Concerning Intellectual Property: A Conversation Between Ellen Seiter and Pat Aufderheide (Part One)

The grassroots efforts to block the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA) represented simply the most recent and most highly publicized skirmish in ongoing struggles over the nature of intellectual property law and how it impacts the new media landscape. If intellectual property law might once have seemed to be a narrow and somewhat obscure focus for legal scholarship, it has become more and more central to the field of media and communication studies, as it has become part of the everyday reality of fans, artists, and teachers, struggling to figure out the extent of their Fair Use rights. As more and more of us are producing and circulating media, sometimes within, sometimes outside, current legal frameworks, intellectual property constitutes both an enabling mechanism and a constraint of our expressive possibilities. Seiter's book, The Creative Artist's Legal Guide:Copyright, Trademark and Contracts in Film and Digital Media Production, co-authored with Bill Seiter, was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.   Pat Aufderheide's  Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, co-authored with Peter Jaszi was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011. Both represent indispensable guides to the current legal landscape  by veteran communication scholars (working in each case with a lawyer) which address how IP law impacts the production, circulation, and consumption of media. Both combine pragmatic understanding of the often contested status of current law as well as a theoretical understanding of how these decisions impact the future of communications.

My goal here was to spark a conversation between Aufderheide and Seiter, which explored some of the key themes in their books, and addressed some of the central controversies around intellectual property. I could not have imagined the commitment they would both show to this exchange and the depth of insights they brought to their interactions with each other. My job now is to get out of the way and let this exchange unfold over the next five blog posts.

Ellen’s section on copyright opens with the sentence, “One of these days you are going to receive a Cease and Desist letter.” This would not have been true at earlier moments in history where the communications and creative practices of most people would not have been exposed to this kind of legal scrutiny. So, what do you think are the consequences of this wide-spread engagement with legal struggles over intellectual property? How might larger public concerns inform our current understanding of this area of the law?

Pat: In fact, most people today are not going to get a Cease and Desist letter (though many more are likely to get a Content ID match or a takedown on YouTube, of which more later.) Ellen’s book is of course written for professional artists, who are more likely than the general public but still not very likely to get one. But one cease and desist letter sent to one person echoes through the culture, and then mythologizes into a full-blown lawsuit before you can stamp out a rumor. (We document some of this mythmaking in our book.) So it’s an excellent way to begin, to get people’s attention, demystify them, and also help them put themselves in a position where they are even more unlikely to get one.

Ellen: Google reports receiving over a million copyright notices per week, and these are passed on to users through takedown notices, usually within 24 hours. We wrote our book to speak to young, technologically savvy and admittedly ambitious media artists, who do post aggressively and frequently on line and, especially when they are enrolled at a college or university with a lot at stake as ISP providers do tend to police the students very stringently-- cease and desist or we will take down your email account. Pat is right that there can be a panic around these things-- many of my students in my anime course (who are avid amateur media makers) for example, worried that the campus police would be knocking on their door the minute they downloaded a bittorrent file, while others were very creative. So it is fairly common for intense young filmmakers eager to be discovered to get such a letter and we wanted to defuse the fear and use the specter of the letter as a teachable moment. According to Google’s transparency report, Comcast’s NBCUniversal rank near the top of senders of copyright notices. Now that YouTube and NBCUniversal are partners on projects like streaming the Olympics, we can expect that Google will become more and more friendly with the major media conglomerates. In fact, they have begun penalizing recipients of takedown notices by moving their content down the search engine algorithm.

Pat:Yes, it’s wise to know what to do with bullies, and many cease and desist letters are acts of bullying, as are many takedown notices on YouTube. And that’s why these days people in general need to know what their rights as users are under copyright.

You’re so right, Henry, that this didn’t use to be the case. Before 1978 (and Ellen’s book is great at many specifics of this story), when a 1976 overhauling of copyright went into effect, many works were not copyrighted at all. Many copyrighted works had not had their copyright renewed. Copyright was relatively short. All that is changed. These days, copyright is default--everything I just typed is now copyrighted to me. And copyright is looooooong--this paragraph is copyrighted to me until 70 years after my death. The monopoly right I hold on this paragraph extends to derivative products--so don’t try to make a poem, a song, or a play out of this paragraph. If I send you a cease and desist letter (I’ll see if my lawyer buddy will send it on his letterhead), I’ll talk about the “statutory damages,” or extra fines, you might get slapped with if you’re found to be infringing my monopoly right. They can be as high as $150,000 per infringement, although they never actually are.

Ellen: I have watched the growth of copyright intimidation since I got an MFA in filmmaking in 1976 at Northwestern. In those days we borrowed found footage and music for soundtracks freely, shot on 16mm, and screened our work in lecture halls and art galleries like Chicago Filmmakers and even festivals did not look very closely at any kinds of rights clearances. Through thirty years of teaching, much of it in production classes, I have seen the rights culture grow but also the scale of students’ ambitions. We just wanted a hundred or so other cool experimental filmmakers to know our work-- now students angle for overnight stardom and a contract from CAA, and this does lead to trouble. This type of individual-- who we wrote the book for -- has a lot of nerve, frankly, and does not intimidate so easily.

Pat: Artists face particular challenges in the remix era, in which everything is both copyable and copyrighted, and it’s wonderful that they they are so assertive. Our dream, and I think Ellen’s as well, is to make sure they know their (and others’!) rights, they don’t accept copyright bullying, and they don’t unnecessarily self-criminalize. It’s always sad to me to see someone fiercely declare their courageous act of piracy when it might be a perfectly legal fair use. For every courageous person, there have to be ten who didn’t take the “risk,” and self-censored.

This issue matters to everybody, actually, because copyright law intersects with ordinary creative practice--not just making the great American painting or writing the great American novel or making the great American movie, but everyday tasks such as composing a birthday slide show, or making a poster for the meeting, or writing a comment on somebody’s blog, or posting a clip from your trip to the club last night on your Facebook page.

When people are intimidated by what they understand--or misunderstand--to be copyright-driven limitations on their ability to create, they stifle their own thinking, much less their creative actions. This is what Prof. Peter Jaszi and I learned from in-depth studies of creative practice in ten different creative communities, as we discuss in our book.

When they understand that copyright protects both new users and copyright holders, in the service of creating more culture, they are able to exercise their First Amendment rights with greater confidence, and this has deep ramifications in creative practice. It changes how they think about their creative choices, long before they shape a creative act.

So copyright, as one branch of what has come (in my mind, unfortunately) to be called intellectual “property,” is part of the apparatus that shapes our individual contributions to the culture. Like trademark and patent law (also part of that sphere of law that lawyers just call IP), it both constrains and rewards cultural expression. As participants in this culture, we are stuck caring about IP policy, if we care about the future of our culture.

Ellen: I differ from Pat in two ways in my focus. First, I think the bad guys will ultimately be companies like Google (owner of YouTube) and Apple. They are the next giants of media monopolization and increasingly participate in takedown notices. Google is so big by now (Apple, too) and we are so intertwined with it, that there is little way out of their terms of service. Their financial and political alliances will make them argue for free posting when it suits their interests, litigate the hell out of competitors over patent infringements when THAT suits their interests, and send out takedown notices when it is to their political and business advantage to placate copyright holders. Meanwhile they will be implacable about their own terms of use or adhesion contracts, and make up a lot of their own rules about how people access content, what is taken down, what is hate speech (as we have seen in recent weeks), and when they cooperate with governments and when they don’t.

Pat: Thank you, Ellen, for pointing out that Google isn’t necessarily not evil in this story. I don’t want to be sanguine about the future of Google or any other companies that have created path dependence or effectively offer utility services. Terms of service have a grisly ability to override rights, and vertically integrated companies have special opportunities to take advantage of customer goodwill.

People often put up with outrageous terms of service because they’re not fully aware of what they’re giving up. This is why we think it’s so important to understand what’s at risk. At the moment, copyright policy is dangerously unbalanced, tilted in favor of monopoly rights holders (I can’t in conscience call them owners, since I don’t think they own their copyright, I think they’ve been given a limited monopoly over that stuff by the government). At the same time, large media companies strongly assert their political influence over the policy process. So it’s a very unpredictable and hazardous process to try to rebalance copyright directly via legislation. It’s also very chancy to try to get more balance in the law through lawsuits, since they typically occur around outlier cases, and you can never count on a judge thinking the way you do. So practice becomes extremely important as a way to shift balance. That’s why we wrote the book--to help people take that action to rebalance via practice.

Without the empowering knowledge that they have First Amendment rights within copyright, many frustrated people who create using other people’s materials--such as remix artists--imagine falsely that they are committing a criminal act. They call themselves “pirates,” and believe they’re standing up courageously to repression. But copyright law actually permits, under fair use, people to employ other people’s copyrighted material for the creation of new culture. Our book goes into the basic logic to make a fair use decision, but basically you need to ask two questions: 1) am I using this material for its original purpose or am I repurposing in order to do something different with it? and 2) am I using the appropriate amount to accomplish my goal? And this doesn’t even have to be creating new work. Archivists and librarians routinely repurpose copyrighted material without paying for it, employing fair use successfully and without being challenged.

Pat Aufderheide is the Co-Director of the Center for Social Media and University Professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. She is the co-author with Peter Jaszi of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright (University of Chicago Press, July 2011), and author of, among others, Documentary: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007), The Daily Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), and of Communications Policy in the Public Interest (Guilford Press, 1999). She heads the Fair Use and Free Speech research project at the Center, in conjunction with Prof. Peter Jaszi in American University's Washington College of Law.

Ellen Seiter holds the Nenno Endowed Chair in Television Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she teaches courses on television and new media history, theory and criticism in the Critical Studies Division. She is the author of The Internet Playground: Children's Access, Entertainment and Mis-Education (Peter Lang, 2005), Television and New Media Audiences (Oxford, 1999), Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture (Rutgers, 1993) and Remote Control; Television, Audiences and Cultural Power (Routledge, 1989). Her latest book, The Creative Artist's Legal Guide:Copyright, Trademark and Contracts in Film and Digital Media Production was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Spain

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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


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



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

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

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



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


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

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




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

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

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



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



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






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



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




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



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

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


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



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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Howard Rheingold /

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

Howard Rheingold has been one of the smartest, most forward thinking, most provocative writers about digital culture for the past several decades. He's someone who always makes me think. Even a short hall way chat with Howard at a conference can lead to transformative insights about how we live within a networked culture. I have been lucky to know him for more than two decades now, and I treasure every interaction I've ever had with the guy. Howard embodies the transition which Fred Turner has documented between the counterculture of the 1960s and the cyberculture of today: he has a quirky personality which reminds me of Frank Zappa or Leon Redbone, and, as this interview suggests, he still carries with him some of the core values he first articulated working for the Whole Earth Catalog. So, it would be easy to see him as a voice from the past, but that would be a serious mistake, since he is still totally on top of the most recent developments in the field.


