deals. It’s an interesting opportunity because in this situation there are no predefined power structures. The game is presented by the mysterious “Reality Committee” which may or may not be comprised of faculty, it is very unclear. So the faculty are free to participate at any level they feel comfortable.

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What aspects of this game could be ported to other educational contexts, and how does a game like this scale?

Simon Wiscombe: This type of game can be modified, with very simple tweaks, for any creative endeavor. We’ve had discussions about how we could specify it to any of the film school’s departments (interactive media, film, animation), or how we could port it to art, music, dance, or theater schools. At its core, it’s a game that relies on fostering and promoting the creativity of its participants through prompts that eventually lead to projects. What form those projects take could be anything. And in regards to scale, while this game was designed specifically with 130 or so players in mind, it could easy be for smaller or larger groups, although one would likely have to rethink its purpose. For smaller groups, I’ve found it’s great as a brainstorming or creative sprint tool, and larger groups might embrace the idea of maximizing collaborators. This game is fairly simple in its construct, so I’m sure there are methods of applicability we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

I have to ask: Early on in the game, you asked me to meet some students at a “secret location” on campus and give them some “Shared Universe” game cards — which also happened to have my picture on one side. What did they end up using those cards for?

Jeff Watson: Well, so far, your card has been used in 5 different Deals (see the card’s archive page here. Each of these Deals spins the notion of “Shared Universe” In a different way. For example, in the Justification for the stunningly-photographed music video, “Space Bound,” , the players explain that the characters and story elements in their music video cross over with characters and story elements from a “Character Artifacts” project they previously created in the game. Other projects, such as the 10-part transmedia extravaganza, “Chronoteck”, use the “Shared Universe” card to link together multiple projects across many platforms, connecting artifacts such as the fake Facebook group, “Stop Chronoteck!” to other story-rich artifacts such as the fake promotional video for the “Chronoteck Tach C,” a new brand of cell phone that “receives messages from the future.” It’s a daily thrill for us to see amazing transmedia projects like these emerge out of our game.

Tracy Fullerton, M.F.A., is an experimental game designer, professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she holds the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment. The Game Innovation Lab is a design research center that has produced several influential independent games, including Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and The Night Journey — a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola. Tracy is also the author of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide.

Jeff Watson is a PhD candidate in Media Arts and Practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His research focuses on investigating how mobile and social media can enable new forms of storytelling and participation. Reality Ends Here (A.K.A. “The Game”) is Jeff’s dissertation project. He can be found online at http://remotedevice.net or via @remotedevice on Twitter.

Simon Wiscombe is an experimental game designer, Annenberg Fellow, and MFA candidate in the Interactive Media Division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His research focuses on exploring the idea of meaningful interactions and experiences through the blending of games and reality. You can find him at http://www.simonwiscombe.com or on twitter via @simonium.

A Virtual Bullpen?: How the USC Cinema School Has Embraced ARGs To Shape The Experience of Entering Students (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I was sent a pack of collector’s cards — with my picture on them! — and asked to show up in the courtyard outside the USC Cinematic Arts facilities so that I could pass them out to students who showed up and said “convergence.” I camped out and soon small clusters of students started showing up, enthusiastically saying “convergence” and waiting for me to hand them their tokens. Very quickly, I gave out of cards and for the most part, the students did not mind. In fact, a bunch of those who arrived later hung out and started a conversation, which kept growing until at its peek I had twenty or so undergraduates sitting all around me asking questions about transmedia storytelling, fan culture, new media literacies, spreadable media, and an astonishing array of other topics from my blog. This photograph was shot surreptitiously by Tracy Fullerton, one of my Cinema School colleagues, who was staking out a vantage point not far away.

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All of this cloak and dagger stuff was part of an innovative game — an Alternate Reality Game of sorts — which is being conducted amongst the entering Cinema School undergraduates this year. If my own experiences are any indication, the game is proving to be enormously successful at getting students involved, excited about entering the Cinema School, more aware of its resources, more connected to its faculty, more engaged with its research, more connected across different divisions. It is also getting them involved in collaborative and production like activities than most entering students who have had to wait for a bit before they would be allowed to take production classes. I’ve seen lots of discussion over the past few years about the potentials of using ARGS for pedagogical purposes. But, this is the first time I’ve seen such a large scale experiment in integrating ARG activities across an entire school to orient entering students to a program and to serve a range of instructional goals. The passion the game is motivating in USC students is palpable. And I can tell you that many of the faculty, who have gotten pulled into the game through one play mechanic or another, are feeling a real pride in their school for its willingness to embrace this kind of experimentation and innovation.

