A Pedagogical Response to the Aurora Shootings: 10 Critical Questions about Fictional Representations of Violence

The horrifying and tragic news of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado this weekend requires some degree of reflection on our parts. As someone who found himself very much involved in the national debates surrounding the Columbine Shootings in the late 1990s, there is a terrible sense of deja vu: we all know all too well the twists and turns the national debate will take and the dangers of what happens when “moral panic” spins hopelessly out of control.

I was deeply moved this weekend by a video blog produced by a young woman — Lauren Bird — from the Harry Potter Alliance who has so many thoughtful things to say about the social value of popular entertainment, the shared ritual of the midnight movie, and the dangers of pathologizing our desire to participate in the culture. (But, of course, the national AMC chain has already announced that they are banning the wearing of any costumes into their theaters, as if the problem with the shooter in this case was that he was a “crazy fan” who showed up in costume.)

Today, I wanted to share some pedagogical materials which I developed through the New Media Literacies Project in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, where, once again, anxieties about popular culture substituted for serious reflections on the many root causes of violence in American culture.

To be extra clear, I do not think media is where this debate should be focused. The conversation needs to be centered around the root causes of violence and the need to develop a much stronger infrastructure around mental health issues in this country. But, media violence issues are often used as a distraction from serious conversations about public policies in the aftermath of such incidents. If we are going to be discussing “media violence,” we need to do so with sufficient nuance to have a meaningful discussion, and ideally, we need to do so in a way which moves us from thinking about simplistic models of “media effects” towards a focus on the meanings of representations of violence as understood in the context of the work as a whole. See my essay on “The War Between Effects and Meanings” in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, for an explanation of this distinction.

First, I wanted to share a passage from a statement about violence I wrote for teachers, which expresses something I was unable to meaningfully communicate via Twitter in an online exchange yesterday:

Why is violence so persistent in our popular culture? Because violence has been persistent across storytelling media of all kinds. A thorough account of violence in media would include: fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, oral epics such as Homer’s Iliad, the staged violence of Shakespeare’s plays, paintings of the Rape of the Sabine Women, and stained glass window representations of saints being pumped full of arrows, or, for that matter, talk show conversations about the causes of school shootings. Violence is fundamental to these various media because aggression and conflict are core aspects of human experience. We need our art to provide some moral order, to help us sort through our feelings, to provoke us to move beyond easy answers and to ask hard questions.

Our current framing of media violence assumes that it most often attracts us, that it inspires imitation, whereas throughout much of human history, representations of violence were seen as morally instructive, as making it less likely that we are going to transgress against various social prohibitions. When we read the lives of saints, for example, we are invited to identify with the one suffering the violence and not the one committing it. Violence was thought to provoke empathy, which was good for the soul. Violence was thought to make moral lessons more memorable.

Moral reformers rarely take aim at mundane and banal representations of violence, though formulaic violence is pervasive in our culture. Almost always, they go after works that are acclaimed elsewhere as art–the works of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, say–precisely because these works manage to get under their skin. For some of us, this provocation gets us thinking more deeply about the moral consequences of violence, whereas others condemn the works themselves, unable to process the idea that such a work might provoke us to reflect about the violence that it represents. The study of literature offers a remarkable opportunity to engage young people in conversations about such issues, expanding the range of stories about violence which they encounter, introducing them to works that encourage reflection about the human consequences of revenge and aggression, and broadening the range of meanings they attach to such representations.

In order to encourage such reflections in the classroom, I developed a set of basic questions we should ask about any representation of violence. There are persistent references throughout this to Moby-Dick because it was part of a teacher’s strategy guide for Moby-Dick. Our book on this larger project, Reading in a Participatory Culture , is coming out from Teacher’s College Press later this year. I was struck re-reading this today that I had already written here about the role of violence in the Batman saga, though this came out prior to the Dark Knight films by Christopher Nolan.


1. What basic conflicts are being enacted through the violence?

Literary critics have long identified the core conflicts that shape much of the world’s literature: Human vs. Human, Human vs. Nature, Human vs. Self, and sometimes Human vs. Machine. Such conflicts spark drama. Moby-Dick can be understood as including all three conflicts: the conflict between Ahab and Starbuck embodies deeper divisions within the ship’s crew over the captain’s decision to place his own personal goals above their collective well being or above the business of whaling; the conflict between Ahab and Moby Dick may be understood as a human being throwing himself full force against the natural world; Ahab struggles with his own better nature and Starbuck searches his soul trying to figure out how to respond to his conflicting duties. Any of these conflicts can erupt in violence–directly against other people, against the natural world, or against ourselves.

You might ask your students to identify which of these forms of conflict are most visible in contemporary video games, on television, or in the cinema and why some forms of conflict appear more often in these media than others. For example, video game designers have historically found it difficult to depict characters’ internalized conflict (human vs. self), in part because contest or combat are central building blocks of most games.

2. Do the characters make conscious choices to engage in acts of violence? How do they try, through language or action, to explain and justify those choices?

In the real world, an act of violence may erupt in a split second: one moment, people we care about are alive; the next, they are dead. The violence may be random: there is no real reason why these victims were singled out over others; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, works of fiction often focus our attention on moments when characters make decisions, often based on aspects of their personalities which they little recognize or control, and those choices may have repercussions that echo across the work as a whole.

So, the act that took Ahab’s leg may have been totally random, and we see several examples throughout the novel where a split-second decision may cause a character to be wounded or killed. We might compare Ahab’s amputation with the events that lead to Pip being thrown from the boat, left adrift, and ultimately driven insane, or to the unnamed man who falls from the ship’s mast and drowns. By contrast, the novel invites us to consider the choices Ahab makes at each step and how the other characters respond to those choices. Melville shows us many points where the ship could turn back and avoid its fate. He spells out what the characters are thinking and why they make the decisions they do.

The events could take a different shape, though the shape of a plot can give depicted events a sense of inevitability. Some forms of tragedy, for example, rely on the notion that characters are unable to escape their fates, no matter what choices they make, or that the final acts of violence and destruction flow logically from some “tragic flaw.” In trying to make sense of a fictional representation of violence, you want to encourage your student to seek out moments where the characters make choices that ultimately lead towards acts of aggression or destruction. Often, authors provide those characters with rationalizations for their choices, offering some clues through their words, thoughts, or actions about why they do what they do.

At such moments, the work also often offers us alternatives to violence, other choices the characters could have made, though such choices may remain implicit rather than being explicitly stated. Different works and different genres may see these alternatives to violence as more or less plausible, attractive, or rational. So, if you are being chased by a mad man waving a chain saw in a horror film, engaging him in a conversation may not be a rational, plausible, or attractive alternative. Genre fiction constructs contexts where the protagonist has no choice but to resort to violence, though what separates heroes from villains may be their relative comfort in deploying violence to serve their own interests. In many American movies, the hero is reluctant to turn towards violence, seeing it as a last resort. By contrast, the villain may deploy violence in situations where she has other alternatives, suggesting cruelty or indifference.

In dealing with violence in video games, then, you may want to ask what options are available to the player for dealing with a certain situation. In some games, there may be no options other than violence, and the game itself may spend very little time offering the character a rationalization for such actions. It is fight or flight, kill or be killed. Many games are simply digital versions of the classic shooting galleries: the game space is designed as an arena where players can shoot it out with other players or with computer-controlled characters. In other games, there may be options that allow the protagonist to avoid violence, but they may not be emotionally satisfying; they may put the player at a significant disadvantage; they may be hard to execute. So, helping students to interpret the options available to characters in a literary fiction may help them to reflect more

consciously on the more limited choices available to them as gamers.

3. What are the consequences of the violence depicted in the work?

Many popular stories don’t pay sufficient attention to the consequences of violence. Rambo may slaughter hundreds and yet, much as in a video game, the bodies simply disappear. We get no sense of the human costs involved in combat on such a scale. Many medieval epics consisted primarily of hack and slash battle sequences; yet, periodically, the action would stop, and the bard would enumerate the names of the dead on both sides, acknowledging that these warriors paid a price even if their actions help to establish the nation state or restore order to the kingdom. Gonzala Frasca has argued that video games inherently trivialize violence because they operate in a world where the player can simply reboot and start over if their character dies.

In contrast, westerns follow a basic formula: the protagonist (most often male) would resort to violence to battle other aggressive forces that threaten his community; his heroic actions would restore justice and order, but the hero could not live within the order he had helped to create and would be forced to ride off into the sunset at the end of the story. Susan Sontag has written about “the Imagination of Disaster,” suggesting that films about apocalyptic events often create a rough moral order in which characters are rewarded or punished based on the values they display under extreme circumstances.

Moby-Dick can be said to have its own mechanisms for punishing violence: Ahab’s search for vengeance at all costs means that he and his crew must pay the ultimate price.

4. What power relationships, real or symbolic, does the violence suggest?

In many cases, storytellers deploy violence as a means of embodying power. We should not be surprised by this tendency given the way sociologists have characterized rape as the deployment of male power against women or lynching as the enactment of white power against blacks. Historically, wars have been seen as a way of resolving conflicts between nations through the exercise of power, while trial by combat was a means of deploying power to resolve individual conflicts and disagreements.

Media representations of violence can give viewers a seductive sense of empowerment as they watch characters who are hopelessly out-numbered triumph or they watch segments of the population who seem disempowered in the real world deploy violence to right past wrongs. Some have argued that young people play violent video games, in part, as a means of compensating for a sense of disempowerment they may feel at school.

Conversely, stories may encourage our sense of outrage when we see powerful groups or individuals abusing their power, whether in the form of bullies degrading their victims or nations suppressing their citizens. This abuse of power by powerful forces may prepare us for some counter-balancing exercise of power, setting up the basic moral oppositions upon which a story depends.

As you teach students to think critically about representations of violence, a key challenge will be to identify the different forms of power at play within the narrative and to map the relations between them. Which characters are in the most powerful positions and what are their sources of power? Which characters are abusing their power? What sources of power are ascribed to characters who might initially seem powerless, and to what degree is violence depicted as a means of empowerment?

5. How graphic is the depiction of violence?

One of the limits of the study on violence in American cartoons released by the American Academy of Pediatrics is that it counts “violent acts” without considering differing degrees of stylization. In fact, children at a pretty young age–certainly by the time they reach elementary school–are capable of making at least crude distinctions between more or less realistic representations of violence. They can be fooled by media which offers ambiguous cues, but they generally read media that seems realistic very differently from media that seems cartoonish or larger than life. For that reason, they are often more emotionally disturbed by documentaries that depict predators and prey, war, or crime, than they are by the hyperbolic representations we most often are talking about when we

refer to media violence.

While most of us have very limited vocabularies for discussing these different degrees of explicitness, such implicit distinctions shape the ways we respond to representations of violence within fictions. We each know what we can tolerate and tend to avoid modes of representation we find too intense or disturbing. Most ratings systems distinguish between cartoonish and realistic forms of violence. We need to guard against the assumption, however, that the more graphic forms of violence are necessarily “sick” or inappropriate. More stylized forms can make it much easier to ignore the gravity of real world violence through a process of sanitization. In some cases, more graphic depictions of violence

shatter that complacency and can force us to confront the human costs of violence.

Literary critics have long made a distinction between showing and telling. We might extend this distinction to think about media representations of violence. An artist may ask us to directly confront the act of violence, or she may ask us to deal with its repercussions, having a character describe an event which occurred before the opening of the narrative or which took place off stage. Some very famous examples of media violence–such as the torture sequences in Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction –pull the camera away at the moments of peak intensity, counting on the viewer’s imagination to fill in what happens, often based on cues from the soundtrack, or in the case of Pulp Fiction , the splattering of blood from off-camera. Again, we need to get students to focus on the creative choices made by the storytellers and artists in their construction of these episodes, choices especially about what to show and what not to show.

6. What function does the violence serve in the narrative?

Critics often complain about “gratuitous violence.” The phrase has been used so often that we can lose touch with what it means. According to the dictionary, “gratuitous” means “being without apparent reason, cause, or justification.” So, before we can decide if an element in a fictional work is gratuitous, we have to look more closely at why it is present (its motivation) and what purposes it serves (its function).

Keep in mind that we are not talking here about why the character performs the violent act but rather why the artist includes it in the work. An artwork might depict senseless killings, as occur at certain moments in No Country for Old Men where the killer is slaughtering people seemingly at random. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the violence is “gratuitous” since in this case, the violence sets the action of the story into motion, and the work is very interested in how other characters react to the threat posed by this senseless violence. There is artistic motivation for including the violence, even if the directors, the Coen Brothers, are uninterested in the killer’s psychological motives.

An element in a work of fiction may be motivated on several different levels: it may be motivated realistically, in the sense that a story about contemporary urban street gangs might be expected to depict violence as part of their real world experience; it might be motivated generically, in the sense that people going to see a horror movie expect to see a certain amount of gore and bloody mayhem; it may be motivated thematically, in the sense that an act of violence may force characters to take the measure of their own values and ethical commitments; it may be motivated symbolically, in the sense that a character dreams about performing violence and those dreams offer us a window into his or her thinking process. In each case, the violence has a different motivation, even though the actions depicted may be relatively similar.

By the same token, we might ask what functions an act of violence plays in the work. One way to answer that question is to imagine how the work would be different if this element were not included. Would the story have the same shape? Would the characters behave in the same way? Would the work have the same emotional impact? Some acts of violence motivate the actions of the story; some bring about a resolution in the core conflict; still others mark particular steps in the trajectory of the plot; and in some rare cases, the violent acts may indeed be gratuitous, in that their exclusion would change little or nothing in our experience of the work

But keep in mind that the violence which disturbs us the most on first viewing is not necessarily gratuitous and is often violence which has ramifications throughout the rest of the story. Describing a scene as “gratuitous” is easy, especially when it shortcuts the process of engaging more critically with the structure and messages of the work in question. For example, the film Basketball Diaries became the focus of controversy following the Columbine shootings primarily because of a single scene in which the protagonist wears a long black coat and imagines shooting up a school. Those discussing the sequence failed to explain that it was a dream sequence, not an action performed by the film’s protagonist, and that it is part of a larger story which explores how a young man overcame his rage, his addictions, and his antisocial impulses to become a poet. Without the representation of his aggression, the power of the story of redemption would be weakened, whereas the scene removed from context seemed to endorse the antisocial values the work itself rejects.

