One Book, One School, Or This is Henry’s Brain at Annenberg

When I left MIT three years ago, after having spent the whole of my professional career at one institution, I left with a sense that what I had produced so far represented who Henry was at MIT. I had been impacted by everything about that school — starting with the fact that I arrived there just in time to watch most of the progress of the “digital revolution” move outward from leading technical research institutions and hit the general population, and continuing through everything that had been involved in creating and sustaining the Comparative Media Studies Program for more than a decade. Add to this my experiences as a housemaster for Senior Haus for sixteen years, and you have a picture of someone who was deeply shaped by where they were and how they worked. As I reflect back, I keep discovering ways that I absorbed ideas from colleagues, even people I never really got to know, but whose ideas permeated the environment of the Institute.

I have now been at USC for the better part of three years, long enough for us to start to discover who I am in this new institutional environment. And the Annenberg School provided me with a great chance a week or so ago to reflect on the nature of the changes. The School has initiated what it is calling the “One School, One Book” program, where each year, they will showcase a book by a member of the faculty which they try to get the students, faculty, and staff to read and discuss. This first year, they chose my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. I was deeply honored and even more so, when they asked that I bring together some of the students I have worked with most closely in the school to share their insights into how the book had impacted their own research.

My joke these days has been that I have reached an age where I know longer want to be disciplined and I am not yet ready to be institutionalized, but it is only partially true in both cases.

If our institutions help to define what we know and what we think and what kinds of work we can do, a lot of that influence is through the students we have a chance to work with, and I have been profoundly lucky to have a chance to work with some extraordinary students in Annenberg, the Cinema School, and beyond. This occasion came at an interesting moment, having sent in the finished manuscript for my next book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Due out in January 2013, this book represents in some ways the culmination of all of the work we did through the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT. In my remarks here, I describe it as my transition book, one which is still strongly influenced by contacts and conversations at MIT, but still heavily influenced by my encounters and experiences at my new academic home.

After some opening remarks by our Dean Ernest Wilson and by myself about the experience of writing these two books, we turn the floor over to Francesca Marie Smith, Laurel Felt, Kevin Driscoll, and Meryl Alper, who describe how they relate to different aspects of the work I have begun in Los Angeles on fan studies, new media literacies, civic engagement, and transmedia play, respectively.

By the time this was over, I was bursting with pride over how articulate and thoughtful these students were. I had to share this experience with the loyal readers of this blog, so that you have a stronger sense of what my day to day experiences are like here in Southern California.

Do keep in mind that I also have several other intellectual families here through my work in the Cinema School and the School of Education.

How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism (Part Three)

2011 C3 Research Memos and White Paper Series

edited by Prof. Henry Jenkins, Prof. William Uricchio and Daniel Pereira

How to Ride a Lion:

A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism


Geoffrey Long

Futures of Entertainment Fellow

Alumni Researcher for the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3)

(Author’s Note: Since this paper was originally authored in 2010, I’ve been delighted to discover an increasing amount of transmedia critics. Whose analysis of transmedia projects do you most enjoy? Please let us know in the comments! -GL)

PART 3 of 3

4. Conclusions and Next Steps

By now, the value proposition for transmedia criticism should be clear, even if the challenges involved in developing it are daunting. Even if one believes (as I do) that the rewards do justify the labor involved, the question remains of where such criticism will be found. Who will these transmedia critics be, and where will they publish their work?

It’s easier to imagine a home for transmedia criticism than one for transmedia reviews. Academically speaking, an easy place to begin would be a Journal of Transmedia Studies, but so far that has yet to come into existence. As more conferences and academic programs begin to appear with transmedia as their focus, more critical thinking about transmedia projects will continue to be produced as a result, and will likely be released either as conference proceedings or on blogs dedicated to particular courses or research projects (not unlike the C3 blog in its heyday)[18]. Programs to keep an eye on for such resources include the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, the IMAP program at USC, the Center for Future Storytelling at the MIT Media Lab, and the nascent Center for Serious Play at the University of Washington.

To date, many discussions of transmedia projects at levels that begin to approach true transmedia criticism can be found around the burgeoning alternate reality game sub-industry, such as ARGNet, the mailing list for the IGDA ARG SIG (or the International Game Developers’ Association Alternate Reality Game Special Interest Group, for the uninitiated) or the blogs of ARG authors like Andrea Phillips, whose April 6, 2010 post analyzing the Why So Serious ARG campaign for The Dark Knight explained what that campaign did exceptionally well and, in so doing, showed why the first Twilight book is so poorly designed for transmedia extension. Phillips:

One: Experiences like Why So Serious have come under criticism because they arguably don’t create audiences where none were before. At the end of the day, the people who were really involved in Why So Serious were all people who were going to see the movie anyway, right? It’s uncomfortable to admit it in public like this, but… yeah, it’s probably true.

Two: The most successful transmedia experiences are the ones where there is space for the player to live in the world. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings; these are all worlds that are very much bigger than the action on the main stage. And that’s what we do in the ARG space; we provide walk-on roles that let people live in our worlds, while not requiring them to step onto the main stage themselves.

That’s why the first Twilight book is poorly suited to transmedia; there isn’t much of a world there outside of the couple in love. But the subsequent books increase the scope of the world more and more, incorporating group dynamics and government structures that add up to a world bigger than just Bella and Edward and their true, sparkly love.

So why was Why So Serious such a big deal? It’s because it took a world that did not have space for an audience to live inside it – Gotham – and created canon spaces where players could dwell, for the first time. They became voters and accomplices. It turned a property that was previously not very well suited to a transmedia experience and created one that suddenly is. It’s not just Batman and his allies and enemies anymore.

And while the people participating in that world are probably the ones who loved the property before, all of that energy and excitement brings more people in. The person with the Joker mask was already going to see the movie, but maybe their roommate wasn’t going to, or their cousin, or the person they enthuse about the film to at work or at the coffee shop or on the bus.

I know I started reading Harry Potter because of all of the fan energy around it; that’s also why I read Twilight. Giving your audience the freedom and an outlet for their passion for your work leads to them converting peripheral audience members into fans, and people who were never a part of the core audience into peripheral audience members. Participation is the engine that drives fandom, and fandom drives success.

So there you have it, one of the most important keys to making a great transmedia world: Scope. Make it roomy enough for your audience to play in your world. They’ll love you for it, and their love brings rewards.[19]

I read that post and heaved a sigh of contented relief, as if I’d just been given a tubful of water after marching across the Sahara. It’s not long, but it’s insightful, and is an excellent example of how some sample transmedia criticism might work: pick a transmedia project to criticize, break it apart to determine what worked and what didn’t, bubble up the learnable observations, and draw connections from that observation to other examples to give it context (and your argument more weight). To my mind, this was a brilliant example of nascent transmedia criticism, and I constantly go back to Phillips’ site in hopes of finding more.

Another up-and-coming source for transmedia criticism is Christy Dena’s cheekily-named You Suck at Transmedia (, which includes comments from Comparative Media Studies and C3 alumnus Ilya Vedrashko and friend of C3 Jeff Watson. Although the site is relatively sparse (24 posts over six months), many of the articles to be found there are really interesting. Here’s an excerpt from Dena’s opening post:

You Suck at Transmedia!!

Yes, this is something many of us have been wanting to say for a while…to others (mostly) and to ourselves (sometimes).

But don’t worry, this site isn’t about trashing specific people or projects. I’m a practitioner too, and so I know how even though we learn quickly, we cringe at old mistakes. But importantly, I also know how bad design is often the result of processes and people you don’t have control over. You know it sucks but nobody listened, or believed you, or worse still…you didn’t tell them. This site is part of that conversation. Encouraging us all to feel confident about what we know (and find out) sucks.

… How do you/we/us stop sucking at transmedia? Well, this site is a step in that direction. This site welcomes contributions that really do aim to progress the state of the art. Here we can discuss the consequences of transmedia design, production and execution decisions.

In short, this site will cover transmedia decisions that never, sometimes, and always work.[20]

As of this writing, Dena’s posts have titles like “YSA Directing Meaning Across Media,” “YSA Being an Artist”, “YSA Being Human,” and “YSA Sucking”.[21] As of this writing, most of Dena’s posts haven’t been critical evaluations of particular transmedia experiences so much as reflections on the trials and tribulations of life as a transmedia experience designer, including videos of Quentin Tarantino talking about being an artist and a critique of the National Theatre’s recent mishandling of a Twitter snafu, but the site has a great deal of promise.

A third newly-released resource for transmedia criticism is The Pixel Report, from Power to the Pixel’s Liz Rosenthal and Tishna Molla. TPR declares itself to be “devoted to showcasing new forms of storytelling, film-making and cross-media business development that is in tune with an audience-centered digital era. It is an essential tool for content creators, a vital resource for policy-makers & funding bodies and a unique guide for anyone interested in the future of film and the media.”[22] Unfortunately, the site seems to be a thinly-veiled set of hooks to draw people to the Power to the Pixel conference or order the proceeds from the conference. Although the site ostensibly includes case studies of such projects as beActive Entertainment’s Final Punishment, Tommy Palotta’s Collapsus, and the National Film Board of Canada’s Waterlife, the site’s pages for these case studies amount to little more than an overview of each project, video clips of people discussing these projects from the previous conference, and a big button encouraging people to order the case studies. This feels less like transmedia criticism and more like advertising for Power to the Pixel and their consulting services.

Finding a home for transmedia reviews are much more challenging. Let us for a moment ignore the (very real) possibility that the entire print magazine world is going belly-up. So far most articles on transmedia have been either mile-high “What is Transmedia?” articles in publications like Wired or slightly deeper and more directed pieces in publications dedicated solely to one medium, such as those found in Filmmaker Magazine. Although book reviews, film reviews, music reviews, video game reviews and even technology reviews are commonplace in mainstream publications, is it realistic to expect the New York Times to employ a transmedia critic alongside their film and book critics? How likely is a New York Review of Transmedia, or an On the Transmedia show on NPR?

It’s possible that the very structure of transmedia experiences, where ideally each extension in each medium is of sufficient quality and modularity to serve as an ambassador for the rest of the franchise to the ‘native’ fans of that medium, also extends to critics. If Escape from Butcher Bay is good enough to garner a high score on Metacritic, perhaps it’s good enough to be reviewed by video game critics who will serve as multipliers (to steal a term from Grant McCracken) and advocates for the rest of the franchise to their audience. However, this still leaves us wanting for critics who will advocate for transmedia experiences that do transmedia well, evaluating and recommending the “greater than the sum of its parts” super-experience of the franchise as a whole. It’s possible that such reviews will be relegated to the review sections for the medium in which each franchise has its mothership – so reviews of the transmedia franchise surrounding The Matrix will be found in the film section, reviews of the transmedia franchise for Assassin’s Creed will be in the video game section, and so on – but as transmedia experiences continue to evolve into massive things that touch on every part of our lives, will the notion of “mothership” continue to exist? Only time will tell – but it seems likely that, if such a scenario comes to pass, by that time our reviews systems will have evolved to accommodate such vast experiences as well.

Finally, returning to the notion that newspapers, magazines and other print-centric media structures might be dead anyway, it’s possible that the very notion of curated collections of reviews will dissipate as well. We already have big blogs dedicated to particular audience demographics, like Engadget or io9 or Blastr, that, like special-interest basic cable channels, cover everything that might be of interest to that particular demographic.[23] This suggests that students interested in becoming transmedia critics might first attempt to become staff writers for such blogs – and supplement their writings there with a constant stream of insights posted to their own blogs (a tactic similar to that of both Phillips and Dena).

As transmedia continues to trend towards mainstream acceptance and continues to gather mass as a key area of development in the entertainment industry, all of these options are likely to flourish. It’s only a matter of time before a Journal of Transmedia Studies appears to support the research coming out of these new academic programs, only a matter of time before sites like io9 have to figure out how to review projects from transmedia shops like Fourth Wall Studios, Quixotic Transmedia, Campfire, or Blacklight Transmedia, and only a matter of time before more rich resources begin to appear online that cater specifically to producers and fans of transmedia experiences.

Our next steps now are for more of us to start engaging in close analyses of transmedia experiences, to start breaking them down and figuring out why they work or why they fail. More of this exploration must be done in order to help us understand how to really leverage the unique affordances of transmedia experience design as its own particular art, both individually and as a whole. Tearing into these new transmedia experiences to figure out what makes them tick, sharing those insights with one another and then using those lessons to create more astonishingly fantastic transmedia experiences, teaching each other how to ride these lions, is how we will push the medium forward. Writing more transmedia reviews to spread the word about those experiences to a broader audience is how we will ensure that we will all keep riding lions for a long time to come.

Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and author exploring transmedia experiences and emerging entertainment platforms at Microsoft. Geoffrey received his Master’s degree from the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, where he served as a media analyst for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a researcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Through his work with the Convergence Culture Consortium, Geoffrey authored “How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism” and “Moving Stories: Aesthetics and Production in Mobile Media”. His personal site is at, he can be reached at, and he can be found on Twitter as @geoffreylong.


[18] The Convergence Culture Blog ran from 2005 through 2011.



[21] The YSA stands for “You Suck At,” naturally.


[23] Unsurprisingly, is operated by genre cable channel Syfy.


Bloom, David. “A Critical Shortfall: Who Rates the Transmedia?”, March 21, 2010.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 7th Ed. Longman, 2010.

Delaney, Samuel. Shorter Views.Wesleyan, 2000. [GL10]

Dena, Christy. “Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments.” PhD Dissertation. University of Sydney, 2009.

Eagleton, Terry. The Function of Criticism. New York: Verso Press, 2000 ed.

Heer, Jeet and Kent Worcester. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium. University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

Ito, Mimi. “Intertextual Enterprises: Writing Alternative Places and Meanings in the Media Mixed Networks of Yugioh.”

Jenkins, Henry. “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn.”

Johnson, Derek. “Learning to Share: The Relational Logistics of Media Franchising,”

MIT Comparative Media Studies, Converegence Culture Consortium White Paper,

Kochalka, James. The Cute Manifesto. Gainesville: Alternative Comics, 2005.

Long, Geoffrey. “Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company,” MIT Comparative Media Studies Master’s Thesis,

Philips, Andrea. “Why So Serious: Lessons in Transmedia Worldbuilding.” Deus Ex Machinatio, April 6, 2010.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephelia: Film Culture in Transition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.

Schwartz, Ben. The Best American Comics Criticism. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2010.

Thompson, Brooke. “A Criticism on the Lack of Criticism.”, June 1, 2010.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2007.

How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism (Part Two)

Register now for Transmedia Hollywood, April 6, USC.

