Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part One)

Profile: William Uricchio of MIT’s Open Documentary Lab from Submarine Channel on Vimeo.

For the better part of a decade, William Uricchio and I worked side by side, partners in crime, as we forged the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. I came to lean heavily on his diplomatic skills, his zen-like temperament, and especially his broad range of knowledge and interests, as between us, we touched every student who came through that masters program. The expansive intellectual rationale of our approach to Comparative Media Studies was as much his as it was mine, especially as he made the case for why we should understand contemporary developments in relation to their historical antecedents and as he made the argument for bringing more transnational perspectives to bear on the processes of media change.

I returned to Cambridge during my academic leave this fall, after being away for most of the past seven years, and it was a chance for me to develop a stronger sense of what the program has become, how it operates today.  What I found was a program that was thriving — fantastic students doing ground-breaking work, a expanding and strong intellectual community, a solid focus on social justice and media change, and a real commitment to research that is going to have impact beyond the academy. Amongst many new research initiatives, there has been the emergence of the Open-Documentary Lab, a vibrant community that has drawn together researchers and documentary producers from around the Boston area who want to explore the future of nonfiction media-making. And the Lab has begun to attract active interest from around the world from people at places like the Canadian Film Board or the BBC who share their interest in understanding how documentary is being reinvented in the context of today’s participatory culture and transmedia production.

Here’s how the lab describes itself on its home page:

“Drawing on MIT’s legacy of media innovation and its deep commitment to open and accessible information, the MIT Open Documentary Lab brings storytellers, technologists, and scholars together to explore new documentary forms with a particular focus on collaborative, interactive, and immersive storytelling. The Lab understands documentary as a project rather than as a genre bound to a particular medium: documentary offers ways of exploring, representing, and critically engaging the world. It explores the potentials of emerging technologies and techniques to enhance the documentary project by including new voices, telling new stories and reaching new publics. A center for documentary research, the Lab offers courses, workshops, a fellows program, public lectures, and conferences; it incubates experimental projects; and it develops tools, resources, reports, and critical discourse. These activities, and the partnerships with artists, journalists, technologists, and media makers that they have enabled, aim to push documentary’s boundaries and deepen the impact and reach of innovative reality-based storytelling. In the spirit of MIT’s open courseware and open source software movements, the Open Documentary Lab is inclusive, collaborative and committed to sharing knowledge, networks, and tools. ‘Open’ in its understanding of documentary’s forms and potentials, the Lab is catalyst, partner and guide to the future of reality-based storytelling.”

This fall, the Lab released an important white paper, “Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism” that MIT’s Open Documentary Lab prepared with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Under the supervision of the lab’s Principal investigator, William Uricchio, the team developing this report included Sarah Wolozin, who directs the Open Doc Lab, and Lily Bui, Sean Flynn and Deniz Tortum, who are CMS grad students.

The report is rich in front-line perspectives, describing the behind-the-scenes debates that took place around the production of some of today’s most significant examples of immersive journalism and interactive documentary, and sharing some core insights about best practices for doing such work. The report is visionary in its scope yet it is also deeply grounded in the perspective of documentary producers and journalists, who live in the imperfect and transitional state of the here and now. I believe this report is going to open up some important conversations amongst many people who both fear and embrace the changes that are impacting the closely related worlds of news and documentary. I am therefore happy to have a chance to showcase this significant undertaking here, especially insofar as it has given me yet another chance to interact with my longtime friend and colleague, William Uricchio. What emerged through this interview is something really special to me as William thoughtfully and thoroughly responded to my probing questions, and certainly gives as well as he got throughout this exchange. I am bringing this interview to you in four installments across the next two weeks.

Most recent accounts of the state of journalism in the digital age have emphasized the bad news — describing all of the risks and challenges — but your report also describes some of the new opportunities and the ways that newspapers and other legacy media organizations are restructuring themselves to take advantage of the changing media environment. So, what do you see as some of the opportunities for new kinds of news and documentary production emerging at the present moment?

Yes, lots of doom and gloom out there! It helps to take a more analytical approach to the problems facing quality journalism and that has indeed resulted in finding a number of opportunities that can be of tangible use to legacy organizations at a moment of change.

I’d like to begin by invoking what’s always struck me as one of James Carey’s great insights into how we think about communication. Carey notes that we too often focus only on the transmission of information – and by we, I include academics as well as journalists. And with this narrow focus, we often neglect communication’s ritual dimension. Carey’s notion of ritual entails much more than the habit of reading a newspaper with breakfast or closing-out the evening news broadcast with tomorrow’s weather (yes, no matter how dismal the news, there will be a tomorrow!). Instead he understands ritual as creating shared concepts and habits by drawing on participation, sharing, association, and fellowship.

Facebook and Buzzfeed, while a little erratic on the transmission side, understand this and they and others like them have hard-wired ritual into their systems. And their user-base understands it as well. At a fundamental level, the opportunities for new kinds of journalism and documentary production turn not so much on the availability of new technologies, but rather on the use of those technologies to bring ritual into the picture. In other words, simply putting news content, no matter how good, online with the hope of expanding audience reach and engagement misses the point. Instead, finding ways to enhance user participation, to intensify immersive experiences, and to encourage sharing and community building all help to embrace the ritual dimension noted by Carey. It’s not so much about the de-professionalization of the news (in fact, our study focuses on quality journalism), as it is the expansion of news as a process that includes a community of participants, expanded textual forms, and a reconfigured production pipeline. Participation leads to greater engagement, inclusiveness, relevance … and better-informed communities.

Despite its rock-solid appearance, journalistic convention has transformed over the past several hundred years, and today we face an accelerated rate of change. Whereas for much of the 20th Century, journalism served as a definer of truths, today’s high-connectivity and intensive information flow have enabled new expectations and given journalism a new agenda, helping it to inform the connection between publics and sources, shaping conversations in addition to defining truths.

Our report approaches this shift by looking at concrete examples in recent interactive and immersive documentary and journalism. The past decade has seen some remarkable experimentation in fact-based storytelling (the Open Documentary Lab’s docubase  is the go-to place to see this work), some of which encourages users to explore multiple sides of a given issue, interacting with the material gathered and structured by journalists and documentarians. Our report basically takes a deep dive into lessons-learned and best practices that can be of use as journalism continues to transform.

