Keep Calm and Enjoy the Silence: On the Pains and Pleasures of Doing Research in Egypt

This is one of a series of blog posts created by the students in my PhD seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice. Each student was asked to construct a post which shared some core insights from their research.  I will be running them on my blog over the next few weeks.

Keep Calm and Enjoy the Silence:

On the Pains and Pleasures of doing Research in Egypt

By Y. Elsayed

In the fall of 2006, I walked down Tahrir Square alone, after naively showing up to a protest that never took place. All I could muster was a look of silent disdain at the tens of security officers who showed up instead. Perhaps others showed up too, yet walked by when they did not see a crowd. This was one of the many moments when I realized that practicing politics in an oppressive regime required a different understanding of politics and its stakes than what we learned in books; taking part in a protest, for example, was not as simple as showing up to it; it required collective tactics, great flexibility, and organizational support to ensure, if you are caught that someone knows and can campaign for your release.

At the time, I admit to reaching a point, where I thought Egyptians were perpetually subordinate. I did not know, nor could I possibly predict, that four years down the road, this square will be packed with more than a million protesters, and that those walking about their lives disinterestedly would unpredictably display the highest levels of engagement and creativity.

Image of Egyptian Security Forces surrounding a protest

In the Mubarak era protests were heavily secured (courtesy of


In 2009, I left Egypt to join my husband who was doing his PhD at the time in the US. In those six years, a lot has changed not only in Egypt but in the personality of Egyptians themselves My longtime friend, who left Egypt right around the same time in 2008, to pursue a PhD degree in Canada, makes sense of this period by sharing Facebook memories of the last four years: memories, many of us did not have the capacity to make sense of or process at the time (The 18 days, the first referendum, clashes with the military council, Mohammed Mahmoud clashes, Bassem Youssef, parliament elections, the election of Morsi, rise of Islamists, the state crackdown on Ultras, June 30th, the military coup, Rabaa’, then they were too many to keep count). Perhaps sharing those memories and inviting us– confused as we are– to comment, was her way of managing them.

I, on the other hand, resorted to making these events the object of my research, thinking that a researcher’s distance would protect me from being emotionally invested in the political and social turmoil. However, with the intensifying onslaught on dissent, I was deprived of my object of study: the public practices of mobilization and protesting. Traditional means of expression such as protesting and petitioning have mostly been stunted, following the crackdown on Rabaa square (see Amnesty’s Egypt’s darkest day) which resulted in hundreds of victims and injuries, The “Jailed and bailed” scenario for protesting, has been replaced with the far grimmer threat of “disappeared and tortured to death”, not only to protesters but to researchers as well (See End of Research in Egypt? The murder of my friend Giulio Regeni is an attack on academic freedom and AFTE: Banning researchers from entering Egypt threatens academic freedoms). How can I conduct interviews freely when I could be questioned for names of participants, or worse, for speaking in English in public! (See I was arrested for chatting in a Cairo café, and American Arrested for talking about Egypt’s January 25th revolution in English). How can I make claims about Egyptian youth, when I cannot conduct a reliable national survey without being flagged for asking a tad-political questions? The surveying agency itself is scrutinized by state security which reviews surveys, question by question. Even if I manage to get it through, how can I ensure truthful answers by self-censoring respondents? Consequently, my original plan of studying processes of social change was crippled.

Carlus Latuf Caricature on Egyptians and the Army

Carlos Latuf on Egyptians supporting the military. Courtesy of




On the personal level, my life and the lives of many Egyptians in and outside of Egypt were affected by the ripples of what was taking place on ground: continually forced to make adjustments not only to travel and study plans but to things as personal and intimate as who we are. It occurred to me that something has altered permanently in Egyptians. They became partly desensitized and at the same time traumatized by the daily blood scenes of state brutality, and state corruption. In their urge to lead a “quasi-normal” life while battling the effects of a declining economy, many, especially the older generation, pushed away these incidents by dehumanizing the victims thereby reducing sympathy for them, or at best remaining apolitical. This lead to polarization in Egyptian society between those who justify violence for the sake of a fictitious sense of security and those who uphold human dignity and aspire for change (the majority of which were youth). Polarization reached a dangerous point where discussion seized between friends and even close family members.

Furthermore, even though I could no longer ask my macro-research questions concerning processes of social change, the questions themselves failed to capture what I was witnessing on a daily basis this Summer, my first time in Cairo since six years: riding the metro, or walking down the streets of down town Cairo and its old districts, listening to people’s side-talks, their jokes, while observing their facial expressions and body language — the daily acts of resistance that are building up for a … movement?

The answer came to me reading James Scott’s (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance, all while working as a research assistant for the MAPP project which follows and documents the work of activist groups practicing politics by any media necessary ( In his study of peasant, serf and slave cultures, Scott notes that not only does resistance exist, but it can also be studied, just by living and navigating through the right spaces. This is what Scott describes as the study of “infrapolitics”, where in contrast to “the open, declared forms of resistance, which attract most attention”, it is “the disguised, low-profile, undeclared resistance” (p. 198). He calls it the “Hidden transcript”, in contrast to the public transcript: a decorous respect exhibited by subordinates in the presence of authority. This hidden transcript is often disguised in “rumors, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes and theater of the powerless where critiques of power can be advanced behind the innocuous understandings of their conduct” (Scott, 1990, p. xiii)


Courtesy of


It occurred to me, that perhaps we are doing social change a disservice by focusing on the moments of the uprising, rather than the cultural build up for this moment. As Hakim Bey (2002) notes, “the vision comes to life in the moment of uprising – but as soon as ‘the Revolution’ triumphs and the State returns, the dream and the ideal are already betrayed” (p. 116). I hence shifted my research from the study of big actors to the study of the daily subjects, whose collectivity formed the millions in Tahrir Square and tipped the scale of power, even if temporarily to the side of youth. I turned to the “analysis of the hidden transcript” which Scott argues, “can tell us something about moments that carry the portent of political breakthroughs” (p. 202-203)

Five years following the 2011 uprisings and the celebration of the role of both social media and activists in mobilizing protesters, social media is still present and so are the actors (though some are in jail or abroad), yet the subjects are missing; they have been alienated by the polarization of political parties, which in turn resulted in a lack of leadership. In this highly charged political atmosphere, social media became of tool of polarization rather than mobilization (See Ghonim’s TED talk on designing social media that drives real change). Ghoneim who optimistically announced that “if you want to free a people, give them the internet” is now resorting to a more balanced view that social media is what people make of it.

At these times of polarization and social conflict, resistance can manifest itself culturally through arts and comedy as important tools in tracing our sources of conflict and deconstructing them without openly challenging strong held beliefs. Hugh Duncan in his Communication and Social Order, insightfully notes that through comedy and “safe disrespect”, we can uncover the ambiguities and contradictions which beset us as we seek to act together”. This ambiguity can extend to all works of art, which not only carry the portent of subversiveness but do so in the safety of ambiguous artistic interpretations, where you can always claim to be passing a joke for example. Mary Douglas in her 1968 essay, notes how jokers “lighten the oppressiveness of a social reality”: a ‘ritual purifier’ performing a cathartic function for both him and society”.

The value of comedy is amplified at times of polarization not only between political parties but within circles of families and friends. A significant part of the political struggle of the Arab Spring is essentially generational, where the older generation generally favors a stable status quo without regards to demands of democracy (see Harrera). In a widely circulated tweet, Hamdy, who has over 30K followers tweeted “Someone tell Sisi, that we can now criticize him in front of our parents and relatives and they would remain silent, a year ago they used to get mad, yell and curse at us”.

Recently, Shady Hussein, a TV anchor for Abla Fahita – a widely watched TV light comedy show– was heavily criticized and threatened for posting a video in which he (independently) distributed Balloons made out of condoms to Egyptian police officers on January 25th of 2016. Ironically, the day was officially celebrated as the “Day of the Police” four years after the revolution and countless victims. In an interview with Shady, he said

January 25th should be the day for the revolution, the Egyptian police pages are filled with threats such ‘as let them go down, we will show them’… Okay we are not going to protest, and we will not chant, for with one bullet they can take us out, but we will stay here to laugh and ridicule you

This was all an indication of how the forms and forums (Windt, Jr., 1972) for practicing politics were changing. And, so the researcher who was stuck with an empty Tahrir Square was granted an infra-googles (to go off Scott’s infrapolitics) by which I could trace out occurrences of everyday resistance, the hidden transcript in people’s mundane lives, their jokes, side-talks, arts and music.

It was a couple of days following Sisi’s grand opening of a Suez Canal branch, which was touted as a monumental achievement comparable to the digging of the Suez Canal (which itself has a history of slave exploitation). Partly disheartened by the Orwellian public transcript which was jubilant with propaganda songs played in Radios and speakers of metro stations and flags hung in balconies (see Sarah Carr’s President Sisi’s Canal Extravaganza), I began to entertain my old thoughts about Egyptians’ subordination. I decided to escape to the old, partly uncontaminated parts of historic Cairo, Al Ghoureya and Khan El Khalily, to replace the sounds of propaganda with the bustle of Egyptians’ lives. Inhaling an air loaded with the aroma of spices instantly brought back memories of the countless times I prayed in its historical mosque, Al Ghoury. Just two blocks away from the famous Al-Azhar, I preferred to climb up the worn out stone steps of this forgotten mosque to admire its ancient stone walls, its colorful glass and brass chandeliers, but also secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of the hidden transcript in a less official space.

