"Media Mix Is Anime's Life Support System": A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part Two)

Research on the Japanese “media mix” and the western “transmedia” phenomenon both must grapple with the blurring boundaries between storytelling/imagination/creativity/play and branding/marketing/promotion. Are these two forces separable at this point within the system you describe? Does the presence of branding necessarily negate the meaningfulness of the characters and stories for those people who are playing with their likenesses?

Marc: My book focuses more on the marketing side of things, and Ian’s on the collaborative side of things (fan collaboration and production-side collaboration). Simply put the system and the soul. I’d hazard to guess that we both agree that in practice one can’t be separated from the other. They can be described separately but they work together.

Our books are very complementary in that sense. The marketer in me wants to say: send us proofs of purchase for both and we’ll send you some stickers!

But joking aside, I think if you look at developments in the media mix over the last couple decades, the storytelling-creativity and branding-marketing are getting closer and closer.

One of the reasons for this is the rise of amateur production and the fluidity of boundaries between amateurs and pros. The Comike (Comic Market) where amateurs meet to sell their creations is one of the places where these boundaries break down. Publishers learn from fans, and successful dojinshi creators become professional comic artists.

In more recent years many of the top amateur game makers have gone pro. But what pro means is itself hard to pin down. My pessimistic side sees this as the increasing appropriation of fan labor and fan production by large corporations. But I also tend to see the circulation of character images as having a media life of its own. Corporations may see this as moving for their own profit. Fans see this circulation as moving to their benefit. But neither can exist without the other, and creativity exists on both sides of this equation, producers and consumers.

I think this is something Ian shows really nicely in his ethnographies of production sites, and it’s something I feel all the more concretely the more I learn about particular moments of media mix production.

Ian: You ask, “Does the presence of branding necessarily negate meaningfulness . . . ?” Certainly not. I recall an acquaintance that wore a T-shirt with an illustration of the playful “Pipo” character, who represents the National Police Agency, and it was version of this: (The orange character is Pipo, who represents the National Police Agency in Japan).

As graffiti artists have shown for a long time, those without the resources to pay for them can use the power of billboards. On the question of whether the forces of play and imagination are separable from branding and marketing, I like to think so, but deep down, I’m not sure.

Or, to put it another way, maybe that distinction is not the one that matters. Maybe a different question is the purposes that marketing and advertising are put towards. Both Greenpeace and Wal-Mart rely on branding and marketing, but evaluating their role depends on thinking beyond the category of marketing to include an analysis of the larger roles organizing play in our society. As an FCC chairman once said, “All TV is educational; the question is what does it teach.” So, too, with advertising.

Even fan activity can be marketing, but what are the implications for what is being exchanged? That’s something I learned from Textual Poachers and it’s still vitally relevant today.

Both “media mix” and “transmedia” imply a certain kind of immateriality -- characters that can draw interest across a range of media -- and materiality -- a focus on the affordances or material properties of the different medium involved. When and how do the specific properties of the media involved in “media mix” matter?

Marc: Materiality is a good way to keep an eye on the specificity of its medial incarnation. Even in the age of digitization, where there is to some degree a convergence around hardware or platforms, there is still the materiality of the interface, and the specificity of the particular media object you’re reading or watching or playing. Immateriality is a way of understanding the character as something that exceeds any one of these material incarnations or interfaces. Whenever we engage with a media mix property we’re engaging with both at the same time.

Personally, I came to these questions of materiality and immateriality when I wanted to understand why children of the 1960s went so crazy over Astro Boy stickers. And why they also wanted Astro toys, and all else, from comics to shoes to records with the theme song.

Ian: When I think of immateriality, I would draw attention to the social energy that flows through characters and worlds. Characters and worlds are certainly one aspect of immateriality. They can move among media forms, from comic book pages, to TV screens, to portable gaming systems. But I see these characters as a link between people.

For me, the immateriality is a kind of social energy that flows through the characters and helps bind us together as creators and fans. When I meet someone who cares about an anime series that I like as well, I experience a kind of electrical charge. I get energized in the sense of having an urge to learn more, to connect, to share.

The materiality of media has a mirror image in the sociality of media. If not, how could media be meaningful? To what degree are the practices described as “media mix” a byproduct of media conglomeration? Is it possible for smaller companies and independents to compete effectively within a media mix economy?

Marc: That’s a key question, and something that’s interesting me more and more. The media mix came out of a franchising or licensing model at a time when there wasn’t much conglomeration, at least not between the companies doing the media mix. Publishers were publishers, animation companies were animation companies, albeit with licensing divisions that dealt with the commercial side of the media mix. There seemed to be little in the way of horizontal conglomeration in the media sphere (though the exception might be in the television industry, with a kind of TV-radio-newspaper companies like Asahi).

But as far as I can tell, it’s really in the 1970s when Kadokawa Books starts a film division that media conglomeration develops around media mix practice. This was based on a blockbuster model of high investment, high return – and the returns weren’t always so high.

So in the 1990s and especially the 2000s, Kadokawa and other companies shift to a “production committee” model of financing that sees the outlay spread over a number of media or non-media companies. Book publishers promise funds, novelizations, or promotions in bookstores; TV stations promise funds, but also spots on air; ad agencies promise TV spots, and so on.

The total cut a given company takes is based on their initial investment. That’s why you often see the words “ ‘XYZ’ Production Committee” at the end of a production – for instance “‘Attack on Titan’ Production Committee” at the end of the credits for the current show Attack on Titan. Most Japanese anime, TV drama and films have this credit line and use this kind of financing. I think of it as a kind of distributed or temporary conglomeration. (There are two excellent reports on this trend available at: http://www.mangamoviesproject.com/publications.html)

That said, the companies that tend to make up the production committees are often the large publishing houses, TV stations and ad agencies. The best chance for independents to develop their own media mix is for their content to catch on in one of the many informal channels – like NicoNico Douga (the YouTube of Japan), or the Comic Market – or to start as a serialization in one of the many comic or novel magazines.

Lucky Star, for instance, started off as a 4-frame “gag” comic in Comptiq, a game magazine. It was basically just filler. But it really caught on, and became one of the media mix hits of the 2000s, and helped kick off a whole craze around 4-frame comics. There are also some daring animation production houses like Kyoto Animation or Shaft that are willing to take chances on untested material.

Many of the media mixes with the greatest impact actually start out as a manga print serialization, and magazines have been called the R&D labs for the media mix. So compared to a Hollywood production or even an HBO TV series, the bar for entry even to official media channels is a lot lower in Japan.

Henry: Anime has become a global phenomenon with consumers world-wide. To what degree are decisions surrounding animation production driven by local market conditions and to what degree are producers seeking to develop a product which will have transnational appeal?

Ian: In my experience, few of the companies in Japan were specifically aiming for a transnational market. The story I often heard was that Pokemon was designed for Japan with no consideration for overseas’ audiences, and yet it was a huge success, so Japanese creators would do best to aim simply for a Japanese market.

At the same time, the prices for anime DVDs in Japan are much higher than the US, often upwards of $60 for 50 minutes (two episodes) worth of animation, so there was also less incentive to make animation for American audiences.

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. I went to script meetings in part to hear about how the creators thought about audiences both in Japan and the US. I remember writing grant proposals with this as a research question. But in script meetings, no one ever talked about fans.

In my experience, the creators viewed themselves as the fan-experts who mattered. When Mamoru Hosoda, an anime director said he also rarely thinks about the audience, I admitted that I was a little hurt by that. I always imagined media creators imagining me when they worked. He laughed and said I was getting it all wrong: “I don’t think about your reaction because I’m hoping you’ll have reactions that I can’t even imagine.” That, for him, is what makes anime an intriguing art form.

On the other hand, some studios, like Gonzo, were thinking at least somewhat about reaching out overseas, and this was one of the reasons that they set their series Red Garden in New York City. By and large, though, anime studios felt they had to aim for their main, domestic audience first.

I think some of the current backlash among US fans against “fan service” (i.e., racy or sexist, depending on your perspective) anime is partly an outcome of Japan’s studios aiming for a particular, domestic fan.


Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo's studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on "globalization from below," that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.

"Media Mix is Anime's Life Support System": A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part One)

This is the second in a series of interviews with key thinkers whose work addresses questions of world-building as they relate to media mix and transmedia practices. The previous installment featured Mark J. P. Wolf talking about his work on Tolkien's notion of "subcreation" and the larger concept of "imaginary worlds." In a Making Of video included on the dvd release of The Matrix, it is revealed that the Wachowski Siblings first conceived of their transmedia approach to the franchise as they were flying back from the first film's premiere in Tokyo. I have always assumed that this mid-Pacific brainstorming was inspired by what they saw when they visited the media capital of Japan and no doubt talked to creators there who have long worked in the media mix tradition. Some years back, I made this trip myself, tagging along with my then-MIT colleague Ian Condry as he began to do the interviews with anime and manga producers that would form the foundations for his new book, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story. For me, the experience was eye-opening as I developed a sense of the scale, scope, and speed with which a pop culture phenomenon moves through this culture. I still discuss with amazement the cosplayers I saw in Yoyogi Park and the massive manga stores we visited in Akiharbara. Japanese media mix long proceeded the American transmedia tradition and it's no shock when I discover yet another transmedia producer who started out as an anime/manga geek. I have featured an interview here before with Condry about his earlier work on hip hop in Japan and about a fascinating Anime-inflected performance he helped to stage while I was at MIT.

My own understanding of media mix has been strongly informed by the work of Marc Steinberg -- both his own recent book, Anime's Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan and his translations of some key works by Japanese critics and practioners about the media mix tradition. I had a chance to sit down and talk with Marc when I visited Concordia University earlier this year, and at the time, I invited a scheme to get Marc and Ian to do a joint interview which might help place the Japanese approach into greater clarity for my readers. What follows is that exchange, conducted this summer, via email.

Henry: Let’s start with a question that Ian raises early in his book, “Why did Japan, of all places, become a global leader in animation”?

 Ian: Japanese animation or “anime” makes up 60% of the world’s broadcast TV cartoons, according to JETRO, a Japanese trade organization. Feature film anime is a global presence as well, with notable directors like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, and Mamoru Hosoda. Anime has gone global with both mass audiences and a diversity of subcultures. I would break down the sources of Japanese success in these too simple terms:

• Astro Boy beat Bambi by making animation more cheaply and quickly.

• Much anime is based on already popular comics, or “manga,” and manga are more expansive and diverse compared to US comics in part because Americans fell for junk science in the 1950s.

• Anime’s success centers on characters more than stories, opening particular spaces for fan participation and transmedia collectives.

I discuss each of these elements in more detail in my book, but let me touch on some of the highlights. Osamu Tezuka was a pioneer in television animation in Japan, and also a leading comic book artist from the 1950s to his death in 1989. He was deeply influenced by Disney’s classic animated films, including Bambi, which he allegedly watched more than 80 times. (The “big eyes” of anime characters might be traced in part to this influence and that of the Fleischer Brothers’ animation like Betty Boop.)

Marc will discuss the business model Tezuka relied on for his first TV series Astro Boy, begun in 1963, which was based on an already popular manga character of his. Let me point out that his production studio also innovated in the sense of pushing “limited animation” further than other studios. Tezuka Productions was able to meet television deadlines and work with a tiny budget in part by radically reducing the number of frames that had to be drawn (using few mouth movements, re-using flying scenes, and relying on dramatic poses rather than detailed action, etc.).

This produced relatively poor quality animation, at least, poor in comparison to Disney’s full animation, but, as Tom Lamarre argues in his book Anime Machine, certainly even limited animation was and is artful in its own way. Still, the legacy of slight embarrassment continues today: When I interviewed Japanese animators and asked them what made Japanese animation distinctive, I often heard, “Well, it’s not very animated, is it?”

Even so, with Astro Boy, the series was a huge success. This solidified the notion in Japan that even relatively poor animation could be popular, especially if it relied on already-popular manga characters. To this day, about 60% of Japanese animation is based on popular characters.

Japan also has a much larger comic book universe compared to the US, constituting about 40 percent of the units sold, and 20 percent of the value of Japanese publishing overall. Manga is read by children, teens and adults, even as it increasingly moves online and into mobile phones.

Manga is famous for generally having more sex and violence than comics in the US, and there is a historical reason for that. As David Hajdu describes in his book The Ten-Cent Plague, in the 1950s, America was rallied to protect children from salacious and gritty comic books in part by the research of psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, whose 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent found comic books harmful to kids. US publishers at the time responded by setting up the Comics Code Authority, which required comic books to be suitable for children. There were always doubts about Wertham’s research, and recently more evidence has emerged showing a misuse and even falsification of data (see, for example, this coverage )

In Japan, there have been outcries against troubling comic book material, but in general, a wider range of manga is readily available and continues to attract enormous readership. This variety lends itself to a diversity of source material for anime as well.

Arguably, fan participation has played a larger role in the history of anime than is the case with TV cartoons in the US. To take one example, the giant robot TV series Gundam, which began airing in 1979, was initially deemed a failure due to low viewership and poor sales of toys. Over time, however, amateur activity around the series grew, as fans created encyclopedias and timelines extending the fictional world of the series. Importantly, the Gundam producers did not object to these extensions, and eventually the series was revived, and has become one of the longest-running and most successful series of all time.

This kind of fan activity remains part of the bedrock of anime’s success, and can be seen in other media forms as well. Japan’s largest annual convention is Comic Market held each year in August, and it draws almost half a million people over three days to buy and sell fan-made comics (often with unauthorized uses of copyrighted characters). Miku is a virtual singer made popular through crowd-sourced production, where some people make music and others make the music videos, for example.

The concept, “media mix,” seems central to the project of both of your books. What does this term imply about the ways popular culture is produced, marketed, distributed, and consumed in Japan?

Marc: The media mix is really central to how media operate in Japan. One of reasons I call my book Anime’s Media Mix is because ever since the beginning of television anime in 1963, the media mix has been central for anime’s very existence.

Betting that TV stations would refuse to pay the actual costs of production of a 30-minute animated TV show, Tezuka Osamu sold Astro Boy at a loss. He figured he’d make back the money on licensing fees for character goods – what we’d now call franchising – and international sales. So anime depends on other media (from toys to comics to video games) for its very survival.

The media mix is anime’s life support system. In turn anime grabs audiences that wouldn’t otherwise read a comic, or a novel, expanding the fan base. So ultimately there’s a kind of virtuous circle between the financial side of things and the fan side of things. As time moved on, and especially into the 1980s and 1990s, these grew closer and closer together. In the end it is rare to have a stand-alone cultural product, at least in the spheres considered “subcultural” in Japan, like comics, animation and light novels.

The media mix practice has even become central to “mainstream” areas like live-action films and TV dramas, especially since the 2000s.

Ian: I like the idea that the “media mix is anime’s life support system.” One of the questions I think about is, who supports the media mix? Whose activities bring this “media mix” to life?

As a cultural anthropologist, I like to draw more attention to the people, both professional producers and amateur creators, who form a nexus of collaborative creativity. The outcome is the “media mix,” but to ask about collaboration brings about a slightly different focus, in my opinion.

Like you, Henry, I too am interested in “spreadable media,” but I guess I see the impetus in the people who do the spreading, rather than being a function of the media object itself. (Editor's Note: I would have said that the focus of our Spreadable Media book is on the community that is circulating the content and the ways the content functions as social currency in their interactions with each other. So I don't think we are actually disagreeing here.) Granted, there is something amazing about Susan Boyle’s rise to stardom, and a lot of that has to do with her superior singing talent. It’s interesting as well, however, that her fans found something worth sharing and reached out to friends and colleagues to push interest in her even farther than the TV show alone could.


What relationship exists between “media mix” and the western concept of “transmedia storytelling”? How has the emergence of “media mix” changed the nature of storytelling in Japan?

Marc: This question about the relationship between media mix and transmedia storytelling is an important one. On the one hand I see Japan’s media ecology as really central to the conceptualization of transmedia storytelling. I think back to what I think is a key chapter of your book, Convergence Culture, where you analyze The Matrix as a key example of transmedia. As you point out, the Wachowskis develop the conception of The Matrix expanded universe on the way back from Japan, and you point out how influential the Japanese model of dispersing content across media was to them.

The conception of an expanded world which consumers access part by part was developed in Japan around Kadokawa Books by Kadokawa Tsuguhiko, Otsuka Eiji, Mizuno Ryo, Sato Tatsuo, Inoue Shin’ichiro and others in the late 80s and early 90s. These magazine editors and media creators associated with Kadokawa effectively shifted from being authors to being media mix producers. Otsuka, Mizuno and others create manga, or write novels – MPD Psycho and Record of the Lodoss War being two of their most renown works, respectively – but most importantly they oversee the production of various media incarnations or fragments of a whole. They were also keen to include fans as part of this, leaving holes in the narratives for fans to fill in.

Gainax’s Evangelion – funded and then published in part by Kadokawa – is an excellent example of this kind of media mix. Storytelling became focused not on development in a single medium, but around the development of a world or series of narratives across media. So I see the more recent emphasis on transmedia in North America especially as at least partly influenced by media mix practice from Japan.

Of course the twist to this narrative is that Kadokawa Tsuguhiko and others were deeply influenced by the table top role playing game (TRPG) model – where a preexisting world could be developed across multiple works. They give Dungeons and Dragons and the Dragonlance series of books that used D&D as a basis as an example.And in an early theorization of Kadokawa media mix practice, Otsuka analogizes the producer position to the TRPG “game master.” So there’s definitely a kind of mutual influence going on.

On the other hand, and this brings us back to some of what Ian said a moment ago about the importance of the popularity of characters, there are debates as to just how central narrative is to the media mix. Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals makes the case that from the late 90s through the early 2000s there is a decline in “grand narratives” and an increasing centrality of non-narrative characters in the media mix. Basically he revives the postmodern thesis about the decline in grand narratives to apply it to developments in anime, manga, and games.

And it’s true, there are a lot of character-based works that don’t have much emphasis on narrative at all. Lucky Star comes to mind, and so does Ian’s discussion of Hatsune Miku. But we can think a little more historically about this too. Hello Kitty is one of the most successful characters of all time, but narrative was only an afterthought, and generally unimportant to what is for all intents and purposes a hugely successful media mix.

Ian and I both make the case that characters and worlds come first, and narratives are often built subsequently to the characters and worlds. Again, I think Japan is an important precursor to the recent trend towards world-building in Hollywood that you’ve highlighted, Henry. So there is an important connection between transmedia storytelling and the media mix.

But the media mix is not always about storytelling. That said I personally find the development of narratives across media a particularly interesting way of using the affordances of Japan’s rich media ecology to create fascinating story worlds. And I’m personally intrigued by the high tolerance for inconsistencies or divergences in media mix worlds that I find in Japan, much more than in North American models of transmedia. /blockquote>

Ian: I agree completely. I experienced this ambiguity around storytelling in an unusual way during fieldwork in Tokyo when a colleague invited me to meet with some producers from Bandai Visual to hear about their then-forthcoming series Code Geass. They spent an hour describing the characters and world of the series, but never talked about the story. I left the meeting thinking, “I still have no idea what happens in the series.” My Japanese friend was surprised at my confusion. “They probably haven’t written the story yet,” he noted.

For them, the key part of the planning was the characters and the worlds, which ideally would be spun off into a range of stories. The design is much more about characters and the rules of the world.

Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo's studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on "globalization from below," that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.