Whether looking at how individual organizations such as The Guardian or Frontline have responded to these new demands, or looking at collaborations across organizations, or looking at the new workflows and interactions that appear on the individual project level, the report offers case-based insights into the developments that are changing the faces of documentary and journalism.

In some ways, your report is bringing together two forms of media production — journalism and documentary — that have historically been understood as distinct, even though they have both sought to get the public to be more aware and more responsive to urgent social conditions. These two fields often operate according to different professional ideologies and different standards of ethics. Why have they stayed separate for so long and in what ways are we starting to see some convergence between them?

If I had to boil the difference between the journalistic and documentary traditions down to a caricature,  I’d say that since the mid 1920s, journalism has been bound by a commitment to ‘facts’ and documentary by a commitment to ‘truth’. OK – both are slippery words, and the two are not irreconcilable. But an insistence on the ‘facts’ as journalistic fact-checkers define them can sometimes leave a larger truth hanging in the balance; and the pursuit of ‘truth’ can call upon innovative and imaginative strategies that would be nixed by any fact-checker worth her salt.

The distinction between the two is deeply rooted in institutional history, with the several hundred-year-old ‘fourth estate’, as Carlyle called the press, finding a protected niche in places like the US constitution and playing a fundamental role in governance in most cultures. In this context, an insistence upon verifiable data makes sense.

Documentary, by contrast, at least if we stick to the classic telling of the tale, emerged in the film medium in the form of a re-enacted, character-based drama that strove for a greater truth (Flaherty’s 1926 Moana), or what John Grierson later called ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.

Journalism has been long bound by professionalization, certification, codes of behavior and rules; while documentary has thrived as an eclectic intention-based assemblage of experiments (mostly formal), techniques (mostly narrative) and effects (mostly generating insight and empathy). Epistemological differences, institutional differences, media differences … even differences in which part of the academy they are studied … no wonder the two traditions seem to be worlds apart!

As I said, this description is something of a caricature, and these two non-fiction storytelling traditions have at times overlapped, especially in the domain of essayistic journalism or places like Frontline, where documentary makers hew to journalistic rules, and The New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist, all of which have in-house documentary units. But even here, an insistence on fact provides the bottom line for a story to count as journalistic, even if drawing heavily on documentary notions of story, character and engagement.

So what changed, and why do these two forms now seem more open to sharing with one another? The steady shift of users of both forms to mobile, digital platforms; the emergence of interactive and visually immersive forms of telling stories; and the popularity of operations like Facebook, Buzzfeed and Vice, have all put pressure on those who simply wanted to put the printed page, television feed or 16mm film online. Traditional newspaper readership and news viewership, like documentary viewership, are not only declining … but aging. And while troubling from a business perspective, this decline is of far greater concern to the needs of an informed public and the civic process.

True, the just-mentioned digital startups have embraced ‘news’ as part of their remit (and in the process, raided legacy journalistic organizations and made some very impressive hires), and some of them can claim vast communities of young users, but the quality, context and mission of that embrace is neither clear nor consistent. Indeed, the surfeit of information and the poor ratio of signal to noise that we are experiencing ‘out there’ makes the work of the tried and true legacy journalistic operations more important than ever.

It’s here that the new documentary provides a valuable set of assets for the journalistic endeavor, offering ways for it to keep core values while embracing a more user-centric and participatory ethos that makes the most of the new media ecosystem.

Documentary’s relative freedom from institutional constraint has enabled its makers to experiment in ways that are difficult for traditional journalists. Moreover, as journalism becomes more of a curator of information and shaper of conversations, documentary’s demonstrated ability to contextualize and explain through well-chosen instances has proven newly relevant. The interactive documentaries produced to date offer a compendium of approaches, interfaces, user experiences, tools and even strategies for working with crowd-sourced and co-created content all of which journalists can assess, draw from and transform.

So I guess I would say that by finding themselves in the same boat, both journalists and documentarians have discovered commonalities of purpose and technique. Interactive documentary is fast developing a repertoire of techniques that work well in today’s ‘digital first’ and increasingly participatory environment and digital journalism still commands considerable reputation and audience reach.

The dust has not settled, of course, but as we work towards journalism’s and documentary’s next iterations, the one thing that is clear is that they have more in common now than at any other point in their histories. And the best indication of this commonality takes the form of the many interactive features, data-driven stories and even immersive approaches to information organization that have been appearing with increasing regularity on the digital sites of leading journalism organizations.


William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at




Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part Three)

What do you see as the biggest challenges confronting transmedia producers today as they seek to adopt these practices towards promoting social justice?

Funding. Financing these projects, and moreover financing the work necessary to create stakeholder engagement that is long-term and leads to lasting impact, is a major challenge. I’ve seen projects that falter in terms of actually reaching impact within communities because their funding runs out after production.

But transmedia projects for social change must be stewarded and communities need to be managed. You of course need an exit strategy because these projects can’t necessarily go on forever, but too often funding doesn’t sustain the actual community-building or mobilization work necessary for impact.

The other challenge is the ability to let go of control, and hand back the narrative over to communities. I find this most challenging when working with organizations and institutions, who often want a more managed and streamlined message, instead of a community-led story.

Tell us more about Priya’s Shakti as an example of how fictional storytelling can also be used for social change. What motivated this project? What did you hope to achieve? Why did comics turn out to be an effective resource around which to base such a campaign?

Priya’s Shakti is one of the few fictional projects I’ve worked on and it was simultaneously challenging and fun. (Well, as much as you can have fun with the issue of gender-based violence). The motivation of this project was the 2012 bus rape in New Delhi, India, and the aftermath protests, which amplified and intensified decades of activism in India around women’s rights. It was a seminal moment for the country to come together around the issue of gender-based violence.

The project’s creator, Ram Devineni, was there to participate, and he came back with the idea of doing a project that would start exploring cultural patriarchal tropes through popular culture and new media that would engage youth. Graphic comics with embedded augmented reality turned out to be a unique and engaging method for youth to come to the material.

