Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Three)

Your definition of fan culture emphasizes "a specific amateur infrastructure for its creation, distribution and reception," yet this infrastructure is part of what may be shifting in an age of Kindle Worlds and Wattpad. How should the study of fan fiction respond to those shifts? You seem ready to deal with the shift from printed zines to online distribution, not to mention a range of different kinds of online distribution practices (of the kind that Gail De Kosnik discusses in her forthcoming book). Are there some changes that would be so dramatic that they would fundamentally alter our understanding of what fan fiction is? KB: Louisa Stein's and my "Limit Play" (2009) discussed the vital importance of interfaces to the actual fan works themselves. One of the examples is LiveJournal role-playing games, a form of fan fiction but also an interactive performance. Recently I've been looking at Storium, a storytelling RPG that doesn't come from the media fan perspective but rather a gaming approach, where the storytelling is basically how you play and succeed.

Likewise, Francesca Coppa's (2006) argument about fan fiction as a type of performance effectively argues that we write fic in part because we can't make films. Since then, however, vidders have begun using digital tools to manipulate footage into creating their own images (just like constructed reality vids have done for a while now). In other words, fan fiction is already interactive and multimedia and collaborative and all these things. As long as fans create texts about their favorite characters and universes and plot lines, we'll probably continue to call it fan fiction and will continue to study it.

The issue with commercial platforms is actually less one of interfaces and technology as it is of profit and community. Karen and I have always foregrounded the role of community for fan fiction—while we obviously wouldn't exclude, say, drawer fic from fan fiction, we'd consider it more an exception than the norm. We instead believe that our approach to fan fiction should include the community that produces, disseminates, and receives these artifacts. Given the social community structure of fandom, we cannot simply divorce fan fiction from its context and equate it with other forms of derivative creativity. Karen, in fact, has argued in regard to Kindle Worlds that "if you define fan fiction as 'derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,' then this isn't that". Interestingly, Jamison (2012) argues that Fifty Shades loses something when taken out of the context of mutually influential Twilight human AUs (and human BDSM AUs), an observation that reflects Woledge's close textual study of fan turned pro fic ("From Slash to Mainstream," in Fan Fictions and Fan Communities). The lines are obviously murky, but again, however interesting the border cases are, the fact remains that they only gain importance because we endeavor to properly define fan fiction.

KH: In a word, no. Fan fiction—the thing itself—connotes written texts, regardless of platform (zine, LiveJournal post, Tumblr entry, Wattpad post). I imagine there will be some Next Big Technological Interface Thing that fandom will rush toward, just the way that Tumblr caused much of fandom to leave LiveJournal, but the platform is independent of the writing, and the writing won't stop. Further, technological considerations don't seem to be adding all that much to what we've been seeing. It's less sheer novelty and more old wine in new bottles.

When the Internet came along, everyone thought threaded stories, sort of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, would be a Thing, but they never caught on. Likewise, it's easy to embed illustrations, but to my eye, they evoke the hard-copy zines of yore to me, albeit with more color—occasional images, often by an artist who is not the same person as the text's author.

The things I like best about technological tools are, first, the ability to comment, which basically takes the old SF zines' Letters of Comment section and appends it to the item in question, which really helps build the fan community; and second, indexing, categorizing, and tagging, which makes it far easier to find texts of interest.

I've been doing work on World War II–era SF zines, which involves a lot of cross-zine discourse among relatively few players, and it's amazing how little has changed. I could thread these in a LiveJournal-hotlinked post with dates and everything. I am always excited to see what new toys technology comes up with; but I would not be surprised if the shiny new toy was used to create a new mode of expression for an existing activity. Wattpad's great innovation, for instance, is to have text in little short bursts that are ideal for reading on phones. That resulted in (created? self-selected to?) a particular kind of writer and writer.

Kristina cites my blog post about Kindle Worlds. I like the definition of fan fiction that I make there. The element of "community" is the most important. (We can argue about "free." Suffice it to say that if it isn't, it had better be a solution created by and for the community.) If I write a story for Kindle Worlds, then it would be work for hire (under monetary terms that most freelance writers would not accept), not a gift written for my fandom.

Kindle Worlds used the term fan fiction in its initial marketing (it no longer seems to use this term) as a shorthand for marketing purposes that targeted potential writers and readers, but the texts are derivative stories written as work for hire, with great limitations placed on what can be written—no overt sex, no crossovers, no death of major characters, that kind of thing. These limitations are no fun for lots of fan writers.

Kindle Worlds also seems to be struggling. The Daily Dot, for example, notes that Kindle Worlds seeded one World by commissioning a pro writer, Neal Pollack, to write for it, which hints at quantity and quality issues; and a post at Bustle addresses Kindle Worlds' failure to catch on. The Bustle directs us to Rebecca Tushnet's legal article about Kindle Worlds and fair use, which is a must read.

What could be changing is the meaning of the term fan fiction. I'm seeing a linguistic shift whereby the term's connotation is broadening to mean "any derivative work," not "a derivative work written by a self-identified fan within the context of a fan community, often as an item of exchange, and often for free." I object to this broadened definition because the division conflates fan activity within a specialist community with nonfan commercial activity, and I personally value the distinction.

The study of fan fiction (used in its classical limited sense) will continue to address the ways that the interface affects the classic rhetorical situation of author–text–reader, as criticism always does; it will address concerns of power, gender, race, and class, as it always had; and it will continue to apply to fan fiction theories from various disciplines. Thus work on fan fiction will be ultimately evolutionary, not game-changingly disruptive. I'd personally like to see the focus on fan text rather than fan fiction, because it connotes a far wider range of fan expression: vids, artwork, comics, poetry, whatever.

Feminist and queer studies perspectives were key in defining the field of fan fiction studies, and rightly so, for many reasons your book does a good job of describing. Yet, there was from the start a serious neglect of what fandom studies might learn from critical race theory. Today, there is still a remarkable shortage of work which deals with racial politics in and through fandom. I know as editors you have been actively concerned about some of the silences around race, so I wanted to get your perspective on how those structuring absences have impacted our field and what might represent some generative approaches for re-engaging with those topics today.

KH: TWC published a special issue in 2011 guest edited by Robin Reid and Sarah N. Gatson on Race and Ethnicity in Fandom . I'd direct you particularly to the editorial and to Mel Stanfill's essay. Fans are also intensely concerned with issues surrounding race. The huge Racefail imbroglio in 2009 is a good example. But I'm not seeing a lot of scholarly work being done on the topic in fan studies, and we've had bad luck with TWC when we've tried to solicit contributions in that arena, including a poor showing under open calls for submissions, an inability to directly solicit, and a guest editor of a proposed issue related to the topic of critical race theory pulling out. Right now I'm liking work on the topic done by fans, particularly for race in comic book depictions and race-based film-casting issues. I would love to see some of that formally theorized in an academic setting, but until then, check out Racalicious.

The absences have left a vacuum in the field that skews perceptions of fans as comprising primarily middle-class white girls and women (if media) or as middle-class white boys and men (if gaming or comics). Nonwhite concerns are perceived as outliers.

Further, I worry that white scholars don't want to address the issue, in part because they have no lived experience and thus they feel inauthentic, and in part because they don't want to be attacked. Yet of course scholars of color ought not shoulder the topic solely themselves. One important thing to do to generate more criticism and thought may be to reconfigure the Other oppositional binary: if a fan is an Other and not-white is an Other, than the fan of color is doubly Othered. How can this potential estrangement be turned? How is it useful? I'm also a big fan of cutting to the chase in any topic by assessing the power dynamics, what I call following the money. Why is it important to the white majority for it to retain and apportion their authority? What is at stake? How can that authority be usefully challenged?

KB: One of the more amusing things for me as an interdisciplinary scholar is the way different departments canonize different pieces by the same writer. Mention Deleuze in media studies, you get Cinema I and II. In English you’ll see a lot of references to Anti-Oedipus and Mille Plateaux, whereas in philosophy Difference and Repetition or even his books on Kant and on Nietzsche would be considered his central work.