Henry and Henry's Amazing Adventures in Transylvania

1383108_10102283073334632_213235993_n This picture and all others included here are taken by my son, Henry Jenkins IV. It was just a little past midnight when our airplane landed in Transylvania and our taxi made its way to our Inn at the heart of Cluj Napoca. It was, alas, not a particularly dark or particularly stormy night, and the locals in the Inn did not stare it me strangely, did not offer me crucifix or garlic necklaces, but otherwise, this was the fantasy of a boy who grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and reading about the "Historic Dracula" come true. When I was asked to come to Transylvania in the heart of October to speak about transmedia/intermedia relations, it was too good to be true and even though doing so has disrupted my term and left me jet lagged for more than a week now, I have no regrets. This was a fascinating trip -- a visit to a homeland of the imagination, one where one constantly catches glimpses of some of the elements upon which Bram Stoker and Hollywood built their fantasies, as long as you keep in mind that the Irish-born Stoker never got closer to this place that prying Romanian expats with drinks and sitting in the British Library, and as long as you keep in mind that Bela Lugosi was Hungarian, not Romanian, and... Above, you see an image of Bran Castle, which is marketed to tourists as "Castle Dracula," and which suspended disbelief will allow to play that part in our travel adventure. This castle looks somewhat like the one depicted in the 1930 Universal Dracula film (see this frame grab).dracula castle Of course, even before we get there, you will already notice that the mountains here are much more rounded, foothills really, as opposed to the jagged mountains depicted in the film.Snapz Pro XScreenSnapz007 1381599_10102283073753792_1494033563_n You can find somewhat more jagged sections of the Carpathian Mountains elsewhere in the countryside, as my son discovered when he was out of exploring by car later in the trip. 1385763_10102288589026142_1890755484_n The second thing you will notice, which also helps to dislodge our fantasies, is that the castle, in the inside, is much more cramped than the one depicted by Hollywood. The staircase is much narrower and would not have allowed for Dracula's grand sweeping entrance. 1381790_10102283073564172_1199700570_n

Snapz Pro XScreenSnapz008




In many ways, the castle depicted in the Universal film is a bit like the TARDIS-- bigger on the inside than in the outside. As a matter of historic record, this was probably not the castle Stoker had in mind when he imagined Dracula's place. There was a wooden castle on this location as early as 1212 built by the Teutonic Knights, destoryed and rebuilt many times through the years; Vlad Tepes did have some loose association with this castle. But, the current castle was strongly associated with the Romanian Royal family in the early 20th century and only loosely tied to the historic or mythic Dracula figure. Of course, none of this stops western tourists from pretending that they are visiting THAT Castle Dracula.  It certainly sent a chill down my spine when we passed -- like Jonathon Harker -- through the doorway into the castle. 1395874_10102283073414472_1357051978_n The heritage foundation that maintains and operates the castle wants to play it both ways. Inside the a Castle, there is a gift shop which sells only historically accurate materials -- focused on Vlad Tepes (Vlad Dracula) and the Romanian Royals -- where-as just outside the gates of the Castle, you can buy totally trashy Dracula-head mugs with blood dripping from their fangs or T-Shirts celebrating Dracula, Prince of Darkness and you can visit a cheesy haunted castle attraction with guys in rubber monster masks chasing around the tourists. And inside the castle, there are posters talking about both the Historic and Mythic Dracula and there are horror-fan friendly displays of old school torture instruments, like this Iron Maiden. 1391833_10102283074108082_1206099377_n We found a similar mix of the historic and mythic, the discrete and the tasteless, everywhere we went in the country where Dracula is concerned. For example, consider this attraction in Sighisoara. It is well established that Vlad Dracul (The Dragon) spent a few years in this town, but it is not proven that his son, the more famous Vlad Dracula, ever lived here, let alone being born here. But, this dubious historic claim exists alongside a fairly flamboyant appeal to the legacy of Bela Lugosi.

photo 3

Given how often Transylvania appears in our culture associated with the monstrous, a fairly routine site here -- a pretty standard hotel complex -- can nevertheless get linked in our minds to its Hollywood counterparts.

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Of course, we discovered definitively that there are no Monsters in Transylvania. My son is an energy drink fiend but all he could find were Red Bulls. :-) That said, I should share with you a spooky thing that happened while we were visiting the castle. We were driving back to Brasov along a narrow two lane highway that lead through the Romanian countryside on a lovely fall day. Suddenly, the GPS rather insistently is directing us off the main highway onto a much smaller road which runs through a small rural town. Our progress gets stopped by a funeral procession -- people in black, carrying large crosses, and lugging the coffin along the narrow, winding streets. After a while, we realize that the GPS is spinning us around in circles and taking us into ever more remote sections of town, so we decided to head back to the main highway. By the time we get there, we are hopelessly disoriented and so we follow the GPS directions back along the highway. Suddenly, we realize that for no particular reason, the GPS has taken us back to Bran Castle, rather than onward to our previously programmed location. I am now thoroughly convinced that the ability to control GPS systems is now a power associated with vampires in the 21st century alongside the ability to turn into a bat or a wolf or a cloud of mist or to command hordes of rats. It makes sense that Dracula would want to keep up with the times, right? Even without Dracula taking over your GPS, driving in Romania can be a white knuckle experience. Drivers are aggressive, speed limits are "optional," and we remained utterly baffled about how right-away worked on the round-abouts except that whatever we did was wrong. I was especially amused about a GPS which doggedly told you that you were over the speed limit if you were anywhere close to the speed limit and then kept its mouth shut if you went racing well past it. In many ways, Romania is a country where the old world and the new meet -- a thoroughly modern, post-Communist society with a sophisticated education system that thoroughly embraces forms of multiculturalism that would put most U.S. schools to shame but also one where it is not at all unusual to see wooden horse-drawn carts alongside the highway, where live stock runs free range and

thus cars get stopped by lines of cattle crossing the road, and where we spotted shepherds attending their flocks. 1382272_10102283563437462_762792851_n For us, a highlight of the trip was our chance to visit Viscri, a remote farm village, which was recently discovered by Prince Charles and where he has a little get-away place. Forget about the royals -- I have limited patience with the romance surrounding Europe's aristocracy. But, I share Charles's fascination with the traditional lifestyle represented here. To get to this place, you drive 10 miles or more down rambling country roads -- sometimes paved, often dirt, and even more often some place in between -- and past cottages where people do wander our and stair at you as you drive past. 1374884_10102281143477082_1518811182_n We were invited to dinner (for payment) at the home of a local farm woman who cooked us up a robust meal of traditional peasant food, which was the very essence of the "slow food" movement -- all locally grown and fresh tasting. A local high school aged girl took us around the village, showing us the country church which has served this town for several hundred years. 1385160_10102281140597852_236234633_n 1385737_10102281140747552_586213221_n And we were taken on a cross-country ride on one of those horse drawn carts we had driven past many times along our route. The horse led us along sloping mist-shrouded pastures and through hardwood forests, red and orange with Autumn colors. A newly born colt raced alongside us much of the way. 1378604_10102281142523992_773144343_n My son was especially intrigued by our visit to a couple who lived in a cart and worked to prepare charcoil (all very traditional except for the boom box which was playing La Bomba as we stopped by.) 1377585_10102281142114812_808074012_n 1381499_10102281141765512_378178878_n 1380185_10102288586900402_1314940245_n Traveling on his own, my son -- continuing to travel as I got engrossed into the conferences I was addressing -- visited Astra, which he described as a living history museum, dedicated to preserving traditional peasant culture in Romania. Here are a few of the images he's shared with me. 1375085_10102288585877452_1743940114_n 1385232_10102288587544112_1855867063_n But, in many ways, Viscri, which still functions as a farming community as it has for many years, is itself a "living history" museum -- off the beaten path and a perfect way to learn more about this way of life. As we went from town to town, we saw many signs of the history of conflicts which defined this region across many centuries. As a territory which was often raided by its more powerful neighbors, almost every major town and city we visited was structured around a medieval fortress model, where the cultural geography was defined by what was or was not inside the gates and where at the very center was often the church and the school, the two most cherished institutions, and the place where people flocked for protection in the midst of a civic emergency. For example, you see in these images below some of the protective walls, a staircase which students climbed everyday to the top of the fortress to go to school, and a graveyard that is adjacent to the local church, all within Sighisoara, a city where they still fully use the space within the old fortifications. 1375774_10102278153708602_299701824_n 1391519_10102278154711592_672202799_n 1381715_10102278154497022_1989355442_n About midway through the trip, father and son split apart. My son continued to explore Romania, including a visit to Bucharest, the capital city of Romania, where-as I went back to participate in the conferences which paid my way over there. I spoke first at a conference on Convergence hosted by the Journalism program at Babeş-Bolyai University where I shared some of my current work on youth, new media, and activism. I met Peter Gross, a Romanian-born Journalism Scholar, who has spent much of his life in the United States, now teaches at the University of Tennessee. Gross was described to me as a key figure in helping Romania to develop a free press following the fall of communism. And the program here has proven to be an enormous success in training communication professionals (some of whom have gone on to key positions within the Romanian government). This conference was celebrating their 20th anniversary as a journalism school. My second speaking gig was a keynote address to the Conference of the International Society of Intermedial Studies, which was hosted by Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania and where I spoke about world-building in relation to the historical evolution of L. Frank Baum's Oz. Here, you see me interacting with a fellow keynote speaker, the noted narrative theorist Laurie-Marie Ryan. Ryan delivered a talk which dissected and reconstructed the concept of transmedia narrative, strongly focused on my own work. Her title, "Transmedia Storytelling -- Myth or Reality?" left me a bit apprehensive, since given that framing, "myth" was the most likely answer. She argues that there has still been relatively few examples of fully achieved transmedia, at least as defined in Convergence Culture, but ultimately she seemed engaged and sympathetic to the idea.IMG_8808 This conference brought together many bright young scholars from across contemporary Europe -- including a very impressive delegation from Serbia and the other Balkan Countries -- and some from the Americas or Asia, who were seeking to better understand points of intersection between different kinds of media. I was highly impressed by the caliber of work I saw over-all: the approaches taken ranged widely across different disciplinary, methodological, and theoretical traditions, across different historical periods and national contexts, across different kinds of media objects (from cave paintings to digital projections), and across cultural divides (high and low). In many ways, it reminded me of the Media in Transition Conference at MIT, and I left hoping to see more cross-over between the two events in the future. This was the conference's first year as an officially international gathering, having been started as the Nordic Society for Intermedial Research, and gathering so many people from beyond Scandanavia that they decided to re-invent themselves. The discussions were intense and constructive, and it was great to see how much they nurtured graduate students and junior scholars, with a higher than average number of participants sharing some of their first scholarly presentations. Here you see me with a group of scholars who I ended up spending a great deal of time.IMG_9031-2 From Left to Right, these are Hannah Wolf, an American playwright visiting Bucharest on a Fullbright Scholarship; Ioana Mische ,a screenwriter who did an extensive interview with me about the concept of transmedia; and Ioana Drecin, a theater critic and scholar who was nice enough to lend her expertise to the planning of our grand Romanian adventures. I also spent a great deal of time at the conference with Anne Kustritz, an American fan scholar who now teaches television studies at the University of Amsterdam. But, I had great conversations with so many amazing researchers at this event. So, by the time we left on a wee hours flight, I felt I had acquired such a deeper understanding of both traditional and contemporary dimensions of Romanian life, and I will recall my time there with enormous fondness. These last few photographs are provided to me by Ioana Mische.

Three Things that Western Media Fail to Tell You About Chinese Internet Censorship

This is another in a series of blog posts written by the students in my PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals, being taught this semester at USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Strategic Censorship, Ambivalent Resistance, and Loyal Dissident: Three Things that Western Media Fail to Tell You About Chinese Internet Censorship

by Yue Yang

When talking about the Chinese Internet, what would first come to your mind?

The largest online gaming population in the world? A highly creative ICT (information and communication technology) community? An enormous e-commerce market? “Tu hao(土豪)”, “Watch and Observe (围观)”, “Er Huo (二货)”,”Jiong (囧)” ?

I don’t know about your answer, but I am sure most American media would say with alacrity “No, it is CENSORSHIP!” Indeed, “censorship” seems to have become their knee-jerk word to annotate the Chinese Internet. If you search “New York Times Chinese Internet” through Google, on the first page of search results, you would 9 out of 12 news stories related to censorship; for “CNN”, it is 9 out of 9 (with 3 urls linking to non-CNN websites), and for “Fox news”, it was 8 out 10.

Since American media is so interested in censorship on Chinese Internet, do they come up with good, objective censorship stories? As a native Chinese and a doctoral researcher studying the Chinese Internet in the US, I would say “yea” for “good storytelling” and “nah” for “objectivity”. Try to click on one of the top urls and you will see what I mean: this is an exotic digital world: on one hand, the iron-wristed Chinese government launches another round of censorship campaign. It cleanses criticism, cracks down dissident sites, and even puts political foes into jails. On the other hand, facing ruthless and stifling censorship, courageous and canny Chinese “netizens” (Internet citizens) use their ingenuity in various ways, to flit machine censorship and to mock the impotence of government. Be it a gloomy “Big Brother” story or an empowering “Tom-and-Jerry” story, a censorship story never lacks tension or a easy-to-follow storyline. However, these stories grounded only on partial facts are not qualified for universal validity they imply, and they are often too interested in drama to capture the plain truth. In short, current censorship stories in mainstream media are often too simplistic to inform western readers of the complex politics on the Chinese Internet. In the following part, I will talk about three things that western media do not tell their readers about Chinese Internet censorship.

(1) Strategic Censorship: yes, Chinese people criticize the government on the Internet!

The first thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that average Chinese Internet users can and do express a lot of criticism about the party-government. In fact, such criticism attracts little interest from the government censorship.

It is a widely recognized observation by people who personally attend to political discussions on Chinese cyberspace, that online space of speech is expanding and people can criticize their government without seeing their unfavorable comments censored over time. This observation is contrary to what most media censorship stories are telling people, but recently it has been confirmed by a large-scale, big-data research report from a Harvard research team. By collecting, analyzing, and comparing the substantive content of millions of posts from nearly 1,400 social media services over all China, and distinguishing what gets censored from what remains online over time in discussions around 85 topics, the researchers have upended some popular stereotypes, and found that “negative, even vitriolic criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content”. Rather than remove any criticism against it, the Chinese government conducts strategic censorship, which “is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future”.

(2) What Chinese People Think about Censorship: infringement of rights or Moral Guidance?

The second thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that Chinese people’s attitudes towards censorship are actually divided and ambivalent.

In 2009, the Chinese government made various censorship efforts to make it virtually prepared for an extremely sensitive time period: not long ago, the famous dissident and later-Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo released the “highly subversive” 08 Charter; starting from March, the government was to anticipate several major political anniversaries: the 50 anniversary for Tibetan uprising, the 20 anniversary for Tiananmen Event, and the 60 anniversary for the foundation of People’s Republic of China. Although nothing except the 60-year national anniversary was to be publicly celebrated, the government was highly vigilant against any online-and-off commemoration or mobilization of other political anniversaries.

In such context, there was little surprise that the Chinese government demanded pre-installed censorship software called “Green Dam Youth Escort(Lvba Huaji Huhang绿坝花季护航)” on each new PC to be sold in the market, including those imported from abroad. The purpose, of course, was to protect the psychological health of the young from pollution through pornography and violence. But Chinese Internet users soon found that the software expanded censorship to political information. Worse still, the software had so many technical defects that it would severely hurt overall online experience and security.

Shortly after the installation plan was announced, a large-scale online protest occurred among Chinese Internet users, particularly among the younger generation. Young people soon launched an online carnivalist play-protest, characterized by a manga-style personification of the software called the “Green Dam Girl” (Lvbaliang 绿坝娘). At the same time, “2009 Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens” (“The Declaration”), a western-style manifesto against censorship appeared online.

Seeing such resistance, Chinese government canceled the installation plan, and the “Green Dam incident” became a typical case to illustrate Chinese emerging civil power countering the government’s blunt censorship decisions. However, when examining the online comments on “The Declaration”, researchers discovered wide expressions disagreeing with the anti-censorship declaration. In fact, there was considerable endorsement of the government’s filtering attempt during the incident.

Why was there public support for censorship? After looking closely at these for-censorship comments, doing interviews with their authors, and analyzing the collected data with reference to Chinese culture, the researchers made some very interesting analysis: unlike western people who conceive government as a “necessary evil” and censorship serious infringement of freedom of speech, the majority of Chinese people uphold Confucian state-society ideal, represented by the notion “custodian government(父母官 fuwu guan)”, which accordingly frame people’s understanding of censorship.

So what does “custodian government” mean and imply? Basically, it is a Confucian notion that proposes a state-society model in which the government maintains its authority through displaying exemplary virtue and parental care for people, and in return, people respect and obey the government like they respect and obey their own parents. When both government and people perform their roles properly, social harmony and ideal that would yield the best for the most can be materialized. Note that traditional Chinese culture does not challenge hierarchy or centralization, nor does it often raise government legitimacy questions as long as the administration is established in accordance with Confucian ethics.

In the case of “Green Dam”, a large number of people supported government censorship, because they expected a morally exemplary and custodian government to establish social norms and protect as well as regulate minors. In other words, to many Chinese, censorship does not necessarily mean violation of human rights or encroachment of individual interests, rather, it means moral measurements that are expected and accredited.

Such understanding was more popular among middle-aged Internet users, but it was not rare among the young either. In fact, researchers have found that quite an impressive percentage of Chinese Internet users are either unaware of or do not care much about the online censorship, stating that they are generally happy with the current cyberspace they have. In short, the general attitudes towards censorship are not as definite as most western media state.

(3) Subversive Dissident or Loyal Dissident?

The third thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that Chinese Internet users are more of “loyal dissident” than subversive resisters, even if they were expressing criticism. It was again in 2009, an Internet meme called the “Grass Mud Horse” (Caonima 草泥马) gained viral popularity in Chinese cyberspace. “Grass Mud Horse” sounds almost exactly like an abusive phrase, and it was originally invented by young Chinese gamers to dodge Internet censorship on obscene expressions. Soon the word play adopted the visual form of an alpaca, and put into different extension forms such as stories, animations, music videos, and T-shirts and dolls. Even a virtual Chinese character was later invented for it.

The phenomenal popularity of Grass Mud Horse attracted a lot of western media attention in its peak time. CNN, BBC, and the Guardian, for example, produce extensive report on it. Citing academics, these reports claim that Grass Mud Horse is not only a grassroots symbol of resistance against censorship, but also a “weapon of the weak” to challenge (the legitimacy of) the authoritarian government.

The statement that “Grass Mud Horse” is a play turned into politics, making creative resistance against censorship and authoritarianism is indeed interesting. However, when analyzing how Chinese Internet users actually engaged in the “Grass Mud Horse” carnival, how people actually used the words, pictures and related stories to expressed what intentions, research has found that Chinese Internet users tended to use “Grass Mud Horse” to vent personal frustration, criticize local corruption and bureaucracy, rather than make accusations against censorship or challenge the government’s legitimacy.

In a similar vein, through looking at the most popular and uncensored microblog tweets on Weibo that discussed political scandals during the Spring of 2012, some Swedish researchers have found that Chinese Internet users are more interested in criticizing certain activities of the Party than challenging its hold of power.