More importantly, we were able to embed real stories of rape survivors within the AR components, aimed at increasing the reach of our nonprofit partner Apne Aap into new audiences. And it set the stage for a series of workshops held with disadvantaged school-aged children to let them create their own comics.

In an essay for Huffington Post, you describe the ways you want to challenge some of the stereotypes surrounding the representation of women’s issues in India via mainstream and global media. In what ways does Priya and her story challenge such stereotypes?

It was very important to me, as a feminist and a person of Indian origin to not have the project be a part of the narrative that “India has a rape problem.” While not attempting to whitewash what was happening on a societal level, I was unsettled by the narrative, both because it misrepresented Indian society, but also because it pushed aside the reality that GBV is a global problem. And by and large, Indian feminists were deeply offended by the manipulative and unbalanced representations in western press and in projects such as the BBC film India’s Daughter.

The rape and protests afterward were a defining moment for Indians and Indian feminists, marking a point in time for all their decades of struggle and really good work. It was important to me to honor and support the work that activists and development professionals were already doing in India, while still presenting an engaging story appropriate for young people, and more importantly to tie the story to grassroots and community-driven action in the face of a waterfall of international attention. It was a difficult balancing act, and one I’m still evaluating.

There are of course limitations to using a comic book as a vehicle. It’s a simple narrative, aimed at a young demographic. In our case, the book was also centered in Hindu goddess mythology, which was risky on a number of levels. But it was also imagery that we, the creative team (most of whom were of Indian origin or sensitive to Indian culture), had all seen throughout our lives and that was instantly recognizable – and we thought we might be able to subvert into a story of self-determination.

And I think, ultimately, Priya is a subversive character. She is framed as an everywoman who reaches beyond her tragedy and circumstance by tapping into her own sources of power to reframe herself as a leader on her own terms, and one that challenges existing norms through art and love. She is an everywoman who becomes a superhero of a sort. And if she’s a superhero, her super strengths to fight the patriarchy are song, nonviolence, and compassion.

In some ways, Priya’s story merges together the mythological tradition in Indian popular culture and the superhero genre. Why did these seem to be particularly effective building blocks for this project? I am struck by the parallels and differences with the Burka Avenger Project in Pakistan which also uses the superhero genre to speak to the rights of women, in this case, the rights of Islamic women to education.

South Asian societies, rich and wonderful though they are, do still carry patriarchal challenges to female self-empowerment and self-direction. While I would argue that Priya isn’t a traditional superhero while the Burka Avenger is (and she’s a fantastic character in a great storyworld), the superhero genre is both an innovative and a safe space in which to explore and advance strong, empowered, independent females as role models for young girls.

When we spoke, you said you were turning your attention more and more towards building up the creative sector, so that projects may have greater sustainability. What do you see as some of the most urgent needs in terms of helping to provide voice to media creators around the world?

As I wrote above, there needs to be more attention paid to business models and financing of these projects, and I’m very excited that I’ve started exploring ways to make the creative impact sector more vibrant and sustainable. I’m building out a strategy for how to do that through my company in partnership with social enterprise experts. And while I’m not intending to become an investor, I’m excited to say I’ve just made my first angel investment in a creative social enterprise in Haiti.

There also needs to be more training and project incubation opportunities for creatives in lower- and middle- income communities and regions, which requires donor and investor education. Similarly, another need is to actively develop audiences for these projects. This requires a critique infrastructure, more robust distribution opportunities, and frankly more trust on the part of distributors that people will come to see or interact with this content (even if it is perceived to be “foreign”).

Finally, as I’ve said various ways above, we need to let go of some of the control over who tells whose stories, and let creators tell the stories of their own communities – and be there to partner with them, and explore their experiences.

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.


Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part Two)

You have been especially concerned about “the ethics of telling other people’s stories.”  What do you see as some of the most common ethical failures that occur when human rights advocates attempt to mobilize around stories from the field, stories that deal with the real life struggles of real people? What kinds of ethical frames should such campaigns adopt to make sure they are being fair to those people whose life stories are entrusted to them? How can filmmakers and activist avoid making “poverty porn”?

We have to stop treating other people’s stories as if they are ours for the taking and shaping. We have to recognize that agency and self-representation are crucial to social change and people’s perspectives of their own situations matter. As Darren Walker recently said in a discussion at the Ford Foundation, cultural narratives drive why inequality and exclusion persist.

We may believe that our colonial period is behind us, but neocolonialist perceptions persist in our institutions and in our cultural narratives. Media outlets trade in savior complex stories to audiences who consume simplified stories that allow them to feel good and ignore structural inequities, a relationship which leads to an ecosystem of cultural narrative that continually misrepresents poor, marginalized, and at-risk communities. And it’s very easy to fall back into these tropes.

A few years ago, I wrote a post criticizing the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless.” It’s a phrase I dislike quite a bit, and while I hear it a bit less these days, it still manages to encapsulate the way we sometimes perceive other people we are seeking to “help,” especially if they are poor or seen as poor (e.g., the way we in the west still see most of Africa). I said:

“If we seek to truly collaborate with people… to advance positive social change, we need to shift our thinking about who contributes to the “project.” It’s much more helpful to think of each other as equal partners who bring to the table various assets… For example, one partner might bring access and resources, while the other one brings local learning, stories and knowledge [cultural assets]. I’m not naive enough to believe that in our current system…there isn’t a power advantage in being the one in control of the financial resources and of the avenues that distribute information. But we have to learn and teach a different perspective on what is contribution, what are valuable assets and resources, and who plays what position on the team?… [C]alling people “voiceless” discredits their ability to contribute. All of us need to recognize participation and contributed assets as valuable tools… as leverage to effect positive change.”

As artists and storytellers, we have an ethical responsibility to understand that we cannot impose “voice.” I will acknowledge that there is power in engaging audiences through language that we know, through tropes we are used to, through allowing us to feel good about the work we do—and when done well, it can contribute to both effective change and to good storytelling.

But as change agents, we are not speaking for someone else. We are primarily serving one of two functions in relation to people in an affected community: either acting as their proxy or working in collaboration with them. We might be providing access to avenues that disseminate their voice, and that’s our role in the project, but we have to interrogate how our position may be affected by privilege or top-down perspectives.