2011 C3 Research Memos and White Paper Series

edited by Prof. Henry Jenkins, Prof. William Uricchio and Daniel Pereira

How to Ride a Lion:

A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism


Geoffrey Long

Futures of Entertainment Fellow

Alumni Researcher for the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3)

Author’s Note: Since this paper was originally authored in 2010, I’ve been delighted to discover an increasing amount of transmedia critics. Whose analysis of transmedia projects do you most enjoy? Please let us know in the comments! -GL)

PART 2 of 3

3. What Role Might Transmedia Criticism and Reviews Play?

If, as suggested in the last section, what is needed is an ecosystem that includes both transmedia criticism and transmedia reviews, then we need to explore both halves. First, what value can transmedia criticism and transmedia critics provide to the industry? Second, what value can transmedia reviews and reviewers provide to the public?

3.1. Educating the Industry: Transmedia Criticism and Critics

As David Bloom suggested in his 2010 Transmedia /Hollywood recap, transmedia criticism could provide some answers to the very real concerns of the entertainment industry – not just “What is transmedia?” or “Why should I invest in a transmedia project?”, but “What does real, measurable success for a transmedia project look like?” Transmedia criticism may not have all the answers – as noted, we desperately need better systems for transmedia ‘ratings’ and other metrics – but it may provide a jumping-off point for some qualitative analyses while we’re waiting for the quantitative ones to catch up.

Most beneficial, perhaps, is the role that such criticism can play in the shaping of a language of transmedia experiences, through the discovery of a set of standard best practices. By understanding these best practices – by speaking the language – creators and their sponsors can improve their chances of creating successful transmedia experiences. Once such an ‘open’ language is developed, individual implementations of, and strategic differentiations from, those best practices can result in highly profitable products and even new competitive advantages.

In their seminal text The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson describe the importance of standardization in the very early years of the cinema. Rather than reinventing the wheel with every film, Hollywood began to adopt standard techniques, formats, and practices that could be reused effectively in each production – which in turn led to a set of norms against which excellence could be judged:

Industrial standardization included uniformity in nomenclature and dimensions, simplification in types, sizes and grades, and safety provisions and rules of practice. Such standardization facilitated mass production. Standardization also included specifications, methods of testing quality, and ratings under specific conditions. The latter set of elements in standardization have another connotation: a criterion, norm, degree or level of excellence. Both the movement toward uniformity and attainment of excellence coexisted in the trend. The standardization process must be thought of not as an inevitable progression towards dull, mediocre products (although many may be that for reasons of aesthetic differences or economy in materials and workmanship), but instead, particularly in competitive cases, as an attempt to achieve a precision-tooled, quality object. Once established, the standard becomes a goal to be attained.[9]

Such desirable characteristics included “narrative dominance and clarity, verisimilitude, continuity, stars and spectacle”. Those of us in the transmedia space should be feeling a slight tingling of recognition at this point. Such a key set of standard, recurring elements in transmedia is already beginning to emerge, as outlined in Henry Jenkins’ keynote talk at C3’s Futures of Entertainment 4 conference, “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn.” Jenkins outlined seven principles of transmedia storytelling: spreadability vs. drillability, continuity vs. multiplicity, immersion vs. extractability, worldbuilding, seriality, subjectivity, and performance.[10] Jenkins’ observed principles emerged from his close analysis of multiple transmedia experiences, including The Matrix, the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Tori Amos’ Comic Book Tattoo project, the success of Susan Boyle, American Idol and so on. Such close readings provide the raw fodder for his high-level observations, which are then shared with the public and the industry alike through books, articles, lectures or blog posts. The same kind of standards-from-observation practices from theorists and critics like Jenkins was at play during the early days of cinema. Again, Bordwell

Mechanisms for standardization included ones somewhat connected to the industry – trade publications and critics and ‘how-to’ books – and ones external to the industry – college courses, newspaper reviewing, theoretical writing, and museum exhibitions. Undoubtedly there are others, but these will suggest how standards were available to influence the company’s and worker’s conception of how the motion picture ought to look and sound. While these mechanisms presented themselves as educational and informative, they were also prescriptive. A how-to-write-a-movie-script book advised not only how it was done but how it ought to be done to insure a sale. In the case of reviewers or theorists, the references to established standards in other arts (theater, literature, painting, design, music, still photography) perpetuated ideological/signifying practices – although, of course, in mediated form.[11]

Bordwell points out that trade papers in the entertainment field (such as the New York Dramatic Mirror, Show World, the New York Clipper, Moving Picture World, Motion Picture News, The Nickelodeon and, of course, Variety) served as an important channel for these theorists and critics to influence their audiences. One such important influential was Epes Winthrop Sargent, a columnist for Moving Picture World:

Sargent began as a critic for music, theater and vaudeville in the 1890s and had been a scenario editor and press agent for Lubin before he arrived at the Moving Picture World in 1911. At that point he began a series of columns, the “Technique of the photoplay,” which included formats of scenarios and film production information primarily aimed at the freelance writer and the manufacturers’ scenario departments. Those columns appeared in book form in 1912 and in an extensively revised edition in 1913. Although other handbooks of film practice preceded his, Sargent’s work became a classic in a field that from that point on rapidly expanded.[12]

Bordwell goes on to quote an article of Sargent’s from December of 1909 as a sample of such prescriptive writing, generated from Sargent’s observation of emerging best practices in the form and, amusingly, what sounds an awful lot like comparative media studies:

The stories must have situations plainly visible, a clearly drafted story, and, with it, an opportunity for artistic interpretation. Dramatically, a motion picture story must be more intense in its situations than the spoken drama. It is often dragged into inconsistency but this is pardonable if the story is sufficiently strong to warrant it. The point of situation cannot be too strongly emphasized.

…We are told by our masters in short story writing and in drama writing that we must have one theme and one theme only. Too many characters will spoil the spell that grips us when we have but two or three people to watch. We are told to avoid rambling into green hedges off the roadside and to grip the attention of the audience from the very start. The complications should start immediately and the developments come with the proper regard for sequence.

…The period of action in a motion picture play is not restricted although it is best to follow the arrangement as depicted in the vaudeville drama. A single episode or incident which might occur within the length of time it takes to run the film is better than dragging the tale through twenty or thirty years. Too many notes and subtitles interrupt the story and detract from the interest.

…A motion picture play should be consistent and the nearer to real life we get the more is the picture appreciated. Complications which are too easily cleared up make the story unsatisfying, smacking of unreality, thus destroying the illusion that, as the producer faithfully endeavors to portray, the scene is not one of acting, but that we have an inside view of the comedy or tragedy of a real life. Let your stories, though they be strong in plot, be convincing, the situations not merely possible but probable. The producer will then have no trouble in making his actors appear to be real.[13]

If Jenkins chose to do so, he could write a trade column or a book specifically on how to apply his seven principles to transmedia storytelling, replicating the role of Sargent to this newly-emerging field. Close reading and analysis reveals learnable lessons, as any artist will attest; all authors, filmmakers, video game designers and other creative professionals spend years soaking up as much high-quality work in their medium as possible and tearing it apart to see what makes it tick.

Theorists and critics do the same, but they then write up their analyses and share it with others. In doing so, they begin to create a shared language with which to discuss these emerging best practices, which then becomes a linguistic shorthand for particular approaches and tactics, which then in turn becomes a shared lens for understanding how these things work. This is where terms like first person point of view, suspension of disbelief, unreliable narrator and so on come from – and, once those observations and tactics are internalized, they become accepted as tools by a wider creative audience. Once these concepts become tools, they become more commonly used in the creation of future experiences, thus reinforcing the acceptance of the concepts. Criticism becomes influential through dispersion, acceptance and implementation.

Jenkins’ ideas are already becoming widely accepted in the industry and his terms are becoming the terminology for this emerging space. The problem is we need much more of this type of work, and we need it quickly. Increase the number of really insightful, clearly-spoken and practically-minded theorist-critics and we accelerate the rate at which we come to understand what transmedia is really capable of. Again, to paraphrase Kochalka, “Transmedia criticism is a means we have of making sense of this new medium, focusing to make it clearer.”

The value in adopting the best practices that emerge through such transmedia criticism in order to increase a transmedia experience’s chances for success is apparent. However, there’s another key reason why an ecosystem of transmedia criticism would be incredibly useful to practitioners: the creation of strategic differentiation. In other words, to see where to zig when everyone else has chosen to zag. As Bordwell writes:

The emphasis on uniformity does not mean that a standard will not change in small ways. New technology, new products and new models are continually put forth as alternative standards for the field. One analyst of standardization wrote: ‘An innovation is successful only when it has become a new standard.’ That process is dynamic, with multiple practices creating the change. In fact, for the film industry, changing its product was an economic necessity. In the entertainment field, innovations in standards are also prized qualities. The economic reason is that the promotion of the difference between products is a competitive method and encourages repeated consumption. The phrase differentiation of the product is used to describe the practice in which the firm stresses how its goods or services differ from other ones.[14]

Much the same thing can be said for observing best practices in transmedia storytelling. By observing emerging norms for the medium particularly adventuresome, innovative storytellers can choose to do things differently in hopes of achieving strategic differentiation. Revisit Jenkins’ list of principles and imagine how they might be flipped on their heads in a narrative experience, resulting in a new and engaging type of transmedia story. As more transmedia criticism emerges, more crazy “what-if” ideas will be sparked, and even more experimental experiences will appear on the market. Those that work spectacularly well – think 3-D in James Cameron’s Avatar – will become more broadly adopted, pushing the cycle of significant differentiation into another iteration, and the medium will continue to grow as a result.

Between a shared language for transmedia experience design, a collection of best practices that will increase a transmedia experience’s chances of success, and a seedbed for accelerated strategic differentiation, the value of transmedia criticism to practitioners seems clear. However, transmedia experiences without audiences remain difficult to justify. This is where transmedia reviews come into play.

3.2. Educating the Public: Transmedia Reviews and Reviewers

…The way I experience and think about comics has a lot to do with the fact that I really enjoy them. I like figuring out how that pleasure works and describing it to other people so that they can enjoy them too, or at least enjoy them more fully than they would otherwise. And what I like (and want to pass along) about a particular comic can be the pleasure of pure spectacle, or of ingenious design, or of kinetic flow, or of characters’ psychological depth, or of a story that’s funny or engaging, or any number of other things. (Wolk 21-22)

Massive entertainment franchises – think long-running soap operas or comic books – frequently get a bad rap for being huge, intimidating monsters. Try picking up a random issue of X-Men or turning on a random episode of As The World Turns and figure out what’s going on. It’s important not to ignore the word ‘complex’ in ‘complex narratives’ or ‘complex entertainment’, and even more important to remember that transmedia entertainment serves as an exponential multiplier to that complexity. Yes, a transmedia franchise that spans comics, television, films and games can have each of its components serve as a gateway into the entire franchise for “native” fans of those particular media, but an Everest like Star Wars or Halo is a massive undertaking looming on a newcomer’s horizon. Such franchises aren’t just increasingly complex; they’re also increasingly time-consuming and increasingly expensive. You think it’s difficult deciding which movie is worth your twenty bucks and two hours on Friday night?

As of this writing, buying the canonical Buffyverse on Amazon will set you back over $400, and take weeks to consume. One can only imagine what it would cost in both time and money to experience every film, book, comic, video game, TV show and piece of ancillary merchandise that makes up Star Wars.

This is where a transmedia critic can play sherpa: a really good (there’s that word again) transmedia critic can give an interested fan-in-the-making maps to these daunting territories, even suggesting which paths they should take depending on their personal interests. Are they fans of Luke Skywalker? Watch the original movies, read these books, play those games. Fans of space battles? Watch these TV episodes, read these different books, play these other games. A single transmedia critic can’t create personalized recommendations for everybody, but that’s why we need an entire thriving community of transmedia critics sharing their opinions and providing maps like these.

The people who currently play these roles are the die-hard fans on fan websites, the people who live and breathe these franchises. Unfortunately, they’re frequently not the best ambassadors to the series. We need the John Clutes, the Pauline Kaels, the Gene Siskels and Roger Eberts, the people who can analyze and report back on multiple franchises to convince hesitant audiences that these heights really are navigable, that the best experiences really are worth the labor, and that, alas, some of the peaks are actually best avoided. Having multiple transmedia critics, and having those critics establish themselves as experts with distinct tastes across franchises instead of fanboys for particular franchises, will help make such massive, complex entertainments less intimidating – and thus more enticing to mass audiences. And if we’re serious about moving transmedia entertainment more and more towards the mainstream, this has got to happen.

Unfortunately, the viability of transmedia reviews – and, for that matter, transmedia criticism – suffers from the same Everest-level challenge. In a June 1, 2010 post to her blog called “A Criticism on the Lack of Criticism”, transmedia designer Brooke Thompson puts her finger on one of the biggest problems facing transmedia criticism – scale:

There are a number of challenges to writing critiques on projects, not the least of which is their complexity and length. It’s difficult to be critical once you’ve invested so much time and energy into a project – whether you’ve designed it or experienced it. Being critical seems harsh and, well, it might make you wonder if you’ve wasted a bunch of your time and who wants to think that? This is one reason why we may never have a Roger Ebert or Ben Croshaw – the commitment required to fully experience a transmedia project, especially one as complex as an ARG, is far greater than the commitment required for films and video games (or books or music or or or). To make transmedia critique a commitment on that level is difficult and, well, would require far more time than would be profitable. Which makes it a pursuit of passion or, perhaps, an academic exercise. Yet both of these color the criticism, that’s not necessarily bad, but in collaborative transmedia that ignores the “other side of the curtain.”

In the Comics Journal article “A Call for Higher Criticism” I cited earlier, Paul Levitz suggests that comics critics consider each issue in the context of the larger body of work, that “the time and effort we now devote to carving up a story should be devoted to carving up the universe in which the story exists” (44). This resonates with transmedia reviews, because, as Thompson points out, current reviews of transmedia franchises are usually limited to individual components – so a review of the latest Star Wars video game, instead of a review of Star Wars as an entire franchise.

Thompson hits the nail on the head when she writes, “the commitment required to fully experience a transmedia project… makes it a pursuit of passion or, perhaps, an academic exercise.” Being able to review Star Wars, Star Trek, Halo, or any of these other transmedia super-franchises at the franchise level requires thousands of hours to consume it, let alone analyze it and write intelligently about one’s findings. In a way, each of these super-franchises is in effect a lifestyle brand – and therein lies both a primary trouble with transmedia reviews, and why they’re so important. Imagine you’re trying to decide whether to engage with the Star Wars franchise for the first time. The sheer size of the franchise at this point is epic and must loom large in the eye of the potential audience member – again, an Everest on the horizon. This is why Marvel keeps launching new X-Men titles, reboots and alternate versions, attempting to give people an “accessible” version of the X-Men franchise. As Sam Ford writes frequently on the challenges facing new audiences to soap operas, longevity and drillability can be simultaneously a franchise’s greatest strength and greatest liability.