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

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

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


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

I'm going to give a longer answer, so I'll summarize the conclusion at the beginning: What people know about how to use media matters. The underlying technologies are important because of the way they amplify human cognitive and social capabilities, so know-how becomes crucial when a new tool like writing or the printing press or the internet enables people to think and communicate in new ways. The hyper-evolution of digital media over the past half century first depended on hardware, then software, then network infrastructure, then web services, and now the driving force shifts to the part of the system in people's heads and between people. The digital divide now has to include the divide between those who know how to get and to verify information they need just in time and just in place, those who can cultivate and call on social networks, those who can persuade or educate from those who do not know how to apply the power a networked PC or smartphone makes available. The knowledge is not secret, but it hasn't really been compiled and distributed. That's why I wrote the book.
As you note, I've been writing about technologies and media that amplify human thought and communication for a long time. My first article on virtual communities was published in 1987. And my Reed undergraduate thesis in 1968 was about the intersection of electronic tools and human consciousness. So I've been thinking about the broader issues about human-technology interaction for most of my life. In terms of online social media, I was an enthusiastic participant since the BBS days of the early 1980s. Then I started writing about where online communication media came from and where it might be going.
When I published Tools for Thought in 1985, looking at the future of personal computing and human cognition, I was confronted by the questions "Is this new medium healthy or harmful? Is having a personal computer going to make people more or less humane? Are the digital tools that were emerging at the time any good for us as individuals, for our relationships, for our societies, for literate civilization?" These questions came from critics and academics, and it was one that I had been asking myself for some time.
The same questions came up with The Virtual Community in 1993 and Smart Mobs in 2002. I asked myself "what is the most possible outcome, positive or negative, of introducing networked personal computers to millions of people?" In pursuit of that question, I started looking into ways computer-mediated communication by entire populations might affect democracy. That inquiry led me to the literature about the history of the public sphere -- that's how I learn, mostly, by stumbling across things, then inquiring about them.
The health of the public sphere seemed to me in 1992 to represent the most important potential issue that could be raised by the widespread use of digital media. To oversimplify, I understood the public sphere to be a way of saying that democracy and governance of the people, by the people, and for the people is not just about voting for leaders. Unless enough people are literate enough -- and free enough to express themselves -- to understand and debate the issues that affect them, they aren't going to be able to govern themselves. Informed discourse requires informed people, and that requires both educated citizens and a free flow of information.  In The Virtual Community I emphasized the quote by James Madison that is carved into marble at the Library of Congress: "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
In Smart Mobs I was forced to learn a little about sociology to try to make sense of the ways large groups of people were beginning to behave collectively, now that billions of people have the web in their pockets. And in my research for these books, I grew fascinated with the archaeology of literacy --Elizabeth Eisenstein's work on the impact of the printing press in Europe, the drama of Denise Schmandt-Besserat's worldwide investigation of clay artifacts that led to her definitive history of the origin of writing, Marshall McLuhan's insistence that printing presses change the way people see and deal with the world.
Working backward from McLuhan to Innis, Ong, and McLuhan's colleague Robert K. Logan, I began seeing the broad picture of how new cultural mind tools enabled and initiated changes in the thinking of individuals and the functioning of societies. Working forward from the 1960s visions of JCR Licklider and Douglas Engelbart, it seemed to me that "augmenting human intellect," as Engelbart framed it, was a historic repurposing of devices originally designed for ballistics calculations. Engelbart was well aware of the role of human learning and literacies in the future system he proposed, which he described as comprising "humans, using language, artifacts, methodology, and training."
So now we have more than two billion people with Internet access, more than five billion mobile telephones. The mind-amplifying devices that Engelbart envisioned are in people's pockets. The networks that link people and devices are global and heading toward ubiquitous. What does that mean? We've seen serious critics like Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr eloquently illuminating the darker sides and hidden costs of our fascination with social media. And we've seen an enormous amount of moral panic, based on very little or no empirical basis, about fears that using the web is making individuals and cultures shallow.
The answer to any question is available anywhere within a second or too -- but it's up to the inquirer to evaluate the validity of the answer. Virtual communities, smart mobs, collective intelligence, social production, enable millions of people to do things together in the physical world that they were never before able to do. Tech-savvy teenagers invent billion dollar industries and new ways of seeking information and socializing. Others organize revolutions. Know-how is at the core of all these new phenomena, whether they are used for good or ill. So digital literacies of attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network smarts constitute a critical uncertainty. The answer to "is this stuff any good for us" is, I strongly believe: "It depends on what people know, and how many of them know it." Just as the decades after Gutenberg's invention saw the expansion of the literate population from thousands to millions, we're seeing the diffusion of new literacies that are already changing the world more profoundly than print did in its first decades. 
When I use the term literacy, I mean both the learnable skill of coding and decoding in a new medium, but the social aspect as well -- the interaction with the community of literates. Digital literacies are networked. In that regard, I see these skills as pointing inward to the individual and outward to the society. The individual who masters these skills will have a greater chance of personal, professional, political, social success. And the more individuals who master these skills, the more useful and trustworthy the digital commons becomes. Your work on participatory culture was particularly important to my thinking in this regard -- it only makes sense that the person who thinks of herself as a creator of digital culture, even in a small way like tagging or commenting, has a stronger sense of agency as a citizen,  and a person who thinks of himself only as a consumer of culture created by others lacks some of that sense of agency.
What relationship exists between this book and the emerging field of digital media and learning?
In regard to how Net Smart relates to digital media and learning, I want to start by emphasizing the distinctions between learning digital literacies and using digital media in teaching and learning and between the novelty of social media versus the kinds of pedagogy it enables. 
First, digital literacies. I had to oversimplify to get it all in the book, but there are important digital literacies that I didn't include, such as webmaking and coding. In order to spread around the lore I assembled in Net Smart, I've made available to anyone who wants to use it my syllabus based on the book, including many additional web-based resources. I don't think educational institutions are moving anywhere near as fast as technology. And the moral panics have instilled fear of using the internet in schools. How many K-12 students learn how to search and evaluate information found online? I'd love to see it happen, see more teachers like the ones I interview for dmlcentral, so I'm not dismissing the uptake of digital literacies into the traditional curriculum. I do see the dissemination of this knowledge happening more rapidly online.
I do teach the literacies in Net Smart to the students in my virtual community/social media class at Stanford, but it's in the context of a broader inquiry. The literacies are necessary to ask the larger questions about community, collective action, identity, the public sphere, etc. Students are introduced to forums as group voice, blogs as (networked) individual voice, mindmaps as lateral and visual thinking, social bookmarking as collective intelligence, wikis as collaborative platforms. Then they need to use their skills in these media to propose, organize, document, and present collaborative projects in groups of four. In the process, we consciously and deliberately approached our subject matter as a learning community in which classroom discussions expand online, students blog reflectively about what their learning shows them about the media they use, student co-teaching teams take turns co-teaching a classroom session with the professor.
The underlying methodology (Engelbart!) is enabled by the technology, but the methodology is what is important -- giving students a means to continue discursive inquiry beyond the classroom, to tap into worldwide networks of knowledge and expertise, to talk among themselves instead of speaking when called upon by the professor. Making it easier for students to learn together and to take advantage of the infosphere beyond their classroom and their library is what makes for a pedagogy of co-learning. Much of what I do and what Cathy Davidson does in pursuit of co-learner can and should be done with index cards, whiteboards, and colored sticky notes. 
I'm also excited by what Mimi Ito calls "connected learning." I was enthusiastic about  kind of online socializing that I came across that excited me in the 1980s because it was fun. For me, connected learning meant asking big questions about what this kind of fun meant, conversing about those questions with others online and face to face, and pursuing the literature that led me to the sociology of Marc Smith and Barry Wellman, the anthropology of Mimi Ito, the media theory of Henry Jenkins and Robert K. Logan. My enthusiasm plus my networks plus scholarly inquiry connected for me when I wrote Net Smart.
Putting into practice the knowledge I try to convey in Net Smart will make it easier for people to become involved in co-learning online. Pursuing the idea of co-learning far enough brought me to consider putting all the responsibility and power in the hands of the learner. Motivated co-learners in communities of gamers or fan communities teach each other sophisticated material all the time. What does a group of people need to know in order to use online media to co-learn about a particular topic? How would we find and qualify resources? Would we organize them as a syllabus or as a hackerspace? What learning activities, forms of assessment, synchronous and asynchronous media should they use? To that end, I organized the Peeragogy Project, a network of volunteers who are assembling a handbook for co-learners.

Howard's Story:

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

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

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

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

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


Howard Rheingold /

Participatory Culture: What Questions Do YOU Have?

Question Mark Graffitidanah boyd,  Mimi Ito, and I have embarked on an interesting project for Polity. Through a series of dialogues, we’re hoping to produce a book that interrogates our different thoughts regarding participatory culture. The goal is to unpack our differences and agreements and identify some of the challenges that we see going forward. We began our dialogue a few weeks ago and had a serious brain jam where we interrogated our own assumptions, values, and stakes in doing the research that we each do and thinking about the project of participatory culture more generally. For the next three weeks, we’re going to individually reflect before coming back to begin another wave of deep dialoguing in the hopes that the output might be something that others (?you?) might be interested in reading.

And here’s where we’re hoping that some of our fans and critics might be willing to provoke us to think more deeply.

  • What questions do you have regarding participatory culture that you would hope that we would address?
  • What criticisms of our work would you like to offer for us to reflect on?
  • What do you think that we fail to address in our work that you wish we would consider?

For those who are less familiar with this concept, my white paper for the MacArthur Foundation described a “participatory culture”  as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

This often gets understood through the lens of “Web2.0″ or “user-generated content,” but this is broadly about the ways in which a networked society rich with media enables new forms of interaction and engagement. Some of the topics that we are considering covering include “new media literacies,” “participation gap” and the digital divide, the privatization of culture, and networked political engagement. And, needless to say, a lot of our discussion will center on young people’s activities and the kinds of learning and social practices that take place. So what do *you* want us to talk about?

danah kicked off a discussion around the project last week on her blog, so you can go there to see what others are already thinking, or I am very happy to receive your comments and suggestions here, especially as my tech support people just moved this blog to a new platform and we are eager to see how well the new response functions are working.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. How graphic is the depiction of violence?

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

refer to media violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

particular character whose actions are shaped by their own decisions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action

Over the past few blog posts, I have been sharing updates on some of the work being done by my Civic Paths research group at USC -- first, the special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on fan activism, and second, Arely Zimmerman's white paper exploring the ways undocumented youth and their supporters mobilized through and around new media in support of the DREAM act. But, as I have noted, this work fits within a larger initiative launched by the MacArthur Foundation -- a research hub on Youth and Participatory Politics, headed by Political Science Professor Joe Kahne from Mills College, and involving a multidisciplinary mix of researchers who are combining a range of different approaches, both qualitative and quantitative, to better understand how young people are using new media as a resource for political participation. A few weeks ago, Kahn and another Political Scientist, University of Chicago's Cathy Cohen, released an important report representing the first phases of this research -- Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Here's a rich and provocative interview with its primary authors, thanks to MacArthur's Digital Media and Learning team.

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

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

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

Participatory political acts can:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Participatory Politics are an important dimension of politics.

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

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

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

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

to report voting in 2010 as those who did not.

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

and institutional politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shreshtova

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

--Liesbeth van Zoonen, Entertaining the Citizen

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

--Steven Duncombe, "Imagining No-Place"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political participation and fan activism

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

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

Essays in this issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kony 2012

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

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

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

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

5. Acknowledgments

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works cited

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

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

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

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

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

Jenkins, Henry. 2012. "Contextualizing #Kony2012: Invisible Children, Spreadable Media, and Transmedia Activism." Confessions of an Aca-Fan, March 12.

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

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

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

Well, Dan. 2011. "Candidates' Favorite Super Hero: Superman Chosen by Four," Newsmax, December 29.

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

Zuckerman, Ethan. 2012. "Unpacking Kony 2012." My Heart's in Accra, March 8.

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

by Rhea Vichot and Zhan Li

The Kony 2012 video campaign by Invisible Children (IC) has been extraordinarily - even unprecedentedly successful - in

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

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

of the organization itself.

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

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

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

recognize that the debate continued to develop in important ways after

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

the campaign.

The Kony 2012

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

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

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


Narrated by Jason Russell,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and social media and marketing consultants.

By March 7th, the videos

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

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

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

US) high school and college students.


raising awareness of the issues surrounding Kony and the LRA through

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

recommended to its supporters that they send communications (primarily

via Twitter) targeting 20 "culturemakers" and 12 "policymakers" as

selected by IC and identified on the Kony 2012 website



designated celebrities and political figures range in experience and

ideology. The "culturemakers" ranged from entertainment celebrities

(including some with reputations for involvement with NGO and

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

major technology and financial entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

notably Twitter and Reddit)

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

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

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


critiques of the Kony 2012 campaign included arguments that it greatly

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

displayed neo-colonial or patronizing attitudes towards Africans; that

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

arguing for humanitarian military intervention without recognizing the

immense difficulties and many unintended consequences of such policy;

that the organization has inefficiently misallocated funds towards

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

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

counterproductive in the way that IC presents its message through

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

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

which provided official responses that argued against key critiques

levelled at their campaign - for instance, regarding IC's NGO

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

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

deflect attacks on what some critics have seen as IC's "white savior"

rhetoric by highlighting "that

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

forefront of program design and implementation." They also addressed

the related controversy regarding the photo of the

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

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

in the moment."


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

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

Wow. Thank You. from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.


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

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

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

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

and it's just the beginning - because we are starting something which

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

Kony 2012 video into as many languages as possible.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Kony 2012 campaign continues to evolve and expand.

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

How to Earn Your Skeptic "Badge"

Learning today happens everywhere But it's often difficult to get recognition for skills and achievements gained outside of school. Mozilla's Open Badges project is working to solve that problem, making it easy to issue, earn and display badges across the web. The result: recognizing 21st century skills, unlocking career and educational opportunities, and helping learners everywhere level up in their life and work.

Get recognition for new skills and achievements

The web and other new learning spaces provide exciting ways to gain skills and experience -- from online courses, learning networks and mentorship to peer learning, volunteering and after-school programs. Badges provide a way for learners to get recognition for these skills, and display them to potential employers, schools, colleagues and their community.

Through a simple framework that's open to all

Using Mozilla's Open Badges infrastructure, any organization or community can issue badges backed by their own seal of approval. Learners can then collect badges from different sources and display them across the web -- on their resume, web site, social networking profiles, job sites or just about anywhere. Unlocking new career and learning opportunities. 
By displaying skills and achievements that traditional degrees and transcripts often leave out, badges can lead to jobs, community recognition, and new learning opportunities. -- from Mozilla Open Badges Wiki

Let me make a few things clear from the start: First, I was an Eagle Scout. Technically, I am an Eagle Scout since what you learn in scouting is something you carry with you for the rest of your life. I not only made Eagle but I had multiple additional palms, which means that I earned a hell (pardon my un-Scout-like language) of a lot of merit badges through the years.

I certainly valued the learning which went into each of those badges, but I also took pride and joy in that full sash of merit badges, in and of themselves, and I was motivated to see how high a rank I could earn before I aged out of the organization.