Likewise, we have embraced “Encoding/Decoding” in fan studies without ever fully engaging with the fact that Stuart Hall, in fact, was not only a founder of the British Cultural Studies but also of BLACK British Cultural Studies (that was the name of the 1996 reader where I consciously read Hall for the first time). This is a really long way of saying that mostly US, mostly white, mostly middle-class fan scholars have done much better at addressing concerns of gender rather than race or class in the notorious trifecta. Given the overlaps between gender and queer studies (and possibly the larger number of GLTB acafans), we have done much better with queer issues than with race. Maybe a generative mode would be overlapping/applying critical race theory with gender or queer studies.

A fan review called the Fan Fiction Studies Reader "whitewashing" and commented that they'd like to see bell hooks write on fandom. Anyone's response would be: ME TOO! bell hooks may have other things she wants to write about, but it behooves us to address this huge gap, both as a topic in our own essays and by creating an infrastructure that invites a focus on race as a dominant framework. I hope, though, that an increasing diversification, more awareness, and an (ever so slowly) changing media landscape may allow us to address these issues more. As always, acafans who are teaching the next generation of students must give them the context, background, and tools to help fill these gaps.

As you note, there have been significant shifts in the politics around gender and sexuality since the 1980s and 1990s. There have also been factors which have made fans and fan cultural production much more visible in the mainstream of the culture. In this context, what is still transgressive about fan fiction? In what senses might we still see its production as a kind of resistance to dominant values and institutions? Or is resistance still a useful frame for thinking about what fans do?

KH: The resistance paradigm is definitely falling among scholars, although it's still useful. Much work has been done on how fan fiction is not subversive but actually reinforcing of dominant values and institutions. Fan-written mpreg and curtain fic, for example, may be read not as critiques of traditional marriage, setting up house, and having children (even if it's the man getting pregnant) as they are genderswapped or all-male reproductions of the trappings of middle-class life.

However, if the content of fan fiction isn't necessarily truly subversive and resistant but rather affirmational of traditional institutions, its locus of power may be: unauthorized, in conflict with The Powers That Be. One reason that Kindle Worlds is interesting to discuss right now is that Amazon is attempting to get rid of resistance by providing a paid, controlled, circumscribed outlet—one with a built-in community and fan base to drive sales.

This isn't to argue that all fan fiction is ultimately nontransgressive or can be read as such. Of course that isn't the case. But the unequal power relations reside less in the text than in the opposition between a minority gift culture and a majority commerce culture.

KB: Fan fiction scholars (all of us included) have probably done the practice—if not the field—a disservice by focusing so much on resistance, opposition, and transgression. Obviously there are real political, cultural, and academic reasons for picking one example over another, for foregrounding the more literate pieces of fan fic or the more transgressive ones, but generalizing is thus often problematic, because we picked the text for its exceptional rather than representative value. But the question is whether that minimizes these stories' value.

There always are a huge number of stories that make us feel good and happy, and that may not all be that progressive. (In fact, if one only knows fan fiction through the lens of academic discourse, reading the examples described by Lamb and Veith's essay in our reader may indeed sound strange.) But I'd argue that if you go to any fandom tag on AO3  or Fanfiction.net, you will find that many of the stories with the most kudos and comments are exactly like that—comfort fic. On the other hand, the stories that often get discussed or cause controversy are those that transgress, whether thematically or politically. Coppa wrote about asexuality fic in Sherlock (2012), for example—a subgenre that fandoms don't really have.

Conversations on Tumblr are often politically transgressive, questioning cultural values and challenging cultural norms. Not all of it translates directly into fic, but some of it does. Head canons for most characters may include characters who are intersex, asexual and/or a-romantic, disabled, aneurotypical, DFAB or DMAB, genderqueer, or mixed race. All of these are identities not previously well articulated or represented in fan fic, and clearly it is important—and, we'd argue, transgressive—if not to culture than at least to the text to explore them.

If the value is as much in the process of production as it is in the end result, if the transgressions are in the conversations surrounding it as much as they are in the fic itself, then the continued critical engagement with media texts remains as important as ever. Thus, while fan fiction may not be as resistant in terms of cultural values any more as it may have been, it becomes ever more important as a form of resistance in terms of economic and labor issues. Given that we've already talked about Kindle Worlds, fan fiction is transgressive now more than ever.

Whether it’s E. L. James publishing “pornography for women by women, with love” and topping best seller lists everywhere, or hundreds of OTW and AO3 volunteers providing a free not ad supported interface to share ALL THE FANFICS (RPF, explicit and all!)--fandom remains a way for people who are not mainstream and center to write back to the text. If their version becomes popular, all the better. Ideally, at some point, there may be no more need for oppositional readings anymore on a larger culture scale. But just looking at the debates surrounding a potential Black Widow movie, it is clear that day hasn’t come yet.

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Two)

With your new book, your focus is looking backwards, tracing some of the earliest works to address fan fiction, as well as their impact on today's scholars. What led you to this focus on forming a canon of sorts around the study of fan fiction? Why the focus on fan fiction as opposed to a more inclusive notion of fan cultural production? After all, you have also been involved in promoting more scholarship around fan vids, for example. KB: Both of us are really traditionalists. We were both trained in English literature. Karen is now a copyeditor and I teach in a philosophy department. All of these fields relate to sources, quotations, terms, and ideas. We are heavily diachronic in an age where both culture itself (and with it fandom) and academia (and with it fan studies) often focus on the synchronic. It seemed important to us to share where we are all started. Really, we'd have loved to include Leslie Fiedler's "Come Back to the Rat Ag'in, Huck Honey!" (1948) in our slash section, but clearly we had to pick and choose. The fascinating thing about going back to the original texts is how very different they are from how they get represented now in hindsight.

We had made a few decisions early on: (1) We would stay with fan fiction, because even though other fan works were discussed here and there early on, the nexus of different approaches and disciplines and the majority of academic work was on fan fiction. (2) We would stay with "media fandom," because, again, that was where a lot of the early work was focused on and that was our own background. We felt that we would do better to strive for comprehensiveness rather than inclusion where one essay or two would stick out and not be representative of anything. (3) We would keep it in the early years and represent more recent essays with a very inclusive bibliography. That last one was basically a numbers game. For every current essay, we'd have to drop one of the more foundational texts, but those were the ones we wanted to share. Moreover, as we said above, fan studies exploded in the mid-2000s, and deciding on one particular text out of the many on a given topic with a given approach would have become even more impossible.

KH: Part of the impetus was to create a single text that would collect the things that we wish people had read. As editors of TWC, we see essays that don't engage with the literature—that don't seem aware that they are in dialogue with something, or that cite your Textual Poachers but don't seem aware of the stuff that came after that critiqued and expanded those ideas (including your own work!). In addition, we'd heard from college-level teachers that they would like such a book. When we ran the draft table of contents by scholars in the field for their feedback, we got several "I would assign this right now!" comments. I am hopeful that master's and PhD students coming up in the field will find it a good resource. I'm actually not uncomfortable with being in on some canon formation: I figure I have invested a lot of time learning about the field, and what I have to say is perfectly valid. Plus the good thing about canon is that someone will come along and bust it. (Yes!)

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader brings together foundational essays while also pointing to trending ideas. We worked hard on the headnote contextualizing essays that precede each of the reader's sections, but of course the essays could be swapped around and reconfigured at will to form new topic blocks. Our choices were forced on us because of the difficulty in getting reprints; some were shockingly expensive, others too long. As editors of reprint anthologies everywhere know, "best of" doesn't mean "best of." It means "what we could get that we could afford and that was the right length, with certain key authors represented." It's not the ideal table of contents that we pitched to the press! However, that may be a feature, not a bug. We had to think outside our "best of" box. The press insisted on the Fan Fiction part of the title, in part because we couldn't fit in everything we wanted to for it to be truly representative of the field in its broadest sense. However, although the words fan fiction are in the title, it could easily be used as a more general reader. Fan fiction is one kind of text and vids are another, yet the strategies for reading/assessing them are the same. I encourage teachers who assign the book to broaden "fan fiction" to mean "fan-created texts in general," and to mess with the blocks we created to find new connections.