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I’ve wanted for some time to share with you some of the insights of the people most involved in this project — Jeff Watson, Tracey Fullerton, and Simon Wiscombe, who wish to be identified here as the “co-designers/conspirators” behind the Game. In this interview, they tell us more about how the game came about, the design and teaching goals shaping it, the core mechanics, and the impact it has had on the school and especially this remarkable group of entering students. I have a feeling we are going to want to track its impact for the next four years to see what kind of difference it has made in their relations to each other and to the school.

The three of you have been co-conspirators in the development of an alternate reality game which has captured the passions and interests of the incoming students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts this fall. Can you give us some background on the project? What got it started?

Tracy Fullerton: The project actually came out of a committee established by the dean of the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) in 2009 after a full faculty retreat. The charge for that committee was to envision the future of the SCA, and one of the key initiatives was to establish a “gateway experience” for incoming students that introduced them to the changing media landscape, the history and future of the school, the possibilities that can emerge from the SCA network of current and past students, and the importance of bridging the divisions of the school while they are here, both socially and academically.

The gateway course was envisioned as introducing a new kind of social networking for SCA students, both on and offline, that would become critical to their involvement in courses and with each other. As the class developed, it became clear that a game layer would be a perfect way to achieve all of the goals set out by the committee without falling victim to the general survey or lecture class tradition we wanted to move beyond. So, while the curriculum for the gateway class and the game aren’t “officially” linked, they are intertwined in vision and purpose and serve to bring students from all divisions together in multiple ways that will purposefully drive the social dynamics and the cross-media collaboration.

From its inception, the gateway class was envisioned as having a companion social network, which linked to a digital library of information about media history and theory and SCA’s past and future. The design of the card game, with its “high touch” in-person mechanics, is just the beginning of implementing that vision. On each card, history and theory are linked to practice with a piece of knowledge on one side and a prompt to creative practice on the other. This bridge between theory and practice, like the ones we hope to forge between divisions here, is a critical statement at the heart of the game.

Jeff Watson: As an iMAP PhD student, finding ways to bring together theory and practice is central to my doctoral research. Over the past couple of years, I had been looking for a dissertation project that would enable me to put into practice my research into transmedia interaction design and alternate reality games. I wanted this project to be something that played out in the real world and had a tangible and measurable impact. I didn’t want it to be a demo or a proof of concept. I wanted to play with real stakes, real players, and real outcomes. I wanted the project to be able to fail if it wasn’t designed properly. So when Holly Willis, the chair of the Future Committee, came to me with the mandates that Tracy just outlined and asked if I would be able to come up with a pitch for an ARG that could be played by all the incoming students of the SCA, I jumped at the chance. This was a real design challenge that touched on all the corners of my research, from participatory culture to social and mobile media to interventionist art practice.

What were the core learning goals for the design and deployment of this game?

Tracy Fullerton: The core learning goals for the game are all around fostering the kind of complex skills that are sometimes called 21st century skills. Of course, these skills, such as team-building, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and innovation, are not unique to the 21st century and they have been at the heart of the curriculum here at SCA for a very long time. The difference here is activating students right from the start of their SCA experience with the knowledge that these skills are critical building blocks to their success as media makers, and also that the development and improvement of these skills is something they need to take responsibility for themselves from day one.

The game wraps these learning goals into a kind of induction into the SCA culture of networking and support which is something students certainly leave USC with, but we wanted to use the game to start surfacing these ideas for them earlier in their development.

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Jeff Watson: When we first met to brainstorm what we wanted students to be able to discover through this game, we filled up a 16 foot whiteboard and still felt like we hadn’t scratched the surface. On top of the kinds of building block skills Tracy just mentioned, faculty members from each division of the SCA had very granular lists of the kinds of things that they felt Cinematic Arts students should be aware of as they commence their tenure as undergraduates. Writing professors wanted the game to encourage the exploration of character and story; production faculty wanted to make sure all students acquired basic knowledge about cameras, editing, and safety; critical studies pushed for more opportunities for analysis, historical contextualization, and reflection; animation wanted to make sure their students would have more ways to connect with students from other divisions; and interactive media pushed for a deeper integration of notions of iterative design and systems thinking. At the end of the meeting, I took a picture of the whiteboard with my iPhone. It was a crazy tangled bird’s nest of inspiration.