Further, there’s a chicken-and-egg issue at hand with massive franchises and geekiness: are geeky people attracted to excessively drillable subjects, or does excessive drilling make one geeky? It’s just as easy to become a sports geek as it is to become a comic book geek. The catch is that sometimes those people who are the most familiar with the topic, the ones who have done the most drilling, are also those who are the least valuable as the topic’s advocates.

From the outside looking in, there must clearly something interesting about Star Wars, soap operas, the Chicago Cubs, quantum physics, the Civil War, and so on, because so many people are so passionately interested in these topics. An outsider may want to engage with the complex topic enough to enjoy it without becoming “that guy”, at least until their interest reaches a sufficient level that they crest the tipping point and mastery of the topic becomes acutely desirable. In a way, transmedia reviews, or transmedia criticism for the masses,[15] should be the equivalent of a 101-level course – sufficient to introduce a lay audience to the highlights of a topic, loaded with directions on where to go next for further drilling, and so on. The trouble is that we need, as Thompson points out, a Roger Ebert of transmedia reviews providing a reliable viewpoint to bear on a new franchise every week, which is the equivalent of a rockstar professor teaching an entire Philosophy 101 course one week, a Political Science 101 course the next week, and a History 101 course the week after that.

As Jenkins has pondered for years, there’s a strange line to consider between fandom and scholarship – one needs a certain amount of fandom to motivate the epic amount of drilling required to become an expert in a subject, yet one must also remain sufficiently detached to retain an objective perspective. An Ebert who gave a huge thumbs-up to everything he reviewed wouldn’t be a very good critic, he’d just be a guy who never shut up about all the things of which he was a fan. A truly valuable transmedia reviewer/critic must be able to engage with multiple massive transmedia franchises and have enough dedication to consume, analyze and report on each of them on a regular basis, even those he or she doesn’t like.

Of all the responses to Paul Levitz’ call for higher criticism published by The Comics Journal, my favorite is one by Richard Howell and Carol Kalish. Their response contains a brilliant concise definition of what comics criticism should be, which can easily be applied to transmedia criticism as well:

We feel, however, that comic books share their major objectives with other mass media, [and] can and should be judged by similar standards. To wit: Capability – a familiarity with, and craftsmanship-like utilization of, the medium’s techniques, be they visual or verbal elements; Communication – a conscious and responsible manipulation of these technical elements in such a way as to transmit at least the bare storytelling elements (plot, characterization, and theme) to a responsive reader; and Commitment – the perception required to invest the product with a moral focus which can both enlighten and entertain and the dedication needed to broaden the craft repertoire of the medium.

Comic book critics must be prepared to both refine these standards to make them more appropriate measures of comic book products and to apply these rigorous, objective standards with perception and understanding to the industry. Only then can comics criticism assume its rightful position as both guide and guardian of the continual evolution of the comics medium.

This quote points to yet another complication: the issue of what is actually being criticized. If one believes that what is to be criticized is that which makes the franchise transmedia – the unique affordances and characteristics of transmedia as a medium, its aesthetics and mechanics – then a familiarity with just transmedia is clearly sufficient. However, a more idealistic but vastly more daunting approach is to truly and knowledgably criticize each component of the franchise as an example of its own medium. This is the same challenge staring down any transmedia artist, and illustrates the same gut-wrenching truth: something as complex as a piece of transmedia storytelling or transmedia criticism is only as strong as its weakest link.

Any time you have a combination of disciplines brought together into an art form, every element has to succeed for the work as a whole to function properly. A comic book that has beautiful art but is shoddily written will be tossed aside; a TV show that is brilliantly written but horribly acted will get zapped away. Clearly some particularly excellent elements can make up for some weaker ones – the cinematography in The Last Samurai helps make up for Tom Cruise being, well, Tom Cruise – but overall it’s how the entire thing hangs together that determines the overall valuation of the whole.

Under this logic, an ideal transmedia critic must be able to criticize the six films of Star Wars as a film critic, The Clone Wars as a TV critic, the Timothy Zahn Heir to the Empire novels as a book critic, the Force Unleashed games as a game critic, Dark Horse’s Star Wars: Legacy comics as a comic critic, and so on. This may seem harsh, but it’s important to remember that just as each component of a transmedia franchise serves as an entry point into the franchise as a whole, it must also serve as an ambassador to the “native” audiences of each medium.

Think of it as the Transitive Quality of Crap: if a Star Wars comic is a crappy comic, comic readers for whom that comic is their first point of contact with the franchise will likely assume that a similar low quality permeates the entire franchise, and thus assume that the games are crappy, the TV shows are crappy, the film is crappy, and the franchise overall is just one big steaming pile.[16]

I have seen some astonishingly lousy transmedia extensions that were clearly approved by people unfamiliar with that extension’s medium – countless tie-in games, comics and novels spring to mind – and/or by people who assume that the value of the franchise’s license is sufficient to overcome a lousy experience. This isn’t the case, and this is why video games based on film licenses are widely derided in the games industry: a video game based on a film is assumed to have blown most of its budget obtaining the license, was rushed to market to make a “day and date” simultaneous release with the film (and had its production started much, much later than that of the film, despite the fact that video games can sometimes take even longer than films to produce), was creatively crippled by strict oversight by the licensor, and so on.

So here’s the problem: a transmedia author needs to be well-versed in each medium being deployed in their franchise, so they know when something is sub-par and can fix that weakest link. A transmedia critic needs to be able to evaluate each component of the franchise so if there is a weakest link, they can point it out as something to be avoided – but still point out that the rest of the franchise shouldn’t be missed. For example, one of the best exceptions to the “lousy film tie-in” rule is The Chronicles of Riddick. Both Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick are Vin Diesel sci-fi movies with abysmal scores on Metacritic, but the tie-in game Escape from Butcher Bay has fantastic scores on Metacritic.

A transmedia critic looking at the franchise as a whole must be well-versed enough to be able to say what the films did poorly, what the game did well, what the connections are between the films and the game and how well those connections are crafted, and whether or not an audience must sit through the films in order to enjoy the game. There’s enough of a Venn diagram overlap between gamers and sci-fi nerds for game critics to be able to report that the game is better than the movies because they probably saw the movies, but it’d be almost unthinkable for film critics to say, “The films are awful, but the game is excellent – skip the films and play the game.” And yet that’s precisely what an ideal transmedia critic would be expected to do.

Being well-versed in just one medium does not qualify you to criticize another, for the same reason that gamers find Roger Ebert writing criticisms of video games dubious. A transmedia critic must have a rich, nuanced understanding of multiple media in order to speak authoritatively to audiences across media – to be respected by film buffs when reporting on film components, by comic fans when reporting on comic books, by the literati when reporting on films and by foodies when reporting on food. In a way, the ideal transmedia critic is a return to the Renaissance Man style of critic that drove the first waves of literary criticism in 18th-century England. The question is whether or not such breadth is even remotely feasible on the 21st-century Internet.

(Next: Conclusions and Next Steps)

Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and author exploring transmedia experiences and emerging entertainment platforms at Microsoft. Geoffrey received his Master’s degree from the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, where he served as a media analyst for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a researcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Through his work with the Convergence Culture Consortium, Geoffrey authored “How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism” and “Moving Stories: Aesthetics and Production in Mobile Media”. His personal site is at, he can be reached at, and he can be found on Twitter as @geoffreylong.


[9] Bordwell et al. 96.


[11] Bordwell et al, 106.

[12] Bordwell et al 106.

[13] Quoted in Bordwell et al, 107.

[14] Bordwell et al 97.

[15] I’m resisting ‘transmedia advocacy’ because I believe that term should be reserved for advocacy done across media; see Lina Srivastava’s excellent work on transmedia activism for more on this.

[16] Again, Rule One.

How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism (Part One)

As people here on the west coast are getting ready for the April 6 Transmedia Hollywood conference to be held at the USC Cinema School (hint, hint – tickets still available), my old colleagues on the East Coast — the fine folks in the Futures of Entertainment Consortium (formerly the Convergence Culture Consortium) which I helped to establish back at MIT — released a significant new white paper which calls for more critical engagement with what does and does not work in the current generation of transmedia entertainment.

Geoffrey Long, an alumni of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, was part of a remarkable cohort of students who helped me work through some of the core ideas in Convergence Culture and who have continued to engage with issues of transmedia in their professional lives. Long, from the start, has asked some of the most thoughtful questions about the aesthetics and poetics of transmedia as a mode of storytelling, and some of that core thinking comes together here in an especially powerful way. I hope to see many of you at the Transmedia Hollywood conference in just a few weeks but in the meantime, Long’s white paper gives us all something to chew on. Talk amongst yourselves.

2011 C3 Research Memos and White Paper Series

edited by Prof. Henry Jenkins, Prof. William Uricchio and Daniel Pereira

How to Ride a Lion:

A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism


Geoffrey Long

Futures of Entertainment Fellow

Alumni Researcher for the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3)

(Author’s Note: Since this paper was originally authored in 2010, I’ve been delighted to discover an increasing amount of transmedia critics. Whose analysis of transmedia projects do you most enjoy? Please let us know in the comments! -GL)

PART 1 of 3

Executive Summary

As we move past the “Transmedia 101” stage of definitions and early experiments, the next stage of development for transmedia experiences may require transmedia criticism.

Such a move is not without its challenges. Transmedia criticism is inherently difficult (Should transmedia criticism only focus on transmedia’s unique characteristics? Should it evaluate how well each individual component performs as an example of its medium? Must a transmedia critic be ‘fluent’ in every medium in a franchise?), and unleashing a horde of vicious critics on a medium still in its infancy could be horrifically damaging. There’s also the question of where such criticism might ideally begin, as it is likely to evolve in three distinct directions – first in an industry-educating role like that of E.W. Sargent in the early days of cinema, second in an “educate the public sphere” role like that of early literary criticism in 18th-century England, and third in the lonelier role of isolated education to which literary criticism eventually found itself exiled.

Despite these issues, a robust system of transmedia criticism will be well worth the difficulty. As the future of entertainment becomes increasingly dominated by transmedia experiences, the entertainment industry will require both more informed practitioners (who will need both insights into leading transmedia experiences and a shared language of transmedia akin to the language of cinema) and a broader audience for transmedia as a medium (who will need ways to find new transmedia experiences and recommendations of which are worth their time). All of these breakthroughs can be attained through a robust transmedia criticism.

1. Introduction


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this one weird word. ‘Good’ is a horrible word, really, because it’s not only wholly subjective, it’s also inherently subjective, fleeting, and hyperlocalized. What I think is good might be garbage to you, what was good yesterday isn’t good today or what’s good today may be passé tomorrow, and what’s good in Los Angeles may be worthless in Tokyo or even in the next building over.

Yet ‘good’ is also an intensely powerful word. In 2006 I wrote a white paper for the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3) in which I half-jokingly declared that Rule One for creating anything is “Don’t Suck.” The awkward truth at the heart of that joke is that in order for a work to succeed it must first be good. This brings us back to the subjective, fleeting, hyperlocalized nature of ‘good’, and round and round we go.

And yet, as maddening as the pursuit of ‘good’ can inherently be, this is where both transmedia production and transmedia studies must go next. The majority of the papers written and talks given about transmedia to date have focused on defining the terminology or recounting early experiments: “this is what we think transmedia is, and this is how we’re tinkering with it”. A lot of this is Transmedia 101, or, when we’re lucky, Transmedia 201. What we need now is Transmedia 701, 801 and 901, to tell us how to create good transmedia experiences, how to succeed at transmedia as a medium in and of itself.

Measuring transmedia success objectively will require some form of transmedia metrics, to tell us which transmedia experiences are gathering audiences, retaining audience attention, converting new audiences in one medium into fans that pursue the experience into additional media, and so on. Alas, we’re not there yet. For now, we must satisfy ourselves with subjective forms of success, observing tactics adopted by various transmedia experiences and evaluating how well they appear to function in the service of the whole. We can also attempt to evaluate how well a particular transmedia experience succeeds as a transmedia experience by setting a number of tightly-defined criteria for evaluation, and then determining how closely the subject under examination adheres to those criteria – but attempting to do so for any medium, much less one as early in its infancy as transmedia, may be a fool’s errand. The edges of any medium (and, arguably, any definition) will always remain what Samuel R. Delaney calls a ‘fuzzy set’, and so a fixed definition of ‘transmedia’ will always be as elusive as a fixed definition of ‘film’ or ‘comics’.[1]

This isn’t to say that pushing and pulling at the boundaries of a definition isn’t a worthwhile pursuit – such experimentation is what leads to the expansion of any enterprise, and often leads to the creation of wholly new types of things. Some folks will happily bicker for years over whether a truly transmedia experience has to have community involvement, whether all Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) are transmedia experiences, if it’s really transmedia if it’s just a jump from a digital version of a comic to a print version of a comic, ad infinitum and ad nauseum.[2]

Yet there are now a sufficient number of us playing in this particular sandbox that we can move on to more advanced debates. We can stop pointing to examples of what transmedia storytelling is or is not, and start creating some in-depth, insightful criticism of what we consider to be good or bad examples of what we call transmedia, why we consider them to be so, and what they did that appears to have worked. In his Cute Manifesto, comics artist and theorist James Kochalka states:

Art is not a way of conveying information, it’s a way of understanding information. That is, creating a work of art is a means we have of making sense of the world, focusing to make it clearer, not a way of communicating some understanding of the world that we already hold. (Kochalka 2005)

This is similar to the role that transmedia criticism can play in our understanding of this emerging medium. Kochalka’s comment could easily be remixed into the following:

Transmedia criticism is not a way of conveying knowledge about transmedia, it’s a way of understanding transmedia. That is, transmedia criticism is a means we have of making sense of this new medium, focusing to make it clearer, not a way of communicating some understanding of transmedia that we already hold.

Simply put, we don’t yet know enough about transmedia to communicate firm, definitive truths about it that we already hold. However, this demonstrates the value of engaging in such analysis now, while general understanding of – and the creative practices in – transmedia is still relatively malleable. We should engage in earnest transmedia criticism now to gain a clearer focus, a better understanding, and ideally both a broader audience for transmedia and deeper, richer, more engaging, more profitable, and generally better transmedia experiences overall.

This explorative tactic is my chosen approach for this extended essay. The pages that follow include a few examples of what transmedia criticism already exists and draw on a history of criticism and examinations of criticism in other media (particularly comics and film) to lend them some context. By the end, this essay will have sketched out who’s calling for such transmedia criticism, what role transmedia criticism might play and why it’s important, where such criticism might be found, who might do it, and where might be a good place to start.

Some of us – especially those of us familiar with the work of the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3)[3] – are starting already, groping around in this dark direction. While I wouldn’t call the recently-published doctoral theses of either Derek Johnson[4] or Christy Dena[5] transmedia criticism per se, both documents make me long to read what criticism Johnson and Dena would write given the chance. Therein lies the problem – some of this work exists, but we need more of it – a lot more – and we need it quickly and broadly disseminated. This essay is designed as a resource for those of us already thinking about transmedia criticism, to help us step up and write that criticism and get it out there where it can start to do some real good.