Scouting does several things right where badges were concerned: there are some badges which every Scout is expected to earn if they want to move up rank but there are also a vast array of different badges which a scout chooses from as they map their own route through scouting. The badges I remember most vividly were those having to do with journalism, communications, drama, and photography, all aspects of the person whom I would become when I grew up. The skills which the badges represented were in most cases skills which we actively deployed in our life in Scouts, so they were not simply things which I learned to earn a badge. Well, there were a few of those -- in my troop, Basket Weaving was the joke badge we all earned at summer camp because the requirements were simple and pretty lame and it was funny to have the badge on your sash. We can say that Scouting thus combines intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to create a system within which the badges are meaningful to those who opt to participate.

That said, even as a lad, I knew that Scouting and its badges were not for everyone. Many of my friends, especially during the late Vietnam War era, did not like the idea of wearing a uniform of any kind, they did not really understand the appeal of badges, they did not want adults telling them what to do. (Today, I might add my own increased questioning of the values of the organization, which has today embraced overt homophobia in its dealing with queer scouts and scoutmasters.)

For the most part, the current drive for badges in education is being pushed by people like me -- people who were proud to wear merit badges, get good grades, or otherwise, display their achievements. The problem is that badges are being designed for people who may or may not share those values and assumptions.

Second, I believe fully and totally in the value of informal learning, seeing much that youth learn outside of school as more essential to who they are and who they become than the more narrowly restricted curriculum imposed by the national standards. I was always someone who learned more outside the classroom than inside, even if I played the game of school well enough to progress to a high place in the system. Scouting was part of that and so I was glad it had such a flexible framework. But, many of the things I did outside school -- like watch and develop a knowledge of 1930s monster movies, which, ultimately, led me to get graduate degrees in cinema studies -- were not something anyone every gave me a badge for. I see the importance of recognizing, respecting, supporting, and deploying the expertise developed through informal learning and fear that when schools seek to close it out of their formal practices, they also shut what is learned in school for what kids do with the rest of their waking hours.

I fully support the ideas about "connected learning" which were announced by the MacArthur Foundation at the recent Digital Media and Learning Conference. Something very important occurs when we develop a more integrated learning ecology and when kids know how to map what they learn outside of school into categories that they can meaningfully deploy inside the system. That's part of the power of Scouting -- to convert the activities into badges into ranks which can be read and appreciated as accomplishments by adult authorities, including those who decide whether we get jobs or can move through the system of higher education.

That said, I remain deeply skeptical of the massive push going on right now to promote the use of badges across a broad array of different informal learning contexts. I am writing this as I wait in the airport on my return from the DML conference, and what I heard there was a push for badges as if they were a one-size-fits-all-solution to a range of ills in the current educational system (at least from the podium) and then a lot of people on the fringes of the party asking each other whether we really believe that badges are uniformly the way to go. Many of us fear that MacArthur, Mozilla and other foundations have jumped too quickly on the badges bandwagon. I was happy to support badges as one interesting model for thinking about how to insure greater respect for the value of informal learning; I am less prepared to accept the premise that badges might someday be the universal currency by which young people get credit for (or in some models get motivated to participate in) a range of informal learning activities.

As someone who helped to build up the current field of Digital Media and Learning, I am concerned that, if badges start to feel too much like a "party line," many are going to feel excluded from the field. This has the potential to be the first major divide in a field which many of us see as our intellectual and spiritual home. We remain silent because we do not want to disrupt the party and because we respect the leadership of the DML initiative so much, but there is much that is at risk in that silence.

So, let me spell out some of the reasons why I want to see us go slower and think through the advantages and disadvantages of badges:

1. Many young people have deep ambivalences about the kinds of "credit" adults choose to give (or withhold) around their activities. There are plenty of smart kids who don't say things in class, may not do as well as they can on assignments, and certainly would not join an organization like scouting because these kinds of achievements are not "cool" within their peer cultures. Many of these kids are learning now outside of school through participating in activities that are intellectually demanding and socially rewarding without bearing the imprint of adult approval. Some of these activities even have an air about them of transgression or subversion which make them safe for their participation. So, what happens when the scoutmasters move into these spaces and start giving out merit badges, gold stars, cookies, whatever they do, to single out those kids they think are doing what the system wants them to do. Do we not run the risk of chasing away the kids who need these kinds of informal learning the most? Admittedly, there is a value in helping these youth find ways to value what they are doing as intellectual pursuits and there is a value in seeking to validate these experiences and help them learn how to mobilize that knowledge as they learn to work through the formal structures that exert power over their lives. Much of that value may come in helping them articulate for themselves what they are getting out of these kinds of experiences. But, making the badges too central to the process may alienate them before they have a chance to exert ownership over the knowledge they are acquiring. (This problem only grows when we seek to move the system of badges from its original American context into a global phenomenon, since badges will mean very different things across a range of different cultural contexts.)

2. Badges run the risk of becoming "gamification" by another name -- that is, a system which does not trust the power of intrinsic motivation and feels the need to add a layer of extrinsic motivation. Again, scouting, I would argue, succeeds in doing both. James Gee argues that games-based communities do also. But, some forms of gamification rely so heavily on points schemes that there is far less effort to make the activities meaningful in and of themselves, and it can be easy to replace learning with "playing the game." American education is already gamified: for too many students, even good students, it is already about collecting badges and they calculate carefully what they need to do to make the 'A'. I worry that badges can become just another points system and as a consequence, undercuts the motivational structures which have historically led young people to engage in these kind of practices. Otherwise, do we run the risk of turning game modding or fan subbing into the contemporary equivalent of my Basketweaving merit badge -- something kids do because it is an easy way to get recognition or because they think it is a joke. And, as they do so, what happens to those kids who value these activities on their own terms.

3. What's working about the kinds of informal learning which takes place in participatory culture is that it is emergent and ad hoc: activities spring up, last as long as they interest participants, disappear again; young people feel empowered to create their own activities and set their own goals within these organizations; young people can feel like the experts in a subject matter which has not yet been fully integrated into the systems of formal learning. Not every child participates in such activities, and our goal should be to expand the range of options available and to provide stronger motivations and scaffording for their participation. But, informal learning works because it is informal. Yet, any coherent system of badges requires systems and structure; there have to be requirements which help to standardize forms of participation and which rank some kinds of contributions as more valuable or at least more central to the group than others. In that sense, too quick a move towards badges runs the risk of destroying the complex but fragile ecosystem within which participatory learning thrives. Our philosophy should be above all do no harm. There is a high potential of harm in a badging system which is badly applied.

4. Another thing that's working about these informal learning communities is that they are relatively nonhierarchical. They are often spaces where youth and adults interact without fixed relations of power and authority -- the adults are not parents and not teachers, they are people who share interests with the younger participants, and the mentorship that emerges is organic to the activities in which they are engaged. In some cases, the adults even learn from youth who have developed greater expertise or have more experience. This fluidity of relations across generations is threatened by a system where some people (you can call them Den Mothers or Scout Masters, Teachers or Principals, you can even call them Fearless Leader and Grand Poohbah) are giving badges to others (who are now seen as their subordinates). These roles will not necessarily break down along conventional adult-child lines, but there's a high likelihood of those roles reasserting themselves into the process, especially if the granting of badges becomes more bureaucratic or requires communications with more formal institutions and organizations.

5. Badges may work well in some circumstances or for some participants. They should certainly be explored as one way of validating and supporting informal learning. But, the rush to badges means that we have not spent as much time in the past few years as we should be trying to understand what other mechanisms for promoting participatory learning might be. It means that we are overlooking or over-riding systems of support which already exist in many of these sites of informal learning. So, even if we think badges are a potentially good idea in some contexts (and, again, my first response to this badges talk was generally supportive), we may not think it is the best or only possible solution in every situation.

6, No system of badges is going to be adopted uniformly. Mozilla's description of where learning takes place encompasses mostly forms of learning which schools and employers are likely to already recognize as valuable -- "from online courses, learning networks and mentorship to peer learning, volunteering and after-school programs." Yet, much of the early work in DML focused on informal learning sites which many adults did not yet fully appreciate -- from gaming communities to fandom. If we move to see badges as a common currency of achievement in informal learning, then what happens to those activities which chose, on principle, not to give badges or which lack the formal infrastructure to even decide who should be issuing badges. Do these activities, in fact, become even more marginalized, because they are now neither part of the formal system of schooling or part of the informal system of badging. This is another way that badges potentially disrupts what's working about participatory culture.

I guess what I am saying is:

  • Experiment with badges but really experiment -- that is, try to figure out if these mechanisms really do what you hope they will do and be particularly attentive to the ways that they have unintentional consequences and damage the very activities you are seeking to recognize.
  • Also seed other kinds of research and experimentation which looks more closely at other mechanisms for promoting and appraising participation, including those which may already be in place within such communities of practice.
  • Be aware that the process of badging is going to make things more comfortable to those who are comfortable with getting recognition from adults and may make things less comfortable for those who have not yet fully bought into the values of the current educational system.
  • And above all, if you are embracing badges, make sure you are doing so because you agree with the core premises, because it's the right thing to do for your group, and not because someone is offering a bucket of money to those who are willing to "give it a try."

Connected Learning: Reimagining the Experience of Education in the Information Age

This weekend, I am attending the Third Digital Media and Learning Conference, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation, as part of their efforts to help build a field which takes what we have learned about young people's informal learning, often through the more playful aspects of participatory culture, and apply it to the redesign and reinvention of those institutions which most directly touch young people's lives -- schools, libraries, museums, and public institutions. Today, the MacArthur Foundation is releasing an important statement about the underlying principles they are calling "connected learning," a statement which helps to sum up the extensive research which has been done by the DML network in recent years. Their goal is to foster a wide reaching conversation not simply among educators but involving all of those adults who play a role in shaping the lives of young people -- and let's face it, that's pretty much all of us. The document is a collective statement from some of the smartest people thinking about contemporary education:

  • Kris Gutierrez, professor of literacy and learning sciences who is an expert in learning and new media literacies and designing transformative learning environments, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Mimi Ito, Research Network Chair, a cultural anthropologist with deep expertise in the implications of how youth are engaging with technology and digital media who led benchmark three-year study of digital youth, University of California, Irvine
  • Sonia Livingstone, a leading expert on children, youth, and the internet, including issues of risk and safety, and author of a massive study of 25,000 European children and their parents on internet usage, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Bill Penuel, expert in learning with digital media in both formal and informal settings, literacy, and using digital tools for digital storytelling, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Jean Rhodes, clinical psychologist with expertise in mentoring, adolescent development, and the role of intergenerational relationships in digital media and learning, University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Katie Salen, a game designer who has founded two 6th-12th grade public schools that employ game principles for learning, Depaul University
  • Juliet Schor, economist and sociologist who has published broadly on work, family and sustainability, Boston College
  • S. Craig Watkins, expert on young people's social and digital media behaviors and is piloting new programs for in-school and out-of-school learning, University of Texas, Austin
  • I promised them that I would share this important statement with the readers of my blog, and I hope that you will in turn help pass this along to the many communities you represent.

    Although the name, "connected learning" could sound like another attempt to describe the impact of new media on our lives, it goes far beyond a focus simply on the technologies which connect us together, and instead, is focused on the cultural practices and social communities through which this connection occurs, and more generally, on the consequences of these new kinds of connectivities and collectivities on the learning process.

    I share with the authors a deep appreciation for the idea of a learning ecology, within which learning occurs everywhere, and with their goal to remove some of the obstacles which block the flow of information, knowledge, skills, and wisdom between different sectors. I especially value the focus here on participation -- in the learning process, in the governance of society -- since the struggle to achieve a more participatory culture remains one of the central battles of our times. Like other previous work from the DML realm, the focus is on valuing the kinds of learning that children and youth value, the kind that is deeply motivating and tied in meaningful ways to their construction of their identity, recognizing that the goal of education in the 21st century should be in allowing young people to discover and refine their own expertise as they follow their passions and inform their interests. It is not simply about providing rich databases of information, though such resources help, but rather about providing rich and diverse contexts which support many different kinds of learning and many different kinds of learners.

    As they suggest in the statement, the concept of "connected learning" remains a "work in progress," and the best way to make progress is for thoughtful people, across a range of fields, to read, debate, and respond to their provocation and for those of us who find something here to value, to try to put its core principles into play through our work.

    For more information, check out this website.



    We are living in a historical moment of transformation and realignment in the creation and sharing of knowledge, in social, political and economic life, and in global connectedness. There is wide agreement that we need new models of education suited to this historic moment, and not simply new models of schooling, but entirely new visions of learning better suited to the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of our new knowledge society. Fortunately, we are also able to harness the same technologies and social processes that have powered these transformations in order to provide the next generation with learning experiences that open doors to academic achievement, economic opportunity, and civic engagement.

    Specifically, we now have the capability to reimagine where, when, and how learning takes place; to empower and motivate youth to pursue knowledge and develop expertise at a pace, to a degree, and on a path that takes advantage of their unique interests and potential; and to build on innovations across a growing spectrum of learning institutions able to support a range of learning experiences for youth that were unimaginable even 15 years ago.