You reproduce in the introduction an increasingly widespread distinction between affirmative and transformative fans: "Affirmative fans tend to collect, view, and play, to discuss, analyze, and critique. Transformative fans, however, take a creative step to make the words and characters their own, be it by telling stories, cosplaying the characters, creating artworks, or engaging in any of the many other forms active fan participation can take." I've also used this distinction—in Spreadable Media for example—but I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with it, going back to an earlier formulation which talked about all fandom as born of a mixture of fascination and frustration, and suggesting we look case by case at the different ways any kind of fan cultural production moves between these two polls. There are no forms of fan production by definition that are purely resistant, but they may also be none that reflect uncritical fascination without other factors entering the picture. You can make an argument that many forms of fan speculation and critique are also already transformational in that they encourage new ways of thinking about the fictional world and in the case, say, of a mystery series, they often construct quite elaborate explanations for why something is occurring which may, in their own right, be deeply transformational. Thoughts?

KB: The spread of this terminology is actually a perfect example as to why we should always read the original source. Obsession_inc, the person whose blog post pointed out this dichotomy, actually prefaces the definitions with the following: "I see both sections as celebrational fandom, first and foremost, and that there is a lot of joy and effort and creativity put into both, and that there is a certain amount of crossover." It is useful to acknowledge the motivations as much as the results—that is, a critical, resistant, frustrated affirmational response is possible, just as a noncritical, fascinated, loving, transformational one is. (Let’s say, the first one is reblogging from the official Tumblr pics of a neglected character, the second one writing a missing scene that completely supports and expands the accepted/intended/TPTB-supported canon interpretation.) The two spectrums are maybe less in competition with one another and more perpendicular, creating a two-dimensional space.

For us, the dichotomy was useful because we wanted to look at resistant/critical/creative transformative fan works, and the essays we included all addressed this. Clearly, other approaches may need different distinctions. Yes, the term has been used a lot recently, but we are already beginning to complicate it—not just you, but also Matt Hills's recent essay in TWC on "Mimetic Fandom and the Crafting of Replicas", in which he studies fan works whose very "value" more or less rely on their mimetic accuracy.

The original articulation remains useful, especially when considering when and why Obsessive_inc coined it. The essay is a belated response to Racefail '09 and other creator/fan conflicts: "in all of my fandoms, there have been battles between creators (backed up by their affirmational fanbase) and their transformational fanbase." When looked at it from that perspective, the term transformative takes on yet another meaning that is neither fully about being oppositional readers nor about the "purportedly feminine cultural spaces of many media fandoms and fan studies," as Matt Hills describes it. Instead, it is more closely linked to the notion of transformational works that are implied in the names of OTW and TWC—transformation in the legal sense. For better or worse, we are stuck with US copyright law and fair use exemptions.

You are of course correct that we shouldn't fall into false binaries, and the sexier a shorthand is, the easier it is to fall into it. I love my "Man Collect; Women Connect," but I certainly know that fan cultures are much more complicated—as are genders! Likewise, we are increasingly realizing that even generalizations, such as "straight middle-aged women" about the writers and readers of fan fiction zines, may not be as accurate as we used to think. But this is why it is useful to actually go back and reread the early texts—to know our intellectual antecedents, and maybe to realize that their arguments were already more complex and differentiated than we remember.

KH: I find the dichotomy useful, as it handily categorizes two perfectly valid forms of fan activity. More scholars are problematizing it than not, which is all to the good, but we also have to acknowledge how true Obsession_inc's point feels. The gender issues inherent in her critique show that all the scholarly work in the world may not help the fan on the ground. Her essay is interesting not only for what she says and the impetus that caused her to write (as Kristina describes so well), but for what it reveals about fannish engagement, not to mention the terms of engagement she chooses. Power, appropriation, award, context—all these are inherent in her argument, and it may be useful to spend less time figuring out why the point is wrong and more time about why she made it.

Fifty Shades of Grey gets referenced often in your introduction as a text which has helped to change the public's perception of fan fiction. Now that the dust has settled a little, what are your thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey? Has its impact been largely positive, negative, or mixed? (As they say in the news, "Good thing or bad thing?") And has its impact been short-lived or lasting?

KB: If nothing else, Fifty Shades's success now allows any fan scholar anywhere to point to it to explain what we do. Even my 90-year-old German grandmother has heard of it. Seriously, though, it feels like the publication was both the culmination of a general mainstreaming and mainstream acceptance of fans and fan fiction, and by its sheer overwhelming success, it is a watershed in ultimately settling whether fan fiction can become a commercial success.

Of course, given this specific text, I take its "success" with some ambivalence when we look at fan fiction communities and at erotic women's writing in general. The fact that it so clearly is removed from its contextual cultural community ties (as Anne Jamison argues in her great essay in Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, 2012) makes it ultimately less interesting as a work of fan fiction. (The seeming rejection of the fan community, unlike other fan fiction-turned-pro writers, doesn't help much either.) Its mere existence as an explicit erotic work, as "pornography by women for women, with love" is crucial, but enough ink has been spilled about its problematic feminism and contentious portrayal of BDSM culture.

As for how lasting it will be: Let's hope a generation from now, the "inner Goddess" will go the way of the "zipless fuck", an interesting historical footnote rather than a perennial classic.

KH: The whole Fifty Shades thing fills me with weariness that is quickly becoming annoyance. Nonfan friends now have this whole idea about what I read and think and do that doesn't reflect my lived reality. Something about the "nonnormality" (scare quotes intended!) of BDSM makes fans seem even more fanatic. Many books written by fans have had the serial numbers filed off and then were published professionally; it's not like she did anything new, and she really did throw her fannish community under the bus, as Bethan Jones argues in an essay in TWC . However, the book has definitely highlighted fan fiction as a literary form and as a cultural phenomenon.

I have no idea if the impact will be lasting. It's too soon to tell. Certainly many best sellers of yesterday are not remembered today. If Fifty Shades is remembered, I predict it will be cited (by people who do not go back to read any of the books in the series!) as the text that changed the publishing landscape for fan-written texts.

 

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part One)

Much has been written in recent years about 1991-92 as a kind of moment of birth for Fan Studies, a year in which key texts by Constance Penley, Camille Bacon-Smith, Lisa A. Lewis, and myself, helped to establish the study of fandom as a distinctive research project, emerging from the study of subcultures, readers, or audiences, all paradigms with a longer history in British Cultural Studies and elsewhere. I was flattered that the Journal of Fandom Studies published a special issue recently considering the impact of my book, Textual Poachers, on the field, and you can read my own reflections about the origins and potential futures of fandom studies in the current issue of that same journal. But today's post is intended to challenge this framework in two different ways. First, I would make the case that 2006-2007 was an equally important period for the development of the field, marked by the publication of two key anthologies -- Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse's Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays and Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Herrington's Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. For there to be a field of Fan/Fandom Studies, there must in fact be not simply a few singular contributions but a large group of people doing original work in that space. While there were certainly new writers (Nancy Baym and Rhianon Bury being key figures) emerging in the decade plus between these two historic moments, there had also been a tendency for many other writers to fill in the broad outlines which had been mapped by the 1991-92 wave of publications. Often, there was still a cycling through of various justifications for studying fans and then a few quotes from our writings coupled with a new set of examples, arriving at more or less the same conclusions.  These 2006-2007 collections represented the arrival of a new generation of scholars who were coloring outside those lines, who represented important new voices and new perspectives, who pushed the field forward, and who established it as an ongoing academic pursuit.