In fact, more and more scholars start to realize that consensus against the current regime in China is yet to be produced. More interestingly, despite pervasively expressed criticism of the government, in two highly respected surveys conducted by non-Chinese scholars (World Value Survey and Asian Barometer Survey), the rate of loyalty and recognition declared by the Chinese public to their government is much higher than those from western democratic societies. Instead of implying another uprising in China, these studies suggest that Chinese Internet users may become more critical and expressive, but they are not ready to demand fundamental democratization.

When creating Chinese Internet censorship stories, western media often fail with four things. First, it fails to look more closely at what is happening; second, it fails to avoid wishful speculations; third, it fails to account for complexity that disrupts clear storytelling; fourth, it fails to put incidents into the broad Chinese social and cultural context. With such failure, western media reduce the extremely interesting and complicated Chinese Internet to a monolith and create stereotypes.

I hope I have well explained some important aspects that go beyond the oversimplification of Chinese Internet censorship in western media, so that you, my dear readers, will not only have reservations next time you hear something about the Chinese Internet, but also suspend belief whenever you receive messages about a different society from the media. Bolstering critical thinking and avoiding stereotyping, that’s what media literacy is working at, and that is also what I am trying to do with this blog post.

Yue Yang is a PhD student at Annenberg School for Communication, USC. Being a native Chinese, she is constantly confused and therefore deeply fascinated by the complexity of her country's culture and society, online and off. Her current interests range from Chinese people's imagination of the West, to the tensional dance between the Chinese government, the grassroots and the intellectuals on the cyber arena (and she always hopes that one day she could write as fast as she eats and publish as much as she speaks.).

A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I've been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville's novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don't have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project's national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how "learning through remixing" can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative "What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?"


Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

Bastard Culture!: An Interview with Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Part Two)

Your more recent work on Twitter has deployed the concept of a gift economy, building off some of the ideas in our original white paper on Spreadible Media. How are you defining gift economy? Why is this appropriate for talking about digital media? How do contemporary forms of gift economies in the context of capitalism differ from more classical understandings of this context?

It is less the 'economy' in gift economy than the 'gift' that interests us. The gift as a 'public recognition'. And this initial public recognition with the intention of more exchanges in the future, is a key aspect in gift economies as Boris Malinowski has pointed out. Together with my colleagues Johannes Paßmann and Thomas Boeschoten we looked into Twitter data to retrieve patterns of communication (The Gift of the Gab. Retweet Cartels and Gift Economies on Twitter). When investigating two samples, the MP's of Dutch parliament and the German top Twitter accounts, we noticed clusters of users who were retweeting each other frequently, so called retweet-cartells, similar to citation-cartels in academia. We argue that the retweet equals a 'public recognition' and it can serve as an 'opening gift' with the intention to receive retweets in return.

What does the notion of the gift economy help us to see when we look at patterns in how content travels through Twitter?

We explicitly refer to your recent work on spreadable media where you employ the notion of gift economy to explain spreadability. We agree with you that this concept provides more plausible explanations for the distribution of online content than the notion of 'viral distribution'. The retweet, the repin, the favourite are intrinsically related to attention. However, they are 'cheap' gifts as they are abundant. But such a gift can gain more value through the status of the user retweeting a less popular account and hence drawing attention to it. Therefore it is unsurprising that we find politicians mostly retweeting their own party members. Members of the Favstar scene frequently retweet accounts that are equally popular. They form a retweet cartell, very similar to academic citation-cartels. However, when we look at the @replies within our sample of Dutch MP's we can see that they do not limit their communication to their own party members but with colleagues from all parties. Therefore, we conclude that if attention is drawn to messages through retweeting, users become selective in whom to award the 'gift' of a retweet.

I do not know how Paßmann and Boeschoten feel about it, but I would not necessarily stick to the strict economic understanding of the 'gift economy'. I think it will prove even more useful to adapt the term. It is most likely a feature of stimulating communication and connection. With communication, I mean ephemeral communication, not conversations. The 'gift' is important to fuel initial contact making. Features as the retweet, the favourite, the repin, the +1 etc. are the grease of initial social interaction on large platforms. They facilitate low threshold communication; communication is the wrong word, and even contact is not covering it. It is something between a mere ping, recognition and contact. But it is crucial to enable interaction of users and spreadability of content in social media.

Your research is interesting for the ways that it combines large-scale/quantiative “sentiment analysis” tools with more qualitative use of cultural theory. Does this reflect different skill sets within the team of researchers? Are there any insights you’d like to share about mixed methods research growing out of this project?

I'm teaching at a media studies department within the Utrecht University humanities faculty, where usually qualitative research methods are paramount. But researching new media where any user activity produces data that can be analyzed stimulates to employ those data for research. These digital methods -as Richard Rogers has dubbed them- are invaluable expansion of our tool set. In the meantime many applications are available and many more are underway. Commercial platforms provide tools, but also the two main pioneering groups in this area, Manovich's Cultural Analytics  and Roger's Digital Methods Initiative  provide handy tools on their websites. For our Utrecht Data School  we teamed up with Buzzcapture  as a technological partner that supports our research actively with tools for data aggregation and social media data analysis. We conduct research concerning specific questions for our partners from public administrations, NGO's and corporations. However, we take the liberty of asking different questions than the partners posed, or approach things from different angle.

I can see that student teams quickly develop a sort of division of labor, where scraping of data, working in spreadsheets, visualizing data and networks are carried out by different members of a team. We try to prevent this as far as possible, because we want all students to be involved in the entire process of the research project from scraping the data, cleaning up the data and preparing them for analysis and visualization to interpretation and contextualization. However, this is not easy, as there are indeed many specific tasks that require specialized knowledge and skills.

This work is inherently interdisciplinary. Software developers, computer scientists, data scientists, statisticians and also data journalists are great to team up with for different research projects. We frequently invite colleagues from very different areas to participate in the Utrecht Data School, either through directly contributing to a project or to teach students.

To the humanities researcher this development is exciting for two reasons: data analysis and visualization produces new insights in the online phenomena we are investigating. But through conducting these tools and methods we learn also about their role in epistemic processes. Our knowledge society increasingly thrives on computed results and automated information processing. The computer generated infographics appear persuasively convincing. It is therefore important to develop literacy that allows us to use the tools but also to be informed about their limitations and their persuasive effect. In view of your concerns about techno-determinism -which I share- I want to emphasize that we deliberately want them to develop critical understanding for the role of information technology in our epistemic processes.

We also want them to experience how unstable, how experimental and exploratory our research activities are. Although we think the results are often compelling, we want to keep up a healthy skepticism and remain open for doing things differently. We are also aware that we are in a data-rich environment, but that unfortunately research can appear analysis-poor. And I think it is necessary for the emerging 'digital humanities' to make this skepticism an inherent part of their use of information technology.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer is assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) and research fellow at Vienna University of Applied Arts. He blogs at www.mtschaefer.net.

Bastard Culture!: An Interview with Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Part One)

It says something about the compartmentalization of academic culture that I only belatedly discovered Mirko Tobias Schäfer's Bastard Culture!: How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production (published by Amsterdam University Press in 2011) -- a work which poses some important critiques of the concept of participatory culture, especially as it relates to recent developments around Web 2.0 and social media. Schäfer, based in the Netherlands, represents an important tradition of critical theory about new media which has emerged most emphatically from Europe and which should be better known among those of us working within the United States. As we discuss here, he is especially interested in the ways that technological designs constrain or limit our participation, rendering it less meaningful, commodifying it, in ways that run directly counter to the explicit rhetoric about expanding participation and empowering users. Read closely, Schäfer's work still embraces the value of democratic participation, yet he wants to hold companies, and scholars, to a high standard in terms of what constitutes meaningful forms of participation, and he is eager to push us beyond the first wave of enthusiastic response to these new affordances in order to look more closely and critically about how they are actually used. As my interview here suggests, there are points of disagreement between us, but there is also much common ground to be explored, and there is an urgent need for researchers from different critical and disciplinary perspectives to be working together to refine our understanding of the current media landscape. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mirko at the recent Media in Transition conference at MIT and look forward to many future exchanges.

Having last week featured an interview with the editors of The Participatory Culture Handbook, I want to continue this focus on new theories of  participation by sharing this recent exchange I had with Schäfer.  I have come away with an even deeper respect and admiration for Schäfer's nuanced critique of digital participation. The first installments of this interview involve looking backward to his Bastard Culture book, exploring the convergences and divergences in our thinking, and reflecting on how the debates around digital media have shifted since 2011. The closing segment shares more recent work Schäfer and his colleagues at Utrecht University have been doing using "big data" processes (in combination with more qualitative approaches) to better understand the kinds of social relations that are taking shape on Twitter.

The title of your book, “Bastard Culture,” is meant to suggest the ways that the worlds of users and producers, consumers and corporations, are “intertwined” or “blended” in the era of Web 2.0. I suspect we would agree that understanding the relations between these terms remains a central challenge in contemporary cultural theory. The goal is, as you suggest, to “provide an analysis that is not blurred by either utopian or cultural pessimistic assumptions.” Are we any closer to developing such an analysis today than we were when you first published Bastard Culture? If so, which contemporary accounts do you think help us to achieve this more balanced perspective?

It was indeed my goal to point out the general heterogeneity of online culture as well as to deconstruct the overly enthusiastic connotation of participation. Especially in academic discourse the unconditional enthusiasm for the so-called social media has cooled down by now. We can see important contributions criticizing social media platforms for their lack of cultural freedom (e.g. strict content monitoring), breach of privacy and their commercial use of user activities and user data.

I like to distinguish this critique in three general approaches, which separately focus on a) free labour, b) privacy issues and c) the public sphere quality of social media.

Drawing from Marxist theory these authors -among others Trebor Scholz, Mark Andrejewich, Christian Fuchs and partially Geert Lovink- criticize social media platforms for generating an unacknowledged surplus value from user activities and for determining effectively the scope of user activities in order to maximize commercial results. Scholz's programmatic publication The Internet as Playground and as Factory is a strong example of this approach.

The strict regulations imposed by platform providers in combination with excessive data aggregation on users and their online activities sparked criticism concerning the lack of privacy by Michael Zimmer, Christian Fuchs and others. The general threat of surveillance -exerted by state authorities- has been convincingly addressed and criticized by Ronald Deibert, Evgeny Morozov, Wendy Chun, Jonathan Zittrain and others.

The public quality of interaction and communication on social media platforms has been described by Stefan Münker as “emerging digital publics”. Framing social media as a public sphere is not highly developed, but it provides in my opinion the most intriguing approach to understanding social media platforms and their impact on society.

Yes, I think we have made some progress in describing media practices more accurately and to give up on media myths that constituted the legend of new media as emancipating users. And this plays even out in the realm of the more general public. In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung -a conservative/market-liberal newspaper- calls for a society-wide debate on technology and provides a platform for members of Computer Chaos Club to criticize technocratic policies and short-sighted understanding of technology and media. Evgeny Morozov is also doing an excellent job with his crusade against techno-populism; or think of Jaron Laniers superb critique of imprudent media use and hasty enthusiasm. It is absolutely crucial to have these debates within the popular discourse, as it is the popular discourse that shapes the general understanding of technology. That is why I have tremendous respect for scholars who are able to reach out to general audiences and to translate complex issues in accessible language.

As you note, participation has become an increasingly problematic word that is used by many different people in support of many different and often contradictory claims about the relationship between new media technologies and consumer empowerment. What steps can we make to reclaim participatory culture as a productive category for cultural analysis?

My objective was to deconstruct the ideological connotation as well as the emotional charge of 'participation'. Recently, we can see a similar problem with the metaphor 'social media'. It fuels a misunderstanding of media and media practices and it structurally obscure the agency of technology (the back-end as well as the user interface), power structures and economic factors.

In my opinion, it would be already helpful to pay close attention to the language we use to describe media and media practices. Many scholars can easily identify with emancipation, anti-hegemonic attitude and political activism. However, in our enthusiasm we tend to overestimate certain practices and misrepresent media use. We have therefore to take off our blinkers. I often tell my students, that if you really like your object of research, the chance is high for making mistakes and for neglecting important facts that would distort your picture.

That's funny. I tell my students that when you start from too critical perspective, it will be easy to flatten or simplify the phenomenon you are studying, to not look very deeply for redeeming or contradictory features, and to not take seriously what the activity might mean for those who embrace it.

Of course I agree. Being too critical is just as distorting as being too enthusiastic. What is needed is curious interest and willingness to get to the bottom of things, even if it will change your previous view of them. And research methods provide useful ways to do so.

'Participatory culture' can serve as productive category for cultural analysis if scholars distance themselves from their personal appreciation of media practices that might be close to their hearts but not necessarily representative for online culture. This would help to recognize the heterogeneity of the phenomenon we call participation as well as the ambiguity of technology. Taking technological aspects thoroughly into account, using 'digital methods' and putting case examples into perspective of the broader picture will help to do so.

The forms of participation which interest me the most are explicit participation -- that is, places where people are making conscious decisions to create media or otherwise communicate with each other about issues of mutual concern. Can you explain what you mean by implicit participation and how it relates to the claims being made by Web 2.0 companies to support participation? In what sense is it meaningful to describe “implicit participation” as participation? What are we participating within?

With implicit participation I describe how platform providers have integrated user activities into easy to use interface design and eventually implemented into business models. Implicit participation describes how user activities are channeled through the platform provider's design decisions. This ranges from interface elements as the like-button, the incentive of views on Flickr or YouTube to strategies where user unknowingly participate in additional functions of the feature they are using on a platform. The reCAPTCHA is an example of implicit participation where information provided by users for accessing a web feature is re-used in a completely different context. Many so-called gamification practices are examples of implicit participation.

I would argue that the popular 'social media' platforms thrive on implicit participation. It reduces consequently their dependence on intrinsic motivation, which is so crucial in explicit participation. Explicit participation becomes merely optional. The key is to lower the threshold and encourage the generic production of content, through creating data by simply using the platform's features or by spreading or multiplying content through the easy-to-use features of reproduction: retweet, repin, share etc. or to interact through ephemeral features as the like button. We will see many more and far better forms of implicit participation integrated into web platforms in future.

A key difference between our perspectives is that you place a much greater focus on the ways that technologies enable or constrain participation, where-as I primarily discuss the social and cultural motives which shape how people use technologies. Let’s assume we both believe that both technology and culture have played a role in defining the present moment as one where issues of participation are increasingly central to our understanding of the world. I would argue that there is a difference in understanding technology in terms of affordances and in terms of determinents, given the degree to which technologies are, as you note, subject to various forms of appropriation and redefinition once they have been designed and given that digital media can be re-coded and reprogrammed, even at the grassroots level, by those committed to alternative visions of social change. I worry, though, that ascribing too much power to technology results in models of technological determinism, which make certain outcomes seem inevitable. There has been such a strong tendency in this direction over the past several decades, whether critics worrying that Google has made us stupid, or advocates talking about the democratizing effects of the internet. Thoughts?

I am also worried about a simplified view of 'technological effects'. Especially in the popular discourse. there is a plethora of short sighted publications on the potential benefits or downsides of technological development. However, I would not argue that those perspectives inquire the technology but abuse it as a black box that facilitates whatever effect they wish to see unfold. In opposite to scholars, those writers are in the business of selling books, not in the business of conducting research.

I do not think that I am supporting a techno-determinist perspective by investigating technological qualities and by paying attention to the way design affects user activities. The popular 'social media' applications teach us, that we have so far underestimated the role of interface design, back-end politics and API regulation in the cultural production and social interaction playing out on these platforms. I can't possibly neglect that power also comes in shape of technology or as Andrew Feenberg put it: “technology is the key to cultural power”. I am not focused on technology as determining on its own account, but on its agency in close interrelation with designers, users, ownership structures, and media discourses, and others actors.

While my primary emphasis in talking about participatory culture might be described as symbolic appropriation (i.e. the manipulation of narratives, characters, symbols, icons, or brands), the central focus of your analysis is on “hacking” the material dimensions of technology, including, for example, game modifications or free software efforts. We might extend this focus to include a broader array of other material practices -- including Makers and Crafters -- who are central to current discussions of digital culture. What do you see as the consequences of this shift in focus in terms of our understanding of how participation works or what a more participatory culture looks like?

What I really liked about Textual Poachers was that you compellingly showed how open media texts are, not only to interpretation as Fiske had pointed out, but directly to 'material' appropriation and how it contributed to an entire field of cultural production. The world wide web then made the textual poachers explicitly visible, for marketeers and the general public. The second aspect I find important, and unfortunately this aspect is frequently overlooked, is that you outlined the history and the predecessors of today's read-write culture. With the maker culture similar debates concerning 'poaching' will unfold. We will see a new debate on copyrights and corporations will go out of their way to protect their designs from being 'printed'. There will be attempts by providers of 3D printers to control the device and its use. I would assume that the dynamics which I have dubbed confrontation, implementation and integration will play out in relation to the makers culture as well. The recent debates on MakerBot's decision to deviate from the open-source model indicate an attempt of implementation.

As you note, the initial wave of excitement about participatory culture has been met with strong critiques focused on issues of free labor and data mining as forms of exploiting the popular desire for more meaningful participation. Can you describe some of the ways that users have sought to assert their own claims on the technology in the face of their ownership and exploitation by the creative industries?

It's remarkable that dissent with a corporate platform plays out in quite traditional forms of protest and petition. On Facebook users 'like' petitions that represent their claim for better privacy regulations, or they formulate a Social Media Bill of Rights, call for a QuitFacebookDay etc.

There are other examples such as the Social Media Suicide Machine which allows users to delete their profiles. Then there are alternatives to the commercial web platforms and services. Diaspora was heralded as the Facebook killer and is now depict as a barrel burst. The UnlikeUs conference has been established as a platform for critics of 'social media monopolies' to connect and to discuss alternatives. But we can also see that civil right groups and privacy advocates lobby on behalf of users. However, I am afraid that the majority of the users can't be bothered with these issues.

You conclude the book with this important statement: “We must not sit on our hands while cultural resources are exploited and chances for enhancing education and civil liberties are at stake.” This seems like a powerful statement of what’s at stake in debates about participatory culture. So, what forms of action do you think we can or should take as scholars and as public intellectuals to respond to this situation?

The easy to use interfaces of the social web stimulated a new large group of users to use the world wide web. It also put the web again on the agenda of policy makers to regulate, to control and to monitor user activities. Designed as advertiser-friendly platforms, social media inherently provide the possibility for user assessment and control through API's which are already routinely used by law enforcement. We can also see how the powerful companies as among others Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon affect cultural freedom on the web. Facebook's prudery appears (especially to us Europeans) as astonishingly weird and hostile to culture and freedom of expression. However, since social media platforms have emerged as an expanded public sphere, the censorship of items that might distort the rosy world-view of advertisers and the naivete of uninformed users is appalling. I would not mind if those platforms were a shopping mall somewhere in the margins of the world wide web, but they increasingly become a center part of the web and therefore an important role in our public sphere.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook is the poster boy for policy makers when thinking about eGovernance or other fancily dubbed forms of harmless civic participation. Facebook promises a dangerously safe way of dealing with citizens as their implicit participation features render participation into an easy-to-handle commodity that provides participation as a mere lip-service. Something, that even in democratic societies is still very appealing to policy makers.

What we need, is a society-wide debate on technology and its role in society. We need to discuss to what extent we accept platforms to distort the view upon reality by creating an controversy-free and advertiser-friendly filter bubble.