The Inside of AlGhoury Mosque

The Inside of Al Ghoury Mosque (Courtesy of

Outside of AlGhoury

The outside of Al Ghoury Mosque (Courtesy of

After praying, I went down to Khan El Khalily, the narrow alley and touristic attraction famous for its Pharaonic and Islamic art souvenirs. I wanted to purchase some of these souvenirs to bring back with me, but I also wanted to melt in the crowds again, to rub my shoulders against actual struggling Egyptians, and enjoy discussing politics with my mother as we walk down the aromatic alley. Lightly tapping her shoulder so she can go easy in her price bargaining with the already impoverished street vendor trying to sell me a 2$ (15 L.E) piece of jewelry for 5$ (35 L.E), we heard someone yelling, “THE LAUGH OF SISI”

Khan El-Khalily

Khan El Khalili (Courtesy of

Small Shop owners on the sides of Khan El Khalili

Small Shop owners on the sides of Khan El Khalili (Courtesy of )

We turned our heads to see a street vendor passing through the alley while pushing her worn-out newsstand. She was calling at the top of her lungs, with probably the headline of a newspaper she proudly adopted and supplemented with prayers for Sisi’s success in “conquering Egypt’s enemies”. Yet, I could hear too, to my secret happiness, the disgruntled murmurs of the small shop owners and other street vendors, negatively affected by Sisi’s repression and economic policies, as they cursed, and urged her to leave. Now all of a sudden, the request of my affluent aunt to watch the “Sisi extravaganza” on our TV during her visit, no longer upset me that much.

Y. Elsayed is a doctoral student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She studies forms of cultural resistance and processes of social change in post-Arab Spring countries; Elsayed particularly focuses on mapping out non-traditional means for practicing politics in non-democratic settings, through the study of youth’s satire, sports fandom, arts and music.

Celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth with #28DaysOfBlackCosplay

Across the next few weeks, I will be sharing blog posts written as an assignment for the students in my PhD seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice. Each reflects a student’s efforts to find their own voice and share some of their research. Any comments or suggestions would be most welcome, and can be posted publicly here or can be sent to me at

Celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth with #28DaysOfBlackCosplay

by Joan Miller

February and October seem to be the two most fraught months of the year for black geeks. October of 2013, for me, was the first time I ever attempted a cross-racial cosplay. I was a graduate student, living and studying in New York City and excited to be attending New York Comic Con, but filled with anxiety about how my cosplay would be received, would I be singled out and ostracized like many black cosplayers before me?

Despite my fears, I headed to the Jacob K. Javits center dressed as Harleen Quinzel, the woman who later becomes Harley Quinn and went, for the most part, unrecognized (unless my partner, dressed as the Joker’s alter-ego, was standing next to me), a disappointing, but not uncommon reaction to black cosplay of white characters.

Incidentally, I firmly believe every cosplayer has a take on Harley Quinn — her fun-loving quirky attitude and crazy antics make her a great joy to embody, while the simple logo and color scheme of her traditional costume are easy to reproduce and lend themselves to endless variations and reinterpretations, like any good meme should.

The author and partner as Harleen Quinzel and Jack Napier.

The author and partner as Harleen Quinzel and Jack Napier.

Later that October, I encountered another cross-racial cosplay that got a lot more attention than mine. Kira Markelejc, a German cosplay and The Walking Dead fan, followed in the footsteps of many a Halloween party goer and opted to practice blackface in constructing her costume of Michonne a character originated by Danai Gurira. I was impressed by the vitriol and passion in the conversation from both Markelejc’s supporters and critics and couldn’t help but compare my own recent cosplay.

Luckily, I had been casting about for a research topic to focus on in a class on Black Performance taught by the inestimable Dr. Tavia Nyong’o. In working with Dr. Nyong’o to refine and unfold my research on the topic, I discovered the work of Chaka Cumberbatch, well known in geek circles for her cosplay of Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.

Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.

Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.

In this instance, Cumberbatch presents a version of Venus that is identical to the source texts in every way — except for the color of her skin. This detail was too much for some audience members. Shortly after Cumberbatch posted photos of her cosplay online, she was inundated with racist comments, including epithets like N— Venus” and “Sailor Venus Williams”:

“My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a ‘face like a gorilla’ and wasn’t suited for such a cute character, because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn’t blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being black and having it on my head.” (Ibid).

After deleting what she describes as thousands of comments, Cumberbatch decided to respond publicly. Her piece, for, rejects the criticism from certain audience members that she should “stick to her range.”

After noting that this restrictive ideal limits plus-sized cosplayers as well, Cumberbatch criticizes the idea of “range” by pointing out the extremely unequal representation of black characters in media and therefore the lack of options for black cosplayers who would be limited to these roles. Her sentiments would be echoed later by numerous advocates for better representation, including Viola Davis after her 2015 Emmy win for How to Get Away with Murder.



Cumberbatch continues to write on race in cosplay for sites including and, however, her latest and most visible form of activism is of a more participatory bent.

#28DaysofBlackCosplay is a hashtag movement originally conceived by Cumberbatch in January of 2013. The cosplayer was anticipating the upcoming Black History Month and the slew of racialized comments that were about to hit social media. She laments: “we spend the entire month arguing online with people… October and February are the worst times to be black on the internet” (Black Girl Nerds).

#28DaysofBlackCosplay was an attempt to get out ahead of the wave of negative dialogues and vitriol with an explicit effort to celebrate and appreciate black cosplay. The movement originated on Facebook as a group composed of Cumberbatch’s personal contacts in black cosplay, hastily called to action through emails, tweets and messages. The group came together and shared cosplay photos of themselves with short profiles about who they were and who they were cosplaying. Later Cumberbatch cross-posted some of the photos to Twitter whose users “took it and ran with it” (Ibid).

For Cumberbatch #28DaysofBlackCosplay is about visibility. She says, “I needed to see us represented, and that’s what #28DaysofBlackCosplay is all about, it’s about representation.” Her comments evoke the political philosophy of Jacques Ranciére who states that political speech requires a moment in which the invisible subject has an opportunity to become visible (1999). If we could imagine Rancieré to be speaking of black cosplay he might say that “It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise…” (30:Ibid).

Certainly, not all cosplay achieves the level of speech that he would call political. In order for speech to be recognized as such, and not noise, it has to be legible to the person hearing it. My Harleen Quinzel cosplay, sadly, didn’t quite achieve politics, since no one knew who I was and thus couldn’t make sense of what I was trying to “say.”

Other cosplays fail politically when they don’t present an opportunity for the invisible subject to become visible. In my research I discussed the phenomenon of “white Katara,” — a popular brown-skinned character who is often cosplayed by white women. White Katara can’t be an example of political speech because instead of increasing visibility for black and brown characters, it forcibly decreases visibility by rewriting a previously brown character as the hegemonic default — white.

However, some cosplays, under the right circumstances and in front of the right audience, do begin to beg the question of “Who gets to be an American?” or, “Who gets to be a hero?”

Above, a young “black girl nerd” or “blerd” and participant of #29DaysofBlackCosplay gives us her rendition of Rey (Daisy Ridley) from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. The character of Rey also marks an important moment for representations of women in media. Of the top 10 highest grossing film protagonists, Rey is only the second female. However, she far exceeds the reach of her colleague, Anna (Frozen) in 9th by, A.) being a live-action character intended for general audiences that include the coveted “male 18-24” demographic, and B.) climbing all the way to 3rd place (though she still has time to beat out Jack of Titanic fame and claim 2nd)*. Rey proves that not only can a female protagonist carry a film, she can also bring in box office dollars, exploding the common knowledge that female-led films don’t sell. Notably, the film also expanded black representation in the Star Wars galaxy through the strong supporting performance of John Boyega as Finn, a Stormtrooper who defects to the Rebellion. Boyega’s and Ridley’s performances and roles offer opportunities for speech and visibility.  However, intrepid and courageous cosplayers find opportunities for self-expression and possible political speech through negotiations between their own identities and those of the fictional characters they emulate. Below, Bishop cosplay rejects Batman’s and Robin’s hegemonic whiteness while embracing a love for the character that we might interpret as an embracing of Batman’s core principles of justice, ingenuity and respect for life. In his work, named after the theory it explains, Jose Muñoz might describe this negotiation as a Disidentification.

Muñoz understands disidentification as a way of relating to material where the individual neither fully embraces nor fully rejects it’s ideals. Disidentification exists as a third position in which one neither “ buckles under the pressures of” nor “attempt[s] to break free of” the dominant mode of thought, rather, they:

“… tr[y] to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance. … To disidentify is to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object or subject that is not culturally coded to “connect” with the disidentifying subject” (Ibid: 11-12).

Still other cosplayers operate in different modes. Like any artistic endeavor, cosplay can be a rich field for practicing different forms of self-expression. The Storm cosplayer below maintains iconic links to the source material through her dark skin, and white eyes as well as the black/white/gold color scheme employed in several official versions of the character.

However, Cupcake Ninja incorporates her own details and stylings in the costume — her hairstyle, the steampunk-esque elements — which serve to make it uniquely identifiable and uniquely hers.