As artists, it is our obligation to open up new frames of reference. In the realm of transmedia, each piece of work related to an issue can transform audiences’ frames of reference and it’s our role and within our reach to use story to put pressure on existing frames that dehumanize subjects and to shift the angles to expose humanity in the form of lived experience and cultural context.

What criteria should we be using to measure or assess the impact of transmedia activism campaigns?

The primary focus should be on the impact of a campaign within the affected community. I prefer qualitative assessments which explore the place of the campaign within political, social, or cultural context. Often impact metrics in media campaigns in general are weighted toward audience engagement as opposed to longer-term monitoring and evaluation on the ground.

Concentrating on the effect on audiences is a lesser criteria, not to be ignored, but in my opinion not to be given primacy unless the audience is itself a target of the campaign (e.g., in public health or consumer choice campaigns, rather than in human rights).

For transmedia particularly, as we’ve discussed, one of the many advantages of interactive storytelling is that of “contribution” and setting a cultural stage for action and change — and to tailor layers of story and participation to the desired change. It is important then to measure each project on a case-by-case basis with concentration on qualitative or semi-quantitative metrics that also evaluates participation by key stakeholders, and how that participation led to shifts in perception or directed action.

The late Brian Clark initiated a consideration of what one might call transmedia locations. He argued that transmedia projects took different shapes, followed different goals, depending on what kinds of media systems and cultures they come from. You’ve done work which straddles across multiple cultures and societies. What differences have you observed in terms of the forms transmedia takes in these different contexts?

Before I answer that, I wanted to recognize Brian’s immense contribution to these fields. He was an incredible influence on so many of us, and he was one of my dearest friends. It’s strange to think about having this conversation without him.


Brian was an activist at heart, in part, and a cultural agitator. He and I used to have charged and dynamic, and funny, conversations about so many things – and in the last years, our conversations turned to his exploration of phenomenology, as he started deepening his inquiry into the experience of the media as opposed to the media itself. He understood that the form of media, the form of story, and the form of engagement had to arise from an understanding of what a local audience would perceive.

This ties rather directly to the way I conceive of transmedia for social change — that in order to create sustainable change, we first have to understand the context in which communities (or, in Brian’s frame, audiences) interact with the story.

My observations are that, by and large, transmedia forms in different societal context are affected by a few things: first access to technology, particularly in terms of digital or online storytelling; second, the political landscape a community resides in and what their experience is within political power structures; and third, a community’s or a society’s indie culture. The form of transmedia will, if most effective, follow the forms creatives are experimenting with already.

Many of your projects are connected with documentary productions, where-as often transmedia is understood in relation to fictional storytelling. What added value comes from expanding the scope of documentary productions through transmedia? Who do you think has done good work in terms of transmedia for social change? Transmedia documentary?

There is value in increasing the surface area through which you can engage stakeholders and partners on issues, which you can do by creating multiple entry and participation points through transmedia. In my mind, when I start thinking through strategy, I see the expansion of the core story almost like a taffy pull – you can expand the scope of your story to encompass both the multiple perspectives I mentioned above and also the ways in which stakeholders can take effective action that proceed from the story.

There are quite a few good transmedia projects in social change and documentary from which to choose. I wrote a playlist last year for MIT’s Docubase that mentions quite a few I think are worth study. To that list, I would add the recent project Notes on Blindness and The Enemy. I’m also looking forward to a forthcoming project I’m working on, Traveling While Black.

On a related note, I work with nonfiction content more so than fictional because in the realm of social impact, truth is often far more resonant than fiction. Or looking at it another way, who needs fiction when truth is strange enough?

I will say that, I am wary of pop fiction that is spectacle and gesture and political theater simply for the sake of itself. I do think, however, that fictional content is underused in social impact and that there is much more scope for transmedia producers and artists to experiment with strategic audience engagement and impact. I think CEL does great work, and hope to see more of that.

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.


Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part One)

As my student Geoff Long likes to say, transmedia is an adjective, not a noun, and as such, it needs something to modify. Much of the conversation here has centered around transmedia entertainment, transmedia storytelling, or perhaps transmedia branding and transmedia learning. But, when the word transmedia modifies activism or mobilization, there is no more important voice in the world today than Lina Srivastava. In her hands, transmedia becomes a verb — something we do to make a difference in the world.

I first met her in Madrid several summers ago when we were both speaking at a gathering of thinkers and makers from around the world who were trying to deepen our understanding of what transmedia was and what it could do. I knew her by reputation far before that, and I’ve continued to follow her closely through podcasts, videos, blog posts, op-ed pieces, and projects, ever since. We reconnected not long ago after I got back from India because I knew she had worked so extensively in that region and I wanted to know more about the transmedia campaign she helped to develop around Priya’s Shakti, which we will discuss in more detail in the third installment of this interview. But, our conversation was far reaching, touching on ethical dimensions of the work we do, exploring the challenges of producing media for social change, dealing with how to build structures of participation around documentary and fictional projects alike. When the exchange was over, I asked if she’d be willing to cover some of this same territory for my blog, and she agreed.

So, what follows over the next three installments is a small sample of her passionate and cogent advocacy on behalf of making media that can make a difference in the world.

The term, transmedia, is one which has become increasingly expansive, meaning somewhat different things to different thinkers. Through your work, you’ve talked about transmedia activism. How do you define that concept? Why do you think transmedia is especially valuable as a model for thinking about activism and mobilization?

It’s the combined core of story, community, and collaboration that I seized on the first time I heard and understood the term transmedia. As I thought about the methodology of creating and distributing stories through this framework, I realized the potential for effective social action that emanated from co-creating stories through multiple perspectives that illuminate social, political, and cultural context.

I’ve been working in social impact for fifteen years. The work I do centers primarily with nonprofits and institutions that focus on human rights and international development, or with individual artists and filmmakers who create socially relevant art. Through this intersection, I’ve found that at the very foundation of social change are stories.

And while it appears to me we’ve hit peak noise on discussions of the role of storytelling in social impact, creative expression and culture are still, in my opinion, very underutilized in the social impact fields. We rely heavily on data and policy frameworks, and when we do bring in story, it is still more often to communicate the impact of a program than it is for using it as a strategic driver of change.