At the end of the day, all of this Transmedia 101-level “This is what transmedia is, and this is how we’re experimenting with it” panels and papers feel a bit like “There’s this thing called a lion, and this is how we poked it with a stick.” The challenge is to go further: not just “this is how to tame a lion” further, not just “this is how to ride a lion” further, but “this is how to ride a lion well”. We have proven the existence of lions. There are plenty of people out there who are not only starting to ride lions, but are getting really good at riding lions. It’s time we point out who’s riding their lions through fire – and to tell the world why that’s so amazing.

2. Who’s Calling for Transmedia Criticism?

I once had a conversation with a high-ranking executive who was a transmedia skeptic. I was describing how important this notion of transmedia was becoming to the future of experiences, until he cut me off. “If it’s so important,” he said, “why aren’t I hearing people calling for it?”

The first response that sprang to mind was Henry Ford’s famous quote about how if he had only listened to what people were asking for, he would have built a faster horse. My second dismissed candidate was that people are calling for it – but then I realized that these people calling for transmedia experiences are themselves already converts, and are in fact calling for more advanced transmedia experiences. The response I chose? Those familiar with transmedia experiences are calling for more, and those who aren’t just haven’t been properly introduced to good transmedia experiences yet.

Not unsurprisingly, the same thing can be said of transmedia criticism. In a recap of the March 2010 Transmedia Hollywood event, journalist David Bloom wrote:

Fans are eating up all the cryptic, dystopian alternate-reality game experiences and spinoff comic books and book-length novelizations, participants said. But just as importantly, what once were just marketing-driven afterthoughts now often are aesthetic achievements that stand on their own. The only questions (and they’re big ones) are deciding what counts as a success, based on what criteria, and judged by whom.

…One audience member tartly observed that, “Anything that is concerned with ROI (return on investment) isn’t art.” Yes, he clearly hadn’t talked to a studio executive in a long time (despite saying he was in the middle of post-production on a science-fiction film). But his point went to a core question of the day, one panelists didn’t really answer: how do you evaluate a transmedia project’s success? Is it artistic/aesthetic? If so, is it judged on its own merits, or just on how it connects and fleshes out the connected “mothership” project, typically a film or book? Should it be judged on financial terms, like a stand-alone book or movie or videogame? If it is financial, is that based only on what the project cost? Or do you have to figure out how to measure what it did for the mothership? How do you value a transmedia project that keeps fans engaged in a major franchise during the lulls between new mothership arrivals? What Hollywood suit is equipped to pencil this one out? And, in the wake of widespread layoffs by print publications of their film, music, TV and theater critics, who’s qualified to make any judgments on aesthetic or financial grounds (ahem, Variety, we’re looking at you, again)? If, as with some recent projects, it’s an elaborate creation that ties together multiple web sites, phone numbers, video material, documents, puzzles and more, who’s going to work through all that, and decide how it rates?[6]

Transmedia designer Brooke Thompson voiced similar concerns in a June 1, 2010 blog post called “A Criticism on the Lack of Criticism”:

It strikes me that one of the biggest problems hindering the growth of transmedia (and all the various things that fall under it, such as ARGs) is the absolute lack of critical looks at projects. That’s not to say that criticism doesn’t exist – it does, but it’s scattered in conversations and hidden in forum posts or mailing lists. And it is, usually, not about a project as a whole and, instead, focuses on a single issue or is a broad look at the field.

Thompson is referring to the nascent form of transmedia criticism on the message boards of sites like Unfiction or ARGNet (both of which specialize in alternate reality games) and in the blog posts of individuals like Andrea Phillips (another transmedia artist) and Christy Dena (a prominent transmedia scholar). More on their attempts to address this need appear in sections V and VI of this paper, but the main point is that calls for criticism are being issued by fans, practitioners and scholars.

Such calls for criticism have been issued in other media before. In fact, the subtitle of this extended essay pays homage to an article called “A Call for Higher Criticism” published in October of 1979 in The Comics Journal #50. In it, the author pleads:

First, let me make it clear that I’m not trying to promote a standard for “fan” criticism or “professional” efforts. I write this in the hope that I might make discoveries when I read criticism of comics art, and not merely read opinions of an issue, a story, or a creator. What criticism of our medium needs is a frame of reference, and a sustained level of introspection.

The author was a young comics writer and DC editorial staff member named Paul Levitz, who happened to go on to serve as the President of DC Comics from 2002 until 2009. Levitz was calling for a comics criticism that transcended mere reviews of individual stories and included more insightful examinations into the context in which those stories existed. As Levitz concluded:

Many professional comics writers and artists, for whatever reasons, think no further about their work than the job they’re currently finishing. Many others, of course, give deep and intense thought to the medium they use. Many critics of comics criticize issues or stories as the be-all and end-all. Few take the time to consider the bigger picture, and to make criticisms that can give both readers and professionals lasting insight into what they do. It’s this lasting insight that is a critic’s opportunity to make changes in a field – changes great enough to last beyond his lifetime.

…Look back over the numberless thousands of comics you’ve read when next you criticize a single one. Consider the context, not as an excuse, but as explanation – or at least as the raw data of which an explanation can be made. Communicate your likes and dislikes not on the level of “loved panel seven of page eight,” but on a level of theory that may revolutionize the thinking of someone who reads your criticism. That’s your golden opportunity to use your critic’s throne to change the future, because all you have to do is communicate one ever-so-special thought to the right person at the right time, and you might help genius reach fulfillment. And wouldn’t that be a nice change?

A number of established critics stepped up to answer that question, and The Comics Journal published their responses to Levitz’ article in the very next issue. The tone of these replies was predictably mixed. Pierce Askegren, for example, noted that “Levitz should bear in mind the comparative youth of comics, comics fandom and comics fans; maturity comes to institutions more slowly than it does to individuals.” It’s Bill Sherman’s response, though, that bears the most relevance to our current purposes:

We should make a distinction here between reviewing and criticizing. Reviews ask – and, one hopes, answers – the simple question: “Is this piece of art worth my time?” In a review the writer acts as an educated consumer, giving a context for his opinion (which may involve history as well as some critical comments) and then telling readers his answer to that question. Most reviewing is by nature ephemeral, though if a writer is consistent and works long enough without taking the easy way out (overusing the cursory cop-outs Levitz mentions, for example), he will produce criticism of a general sort. An example of this happening might be James Agee’s series of movie reviews in the ’40s: collected, they provide an excellent critical overview of the period.

Criticism speaks to a larger audience: both consumers and those artists willing to look and think about what they and their cohorts are or have been doing. It’s analytical, tries to figure out how a piece of art works in relation to other pieces of art, and to a degree it ignores the question of “Is this worth my time?” “Of course it is,” criticism says, although that answer may not imply the work being criticized is any good in the critic’s eyes, only important. Criticism is lengthier and usually takes a degree of distancing… It takes time for critical vision to develop, which is why so many highly touted favorites have been known to lose their sheen after several years’ perspective. For all its analytical value criticism frequently lacks a journalistic sense of what’s happening now.

Where does this leave us? With the need for both good criticism and good reviewing, with the need for reviewers with enough critical/historical insight to produce writing that – while short of Levitz’s ideal – carries thought behind it, with the need for creators who aren’t afraid to have their work looked at from a consumer’s point of view and who aren’t lackadaisical about the critical process. Levitz’s call is just, but there’s need for good thoughtful writing on all levels of analysis.

Sherman is absolutely right. The type of criticism Levitz calls for – the deep, insightful examination of how a piece of work is built and the context in which it was made – is intensely useful to practitioners, but it might be overkill for general audiences curious to know whether something is worth their time – and this question takes on even more importance when dealing with transmedia franchises that represent massive time investments in order to consume the whole thing.[7]

This suggests that instead of merely ‘transmedia criticism’, what we need is actually both a type of ‘transmedia criticism’ and a form of ‘transmedia reviews’. A richer, deeper understanding of transmedia among academics and professionals may require an equally rich, deep form of transmedia criticism, which develops its own language of transmedia akin to the language of cinema (more on that later), wrestles with the lasting import of any particular example of transmedia (in other words, debates the existence of and admission into some form of transmedia canon) and enjoys all the delightful tensions between industry and academia inherent therein.

At the same time, broadening the audience for transmedia experiences may require transmedia reviews, which concern themselves more directly with communicating to the general public (and the generally curious) which transmedia experiences are worth their time and money – and, ideally, which components of those franchises will be the most interesting to a given sub-section of the audience, which component would be the best place to start, and so on. There’s clearly a place for both such criticism and such reviews, but it is the combination of the two which will most likely result in both better transmedia and a broader audience for it.[8]

The task at hand, then, is to sketch out not just a form of transmedia criticism, but an ecosystem of transmedia criticism, one that’s broad enough to include both criticism targeted at educating the industry and reviews broadening the public. Such a combination might finally provide the ideal answer to the question posed by the executive at the beginning of this section: to hear more people calling for transmedia, first you have to produce something worth wanting, and then show them why they want it.

(Next: What Role Might Transmedia Reviews Play?)

Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and author exploring transmedia experiences and emerging entertainment platforms at Microsoft. Geoffrey received his Master’s degree from the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, where he served as a media analyst for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a researcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Through his work with the Convergence Culture Consortium, Geoffrey authored “How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism” and “Moving Stories: Aesthetics and Production in Mobile Media”. His personal site is at, he can be reached at, and he can be found on Twitter as @geoffreylong.


[1] For an example of what a nightmare this is, see the ongoing debate over Scott McCloud’s famous definition of ‘comics’.

[2] We should let them do so. For many of them, tenure depends on it.


[4] A version of the ideas in Johnson’s thesis can be found in his C3 White Paper: “Learning to Share: The Relational Logistics of Media Franchising” –

[5] Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments


[7] More on this in section V.

[8] Over a quarter-century later, a new generation of comics scholar-critics have emerged to answer Levitz’ call. One such critic is Douglas Wolk, who has written comics criticism for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon and Rolling Stone. In his 2007 book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, Wolk writes, “…It’s my responsibility as a critic to be harsh and demanding and to subject unambitious or botched work to public scorn, because I want more good comics: more cartoonists who challenge themselves to do better, and more readers who insist on the same” (Wolk 22). One hopes it won’t take nearly as long to generate the ecosystem of transmedia criticism I’m lobbying for here.

The Past and Future Histories of Books: An Interview with Ted Striphas (Part Two)

You trace the surprisingly long history of Barnes and Noble as a book store which has transformed itself many times across the 20th century.  Given this nimbleness, why have we seen so many brick and mortar bookstores close over the past decade or so? Is this simply the next stage in their evolution or does it represent a more fundamental shift in the place of bookstores in our lives?

This is a wonderful and challenging question, Henry, because bookstores mean so many different things to different people. The best way for me to answer it is to think about what has done to the idea of a bookstore. The company has succeeded for many reasons, chief among them a commitment to low prices. But it’s also succeeded, at least with books, because it’s taught consumers that many of the things people liked best about physical bookstores could be reproduced online, often algorithmically. I wish I had a dollar for the number of memoirs I’ve read about readers and their relationship to particular (often independent) booksellers. They often wax nostalgic for how their favorite bookseller just seemed to know which books would most interest them. Well, along comes Amazon, which can perform more or less the same service but without direct human intervention. That may be a drawback for some, but many people avoid buying books about sensitive issues — say, sex, mental illness, or divorce — for precisely that reason. What Amazon has done so successfully is to create a bookselling environment that mimics most of the strengths of traditional bookstores while at the same time throwing their many drawbacks — most of which people just accepted as the status quo — into sharp relief. Oh…and Amazon is always open.

I don’t have any grand prognostications about the future place of bookstores, beyond wanting to sound a note of caution about Amazon. It wasn’t all that long ago that Amazon deleted pirated copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from its customers’ Kindles. Can you imagine another (physical) bookseller breaking into your house in the middle of the night to reclaim a pirated copy of a book you’d just legally purchased? Amazon says it will never do something like this again, but because every Kindle is “tethered” to the company, it will always possess the capacity to do so. Similarly, that Amazon accidentally de-listed gay and lesbian themed books from its product catalog a few years ago, re-indexing them as pornography, tells you something about the delicacy of its computer systems. What are the implications of delegating the curatorial work of culture to databases and computer algorithms? That’s a question I’m pursuing in my current book project, on the topic of “algorithmic culture,” and have posted about at length over on my Late Age of Print blog.

When you ask about “a fundamental shift in the place of bookstores in our lives,” these are the types of questions that arise for me. And they’re not exactly the kinds of questions we’ve had to ask about bookstores in the past.

You see the introduction of the ISBN code as a key moment in transforming our contemporary relations with books. What led to this innovation and what impact did it have?

I had the good fortune of receiving a very positive review of The Late Age of Print when it first came out, in UK’s Guardian newspaper. The reviewer admiringly called me a “distribution nerd” because of my enthusiastic discussion of the ISBN. I haven’t lost any of that exuberance, as you and your readers are about to discover!

The ISBN is a simple, elegant, and effective code, one that tells you just how wired the book industry is. In fact, it’s one of the things that tells you that book publishing was among the first wired industries, period, despite the fact that people tend to think about it as behind-the-times.

Basically, in the 1960s, a British bookselling chain confronted a practical problem: how to inventory all of its books and coordinate stock among its numerous stores? The company’s management team studied the issue and later convinced a trade organization to agree to a book coding standard — what was called the “Standard Book Number,” or SBN, later to be known as the ISBN when it was adopted internationally. Originally it was 10 digits long; in recent years it’s grown to 13 digits. With this you can electronically communicate a book’s language or country of origin, as well as its publisher, title, edition, and binding. That’s an astonishing amount of information to convey in such a tiny amount of space.

I see the development of the ISBN as a technological counterpart to advertising, public relations, and other types of “ideological” work that the culture industries routinely engage in. So much of the story of popular culture in the United States in the 20th century focuses on how “captains of consciousness” — people like Bernays and others — helped to square capitalist production and consumption through their work. And yet, their work would have amounted to little had there not also been an adequate infrastructure in place for book publishing and other industries to coordinate the distribution of their products. It’s much sexier to talk about “swaying the masses” than it is to discuss product coding, and yet the latter is no less significant to the story of popular culture than is the former.

You discuss the debates around the contribution of Oprah’s Book Club to contemporary print culture, but now, Oprah is off the air. To what degree was the impact of this institution linked to the nature of broadcasting? Could Oprah’s book club have functioned the same way in a digital environment? If not, what kinds of digital practice might be encouraging people to read more rather than less (as seems to be the fear of many cybercritics)?

