How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Hungary and Italy (Again!)

Budapest, Hungary

Cynthia and I had really enjoyed traveling by rail inside many of the countries we visited this trip, so we decided to take the train from the Czech Republic  north to Hungary, passing along the way through Slovokia. We alternated between reading and looking out the window as the train click-clacked through farm country, small towns and villages, and lush forests, giving us a much bigger picture of what Eastern Europe looked like once you got outside of the major cities. America has somehow lost its historic relationship with the railroads, but in Europe, people of all classes and backgrounds travel by train, the trains are clean, affordably priced, and comfortable. So, what’s not to love.

Around the time we passed into Hungary, something changed though. The temperature outside got hotter and hotter, there was no air conditioning working inside the train, and the windows did not open to allow outside air to circulate. The train was becoming a sweat box and the scaldingly hot temperature (I say scalding because the air was so humid that it felt like we were sitting in boiling water) began to percolate our brains. Needless to say,the experience had cured us of our romance with the rails.  By the time the train arrived in Budapest, we were melting into a puddle and in a punch drunk stupor.  Then, our host, Ellen Hume, swooped down upon us, with fresh bottles of cold water, with a driver to take our bags and an air conditioned car, like an angel of mercy!

Ellen Hume is probably the most resourceful person I have ever met! She covered the White House for the Wall Street Journal; she ran PBS’s Democracy Project, where she became a major advocate for citizen-driven and resource-based journalism; she helped direct Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and she ran a major Boston-based initiative on Ethnic news media. And, for a year and a half, she worked with me as the Research Director for MIT’s Center for the Future of Civic Media, a initiative funded by the Knight Foundation, a collaboration between Comparative Media Studies and the MIT Media Lab.  Below you see Ellen and I together on the grounds of the Buda Castle.

Budapest, Hungary’s capital and largest city, was historically two cities named, predictably, Buda and Pest, which are separated from each other by the Danube River (as you can see fairly well in the photograph below). When we arrived, we dropped our bags off at our hotel, which was near the river on the Pest side, and then walked across the bridge to visit the historic center of Buda.

Our experience of Buda was dominated by the Buda Castle, built in 1265, and long the home of the Hungarian Kings and Emperiors, and the Castle Hill. The architecture of this area, as the image below suggests, is commanding, giving us just a taste of what life might have been like during the hayday of the Austria-Hungarian Empire.

The closer you get to the Castle proper, the more you get a taste of Medieval Hungary . It was too late in the day to get inside the buildings, but we wandered the grounds, enjoying the sight of this falconer in traditional garb and especially the view looking out across the Danube, a vista which gave us a clear sense of why this location was originally chosen to support a fortress.

A distinctive feature of Budapest’s architectural tradition are the brightly colored Zsolnay tiles, shown here covering the roof of Matthias Church. The Zsolnay company has manufactured parcelain and ceramic tiles since the early part of the nineteenth century, though it has struggled to hang on during the current economic crisis in Europe.

Budapest became the country’s capital in the late 19th century as several local towns were united to create one large urban area. Most of the public buildings were built during this period, and by the early 20th century, Budapest had developed a reputation for being one of the most cosmopolitan areas in Europe. For all of those reasons, the city’s look and feel was strongly influenced by a particular inflection of Art Nouveau. These grand old world buildings exist side by side with monstrosities from Stalin- and Khruschev-area Soviet monumentalism, not exactly the most satisfying combination in the world, but a physical reminder of the transformations (political, cultural) which Hungary underwent across the twentieth century.

One of the best bits of advice we received upon launching on our grand European adventures was to “look up!” The most spectacular aspects of Europe often are above eye-level — especially the decorative details along the roofs and top floors of buildings. We were constantly struck by the distinctive national styles that define each of the European countries, despite, what might seem to us by American standards, as very limited distances between them geographically.

Note, for example, the bee-hives on the building above, a key motif in the architecture of Budapest, which historically stood for all the work going on inside.

And, the same would be true of the ceilings inside buildings, such as the one below from the Hungarian Parliament, which is ornately decorated as a showcase to the wealth and power commanded by Imperial Hungary.

Of course, not all of the decorative details are along the skyline. There is also an attention to style which extends to the sidewalks and public plazas of the city, which often become staging grounds for personal and shared rituals.

We turned one corner and found an entire group of ballroom dancers waltzing inside a fountain which was shooting water up all around them. Did we mention yet how blasting hot it was when we were visiting Budapest?

Ellen took us to visit the Grand Market Hall at Nagyvasarcsarnok. Sometimes described as “a symphony in iron,” the building was designed by Gustave Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower fame). I always enjoy visiting farmer’s markets and food halls as I travel because they give us such a strong sense of the everyday lives of the people who live in each place we visit. Here, Ellen and I are admiring a shop dedicated to Paprika, in all of its many manifestations. Paprika is the core spice used in Hungarian cooking. I especially enjoyed Paprika in a bowl of authentic Hungarian goulash. My mother used to prepare goulash when I was a child, but it bore very little relationship to this dish, which was a rich, spicy , bright red soup. I have to say how much we enjoyed our meals in Eastern Europe — both the roasted meats and dumplings we had in Praha and the soups (hot and cold) we tasted in Budapest .

Ellen and her husband, John Shattuck, took us to a a Ruin Bar. These bars have been springing up over the past ten years or so in the old District VII neighborhood (the old Jewish quarter) in the ruins (hence the name) of abandoned buildings, stores, or lots. The area had been largely left to decay in the aftermath of the Second World War, and it has only recently come alive as the hub for the city’s hipster nightlife. The ruin bars, many of which operate without a license, allegedly rely on monetary compensations handed directly to local law enforcement, and feel like something out of a post-appocalyptic science fiction film. Somehow, the Mad Max movies or Escape to New York came to mind, but there is also this distinctive Post-Communist feel that is not really captured by the analogy. The walls are covered with graffiti; the furniture looks like it was picked up off the streets, there are Christmas lights and old computers and rusting bathtubs and plastic gewgaws everywhere you look. There may be a band playing in one of the darker corners, and the whole place is teaming with people of all backgrounds and ages. Ellen had promised us that the ruin bar would be one of the highlights of our trip to Europe, and it certainly was.

Here, you see Ellen, John, and I drinking Unicum, the local drink whose family history was memorialized in the film Sunshine, and Cynthia and I (below) surrounded by the graffiti at Szimpla Kert, which was the original and still the largest of the ruin bars. John was the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor  under Bill Clinton, where he helped to establish the International Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, the former CEO for the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, and the current president of Central European University, which hosted my talks in Budapest.

Central European University operates with a heavy endowment from George Soros, and was designed to be an instrument fostering a greater sense of cultural understanding and appreciation of human rights, a meeting place for students from across Europe, and indeed, from around the world. Its students come from more than a hundred countries, and its faculty represent thirty different nations. I spoke in the morning with the students from their summer program (again, featuring probably the most ethnically and nationally diverse audience I encountered on my trip) and in the afternoon, I gave a public lecture (again, the Content talk) at the Open Society Archives, a research facility dedicated to preserving the records of the Communist era.

Ellen and John were nice enough to host a lovely salon and dinner in their home, which brought together a mix of intellectuals, artists, writers, and political leaders, which gave us a great taste of the cultural life of Budapest’s intelligentsia.  I was especially delighted to reconnect with Tibor Dessewffy, the Hungarian Director for the World Internet Project. I had met Tibor when he was a visiting scholar at the USC Annenberg School, and he provided us with some very helpful critical feedback on our Spreadable Media manuscript.

Each leg of the trip was shaped by the personality of our hosts as much as by the personality of the cities themselves. Our experience of Praha was primary focused around culture, especially the rich heritage of film and the graphic arts. Our experience of Budapest, in part because we were spending time with people who have enormous expertise on foreign policy, was focused much more on the political history of the region, especially on the struggles to define a national identity in the wake of many decades of foreign dominance (by the Nazis and the Communists) and the current struggles to protect free expression under an increasingly repressive regime. Our sense was that Budapest is a city which still struggles with the legacy of the Cold War in ways that Praha seems to have moved beyond, but what do I know, I was only there for a few days.

We were lucky enough to get a guided tour of some of the political landmarks of the city by Jeff Taylor, an American art history professor at SUNY Purchase who is an expert on international art forgery, and who sometimes takes tourists around the city to give them a counter-history to some of the national monuments. You have to love a tour guide who quotes  Edward Said in his opening remarks.

Jeff’s guide of the Museum of Terror helped to debunk and deconstruct the official accounts of Hungary’s experiences with the Nazis and the Soviets, drawing out what was not explicitly stated, filling in what was intentionally occluded, and otherwise, poking fun at the ways history was being mobilized to support the country’s current leadership. In particular, the bulk of the museum dealt with the Soviet era with very limited space given to the Nazi period, and little to no mention made of the ways that the Hungarian government had officially partnered with Hitler in the early days of World War II.

Jeff also showed us some key monuments, both those which survive from the era of Soviet dominance, and those which reflect the fall of Communism, as it has been framed from the Hungarian perspective. Here, for example, you see me clowning around at a statue dedicated to Ronald Reagan. Seeking to explain that it was as much American popular culture and consumer goods as it was American foreign policy which contributed to some of the political shifts that impacted his adopted country, Jeff has launched the Two Ronalds project, playfully paying tribute to American president Ronald Reagan and American fast-food brand icon Ronald McDonald, by having guests take their picture next to this statue, once they have inserted a Big Mac into Reagan’s open hand.

When the good folks at  Central European University learned of my strange obsession with understanding the comics cultures of Europe, they tapped their collective networks and got me in touch with Robert Vass, an independent comics artist in Budapest, who took me to his local shop, gave me a guided tour of its contents, and a mini history of comics publishing in Hungary under Communism and its aftermath. I am still absorbing much of what I learned and trying to parse my way through the various comics I purchased, but I have found this Wikipedia entry especially helpful in understanding the local comics scene there.  One of my favorite books was Matyas a Kiraly: kepregeny-antologia.  Matthias Corvinus was the Renaissance era King of Hungry who has been credited with helping to promote arts, science, and law in his country, and who was later named one of the most important saints in the region. Here, we see his statue outside Matthias Church, which, we saw earlier, was in the Buda Castle region.

During communism, many of the comics published were literary and historical adaptations, which was seen as less “political” than some of the themes that dominated comics elsewhere in Eastern Europe.  I am always intrigued how strands in American comics which had largely died out in my country continue to exert influence in other parts of the world, and I’ve discovered that Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant offered a compelling model for many Eastern European comics creators.  This collection of contemporary alternative comics drew inspiration from Matthias’s story but pushed it in radical new directions, demonstrating that Hungarian comics can be so much more than classics illustrated. Here’s a sample page from the collection which I found online. The building depicted here is the Matthias Church.




My original plan for Bologna was to spend a week sitting in dark theaters and watching beautifully restored prints of great old movies at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Organized by the Cineteca Bologna, this film festival organizes retrospectives intended to deepen our understanding of key figures and chapters in the history of global cinema. For example, among the topics this year, there was an extensive series of films by Lois Weber, perhaps the most important female director of the American silent cinema whose films are deeply shaped by the political and spiritual values of first wave feminism, and by Alma Hitchcock, the wife of Alfred, but also a well known scenario writer in the late silent and early sound British cinema.

The festival also featured a series showing the coming of sound in Japan, which included several films whose soundtrack captured the performances of famous Benshi. In the Japanese tradition, silent films were narrated by live performers, who might recount the story, embody the perspectives of the various characters, direct attention onto key details, or offer their own moral (and sometimes ironic) commentary on the action. These benshi were so popular in their own day that they helped to slow down the coming of sound in Japan, when they resisted the shift to new technologies that might mean their eventual unemployment and the end of their tradition. During this transitional period, some of their performances were recorded, which gives us a chance to better understand their mode of presentation and the diverse ways they shaped spectators’ experience of silent Japanese movies.

There was a series of films showing how America and Europe had dealt with the economic crisis of the early 1930s and another showcasing the work of Ivan Pry’ev, who was one of the most popular directors of musicals in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period (fascinating historical documents which might include celebrations of the heroicism of wives who renounce their husbands for acting against the interests of the State or which might open with vast musical numbers involving farmers singing as they drive their tractors across their fields.)

My favorite screening series, though, was a retrospective of the works of Raoul Walsh, whose career spans from silent films (such as The Thief of Bagdad and The Big Parade) all the way into the 1950s (represented here by Band of OutsidersPursued, and Distant Drums). The festival decided, wisely, not to focus on the Walsh films which are perhaps best known to retro house audiences — his films of the late 1930s and early 1940s with Humphrey Bogart (They Drive By Night, High Sierra), James Cagney (White Heat, The Roaring Twenties), and Errol Flynn (They Died with Their Boots On, Gentleman Jim), but rather to focus primarily on the transition from silent to sound cinema. As a result, I got to see The Big Trail, for example, an epic western which made effective use of deep focus photography to cram every frame with action and details, and was filmed (and shown) in an early wide screen process, Grandeur,  Me and My Gal with a wet-behind-the-ears Spencer Tracy and Sailor’s Luck which managed to perfectly merge the screwball and anarchistic comedy traditions. Another highlight from the festival for me was Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle, also with Spencer Tracy, a dark and twisted romance set amongst the homeless camping out in Central Park during the early depression.  Kristin Thompson wrote a typically thoughtful and detailed account of her experiences at this year’s festival.

The film festival has become a favorite academic junket, drawing together many of the world’s leading film historians, who enjoy hanging out together, watching obscure yet interesting movies, having long conversations over plates of pasta, and grabbing a quick Gellato on the way back to the hotel, before starting the process all over again the following morning.

Bologna has been gaining in recent years on the other great Italian retrospective festival, Pordenone, which is held each year in October, and which showcases almost exclusively works from the early and silent film periods. Bologna has a more diverse program, including silent and sound films from around the world, and has the virtue of falling during the summer, when American academics can get away for a more extended period. So, this year, I had a chance to catch up with old graduate school instructors (Donald Crafton, Kristin Thompson, Susan Olmer, Richard Abel) and classmates (Charlie Keil, Leslie Midkiff-Debauche, Matthew Bernstein, David Pratt) as well as more recent friends who I see in Los Angeles (Janet Bergstrom, Virginia Wright-Wexman, John Huntington).

While in Bologna, I had a chance to sit down in person with Wu Ming 1 (and for part of the meal, Wu Ming 3b). I had interviewed Wu Ming 1 and his collaborators for my blog some years ago, where he spoke with me about his interests in “multitudinous authorship, crossmedia storytelling, world making, identity games, RPG guerrilla warfare, old/new media collision, copyleft-oriented practices, media hoaxes and so on).” This creative collective has written some top-selling novels, such as Q and 54, but they have also spearheaded the Luther Blissert cultural movement, which has conducted any number of pranks and hoaxes to shake up the media establishment in his country. Wu Ming 1 wrote the introduction for the Italian language edition of Convergence Culture, and we’ve remained in close contact ever since. We had a great discussion, comparing the ways American and Italian activists have responded to the economic crisis, debating my current interests in fan activism, pondering the reasons why social media has played out differently in America and Europe, sharing Wu Ming’s new transmedia projects, and above all, assessing current struggles over intellectual property. We were also joined at this meal by Giovanni Boccia Artieri, an expert on social media, who is on the Faculty of Sociology at the University Carlo Bo of Urbino.

Artieri was instrumental in getting me invited to speak at his university during the festival. Wu Ming 1 attended and has shared these notes and audio files of the presentation. This photograph, taken during the talk, gives a hint at the very very baroque environment in which my remarks were delivered.




Afterwards, I was taken to lunch by Veronica Innocenti, who has written extensively about television seriality,  and some of her faculty colleagues.  Meanwhile, Cynthia had some of the American film studies crowd for a day trip to nearby Ravenna, a town overflowing with sixth century churches, which include intricate mosaic work.


Here, you see Cynthia with Virginia Wright-Wexman, Susan Olmer, Donald Crafton, and John Huntington, taken by their tour guide on this exposition.

Bologna, itself, is a delightful place to visit, characterized by long arcade-like walkways and narrow winding streets, often full of bikes and motorcycles.






I was much taken by this fountain, near the center of the city, which seems racy even by European standards, whether we are looking at the ways the women are shown fondling their own breasts (part of the mother’s milk fixation observed earlier)


Or the proud display of certain elements of the male anatomy.

Somehow, the juxtaposition of the two leaves this fountain a particularly charged space in my memories of European waterworks. I would say that this guy’s “having a party in his pants”, if he was wearing any.