7. What perspective(s) does the work offer us towards the character engaging in violence?

Media theorists have spent a great deal of time trying to determine what we mean when we say we identify with a character in a fictional work. At the most basic level, it means we recognize the character; we distinguish the fictional figure from others depicted in the same work. From there, we may mean that the work devotes a great deal of time and space to depicting the actions of this particular character. Typically, the more time we spend with a character, the more likely we are to see the world from her point of view. Yet, this is not always the case. We may be asked to observe and judge characters, especially if their actions and the values they embody fall outside of the stated perspective of the work. We may grow close to a character only to be pushed away again when the character takes an action we find reprehensible and unjustifiable.

There is a distinction to be drawn here between the structuring of narrative point of view and the structuring of moral judgments on the character. Part of what helps us to negotiate between the two is the degree to which we are given access to the thoughts and feelings of the character (and in the case of an audio-visual work, the degree to which we see the world from his or her optical point of view).

Consider, for example, the use of first person camera in a work like Jaws where scenes are sometimes shot from the perspective of the shark as it swims through the water approaching its human prey. At such moments, we feel fear and dread for the human victims, not sympathy for the sharks. Filmmakers quickly learned to manipulate this first person camera, sometimes duplicating the same camera movement, tricking us into thinking the monster is approaching, and then, demonstrating this to be a false alarm.

So, it is possible to follow characters but not get inside their head, and it is possible to have access to characters’ thoughts and still not share their moral perspective.

And indeed, all of these relationships may shift in the course of reading a book as we may feel the character’s actions are justified up until a certain point and then cross an implicit line where they become monstrous. Homer shares Ulysses’s point of view throughout much of the Odyssey, but we still are inclined to pull back from him at a certain point as he brings bloody vengeance upon Penelope’s suitors in the final moments of the epic.

Wyn Kelley identifies a similar pattern in Moby-Dick where we are invited to experience what whaling would be like from the point of view of the whale, and in the process, we are encouraged to reflect on the bloody brutality of slaughtering an innocent animal, stripping the meat off its bones, and boiling its flesh to create oil. Here, a break in the following pattern gives us an opportunity to reassess how we feel about the characters with whom we have up until that point been closely aligned. We might think about a common device in television melodrama where we’ve seen a scene of conflict between two characters who believe they are alone and then at the end, the camera pulls back to show the reaction of a previously undisclosed third-party figure who has been watching or overhearing the action. Such moments invite us to reassess what we’ve just seen from another vantage point.

In video games, the category of “first person shooters” has been especially controversial with critics concerned about the implications of players taking on the optical point of view of a character performing acts of violence; often, critics argue, the player doesn’t just watch a violent act but is actively encouraged to participate. Gamers will sometimes refer to their characters in the third person (“he”) and sometimes in the first person (“I”), pronoun slippages that suggest some confusions brought about by the intense identification players sometimes feel towards their avatars.

Yet, even here, we need to be careful to distinguish between following pattern, optical point of view, and moral attitude. In games, we typically remain attached to a single character whom we control, and thus we have a very strong following pattern. In first person shooters, we see the action through the optical point of view of that character, though we may feel no less connected to the characters we control in a third person game (where we see the full body of the character from an external perspective). The Second Person video game confounds our normal expectations about optical point of view, inviting us to see the action from an unfamiliar perspective, and thus it may shake up our typical ways of making sense of the action.

Those who have spent time watching players play and interviewing them about their game experiences find that in fact, identification works in complex ways, since the player is almost always thinking tactically about the choices that will allow her to beat the game. Winning often involves stepping outside a simple emotional or moral connection with an individual character. Players are encouraged to think of the game as a system, not unlike taking a more omniscient perspective in reading a work of fiction, even as other aspects of the game’s formal structure may encourage them to feel a close alignment with a

particular character whose actions are shaped by their own decisions.

Game designer Will Wright (The Sims, Sim City) has argued that games may have a unique ability to make players experience guilt for the choices their characters have made in the course of the action. When we watch a film or read a novel, we always reserve the ability to pull back from a character we may otherwise admire and express anger over choices he or she has made or to direct that anger towards the author who is reflecting a world view we find repugnant. Yet, in a game, because players are making choices, however limited the options provided by the designer, they feel some degree of culpability. And a game designer has the ability to force them to reflect back on those choices and thus to have an experience of guilt.

8. What roles (aggressor, victim, other) does the protagonist play in the depiction of violence?

Many of the media texts which have been most controversial are works which bring the viewer into the head of the aggressor–from the gangster films of the 1930s through contemporary films like Natural Born Killers and American Psycho, television series like Dexter and The Sopranos, and games like Grand Theft Auto. All of these works are accused of glamorizing crime.

As we’ve already discussed, we need to distinguish between following pattern, optical and psychological point of view, and moral alignment. Many of these works bring us closer to such figures precisely so that we can feel a greater sense of horror over their anti-social behavior. Consider, for example, Sweeney Todd, which depicts a murderous barber and his partner, a baker, who turns the bodies of his victims into meat pies she sells to her customers. We read the story from their perspective and we are even encouraged to laugh at their painful and heartless puns about the potential value of different people as sources for human meat. Yet, our strong identification with these characters allows us to feel greater horror and sorrow over the final consequences of their actions.

At the other end of spectrum, literary scholar James Cain describes how a whole genre of literary works arose in the Middle Ages around representations of saints as victims:

“The persecutions of early Christians gave rise to an extraordinary collection of tales commemorating the supernatural endurance of victims who willingly suffered heinous atrocities and ultimately gave their lives bearing witness to their faith. From accounts of the stoning of the first martyr, St. Stephen, to the broiling of St. Lawrence on an open grill, the strapping of St. Catherine to a mechanical wheel of torture, the gouging-out of St. Lucy’s eyeballs, the slitting-open of St. Cecilia’s throat, the slicing-off of St. Agatha’s breasts, the feeding of St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas to the lions, the piercing of St. Sebastian with a barrage of arrows–the graphic brutality undoubtedly exceeds even the most violent images in media today…. The strong emotional responses these images conjured up in their observers were deliberately designed to produce lasting impressions in people’s memories and imaginations, to enable further reflection.”

Far from being corrupting, representations of violence are seen as a source of moral instruction, in part because of our enormous sense of empathy for the saints’ ability to endure suffering.

Most American popular culture negotiates between the two extremes. In the case of superheroes, for example, their origin stories often include moments of victimization and loss, as when young Bruce Wayne watches his mother and father get killed before deciding to devote his life to battling crime as the Batman, or when Peter Parker learns that “with great power comes great responsibility” the hard way when his lack of responsibility results in the death of his beloved uncle. In the world of the superheroes, the villains are also often victims of acts of violence, as when the Joker’s face (and psyche) are scarred by being pushed into a vat of acid. The superhero genre tends to suggest that we have a choice how we respond to trauma and loss. For some, we emerge stronger and more ethically committed, while for others, we are devastated and bitter, turning towards anti-social actions and self-destruction.

A work like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is particularly complex, since we learn more and more about the character’s past as we move more deeply into the narrative and since the protagonist moves from bystander to victim and then reverses things, taking his battle to the gangsters, and along the way, becomes increasingly sadistic in his use of violence. Cronenberg wants to have the viewer rethinking and reassessing the meaning of violence in almost every scene of the film.

The filmmaker Jean Renoir famously said “every character has his reason.” His point was that if we shift point of view, we can read the aggressor as victim or vice versa. Few people see themselves as cruel; most find ways to justify and rationalize acts of even the rawest aggression. And a literary work may invite us to see the same action from several different perspectives, shifting our identifications and empathy in the process. So, for example, the moment when we see the hunt from the whale’s point of view reverses the lens, seeing Flask and his crew as the aggressors and the whale as the victim, a perspective we don’t get in the rest of the novel.

Even when the artist doesn’t fill in these other perspectives, critics and spectators can step back from a scene, put themselves in the heads of the various characters, and imagine what the world might look like from their point of view. Consider the novel and stage play, Wicked, which rereads The Wizard of Oz from the vantage point of the Wicked Witch and portrays Dorothy as a mean spirited trespasser who has murdered the witch’s sister.

9. What moral frame (pro-social, antisocial, ambiguous) does the work place around the depicted violence?

Some fictions focus on violence as the performance of duty. The police, for example, are authorized to use certain sanctioned forms of violence in the pursuit of criminals and in the name of maintaining law and order. Some of these–for example, the television series The Shield–find great drama in exploring cops who “cross the line,” seeing brutality or unnecessary use of force as a symptom of a police force no longer accountable to its public.

Similarly, much fiction centers on themes of war, with works either endorsing or criticizing military actions as forms of violence in the service of the state and of the public. There is a long tradition of national epics, going back to classical times, which depict the struggles to establish or defend the nation with violence often linked to patriotic themes and values. In the American tradition, this function was once performed by the western, which depicts the process by which “savagery” gave way to “civilization,” though more recent westerns have sometimes explored the slaughter of the Indians from a more critical perspective as a form of racial cleansing.

So, even within genres that depict the use of force in pro-social or patriotic terms, there are opportunities for raising questions about the nature and value of violence as a tool for bringing about order and stability.

On the other hand, many stories depict violence as anti-social, focusing on criminals, gangsters, or terrorists, who operate outside the law and in opposition to the state or the community. The cultural critic Robert Warshow discusses the very different representations of “men with guns” found in the western, the gangster film, and the war movie, suggesting that all three genres have strong moral codes which explain when it is justifiable to use force and depicting what happens to characters who transgress those norms. The westerner can not live in the community he has helped to create through his use of force; the gangster (see Scarface for example) frequently is destroyed by the violence he has abused to meet his personal desires and ambitions; and the hero returns home at the end of the war, albeit often psychologically transformed by the violence he has experienced.

Just as fictions that seem to depict the pro-social use of violence may contain critiques of the abuse of power by the police or the horrors of war, fictions which depict the anti-social use of violence may include strong critiques of the gangster lifestyle. Robin Woods has famously summed up the basic formula of the horror films as “normality is threatened by monstrosity.” In such a formula, there are three important terms to consider–what constitutes normality, what constitutes the monstrous, and what relationship is being posited between the two. Some horror films are highly moralistic, seeking to destroy anything which falls outside of narrow norms; others use the monster as the means of criticizing and questioning the limits of normality.

In many works, there is a core ambiguity about the nature of the violence being depicted. We may be asked to identify with several characters who have different moral codes and thus who see their actions in different terms. Our judgments may shift in the course of the narrative. The characters may understand their actions as pro-social even as the author invites us to read them as antisocial. Or the work may be saying that there’s no simple distinction to be drawn between different forms of violence: it’s all equally destructive. We might even imagine a truly nihilistic work in which all violence is justified. It isn’t that we want students to fit works into simple either/or categories here. Rather, asking this question can force them towards a more complex understanding of the moral judgments the work is making–as opposed to simply those being made by the characters–about the value of the violence to society.

10. What tone does the work take towards the represented violence?

We’ve already seen the importance of distinguishing between the forms of violence being depicted in a work and the position the work takes on those actions. We’ve seen that identification with a protagonist is fragile and shifting across a work, so that we may sometimes feel a strong emotional bond with a character for much of the story and yet still feel estranged from her when the author reveals some darker side of her personality.

A work may depict the pro-social use of violence and either endorse or criticize the Establishment being depicted. A work may depict anti-social forms of violence in ways which are conservative in their perspective on those groups who use force outside legal contexts. Or a work may depict forms of violence that are hard to classify in those terms and thus invite readers to struggle with that ambiguity.

Similarly, we need to consider the range of different emotional responses a work may evoke through its use of violent images. Some fictions about violence, such as the action sequences in an Indiana Jones movie, may thrill us with exciting, larger than life heroics. Some, such as Saving Private Ryan or Glory, may appeal to our sense of national pride towards the brave men who gave their lives defending their country. Some, such as the scene in Old Yeller where the boy is forced to shoot his dog, may generate enormous empathy as we feel sorry for the characters who are forced to deploy or suffer violence against their will. Some, such as depictions of human suffering around the world, may seek to shock us into greater social consciousness and civic action. Some, such as slapstick comedy, may encourage us to laugh at highly stylized depictions of physical aggression. And still others, such as Saw or Nightmare on Elm Street, may provoke a sense of horror or disgust as we put ourselves through a series of intense emotional shocks in the name of entertainment.

We can not understand what representations of violence mean, then, without paying attention to issues of tone, and part of teaching close reading skills is helping students identify the subtle markings in a text which indicate the tone the author is taking towards the depicted events. Popular texts tend to create broadly recognizable and easily legible signs of tone, though many of the works of filmmakers like Tarantino or Scorsese generate controversy because they adopt a much more complex and multivalent tone than we expect from other texts in the same genre. We might compare Tarantino or Scorsese to certain writers–William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor come to mind–who also seek complicated or contradictory emotional reactions to grotesque and violent elements in their narratives.

Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action

Over the past few blog posts, I have been sharing updates on some of the work being done by my Civic Paths research group at USC — first, the special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on fan activism, and second, Arely Zimmerman’s white paper exploring the ways undocumented youth and their supporters mobilized through and around new media in support of the DREAM act. But, as I have noted, this work fits within a larger initiative launched by the MacArthur Foundation — a research hub on Youth and Participatory Politics, headed by Political Science Professor Joe Kahne from Mills College, and involving a multidisciplinary mix of researchers who are combining a range of different approaches, both qualitative and quantitative, to better understand how young people are using new media as a resource for political participation.

A few weeks ago, Kahn and another Political Scientist, University of Chicago’s Cathy Cohen, released an important report representing the first phases of this research — Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Here’s a rich and provocative interview with its primary authors, thanks to MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning team.