You need narrative to spur social action that resonates with and is relevant to communities that are fighting for positive change. You need to know what’s happening at the blood-and-guts-and-feelings level for people – and you need to know what the possibilities and costs to actual human beings are of our policies and actions.

Otherwise, what are we fighting for?

So storytelling, and transmedia in particular, lets me, as a storyteller and a social change agent, illuminate the human side of things.

Activism and mobilization, two distinct ways of effecting social change, at their core rely on community, participation, and collaboration. There’s more to activism or social impact work than these things, of course, but these are essential – and when they are absent, we often get top-down, simplistic, and paternalistic interventions that are ultimately unsustainable because they don’t emerge from perspectives that are based in local contexts.

Beyond that, transmedia has the advantage of allowing for people to travel among multiple entry points and for immersion, both of which are key in allowing for multiple narratives and for complexity.

And transmedia answers the question “how do you tell the story of a system?” There’s a danger in social change when you tell a story from one perspective or from one node in the system. For example, when one thinks about, say, water issues, you may have to think about infrastructure, climate change, safety and security for those getting the water, privatization vs. public access, or sanitation and health, etc. You may work only on one of these aspects, but you have understand how one issue affects the rest and how one shift in the system can change things throughout the system. And you have to know how to tell that story.

True social change comes when solutions are systemic, and transmedia itself – however we define it — has been a social innovation that allows us to view our ecosystem of issues and create stakeholder engagement around systemic change. And one that allows to get into the heart and soul of how these issues affect people and their lives.

So I coined the phrase “transmedia activism” in 2009 to describe this process: The coordinated co-creation of narrative and cultural expression by various constituencies who distribute that narrative in various forms through multiple platforms, the result of which is to build an ecosystem of content and networks that engage in community-centered social.

Another way of saying this is that we use story to effect social change by engaging multiple stakeholders on multiple platforms to collaborate toward appropriate, community-led social action. (And I note, the phrase may specify “activism,” but the framework is meant to be used for various types of social impact or mission-driven work.

I should have been broader when I thought of the term, but this one sounded better than say, “transmedia impact” and I acknowledge its linguistic limitations. And I also will acknowledge here that I don’t always use the term “transmedia” at all when describing my work, as sometimes it’s more appropriate to use alternative terms that will be more easily understood.)

When we build a story universe for social change under this framework, we think first in terms of an ecosystem of issues, social and cultural conditions, communities and solutions– and not only about the narrative arc of the story.

I’m not sure whether my definition works for other thinkers or not. I’ve rarely been one to indulge in discussions around the definition of transmedia, because to me the debate was always a distraction from what I thought to be the core utility of the term, which was to map out a new way of exploring the ways communities were already working together and the ways they were already using culture for to effect social change.

At the time that I was working on the “transmedia activism” framework, about eight years into my work in social impact, discussions around multi-platform narrative as a strategic tool were still fairly nascent in the social impact world, but storytelling per se is not an original concept in social impact.

People had talked about storytelling for years (primarily as an external participatory media was a well-established methodology, and the success of story- and culture-based feedback loops were well-documented. So I wasn’t establishing anything new. I was putting a frame around narrative in a way that plugged into numerous emerging discussions, including social innovation, human-centered design, and digital media, and package those discussions under one frame.


As I read your writing, your concept emphasizes multiple contributing authors working with shared assets, as opposed say to a single author working across media. Why do you find this idea of collaborative authorship important for thinking about social action campaigns?

Collaborative authorship opens up possibilities as I discussed above for multiple perspectives, which is crucial to social action that is grounded in both local context and in larger political or cultural trends. On the creative or artistic side of transmedia, we hear a great deal about the dissolving of boundaries between artist and audience or creators and fans. The analogy for social impact is not one of the taking down of boundaries between various communities and stakeholders.

If we accept that story and media are powerful tools to influence the way people understand issues (knowledge), experience the issues (engagement), see themselves and others in relation to the issues (perception), and what they do to cause these issues to shift (action), then we can see that NGOs and activists who commit to a process through which their various stakeholder communities and influencers take shared ownership of their mission-related story and media, they build an advantage of shared support for their goals, activities and outcomes.

By identifying the narrative underlying the full spectrum of engagement to action, and then by collectivizing ownership of that narrative, transmedia bears the potential to break down the unidirectional construct – “us” helping “them” – that is often at the heart of many traditional aid and international development efforts, instead creating a network of change agents that use narrative as a tool to work toward shared goals, activities and outcomes.

This has the added benefit of having the potential to shake up existing power structures and to move away from paternalistic, patriarchal narrative and design. Transmedia strategies, in allowing diverse and multiple authorship, have the potential to create better streams of participation for community-centered design or “local voice”– i.e., voices coming from an affected community, to tell its own stories and participate in or lead solutions-building.

As an example of this, we took a community-centered and multiple authorship design process for Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a film and social impact campaign about migrant rights related to the U.S.-Mexico border. We’ve laid out our methodology and impact evaluation here, people can view multiple streams of content here, and those in the migrant and refugee rights movement can use any of our content for their work, as detailed here. As of this writing, I am working on expanding our platform and strategy to the global migration crisis.

A Death You Could Die By? from marc silver on Vimeo.


Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.


How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture: An Interview with Tracy Van Slyke (Part One)

In 2014, Tracy Van Slyke,the Director of The Culture Lab, wrote what has turned out to be an important white paper, “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture,” which outlines a series of strategies by which popular culture can be deployed as a tool for campaigns in support of social change. I should have read this report as soon as it came out, given my own interests in, among other things, fan activism and the civic imagination, but it took me a while to get around to it. But, when I did, it was clear we were very much on the same wavelength and that I wanted to use this blog to draw attention to some of Van Slyke’s core insights about activism and entertainment-education.

The Culture Lab — part of a larger Citizen Engagement Lab initiative — has developed this helpful diagram for mapping the key points where they feel meaningful interventions can and are taking place in relation to popular media.