I mean no great insult to Italian food, which is everything you imagine it to be, and then some. We dove deep into one great plate of pasta after another across our various legs in Italy, and I think my number one take away from the trip is Prosciutto and Melon, which goes down really well in the sweltering heat we had been experiencing since Budapest. But, by this point in the trip, we had been in Europe for going on two months, having one exotic meal after another. And, I found myself more and more being drawn towards American fast food places, like the McDonalds depicted here. McDonalds functions as the unofficial American Club across Europe — a place you can go where you recognize pretty much everything on the menu and where you know precisely what you are going to get, where you can — usually — get ice in your drinks, where people around you are speaking English, and where you can strike up a conversations with anyone at any table and likely get some fresh news from home, assuming your sense of home is North America between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

My graduate mentor, David Bordwell, was scheduled to participate in a panel near the close of the film festival, having a public conversation with Dave Kehr, who currently writes a column on dvd releases for the New York Times, who maintains maintains the  blog Reports from the Lost Continent of Cinephiliaand who recently published a book of his film reviews from the Chicago ReaderWhen Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade. The panel was supposedly about the current state of Cinephilia, though our discussion ranged pretty broadly across historic and contemporary film cultures. As the title of Kehr’s works suggest, he thinks that something vital has been lost in contemporary audiences’ relationship to cinema, reporting dwindling attendance at retrospective screenings in New York City, and expressing concern that fewer and fewer classic works are making the transition across each new media platform. My own response was, characteristically, a bit more optimistic, so the exchange was a lively one, which I enjoyed very much. It was also fun for me to be speaking some place where I seemed to be better known as the author of What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and The Vaudeville Aesthetic than for Textual Poachers or Convergence Culture, and it was fun to use my extensive knowledge of other forms of media fan culture to tweak some of the pretensions of the art house crowd.




How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Germany (Round Two) and the Czech Republic


Delmonhorst and Breman, Germany

Our travels next took us back through Germany — to the town of Delmonhorst in Lower Saxony. Here, I participated in a conference, organized by Martin Butler and centering around the “precarious alliances” which shape the relations between authors, readers, editors, publishers, translators, critics, archivists, and booksellers, among others, each of whom helps to shape the nature of literary production. This was an intimate event — roughly 20 academics, mostly European, a few American — sat around in a seminar room for three days and talked about each other’s work. For me, this kind of prolonged engagement was a rare treat, especially when coupled with the fact that the topic — which centered mostly around print culture — was a little askew to what I normally look at  and most of the papers, by and large, focused on pre-20th century forms of publication. I gave the opening keynote, using J.K. Rowling’s complex relations with Harry Potter fans and readers, as the central focus of my analysis, but giving the group a taste of what publication means in the era of “spreadable media.”

The other keynote talks came from James L. West Jr. (Penn State), who has helped to manage the republication of the works of F. Scott Fitzergerald, and shared some of the behind the scenes negotiations which shape  posthumous publications (and along the way, told some great stories about consulting with Baz Luhrman on the forthcoming, now delayed, Great Gatsby movie), Wil Verhoeven (Gronigen) who spoke about “print capitalism” and the establishment of “political modernity” in England, and Claire Squires (Stirling), author of Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, who described the ways new modes of digital publishing and online book selling were disrupting older printing practices.  Other memorable presentations include a critique of the rhetoric of participation as deployed by some contemporary marketing projects by Martin Butler (Olderberg), a talk on the packaging of best selling genre fiction in Post-socialist Russia by Ulrich Schmid (St. Gallen),  a discussion of the political and cultural debates surrounding the Booker Prize by Anna Augustcik (Oldenburg), and a talk about the construct of the impoverished author in early Modern France by Geoffrey Turnovsky (Seattle). These exchanges, which dealt with print as a medium and as a set of cultural practices, rather than as a fixed canon of great works, were refreshing for me and seemed to open a path forward for future multidisciplinary conversations around similar topics.

Cynthia and I especially enjoyed getting to know Verhoeven and his partner, Amanda Gilroy, who drove down  precisely to meet me. Gilroy recently published a fascinating essay dealing with how she used fan fiction writing activities to get her students to engage more closely with the works of Jane Austin, an essay I know would be of particular interest to many of our readers.

The conference organizers allowed a fair amount of downtown for us to explore the city and its surrounding area. A few blocks from our hotel, there was a beautiful park, where we ran into this brace of ducks.



And in the town proper, we had yet another Spider-man sighting. It would seem that for a U.S.-based superhero, he gets around!



One night, a party of the speakers went into Breman, nearby, for dinner and a stroll around the historic districts of this German city, which was referenced by Ptolemy as early as 150 AD.  Like many German cities, Breman was heavily bombed during the Second World War, but it has made concerted efforts to restore some of the beautiful old buildings.



Praha (Prague), Czech Republic


When I arrived in Praha, I was greeted with posters depicting me as a somewhat paunchy superhero, flying high above the  Žižkov Television Tower,  a local landmark. These posters had been made by Luis Blackaller, a former MIT Media Lab student, who now lives in Los Angeles and occasionally sits in on my classes.

The poster had been commissioned by Jaroslav Švelch, who had spent several years as a visiting scholar through the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, and now teaches on the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences. Svelch had helped to organize a day-long symposium, Transmedia Generation: On Empowered and Impassioned Audiences in the Age of Media Convergences, in honor of my visit. We were grateful to receive funding from the U.S. Embassy in Pradha to help support this exchange between American and Czech based scholars.

Here is my talk (a variant on the one I had given at the Telefonica conference in Madrid).

Sangita Shresthova, a former CMS Masters Student, who now heads up our Civic Paths research team at USC, flew in for the event. Shresthova is part Nepalese, part Czech, and grew up in Praha, as she notes in the opening segment of her talk  about Bollywood dance and its fan following around the world. I featured Shresthova’s book, Is It All in the Hips?: Around the World With Bollywood Dance, earlier this year, on my blog. 

Here’s  Švelch”s own talk which shared some of his research about fan subbing practices, especially concerning Game of Thrones, in the Czech Republic.  Švelch’ has a background in translation studies, even though much of his recent work has dealt with computer games and other aspects of digital culture, so this project allowed him to combine several of his interests.

I was especially intrigued by this presentation by Nico Carpentier (Free University of Brussells), who has been exploring what we can learn about new forms of participatory culture by digging more deeply into the literature around participatory democracy. I was a bit nervous when I saw the title of his talk, “The Dark Side of Online Participation,” but I left enormously excited by the work he is doing. Carpentier argues that legitimate claims for advances in opportunities for meaningful participation are drowned out by a rhetoric of participation which as often as not is little more than marketing. He wants to create some conceptual models which allow us to appraise what kinds of participation are on offer, seeing meaningful participation as involving the redistribution of power and the flattening of traditional hierarchies and inequalities. This is precisely the kind of work which should be done right now at the intersection between critical and cultural studies.

I made no secret of my excitement over discovering Carpentier and his work when Sangita, Nico, and I shared a panel together for the symposium’s final session, which dealt with the political and educational implications of the research we had presented.

Since I have been back in Los Angeles, Carpentier and I have been working on a dialogic piece which explores more fully the similarities and differences in the ways we are thinking in our current projects about the nature of political participation.

To be honest, the conference was, in some ways, an excuse to have  Švelch and Shresthova show Cynthia and I around Praha. After speaking to so many different groups and meeting so many new people, it was a luxury to be able to hang out and have fun with two old friends.



I would say that we painted the town “red,” but somehow that might have a different connotation when talking about a post-socialist country. But, we had a wonderful time wandering the streets and taking tram trips together as they tried to introduce us to as much Czech culture as I could possibly absorb in a few days time.


As I sit here some weeks later and try to put into words my scattered impressions of Praha, I feel like it comes out as something like “Pretty, Shiny, Golly Whiz!”, where-as something of the beauty and splendor comes through in Cynthia’s photographs.


As Jaroslav, Cynthia, and I were walking along the banks of the Vltava River, we ran straight into two other Comparative Media Studies affiliates —  Zuzana Husárová and Amaranth Borsuk  — both visiting Eastern Europe to attend a conference about digital poetry and storytelling. Here, you see the Praha Castle towering over the river, while on this sunny afternoon, you can see all kinds of boats out cruising along the river.



This is Jaroslav’s photograph of Cynthia and I in front of some of the old buildings which survive from the 1891 Jubilee Exhibition. We were here visiting another late 19th century panorama, in this case depicting the Battle of Lipany (fought in 1434). Our exploration of late 19th popular amusements also took us to visit a Hall of Mirrors, also from 1891, and also very much still alive as an attraction for contemporary tourists.




We were fascinated by the old world charm of Praha, especially the decorated facades of buildings which date back to the Art Nouveau period.



One of our discoveries on this trip was the work of the Czech Art Nouveau graphic artist, Alphonse Mucha, whose paintings, illustrations, advertisements, postcards, and designs captured the spirit of Prague as it entered into the 20th century. I found this video on YouTube which shares some of Mucha’s story and work.


But we were also very much taken by the aesthetic of contemporary Praha street art.


We were very much amused to stumble upon this fine establishment, dedicated to preserving the memory of this classic 1970s vintage American cult series and the lifestyle which it embodies. Starksy and Hutch was very much an active fandom when I wrote Textual Poachers, though I don’t run across many references to it today. I wanted to share this image in honor of all of you old school fans out there!


Visiting this former Soviet block country brought back a rush of memories for me as a child of Cold War America. Perhaps the most powerful concerned the CBS Children’s Film Festival, a staple of my childhood.  (You can learn more about the program on this Kukla.TV fan website. )This program ran every Saturday afternoon, just as the morning cartoon shows started to give up the ghost, and spill over into programming intended for adults. The program was hosted by Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and dedicated to sharing films focusing on the lives of children from around the world. When I looked the program up on the web, I was struck by how many of the stories I remembered most vividly had come from Czechoslovakia, which was known during this period for its production of children’s films. Here, for example, are segments from two of the films shown during the Children’s Film Festival:

Adventure in Golden Bay   Dobrodružství na Zlaté zátoce (1956)

Captain Korda  Kapitán Korda  (1970)

Many of the other films shown on the series came from the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Poland, Eastern Germany, and a range of other Warsaw Pact countries. These memories have left me very curious how it was possible for so many of these films to air on network television during a period of time when political tensions between the United States and Eastern Europe were at such a level of intensity, and also to ponder what impact this early exposure to global diversity might have had on my generation’s relationship to the rest of the world. Certainly, there are children’s film festivals hosted by museums and cultural institutions around the United States today, but there is no such commitment from commercial broadcasters to insure a more cosmopolitan diet for contemporary youth.

A window display of wooden marionettes suggested the continued process of cross-cultural exchange, as Charlie Chaplin, Harry Potter, and Jack Sparrow hang alongside Old World witches and trolls.



The Czech people have long been among the most accomplished puppet makers and performers in the world, and this fascination with puppetry has often influenced their filmmaking, resulting in a strong tradition of puppet animation. Looking for more information about the puppet shops and theaters we saw in Praha, I stumbled onto this website, which also shared a delightful cartoon produced by students in their summer program.

While I was in Praha, I was interviewed by Pavel Kořínek, who wanted to get my thoughts about the current state of Comics Studies, as an emerging field of research. He was nice enough to give me Český Komiks 2000-2010, a wonderful collection of contemporary Czech comics.  Here’s a useful Wikipedia entry that overviews the history of Czech comics. Jaroslav helped to fuel my growing interest in this graphic tradition by taking me to a small museum dedicated to the works of Kaja Saudek, perhaps the most important Czek underground comics artist of the 1960s and 1970s. Saudek was inspired both by the traditions of mainstream American comics, especially superheros but also Walt Disney and Carl Barks. He was also transformed by his encounters with the work of R. Crumb and Richard Corben. Here’s what came out when these worlds collided. Saudek’s work conveyed something of the spirit of the youth culture which contributed to the Prague Spring movement in 1968.

Jaroslav and Sangita also took me to Terryho ponožky (Terry’s Socks), located by the box office at the Světozor art house cinema just off Wenceslas Square. Terry’s Socks was named after Terry Gilliam who famously left a sweaty pair of socks on a Prada movie theater’s stage after a public appearance. Terry’s Socks is by reputation the best place to shop in Prague for DVDS. I went there in search of what I could find of the Czech New Wave film movement, and brought back some real treasures. As it happens, Americans who want to know more about the explosion of cinematic creativity which hit Praha in the 1960s can now buy a number of classic works in Criterion’s Pearls of the Czech New Wave box set, released earlier this summer. See below an especially memorable sequence from Věra Chytilová’s 1966 film Daisies, which is included in the anthology.


While I was in Praha, I was contacted about appearing on one of the Czech Republic’s late night news program. They featured me for a full half hour, sharing my thoughts about new media literacies, digital activism, and participatory culture. What surprised me was that the interview ran in real time with the reporter Peter Fischer interviewing me in Czech, which was translated off camera into English, which I could hear on my ear phone, and then I spoke in English, which was then translated into Czech for the television viewers.


Here, you see Jaroslav and I sharing a last cool drink together in the Prague train station before Cynthia and I departed on an 8 hour rail journey to Budapest.


Coming Soon: Budapest and Bologna

How I Spent My Summer Vacation : Italy and Switzerland



I suspect this “eco-society” in the mountains of Northern Italy will be unknown to most of my readers, but it created a certain amount of “alarm” and “concern” for some of the Italians involved in planning other stages of the trip. Domahur is an alternative society, founded on environmental and spiritual principles, in the 1975. Unlike many of the other “utopian” communities of that era, it still survives, even thrives, despite a reputation for secrecy and some public misperceptions which link it to “demon worship,” a charge which carries weight in a culture that is so deeply rooted in Catholicism. I was invited to visit Damanhur by Betsy Pool, a veteran of the American media industries, who came to this community several years ago with her husband and her daughter.  Pool has been asked by the community to help tell their story to the world, and she has increasingly been drawn into current discussions around games-based learning and transmedia storytelling, reaching out to a number of key thinkers in this space, and inviting them to visit Northern Italy and explore possible collaborations.

The first thing we felt when we arrived in Damanhur was an enormous sense of community: much about this society is co-operative. Many, though not all, of the residents live in group arrangements and give a certain amount of time and work each week to the betterment of their community. As you walk through the community, you can see and feel  how deeply these people care about each other’s well-being, how connected they are to each other’s lives, and how much they believe in what they are doing.  Everywhere you look, you see signs of the community’s commitment to a kind of participatory culture, one where each person is encouraged to be creative and share what they create with the people they care about. We saw paintings, sculpture, architecture, fashion, food, gardening, and farming, all treated as artistic endeavors. We certainly saw signs of people who were still learning how to create and trying their hands at crafts which were unfamiliar to them, but at the same time, we were impressed by the overall high quality of accomplishment the Damahurians had achieved in their respective crafts. At the same time, there was a commitment to protecting the environment, which has led the group to experiment with advanced techniques that allow them to create a more sustainable lifestyle.


This commitment to creativity is perhaps most fully expressed through the religious life of this community. We were taken on a tour of the Temples of Humankind. The Temples are a remarkable accomplishment — more than 8,500 cubic meters on five different levels, linked by hundreds of meters of corridors, all carved out of the inside of a mountain.  On first entering this space, you are overwhelmed by its scale, by the incredible attention to detail, by the craftsmanship, and by the colors and textures which constitute this built environment.


As the guides showed us this space, I was impressed by  how deeply they have thought through the core elements of their belief system.

In many ways, this is perhaps the fullest realization I’ve seen yet of what Joseph Campbell once called Creative Mythology. You get some taste of what it’s like to visit the Temple when you watch this video we found on YouTube.

One room in the Temple, the Labryrinth, is devoted to what they see as the many faces of God, with stain glass windows paying their respects to Hades, Aphrodite, Amaterasu, Anahita, Arvisura, Anubis, Astarte, Athena, Balder, Baster, Brahma, Bran, Brigit, Buddha, Christ, Cybel, Enlil, Ganesh, Gaia, Judaism, Horus, Huhuetecotl, Islam, Manitou, Marduk, Mithra, Osiris, Pele, Persephone, Poseidon, Pan, Ra, Sin, Tengri, Thoth, and Unkulu Unkulu, that is, Gods from many corners of the Earth and from many different historic civilizations.

At the same time, there are attempts to incorporate the lived experiences and shared memories of the local people into this larger representation of their belief system, so that the residents create their own self-representations, through a range of media, and place them inside the shared spiritual space. The personal and collective stories  of the community, especially the faces of its founding members, are woven into the stain glass windows and murals, suggesting the links between their lives and core values or beliefs of the Damanhuran people.


On a personal level, I was delighted to find the dandelion as an important artistic motif running through the Temple’s design: the dandelion also functions as a core metaphor in Spreadable Media, and it was around this same time we were working with NYU to develop a cover design which features the Dandilion as a model for dispersion and circulation.

The Damahurans embrace what they call “estoricism,” a particular understanding of the spiritual world, which I find difficult to explain, even though they were generous in seeking to explain its core beliefs to us and answering our many questions. They feel strong connections, for example, with the people of Atlantis, and many of the motifs in their art take inspiration from those bonds. We attended, for example, a shared ritual where members of the community gather each month to consult the Oracles, amongst dancing and drum-beating. I am tempted to say that I am too much a rationalist to share their beliefs, though I value the creative processes through which they seek to share their insights with the world. Yet, they would not see these beliefs as “anti-rationalist,” often using terms like “science” to describe their “research” into the metaphysical realm, and they claim to have developed “technologies” which allow them to communicate with other times and with the plant world.

These beliefs, some of which are ancient in origin, co-exist easily with a pretty open attitude towards contemporary technologies. It is not a closed community: people come and go freely, and there were plenty of examples of outside media throughout the living spaces of the homes which I visited.  Young people often leave the community to explore the outside world and many return, choosing to live here. Despite some reputation for secrecy, Damanhur is not an enclave, but rather the community’s homes, public buildings, and farms intermingle with other local residents who do not share their beliefs. Betsy and her fellow community members are quite knowledgeable about current developments in digital media theory and they are committed to using state of the art techniques to share their narratives with the world. Indeed, any effort to create Damahuran transmedia experiences will build on the foundation of other public outreach projects, which have included picture books and graphic novels seeking to explain their understanding of the universe.