The white paper does two things which are really important for people seeking to better understand the interplay of new media and citizen participation — first, it offers a new conceptual framing for thinking about what our research network is calling “participatory politics” and second, it shares the findings of the team’s first large scale survey which seeks to capture the current state of youth, new media, and civic participation, recorded just after the Midterm Elections and prior to the current presidential campaign season.

Here’s a key passage of the report which seeks to explain our core concept and what we think it will add to the existing understandings of the political lives of American youth:

The Youth and Participatory Politics study defines participatory politics as interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern. Importantly, these acts are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions. Examples of participatory political acts include starting a new political group online, writing and disseminating a blog post about a political issue, forwarding a funny political video to one’s social network, or participating in a poetry slam.

Participatory political acts can:

␣ reach large audiences and mobilize net- works, often online, on behalf of a cause;

␣ help shape agendas through dialogue with, and provide feedback to, political leaders (on- and offline); and

␣ enable participants to exert greater agency through the circulation or forwarding of political information (e.g., links) as well as through the production of original content, such as a blog or letter to the editor.

Four factors make participatory politics especially important to those thinking about the future of American politics.

1. Participatory politics allow individuals to operate with greater independence in the political realm, circumventing traditional gatekeepers of information and influence, such as newspaper editors, political parties, and interest groups.

2. Participatory politics often facilitate a renegotiation of political power and control with the traditional political entities that are now searching for ways to engage participants. Witness how newspapers and cable television stations now try to facilitate a controlled engagement with their audience through the use of social media.

3. Participatory politics as practiced online provide for greater creativity and voice, as participants produce original content using video, images, and text.

4. Participatory politics afford individuals the capability to reach a sizable audience and mobilize others through their social networks in an easy and inexpensive


This definition emerges from three years of intense discussions amongst the participating researchers, as well as consultations with leading scholars and activists, all of whom are thinking deeply about media change and its political consequences. It think it is safe to say that this reconceptualization would not have emerged anywhere except in the radically multidisciplinary space which Kahne and the MacArthur Foundation have helped to establish. We bring ideas from our own disciplines into conversation with those from profoundly different frames of reference, and in the process, we have begun to map a space which is inadequately covered by any given field.

In the case of media and cultural studies, the report comes as we are seeing sharper distinctions being drawn between different forms of cultural and political participation, where-as on the Political Science side, it emerges from ongoing discussions about the shifting nature of politics as a human activity, especially the shift of focus towards nongovernmental forms of political action.

The report shifts the focus from “Twitter Revolutions,” which place the emphasis on new forms of networked technologies, and onto specific sets of political and cultural practices, which deploy those tools in relation to older media technologies, to help redefine the dynamics of political debate and mobilization.

A second key point to make has to do with the relationship between participatory politics and more established and institutionalized forms of politics, a question to which Kahne and Cohen addressed in the interview that accompanies the report’s release:

Participatory politics can allow for greater creativity and voice, but voice may not necessarily lead to influence. What sort of shift must occur in order for these practices to become influential?

Kahne: We have thought about this a lot, and it’s something we as a field need to learn more about. There is no doubt that practices that amplify the voice of young people are a significant thing, especially given the marginal status that so many young people have in relation to mainstream institutions. Those institutions are places where young people generally don’t have significant voice. Participatory politics can give them that voice. At the same time, it’s key to realize that if youth are circulating ideas among their networks without understanding how to move from voice to influence, they may well not achieve the goals they value. In our work with youth organizations, digital platforms, and youth themselves, we have to find ways to help youth connect to institutions act strategically to have influence and to put pressure on the places – whether corporate or governmental – to prompt the change youth want to see occur.

Cohen: Participatory politics is never meant to displace a focus on institutional politics. We might think of it as a supplemental domain where young people can take part in a dialogue about the issues that matter, think about strategies of mobilization, and do some of that mobilizing collectively online. That said, we have to always recognize that there is important power that exists largely offline. The Occupy movement is a classic example of both participatory politics and offline institutional politics coming together to not only amplify voice but also provide influence and power — even temporarily — for a group of primarily young people around class and equality issues.

This new framework for thinking about “Participatory Politics” helps us to make sense of some of the significant findings of the national survey. I can hit on only a few key insights here (read the report for more):

Large proportions of young people across racial and ethnic groups have access to the Internet and use online social media regularly to stay connected to their family and friends and pursue interests and hobbies.

Contrary to the traditional notion of a technological digital divide, the YPP study finds young people across racial and ethnic groups are connected online. Overwhelmingly, white (96 percent), black (94 percent), Latino (96 percent) and Asian-American (98 percent) youth report having access to a computer that connects to the Internet. A majority or near majority of white (51 percent), black (57 percent), Latino (49 percent), and Asian American (52 percent) youth report sending messages, sharing status updates and links, or chatting online daily.

Youth are very involved in friendship-driven and interest-driven activities online.

78 percent send messages, share status updates, or chat online on a weekly basis.

58 percent share links or forward information through social networks at least once a week….

I was delighted to see this last question, dealing with the practices around what I call Spreadable Media, included in the survey, since events like Kony 2012 have established that acts of circulation can be an important part of how young people are participating in political debates.

Over-all, 64 percent engage in at least one interest-driven activity in a given week, and 32 percent engage in three or more interest driven activities a week.

Participatory Politics are an important dimension of politics.

41 percent of young people have engaged in at least one act of participatory politics, while 44 percent participate in other acts of politics.

Specifically, 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino and 36 percent of Asian-American youth participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the prior 12 months.

Participatory politics are an addition to an individual’s engagement rather than an alternative to other political activities:

Youth who engaged in at least one act of participatory politics were almost twice as likely

to report voting in 2010 as those who did not.

A large proportion–37 percent of all young people–engages in both participatory

and institutional politics.

Among young people who engage in participatory policies, 90 percent of them either vote or engage in institutional politics.

Participatory politics are equitably distributed across different racial and ethnic groups:

The difference in voting in 2008 between the group with the highest rate of turnout according to the U.S. Census Bureau–black youth (52%)– and the group with the lowest rate of turnout– Latino youth (27%)–is 25 percentage points.

These findings challenge many key stereotypes which shape dominant discourses around youth, new media, and political participation, suggesting that:

  • participatory politics and culture are not simply activities involving white suburban middle class youth but they are widespread across all ethnic groups, and indeed, the group most likely to engage with the broadest range of such practices are African-Americans
  • new media politics does not come at the expense of more traditional forms of political participation but rather is more likely to amplify patterns of voter-participation
  • participatory culture and politics seems to be an important equalizer of opportunities for engagement in the political process.

One other conclusion seems important for readers who are invested in media literacy: According to the survey, 84 percent of youth indicate that, given their reliance on online sources for news and information, “would benefit from learning more about how to tell if news and information you find online is trustworthy.” So, contrary to the stereotype that young people are indifferent to the credibility of the information they access online, many of them are seeking support from adult educators to help them acquire skills at more meaningfully parsing what should be trusted.

Educators and policy makers alike will benefit from looking more deeply at the rich data and insights found in this report. I am sure to be drawing more on this report through upcoming blog posts around these topics.

For those who want to learn more about the report, I’ve embedded here the video of a recent chat session featuring Kahne, Cohen, and others, talking about the report with Howard Rheingold through the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Seminar series.

Joe Kahne is the John and Martha Davidson Professor of Education at Mills College. His research focuses on ways school practices and new media influence youth civic and political development.

Cathy Cohen is the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. She is the founder of the Black Youth Project and author of The Boundaries of Blackness and Democracy Remixed. Her research focuses on political engagement by marginal communities.

Documenting DREAMS: New Media, Undocumented Youth and the Immigrant Rights Movement

Civic Paths is a team of graduate students, faculty, post-docs, and staff researchers within the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, who are seeking to better understand the role of new media tools and practices in shaping the political socialization and mobilization of American youth. The faculty leads on the research team are myself and my Journalism colleague, Kierstin Thorson while Sangita Shreshtova is the Research Director.

The team is linked to a larger research hub on Youth and Participatory Politics, headed by Mills College Political Science Professor Joe Kahne and funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Our team’s contribution consists of developing a series of ethnographic case studies of innovative networks which have proven effective at encouraging youth to become political activists. Next time, I will be sharing some quantitative research recently released by Kahne, Cathy Cohen, and other members of the YPP network.

Civic Paths recently released the first of the white papers which over the next two years will start to emerge from our research: this one written by our Post-Doc Arely M. Zimmerman and dealing with the groups of undocumented youth who have been trying to rally behind the DREAM Act. The report was released the same week that President Barack Obama announced a major shift in the country’s immigration policy that reflected in many ways the success of these DREAM activists in reframing the public’s perception of the experience of being undocumented and in calling out the fact that the Obama administration had deported more people in its first three years in office than George W. Bush had in his two terms as president.

Zimmerman’s white paper takes us behind the scenes, identifying the tactics which had led to this political victory and sharing the stories shared with her by the participants in her study.

Zimmerman’s research was the focus of an earlier blog post, describing a program we hosted at USC where young immigrant rights activists talked about their use of new media to mobilize supporters.

You can find the full report on the DREAM Activists online at the Youth and Participatory Politics homepage. But, to give you a taste of the report, I wanted to share two excerpts here today. The first comes from the introduction to Zimmerman’s report:

On October 12, 2011, five undocumented youth wearing graduation caps staged a sit-in at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices in downtown Los Angeles to urge the Obama administration to stop deporting undocumented youths. The sit-in launched the national E.N.D. (Education Not Deportation) Our Pain campaign, comprised of a network of immigrant youth organizations and allies demanding an immediate moratorium on deporting youth eligible for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. This proposed legislation would grant conditional legal status to those brought to the United States under age 16 if they attend college or join the military.

The action took place on a busy Wednesday morning when most Angelenos were at work and most students were in school. Fearing a low turnout, Dream Team Los Angeles, a local youth-led community group, and their allies used social media to send links of a live broadcast of the action from a free video-streaming site. While 300 people attended, over 4,000 users watched online as the youth entered ICE headquarters and demanded a hearing with officials. The attendees and online audience looked on as handcuffs were placed on the youth. Immediately after the arrests, users were able to make donations and petition for the arrestees’ release through another website.

The E.N.D. campaign’s direct action is an example of a strategy to amplify youth voices in the immigrant rights movement by combining traditional community organizing

with new media strategies. One of the arrestees and leader of one of the DREAM advocacy groups in Los Angeles acknowledges that a mixed media strategy is key for reaching diverse participants:

You have to be able to use Facebook and Twitter, but you have to be intentional about it, and strategic. At the same time, you have to also utilize traditional media outlets because our ‘tios’ and ‘tias’ are not using social networking. They are still watching Univision and the nightly news. So you have to engage in both.

DREAM Activism is an exemplar case of youth capitalizing on new media affordances to recruit, mobilize, and sustain broad-based youth political participation. While initial organizing in 2001 focused on states with high immigrant populations such as California, Illinois, and New York, undocumented youth and student organizations are now active at the national level with chapters in 25 states. The California Dream Network, a network of undocumented youth organizations, boasts chapters on over 30 college campuses. Student and youth organizers credit both their rapid growth and public outreach to the power of new media. Prerna Lal, co-founder of DreamActivist.org, a media-centered youth organization, states in an online video, “New media has indeed taken a small group of undocumented students to new heights and fueled a movement that was stagnant.”

Immigrant youth’s participation in the DREAM movement provides an opportunity to examine the intersection of new media and grassroots youth-led social movements in the context of a politically disenfranchised and legally vulnerable community. Drawing from field research, event observations, media content analysis, and 25 semi-structured interviews with DREAM activists residing in California, Illinois, Georgia, and Texas, this report examines the role of new media in mobilizing undocumented youth’s participation in the movement.

Only three of the youth I interviewed were U.S. citizens. While Mexico was the primary country of origin, some of the youth came from Colombia, Nigeria, El Salvador, Poland, and Chile. All but three of the youth were enrolled in an institution of higher learning or had completed their bachelor’s degree at the time of the interviewee. The semi-structured interviews allowed me to reconstruct the history of Dream Activism and account for existing organizational networks through youth’s narration of events, stories of participation, and the re-telling of their experiences as members of Dream activist organizations. On an individual level, the interview protocol was directed at capturing youth’s stories of involvement, the contextual factors and supports that sustained their civic participation, and their use of new media platforms and practices. Additionally, I probed how their participation in the Dream movement had shaped their experiences of inequality and identity, feelings of membership and belonging, and conceptions of citizenship.

As the effects of new media on political participation continue to be sharply

debated, this case study suggests that youth’s online and political participation are

mutually reinforcing. Despite the barriers they face because of their legal and socio-

economic status, undocumented youth activists in this study are highly engaged online as bloggers, documentarians, artists, or social media activists. The positive correlation

between levels of civic engagement and online participation is due to several factors.

Online communities have served as spaces to develop associational bonds, forge social

networks, and amass forms of social capital that are particularly useful given the legal

and political vulnerability of face to face activism. Online communities have also

increased youth’s sense of political efficacy by offering spaces for collective identification and shared memory. The sophisticated use of new media by undocumented youth has enabled youth to negotiate, resist, and respond to their political and socio- economic marginalization. Through new media, undocumented youth have uplifted the voices, experiences, and stories of an often-ignored segment of the immigrant population in the United States. Simultaneously, these activists have brought attention to the youth voice within the social justice community more broadly….