Ultimately, black cosplay in general and #29DaysOfBlackCosplay in particular, opens up a space of possibility for the underrepresented fan — the invisible subject — to make themselves visible by negotiating their own identities through creative reinterpretation of a character. When thinking about black cosplay, it’s important to understand its position in the constellation of media available to us, especially when we think about issues of representation. Cosplay can be both the motivation and the call for embracing difference in media and encouraging creators to tell stories about the sorts of people we want to see. One black character in a sea of white faces — whether she be a Nichelle Nichols or a Chaka Cumberbatch — can have a surprising effect on the futures of those who come after (like Whoopi Goldberg, for example). Take the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month and black representation by enjoying, sharing and participating in black cosplay, courtesy of Cumberbatch and #28DaysofBlackCosplay. Starfleet Officer Olevia Chavez@ComicConHouston 2015#29DaysOfBlackCosplay #OpenHailingFrequencies

For more on #29DaysOfBlackCosplay or (#28DaysOfBlackCosplay), find the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. Joan can be found at @a_wild_acafan and Chaka Cumberbatch at @princessology.


*In case you’re curious, the rest of the female protagonist cohort in the top 50 highest grossing films are:

  1. Alice of Alice in Wonderland(2010)
  2. Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
  3. Joy of Inside Out (2015)
  4. Bella Swann of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn— Part 2 (2012)

The other 44 films feature male protagonists. That’s 88% male and 12% female.


** This year it’s #29daysofblackcosplay, however, Cumberbatch has stated that she will be checking both hashtags regularly.


Joan Miller is a doctoral student at USC Annenberg. Her research focuses on pop-culture fandom at the intersection of critical race and gender studies. Joan is happy to connect with readers on twitter or reddit where she is @a_wild_acafan.

Who Are Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Three)

You describe Glee as “ideologically uneven,” suggesting some of the contradictory pulls in terms of its commitments to equality, diversity, and community. Often, the rough spots in texts, the contradictions and gaps, are what fans have built upon as they have ideologically reconstructed popular television series. Is this the case with Glee or are these ideological unevennesses reproduced within the fan culture that surrounds the series?

 Yes Glee’s ideological unevenness spurred fandom creation, and yes, Glee’s ideological unevenness gets recreated in fan culture. On the one hand, Glee’s ideological unevenness prompted a wealth of fan response, sometimes in the form of virulent critique or media literacy campaigns like the Glee Equality Project, sometimes in the form of somewhat more subtle critiques via long form fan fictions that seek to right Glee’s ideological wrongs (for example, Sugarkane_01’s “Come Here Boy) or to more substantively engage issues of diversity sidestepped by the series (for example, Herostratic’s “No Objects of Lust.”)

But some of the TV series’ unevenness gets reproduced, and new ideological contradictions get introduced. In Millennial Fandom, I talk about the fan fiction series Steal a Heart, which simultaneously makes up for Glee’s lack of depiction of queer sexual intimacy with long passages describing sexual intimacy for multiple non-straight couples, but at the same time the series arguably reifies Glee’s gay white male focus, and also introduces new celebration of consumerist millennial culture with significant emphasis on Disneyworld as millennial fantasy ideal.

What’s important to me for us to take from this is not only that fandom has the capacity for subversion and critique, but that fan cultures contain and author multitudes. Fan culture is, like Glee, at its core spectacularly uneven; it looks different from every vantage point; it’s always multiple, and it’s always changing, and it’s full of dynamic contradictions.


Much discussion of transmedia has centered around masculine audiences and male-centered narratives, but as you note, transmedia extensions play important roles in relation to these female-centered franchises. How might our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices shift if we fully incorporated these productions into our understanding of the concept? 

I want to first coopt this question to talk about an example close to my heart at this moment. So rather than thinking about how transmedia aesthetics and practices could shift, I want to dwell for a moment on how TV practices might shift if TV producers took fully into account the potential of the fandoms for female-centered franchises.

I mentioned above the TV series Supernatural’s ambivalent depictions of female fans over the years. Supernatural is a series that has a dynamic and rich transformative fandom, and the majority of those participating in the fandom are women. Supernatural fans, while expressing love for the series and its characters and potential, have long been critics of its gender and racial politics, and have spoken out at times about how they have felt misrepresented and even attacked by the series and its metatexts, for example, in response to a preview that declared the teenage girl the “ultimate monster.”

Having entered into its 11th season, Supernatural has made more than one unsuccessful attempt at creating a “back door spinoff,” introducing characters and scenarios into an episode that the producers hope would be able to carry their own series. Meanwhile, in recent years the series has introduced several compelling female characters, and a few have even been lucky enough to escape the series’ penchant for killing off its supporting female characters to push forward the narrative arcs of its central male characters.

Supernatural fans have used various transmedia channels—Twitter, Tumblr,, Thunderclap—to campaign for “the spin off fans want to see,” a series concept they have dubbed Wayward Daughters Academy. They’ve coordinated their efforts with the support of and in conversation with the actors playing the characters involved, and rallied fan support at conventions as well as online. While the fans admit that they may not have the power to “create a spin-off,” they argue that “we do have the potential to send The CW and Supernatural producers a message about their treatment of women and female characters.”

As the Wayward Daughters Academy campaign demonstrates, transmedia fandoms can voice their preferences strongly, sometimes in unison, and sometimes in what may seem like cacophony. But there’s power there, even in the cacophony, and a vision of a future politics of media representation that would move us forward into new audiences, new forms, breaking free of old and outdated representational tropes and production systems.

This brings us to your question about what we might learn from the practices of the transformative fandom for female-oriented franchises. Yes, these transformative fan communities can reveal critical perspectives and activist potential, but more importantly those perspectives exist within a fluid whole that encompasses multiple perspectives and practices, which are at once complementary and contradictory, and which flourish together despite—or even because of—their contradictions.[1]

Much of the previous thought about transmedia production has emphasized the pursuit of harmony, unity, and order, with clear hierarchies for transmedia relationships that wouldn’t threaten narrative coherence, or, more conservatively, that would not threaten the supremacy of the central broadcast media. But in transformative fandom, contradictions thrive and fans thrive on contradictions, or at least on the robustness of the culture that contains and celebrates contradiction.

That is, a culture that celebrates multiplicity and diversity must flourish on the contradictions that will emerge from that multiplicity, and this is a key strength of fandom that could shift, as you put it, our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices. Transmedia doesn’t need to be unified and clean; it can ride the waves of multivocal investment and authorship.


You use Misha Collins to illustrate the ways that certain performers are using social media to forge stronger alliances with their transformative audiences, even as they seek to draw them into an even more supportive relationship with the “mother ship” series. Yet, the recent example of Orlando Jones and Sleepy Hollow suggests that the producers and networks do not always value the kinds of relationship building such performers do for a series.  These performer-fans clearly have a different relationship to the core text than the “fan boy auteurs” that Suzanne Scott wrote about a few years ago. Might we also understand them as part of the “powerless elite” as John Tulloch famously described science fiction fans? 

There are echoes of celebrities as a powerless elite in my study of Misha Collins’ on-again-off-again status with the CW, or the fact that Orlando Jones is no longer on Sleepy Hollow. Yet in the bigger picture, I see a shift toward decentered communities of authorship that bridge producer and audience, and celebrity and fan. In these evolving interrelationships there are new forms of power, power to create, to entertain one another, to support one another, to create new media forms, to disrupt, to raise money, to organize, to create new trends, and to chart the directions of future media culture.

Misha Collins is readable as a powerless elite only if we define power as the power of broadcast media. Certainly, part of Collins’ online persona initially involved poking fun at the powerlessness of the perceived elite of celebrity, as he satirically tweeted about his close friendships with various heads of state and referred to his followers as his minions. The humor there lay in the fact that while people saw him as powerful, he was in actuality anything but.

But as Collins’ minions gathered and worked with him and with each other to form the charity organization Random Acts, we saw reflected a truth in fan and celebrity power, a truth that perhaps also lent power and new humor to Collins’ performance. Because together Collins and minions are powerful.

GISHWHES (The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen) takes this shared power further. The collectivity there, the collective dedication to creating anarchic art and spreading it in “real life” and online, demonstrates the power of the creative collective. Collins and collaborators Miss Jean Louis and others have created in GISHWHES a frame that fosters multiple communities of creativity and social action, with 14,000 participants in 2014. But the power here is not in celebrities as elite or fans as elite, but both together as expansive and diverse collective.

But there’s yet another dynamic here I would point to, more visible in communities built on the microcelebrity of young professionals working to build their careers as creative producers. I can think of no better example than Team StarKid, the theater troupe famous for A Very Potter Musical and sequels as well as Starship and Twisted (among others). While StarKid founder Darren Criss has arguably shed the “micro” side of microcelebrity, for the most part the various stars of StarKid model their own professional journeys to their fans, all of whom (fans and celebrities together) fall under the banner of Team StarKid.

Likewise, web series producers and stars who participate in fan-favored social media experiment with self branding along side fans, many of whom also position themselves creative producers, commercial or otherwise.[2] What’s key for me here is the larger collaborative picture, where stardom is understood (by fans and stars and star-fans) as one potential element of one’s creative production and participation, constructed, produced and reproduced by visible labor. Fandom offers communities of support for that labor and the challenges that may come with it. The power then is in the shared communities of knowledge, practice, and support fostered by celebrities and fans together. 

[1] Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse describe this shifting contradictory whole of fan authorship as the “fantext,” a concept I’ve found quite compelling and useful over the years. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (McFarland, 2006), 7.

[2] On fans who cross over into celebrity, I’d recommend Matt Hills’ “Not Just Another Powerless Elite,” in Su Holmes and Sean Redmond’s edited collection Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture (Routledge, 2006), 101-118.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at

Who Are Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Two)

Many of the shows you write about as Millennial programs are also shows with strong female leads and targeted at female consumers — Friday Night Lights would be a notable exception on your list. So, what happens to the gendering of fandom as we move towards Millennial fan culture? 