Many of the core texts that have defined transmedia  — from The Matrix and Star Wars to Lost — have had mythological themes, have drawn their core plot structures from Joseph Campbell, and many of them have tapped into strands of “esoteric” philosophy, so perhaps the world is ready for a transmedia franchise which presents the Damanhurian mythology  and which helps us to embrace some of the core values — creativity, religious tolerance, diversity, community, and concern for the natural world — which are part of a way of living here.

It was an amazing experience to spend my birthday in Damanhur, learning more about this remarkable culture, and getting to know some of the community members. Betsy and her family were nice enough to prepare a birthday dinner for me, including a traditional Italian cake, which consisted more or less entirely of icing.



The following day, Peppino Ortoleva, a distinguished Italian media scholar, took us on a walking tour of Turin and shared a delightful lunch with us talking about the state of research on popular culture in Italy. For me, the highlight of this tour was a visit to Il Museo Nazionale del Cinema, the national museum of cinema, whose displays about early and silent cinema Ortoleva has helped to curate . Among the collection’s more spectacular holdings is the statue of Moloch, created for the 1914 Giovanni Pastrone epic, Cabiria, which was considered to have been a primary influence on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and which established Italy as a major creative force in the silent film era.



In Los Angeles, they have recently built a shopping mall which lovingly recreates the giant elephants from Intolerance, but here, in Turin, they have preserved the original statue which was so central to the film’s iconography.


The museum does not simply present artifacts from world film history, with a strong focus on the accomplishments of Italian cinema, but it also seeks to interpret the experience of film genres and film going into a series of evocative environments — ranging from a Western saloon to a mad scientist’s laboratory.



The museum becomes a totally immersive environment that provokes strong emotional responses in visitors, very different from the contemplative distance we associate with more traditional museums. One certainly comes away with a deeper appreciation of film history, but the lesson is delivered with such showmanship that this has instantly become one of my favorite museums.

Afterwards, I shared a public lecture at the Circolo die Lettori about new media literacies and the value of play in educational practice, which seemed to be heavily attended by area teachers. My respondents included Peppino Juan Carlos De Martin (computer science professor at Politecnico engineering school and a commentator on web/computer subjects in national newspaper La Stampa, based in Torino), and Aldo Grasso (TV critic of II courier, Italy’s main newspaper, who teaches media at Catholic University in Milan).

And then we raced to catch a train which took us to Milan. Here, Cynthia caught an image of me, true to form, working on the train.

And from that same train trip, here’s another entry in my series focused on the Slapstick imagery found on European warning signs.

Gotta hurt!


In Milan, I gave three public lectures in two days:

First, I spoke to the Italian Scientific Society on Media Education’s national conference. What made this talk especially memorable was that they had brought in a class of local high school students who seemed especially engaged by my discussion of new media and education. At one point, I asked the audience who knew about Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video: all of the students shot their hands instantly, while a surprisingly few of the adults in the audience raised theirs. The young people seemed very proud to be more connected to what was happening in the world than their teachers had been, and I had a wonderful time talking with the students afterwords. They had even brought a video production team to interview me for their school newscast, suggesting that the school was finding good ways to integrate their media literacy skills into the classroom activities.

Second, I spoke to graduate students and industry professionals at Bocconi University, an event organized by the U.S. Embassy in Milan, and hosted by Paola Dubini.

Third, I was one of the invited speakers at Media City: New Spaces, New Aesthetics, an international seminar promoted by Triennale di Milano and curated by Francesco Casetti. The event sought to balance excitement about the ways that new media has enhanced our experiences of living in urban environments (“media makes cities easier to inhabit, more beautiful to see, more intense to share, and more complex to understand”) with some skepticism about the ways that smart cites “respond to new needs when they provide a system of surveillance or when they inspect our bodies or when they grant control from distance.” Most of the other speakers I heard took this more critical perspective, discussing new forms of “boredom” which emerged as people were subjected to public media which over-rode their ability to enjoy private contemplation or interpersonal conversation as they traveled through public spaces, such as train stations or described in pretty negative terms what happens when the public sought to reclaim spaces of shared celebration in areas controlled and dominated by commercial interests.

My own talk, “From ‘Bowling Alone’ to ‘The New Urban Mechanics’: Redesigning the Civic Ecology,” took a somewhat more optimistic perspective, describing a range of different models of civic participation and engagement reflected in recent experiments in civic media developed through the Annenberg Innovation Lab, MIT’s Center for Civic Media, and the City of Boston’s Office for New Urban Mechanics. I organized the projects in terms of data aggregation, information exchange, civic engagement, and collective deliberation.  My abstract sums up the key idea: “As we move to think about the future of the city as the locus of a new civic ecology, there has been a tendency to concentrate on notions of information access and transmission to the exclusion of attention to the affective and ritual dimensions of connectivity and mobility…..He examines the ways information technologies may not only support the public sphere but may also offer us a way to reclaim the roles played by the coffee house, the bowling alley, the town pagent, or the carnival, all previous rituals and locations as much or more invested in creating strong social ties as they were to ensuring rational and informed discourse.”  The following videos showcase some of the projects I identified across my rather rapid tour of current experiments in civic media.


Projects from The Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism

Projects from the MIT Center for Civic Media


Here’s another project developed by Audubon Dougherty, a former Comparative Media Studies student.

Afterwards, Cynthia and I had dinner with Will Straw (McGill University), who has been doing some work on the construction of popular memory online, which has informed some of my recent writings. So, we had a great conversation about zines, obscure forms of print culture, and collecting, all topics I hope to be spending more time thinking about as I get deeper into my new Comics project.




While I was spending my days giving talks, meeting with academics, and giving interviews, Cynthia had a chance to explore Milan. For example, her sightseeing took her to The Duomo, the great 14th century Cathedral, which has been described as the “heart” of this great renaissance city.



Here, you see a detail from the 1562 statue of St. Bartholomew Martyr, which is noted for its depiction of a man who was completely flayed alive, and carries his skin around draped over his shoulder . This sculpture’s fascination with muscular and bone structure suggests the role the biological sciences was starting to play in the creative imagination of this period.

Here, we see a monument at the Palazzo Marino erected in the 19th century to honor Leonardo Da Vinci, who did many of his greatest artworks in Milan. The Palazzo is near the Scala, Milan’s historic opera house, another key stop on Cynthia’s tour.

That evening, Cynthia took me back out to walk at dusk along the outskirts of the Sforza Castle. The Castle/Fort was constructed in the 15th and 16th century during a period when Milan was under Spanish domination. By this point in the trip, Cynthia and I were both deep into reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, and thus, we were really fascinating with the heraldic trappings here.



As you can see, this particular castle embraced the image of the snake as central to its identity (again, allowing us to make certain fannish connections with the House of Slytherin in the Harry Potter novels).



It can be hard to make the snake an heroic or even a menacing figure, given all of the negative connotations that often surround reptiles in western culture, but somehow, the castle did a pretty good job of pulling it off.

And Cynthia fell for some stray cats who made their home amidst the ruins and rubble of the castle.


It had to happen. We had been joking the whole trip that we were keeping a “Rock Star” schedule. People had suggested that we print up t-shirts to sell at my talks listing the full route of the tour. I had been comparing notes with my friend, MC Lars, who was doing an honest-to-goodness rock (well, nerd core) tour of Europe over this same period. And every stop along the way, we kept noticing that Bruce Springstein had either just given or was just about to give a concert. Well, we ended up in the same city, Milan, at the same time, but Bruce didn’t call me.


Venice is exotic, beautiful, romantic, historical, and above all, wet.


We arrived by train from Milan and immediately had to take a water taxi to get to our hotel. I had passed through Venice on the way to the Pordonone Film Festival almost two decades ago and had been scheming to get back ever since; this was Cynthia’s first trip, and I think we both became immediate fans of the city, its history, its culture, and its waterways.






For me, a key pilgrimage for this trip was to see the Bridge of Sighs. Historically, the bridge connected the Palace of the Doge’s Palace with the prison, so convicted prisoners would cross the bridge and catch their last glimpse of the world outside before being shoved into a dark, dank hole for many years to come. Lord Byron gave the bridge its name and along with it, bestowed a kind of romantic aura around this space. The bridge figures prominently for example in George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance, a personal favorite of mine, where two young lovers runaway from their parents in Paris and make their way to Venice where they want above all to cement their romance by kissing underneath the Bridge of Sighs at twilight. So, here, you see me standing in front of the Bridge of Sighs.

And this photograph  is taken on the Bridge looking out at the canals below, more or less what the prisoners might have glimpsed as they crossed.


Leave the myth of the Bridge of Sighs aside, the Dodge’s Palace represents one of the most epic spaces I have ever visited. It does seem to be full of people who have fallen out of their clothing at the most inappropriate or awkward moments. We had fun imagining the flirtation which might be taking place between the male and female statues who have stood and looked each other across the courtyard for many centuries now.

Inside the palace, outside the men’s room,  we also saw what was perhaps my favorite example of slapstick signage on the entire trip. Sorry for an image which may be NSFW but it is also hanging in a very public space at the Castle.



There’s no attempt here to use euphemisms to explain the functions of this room, which should be clear to anyone in any language. But, I can’t help but think that the rush this guy is experiencing is a bit life-threatening in its intensity, which is why it seems to me that this sign belongs alongside the other warning signs I’ve been featuring here.

While sitting in a cafe near St. Mark’s Basilica, we observed a grand procession of priests and worshippers, full of pomp and circumstance.

For Cynthia, who has trained as a glassblower, a key pilgrimage was to the Island of Morino, which for many centuries, has been home of the some of the greatest glass-makers in the world.  While glass-blowers from all over come to Morino in hopes of learning more about their crafts, the island’s secrets are fiercely protected.  It was not hard to find examples here of fine craftsmanship, though it was also not hard to find lots and lots of cheap knockoffs, aimed at the growing herds of tourists who are finding their way to the Island.

I was intrigued to see these figurines of Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan from The Kid (1921). I knew, of course, that Chaplin had left a strong cultural influence on Europe, but I was consistently surprised at how often we encountered Chaplin iconography as we moved across the continent. And more often than not, it was this film, more than Modern Times or City Lights, which was being evoked, suggesting something about the European understanding of the Little Tramp.


Venice was a great city to people-watch, and here are two wonderful images which Cynthia captured of children at play.




I’ve shared several times through this blog some of the great candy shops we encountered in Europe. What can I say!  I have a major sweet tooth. One shop in Venice had turned the sculpting and paint of marzipan into an art form and we had to buy one of the little fish you see in this image to take home and enjoy in our hotel room.


And of course, Venice is strongly associated in the public imagination with carnival, especially with the elaborately decorated masks which people wear to the festivities.

If these images seem a bit random, it is in part because we took Venice easy. We wandered around the streets, looking in windows, watching boats on the canals, sampling local food, drinking wine, and sleeping late. After the intense speaking schedule of the previous few weeks, it was great to have some time to re-energize.


From Venice, we flew to Zurich, Switzerland, and then, took a train to Lucerne, where I would be speaking at a conference focusing on Social Media and Participatory Storytelling. The event, which included artists, intellectuals, and industry people, was organized, in part, by Kurt Reinhard, whose documentary series on the Future of Storytelling was spotlighted on my blog a few years ago.  The conference has set up a Vimeo channel which showcases the proceedings. My talk featured here was the only one presented in English. Lucerne is in the German-speaking region of Switzerland.

Interestingly, as we got ready to travel to the talk, I spotted some Kony 2012 graffiti spray painted at the base of a distinctly Swiss fountain, an interesting signpost given how often that campaign surfaced in my talks across Europe.



The  conference was held in the basement of the building which housed the Bourbaki Panorama. Created in the 19th century, the panorama is a 360 degree painting which depicts an incident during the Franco- Prussian War of 1870-71, where the defeated French General Charles Denis Bourbaki sought refuge in Switzerland and was greeted warmly by the ever-neutral but ever welcoming Swiss people. This incident gave rise to the modern Red Cross. Visitors stand in the center of the painting, which extends via sculpture into the physical space. Such panoramas were a widespread phenomenon in the 19th century all over the world. I grew up visiting the Cyclorama in Atlanta which is from about this same period and depicts the Battle of Atlanta. But, these works have gradually disappeared or been destroyed, so I was happy to get a chance to visit this one. Historically, these paintings might be incorporated into elaborate performance pieces, where plays with light and sound might intensify the drama.

Given a few hours before we needed to head back to the train, we spent some time exploring the waterfront. Those are the Swiss Alps you see in the background.

There was a large bank of swans, more than I had ever seen at one place in my life, who swam the waters and wallowed on the shore. Behind them here, you see the Chapel Bridge, a wooden structure whose origins date back to the 14th century. The Chapel Bridge spans the Reuss, a body of water which eventually contributes to the Rhine in Germany.


This stone lion honors the Swiss mercenaries who served the French royal family and who were massacred during the French revolution.


 Coming Soon: Germany, Czech Republic, and Hungary















How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Spain

Madrid, Spain

My time in Madrid was one of the most intense legs of the trip: I delivered five talks in three days and most of the time in between was spent doing interviews with the local media. As a consequence, I had very limited time to see this great city and my exposure to its culture mostly consisted of quick meals in between talks.

While in Madrid, we stayed in a really luxurious grand hotel, the aptly named Westin Palace, just a few blocks away from the Prado Art Museum, thanks to the generosity of Telefonica, which was sponsoring my big public talk here.

After checking in, we wandered over to the Prado to soak up a little culture. Personally, what drew me here was the chance to see Hieroymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, a work which has fascinated me since I first wrote a paper about it in high school: I still can’t figure out how to place Bosch in the context of his times. Where did this guy come from? Almost as astonishing to us were some of the religious paintings — such as one where milk shoots out of the breast of the Virgin Mary and across the room into the mouth of a praying saint. (We found that there was a consistent fascination with this particular bodily fluid in religious art across Europe.)

Not surprisingly, Spanish artists, such as El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez, were especially well represented in the collection, and it was breathtaking to experience the size and intense colors of some of these works. Perhaps my favorite discovery on this visit was Velazquez’s Christ in the House of Mary and Martha.


First, I was intrigued by the way the picture manages to combine three genres — the still life, the domestic portrait, and the religious painting — within a single image. Second, I was fascinated by the ways that the picture juxtaposes and contrasts two very different spaces of action — the foreground in the kitchen, the background in the dining room — and links them thematically to the core Biblical story of the two sisters, Martha busily preparing the meal, while her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to his word. I have been spending lots of time thinking, especially about still life paintings, but also other works which include a strong attention to material culture, in relation to my new Comics and Stuff project. I ended up grabbing a picture off the internet and incorporating this work intoa talk I gave in Madrid about this project.

The following morning, Pilar Lacasa picked me up at the hotel and drove me out to the University of Alcala to present “The Samba School Revisited: Play, Performance, and Participation in Education. Lacasa has been a frequent visitor to the Comparative Media Studies program through the years, where she sat in on classes, participated in conferences, and contributed to our research. I’ve featured her own work on games-based learning and new media literacies through the blog before. It was meaningful for me to finally get a chance to visit her at her host institution and interact with her students. The talk was adapted from this blog post, which I wrote about the ways my own thinking about participatory culture was influenced by Seymour Papert’s classic essay about the Samba School as a site of informal learning. The talk started with my own observations about how one of Rio’s Samba Schools encouraged multiple forms of participation in the creative process.

Here, you see Pilar sitting next to me on the podium during the talk:

and me interacting with some of her students in the coutryard afterwords.

That evening, I paid my respects to another friend, Nacho Gallego Perez, who asked me to present my Future of Content talk at the Campus of Leganes, organized by Research Group about Television, Cinema, and Culture at Universidad Carlos III. Perez, who does work on grassroots use of digital radio and podcasting in Spain, had given a guest lecture in my New Media and Culture class at USC and participated in a workshop my Civic Paths group organized for MacArthur’s Digital Media and Culture conference.  Nacho and Luis Albornoz took me out afterwards to enjoy Tapas.

After a morning of interviews organized by Telefonica, I went out to give a talk about “Comics..and Stuff” at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, hosted by Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo, who is a leading thinker about the cultural industries. I featured Alvarez-Monzoncillo’s book, Watching The Internet: The Future of TV? on my blog shortly before I left for the trip.  You can see me here trying to reach up high enough to point out some details on a Richard Outcault comic page.



No sooner did I arrive back at my hotel, then another host, the international media literacy advocate Roberto Aparici, arrived to pick me up. I met Roberto years ago at MIT, when Textual Poachers was first coming out and he was in residence working on an early interactive media project.  Roberto and I sat down in a studio at a local educational television station to record a most enjoyable conversation which explored our shared interests in new media literacies and participatory politics.

And then, I talked about Play and Pedagogy as the final speaker at the Seminario internacional Redes sociales, educacion mediatica y apprendizaje digital, an event which brought together practicing teachers and educational researchers.



My talk was preceded by a presentation on the affordances of social media by Gunther Kress (University of London). Kress’s work on “Multimodal Literacy” offers some valuable conceptual tools for thinking about transmedia learning, and so I was honored to have a chance to chat with him, however briefly. Here’s a video interview with Kress I found on YouTube.


And, then, after a full day of talks, I arrived back at the Telefonica Foundation’s headquarters in time to join a group tour of the old sector of Madrid and a wonderful dinner with my fellow speakers.