    We propose a new approach to learning -- connected learning -- that is anchored in research, robust theories of learning, and the best of traditional standards, but also designed to mine the learning potential of the new social- and digital media domain and the heart of which is aimed at the following questions:

    • What would it mean to think of education as a responsibility of a distributed network of people and institutions, including schools, libraries, museums and online communities?
    • What would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding youths' active participation in public life that includes civic engagement, and intellectual, social, recreational, and career-relevant pursuits?
    • How can we take advantage of the new kinds of intergenerational configurations that have formed in which youth and adults come together to work, mobilize, share, learn, and achieve together?
    • What would it mean to enlist in this effort a diverse set of stakeholders that are broader than what we traditionally think of as educational and civic institutions?

    Connected learning is a work in progress, building on existing models, ongoing experimentation, and dialog with diverse stakeholders. It draws from social, ubiquitous, blended and personalized learning, delivered by new media, to help us remodel our educational system in tune with today's economic and political realities. Connected learning is not, however, distinguished by a particular technology or platform, but is inspired by an initial set of three educational values, three learning principles, and three design principles.

    At the core of connected learning are three values:

    Equity -- when educational opportunity is available and accessible to all young people, it elevates the world we all live in.

    Full Participation -- learning environments, communities, and civic life thrive when all members actively engage and contribute.

    Social connection -- learning is meaningful when it is part of valued social relationships and shared practice, culture, and identity.

    In order to realize these values, connected learning seeks to harness and integrate the learning that young people pursue in the spheres of interest, peer relations, and academics based on the following three learning principles:

    Interest-powered - Interests power the drive to acquire knowledge and expertise. Research shows that learners who are interested in what they are learning, achieve higher order learning outcomes. Connected learning does not just rely on the innate interests of the individual learner, but views interests and passions as something to be actively developed in the context of personalized learning pathways that allow for specialized and diverse identities and interests.

    Peer-supported - Learning in the context of peer interaction is engaging and participatory. Research shows that among friends and peers, young people fluidly contribute, share, and give feedback to one another, producing powerful learning. Connected learning research demonstrates that peer learning need not be peer-isolated. In the context of interest-driven activity, adult participation is welcomed by young people. Although expertise and roles in peer learning can differ based on age and experience, everyone gives feedback to one another and can contribute and share their knowledge and views.

    Academically oriented - Educational institutions are centered on the principle that intellectual growth thrives when learning is directed towards academic achievement and excellence. Connected learning recognizes the importance of academic success for intellectual growth and as an avenue towards economic and political opportunity. Peer culture and interest-driven activity needs to be connected to academic subjects, institutions, and credentials for diverse young people to realize these opportunities. Connected learning mines and translates popular peer culture and community-based knowledge for academic relevance.

    Connected learning builds on what we've long known about the value and effectiveness of interest-driven, peer-supported, and academically relevant learning; but in addition, connected learning calls on today's interactive and networked media in an effort to make these forms of learning more effective, better integrated, and broadly accessible. The following design principles involve integrating the spheres of interests, peers, and academics, and broadening access through the power of today's technology.

    Shared purpose -- Connected learning environments are populated with adults and peers who share interests and are contributing to a common purpose. Today's social media and web-based communities provide exceptional opportunities for learners, parents, caring adults, teachers, and peers in diverse and specialized areas of interest to engage in shared projects and inquiry. Cross-generational learning and connection thrives when centered on common interests and goals.

    Production-centered -- Connected learning environments are designed around production, providing tools and opportunities for learners to produce, circulate, curate, and comment on media. Learning that comes from actively creating, making, producing, experimenting, remixing, decoding, and designing, fosters skills and dispositions for lifelong learning and productive contributions to today's rapidly changing work and political conditions.

    Openly networked -- Connected learning environments are designed around networks that link together institutions and groups across various sectors, including popular culture, educational institutions, home, and interest communities. Learning resources, tools, and materials are abundant, accessible and visible across these settings and available through open, networked platforms and public-interest policies that protect our collective rights to circulate and access knowledge and culture. Learning is most resilient when it is linked and reinforced across settings of home, school, peer culture and community.

    The urgent need to reimagine education grows clearer by the day. Research has shown that too many students are disengaged and alienated from school, and see little or no purpose to their education. Business leaders say there is a widening gap between the skills of the workforce and the needs of businesses seeking competitive advantage. Additionally, technology and the networked era threatens to stretch the already-wide equity gap in education unless there is decisive intervention and a strong public agenda

    The principles of connected learning weren't born in the digital age, but they are extraordinarily well-suited to it. Connected learning seeks to tie together the respected historical body of research on how youth best learn with the opportunities made available through today's networked and digital media. Connected learning is real-world. It's social. It's hands-on. It's active. It's networked. It's personal. It's effective. Through a new vision of learning, it holds out the possibility for productive and broad-based educational change.

    To find out more about the connected learning community and ongoing research, please visit and

    C Is For Convergence: How the Cookie Monster Reformed Canadian Health Care

    A few weeks ago, Glenn Kubish, an Alberta-based reader of this blog, wrote to me to share a remarkable story about the power of grassroots media and participatory culture. Like a typical U.S. yokel, I had no idea what had happened up in Canada, but was blown away by the story he told and asked him to share it with the other readers of this blog. Kubish is currently working on a thesis which explores more fully the implications of these events, and would be happy to receive insights or suggestions from you fine folks. With this in mind, I've included his contact information in the bio which follows this piece. For now, sit back, grab some cookies and milk, and read what happened. C Is For Convergence!

    by Glenn Kurbish

    It's fairly widely known that Canadians are passionate about health care and the state of hospitals, so what happened to the man who used to run Alberta Health Services (AHS) shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise.

    What was surprising was the role played by the Cookie Monster.

    Welcome to my astonishing introduction to convergence culture.

    You may not have heard of CTV Edmonton (the local television station in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where I used to work as news director) or Stephen Duckett (who used to work as president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, the government agency that oversees all aspects of health delivery in this province), but you have heard of the Cookie Monster, and I guess that is part of the point. But first, the facts.

    On the morning of November 19, 2010, we did what we in the broadcast news craft always did to start the day. We met around around a table and behind a door to discuss story ideas and decide the shape of the evening news. Emergency room wait times was again a big issue that day, as hospital leaders from around the province were themselves meeting around a table and behind a few sets of doors at a downtown hotel. Their goal was to establish new standards for care and admissions.

    The center of attention was Stephen Duckett. As he left the meeting, he was met by our reporter, who asked if she could ask him a question.

    Actually, my words won't do justice to the 2:14 encounter. Some 337,000+ others took a look at it on YouTube.

    Summary: Duckett wouldn't answer conventional media questions because he was:

    a) eating a cookie,

    b) still eating a cookie,

    c) interested in eating his cookie,

    d) of the opinion that the media should not question him, but, rather, go to a news conference at which an underling would speak about the day's discussions,

    e) crossing the street, and

    f) eating his cookie.

    Dubbed the Cookie Affair and Cookiegate, that piece of video made it to the highest office in the province. The Alberta premier told the legislature, "I think everyone in Alberta watched and saw the offensive comments. I'll just leave it at that." Of course, he didn't leave it at that; he fired Duckett later that day.

    And, as it turned out, Albertans did more than just watch and see the video. They posted thousands of comments in that new public square, the YouTube rectangle. Some found fault with the media:

    Damn! Let the man eat his cookie! #$#$ media! Would you even had to bother him if he was sitting in the toilet?!? (SpiderQED)

    Others defended the reporters' tack:

    what a F**ing jerk. He is just so rude, so inconsiderate...They were asking him questions about the state of Alberta's healthcare, something he is responsible for. (maymonk)

    And, predictably, others responded by playing some version of the Sesame Street card:


    (It is fascinating how one 61-lettered, upper-cased, misspelled word gets the message across, complete with a moving image, with audio, of The Cookie Monster!)

    And while many responded from their various perspectives, some recreated the video, using the video of the Duckett-media encounter as their own raw material in remixes that drew tens of thousands of views. Take a look (and tell me if you don't smile at the editing touch at :50!)

    Here's another creative, autotune remix effort

    And here's one that combines contributions from mass media current and past (Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, NBC's The Apprentice, CBS's Hee Haw) to make a grassroots media case against Duckett.

    All of this news and reaction dominated front pages, tops of newscasts, radio call-in shows, chat forums, political blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages. TV Tropes picked it up. I'm Eating My Cookie badges popped up.

    For his part, Duckett, a day after the video was posted on YouTube, responded, conventionally, with a letter to the media, which ended:

    Most regrettably, I did not convey what I deeply feel, which is the greatest respect for the difficult challenges our health care providers face every day, and their innumerable achievements, and what those challenges and achievements mean for our patients and their families. When I got back to my desk I finalized and uploaded a blog which conveys my feelings in my words.

    The blog was seen by AHS staff, but what struck me at the time was what strikes me now as I hit the keyboard letters, and that's how weak written words can be -- especially up against the Cookie Monster! Admittedly, that's not a new insight. Here, Lawrence Lessig in Remix makes the same point: "My favorite among the remixes I've seen are all cases in which the mix delivers a message more powerfully [emphasis added] than any original alone could, and certainly more than words alone could."

    But it was a new insight for me as a news director and for the newsroom I managed, even though the superior power of the image and the sound over the word was the price of admission into the TV news industry. This was different. It's not that our station's question-asking and video-recording sparked subsequent debate, because that was routine. It was that the media we produced in this case became the primary material for others, and not so much to produce their opinions as much as to express their opinions by producing their own media.

    This, for me, was new territory where, in the words of Henry Jenkins, "old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways."

    It is surely the case that Duckett, an erudite and by many accounts friendly and caring citizen, was caught unaware not some much by the pitch of his opponents' attacks -- he was, after all, no stranger to public and political criticism -- but by the strange key in which it was composed, allowing notes from , well, muppets. Of course, this is my speculation, but it seems reasonable on the evidence that Duckett simply did not see the convergence culture moment he became trapped in and, ultimately, a victim of.

    The evidence is admittedly indirect, but his retreat into the written word, and his wife's subsequent written defence of her husband's actions suggest, at the very least, a discomfort with the mashup tools arrayed against them.

    "Alberta," wrote Duckett's wife in a letter the following month published in the capital city's broadsheet newspaper, "will not find a more passionate defender of publicly funded health care.

    "In retrospect...was it too flippant? Probably."

    This is all very reasonable. And it would have been very reasonable for the most vociferous of Duckett's critics to debate the statistics around emergency room admissions and treatment versus the targets for the same. Just like it was very reasonable for Duckett, who was bestowed by the University of Bath with a Doctor of Business Administration degree in Higher Education Management, to remind reporters that a news briefing on those very questions would take place within the half hour. (I should note that our news station also covered that news conference).

    But all this talk of reasonableness only makes Stephen Duncombe's voice louder and his argument more insistent. In his 2007 book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics In An Age Of Fantasy, Duncombe chastises progressive leaders for hitching their star to the rationalism wagon.

    Appeals to truth and reality, and faith in rational thought and action, are based in a fantasy of hte past, or, rather, past fantasy. Today's world is linked by media systems and awash in advertising images...We live in a "society of the spectacle," as the French theorist-provocateuer Guy Debord declared back in 1967.

    Keep in mind the mediasphere that grew around the Duckett Cookie episode as Duncombe briefly surveys the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who found in the mysterious human capacity for metaphor a radical admission that hard information, rationality, reasonableness are not enough. These categories and metaphors, he argues, allow us to "translate hard information and direct experience into a conceptual form familiar and comfortable for us." He continues:

    [P]rogressives need to think less about presenting facts and more about how to frame these facts in such a way that they make sense and hold meaning for everyday people.

    Quite apart from whether you are in the progressive chorus, this is a solid stage on which to build a case for what really happened in the Duckett Cookie episode. Those who used the tools of spectacle, including raw material culled from pre-existing media and a laptop edit suite, have heard Duncombe's admonition. Says Duncombe in a chilling remark: "Those who put their trust in Enlightenment principles and empircism today are doomed to political insignificance."

    As I continue to study this episode, and ask you for any thoughts or directions on finding and picking the theoretical fruit it contains, it is worth sharing a few provisional conclusions:

    1. It was not the bloggers nor the twitizens nor any other member of the new media who played the pivotal role of being in place to ask Duckett the questions and record his answers. The conventional media may indeed face a threatening business model, but we are not yet in the new world where public figures are directly asked questions by those other than the conventional media who have the resources (time, money) to do so.
    2. The Duckett Cookie episode is unthinkable without the contributions of mass media (Sesame Street) and the gamble, not much of one, that viewers of mashed up videos would immediately understand the Cookie Monster text.
    3. Laughter and ridicule remain potent politcal weapons. I am not the first to point out that once a public figure is ridiculed, he or she cannot be taken seriously.
    4. None of this would have happened if one unconventional decision was made in our conventional newsroom, and that was to post the raw video to YouTube in the first place. Why did we do this? For many reasons, including the feeling that the usual packaging of a television news story (heavily edited, 1:45 in length, reaction clips) did not serve our viewers in forming opinions about the issue.
    5. In convergence culture, the Cookie Monster matters.

    Glenn Kubish is working towards a Master of Arts in Communications and Technology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where his final research project will analyze what happened in the 2:14 of video and in its sharing across social media. He can be reached at

    Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part Three)

    Becky, you looked at Harry Potter fan culture as part of your involvement in the Digital Youth Project. What insights did you gain there about fandom as a site of informal learning and how did they feed into this current project about Harry Potter in schools?