The second selection from the white paper comes from the conclusion and focuses more directly on the personal trajectories of the DREAM activists that Zimmerman interviewed for the project. She deals honestly with the challenges these undocumented youth confront, both in preserving personal dignity in their everyday interactions and in finding ways to access the digital media which is so vital to their efforts. This passage gives us a snap shot of how people are living with and working around the digital divide and the participation gap and the ways these inequalities of access are tied to larger social, political, and economic inequalities. Their stories help us to understand how current immigration policies are squandering the potential of a generation of young Americans who seek to make a contribution with their lives but who are often blocked from doing so as a consequence of the political stalemate which surrounds efforts to change the process for acquiring citizenship:

During the research on this MAPP case study, I met many individuals who defied the presumption of civically and politically disengaged youth. Like Jose, who used Facebook to confront the social isolation he felt by posting photos of his drawings online, these youth have used new media tools to overcome rather than succumb to barriers to their political participation. Sammy, an aspiring filmmaker, did not have the means to buy a camera with HD capabilities, but produced a short documentary on the plights of undocumented students. El Random Hero was an avid blogger and yet did not have a computer at home. He accessed the internet through public libraries. The stories of these youth provide a glimpse into the positive impact that new media can have on the ability of youth to become civically and politically engaged.

Through this research, I also met disaffected undocumented youth who were less engaged both in their schools, communities, and empowering forms of digital social networks. Though these youth had access to new media, they had not used this access to empower themselves and engage politically. Anna, a high school student, felt that

Facebook was a detriment at times even, pulling her into a web of high school “drama” causing her to deactivate her account. Anna was graduating high school that summer and hadn’t any idea of what she would do next. Would she be destined to work in a low- skilled job for minimum wage?

These varied DREAMer youth experiences show the range of outcomes that are possible. For those individuals that experienced positive outcomes in their civic, political and digital lives, it seems to be a result of access to new media combined with a range of other contextual supports. One important contextual support is institutional, namely the college campus. Most of the youth in this study who were politically engaged are also college graduates or on the way to obtaining a degree. Of course, there are exceptions. El Random Hero, for instance, has not been able to afford to attend community college. But for the most part, DREAMers seem to become more involved once they’re enrolled in an educational institution. Students like Agustin, who had been exposed early on to Chicano or Ethnic studies, had a framework to understand their struggles in relation to historical patterns, increasing their sense of belonging and group pride. Several youth in this study started their activism by joining a college campus group. Others found each other online. Some later become active in community-based organizations or national coalitions, but they generally began when a peer or a mentor introduced them to a student support group for undocumented students. This happened both online and face-to-face.

While much research needs to be done in this regard, this study suggests that new

media do provide extended opportunities for political advocacy and social engagement

for undocumented youth. DREAMers find each other online. They strengthen their sense

of community through collective storytelling. They mobilize for action using social media. They use their online media savvy in combination with more traditional social movement tactics. The youth use new media to make the DREAM movement personal, networked and visible. What remains a question is whether the degree of empowerment and the sustainability of youth’s political participation in this movement relates directly to institutional supports and contextual capital. If so, how can we strengthen these to create powerful avenues for broader youth participation in politics and the public sphere?

While community groups like Dream Team Coalition of Los Angeles or the United We Dream national network are youth-driven, these groups have also successfully drawn on resources and support from more traditional allies in the advocacy and nonprofit sectors. These contextual supports may enhance DREAMer youth’s new media affordances towards more sustained political action. For example, in the Los Angeles area, community-based organizations such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and UCLA’s Labor Center have been at the forefront of undocumented youth organizing. These centers provide both formal and informal supports such as mentorship, scholarship, organizing and leadership development, along with access to the broader social justice community. In 2011, the Labor Center sponsored an event called “Dream Summer”, which provided 60 undocumented youth with paid internships and a trip to Washington DC. Such programs help sustain youth’s political activism and involvement by providing a means of both emotional and financial support and motivation.

In California, especially in cities like Los Angeles, the immigrant rights community has well-established organizations with a long trajectory of facing an uphill battle to organize and sustain their political involvement. While new media and online social networks are a way to counter social and political isolation, DREAMer youth may benefit by seeking out the support of institutions that can help sustain their activism. Kendra and Jenny, for instance, found it hard to plug into the social justice community in their hometowns in Texas and Illinois, respectively. Because immigrant rights are often framed as a Latino issue, most organizations cater to Spanish speaking, newly arrived immigrants. Kendra and Jenny were not Latin American and were not Spanish speakers. The lack of ethnic ties made it more difficult for them to participate in local organizing activities, so they turned to the Internet. Kendra was more successful than Jenny at connecting to a social network of undocumented students, but she also was pulled further into the immigrant rights struggle when she visited Washington, D.C. for a collective action. Joining others in a solidarity march on Capitol Hill was a catalyst in her political activism.

Clearly, there is still more research that needs to be done in understanding why some undocumented youth become politically and socially empowered, while others, to put it in their words, remain “in the shadows.” Further analysis of this research will begin to answer these questions as well. Still, it is already clear that new media placed in the hands of DREAMer youth, inspired by a collective vision and supported by the community, has created a powerful movement for social change.

Civic Paths is very proud of the timely and ground-breaking work which Zimmerman has done on this case study, and we hope you will take the time to check out her full report.

Future Civic Paths white papers will deal with the network of fan activists around the Harry Potter Alliance, the Nerdfighters, and Imagine Better; the activities and institutions supporting the Students for Liberty movement; and the politicization of Moslem-American youth in the wake of 9/11.

Up, Up and Away!: The Power and Potential of Fan Activism

As I continue to catch up on events which occurred while I was out of the country, I want to direct my readers to the special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on “fan activism” which I co-edited with Sangita Shreshtova and the members of our Civic Paths research team. The initial call for papers appeared on this blog several years ago and thanks to your help, we were able to pull together an exceptional range of articles, representing many different forms of fan activism from around the world. The issue is now online and has already started to generate a fair amount of attention, but I wanted to make sure my regular blog readers had a chance to see what we produced. As you will see, many of my talks across Europe drew on this material, and our team is continuing to do work around this topic with the goal of producing a book length study of new forms of cultural activism in the not-too-distant future.

Below, I share the introduction to the special issue I wrote with Shreshtova. It should give you some sense of the range of materials we have assembled here. You are strongly encouraged to go to the online journal itself to read any or all of the essays described here.

Up, Up and Away! The Power and Potential of Fan Activism

by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shreshtova

[Fandom] is built on psychological mechanisms that are relevant to political involvement: these are concerned with the realm of fantasy and imagination on the one hand, and with emotional processes on the other…The remaining question then becomes whether and how politics can borrow from the elements of popular culture that produce these intense audience investments, so that citizenship becomes entertaining.

–Liesbeth van Zoonen, Entertaining the Citizen

Scratch an activist and you’re apt to find a fan. It’s no mystery why: fandom provides a space to explore fabricated worlds that operate according to different norms, laws, and structures than those we experience in our “real” lives. Fandom also necessitates relationships with others: fellow fans with whom to share interests, develop networks and institutions, and create a common culture. This ability to imagine alternatives and build community, not coincidentally, is a basic prerequisite for political activism.

–Steven Duncombe, “Imagining No-Place”

In 2011, American political leaders and activists were surprisingly concerned with an 80-plus-year-old popular culture icon: Superman. When presidential candidate Rick Perry was asked by a 9-year-old child during a campaign stop which superhero he would want to be, the tough-talking Texan chose the man from Krypton, because “Superman came to save the United States!” (Well 2011). At almost that same moment, conservative commentators were up in arms because in an alternative universe DC comics story, Superman denounced his American citizenship to embrace a more global perspective: “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of US policy. ‘Truth, Justice, and the American way!’–It’s not enough any more.” Right-wing rage was expressed by one FoxNews.com reader: “This is absolutely sickening. We are now down to destroying all American Icons. How are we going to survive as a Nation?” (Appelo 2011). Such responses suggest a widespread recognition that popular mythologies may provide the frames through which the public makes sense of its national identity.

Meanwhile, immigrant rights activists were questioning when Superman ever became an American citizen or whether he even possessed a green card, given that he entered the country without permission and, we must presume, without documentation, a refugee from a society in turmoil who has sought to hide his origins and identity from outside scrutiny ever since.

Hari Kondabolu, a South Asian comedian, recorded a video entitled “Superman as Immigrant Rights Activist,” distributed through Colorlines , asking why no one ever tried to deport Superman for “stealing jobs” and suggesting that other immigrants might wear glasses, like Clark Kent does, to mask their identities. Photographer Dulce Pinzon produced a powerful set of images depicting a range of (mostly Marvel) superheroes performing the jobs often done by undocumented workers. As Thomas Andrae (1987; see also Engle 1987) has noted, at the time of his origins in the late Depression era, Superman adopted an explicitly political stance (“the champion of the oppressed”) rather than the more vaguely civic orientation of subsequent decades. As Matt Yockey demonstrates in regard to Wonder Woman in this issue, superheroes have long functioned as mythological figures or rhetorical devices for debates around identity politics. Even DC Comics has described Superman as “the ultimate immigrant” (Perry 2011).

Arely Zimmerman (forthcoming), a postdoc with the Media Activism and Participatory Politics Project (part of USC’s Civic Paths Project), interviewed 25 undocumented youth activists involved in the campaign to pass the Dream Act. She was struck by how often superheroes cropped up in her exchanges. One respondent described the experience of discovering other undocumented youth online as like “finding other X-Men.” Another compared their campaign, which involved youth from many different backgrounds, to the Justice League. A third suggested that posting a video on YouTube in which he proclaimed himself “proud” and “undocumented” had parallels to the parallels to the experience of Spider-Man, who had removed his mask on national television during Marvel’s Civil Wars story line. A graphic created for an online recruitment campaign used the image of Wolverine to suggest what kind of hero youth volunteers might aspire to become.

On the one hand, we might read these various deployments of the superheroes as illustrating the trends Liesbet van Zoonen (2005) describes: groups promoting social change are tapping the affective and imaginative properties of popular culture to inspire a more intense connection with their supporters. In this issue, Jonathan Gray shows similar appropriations of images from Star Wars and a range of other popular media franchises during labor rights protests in Madison, Wisconsin. Gray argues that such images (which have also been widely associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement) proliferate because popular culture, especially blockbuster franchises, constitutes a common reference point (shared between fans and more casual consumers) within an otherwise diverse and fragmented coalition of protestors and observers. Gray stresses the morale and community-building work performed through the remixing of popular culture for those gathered in an icy Wisconsin winter to express their support for collective bargaining. Zimmerman (forthcoming) also suggests that the Dream activists’ use of pop culture references might be understood as part of a larger strategy to signal their assimilation into American culture. Given how much contemporary speech of all kinds is full of snarky pop culture references, it is not surprising that such references are also reshaping our political rhetoric, especially as campaigns seek to speak to young people who have famously felt excluded from traditional campaigns and have often been turned off by inside-the-beltway language. Buffy the Vampire Slayer goes to Washington!

Yet as the epigraph from Duncombe (this issue) suggests, such popular culture references also reflect the lived experiences of activists who also are fans, whether understood in the casual sense of someone who feels a strong emotional connection to a particular narrative or in the more active sense of someone who has participated in a fan community or engaged in transformative practices. Civil rights leaders in the 1960s deployed biblical allusions because part of what they shared were meaningful experiences within black church congregations. Zimmerman’s Dream activists referenced superheroes because reading and discussing comics was part of their everyday lives as young people, because these references helped them think through their struggles, because they offer such vivid embodiments of heroic conflicts and deep commitments. Unlike Perry, who had only a faint recollection of Superman’s mythology and acknowledged that he was no longer actively reading comics, these allusions to superhero comics were apt rather than opportunistic, grounded in a deep appreciation of who these characters are and how their stories have evolved over time. That is, they show the kinds of mastery we associate with fans. Here, we see what Duncombe describes as the fan within the activist.

However, we can push the idea of fan activism one step farther: by now, the capacity of fan communities to quickly mobilize in reaction to a casting decision or a threat of cancellation has been well established, going back to the now-legendary letter-writing campaign in the 1960s that kept Star Trek on the air. Fan groups have also had a long history of lending their support to the favorite causes of popular performers and producers, or more generally working in support of charity. Some slash fans, for example, have been motivated to march in gay rights parades, raise money for AIDS research and awareness, or, more recently, work in support of marriage equality. Fans have rallied to challenge attempts to regulate the Internet, restrict their deployment of intellectual property, or censor their content. For example, in this issue, Alex Leavitt and Andrea Horbinski trace the responses of Japanese otaku, involved in the creation of dôjinshi (underground comics), to metropolitan Tokyo ordinance Bill 156, which they perceived as an attempt to curtain their artistic freedom.

More recent efforts (such as Racebending, the Harry Potter Alliance, Imagine Better, the Nerdfighters) deploy these same strategies and tactics to support campaigns for social justice and human rights, inspiring their supporters to move from engagement within participatory culture to involvement in political life. Fan activism of the kinds we’ve known about for years models many effective approaches for using social media to create awareness and mobilize supporters–tactics now being adopted by even traditional charities and activist organizations as they adapt to a networked society.

All of this suggests the urgent need for scholars to explore more fully the many different potential relationships between fandom and political life, since fan studies as a research paradigm has something vital to contribute to larger considerations of the relationship between participatory culture and civic engagement. Fan studies has long depicted fandom as a site of ideological and cultural resistance to the heteronormative and patriarchal values often shaping mass media. Such work is and remains highly valuable as we seek to understand the place of fandom in contemporary culture, but our focus here pushes beyond abstract notions of cultural resistance to focus on specific ways that fan culture has affected debates around law and public policy. Many fans have resisted efforts to bring politics into fandom, seeing their fan activities as a release from the pressures of everyday life, or preferring the term charity rather than the more overtly political term activism to describe their pro-social efforts.

Our goal is not to instrumentalize fandom, not to turn what many of us do for fun into something more serious; fandom remains valuable on its own terms as a set of cultural practices, social relationships, and affective investments, but insofar as a growing number of fans are exploring how they might translate their capacities for analysis, networking, mobilization, and communication into campaigns for social change, we support expanding the field of fan studies to deal with this new mode of civic engagement.