Telefonica’s Transmedia Living Lab had pulled together some of the top thinkers about transmedia in Europe for a three day event, which tackled its implications for storytelling, learning,  and social change. My other commitments kept me from attending most of the events, but I very much enjoyed getting to chat with my fellow speakers over dinner.

I was especially taken with Lina Strivastava, a transmedia consultant who has been developing a tool kit for transmedia activism, inspired by her experiences developing a campaign around the Born in Brothals documentary, and Bill Boyd, a educational consultant and teacher working in Scotland, who has been doing some serious thinking and writing about new media literacies through his blog. Boyd has shared some interesting thoughts about the Madrid conference. You can find video and slides from the conference here.

My talk, “‘Occupying’ the Transmedia Landscape: Spreadable Media, Fan Activism, and Participatory Learning”  used the Occupy Wall Street movement as a point of entry into thinking about how activists are embracing grassroots practices which combine remix, transmedia, and spreadability, to get their messages out to the widest possible audience. The talk was partially inspired by this blog post on the discursive and visual tactics of Occupy.



My main professional reason for coming to Barcelona was to participate in a dissertation defense for Manuel Garin, a gifted PhD student in Humanities and Audiovisual Communication at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. I first became aware of Garin’s work on The Visual Gag, when he shared with me this remarkable video that juxtaposes a sequence from Buster Keaton’s silent film, Seven Chances, and footage from the Super Mario Brothers games, to help construct an argument about the ways that classic stunts and gag structures have traveled across time and across media.



Garin presented some of his preliminary ideas about games and silent cinema through  this blog post and he had spent some time in California doing research through the USC Cinema School for his project. Garin has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and aesthetics of gags, not the mention to read across a range of European languages, and thus, to make connections between different theoretical traditions which have sought to understand the place of the gag in media history. Across the dissertation, he explores thousands of gags from films, television, comic strips, games,and popular theater, moving fluidly across national traditions and criss-crossing divides between popular culture and avant grade practice.

The process of the dissertation defense was very different from my experiences in American universities. For one thing, the defense is public — in this case, very public, since it was attended not only by Garin’s family and friends, but also by the attendees of a conference his university was hosting that day on the cinematic gesture, and thus, we conducted everything in front of a packed auditorium. For another thing, it is a highly performative. The candidate gives extensive remarks presenting the core ideas from his project — in this case, complete with power point and video clips. Then, each committee member speaks about the project for 10-15 minutes and finally the candidate gets to offer a formal rebuttal/response to what has been said. There is no chance for back and forth exchange between the parties involved, as I might have expected back in the States. In this case, each person who presented spoke a different language — Spanish, Catalan, Italian, and English. I was told in advance that there would be no translation, since it was less important that the committee members understand each other than that what they had to say was understood by the candidate, but we were able to take advantage of the translation services organized by the conference.




Afterwards, I was approached by Robert Figueras and Gemma Dunjo, who are responsible for Panzer Chocolate, which is being billed as the first major transmedia project in Spain. I had been told about it multiple times by this point in the trip. This horror story is told across a feature film, a video game, a motion comic, an alternate reality game, mobile interactivity and “an Internet surprise.’  Here is a trailer they have produced which gives some sense of their approach.

My other formal business in Barcelona involved a meeting with Felipe G. Gil, a digital artist, theorist, and activist, based in Seville, who has been promoting the concept of “CopyLove.” Inspired by feminist theory and modeled on the idealized concept of maternal love, this approach seeks to imagine what copyright regimes would look like if they were shaped by ideas of reciprocity, caring, nurturing, and sharing, rather than property, mastery, control, and profit.    I had shared on my blog some of Gil’s reflections on transmedia and digital literacy, which drew on the remix practices of his young cousin, a few years ago.  Here’s a Ted video where Gil explains some of his concepts in Spanish.

Afterwards, we were free to explore the city. Perhaps it was simply that my schedule had been so intense for the past week, perhaps it had to do with the considerable charms of Barcelona, but I felt giddy and liberated, and fell pretty madly in love with this city.  I suspect I am far from unique in saying that my fascination with Barcelona is to a large degree shaped by my engagement with Antoni Gaudi’s amazing buildings. Gaudi is perhaps the best known exemplar of what has become known as Catalan Modernism, creating a series of remarkable residences, apartment buildings, churches, and public parks, especially in Barcelona, in the first part of the 20th century. Gaudi took certain tendencies in the Art Nouveau movement and pushed them in other worldly directions. The sensuousness of his structures have to be seen and experienced to be fully understood, but they are such a wonderful play with shape, color, light, and texture, that I found utterly seductive. Here, Cynthia’s photographs only give you a taste.



 Gaudi’s work is strongly informed by his close study of structure in nature — Above, for example, you see some of the windows from Casa Batllo, a residence, which are clearly inspired by bones, where-as below, you see some details from the same building’s roof, which are organic in their shapes, if not in their colors.



At the same time, there is a strong geometric pull in Gaudi’s work, which elaborated on gothic traditions of architecture in order to explore arches in ways that open up radically different kinds of spaces within his buildings.






Every room in a Gaudi building is a surprise — most of them, breathtaking. Here, you get a sense of how consciously he plays with light, exploring the relationship between interior and exterior spaces, to create a series of thresholds which we pass through as we move from room to room. Here, also, one gets a sense of the subtle and expressive use of color throughout his designs.



We spent more time with Gaudi’s residences — Casa Batllo and La Pedrera — rather than his public buildings. But here, you see Sagrada Familia, his massive cathedral, which has been under construction for the better part of the past century. Given the centrality of the Cathedral to any visit to Europe, it was fascinating to see how Gaudi brought his idiosyncratic touches to this genre.




We also made our way out to Park Guell, a public space and gardens, which is enriched by Gaudi’s sculptural and architectural elements. This park is a very active element in the public and everyday life of Barcelona, so while the residences now have the feel of museums, and are cut off from their original use, here, you can see contemporary Catalans interact in casual and everyday ways with his designed environments.



OK, by now, I have demonstrated why I chose to enter media studies and not architecture. My relationship to this work is largely emotional and intuitive, rather than intellectual, and I lack the basic vocabulary to describe what I saw when I visited these buildings. I should note that from time to time in these photographs, you will see me wearing a white baseball cap. I actually purchased it at one of the Gaudi gift shops. I was looking for something to protect my bald head from the sun and couldn’t decide on what to advertise on my pate. The hat features simply the letter, J, as rendered in a font which Gaudi designed.

We were consistently amused by the vividness with which European street signs conveyed the many risks that surround us in the modern world. Sign after sign depicted what could happen to us if we make a single misstep in navigating a world of danger. I came to see them as a kind of conceptual humor, or perhaps the pictorial equivalent of slapstick comedy. I am going to share some in future posts. This sign, spotted in Barcelona, might be suggesting “slippery when wet,” or more imaginatively, “please do not jump rope on these stairs,” or perhaps, “beware of snakes.” In any case, you should try to avoid this poor sucker’s fate.


We spent the better part of two days playing tourists in Barcelona, taking advantage of the red hop-on, hop-off buses to sample many different sectors in the city. And as the day started to turn into night, we visited the Aquarium and then walked along the water front.



And, as the night continued, we took a lively midnight walk up La Rambla, where we stopped to watch street gambling, a range of live performances, and simply the back and forth bartering between visitors and merchants. As someone who is a  bit of a night owl by temperament, it was exciting to be some place where there is so much public life still being conducted in the wee hours of the morning. We were exhausted from an intense day of sight-seeing and pretty much limping back to our hotel, but you had a sense that many of these people were just getting started.





How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Paris


I am embarrassed to admit that I made my first visit to Paris in my mid-50s, after being told my entire life that Paris is the most romantic city in the world and after having my fascination with the French capital roused all over again by two great films produced last year – Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It would be hard to say that Paris surprised me, when you consider how many very particular images of the city have been etched in our imagination. I had many friends send along their recommendations for things to do while in Paris, many of which sounded very interesting and worthwhile, but ultimately, they were all things you should/could do on one’s second trip to Paris. The itinary for my first trip to Paris had been set in my head since I was 14 and taking a high school French class. As it was, despite pretty aggressive tourism, we still did not get to everything on our “Must See” list.


In the course of two action-packed days, we managed to visit Notre Dame Cathedral, eat lunch on a barge on the Siene River, walk along the Rive Gauche, stand underneath the Eiffel Tower and the Arch De Triumph, do some shopping along the Champs Elysees, stroll through the Jardin du Luxemboug, eat a croissant (actually, several), pay our respect to Shakespeare and Company, and gawk at the Paris Opera House (Home of Erik, the Phantom of Opera, though I could find no sign of an entrance to the sewers). We did not manage to get inside the Louvre, or visit the Arcades, or catch a performance at the Moulin Rouge or visit the cinema museum or take tours of the Paris sewers or the catacombs, all attractions which more or less insure that we will be coming back for more. We walked our legs off, but in the end, we saw very little that has not been seen by every other American tourist visiting the City of Lights over the past half century or more. It is hard to figure out what it is that I can say here that has not been said before.


This photograph, one of the few featured here which I took (as opposed ot my wife, who is by far the more gifted photographer) captures the festive spirit with which I embraced Paris. I thought it should be run with the caption, “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.” (I don’t know, but I feel a certain family resemblance to the central figure here.)



By contrast, this image of a couple outside the Musee D’Orsay captures the way we felt at the end of each day – completely worn down by the onslaught on our senses and physical exhaustion from walking miles through the crowded city.



The Musee D’Orsay was one of the few places we visited in Paris which would not have been on my list in high school.  This art museum was built inside the old train station which was so beautifully reconstructed (digitally) by Scorsese in Hugo,  perhaps my favorite film last year. You can get a sense of the atmosphere of the museum from this photograph, which we shot illicitly, since shortly afterwards, we learned that photography was prohibited in this area. Shucks.


And behind the great clock, such a central feature of the Hugo promotional materials, there is a charming café where we stopped to have an Éclair and drink some orange juice.




We arrived late enough in the day that we had very limited time to study the artworks, though we did have time to pay our respect to the room devoted to the works of Vincent Van Gogh, a stop — I hesitate to confess — motivated as much by the role  this room played in a episode of Doctor Who asby my serious appreciation of the great modernist painter. (What can I say, I am a fan boy to my core!)



In previous posts, I’ve shared with you snapshots of the junk food culture of Europe. I offer here, without comment, an image of a delightful little candy shop we encountered in Paris. Whatever else you want to say about the French, they bring Style to everything they do.

A highpoint of our time in France was a visit to Versailles, organized by Melanie Bourdaa (Bordeaux 3 University) ,who has been a major promoter of transmedia narrative in her country. Here, you see Melanie and I sitting together on the Palace grounds.




Again, I suspect Cynthia’s photographs can speak much more powerfully than I can about the epic scale and beauty of this grand palace and its extraordinary grounds. I had visited this palace many times before in my imagination, but I was still overwhelmed by experiencing it in reality.


Note the fireplace: one of my many visits to this place in my fantasies was sparked by another Doctor Who episode, “The Girl in the Fireplace.”


Here, and everywhere else I went in Paris, I found myself confronting the degree to which elements drawn from stories – history, mythology, literature, scripture – were dispersed across every available surface.  In many of the rooms in Versailles, one can stand and look up into paintings intended to evoke the heavens .



Many Paris buildings have architectural details (such as the gargoyles outside Notre Dame


or the lamp posts outside the Opera House) which are intended to evoke figures from myths and legends.



And Notre Dame manages to proclaim the Christ story from the sculpted doorways outside



to the stain glass windows inside.

I was especially intrigued by the ways Jesus’s life unfolds through a sequence of panels, which almost seem to predict comics.



I am convinced that someone smarter and more literate than me could develop a whole essay on immersion and dispersion in contemporary transmedia based on lessons learned from a more systematic study of the ways story elements are evoked around every corner in Paris.


For a more contemporary example of the ways the French embed their love of stories into the landscape, consider the love locks which have appeared, since the early 2000s, along bridges and fences in the city. Cynthia and I were unfamiliar with this relatively new practice, but a little time online suggests that it was inspired by the enormous popularity of the best selling novel, I Want You by Italian author Federico Moccia,  which was later adapted into the film, Ho voglia de te.  But even without a source text to refer back to, these locks each tell their own stories of the romances that they were designed to commemorate. The French government has struggled with how to respond to this truly grassroots phenomenon, which they see as obscuring their national monuments, but which resurfaces again as quickly as they are removed.



We made our way to the Pompidou Center several hours before my big public event and spent some time exploring this (in)famous building. Again, the debate about this space has become so entrenched that we all know the script by heart. Yes, it looks like “it is still under construction” and yes, it looks like “The Future.” Next question.


Before the main event, I spent some time being interviewed for a forthcoming documentary being made for French television called Call Me Kate, which uses Castle as a case study of a contemporary fan culture. The producer Emanuelle Wielezynski-Debats had brought along a range of French fan fiction writers, several of whom had participated in efforts to translate some of the key posts from this blog into French as resources for their community.  There has been an explosion in recent years of documentaries about specific fan communities, which seek to avoid the anti-fan clichés that characterized much of the media coverage of the past. Emanuelle was using this production to “come out” as a Castle fan and saw the film as an opportunity to help inform the French public about fan cultural production.


My lecture, “Engagement, Participation, Play: The Value and Meaning of Transmedia Audiences,” was promoted by Sorbonne Nouvelle-Universite Paris 3 and supported by Orange’s Transmedia Lab. The program was introduced by Melanie Bourdaa and Eric Maigret (Sorbonne Nouvelle). This was perhaps the most heavily publicized talk in my lecture tour and there was a massive number of people more or less filling up the auditorium. I came out and delivered a few sentences of clunky high school French, before reverting to English.

Here you will find a video of the entire program, including a panel discussion afterwards where I was joined by Orange’s Morgan Bouchet, who had spoken at this year’s Transmedia Hollywood event. Orange has made a major investment in transmedia, including joining as a sponsor of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, where I am the chief advisor.

Bourdaa and her graduate student,  Aurore Gallarino, wrote a very thoughtful summary of the event, which is worth reading.  They write:

“In Jenkins’ view, five logics are contributing to the emergence of transmedia and the phenomenon of increased fan participation (‘fandom’):

–       The logic ofentertainment, as evidenced by the presence in the US TV schedules of TV series and reality shows;

–       The logic ofsocial connection, highlighted by votes and discussions on social networking sites;

–       –    The logic ofexperts [Mastery], symbolised by the collective intelligence (Levy, 1994true) brought to bear by fans for the purposes of creation, production and discussion. Henry Jenkins cites the examples of the creation of Twin Peaks fan sites and the Lost Wiki (Lostpedia), which both collate articles written by fans to offer greater insight into both series;

–       The logic of immersion, which encourages participation. For example, on Oscars night fans could use a number of interactive tools to immerse themselves in the ceremony and form a community;

–        The logic of identification, which enables fans to establish an identity depending on what they watch.”

Just to be clear, these are not my categories. I was building on a framework my graduate student, Ivan Askwith, deployed as the frame for his Comparative Media Studies thesis a few years ago as part of a case study of the models of engagement around Lost. I have been experimenting with this model lately to think about the very different models of engagement shaping online extensions of American television series. You can read Askwith’s thesis here.

And here’s an interview I did with the French blogger Miss TrollMedia where I shared some reflections about what transmedia might mean in the context of French culture.

“Of course, the rich contents of French culture lend themselves to transmedia, although the desire to defend and close off those contents from outside influences also create challenges, since transmedia is at its roots participatory and generative. I would argue that some of the contents of French culture are already deeply transmedia. We could talk about the church culture which produced Notre Dame as one which was seeking every available channel from which to proclaim God’s Word and which embraced artists who remixed core icons and stories of their culture to create new works.

We could look at writers such as Hugo or Balzac as master world builders, who incorporated many existing stories into their works. So, Hugo sets his Hunchback inside the world of Notre Dame, thus extending the story it tells in new directions, where-as another author sets Phantom of the Opera in the basement and sewers of the Paris Opera House.

So, French culture has a long history of transmedia extensions and explorations, and there’s time for a new generation to enter into this process. But, in a networked culture, transmedia is not simply a conservative force, not simply about transmission, so having gone there, French culture can not work with a logic which treats the original author as a god or which seeks to police the borders of who wants to participate. You can transmit French culture to the world, but then, paradoxically, it will become world culture.”

My final event in Paris was a dinner with a circle of French academics, artists, and intellectuals who get together periodically to discuss game design and game study. I was invited to the dinner by Alexis Blanchet, whose data on the relationship between films and games I had featured on this blog several years ago. We were joined by Etienne Armand Amato, Sebastien Genvo, Vincent Berry, David Peyron, Nicolas Rosette, Olivier Mauco, and Marion Coville.


The group represented a broad mix of disciplines and perspectives, ranging from the aesthetics of interactive design to the place of computer games in the history of toys and play, from the political use of multiplayer games to the sociology of geek culture. Game studies has struggled to find an academic home in the French universities, but this multidisciplinary group of young scholars is bringing rigor and passion to the topic, teaching classes, writing both academic and journalistic games criticism and organizing and curating exhibitions for French cultural institutions.


As the sun sets slowly over Paris, we say goodbye to this romantic country, its gracious people, and its beautiful cityscape.