I remember my excitement reading through these two books, my head spinning, and feeling like I was learning something new on every page. The works represented distinctive visions of what this field would look like -- one doubling-down on the female-centered fan writing community as the locus of study even as it dealt comparatively with other communities from which transformative works were emerging, and the other expanding the scope of what kinds of fans we studied to bring together global and historical perspectives as well as a conversation between those who studied fans of cult media, popular music, sports, and even news and politics. There's been some tension between these two approaches ever since. Almost a decade later, Gray, Sandvoss and Herrington are in the process of updating their collection while Hellekson and Busse have released their own second edited anthology, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, which seeks to map key influences on the field of fan fiction studies.

And that brings us to the second thing that the focus on 1991-92 as the birth of fan studies may get wrong. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader is focused in expanding this time line in important ways, calling attention to the kinds of writing on fan fiction that existed prior to Enterprising Women or Textual Poachers, work that often came out of the second wave of feminism and was also embedded in the fan community itself. Many of these essays have been out of print or scattered across obscure journals so there is an enormous contribution in bringing them together again, reframing them for contemporary readers, and reappraising their contributions to the early development of this field.

There's been an unfortunate tendency, which I have probably contributed to in some later interviews, to dismiss the work of earlier scholars as patronizing and pathologizing. There is certainly much such work to be found. But there was also work that was celebratory, seeking to understand fan fiction as forms of women's writing, seeking to debate the ways fans were remixing pornography or erotica to reflect female tastes and interests. If you look closely at Textual Poachers, NASA/Trek and Enterprising Women, we cited and engaged with this work, but it has since been largely neglected by later generations of researchers. And this collection shows us that there is much to be regained by reconnecting with this past.

This week, I am interviewing Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson about the two books, their contributions to the field of fan/fandom studies, and their perspective on some of the key issues being debated by fans and fan scholars in 2014. Busse and I have not always agreed about the directions that fan studies should be taking and some of our exchanges have been heated and public but I have always had deep admiration and respect for the leadership that Busse and Helleckson have brought to this field, not only through these two collections, but also through the publication of Transformative Works and Cultures, a scrupulously peer-reviewed and highly influential online journal which has kept alive the project of their first anthology in terms of identifying new authors, new topics, and new approaches to the study of fandom.

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet came out almost a decade ago and looking back on it, it has turned out to be a watershed book in many ways. For one, you helped to bring together a generation of newer writers who represented the next wave of fandom research and we are now starting to see full-length books emerge from many of these scholars. Can you share with us how that book came to be and what brought this particular group of writers together?

KH: I initially pitched the original-essay book myself, without Kristina, to a press that had published a previous book of mine. However, just putting a call for papers out there does absolutely nothing. You have to solicit. I did some of that, but I quickly realized that the book as I had envisioned it wouldn't come to be unless I brought in a coeditor. Kristina has a wide network, and I have the knowledge and contacts for book production. We'd met at International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2003 and had chatted, and once I asked Kristina to come on board, the project finally took off. That division of work is one we have maintained since: Kristina does front-end stuff, like solicitation, and I do all the scheduling, paperwork, copyediting/proofreading, and back-end stuff related to actually getting it into print.

I wanted the book to reflect my wishes for scholarship in the field: something timely, something that reflected changes in consumption of fan-written texts (i.e., the Internet), and particularly something where the writer didn't have to justify herself. Fan studies was like the field of science fiction literature studies (my original field) all over again: writers were expected to spend time explaining why they were bothering with a low-culture trash genre, and they also had to position themselves in relation to the field—in particular, if they were fans, this needed to be disclosed and scholars had to distance themselves. SF had discarded these conventions, in part because writing about it became more mainstream and in part because SF scholars created venues dedicated to the field, such as academic journals, where background and justification could be dispensed with. I wanted the edited volume to reflect this. It seemed to me that fan studies scholars kept having to have the same conversation over and over again: justification, distance, and then lit review. We needed to create a space where we could dispense with that and use the words to have an actual conversation.

However, we did think that we needed to create a common vocabulary and a common—well, I guess the word would be canon: texts we'd all read and agreed were relevant. Our introduction provided these elements, which were common to all the papers we collected. This allowed us to create a good bibliography, which the press agreed to let me put up on my Web site. The contributors were thus able to use their words for their ideas, not for context or lit review. At the time, this was a major win. I think we moved the field forward in this regard: we just assumed this was all important, and by framing the book as we did, we made it so.

KB: We were at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2005, and we were having these amazing discussions there and on LiveJournal and people were writing amazing essays, and we weren't seeing any of those folks getting published or any of those ideas explored. I don't think there was a single essay out yet that had dealt with the change in fannish infrastructures, like the switch from Usenet to mailing lists and archives to blogs and LiveJournal. Most of us—me and Karen and the contributors—had met or knew one another through mailing lists or through LiveJournal.

We were very clear early on that we were tired of essays starting with definition of fan fiction and basically looking at a given text and saying, "Look, there, homoerotic subtext and SLASH!!!!" We agreed that we needed a framing introduction with all the terms and the history so that the essays could start within the discourse rather than spending half the time getting to their argument. But we also wanted the history and a shared resource so that everyone else could look at what had come before and where we were heading now and be on the same page. We were standing in a hotel hallway with Francesca Coppa, debating whether we should do it as two volumes, one with new essays and one a reprint anthology. It took us eight more years to finally get the second half out.

We got the majority of the essays via direct solicitation. Most—nine of the 13—were people I was friends with on LiveJournal. A few essays didn't work out, which is par for the course; the RPF popslash essay wasn't supposed to have been mine but we needed to fill a hole. We decided that these were all topical essays, and given that production would take a year, we imposed a deadline of less than a year for essay delivery. From having the idea to having the book in our hands took about two years, which is very fast for academic publishing. But all these acafans were giving papers that they couldn't find a venue to publish. The ideas were just there to be caught. We had a lot of grad students and unaffiliated folks among the contributors—I think only four of the 13 were tenure-track scholars. But that's where there often are the most interesting and novel ideas.

The other thing that made this collection different and that we thought was really important was the fact that we all self-identified as fans. You had already brought in the fact in Textual Poachers (1992) that a central part of your identity was being a fan as well as an academic, and Matt Hills did his long autoethnography in Fan Cultures (2002). We decided to take that for granted. A lot of us had been fans and active in media fandom long before we were academics, and many of us came to fan studies through fandom rather than through media studies. We wrote our love into these essays and displayed our fandom affiliation in every sentence. That seemed to be different to a lot of the research that was happening at the time.

Beyond the individuals involved, the book also helped to reframe fan studies, opening up some important new paradigms—such as Francesca Coppa's focus on fan fiction as performance or Gail De Kosnik's focus on fan fiction and "the archive", some reconfiguration of how this research related to gender and sexuality studies, a new focus on the literary dimensions of fan fiction, but also an engagement with the conditions of cultural production within fandom. I still find great value in your reminder that fan fiction is by its nature always a "work in progress" and that it is hard to understand fan fiction outside of the social relationships it helps to facilitate. Looking back, what do you see as the lasting conceptual impact of the book on our field?

KB: One (of the many) things that fandom and academia share is the ability to have many things be true at the same time. Collectively, we write hundreds different versions of what goes through our characters' minds during a given crucial scene, and we give ever new interpretations of Hamlet during his major soliloquy. We (well, many of us :) can simultaneously ship Tony/Steve, Steve/Bucky, and Bucky/Natasha, and there's this great Bedford St. Martin's series that presents a given literary text with about a dozen different theoretical approaches (like Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, queer readings of Heart of Darkness). And even as they are sometimes mutually exclusive, they are also ALL VALID. If our collection has had any conceptual impact, we hope it is that understanding of WIP not only for fandom and academia, but also for fan studies in particular. We are realizing that there are huge gaps in areas we have not paid enough attention to, such as Critical Race Studies, Transculturalism/Transnationalism, and Marxist Labor Theory, to name just a few, and if the collection was ever supposed to be anything, it was a snapshot of that moment.