Mirko Tobias Schäfer is assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands) and research fellow at Vienna University of Applied Arts. He blogs at www.mtschaefer.net.

The Cultural Context of Chinese Fandom: An Interview with Xiqing Zheng(Part Three)

You suggest that Chinese fans often see themselves as belonging to an elite group. In some other parts of the world, fans are considered anything but because of the low cultural status of the materials they embrace. In what ways have Chinese Otaku sought to legitimate their interests and activities through appeals to elite cultural status?

This situation is resulted from the specific history of current fan culture in China. This fan culture, however hard people try to make a connection with the older “rewriting” fiction tradition, or older tradition of appreciating a fiction on a community level, is for its majority, an import from Japan. This fact has two results: first, Chinese fan culture was at first highly restricted to a group of comparatively well-educated people, but second, the Japanese heritage of this culture is often neglected, replaced by a lineage reconstructed by Chinese fans between Chinese fandoms and canonical high art literature.

When fandoms began to emerge at the end of the 20th century in China, people having access to such cultural environment and cultural practices are highly restricted to the young, urban, highly-educated and well-informed people such as college students, or young urbanites that were at least wealthy enough to afford a computer and internet surfing fees when both of them were comparatively difficult to have in the 1990s China. Of course, universities usually have better technological condition than other places, and young students were the major target consumers of the internet cafes when they were in a fad at the turn of the century. Such condition put a restriction on the people who were able to access fandom. Comparing to the condition right now, the major difference was that the hardware difficulty stopped most young teenagers and children from entering the fandoms. And the content centered on Japanese anime further restricted the age of participants to the urbanites who were born after the late 1970s. Fan fiction created during this period is of good quality both in content and style, while many fan authors paid close attention in making their products fit the elite image. Both the age span and the social origin of the fans have enlarged in fandoms now, but the early elitism still continues.

The other aspect that I mentioned above is the self-constructed lineage of the fandoms to the elite, avant-garde literature. This is exceptionally observable in the case of slash fiction, in which fangirls try to establish a lineage between their writings with traditional Chinese literature with homoerotic contents, and also, between slash fiction and avant-garde literature with queer materials. Even though in fact Chinese slash fiction / yaoi culture has little to do with either the pre-modern homoerotic novels, nor does it bear many resemblances with avant-garde literature except both of them are standing on a marginal position in the society, and both of them present something taboo of the mainstream society. Yet still, such a self-claimed lineage constitutes a good position of self-defending, and a good way of self-disciplining.

I think the elitism of Chinese fans, and the generally mild reaction towards the fan culture from the public has another crucial reason. In both pre-modern and modern Chinese literature, there are various types and forms of fan-fiction-like literary products. For example, there were dozens of sequels dedicated to The Dream of Red Chambers 红楼梦, usually considered the greatest traditional Chinese colloquial novels, which was written in the 18th century. The novel Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅 (written around the 16th century) can be considered as an elaboration of a comparatively small segment in another great novel Water Margins 水浒传 (possibly written in the 14th century). Indeed, such rewritten stories and sequels can be seen as the remnant of the folk literature tradition in pre-modern Chinese literature, but similar things happened in the 20th century also. At the turning of the 19th and the 20th century, when the first wave of translation of Western literature into Chinese started, genre literature such as detective fiction and science fiction attracted much attention from the translators and readers. And the first wave of “new fiction” writing in the genre of science fiction, which directly imitated the Western sci-fi, often presents a science Utopia through rewriting old novels. For example, Wu Jianren 吴趼人, in his New Tale of Stones 新石头记, puts the protagonist from Dreams of Red Chambers into the contemporary Chinese society as an observer and commentator. During the 1920s to the 1940s, many authors created so-called “re-written fiction,” including the single most important writer in modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun 鲁迅. His Old Tales Retold 故事新编 is a collection of parody of various old Chinese legends. Other similar stories involve, for example, Shi Zhecun’s 施蛰存 “Shi Xiu” 石秀, a short story in which the author retells the story of the character Shi Xiu from The Water Margins, using psychoanalysis to explain his motivation.

I am not claiming that the present Chinese fan fiction has a direct relationship with this trend, yet after some fan fiction stories started to become famous in the 21st century, many people explains the idea of “fan culture” to their curious friends by using the example of canonical literature. I have seen several cases in which people explain the definition of “fan fiction” with the example of Lu Xun’s Old Tales Retold. Even though the current fan culture does not have a directly heritage from this tradition, this “rewriting of old canon” tradition is in the large social background both for the creation and for the circulation of Chinese fan fiction. I also want to add, that such “rewritten” stories are widely seen around the world; it is never a China-only phenomenon. But I haven’t seen any scholarship trying to establish this literary tradition with popular fan culture.

One last issue I have to stress here is: there hasn’t been a hierarchy that clearly distinguishes “high culture” and “popular culture” in Chinese fiction; fiction was considered low-brow in general before the end of 19th century, when a group of literati called on a literary revolution. The historical reasons for this condition are complicated, which I will not explain in detail here. Even the word “genre literature” has only existed in Chinese language for less than two decades. Consumers of media products such as Japanese anime, especially those who are no longer young enough to be considered an appropriate consumer for anime, are generally viewed in a biased perspective. And people who love Hollywood blockbusters are despised by those who love European art films. But the bias has not yet supported a deep grained stereotype for popular fans. These might be the ultimate reason for the comparatively high status for fans in China.


You write particularly about female fans of slash or Yaoi. How might these young women use this genre to negotiate around tensions surrounding the status of women and female sexuality in China?

Another question that I am personally very interested in. Of course the popularity for slash or yaoi is a very complicated issue. But if we consider specifically the topic of gender and female sexuality, I want to stress the issue of gender equality. (The word choice between slash and yaoi is again a difficult one. In China the term for this genre has another name: danmei 耽美, also with a complicated history. It is originally the Japanese translation of the word “aestheticism,” yet after being imported to China, its meaning shifted. Only for the convenience, I will use the term yaoi here.)

To understand the rapid fad of yaoi culture, one has to understand the population that takes part in reading and writing yaoi fan fiction and original stories. In all of the three areas that I am examining, the rise of female created and female oriented homoerotic stories is directly associated with the issue of female autonomy and independency. In the US, the slash fiction reading and writing is not only a “women’s enterprise” outside the market economy, it also signals women’s rebellion against the dominant social norms of sexuality. In Japan, the emergence of yaoi culture eventually came from the female manga artists who was blocked out of the manga industry because of their gender, started their career in amateurish market of dōjin manga publication, which, ultimately led to their professional career as revolutionary shōjo manga artists. In China, however, the case is different. As I have already mentioned, Chinese contemporary fan culture was marked by its exceptionally elitism. In the case of yaoi culture, the case is more obvious. The first generation of Chinese fangirls, in this case the ones who are active around the year 2000, usually self-considered as the social elite. There was a very famous quote by a yaoi forum titled “Lucifer”: “Fangirls have the responsibility to be more civilized than others.” The claim holds true considering the situation that many fangirls of that age are the ones who go to good universities or high schools, well-educated in Chinese and Western literature, and have excess to the internet before many others in the country. Even though with the internet technology enters more and more people’s household, the existence of the fangirls community and yaoi culture is no longer a secret among young women students in a handful of best universities in China, the tradition of elitism still lingers.

For many girls of the one child generation, their family, especially their parents have exceptional expectation on them. The traditional patriarchy thoughts still persist in some way, especially the older tradition in a family that girls have to sacrifice for boys, that only sons are considered important, but these thoughts lose their meaning and survival environment in the generation when every family has only one child. A predictable consequence is that the only daughters are treated with all attention from their families. Some girls are raised as boys to earn fame and fortune for the family, especially to earn more success than their male cousins. To my own knowledge, most urban girls of my age have the experience of being educated that women are no worse than men, and what a man can do, can certainly be done by a woman. Being inculcated with such words, most girls of this generation, especially the ones that have gained their success according to the mainstream criteria, i.e. those who achieve high academic success and the ones who find well-paid jobs, will ultimately be forced to face with the still highly unequal gender relationship in China. Within the long tradition of women-oriented romance in Sinophone area persists, in which no matter how a woman character is successful, has to finally become an obedient daughter, a loyal wife and a responsible mother, and be restricted again into the family trivial, and to rely on the marriage to determine the success of one’s life. Then any attempt of creating a strong female character risks the danger of falling into the stereotypes of de-feminized female characters of Maoist Socialist Realism. The new possibility in recent popular fiction, though, is turning the female characters into those that encourage over identification and self-projection, i.e. Mary Sue. Mary Sue characters are too easy a role for female readers to identify with; the readymade identification choice is largely degraded in the fan community as an unhealthy indulgence. Many argue that Mary Sue as a fan fiction may not even invite female audience, because the character may bear too much characteristics of the fan fiction writer and as a consequence prevents a general identification. Recently, some new types of romance written for the young women audience and teenager girls, such as Twilight series in English speaking areas, and the time-travel fiction (chuanyue xiaoshuo 穿越小说) in China are considered Mary Sue, even if they do not necessarily fall in the category of fan fiction.

Considering the easy pitfalls for the original female characters, the retreat into yaoi material for the female readers of this generation is a logical result: if you cannot find a solution to the current male-female relationship, then get rid of the female characters all together. At least in between male characters, there can be the possibility of an equal love relationship, in which there is no such thing as one has to subject to the other. This is a temporary and escapist retreat, and probably not a healthy one, because in one way or another, one has to come back to the reality to deal with the male-female relationship. Yet still, the popularity of the yaoi material, from a special perspective, shows the current crisis in gender relationship in Chinese society.

Yet the tendency of surpassing the issue of male-female gender relationship sometimes ends in misogyny in yaoi writings online. While celebrating the pure love between two male characters, the female characters who develops a romantic relationship with one of the male lovers in yaoi materials usually have very tragic ending: for the sake of the two male characters who love each other, female characters have to get away ultimately, so they either die or being tragically dumped by the male character, and also, should never has the importance of the other male character to her ex-husband or boyfriend. I will explain this situation with the reason of jealousy, but I also want to point to the complexity and ambiguity of ideology expressions in Chinese yaoi culture. Even though the explanation of gender equality issue holds true to me and many of my friends around, it might not work on every fangirl. Even if fangirls are attracted to the gender equal expression in certain slash fiction, they might not always stick to this norm when reading other pieces of slash fiction.

Most recent writings in English on Chinese fan communities have emphasized the phenomenon of fan subbing. What roles do fan subbing practices play in promoting other kinds of fan productivity?

I personally feel that fansubbing is the core and root for many fan activities in China, especially in media fandoms. And as you have mentioned in the question, it has become one of the most observable aspects of Chinese fan culture as a whole since more than six or seven years ago, both domestically and internationally, with little of other aspects of Chinese fan culture widely mentioned (I believe the earliest occasion that brought fansub to the foreground was the unintended popularity of the US series Prison Break in China, which was largely in debt to the online fansub groups. Even New York Times had this story covered.). A fansub group is not only a volunteer that translate certain foreign texts into Chinese; it plays the role of raw material selector, the role of linguistic translator, and at the same time, the role of cultural introducer. The final function usually cannot be served in the “official” translations of foreign materials. Because of the informal nature of fansubs, fansubbers are free to add notes, comments and detailed background information introduction for cultural details in order to facilitate the audience in understanding the media materials. Besides, since the fansubbers have a general idea of the identities of their audiences (usually young fans who stay online all the time), fansubbers are able to target the direct concerns and questions of their audiences more accurately.

Fansubs are sometimes the only choice for the Chinese audience to get access to foreign media products. Because Chinese government has a strong restriction on media product imports, and also because there is no rating system in China, imported media products are very limited in number, and even if they are imported, many of which have to go through a thorough censorship first. This censorship is much more on explicit reference to sex, than on politically sensitive issues. (A famous example would be the American sitcom Friends. Despite its tremendous popularity in China, it never was able to appear on TV in China. According to certain rumors—which I believe is true—it was only because there are so many sex-related jokes that after censorship, some episodes would have little left. And as we all know, Friends is so much milder than many US series). Then in order to get access to foreign media products, audiences are forced on to an illegal way. Therefore p2p download and online streaming becomes necessary. Even though students are required to learn English from a young age, the language barriers set by media products are daunting. Because “official subtitles” are usually hard to find for TV series, not to say Chinese dubbing, it is mainly the fansub groups that translate and introduce the foreign media products to the Chinese audience. Though I do not have too much information of the fansubs in English speaking countries, from what I read and heard from conferences on fan activities, fansubs in China have a surprisingly high quality. Many fansub groups require interviews and tests before accepting new members. Some fansub groups on Japanese materials even directly ask the prospective members for their levels and grades for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (is a standardized test to evaluate and certify Japanese language proficiency for non-native speakers, held internationally twice a year). Fansubs depend highly on reputation to thrive in a fandom. I have to emphasize that fansubbing is totally voluntary, not for profit, and open to the general public. But since fansubbers are doing this totally because of their love and interest for the original texts, they usually would do the translation with their best effort. Therefore once a fansub group has established its fame, people tend to believe in it even more than “official subtitles,” if there is any, because after all, fansubs are made “by people of our own community.”

Fan subbing is the starting point of every fan activities on certain media products, therefore it is very crucial. For example, it is not rare to see fan fiction written in Chinese that directly use dialogues in a media product translated by a favorite fansub group. Besides, since Chinese fan culture is especially open to foreign media materials, the role of fan subbing becomes even more significant under this condition.

Again, I am standing on the position of a “native informant” here. I have worked in various fansubbing and fan translation groups, including one on a Japanese radio program (named “Dear Girl~ Stories~,” hosted by two famous Japanese voice actors Kamiya Hiroshi and Ono Daisuke), another on the BBC TV series Sherlock, and I am still an active translator and subber of a fan group on J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. The last fan translation group I am working in is based on a “little site” on a Chinese SNS website Douban (豆瓣, which is a very unique SNS site for people to exchange information on books, films, music, etc. and to post their reviews), called “Red Book of Middle Earth” 中土红皮书, a fan created and fan maintained site that introduces and updates everything about and around The Lord of the Rings trilogy and other Tolkien’s writings. If you have interest, here is the link to it: http://site.douban.com/120385/. Right now we are working on news and videos on the Hobbit films. The collection and translations of related materials do require English proficiency (and good Chinese language skills also), and much time and effort. But besides a dozen central figures that participate in the actual translation process, the fans of the fan translation group actually are able to form a small and active fan community.


Author's Bio: As an academic fan from China, I entered the fandom around 2003 when I was still an undergraduate student of Chinese Literature at Peking University. I am currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. My dissertation topic is Chinese online fan culture, as well as its relationship with the media and fandoms from Japan and the English speaking areas. I have done several presentations on Chinese fan fiction and fan culture in conferences, but up to now I do not have any publication in English. By the way, I am now translating Professor Jenkins's Textual Poachers into Chinese, not as a voluntary fan translator, though.

The Cultural Context of Chinese Fan Culture: An Interview with Xiqing Zheng (Part Two)

Fandom constitutes a particular form of leisure. How does it fit within the exam culture which so shapes the lives of Chinese youth?

I do not feel in a confident position in answering this question. Basically I have personal experience to draw upon on all other questions, save this one. I myself had passed the age of being afflicted by the most tediously part of the exam culture when I entered the Lord of the Rings online fandom as a collective community for the first time; I was a sophomore in college then. Before then, yes, I was a fan, but I didn’t know there is something called fandom (and the fandom before 2003 did have much less observable a presence in Chinese society).

Fandom activity is a very good complimentary to the tedious exam culture for the youth in China, especially when exams are not consuming all time of the students. It is difficult for fandom to take much of their time, but leisure times? Very possible. I often find a fan fiction author explaining his/her slow update with the reason “I am a senior in high school, and you know, I don’t have time at all.” Or “I am a high school student living on campus and can only be back home to use the computer on weekends…” or “I live on campus and I can only use my cellphone to update my fic! Please forgive me for the problems on the format.” etc. Some young students may post on fan forums their art products or doodles made in their classrooms, at the back of an exam paper, in a lined notebook; in some online chat, some young fans express their excitement when they encounter anything relevant to their beloved products in a classroom situation. Fandom activities do find a way squeezing into their busy life. However busy the students are, there is always some time left for themselves.

Fan culture has actually existed in Chinese high schools for a long time. I have heard of people who started to write fan fiction with pen and paper in high school years to communicate with other fans, even before the internet is available to average urban families, but such sporadic phenomena cannot be compared to the current situation, when more and more young students are at least aware that there are fandoms for them to participate if they are interested in. We can see that the fan culture is really becoming a major choice for leisure time activities for the busy students in China, and probably a type of convenient refuge for them. Yet I am also reluctant to claim that it is unique comparing to other types of leisure time activities and hobbies for young people in China. After all, even if the fandoms are more and more widespread and observable in Chinese society right now, fan culture still belongs to a small audience and remains a comparatively marginal community.

What are the dominant modes of fan cultural production and participation in China?

I guess that fan fiction is still one of the dominant modes of fan cultural production and participation, and of course, fan art and fan video are also immensely important. The fan fiction I discuss here, which is characterized by female perspectives and commercial consumptions, started around the mid-1990s, and has been prosperous since then. Considering fan art, it is now not only restricted to originally created paintings, but sometimes involves technical manipulation on screen grabs to make them present certain effects. There was not a VHS age for Chinese fan videos so far as I know. The earliest ones I encounter were produced around the turn of the century and are directly circulated online. The earliest ones are usually flash video files; then the production shifted to other formats when online streaming sites become popular. Fan music exists, but the creation of which is more restricted to certain groups of people. Yet even though only a limited number of people participate in fan music writing, these people are very prolific. There are other types of fan activities, for example, fan game designing. But video game designing requires technical expertise of quite a high level, and therefore is very rarely seen. But if created successfully, fan video games are highly welcomed by fans. I have also seen friends who participated in designing fan board games. Fan translation is another type of activities that are able to connect and gather fans of a certain media product. Fan translation is not restricted to subbing a video of reports or interview or other media products related to the original material; it also involves translating certain news and interviews, and even fan fictions, fan arts and fan videos. Another fan activity online recent called “language-cosplay” cannot be categorized in any of the types I stated above. It is an activity for a group of people, with each of them role-plays a character in the original media and interacts with one another online in dialogues as if s/he is the characters.

Fan books and fanzines started later than fan fiction and fan arts in China, and in early 2000s, digital versions of fanzines were more frequently seen than printed ones. Recently the trend changes: fanzines and fan books in printed forms are becoming popular. One reason is the easy access to direct online merchandize with the emergence of platform website such as Taobao 淘宝, and the rapid development of convenient private postal delivery systems, thus direct one to one merchandizes have become possible. Nowadays most fan books and fanzines are planned and pre-ordered online. There is a website called Tianchuang lianmeng 天窗联盟 (Alliance of Roof Windows), which is the largest online search engine of any Chinese language fanbooks and fanzines. Tianchuang, meaning roof windows, is a jargon in the fan community: if a fan artist or fan author is not able to finish his/her work on time, the fanzine or fanbook will not be available for the proposed cons. Then it is called “roof windowed.” (And this jargon is originally from a slang in the publish industry.) This is the link to the website in case that you are interested: http://doujin.bgm.tv/. From this website we can see clearly that the production and circulation of materialized fan products now still has direct connection to the digital media.