Coming Soon: Madrid and Barcelona.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation (Part Three): England and Ireland

England has always felt like a mother country to me — not simply because (depending on who you ask) Jenkins is either an Irish or Welsh name, but also because Birmingham is the intellectual birthplace of the Cultural Studies tradition from which my work on participatory culture can claim its intellectual roots. So, while most of the other legs of the trip took me to places I had never been before, the British leg was a chance to reacquaint myself with old friends and especially to meet the next generation of British scholars who are working on fan studies or transmedia topics.


Our visit to London fell just about a month before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and a few months before the city would host the Summer Olympics. As this photograph of a British street scene suggests, she was already spruced up and flying her colors.



On May 15th, I delivered a talk about our forthcoming Spreadable Media book  in the Regent’s Street Cinema, which has been hailed as the Birthplace of the British Cinema, since it was the location of the first public exhibition of motion pictures in London.


The talk was hosted by David Gauntlett, whose work on grassroots creativity I showcased on this blog not long ago. Gauntlett’s  critiques of media effects arguments had helped to inform my writings around the Columbine Shootings more than a decade earlier. We had corresponded off and on through the years but this was the first time we met in person.  While the official video from the event has not yet been posted, someone in the audience captured and has posted the second part of the talk, including the question and answer session with the audience, and it will give you a good taste of how well Jenkins and Gauntlett played opposite each other. Here’s a blogger’s take on the event.

Immediately after the talk, I went backstage where I was interviewed by an Irish radio reporter, and you can again got some taste of the presentation from the version he shared through his podcast.



Cynthia and I then traveled by train to Robin Hood country — Nottingham, for a conference, Contemporary Screen Narratives: Storytelling’s Digital and Industrial Contexts, which was organized by Anthony Smith.  Jason Mittell and I were the two keynote speakers for the event. Jason gave a really provocative presentation, drawing on his current book project dealing with complex television narratives. In this case, he used Breaking Bad to elaborate a theory of television characters. Jason has been posting chapters from the book via Media Commons for feedback, and so you will find the text of his remarks here, and given the interest in my readership in all things transmedia, here’s a link to his chapter on transmedia entertainment, which discusses Lost and again, Breaking Bad. My own remarks centered around “Engagement, Participation, Play: The Value and Meaning of Transmedia Audiences,” and was a dry run of sorts for the presentation I gave at the Pompidou Center in Paris a week or so later. (Watch for video of the Paris version).

For me, the highlight of this event was getting to sample the rich strands of work on fandom, cult media, games, and transmedia entertainment being done by the emerging generation of British and European academics, many of whom were students of my many old friends here:

  • Bethann Jones (Cardiff University), a contributor to our issue of Transformative Works and Culture, shared her perspectives on the fanmix as an emergingcreative practice: the fanmix is a compilation of songs (something like a mix tape) which is intended to explore the psychological journey of a particular character (or character relationship), sometimes inspired by a work of fan fiction, sometimes informed by the fan’s reading of an episode or the series as a whole.
  • Matthew Freeman (University of Nottingham) provided an important historical corrective to a day heavily focused on contemporary transmedia experiments, exploring the kinds of commercial intertexts and paratexts constructed around Superman in the late 1930s and 1940s. For comic buffs, some of the examples used was familiar ground, but what made the talk exceptional was the ways  he examined the specific industrial contexts of each of the production companies involved in developing Superman for comics, radio, live-action serials, and animation, and the contractual relations  the publishers deployed to insure some degree of integrity and consistency across them.
  • Aaron Calbreath-Frasieur (University of Nottingham) traced the history of meta-media and transmedia explorations by the Jim Henson Corporation and the Muppets franchise, suggesting the ways that our awareness of the characters and their personalities inform our response to their performances across multiple media platforms.
  • Feride Cicekoglu, Digdem Sezen, and Tonguc Ibrahim Sezen (Istanbul University/Istanbul Bigli University) reflected on the ways transmedia could be deployed to generate civic awareness and political participation, including both examples from the highly topical Valley of the Wolves series for Turkish television and recent efforts to use alternate reality games for social change, such as the British Red Cross’s Traces of Hope and Play the New .



Our next stop was Sunderland, an industrial city in North East England. Sutherland  is the home of British comic book artist and author, Bryan Talbott, whose graphic novel, Alice in Sunderland, will be the focus of a chapter in my planned Comics…and Stuff book project.

Reading Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland is an overwhelming experience — not simply because of its epic scale whether judged by its 300 plus page length or by its historical scope, which traces the history of a town in Northwest England from the Age of Reptiles and the era of St. Bede through to the present moment.  Talbot shows how Sunderland has functioned as a crossroads for many of the cultural currents that have shaped British history. But, even on the level of the single page, Sunderland is overwhelming because of the way that Talbot has built it up primarily through techniques borrowed from photocomics and especially through the use of collage.

Each page may feature dozens of images Talbot has collected from archives — old photographs, documents, woodcuts, carved marble, stained-glass windows, film stills, cartoons, and printed books, all jockeying for our attention, each conveying separate bits of information relevant to the historical narrative he is developing, but each gaining far greater meaning when situated within the book’s gestalt.   At the center of this narrative, as its title might suggest, is the story of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, who lived for a time in Sunderland and met Alice Liddell, his young muse, for whom his fairy story was dedicated. On the surface, the book can be read as an obsessive argument for the priority of Sunderland over Cambridge as the site from which to understand the origins of Carroll’s Wonderland. In the process of making such claims, Talbot goes further, linking Alice and Carroll to a much broader array of stories (from ancient mythology to music hall comedy) which have sprung from the same geographic and cultural roots.

Sunderland, thus, is a project in radical intertextuality, forging links between dispersed narratives drawn from both history and fiction, mapping them onto a highly localized geography. For all of its historical expansiveness, the core structure of the book is a tour, walking up and down the streets of Sunderland, pointing out various monuments and landmarks, and linking them into the emerging narrative of British history. And on yet another meta-level, Talbot is trying to link his own medium, comics, to a much broader history of artistic practices which combined words and pictures to construct narratives, including a consideration of Carroll’s relations with his illustrator John Tenniel, the Bayeux Tapestry, William Blake, and William Hogarth, as well as patches of many different comics genres.


Given the book’s focus on the local history and geography of Sunderland, I was eager to visit some of the depicted sites myself, and to try to get a better understanding of the context within which Talbot works. I was lucky to have established contact via email with Billy Proctor, a scholar of comics and popular narrative who is based in Sunderland, and through him, I made contact with Bryan and his wife, Mary, who invited us to pay them a visit. There, we shared thoughts about our shared fascination with vaudeville and music hall, and I got the chance to see some of the work in progress towards the next book in his Grandville series (which combines steampunk with the funny animal tradition).



While I was there, I found myself being interviewed for a documentary being produced about Talbot and his work (as well as by a local newspaper reporter eager to find out what would bring an “American visitor” to their city). The documentary producer Russell Wall has since shared with me this short film promoting Dotter of Her Father’s Eye. Dotter was Bryan’s first creative collaboration with his wife, Mary Talbot, a noted feminist scholar, who uses the graphic novel form to explore two father-daughter stories: the first is an autobiographical account of her troubled relationship with her father, a noted Joyce scholar, and the second is the account of Joyce’s relationship with his daughter, Lucia.


And this video documents Talbot’s involvements to get young people more invested in the expressive potentials of comics as a medium.



After our visit with the Talbots, Proctor and his colleague, John-Paul Green, took me on a brief, brisk walking tour of Sunderland on what had turned out to be a rainy, misty afternoon.

Here, you see a picture of Proctor and myself standing next to a Walrus sculpture which figures prominently in Alice: a stuffed walrus was brought back to England by Captain Joseph Wiggins (an associate of Carroll’s Uncle) and may have been the inspiration for the Walrus and the Carpenter.


Here are a few other stops along our walk, each of which plays a central role in the graphic novel:


The giant chess pieces in a children’s playground in Mowbray Park, which celebrates Carroll’s ties to the city




The Empire Music Hall, where such legendary British performers as Vesta Tilley, Guy Formby, and Sidney James once played.


The Statue of Jack Crawford, a British sailor, known as the “Hero of Camperdown,” who “nailed his colors to the mast” of the H.M.S. Venerable when it shattered during a battle with the Dutch.

Proctor, and his colleague Justin Battin, rode with us by train back to London, and we spent most of the trip totally geeking out about contemporary comics, science fiction, and fantasy franchises.

 London (Round 2)

We were all going to attend the Symposium on Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines, which was being hosted by the Center for Cultural and Creative Research at the University of Portsmouth and by Forbidden Planet, London’s best known comic book shop.  The event was held in the Odeon Cinema near Covent Gardens.




Organized by Lincoln Geraghty, the conference brought together a who’s who of the top British academics working on cult media and fan cultures, including:

  • Joanne Garde-Hanson and Kristyn Gorton speaking about the online reactions to Madonna as an aging female pop star
  • Cornel Sandvoss examining  the ways that reality television series, such as The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, played into the local imagination,
  • Mark Jancovich tracing the initial critical response to the Val Lewton horror films,
  • Stacey Abbott analyzing  the title sequences for such series as American Horror Story and True Blood,
  • Will Brooker exploring the construction of authorship around the Dark Knight trilogy,
  • Matt Hills sharing  insights about spoilers and “ontological security” within Doctor Who fandom,
  • Roberta Pearson mapping a new project she is developing about the popular resurgence of interest in Sherlock Holmes.

My talk, “Beyond Poaching: From Resistant Audiences to Fan Activism,” sought to locate my current work on fan activism as a form of participatory politics in relation to much older debates about whether fan culture can serve as a springboard for “real political change”.  Amusingly, during my talk, Will Brooker asked me a question proposed via Tweet from Alexis Lothian, one of my graduate students back at USC, a symptom of the number of friends and associates who were following some of these adventures online.

Here’s a picture of some of the participants, hanging out in a local pub, following the event.



The following morning, Cynthia and I flew to Dublin, where I had been asked to speak at the Institute of International and European Affairs, a notable think tank which brings together business leaders, journalists, and policy leaders to discuss some of the challenges confronting the modern world.  Here, I offered some critical perspectives on the ways “content” is being reshaped in the contemporary media environment. As I noted, the word, “content,” has classically been defined as “that which is contained,” as in the contents of a bottle or the table of contents of a book. But, a key characteristic of our current moment is that content (as defined by the “content industries”) is not contained, but rather content flows very fluidly across media platforms, across national borders, often shaped by unauthorized acts of circulation which intensify its meanings and may or may not increase its value.

Don’t miss the question and answer session which followed my talk, including some forceful challenges from business leaders and lawyers who felt threatened by the manipulations and appropriations of intellectual property I had depicted and by those eager to understand what Irish media makers might have to gain by embracing spreadable media.

Earlier that day, I had wandered over to a comic book shop, near my hotel, which had a display of Irish comics in the window. When I brought an armful of titles to the cash register, I discovered that the owner of the shop, Robert Curley, wrote and published most of the books I was buying through his Atomic Diner imprint. I thoroughly enjoyed my purchases, which included Jennifer Wilde, a supernatural mystery set in Paris in the 1920s and involving the ghost of Oscar Wilde; Rossin Dubh, which is set in the world of Irish theater in the 1890s and involves the return of an ancient demonic force,  Black Scorpion, a superhero saga set during the first world war; and the League of Volunteers, which created a team of superheros to reflect Ireland’s national identity.  The writing is lively, the characters are well developed, the attempts to tap into local history, politics, and mythology are distinctive, and the artwork is compelling.  Check out their website.




Everywhere we looked in Dublin, we saw political posters, speaking to the ongoing debates around the European economic crisis and the austerity moves the government was seeking to impose.   Needless to say, almost every conversation we had in Europe turned sooner or later to the current political moment. The fact that we were traveling to Greece near the end of our tour often raised graveyard humor, speculating about what currency the Greeks would be using by the time we reached there and whether it would still be part of the European Union. It became clear that much of Europe was unified behind at least one core idea – their anger towards German banks and institutions which they saw as seeking to impose their will on the other countries. This image offers a sample of the political signage debating these issues.






And this one reduces the debate to its most basic terms.

Cynthia and I spent many hours wandering around the streets of Dublin, and found ourselves utterly charmed by the city, its architecture, and its local culture.



Along the way, we visited the Trinity College Library to see the Book of Cells, a beautifully illuminated version of the Gospels produced by Celtic monks around 800 A.D., and regarded as one of the real treasures of the country’s cultural heritage.



Coming Soon: Paris!

How Did Howard Rheingold Get So “Net Smart”?: An Interview (Part Three)

You talk in the book about what you call “network knowledge.” Can you define this concept? What kinds of things do you think the ordinary internet user should know about the ways networks work and why?
Networks of the technical and social kind — and especially their combination — have become particularly important today because of our growing reliance on networked devices and online social networks. At the same time, knowledge of how technical and social networks work is emerging from empirical research. Network science is illuminating the way the structure of networks influences what can be done within and with them. Social network analysis — which predates the Internet — shows how people use networks (sparsely knit, loosely bound) as well as communities (densely knit, tightly bound) in their daily lives, offline and online. Research into social capital has revealed the importance of networks of trust in informal collective action. Some of the most important political conflicts over the future of the Internet, such as the net neutrality debate, are tied up with issues about the architecture of the Internet.

Knowing how to cultivate and make use of personal learning networks has become a life skill in school and the workplace. And Manuel Castells has argued, with impressive evidence, that the linkage of global communication networks with human social networks is transforming world civilization into a “network society.” None of this knowledge is particularly complicated, at least at the level of grasping the fundamentals. But the practical lore is embedded in a number of different disciplines that the average web user is unlikely to have studied.

So when I say network knowledge I refer to the knowledge of how a small world network works, the role of trust and reciprocity in social capital, the importance of centrality and structural holes, bridging and bonding capital, the architecture of participation that grows from the Internet’s end-to-end principle, the differences (and advantages and disadvantages) between communities and networks, the importance of portfolios of loose and strong ties. Each of these terms has a technical meaning within network science, sociology, political science, but each also has practical application: If you know how to do it, you can use networks to find people who know what they are talking about  and you can engage those people and learn from them. You and others can get things done together online more effectively.

I’ll just give one example here. Of course I’ve detailed this lore in Net Smart. The architecture of the Internet — the way in which information travels and is controlled — was deliberately designed to be decentralized by the authors of the TCP/IP protocols. Instead of a centralized switchboard like the telephone system, the packets that carry information on the Internet contain their own addressing and other metadata and are cooperatively routed around the Internet in a decentralized manner. The control doesn’t lie in a centralized switchboard, but in the way the packets encapsulate the agreements about how the system works and the cooperation of all the nodes in the system enables information to find its own way around.

One important philosophical foundation of this architecture (and certainly there were many technical reasons behind the design of the protocols) was that the creators of the protocols knew that they could not foresee  how people would use the system and — most importantly — would innovate within the system’s rules — in the future. If control of how information moved around the Internet was centralized, future innovators might be forced to ask permission or argue for a reconfiguration of the control mechanism. If anybody at any node can invent a new way to use the system — a World-Wide Web, for example, based on protocols that conform to TCP/IP and build on it — there is no need to ask for permission or reconfigure the control mechanism.

As we’ve seen, this philosophical basis for a technical architecture led to unprecedented innovation. The freedom to innovate is one of the most important things at stake in the net neutrality debate. Will future innovators, perhaps in their dorm rooms, perhaps barefoot geniuses with smartphones, be able to invent new ways of knowing, new industries, in the future? Or will they have to work for one of the big content or communication companies?

“Architecture of participation” is a term Tim O’Reilly used to describe the way Internet services can be configured so that individual acts of self-interest add up to public goods that are useful to everybody. I love social bookmarking, for example, not just as a personal knowledge management tool, but as a way of both sharing and discovering resources and expertise. When I select a site to bookmark, select a snippet, add tags, I am doing something that I need to do for my own interest. But when Diigo, delicious or the newer curation sites make it possible for me to make my decisions public at no additional financial or time cost to me, then my decisions aggregate with the decisions of others.

Napster’s secret to success was a form of architecture of participation in which people provisioned a resource (music) in the act of consuming it. Set aside for this discussion the ethical and legal issues around stealing music and just look at the architecture. When Napster users downloaded music, it wasn’t from a central server, but from another Napster user online at the same time who had the music the downloader sought. By default, the folder where Napster stored downloaded music on users’ computers was open to other Napster users who were searching for music at the time. Cory Doctorow called this “sheep that shit grass.” The web itself is an architecture of participation. This is a real and not too difficult to understand implication of specific affordances built into online networks.
Many have talked about a pyramid of participation in which many consume information online but few actively produce it. These models are clearly hierarchical with production valued more than consumption. Yet, concepts like curation, which is central to your discussion, or circulation, which will be central to my forthcoming Spreadable Media book, focus on mid-level activities  which are more widespread in our culture and which nevertheless have been central to defining digital culture from the beginnings. You describe tagging as a “fundamental building block” of networked communities.  Can you share more about your understanding of curation as an important form of participation?
I don’t have the figures at my fingertips, but my guess is that there are orders of magnitudes more participators in web culture than there were in print culture, in terms both of raw numbers and as a percentage of the population. There were far more readers than writers when the printing presses was the mode of production and the transport of physical books was the distribution channel.

I think there is an answer to the problem of the rising tide of noise online — spam, porn, misinformation, disinformation — and that lies in enabling people to find the good stuff and to make their choices public in a way that adds up. Certainly that, crudely put, is where Google’s search algorithm came from — when millions of people began putting links on their website, their choices added up to the input for PageRank.