I really appreciate how you’ve inflected this question now that “Oprah has left the building,” as it were. One of the reasons for the success of Oprah’s Book Club was Winfrey’s repute and notoriety, but celebrity alone can’t explain why a TV personality became such a major force in the book world. One of the claims I make in The Late Age of Print is that Winfrey and her producers cleverly tapped elements of the televisual medium to make the Book Club successful. So, for example, they were sensitive to the seasonal dimensions of television viewing; recommendations for long books tended to coincide with the end of the regular television season in May, thereby giving readers plenty of time to read the selection before the new season of Oprah began in September. Similarly, Oprah Book Club shows were carefully segmented in such a way that even those who hadn’t read the latest selection wouldn’t feel left out. It was an extremely adept, decade and a half-long example of how to marry books and television, happily.

What the Oprah example suggests, moreover, is that printed books and printed book reading can be encouraged in digital environments given the right type of strategy and, more importantly, the right sensitivities to the affordances of digital media. That’s already emerged, in fact, around Goodreads, which is a site combining social networking and online conversation about books. Amazon, too, is experimenting with a social network, its version architected around the Kindle. Readers can opt to share passages they’ve highlighted in their Kindle books with people who have decided to follow their feeds. You can opt to Tweet those passages, too, complete with ready-made hashtags meant to encourage response.

The intention seems to be to virtualize and deterritorialize the traditional reading group. The question critics are now starting to ask is, can you have a meaningful conversation about a book in settings mediated by hardware, software, and code as opposed to, say, paper and one’s living room? These digital systems are still in their infancy, so in my view it’s too early to tell. Having said that, I don’t see why, perforce, you cannot have a deep and intelligent discussion about books online, even in installments of 140 characters or less.

Given the centrality of Harry Potter as a case study in the book, I wondered what you thought the Pottermore announcement suggests about the ways that, as you write, “printed books and electronic media can complement each other”?

The Pottermore site, J. K. Rowling’s new digital hub for selling Harry Potter e-books, encouraging fan involvement, and promoting Harry Potter more generally is probably the biggest thing to happen with the boy wizard since I published The Late Age of Print. And, sure enough, it does certainly suggest the complementarity of atoms and bits, paper and pixels.

Having said that, Pottermore also seems to me to point to something even more interesting: Rowling’s desire to maintain what you might call “end-to-end” control of the Harry Potter franchise. She’s been deeply involved in the production of the film adaptations, even going as far as to have Steven Spielberg removed early on in the process because he wanted to Americanize the stories (for example, by transforming Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry into “Hogwarts High”). She’s also active in policing Harry Potter copyrights, trademarks, and related indicia, something the Harry Potter Lexicon copyright infringement case from a few years ago made clear. Moreover, until Pottermore, Rowling refused to make e-editions of the Harry Potter series available, fearing for the ease with which digital copies not in her immediate control might end up being pirated. (A footnote: I find it naive to think that anyone can control a digital copy of anything, even if it’s digitally rights managed. When I worked at a hardware store in high school, my boss was fond of saying, “locks are for honest people.”)

What Pottermore tells me, then, is that Rowling aspires to become book publishing’s equivalent to Apple Computer — something she’s quite well positioned to do. And, as with Apple, that type of end-to-end control will undoubtedly have its plusses and minuses, its benefits and frustrations; you get a great product, but it’s significantly on another’s terms.

Your Harry Potter case study is very much about “piracy,” the creation and circulation of unauthorized versions of the book in the developing world, yet many of my readers are also interested in fan fiction as the unauthorized expansion of the Harry Potter universe by its fans. How does this kind of publishing fit within the book’s discussion of print culture practices?

Piracy is an issue with a tremendous amount of gray area, one that too often gets presented as if it were simply black and white. Whenever we want to talk about piracy, I believe we need to imagine it as existing along a continuum that includes, at minimum:

1) officially authorized derivative works (e.g., the various novels in the Star Wars series sanctioned by George Lucas);

2) officially tolerated derivative works (e.g., unauthorized vanilla fan fiction that adheres closely to existing narrative universes);

3) possibly tolerated derivative works (e.g., unauthorized fan fiction that pushes the boundaries of or even departs from the standard narrative universe, as in the re-narrating of Harry Potter and Ron’s Weasley’s relationship as homosexual); and

4) allegedly infringing derivative works (e.g., unauthorized materials that are usually intended to be sold commercially, as in The Harry Potter Lexicon, the Russian Tanya Grotter books, etc.).

What this means, ostensibly, is that almost anyone whose creative work piggybacks on that of another is a pirate, at least to greater and lesser degrees. I realize that’s a controversial claim, but at some level it gets at the nature of the creative process, which is all about marshaling and remixing existing cultural resources. That’s also in part why, for instance, J. K. Rowling herself has been accused multiple times of plagiarism and copyright infringement, the Willy the Wizard suit being the most recent example. However fresh and captivating her stories undoubtedly are, they nonetheless draw on some of the deepest resources of Western culture, including the narrative of the hero’s quest, the genre of the British boarding school novel, and much, much more. (The fact that Rowling has deep, deep pockets is also a major factor here — let’s be clear.)

One of the things that most intrigues me in talking to the students of my “Cultures of Books and Reading” course, where we read my Harry Potter chapter from The Late Age of Print, is the tension that exists between categories (2) and (4), above. I’m always fascinated to hear my students debate where they think the line should be drawn in terms of what constitutes illicit (piratical) appropriation. Most are generally okay with officially authorized derivative works. Some, however, become very upset at works that end up in category (4), even as they admit to being readers and sometimes producers of fan fiction, typically of category (2) and on rarer occasion, number (3). I’m not sure how to reconcile this tension other than to point out that many have framed the piracy issue as a clash between “powerful” and “grassroots” media producers. But there is also significant tension that exists among the grassroots — which is to say nothing of all of the suits and countersuits that routinely occur among the big media producers.

The bottom line for me, then, is to begin thinking more deliberately about the ways in which law and legal concerns increasingly mediate people’s experiences of culture — this alongside the work you’ve done in terms of identifying the frameworks that fans and even more pedestrian consumers use to judge the legitimacy of particular cultural goods.

Ted Striphas is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication & Culture, Indiana University and book review editor of the journal Cultural Studies. He research and teaching interests include media history, the digital humanities, and the future of scholarly communication. He blogs about books and digital culture at The Late Age of Print. You can also find him on Twitter: @striphas.

The Past and Future Histories of Books: An Interview with Ted Striphas

Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print will change how you think about books. Most of the ways we’ve been taught literature seek to make the print medium itself disappear. We are left thinking about the text as pure expression removed from the material conditions by which it is produced, distributed, and consumed. There is, to be sure, a strong history of work on the history of print and of books, but it still remains highly likely that you can get through most high school and college Literature classes and never really engage with books on that level. Yet, the prospect of delivering these texts through some other medium — digital, perhaps — may make many of us passionate defenders of the book as a vehicle for communicating knowledge, as a medium which shapes our experience of reading. So, that’s where Striphas starts, with the recurring anxiety that books and book culture may be endangered, but he does not stop there, taking us deep into the history of book stores, book publishing, even the routing process by which books reach consumers. And the result is utterly fascinating.

I had a chance to meet Ted Striphas, who is a professor at Indiana University, when I gave a lecture at Bloomington this past fall, and there we hatched a plan to bring an interview about his book about books to this blog. Throughout this conversation, Striphas gives us a sense of print — not as a medium at risk, but certainly as a medium in transition.

You titled your book “the Late Age of Print” and your book begins by looking critically at some of the claims being made right now that print culture is in crisis or in active decline. What do you think such writers get right? What do they get wrong?

First, Henry, let me thank you for kindly inviting me for an interview on your blog. What a delight to dialogue with you.

One of the principal claims we hear reiterated about books is how electronic media are, for lack of a better word, their competitors. First it was radio, then it was television, and now it’s the internet, video games, and other digital technologies: they’re slowly siphoning off the audience for books because of their flash, interactivity, and verve — or at least that’s the story. The upshot is that electronic media are causing books and book reading a slow and agonizing death. This is basically the conclusion that the National Endowment for the Arts reached in its widely cited report from 2004, “Reading at Risk,” although similar claims had been made countless times before then in a host of venues.

What the alarmists get right is an appreciation for how books exist within a densely packed media sphere, where more and more media seem to vie for our attention each day. Unfortunately, they tend to glance over just how complex this relationality actually is. Pick up a paperback book and turn it over. What do you see? Endorsements, a summary, maybe a few words telling the bookseller where the volume ought to be shelved. Now look closer, to the part of the book you’re not supposed to focus on: the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and Universal Product Code (UPC). These machine codes tell us that the distribution, selling, and ultimately consumption of books all rely significantly on digital technologies. In other words, the very technologies that are supposedly killing off books also facilitate their consumption. That’s a fact that most traditional bibliophiles have yet to work through.

Was print culture ever stable in the sense that these writers seem to imply?

Never. In fact, the claims you’ve asked me about follow in a long line of fears about new technologies edging out the old, either in terms of the technologies themselves or the capacities they’re purported to encourage in human beings. Plato bemoaned the technology of writing for making us stupid, because he saw it as an enfeebling prosthetic for our memories. Rousseau said almost exactly the same thing 2500 years later. During the first century of print, scribes bemoaned printed books for being devoid of the mark of the human hand, suggesting that they were existentially inferior to manuscripts as a result. Ditto Martin Heidegger, who made a similar claim in reference to the typewriter in his lectures on Parmenides.

One of my favorite examples, though, comes from a Massachusetts librarian named J. M. Hubbard, who, in 1884, had this to say about popular novels: “This…is our danger in this day of public libraries and cheap literature, that the mental strength of our youth will be weakened through…too much reading of a multitude of books.” In other words, it wasn’t all that long ago that the very media form we now hold up as sacred — printed books, or at least a particular genre of them — was the one being accused of diminishing young people’s moral and intellectual wellbeing.

The book historian Elizabeth Eisenstein probably said it best in an essay of hers appearing in The American Scholar called “The End of the Book?”: “Premature obituaries on…the end of the book are themselves testimony to long-enduring habits of mind. In the very act of heralding the dawn of a new age with the advent of new media, contemporary analysts continue to bear witness, however inadvertently, to the ineluctable persistence of the past.” In other words, the feeling of crisis you’ve pointed to may well be the only constant in the history of books.

A key theme for you is the “everydayness of books,” the ways that they have become incorporated into familiar routines and patterns of our lives. Why is this stress on the “ordinary” so important to your analysis?

One of the questions I ask in The Late Age of Print is: how did books become a prevalent-to-the-point-of-being-banal part of people’s lives? This strikes me as a crucial starting point, because it compels us to think about the myriad ways in which books have been incorporated into people’s daily routines beyond, say, the reading of them in literature classes. So much of what we know — or think we know — about books is premised on a model of literary education from the 20th century, where people are expected to pore over words and interpret them for meaning, symbolism, artistry, and so forth. That’s all well and good, but what else do people do with books? I have a bunch of books right now propping up a damaged bookcase. What does that tell you about the uses of books? In the 1970s, Barnes & Noble operated a bargain-basement store called the “Sale Annex,” where customers could purchase books by the pound. Were they actually reading them? Maybe. More than likely, though, they were buying them in bulk to fill up what would otherwise be empty bookshelf space.

The point of thinking about the “ordinariness” or “everydayness” of books is to expand our understandings of what books, as cultural artifacts, are or actually do. They’re literary objects, to be sure, but they’re also space-fillers, positional goods, tools (ever killed a bug with a book?), and more. Unless you start from the everydayness of books, you’re apt to write a one-dimensional history of a technologically and culturally complex object.

On a more intellectual-historical note, the concern for “ordinariness” derives from my interest in the work of the cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams. His essay from 1958, “Culture is Ordinary,” is one of the key theoretical touchstones of The Late Age of Print and indeed of my larger body of scholarly work.

At San Diego Comic-Con last year, there was a panel on “Comics Without Borders.” In years past, this title might have refered to the transgressiveness of underground comics, but this year, it refered to the anxiety caused by the closing of a major book store chain and what that means for the comics industry’s hopes for more mainstream (non-speciality shop) distribution. This is one of the biggest changes since you wrote the book. How has the collapse of Borders impacted American book culture?

It’s difficult to be sure, since it’s only about a year since Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, following a year or two of shuttering unprofitable stores. Having said that, there’s at least one immediate effect that’s clear: more than 500 retail book superstores disappeared from the American landscape within the space of about two years. That’s more than 12 million square feet of bookstore space, to put it in another perspective. What that also means, following the closure of many independent bookstores in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is that there are now just two major players on the bookselling scene: Barnes & Noble and (although we shouldn’t forget the so-called “non-book outlets” where printed books are also sold, e.g., pharmacies, discount department stores, etc.). This winnowing is alarming, if for no other reason than it suggests something of a return to the era of mass culture, at least where books are concerned. Together, Barnes & Noble and Amazon possess unparalleled leverage in terms of book distribution and selling, which means they can place extraordinary pressure on publishers to do their bidding.

The collapse of Borders was also something of a wake-up call in terms of getting the book business to begin thinking seriously about the long term viability of its mainstay, printed books. The latter are cumbersome, consuming lots of space and natural resources — all very costly on a number of levels. And in this, publishers, distributors, and others were reminded of the collapse of two comparable institutions: Tower Records, once an icon of super-sized music selling and now a mere memory, a casualty of (among other things) the explosive rise of digital music in the early 2000s; and Blockbuster Video, whose stores once dotted almost every suburban landscape. Many in the book industry now seem convinced that “efficiency” and “competitiveness” can only mean “digital,” a message Amazon in particular is only too happy to reinforce.

I’m not sure this is the absolutely correct conclusion, however, and I think Barnes & Noble may be right in terms of hedging its bets. The company has decided to pursue an aggressive digital strategy while maintaining a more traditional paper artifact/physical bookstore approach. Borders’ woes, though related to the rise of digital books, had much more to do with years of mismanagement, including a string of ineffective CEOs who knew next to nothing about books and how to sell them. Again, it’s not entirely clear whether digital and paper media are sworn enemies, and whether, then, the new must drive out the old.

Your book mentions several times the crisis in publishing experienced in the early 1930s. What can we learn about today’s anxieties around print by looking at this earlier transitional moment? How did the book industry respond to that crisis?

The crisis in books of the 1930s was precipitated largely by the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression. With millions out of work and with less disposable income, the book business suffered, as did most major industries of the time. The downturn forced the book industry to get really creative in its approach to promoting books and reading. For instance, a group of New York publishers began working with the public relations guru Edward L. Bernays, who concocted a clever scheme designed to stigmatize people who loaned their books out to friends — a practice that must have become all the more commonplace given the economic conditions of the time. Bernays organized a contest in which the readers of several major New York City papers were asked create a neologism — a put-down, really — to describe people who, in passing on their books, were depriving authors and publishers of sorely needed sales and thus furthering the Depression. The winning entry was “book sneak,” and though it never really made it into the American English lexicon, it’s nonetheless a fitting reminder of the indirect — you might even say backhanded — ways one might promote book buying.