For the activities in the “real world,” cosplay and cosplay photography are of the most eye-catching and prevalent phenomena in the fan communities, and have attracted attention in the mainstream media. These activities often take place in fan conventions, though cosplay photography also takes place outside the conventions. The number of conventions is rapidly growing each year and has spread from several major cities to almost all large cities in China. For example in the year 2011, there were more than 100 fan conventions across the country, though the size varies (most conventions register on Tianchuang Lianmeng, you may want to explore that website to see). Sales of fan books and fanzines are one of the major functions of fan conventions in China. Comparing to the conventions held in the US, Chinese conventions are totally supported by the fan artists and fan writers who bring their works to the conventions to sell, since it is usually impossible to invite media celebrities or producers in the media industry for panels and autography—because a large portion of the original materials that the fans consume do not even have a legal distribution channel in China (though, celebrities’ participation is not totally impossible, Chinese manga authors, writers, illustrators, and most recently, celebrities as Japanese voice actors begin to attend conventions). Since there has not been such a tradition for holding panels and discussion sessions in cons, many Chinese fan conventions usually look exactly like flea markets with sellers and customers all dressed up in costumes. Smaller fan gatherings have been a longer tradition from before the 21st century, but such gatherings usually are much smaller in scale, usually turn out to be a dinner, a Karaoke party, or an afternoon spent together in a board game café.

I personally feel that concerning the types of fan activities, fandoms around the world are very similar to each other. Even though some details may vary because of different social historical context, in the end all fan activities are about consumption, interpretation and appropriation. Indeed there are cultural differences, but fans’ communities around the world share astonishing amount of similarities. Because of the possibility of instant interaction and communication brought by the internet, the fan communities around the world is gradually breaking the language boundary, which is more observable in a third world country as in China, as people volunteer translating and reposting the fan products in other languages they like. But sadly, in most cases, it is still a unidirectional process.

Are there distinctive forms of fan production which have originated in China?

Since it is hard to determine all the fan production forms in other culture, I am not sure whether there is some form that is authentically “made in China.” But I feel that fan sub, or more broadly speaking, fan translation is specifically important in China, much more so than in many other countries. One reason is of course, the imported media products have from the beginning held special significance to the development of Chinese fan culture. The original media products are not the only things that Chinese fans translate; but also foreign fan productions, including fan fiction, fan art and other relevant periphery productions and news surrounding the original media products. I am not sure whether it is the condition of all fandoms in other third world countries, but just as I mentioned above, you do feel the powerful existence of globalization in fandoms. Even in the case of fandoms on pure Chinese materials, we find interactions and communications among different Chinese speaking regions (I have encountered fans from Malaysia in several fandoms I participate in). Again, I am not claiming that it is exclusively “made in China,” but fan translation is something that makes Chinese fandom more complicated than the fandoms I see in the US and in Japan, but beyond my scope, it is still hard to say.

Author's Bio: As an academic fan from China, I entered the fandom around 2003 when I was still an undergraduate student of Chinese Literature at Peking University. I am currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. My dissertation topic is Chinese online fan culture, as well as its relationship with the media and fandoms from Japan and the English speaking areas. I have done several presentations on Chinese fan fiction and fan culture in conferences, but up to now I do not have any publication in English. By the way, I am now translating Professor Jenkins's Textual Poachers into Chinese, not as a voluntary fan translator, though.

The Cultural Context of Chinese Fan Culture: An Interview with Xiqing Zheng (Part One)

From time to time, I have shared with my readers glimpses into the forms fan culture has taken around the world. For example, see this discussion of Harry Potter fandom in Russia or this discussion by one of my former USC graduate students about Chinese vids made in response to Kung Fu Panda or see this interview regarding the growth of Otaku Studies in Japan. This week, I am sharing with you the insights of Xiqing Zheng, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. We have been corresponding off and on for the past year because she is working on a translation of Textual Poachers for the Chinese market. In the course of our correspondence, she shared with me some of her work which touches on the relationship between Chinese fandom and Japanese Otaku culture. She was nice enough to let me interview her about her work, which touches on some fascinating issues concerning fandom, the global circulation of media, gender and sexuality, fan subs and digital piracy, and issues of cultural, economic, and political change in contemporary China.

You have been doing research about “otaku” cultures in China. “Otaku” as a concept originates in Japan. Why is this the most appropriate word to describe what has developed in China? Are Chinese Otaku draw primarily to Japanese media content or are they adopting and localizing Otaku practices but applying them to specifically Chinese content?

Frankly, I have to admit that the wording choice for this is partly determined by the fact that the article I sent you was written for a Japanese journal: I was trying to make their translator’s work easier, as well as to save some work on my own side—you really do not need to explain what is “Otaku” to a Japanese reader, while a strict definition of “fan” may take some time and space. Out of the Japanese context, I prefer using the word “fan” as a descriptive term for the community that I am interested in. Yet I do not see a clear distinction between the so-called otaku culture, in its current meaning, and the media fan culture in the Euro-American context. So I am against the tendency of connecting either of the identities with a fixed type of media, whether it is Japanese ACG (abbreviation of “anime”, “comic” and “game,” I will use this word constantly in below), or Euro-American sci-fi TV series.

But at the same time, I feel the word “otaku” especially appropriate in describing the situation in Chinese online fan community, because: First of all, the Japanese material actually was the starting point of the current Chinese fandoms, which was imported from Japan at the end of the 20th century. Secondly, generally the condition of Chinese fandoms looks similar to the Japanese ones, more than the US media fandom, with a boundary more thoroughly torn-down between high art and popular culture, the readers and the writers. Thirdly, in daily usage, the word “otaku” is often more connected to a certain media or a group of media, while “fan” can be linked to a media, but is more frequently associated with a single text or a single individual.

Usually if we talk about “sub-community” in Chinese fan community, there are several ways to divide up the group, and one of them is a division according to the origin of the original media text. Using this criterion, the fan community in China can be divided into Euro-American media and literature fans, Japanese ACG and literature fans, Korean media fans, Chinese media and literature fans, etc. According to the statistic of a fan author, Wang Zheng, around the year 2007, 70% of the whole fan fiction writing in China is based on Japanese original texts, especially anime and manga, 20% of Chinese fan fiction is based on Chinese texts while the other is based on Euro-American texts. I do not trust her statistic completely because such statistic is hard to conduct accurately in the internet age, but from one aspect, we can see the strong presence of Japanese media in Chinese fandoms.

However, the distinction among each group is very vague, as one person can be simultaneously put in all groups mentioned above. For example, I am personally a fan of Lord of the Rings, which is a British novel and a Hollywood film trilogy; a fan of Legend of Galactic Heroes, which is a Japanese space opera and a long series of anime; a fan of Three Kingdoms, which is a traditional colloquial historical novel written in China in the 14th century and derivative media products in China and Japan.

Most of my friends in fandoms are in exactly the same situation. And in many ways, the materials from all nations are treated in a similar way from the ending point of the media distribution and acceptance. In other words, different original places for media products do not necessarily lead to different types of acceptance and re-appropriation, while the same can be said that about the cultural value of the texts, for high art and popular culture can be treated the same way at the receiving end, also.

The naming issue for the Chinese fan culture has to be taken carefully but sometimes restricted by many other unexpected troubles. The word “otaku” has been imported to Chinese; because of the same writing system of Chinese characters shared by the Chinese language and the Japanese language, the Chinese character of otaku “御宅” is the one being imported to China, while in Japan, this word is more often written in hiragana or katakana as “おたく” or “オタク”. The word was originally a respective address to another person (referring the other person in conversation not directly, but indirectly to his/her house to show respect), and has been used jokingly inside the otaku communities for each other, as acknowledging each other as fellow “geeks.” Currently it generally refers to fans of ACG media, but terms such as “sci-fi otaku,” “railway otaku,” “board game otaku,” also exist. However, the word in Chinese has shifted its meaning mainly because it has crossed the boundary of subculture and entered the public vocabulary, or at least the urban public, but with a meaning very different from the original one.

While with the word “宅” meaning “house” in Chinese, the public is using this word as the synonym of “staying-at-home-type of people,” or those who do not go out in their spare time, or do not go out at all, which is described with another Japanese word “hikikomori”引き篭もり in Japan; such behavior is not necessarily a trait for otaku. This meaning is more widely spread in Chinese society that I have already found people using this word with the new meaning in academic environment. Therefore except that I am conducting comparisons with the Japanese otaku community, I really am reluctant to use the word otaku to refer to the Chinese fan community now. Therefore I will still use the word “fan culture” to refer to the cultural phenomenon of cultural recirculation and re-appropriation in China.


There is a strong history of cultural conflict between Japan and China. What role (if any) does this history play in shaping potential contacts between Chinese and Japanese Otaku?

This is one of the questions that intrigue me most. I have read and heard some presentations by Japan scholars that the popularity of Japan media materials may relieve the influence of “anti-Japan” education in many Asian countries, and therefore play a beneficial role in construction of a better image for Japan in the younger generation, and make these young people grow an attitude more friendly to Japan. (I personally feel rather repelled by the ideology connotation of the wording of “anti-Japan” education.) It is true that every media product is political, and it is also true that in Japan the otaku culture is often considered right wing, though not always so. But it does not mean that as a foreign consumer, a Chinese fan will take in everything that the producers want her to take, especially in the case like here, that the social historical and ideological circumstance of the audience is distinctive from the producers’. And here is where the complicated Sino-Japan relationship comes into play.

Interestingly enough, there is a tendency in Chinese fans to divide a “cultural Japan” and a “political Japan” when consuming Japanese media material. There is a certain tendency in Chinese otaku to clearly distinguish two “Japans” in their perception of this country: one is the governmental Japan, who still refuses to formally apologize for their imperialist invasion in Asia and its military nationalism, and the other the cultural (and especially popular cultural) Japan, who represents a fashion and “Japan cool.” Chinese fans generally accept that the products are from Japan, and they are very good, intriguing, and worth becoming a fan for. But at the same time, they refuse to identify with the political national identity of Japan linked with the media product. In fact, they try to sever the role of Japanese government and politics out of the media products.

This phenomenon is very different from the situation in the US. As I have observed so far in the US, if a consumer becomes a fan of the media products from a certain country, he/she may in a large probability become a fan of the country as a whole. But in China, many friends of mine complain about their parents’ attitude towards their cultural preferences: “Who tells them that I will love Japan if I just love to watch Japanese anime?” And this is at least the fact for a large portion of ACG otaku in China. Moreover, when there is any conflict between the cultural preference and political identification, the political identification often prevails. For example, there was an anime called Night Raid 1931, broadcasted in Japan in 2010, which is set in the background of Shanghai right before Japan invaded China, and features much denigrated representation of the Chinese people. This anime was refused totally by most large fansub groups, who usually translate literarily all new Japanese anime episodes available. Several comparatively marginal groups did the fansub, eventually, but this anime is generally intentionally ignored by the Chinese otaku group for a whole season. As the media product is never imported to China, there is no other way to show our upset about it anyway.

However, the story is usually not an easy one. For more explanation, I want to raise one fandom as an example. I actually have presented on this topic at a conference, but I feel there is still more to develop. There is a Japanese web comic, titled Axis Powers: Hetalia (referred to APH below) by Himaruya Hidekazu, and has been adapted into manga and anime. APH is a set of media products of parody descriptions of the world military and political history, especially of the World War II era, with vignettes about various countries’ culture; each character is an anthropomorphizations of various countries and areas. These anthropomorphized characters, different from the traditional fixed national personifications such as John Bull for Britain, Uncle Sam for America, are created by the author Himaruya himself and does not intend to carry any political significations. APH is now immensely popular in the US also, by the way.

APH is widely circulated in Chinese otaku community basically through online video websites and through non-copyrighted fansubbed video files, downloadable through p2p venue. Similar to many other Japanese anime, APH inspires a large amount of fan creation, including fan fiction and fan video, and also cosplay shows. Usually in the APH fandom, audience attempts to create a non-political neutral perspective that is far away from the debate of the real life political discussion. In the Chinese speaking world, there is a set of “internet etiquette,” first promoted by the Taiwan fandom, then spread into mainland China. This set of etiquettes are promoted mainly to prevent any possible conflicts between the fan writers and some “outsider” readers that happens to see the fan writings that probably will enrage him/her because of the less serious political presentation in the stories.

Despite the political neutral intention from the author and most of its fandom globally, what happens in the Chinese APH fandom is that many fans eagerly celebrate and reinforce the Chinese identity, history and culture in a way close to the mainstream narrative or sometimes even clichéd official narrative in China. I argue the main reason is the clear self-alienation from totally identifying with the Japanese text, or in other words, an identity creation process with the background of understanding otaku as mainly a Japanese-exported phenomenon.

What I mean by this self-alienation and identity creation roots from, the deep rooted Sino-Japanese conflict, which is only half relieved or hidden by Japanese media products’ popularity in China, including the immergence of the otaku culture itself. With this clear split in the “Japan” idea, the accepting Japanese culture no longer becomes a critical issue even if one is unhappy with the Japanese government’s attitude. However, it also makes the acceptance for the Japanese culture much less complete. It is already difficult to separate a pure “culture” totally devoid of political narratives; the acceptance of narratives with certain reference to real world politics, such as APH becomes further difficult with the Japanese ideology involved in the story. Therefore, the interpretation and fan creation basing on such narrative takes on a mode of accepting the “Japan” on the cultural level, i.e. taking the setting and the moe characters, while refusing Japan’s self-interpretation on the political level, instead using the Chinese mainstream narrative of the history to adapt the original narrative and create new narrative. The alienation caused by the Japanese social historical narrative then pushes the Chinese fans back to their own familiar zone of Chinese self-narrative.

Take one dōjinshi (fan book or fanzine) published in 2008, Wei Long (为龙, Being a Dragon) as an example. This dōjinshi has already become a legend in Chinese fan community. It is a dōjinshi centering on the China character, Wang Yao王耀, and it is consisted of about 25 illustrations, several four-grid comics, and several short manga stories. Highly well-known in the fandom, its original price was 75 RMB, but the price of a used copy now usually exceeds 500 RMB (this speed of price increase is very rare in China). After the release of this dōjinshi, there was also a theme song of very high quality written by fans specifically for it. If you are interested, here is a link for it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gwB8vPGDIM.

The popularity of this dōjinshi comes from not only the quality of the pictures (there were more than ten professional manga authors participated in the creation of this dōjinshi), but also the content, which celebrate passionately the glorious long history of China and the strong will that China experienced in the 19th and 20th century to overcome all the difficulties to rise up again from defeat and invasion. Such usage of the original materials, especially the setting, is never intended by the original author, but has become at least one of the most important traits of Chinese APH fandom. As far as I know, such modes of consumption are rare in the APH fandom elsewhere.

There is another issue that I want to point out here, even though Himaruya as well as most APH fans repeatedly claim that the characters are merely created for entertainment purposes and not for political interpretations, still one cannot really separate one’s perception of a certain country with the cute personages in the anime. However, the historical truth in this narrative becomes then largely simplified and single-lateral. I want to note one specific example in the original narrative of APH. All country characters in the anime speak standard Japanese, with occasional utterance of several sentences in their respective native languages. The only character that does not speak standard Japanese is the China character, Wang Yao. Adding a redundant “aru” (ある) at the end of most sentences he speaks, this trait presents clearly the characteristics of a specific Creole language called “kyowago” (協和語) promoted by the Japanese colonial government in Manchuria during the 1930s and 1940s.

Even though Japanese colonization is never directly mentioned in APH, the using of this specific linguistic trait implicitly alludes to this history. Yet, curiously enough, this linguistic trait has also become a forgotten history on the Chinese side, with most Chinese fans interpreting this linguistic trait as a simple personal style. As my observation goes, Japanese fans also do not explicitly take this issue very seriously. Yet it at least shows in one aspect the political and historical complications behind this seemingly simple setting. It also tells us that it is really impossible to imagine a cultural product totally independent from social political issues in the real world.

Therefore, I suggest it is erroneous to imagine that the Sino-Japanese historical political conflicts can be easily remedied by developing Chinese fans of Japanese media products (or vice versa), nor should we over-emphasize the power for the audience to totally subvert or ignore the ideology embedded in cultural materials. But at the same time, how audiences interpret or appropriate a certain fictional narrative is definitely cannot be totally controlled by the producers, therefore the fandoms based on the same media product could be very different from country to country.


Author's Bio: As an academic fan from China, I entered the fandom around 2003 when I was still an undergraduate student of Chinese Literature at Peking University. I am currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. My dissertation topic is Chinese online fan culture, as well as its relationship with the media and fandoms from Japan and the English speaking areas. I have done several presentations on Chinese fan fiction and fan culture in conferences, but up to now I do not have any publication in English. By the way, I am now translating Professor Jenkins's Textual Poachers into Chinese, not as a voluntary fan translator, though.

Spreadable Media and the Global South: Punathambekar, Shahani, Zuckerman

As of today, all of the essays we commissioned for our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, are alive on the book's website extension and we are hearing that people who advance ordered the book via Amazon are receiving their copies.  There is also NOW a Kindle addition available. I have an ambitious series of talks planned for the coming semester, including appearances at Tools for Change (New York City, where I will be on a panel with Brian David Johnson and Cory Doctorow, Feb. 14), The Society for Cinema and Media Studies (Chicago, March 7 with other contributors from the book) , South by Southwest (Austin, TX, March 8 with Sam Ford and Joshua Green), Digital Media and Learning Conference (Chicago, March 16), Transmedia Hollywood (Los Angeles, April 12), and most likely Media in Transition (MIT, May 3 ). So, be on the look out for Henry Sightings in your area. :-)


Meanwhile, I did an in-depth interview about the book with Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion. I had run an interview with Frank about his book through this blog a while back and he's been nice enough to return the favor.  Part one is up already and part two goes up on Tuesday and will be linked here once it does.


Today's selection furthers the project begun last time of expanding our discussion of spreadability to deal with transnational media flows and in this case, with what does and does not flow between the Global South and the Global North -- two dealing with India and one with Africa.


“Desi,” which means “from the homeland,” is a term that refers to people within the South Asian diaspora. It also signals the emergence of a dynamic and transcultural South Asian youth culture, speaking to a shift in the place of South Asians in U.S. public culture. No longer imagined simply as atomized immigrants nostalgic for a home elsewhere, South Asians in the U.S. are increasingly viewed as “public consumers and producers of distinctive, widely circulating cultural and linguistic forms” (Shankar 2008, 4).

This sociocultural and political shift has shaped, and been shaped by, the constructions of Desis as a sought-after marketing demographic, with the result that a growing number of media corporations have targeted Desi audiences over the past four or five years. These corporate media initiatives are all the more striking, given that the production and circulation of Desi media has been primarily shaped, since the early 1970s, by the efforts of enterprising individuals and families. Furthermore, we can draw an arc from the late 1970s to the current moment—from VHS tapes that circulated via Indian grocery stores to remix music events (DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra in New York City, for example), one-hour shows featuring Bollywood song sequences broadcast on public-access stations, performances on college campuses, and, now, vast pirate networks that make Desi media content available to audiences across the globe—to show that the notion of spreadability has always been a defining feature of Desi media culture.