The wisdom of the crowd is not infallible and it’s important to always start there — triangulation by finding three independent sources or looking at the material in question three different ways ought to be applied to collective decisions along with all the other information found online. Crap detection is about the kind of critical thinking and verification tools and techniques that can help people avoid wrong information.

Curation, however, is about the social production of decisions about which information is worth paying attention to. As I detail in Net Smart, we’re seeing the evolution of hybrid social and algorithmic systems for transforming large numbers of individual decisions into valuable metadata. But at the fundamental level, curation depends on individuals making mindful and informed decisions in a publicly detectable way.

Certainly just clicking on a link, “liking” or “plussing” an item online, adding a tag to a photograph is a lightweight element that can be aggregated in valuable ways (ask Facebook). But the kind of curation that is already mining the mountains of Internet ore for useful and trustworthy nuggets of knowledge, and the kind that will come in the future, has a strong literacy element.

Curators don’t just add good-looking resources to lists, or add their vote through a link or like, they summarize and contextualize in their own words, explicitly explain why the resource is worthy of attention, choose relevant excerpts, tag thoughtfully, group resources and clearly describe the grouping criteria. Think of these little information details as the metadata for a collective intelligence.

There’s one formula for collective intelligence: introduce a large number of people making refined decisions to a platform that makes it easy for them to share those decisions, add intrinsic value to the curation platform that serves the curators’ self-interest, mix in  ways for individual curators to group and communicate. If it sounds easy, the hidden difficulty lies in recruiting a sufficiently large population of participants.

I see three linked occurrences that provide some hope for raising the quality of information people are able to access: Curation platform companies such as Diigo, Delicious, Pinterest, Digg,, Pearltrees and many others are engaged in a commercial competition that is driving development of higher quality, easier to use, more rewarding services. More people are using curated resources through social media sharing via Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus .And more and more people are learning to make their curation decisions more effectively. That’s why I interviewed Robert Scoble and Robin Good via video and made the videos available online as well as extracting quotes from my book. I can see curation as the basis of an entire course, and of course it has a long tradition in the information sciences that have evolved from library science.

You enter into the debates around “Playbor.” When and how does the “architecture of participation” become exploitative? How conscious do you think users are about the trade-offs they make in deploying certain commercial sites as tools and resources for participatory culture?

I have learned a great deal from Fred Turner, Trebor Scholz, and Mirko Schaeffer about the way some profit from the actions of many, so I believe an important part of social media literacy, comprising components of crap-detection, participation literacy, and collaborative skills, is the habit of asking oneself who is profiting from one’s actions online — and what they are giving back in return.

I know that when I upload a video to YouTube or a photo to Flickr and take the time to tag them that I am contributing a small amount of monetary value to Google and to Yahoo, which of course adds up to a very large amount of money when that small amount of value is contributed by millions of people.  When I take into account of leasing my own server to share my videos and photographs, the network effects of sharing with YouTube’s or Flickr’s large population, the software I would need and the time it would require to host my own media, then, to me, the value proposition that Google and Yahoo offer is a fair one.

Yes, I also know that tracking cookies and other mechanisms invisible to me are used to compile my use of these services and other online activities into valuable commercial metadata and for more nefarious dataveillance purposes. So, knowing this, are participative resources like YouTube, Flickr and many others an evil plot? You can argue this politically, but again I believe the better answer lies in education: in medicine the legal doctrine of informed consent compels my doctor to explain what might happen to me when I give consent to operate upon me. I’m giving Google and Yahoo my informed consent. But I’m informed.

Shouldn’t everybody be? I certainly don’t argue with and wholeheartedly support efforts to create free, inexpensive, open-source services. And I do think it’s always important to be wary of the actions of monopolies. But mostly, I’m for informing people about possible exploitation of their labor.

I think trade-off is a good way to think about it. So much of the “entertaining ourselves to death” mass media journalism has trained us to see complex issues in starkly simple and manichean terms. Maybe the way Playbor works is that a big capitalist corporation makes profits by providing a service that has to compete with other services seeking to exploit our attention, decisions, and media (again, beware monopolies). And maybe it also provides a platform upon which participatory cultures can be built.

In the business world, some cooperative corporations such as Mondragon in Spain enable the workers to also be shareholders; Mondragon owns banks and other industries. Might some future entrepreneurs create playbor hybrids that are cooperatively owned? Critiques are important and it is especially important now to think critically around our use of media, but in addition to critiques, attempts at better ways of doing things are also important.

One thing I took away from Mirko Schaeffer’s Bastard Culture was his argument that I (and Henry Jenkins) promulgate a “narrative of participation” that promise empowerment to those who learn to participate online, and that this narrative is being manipulated and exploited by corporate culture producers. Well, in the spirit of crap detection, I agree that it’s always good to ask “who profits from this?” and “who is funding this?” I decided to contribute to the profits of book publishers every time I bought a book, and in turn I gained knowledge and entertainment. Of course, book publishers weren’t able to use technology to wring further profits out of observing how I read their books and how I share them.

Again, it comes around to being mindful. I want to be mindful in my agreements to be exploited and I want to be mindful in the way I frame my narrative of participation. Participation is empowering. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s utopian.

James Paul Gee has used the term, “affinity space,” to describe what he sees as highly generative online spaces where learning and knowledge production takes place within groups of people who share common interests. He argues for this term because he feels that many of these spaces do not share the social cohessiveness or emotional connections we might associate with communities. As the person who coined the term “virtual community,” I need to ask you how important is it that online networks have attributes traditionally ascribed to communities in order to function effectively?
Barry Wellman calls this “the community question.” In 1955, George Hillery compiled 94 different definitions of community in sociology papers, and one of the most important roots of contemporary sociology goes back to Tönnies decrying the shift from gemeinschaft to geselschaft, often translated as the shift from community to society that occurred in the 19th century with industrialization, urbanization, the rise of capitalism.

As Wellman notes, there’s a long history of a kind of pastoralist nostalgia: community is seen as something wholesome that people used to have, but which has been eroded, debased, replaced by modernity, mass media, social media. Most definitions include some people who communicate in some way over some period time and have something in common.

Wellman introduced me to finer distinctions. What most people have in mind when they talk about community are people who are geographically linked, densely knit (many or most people in one’s group tend to know one another), and tightly bound (relatively few from outside the boundaries of the group). Networks, however, are not bound by geography (which was true before the Internet — think of diaspora communities of emigrants, or national/global businesses), are sparsely knit (most people don’t know each other — does your teacher know your spouse, your mechanic, your doctor?), and loosely bound (people from different groups/networks are not uncommon).

I also like how Wellman et. al. describe what people get out of communities — information, social capital (favors for and from others), support (emotional, financial), and a sense of belonging. I think it’s fair to say that unless there is some other compelling factor that forces people to provide one or more of these benefits (e.g., your boss says you have to communicate and share information with your colleagues), you are more likely to get them from networks of people who communicate regularly and have come to trust one another to some degree. This kind of trust comes from familiarity, from small exchanges of informational favors, from shared experiences, jokes, the kind of trivial but humanizing knowledge people gain about each other through “small talk.”

From these characteristics, I think community and networks ought to be considered as part of a continuum of social relationships. Some relationships have greater depth, longevity, degree of commitment than others, and so do some networks. A community of practice, for example, might not widely share the kind of trust that would allow you to leave your children with someone for the night, or the kind of trust you’d need to take a long automobile trip with each other. But you might recognize a member of a network as someone who has proved to be helpful to others, who doesn’t act like a jerk, and someone you’ve communicated with about matters of mutual interest — whether it’s technical lore among engineers or various tricks of the trade among online gamers.

A COP can function effectively without a great deal of affective component to communication, but it’s hard to think of a group that calls itself a community in which people don’t exhibit or signal emotion. This loops back to gemeinschaft-gesellschaft. When most people in the world lived in agrarian communities or small villages, then the people you work with, the people who provide professional services, your friends, and your neighbors were largely part of the same group. Now it’s easy to switch from your support group for people caring for aging parents, which is probably pretty community-like, to an online community of practice for educators who use social media, which might be convivial without being familiar. I think the community question is a good way for people to reflect on their relationships and obligations and the media they use to maintain them, but ultimately I also think we have not yet developed a rich enough vocabulary to describe the different varieties of sociality that different media afford — from skyscrapers and elevators to email and multiplayer games.

Humans keep changing the way we communicate — writing, the alphabet, print, telephone, broadcast media. And with new media practices come new social practices or new twists on older social practices. We attach familiar names to the new — horseless carriages and wireless telegraphs came to be known as automobiles and radios, and now we have Internet radio, shortwave radio, FM radio, satellite radio. Affinity spaces and hacker spaces, co-working spaces are emerging in the physical and the online world. So I do agree with Gee that it doesn’t make sense to call every affinity group a community, as well as agreeing with Wellman that people can receive the general benefits most people attribute to communities from online communications.

Howard’s Story:
I fell into the computer realm from the typewriter dimension in 1981, then plugged my computer into my telephone in 1983 and got sucked into the net. In earlier years, my interest in the powers of the human mind led to Higher Creativity (1984), written with Willis Harman, Talking Tech (1982) and The Cognitive Connection (1986) with Howard Levine, Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind: A Book of Memes (1988), Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990), with Stephen LaBerge, and They Have A Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases.(1988).

I ventured further into the territory where minds meet technology through the subject of computers as mind-amplifiers and wrote Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Amplifiers (1984) [New edition from MIT Press, April 2000]. Next, Virtual Reality (1991) chronicled my odyssey in the world of artificial experience, from simulated battlefields in Hawaii to robotics laboratories in Tokyo, garage inventors in Great Britain, and simulation engineers in the south of France.

In 1985, I became involved in the WELL, a “computer conferencing” system. I started writing about life in my virtual community and ended up with a book about the cultural and political implications of a new communications medium, The Virtual Community(1993 [New edition,MIT Press, 2000]). I am credited with inventing the term “virtual community.” I had the privilege of serving as the editor of The Whole Earth review and editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (1994). Here’s my introduction to the Catalog, my riff on Taming Technology and a selection of my own articles and reviews from both publications.In 1994, I was one of the principal architects and the first Executive Editor of HotWired. I quit after launch, because I wanted something more like a jam session than a magazine. In 1996, I founded and, with the help of a crew of 15, launched Electric Minds. Electric Minds was named one of the ten best web sites of 1996 by Time magazineand was acquired by Durand Communications in 1997. Since the late 1990s, I’ve cat-herded a consultancy for virtual community building.

My 2002 book, Smart Mobs, was acclaimed as a prescient forecast of the always-on era. In 2005, I taught a course at Stanford University on A Literacy of Cooperation, part of a long-term investigation of cooperation and collective action that I have undertaken in partnership with the Institute for the Future. The Cooperation Commons is the site of our ongoing investigation of cooperation and collective action. The TED talk I delivered about “Way New Collaboration” has been viewed more than 265,000 times. I have taught Participatory Media/Collective Action at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Digital Journalism at Stanford and continue to teach VirtualCommunity/Social Media at Stanford University, was a visiting Professor at the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. In 2008, I was a winner in MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning competition and used my award to work with a developer to create a free and open source social media classroom. I have aYouTube channel that covers a range of subjects. Most recently, I’ve been concentrating on learning and teaching 21st Century literacies. I’ve blogged about this subject for SFGatehave been interviewed, and have presented talks on the subject. I was invited to deliver the 2012 Regents’ Lecture at University of California, Berkeley. I also teach online courses through Rheingold U.

You can see my painted shoes, if you’d like.

Howard Rheingold /

How Did Howard Rheingold Get So “Net Smart”?: An Interview (Part Two)

There has been a tendency to adopt totalizing views about emerging technologies, so that Twitter either “destroys our attention span” or it “paves the way for revolutions around the world.” Yet, as you note early on, “Twitter is a recent example of a social media which can either be a waste of time or a multiplier of effort for the person who uses it, depending on how knowledgible the person is in the three related literacies of attentional discipline, collaborative know-how and net saavy.” This approach reframes the question away from technological determinism and onto issues of use and knowledge, which reflect an awareness of human agency (both collective and individual) in terms of what we do with media. Why do you think it has been so hard to get to this point, where new media is understood not in utopian or dystopian terms, but in terms of choices we are making about the role these tools play in our lives?

I’m certainly not the first to point out that totalizing belief systems, whether they are religious or political, make it easier emotionally for people to deal with a complex world. Knowing that there are certain answers makes a large part of the world’s population feel right about living in the world. It’s not just easier in some way to believe a radical oversimplification about a new technology, it’s far easier to persuade people to believe things that don’t have much or any evidence.
I think you can tell by this point that I see socio-technological issues as confluences and hybrids of many technical, psychological, social developments. Time and again, the way a new communication technology changes society is influenced by the way people use it, and the circumstances of their use. Chinese and Korean inventors created moveable type before Gutenberg, but there were so many differences in social circumstances. China had greater centralized political power at a time when Europe was divided among dozens of warring states. Elizabeth Eisenstein pointed out how Protestant theology of individual Bible-reading intersected with the technology of the printing press and the emerging entrepreneurial capitalism of the printing trade — all circumstances that were unique to a time and a place and to strong beliefs.
SMS was invented by network engineers and transformed into a global medium by teenage girls who discovered they could communicate without their parents hearing. ARPAnet was for sharing computer resources across distance, but ARPAnet engineers started using it for social communication. Why should the mobile, social Web be any different?
So I argue that human agency is likely to be important in determining the way digital media and networks will end up for historical reasons. However, I also came to see that believing in technology determinism — “Is the Web driving us mad” was a Newsweek cover story in the summer of 2012 — can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a Darwinist, I believe I come from a long line of ancestors who must have thought “there has to be a way out of this apparently possible predicament.” Thinking about solving serious threats to one’s existence or humanity isn’t guaranteed to solve those problems, but thinking the problems are insoluble because they are determined by external forces is almost certainly going to lead to failure and perhaps extinction.
I am not arguing that all the effects of widespread use of social media are salubrious. People will be no less cruel, venal, and ignorant online than they are offline. Screens are definitely attention-magnets and (one of the reasons I wrote Net Smart) it’s easy to fall into click-trance and waste hours online that would have been better spent elsewhere.
The issue is mindfulness, as I see it, and the good news is that a little self-awareness of the way we are deploying our attention via large screens and small is a lot more helpful than no self-awareness. The evidence, as I marshal it in my book, is that paying attention to our attention in light of our intention can change our mental habits. (Note that I’m avoiding the obsolete cliche about “rewiring the brain,” and I’ve called for a moratorium on the phrase “squirts of dopamine” in describing the way social media affects our nervous systems.)
Another reason for the persistent popularity of lurid techno-determinism in the media is that responsibility in a non-determinist world extends to you and me. If we do have the power to influence the way emerging media will reshape our lives, then it’s up to us to do something about it. So simple, black-and-white views of social media are not just emotionally easier to adopt, they don’t require believers to consider their own responsibility in determining the future.
I used Twitter, as you quoted, as a real example of the difference that know-how makes. The most common criticism of Twitter, that it looks like a torrent of trivia and noise, could be applied to the Internet. Knowing how to discover who knows something worth knowing or who communicates in an entertaining way is essential to a Twitter user who wants to devote their attention to something worthwhile. Knowing how to attract the attention of other Twitter users, how connect with Twitter communities, make Twitter lists, makes all the difference between noisy trivia and worthwhile flows of information and entertainment, even channels for sociality. Twitter is a medium in which the users have invented powerful social conventions such as retweets and hashtags. What’s interesting is what people do with that medium, such as cultivating Personal Learning Networks.
Some will be surprised to see you write about “Twitter Literacy” given many perceive Twitter to be a subliterate or semiliterate form of communication. How are you defining this term? Where do our ideas about what constitutes effective or thoughtful use of Twitter come from?
I guess this is where it shows that I am not really a licensed academic, but that rare and odd species, an independent scholar. I really didn’t start out to do it this way. I was a freelance writer and I tried to write accurately and to be careful to source my material and attribute when necessary.
Then some of my freelance writing was taken up by scholars in what has grown into cyberculture studies and I found myself taken to task for utopian enthusiasms, deterministic language, unsupported generalizations. So I learned to think more critically, to examine whether my choice of words robs humans of agency (some things are determined by forces outside individual control and some things are not and we make unconscious decisions about this issue when we attribute determining agency to technology), to recognize unsupported generalizations (and to look for empirical research that could support or change my hypotheses), All of which is to say that I understand that there are schools of literacy studies that define literacy differently.
And I am aware that the word “literate” is most often associated with the ability to read and write. When I talk about social media literacies I mean (to repeat myself) both the skill of encoding and decoding (from reading and writing to capturing, editing, and uploading video) and the social environment in which that skill is embedded, the community of literates, whether they are typing about books in online forums, making videos for each other, collectively growing a conversation thread around a blog post, refactoring wiki pages together. Each skill involves the knowledge of how to use the skill effectively to get things done with others.
So, with literacy out of the way 😉  I can recall what motivated me to write Twitter Literacy. It was one of the elements that led up to writing Net Smart, but in the moment it was written as a blog post, it was one of those “for heavens’ sake, don’t the critics know the first thing about how to use the medium they are criticizing” blog posts that one writes very quickly. I got tired of people saying “I don’t care what celebrities had for lunch and I certainly don’t care about what somebody I never heard of had for lunch.” (I argue elsewhere, in my discussion of social capital in Net Smart, that apparently trivial small talk can lubricate networks of trust among people online, making it more likely that they will cooperate with one another.)
I discovered that if I was selective about who I “followed” on Twitter — who I chose to pay attention to — I could learn things, even have a laugh, occasionally make a new friend. That meant actively examining the people that I do follow and evaluating whether, after attending to them for some time, I still believe they offer knowledge and/or entertainment in return for my attention. I had to try people, then decide to stop following people whose output didn’t pay off for me. I learned to look at who the people I learned to respect were following. I learned to harvest people to follow by examining Twitter lists of knowledgeable people. Then I learned to feed the network of people who follow me by sharing something not entirely trivial that reveals something about who I am and what I do, share links and knowledge I’ve gained that others who share my interests might benefit from, answer questions posed by those I follow and reply to those of my followers who address me.
Again, none of this is rocket science. It’s not difficult to understand, although it does take some discipline and effort. It certainly pays off for me in terms of knowledge capital, social capital, friendship, and fun. I’ve had almost entirely fascinating meals with former strangers in London and Bogota, Amsterdam and Baltimore, who responded to my tweet-up offering.
In Net Smart I deconstruct twitter literacy to show how it employs elements of attention literacy (who to pay attention to), participation literacy (how to reward the attention others pay me), network literacy (how to spread my own words through networks), and crap detection (knowing when not to retweet a rumor about breaking news).  Ideas about effective use of Twitter come from the same place a great deal of lore about how to use new media come from — from the enthusiastic users. Twitter the company did not create retweets or hashtags — those were both invented by early Twitter users, later to be incorporated by Twitter into its platform. Tweetchats and personal learning networks emerged from communities of users.
As I said in the article and the book, Twitter is not a community, but it offers tools with which people can build communities.