To make sense of it all, we took the mass of ideas generated during that whiteboard session and started looking for connective tissue. We noticed that all the learning goals we had brainstormed fell into one of three broad categories, which we ended up calling Literacy, Craft, and Social. Literacy goals were those that pertained to knowledge of all kinds: from highly local lore about the school and its resources, to basic understandings about the history and theory of media-making. Craft goals were those that had anything to do with the act of making — from writing prose to shooting video to designing board games. Finally, Social goals were all those that related to the discovery of and connection with peers, alumni, faculty, and the broader community. Since the “content” of each of these categories of learning was agnostic with respect to the various divisions of the SCA, the first challenge of breaking down divisional/disciplinary boundaries had been met. The question became how to make a game that would motivate players to traverse the networks of Literacy, Craft, and Social goals that we had identified for inclusion. This became the starting point for our prototyping.

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Can you describe some of the basic mechanics of the game?

Simon Wiscombe: The game is, at its core, a project creation game. When players elect to join, they’re given a pack of cards containing green “maker” cards (e.g. “30 second short,” “Board Game,” etc.), pink “property” cards (e.g. “About love”, “In the SCA Courtyard”, etc.), and one orange “people” card (which contains the name of one first year undergrad in the USC film school). These cards can be combined together or with other players’ cards to make a “Deal,” the simplest of which is composed of one maker card and one property card — although an almost unlimited number of property cards can be attached so long as there are enough connectors. After laying out a Deal, players go out and actually create it (i.e. “A 30 second short about love in the SCA courtyard”). They then submit it to the site, and justify it in the game office — at which point it’s uploaded, they get points for the Deal, and everyone in the game can see it.

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Jeff Watson: This whole process is outlined with pictures and video on the game website . Since it’s such a highly visual interactive experience, readers who want to get a good sense of how it feels to play should head over there and check out the intro materials.

Simon Wiscombe: Yes, visit the website — it explains everything and also showcases the amazing work the players have created so far.

What relationship does this game have with other alternate reality games which have been used for entertainment or training purposes in the past?

Jeff Watson: The “meat” of this game is structured creative improvisation. As Simon has described, the core interaction here involves players trading, sharing, and combining collectible playing cards in order to generate creative prompts known as “Deals”. Responding to these prompts by submitting completed artifacts results in advancement on the game’s various leaderboards, unlocking special game content. This special content constitutes what might be called the “sauce” on the meat of the game.

This “sauce” is the closest we get to “traditional” alternate reality game content. For example, toward the end of the second week of gameplay, we sent clues to several players who were leading in key Deal-making categories. The clues provided the players with a time and a location and nothing else. Bravely enough, the students showed up. Once there, they were greeted by a formally-attired Oud player. Accompanied by the Oudist, the players were transported without explanation to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Once in the museum, the players encountered two alums of the SCA, Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago (designers of critically-acclaimed games such as Flow, Flower, and Journey), who were wandering around in the darkness wearing sequined masquerade masks. Upon discovering them, the players were presented with a special game power which enabled them to score additional points on subsequent Deals, and were then treated to 90 minutes of informal discussion about game design, art, and media making.

In short, our approach uses a rule-based play system (the card game) to drive the bulk of the experience, and employs more traditional ARG techniques around the edges, as rewards and tonal elements. This approach is in many ways a practical implementation of the ideas and critiques I presented last year on your blog in my essay, “ARG 2.0″. In most “traditional” ARGs, our “sauce” is the full meal. The player experience in such games unfolds around a kind of scavenger hunt activity wherein game runners moderate and manage player communities as they plow through a sequence of puzzles, curated action prompts, and side-quests.

While this logistically-complex structure is appropriate for certain team-building and talent sourcing applications, we wanted to make something that would have the capacity to perpetuate itself without relying on the constant generation of puzzle and narrative content by game runners. More importantly, we wanted our game to emphasize an active engagement with media-making: while scavenger hunts might help to build social bonds and search/analysis skills, we felt that they are inherently about solving puzzles or responding to prompts created by someone else — and as such are a kind of consumption-oriented form of play. We wanted to make this game about the players’ creativity, not ours.