Maybe the most lasting impact of the book ended up being more logistic than conceptual: we were asked to found and edit the OTW's academic journal, Transformative Works and Culture, which publishes its 17th issue in September for a collective of around 300 essays. Doing Fan Fiction and Fan Communities together gave us experience, credibility, and an acafannish community. You can see most of the contributors to the collection pop up again as contributors, editors, and peer reviewers. In a way, it is TWC that should be seen as the ever-expanding archive of the book itself. It's a snapshot on so many levels: in terms of the fandoms that are used, such as Harry Potter, LOTRips, poplash, or even just in terms of interfaces, such as two essays focusing specifically on LiveJournal.

Moreover, as we already said, part of the intention of the collection was to create a text where everyone started from the same fannish and academic point to a degree. Our introduction is quite different from Gray, Sandvoss, and Harringon's "Why Study Fans?" (2007), but that makes sense, because we start from such a different point and have a slightly different focus. We never really question why we should study fans, because we think we are important :) But also, our focus is somewhat narrower, for better or worse. We clearly don't subscribe to the large "everyone is a fan" definition, and we are primarily focused on what Coppa has termed in her overview in the book "media fandom," i.e., creative fan works for Western live-action shows and connected fandoms. That means that we purposefully limited ourselves, but it also means that we can focus on a given field and explore it in all its facet and with all these different approaches. And we can go deep and far, because we don't need to explain what beta readers are or why Mary Sues are a highly contested genre.

KH: I'm glad the book helped reframe fan studies. I knew the book filled a hole in scholarship, if only for its acknowledgment of new modes of fannish consumption. However, what we did was simply let scholars be free to work in their field, combined with fan studies. Its lasting conceptual impact is merely that fan studies is not an offshoot of media studies. Rather, fan studies is a multidisciplinary field that can easily integrate other -isms and other disciplines: feminism, Marxism, sociology, anthropology, close analysis of a fan-created text, reader-response theory, affect, performativity, deconstruction, posthumanism, queer theory… Further, it's an interesting site for application of theory, be it Schechner or Derrida.

Another important conceptual impact is that we are unapologetically fans ourselves. I write fan fiction and maintain a fic archive; I have helped create content for a fan-created informational wiki; I ran few multiauthored virtual seasons after my show was canceled. I don't just read about this stuff; I live this stuff. The connection with the fan community has led us to do certain things, like (as for TWC) not hotlinking directly to spaces that fans perceive as private, or checking with a fan before we publish a link to a story in case the author wants us to hotlink to some other space, or not hotlink at all.

I am not interested in expanding the notion of the fan to include all aspects of what may be termed fannish behavior. Fans of stamp collecting or sports may engage in a sort of fandom, but they don't tend to call it that. They may also configure their engagement and their passion differently. The word fandom may properly be applied to these activities, but to my ear, the connotation isn't right. Broadening fan studies to all aspects of "fanatic" behavior merely because the activities match what the term denotes is certainly a valid point of view, but it's not my point of view because I am interested in what it connotes and how fans work to build that connotation. The term also comes out of SF literature fandom, which I have studied, and in some ways I want to acknowledge fan studies' outgrowth from SF fandom. Media fans adopted fanzines, apas, and other modes of dissemination from SF fans.

 

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Digital Youth With Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Three)

  You note that the kinds of warnings and labels that describe “age appropriate” media are problematic when talking about children with disabilities. Why? What are some of the ways that parents of children with disabilities are making choices about what kinds of media content to bring into their homes?

This question speaks to a larger pressure that parents in the U.S. are under for their children to keep up or be left behind. Paradoxically, contemporary middle class U.S. parents generally want their children not to grow up too quickly, yet they are increasingly being expected to be develop advanced literacy and math skills as a shield against an uncertain job market. Any discussion of what media is “age appropriate” for a child has to take into account the content of that media, the social context around their media use (e.g. peer group, home life), and also everything else about that child—their gender, race, ethnicity, class, language background, and range of abilities and disabilities.

For example, in one family I spent time with, the mother and father were artists and their 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy was a jazz music aficionado who used his iPad both for augmentative and alternative communication and also as a jukebox through iTunes. And in another family, a 13-year-old autistic boy liked to spend his free time on websites like PBSKids.com that were designed with a preschool audience in mind. These interests are outside the norm of that which is “age appropriate,” but they are appropriate for these children.

It is also important to note that in both of these families, parents were not alone in making choices about their child’s media use; the children weighed in as well. Though this sort of dialogue and negotiation process might look different in these families (particularly as neither child regularly communicated through oral speech), it is important for parents of children of all abilities to keep in mind their child’s perspective and agency.

You raise some key concerns about the ways that many of the platforms -- YouTube for example -- that support the grassroots production and sharing of media may not be able to fully support the needs of people with disabilities. What are the implications of this finding for those of us who care about participatory culture and learning?

I’ll dive right into the example of YouTube, as I think it is the main battleground right now over which individuals or what entities are responsible for making the internet an accessible and participatory space for cultural engagement and learning. YouTube’s automatic captioning feature is notoriously poor. It also offers no way for Deaf and hard-of-hearing YouTube users to search exclusively for videos with proper captioning. There have been some policy decisions that push online video in a more accessible direction, but there are many hurdles.

The U.S. Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act has mandated that all TV shows broadcast on television and then shown on the internet must have captioning (e.g. series that re-air on Hulu or Amazon Prime). However, the Act did not include programming that is exclusively distributed via the internet (e.g. user generated videos, online videos made by news organizations that never air on broadcast TV). These create huge captioning gaps on the internet. Different volunteer-driven crowdsourcing technologies such as Amara.org support DIY captioning and video descriptions at little or no cost to content creators and distributors (Ellcessor, 2012).DIY captioning sites though have been met with resistance from the entertainment and news industries, claiming that such practices violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The main issue here is whether or not lack of online captioning options violates citizens’ rights to equally access public spaces, including the internet.

In terms of young people’s learning, there are a number of ramifications for these barriers to YouTube accessibility. First, closed captioning doesn’t just benefit Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It also has demonstrated benefits in formal and informal learning settings, for example, for beginning readers (Linebarger, Piotrowski, & Greenwood, 2010). Second, beyond a U.S. context, closed captioning can also help make YouTube programming accessible in multiple languages, seeing as most views come from outside of the U.S. Also, with poor online captioning, YouTube also sends an implicit signal that it is not a space “for” Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Lastly, adolescents and teenagers with disabilities should have the opportunity to be able to fit in with their peers and participate in the same online communities, especially those as fertile for grassroots production and sharing as YouTube.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

 

Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Two)

  You hint here that our perceptions of what kinds of media are appropriate for youth with disabilities tends to prioritize educational and assistive technologies over the use of new media for recreational and social purposes. What are some of the implications of these biases?

I get frustrated when talk of children with disabilities and technology drifts into a common trope in which disability is imagined as a problem that needs solving, and technology (in school and therapeutic settings) provides the solution. One implication is that it perpetuates the idea of children with disabilities as “poster children” (Longmore, 2013), defined primarily by their medical needs and deserving of charity. Often—as one of my dissertation committee members, Beth Haller, has written—technology or technologists (usually able-bodied) are emphasized in the popular press for the good they do for people with disabilities. There is far less emphasis on the ways in which individuals with disabilities appropriate and adapt technology, and are active consumers, creators, and circulators of media. For example, Bess Williamson has pointed out ways in which individuals with disabilities were pioneers of maker culture in the post-WWII era.

Another is that digital media researchers are missing opportunities to study and learn from youth with disabilities. For example, there is exciting work being done by a fellow Ph.D. student, Kate Ringland at UC Irvine, on parent and youth participation in a Minecraft server called Autcraft, which is a dedicated space for individuals on the autism spectrum. There is a lot to be learned in Autcraft not just about autism, but also with respect to the methods of digital ethnography and the study of social norms and reciprocity.