The recent report from MacArthur’s Youth and Participatory Politics survey found that 85 percent of young people would welcome more help in learning how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information online. You describe this in terms of “crap detection.” Why has our current educational system done such a bad job in teaching issues of credibility and discrimination in networked environments?

I don’t want to be too cynical about this, but there’s a very fundamental underlying conflict involved in teaching crap detection online, especially in regard to the broader habit of mind in which crap detection is embedded — critical thinking. Teaching your children, students, customers, citizens to think for themselves and to question authority can be a pain in the ass.
It’s not as easy as authoritative answers. But authority, as 500 years of literates knew it in the Gutenberg era, was based on the text. Gatekeepers — degree-granting institutions, editors, fact-checkers, publishers, teachers, librarians were responsible for vetting published material and granting the imprimatur of authority. For better (I think, mostly) and for worse, search engines and the democratization of publishing have rendered that system obsolete.
My daughter and search engines came of age around the same time. She was in middle school, Google had not been invented yet, and she and her classmates were not just using library books to research compositions — they were submitting queries to Altavista and Infoseek. So I sat down with her in front of the computer and explained that unlike a book, which was vetted by the authority-granting system I just described, anything she finds through online search has to be vetted by her. She has to look for an author and search on the author’s name. She has to think like a detective and look for clues of authenticity or bogosity in the text.
Librarians and educators certainly are interested in teaching critical thinking. But not only is it not easy to do, the fear (and sometimes regulatory or statutory limitations on the use) of the Internet in schools prevents educators from using the most essential tool for teaching online information literacies. Having mentioned “information literacy,” I would add that many forward-looking librarians today talk about a suite of literacies that include search and verification, but also include knowing when and how to use information, how to create, publish, network, and use information to solve problems. It can be argued that these have been essential learning skills for a long time, but the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs and the explosive growth of networked information resources have dramatically changed the infosphere from the 500 years when printed information was more controllable and reliable.
I went to Reed, where the liberal arts tradition of learning how to think for yourself and how to access the millennia-long discourses of other thinkers, how to learn and how to learn how to learn new things, were central values. And I spent four years as editor of Whole Earth Review and the last editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, enterprises based on the old American values (Emerson! Self-Reliance) of individual responsibility and freedom of thought and action. Don’t wait for some distant institution to do it. Learn how to do it yourself, and learn the tools you need to do what you want to do (“Access to tools” was the subtitle of the Whole Earth Catalogs).
So I regard critical thinking and self-reliance as healthy values as well as important life tools. However, I have to recognize that many people still believe that obedience to authority is paramount. As I said, I think this conflict is a fundamental one — like the question of whether people are essentially sinful and need to restrained from exercising their baser instincts, or whether people are essentially good and need to be educated in positive values.
There has been, as you note, ongoing controversy over the issue of multitasking. What did your review of the neuroscience literature teach you about this debate? You end up suggesting that the key is learning to manage our attention. What specific steps do you recommend to help people deal with issues of attention control more effectively?
Cliff Nass, whose work is most often cited as proof that “multi-tasking doesn’t work,” has an office down the hall from my own, and I discussed the issue with him and his co-author when their study first came out. First, within the limits of their methodology, Nass and Ophir found that when people attend to multiple media their performance on the cognitive tasks associated with each media channel degrades rather than improves. This is true for a large percentage of subjects.
First I think it’s important to understand the methodology. The kind of research that Nass and Ophir necessarily have to do is a simplification of the way people attend to media. In a laboratory, it’s about remembering strings of letters backwards or recognizing the color of a numeral flashed on a screen. What we don’t know a great deal about is what happens when all those streams of media are coordinated and focused on a single subject. When I’m working on a book, I have my database of research up on one screen, the text in front of me, a Twitter conversation about the subject of my writing going on in another window. I might take a few minutes to watch a video from the research database. Can people learn to multitask effectively if all the tasks are centered on the same inquiry?
There is not yet a lot of evidence about what the small percentage of successful media multitaskers are able to do — is it innate or learned?
But most importantly, I think it’s necessary to see focused attention, diffuse, scanning attention, multitasking, distraction as elements of a toolbox of attentional tools that we mostly don’t know how to use all that well online. I know that in my own work, losing efficiency in my overall production is sometimes offset by orders of magnitude by the collective intelligence effects of attending to a network while I’m writing. And sometimes it isn’t about productivity at all — it’s about seeing connections, systems, big pictures.
The key is what (I’ve learned) is called “metacognition.” Wikipedia has a pretty good page about it. Metacognition is not only about being aware to some degree of where you are directing your attention and why; it’s also about knowing when you need to screen out distractions and focus your attention narrowly and when you are better off diffusing your attention or switching between a small set of tasks — it’s about knowing what circumstances call for each mind-tool and how to best apply the mind-tool in those circumstances. It’s more complicated to explain than to do.
In trying to find ways to contextualize my own metacognition — to give me a reason for choosing one form of attention over another on a day to day, hour to hour basis — I started writing down two or three objectives for my day’s work in a very few words and large letters on an index card, which I replace daily at the periphery of my vision, right under my main computer display screen. Every once in a while, my gaze falls upon the paper and I have the opportunity to ask myself whether what I am doing online right now is in line with what I set out to do today — and whether that matters, and why.
At first, thinking about where and why my attention is directed was cumbersome, but it swiftly became semi-automatic. I won’t trot out the neuroscience — there are plenty of references in my book — but there’s little controversy over the contention that people can train and retrain their brains through directed attentional practice. As Maryann Wolf so eloquently explained in Proust and the Squid, brain retraining through directed attentional practice is what we do when we learn to read.
Howard’s Story

I fell into the computer realm from the typewriter dimension in 1981, then plugged my computer into my telephone in 1983 and got sucked into the net. In earlier years, my interest in the powers of the human mind led to Higher Creativity (1984), written with Willis Harman, Talking Tech (1982) and The Cognitive Connection (1986) with Howard Levine, Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind: A Book of Memes (1988), Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990), with Stephen LaBerge, and They Have A Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases.(1988).

I ventured further into the territory where minds meet technology through the subject of computers as mind-amplifiers and wrote Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Amplifiers (1984) [New edition from MIT Press, April 2000]. Next, Virtual Reality (1991) chronicled my odyssey in the world of artificial experience, from simulated battlefields in Hawaii to robotics laboratories in Tokyo, garage inventors in Great Britain, and simulation engineers in the south of France.

In 1985, I became involved in the WELL, a “computer conferencing” system. I started writing about life in my virtual community and ended up with a book about the cultural and political implications of a new communications medium, The Virtual Community(1993 [New edition,MIT Press, 2000]). I am credited with inventing the term “virtual community.” I had the privilege of serving as the editor of The Whole Earth review and editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (1994). Here’s my introduction to the Catalog, my riff on Taming Technology and a selection of my own articles and reviews from both publications.In 1994, I was one of the principal architects and the first Executive Editor of HotWired. I quit after launch, because I wanted something more like a jam session than a magazine. In 1996, I founded and, with the help of a crew of 15, launched Electric Minds. Electric Minds was named one of the ten best web sites of 1996 by Time magazineand was acquired by Durand Communications in 1997. Since the late 1990s, I’ve cat-herded a consultancy for virtual community building.

My 2002 book, Smart Mobs, was acclaimed as a prescient forecast of the always-on era. In 2005, I taught a course at Stanford University on A Literacy of Cooperation, part of a long-term investigation of cooperation and collective action that I have undertaken in partnership with the Institute for the Future. The Cooperation Commons is the site of our ongoing investigation of cooperation and collective action. The TED talk I delivered about “Way New Collaboration” has been viewed more than 265,000 times. I have taught Participatory Media/Collective Action at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Digital Journalism at Stanford and continue to teachVirtualCommunity/Social Media at Stanford University, was a visiting Professor at the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. In 2008, I was a winner in MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning competition and used my award to work with a developer to create a free and open source social media classroom. I have aYouTube channel that covers a range of subjects. Most recently, I’ve been concentrating on learning and teaching 21st Century literacies. I’ve blogged about this subject for SFGatehave been interviewed, and have presented talks on the subject. I was invited to deliver the 2012 Regents’ Lecture at University of California, Berkeley. I also teach online courses through Rheingold U.

You can see my painted shoes, if you’d like.


Howard Rheingold /

How Did Howard Rheingold Get So “Net Smart”: An Interview (Part One)

Howard Rheingold has been one of the smartest, most forward thinking, most provocative writers about digital culture for the past several decades. He’s someone who always makes me think. Even a short hall way chat with Howard at a conference can lead to transformative insights about how we live within a networked culture. I have been lucky to know him for more than two decades now, and I treasure every interaction I’ve ever had with the guy.

Howard embodies the transition which Fred Turner has documented between the counterculture of the 1960s and the cyberculture of today: he has a quirky personality which reminds me of Frank Zappa or Leon Redbone, and, as this interview suggests, he still carries with him some of the core values he first articulated working for the Whole Earth Catalog. So, it would be easy to see him as a voice from the past, but that would be a serious mistake, since he is still totally on top of the most recent developments in the field.


His most recent book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, is a major contribution to the growing body of literature around New Media Literacies. If you have not bought a copy yet, go online now and buy one. If you have not read your copy yet, stop right now and read it. Don’t worry, this blog interview will still be here when you get back.

Net Smart makes a strong case for what Rheingold sees as a set of core skills and competencies which we all need to acquire if we are going to make effective use of the communities and resources we encounter in our everyday lives online. He has talked to the experts, reviewed the literature, and thought through the implications of each skill, and he lays them out with his usual clarity and directness. Some in the past have accused Howard (not to mention myself) of being an uncritical utopianist. Here, you get a stronger sense of where the dust has settled for him as we have now lived for an extended period in relation to online platforms and practices. He certainly recognizes the risks and failures associated with the Web 2.0 era, but he also refuses to let them get in the way of what he sees as the more productive and meaningful ways of engaging with digital culture. He is a firm believer in the critical literacy skill he calls “crap detection.” Howard doesn’t take crap from anyone and he doesn’t serve up very much, if any, in this book.

I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Howard for the book, so I asked him if he would return the favor and share some of his thoughts with my readers.  Howard threw himself into this task with what he might call “mindfulness,” digging deep in response to every question, drawing insights not only from the current book but across a life time of thinking about virtual communities, augmented intelligence, and network culture.


Your progression from work on virtual communities to smart mobs to digital literacies says something about the evolution of digital culture over the past few decades. What has led you right now to focus so much on giving everyday people the skills they need to more meaningfully participate in the new media landscape?

I’m going to give a longer answer, so I’ll summarize the conclusion at the beginning: What people know about how to use media matters. The underlying technologies are important because of the way they amplify human cognitive and social capabilities, so know-how becomes crucial when a new tool like writing or the printing press or the internet enables people to think and communicate in new ways. The hyper-evolution of digital media over the past half century first depended on hardware, then software, then network infrastructure, then web services, and now the driving force shifts to the part of the system in people’s heads and between people. The digital divide now has to include the divide between those who know how to get and to verify information they need just in time and just in place, those who can cultivate and call on social networks, those who can persuade or educate from those who do not know how to apply the power a networked PC or smartphone makes available. The knowledge is not secret, but it hasn’t really been compiled and distributed. That’s why I wrote the book.
As you note, I’ve been writing about technologies and media that amplify human thought and communication for a long time. My first article on virtual communities was published in 1987. And my Reed undergraduate thesis in 1968 was about the intersection of electronic tools and human consciousness. So I’ve been thinking about the broader issues about human-technology interaction for most of my life. In terms of online social media, I was an enthusiastic participant since the BBS days of the early 1980s. Then I started writing about where online communication media came from and where it might be going.
When I published Tools for Thought in 1985, looking at the future of personal computing and human cognition, I was confronted by the questions “Is this new medium healthy or harmful? Is having a personal computer going to make people more or less humane? Are the digital tools that were emerging at the time any good for us as individuals, for our relationships, for our societies, for literate civilization?” These questions came from critics and academics, and it was one that I had been asking myself for some time.
The same questions came up with The Virtual Community in 1993 and Smart Mobs in 2002. I asked myself “what is the most possible outcome, positive or negative, of introducing networked personal computers to millions of people?” In pursuit of that question, I started looking into ways computer-mediated communication by entire populations might affect democracy. That inquiry led me to the literature about the history of the public sphere — that’s how I learn, mostly, by stumbling across things, then inquiring about them.
The health of the public sphere seemed to me in 1992 to represent the most important potential issue that could be raised by the widespread use of digital media. To oversimplify, I understood the public sphere to be a way of saying that democracy and governance of the people, by the people, and for the people is not just about voting for leaders. Unless enough people are literate enough — and free enough to express themselves — to understand and debate the issues that affect them, they aren’t going to be able to govern themselves. Informed discourse requires informed people, and that requires both educated citizens and a free flow of information.  In The Virtual Community I emphasized the quote by James Madison that is carved into marble at the Library of Congress: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
In Smart Mobs I was forced to learn a little about sociology to try to make sense of the ways large groups of people were beginning to behave collectively, now that billions of people have the web in their pockets. And in my research for these books, I grew fascinated with the archaeology of literacy –Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work on the impact of the printing press in Europe, the drama of Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s worldwide investigation of clay artifacts that led to her definitive history of the origin of writing, Marshall McLuhan’s insistence that printing presses change the way people see and deal with the world.
Working backward from McLuhan to Innis, Ong, and McLuhan’s colleague Robert K. Logan, I began seeing the broad picture of how new cultural mind tools enabled and initiated changes in the thinking of individuals and the functioning of societies. Working forward from the 1960s visions of JCR Licklider and Douglas Engelbart, it seemed to me that “augmenting human intellect,” as Engelbart framed it, was a historic repurposing of devices originally designed for ballistics calculations. Engelbart was well aware of the role of human learning and literacies in the future system he proposed, which he described as comprising “humans, using language, artifacts, methodology, and training.”
So now we have more than two billion people with Internet access, more than five billion mobile telephones. The mind-amplifying devices that Engelbart envisioned are in people’s pockets. The networks that link people and devices are global and heading toward ubiquitous. What does that mean? We’ve seen serious critics like Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr eloquently illuminating the darker sides and hidden costs of our fascination with social media. And we’ve seen an enormous amount of moral panic, based on very little or no empirical basis, about fears that using the web is making individuals and cultures shallow.
The answer to any question is available anywhere within a second or too — but it’s up to the inquirer to evaluate the validity of the answer. Virtual communities, smart mobs, collective intelligence, social production, enable millions of people to do things together in the physical world that they were never before able to do. Tech-savvy teenagers invent billion dollar industries and new ways of seeking information and socializing. Others organize revolutions. Know-how is at the core of all these new phenomena, whether they are used for good or ill. So digital literacies of attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network smarts constitute a critical uncertainty. The answer to “is this stuff any good for us” is, I strongly believe: “It depends on what people know, and how many of them know it.” Just as the decades after Gutenberg’s invention saw the expansion of the literate population from thousands to millions, we’re seeing the diffusion of new literacies that are already changing the world more profoundly than print did in its first decades. 

When I use the term literacy, I mean both the learnable skill of coding and decoding in a new medium, but the social aspect as well — the interaction with the community of literates. Digital literacies are networked. In that regard, I see these skills as pointing inward to the individual and outward to the society. The individual who masters these skills will have a greater chance of personal, professional, political, social success. And the more individuals who master these skills, the more useful and trustworthy the digital commons becomes. Your work on participatory culture was particularly important to my thinking in this regard — it only makes sense that the person who thinks of herself as a creator of digital culture, even in a small way like tagging or commenting, has a stronger sense of agency as a citizen,  and a person who thinks of himself only as a consumer of culture created by others lacks some of that sense of agency.
What relationship exists between this book and the emerging field of digital media and learning?
In regard to how Net Smart relates to digital media and learning, I want to start by emphasizing the distinctions between learning digital literacies and using digital media in teaching and learning and between the novelty of social media versus the kinds of pedagogy it enables. 