How do media corporations understand and become a part of such a mediascape? Focusing on two recent media initiatives—MTV Desi, a television channel that sought to target South Asian American youth but only lasted about twenty-two months; and Saavn, a New York–based digital media company that has emerged as one of the most prominent distributors of Bollywood programming outside India—this brief study shows that responding to and participating in the cultures of media circulation that were already in place is crucial for media companies interested in diasporic audiences.



The fundamental question of development economics, my late mentor Dick Sabot taught me, is simple to formulate and hard to answer: “Why are some people wealthy and some people poor?” Why is the Democratic Republic of Congo, blessed with valuable minerals and timber, desperately poor, while resource-constrained Singapore is well off? (Birdsall, Ross, and Sabot 1995). In Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), geographer Jared Diamond suggests that the natural environment is destiny: people who had access to easily domesticated crops and animals were able to generate food surpluses and build complex cultures, while those less fortunate had to focus more on survival than on constructing complex societies. Looking toward the more recent past, statistician Hans Rosling (2009) sees reason to blame slow development on colonialism, observing that many postcolonial societies are only now showing improvements in life expectancy seen in colonial powers in the early twentieth century. Economist Paul Collier, in The Bottom Billion (2007), places the blame on bad governance, arguing that governments which find it more profitable to rob their coffers than to build infrastructure are doomed to underdevelopment.

We might think of these as helpful, but incomplete, answers to the question of uneven development. There’s another set of unhelpful answers that center around the idea that certain peoples are inherently, biologically smarter than others. This idea gained traction in the middle of the nineteenth century as racial anthropology or “scientific racism.” More recently, a variation on the idea has emerged in the pseudoscientific study of associations between IQ scores and race in books such as The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994). Critiques of Herrnstein and Murray’s association between IQ and race point out that massive differences in educational opportunities available to rich and poor people might explain these different test scores (Jacoby and Glauberman 1995). The time I’ve spent traveling in the developing world suggests that it’s dangerous to discount the significance of opportunity. In societies where daily survival is a struggle, it can be very difficult to tell who’s a genius.

My work over the past two decades in sub-Saharan Africa has convinced me that intelligence, creativity, and humor are evenly distributed throughout the world. People’s ability to express their intelligence, creativity, and humor are heavily dependent on local circumstances, and the odds that we will even encounter these traits across barriers of language, nation, and culture are profoundly constrained by infrastructure, geography, and interest.



When I consider India, the main question that comes to my mind about spreadability is what is being spread and what is not. But which India are we talking about? There are many. A popular practice is to differentiate between “India” and “Bharat,” the Hindi name for India. You could say that India is rich, while Bharat is poor; India is English speaking, while Bharat speaks in regional languages; and India is urban, while Bharat is rural. All of these would be partially true oversimplifications. (There are rich farmers and landlords in rural Bharat, just as there are poor slum dwellers in urban India, and so on.) I think of the divide as all of these but, most of all, as one between those who have for decades been able to avail of opportunities for growth and those who are now catching up.

“India” is on par with anywhere else in the world in terms of sophisticated technological practices. The mainstream media is becoming fairly savvy in seeding spreadable content. Indian telecommunications provider Bharti Airtel ran a contest in August and September 2010 inviting Indians to upload their own new “crazy” cricket fandom videos to an Airtel YouTube channel, with the makers of the most popular videos winning a trip to watch the Airtel Champions League Twenty20 Cricket competition in South Africa. Airtel’s channel became one of the top sponsored channels on YouTube from India in terms of subscribers as well as views.

Today, it can seem as though almost every actor in Bollywood tweets incessantly, from superstars Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan to newly famous directors such as Punit Malhotra and actresses such as Sonakshi Sinha. Bachchan was perhaps the earliest leader of the blogging trend among Bollywood stars. Each of his daily posts on his personal blog receives several hundred comments on average. Bachchan also has several hundred thousand Twitter fans, and his tweets and blog posts are amplified by the mainstream press that tracks him, as well as by his legion of fans, some of whom—for instance, Rahul Upadhyay—translate each blog post within a few hours into Hindi to further spread his message to non-English-reading Internet audiences. Bachchan also innovatively maintained a voice blog (that claimed to be the first of its kind in the world) called BachchanBol (Bachchan Says), where fans could dial into a number for 6 rupees per minute on their mobile phones and listen “in the most intimate and personal way about what he is doing, his thoughts and feelings, his experiences throughout his life—anytime and anywhere—at the push of a button” (OneIndia Explore n.d.).


  This is the last of the essays we commissioned for the book, but we hope that the conversation doesn't end here. We are going to be actively inviting others to share their responses to the book's framework both through the book's homepage and through this blog. If you have some thoughts you'd like to share, we'd love to hear from you. You can reach me at hjenkins@usc.edu, or simply send along your comments attached to this blog. And as always, please help us spread these essays.

Spreading Independent and Transnational Content

As we count down to the wide spread release of our new book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, we are rolling out this week five more essays -- in this case, dealing with core issues from the book's chapters on independent media and transnational media flows. One final crop of essays from the project will go on-line next week. By now, some of you may well be receiving copies of the book advanced ordered through Amazon or New York University Press. We'd love to know what you think. I was lucky enough to be able to share some thoughts about this project this past week with faculty and students at Concordia University. This post is available in Czech language (provided by Alex and Nora Pozner from bizow reviews team).


The Long Tail of Digital Games

In the raging debate over the legitimacy and consequences of the “Long Tail” theory (Anderson 2006), few markets have received more attention than those dedicated to digitally distributed video games. Proponents of the Long Tail have argued that digital distribution will finally turn the historically hit-driven game industry on its head—that future revenues will be driven by consumer activity distributed across a huge catalog of video games developed, in large part, by independent game developers as opposed to titanic publishers; that it will prove consistently more profitable to focus on niche audiences in this new world of digital game distribution, rather than to focus on the development of broadly appealing hits; and (for those of us interested in the spreadability model) that a new generation of empowered consumers will actively seek and promote the highest-quality content, driving revenues to the most deserving game developers and leading to a healthier and more vibrant video game ecosystem overall.

There can be no doubt that encouraging signs of this development have begun to crop up everywhere. Many now-prominent independent game developers, such as The Behemoth and 2D Boy, have leveraged console-based digital distribution platforms such as Xbox LIVE, Wiiware, and the Playstation Network (PSN) to reach markets that were previously only accessible via the long arm of a traditional publisher. These developers have not only created award-winning games that have generated significant amounts of profit. They have, in many cases, retained the rights to their intellectual property (IP) and operated with near-total independence, an unthinkable situation for small console game developers only a few years ago. And, while digital distribution on the console typically generates the most buzz, independent developers have made equally great strides on mobile devices, the web, and the PC thanks to a wide variety of channels (stores such as iTunes, Android Market, and Steam; portals such as Kongregate.com; and more generalized distribution through social network sites such as Facebook, to name just a few). Savvy observers have noted that in mobile ecosystems in particular, independent developers have consistently had greater success than traditional publishers in cracking into the “top 10.”


(Sp)reading Digital Comics

Comic books—especially single issues, or “floppies”—have always been spreadable. As kids in the 1980s, my friends and I would head into our local comic shop, each emerge with an armful of floppies, then spend the afternoon first reading through our own haul and then each other’s. Usually, at least one of my friends’ floppies would be from some larger multipart story arc, and, if it was any good, I’d either go digging through my friend’s collection or thumbing through the store’s back issues to find out what was going on. Sharing, recommendation, drillability, and vast narrative complexity were all part of our everyday lives long before we could even drive.

Webcomics have emerged as an alternative form of publishing that makes such practices even easier. Many webcomics use RSS feeds to deliver new installments via email or RSS reader applications, and many webcomics offer forums where fans can chat and bicker and share their favorite comics with one another, much as my friends and I did in person so many years ago. Now, I can recommend comics to friends around the world either by emailing them a link to a webcomic’s site (and thus the latest comic) or a “permalink” to the archived page or, more commonly now, by texting, IMing, or Facebook messaging them such a link. Many webcomics, such as Emily Horne and Joey Comeau’s A Softer World, include built-in widgets for fans to recommend them on online services such as Digg, Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Del.icio.us, Technorati, and Twitter. Scott Kurtz’s PVP includes widgets to share each strip on twenty different services.

Unlike traditional print comics, for which most writers and artists labor under “work for hire” contracts for large publishers such as Marvel and DC, webcomics are typically owned and operated by their creators and rely on revenues generated by advertising, fan subscriptions/memberships, or sales of ancillary merchandise. As a result, for creators, getting individuals to purchase a single instance of their work (such as a traditional print floppy) is less important than establishing an ongoing relationship, aggregating a large recurring audience over time. The simplicity of the URL system supports this—when recommending a comic to a friend, I could copy and paste an image of the comic itself into an email, stripping out the context, ads, and links to the related merchandise, but why bother when sharing a link is so easy?



The Use Value of Authors

A key dilemma for both media consumers and producers in today’s media environment is discoverability: with so much media spreading, and even more desperately wanting to be spread, how do we choose what to consume? Consequently, consumers need highly effective filters to direct them to the media they are most likely to enjoy and away from that which they are unlikely to enjoy; producers, meanwhile, need to develop techniques to ensure that their content enjoys safe passage through such filters and finds the audiences most likely to enjoy their work. Herein lies the importance of, and the use for, authors.

As compared to creative figures—producers, writers, artists, designers, and a wealth of other terms in common parlance to describe those who make media—an “author” is someone to whom we attribute a heightened level of authority and autonomy over the item of media in question. Most consumers operate on the assumption that a vast amount of media isn’t worth personally consuming, either because it is corporate hackery written by committee just to make a fast buck, because it is amateurish and incompetent, or simply because it doesn’t appeal to any of their interests. An author, though, is a totem of sorts that signifies a certain level of skill and singularity of vision. To talk of authors for professionally produced content is to assert creativity and self-expression in what can too often be characterized as a faceless, paint-by-numbers industry, while to talk of authors for amateur-produced content is to attribute artistry in what can too often be characterized as a world full of everyone’s uploaded cat videos. Discussing authors can be a way to validate the product of said authors, and hence to allow ourselves to discuss art, meaning, and depth in some popular media without attributing artistry or depth to all popular media.

At the same time, precisely who the author is can be hotly contested and variable, as the content industries may pose one author, while fans may look to others, sometimes working to uncover who the “real” author is. For instance, while The Simpsons is often popularly spoken of as Matt Groening’s, many fans have nominated other individuals in the show’s production as the true source(s) of the show’s perceived brilliance, and hence as its author(s). The fact that people would bother to argue over who the author is should signify how much the title of author matters, and it offers an initial sign of the importance of authors. MORE


The Swedish Model

Sweden is a small country, yet it has one of the world’s biggest and best-selling music scenes. You might think ABBA, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but they’re just the best-known starting point of a very long tail, with thousands of bands spanning every genre and degree of success. Sweden is also home to The Pirate Bay, the world’s top torrenting site, which ABBA songwriter Björn Ulvaeus has decried as made by and for those who are lazy and stingy and don’t understand that, if creators can’t anticipate payment, they will never release music (“ABBA Star” 2009). Since the advent of recording in the early twentieth century, recorded music has been the central economic good of the music business. Hence, it is no wonder that the mainstream industry has been so vociferous in its efforts to demonize and sue uploaders and to support national policies that limit the ability of listeners to spread music.

Further down the tail, though, Sweden is home to many artists and labels trying to forge a new way through this thicket, one that rejects the notions that certain payment is a precondition for artistic expression or that file sharing detracts from the economics of their business. The attitudes and actions of The Swedish Model, a consortium of seven independent labels committed to a more optimistic dialogue on music’s future, and other Swedish labels and musicians put spreadability at the center of their hopes for the future of the music business. The tiny label Songs I Wish I Had Written, headed by Martin Thörnkvist, who also heads The Swedish Model, shared an office with a Pirate Bay cofounder, and Thörnkvist uploads his label’s catalog in the highest quality to Pirate Bay. Labrador, another Swedish independent label, gives away annual samplers through Pirate Bay and posts all its singles for free download on its website.

These entrepreneurs have taken to heart that if their music doesn’t spread, it may as well be dead. The logic goes like this: We are small and have minimal budgets. There are few mainstream venues that will promote our music, so few people will have the opportunity to hear it through mass media. The more people who hear it, the larger the audience will become. Even if most of that audience does not pay for CDs or mp3s, the slice that does will be bigger than the entire audience would otherwise have been. And the slice that doesn’t pay to buy music may well pay for other things. As Thörnkvist put it when addressing the music industry audience at MIDEMNet, “I’d rather have one million listeners and one hundred buyers than one hundred listeners and one hundred buyers” (2009).



Transnational Audiences and East Asian Television

Consider a clip from the Japanese variety show Arashi no Shukudai-kun that recently made its way onto YouTube in early 2009: a small group of Japanese pop singers are challenged to eat a “surprisingly large” hamburger named after a city in the Ibaraki prefecture and are joking about how “Super American” the situation is. They suggest that the burger inspires them to don overalls and grow “amazing” chest hair, while Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blares in the background. The clip was then subtitled in English by two fans based in Australia and circulated based on its appeal to English-speaking audiences of the “J-pop” performers in the video as an embodied spectacle of Japanese popular culture. Various versions of the clip were distributed online through fan communities on LiveJournal, a Russian-owned social blogging platform with offices headquartered in San Francisco, and other forums, and fans shared the links through their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, and other social media channels. In the process, the Arashi no Shukudai-kun clip was recontextualized, reformatted, resubtitled, and diverted to new (and sometimes unexpected) audiences at every step along the way. Far from exceptional, there are countless clips like this one on YouTube: in the global spreadable media environment, its crisscrossing path back and forth across multiple national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries is becoming perfectly common.

Not only is the transnational movement of media becoming increasingly pervasive; it has also become significantly more—and more visibly—multinodal. Thus, we must go beyond the use of Bruce Springsteen in the background of a Japanese variety show as part of a parody and indigenization of Western cultural materials to consider its subsequent movement as it is taken up, translated, and circulated by grassroots intermediaries, passing through divergent and overlapping circuits, often outside the purview of established media industries and markets. In short, we must look beyond sites of production and consumption to consider the practices of transmission and the routes of circulation—the means and manner by which people spread media to one another—which are increasingly shaping the flow of transnational content.





Futures of Entertainment 6 Videos (Part One)

Over the next few installments, we are going to be sharing videos of the panels from this year's Futures of Entertainment conference, now in its sixth year, and developing a really strong community of followers who come back again and again to participate in our ongoing conversations. For those who do not know, FoE is a conference designed to spark critical conversations between people in the creative industries, academics, and the general public, over issues of media change. The Futures of Entertainment consortium works hard to identify cutting edge topics and to bring together some of the smartest, most thoughtful people who are dealing with those issues. It is characterized by extended conversation among the panelists in a format designed to minimize "spin," "pitch" and "pontification," and in a context where everything they say will be questioned and challenged through Backchan.nl, Twitter, and (this year) Etherpad conversations. As someone noted this year, one of the biggest contributions of the conference has been close interrogation of the language the industry uses to describe its relationship with its publics/audiences, and this year was no exception, with recurring concepts such as "curation" getting the full FoE treatment. And we came as close as we've ever come to a Twitter riot breaking out around the "Rethinking Copyright," session on which I participated.

The conference, traditionally, opens on Thursday with a Communications Forum event. This year, the focus was on New Media in West Africa, part of our ongoing exploration of the global dimensions of entertainment. There was much discussion of what we could learn from Nollywood (even hints of the coming era of Zollywood) and a spontaneous live performance by Derrick “DNA” Ashong.

New Media in West Africa Despite many infrastructural and economic hurdles, entertainment media industries are burgeoning in West Africa. Today, the Nigerian cinema market–”Nollywood”–is the second largest in the world in terms of the annual volume of films distributed, behind only the Indian film industry. And an era of digital distribution has empowered content created in Lagos, or Accra, to spread across geographic and cultural boundaries. New commercial models for distribution as well as international diasporic networks have driven the circulation of this material. But so has rampant piracy and the unofficial online circulation of this content. What innovations are emerging from West Africa? How has Nigerian cinema in particular influenced local television and film markets in other countries across West Africa, and across the continent? What does the increasing visibility of West African popular culture mean for this region–especially as content crosses various cultural contexts, within and outside the region? And what challenges does West Africa face in continuing to develop its entertainment industries?

Panelists: Fadzi Makanda, Business Development Manager, iROKO Partners Derrick “DNA” Ashong, leader, Soulflége Colin Maclay, Managing Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University Moderator: Ralph Simon, head of the Mobilium Advisory Group and a founder of the mobile entertainment industry

Opening Remarks from FoE Fellows Laurie Baird and Ana Domb

Listening and Empathy: Making Companies More Human Media properties have long measured audiences with Nielsen ratings, circulation numbers, website traffic and a range of other methods that transform the people who engage with content into that aggregate mass: the audience. Meanwhile, marketing logic has long been governed by survey research, focus groups, and audience segmentation. And, today, executives are being urged to do all they can to make sense of the “big data” at their fingertips. However, all these methods of understanding audiences–while they can be helpful–too often distance companies from the actual human beings they are trying to understand. How do organizations make the best use of the myriad ways they now have to listen to, understand, and serve their audiences–beyond frameworks that aim to “monitor, “surveil,” and “quantify” those audiences as statistics rather than people? What new understandings are unearthed when companies listen to their audiences, and the culture around them, beyond just what people are saying about the organization itself? What advantages do companies find in embracing ethnographic research, in thinking about an organization’s content and communications from the audience’s perspective, and in thinking of “social media” not just as a new way to market content but a new and particularly useful channel for communicating, collaborating and conducting business?

Panelists: Lara Lee, Chief Innovation and Operating Officer, Continuum Grant McCracken, author, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer Carol Sanford, author, The Responsible Business Emily Yellin, author, Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us Moderator: Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategy, Peppercomm

The Ethics and Politics of Curation in a Spreadable Media World–A One-on-One Conversation with Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova and Undercurrent’s Joshua Green We live in an environment where the power of circulation is no longer solely–arguably, even primarily–in the hands of media companies. However, if that means we all now play a role as curator and circulator of content, what responsibilities does that bring with it? How is curation becoming an important aspect of the online profile of professional curators? And, for all of us who participate in social networking sites or who forward content to family and friends via email, what are our obligations to both the creators of that content and to the audiences with whom we share it? If we possess the great power to spread content, what are the great responsibilities that come along with it?

The Futures of Public Media Public media creators and distributors often face a wide variety of strains on resources which impact their ability to innovate how they tell their stories. Yet, in an era where existing corporate logics often restrain how many media companies and brands can interact with their audiences–or how audiences can participate in the circulation of media content–public media-makers are, at least in theory, freed from many of the constraints their commercial counterparts face. How have the various innovations in producing and circulating content that have been discussed at Futures of Entertainment impacting public media-makers? How do the freedoms and constraints of public media shape creators’ work in unique ways? How have innovations happening in independent media, civic media, and the commercial sector impacting those creators? And what can we all learn from their innovation and experiences?