Bookselling isn’t experiencing a complete slump today, although the current economic downturn has affected it negatively, to be sure. And as I mentioned before, many publishers now seem to think that a digital strategy will be the turnkey solution to all their problems. To me this demonstrates unimaginative thinking, as the Bernays example shows. Why not encourage home builders to install bookshelves in new homes, as Bernays also did? Why not try to figure out how to connect books better with readers, as Oprah Winfrey did? Apropos, one of the most interesting things Winfrey did through her Book Club was to avoid reinforcing the longstanding distinction between fiction and non-fiction, which seemed irrelevant to many of her viewers. Still, book publishers persist in categorizing and marketing books in this way, because, in their view, these categories are sacrosanct. All that to say, book publishers and book sellers need to question everything they think they know about the book business, beyond the very obvious distinctions to be made between atoms and bits.

You cite a cartoon from The Chronicle of Higher Education which said “the problem with e-books is that they are e-books.” Why do so many intellectuals seem to have a problem with the idea of e-books? What do current sales patterns around the Kindle and the Nook suggest about the future impact of digital technology on books?

I have to confess to being one of those intellectuals who has a problem reading e-books. I’m not a fan, although having forced myself recently to read the Kindle editions of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration; Moneyball: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game; and the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs, I’m becoming more comfortable than I once was.

For me, the resistance to e-books (and I don’t think, as a humanities scholar, I’m alone in this) has everything to do with the intensive way in which I interact with paper books. I underline and takes notes on key passages as I go. You can do that on a Kindle, but you cannot then do what I also do: create an alternative index based on my idiosyncratic trajectory through the book; separate my “brainstorms” from my bootstrap index and marginal notes; and start an additional list of notes in some other location of the text for purposes of, say, leading a class discussion.

The more e-books I read, the more I begin to realize that: (1) Kindles, Nooks, and other e-reading devices are engineered around a conception of what the book industry calls the “general reader”; and (2) academic readers — especially those of us in the humanities — are atypical in terms of the ways we read and relate to texts. What that also tells me is that we’re still very much in a “one-size-fits-all” phase for e-books. Their growth has been explosive in recent years (assuming we believe Amazon’s many unverified claims), but, truth be told, at this point e-book sales have nowhere else to go but up. Eventually the adoption of e-readers will reach some type of limit, which is going to leave companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble (assuming it survives), Apple, and others scrambling to find new, more specialized markets (Apple may already be doing this through its recent iTextbooks initiative). Maybe then e-readers will become even more full-featured and better able to accommodate the needs of weird readers like me.

Ted Striphas is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication & Culture, Indiana University and book review editor of the journal Cultural Studies. He research and teaching interests include media history, the digital humanities, and the future of scholarly communication. He blogs about books and digital culture at The Late Age of Print. You can also find him on Twitter: @striphas.

Why youth are drawn to Invisible Children: Prefiguring Kony 2012

by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik

The rapid and expansive spread of Invisible Children’s Kony

2012 film has garnered immense attention (both positive and negative)

online. While much of the criticism is around the organization’s

rhetoric, its suggestion of military intervention, or its financial

practices, I would like to touch on a different  aspect of Invisible

Children — its impact as an organization on youth participation in US

civic and political life.


has Invisible Children’s approach resonated so well with young people

and what impact does this and other campaigns have on their sense of

themselves as political agents? The Kony 2012 video has been most

popular with 13-17 year old Americans (as well as 18-24 year old American males…),

and part of the video’s soaring viewership is attributed to these

teenagers’ sharing of the video through their various social networks.

So far,  it would be simple to dismiss their sharing of the video as a

form of Slacktivism: these young people, allegedly, are practicing easy

and thus meaningless forms of social action, actions that don’t go

beyond pressing ‘share’. This critique, however, ignores the possibility

that the movie may be meaningful in mobilizing young people

as civic actors. Making such statements around Kony 2012 would be

premature, as only time will tell what the long-term impacts of young

people’s experiences with this movie will be. But, we can gain some

preliminary insights by looking at what Invisible Children has done

before, over its years of mobilizing young Americans to action. At this

time, we do not want to get into the controversies about the right

action to take around the war in Central Africa. Rather, we want to

highlight Invisible Children’s ability to powerfully engage young people

through what we call Participatory Culture Civics.


first provide some background. Invisible Children (IC) is an

organization that has been around for 8 years. IC’s previous 10 movies,

while not circulated as widely as Kony 2012, have sparked similarly

intense reactions from many of its viewers. Some of these previous

viewers joined what became the “Invisible Children movement”, consisting

of volunteer staff, interns, roadies, and local club members in high

schools and colleges. These members participated in IC’s large-scale,

performative campaigns, including the Global Night Commute, Displace Me and 25,

and dedicated time and energy to promoting IC’s causes nationwide.

While this was not Invisible Children’s original goal, the organization

became increasingly aware of its “inadvertent” role in encouraging

American youth’s social engagement. The organization has increasingly

focused on this role as part of its action, as exemplified by the “Fourth Estate”

event they held in the summer of 2011, an event dedicated to empowering

650 socially active youth to become activists for the causes they care

passionately about. The key elements of this event are summarized in a video created by IC for the Do Something Award competition:

Do Something Award – The Fourth Estate from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

The Civic Paths Project Research Group, working with Professor Henry Jenkins at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California and supported by the Spencer Foundation,

has been looking at Invisible Children as a case study of what we call

Participatory Culture Civics: organizations which build on top and

harness the strengths of participatory cultures to further their civic

goals. Invisible Children sparked our interest due to its innovative and

non-orthodox use of media, but even more so, due to the way it created a

participatory community around its goal. But we’ll get to that in a



the tens of millions (we’ve given up on updating this number) of

viewers of Kony 2012 are hundreds of thousands of young people who have

joined Invisible Children’s mission long before this film. In 2010-2011,

we interviewed 30 such members, who told us about how they learnt about

Invisible Children and got involved in the organization, and how

becoming involved with the group helped shape their identity as civic

actors. We talked to members who were relatively highly engaged: interns

volunteering to work at IC offices for the summer, roadies, who

volunteered 3 months of their lives to tour IC movies around the nation,

and leaders of local IC clubs in high schools and colleges. In short,

they were young people who dedicated significant time, energy and effort

to IC’s cause.

Yet in some ways, they are not unlike some of the new

viewers of Kony 2012: many were in high school when they first

encountered IC, and to many (though not all) viewing the film and

becoming engaged with IC was a first experience of taking part in any

civic action. We believe that listening to these members’ accounts of

their experiences can help us better understand why young people are

attracted to Invisible Children and what role the organization has

played in the past in helping young people begin to conceive of

themselves as political agents.

This blog entry is based in our research

with Invisible Children and builds on a forthcoming article

“Experiencing Fan Activism: Understanding the Power of Fan Activist

Organizations through Members’ Narratives” which will be published in

the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures in June 2012.

Creating content worlds – Invisible Children’s storytelling through movie


analysis of Invisible Children’s model of youth engagement began with

the lens of “fan activism”: forms of civic engagement and political

participation growing out of experiences of fandom. We were examining

Invisible Children as a parallel to another case study of Participatory

Culture Civics: the Harry Potter Alliance,

a non-profit organization that mobilizes the Harry Potter fan community

toward civic action, using metaphors from the popular narratives. In

comparing the two organizations, we found that while the Harry Potter

Alliance built on an existing fan community and harnessed a pre-existing

content world (a powerful narrative that strongly resonates with

members) toward its civic goals, Invisible Children began with a

goal–ending the use of child soldiers in the civil war in Uganda–and

built a content world around it.


Children has been creating documentary films since 2004, when they

released their first, and for many viewers most powerful, film, Invisible Children: The Rough Cut:

For an analysis of IC’s transmedia storytelling practices see the Invisible Children Working Paper written by fellow Civic Paths member Lana Swartz.

The Rough Cut documents IC founders Jason, Bobby and Lauren’s trip to Uganda,  where they first learned about the war with the LRA and the existence of child soldiers. In members’ narratives, this movie is attributed with an almost magical effect in transforming their worldview:


showed me the film and I remember being so floored like, ‘I cannot

believe that this is going on’ and ‘why have I never heard about this.’ I

remember something in me shifted that night.” (Ruth, IC intern)


main strength of the movie to most IC members is the feeling of

identification with the protagonists–the three filmmakers and future IC

founders, young people not much older than themselves, who go out to

Uganda, encounter a social issue and launch a movement:


movie is just very raw, and it’s, even though they were older than me

they were kids, and you see these kids just go, they see something, they

run into a problem and they’re like, OK, now we have to fix this

problem.” (Beth, IC intern)

In this respect, the Kony 2012 movie represents a significant shift in point of view and style. If
Rough Cut presented

the founders as naïve but good-intentioned film students accidentally

stumbling onto a war, Kony 2012 shows Jason as a leader of a viable

movement and, predominantly, as a father. When he teaches his 5 year old

son about Joseph Kony being “the bad guy”, it’s not clear with whom

young viewers most identify – with the 30 something old dad, or with the

innocent but earnest 5 year-old.


Kony 2012 was released online, previous IC movies were mostly

distributed through “screenings”: 1.5-2 hour long events, taking place

in high schools, colleges and churches. In screenings, IC roadies, who

are volunteer staff members, show the movie, and accompany it with an

introduction and Q&A sessions. Some screenings also include young

Ugandan, recipients of IC scholarships in Uganda, who come to the U.S.

for a short period of time to tell their own story in screenings. After

screenings, audiences were encouraged to donate to Invisible Children,

buy its merchandise, as well as become more involved with its local



distribution model, of course, reached a negligible audience when

compared with Kony 2012. At the same time, the live interaction with the

roadies enabled Invisible Children to create a different experience

than that possible when watching Kony 2012 online. By supplementing the

movies with live interaction with the roadies, Invisible Children could

supplement the information given in the movies (e.g., explain the

current state of affairs in Uganda), answer audience’s questions (e.g.,

how are donations used) as well as create contacts between roadies and

IC supporters, which were later maintained online. This model, while

reaching much smaller audiences, enabled IC to create a more nuanced and

informed message, and thus counter some (though not all) of the

criticisms it is now encountering.

Accusations of Slacktivism, or, can watching a 30 minute movie make you a social activist?

image source:


of the critique around the Kony 2012 campaign is that it promotes

Slacktivism: a genre of social action that is easy (done with a click of

the mouse), comfortable, and thus meaningless. One of the memes that’s

been circulating around Kony 2012 presents this critique. This critique

already ignores some of the more active forms of participation that are

planned as part of the Kony 2012 campaign, such as the “cover the night”

events planned for April 20th 2012, in which participants are called to

cover their local cities with posters of Joseph Kony. Countless notices

have already sprung up for such local events on Facebook (though,

arguably, the goal of getting the world to know who Joseph Kony is, has

pretty much been achieved).


that, however,  talking to members of Invisible Children shows how

previous IC movies indeed played important roles in helping young people

become socially active, though not always in clear, immediate ways.

Beth’s story is one example of this. When we interviewed her, Beth was

an IC intern, in charge of updating their website with news on the war

in Uganda. Beth claimed that she used to be an apathetic, selfish kid

(though her family had always been involved in aid in Africa). She

happened to watch The Rough Cut

at a church, where it was shown by a youth pastor. Beth described

watching the movie as a formative moment, an embarking on a journey of

engagement in activism: “I guess it affects everybody differently. For

me there was no way I could do anything else. I couldn’t go get a white

collar job […] I don’t even remember what other selfish tracks I was

on.” The movie opened her eyes to the world of non-profits, and she

began researching them online. She became engaged with the student

organization STAND, and is now their local president. Through her work

with STAND she reconnected with IC. In the interview, she claimed that

she now sees no other alternative for herself but being involved in

activism: “That life to me just seems like the kind of life everyone

should live, a life where you’re not doing something only for yourself,

whatever you’re doing is putting something back into the world”.


story exemplifies an element we heard in many IC members’ re-tellings: a

narrative of self-transformation. In this narrative structure, IC

members often describe their ‘former selves’, before joining IC, in

contrast to who they are today. Beth describes her former self as

apathetic and selfish, in many ways echoing prevalent stereotypes about

disengaged youth. In her narrative, watching the Rough Cut represented

a life-changing turning point. Her commitment to social engagement,

then, seemed to be created at that moment of realization, “understanding

that there’s more to life than the mall” (Beth).


narratives of members are extremely powerful, though they may not be

the full picture of what’s going on. Digging down deeper reveals that

many IC members (though not all) had been previously socialized to

altruistic values and practices. For example, while Beth understates the

significance of her parents’ involvement in aid in Africa to her own

activist desire, research shows that parental modeling is a key variable

predicting youth civic engagement. Yet the movie served as an important

catalyst to civic action, one that allowed Beth to feel that she

shifted from selfish child to civic actor. Moreover, we found that

seeing IC movies was part of a larger process through which young people

could become socially involved.


when young people want to create social change, finding ways to get

meaningfully involved, particularly in world affairs, is described by

many members as a challenge. Many “traditional” non-profits, like the

Peace Corps, offer limited possibilities for youth (under 18), and often

require extensive voluntary commitments. Other organizations may offer

young people ways to become involved, but are perceived as old-fashioned

and out-dated, “charities run by middle-aged women”

(Edie, IC intern). A key strength of IC, and one that Kony 2012

exhibits as well, is the way it  offers young people actionable steps,

concrete channels to express a pre-existing activist desire:


had been trying to find ways that I could get into volunteering or

working to become part of a more global community. I saw the screening

and they were in the process of trying to get the bill passed and they

were encouraging us to talk to senators to hold a meeting, a cool way

that you guys can make a big change, and so I got really involved from

there.” (Tina, IC roadie)

While signing an online pledge or purchasing a $30 action kit (which are now completely sold out) may be seen as meaningless steps, for young people they can be perceived as significant first steps in taking civic action, giving them a sense of agency and empowerment that often sparks further action, as Beth’s story shows.