Political participation and fan activism

This issue’s two editors are part of the Civic Paths Project research group, housed in the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California. This group has partnered with the Spencer and MacArthur foundations to try to document new forms of political participation that are affecting the lives of young people. Our work is part of a larger research network that is trying to develop a model for understanding what is being called participatory politics. Through our internal discussions, we had begun to identify the concept of fan activism as central to addressing larger questions about what might motivate young people, who are often described as apathetic, to join civic and political organizations. We had located a core body of scholarship, such as the work of van Zoonen (2005), which examined how the playful, affective, and fantasy aspects of fandom were starting to inform political discourse, or the work of Earl and Kimport (2009), which discussed fan online campaigns as part of a larger exploration of what networked politics might look like, or the work of Daniel Dayan (2005), which debated the similarities and differences between audiences and publics. We had already identified some powerful examples of how fan-based groups had helped support civic learning and had developed resources and practices that could quickly mobilize supporters behind emergencies, charities, or human rights campaigns.

We knew that there must be many more examples out there. Still, after we released the call for papers, we were blown away by the range of submissions we received from all over the world, describing other examples of fan activism in practice, debating why calls for fan participation sometimes yield spectacular results and other times fall flat, contesting the borders of fan activism, speculating about its contributions to the public sphere, and making important distinctions between top-down celebrity-run models and bottom-up participatory ones. As you will see, this issue is overflowing with cutting-edge work that takes fans seriously as political agents and that draws on a range of different theories of citizenship and democracy to explain what happens when fans act as citizens. Examples here encompass a wide variety of fandoms–Harry Potter, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Colbert Report, comic books, pop music, and Bollywood.

Essays in this issue

The Civic Paths team is well represented here, with a cluster of three essays offering multiple and complimentary frames for discussing fan activism, and two other contributors (Ritesh Mehta and Alex Leavitt) are active group members. Taking a deep dive into the existing literature around cultural and political participation, Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova provide an overview of core debates surrounding fan activism, including the diverse forms that participation may take, the tension between resistance and participation as competing models, the value of affect and content worlds, and the criteria by which we might measure such campaigns’ success and sustainability. They argue that the study of fan activists may make a significant contribution to cross-disciplinary debates about citizenship and political engagement.

Henry Jenkins maps the history of fan-based activism, providing a context for understanding the Harry Potter Alliance, perhaps the most highly visible of the new generation of fan activist groups. Jenkins defines fan activism as “forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture” (¶1.8). By exploring the concept of “cultural acupuncture,” a phrase coined by HPA’s founder, Andrew Slack, Jenkins explores how fannish borrowings from J. K. Rowling’s fictions inspire and inform the group’s diverse interventions (from an initial focus on human rights and genocide in Darfur to more recent campaigns pushing Warner Bros. to tie their chocolate contracts to fair trade principles).

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, and Chris Tokuhama share some of the results of Civic Path’s extensive fieldwork, interviewing young participants from the Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children, the latter a San Diego-based human rights organization that deploys various forms of participatory culture to motivate high school and college students to become more aware of how Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony has kidnapped and conscripted child soldiers. Tracing the trajectories by which these young people become more deeply involved in these efforts, the authors suggest the importance of shared media experiences, rich content worlds, and a desire to help in changing how young people see themselves as political agents. From an initial focus on fan activism, the Civic Paths project has expanded the scope of its research to consider the participatory culture practices associated with Dream Act activism, the efforts of college-aged libertarians, the work of the Nerd Fighters and Imagine Better, and the political and cultural activities of Muslim American youth, each offering models for understanding the cultural and political factors affecting the lives of contemporary American young people.

Ashley Hinck extends this special issue’s consideration of the Harry Potter Alliance, drawing on core concepts from the literature of social movements and the public sphere. Focusing primarily on their campaign around Darfur, she argues that the HPA taps into the world of Hogwarts to construct what Hinck calls a “public engagement keystone,” defined here as a “touchpoint, worldview, or philosophy that makes other people, actions, and institutions intelligible” (¶4.6). The fact that Harry Potter is so widely read, known, and loved not only by hard-core fans but by many who are not part of fandom makes it a useful resource for bridging the two, helping to revitalize public discourse around human rights concerns in Africa. Lili Wilkinson also explores the value of content worlds from popular culture in facilitating new kinds of political interactions, in this case through an application of Foucault’s notion of heterotopia to understanding the links between John Green’s young adult novel Paper Towns and his involvement in the Nerdfighters, an informal network of young people who use social media and video blogging to “reduce world suck.” Though coming from different theoretical backgrounds, Kligler-Vilenchik et al., Hinck, and Wilkinson all converge around the importance of reimaging the world through shared fantasies.

Another central strand running through the discussion has to do with the differences between efforts of celebrities (authors such as John Green, pop stars such as Hong Kong’s Ho Denise Wan See, cult television actors such as Gillian Anderson, filmmakers such as Kevin Smith, television show runners such as Joss Whedon, and comedians such as Stephen Colbert) to mobilize their fans around their pet causes and more grassroots efforts by fans to draw resources from popular culture to help fuel their own efforts at social change. A group like Nerdfighters straddles the line between the two–they are partially a response to the ongoing cultural productions of the brothers John and Hank Green (as Wilkinson suggests) but also a much more open-ended, participatory space, where anyone who wants to claim the nerdfighter identity can produce media and rally support behind his or her own ideas about what might constitute a better society. Lucy Bennett offers a critical review of the literature surrounding celebrity-based activism, exploring how such causes often take off because of the sense of intimacy the stars create with their following. Bethan Jones challenges a tradition of research that has tended to pathologize the parasocial relations between media fans and celebrities by describing the ways that X-Files cast member Gillian Anderson was able to inspire her fans to raise money for various charities. Tanya R. Cochran examines the efforts of Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, Dollhouse) to use his blog to increase awareness about sexual violence against women. Cochran sees Whedon’s promotion of feminism as consistent with the focus on strong female characters across his television series, reinforcing the themes that draw fans to his properties in the first place.

The idea that the personality of celebrities, as much as the themes of popular fictions, may shape what issues fan activists embrace (and in this case, which issues generate little or no response) is further explored in Tom Phillips’s exploration of the failed attempt by Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma) at stimulating fans to write letters to Southwest Airlines when the filmmaker was removed from his flight because he was viewed as “too fat to fly.” Although the incident sparked online conversations around “corporate practice, body image, and consumer rights” (¶0.1), Smith’s fans were not able to cohere around a strategy for exerting pressure on the airline. Cheuk Yi Lin explores why a sexually ambiguous pop star in Hong Kong has offered fans new language and images to represent their own erotic identities, but her queer fans have not coalesced into institutional politics around the rights of sexual minorities. Any urge toward more overtly political responses are dampened both by the cultural traditions of Hong Kong and by the institutional structures surrounding the fandom.

Although the first wave of research has stressed the potentials for fan activism, such practices are still relatively rare, with most forms of fandom stopping at the level of creative expression and not translating into collective action. For this reason, studies such as those by Phillips and Lin, which help us to understand the constraints on fan activism, may prove as useful in the long term as those studies which document successful models for translating fan investments into social change. Further challenging a utopian view of fan activism, Sun Jung explores antifandom around the K-Pop star Tablo, showing how some fan discourse may incorporate intense nationalism and even racism, even as other groups actively and productively challenge these discourses.

Contributing to van Zoonen’s notion of the entertained citizen, several articles engage the direct connection between the political sphere (as traditionally defined) and participatory cultures. Andreas Jungherr investigates the German federal elections in 2009, arguing that citizen use of new media platforms and practices challenges the candidates’ top-down communication practices. Contrasting design and deployment of such strategies across the German political spectrum, Jungherr finds that the participatory possibilities of emerging political practices vary depending on ideology. Jungherr concludes that the more liberal German Social Democrats (SPD) were more successful in designing an online environment that supported grassroots participation than the German conservative party (CDU). In the United States, The Colbert Report, a satirical late-night television program featuring Stephen Colbert, a character who is a parody of conservative media personalities, further blurs the lines between politics and entertainment. Marcus Schulzke shows how the program encouraged audiences to remix content and otherwise manipulate the words and images of political figures in ways that foster critical media literacies. By now, the idea that young Americans are as apt to learn about the political system through such news-comedy programs as from traditional journalism has become commonplace, while the program producers have sought to link creative expression and political participation to what it means to be a fan of their shows.

The simultaneously transnational and local dimensions of fan activism are another strand that runs through this issue. With examples of fan activism that include South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, Australia, and India, the essays in this issue expand the transnational dimensions of fan activism. These examples highlight some of the similarities between various instances and discussions of fan activism (including the role of communities and content worlds, catalyzing moments, and challenges to sustained mobilization), but we are also acutely sensitive to the local dimensions and specifications of these mobilizations. In sharp contrast to the United States, where we are constantly working to establish participatory culture links to the political sphere, Aswin Punathambekar aptly observes that the connection between participatory culture and politics is “not news to anyone in India.” Punathambekar goes even further, observing that the struggle in India is to, in fact, demonstrate the “ordinariness of participatory culture.” Complementing this observation, and using a public protest inspired by the a Bollywood film to demonstrate his argument, Ritesh Mehta proposes “flash activism” as a crucial element of India’s civil society.

Kony 2012

The power and challenges of activism through fanlike engagement with content worlds came into sharp focus with Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, an effort to increase public awareness of the human rights violations and genocide conducted by a Ugandan warlord. At the time of writing, the 30-minute Kony 2012 film released at 12 PM on March 5, 2012, has topped 76 million views on YouTube to become one of the most viewed and fastest-spreading videos in YouTube history. In The Daily Show‘s coverage of Kony 2012 on March 12, 2012, host Jon Stewart sets up the popularity of the film by saying, “This guy Kony is probably dropping some sick beats.” The show cuts to an excerpt from Kony 2012 in which Jason Russell’s voice describes the war crimes committed by the LRA set to images of what we gather are victims of those atrocities. We now cut back to a shocked Jon Stewart who goes on to exclaim, “So a thirty-minute video on child soldiers has gone viral–how popular can this thing be? I am sure it’s not teenage girl sings song about day of the week hot.” The show cuts to mainstream news media coverage of Kony 2012 focused on its extraordinary reach.

Given this almost overwhelming visibility, the film–and with it Invisible Children as an organization–was the subject of sharp debate. In the following days, IC’s financials, their activities in Uganda, and their support of military action to “bring Joseph Kony to justice” were examined, debated, and critiqued ad nauseam in news media, through discussion forums, and on IC’s own public Facebook page. The importance of these issues notwithstanding, these debates have by and large failed to recognize why the IC has been so incredibly spreadable (to borrow Henry Jenkins’s term). Yes, the film is very well edited, and yes, its message, “make Kony famous,” is compelling. But as Henry Jenkins (2012) points out, the success of the Kony 2012 YouTube campaign owes much to the fanlike support IC has built around its films over its past eight years of existence. In asking their supporters to reach out to a range of celebrities and policy makers who have a high level of visibility through social media, the organization also tapped into the desire of fans to see their favorites take a stand on issues that matter to them. With Kony 2012, IC activated this supporter base, which then willingly, strategically, and enthusiastically tweeted, posted, and then reposted the film to set its phenomenal spread in motion. They supported it with such fervor that they surpassed IC’s goal of getting 500,000 views by the end of 2012 within a few hours.

IC and its supporters were caught off guard by the barrage of criticism levied at Kony 2012. Some, such as Ethan Zuckerman (2012), have suggested that the rapid spread of the video was a consequence of its simplification of complex political issues, wondering how online networks might be deployed to further complicate and nuance the frames that it proposes. As Civic Paths researcher Lana Swartz (2012) suggests, IC focused more on having their media be spreadable (widely circulated) rather than drillable (open to deeper investigation). For example, before Kony 2012, few IC supporters were encouraged to actively seek out more information about the Lord’s Revolutionary Army, the militia that Kony heads. Instead, they were generally content with carefully replicating the accurate but somewhat simplistic narrative they received through IC’s media. Fans of many media franchises have sought to drill deeper into their content worlds, trying to encapsulate everything that was known about what happened on the island in Lost or expanding the story line through fan fiction writing projects. In this way, fandom’s search for hidden depths in seemingly simple texts offers an alternative model for how a group like IC might achieve the more nuanced framing Zuckerman sought and might give their rank-and-file members greater skills at parsing competing truth claims made about what is happening on the ground in Uganda.

In our call for submissions, we set out to understand how the imaginative practices supported by fandom, at times facilitated by digital media, may inform civic and political mobilization and how we may rethink our understanding of engagement in the civic and political spheres through the lens of fandom. The articles included in this issue not only exceed these objectives, but they also point to the extreme timeliness of this endeavor. From undocumented superheroes to humanitarian assistance in the name of Harry Potter, fandom clearly has a lot to teach us about activism in the age of social media and participatory culture.

5. Acknowledgments

Based at the University of Southern California, the Media Activism and Participatory Politics Project (MAPP) is part of Civic Paths Project. The project gratefully acknowledges support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) and the Spencer Foundation.

We thank the authors in this issue, whose original work makes TWC possible; the peer reviewers, who freely provide their time and expertise; the editorial team members, whose engagement with and solicitation of material is so valuable; and the production team members, who transform rough manuscripts into publishable documents.

The following people worked on TWC No. 10 in an editorial capacity: Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova (guest editors); Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (editors); Anne Kustritz, Patricia Nelson, and Suzanne Scott (Symposium); and Louisa Stein (Review).

The following people worked on TWC No. 10 in a production capacity: Rrain Prior (production editor); Beth Friedman, Shoshanna Green, and Mara Greengrass (copyeditors); Wendy Carr, Kristen Murphy, and sunusn (layout); and Kallista Angeloff, Amanda Georgeanne Michaels, Carmen Montopoli, and Vickie West (proofreaders).

TWC thanks the journal project’s Organization for Transformative Works board liaison, Francesca Coppa. OTW provides financial support and server space to TWC but is not involved in any way in the content of the journal, which is editorially independent.

TWC thanks all its board members, whose names appear on TWC’s masthead, as well as the additional peer reviewers who provided service for TWC No. 10: Katherine Chen, Bertha Chin, Matthew Costello, Ashley Hinck, Ian Hunter, Alex Jenkins, Jeffrey Jones, Rachael Joo, Deborah Kaplan, Flourish Klink, Michael Koulikov, Bingchun Meng, Christopher Moreman, Nele Noppe, Amy Shuman, Fred Turner, Emily Wills, and Ethan Zuckerman.