Issues of gender permeate millennial culture, fan culture, and the relationship between the two. Masculinizing—or feminizing—fan culture has been one way industry interests tame fandom’s perceived unruliness. Seemingly masculine forms of fandom (and I would emphasize that these areas, like gender itself, are social constructs) have already been categorized as industrially legible and profit friendly. The fanboy stereotype has its share of taboo associations, going all the way back to the “Get a Life” bit on Saturday Night Live that Textual Poachers opens with; but the fanboy position has since been spun into industry heralded narratives of superfans and fanboy auteurs (see Scott, Kohnen), with the lines toward brand support and profit already clearly delineated.[i]

Obsession_inc (and many others citing her) have termed this divide “affirmational fandom,” versus “transformative fandom,” with the latter perceived as more the practice of female consumers who transform media texts into art and fiction, often in so doing significantly changing their meaning. In Millennial Fandom, I actually argue that transformational and affirmational fandom are more deeply intertwined than we might at first assume, but nevertheless, at a discursive level, the distinction helps us to see why and how transformative (perceived “feminine”) practices have been and continue to be treated as suspect, marked as taboo, and policed.


But we know this is beginning to change, as various attempts by industry interests invite fan transformative authorship, if on industrial terms. So we have industry efforts to coopt fan transformational practices like Amazon Kindle Worlds and FanLib; we also see hash tags emblazoned on episodes designed to elicit and shape fan discourses and twitter authorship; likewise, we see TV source text mimicking the form of fan videos. We also see producers (especially digital producers of web series) naming “ships” and their associated fandoms, reposting fan art, and participating in fandom themselves. What this means is that industry interests are now courting and celebrating modes of fan engagement perceived as feminine, and, as a result, new and more nuanced games of co-creation and control begin to play out.

But it goes further than a grudging acceptance that feminine modes of fan production might be woven into profit too. Perceived feminine excesses are also being celebrated for their creative energy as representative of what is new and different about contemporary youth audiences. It’s part of the millennial discursive construct: all seeming threats can be recast as positives.

The potential unruliness of the millennial generation—especially the seemingly more illegible, excessive, feminine practices—are themselves being celebrated and marketed in millennial-directed texts and paratexts, and this means we are given lead female characters like Blair Waldorf, Veronica Mars, Charlie Bradbury (sob) and all five Pretty Little Liars leads, or most recently Clary Fray from Shadowhunters, whose transgressions and excesses are celebrated as strengths. This then means we have a dialogue between fan cultures that celebrate affective transgressions and series/characters (and especially female leads) that do the same.

You describe in some details how ABC Family developed its image as a network, but we’ve recently learned that the network is rebranding itself. Has the moment of millennial television already started to pass, and if so, what will take its place?

Thanks to a timely coincidence I am writing this response on January 12th, the day that ABC Family officially became Freeform. This rebranding not only changes the network’s name, but also its professed target audience. Freeform labels its intended imagined audience not millennials but “Becomers,” what they term a “life stage” rather than a specific generation.

According to various press materials, Becomers span life experience from “first kiss to first kid,” age range 14-34. But just as the millennial category did for ABC family in 2007, Becomers offer an expansive category seeking to unite teens and young adults, this time linking them by their shared processes of “finding themselves” rather than by a shared generational ethos.

ABC Family had to walk a fine line in its 2007 rebranding—it strove to maintain its family friendly and even conservative leaning Disney roots and while also positioning itself as fresh, cutting edge, and tapped into the concerns of contemporary young people. The discourses of social conservatism (what I talk about as “millennial hope”) surrounding millennials became a useful tool in this branding dance. But since then, ABC family has contributed significantly to the alternate depictions of millennials as transgressive, risk taking, and independently-minded (what I call discourses of “millennial noir.”)

The new Freeform/Becomers rebrand sheds the limiting generational discourse and the conservative associations that go with it. According to a press release announcing the rebranding in April 2015, current Becomers (or at least the younger ones) “live on the cutting edge of technology… have never experienced content without a smart phone, streaming, or social media.” In turn, according to another press release in Fall of 2015, Freeform will reach Becomers by encouraging audience interactivity: “Freeform is inspired by the interconnection between content and audience, media and technology, interactive and linear, life stage and life style and the way Becomers interact with all of them.”

Many of these strategies were already in place with ABC Family’s prior address to millennials. The moving away from the term millennials distances ABC Family from both the dated and more conservative dimensions of the brand. The hyped new programming on Freeform leans toward fan-friendly and female-centric representations of diverse experience, such as in The Fosters, Becoming Us, and Shadowhunters.

So all of this is to say that the label millennials has indeed begun to shift and pass (new articles describe millennials parenting tendencies!) and perhaps generational discourse itself is falling temporarily out of fashion, but many of the strategies put in place during the reign of the millennials will persist, if rebranded and somewhat reshaped.

Throughout, you suggest ways that the book, Millennials Rising, has informed industry practice and discourse as it relates to this particular generational cohort. What factors account for the impact this particular book had? Why was it so widely embraced? What have been some of the consequences of this book’s influence?

Millennials Rising not accidentally depicted a vision and definition of millennials that was advertiser and industry friendly and that helped ease concerns and anxieties about the impact of digital technologies and cultural change on media marketing models. Authors of Millennials Rising, William Strauss and Neil Howe were founding partners of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting, publishing and speaking company that “serve(s) companies, government agencies, and non-profit.” This reach across profit and non profit sectors has been felt, as reports from the Pew Research Centers and media companies like ABC Family reified the vision of millennials originally constructed by Strauss and Howe, limited and contradictory as it might have been.

In other words, Strauss and Howe defined the millennial generation in part with industry concerns in mind, and then industry interests glommed on, reified, and reproduced this definition, a self-fulfilling generational prophecy with far reaching impact. To return again to the Freeform example, the impact is still felt, even as ABC Family sheds the term millennial, it still constructs its expansive collapse of teen and young adult markets and spins a hopeful narrative about the power of community built on digital authorship communicating individual experience.

[i] Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership?: The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” The Routledge Handbook on Participatory Cultures (New York: Routledge, 2013), 43-52; Melanie Kohnen ‘The power of geek’: fandom as gendered commodity at Comic-Con,” Creative Industries Journal, 7:1 (2014), 75-78, DOI: 10.1080/17510694.2014.892295

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at

Who Are Millennial Fans?: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part One)

Louisa Stein is part of a generation of fan researchers who first came to my attention through the 2006 publication of Fan Fictions and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet which was a groundbreaking collection of essays, one that opened up a range of new theoretical perspectives and introduced many new voices. I have had the pleasure watching Stein’s scholarship take shape over the past decade — including her co-editorship of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (with Kristina Busse) and her contributions to the reissue of my own Textual Poachers.

Soft-spoken in person, Stein writes with real passion, as someone who is deeply grounded in the fandoms she discusses through her writing, and as someone whose sense of social justice is shaped by various forms of fan feminisms. She also has been consistently attentive to the ways fandom has changed as it embraces the potentials and works through the challenges of new media and as it struggles to maintain its own identity in the face of various industrial strategies that seek to incorporate and contain its transformative practices.

This past fall, Stein published an important new book — Millenial Fandom: Television Audiences in a Transmedia Age. Here, she discusses young fans of such programs as Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, Glee, Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, among many other series, and in the process, she expands the critical vocabulary of fandom research — especially as it concerns the shifting relations between producers and consumers in the era of social media. She writes in complex and compelling ways about the “mainstreaming” of fandom and who gets left out when the industry embraces some fans and not others. She doesn’t simply celebrate fandom as a space that transgresses or reimagines the ideologies of these popular fictions, but she also explores how fans reproduce and  in some cases,  deepen the problematic ideological contradictions at the heart of their favorite programs. I am sure that this book is one which will inspire and inform the next generation of fandom research.

We tackle many of these issues in this three part interview with Stein about her book and about some cutting edge issues impacting young fans today.

In many ways, you see the millennial audience as emblematic of the “mainstreaming” of fan culture within a networked culture. You write, “Millennials have made fan practices more socially acceptable by action, word, and image, if not name.” To what degree is this something Millennials have done and to what degree is this something the industry has done as it has constructed millennials as a particular kind of fan?

First, I want to emphasize that I mean millennial as an imagined category, one co-created by industry and (the cultural participants we refer to as) millennials in an ongoing negotiation. Likewise, the depiction of millennials as modified fans is an ongoing joint creation: industry marketing, advertising, network positioning, programming, scheduling, and digital paratexts together construct a vision of millennials as modified fans; but millennials’ (and/or fans’) own performances of self, responses to one another, and collective interactions also shape this picture. Advertising campaigns and paratextual strategies (like officially coordinated hash tags or programming embedded with fan reference) may hail a modified fan position—one that is invested, created, and interactive up to a particular degree and in certain industry-accepted modes. But fans created many of these practices in the first place, and choose when and how to respond to industrial hailing, when to play along the designated lines and when to transgress.

I’ve been thinking recently about the power of fan self representation, the impact of what fans choose to broadcast, so to speak, about their own engagement—what narratives of self and community they (and we, including scholar fans) choose to tell. To me, this set of performances is crucial. Even as fan self-representations may seem to echo industrial discourse, they transcend those too simple portraits.