“White man’s burden?” Nuancing the message


of the accusations against Kony 2012 has accompanied Invisible Children

from its start: the accusation of presenting “poor Ugandan children”

who “need to be rescued” by white Americans. Invisible Children as an

organization has grappled with this accusation and over the years made

many attempts to nuance their message. One of the leadership’s key

statements is that their relationship with the Ugandans is one of

friendship and mutual learning, not only one-directional aid. This

message is in fact one that was very peripheral to Kony 2012, but it is

strongly echoed in the narratives of members we talked to. IC members

repeatedly expressed shared affiliations with the people of Uganda whom

they have never met.


though I haven’t met anyone from Uganda, I feel like they’re kind of my

extended friends now. I care about them not just a far off, ‘Oh, I want

everybody to be okay’ but I really feel somewhat connected.” (Dave, IC


Janelle, an IC intern, is one of few IC members who have visited Uganda. She similarly speaks of a mutual relationship:

“It was such an eye opening experience. You put faces to the people

you’re helping, it’s not just helping others but building friendships

and exchanging. It was definitely what [the Ugandans] were giving, they

were giving to us as well, learning from their culture.” (Janelle, IC



is still early to tell which relationships toward Ugandans Kony 2012

may invoke in its viewers. In trying to create a movie that people will

be compelled to share, Invisible Children may have sidetracked their

previous commitment to a nuanced representation of their relationship

with the Ugandans. Yet when young people participate in conversations

online about whether or not Kony 2012 is a representation of White Man’s

Burden, they may be creating such nuanced understanding themselves in

active ways that may be particularly effective. In this manner, the

movie may again be seen as one aspect of a wider experience through

which young people gain awareness of a problem they previously did not

know about, become more informed about it, but are also mobilized in

concrete and empowering ways.    

The message young people are getting (again)

Beyond the specific discussion around Kony 2012, we have, as scholars, a wider agenda. Part

of the criticism that Invisible Children is receiving is a normative

and ideological one: it is about what social action needs to look like,

who may participate in it, and what it should entail. Bluntly read, what

some of critics are arguing is that social advocacy, particularly

around world affairs, should be left to experts: to politicians, to

“serious” NGOs, to erudites. Young people–and this includes both the

film’s 30 something-old creators, and its mostly 20 and under

viewers–are told that this isn’t a world for them. It is too

complicated, too hard, too serious. These are the same messages young

people are getting about politics: If you don’t know exactly what you’re

talking about, you’d better not talk at all.


lot of the criticism of Invisible Children and Kony 2012 can be read as

a protecting of boundaries and barriers. Who is and who is not allowed

to speak; what is the right way to speak; and what should that sound

like. There are many ways to take social action, and there are many

other organizations out there that probably do many things better than

Invisible Children. They have more nuanced messages, they offer more

detailed information, they spend more of their budget on direct aid

programs. IC is accused of spending too much money on filmmaking and

“marketing”. Yet this statistic is seen in a different light if we

consider fostering youth engagement as a central role of what Invisible

Children does, as the Fourth Estate youth leadership event implies. When

was the last time so many young people were so engaged around any

social issue, let alone a war in Africa?

IC belongs to a new genre of civic organization, one that plays with and challenges accepted

definitions of social action and what it should look and feel like.

Over the past days, many critics have again and again articulated what

IC is doing wrong. But in speaking to young people, it is obviously

doing something right.


critiques of Invisible Children and of Kony 2012 may point to real

improvement areas for the organization, and IC will have to meaningfully

grapple with these critiques over time. But in addition to pointing out

important problems, non-profit organizations, politicians and scholars

should also ask, how is Invisible Children able to resonate so strongly with

young people? How does it mobilize and get them involved? We suggest

that the answer to these questions can be found not only in their

 film-making but also among IC’s young viewers, supporters and members,

who want to speak up – but they need to be spoken to and invited to

participate first. Invisible Children is asking them to participate. Are


Responses to Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign

by Zhan Li

On behalf of the Civic Paths Project Research Group, I have been selectively collecting online essay and article responses – both critical and positive – to Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign, as well as Invisible Children‘s reactions to them. I have focused on blog responses from experts and activists in relevant fields with particular attention given to Ugandan and other African voices. I’ve attempted to capture a broad  range of representative responses to IC’s campaign amongst these groups. A selection of the links have been categorized using the Storify website here. You can also cut and paste this link:

[Read more…]

A Brief Outline of Kony 2012 and Initial Reactions to the Campaign

by Rhea Vichot and Zhan Li

The Kony 2012 video campaign by Invisible Children

(IC) has been extraordinarily – even unprecedentedly successful – in

spreading its message. It has also attracted criticism, both concerning

the content and strategy of the video campaign and the general character

of the organization itself.

This post offers a brief overview of the debate over the campaign as it evolved in the period between the release of Kony 2012

on YouTube on March 5, 2012 and the subsequent official response to

critiques made by Invisible Children on March 7th. Of course, we

recognize that the debate continued to develop in important ways after

this time. This post simply offers an introduction to the early days of

the campaign.

The Kony 2012

video was released by Invisible Children at 12PM PST on March 5th, 2012

on popular video sharing platform YouTube (the video had been hosted on

Vimeo, another video sharing site, since February 20th, but may have been password protected until its public release).


Narrated by Jason Russell,

one of the founders of Invisible Children, the film aims to spread

awareness about the crimes of Joseph Kony, head of the militant group

the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which is operating in several countries

in Central Africa: Sudan, South Sudan, The Democratic Republic of

Congo, The Central African Republic, and Uganda. Kony was indicted for

war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005, and the campaign

calls for increased action and pressure to bring him to justice.


video quickly became an astonishing success in the scale and speed of

its spread. For instance, Invisible Children tweeted that the video had

already received 800,000 hits online in the first 24 hours. Indeed, the

scale and speed was so staggering that many people in the NGO and aid

world felt that they had to pay close attention to this campaign by a NGO

that many may have never heard of before (and some may have dismissed as an eccentric aid campaign organization aimed at an audience of high

school kids). The impact of the campaign also attracted much attention

from fields beyond the NGO and aid world – including the celebrity press

and social media and marketing consultants.

By March 7th, the videos

had attracted 40 million views on YouTube and almost 11 million views on

Vimeo. IC’s campaign planners had originally called for a target of a

mere 500,000 views of the video by the end of 2012 and had thought the video would mostly circulate within IC’s core audiences of (mainly

US) high school and college students.


raising awareness of the issues surrounding Kony and the LRA through

encouraging spread of the video online, the Kony 2012  campaign also

recommended to its supporters that they send communications (primarily

via Twitter) targeting 20 “culturemakers” and 12 “policymakers” as

selected by IC and identified on the Kony 2012 website



designated celebrities and political figures range in experience and

ideology. The “culturemakers” ranged from entertainment celebrities

(including some with reputations for involvement with NGO and

humanitarian causes such as Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, and Bono – to

major technology and financial entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Mark

Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffet, as well as other leading shapers of

public opinion such as Rush Limbaugh and Rick Warren. The range of

policymakers focused on U.S. politicians such as former U.S. Presidents

George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Harry Reid (President

Obama and his Cabinet are notably not included here), while also

including non-U.S. politicians Stephen Harper (Prime Minister of Canada)

and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


as well as praise began to emerge online soon after the video’s launch

on Monday. These responses came via social networks (perhaps most

notably Twitter and Reddit)

as well as independent opinion blogs (for instance, a grassroots blog

post whose critique of Kony 2012 started spreading widely early on was

an opinion piece entitled  “We Got Trouble”  that was written by a Canadian college student) and mainstream media channels in the US and beyond (the UK Guardian for instance liveblogged early reactions to the campaign and quickly published multiple reports online about Kony 2012).


critiques of the Kony 2012 campaign included arguments that it greatly

oversimplified the complexities of politics, conflict, and aid; that it

displayed neo-colonial or patronizing attitudes towards Africans; that

it distracted attention away from more pressing issues; that it was

arguing for humanitarian military intervention without recognizing the

immense difficulties and many unintended consequences of such policy;

that the organization has inefficiently misallocated funds towards

media/marketing and overhead at the expense of tangible on-the-ground

development and aid efforts; and that there is something distasteful and

counterproductive in the way that IC presents its message through

glossy, stylish, and youth-centered popular culture savvy content.

On March 7th, Invisible Children released an article on their site

which provided official responses that argued against key critiques

levelled at their campaign – for instance, regarding IC’s NGO

credibility and transparency and IC’s position in relation to human

rights based criticisms of the Ugandan government. IC also attempted to

deflect attacks on what some critics have seen as IC’s “white savior”

rhetoric by highlighting “that

over 95% of IC’s leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandans on the

forefront of program design and implementation.” They also addressed

the related controversy regarding the photo of the

founders posing with guns from 2008, with co-founder Jason Russell

stating “that photo was a bad idea. We were young and we got caught up

in the moment.”


IC appears to have been both caught off-guard as well as feeling

exhilarated and energized by the spread of the campaign so far. In a video posted on March 8th, Jason Russell thanked IC’s supporters for the incredible success of the campaign’s spread.

Wow. Thank You. from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.


called the movement a revolution that will change the world and told

his audience: “I need you to know something. I am here representing youyour voice. This is a collective. It’s a We. And this story transcends borders. It is not about politics. It is not about

the economy. This is about human beings – human beings waking up to the

potential and the power that they have. That’s what KONY 2012 is about

and it’s just the beginning – because we are starting something which

cannot be stopped.” IC has also announced that it is translating the

Kony 2012 video into as many languages as possible.


IC published its response to critics, the attention towards Kony 2012

has only increased, with tallies at time of writing (end of day, March

11th) showing around 91 million views in total for the original YouTube

and Vimeo versions (these figures do not count other versions that may

be in circulation, including non-English language editions that may

already have been released). Commentary critiquing and praising IC’s

Kony 2012 campaign continues to evolve and expand.

Zhan Li, a fellow member of the Civic Paths Project Research Group has created a Storify linklist , which presents a selection of these critiques and defenses.

Contextualizing #Kony2012: Invisible Children, Spreadable Media, and Transmedia Activism

By Henry Jenkins

A little under a week ago, the San Diego-based human rights group, Invisible Children, posted its Kony 2012 video through YouTube and encouraged its base of supporters to help spread the word. By midafternoon Sunday, the Youtube video had been watched more than 71 million times and the hashtag #Kony2012 has been a trending topic on Twitter throughout much of this time.

Invisible Children’s goal was to make Joseph Kony a household name, not to celebrate his accomplishments, but rather to call him out so that pressure mounts world wide to hold this Ugandan guerilla leader, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, responsible for his acts of child abduction and genocide. According to estimates in a 2006 report produced for UNICEF Uganda by Jeannie Annan, Christopher Blattman and Roger Horton, the LRA since its beginnings has abducted and forced at least 66,000 youths (aged 14-30 years old; the traditional Acholi definition of youth) to fight and/or carry out other roles for them for various lengths of time (many never to return); with the UN estimating 22,000 to 25,000 children being abducted during this period. The LRA has also contributed to the internal displacement of nearly two million people, as well as untold thousands of deaths in its region since its rebellion began in 1986.

Invisible Children has been surprisingly successful in this social media-based campaign to call attention to issues in Africa which have long been neglected by mainstream media and which remained little known to most American citizens. The Kony 2012 campaign has drawn extensive coverage from traditional journalists and sparked heated debates across the blogosphere, with many experts on African politics weighing in to complicate or challenge the film’s narrative of what is occurring on the ground in Uganda and its recommendations about what appropriate responses to Kony might look like. Alongside these discussions of African policy and politics, the video has also sparked heated debates about the nature and value of online activism.

For a basic narrative describing the release of the video and its immediate reception, see this blog post by Rhea Richot and Zhan Lee,

For a data base of materials, including both the original video and a range of different responses and critiques, see this archive which Zhan Li has assembled on Storify.

The Civic Paths Project

Much of this coverage has dealt with the video as a piece of content which suddenly went “viral” — but in fact, the Civic Paths research group at the University of Southern California has had Invisible Children on its radar for almost three years. Our primary focus has been on the strategies behind the organization’s success at recruiting, training, and mobilizing young activists in the United States. This research has been funded, in part, by the Spencer Foundation as part of their larger initiative to identify new forms of civic learning and is linked to our group’s participation in the Youth and Participatory Politics research team, which has been recruited and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, though neither foundation is responsible for this series of blog posts.

As part of this research, we conducted in depth interviews with more than 30 young people who have become involved in IC’s efforts, spent time at the organization’s headquarters, audited their media output and strategies, and otherwise, sought to better understand why this group has been so successful at what it does.

The Kony 2012 video did not “go viral”; rather, its circulation depended on the hundreds of thousands of young people who already felt connected to the organization and to this cause through their participation in school based clubs and grassroots campaigns over almost a decade. These young people were among the first to receive the video, pass it along through their social networks to their friends and classmates, and thus, start a process which ultimately got the attention of millions around the world. Many of them have already given time, money, and other resources to this cause. Awareness of Kony 2012 remains highest among teens and young adults, suggesting how central these same groups were to circulating the video from the start.

Given the sudden visibility of the organization’s most recent efforts, we felt as a research group that it was important to share some of the core insights from this research through this and the Civic Paths blog. We have little to contribute to the debates about what would be the best policy response to the problems which Invisible Children is calling to the public’s attention, but we do feel, as communications scholars, that our work might shed some light into how the current effort fits within IC’s larger history of using social media and participatory culture tactics to empower young people to see themselves as active political agents who can make a difference in the world.

Invisible Children: Storytelling-Based Activism

CIvic Paths was started as a project to better understand the links between participatory culture and civic engagement, specifically looking for examples of successful campaigns, organizations, or networks which had helped young people become more involved in campaigns for social justice and political change. During our initial phase, many team members shared groups that they were already researching. Melissa A. Brough brought Invisible Children to our team’s attention; she had just completed a study of the visual culture and rhetoric shaping some of the group’s earliest efforts, which has since become a chapter in the recently published book, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in NeoLiberal Times, which was edited by Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser, for New York University Press. Here are some excerpts from her article:

Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Lauren Poole founded Invisible Children in 2004 as recent University of Southern California graduates, after completing their documentary film Invisible Children: Rough Cut. Only four years later, IC had ninety staff running development programs in Uganda and thirty US staff who, significantly, were almost exclusively under the age of thirty. In 2005 they raised more than $300,000; by 2008 the revenue growth reached over $10 million. At the time of this writing 2,098 U.S. school clubs were registered to support IC projects in eleven Ugandan schools. And as is increasingly popular in the commercial sector, IC utilizes user-generated content from its supporters to help collectively envision and market its mission, through Web 2.0 sites like Myspace, YouTube and Facebook….

Creative storytellling through visual media is at the core of the organization’s dual mission to be ‘both an innovative media-based organization’ (i.e. a production company) and a humanitarian/development nongovernmental organization. Approximately 50 percent of its programming budget is therefore spent on media and event production, largely in the US with the stated goal of bringing ‘awareness to the situation and promoting international support of the peace process taking place.’ IC refers to these production activities as the ‘Movement’ component of the organization (as opposed to its direct aid and development work), which uses stories and images to connect to and mobilize US youth to support its project in Uganda. This in turn produces content for more stories, creating a circular process of humanitarian media production….

In IC’s media, emphasis is placed on the American donor/activist as much as, if not more than, IC’s beneficiaries. Invisible Children’s videos unapologetically embrace the opportunity for personal growth offered by entrepreneurial participation in the humanitarian adventure. IC sends the winners of high school fundraising competitions, organized through an online social networking site, to Uganda to visit the schools and camps of internally displaced communities that their funds support….