1. These quotes are excerpted from interviews carried out by Arely Zimmerman for the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics Project between December 2010 and July 2011. Institutional review board approval was secured for this research.

Works cited

Andrae, Thomas. 1987. “From Menace to Messiah: The History and Historicity of Superman,” in American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives, edited by Donald Lazare. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Appelo, Tom. 2011. “Superman Renounces US Citizenship, as Warners, DC Comics Bids for Global Audiences.” Hollywood Reporter, April 28.

Dayan, Daniel. 2005. “Mothers, Midwives and Abortionists: Genealogy, Obstetrics, Audiences and Publics.” In Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere, edited by Sonia Livingstone, 43-76. London: Intellect.

Earl, Jennifer, and Katrina Kimport. 2009. “Movement Societies and Digital Protest: Fan Activism and Other Nonpolitical Protest Online.” Sociological Theory 27:220-43. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9558.2009.01346.x.

Engle, Gary. 1987. “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” In Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend, edited by Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle. Cleveland, OH: Octavia.

Jenkins, Henry. 2012. “Contextualizing #Kony2012: Invisible Children, Spreadable Media, and Transmedia Activism.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, March 12. http://henryjenkins.org/2012/03/contextualizing_kony2012_invis.html.

Perry, Alexander. 2011. “The Immigrant Superman.” Arte Y Vida Chicago, September 1.

Swartz, Lana. 2012. “Invisible Children: Transmedia, Storytelling, Mobilization.” Working Paper, March 11.

van Zoonen, Liesbet. 2005. Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Well, Dan. 2011. “Candidates’ Favorite Super Hero: Superman Chosen by Four,” Newsmax, December 29.

Zimmerman, Arely. Forthcoming. DREAM Case Project Report. Media Activism and Participatory Politics Project, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Zuckerman, Ethan. 2012. “Unpacking Kony 2012.” My Heart’s in Accra, March 8.

Videos from Transmedia Hollywood 3: Rethinking Creative Relations

Sometimes it’s easy, sometime’s its hard.

We’ve had ongoing success in building a community around the Future of Entertainment Consortium’s west coast event, Transmedia Hollywood, which is jointly produced each year through a collaboration between University of Southern California and University of California-Los Angeles (or as they would put it, University of California-Los Angeles and University of Southern California). But, this year’s conference seemed to be under some kind of black cloud. We never have had so much difficulty lining up speakers, so much last minute shuffling of presenters. On top of that, the event will be known as the year without Henry, since I ended up in the hospital on the eve of the event, ended up missing most of the day as I fought my way through the bureaucracy to get released. And, then, we faced epic delays getting the videos out to the world.

Well, the videos are finally here and, despite the struggles, we are still very proud of what we were able to produce — the speakers are, as always, lively and thought provoking, a rich mix of academics and folks from many different sectors of the entertainment industry, and the content remains timely, capturing some of the key transitions shaping the entertainment industry today and bringing an ever stronger transnational focus to the mix, as we are connecting more and more with folks creating transmedia content around the world.

With the growth of transmedia and creative industries/production studies focused classes at universities around the world, we hope these videos will prove to be important resources for use in the classroom or to assist researchers who would not otherwise have access to insider perspectives within the media industries.

Above all, enjoy! And if you find something interesting, help us spread the word.

Transmedia Hollywood 3: Rethinking Creative Relations

As transmedia models become more central to the ways that the entertainment industry operates, the result has been some dramatic shifts within production culture, shifts in the ways labor gets organized, in how productions get financed and distributed, in the relations between media industries, and in the locations from which creative decisions are being made.

This year’s Transmedia, Hollywood examines the ways that transmedia approaches are forcing the media industry to reconsider old production logics and practices, paving the way for new kinds of creative output. Our hope is to capture these transitions by bringing together established players from mainstream media industries and independent producers trying new routes to the market. We also hope to bring a global perspective to the conversation, looking closely at the ways transmedia operates in a range of different creative economies and how these different imperatives result in different understandings of what transmedia can contribute to the storytelling process – for traditional Hollywood, the global media industries, and for all the independent media-makers who are taking up the challenge to reinvent traditional media-making for a “connected” audience of collaborators.

Many of Hollywood’s entrenched business and creative practices remain deeply mired in the past, weighed down by rigid hierarchies, interlocking bureaucracies, and institutionalized gatekeepers (e.g. the corporate executives, agents, managers, and lawyers). In this volatile moment of crisis and opportunity, as Hollywood shifts from an analog to a digital industry, one which embraces collaboration, collectivity, and compelling uses of social media, a number of powerful independent voices have emerged. These include high-profile transmedia production companies such as Jeff Gomez’s Starlight Runner Entertainment as well as less well-funded and well-staffed solo artists who are coming together virtually from various locations across the globe. What these top-down and bottom-up developments have in common is a desire to buck tradition and to help invent the future of entertainment. One of the issues we hope to address today is the social, cultural, and industrial impact of these new forms of international collaboration and mixtures of old and new work cultures.

Another topic is the future of independent film. Will creative commons replace copyright? Will crowdsourcing replace the antiquated foreign sales model? Will the guilds be able to protect the rights of digital laborers who work for peanuts? What about audiences who work for free? Given that most people today spend the bulk of their leisure time online, why aren’t independent artists going online and connecting with their community before committing their hard-earned dollars on a speculative project designed for the smallest group of people imaginable – those that frequent art-house theaters?

Fearing obsolescence in the near future, many of Hollywood’s traditional studios and networks are looking increasingly to outsiders – often from Silicon Valley or Madison Avenue – to teach these old dogs some new tricks. Many current studio and network executives are overseeing in-house agencies, whose names – Sony Interactive Imageworks, NBC Digital, and Disney Interactive Media Group – are meant to describe their cutting-edge activities and differentiate themselves from Hollywood’s old guard.

Creating media in the digital age is “nice work if you can get it,” according to labor scholar Andrew Ross in a recent book of the same name. Frequently situated in park-like “campuses,” many of these new, experimental companies and divisions are hiring large numbers of next generation workers, offering them attractive amenities ranging from coffee bars to well-prepared organic food to basketball courts. However, even though these perks help to humanize the workplace, several labor scholars (e.g. Andrew Ross, Mark Deuze, Rosalind Gill) see them as glittering distractions, obscuring a looming problem on the horizon – a new workforce of “temps, freelancers, adjuncts, and migrants.”

While the analog model still dominates in Hollywood, the digital hand-writing is on the wall; therefore, the labor guilds, lawyers, and agent/managers must intervene to find ways to restore the eroding power/leverage of creators. In addition, shouldn’t the guilds be mindful of the new generation of digital laborers working inside these in-house agencies? What about the creative talent that emerges from Madison Avenue ad agencies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, makers of the Asylum 626 first-person horror experience for Doritos; or Grey’s Advertising, makers of the Behind the Still collective campaign for Canon? Google has not only put the networks’ 30-second ad to shame using Adword, but its Creative Labs has taken marketing to new aesthetic heights with its breathtaking Johnny Cash [collective] Project. Furthermore, Google’s evocative Parisian Love campaign reminds us just how intimately intertwined our real and virtual lives have become.

Shouldn’t Hollywood take note that many of its most powerful writers, directors, and producers are starting to embrace transmedia in direct and meaningful ways by inviting artists from the worlds of comic books, gaming, and web design to collaborate? These collaborations enhance the storytelling and aesthetic worlds tenfold, enriching “worlds” as diverse as The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and cable’s The Walking Dead. Hopefully, this conference will leave all of us with a broader understanding of what it means to be a media maker today – by revealing new and expansive ways for artists to collaborate with Hollywood media managers, audiences, advertisers, members of the tech culture, and with one another.

Once the dominant player in the content industry, Hollywood today is having to look as far away as Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue for collaborators in the 2.0 space.

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA


Nick Childs, Executive Creative Director, Fleishman Hillard

Jennifer Holt, co-Director, Media Industries Project, UCSB

Lee Hunter, Global Head of Marketing, YouTube

Jordan Levin, CEO, Generate

In countries with strong state support for media production, alternative forms of transmedia are taking shape. How has transmedia fit within the effort of nation-states to promote and expand their creative economies?

Moderator: Laurie Baird, Strategic Consultant – Media and Entertainment at Georgia Tech Institute for People and Technology.


Jesse Albert, Producer & Consultant in Film, Television, Digital Media, Live Events & Branded Content

Morgan Bouchet, Vice-President, Transmedia and Social Media, Content Division, Orange

Christy Dena, Director, Universe Creation 101

Sara DIamond, President, Ontario College of Art and Design University

Mauricio Mota, Chief Storytelling Officer, Co-founder of The Alchemists

A new generation of media makers are taking art out of the rarefied world of crumbling art-house theaters, museums, and galleries and putting it back in the hands of the masses, creating immersive, interactive, and collaborative works of transmedia entertainment, made for and by the people who enjoy it most.

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA.


Tara Tiger Brown, Freelance Interactive Producer/Product Manager

Mike Farah, President of Production, Funny Or DIe

Ted Hope, Producer/Partner/Founder, Double Hope Films

Sheila C. Murphy, Associate Professor, University of Michigan

By many accounts, the comics industry is failing. Yet, comics have never played a more central role in the entertainment industry, seeding more and more film and television franchises. What advantages does audience-tested content bring to other media? What do the producers owe to those die-hard fans as they translate comic book mythology to screen? And why have so many TV series expanded their narrative through graphic novels in recent years?

Moderator: Geoffrey Long, Lead Narrative Producer for the Narrative Design Team at Microsoft Studios.


Katherine Keller, Culture Vultures Editrix at Sequential Tart

Joe LeFavi, Quixotic Transmedia

Mike Richardson, President, Dark Horse Comics

Mark Verheiden, Writer (Falling Skies, Heroes)

Mary Vogt, Costume Designer (Rise Of The Silver Surfer, Men In Black)

For those of you who live on the East Coast, here’s the latest news from Sam Ford, who is hard at work planning the next Futures of Entertainment conference:

We have just announced that FoE6 will be Friday, Nov. 9, and Saturday, Nov. 10, in the Wong Auditorium at MIT. Panels will tackle subjects such as the the ethics and politics of curation, corporate listening and empathy, “the shiny new object syndrome,” new distribution models in a digital age, and rethinking copyright. We will also look specifically at innovations in storytelling and sports, in video games, in public media, and in civic media.

Information on the tentative schedule, as well as registration, is available here.

Performing Our “Collective Dreams”: The Many Worlds of San Diego Comic-Con

So, after ten weeks of speaking and traveling across Europe, my wife and I have finally return to Los Angeles, more than a little road weary and jet-lagged, but eager to share some of the new contacts and insights I’ve gained through my travel. I hope to share some of my travel experiences before much longer, but in the meantime, I am trying to catch up with a range of other things which have happened since I have been away.

Today, I wanted to share with you an article which I wrote about the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con for Boom: A Journal of California, which has finally come out in print — just in time for Comic-Con 2012. I am not in San Diego this week — it would have been too much to tackle after my long trip — but half the people I know are there, so I figured I would prioritize sharing this article with my regular readers. If you would like to read a PDF of the article as it appears in the magazine, including a range of eye-catching photographs, you can find it here:

Boom0202 04

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And you can find the issue itself on the newstand, where-ever quality publications like Boom may be sold in your community.

“Super-Powered Fans”: The Many Worlds of San Diego Comic-Con

by Henry Jenkins, written for Boom: A Journal of California

In an “Only at…” moment, the New German Cinema auteur Werner Herzog made a surprise appearance at the 2011 Comic-Con International event. Popping up during a panel focused on the Discovery Channel’s Dinosaur Revolution series, Herzog pontificated in a Bavarian accent about how the four-day geekfest represented an epic acting out of the public’s “collective dreams.” We all applauded with delight as Herzog, known for his art films and documentaries, bubbled with boyish enthusiasm about fandom’s ritual practices and shared beliefs as breathlessly as he might have talked about going up the Amazon River to film Fitzcaraldo, or in search of prehistoric art for his more recent Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

A few years ago, another documentary filmmaker, Morgan Spurlock, found himself in conversation with comic book legend Stan Lee at one of Comic-Con’s cocktail parties. The pair got excited about possibilities for documenting the festivities. Spurlock’s agent connected him to another client in attendance, Firefly mastermind Joss Whedon. Soon, famed blogger Harry Knowles (Ain’t It Cool News), also in San Diego for the conference, had joined the dialogue. The team shot a film (Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope) at the 2010 convention, and it started playing on the film festival circuit in the fall of 2011. Further, a photo book based on the documentary was selling on the Comic-Con exhibit floor in 2011 with the tagline, “See anyone you know?” For more and more of us, the answer is hell yes! (For the record, mine is one of hundreds of snapshots on the book’s cover.)

If you have a single geeky bone in your body (and who doesn’t these days?), you have probably heard about Comic-Con, which is held each year at the San Diego Convention Center. Entertainment Weekly does an annual Comic-Con cover story. The Los Angeles Times does a special insert. And trade publications like The Hollywood Reporter also provide extensive coverage. However, for the most part, these reporters rarely get outside Hall H (where most of the film-related programming is held) or Ballroom 20 (where the high-profile television events take place). Mainstream journalists are focused on what the big studios and A-list celebrities are doing. If they do get beyond that, they typically focus on the spectacular costumes. Both are part of what makes this gathering so interesting, but there’s much more to the Comic-Con story.

Comic-Con has a history, culture, economy and politics all its own, one we can only understand if we go beyond the celebrities, spoilers, and costumes and explore some of

the many different functions the con performs for the diverse groups that gather there. Comic-Con International is press junket, trade show, collector’s mart, public forum, academic conference, and arts festival, all in one.

I have been active in this world for almost three decades. Students who take my classes about comics, games, transmedia entertainment, and science fiction have sometimes called me a professor of “Comic-Con Studies.” But, compared to those who have been attending the Con for four decades, I’m still a relative newcomer; the 2011 festival was only my fourth time at the event.