Many of the most heated debates impacting the worlds of fandom and gaming in the past few years have been struggles over representation, including how the media might do a better job reflecting the experiences of women and people of color. We are seeing more and more progressives recognizing the ways that popular media can and does, at least sometimes, speak for them, even as we are also seeing backlashes against “social justice warriors” from groups who are threatened by the inclusion of such perspectives in entertainment media. None of this is new, but my own sense is that we are engaging in such conversations with a growing consciousness of what is at stake in these struggles over the civic imagination.  What Spoiler Alert does, then, is bring together a wealth of examples, showing different sites where these struggles are taking place, and develops a conceptual vocabulary for talking about these examples that allows activists and community organizers to draw on the best practices of people working towards other related causes.

Over the next two installments, I will be running an interview with the report’s author, Tracy Van Slyke, as we probe deeper into the implications of her findings and as we encourage her to reflect on more recent examples of these principles at work. But there is no substitute for reading the report itself.

You begin your report Spoiler Alert with the idea that our attachments to and investment in popular culture need to become more central to social change movements. What are some of the different ways progressives might be able to achieve those goals?,

This is a ripe and rich time to work at the intersection of social and culture change.

An increasing number of artists working in popular entertainment are making people laugh out loud, get lost in a story, and gasp at dramatic plot twists (which they have always done)—while also tackling society’s most pressing social and political issues: race and gender equity, reproductive rights, voting rights, and more. One recent example: Aziz’s Azarni’s new Netflix series Master of None, especially the third episode, which unabashedly calls out racism in the television industry (and really, society at large), while managing to stay funny and entertaining. Other highlights are the winter finale of Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, which included a storyline on abortion and reproductive choice, and the latest season of Inside Amy Schumer, in which Schumer wrote a 30-minute parody of 12 Angry Men that skewered the power dynamics of men and their relentless judgment of women’s bodies.



We’re also seeing more moments in which celebrities throw down the gauntlet, like Jennifer Lawrence speaking out against gender-based pay disparities in Hollywood and Viola Davis’s Emmy speech about diversity in Hollywood. Celebrity energy sparks social network energy, and social media buzz and digital platforms can create both celebrities and pop moments.

Social change leaders are eager to connect to these compelling stories, these fires of public attention, because they are contending for people’s hearts and minds. Through organizing, policy, and communications efforts, progressives are constantly blocking the rhetoric of hate and divisiveness. They are fighting policies that reinforce inequality in race, religion, and gender and grow the power of the one percent over our economy and democracy. But defense is not enough. With our societal soul at stake, they need to proactively introduce and reinforce visions of equity and diversity, as well as an economy and democracy that works for all, not just an elite few.

They know that from television shows to sports, from movies to music, from video games to hashtag trends, pop culture is where people are already paying attention, where myths are shaped, and where hopes and fears take root. Culture can influence a single person and be disruptive enough to move large-scale, transformative change. And as culture turns, so does the social and political landscape—for example, the long-term approach to culture change that the LGBT community took is now seeing huge legislative and policy effects.

Now, the opportunity and need is for a long-term, extensive investment in culture. If the correct investments are made, progressives can:

  • Seed stories and narratives through and with a wide array of culture makers;
  • Develop and mobilize our communities to influence cultural content and products; and
  • Spread those stories and values to new communities.

Together, this can create new cultural experiences, moments, and over time, long-lasting values shifts.

As progressives focus on infrastructure needs, as Spoiler Alert articulates, they specifically need to:


  • Understand that culture is not about a communications strategy but about how and why people communicate to and with each other. By putting people at the center, we prioritize their needs, motivations, and identities, not just messages we want to deliver.
  • Tap into the cultural pulse by tracking pop trends, storylines, audience/fandom conversations to drive and increase the impact of campaigns. Progressive organizations invest heavily in influencing and tracking the daily political news cycle, but so far we’ve largely failed to use entertainment news and storylines to advance our goals.
  • Create a clear road map for investing in culture that drives their social and political work: Are they using cultural opportunities to help win campaigns or to bring about long-term culture change?
  • Build working partnerships with creatives and pop culture makers to inspire the stories, portrayals, and experiences we want to see in the world.

Over the past year as CEL Culture Lab director, I’ve seen increasing numbers of progressive groups that want to hook into pop culture, but don’t have the infrastructure and knowledge they need to make that happen. The Culture Lab is working to help fill in these gaps. For example, we have built a new service, called the Cultural Pulse, which tracks pop culture news and storylines, adapts the audience­-listening strategies and tools used by marketers, and combines that data with action tips that help progressive changemakers use popular culture to advance political and societal change.

Many on the Left have been taught to see corporate media as the enemy—something to be deeply distrusted—and they also are often fearful of emotion and pleasure as mechanisms that are pit against rationalism. Are they wrong to have these concerns? Are there ways that one can embrace the emotional power of popular culture without giving up the value that many progressives place on rationalism and science?

It’s not wrong to have concern about corporate control of pop culture—but it’s not strategic to dismiss pop culture because of it.

The basic principles of political organizing apply to our work in culture: power analysis, targets, and demands. This means knowing what you want to have happen and understanding who has the ability to give you want you want. For progressive changemakers, that includes the purveyors and consumers of popular culture.

Many social change organizations have pivoted off of pop culture, creating campaigns that advance their larger goals. For example,, an online organizing group dedicated to fighting for the rights of Black Americans, has won multiple campaigns over the last few years, including forcing Fox to stop airing its exploitive show Cops after 25 years and making the Oxygen Network cancel the show All My Babies’ Mamas for its stereotypical and racist depiction of Black families. The Harry Potter Alliance—a network of thousands of Harry Potter fans banding together to work for human rights and equality—ran a four-year campaign that resulted in all official Harry Potter chocolate products being fair trade.


Focusing on popular culture doesn’t mean we have to set aside science and data. In fact, translating data into narrative, giving it a values-driven voice, and embedding knowledge into the DNA of a character that fans follow through books or screens or control through games can be effective in both reinforcing and disrupting subconscious beliefs. Studies show that when they’re presented with simply statistics, people may feel like they are powerless to make a difference. A story has the opposite effect: it inspires empathy. “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry—and that’s what it means to be a social creature,” says the neuroscientist Paul Zak.