Lastly, it is also important to understand the ways in which youth with disabilities figure into what we already know about how kids are “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” (or the ways in which they are being excluded) so that they too are able to reap the benefits of a more participatory culture. Most high-tech educational and assistive devices are beyond the financial means of many families without additional financial support from school districts or health insurance. Parents express feeling like the professionals that work with their children lack an understanding of their family media habits (Nally, Houlton, & Ralph, 2000). Without understanding the media ecologies of youth with disabilities more fully, and their use of everyday tools like YouTube or Snapchat, the well-intentioned introduction of these technologies across the settings where children learn may not be as effective.

 

You spend a large chunk of the book dissecting and critiquing the concept of “screen time.” Why has this been such a problematic way to formulate policies shaping media use within family life? Why is this concept especially inappropriate for thinking about media consumption/participation by youth with disabilities?

For those unfamiliar, over past 15 years, the phrase “screen time” has come to signify how much time children spend with the growing array of screen-based media and technology. It entered the popular vernacular in 2001, as part of a policy statement issued by American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the leading professional group for pediatricians in the U.S. While child development experts (especially psychologists) have weighed in on children’s media use since days of radio, in the 1970s, pediatricians and the AAP began a more concerted effort to make public statements on children and media. In its current incarnation, the AAP’s policy statement on children and media specifically targets “entertainment screen media” (which is still a pretty sweeping category).

The AAP statements make the relationship between media and children seem far more clear and simple than the research actually indicates. In the book chapter, I detail a few ways in which screen time is generally a flawed concept: its oversimplification of the notion of family “time”; its negative characterization of “entertainment screen media” content as something to be avoided; its unproved hypothesis that screen time directly displaces other activities children might otherwise be doing (like homework or playing outside); and its lumping together of all screen-based communication technologies even though they have very different capabilities. I also discuss each of these critiques in relation to children with disabilities.

There also seemed to be an aspect of screen time that was potentially harmful to children with disabilities and their families. I detail in the chapter how screen time presumes a child whose diet and exercise, sleep, and attention would be “normal” were it not for screen media. This standard is implicitly projected as the ideal media-using child and essentially “others” children with disabilities. Thus, screen time is inherently “ableist,” a worldview in which disability is understood as aberrant—something for statisticians to “control for” in their data—and not a natural human difference.

I have an example from my dissertation fieldwork of how screen time can perpetuate ableism in everyday life. I conducted an interview with a mom, Perri, whose preschool-age son, Cory (both pseudonyms), has a developmental disability that impairs his ability to produce embodied oral speech. Cory primarily “talks” using an iPad with an app called Proloquo2Go. The system provides him with text-to-speech features and tools for selecting words, symbols, and images to communicate his thoughts. Perri told me that she was “of course” worried about the negative impact of “screen time,” but “as a special needs parent, you have to block out the rest of the world.” Perri felt guilty for sometimes falling on the wrong side of screen time guidelines; for example, the only thing that helped Cory sit still during difficult 45-minute daily medical treatments was watching a DVD.

She detailed a social situation that required her to shut out dominant cultural messages about screen time. When her and Cory go to the playground, she said, she feels that other parents are judging her. They must be thinking, Perri told me, “‘Look at that parent, giving that child an iPad.’” She assumed that other parents associated letting a child use an iPad on a playground as a poor parenting move. To be fair, from the vantage point of the other parents, they might not know what else Cory could possibly be using the iPad for besides recreation. He does not visibly appear to have a disability from the opposite end of the playground—he is not in a wheelchair, he can walk, and he has a lot of energy. However, the situation for Perri and Cory would be much improved by greater societal awareness about how screen media serves different purposes in the lives of diverse families. Perri should not have to “block out the rest of the world”—those on the opposite ends of the playground should be less quick to judge her and her son. A serious dialogue about screen time and disability is but one starting point to create a more enabling and supportive environment for Perri and her son.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

 

 

Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part One)

Meryl Alper's new book, Digital Youth with Disabilities, releases shortly via the MacArthur Foundation's distinguished series of reports on Digital Media and Learning, published by MIT Press. Alper is currently one of my PhD Candidates at USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where she is writing a dissertation under my supervision sharing what she's learned through interviews and observations of the families of youth in Los Angeles who use adaptive technologies to help them deal with speech disabilities. Alpert came to me a few years ago having already had a distinguished career working in and around children's media, including having worked with the Sesame Workshop's Education and Research Department where she had done field work investigating the potential for developing an animated series focused on media literacy, with Northwestern University's Children's Digital Media Center where she worked directly with Barbara O'Keefe (a legend in the space of children's media) and most recently, with the research division of Nick Jr. where again she did work with preschool aged children.

Since coming to USC, she has been part of a team at the Annenberg Innovation Lab which developed a white paper in collaboration with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, T is For Transmedia, which I have featured here before. She has increasingly been focusing her attention onto the roles new media play as adaptive and assistive technologies for families who are living with disabilities. Her work, as you will see, emphasizes the social contexts within which these technologies are situated, a topic she writes about with enormous nuance and empathy; she explores the processes by which youth and their families develop voice and assert control over their lives, while negotiating with powerful institutions, especially schools but also the medical establishment, over access to and control over these technological resources.

I am so proud of what Alper has accomplished during her time at USC and know that she is going to become an outstanding professional as she enters the academic job market this year. I wanted to use this post to call attention to her book.

You begin the book with some of the ways that the concept of disability has been rethought through critical/feminist disability studies. To what degree have these insights been translated into terms that can be understood by educators, policy-makers, and parents? Is there a gap here between theory and practice?

Before diving in, I’ll give a brief overview of some of the key intersections between disability studies and critical studies, before discussing how these theoretical developments translate to the U.S. context of education and learning.

Disability is a constantly evolving concept, and my book partially captures it at one particular moment in history. It is a dimension of human difference, while also containing a multitude of differences. For example, while some disabilities are more visible and permanent (e.g. Down syndrome, paralysis), other conditions are less immediately apparent and fluctuate in severity more frequently (e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities).

Two broad ways of thinking about disability initially grew out of the field of disability studies: a medical model of disability, in which disability is understood as undesirable, individualized, and defined by deficit; and a social model, which distinguishes between impairment (as bodily difference) and disability (as the social and structural environment that disables different bodies).

A critical approach to disability studies challenges both models. While the medical model offers needed medical solutions for pain, discomfort, and fatigue, political and social transformations are also needed to make the world more accessible and safe for individuals with disabilities, their families, and caregivers. The social model does not account for the ways that disability is experienced on an individual level, the ways that impairment and disability mutually shape one another, and how these social constructions shift depending on time and place.

Critical feminist/queer disability studies scholars (including Robert McRuer, Alison Kafer, and David Serlin) offer ways of looking at disability as political that question overlapping status quos of power and privilege. It is important to note that people with disabilities are the largest minoritized group in the U.S.—19% of the population according to the U.S. Census. Critical disability studies is engaged with other disciplinary traditions that also challenge systems and structures of oppression, such as feminist studies, queer studies, ethnicity and race studies, and indigenous studies. To study any form of institutionalized discrimination in 2014 necessitates disentangling interactions between class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, age, and especially disability.

The insights of critical disability studies are far from fully incorporated into educational practice and policy in the U.S. On a macro level, the U.S. education system is centered on the “normal” student, sorting and measuring ability through the big business of standardized testing. The system is designed to prepare students to make a “productive” contribution to society. However, this model of productivity is based on narrow ideas about what it means to contribute, primarily by adding economic value to the workforce. The ideal graduate of the U.S. educational system is nearly always able-bodied and able-minded. Critical disability scholars push back against a society that seeks to cure, rehabilitate, or make disability go away, and seeks alternative models of community and coalition building.