I came to Comic-Con, first and foremost, as a fan–wanting, like everyone else, to see the artists who create the pop culture fantasies I love. By my second year, I was there as an academic, speaking as part of the event’s track of scholarly programming and as part of a larger movement to legitimatize “comic studies” as an emerging field. By the third year, I was asked to participate in industry panels, reflecting the degree to which my research on fan cultures and transmedia entertainment has attracted interest from Hollywood. And last year I was there as an embedded journalist or native guide (pick your favorite metaphor), intending to help Boom’s readers understand what Comic-Con was all about.

Comic-Con is the center of the trends I describe in my book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. It’s the meeting point between a transmedia commercial culture and a grassroots participatory culture, the place where an uncertain Hollywood goes when it wants to better understand its always unstable relations with its audiences. Comic-Con is a gathering of the tribes, a crossroads for many different communities drawn together by their shared love of popular mythology. What follows are a series of snapshots of the many different Comic-Cons, all functioning inside the San Diego Convention Center every year, simultaneously. Each of these vignettes from Comic-Con 2011 tells us something about how we produce and engage with entertainment media in a networked culture.

Comic-Con as Invasion

Organizers estimated that almost 140,000 people attended the 2011 event. To put this into some perspective, that’s just a little under the population of Pasadena (147k) or, perhaps more to the point, of Hollywood (146k). Read through a different lens, Comic-Con attendance figures equal roughly half the number of people the federal government estimates have full or part-time employment in the motion picture industry. And Comic-Con’s population is roughly one tenth of the population of San Diego itself.

For those five days, fans own the San Diego Convention Center, whose futuristic architecture–all pristine white and glistening metal–mirrors some cheesy 1970s-era science fiction flick (say, Logan’s Run). More than that, the fans own downtown San Diego. Imagine this San Diego scene I saw unfold last year: The landscape is dotted with giant inflatable Smurfs, a full-scale reconstruction of South Park, and a building wrapped in Batman promotional material. The 7-Eleven in front of me has posters depicting Steampunk versions of Slurpee machines, courtesy of Cowboys and Aliens. Over there, sitting at a table outside the Spaghetti Factory, are Batman and Wolverine, united by a shared taste for black leather–never mind that they come from fundamentally different universes (“You’re from DC; I’m from Marvel”). An armada of Pedi-cabs are passing by, ferrying fans anywhere they want to go. One of the cabs you see pass is a replica of the throne from Game of Thrones (a project from HBO which soon took on mythic status at the event, as I repeatedly heard people say, “Did you see…?” and “Did you hear about…?”).

As I walk ahead, every congestion point in the foot traffic, such as the crossing of the trolley tracks, has been transformed into a gathering place for marketers trying to pass out swag and fliers. As we approach the convention center, we are accosted by Ninja Turtles and Captain Americas, by sexy booth babes in fur bikinis, and–perhaps most effectively–by a bevy of retro Pan Am stewardesses giving away vintage-style powder blue flight bags and walking in unison, having mastered the wave and the twirl with stylized femininity.

Comic-Con as Homecoming Party

Science fiction and comics fans have been holding gatherings at least since the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 (an ambitious name for a group which at the time probably didn’t draw many from outside the Brooklyn area). Some cons are focused around a single media property–historically Star Trek or Star Wars, these days more often Harry Potter. Others are focused on a genre, such as comic books or anime or role-playing games. Many people at Comic-Con attend these other, more specialized, more local gatherings throughout the year, but they all come home to San Diego. Thus, Comic-Con has become the Mega-con, the Con to end all Cons, the gathering place for fans of all varieties (and yes, now, from all over the planet).

Comic-Con started as a small regional comics convention in 1970 with 170 attendees. The organizers sought to broaden their base by including other related interests, including the Society for Creative Anachronisms, The Mythopoetic Society, and, later, gamers and anime fans. By 1980, the convention attracted 5,000 attendees. This was the heyday of comics collecting, when vintage comics discovered in old attics were being avidly sought by wealthy adult collectors. The comics “bubble” eventually popped: vintage comics were valuable because so many mothers had thrown them away, creating artificial scarcity. But by then, genre entertainment had moved from B movies and midnight movies to major Hollywood summer blockbuster status, and the Con kept undergoing growth spurts–15,000 in 1990; 48,000 in 2000; and 130,000 in 2010.The Con so swamped the available hotel rooms in 2011 that my wife and I ended up renting a dorm room at a local college miles away, spending the five days of our stay sleeping in cramped bunk beds.

Today, one of my big ambivalences about Comic-Con is how much it now emphasizes fans as consumers rather than fans as cultural producers. There’s a small alleyway tucked in the back corners where fan clubs have booths to attract new members. There are panels where fan podcasts are being recorded, where fan fiction is being discussed, and where costumers trade tips with each other. For the most part, however, Comic-Con International puts the professionals in the center and the subcultural activities the conference was based on at the fringes.

Comic-Con as Publicity Event

Today’s television has moved from an appointment-based medium where viewers watch programs at scheduled times to an engagement-based medium where people seek out content through many different media (from Hulu and iTunes to boxed sets of Dvds) on their own time and as their interests dictate. Today’s Comic-Con is shaped by the idea of the fan not as a collector, but as an influencer. Most Comic-Con attendees are “early adopters” of communication technologies; they have blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc., and know how to use them. These fans have become the leading edge of the studio’s promotional campaigns. Industry research shows that Twitter hashtags represent one of the best predictors of box office success, both because the kinds of folks who see movies on the opening weekend are more often likely to be the type to tweet about their activities, and because these grassroots intermediaries help to inform and shape the ticket-buying habits of more casual audience members.

San Diego seems to be the right place–just close enough to Los Angeles to draw A-list celebrities, just far enough that it makes for a great road trip for those feeling claustrophobic in the media capital. And it’s the right time, in the midst of the summer movie madness and less than a month before the launch of the fall television season, to draw maximum attention from the media industry. This is the one time of the year when many Hollywood types directly interface with their audiences, and probably the only place where they are doing so on the fans’ terms. Their mission is to “break through the clutter.”

Ironically, of course, Comic-Con is perhaps the most media saturated environment you can imagine! Hollywood studios and television networks have to pull out all stops if they want to play, from clips of previously unreleased footage or surprise appearances by crowd-pleasing celebrities to displays of costumes, props, and sets on the floor of Exhibit Hall. In 2010, Marvel introduced the entire cast of the forthcoming Avengers film. In 2011, Andrew Garfield, the new Spider-Man, created a stir–making his grand entrance wearing a “Spidey” Halloween costume, pretending to be a fan asking a question from the floor mic.

My family, like many fans, prepare for Comic-Con as if it were a military operation. By the time we get there, we’ve mapped and charted our priorities. We know what we most want to see. And we have strategies for the best way to get into the highly attended event. You usually have to awaken and get in line hours early or, more risky, find a point in the schedule which is not a big draw to grab a seat and hold it through a parade of lower-profile panels. The organizers don’t “flush” the theater between events, so you can defend your squatting rights. In Ballroom 20, at least, you can get a bathroom pass and come back in without waiting in line.

These practices have their downsides and upsides. Some events draw apathetic and distracted audiences while the true blue fans are locked outside. But attendees get exposed to media properties they might not otherwise encounter. This gives producers who are still struggling to find their audience a unique opportunity to win over new viewers. We lined up outside Ballroom 20, with the primary goal of seeing the Game of Thrones panel, and sat through Burn Notice, Covert Affairs, and Psyche sessions. And it’s a good thing we did; more than 7,000 people were turned away from the Game of Thrones panel, presenting at Comic-Con for the first time this year.

A few years ago, the conference organizers were discouraging fans from tweeting about what they heard. Today, exclusivity and secrecy have given way to publicity. Now, Comic-Con’s organizers are announcing hashtags (words or phrases preceded by # that allow Twitter users to find others talking about the same topics) in front of every panel. Many speakers are recruiting Twitter followers. And some networks are collaborating with Foursquare, all sure signs the “fan as influencer” paradigm is shaping their branding strategies. We were warned again and again not to tape the clips shown, but, this year, most of them got released in good quality formats to the leading science fiction blogs within days, if not hours, after the event.

Comic-Con as Jury

The myth, at least partially true, was that Comic-Con was key to the early success of such cult television series as Heroes, Lost, True Blood, and The Walking Dead, and that it also crushed the hopes of misguided movie efforts, such as Catwoman and Ang Lee’s Hulk, both dead on arrival after negative Comic-Con response. However, Hollywood’s fascination with the Comic-Con “bounce” has been deflated by the mediocre box office of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Tron, and Sucker Punch, huge buzz-makers at 2010 Comic-Con that failed to deliver months later. In response, some major studios (Warner Bros, Marvel, Disney, Dream Works and The Weinstein Company) opted not to present at the 2011 convention. By then, the prevailing wisdom was that Comic-Con fans will turn out opening weekend for the superhero blockbusters with or without big promotion at the event. On the other hand, genre television programs such as Grimm, Once Upon a Time, Alcatraz, Terra Nova, and Person of Interest require highly engaged viewers to draw in their friends and families week after week. And, in film, the real beneficiaries of Comic-Con have been lower budget, slightly off-beat, and smart genre films, such as District Nine, Monsters, Moon, Paul, or Attack The Block, few of which have been “hits” but most of which might not make it into the multiplex without Comic-Con mojo. In any case, the news that Hollywood was stepping back from Comic-Con turned out to be overstated; 2011 speakers included Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Smith, Guillermo Del Toro, Jon Favreau, Peter Jackson, and, yes, Werner Herzog.

Normally, I am exhausted by the time late afternoon comes at Comic-Con. The sensory bombardment (the buzz and crackle of massive television monitors, the smell of over-priced hotdogs and nachos, the constant shock of random encounters with people dressed like their favorite cartoon characters) is simply too intense to prolong. Having gotten up at the crack of dawn to wait in line for some high-profile event, by late afternoon parents are getting into red-faced fights with their children, couples seem to be in danger of breaking up, and people are slumped over on the buses, some snoring, others weeping, from the exhaustion.

We stayed late on Friday, hoping to get into a packed hall to watch the pilot of a television series, Locke and Key–a pilot which most fans knew in all likelihood would never reach the air. Fox commissioned this series based on the best-selling horror comics from Steven King’s son, Joe Hill, who was recognized that weekend by the Eisner Awards as the best comics writer of the year. Fox decided not to add Locke and Key to their slate. The producers shared the pilot here in hopes of rallying fan support behind either airing it on another network or developing it straight-to-DVD. The pilot was remarkably faithful to the original graphic novel and respected the intelligence of comic book fans. (No wonder Fox didn’t pick it up!) But the producer’s efforts to rally fan support suggests just how much weight they believe this jury might play in shaping the fate of cult media properties.

By contrast, Grimm, a fairy-tale themed series that made it onto NBC’s fall line-up, had trouble finding the love, despite a pedigree that includes top writers from Angel. The Comic-Con crowd snorted over one obvious plot device (a woman who keeps passing out every time she’s about to deliver a key piece of information) and rustled their feet over abrupt shifts in tone and style. As my wife put it, Grimm “doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up.” Some fans were already skeptical going into this event because Grimm and Once Upon a Time, both on the fall schedule, seemed so clearly derivative of a long-run Vertigo comics series, Fables. All of them explored the fantasy of storyland characters entering our contemporary reality.

Fans applauded politely when the lights rose, but everyone there knew this screening was, well, grim. (Grimm was picked up for a full season, but its ratings have been lackluster compared to the success of its rival, Once Upon a Time.) Contrary to what some producers might have told themselves, the Comic-Con crowd isn’t fickle: it knows exactly what it wants from genre entertainment, and the producers had better deliver it or face our collective scorn.

Comic-Con as Consciousness-Raising Session

The popular vampire series Twilight‘s stars and producers opened the film program in 2011. Twilight’s involvement in Comic-Con has been controversial, with picketers marching outside the theater in years past with signs proclaiming that “real vampires don’t sparkle” and “Twi-hards, go home.” Throughout the first half of the 20th century, science fiction and comics fandom were dominated by technologically inclined men. However, by the early 1960s, feminist writers like Ursula K. Le Guin or Joanna Russ were drawing more women to fan gatherings, and there have been high-profile conflicts around gender in fandom ever since. Go to some cons, and the attendees are overwhelmingly male. Others are overwhelmingly female. Comic-Con (in recent years at least) has felt a dramatic increase in female attendance that has brought with it some growing pains. The same year that a small number of male fans picketed the Twilight panel, for instance, people were passing out fliers about sexual harassment, suggesting uncertainty about how the fanboys and fangirls were going to interact.

In fact, there were huge numbers of female fans in line outside Ballroom 20–not teenyboppers wanting to hamster-pile Robert Pattison, not girlfriends of male fans, and not exhibitionists trying to see how much skin they could show (all stereotypes of female fans fostered by the news media). These were dedicated fans in their own right, pursuing their own desires and interests. And, by all reports, male fans this year were more worked up over DC’s decision to re-launch and renumber all of their titles than about the presence or absence of Twilight fangirls. Comic-Con is featuring more and more women in its programming (including female producers and showrunners who are starting to impact genre entertainment), and they are often peppered by questions about how to survive in an industry still largely dominated by men.

Some have argued that Hollywood’s discovery of Comic-Con has inspired the “rise of the fanboy” as a powerful influence on production decisions. The gendered language is purposeful since, apart from the Twilight conflicts, producers and journalists don’t seem to have noticed that there are women gathering in San Diego now, too. How long before their tastes and interests become part of the equation, as the media industry seeks to court their most passionate and influential fans?

And something similar is starting to happen around race and ethnicity. Most fan gatherings are heavily Caucasian, while the few minorities in attendance gather by themselves on panels focused on why fandom is “so damn white.” But, perhaps as a result of the Southern California location, Comic-Con is by far the most racially and ethnically diverse fan gathering in the country. If San Diego is where Hollywood sends its people to learn what the audience thinks, they encounter a multi-racial mix, often with strong views about the ways minorities get marginalized or stereotyped in popular media. In some ways, genre franchises, such as Lost, Heroes, The Matrix, and Star Trek have done a much better job including people of color than other genres. But they still lag behind an American population that is increasingly becoming a minority majority.