    The research I did with Potter fans for the Digital Youth Project focused on understanding interest-driven participation and was primarily concerned with media makers--podcasters, fan fiction writers, artists, and so on. Key to the way we on the Digital Youth Project understood interest-driven participation was an element of independence from school curricula or conventional status hierarchies; the practices we examined were things that young people seemed to pick up on their own rather than embarking on them as part of a class project or because of shared interests with friends from school or their neighborhoods. (Of course, we found that interests rarely develop completely independently. There is usually a person/persons or shared experience that kick-starts interest-driven participation.)

    Working with fans was an amazing experience and extremely helpful for understanding learning in "informal" sites. I put "informal" in quotes here because one of the most interesting things I found working with fans was just how much organization, dedication, and expertise go into fans' practices. The rules and hierarchies of fandom are different from those that dominate school or the paid workforce--in general, more inclusive, less concerned with traditional markers of status (like age), and a bit more flexible--but I they certainly have a structure and logic to them. Some of the teens I interviewed in my research spent as much time producing podcasts, maintaining websites, or writing as they would if it were a full-time job. Others balanced Potter activities with others at school, such as working on the yearbook or school newspaper, mixing and matching the practices and skills involved in each activity to create their own style of production.

    My fandom research fed into Teaching Harry Potter in a number of ways. Most importantly, it's how Cathy and I met and became colleagues and friends! (We just happened to sit next to each other at the closing feast at E7--a Potter camp for families we describe in the book--and, as they say, the rest is history.) Beyond that, having seen numerous, diverse examples of rich learning and motivation for participation emerging around the Potter series helped me better understand and describe what was (and what could be) happening in schools. As readers will see in our chapters on technology and "imagining more," we believe that learners (regardless of the setting) have specific needs and rights that can be addressed through thoughtful, careful resourcing and approaches to teaching and learning. Further, we believe that civic participation and a commitment to social justice are essential to meaningful learning and participation--something we learned from our friends at the Harry Potter Alliance and various Wizard Rockers. (More on that in a minute.)

    One of the challenges I faced in shifting my focus to the school based research was not setting up a dichotomy of interest-driven fan practices versus what was happening in classrooms. Certainly, the students in Andrew, Allegra, and Sandra's classrooms had a different kind of shared reading experience than did many of the fans I worked with, one that was not independent from school but rather prompted and scaffolded by their teachers and shared with their classmates through specific assignments and classroom activities. This doesn't mean that it was inferior to what the fans were doing--just different. As we worked on Teaching Harry Potter, I think I came to a better understanding of how powerful school experiences can be for introducing and supporting interests on one hand--and just how treacherous it can be for teachers and students alike if schools do not allow for experiences that can lead to exploring deep interests.

    You close the book by imagining what a more perfect school structure would look like and what it would mean in the lives of the kids you studied. Can you share some of that vision?

    We use the image of the Mirror of Erised--the powerful magical mirror that allows one to see his/her deepest desires--to frame our discussion of what public education could (and should) look like. Although multiple reveals from the Mirror are not canon, we take four glimpses into the mirror to see the following things:

    Expert teachers engaged as leaders and trusted professionals: as the featured teachers' stories reflect, opportunities to exercise agency, make decisions about curriculum, and be creative in one's teaching are not always available to teachers. In our ideal vision of schooling, this situation would be different and teachers would be not only allowed to teach in the ways they feel are best for their students, but encouraged and supported in doing so.

    Universal access to technology and new media learning tools: in the book, we described some of the ways that schools use educational media and technology as similar to using the Polyjuice Potion--using technology to disguise bad pedagogy, resulting in those technologies being used in insignificant and spurious ways. Instead of continuing to "Polyjuice" technology and new media, we'd like to see schools learn how to adopt and integrate them in ways that support robust, student-driven learning.

    Emphasis on Experiential, Student- Driven Learning: We want to see students and teachers working side-by-side on projects that matter to them. As we mentioned earlier, there is a strong social justice component to the Potter series that has been picked up by various groups within the fandom, the Harry Potter Alliance in particular. The HPA is a great example of experiential learning, as its campaigns focus on getting young people out into the world to enact change. While we recognize that not every student nor every teacher will have the same commitment to social justice, we value the notion of experiential learning--whether that is in relation to world events or mathematics--and wish for more equitable access to such experiences.

    Authentic Tasks as the Central Form of Student--and Teacher--Assessment: in our final look in the Mirror, we see one outcome of the above-mentioned emphasis on experiential learning--an educational system that does not rely on standardized assessment and scripted curriculums. Instead, both teachers and students are assessed in ways that are sensitive to their particular needs and that encourage confidence in future practice.

    These four elements are certainly not the only positive changes we can imagine for schools, but they represent a significant start. They also represent a turn toward a more caring, trusting, and loving educational system. After all, it is the power of love, not magic, that is the most important lesson Harry has taught us.

    Catherine Belcher works with LA's Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe's University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

    Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).

    Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part Two))

    One of your teachers faced pushed back from students that the Harry Potter series were books for white kids. Perhaps many readers are thinking the same thing. Yet your title stresses their value for the "multicultural classroom." So, what do the books offer for children of color? How does this approach to "multiculturalism" differ from approaches which seek to match students with writers from the same ethnic and racial background?

    In the book, we talk about what we mean by "multicultural" education (all the students and teachers in Teaching Harry Potter are of color and therefore bicultural, meaning they negotiate their home and school cultures on a daily basis) and what we believe, and have seen, the Potter books contribute to the educational process within these settings. The first thing we question is the idea that the "whiteness" of the books negates their use in multicultural classrooms. The nature of the books themselves - their complexity and Rowling's willingness to take on difficult and contemporary issues such as racism, genocide, classism, and difference - make them uniquely valuable, and each of the three teachers illustrate this to great effect in their accounts.

    We discuss three features that make the Potter books central to the teachers in our book: Harry's status as a "newcomer" to the Wizarding world - to which Sandra's largely immigrant students relate, a normalization of difference - utilized to great effect by Allegra with her special education students, and the opportunity for multiple interpretations of the text - particularly useful for Andrew's students, but employed by all three teachers. Again, teacher capacity and quality are paramount here. We're looking beyond a base reading of the text; the quality of the approach, interaction and reading experience makes all the difference. One can certainly read Harry Potter simply as a book about white kids in an English boarding school. None of the Teaching Harry Potter teachers took that route - which one might call the dark and easy path. Instead, they challenged their students to use Harry Potter to help them tackle difficult social topics and academic exercises, and to do this with the belief that there was definitely something in Harry's story they could use to help them grow as learners and people.

    It's also important to note that we firmly believe in access to literature from multiple arenas; classics and books reflecting a diversity of authors, including those matching the students' background, are vitally important for young readers. But access to a particularly valuable popular work like Harry Potter is important because of its accessibility and all it has to offer. On another level, it is also important because so many white, middle to upper middle class kids DO have ample access to Potter and other popular series at home and at school. In many ways, building students' reading confidence, helping them discover that yes, they too can tackle a book of this length or "that style," whether they end up feeling it is ultimately for them or not, is the most valuable accomplishment.

    What's striking about the teacher stories running through the book is the degree to which each adopted their instruction to the particular needs of their students, finding the Harry Potter books to be a highly flexible resource in that regard. How does this customization and remixing process differ from the standard ways that schools are thinking about curriculum in this age of No Child Left Behind?

    Finding space for customizing/remixing curriculum was one of the biggest challenges the teachers in our book faced. By not following the standardized curriculum, they were doing something subversive--and, as their stories reflect, they often had trouble getting support from administration and colleagues. Despite the challenges they faced, however, each of the teachers featured in the book did a beautiful job of adapting Potter for their classrooms. Whether we are talking about Sandra, who read the book in Spanish with her ELL students, Allegra, who used the audio books to support her special education students' particular needs for reading support, or Andrew, who approached the book as an accessible gateway to challenging AP content, it is clear in each teacher's story that the needs of her/his students were primary influences on the decisions made around reading the books. In talking with the participating teachers, it seems that the rich stories in the Potter books provided unique opportunities for discussion, analysis, and connection with students' lives. Moreover, just the experience of reading an entire popular book together--as opposed to the excerpts and readers associated with the standardized curriculum--appears to have offered opportunities for deep, meaningful learning.

    This kind of responsive teaching is radically different from the standardized curricula commonly found in schools, not because teachers prefer standardization (although some certainly must), but because standardization is thought to be more efficient and its results more easily measurable. As we discuss in more detail in the book, most current policy initiatives reward efficiency and demand accountability--and neither reward nor require responsiveness, flexibility, or creativity. All of this adds up to a demoralizing and frustrating culture for teaching in which teachers' expertise is put to the side in favor of standardized content and methods. Fortunately, the teachers featured in Teaching Harry Potter pushed back hard against these negative forces, instead focusing on how they could provide meaningful learning opportunities for all of their students, even when reading Potter meant working around (and/or subverting) the prescribed reading curriculum--and taking considerable criticism from colleagues and supervisors for doing so.

    While each teacher had his/her own approaches to customizing the reading/learning experience, Allegra's story stands out as particularly salient to the topic of adaptation/remixing. A creative and dedicated teacher, Allegra wanted to support her students' developing reading skills and practices and felt that multimedia tools like the series' audio books could supplement the instruction and assistance she could provide for students one-on-one as well as to the class as a whole. As they worked through the first Potter book, Allegra's students moved fluidly between the printed text and multimedia by reading along with the audio books. The highly-engaging audio books provided students with a model for fluent reading as well as created a situation in which students could focus more attention on listening to and comprehending the story rather than struggling to decode every word themselves.

    Allegra's story also stands out in relation to adaptation because Allegra was working with special education students. As discussed in Allegra's chapter, Harry Potter is a great book series for use in special education for a number of reasons, a key one being the prominence of "difference" as a theme in the series. All Hogwarts students are special in that they have magical abilities; some (like Neville) require more support for learning than others (like Hermione), and others (like Harry) seem to benefit from an alternative, customized curriculum. As Allegra notes in her chapter, seeing varied, positive representations of difference was beneficial to her students.

    Harry Potter's status in the literary canon is still being debated and many teachers may see it as "mere popular culture" and not sufficiently literary to bring into school. Given the choices they face in schools with a diminishing focus on reading in any form, what's the case for why we should teach Harry Potter and not say Animal Farm?

    Why not both? Granted, the limitations you speak of do exist and districts, schools and teachers must make increasingly difficult decisions about what to include, there are creative ways to include popular books in the curriculum. Andrew, who is the high school AP English teacher in our book, never actually reads complete Potter books with his students. Instead, he uses key excerpts from both the books and the movies to support teaching particular literary aspects. In using these regularly, his students gain a sense of the stories and many end up reading the books on their own. Sandra does read one book a year with her students, but it takes a great deal of planning to make it work, including framing her rationale for using the books. The key for all three of the teachers in our book is a set of very clear goals for their students around using Harry Potter. They don't just read Harry Potter because it's fun or the teachers like the books.

    Each teacher uses the texts or movies to teach specific points in the curriculum, encourage habits of mind, or build stamina around reading. All three share the goal of building their students' confidence as readers; because Harry is accessible and also smartly written (it links to so many literary traditions, for example) each teacher uses it to catch his/her students by surprise - eventually each class realizes they've engaged the story, understand it, can connect it to other stories and text, and can discuss its merits and/or weaknesses, in many cases using high level academic language, as in the case of Andrew's AP English class. His students would certainly be primed to critically examine Animal Farm, for example. They hold a "literary confidence" not necessarily present previous to discussing/analyzing Potter.

    The debate around including popular texts in school curriculum will certainly remain a constant, especially since debates around which "classics" to include in English courses seems never ending. But there is certainly a current wave of coolness around reading - prompted by Potter and sustained by such series as The Hunger Games - that if recognized, harnessed, and used could serve to help students connect to the "classic" texts that have actually influenced a great deal of popular works.

    How do we measure the success of these teachers' attempts to use Harry Potter to engage with their students? And why do you think that school systems are so slow to recognize and reward this kind of success?

    Measuring teacher success - successful teaching - is probably the biggest educational debate right now. The growth over time data we talked about above is one example of how teachers are increasingly measured by one of the few types of hard data that are produced by teachers and schools en masse. Otherwise, the criteria for "success" becomes more objective and therefore difficult to define and evaluate in large numbers. In the book, we include a list of 9 "shared commonalities" - characteristics the Teaching Harry Potter teachers hold in common that we believe serve as the basis for (and evidence of) their success. One of these does include standardized test scores, but that serves more as one criteria, not the central identifiable aspect of the teachers' success. To our mind, these commonalities are identifiable and clearly contribute to student success. However, we spent time talking with the teachers, getting to know their philosophy and role in their respective schools. It took time to identify the roots of their success, something schools and districts don't have a lot of to work with.

    We also hold a particular view of what it means to be a successful teacher. For example, we believe popular culture and media are valuable in school and consider wise and appropriate use of them with students a mark of great teaching. Many would disagree, however. We could spend a long time arguing our point, which we've done, actually, and still not have any kind of consensus on the issue, let alone on how to measure what using popular culture successfully would look like. This is one of the major obstacles faced by each of the teachers in our book, they had to constantly justify their use of Harry Potter books and media and in some cases were actually allowed to use the books because of their successful testing records. So, in the end reading Harry Potter with one's students became the reward for the kind of "success" that could be easily and "objectively" measured - and that's where school districts and policy makers live right now.