Another area where a critical disability studies intervention is needed is in addressing disparity among youth with disabilities. Black males are overrepresented in the high-incidence disability categories of intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities (Aud et al., 2013; Ford, 2012). Though youth with disabilities comprise 13% of all U.S. students aged 3-21 (according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), they make up 25% of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 23% of all students getting a school-related arrest, and 19% of expelled students (Lhamon & Samuels, 2014).

If any group has done the most to translate the insights of critical disability studies for parents, policy makers, and educators, it has been students and individuals with disabilities (who may also be parents, policy makers, and educators themselves). Unlike most people in the field of disability studies, I do not currently identify as an individual with a disability, and I am not the parent, sibling, or partner of someone with a disability. I have to work very hard to see things from a point of view that I cannot fully understand. I personally look towards organizations such as the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and disability rights activists such as Lydia Brown for their leadership in bridging theory and practice.

 

You also were one of the co-authors of T is for Transmedia, which advocated for transmedia play and learning. In what ways would the multimodality associated with transmedia enhance or detract from the media experiences of youth with disabilities?

A small but growing body of research suggests that emerging readers and writers with physical, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities may benefit from expanded opportunities to draw on their experiences with popular culture and leverage their multimodal text-making abilities (Flewitt, Kucirkova, & Messer, 2014; Peppler & Warschauer, 2012). However, the benefits or drawbacks of transmedia play for any one child depends not only on their specific set of abilities and disabilities, but—taking a more ecological approach to human development—also the social, cultural, and political context that underpins the child’s learning experiences in and out of the classroom.

I’ll provide an example from my dissertation research that illustrates these possibilities and limitations. Kevin is a non-speaking, 13-year-old mixed-race autistic boy from a lower-middle income family. While he is unable to articulate his grasp of the English language through embodied oral speech or handwriting, his mother, Rebecca, indicated that he demonstrated strength in print literacy and an array of new literacies including technological fluency and visual literacy.

She drew heavily on instances of her son’s media use to talk about his verbal abilities. For example, Rebecca told me that Kevin used the letter tile game Bananagrams to spell “‘Indiana Jones’ before he could spell his own name.” The Harry Potter DVD menu in particular provided rich seed material. Said Rebecca, “He would spell ‘prologue.’ Prologue was his word. Prologue, prologue, prologue. Then he would spell ‘quidditch pitch.’ He would spell ‘Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.’”

Kevin’s wordplay with the language of DVD menus provided an opportunity for learning. However, clinicians, behavioral therapists, and sometimes parents tend to pathologize repeated viewing of movie credits by autistic youth (Liss, Saulnier, Fein, & Kinsbourne, 2006). Though Rebecca described Kevin’s transmedia play as a positive pathway to spelling, certain kinds of play by disabled children often gets promoted or prevented depending on the various institutions in which their learning is embedded (Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2010).

 

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part Three)

You write in the book about the “anti-piracy agenda.” What kinds of policies have emerged from the music industry’s anti-piracy efforts and what do you see as their “collateral damage”?

I'm glad you asked, because this is really the point that the book aims to make. Once we accept that the well-worn story of Napster-killed-the-music-industry is at best debatable and most likely pure bunk, we can take a closer look at the laws and policies that have been developed in the name of combating "piracy" and evaluate their broader social and economic impact, which is significant.

The general trend for copyright laws, treaties and policies over the years has been towards expansion: a broader range of cultural expression has been covered, for a wider set of uses, for longer periods of time, with harsher penalties for infringement. In the interest of pursuing infringers, American government offices ranging from the DOJ to the Department of Homeland Security to new, specialized ones like the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (a/k/a the Copyright Czar) are being called upon to police and enforce infringement on behalf of private rights holders. And corporations ranging from ISPs to email providers to social media platforms are being asked to track their users' behaviors and share information about infringing communications and about infringers themselves with one another and with government offices. Congress has even tried, at least twice in the last few years, to pass laws giving the federal government the ability to flip an internet "kill switch," pulling the plug on every single user, in response to a vague list of "cybersecurity threats," which definitively include IP infringement.

Some of these laws and treaties have been ratified, others are in progress, and others have died on the vine. Together, they represent a well-planned, comprehensive wish list concocted by the music industry and its allies in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, purchased with literally billions of dollars in above-the-table lobbying and campaign finance contributions, to say nothing of other modes of inducement, such as the threat of economic devastation by the US Trade Representative against foreign sovereign states that resist participating in IP law "harmonization" via secretly-negotiated trade accords. This might sound like the plot of a lesser Alan J. Pakula paranoiafest from the '70s, but thanks in part to whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, as well as the tireless efforts of public advocates at organizations like EFF and Public Knowledge, I can confidently present these claims as factual, and support it with a wealth of documentation (my book has 34 pages of endnotes, and I could easily have doubled that figure).

The "collateral damage" from this antipiracy agenda spills into nearly every facet of our society, from the marketplace to the political process to the public sphere. On the commercial level, market titans including the major labels have wielded IP laws like bludgeons to crack down on competitors and innovators, using the threat of costly litigation and costlier damage awards to coerce startups into agreements that consign them to permanent insolvency, or to shutter the few that resist. Criminals and unethical actors ranging from phishing scammers to patent trolls to "copyright monetization companies" like RightsCorp and BayTSP have exploited the laws' contours and complexities to cheat and extort untallied billions of dollars from small businesses and blameless individuals, while music and film companies have sued hundreds of thousands of their own best customers. Our courts are clogged with baseless litigations, the marketplace is littered with the remains of once-promising commercial ventures, and hundreds of thousands of families have faced economic hardship above and beyond the privations caused by our sputtering economy.

Even worse, however, are the threats posed by these laws to democratic self-governance and civil liberties, both in the US and elsewhere around the world. Relatively tame copyright laws like the DMCA have already been exploited successfully to remove viral presidential campaign videos from YouTube, to quell dissent and silence criticism, and to limit citizens' access to online newspapers and public forums. The new breed of copyright laws promoted by today's piracy crusaders aim to upgrade these powers, compelling businesses to spy on citizens without a warrant and report on their behaviors to governments agencies, and giving both commercial and public institutions the legal power to disconnect individual users, surveil their communications, and take down entire internet domains based on unproven allegations of infringement, all without transparency, accountability or easy recourse to appeal for those affected.

I wrote the bulk of this book in 2012 and early 2013, before the earth-shattering revelations of government overreach exposed by Edward Snowden, but even at that point it was easy to see that such powers would inevitably be used at best carelessly and in all probability corruptly, and that once they were granted, it would be nearly impossible to revoke them. To me, Snowden's leaks only confirm this suspicion, and should give us further pause before we bestow such legal powers on either governments or corporations, especially given that a) they clearly possess the technological capacity to exploit such powers to the fullest, and b) they lack the organizational rigor and/or political will to prevent such powers from being exploited maliciously and anti-democratically. In the final analysis, is it really worth taking such risks to ward off a phantasmagorical boogeyman, and ineffectually at that?

You offer a strong critique throughout the book on the music industry’s position. What are you advocating as alternatives to the current system?

This is, of course, the trillion-dollar question. In the book, I don't conclude with a specific set of agenda items; instead, I discuss a range of different solutions and amendments to intellectual property law proposed by critics and scholars across the political spectrum, both inside and outside the government, in the US and elsewhere around the world. There are some great ideas out there, some of them radical and some merely ameliatory, and I was more interested in reflecting this diversity of opinion than in furthering my own.

But since you ask... At the very least, I would support the following agenda items:

- Shorter copyright terms. Currently copyright lasts for an author's life plus 70 years - an order of magnitude longer than the 14-year term originally applied when the law was created. In a recently leaked draft of the secret TPP treaty, Mexico proposed that all signatories extend copyright to author's life plus 100 years (I wonder where they got that idea?). Even our own Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, has suggested that we revert to life plus 50 years. I think the term should be even shorter, maybe in the range of 20-30 years; beyond that point, I believe it functions more to protect entrenched economic interests than to incentivize new creative production.