Storytelling can also influence an individual’s sense of agency. In “The Power of Story,” Elizabeth Svoboda writes:

Using modern technology like functional MRI (fMRI) scanning, scientists are tackling age-old questions: What kind of effect do powerful narratives really have on our brains? And how might a story-inspired perspective translate into behavioural change? … The Ohio State University psychologist Lisa Libby studied a group of people who engaged in “experience-taking,” or putting themselves in a character’s place while reading. High levels of experience-taking predicted observable changes in behaviour, Libby and her colleagues found in 2012. When people identified with a protagonist who voted in the face of challenges, for instance, they were more likely themselves to vote later on.

That’s why progressives should not think they can just create their own cultural content. It should be a priority to work and partner with artists and media makers—people who are actual experts in narrative creation and storytelling—to bring data, story, and experiences together so that people want to watch, talk about, and be inspired by the storylines and characters, instead of cynical about the latest soundbite.

And that’s the trick. Pop culture is fun! It’s escapism, it’s relaxing, it takes us to new places, even new worlds (for the sci-fi and fantasy geeks in us). When we are at work as community organizers, social change advocates, we all-too-often focus on the serious in ways that are disconnected from the places in the cultural environment that we go to play. We forget that people don’t want to be fact-finding, hardline policy geeks on a Thursday night binge watch or Sunday sports day. We need to find ways to reach people where they are—instead of trying to get them to come to us.

Tracy Van Slyke is the director of the the Culture Lab at Citizen Engagement Lab. The Culture Lab works to increase the ability of social change organizers to engage people by tapping into the energy, creativity, and reach of culture. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it develops the services, knowledge-building products, and relationships that help changemakers design and evaluate cultural strategies that move systemic political and societal change. As an Opportunity Agenda fellow in 2014, she wrote the report “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture.” Van Slyke was previously the director of the New Bottom Line, an alignment of economic justice organizing groups; director of the Media Consortium, a network of independent media outlets; and publisher of In These Times magazine. In 2010, she co-authored the book Beyond The Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics (New Press).

How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture: An Interview with Tracy Van Slyke (Part Two)



You cite Glenn Beck who said, “Culture is the lead. That’s the dog. The news is the tail.” What might progressive activists learn from the Right in terms of how to use cultural change as the “lead” in their efforts to reshape how the news frames public policy issues? Many on the Right also construct an argument that popular culture already reflects a leftist agenda, one they see as counter to traditional family and national values. How do we understand their very different perception of what’s going on in popular culture?

The right wing continues to complain about liberal bias in the news media and Hollywood because it works: It’s guaranteed to rile up their base and leave the targets of their attacks on the defensive. But the truth is that the Right is not suffering from a lack of access to pop culture. Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump’s hosting of SNL brought in almost 10 million viewers and the show’s highest ratings in nearly four years.

Conservatives are expanding their coordinated influence beyond the news/media industry of Fox News, radio networks, and the online Breitbart News and Drudge Report. They are entering the realm of entertainment by building interconnected, long-term, political and cultural strategies. Reporting nearly $3 million in funding in 2014, the nonprofit Moving Pictures Institute is churning out films with far-right policy agendas. Projects like the comedy website WeTheInternet promote strategies for “freedom in film” to conservative think tanks, foundations, advocates, and organizers.

As I discuss in Spoiler Alert, right-wing commentator Glenn Beck (whose estimated earnings are around $90 million per year) is now throwing down with all his might in the culture sphere: He has three movies in the works; his internet TV network, TheBlaze, has more than 300,000 paid subscribers; and his online portal draws more than 25 million unique visitors per month. He even launched his own line of jeans after Levi’s produced an advertisement that he found too progressive.

Every piece of culture Beck touches has an embedded political and social agenda.

How do we make arguments that explain why the contents of popular culture matter without falling into the traps of traditional media effects or propaganda arguments? What assumptions are you making about how popular culture shapes or influences the ways we perceive the world? What room does your account allow for the agency of audiences to reshape popular messages to reflect their own agendas and interests?

The Hollywood storylines, the celebrities that dominate magazine covers and social media feeds, the multibillion-dollar sports industry, the individual and community experience of game play, the spiritual connections made through faith communities—these all exercise enormous influence on what people buy, how they vote, what social and political issues they support, and how they interact with their family, friends, and neighbors.

Popular culture reflects the complex, messy, and beautiful nature of our society. It is also the place to move societal change forward. In Who We Be: The Colorization of America, award-winning author Jeff Chang writes:

Here is where artists and those who work and play in culture enter. They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.

For those who are fighting for a more just, equitable, diverse, and sustainable world, it is imperative to give people the experiences to read, watch, interact with that vision. And that’s where entertainment comes into play.

What really makes pop culture exciting is that it’s a two-way street. There’s an interchange between the industries that mass-produce experiences, content, and products, and the individuals they reach. Fans who create their own subcultures and networks, and artists who build and inspire their own communities, can and do influence popular culture beyond themselves.

The growth of digital platforms—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube—is breaking the constraints of advertisers and traditional show formats. YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, and other platforms are boosting opportunities for storytellers, artists, and fans to experiment with content without corporate influence (which is not always ideal in the ongoing struggle for financing!) allowing them to push the boundaries in the stories they tell and how they tell them, as well as directly reach and build their own fanbases.

We can and must intervene and influence popular culture—to break down negative stereotypes, to introduce and inspire new portrayals and storylines, and to organize to change the infrastructure and decision-making systems that control access and creation of content. We, as changemakers, thought leaders, and organizers, can:

  • Work with and support the artists and media makers who are producing great values-aligned stories.
  • Support and expand efforts such as the Harry Potter Alliance to organize and work with fandoms.
  • Invest in experimentation, tools and services (like the ones Culture Lab offers) to build infrastructure that supports long-term culture change strategies in the progressive movement.

As you discuss how activism and creative might work together, a key insight is that “creatives think in terms of narratives.” What kinds of practices would social movements need to adopt to respond productively to the creative’s desire for compelling stories?

Both socially conscious artists and social justice organizers seek to change hearts and minds. From disrupting current internal biases to introducing new ideas to inspiring millions of individual actions, added together can make seismic political and social change.