Panelists: Rekha Murthy, Director of Projects and Partnerships, Public Radio Exchange, Annika Nyberg Frankenhaeuser, Media Director, European Broadcasting Union, Andrew Golis, Director of Digital Media and Senior Editor, FRONTLINE Nolan Bowie, Senior Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Moderator: Jessica Clark, media strategist, Association of Independents in Radio

From Participatory Culture to Political Participation Around the world, activists, educators, and nonprofit organizations are discovering new power through their capacity to appropriate, remix, and recirculate elements of popular culture. In some cases, these groups are forging formal partnerships with media producers. In other cases, they are deploying what some have called “cultural acupuncture,” making unauthorized extensions which tap into the public’s interest in entertainment properties to direct their attention to other social problems. Some of these transmedia campaigns — Occupy, for example — are criticized for not having a unified message, yet it is their capacity to take many forms and to connect together diverse communities which have made these efforts so effective at provoking conversation and inspiring participation. And, as content spreads across cultural borders, these activists and producers are confronting new kinds of critiques —such as the heated debates surrounding the rapid spread of the KONY 2012 video. Are new means of creating and circulating content empowering citizens, creating new forms of engagement, or do they trivialize the political process, resulting in so-called “slactivism”? What are these producers and circulators learning from media companies and marketers, and vice versa? What new kinds of organizations and networks are deploying this tactics to gain the attention of young consumer-citizens? And, for all of us, what do we need to consider as we receive, engage with, and consider sharing content created by these individuals and groups? Panelists: Sasha Costanza-Chock, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, MIT Dorian Electra, performing artist (“I'm in Love with Friedrich Hayek”; “Roll with the Flow”) Lauren Bird, Creative Media Coordinator, Harry Potter Alliance Bassam Tariq, co-creator, 30 Mosques in 30 Days Moderator: Sangita Shresthova, Research Director of CivicPaths, University of Southern California

Closing Remarks from FoE Fellows Maurício Mota and Louisa Stein

And for your added entertainment pleasure, check out Dorian Electra's new music video, "FA$T CA$H: Easy Credit & The Economic Crash" which premiered at this year's conference.


"We Do Not Have a Hollywood on the Outskirts of Warsaw:" What Poland Can Teach Us About Copyright and Circulation (Part Two)

I was able to share some core insights from this research as part of an very engaged panel at this past week's Futures of Entertainment conference (with musician T-Bone Burnett and Annenberg Innovation Lab head Jon Taplin.) Expect to see the video of this panel (and others from the conference) on my blog before much longer. For those of you who live in Los Angeles, you might be interested in attending a one-on-one conversation I am having with T Bone Burnett this Weds. Nov. 14, 7:30, Hammer Museum. Check here for more information. Now back to your regularly scheduled interview...


You situate your study in a much larger tradition of media and cultural scholars in Poland writing about “circuits” or circulation. Can you share with us some of the core insights from that tradition? 


ALEK TARKOWSKI: Polish sociologists in the Communist era were very focused on the issues surrounding the so-called “second circulation”, grassroots political and cultural activism as protest against the hypocrisy of the system and a sort of safety valve that enabled the society to externalize its frustrations. But in Polish history, informal circulations also included diverse economic activities and a vigorous youth culture movement. For us, that tradition served only as background – we haven’t used the tools that Polish sociologists developed to study alternative circulations. Yet we took them into account, since as concepts they have the power to disrupt the current logic and point out existing mechanisms that can be eerily similar to the ones observed in the Communist period. For example, there were social exchange networks used by our parents to distribute independent media and barely available products of Western popular culture. The irony of the situation lies in the fact that people who were active users of informal circulations in the Communist era are mostly quick to condemn informal usage of such circulations among their kids and grandkids.

Of course it’s difficult to make a direct comparison between both situations, but it turns out that as far as moral economy, or what people consider right and wrong, is concerned, there are a lot of similarities between the two. A qualitative study that Mirek is currently conducting involves a closer look at these similarities.


How might we situate the study of grassroots circulation of media in relation to the larger examination of what I call participatory culture or what Yochai Benkler discusses as “peer production”? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Research shows that in Poland the creative output uploaded by people to the Internet is still marginal and the percentage of active creators does not grow. Of course, I do not mean all the marks we leave on the Web, like Facebook comments – just more substantial forms of creativity. There are some differences in the results depending on the indicator we chose, but no more than few percent of Internet users engage in regular cultural production. That’s why we decided to look for a Poland-specific point of reference for your and Benkler’s ideas, which would enable us to expand cultural participation categories to include more elements than just “production.” We considered things beyond “peer production,” like peer reproduction, redistribution, and recommendation, as we decided that even though they’re more controversial than grassroots production, they have just as strong an influence on the media and culture, which are known for wielding distribution control as a powerful weapon.

We were also very inspired by Mirko Tobias Schafer’s “extended culture industry” concept, which dissolves the top-down/bottom-up distinctions. Even in the discourse of exploitation identical situations can be interpreted in completely different ways: Internet users redistribute content to which they have no rights, but simultaneously they are doing the dirty work for the corporations as they promote their work. In a way, both content authors and consumers are participating in culture – maybe both groups don’t share the same rights, but they surely share similar possibilities for action. The role of software in all this is also really significant – it’s often the case that participation based on redistribution requires very little activity. Many users of file-sharing networks exchange content almost incidentally, the software does it for them. The significance of technological architecture behind cultural participation is an avenue well worth exploring.

We still want to broaden our knowledge of the grey area between authorship and consumption because we feel that a lot of interesting things happen there. We just commenced a qualitative study of people who still aren’t authors but are something more than just consumers – the category includes people who function as grassroots content archivists, who prepare and release Polish subtitles for TV series and movies. In informal circulations these people are institutions, and preliminary interviews show that they often feel that their actions “serve a higher purpose.” At the same time, they’re still using content to which they have no rights.


As you note in your report, much of the work in “informal economies” has centered on the developing world. What new insights do we get if we apply this model to talk about how media travels through more developed countries? How, for example, might that operate in relationship to post-Communist Eastern Europe? 


ALEK TARKOWSKI: The claim that informal economies and circulations function worldwide should be a truism. This is well demonstrated by Robert Neuwirth, for example. We find it very interesting that the informal economy category, at first devised to describe the economies of developing countries now applies so well to modern creative economies. We also like Ravi Sundaram’s idea of “pirate modernity”, which claims that modernity is neither regulated nor sterile, but haphazard, informal or even illegal.

And Poland, today a developed country, has been very different only twenty years ago. Although we moved from a shortage economy to a surplus economy, some mechanisms are still working just fine. And digital technologies only invigorate the informal circulations. Many Poles still remember the times when public radio played entire music albums on the air, while people at home mass-recorded them on tapes. Nobody really knows whether it was legal, but we all suspect that we might have had pirate public media back then. In the 1990s, we had legally operating stores that copied for customers albums from CDs to tapes. But simultaneously we assumed that this informality was typical of the Communist era when it functioned as the prohibited, glorified second circulation, as well as the crazy transition period of the early 1990s. We’re trying to demonstrate that the informal processes are still heavily influencing our culture.

The application of concepts developed for third world countries in Poland might hurt the national pride of many people. Yet we believe that Poland should draw on the experiences of for example the BRIC countries instead of comparing its culture industries with the United States. Look at the official copyright policy one feels as if Poland’s strategy was to copy the American intellectual property model directly. Yet we do not have Hollywood on the outskirts of Warsaw. While IP policy is imposed by international trade agreements, there is still room for taking into account local specificity and the national interest. This is rightly emphasized by Joe Karaginis in his commentary on our report. Joe writes that in the 19th century, the United States tolerated copyright infringement when it benefited American citizens. Meanwhile the policymakers in Poland, as well as we as a society, are not collectively asking whether another model might suit the Polish national interest better than the one currently implemented.

What are the primary motives for seeking content through informal circulation? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Asking about motivations that drive people towards using informal circulations is very important, but it would be wise to remember that for the user, the delineation between a formal and informal circulation is blurry at best. The average user doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to easily discern whether a given online source represents the formal or informal circulation. Even payment doesn’t help to distinguish between the two, as the grey area in Poland includes websites that charge the users not for content, as they claim, but for data transfer. But for users, that distinction is often unclear. For the purposes of our project, we classified online sources such as streaming as part of the informal circulation. But to answer your question, it appears that price is the key factor when it comes to picking the informal circulation; about two-thirds of the respondents point to this motivation. Availability of content and ease of acquisition turn out to be equally important. This criterion is especially important for people living in smaller cities. Many respondents also pointed out that it’s important to them how up-to-date the content offer on the Web is. With no comparable offer from the official distribution channels, the Internet becomes a much more attractive source of content. In Poland, the offer of video-on-demand services, online music stores and paid streaming websites is still very limited and aimed at a mainstream audience.

In our study, we also analyzed attitudes towards downloading. The results basically paint Poles as pragmatists: for many people downloading is simply easier than visiting a store.


Near the end of the report, you describe what you are calling “Next Generation Internet Users.” Who are these people and what distinguishes them from the general population in your country? Are they more or less likely to buy content online? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Faced with rising Internet penetration rates, we decided to make the “Internet user” category a little more nuanced. That’s why we applied the concept of “Next Generation Internet Users,” a term proposed by the World Internet Project’s William Dutton. The term describes heavy Internet users, also accessing the Web through various mobile devices, people who are constantly online, more or less. They’re also distinguished by their relatively high creative output – they take photographs, create digital content, build their own websites. They are heavily involved in content sharing but frequently purchase content as well. In Great Britain, these users make up over 40% of all Internet users. The people we polled in our study, however, demonstrated higher than average Internet usage: they spend multiple hours on the Internet, often accessing it via different devices. They turned out to be a very cultured group: e.g. 89% of them declared that they read at least one book in the past year. Using informal circulations is common in the group. About 88% of them use the informal circulation of music, 73% use the informal circulation of books; 78% use the informal circulation of movies. A high percentage of the people we studied declare buying cultural content online – a little over a third of the respondents (37%) claim to have paid for access to content online in the past year.

Our study has demonstrated that the division of the Polish population into Internet users and people who don’t use the Internet is consistent with the division into people who actively consume cultural content and those who don’t engage with any type of content circulation (except broadcast media – TV and radio – which weren’t the subject of the study). At the same time, the people displaying heaviest Internet usage and cultural consumption are also the most active users of informal circulations.


What do you think are the biggest mistakes made by policy and industry folks when they look at the relationship between formal and informal circulation of content? 


MIREK FILICIAK: Policy and industry folks have to stop perceiving informal circulations as excommunicated havens of the illegal and the anti-cultural. They need to treat these circulations as an alternative or as competition – it might be amoral and dishonest, but it is a part of the general circulation of culture. If a different approach is the desired result, changing the language might be a good place to start.

Policymakers make the mistake of considering only the legal implications of using informal circulations – we need to place a few positive aspects of these circulations on the other scale, like increased access to content and increased cultural activity. On the other hand, the industry in Poland offers few legal alternative to downloading – there’s not enough content, it’s expensive, and there’s no easy way to access it. We believe that people who engage with informal circulations might switch to legal purchasing of content online if given an honest alternative offer.

Presenting our findings to a group of industry representatives was an interesting experience. Many of the people from the creative industries, who publicly decried our report claiming that it legitimizes stealing, changed their tone and agreed with us in private conversations. They were aware of the fact that they will need to adapt to the users, and that the status quo is untenable and cannot be artificially supported by making the laws more severe. It was obvious especially to people working in the Internet industry. When asked about the main obstacles that hinder business development they didn’t mention piracy, they spoke about lack of flexibility on the part of collective rights management organizations and copyright holders, especially in the film industry.

We hope that the public debate currently underway in Poland, in which our report voiced a few very important issues, will head in the right direction. That we’ll witness the foundation of new services based on new business models and that the authorities, after learning from the experiences surrounding the ACTA fiasco, will introduce balanced regulations that will care for the interests of authors and producers as well as the society in general.

Mirek Filiciak is a cultural studies scholar, works at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. He is interested in the influence of digital media on cultural participation practices and research methodologies. Co-editor of Polish cultural studies quarterly Kultura popular (Popular Culture), co-author of book Youth and Media.

Justyna Hofmokl is a sociologist and vice-director of Centrum Cyfrowe - think-and-do-thank building digital society in Poland. She is the author of Internet as a New Commons and published in International Journal of Commons.
Alek Tarkowski is a sociologist and works as director of Centrum Cyfrowe. He is Public Lead of Creative Commons Poland and former member of the Board of Strategic Advisors to the Prime Minister of Poland. His research interests focus around the intersection of intellectual property, society and digital technologies, with a special interest in open models of collaboration and sharing.

"We Do Not Have Hollywood on the Outskirts of Warsaw": What Poland Can Teach Us About Circulation (Part One)

The Centrum Cyfrowe Projekt: Polska recently posted an English language translation of their report, The Circulations of Culture, which deals with the informal, sometimes illegal exchange of media content which is occurring in contemporary Poland. This report is a model of the kinds of thoughtful research which should be done in other countries around the world, including the United States, on this highly contentious topic. They start with a recognition that the pervasive language of "piracy" closes off issues which we need to be exploring. As they write:

"Wanting to become familar with and understand new practices one may not assess them in advance, let alone condemn them as illegal or wrong. Only knowing their scale, character and consequences may we assess the influence of new circulations of content on the sphere of culture. The domain remaining out of control of the state and the market is very varied. We lend and borrow books and records. We watch films uploaded to YouTube, but also we download them from websites and p2p networks. Usually we do not think whether we do it legally or not. And the facts of the case may be varied – there is content made available on the web illegally, but we may also use many materials in accordance with the law. Only 13% of Poles buy books, music or films. As many as 33% get hold of them in digital form, in a non-formal manner and for free. This number increases to 39% if we include also the „physical” forms of exchange into informal circulations, such as lending CDs. That is three times more than the market circulation, based on purchases of content."

So far, the report's findings might seem to support those who feel that informal circulation undercuts the development of a commercial market. Yet, the picture they develop turns out to be more complicated. They found that the rate of cultural consumption in contemporary Poland remains very low -- only 44% of Poles had contact with a book over the past twelve months and only 20.80% of Poles went to the cinema over the past year. Among those who are most active online, though, the numbers are significantly higher. 89% of "Internauts" or "heavy Internet users" have read at least one book over the past year, and 82 percent have gone to a movie in the past 12 months. So, while less than 5 percent of Poles have bought a book and less than .1% have bought cps in the past year, those numbers are much higher for those who are most active online -- 68% bought a book, 29 percent bought music.

Most of the heavy internet users acknowledged downloading some form of media content without paying for it -- the number can be as high as 95 percent depending on how we define our terms, but they also represent the core of the existing media market. As the report concludes, illegal downloads do not preclude legal purchases. So much for the argument that it is going to be impossible to get people to pay for content they can download for free. Instead, we need to enter into a much more complex exploration of when and why people who could and do download content illegally choose to pay for media content. So, when the media industry declares war on pirates, it may also be declaring war on its best customers, and this may explain why their tactics so far have been so unsuccessful at slowing the rate of "media piracy," because they are directed at the wrong people, because they do not understand the root causes of the issue, because they are not addressing the key motives for why people choose to pay for media.


Mirek Filiciak,  Justyna Hofmokl, and Alek Tarkowskithe primary authors of the report, were kind enough to participate in the following interview, which helps situate their findings within the context of a broader range of research in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe concerning "sharing cultures" and "informal media economies." In what follows, they share further insights from their research which might guide policy-makers in other parts of the world as they seek to develop a more nuanced understanding of the ways such unauthorized circulations may impact the creative industries and the culture more generally.

For a creative presentation of the report's core findings, visit this site.


Can you provide some context abort the current state of the debates around intellectual property and file sparing in Poland? What motivated your study? 


MIREK FILICIAK: The subject has been moving from the fringes towards the mainstream of the debate on culture for several years now. The shift has motivated the Polish government to work at increasing access to the public domain and to create initiatives such as the Digital School project, which directed a significant amount of funding towards the creation of open educational resources. The protests of Polish youth against ratification of the ACTA treaty in January and February of 2012 were a breakthrough moment for public discussion surrounding the subject. Incidentally, that’s when we unveiled our report, the end result of more than a year’s work.

For our team, taking on the subject was a continuation of our previous initiatives and research projects. Take, for example, the series of “Culture 2.0” conferences we co-organized, one of which featured you as a keynote speaker. Justyna and Alek founded the Polish chapter of Creative Commons and now they’re heading Centrum Cyfrowe (Digital Center), which is a leading Polish organization working towards greater cultural and civic engagement through digital technologies. IP issues are one of the Center’s main areas of interest and thus the organization hosted our research project. I myself have extensive research experience in this field and my previous research projects concerned for example fans of American TV series in Poland, or the “Youth and Media” project (the full report will soon be available in English) which was an ethnographic study of the use of media by Polish youth. We demonstrated in that study that thanks to networked digital media content often flows outside of official markets and without the involvement of institutional intermediaries. Our previous work and experiences with research, policy and activism suggested that the available indicators of cultural participation, often focused on official distribution channels, illustrate only a subset of the cultural practices of Poles.

That’s why we decided to provide empirical data that can be useful both for researchers and for policymakers. In Poland, previously data was limited and skewed: based on outdated research schemes of official statistics or biased studies set to prove that piracy is wrong and harmful for culture. There are some commercial studies, but usually the methodology is kept secret, which makes it hard to debate the results. From the very start, our project was designed to be a scientific study as well as an additional voice in the public debate. We also wanted to propose a set of standards for transparency of methodologies and data presentation (not only did we make the report and raw data sets available to the public, we also prepared a very approachable mashup).


You make a clear point in the opening paragraphs of the report that you are not studying “pirates,” but rather you are researching “informal content sharing practices.” Can you explain the distinction you want to make between the two and why it is such an important one for framing your findings? 


JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Above all, we wanted to draw public attention to somewhat deeper aspects of cultural activities of Internet users. And to retire the “pirate” label, as it basically leaves no space for debate and substantial arguments. In Poland, content sharing via the Internet has been presented for the last few years strictly as a struggle between “thieves” and “pirates” on one side and “evil corporations” on the other, without making any attempts at trying to understand the phenomenon.

The “piracy” tag draws attention solely to the financial consequences suffered by authors and intermediaries, while omitting issues that are absolutely fundamental for the state’s cultural policy, such as building social and cultural capital through accessing and sharing content. Only by framing the issue in a neutral way can we look for regulatory solutions that will balance the interests of the authors and intermediaries with societal benefits.

That’s why we were determined to take a closer look at the circulation of content outside of the market and reinvigorate the public debate, which doesn’t seem to have developed in Poland in any sensible way in the years that passed since the fall of Napster. Instead of talking about “piracy,” we’d rather discuss the flow of cultural content in the society. It often slips outside of the control and regulation of both governments and markets – and forms informal circulation.

We didn’t want to evaluate the legality of the behaviors we studied – and by the way, that’s not an easy task. In Poland, even the lawyers themselves can’t agree on what classifies as “fair use.” We assume the point of view of the users themselves and take a closer look at the way they access and use cultural content. We want the debate on regulating certain cultural practices on the Internet to be based on facts and reliable data.


Many have argued that the informal sharing of media content online comes at the expense of purchasing media. We hear the argument that people are unlikely to pay for media when they can get so much of it for free. What did you discover around this question through your research? 


ALEK TARKOWSKI: Our results demonstrate that the people who access informal circulations can be roughly divided into two groups. About a quarter of them are people who at the same time download informally and purchase content. Surprisingly enough, they are among the culture industries’ best customers. They make up the largest group among said customers and their expenditures are similar to the expenditures of consumers who don’t engage in illegal downloading. Formal and informal distribution channels are not competing in their case. However, 75% of people who participate in the informal circulation – this amounts to about 25% of all adults in Poland – don’t purchase any media from the formal circulation. They use radio, the TV, and the Internet. The question is whether they’re people that have “quit” the market or ones that never participated in it to begin with. We think (although that’s strictly a hypothesis) that they’re potential future customers or people that don’t participate in formal distribution due to economic reasons. Informal circulations increase the cultural activity of people who, until now, were only passive consumers of mass media.