“What Is Civic Media” Revisited: A Conversation with John Palfrey (Part Two)

JP: One of the tensions that emerged from my interviewing was around this issue (broadly) of what community means. It operated as a tension on various levels. One was a sense among the staff that they weren’t quite sure what Knight Foundation had in mind about where to focus: locally near Boston, around the US, abroad. (I’m sure that Ethan Zuckerman’s focus in his own work will have an impact on future thinking in this regard.)

Another hard question related to the term “communities”: what are they, do they really exist in the ways that paradigmatic examples might suggest, and so forth. I think there’s good, hard, conceptual work still to be done about what it means to “meet the information needs of a community” and what empowerment looks like in the C4 model. I love the approach taken so far, and I think it can bear fruit in terms of informing theory, too.

HJ: John, your questions about whether communities exist is a key one which I’ve struggled with from the start. Benedict Anderson tells us that communities are “imagined” in that no member of a community in practice has regular contact with every other member of the community but they act as if there were strong social ties and a shared identity among this somewhat abstracted group of people.

So, when we talk about doing projects in “communities,” what are we talking about? Are we describing an actual group of people who interface regularly with each other? Are we dealing with a population, such as prisoners, who are locked out of the dominant social institutions and yet seek some kind of interface with a community beyond the prison walls? Are we seeking tools, such as Hero Reports, which seek to strengthen the imagined ties between people who pass each other on the subway? Are we seeking to decrease social conflicts or to give people tools to more meaningfully engage with those conflicts, as seems to be the goals for some of Chris’s projects?

The mandate for the center assumes that we are working within existing communities, yet often we may be helping to constitute the communities the projects serve by giving them resources through which they may better “imagine” and start to more fully realize the potential ties between them. The range of projects the center has developed so far suggest many different understandings of what a community is and how media relate to communities, though we have a way to go before they/we articulate fully the theoretical implications of this work.

JP: This concept of in fact “constituting” communities by giving them resources is completely fascinating. I think this is one of the common beliefs about the web, in particular: where there are humans who are far-flung in geographic terms, share an interest, find one another through the web, and then work together, have we “constituted” these communities in the process?

An interesting case study might be Global Voices, the signature project that Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon founded and which joins an extraordinary network of citizen journalists and activists around the globe. Was there a GV community before GV? Or was it in fact constituted by the creation of tools, the services, and the passion that went into the founding of GV?

I realize that this is not exactly on point, vis-a-vis much of the existing work of the Center, which has defined much of what it’s done in geographic terms, but I wonder if there might be insight there. Diaspora communities, connected by digital media in richer ways, might be another case to consider.

HJ: I am struck by the contrast between the Center’s view that civic media may enhance a sense of community among participants and the fears being expressed by political leaders and news media in Great Britain that social media may have contributed to the riots which disrupted community life across England last summer. How might we contrast between these two models for thinking about the impact of new media technologies on community life?

There seems to have been a persistent strand of criticism that new media is leading to greater social isolation, that it is inspiring anti-social behavior, that it contributes to the disintegration of traditional civic associations, etc. In what ways can we see what the Center has done as an effort not simply to question those claims on a theoretical level but also to demonstrate on a practical level how new media can be used in the service of strengthening social ties?

JP: This too is a tension worth exploring in my view. I’ve had the Arab Spring uprisings alongside the riots in the United Kingdom in my head. In terms of our reaction to these two events, why do leaders like the Prime Minister in the UK on the one hand say that we should be studying the Egyptian marches in our schools, while raising the specter of restricting social media use when people take to the streets in his hometown?

OK, so the politics of the situation are obvious; also, there are ways to distinguish the two types of uprising. But the core problem remains the same: it’s dangerous for us to make any assumptions about how a given “community” will use digital media tools in any given circumstance. They may have a salutary effect on one day, and a disruptive one on the next — if your perspective if law-and-order. And from a social fabric perspective, we ought to note the possibilities for multiple outcomes as well, as you note.

HJ: I am struck in your report by some comments which Chris makes about “disruptive technologies” rather than “gradual change.” And that points to another creative friction that shaped the early days of the Center. It’s not clear that we would have agreed about the model of social change underlying our work.