    Catherine Belcher works with LA's Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe's University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

    Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).

    Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part One)

    Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr- Shepardson's Teaching Harry Potter: The Power of Imagination in the Multicultural Classroom is quite simply one of the most powerful and engaging books I've read about American education in a long time, and I strongly recommend it to the full range of people who read this blog -- those who are fans, those who are teachers, and those who care about the future of learning. Teaching Harry Potter tells a powerful story about the current state of American education, one which contrasts the enthusiasm many young people and educators feel towards J.K. Rowling's remarkable book series and the constraints which No Child Left Behind-era policies have imposed on how reading gets taught in the classroom. Reading this book produced powerful emotional responses--an enormous respect for the teachers described here who are battling to engage with their students in meaningful and timely ways and despair over some of the obstacles they must overcome in doing so. There's much to be optimistic here in the ways these teachers care deeply enough about their students to take intellectual and professional risks and much that is disheartening about the ways that the system crushes opportunities that all recognize are valuable but which do not fit within the formal "standards."

    The two writers move back and forth between a nuanced reading of J.K. Rowling's books which considers how they represent the value of education, detailed accounts of what teachers have been doing with the books as they adapt them for a range of multicultural classes, and big picture considerations of educational policy and pedagogical practice. You can learn more about this book and its authors on Teaching Harry Potter's official website and on the authors' blog.

    The following is the first installment of a three part interview with the writers, during which they use Harry Potter to pose some powerful critiques of what's working and what's not in contemporary American education.

    Let's start with the question that frames your introduction -- Why Harry Potter? What does this book series help us to understand about the contemporary state of American education?

    We chose to use Harry Potter to explore American education because of the powerful things the series has to say about teaching and learning. Even though the magical school system in the Potter books more closely resembles British schools (and, one might say, a particular, nostalgic view of British schools) than the American public schools we discuss in our book, we saw important parallels between how issues such as childhood and adolescence, power (both political and personal), knowledge, literacy, and even media and technology were discussed in the books and how they are discussed in contemporary education. For example, teachers we have worked with have often discussed the challenge of balancing students' informational needs with the school district's desire for "safety" (which can mean anything from approved book lists to highly-restrictive firewalls on school networks); a similar theme is evident in Harry's interactions with Dumbledore and other Hogwarts faculty who struggled with questions about how and when to share information with Harry and his classmates.

    The Potter series also reminds us of the importance of looking carefully and closely at situations--as things are not always what they seem to be at first glance--and of the importance of listening to alternative narratives. Both of these things seem particularly salient in relation to the state of contemporary American education, which, when viewed as a whole, seems very much like a lost cause. Looking closer, however, it is apparent that there are great and creative teachers, committed administrators, communities dedicated to supporting their schools, and students who, when given the resources they need, do extraordinary things. It is unfortunate that these stories are so often drowned out by discussions of standardized policy and procedure, as they are important reminders of what is possible. The exclusion of the Harry Potter books themselves, or the "strangeness" of including them in school reading lists, speaks to this as well. The assumption that they are simple children's books belies so much of their meaning and potential.

    Further, we love the spirit of learning in Harry Potter: students taking ownership over their own learning and teaching one another; reading books from the restricted section of the library; finding secret passageways to Hogsmeade. Hogwarts students seem to have a sense of autonomy, adventurousness, and wonderment that we wish for all students.

    A few pages into the book, you have already framed it as a defense of teachers. Why do teachers need defending? Why do they deserve defending?

    Teachers, great teachers, definitely need defending in today's climate. We realize that not all teachers are created equal, and that there is a great need to improve teacher preparation, hiring policies, evaluation, and retention in public schools, particularly in large, urban school districts. However in the book, we talk about how the current climate around accountability, measuring teacher quality by test scores, and the role of teacher unions in protecting ineffective teachers has created a situation where the voices and needs of high quality teachers are being drowned out. Can we really afford that? We felt it vital to draw attention to the work of passionate, highly skilled teachers, to make the counter argument that they exist and are indeed out there - and that they are innovative and current in their approach. We also thought it important to highlight the tensions these teachers deal with in trying to continue their work and grow as creative professionals under the current political climate.

    We also believe it is important to discuss the fact that there is more than one way to talk about good teaching. Most of the public discussion today centers on measuring teachers in some manner, usually through their students' test scores, which in many ways make sense since those are the one set of hard, "objective" measures available. Scores also provide a quick and easy answer. But good teaching is about much more than test scores - as is evidenced by Sandra, Andrew and Allegra. We are straightforward about the fact that their students do indeed test well, but we don't focus on that particular aspect of their work. What becomes clear in these three teachers' accounts is that they do much more than test preparation in their classrooms. They work - and often struggle - with making their pedagogy more nuanced and layered as they strive to offer a richer experience for their students. It is also important to note that they work with urban, and/or high poverty students of color, who are more often "test-prepped" and remediated than their suburban counterparts. Do teachers such as these, who believe in their students and work against the grain to offer them a rich literary experience deserve defending? Yes, most definitely. The task is figuring out how to balance that need within a system that currently throws all teachers into the same pot, regardless of their track record with students.

    Harry Potter is a series of books about education. What insights might teachers take for their own pedagogical practice from studying the various teachers and administrators depicted in the book?

    One of the most important insights teachers might take from the characterizations of teachers and administrators in the books is an understanding of how students perceive them. The Hogwarts faculty members are, by and large, portrayed as archetypes: Minerva McGonagall (stern and confident), Severus Snape (bitter and cruel), Remus Lupin (caring expert), Gilderoy Lockhart (inexperienced and self-absorbed), Albus Dumbledore (wise sage), and so on. Because readers only learn about the teachers through Harry's experiences with them, we spend much of the series not knowing much about them, their backgrounds, or their motivations. Teachers in the series--like many teachers in American schools--knew much more about their students than vice versa. While we're certainly not advocating that teachers give up all rights to privacy, we do think that it's important to be aware of the fact that most students navigate schools with a very incomplete picture of who their teachers are as people--and that this lack of information can serve as an impediment to connecting with teachers, even those who are very skilled and willing to act as caring mentors.

    For the teachers we profile in Teaching Harry Potter, the Potter books provided a way to share a bit of themselves with their students by sharing a piece of media about which they were passionate. Now, not all of the featured teachers were die-hard Potter fans (though several definitely would describe themselves that way), but all enjoyed the books, identified their value for their students, and went to great lengths to share the books in their classrooms. Their dedication to brokering access to the books for their students and to creating engaging reading experiences that recognized students' different needs and desires is admirable.

    Another thing that teachers might take from the Potter series is the value it places on experiential education--that is, teaching and learning that is grounded in students' real lives, that gets them up, out of their seats, and interacting with one another as well as with people outside of the classroom. Take, for example, Professor Lupin's lesson on defeating Dementors with the Riddikulous spell--this exercise challenged students to use magic that was extremely relevant to their lives at that moment and, although the lesson itself was loud, rambunctious, and risky, it was also highly effective in teaching students a spell they could immediately apply outside of the classroom.

    Moves toward standardization of curriculum are generally moves away from experiential learning, as experiential learning needs to be connected to specific contexts, moments in students' lives and in the schooling process. It takes a great deal of creativity and bravery for teachers to privilege this kind of learning in the classroom, especially in the current educational climate in the U.S.

    Catherine Belcher works with LA's Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe's University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

    Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).

    Internet Blackout: SOPA, Reddit, and Networked (Political) Publics

    This wednesday, Wikipedia, Reddit, and a range of other high profile on-line sites will go black in protest of SOPA and PIPA, legislation currently being considered by the U.S. Congress, which will impose regulations on net practices in the name of exerting greater control over "piracy." For those of us who have been involved in the digital world for a long time, this protest recalls another key moment in the history of the web when key sites went black in 1996 in protest of the Communications Decency Act, which would have similarly regulated the content and practices of the online world, in this case in the name of "protecting children" from obscenity. We should be cautious about the deployment of morally fraught terms like "piracy" and "decency" in framing public policies, since the stakes in these regulatory struggles are always more complex than such black and white language might indicate. Both are often deployed in ways that place the participatory ethos and free expression of the web at risk. One can argue that the broadcast media has already largely "gone black" over SOPA -- since they have shown a remarkable unwillingness to discuss this important media policy issue on the air, or at least had refused to do so prior to the statement the Obama administration issued this past week coming out in opposition to SOPA but defining alternative ways that they might confront the war on "piracy." (I recall having a CNN executive some years ago tell my class that they did not cover the Federal Communications Act because they did not think the public would be interested, a unique definition of the "public interest" if ever I heard one. Thankfully, my students were not buying this explanation, which is more than the public got in terms of the willingness of news media to cover issues where their own corporate interests are at stake.)

    Under such circumstances, those us in the blogosphere have a special obligation to help educate the public about matters that commercial media thinks is "over our heads" (or more accurately, "behind our backs.") So, I was delighted when Alex Leavitt, a PHD candidate in Communications at USC, offered to share his reflections on SOPA and especially on the online communities efforts to rally in opposition to it. Leavitt worked with the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT and now is part of the Civic Paths Research Group I run here at USC.

    Internet Blackout: SOPA, Reddit, and Networked (Political) Publics

    by Alex Leavitt

    If you don't have time to read this article in full, the easiest way to skim information about this topic is to visit

    In the past year, we've dealt with various novel political moments around the world that have been enabled or augmented with networked technology, from Anonymous' global "hacktivist" incidents to the numerous protests in the Middle East, topped off of course with the vibrant grassroots protests of the Occupy movement. Over the last few months, we've also seen another interesting case study taking place in American politics: rampant opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, dubbed as "the most important bill in Congress you may have never heard of" by Chris Hayes of

    Watch Chris Hayes' interview for a good introduction to the debate around SOPA.

    SOPA, a bill currently making its way through the House of Representatives (along with its sibling PIPA, the Protect IP Act, currently in the Senate) has faced weeks of protest from Internet companies and users alike. Why? Well, on Google Plus, Sergey Brin -- cofounder of Google -- likened the potential effects of SOPA to the Internet censorship practiced in China, Iran, Libya, and Tunisia. Basically, to protect against international copyright infringement, SOPA allows the US to combat websites (such as file lockers or foreign link aggregators) that illegally distribute or even link to American-made media by blocking access to them. Theoretically, the bill has dangerous implications for websites that rely on user-generated content, from YouTube to 4chan. Many have already written about the worries that SOPA and PIPA cause, such as Alex Howard's excellent, in-depth piece over at O'Reilly Radar. For more information on the bills, visit OpenCongress's webpages, where you can see summaries of the legislation, which companies support and oppose them, and round-ups of by mainstream and blogged news: SOPA + PIPA. The bills are one more step in a long line of anti-piracy legislation, such as 2010's Combatting online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA).

    Within the first few weeks since SOPA was introduced, introduced the hyperbolic to illustrate the fears ordinary Internet users should have in relation to the legislation. In essence, SOPA would radically undermine many of the fan practices that Henry and others have analyzed on this blog. Fight for the Future also released the following video (which was my first media exposure to SOPA):

    PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

    However, for the most part, criticism -- or even basic coverage -- of SOPA remained an online phenomenon. While there have been a few online articles written on CNN and a couple other networks, the mainstream news coverage of the bills remain fairly nonexistent, reports MediaMatters, likely due to the fact that the television networks largely support the bill. The Colbert Report featured a pair of short segments on SOPA in early December.

    The Internet, though, largely worked around that problem.

    In his book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, UCLA anthropologist Chris Kelty describes free software programmer-activists as a recursive public. Drawing from Michael Warner's concept of "publics and counterpublics" from Habermas's "public sphere," Kelty illustrates these programmers as a group that is addressed by copyright and code, and who work to make, maintain, and modify their technological networks and code as well as the discourse with which they engage as a public. This "circularity is essential to the phenomenon."

    Especially over the past two months, we've seen an exceptional effort on the part of online companies to engage users with the political process to oppose SOPA. For instance, on 16 November 2011, Tumblr blacked out every image, video, and word on each user's dashboard, linking at the top of the page to, where users could call their local representative.

    The effort set of thousands of shared posts and hundreds of hours of calls.

    While other companies attempted similar experiments (like Scribd on 21 December), Internet leaders joined together to spread word and inform Congress (such as with this letter from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on 15 November, and later this letter by many others on 14 December) and even political opponents of SOPA reached out on social media, like when Senator Ron Wyden asked people to sign their names at so he could read the list at a filibuster. Other experts eventually spoke up too.

    But perhaps the most intriguing political effort occurred within one specific online community:

    Reddit, founded in 2005, is a social news and discussion website where users submit and vote on content. According to, Reddit is currently the 53rd most-visited site in the United States. Due to its increasing popularity, Reddit's slogan is "the front page of the internet" -- pertinent, because when a link hits the front page of Reddit, it can lend hundreds of thousands of page views. Though members at times highlight the site's immaturity and incivility, its vibrant community -- combined with the hypervisibility of the front page, has particularly thrived over the past couple of years, especially in terms of political participation and charity. Co-founded Alexis Ohanian gave a TEDtalk about Reddit's dedication to strange things online and when that translates into a sort of political participation:

    Humorously, every activist-related post on the official Reddit blog is tagged with "do it for splashy.