The notion of “socially-minded millennials,” for example, is a thin industrial construct in comparison to the lived coordination and action of millennial fan campaigns such as the Harry Potter Alliance, Random Acts, The Glee Equality Project, and Wayward Daughters Academy. Likewise, the millennial noir transgressions of Gossip Girl characters in no way encompass the celebration of the excess of emotion in millennial feels culture that flourishes on Tumblr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The mainstreaming of fandom into millennial culture is a chosen stance of fans to represent their modes of engagement as more than only niche and subcultural. Fans choose to post about their fan engagement in the public spaces of Tumblr rather than the locked communities and friends-only journals of the late 1990s and early 2000s. They may perceive these fan spaces as intimate publics, as I’ve written about elsewhere, yet they choose to allow for the possibility of visibility, for a default public culture, albeit one with intimate semi-private pockets. Indeed, the social activism of, for example, what some refer to as Tumblr feminism is part of—or at least deeply connected to—this fan performance of fandom as an expansive mode of engagement with something important to share and spread.

Many have seen the “mainstreaming” of fandom in largely negative terms as a form of co-optation or enclosure, yet throughout the book, there are suggestions that it may also be a positive force for change. In what senses? What is gained and what gets lost as fandom gets greater acceptance, as it moves from a niche or cult phenomenon and into the mainstream?

We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the dimensions and experiences of fandom that have become sidelined, censured, erased, deemed unimportant or inappropriate, or even ridiculed because they do not fall within industrially or culturally approved fannish modes. For example, the increased visibility of fandom has led to a gendered battleground when it comes to representations of fans, seen recently in the whiplash ambivalence of the series Supernatural’s representation of fandom  and female fannish characters. (See also) The mainstreaming of fandom does police and punish certain fans, modes of fan engagement, and modes of fan production, while heralding others.

But at the same time, the mainstreaming of fandom can give visibility and voice to those vital parts of fandom even as they’re being censured. Nowhere was this more evident to me than at the 2013 LeakyCon, which I write about in my book’s conclusion. (I’ve also written about it with Allison McCracken and Lindsey Giggey on Antenna.) At LeakyCon, young millennial fans came together into a supportive multifandom community that they saw as an extension of their online engagement.

I attended one panel that focused on parents of LeakyCon goers. As the parent of a budding fan myself (my daughter just finished reading book 7 of Harry Potter this week!), I was struck by the way parents spoke about how much fandom had meant to their kids, how knowing that there is this larger community of folks that share their concerns of identity and self-expression, articulated through their engagement with media communities, has empowered their children to become authors, creators, community participants, and sometimes community leaders in ways that their parents (many of whom had grown up as fans) could never have imagined for themselves when they were young.

The increased visibility and sense of pride and public-facing community has transformed access to fandom, its breadth, and in turn the tenor of the fan experience. Fandom still can provide an escape from a more constricting daily life, but fandom is no longer necessarily hidden and walled. Instead it infuses fans’ everyday and shapes the communities fans build in “real life” and online or, more to the point, as these categories dissolve.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at

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

The report’s focus on immersion as a dimension of news and documentary may be new to many readers, despite the New York Time’s recent venture into virtual reality. So, can you share a bit more about the current state of immersive journalism and why you think this is a trend which we should be paying attention to rather than a passing fad? How would you respond to fears that immersion is more a tool for shaping emotional response rather than a resource for fostering reasoned argument? Can news stories be both immersive (and thus framed by a particular vantage point) and objective in the traditional sense of the term?

To answer your last question first, if we take immersive technology in the form of VR to mean 360-degree, 3D imaging systems (there is a lot of slippage in the meanings of both ‘immersive’ and ‘VR”), I actually think that it’s easier to be less subjective, or at least to circumvent the problem of a particular point-of-view common to linear narratives in film, video, words and even traditional photography.

One of its affordances as a medium, and a great advantage or disadvantage depending on one’s goals, is that VR offers a surfeit of information. This makes directing the user’s attention or ‘constructing the gaze’ a difficult task. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons VR storytelling is still in its infancy: how to impose structure and direction, other than to mimic film conventions? In these early days, VR storytelling feels a lot like the first decade of cinematic storytelling, when the conventions from another medium (theater) informed the endeavors of a new medium still finding its feet.

I recently experienced Waves of Grace, a terrific project about an Ebola survivor whose immunity offers a story of hope, made by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk for the UN in collaboration with Vice Media. It’s clear that the makers have a point of view, a story that they want to communicate. And while reader-response theory tells us that viewers can and will make their own meanings from texts, in this case, the viewer has 360 degrees at his disposal, and in my case, I’m pretty sure that I constructed a counter-narrative possibly abusing my freedom to look around, to look ‘behind’ or opposite the makers’ focus, to see things they weren’t talking about and perhaps didn’t want to take up.

More objective? I think the viewer has more options, can look around at what would normally be ‘off-screen space’ in a film or video image, and that means viewers have greater latitude in figuring out not only what they are supposed to look at, but also the larger setting and context.

The bigger issue, according to some research, is that we might be processing these encounters the same way we do real-world experiences, and not the way we process film or photography or words. That is, we might be processing them as experience not representation.

Emile Bruneau’s work in cognitive neuroscience at MIT, for instance, focuses on synaptic plasticity and explores the extent to which VR experiences play out differently than the representational domain we are more familiar with. He’s doing this, among other places, with user experiences of Karim Ben Khalifa’s The Enemy that I mentioned earlier, and it’s very exciting work even if worrying for its larger implications. Emile is coming at it from a conflict resolution perspective, which is terrific; but if his thesis is correct, we need to understand the process much better in order to brace ourselves for the onslaught of other less benevolent appropriations.

I think immersive experiences put a new twist on the old ‘showing-telling’ distinction. Showing is far more difficult to contain than telling, seems more impactful in terms of how it is experienced and remembered, and as Confucius tells us, can be re-told in thousands of words and thus in countless ways. VR takes showing to the next level, not only always presenting us with an excess of information, but in so doing, forcing us to attend to only a small portion of what is available, and giving us that information as experience. I think it would be difficult to argue that it is a tool for reasoned argument – the abstraction of words and numbers is still best for that, with image and sound beginning the slippery slope to affect (I guess that’s what the Reformation was all about!).

But VR can be a great attention-getter, a quick and easy way to create a sense of presence and place. By creating the impression of being somewhere, by giving the viewer the freedom to look up, down and all around, a lot of crucial contextual information can be derived that would, in more limited linear scenarios, require careful selection and plotting, only to wind up giving us the director’s or writer’s point of view.

Immersion can offer a counterweight to indifference. It can lure us into being interested in a topic we might otherwise gloss over, can encourage a search for facts, or a desire to learn. Rational debate, as a mode of discourse, is usually driven by some sort of motive. Immersion can help to create that motive, but – at least until we develop better ways of shaping and directing immersive experiences – it is not, in itself, a mode of discourse.

So with this in mind, I would not dismiss it as a journalistic fad, but rather look to it working in tandem with other media expressions. Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey (Dan Edge, working with TheSecretLocation) uses Google Cardboard, an inexpensive and relatively easy way to reach the public, to create a 3D 360 degree immersive environment tied to Frontline’s Outbreak, a broadcast documentary. This Frontline production is a great example of forward-looking journalism, bound at the hip with documentary of course. It played out across media with partnerships and media manifestations from the New York Times to Youtube, and the immersive app was, in that sense, just another arrow in the quiver of an organization trying to expand and engage its audience while expanding the modalities of getting its story across.

Emphasizing audience engagement poses its own issues, since news organizations have historically distinguished themselves from the commercial drivers that shape the rest of their network’s operations and journalists often resent the push to reach more viewers. At the same time, news organizations have seen their job as informing but not necessarily mobilizing the public, a goal more likely to be associated with documentary producers or activists. So, in what senses should journalists care about engagement?

The 20th Century is rich with embodiments of the journalistic profession, from news hounds, to crusaders, to hard-bitten cynics, to gonzo journalists, each articulating a different set of relations between journalists and their publics as well as their larger institutional bases. And while it’s probably true that many of today’s practitioners hew to notions of independence, integrity and authority that would be familiar to journalists of generations gone by, the increasingly dire conditions facing many American print organizations seems to be encouraging a more public-friendly stance.

I have the impression that many of the journalists who a few years back were forced to include their email address with their bylines and grudgingly cope with tweets, are now more willing to interact with their public and to even track the number of hits their stories are getting.

News organizations, for all of their rhetoric about informing the public, not mobilizing it, also seem to be changing. This seems driven as much by the political polarization of the American public sphere, as by charges from the political right that ‘the media’ is too leftist, as by an outright political agenda on the part of some news organizations and funders (Fox News and Richard Mellon Scaiff’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to name but two). That Fox News trademarked “Fair & Balanced” and “We Report. You Decide” as news slogans is one of the clearest signs that the old platitudes have been transformed into marketing tools, not commitments. Journalism – just like the larger environment it inhabits – is changing.

All that said, I think the engagement issue plays out on a somewhat different dimension. It’s similar to what I said about immersive VR: it can help to generate interest, while making no claims to being a mode of discourse. First, it can indeed support the bottom line by attracting and holding readers and viewers. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, as the annals of Yellow Journalism demonstrate. But the history of Pulitzer’s New York World also shows that an engaged audience will stick with a paper even when the reporting improves! In other words, engagement is independent from journalistic quality in the traditional sense.

Second, engagement can be extensive. It can help to move people from an interest in the reports they read or see to the actual world and civic processes around them. If the journalistic information is solid, then whatever interventions follow will at least have the benefit of being well-informed.