Movements of people advancing social change are by nature cultural experiences, historically and around the world movements generate songs and heroes, symbols and fashions. But too often, organizers and changemakers think of narratives as a one-way message delivery tactic. Social movements are made up of people whose identities are more than just organizing hooks: worker, youth, women, people of color. They—we all—have complicated, rich lives. Advocacy groups have to do more to go beyond just thinking about the messages we want to relay, to connecting with the lives, identities, and interests of the people we want to reach. Those identities are often shaped, defined, and magnified through narratives and immersive experiences in cultural spaces. To both expand the number of people in our movements and to build the power of movements, we need to understand that narrative and culture is not a communications ploy. It actually is a fundamental part of organizing.

To strengthen and expand our movements, organizing groups and changemakers can:

Shift from thinking about people’s love of entertainment as a waste of time to recognizing the immense value of reaching and engaging people through narrative and culture: whether it be high-concept art or commercial escapist pap.

You know the Cyndi Lauper song, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? Well, yes. And so does everybody else. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, United States and Canada theatrical releases totaled $10.9 billion in 2013. In addition, 227.8 million people—68% of the population of the U.S. and Canada—attended a movie in a theater at least once in 2013. Meanwhile, according to Nielsen’s March 2014 cross-platform report, overall time spent watching TV in households that own TVs was 155 hours and 32 minutes per month. The average adult spent 5 hours and 4 minutes per day watching TV, and 32 minutes per day watching time-adjusted TV via live streaming, video on demand, DVR, and mobile devices. And just a couple years ago, YouTube reported that more than 1 billion unique visitors access the platform every month, and users watch over 6 billion hours of video every month.

Many of the millions of people consuming cultural content have also become cultural producers—making videos via YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, creating and distributing their own music, self-publishing their own books.

If we actually start to take “fun” seriously, we can influence and inspire the narratives that are being created and consumed across different pop culture and entertainment sectors.

Invest in learning more about the cultural intake and production of the people, communities, and networks that they want to reach, engage, and activate. Culture is not a one-size-fits-all muumuu. Individuals, communities, and networks have different and overlapping cultural interests. For the communities and networks that we want to reach, dig into learning about what they are watching, playing, listening to, and reading. What fictional characters resonate with them? What conflicts on nighttime soap operas are they talking about with their friends? What videos are they watching on their phones and sharing on social media? What are their spiritual practices? This knowledge can offer amazing insights into the narratives and cultural spaces that influence and matter to them. And then we can take that knowledge to help us find the right artists and influential media makers to support and partner with in order to shift hearts and minds.

As I write in Spoiler Alert:
… [T]o expand to new and targeted audiences, and to insert ourselves into the cultural conversation, we need to think about the kind of stories that they would relate to, be excited about, and want to be a part of. Even the world of wrestling is doing this. Perkins Miller, former Executive Vice President of Digital Media for the WWE, said a brand must tell a story. “We’re in the business of telling stories, 52 weeks a year. When our talents get out there and our fans watch their stories, they just flock to Twitter to continue the conversation.”

Learn how to build strong relationships and working partnerships with artists and media makers. Working with RaceForward and JustFilms to bring together filmmakers and advocacy groups, we found that there are “natural alignments between organizers and storytellers that play to each other’s strengths. But right now, both groups lack the deep understanding of each other’s work that’s necessary to effectively move the needle on social issues.” Artists who have worked within social movements point to the need for advocacy groups to change how they typically engage artists. Payment is important, but in a generative collaboration that goes beyond a transactional “communicate this message for us” approach. Collaboration also means we can’t try to control all the outputs. (This maybe the hardest thing for an organizer to do.)

In terms of compelling stories, advocates need to provide access to real stories and people, not talking points. Favianna Rodriguez and the CultureStrike network teach the importance of seeking and supporting artists from within the communities we are organizing for and with, and the need to bring creatives to the table from the beginning and throughout a strategy and campaign process. Beka Economopoulos of the strategy shop Not An Alternative, suggests: “If you are mapping out campaign strategy and messaging, and you have options between different tactics and one lends itself to more visual messaging and storytelling of what’s happening within the culture—go with the cultural and visual strategy. This allows us to develop a multimedia, multipronged campaign that plays out across media and on the ground with grassroots pressure.” (There are other specific artists’ recommendations in the Spoiler Alert chapter on collaboration with creatives.)

Overcome fear of pop culture by connecting with strategists who can provide trusted analysis. I’ve heard from political organizers who are worried they’ll “get it wrong” when trying to hook to culture and it might backfire. But just as there’s people in the progressive movement who are really skilled at figuring out how to, for example, move a policy through legislation, there’s a growing number of cultural organizing specialists who can co-create strategies that allow a campaign to authentically hook into the cultural and narrative worlds of the people we are trying to reach.

It’s been interesting to watch, and participate, over the past 15 years as this emergent community of practice—”cultural strategists”–has been asserting itself (ourselves) more clearly as a defined component of  the public interest, social change ecosystem. There are more and more examples of funder conferences, peer networks, reports, and the like that indicate that “culture change” may be becoming a “field.” In the year since “Spoiler Alert” came out, I started the Culture Lab at CEL and we launched a series of research, training, and tool-building projects. I’m also really excited about new initiatives from leaders like Bridgit Antoinette Evans (now a Nathan Cummings Fellow), Andrew Slack of Harry Potter Alliance and now the Star Wars Dark Money Campaign Rebel Alliance, Rashad Robinson, Color of Change, and Ai-jen Poo of Caring Across Generations, projects like Halal in the Family and LadyPartsJustice, among many others.

I see 2016 as a year when progressives will be increasingly hooking into pop culture—so we soon should have even more evidence about the practices and models that are worth replicating.

Tracy Van Slyke is the director of the the Culture Lab at Citizen Engagement Lab. The Culture Lab works to increase the ability of social change organizers to engage people by tapping into the energy, creativity, and reach of culture. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it develops the services, knowledge-building products, and relationships that help changemakers design and evaluate cultural strategies that move systemic political and societal change. As an Opportunity Agenda fellow in 2014, she wrote the report “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture.” Van Slyke was previously the director of the New Bottom Line, an alignment of economic justice organizing groups; director of the Media Consortium, a network of independent media outlets; and publisher of In These Times magazine. In 2010, she co-authored the book Beyond The Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics (New Press).