    In terms of more prominent political activism, Reddit's community -- particularly it's subreddit, /r/politics, and the emergent subreddit /r/SOPA -- has unified around opposing SOPA, in line with the free-speech, utopian personality that pervades the site. For instance, a couple posts on /r/politics and r/technology that reached the front page [1, 2] helped bring rapid visibility to Senator Wyden's filibuster initiative.

    A more effective protest occurred in the form of a website boycott. GoDaddy, the domain register, was discovered to be a supporter of SOPA. After some discussion on Reddit, one r/politics thread reached the front page: GoDaddy supports SOPA, I'm transferring 51 domains & suggesting a move your domain day. Visibility of SOPA-related content was aided by a new subreddit, r/sopa, to which a global sidebar linked from the Reddit homepage. Less than 24 hours after the boycott started (even though, by numbers, it was deemed hardly successful), and with two more /r/politics threads that reached the front page [1, 2], GoDaddy reversed their stance and dropped support for SOPA.

    SOPA debate continued to be fueled by various posts, including one by cofounder Alexis Ohanian: If SOPA existed, Steve & I never could've started reddit. Please help us win.. At the end of December, r/politics joined together to place pressure on SOPA-supporting Representative Paul Ryan; eventually, he reversed his position and denounced the bill.

    Most notably, Alexis Ohanian recently announced on the Reddit blog that the entire site would voluntarily shut down on Wednesday 18 January 2012 for twelve hours, from 8am-8pm EST. Replacing the front page will be "a simple message about how the PIPA/SOPA legislation would shut down sites like reddit, link to resources to learn more, and suggest ways to take action." This blacking out of Reddit coincides with a series of cybersecurity experts' testimonies in Congress, at which Ohanian will be representing and speaking.

    In reaction to SOPA (and PIPA, to which the opposition is now growing, since the SOPA vote has now been shelved), a vigorous public emerged across the web and united around discourse about the bills, particularly on But to return to Kelty: is this a recursive public? Do the political users of Reddit have enough power and agency to maintain and modify their public?

    I believe this question gets at a deeper question of ontology: what does political participation mean in a 1) networked, and 2) editable age? For instance, some users are able to promote their skills for discourse -- eg., My friend and I wrote an application to boycott SOPA. Scan product barcodes and see if they're made by a SOPA supporter. Enjoy. -- but in certain cases, participation in technological systems becomes participation in a recursive public because that participation helps modify the system. In the case of Reddit, participation can become political when content reaches extreme visibility. And this is particularly important when we reconsider that the mass media has barely covered SOPA as a topic: due to this conflict, participation on a network platform like Reddit becomes an inherently political action.

    And out of these seemingly-innocuous actions emerge more political moves. In reaction to the black out, other websites have agreed to join the effort, such as Perhaps the decision with the most impact came on Monday, when Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia -- which receives up to 25 million visitors per day at the English-language portal -- would also shut down, but this time for a full 24 hours, after a lengthy discussion on Wales' personal Wikipedia page. Wales responded to the announcement on Twitter by saying, "I hope Wikipedia will melt phone systems in Washington on Wednesday."

    In a recent New York Times article, Reddit's political actions were noted. "'It's encouraging that we got this far against the odds, but it's far from over,' said Erik Martin, the general manager of, a social news site that has generated some of the loudest criticism of the bills. 'We're all still pretty scared that this might pass in one form or another. It's not a battle between Hollywood and tech, its people who get the Internet and those who don't." Of course, Reddit isn't the only platform that is part of this important recursive public, just as Twitter wasn't the saving grace of the Arab Spring or the Iranian Revolution. The efforts of hundreds of activists around the country have contributed immensely to the anti-SOPA effort. But keep in mind that Reddit has reached a pinnacle of political participation in the last few months, and I have a feeling that -- like YouTube in the 2008 presidential elections -- Reddit may be the site to watch in 2012.

    Alex Leavitt is a PhD student at USC Annenberg, where he studies digital culture and networked technology. Recently, his work has focused on creative participation in immense online networks, examining global participatory phenomenon like Hatsune Miku and Minecraft. You can reach him on Twitter @alexleavitt or via email at; to read more about his research, visit

    A Few Final Reflections at Year's End...

    Having made it, more or less, through the grading frenzy, I am now really and truly spent, and looking forward to some much needed rest and relaxation over the holidays. So, this is going to be the last blog post for 2011. We will be back by the Second Week of January with an exciting line-up of interviews, essays, and other resources, but for the time being, I am going to take a few weeks off to read, write, and other things that keep Henry healthy and wise, if not particularly wealthy. Before I do, I wanted to share a few loose ends which have come across my desk in the past few weeks.

    The first is the webcast created by the fine folks at the New School of Social Research depicting the public conversation I had with Liz Losh at the Mobility Shifts conference earlier this fall. Many of you will have seen photographs of Liz and I wearing the Team Critical Theory and Team Cultural Studies racing jackets which Liz's husband designed and produced for the event. They were our joking way of calling out some of the unproductive tensions which have existed between those two camps over the past few years and the desire to work beyond them in order to contribute to far more important public debates, such as those concerning the future of public education, and to contribute towards shared visions, such as those concerning the democratization of access to digital media.

    Here's how the program was billed:

    At Mobility Shifts: An International Future of Learning Summit Henry Jenkins (Team Cultural Studies) and Elizabeth Losh (Team Critical Theory) offer a progress report on whether and in what ways the public schools and universities are going to be able to absorb or meaningfully deploy what Jenkins calls "participatory culture." Rather than an abstract discussion of a theoretical construct drawn from their supposedly opposite positions studying fan culture and institutional rhetoric respectively, the two will discuss concrete experiences of young people acting appropriately or not, inside or outside the classroom. What might a participatory learning culture look like? What policies make it hard for even supportive teachers to achieve in their classrooms? What stakeholders would need to be engaged in order to change the current cultures of our school? How might participatory learning take place beyond the schoolhouse gates? What is everyone afraid of?

    The Mobility Shifts conference did a great job of combining multiple groups of people, from around the world, who care passionately about the future of education, many of whom are doing local projects designed to have a material real world impact that exist alongside and in relationship with their theory and scholarship.

    As you will see, the differences that might exist between Losh and I on paper start to break down when we deal pragmatically with the concerns that animate our work. We've sometimes disagreed through our blogs, but the more we worked on pulling together this event, the clearer it became that our shared values and commitments were far more significant than tactical disagreements. In the course of this conversation, we make strong arguments for why, tempting though it may be, we can not just blow up the public schools and walk away, we talk about some specific insights we've gained through our educational interventions, and we discuss the strengths and limits of the concept of participatory culture as a way of framing current struggles over access to the means of cultural production and circulation. If you want to learn more about Liz's work, see her blog here.

    Nikki Usher, a recently minted PhD from the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, has been using excerpts from Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society (which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green and which will be released by NYU Press next fall) with her students at George Washington University. Nikki shared with us a video produced as part of a class project by her student, Sandi Moynihan, which applies our concepts of "spreadability" to describe the Occupy movement. The video is part of a larger set of resources around the movement you can find at her website, many of them dealing with Occupy's use of social media. I was so excited by her wonderful video that I asked if I could share it with you here.

    Last week, I was down in Rio. In Copacabana, there are the most remarkable sand sculptures, including several which reconstruct the city's landmarks. Somehow, this sculpture depicting Santa and friends caused me great amusement. It speaks to the incongruous way that Euro-American Christmas iconography and traditions work in the context of South America, where, after all, December is one of the hottest summer months, but we are hearing "Frosty the Snow Man" and "White Christmas" playing everywhere we go. I decided this particular version of Father Christmas might better be called "Sandy Claws." (By the way, while it does not show up very well in this particular image, the woman in the picture is actually wearing one of those "itsy bitsy polka dot bikinis" that one sees on the beaches here, though admittedly, the sculpture left very little to the imagination in this rendering, itself a marker of cultural difference, given how unlikely it is to see anything so "family unfriendly" in public spaces in the United States.)


    The Futures of Entertainment 5: The Videos (Day Two)

    Introduction (8:30-9:00 a.m.) Grant McCracken (author of Chief Culture Officer; Culturematic)

    MIT Tech TV

    The Futures of Serialized Storytelling (9:00-11:00 a.m.)

    New means of digital circulation, audience engagement and fan activism have brought with it a variety of experiments with serialized video storytelling. What can we learn from some of the most compelling emerging ways to tell ongoing stories through online video, cross-platform features and applications and real world engagement? What models for content creation are emerging, and what are the stakes for content creators and audiences alike?

    Moderator: Laurie Baird (Georgia Tech)

    Panelists: Matt Locke (Storythings, UK), Steve Coulson (Campfire), Lynn Liccardo (soap opera critic), and Denise Mann (University of California-Los Angeles)

    MIT Tech TV

    The Futures of Children's Media (11:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m.).

    Children's media has long been an innovator in creating new ways of storytelling. In a digital era, what emerging practices are changing the ways in which stories are being told to children, and what are the challenges unique to children's properties in an online communication environment?

    Moderator: Sarah Banet-Weiser (University of Southern California)

    Panelists: Melissa Anelli (The Leaky Cauldron), Gary Goldberger (FableVision) and John Bartlett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

    MIT Tech TV

    The Futures of Nonfiction Storytelling (2:15-4:15 p.m.).

    Digital communication has arguably impacted the lives of journalists more than any other media practitioner. But new platforms and ways of circulating content are providing vast new opportunities for journalists and documentarians. How have-and might-nonfiction storytellers incorporate many of the emerging strategies of transmedia storytelling and audience participation from marketing and entertainment, and what experiments are currently underway that are showing the potential paths forward?

    Moderator: Johnathan Taplin (University of Southern California)

    Panelists: Molly Bingham (photojournalist; founder of ORB); Chris O'Brien (San Jose Mercury News), Patricia Zimmermann (Ithaca College) and Lenny Altschuler (Televisa)

    MIT Tech TV

    The Futures of Music. (4:45-6:45 p.m.)

    The music industry is often cited as the horror story that all other entertainment genres might learn from: how the digital era has laid waste to a traditional business model. But what new models for musicians and for the music industry exist in the wake of this paradigm shift, and what can other media industries learn from emerging models of content creation and circulation?

    Moderator: Nancy Baym (Kansas University)

    Panelists: Mike King (Berklee College of Music), João Brasil (Brazilian artist), Chuck Fromm (Worship Leader Media), Erin McKeown (musical artist and fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University) and Brian Whitman (The Echo Nest)

    MIT Tech TV

    "The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged": The Visual Culture of the Occupy Movement

    Since September 17, the Occupy Wall Street movement has produced an overwhelming array of visuals, offering a significant lens on the movement itself, its ties to history, its divergent voices, perspectives and styles, as well as its multiple distribution channels from mainstream outlets to social media. Despite the criticism from experts who do not necessarily see much potential in Occupy's "brand," the visual aspects of the protest clearly have impact and traction. Although it would be impossible to fully assess this rich visual output, this blog post attempts to understand its emergent themes as well as the potential uses and value attached to visual commentary and protest. Throughout history, visual culture has played an important role in protest and social change. Although "high" art had long been used to venerate political figures as well as members of the upper classes, with the revolutionary tides of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America, we see a shift and an increase in pictorial depictions of political resistance. These historical examples demonstrate the way visual culture has been fundamental to the politics of protest. They serve as witness and document. They can incite and instigate action.

    Thus begins a rich, compelling, and timely post over at the blog maintained by the USC Civic Paths Research Group. Dr. Alison Trope, Clinical Associate Professor, and Lana Swartz, PhD Student, both in USC Annenberg, have assembled an amazing archive of images drawn primarily from the Occupy rallies from around the country and across the globe.

    As this opening suggests, their primary emphasis is on visual media -- the signs, costumes, spectacles, which have been deployed to define the terms of the debate. Given the visual rich nature of their post, I can't cross-post it here, so I can only send you there to examine it more closely. But, believe me, it is worth hitting the link...

    The Civic Paths team has been studying alternative forms of activism, especially those which involve the intersection between popular culture, participatory culture, and youth, for more than two years. We are affiliated with a research hub focused on Youth and Participatory Politics funded by the MacArthur Foundation and led by Mills College's Joe Kahne. Our own involvement stems from my long-standing interest in fan activism, the theme of a special issue our group is editing for Transformative Works and Culture, which will come out early next year. But, our interest has grown far beyond this.

    Our current case studies include work on the young activists who are working to pass the Dream Act to give greater educational and citizenship rights to undocumented youth (Arely Zimmerman), research on youth involvement in Libertarian politics (Liana Thompson), research on Nerdfighters, the Harry Potter Alliance, and Imagine Better (Neta Kligler-Vilenchik), and research into Muslim-American politics post-911 (Sangita Shreshtova). Along the way, though, we have also been looking closely at a broader range of case studies -- from Racebenders to labor organizing in Madison, Wisconsin. This site looks at some of our preliminary examples, which helped pave the way for our current research. Altogether, we have nearly 20 PhD and Masters students contributing to this research, many of whom have posted some preliminary insights through the Civic Paths blog, so if you come to visit the Occupy archive, stay around and check out some of their other contributions.