Third, I think the pursuit of engagement has led to some very interesting innovations. Our report discusses Localore and WBEZ-Chicago’s Curious City, a program where the ideas for what should be covered and the ensuing research itself comes from the public. It’s a great example of co-creation, and how it can foster community engagement. In a very different way, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Off/Page and Storyworks projects are each based on partnerships with non-traditional players (YouthSpeaks, a literary nonprofit, and Tides Theater, respectively) to report news stories in ways that speak to particular communities. And The Oakland Tribune’s Oakland Voices (with sister projects in Sacramento, California, and Jackson, Mississippi) trains local residents to become multi-media storytellers, which extends its range of news coverage and points of view, and enhances community engagement. These developments and more like them are essential steps towards pushing the journalistic form ahead, towards helping it reach publics that it has too long ignored, and towards keeping it in step with the ever-changing needs of its publics.

Engagement is user-centric. Rather than proclaiming from the lofty position of professional authority, it invites involvement, situates relevance, demonstrates the need for further information and consideration.

Alas, the news no longer seems self-evident. Today’s public faces a withering array of choices, a number of which pander shamelessly to their interests. It’s an empowered public, which is not to say an informed one; a public with tools, access, and the means to express and share ideas. These developments are some of the reasons we believe that journalism is moving away from being a straightforward transmitter of information to a redefined position as a convener, curator and shaper of an informed conversation between publics and sources. It’s the difference between a monologue and a dialogue. And today’s public is increasingly part of the conversation.

One of our key bits of advice to journalists is to “begin with the user…”. While we are still in the early days of this new dialogic info-scape, acknowledging that the folks out there in the public are more than mere recipients of whatever journalism organizations cast their way seems like an essential starting point. They are potential partners (Curious City), localizers (Off/Page), people with particular interests and needs that can be reached through a number of the interactive, immersive, and engaging approaches possible with today’s technologies.

If a significant public does its reading and viewing on mobile devices, then we need to think about reaching them there, not simply by squeezing the printed page down to phone screen size, and not simply finding alternate ways to convey that information in small format. We also need to consider users’ desires to navigate information, compare it, share it, and at times, even produce it. We need to find a way to go beyond journalism as information transmission alone, and to think about ways of addressing its ritual dimensions that I mentioned earlier when citing James Carey. And all this while somehow maintaining the reference values that quality journalism represents. No small challenge, but we’ve figured out the quality news and transmission bit, so the next step is to upgrade significantly the role of user in our calculus.

News organizations and documentary producers struggle with the phenomenon of user-generated content. So-called “citizen journalists” are often pit against professional news-gatherers and there’s concerns that grassroots media may not meet the same standards of accuracy and ethics as that produced by professional journalists. Are there good ways for news organizations to collaborate with the public in order to expand their capacities without necessarily sacrificing older standards about quality reporting?

This picks up from the previous question, and it’s the key issue in a change from monologue to dialogue. What do we do with the conversation partner, especially when there are so few productive behavioral precedents available and even fewer ways to guarantee the quality of the conversation? Transitions are always vexed: how much of the old to retain? What of the new will actually stick? And meanwhile, how are we supposed to navigate the uncertain mix of signals?

Recognizable standards and the ability to distinguish fact from fiction are more important than ever, particularly given the ever-growing cacophony of sources and voices enabled by our communication technologies. This is in part a literacy problem, in a world where diversity brings with it multiple and competing truths; and in part a curation problem, where reputation turns on appropriate and timely selection in a very chaotic information environment.

But the stakes are enormous in an environment that offers countless invitations for the public to share, and in sharing, opportunities to build communities of interest and affiliation. These energies can be directed towards civic engagement and informed debate, or they can be siphoned off to support the narrow interests of closed communities. Journalism, at least in my view, should be a social binder.

This is a fast moving area, and there are several approaches to journalistic collaboration with the public to keep an eye on. For starters, there are precedents that we can learn from such as collaborative news networks. A few years back, Anita Chan, wrote her CMS thesis about networks such as Slashdot and Kuro5hin that developed various user-based systems to rank and filter participant-generated stories. Or we might look at the very different curation systems in play with Reddit, The Guardian, the New York Times and other organizations that have sought to embrace user comments and leads. Stay tuned for more on this when Anika Gupta, another CMS student, finishes her thesis later this spring on comments, moderators and news communities in journalism!

Or we might look to a growing number of automated verification tools out there like Scoopshot and CrowdVoice, many developed thanks to the Knight News Challenge. And then there are working partnerships between the public and journalists in the form of The Guardian’s “The Counted” that I mentioned earlier, in which The Guardian’s reporters do the work of verification on information supplied in part by the public.

While the verdict is still out, there’s no denying the role of the public in uploading information on events as they happen, and in commenting on, supplementing and contesting journalistic reports whether in the press or not. In really simplistic terms, on one hand, the public’s contributions can be likened to sensory input, the raw data that something is happening that will quickly make its way to the brain for the dots to be connected. It’s the nervous system at work, with a division of function that makes good use of both nerve ends and cognitive processing.

But on the other hand, public responses to published journalism (I learn a lot by reading The Guardian’s comments sections!) invoke a slightly different analogy. In this case, it’s all at the processing level and similar to the internal debates we can have with ourselves. We reach a conclusion, but then consider the situation from different angles, or factor in different data points. These comments, if a civil tone can reign, go a long way towards improving journalism by offering contrasting views, linking to sources not mentioned in the original, and demonstrating the potentials of an incredibly productive partnership.

How does this report fit within the longer term vision of the Open-Doc Lab? What else might people expect from you in the future?

When I founded the Open Doc Lab, I did so with the idea that the conditions for representation are changing and changing profoundly, and that documentary can benefit immensely from the particular constellation of changes facing us. Near ubiquitous cameras, good networking and software availability, an increasingly media-making public … the elements are in place for a fundamental reworking of the long established balance of power in representation.

But on the other hand, as many of your questions have indicated, there are plenty of tensions with our inherited traditions, plenty of threats to established ways of doing things, and potentially plenty of dangers especially in the shift from the known to the unknown. What do we do about notions of authorship, authorial responsibility, expertise and point of view? What’s the calculus of ethics in participatory documentaries (free labor, libel, privacy incursions, and the rest) and also in interactive ones (where we can potentially confirm world views, not expand them)? How will these new approaches and the technologies fit with established notions of storytelling, engagement and even something as basic as shared textual experiences?

These are not necessarily new questions – games have already posed some of them – but the stakes are arguably different when taking up the representational claims long held as defining for documentary. Of course this is not to say that the concept of documentary is any more stable than the inherited notion of journalism; rather, just like journalism, it is fraught with tensions and contradictions at a moment of change.

So that’s where we come in. The Open Doc Lab is research centric, of course, and these tensions and above all possibilities define our ongoing research agenda. An important component of this research takes the form of our masters students’ theses, where we’ve had some terrific work on data-driven storytelling (Heather Craig), impact assessment (Sean Flynn), live documentary (Julie Fisher), and so on. We’re also interested in extending our findings, of intervening in the ongoing development of documentary as both production and institutional practices, something that Sarah Wolozin, who is the lab’s director, has found endlessly creative ways to achieve.

And by doing this, I’d say that our bottom line intervention targets the larger issue of civic discourse. Our ongoing work with journalism is a good example of how this works. Initially, we thought that digital journalism would offer documentary an incredibly important distribution platform and audience, especially as documentary’s theatrical and broadcast venues continue to melt away. And it does. But actually, it turned out that (digital) journalism could also benefit considerably from the relationship. This turned into conversations with both communities and ultimately the report that Sarah Wolozin, the ODL team, and I prepared with the MacArthur Foundation’s support and that we’ve been talking about in this interview.

We also work with documentarians, journalists, and organizations on a more individual level. Take Frontline, an organization at the pinnacle of American broadcast documentary. David Fanning recognized the changing dynamics of the media landscape and brought in Raney Aronson, now Frontline’s executive producer, to help the series stay ahead of the curve. Raney is a fellow in our lab, and that’s led to some extremely productive conversations between our two organizations.

Or take another example: the widespread participation that is one of the most exciting affordances of the new documentary. We’ve been fortunate to be able to approach this through the work of visiting artists such as Kat Cizek, whom I mentioned earlier in the context of the NFB’s Highrise series (Kat’s work embodies the co-creation methodology, and she is wonderfully articulate about it) and through the projects of MIT colleagues such as Sasha Constanza-Chock, Vivek Bald and Christine Walley – all members of the lab – as well as with our colleagues from MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

Our fellows program has attracted a small and remarkable group of international makers, critics, technologists, and artists (for the people and profiles, see It has provided a space to share expertise and even basic things like vocabulary, to explore new technologies, and to brainstorm and incubate projects. Sarah and I would love to be able to share our work with a greater and more diverse array of people, and as well to get it out to communities where it can make a difference, and that means getting some financial legs under the fellows program, which is the task at hand.

One of the great advantages of working at a university is that we have a relatively neutral platform at our disposal (our job is to open up, not monetize). We can bring members of the industry, technologists, artists, festival organizers, advocates and policy makers together to move the field as a whole ahead. Naturally, we take advantage of this setting for convenings large and small. But we also try to move the field and the debate along by building resources.

Sarah Wolozin has been the driving spirit behind Docubase, a curated collection of hundreds of interactive projects. It includes playlists by makers, curators and technologists; a lab, where project documentation and interviews abound; a tool and resource section; and we are building up a beta-testing function for makers who want to get feedback on work in progress. It’s a tremendous resource, and the kind of thing that we will definitely keep doing as part of our commitment to field-building.