First, digital literacies. I had to oversimplify to get it all in the book, but there are important digital literacies that I didn’t include, such as webmaking and coding. In order to spread around the lore I assembled in Net Smart, I’ve made available to anyone who wants to use it my syllabus based on the book, including many additional web-based resources. I don’t think educational institutions are moving anywhere near as fast as technology. And the moral panics have instilled fear of using the internet in schools. How many K-12 students learn how to search and evaluate information found online? I’d love to see it happen, see more teachers like the ones I interview for dmlcentral, so I’m not dismissing the uptake of digital literacies into the traditional curriculum. I do see the dissemination of this knowledge happening more rapidly online.

I do teach the literacies in Net Smart to the students in my virtual community/social media class at Stanford, but it’s in the context of a broader inquiry. The literacies are necessary to ask the larger questions about community, collective action, identity, the public sphere, etc. Students are introduced to forums as group voice, blogs as (networked) individual voice, mindmaps as lateral and visual thinking, social bookmarking as collective intelligence, wikis as collaborative platforms. Then they need to use their skills in these media to propose, organize, document, and present collaborative projects in groups of four. In the process, we consciously and deliberately approached our subject matter as a learning community in which classroom discussions expand online, students blog reflectively about what their learning shows them about the media they use, student co-teaching teams take turns co-teaching a classroom session with the professor.
The underlying methodology (Engelbart!) is enabled by the technology, but the methodology is what is important — giving students a means to continue discursive inquiry beyond the classroom, to tap into worldwide networks of knowledge and expertise, to talk among themselves instead of speaking when called upon by the professor. Making it easier for students to learn together and to take advantage of the infosphere beyond their classroom and their library is what makes for a pedagogy of co-learning. Much of what I do and what Cathy Davidson does in pursuit of co-learner can and should be done with index cards, whiteboards, and colored sticky notes. 

I’m also excited by what Mimi Ito calls “connected learning.” I was enthusiastic about  kind of online socializing that I came across that excited me in the 1980s because it was fun. For me, connected learning meant asking big questions about what this kind of fun meant, conversing about those questions with others online and face to face, and pursuing the literature that led me to the sociology of Marc Smith and Barry Wellman, the anthropology of Mimi Ito, the media theory of Henry Jenkins and Robert K. Logan. My enthusiasm plus my networks plus scholarly inquiry connected for me when I wrote Net Smart.
Putting into practice the knowledge I try to convey in Net Smart will make it easier for people to become involved in co-learning online. Pursuing the idea of co-learning far enough brought me to consider putting all the responsibility and power in the hands of the learner. Motivated co-learners in communities of gamers or fan communities teach each other sophisticated material all the time. What does a group of people need to know in order to use online media to co-learn about a particular topic? How would we find and qualify resources? Would we organize them as a syllabus or as a hackerspace? What learning activities, forms of assessment, synchronous and asynchronous media should they use? To that end, I organized the Peeragogy Project, a network of volunteers who are assembling a handbook for co-learners.

Howard’s Story:

I fell into the computer realm from the typewriter dimension in 1981, then plugged my computer into my telephone in 1983 and got sucked into the net. In earlier years, my interest in the powers of the human mind led to Higher Creativity (1984), written with Willis Harman, Talking Tech (1982) and The Cognitive Connection (1986) with Howard Levine, Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind: A Book of Memes (1988), Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990), with Stephen LaBerge, and They Have A Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases.(1988).

I ventured further into the territory where minds meet technology through the subject of computers as mind-amplifiers and wrote Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Amplifiers (1984) [New edition from MIT Press, April 2000]. Next, Virtual Reality (1991) chronicled my odyssey in the world of artificial experience, from simulated battlefields in Hawaii to robotics laboratories in Tokyo, garage inventors in Great Britain, and simulation engineers in the south of France.

In 1985, I became involved in the WELL, a “computer conferencing” system. I started writing about life in my virtual community and ended up with a book about the cultural and political implications of a new communications medium, The Virtual Community(1993 [New edition,MIT Press, 2000]). I am credited with inventing the term “virtual community.” I had the privilege of serving as the editor of The Whole Earth review and editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (1994). Here’s my introduction to the Catalog, my riff on Taming Technology and a selection of my own articles and reviews from both publications.In 1994, I was one of the principal architects and the first Executive Editor of HotWired. I quit after launch, because I wanted something more like a jam session than a magazine. In 1996, I founded and, with the help of a crew of 15, launched Electric Minds. Electric Minds was named one of the ten best web sites of 1996 by Time magazineand was acquired by Durand Communications in 1997. Since the late 1990s, I’ve cat-herded a consultancy for virtual community building.

My 2002 book, Smart Mobs, was acclaimed as a prescient forecast of the always-on era. In 2005, I taught a course at Stanford University on A Literacy of Cooperation, part of a long-term investigation of cooperation and collective action that I have undertaken in partnership with the Institute for the Future. The Cooperation Commons is the site of our ongoing investigation of cooperation and collective action. The TED talk I delivered about “Way New Collaboration” has been viewed more than 265,000 times. I have taught Participatory Media/Collective Action at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Digital Journalism at Stanford and continue to teachVirtualCommunity/Social Media at Stanford University, was a visiting Professor at the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. In 2008, I was a winner in MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning competition and used my award to work with a developer to create a free and open source social media classroom. I have aYouTube channel that covers a range of subjects. Most recently, I’ve been concentrating on learning and teaching 21st Century literacies. I’ve blogged about this subject for SFGatehave been interviewed, and have presented talks on the subject. I was invited to deliver the 2012 Regents’ Lecture at University of California, Berkeley. I also teach online courses through Rheingold U.

You can see my painted shoes, if you’d like.


Howard Rheingold /

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (Part Two): Portugal

This is the second in a series of digital “scrapbooks” through which I capture and share my impressions of my extensive lecture tour across Europe. Last time, I dealt with Germany. Today, Portugal.

Of all of the stops of my tour, Portugal was perhaps the biggest surprise. Given how little the average American (myself among them) knows about Portugal, it could not help but be a surprise.  I had not expected to be so taken with the culture, the people, and the beauty of Lisbon and its surrounding area. Going into this leg of the trip, I could have told you four basic things about Portugal:

The first would have been what I had learned about Lisbon in the opening narration from Casablanca, which has long been a film favorite.

The movie’s plot centers around the struggle to access papers which would allow refuges from Nazi Germany and Vichy France to get entry into Portugal. So, while the film is set in Morocco, it spends a surprising amount of time telling us about what Lisbon means in the context of the Second World War. When I learned I would be speaking in Lisbon, I had an impulse to see if I could retrace the character’s route, and thus dip far enough south to visit Casablanca, but when I spent some time looking at my time table and the basic geography, this did not look like a good idea.  I had to tell my wife that we would always have Paris, but we would not yet have Casablanca.

The second thing I knew about Portugal I learned in my high school history classes — the role this country had played during the age of discovery as one of the key powers which have opened up the world to European exploration and trade. Specifically, I had been a big fan of Henry the Navigator, the Prince of Portugal most associated with this period of exploration and colonization, largely because of the name association, but also because I liked the cultural myth of the king who was also a geek.

We were able to visit a monument in Lisbon to Henry and the age of exploration. Trust me, when cities start erecting monuments to Henrys, they get my attention. But this was a particularly stunning piece of sculpture — which manages to evoke the plow of a ship pointing out towards the “new world” and at the same time, personify the rugged seamen who went on those first voyages. On the trip, though, I learned from a book called The First Frontier that Basque fishermen had been traveling to the coasts of Canada and the United States for centuries before their government officially “discovered” this part of the world, which complicates this story considerably. What I also learned was the huge impact that this period had on the architectural style of the city — where the local architecture incorporated iconography associated with ships (such as ropes) into their design

Or, natural images (both animals and plants associated with the New World.) Cynthia captured this architectural detail of a frog from one of their cathedrals

This image resonated with us because Cynthia had spent a lot of time at a park a few blocks from our hotel which had a pond which was overflowing with frogs. This is one of many great bits of nature photography she brought back from the trip.

We also got a sense of Portugal as a once powerful empire through our visit to a museum which housed the gilded carriages which had been used by the Royal family through the centuries.

If I had dug deeper into my historical memory, I might have recalled that this region’s culture was also very strongly influenced by its history of interactions with the Moors, with the result that there is a strong Islamic flavor to much of the local architecture, especially in the use of brightly colored tiles with strong geometric patterns, such as the ones you see in this photograph.

The third thing I could have told you was that Portugal was closely associated with Brazil, sharing a common language with its former colony in South America. Almost every person in Lisbon I asked suggested that these links were more historical than contemporary, but my own observations suggested otherwise. A high percentage of the tourists I met in Lisbon came from Brazil. The grocery store I visited had a whole section devoted to Foods from Brazil. This would not be true of American grocery stores, for example, but then, we would almost be unlikely to have sections devoted to salted fish and meat, or for that matter, smoked pork products. We saw multiple posters for concerts of Brazilian music. And one of the first stops on our guided tour of the city was a monument to the first person to fly solo from Lisbon to Brazil. So, my sense was that there remain very strong cultural links between the two countries, even if these links were not always conscious or acknowledged.

Fourth, as a fan of world music, I knew about Fado. which historians believe emerged in Lisbon in the early 19th century. Wikipedia provides this useful definition:

In popular belief, fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a characteristic sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia (loosely captured by the word “saudade”, or longing). However, although the origins are difficult to trace, today fado is by many regarded as a simply a form of song which can be about anything, but must follow a certain structure. The music is usually linked to the Portuguese word saudade which symbolizes the feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent life lasting damage).

You can get a sense of what Fado sounds like (and almost as importantly, looks like) from these two clips which I found on Youtube.

As the clips suggest, the style of music is associated with certain gestures and postures, with a style of performance, with a structure of feeling (suadade), with a set of traditional themes (including, once again, the sea) and with a specific set of musical structures, all of which are distinct to this region. As the clips may also illustrate, each of these is heavily gendered so there are very different modes for men and women in performing these songs. Cynthia and I were lucky enough to have been taken to Clube De Fado, one of the nightclubs in Lisbon which, as the name suggests, is strongly associated with Fado. We were able to see for ourselves the intensity of this musical tradition and the command it still exerts on the heart and soul of the city.

As much as I enjoyed the music and the company on this particular evening, I also will savor for a long time to come the food, which was one of the best meals I had on my entire trip. I ordered something which roughly translates “the treasures of the Black Pork.” This was my introduction to the pleasures of eating Pork-based products in Europe. I was nervous from the name that the “treasures” might be various entrails, which might not match my Americanized aesthetic. In fact, they were simply really savory cuts of fried pork. Consistently in Europe, we were struck by how meat-centric the cuisines were and especially how much more central pork, particularly  hams of many varieties, are to their everyday diets. This image which Cynthia captured at a street fair shows the pride they take in their meats.

For dessert, I had, for the first but scarcely the only time on the trip, the pasteis de nata, small custard pies, which quickly became a personal favorite, and which I sampled at several different bakeries as we were walking around Lisbon.


One day, as we were wandering through the Center City of Lisbon, we stumbled onto a street festival which was clearly celebrating the diverse folk traditions of various regions around the country. As a result, we encountered one visually striking set of folk costume after another. Here are just a few examples.




I wish I could place more cultural context around these costumes (and the dances or public performances associated with them), since they really captured my imagination, but we were not working with a guide at that point and any explanation provided would have come in a language I do not understand. If there’s any reader out there who can provide us with a fuller explanation, I would really appreciate you sharing it with me and my readers.

Another highlight of our time in Portugal was a day trip we took to Sintra, located in the mountains outside Lisbon. Apart from the natural beauties of this region, it represented such a striking playground of the imagination.


For example, we visited the Palacio da Pena, built for Portugal’s royal family in the 19th century with an eclectic mix of styles, including Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic, Neo-Renaissance, and the key word in each case is Neo. The architects took what they found most exotic and eye-catching from a range of styles to construct a castle that might otherwise have existed only in our feverish imaginations. Everything is brightly colored, epic in proportion, and full of fantastical details, which left one feeling like you were visiting Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars or some equally fanciful location from the space opera of your choice.

By contrast, we also visited the nearby the Quinta da Regaleria, a gothic mansion created for Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro (1848-1920) in conjunction with the talent of the scenographer-architect Luigi Manini (1848-1936). Monteiro was among other things rumored to be an alchemist and a Freemason. There is a haunting, morbid atmosphere about the place, which reminds me very much of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland or the setting of one of the great Roger Corman films with Vincent Price.

Some of the floors were designed to produce vertigo. The library, for example, was lined with mirrors on the floor, so it looked like it was floating in space and as there were book shelves running below as well as above. As someone who suffers from mild forms of fear of heights, I actually found myself panicking when I had to walk across the floor. But, there’s also something playful about the ways the house uses pseudo-Medieval elements throughout, such as the stone boar and other wild game hanging on the wall in this shot.


All told, the place is consistently unsettling and “spooky, complete with garden mazes and underground grottos — what’s not to love!

Of course, so far, I’ve made it sound as if Lisbon was all sight-seeing. I gave three talks in Lisbon. First, I did a presentation on Spreadable Media as one of the two keynotes (along with Andras Balint Kovacs from Budapest) at the conference of the Associacao Investigadores Da Imagen em Movimento (The Association for Investigators of the Moving Image), which is the key professional organization for film and media scholars in Portugal. The day before, my host, Tiago Baptiste, a film historian and archivist who has done work on silent and early sound films in Portugal, took us to see the Cinemateca Portuguesa, the national film archive, which is housed in a beautiful old mansion, and which currently had a great display of the origins of home movie projectors.

The event was being held the same day as filmmakers and stars were marching in protest in Lisbon over the ways that state support for the national cinema was being gutted as part of the austerity moves Portugal was being forced to make in response to the European economic crisis. While my talk ended with some hope for the ways that crowd-funding and surfing models were offering new resources for independent media makers to work outside traditional gatekeepers, I was forced to acknowledge that the filmmakers most at risk today may be those who had thrived under the state-funding models which produced films as national prestige projects for exhibition in international film festivals. Such films are perhaps too idiosyncratic in their vision to be adequately previewed on Kickstarter or to have the solid base of fan support that has surrounded projects like The Cosmonaut or Iron Skies. As we argue in the book, these crowd funding models do hold open opportunities for producers who have courted solid and committed followers — not simply fans but also racial, ethnic, or sexual minorities or political movements who have reason to want to see certain kinds of films made which are unlikely to emerge from the Hollywood system. However, they may not support the most personalized forms of expression that drove the various New Wave film movements around the world in the 1960s.


Following the talk, I had a lively interview with an independent filmmaker, Edgar Pera, who sought my comments about the similarities and differences between cinephilia and fandom for his latest production. As you can see from this trailer for The Baron, his films draw strong inspiration from horror films and other B-movies, and so we had a very enjoyable conversation about monster movies fans


My second talk in Lisbon, dealing with the Harry Potter Alliance as a model for fan activism (and based on my essay in Transformative Works and Cultures), was presented to faculty and students at t ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute. My host, Gustavo Cardoso, is a sometimes collaborator with my USC colleague Manuel Castells.  As Cardoso was walking us across the campus, we heard cries of surprise and someone raced up to me, urgently asking if I was, indeed, Henry Jenkins. It turned out that this was Kris Hammer, a reader of this blog currently studying in Estonia, who was visiting the campus for totally unrelated reasons. He was surprised to discover that I was about to deliver a lecture. He tagged along with us and engaged actively in the question and answer period.

My third talk was a half day “master class” on news and politics in the digital age, supported by the U.S. Embassy, and given to Cenjor, a school which trains future journalists. I was able to share with the group some of the research being done by Civic Paths and the Youth and Participatory Politics Network, not to mention the thinking which is shaping the Journalism program at USC’s Annenberg School. The reporters jumped into the talk quickly and basically, drained me dry, sucking up any insights I could give them about the interplay between professional and citizen journalists, new business models for the future of news, digital and news literacy, and the ways that Spreadable Media might speak to how news circulates through the culture. Something of the tone of these exchanges is captured in this short news report produced by some of the school’s students around my visit.


Meanwhile back at the ranch: My son sent us frame grabs from this Carl Jr’s commercial which was then playing in the Los Angeles market. The commercial features Spider-Man interacting with people waiting outside the Orphan Theater (which is across the street from where I live) before swinging past the Eastern Columbia (which is my building.) So, after years of fantasizing that he really was my “friendly neighborhood Spider-man,” the guy drops by my street, no doubt looking to hook up for some late night adventure, and I am half way across the world! Life is not fair! So, Spidey, if you are reading this, please drop back by the Eastern building. I’d really love to hang out with you.


Of course, it makes total sense that this version of Spider-Man would have a thing for Downtown Los Angeles, since the new film was directed by Mark Webb, who directed (100)Days of Summer, a film which captures the culture of Downtown Los Angeles about as well as anything I’ve seen.

Coming Soon: My adventures in England and Ireland.