    I was lucky enough to have been able to pay a visit to Washington Square, the home of Occupy Wall Street, a few weeks ago, when I was in New York for the Mobility Shifts conference. An army of people in Zombie costumes, many of them from Zombiecon, a horror fan convention, had arrived at the Park just a few minutes before I did, and they were mingling with folks dressed up like characters from Game of Thrones and carrying signs warning that "the Winter is Coming." Elderly tourists were stopping them and seeking to better understand why they were dressed the ways they were and how they were connected with the Occupy moment, resulting in a series of exchanges which would further spread awareness of the protest. And that's part of the point.

    Occupy is not so much a movement, at least not as we've traditionally defined political movements, as it is a provocation. If the mainstream media has difficulty identifying its goals, it may be because its central goal is to provoke discussion, to get people talking about things which our political leadership has refused to address for several decades now -- the profound shifts in economic wealth which have created conditions of gross inequality in opportunity, the role of what Sarah Palin has called "crony capitalism" (and which is really an indication of the role of capital in shaping our political process), and especially the degree to which economic policies under both Republican and Democratic presidents have been written with more regard for Wall Street than Main Street.

    The values that Occupy represents are shared by the vast majority of Americans, if recent surveys are any indication, yet they are rarely expressed by mainstream political leaders or the mass media. So, part of the point of these protests is to provide what Stephen Duncombe might call an "ethical spectacle" as a means of focusing attention. And the old women who are asking Zombies questions are part of that process, no doubt sharing what they saw with their friends back home, and thus providing yet another chance to talk about what's been going on here.

    The blurring between fan and activist that I observed demonstrates a different relationship between popular culture and politics than we saw in previous protest movements. The Popular Front in the 1930s sought to influence the development of popular culture, giving rise to Aaron Copeland, Norman Rockwell, Frank Capra, and many others, whose work shaped our current image bank of what democracy looks like. The protest movements of the 1960s sought to tap into the language of popular culture -- especially those of rock and comics -- to create an alternative culture, one which was implicitly and often explicitly critical of corporately-owned media and which sought to express the worldview of a younger generation. The protest movements of the early 1990s embraced a DIY aesthetic, giving rise to the Indie-Media movement, and helping to fuel talk of a digital revolution which might democratize access to the channels of communication.

    The Occupy movement, by contrast, has laid claim to the iconography of existing popular culture as a set of cultural resources through which to express their collective identities and frame their critiques. Thus, we see a much more playful style of activism, one which owes much to the traditions of fan culture, one which assumes that images and stories from superhero comics or cult television series are shared by many of the participants (and will be understood by a larger public which has not yet joined the protests). So, they are dressing up, designing signs which re-ascribe meanings to familiar characters, creating their own videos, and sending them out into the world, where they will be seen by many who are not going to go to Washington Square, Los Angeles City Hall, or any other site of occupation.

    This is protest media designed to spread through social networks -- one which has the homemade qualities of the DIY movements of the past (thus, as Trope and Swartz note, the cardboard signs), the high tech qualities of digital activism, and the playful engagement of fan activism, all rolled into one heady combination. These tactics are not without their contradictions -- Trope and Swartz note that the Guy Fawkes masks, inspired by Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and now symbols of the Anonymous movement, are based on IP owned by Warner Communications who profits for everyone sold in this country.

    But, it does seem to reflect the way we are conducting politics in the early 21st century. We saw some of these same images "test marketed" as it were during the pro-labor protests in Madison, as Jonathan Gray noted a while back, and we are seeing these tactics play out on an even bigger stage with Occupy.

    There are many other aspects of the Occupy movement we recognize from our ongoing research. More and more contemporary political movements are decentralized, claiming loose affiliations with each other, yet playing out on very local levels, often with significant differences between the various chapters. This approach has proven highly effective for the Dream Activists, for example, where the struggle shifted from Federal to State and Local levels when Congress failed to pass the national Dream Act. These activists have tapped into social networking tools in order to be able to quickly learn from each other, allowing images, messages, and tactics to evolve rapidly. If traditional immigrant rights groups tended to observe ethnic, racial, and national boundaries, these young people have formed coalitions across different immigrant populations, and something similar is going on with Occupy, where many different ideological interests are organizing around the shared frame which Occupy offers.

    These groups are refusing to create a simple unified message of the kind that are familiar from "disciplined," hierarchical, and established political movements. Rather, they seek to multiply the messages and to expand the range of different media framings so that they may speak to a broader range of different participants. No one piece of media reaches everyone; rather, media is produced quickly and cheaply and spread widely so that each piece of media produced may speak to a different set of followers.

    As Sasha Costanza-Chock, a recent transplant from USC to MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program, wrote in his thesis about the Los Angeles Immigrant Rights Movement:

    Effective transmedia organizers are shifting from speaking for movements to speaking with them. Transmedia mobilization thus marks a transition in the role of movement communicators from content creation to aggregation, curation, remix and circulation of rich media texts through networked movement formations. Those movement formations that embrace the decentralization of the movement voice can reap great rewards, while those that attempt to maintain top down control of movement communication practices risk losing credibility.

    Occupy, if anything, pushes tactics of transmedia mobilization even further. Refusing to anchor a singular meaning behind the movement keeps the conversations alive, allows for more people to join and help reshape the message, enables quick and tactical responses to outside challenges, and supports creative responses from all participants. As they chanted in the 1990s, this is what democracy looks like. Or as Trope and Swartz write, "The Revolution Will Be Hashtagged."

    In the case of the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, there has been a move away from single issue activism to create structures that can be quickly deployed in response to a broad range of concerns and participatory structures that allow local chapters or even individual members to identify and take action around their own issues.

    All of this can be confusing to media that keeps looking for the one cause, the one message, and the one spokesperson. Such efforts also compound some of the division within academic thought, since the message of Occupy seems to come from the realm of Critical Studies and Political Economy, where-as much of the tactics and imagery reflect the domains of Cultural Studies.

    All of this suggests that we need to rethink the ways we've discussed the relations between politics and culture in the past. That's a central goal of the Civic Paths research group and we invite others to join us in researching not simply the Occupy movement but the ways it illustrates the nature of political engagement in a networked culture. We'd welcome hearing about what other research groups are doing to document and analyze the Occupy protests in their local areas.

    "What Is Civic Media" Revisited: A Conversation with John Palfrey (Part Two)

    JP: One of the tensions that emerged from my interviewing was around this issue (broadly) of what community means. It operated as a tension on various levels. One was a sense among the staff that they weren't quite sure what Knight Foundation had in mind about where to focus: locally near Boston, around the US, abroad. (I'm sure that Ethan Zuckerman's focus in his own work will have an impact on future thinking in this regard.) Another hard question related to the term "communities": what are they, do they really exist in the ways that paradigmatic examples might suggest, and so forth. I think there's good, hard, conceptual work still to be done about what it means to "meet the information needs of a community" and what empowerment looks like in the C4 model. I love the approach taken so far, and I think it can bear fruit in terms of informing theory, too.

    HJ: John, your questions about whether communities exist is a key one which I've struggled with from the start. Benedict Anderson tells us that communities are "imagined" in that no member of a community in practice has regular contact with every other member of the community but they act as if there were strong social ties and a shared identity among this somewhat abstracted group of people.

    So, when we talk about doing projects in "communities," what are we talking about? Are we describing an actual group of people who interface regularly with each other? Are we dealing with a population, such as prisoners, who are locked out of the dominant social institutions and yet seek some kind of interface with a community beyond the prison walls? Are we seeking tools, such as Hero Reports, which seek to strengthen the imagined ties between people who pass each other on the subway? Are we seeking to decrease social conflicts or to give people tools to more meaningfully engage with those conflicts, as seems to be the goals for some of Chris's projects?

    The mandate for the center assumes that we are working within existing communities, yet often we may be helping to constitute the communities the projects serve by giving them resources through which they may better "imagine" and start to more fully realize the potential ties between them. The range of projects the center has developed so far suggest many different understandings of what a community is and how media relate to communities, though we have a way to go before they/we articulate fully the theoretical implications of this work.

    JP: This concept of in fact "constituting" communities by giving them resources is completely fascinating. I think this is one of the common beliefs about the web, in particular: where there are humans who are far-flung in geographic terms, share an interest, find one another through the web, and then work together, have we "constituted" these communities in the process?

    An interesting case study might be Global Voices, the signature project that Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon founded and which joins an extraordinary network of citizen journalists and activists around the globe. Was there a GV community before GV? Or was it in fact constituted by the creation of tools, the services, and the passion that went into the founding of GV?

    I realize that this is not exactly on point, vis-a-vis much of the existing work of the Center, which has defined much of what it's done in geographic terms, but I wonder if there might be insight there. Diaspora communities, connected by digital media in richer ways, might be another case to consider.

    HJ: I am struck by the contrast between the Center's view that civic media may enhance a sense of community among participants and the fears being expressed by political leaders and news media in Great Britain that social media may have contributed to the riots which disrupted community life across England last summer. How might we contrast between these two models for thinking about the impact of new media technologies on community life?

    There seems to have been a persistent strand of criticism that new media is leading to greater social isolation, that it is inspiring anti-social behavior, that it contributes to the disintegration of traditional civic associations, etc. In what ways can we see what the Center has done as an effort not simply to question those claims on a theoretical level but also to demonstrate on a practical level how new media can be used in the service of strengthening social ties?

    JP: This too is a tension worth exploring in my view. I've had the Arab Spring uprisings alongside the riots in the United Kingdom in my head. In terms of our reaction to these two events, why do leaders like the Prime Minister in the UK on the one hand say that we should be studying the Egyptian marches in our schools, while raising the specter of restricting social media use when people take to the streets in his hometown?

    OK, so the politics of the situation are obvious; also, there are ways to distinguish the two types of uprising. But the core problem remains the same: it's dangerous for us to make any assumptions about how a given "community" will use digital media tools in any given circumstance. They may have a salutary effect on one day, and a disruptive one on the next -- if your perspective if law-and-order. And from a social fabric perspective, we ought to note the possibilities for multiple outcomes as well, as you note.

    HJ: I am struck in your report by some comments which Chris makes about "disruptive technologies" rather than "gradual change." And that points to another creative friction that shaped the early days of the Center. It's not clear that we would have agreed about the model of social change underlying our work.

    Chris, certainly, embraces disruptive uses of technology, yet there is also an argument to be made for the use of civic media as a way of sustaining traditional institutions and practices, of maintaining social ties, which are being disrupted by other forces in contemporary life. This is not necessarily conservative in a political sense, but it may be conservative in the sense that it seeks to protect something vital in our communities which is being threatened by changes that are not under the control of community members.

    For example, I used to talk about town pageants as an old civic ritual which connected current residents of a town to their past -- and not simply on the level of representing their history. If the same pageant is performed year after year, there is a social sharing across generations that take place - shared memories, even shared identities (as people feel close to others who have played the same character in the performance). We don't have such rituals any more and so it is easy for people to lose sense of their own history or to feel disconnected across generations. I wondered what the contemporary equivalent of a town pageant might look like. And I am not sure whether this line of inquiry has born fruit yet in terms of the projects the Center has developed.

    JP: I like the connection around the word "disruption" between these various points. Of course, I was most influenced by what I heard from those in the Center as of the end of 2010 and start of 2011, so Chris's approach was dominant in the discourse and in the shape of the projects that I observed. I don't think that means that the questions you posed have been asked and answered yet; they seem to me still out there for exploration.

    HJ: Bringing on Ethan Zuckerman as the new Director of the Center almost certainly means a further expansion of our notion of community -- one which moves the Center much more decisively towards global interventions and pushes it further from a focus on its own backyard. There will be radically different conceptions of community life at play as we deal with national contexts radically different from the U.S.A. and where we will encounter a different set of challenges to community life.

    A central concern across such projects should be with who gets to participate, who gets to be a member of a community, given that all communities exclude as well as include, and given that access to and familarity with technologies are a central dividing line in our culture. As I sign off, I want to press the Center to remain attentive to the digital divide and the participation gap and to use technologies as a means of bridging between sectors of communities.

    JP: And as I sign off: thanks so much to everyone in the Center's community for letting me and Catherine Bracy go so deep into your work. It was fascinating. Plainly, what you are doing -- regardless of whether it is disruptive or gradual, local or international, place-based or virtual -- is so very important to the future of our culture and societies. And thanks, Henry, for the chance to reflect together on this great set of issues. You always push me in my thinking (your critique of the digital natives frame comes to mind, among many other examples) and I consider myself lucky to be able to learn from what you say and do.

    John Palfrey is a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, vice dean for library and information resources, and the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He led a reorganization of the Harvard Law School Library in 2009. He is a principal investigator on the Open Net Initiative, a collaboration between Harvard and the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge that studies the Internet filtering of countries such as China, Iran, and Singapore, among many others He is co-author or editor of several books, including Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Born Digital (Basic Books, 2008).