Knowledge transmission is also part of our remit – courses, workshops, lectures and the rest. I’m just back from a string of lectures across Eastern Europe as well as England, France, Germany and the Netherlands where these developments are generating ever-more interest. We’re planning to connect the dots between some of our online projects such as Docubase and Moments of Innovation and the interviews that we’ve been recording in order to offer the international public a structured learning environment, or in the language of the day, a MOOC.

As I noted earlier in response to your question about the ‘open’ in the Open Doc Lab, sharing knowledge and resources is central to the lab’s vision. But we also do our best to facilitate this new order of things through a robust set of collaborations and joint projects with Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, i-Docs and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam’s DocLab.

To give one example, Sundance’s New Frontier’s Program, Indiewire and our lab joined together for the Creating Critics program to train new critics to write about emerging digital forms in the context of a festival and to show how they relate to cinematic storytelling. It’s been great for our students, the sponsoring partners and the field, so we look forward to ramping this up in the future. We regularly partner with IDFA’s DocLab, whether for projects like Moments of Innovation or for some event or other during their festival in November.

With our base at MIT, technology is another no-brainer. We’re always on the prowl to see how various technologies can be put to the work of representation, how they might open access to a greater array of users. So for example, later this spring, we’ll be holding an event on VR that in part attempts to disambiguate the different technologies behind VR, tease out their implications … and get a sense of what new approaches are just beginning to take shape in MIT’s labs.

Finally – good news – we recently learned that the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation has given us a significant grant, allowing us to focus more on our work (and less on fundraising!) for the next few years. And it has the added value of allowing us to continue working with Kathy Im at the Foundation, while redoubling our efforts at all the things I’ve just mentioned!
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

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

On the documentary side, the American public has probably never had access to as many different documentaries as they do now — more are playing on television, more are getting theatrical runs, more are playing on the festival circuit, more are available through online platforms. So, how has this context impacted the ways documentary producers work today? How do they stand out in a cluttered environment? They are under increased pressure from funders to demonstrate their impact, but how do they insure impact in such a complicated media environment?

It’s been a curious time for the documentary form. It’s being pushed on one side by the interactive, immersive, location-based forms that our report explores, where the boundaries are being redefined through new technologies, techniques, and empowered users. And on the other side, the traditional linear form is blurring thanks to a broad spectrum of reality television, from Animal Planet’s programming to series such as MythBusters. These predictably formatted programs technically hew to Grierson’s definition, but for the most part seem like extreme dilutions of documentary’s capacity to engage meaningfully with the world.

Meanwhile, there is indeed a lot of excellent linear documentary out there – I’ve been to a couple of remarkable festivals over the past few months – but sad to say, very little of what I’ve seen will ever be seen again, unless it’s at another festival or by very adventurous uses of Netflix. The more socially critical and engaged, the poorer the opportunities for theatrical or televisual distribution … and it’s still early days in terms of the various modalities of internet distribution.

The developments that we’ve been tracking address the ‘attention’ problem in a couple of ways. First, they are in many cases designed for the viewing platforms that seem increasingly dominant: smart phones and tablets, that is, relatively small mobile screens with touch interfaces. In this sense, they are digital native productions, making use of links, user interventions, etc. already well understood from everyday encounters with these technologies. They take the form of a new vernacular, rather than repurposing the older forms of dramatic narrative film, television and the long form story.

Secondly, in a number of cases, they attempt to be immersive. This might take as extreme a form as Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy, which uses Oculus Rift to bring an interview to life; or as simple a form as Question Bridge (Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair, Chris Johnson and Bayeté Ross Smith) which lets users follow their interests by controlling the configuration of questions and answers.

Question Bridge: Black Males – Project Trailer from Question Bridge on Vimeo.

And as this suggests, thirdly, a high degree of customization is often possible, as users make decisions about what they want to see, which characters or perspectives they want to follow, or where they want to dive more deeply.

These approaches to attention also, unfortunately, make the lack of attention quite visible. Whereas linear documentaries continue to flow along regardless of whether one is watching, asleep or in the next room making a sandwich, interactives usually stop cold the moment that one has stopped interacting with them. And in a world of data tracking, that is not always good news for interactives. Attention can be more sharply measured, but the metrics regimes between linear and interactive aren’t necessarily compatible.

This gets to your second question: impact. I find this a fraught area in general, and in particular in the case of interactives, where we have tended to extend the logics of assessing fixed linear texts to texts with a very different set of conditions and affordances. There has been a recent spate of impact assessment studies that have essentially (and often unknowingly) worked in parallel with the television industry, where, as Philip Napoli puts it, interest in exposure has been replaced by interest in engagement.

That is, the vast proliferation of program options has weakened the market share of any one program and therefore logics of economic value; and at the very same moment, new and more fine-grained tools are available, encouraging the industry to shift from quantitative to qualitative arguments. Nielsen’s partnership with Twitter, and the importance of social media as a site of ‘engagement’, are all about this shift.

Anyway, in the more refined world of academics and foundations concerned with social change, the same basic shift in thinking is underway. How can we use the new tools available to us (Twitter feeds and Facebook mentions) better to understand engagement, impact and social change?

It’s a fair question, of course, and there are good reasons to ask what kind of impact a documentary had and what we can learn in order to improve down the road. But at the moment, we seem caught up in defaults that largely extend the thinking of the broadcast past and its obsession with comparative metrics and standardization, redoubling it with the data trails users of digital media leave behind. And that, it seems to me, does a great disservice to the affordances of the interactive forms we’ve been investigating.

There is a world of difference between, on one hand, taking a guided tour of a city, where one sits back and listens to an informed and compelling tale, and on the other, wandering through the city on one’s own, where there is much greater latitude in terms of where to direct attention and different requirements for engagement. I’m not (yet) convinced that the latter experience can be measured on the same standardized customer satisfaction form as the former. So while I am by no means adverse to assessment, I guess I’d say that the verdict is still out on best impact assessment practices for the interactive space, though many of my colleagues seem comfortable with tweaking the tools developed for fixed linear experiences and porting them over to interactives.

With support from the Fledgling Fund, the MIT Open Documentary Lab partnered with the Tribeca Film Institute to bring together leading social impact assessment researchers and practitioners to examine how participatory and interactive media can be used to enhance social justice initiatives. The goal of the Media Impact Assessment Working Group was to provide common strategies and frameworks for the measurement and assessment of documentary media-based engagement campaigns – including both long-form films linked to cross-platform campaigns, and interactive, participatory, or non-linear forms of storytelling. As I said, there is a lot of work out there – reports galore – but I think there are still more compelling questions than answers in these early days of interactive, immersive and participatory forms.

Your lab is focused on “open documentaries.” What does this phrase mean to you and what are some examples of how these techniques have been deployed?

Open…. We use this term for a couple of reasons. One important cluster of motives comes from our institutional setting: MIT.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, Ricky Leacock, probably best known for his work with direct cinema, was increasingly involved in developing a film technology that would put the tools of documentary production into everyone’s hands. His work with sound Super 8mm was, we now know, doomed by the soon to emerge technology of portable video, but his endeavor was right on target: how can we take the next step from ‘direct cinema’? how can we empower the documentary subject to take up the means of representation and tell their own story? how can we enable widespread participation in the documentary project, opening up the filmmaker-subject dynamic in important ways?

A second factor is the work of Glorianna Davenport’s group at the Media Lab. Starting in the 1980s, Glorianna and her team developed some remarkably sophisticated interactive platforms – conceptual equivalents of what we are still doing today. The difference was that projects like Elastic Charles involved stacks of computers and laser disks to implement – they were technology intensive in the worst way. But they opened up the user’s ability to explore an issue, to assemble the parts in ways that made sense to them.

A third MIT-related invocation of ‘open’ comes from the legacy of people like Hal Ableson, Gerald Sussman, Richard Stallman and others who were instrumental in founding initiatives such as the free software movement and Creative Commons. With a goal of opening up code and creative work for sharing and creative reiteration, their work helped us to appreciate the importance of opening up the processes, techniques and even tools behind the screen, and of incorporating the principles of sharing and participation into the bones of the documentary project.

Together, Leacock’s participatory technology, Davenport’s interactive texts and Ableson et al’s sharing and learning economy all contributed key elements to our work. Sure, today’s widespread and networked mobile technologies and a tech-savvy population are important, but more important are the underlying principles. Understanding them and fighting the good fight to keep and expand them is essential, especially if we seek to enhance critical engagement and encourage widespread participation in the project of representing and changing the world.

Beyond ‘open’ as an adjective, we also use it as a verb, since our lab’s task is to open debate, to open the documentary form to new participants, to explore the possibilities of new technologies, and to understand the expressive capacities of new textual possibilities. It’s a big agenda, and in part means revisiting documentary’s past to ‘liberate’ it from the film medium (the documentary ethos, we argue in Moments of Innovation , has been around for centuries and taken many different media forms).

And finally, consistent with the spirit of CMS that binds your and my histories together, we do our best to open our lab’s doors and ideas to anyone who might benefit from our work … and at the same time, to be open to and learn from the many different experiences out there in the world.