In our next research projects we are trying to better understand the exact relationship between the two types of circulations, studied through the practices of individual persons. We don’t know for example whether an Internet user that engages with both circulations does it with equal frequency or how downloading influences purchasing behavior over time. We are also pressuring the government to organize a research consortium that would explain the economics of the two circulations.


Mirek Filiciak is a cultural studies scholar, works at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. He is interested in the influence of digital media on cultural participation practices and research methodologies. Co-editor of Polish cultural studies quarterly Kultura popular (Popular Culture), co-author of book Youth and Media.

Justyna Hofmokl is a sociologist and vice-director of Centrum Cyfrowe - think-and-do-thank building digital society in Poland. She is the author of Internet as a New Commons and published in International Journal of Commons.
Alek Tarkowski is a sociologist and works as director of Centrum Cyfrowe. He is Public Lead of Creative Commons Poland and former member of the Board of Strategic Advisors to the Prime Minister of Poland. His research interests focus around the intersection of intellectual property, society and digital technologies, with a special interest in open models of collaboration and sharing.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Turkey, Greece, and Italy (Final Leg)

  Istanbul, Turkey




Ok, guys, repeat after me: "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)!"

We were never planning on going to Turkey at all on this trip. In fact, we had several groups from Turkey invite me to speak there and I had to turn them down because it was just one more country than it seemed realistic to reach on our already over-crowded, overly ambitious speaking schedule.


But, then, well, we discovered the only cheap way to get from Bologna to Athens was via Turkish Air, and they offered you the discount only if you had a layover in Istanbul -- no doubt a scam they have worked out with the local tourism bureau but okay, if we are going to be there anyway, we might as well extend the time a little and try to take in some of the local culture. So, we were in Istanbul for a good deal less than 24 hours, but we didn't actually sleep very much while we were there. :-)

And, the fun started just down the street from our hotel, where we saw this factory outlet store that sold discounted Magic Lamps (apparently) and also fez. We had to bring back a bright red fez for our son because we have it on very good authority (Matt Smith's Doctor, no less) that "fezzes are cool," and of course, they are.



And then, of course, we felt an urgent need to eat Turkish Delight on a moonlit night (hearing a certain set of song lyrics echoing in our heads), and we discovered the enormous range of different kinds of Turkish candies on offer, most of which come in long strips, which the candy butchers snip, snip, with scissors before dropping chunks into custom-selected sampler boxes.  By now, my sweet tooth is legendary all over Europe, so I was certainly not going to resist this kind of temptation.





And everywhere we went in Istanbul, we would encounter these roaming carts which sold nuts and sunflower seeds. I am a closet sunflower seed fanatic -- a "seeder" as they call us on the bags that I buy in the States -- but the process of biting open seeds and spitting out the shells is not something I'd ever consider doing in public. So, I was fascinated to see so many people wandering the streets, consuming those salty little devils, and dropping their shells where-ever they happened to be standing. It would seem Seeders in Turkey enjoy many of the same rights that smokers used to enjoy in the United States. I suppose it's only a matter of time, though, before people start to protest second-hand shells.

As we continued our walk, it took us through the grounds on the edge of the Topkapi Palace, the primary residence for the Ottoman Sultans and their Harem. At dusk, the Palace proper was closed, but the park grounds enjoy heavy foot traffic as families and young lovers had pick nicks on the grass, and as people wandered around enjoying the cool(er) summer night air.

From there, our walk took us along the rocky shores of the Bosphorus River, which forms the boundary between the part of Istanbul which is in Europe and the part which is Asia.  Some people were fishing along the river, some were roasting corn or meats, and still others were stopped to watch the sunset over the opposite shore.


But, everywhere you looked, there were stray cats, many of the adorable kind, who no doubt live off the scraps all of those other activities left behind, especially the fishing. Of course, if they could convince the cats to eat the sunflower shells... but that's another story. Anyway, some one told me that cute cat pictures were popular on the web, so I decided to share a few of them here.



After a late night dinner in a local cafe, as we watched the closing Euro-Cup game, we grabbed a few hours sleep and then we were at it again the following morning, when we visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (popularly known as the Blue Mosque), one of many outstanding examples of Islamic architecture to be seen in this historic city.





And, while we were exploring, we stumbled onto several more examples of the kind of warning sign slapstick we've been tracking across the trip. Here, for example, is a sign which seems to be warning us to beware of people who have really big black hands.


While this image would appear to either warn us that hooks will come from the sky and carry us away, or perhaps, the sign is meant to suggest that it is a trapeze artist crossing zone.

But, then, I might be misunderstanding something. I've been told for years by European that their more concrete signs, which take advantage of a universal pictorial language, do not require specific cultural knowledge, unlike our more abstract American signpost. Is it possible that, in fact, these pictures do require a certain amount of interpretive work before they make sense to people who do not come from that culture?

We lingered as long as we dare, taking in as much of Istanbul, as our very limited schedule allows. I promise my friends in Turkey that we will find a way to get back there again before much longer, and this time, we will actually let you know we are coming so we can schedule some talks.


The thing you need to know about that day was that we had to be at the Lavrio docks by a certain time in order to take a ferry out to Kea, a small island off the coast of Athens, where my friend and colleague, Andrew Horton, owns a cottage. (Horton is among other things a media scholar who writes about Greek cinema, screenwriting, and especially film and television comedy. I wrote an essay about Mel Brooks which will come out in A Companion to Film Comedy Horton edited with Joanna Rapf, which is due out in November. Horton runs an exchange program which brings American screenwriting students to Greece to learn from some of the country's leading filmmakers, having made Greece a home away from home for most of his professional life.)

They only run the ferry a few times a day and this was going to be the last one for the night. Cynthia, my son, and I enjoy watching The Amazing Race together, so the program had become a key reference point for us all trip. The cameras on the program never show the contestants having to go through customs, opening up space to describe all of the other aspects of international travel they don't tell you about on American reality television. This day proved to be a particularly challenging one, full of obstacles of all kinds. There was a mad rush to the airport, followed by a huge line, flight delays, a flight to Athens, delayed bags, struggles to change currency, and then, by this point, it looked like there was no way we were going to get to the ferry on time. So, we sat in the back of a cab, which was racing towards the waterfront many miles away at a breathless speed, and my wife and I were rehearsing our confessionals. It's a staple at such moment on Amazing Race for contestants to reassure each other about how much it has meant to them to share this time together and see the world, even if they were unable to complete the race, and we were making jokes about being eliminated the minute we stepped outside the cab. As it happened, thanks to the reckless disregard for human life displayed by our taxi driver, we made it to the ferry station with minutes to spare.

Let's just say that Kea was everything I might have ever imagined a Greek fishing town to be like: the waters of the Aegean Sea are as blue, the churches are as white, the people are as friendly, the terraces are as steep,as anything I've ever seen in a travel brochure or a movie about coastal Greece.

We had Andrew's cottage to ourselves for several days, during which, for the most part, we slept. I have joked that our experience on this Greek island was very much modeled on the Lotus Eaters sequence in Homer's The Odyssey.  Grapes grow off his roof, and we could see the fishing village spread out below us.



We would walk down the hill twice a day to eat, then climb back up the steep, winding, path, and plop back down in the bed again.

Sometimes, we read or watched movies from his large dvd library, but to be honest, we mostly slept. By this point in the trip, I was that tired and the island was that restful.


For much of the trip, we had been speculating about what the political and economic state of Greece would be by the time we got there. The Greek elections had only just occurred, and depending on the outcome, there had been much speculation about whether the Greeks might abandon the Euro, unwilling to accept the austerity measures being proposed by the leadership of the European Union. Greece had been one of the countries hit the hardest by the economic crisis, and it was not hard to see the signs of their desperate conditions everywhere you looked. Basic city services seemed to have been cut to the minimum, with the result that streets were lined with garbage and buildings were becoming overwhelmed with graffiti.


There were jobless and homeless people everywhere, and their plight was summed up for us by a particularly vocal old woman who seemed to be declaiming about the fates in an oratorical style that would have done her ancient ancestors proud. I have no idea what she was saying, but she hit my heart strings pretty hard, just with the rising and falling pattern of her voice, as she shouted and shouted into the face of a seemingly indifferent city.

Athens was hot -- hot as Hades! Even first thing in the morning, the sun bears down mercilessly on the Acropolis, and the reflections off the white marble of the Parthanon are blinding.

There is a classical legend about a battle between Athena and Poseidon to determine which God would rule over the Acropolis. Poseidon smote the rock with his trident and out sprang a fresh water spring. Athena, however, made olive trees grow and won the competition. We've argued that Poseidon got cheated: the olive trees really do not provide much shade on a hot day and everyone we saw on top of the mountain was carrying bottles of water. But, then, it looks like Hades rules over all, at least in the summer.


Here, you see the Temple of Hephastus and the Greek Agora, the other essential site for the tourist wanting to experience the world of Ancient Athens.

By the way, a funny thing happened to us on the way to the Forum. Cynthia and I were sitting on a bench in the shadow of the Temple of Hephastus, who, you will recall, was the blacksmith and engineer of Olympus, when all of a sudden we hear someone calling my name. It turned out to be Andy Lipmann, Michael Hawley, and a bunch of other faculty, staff, and students from the MIT Media Lab. I learned later that they were in Greece to attend Nicholas Negroponte's wedding. This was somehow the least likely and the most likely place to run into folks from MIT on the entire trip!

In a museum on the grounds of the Greek Agora, which some have described as the birthplace of democracy, we were intrigued to see some examples of the kinds of ballots used for voting in classical Athens. As you can see, they are little clay discs onto which were scratched the name of the candidate that each voter supported. Candidates, we were told, often created many such discs and passed them out to the voters as part of the campaign process.

These other two artifacts were found inside the National Archeological Museum. The first is an example of the kinds of masks worn by performers in the greek theater -- in this case, this is a grotesque buffoon of the kind who might appear in a Greek comedy.


And this is a marble statue of Hermes found in Siphnos. The sign explains, "Hermes was, among other properties, the patron of travelers, therefore herms were erected at roads and crossroads. The Phallus carved not the front face of the pillar is both a symbol of pleasure and an apotropaic element." In case you are wondering, apotropaic means that it was designed to ward off harm and evil influences, or to bring good luck.

I was hoping that Hermes would watch over us as we began to get ready for our return to the United States.

I mentioned last time that I was starting to spend more and more time hanging out in Mickie D's in Europe. As I did so, I started to develop some interest in the processes of localization and the ways that the franchise has begun to adjust its menu to reflect cultural differences in regions around the world. Here, for example, is a sign for the Greek Mac (spotted in Athens). As you can see, if you look closely, the Greek Mac consists of two hamburger patties wrapped in Pita bread, with yogurt sauce, tomato slices, and onions.

Below it, there's a sign for  Il Mac (as seen in a fast food establishment in Rome.) which uses parmesan cheese.


And in Paris, we saw people eating the McBaguette  -- the name tells the whole story, but here's a news clip announcing its debut, which I found on the web.

So, maybe Quentin Tarantino was onto something when he has his gangster protagonists in Pulp Fiction exploring the cultural nuances of what's on the fast food menus of Europe. Just thought you'd want to know.




It used to be said that all roads lead to Rome. In our case,our entire grand tour of Europe ended up there. Cynthia and I had been boning up for this leg of the trip by working our way back through our boxed set of dads from HBO's Rome, not to mention Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday,  at night in our hotel rooms. Rome is of course much to vast and diverse a city to do justice to within a few days time, and its culture spans most of written history. We made a conscious decision that this trip we were going to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on Ancient Rome, and would hold off on Renaissance and Catholic Rome for future adventures.

But, first, I need to do two final presentations. First, I gave a live webcasts to librarians and information officers working in U.S. Embassies around the world as part of their "Window on America" series. After some brief opening remarks, the program's host asked me to respond to questions sent by Twitter from many different countries, primarily focused on the impact of new media on learning and literacy, on books publishing, and on civic and political participation.

Later in the trip, I had a chance to sit down and talk with David H. Thorne, the current U.S. Ambassador to Italy, and a key member of the Obama 2008 campaign, where we had a great exchange about the impact of new media on American electoral politics.

The U.S. Embassy also underwrote my talk at the European Institute for Design, which was hosted by Max Giovagnoli. Max has run the Ted X Transmedia conference in Rome. Here's a video of Max talking about his own work as a transmedia designer.


He is also the author of Transmedia Storytelling: Imagery, Shapes, and Techniques, which takes a theoretically informed perspective on the challenges designers face in seeking to construct a transmedia narrative.  Max was a most agreeable host who, even after listening me drone on for several hours about my research, and taking us out to dinner, was nice enough to take Cynthia and I for a midnight tour, which offered us an amazing vista of the ancient Roman ruins.

The school had hired a translator who was used to working with diplomats and so was incredibly slow and precise, which drug out my talk past the breaking point, probably for everyone involved, but the audience was incredibly polite and patient, leaving quietly if they needed to do so, but a high percentage of them stuck it out to the end of the presentation.

While we were visiting the design school, I had a chance to review some of the amazing works being done by their students, who are working with games, transmedia, comics, and video/film production, and often making playful use of images and techniques from global popular culture. If you follow this link, for example, you can see a dynamic public art project developed in collaboration with Warner Brothers to mark the release of the Amazing Spider-Man movie in Rome.  After all of the many Spider-Man sightings on this trip, I am convinced that Spidey represents the modern day equivalent of Hermes, the Patron of Travellers. I also did a video interview which recently made its appearance on the web.



Getting into the spirit of my ongoing exploration of slapstick signs in Europe, Max recently shared with me this especially vivid "No Entry" sign located near the entry to the IED.

We then had two days, more or less, to play tourists in the ancient Roman empire, and we decided to split it between seeing the sights in Rome proper and taking a day trip out to Pompeii. Here, you see me standing in front of what is probably Rome's most recognizable landmark -- the Colosseum.


We quickly discovered that warning signs in the ancient world are as hysterically funny as their modern day counterparts. Here's a sign, for example, inside the colosseum, which I suspect was intended as a warning for visitors not to try to feed or pet the Tigers.

And here's a mosaic which Cynthia saw at an exhibition on glassblowing in the ancient world which seems to be offering a similar message about the risks of trying to get too friendly with crocodiles.


And finally, here's a "Beware of Dog" mosaic from the entry way to a house in Pompeii. It actually says "Beware the Dog" in Latin, though the letters are hard to see here, as they have faded through time.


The message I took from all of this was that the ancient world was encountering creatures from all over the world, but they had not yet figured out that a great many of them bite.

While we are talking about animals, here's another gratuitous cat picture, this one taken amongst the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.

We saw brides and grooms wandering around a good chunk of Europe, including in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on the grounds of Versailles, under the bridge of Sighs in Venice, and I could have filled an entire blog post just with pictures we took of loving young couples, but somehow, this image of a bride and groom walking in to the future together, captured near the Roman Forum, was too special to resist.

I have always been interested in Trajan's Column since Scott McCloud described it in Understanding Comics as an important predecessor of the sequential arts. A series of carvings depicting the he epic wars between the Romans andDacians (101–102 and 105–106 AD) spiral around the 98 foot tall column. It's hard to tell from what vantage point anyone could actually process the sequence of images, but McCloud argues, convincingly, that they break the action into a series of panels, which then are laid out sequentially, so that we are invited to read across them to construct the narrative.



This memorial is not from ancient Rome, but it's a great illustration of the ways that subsequent Italian governments sought to mobilize the glory that was once Rome to create its own powerful myths of national origins. Constructed between 1885 and 1911, on the northern slope of the Capitoline Hill, Il Vittoriano manages to take every cliche about ancient Rome and pile them together to create one massive spectacle.

While wandering around the various museums dedicated to antiquities, we stumbled upon this wonderfully complicated looking Coffee vending machine. We all know how much the Italians love their coffee, but this seems to be a coin-operated equivalent of Starbucks, allowing you to order an astonishing array of hot caffeinated beverages.



The following day, we made our way by train out to Pompeii. Somewhere along the way, my pocket was picked and my wallet was stolen, which I only discovered while I was wandering around inside the ancient ruins, so we ended up having to sit up most of the night before we left to head back home on the phone canceling credit cards (or trying to do so) and dealing with various bureaucracies, and then, trying to figure out how we were going to pay for our hotel room and our cab to the airport. It was needless to say not the most fun we had on the trip. Ironically, we made it all the way across Europe without losing a bag, only to have our luggage get significantly delayed flying into LAX, and we only had to deal with robbers our last day abroad. We must have done something to cross Hermes (or Spider-man, depending on which is now the operative deity for international travelers.)

It's hard to imagine a better last place to visit in the grand tour than Pompeii, this ancient Roman city, which was partially burried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It has both haunted (and titilated) visitors for several hundred year's now, and it offers us a unique window into the everyday life of the ancient Roman empire. Ironically, given the massive destructive force the volcano unleashed on its residents, Pompeii remains much better preserved than the ruins in Rome or Athens, both of which were subjected to human vandals through the years. Nothing I had read about Pompeii prepared me for the scale.


We spent an entire day wandering its streets, walking into one house or business establishment after another, from the fast food restaurant depicted here (with its multiple ovens for cooking food for commercial dining) to the public baths and the brothels (with the very explicit erotic art which scandalized the Victorians and has been tourist bait ever since.)

Part of what I will carry away with me are the brightly (even garishly) painted walls

and the well preserved murals, which give us a taste for the aesthetic sensibilities of the different classes which lived together in Pompeii.

As we were leaving Pompeii, we walked past a warehouse where the archeologists store some of the assorted old artifacts they are working with -- including a large number of Amphora, and in this case, one of the plaster bodies left behind by the city's human inhabitants. These casts were created by pouring plaster into the large number of air holes left in the volcanic ash around Pompeii, which turned out to be the airspace left behind when the victim's bodies decayed. These casts offer us an incredible glimpse into the human pain and suffering that the eruption wrought on the residents of this once great city. I had seen Voyage in Italy at the Bologna Film Festival, which has a remarkable sequence showing the casting process, which gave me an even more vivid understanding of what we were looking at here.

And this concludes Henry and Cynthia's Excellent Adventures. We will  now return you back to our regularly scheduled blog posts.







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

  Delmonhorst and Breman, Germany

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

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

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

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



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



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



Praha (Prague), Czech Republic


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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



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


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


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



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




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



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



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


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


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

Adventure in Golden Bay   Dobrodružství na Zlaté zátoce (1956)


Captain Korda  Kapitán Korda  (1970)


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

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



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


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

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



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


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


Coming Soon: Budapest and Bologna

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Spain

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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



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



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

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

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



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




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

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




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


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


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



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



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






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



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




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



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

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


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



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





How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Paris


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


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


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



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



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


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




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



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

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




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


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


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



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


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



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



to the stain glass windows inside.

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



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


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



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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Coming Soon: Madrid and Barcelona.


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

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


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



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


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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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



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



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




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

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


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


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




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


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

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

 London (Round 2)

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




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

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

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

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



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


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

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




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






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

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



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



Coming Soon: Paris!