Chris, certainly, embraces disruptive uses of technology, yet there is also an argument to be made for the use of civic media as a way of sustaining traditional institutions and practices, of maintaining social ties, which are being disrupted by other forces in contemporary life. This is not necessarily conservative in a political sense, but it may be conservative in the sense that it seeks to protect something vital in our communities which is being threatened by changes that are not under the control of community members.

For example, I used to talk about town pageants as an old civic ritual which connected current residents of a town to their past — and not simply on the level of representing their history. If the same pageant is performed year after year, there is a social sharing across generations that take place – shared memories, even shared identities (as people feel close to others who have played the same character in the performance). We don’t have such rituals any more and so it is easy for people to lose sense of their own history or to feel disconnected across generations. I wondered what the contemporary equivalent of a town pageant might look like. And I am not sure whether this line of inquiry has born fruit yet in terms of the projects the Center has developed.

JP: I like the connection around the word “disruption” between these various points. Of course, I was most influenced by what I heard from those in the Center as of the end of 2010 and start of 2011, so Chris’s approach was dominant in the discourse and in the shape of the projects that I observed. I don’t think that means that the questions you posed have been asked and answered yet; they seem to me still out there for exploration.

HJ: Bringing on Ethan Zuckerman as the new Director of the Center almost certainly means a further expansion of our notion of community — one which moves the Center much more decisively towards global interventions and pushes it further from a focus on its own backyard. There will be radically different conceptions of community life at play as we deal with national contexts radically different from the U.S.A. and where we will encounter a different set of challenges to community life.

A central concern across such projects should be with who gets to participate, who gets to be a member of a community, given that all communities exclude as well as include, and given that access to and familarity with technologies are a central dividing line in our culture. As I sign off, I want to press the Center to remain attentive to the digital divide and the participation gap and to use technologies as a means of bridging between sectors of communities.

JP: And as I sign off: thanks so much to everyone in the Center’s community for letting me and Catherine Bracy go so deep into your work. It was fascinating. Plainly, what you are doing — regardless of whether it is disruptive or gradual, local or international, place-based or virtual — is so very important to the future of our culture and societies. And thanks, Henry, for the chance to reflect together on this great set of issues. You always push me in my thinking (your critique of the digital natives frame comes to mind, among many other examples) and I consider myself lucky to be able to learn from what you say and do.

John Palfrey is a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, vice dean for library and information resources, and the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He led a reorganization of the Harvard Law School Library in 2009. He is a principal investigator on the Open Net Initiative, a collaboration between Harvard and the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge that studies the Internet filtering of countries such as China, Iran, and Singapore, among many others He is co-author or editor of several books, including Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Born Digital (Basic Books, 2008).

“What Is Civic Media” Revisited: A Conversation with Harvard’s John Palfrey

Henry Jenkins: On September 20 2007, we officially launched the MIT Center for the Future of Civic Media, a joint venture of the Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies Program.

Our launching event include myself, Chris Csikzentmihalyi, Mitchell Resnick, Beth Noveck, and Ethan Zuckerman. At the time, Chris, Mitch and I were the co-directors of the Center. It was announced several months ago that Ethan Zuckerman would now be taking over the leadership of the lab starting this fall, and a review of the first four years of the Center’s research by John Palfrey was made public. I was asked if I would be willing to participate in a conversation about the nature of Civic Media and the work of the Center with Palfrey, which will run on both my blog and the blog for the Center.

As I thought about how to initiate this conversation, I went back to my original blog post about the Center, which asked the core question, “What Is Civic Media?” And this is a question which everyone who has been affiliated with this project continues to ask. My answer at the time was deceptively simple:

Civic media, as I use the term, refers to any use of any medium which fosters or enhances civic engagement. I intend this definition to be as broad and inclusive as possible. Civic media includes but extends well beyond the concept of citizen journalism which is so much in fashion at the moment.

I left the Center when I left MIT, though I’ve continued to do work on civic media through my new post at the University of Southern California.

Here’s how I defined the concept of Civic Media at the head of a syllabus of a class I taught last year on this topic:

Civic Media: any use of any technology for the purposes of increasing civic engagement and public participation, enabling the exchange of meaningful information, fostering social connectivity, constructing critical perspectives, insuring transparency and accountability, or strengthening citizen agency.