This all hits documentary in several ways. First, more people than ever before are equipped to make documentaries, to reflect on and give form to their ideas and observations. High definition video cameras are built into most smartphones, and Vine and Youtube upload rates suggest that producing moving images is increasingly the norm. Second, networked distribution enables unprecedented global reach. Third, the tools for designing interactive and participatory texts have never been so accessible, both in the senses of easy and free. And meanwhile, interactivity has been increasingly normalized in our encounters with situated texts, that is, we have become comfortable navigating our way through texts and contexts, effectively constructing our own meta-texts (whether our mobile devices, audio-visual systems, or DVDs). This all adds up to an incentive to think about newly enabled users, new ways of telling stories, and new ways of connecting with one another.

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


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

You argue that the story should dictate the form, yet many aspects of the form of American journalism — the inverted pyramid for example and the core shape of the lead paragraph — have remain fixed without regard to the story. Some traditional journalists would argue that these formulas allows for quick production of news and for interoperability amongst collaborators. So, how do you make the case to such traditionalists for a broader range of different kinds of news stories?

Journalistic form has changed continually over the centuries, some elements sticking and some new ones displacing old. Things like headlines and the inverted pyramid appeared for the reasons you mention, plus enabling readers to orient themselves and, when required, make quick work of the day’s news. They work well and seem to be sticking in the digital environment, arguably a predecessor of the ‘listicle’.

We are witnessing an evolutionary process, but one that is accelerated as much because of a change in the use of media technologies as because of a change in the larger information situation of the user and her attendant expectations. The move from print and broadcast to digital platforms has brought with it many new affordances, and while traditionalists can stick with techniques that have proven effective with the printed page or news clip (rightly arguing that the digital can easily incorporate the page and the clip), digital media technologies – including the small mobile screens that currently loom large in most user experiences – have been put to many other uses that could enhance both journalism and user engagement.

To be honest, I don’t know of any journalistic organizations, no matter how traditional, that have failed in their digital operations to make use of embedded links, or auto-generated links to past stories, or an array of user tracking applications. These have changed the presentation of news and relationship to the user, just as digital processes have changed the workflow within the newsroom. Their impact can be read as subtle or profound, depending on one’s point of view. But even the most traditional journalistic organization is acutely aware of Vice, Buzzfeed and Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative, their fast-growing market share, and appeal to younger readers.

Our report’s conclusion that ‘story dictates form’ simply means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ convention for storytelling. The digital has brought with it an expanded set of approaches, has offered new – and digitally relevant – options. The report says that now that we have more choices, we should use them critically and strategically – not just jump on the bandwagon of the new (or stick fetishistically to the old). A data-rich story might benefit from visualizations and even personalization through interaction; whereas the same techniques would add little to a personal profile. The new is no more a panacea than the old, but it does offer expanded choice.

But at a moment when the media ecosystem is fast changing, with consequences financial, informational, and generational, we need better to understand the affordances of the new. This by no means entails discarding lessons hard won over centuries of journalistic practice, but it also means not necessarily sticking to paper and broadcast-based habits just because they happen to be well established. And particularly as the role of the user continues to grow, journalists and documentary makers need actively to consider the fit of form and content rather than slipping into inherited defaults.

You correctly note that one of the strengths of legacy media is that they have such deep archives of materials that rarely get used. I am often struck by the ways that comedy news media dig deep into news archives to juxtapose current and past statements by political leaders, for example, and thus show contradictions in their positions over time. But even though such context can be very helpful in understanding current events, we rarely see it used by mainstream journalists. Are there good examples of how news organizations are tapping their archives?

The archive issue is a crucial one, both as you note, for giving depth, context and added meaning to a story … but also because it is something of an ‘ace in the hole’ for most legacy organizations. The very fact that these organizations have persisted over time usually means that they have perspective, memory, and archives.

The archive is an asset that results from long-term involvement with a beat, community, or nation, and as such is one of legacy journalism’s key distinguishing features from digital start-ups. Archives offer ways of telling stories that potentially differentiate and give a competitive advantage to legacy journalism organizations. As journalists intensify their efforts to contextualize and explain rather than just report, archives offer low hanging fruit.

Users, for their part, seem increasingly active, using Google or social media to supplement what they read in a given report, getting more information about a place or person or event. And — to make it a trifecta — digital technologies offer solutions for the space constraints that have long plagued print and broadcast journalists and the contradictory demands of readers, some of whom may want a short experience while others want a deep dive.

Wouldn’t it be great to give readers access to the documents referenced or summarized in a story, or to earlier versions of a story, or to see more than one or two images? While not for every user, it allows journalists to have their cake and eat it, too: a tightly formed ‘traditional’ story can be accompanied by in-house resources, accommodating both those users who just want the facts as well as those who want to discover them for themselves. And if we’re right about the move of journalism to become more of a curator of a public conversation, expanded use of the archive offers a terrific transitional tool. All to say, it’s never been easier nor more important to incorporate archival holdings into everyday journalism.

One of our case studies, Kat Cizek’s A Short History of the Highrise – a joint endeavor by Op Docs at The New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada – is a terrific example. Part of Kat and the NFB’s Emmy Award-winning Highrise series of interactive documentaries, A Short History’s partnership with the Times made brilliant use of the Times’ photo morgue to tell the story of man’s many experiments with vertical living. The interface is described as ‘a visual accordion’ allowing the viewer to ‘dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and miniature games.’ The viewer can simply watch an archive-based video overview, but can also stop the video flow to explore the individual photos, listen to interviews, and even turn the photos over to see the traces of their history at the Times. The project accommodates both casual and serious viewers, makes brilliant use of the largely overlooked photo morgue, and in the process offers an insightful look both into the high-rise and how we (and the Times) have looked at it over the years.

A Short History picked up Emmy, Peabody, and World Press Photo Awards, so it’s an exceptional example. As with many of these early experiments, quite a bit of time and money go into developing a robust and user-friendly interface. But one can imagine that more examples will yield greater efficiencies, whether in the form of re-usable tools or even modifiable templates.

For example, back in 2009, the New York Times used a tool to slide back and forth across two photos taken from an identical position, but years apart. Called “Before and After”, it was used to good effect in a piece called “The Berlin Wall 20 Years Later: A Division Through Time.” The same basic device is still in use, for example in The Guardian’s “The American Civil War Then and Now”, offering an effective way to showcase the photo archive.

Another great example of the creative use of archives and tools comes from The Guardian’s “The Counted”, an ongoing, partially crowd-sourced, interactive report on people killed by police in the US. It’s an archive in the making, a living archive, piling up the sad details case-by-case, day-by-day, and doing something that only an archive can do: contextualizing historically the incidents that seem to happen three or four times a day across America, helping us to see the bigger picture.

Bottom line: archival resources allow today’s fact-based storytellers to harvest the riches of the past, bringing new life, context, and meaning to their findings. And digital media offer journalists the means and space and users the flexibility to make the most of these affordances.

Some of the more interactive elements you describe take time to develop and this means slowing down the pace of news production and taking a long view perspective of social issues. How can we reconcile this with the 24 hours a day news cycle and other factors which are speeding up the production, circulation, and consumption of news?

Temporality is one of the most intriguing dimensions of today’s journalism scene. On one hand, Twitter and other services have reduced the lag between event and report to just about nothing. OK, these aren’t traditional fact-checked reports, but in the aggregate they tend to give a first heads-up about breaking news, and even legacy journalism is making increasing use of tweets in their coverage. On the other, in a world bubbling with reports of all kinds and qualities, the need for context, perspective and plain old pattern recognition has never been greater.

The traditional 24 hour cycle is under siege from both sides: it can’t keep pace with networked digital sources, and has generally left the reflective contextualizing work to occasional investigative and feature stories or to specialized venues such as magazines and programs like Frontline. All to say that the time cycles that have worked for the better part of a century no longer seem to be addressing public needs.

The Guardian was quick to try to redress this, embracing breaking news (even minute-by-minute blog reports of the Republican and Democratic presidential debates or the Academy Awards), carrying on with the traditional 24-hour cycle, and redoubling its feature work. And it’s in this last context that they have carried out much of their interactive work. The verdict is still out on how legacy organizations will deal with this challenge – having it all, Guardian-style – won’t necessarily work for everyone.

The Guardian’s experimental stance has yielded some great innovative work that blurs the divide between immediate and long-term journalism. “The Counted”, that I’ve already mentioned, hews to the 24 hour cycle, but aggregates the daily updates, encouraging readers to look for patterns (age, ethnicity, location, etc.) as the data collects over the course of the year. It harvests the daily news, folds it into a larger context, offers analytic tools, and in the process renders the normally hyper-local into something of national import. In fact, it reveals that many incidents are not reported, or are reported so locally that the rest of the country has no idea of the scale of the problem.

So experiments like these that complicate the familiar temporalities and logics of journalism offer signs that multiple news cycles can intertwine, and actually contribute to one another to deliver a powerful set of insights that would otherwise be missed.

More generally, though, you are right: most interactives are like feature stories, ‘evergreens’ capable of drawing in users well after the initial publication date. And in this, they are particularly good at contextualizing, explaining, and offering multiple points of view.

For the moment, they are labor-intensive, but developers are sharing bits of code and tools among themselves, flexible content management systems  and even templates are beginning to appear, and in general the process is accelerating. Some thought leaders fear that these efficiencies could go too far, that the innovation that has driven new kinds of user experience will reify into rigid one-size-fits-all templates. And indeed, the front office has a habit of thinking about the bottom line and these are still early days in terms of expanded story form. But I mention this simply to say that it’s clear that these efficiencies can and will speed up the process, even though it is essential for leading organizations to continue exploring and building innovative story technologies that work with the platforms most familiar to the public.

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