Brough’s essay goes on to discuss and critique the group’s use of discourses of humanitarian aid as a means of mutual self-empowerment, its use of participatory spectacle, and its deployment of networked communication tactics, with a focus on the first few waves of media which the group produced. She concludes:

Invisible Children’s media are bold, beautiful, and captivating the minds of tens of thousands of American youth. They are creating a space for idealism that works within the context of postmodernism and neoliberalism, which is precisely its promise and its peril. Radically reconfiguring humanitarianism will likely require the innovative vision of youth, from both the global North and South.

Brough’s work can help to address several aspects of the current controversy, starting with the concern raised by some about what a high percentage of the IC’s revenues get spent in North America rather than on the ground in Africa. Such critiques neglect the central role which movement building and civic learning play in IC’s model for social change. At times, this focus on increasing young America’s social awareness and political voice has come to be as important to their efforts as their specific goals of bring about change in Africa. We can debate the merits of this choice, but it needs to be understood as part of the larger picture of what the group has been doing.

Youth As Political Agents

Brough’s essay also suggests that the steps which the group takes to give youth a sense of their own voice and power as political agents, what she describes in terms of “discourses of personal growth,” may be problematic when read in relation to the historical relationship between the Global North and South, furthering discourses of dependency which disempower people in developing African nations, even as they give greater agency to those who already possess a high degree of privlidge. This critique has resurfaced often in more recent responses to Kony 2012.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, another member of the Civic Paths research team, has developed a blog post which shares what we learned through our interviews with Invisible Children’s young activists, specifically focusing on the impact which their participation in these campaigns have had on their own developing civic and political consciousness. This blog post is based on an essay she wrote with Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, and Chris Tokuhama for the Special “Fan Activism” issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, which will appear in June 2012.

Kligler-Vilenchik argues that the focus of the campaign on youth participation is one of the themes which has largely been lost in critical responses by African experts to the video campaign, as has the idea that the video was intended as part of a larger transmedia strategy to create multiple points of contact with its core messages and themes. You can read her reflections here.

Transmedia Mobilization

Lana Swartz, another member of the Civic Paths research team, has conducted an extensive overview of the media strategies deployed by Invisible children, resulting in a working paper written last year which describes the group’s efforts in relation to my frameworks for thinking about transmedia storytelling. She argues:

The “Movement,” as Invisible Children calls its US-facing work, includes visually-arresting films, spectacular event-oriented campaigns, provocative graphic t-shirts and other apparel, music mixes, print media, blogs and more. To be a member of Invisible Children means to be a viewer, participant, wearer, reader, listener, commenter of and in the various activities, many mediated, that make up the Movement. It is a massive, open-ended, evolving documentary “story” unfurling across an expanding number of media forms.

Her working paper can be accessed here.

Swartz and other members of the Civic Paths team briefed key leaders of the Invisible Children staff on these findings last summer; they were receptive to these insights and have made some efforts to improve their practice as a consequence, though, in some ways, her findings predict some of the current controversies surrounding the Kony 2012 video. While many are encountering Invisible Children for the first time thanks to the widespread circulation of this new video, the video itself may best be understood as part of this much wider array of new media tactics and practices.

It is important to understand the transmedia nature of Invisible Children. Swartz writes:

Jenkins (2007) defines transmedia storytelling as a process in which “integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience,” and, “ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” It involves an emphasis on “world building” rather than plot or character-driven narratives, multiple points of entry for differently engaged audiences, co-creation and collaboration across various professional and fan sites of production, and collective intelligence, as audiences become “hunters and gatherers,” collecting and sharing information across media. Transmedia storytelling is not just about new media, although it often makes thorough use of it. In fact, in order to best understand the concept, it helps to have an expansive notion of the word “media” as any channel through which new meaning or information is added to the larger story– be it a piece of clothing, an action figure, or a live in-person performance.

By just looking at one piece– the Kony 2012 documentary, for example– it is quite easy to miss the full complexity of group. However, it may be difficult for a newcomer to access the “rest of the story” as most of their web presence has been drafted into the Kony 2012 push and some of their earlier work seems to have been removed from the web.

Spreadability and Drillability

The rest of the paper uses elements of transmedia storytelling to understand the Invisible children in more detail. An important element is the section on Spreadability and Drillability:

Spreadability, the focus of Jenkins et al’s (forthcoming, 2013) book, refers to the extent to which media can be engaged with and shared in a way that increases its economic value and social worth. They contrast spreadability to distribution, a model in which “movement of media content is heavily–or totally–controlled by the commercial interests that produce and sell it.” Spreadability, instead, is “an emerging hybrid model of circulation, where a mix of top-down and bottom-up forces determine how material is shared across and among cultures in far more participatory (and messier) ways.” Mittell (2009) offers “drillability” as a corrective but complementary characteristic. He writes, “Spreadable media encourages horizontal ripples, accumulating eyeballs without necessarily encouraging more long-term engagement. Drillable media typically engage far fewer people, but occupy more of their time and energies in a vertical descent into a text’s complexities.” By putting the two terms in conversation with each other, Jenkins (2009) suggests that transmedia storytelling will likely have both properties working dynamically to engage audiences.

In transmedia storytelling mobilization, both spreadability and drillability can refer to the way the movement structures access to information about the cause and the organization itself. The extent to which the group “raises awareness” is largely dependent on how spreadable their message is. Drillability, on the other hand, describes the learning opportunities that exist beyond initial contact with the message. Both features are necessary for newcomers to become advocates of the cause.

Invisible Children makes information about itself and its work in central Africa very easy to share while at the same time allowing groups and individuals to personalize its meaning, amplifying spreadability. One way it does this is through fairly open content distribution. Although screenings where roadies show Invisible Children films to school and church audiences play a big role in the Movement, DVDs of the 9 major films are available for purchase and have, at various times, also been available for free, streaming online or on YouTube. Each purchase of the Rough Cut comes with two DVDs, one to keep and one to share. Invisible Children does not explicitly use Creative Commons licensing, but it does practice and encourage the free exchange of its materials, stating on the FAQs section of its website:

We at IC make every effort to spread the word about the plight of those in northern Uganda, and we realize that having access to Invisible Children: Rough Cut is vital to helping this movement grow. As we pass the torch to you, we ask you use the documentary and Invisible Children logo responsibly–only to raise awareness and benefit Invisible Children, Inc.


We want everyone to have FREE access to Invisible Children: Rough Cut. Be creative and make your screening unique. The only thing we insist is that you don’t charge for admission.

Similarly, Invisible Children takes pains to enable its staff, volunteers, roadies, and other representatives to give accurate information about central Africa and its work there. One intern was careful to correct herself when she said, “war torn,” replacing it with, “impacted by war.” Roadies in particular cite being equipped with information that would allow to them to speak confidently in any crowd as a particularly valuable part of their training. This information is often dispersed in short, quotable chunks, making it easier to spread in a way that seems particularly effective for the college and high school aged audiences who may have little, if any, prior exposure to the history of central Africa.

Providing drillable wells of knowledge does not seem to be as much of a priority for Invisible Children. Its blog does feature, at least monthly, a “Peace and Conflict Update” on current events in central Africa, but the official description of the history of the war in northern Uganda, a main tab on its website, is less than 1,200 words long, and this information tends to be repeated rather than augmented across media.

In some circumstances, inadequate drillability can undermine Invisible Children’s otherwise powerful transmedia story. This is true, for example, when a critic, claiming to be Ugandan, makes comments in multiple Invisible Children blog posts suggesting that Jolly Okot, now the director of Invisible Children’s direct aid programs and featured heavily in many of the films, has compromising political ties to the Ugandan government and the LRA. A curious Invisible Children supporter, wanting to drill deeper into these claims, is thwarted from enacting questions across media because the link to the profiles of the Uganda-based staff is broken and has been “Coming Soon” for many months. Because Invisible Children is more focused on enabling spreadability than drillability, it relinquishes opportunities to more thoroughly and credibly describe the good work it is no doubt doing.

This lack of intentional drillability is further exacerbated by cultural and technological asymmetries between the way the Ugandan and American representatives of Invisible Children share data about themselves in unofficial ways across the Internet. For example, even for the most savvy transmedia navigators, finding any information online one way or the other about Jolly Okot’s actual political history is very difficult. However, simply by clicking through a series of links or performing a quick search, any interested party can find a personal blog in which a high-ranking member of the American Invisible Children staff makes a joke that, especially in a low-context medium, might be seen as racially insensitive. The lack of drillable information about the leaders in Uganda and the excess of it about those in America equally undermine the credibility of the organization.

This tension between spreadable and drillable communication practices may well be at the heart of the current debate around Invisible Children. Few can debate the group’s success at spreading its content and in the process, sparking many more conversations about what’s happening in Uganda than would have occured otherwise. Yet, many have argued that the lack of depth in the group’s presentation of the issues can come across as naive and misguided.

Provocation and Process

In a very thoughtful blog post, Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow member of the MacArthur Youth and Participatory Politics research hub, shares his own critiques of what Invisible Children has and has not achieved in its current campaign, opening up questions which should be addressed by those of us who see spreadability as a productive model for thinking about new forms of political activism:

The campaign Invisible Children is running is so compelling because it offers an extremely simple narrative: Kony is a uniquely bad actor, a horrific human being, whose capture will end suffering for the people of Northern Uganda. If each of us does our part, influences powerful people, the world’s most powerful military force will take action and Kony will be captured….

The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple. The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it’s unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

Such a narrative would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to “go viral”.

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

One way out of this bind is to see the Kony 2012 video not as a stand-alone text, but rather as one element of a much more diverse set of communication practices, as, going back to Swartz, one extension of a larger transmedia mobilization. A while ago, I suggested that Occupy might be better understood as a “provocation,” an attempt to shift the discursive frame and spark new conversations, than as a movement, which is pursuing a single cause. At first glance, Invisible Children might seem to be doing the opposite — too narrowly defining its cause so that it can be easily grasped by — and potentially achieved through the efforts of — its young supporters.

Yet, in practice, the effect has been the same. People are talking about Kony, including many who had remained silent and unaware before. The blunt force of the video has created a space where more nuanced readings of the situation are being produced, circulated, read, and debated. Some of the other bloggers might see themselves as correcting the “damages” the group has caused through its simplification, but blog posts such as Zuckerman’s can also be seen as continuing the discursive process which the release of the video set into motion.

Zuckerman offers a similar perspective in his blog post’s conclusion:

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response?

We might think about this process through a lens of “monitorial citizenship” — groups like Invisible Children help to identify and focus public attention onto urgent problems, initiating a process where-by a range of grassroots groups and experts work together to create richer and more nuanced frames for understanding the problem and identifying solutions.

But this raises the question of whether despite our capacity for networked circulation, we have developed collectively the skills we would need for this kind of deliberative process. We do not know how much these other critiques are able to ride the coat tails of the rapidly circulating video, to what degree young people are inspired by the debate to think more critically about the frames they deploy in thinking about injustices in Africa or America’s place in the world.

Ideally, part of Invisible Children’s commitment to civic learning would include the fostering of critical media literacy, including the capacity to test and appraise the group’s own claims and its own media practices. Ideally, Invisible Children itself would be ready to respond to the controversy with much more information which can support the efforts of their movement to promote human rights in Africa. In practice, they seem to have placed a much higher investment in spreading the basic message than in giving the young citizens they have mobilized a chance to drill deeper and learn more about these issues.

As Invisible Children’s critics seek to correct what they see as the simplifications and misrepresentations of the video, we can also hope they will do so in ways which respect the commitment of Invisible Children’s young activists, in ways which support their efforts to find their footing as political agents and make a difference in the world. There is a risk that a more complex and nuanced narrative may also be a disempowering one, one which, as so often happens, convince citizens — young and old — that they have nothing to contribute and that these matters are best left in the hands of experts.


Neta Kligler-Vilenchik is a Doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She works with Henry Jenkins and Mimi Ito on the Media, Activism, Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, as part of the Youth & Participatory Politics (YPP) Network, where she is investigating connections and continuities between youth’s involvement in participatory cultures and new media and their civic engagement. The case studies she works on focus more specifically on organizations and groups that build on networks and communities of fandom, online and off-line, with the aim of encouraging and sustaining young people’s involvement in civic life. Neta is currently working on her Doctoral thesis, which revolves around alternative citizenship models and their potential for youth civic engagement. She holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Haifa, Israel.

Zhan Li holds a B.A. in Social & Political Sciences and a M.Phil. in Social Anthropology from Cambridge University (Trinity) as well as a S.M. in Comparative Media Studies from MIT. For his Ph.D. in Organizational Communication, he is specializing in researching the future of scenario planning, a widely used strategic foresight method. Previous thesis topics have included the World Bank’s promotion of Knowledge Management and Economics in the 1990s, and the U.S. Army video game America’s Army during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. Most recently working as a global media investment banking analyst for HSBC in New York City (with a special focus on India and China), Zhan has also been employed as a researcher at Sony (Los Angeles), the Microsoft Games-To-Teach lab at MIT (Cambridge, MA), the London Business School’s Future Media Program and UBS Warburg (London). At Annenberg, Zhan manages the Annenberg Scenario Lab, which focuses on online media innovation in scenario planning techniques for a variety of organizations. His dissertation will focus on the development of online techniques for participatory scenario planning and futures that are informed by organizational communication and new media theory.

Melissa Brough is a Doctoral Candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, and a 2010-2011 Fulbright grantee to Colombia. She works in the fields of communication for social change, participatory media, visual and new media cultures, and social movements. She has collaborated with youth and community media projects including Mobile Voices , FilmAid International , Listen Up! and the Chiapas Media Project . She received her B.A. in Development Studies and Modern Culture & Media from Brown University.

Most of Lana Swartz‘s work is on money (and other regimes of value) as techno-social practice. At Annenberg, she has worked on the CivicPaths research collaborative and the new Media, Economics, and Entrepreneurship working group. In 2009, she completed a masters in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her thesis was on “fake” luxury fashion. There, she also worked on a teachers’ strategy guide and an unconference on cultural geography and new media literacies. As part of TeachForAmerica, she taught high school English in Houston, TX.

Rhea Vichot graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Comparative Media Studies in 2004. She attended New York University and attained a Masters in Cinema Studies as well as a Graduate Certificate in Culture and Media in 2006. In 2009, Rhea received a Masters in Digital Media from Georgia Institute of Technology. At Annenberg, Rhea has conducted continuing research on Anonymous, along with other online countercultures and their relationships to learning, cultural practices, and political and civic engagement. Her current research interests include global popular culture, online and fan communities, and media criticism. In particular, she is interested in subaltern groups that have been historically linked with either ‘hacker’ culture or ‘deviant’ subcultures. In addition, she is interested in critical analysis of media, specifically games, both as a medium of commercial art as well as an object for cultural production by designers and players.