At a panel I attended on diversity and fandom, there was lots of discussion about the Racebending campaign launched by fans of The Last Airbender. These fans protested Hollywood’s efforts to take an animated series known for its multicultural representations and make it into a live-action film with white actors cast in most major roles. The fans pushed back, using their online communication skills and partnering with traditional activist groups such as Media Action Network for Asian Americans, to educate their community about the history of “white-casting.” They weren’t successful at changing the casting decisions, but much of The Last Airbender coverage mentioned their protest, and there are many signs that Hollywood is now running gun-shy, backing off other recent casting decisions (Runaways, Akira) when fans and industry critics, including George Takai, call them out. Fans now represent an important force pushing the industry toward a fuller representation of what America looks like–fans as influencers in a different sense.

Comic-Con as Costume Party

If you’ve seen a photograph of Comic-Con, odds are that it showed some fan in a costume. Keep in mind that most of us don’t dress up (or strip down) for the con. However, for those who do, seeing and being seen at Comic-Con is a big part of the fun.

Why do so many people wear costumes at Comic-Con? For the same reason people dress up in costumes at Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert. For that matter, why did you dress up for the office Halloween party last year? Because wearing red, blue, or green spandex frees us from what fans like to call our “mundane” roles and creates a festive environment. Herzog nailed it. Comic-Con is a field of dreams and wearing costumes transforms those “dreams” from something personal and private to something shared and public. Showing a pudgy midriff or pasty white skin amidst fur and feathers allows nerds (typically defined by their brains and not their bodies) to feel sexy. Donning cape and cowl allows children and adults to play together, strangers to find others with the same values, and fans to become micro-celebrities posing for pictures with other guests.

Watching all of these costumed characters creates a kind of intertextual vertigo; the more fanlore you know, the more you take pleasure in seeing incongruous juxtapositions. One of my favorite sightings of the weekend was a bevy of women dressed as Disney princesses ordering Bloody Marys at a mock-up of Fangtasia, the vampire bar from HBO’s True Blood. And there were periodic meet-ups where characters from the same universes came together–twenty or so Princess Leia slave girls, an assembly of the Avengers which included someone dressed as Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, and a parade of characters from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Out on the streets, I even witnessed a chance encounter between a woman wearing a skin-tight bright blue latex Mystique costume (X-Men) chatting with an equally blue Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar, suggesting their common identities as, pardon the pun, people of color.

In Japan, they call it cosplay, andevery weekend there are meet-ups of genre-themed cosplayers in Tokyo’s YoYoGi Park. But the scope, scale, and diversity of what you can see here supersedes anything that’s ever gone down at Harajuku Station.

Comic-Con as Networking Event

A high percentage of Hollywood insiders have emerged from the ranks of fandom. Kevin Smith, Guillermo Del Toro, Joss Whedon, and J. J. Abrams come back year after year because fans accept them as “one of us.” Historically, most major science fiction writers published their first works in amateur fanzines. More and more stars and creators of cult films and television series have similar histories and would come to Comic-Con even if they weren’t paid. Darren Criss, Glee‘s hot-stuff Blaine, was making YouTube videos performing Harry Potter songs only a year or two before joining the show.

Because they are all in San Diego for the weekend, industry insiders use the event to do what they do best–pass around business cards, buy each other lunch, and otherwise network. For the industry insiders and wannabes, the challenge is how to “dress for success” in this festive environment, how to hold onto professional standards while looking like you belong and are not simply a Comic-Con poseur, there just to cut deals. Of course, the other challenge is figuring out how to schedule business meetings so they don’t conflict with the Doctor Who panel you really want to attend.

There’s no question that Comic-Con represents a different kind of trade show environment for corporate networking. If you go to E3, say, you mostly end up talking to other game designers; at ShoWest, movie people; at the National Association of Broadcasters, television folks. But Comic-Con draws from all of the entertainment sectors. Thus, Comic-Con has become the common ground where transmedia deals get cut, yet another reason why it has gained greater importance in an era of media convergence.

Comic-Con as Marketplace

Sooner or later, everyone ends up in the Exhibit Hall, typically multiple times over the weekend. Sometimes it feels like all or most of the 140,000 attendees end up there at the same time. As one fan put it, Comic-Con is the closest thing to Christmas morning you are going to experience as an adult. Again, most media coverage highlights items which fit a mainstream conception of geek culture–ice trays which depict Han Solo in carbonite or sleeping bags which look like the inside of a Tauntaun (both of which, I admit, are pretty cool). But, if you noticed hipsters walking the streets of San Francisco or Los Angles in the fall dressed like contemporary versions of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys in big furry hoods, it might be because they got such media attention at San Diego that summer. And Exhibit Hall is where all of the different communities can find “the stuff dreams are made of”–the otaku (fans of Japanese-made media); the connoisseurs of high-priced original comic book and animation art; the collectors of vintage toys and high-end action figures; the dealers in autographs; the furries (whose kink is dressing up like anthropomorphic animals). Many of these interests are so particular and so dispersed that it’s hard to find what you’re looking for in any given city. Perhaps you can track stuff down on eBay or Etsy, but many hope that it is all at Comic-Con.

For example, my tastes increasingly run toward retrofuturism, a fascination with older imaginings of the future. Steampunk represents one form of retrofuturism and is to Victorian science fiction what Goth is to Victorian fantasy and horror. Steampunk builds outward from the imaginings of Jules Verne and his contemporaries, constructing a technological realm which never existed, built with brass, stained glass, and mahogany. The Exhibit Hall offered everything from handcrafted lab equipment and goggles to high-end steampunk weapons (created by WETA, the New Zealand special effects house responsible for the Lord of the Rings movies.)

In a related vein, I dig mid-century modern images inspired by the “World of Tomorrow” offering at the 1939 World’s Fair. I was especially drawn to booths which dealt with “paper”–old posters, comic strip pages, and other printed matter from the early part of the 20th century. More generally, I collect older forms of media–magic lanterns, stereoscopes, and the like. Somewhere in between lies a new project which has captured my imagination–the production and distribution of new low-fi music on old Victrola wax cylinders. Science fiction fans are increasingly drawn to the past, rather than the future, in their ongoing search for alternatives to the present, and you can find such merchandise on display in the Exhibit Hall.

Comic-Con as Life Support

Ironically, the least attended panels at Comic-Con are often those dealing with comics. Many people here love the content of comics, but many of them are not reading the comics themselves. At Comic-Con, both comics industry veterans and emerging talents often discuss their work in half-full rooms. And the massive waves of shoppers pushing their way through the Exhibit Hall often parted like the Red Sea when it came to the tables in Artists’ Alley, which was really treated as Artists Ghetto. In 2011, many artists moved offsite, figuring they would see the same interested attendees and have more fun hanging out at a local tavern.

As a result of such apathy, the floppy monthly comic books my generation grew up reading may now be an endangered species. The major comics publishers have been absorbed by larger entertainment conglomerates–as Marvel is now a part of Disney and DC a part of Warner Bros.–which prop up the comics publishing ventures as a research and development wing to help the company incubate new media franchises. Cowboys and Aliens, the story goes, was published as a comic almost entirely because they wanted to see if it could build an audience before being turned into a feature film.

Yet many of the people who care about the survival of comics were gathered in San Diego, and there was lots of talk of “Comics without Borders.” A few years ago, this phrase might have referred to the efforts of underground and alternative publishers to escape the constraints of the old Comics Code. Last year it referred to what happens after the bankruptcy of one of the two leading brick and mortar booksellers. Comics used to be available on spin racks in grocery and drug stores. In recent years, however, interested readers have had to seek them out, often stepping down into dark and dank basements where someone who looks and sounds like Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons comments on all of your purchase decisions. The publication of graphic novels and their distribution through chain bookstores brought comics out of hiding again, resulting especially in a dramatic increase of female readers. Now, so-called mainstream publishers (DC and Marvel) sell far fewer titles through comic book shops than the alternative publishers (such as DC’s Vertigo offprint) sell through bookstores. And, curiously, Japanese manga outsell American comics by something like four to one in the U.S. market.

Everyone wanted to know what would happen to all of those casual and crossover readers now that Borders was closing operations. Some calmly suggested that they would simply cross the street to Barnes and Noble., Newly empowered, the Barnes and Noble chain is cutting more aggressive dealers with comics publishers. Meanwhile, DC and Marvel rolled out new strategies for increasing the availability of their titles for download on iPads and other digital platforms, a move which would increase their accessibility to fans but might further endanger the specialty stores for whom the big superhero titles constitute their bread and butter.

Meanwhile, there were gatherings of teachers and librarians who have been part of a larger movement to use comics to encourage young readers. The biggest growth in comics sales over the past few years has come from young adult or all ages titles, largely driven by sales to school and local libraries. Over the past few decades, the average age of the comics reader, much as with other print-based publications, was rising, threatening their industry’s long-term viability. However, the success of comics in the library offers new hope for the next generation. So, if some seemed ready to hold a wake for comics, there were others who, mimicking Monty Python, protested that they were “not dead yet.”

Comic-Con as Classroom

I had breakfast toward the end of the convention with a group of graduate students who were getting credit for attending and researching Comic-Con. This particular extension course has been run since 2007 by Matthew J. Smith from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and attracts a diverse collection of students, all pursuing their own projects, using the con as their laboratory or field site. Kane Anderson, a stocky Performance Studies student with flaming red hair from U.C. Santa Barbara, , has spent the past two cons dressed in a range of skin-tight and brightly colored superhero costumes (Captain Marvel and Black Adam, mostly), trying to better understand what motivates the convention’s cosplay. Melissa Miller, a Gothy gender studies and public communications student from Georgia State University, was back for a second year camping out with the “Twi-Moms,” the mature Twilight fans, to better understand fandom’s gender politics.

Throughout the event, I spotted different researchers interviewing people, taking field notes, and, in many cases, “going native” as they abandoned their research to chase after autographs. One of them was on a mighty quest to get Chris Evans to sign his Captain America shield; another was excited to get comic book uber-auteur Grant Morrison to fill out a questionnaire. One academic’s artifact is another’s swag. In fact, many of the young scholars were collecting gifts to carry back home to appease their restless thesis advisors.

Actually, some of their advisors were across the convention center attending events hosted by the Comic Arts Association, a professional organization for scholars researching and teaching about comics and graphic stories. Even as the comics industry is sputtering, there has been a spurt in college-level comic studies courses, much as previous generations had taken subjects in film appreciation. Inside this space, the big debates focused on whether comics studies should become its own discipline or whether comics-focused research should be integrated across everything from anthropology to

art history, from psychology to media studies. This track of academic programming attracted not only faculty and students but creators eager to think about their industry from a different perspective and fans hoping to learn more about the medium’s history and aesthetics.

Comic-Con as Ritual

For the past few years, the formal programming at Comic-Con has ended with a sing-along screening of the musical episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More, With Feeling.” However diverse they may be on other levels, a high percentage of Comic-Con attendees are fans of the works of Joss Whedon–Buffy, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog, and the forthcoming Avengers movie. And Whedon, as well as others from his casts and crews, was highly visible throughout the convention. Consider all of the Buffy alum, in particular, who were prominently involved in the event: Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) was there promoting her new CBS series, Ringers; Anthony Head (Giles) was speaking on the Merlin panel and trying to lend his support to Grimm; Nathan Fillion (Caleb), now the star of Castle, was there talking one-on-one with his fans; Felicia Day (Vi) was showcasing the fifth season of her web-series, The Guild; and Seth Green (Oz) dropped by to talk up Robot Chicken. David Boreanaz (Angel) was supposed to be here, but the Bones panel got canceled. And Nicholas Brendon (Xander) came out in front of the sing-along screening and tried to remember the words to the song Anya and Xander sing in the episode. Think of this group as the Buffy diaspora.

In this context, “Once More, With Feeling” has attained near-mythic status–not only because of its genre-bending musical numbers but because it represents the last moment when the “Scooby Gang” was more or less together before the series “jumped the shark,” according to many of its fans (myself among them). When Dawn, Buffy’s kid sister, introduced the plot elements which would lead to the community’s disintegration in the episode, she was booed. Everyone knew what was coming, but we all wanted to forestall it a few minutes more.

Many fan favorites center around themes of friendship, whether bonds between partners or a more expansive community fighting to save the universe. Fans use such stories to reflect on their own social connections, the bonds that bring them together as friends and as part of a subcultural community. For many of us, fandom is one of those places where “it gets better,” where we find others who share our values and don’t make fun of our passions.

We can share some of these same experiences now, year round, in cyberspace. But Comic-Con is the place where communities come together face-to-face, and thus anchor their relationships for the coming year. As Buffy ended, with friends going their separate ways, and as people filed out of the doors of the San Diego Convention Center, I felt a lump in my throat. But I knew that most of us would be back next year, “once more, with feeling.”

Comic-Con is a microcosm of the dramatic changes transforming the U.S. entertainment industry.

As media options proliferate, attention is fragmenting and audience loyalty is declining. The entertainment industry depends on its fans like never before. As social media allows fans to connect with each other and actively spread the word about their favorites, fans are exerting an unprecedented impact on decisions regarding which films to finance and which series to put on the air. As more and more stories are being told across media platforms, Comic-Con is the crossroads among entertainment sectors. As comics publishing is struggling to survive, here is where its future will be determined. And, as Comic-Con’s own population diversifies to include more women and minorities, this gathering becomes a vehicle through which they lobby for greater diversity within mainstream media.

That all of this takes place in such a giddy atmosphere, full of carnivalesque costumes and grand spectacle, only lubricates the social relations among these groups, making it easier to shed old roles and embrace new relationships. For those five days, the center of the U.S. entertainment industry is not Hollywood, but a few hundred miles south in San Diego.