This much more elaborated definition reflects the conversations which took place through many meetings with the Lab’s affiliated faculty, students, and researchers, especially through the exchanges I had with Ellen Hume, who was for a time the Research Director at the Lab, and Colleen Kamen, a CMS graduate student whom we asked to help think through our vision of civic media. It also has emerged through my classroom practice at MIT and now USC and more recently, my involvement in a MacArthur Research Hub focused on better understanding youth, new media, and participatory politics. For a rich snapshot of our early attempts to define “civic media,” check out the series of videos at the Center’s homepage.

What the two definitions share is the idea that civic media is not simply citizen journalism, a framing which seems to limit the kinds of community practices we are describing and the ways they meet the information needs of communities, to use a phrase the Knight Foundation has been exploring in recent years. Both are technology agnostic — which is to say any set of practices around any set of technologies can become civic media if it is applied towards certain ends. The more recent definition offers some expanded sense of what those ends are which grows out of a much deeper dive into the literature around the notion of the informed citizen and around participatory politics more broadly.

From the start, I was most interested in understanding how the emergence of new media and participatory practices might be reshaping our understanding of the civic, responding to some of the disruptions of community life which had characterized the second part of the 20th century. It seemed like an important conversation to be having, and it was a key theme which emerged through the early Communication Forum events and conferences hosted by the Center.

John Palfrey: Henry, I think your starting point, pushing on the definitional issue and driving from there, is right on. In my review of the Center’s first four years, I worked with a close colleague, Catherine Bracy, to interview as many of the people involved in the Center as we could. Taken as a whole, the overwhelming view of the community was how valuable C4 has been in the lives of individuals involved and also in many of the environments where C4 faculty, staff, fellows, and students have been active.

A secondary finding was a hunger for understanding civic media as a concept. People had plainly been drawn to what you’d set up, even with a nascent definition; I think a lot of participants came to help in the active shaping of what it would become. I like very much your refinement over time. I’ve found myself, also, puzzling over the definitional issues and enjoying the process of thinking about them.

HJ: There was from the start some, hopefully productive, tension between the Media Lab participants who were strongly invested in the idea that we could design new tools which would be especially conducive to serving civic needs and the bias of the Comparative Media Studies participants who felt that we needed to be more focused on the social and cultural practices by which people integrated those tools into their everyday lives. We used to have heated debates about whether we should build the tools first and then apply them to communities or whether we should start with a deeper understanding of the community’s existing practices and needs and then design to serve them better. Such debates are inevitable when working in an interdisciplinary space and could be generative or distracting depending on how well the people involved dealt with them.

JP: Yes! This productive tension jumped out of the review that we did. I think the idea of tempering one approach with another, in a way that made more of whole, is a deeply profound concept. The critical nature of the CMS discipline and the “let’s go build it!” nature of the Lab’s discipline have a peanut butter-and-chocolate quality to them. I think those debates have been, and can be in the future, extremely textured and important. One question I have is how C4 can tease them out and make them more public than they’ve been so far, so others of us can share in them somehow.

HJ:From the start, Knight wanted to keep the focus on geographically localized communities rather than more dispersed communities of interest, though we debated among ourselves how easily the two could be separated. For example, as the Center launched we were still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. George Lipsitz had described the working class communities of New Orleans as being “network rich and resource poor,” that is to say, very strong social networks had emerged over decades which supported the sustainability of that community and insured the well-being of its members. But the hurricane had disrupted these networks on the ground, scattering the people across the country, and had done so in a way that made it difficult to imagine these communities ever being put back together again in the ways they had once functioned.

So, for me, the question was always whether we could separate out the local community in southern Louisiana from the more dispersed, diasporic community of folks from New Orleans, still strongly identified with that city, now living across the country, once part of strong social networks which they now tapped into via digital and mobile technologies. Surely, any technology-enhanced practice which strengthened the bonds between these communities would be civic media.

John Palfrey is a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, vice dean for library and information resources, and the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He led a reorganization of the Harvard Law School Library in 2009. He is a principal investigator on the Open Net Initiative, a collaboration between Harvard and the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge that studies the Internet filtering of countries such as China, Iran, and Singapore, among many others He is co-author or editor of several books, including Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Born Digital (Basic Books, 2008).