- A digital citizens bill of rights. We need to make sure that, IP infringement notwithstanding, all citizens can communicate privately and securely, that they have guaranteed access to communications networks and the public sphere, and that they can express their political opinions and share their cultural ideas freely and openly without fear of censorship or recrimination. Ron Wyden and Daryl Issa tried to pass a law like this called the OPEN Act a few years ago, and it went nowhere. More recently, Brazil successfully passed a law with some of these provisions, called the Marco Civil da Internet. Ironically enough, it was Snowden's whistleblowing that gave the Brazilian government the momentum it needed to get the bill passed.

- Protection against copyright and patent trolls. In recent years, the number of US patent cases has skyrocketed, and last year over two-thirds of them were initiated by "trolls," or companies whose only economic stake resides in their ability to litigate. This is widely agreed to be a serious problem (President Obama himself raised this as a key issue in his most recent State of the Union address), but thus far our legislators failed to pass the potentially effective Innovation Act of 2013, and the watered down TROL Act of 2014 has yet to be voted on in the House.

- A right to remix. Our musical cultures and industries have thrived for decades because we have a compulsory right to cover songs. Once a composition has been recorded, anyone is free to make their own version of it, paying a statutory rate to the rights holder for the privilege. It's hard to imagine how much more impoverished our musical landscape would be if that hadn't been the case - if you had to ask permission and negotiate with publishers and composers every time you wanted to record or perform one of their songs. Yet that's exactly how it is today with sample-based music like hip-hop, mashups, EDM and techno; if you want to sample even a millisecond of a recording, you're at the mercy of the rights holder (most likely, a major record label) and licenses are often priced high enough to make sure that only other major labels can foot the bill. This is not the result of any clear statute, but rather due to a couple of dicey court decisions over a decade ago. As others have argued, this not only effectively stopped the evolution of hip-hop in its tracks, eviscerating its politically subversive and culturally resistant potential, but has also helped to turn us into a nation of criminals, as each of us carries the capacity to cut, paste and redistribute audio around in our pockets. Thus, we need a statutory right to remix akin to the right to cover compositions, and it needs to be affordable enough so that innovative artists in emerging genres distributing their own music or working with a smaller label can afford to do so and stay on the right side of the law.

- Small claims court for IP infringement. Currently, the statutory maximum penalty for "willful" copyright infringement in the US is $150,000 per work, and litigation attorneys bill upwards of $500/hour. These high stakes mean that the system only works for those with deep pockets, like major labels and publishers. Meanwhile, according to the Copyright Office, the median cost to litigate a copyright suit with less than a million dollars at stake is $350,000. This hurts independent artists and small businesses, whether they're plaintiffs or defendants. A small claims court with lower damages, shorter litigation cycles, simpler processes and no precedential power would allow everyday people to pursue their rights and interests without risking economic catastrophe.

- Reduced risks and penalties for noncommercial infringement, and reduced secondary liability. One of the major victories of the piracy crusaders has been to elevate noncommercial infringement to the level of a felony, potentially punishable by hundreds of thousands of dollars fines and jail time. Given that it's nearly impossible to use the internet without committing some form of noncommercial infringement (ever forward an email or post a page to Facebook? Gotcha!), this is an absurd and potentially dangerous state of affairs. We need to reaffirm that there is a substantive difference between those who mass-produce bootleg movies and CDs for sale in retail shops and those who distribute free mixtapes to their friends (yes, I realize there's a lot of gray area, but I'm trying to be brief). We also need to reverse the encroachment of "secondary liability," a legal doctrine that holds someone accountable for infringement if they played a role in a third-party's infringement, often tenuously. For instance, even though Congress tried and failed to pass an act making it illegal to "induce" a third party to infringe copyright in 2004, that didn't stop the Supreme Court from using exactly that standard to find Grokster liable for the actions of its users in 2005, a precedent that was applied to Limewire in 2010 (full disclosure: I served as an expert witness for the defense in both cases). This vague standard, and other similar ones, create a dangerous "chilling effect" in which blameless parties choose not to undertake actions that are well with their rights for fear of guilt by association with a third party.

My full list could probably fill up an entire book on its own (hm, sounds like a worthwhile project, but I guess Bill Patry beat me to it), but for the sake of your readers, I'll stop here.

Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up (2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers, Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research, Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl, dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up, lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California, and a master's in Journalism from Columbia University.

Young People's Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Three)

Another common misperception is that young people do not care about intellectual property. What did you research show in terms of the attitudes towards "free downloads"?  

I’ll start out by saying that my chapter on property was probably the most difficult one to write – in large part because the issues around intellectual property in a digital age are so complex and contested. The ease with which we can access and remix others’ content provides an array of positive opportunities, but also raises questions and concerns about ownership and authorship.

 

In our interviews with youth, we sought to understand to what extent their thinking about topics such as music downloading and other uses of online content was morally and ethically sensitive. In other words, to what extent did youth consider near or distant effects on others associated with a decision to download a piece of music illegally, or copy and paste a portion of someone else’s writing for a school assignment? As I report in the book, youth often embraced the belief that creators had a fundamental right to control how their content was used by others. In other words, “what’s theirs is theirs.” Yet, this belief was most often linked to uses of text (books and articles) for schoolwork. When they spoke about music downloading, a “free for all” or “free for me” mindset typically dominated.

 

On the whole, youth were often quite conscious of the implications of music downloading or improper use of online textual sources. Yet, their thinking was often (and sometimes exclusively) concerned with the potential negative sanctions they might suffer for a property violation. The moral or ethical dimensions of appropriation practices didn’t surface all that often and, when they did, were often dismissed or downplayed with mantras such as “everybody downloads.”

 

Around the time that I was writing the chapter, internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide. I didn’t know Aaron personally, but I knew of him and deeply admired his perspective and courage. His activism was based on an explicit set of beliefs about open access, an ethical argument for free culture. As I pored over the perspectives young people shared with us about piracy and the like, I could see glimmers of Aaron’s beliefs here and there. Some teens and young adults pointed to the outrageous profits reaped by major record labels and the unfairly high costs that prevent low-income people from access to cultural goods. However, for the most part, youths’ thinking about these issues was deeply self-focused (“I don’t want to spend a dollar per song on iTunes”) and quite blind to the moral and ethical issues.

 

And, as with privacy issues, adult messages about property appeared to do little to encourage greater sensitivity to ethical considerations. According to youth, teachers tend to emphasize sanctions (a failing grade) for improper citation of sources over exploring the ethical rationale underpinning attribution. And none of the youth we talked with reported conversations with adults about the ethical dimensions of piracy or of unfair intellectual property restrictions.

You end the book talking about "conscientious connectivity." How are you defining this term and what are some of the steps you are advocating towards achieving it?

 

I see conscientious connectivity as a disposition towards online life that is mindful or attentive to the kinds of moral and ethical issues I discuss throughout the book. In keeping with the work of my Project Zero colleagues on thinking dispositions, I talk about skills, sensitivity, and inclination as essential components of conscientious dispositions.

 

To be more specific, engaging digital ethical issues requires specific thinking skills. For example, the skill of complex perspective-taking – considering the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and audiences – is arguably important to engage as one considers whether or not to post on YouTube a video of one’s classmates engaged in a fight in the locker room, or engaged in a heated discussion of political issues.

 

Having the skills to consider these issues thoroughly is important, but before one can do so, one has to be sensitive to the potential for moral or ethical concerns. So conscientious mindsets are also based on sensitivity – being alert to potential adverse (and positive) implications for others that might follow in the wake of a tweet, Instagram photo, or YouTube video. Cultivating ethical sensitivity can help correct the kinds of ethical blind spots about online privacy, property, and participation that are my concern. But I'm also concerned with disconnects – attitudes that reflect a disinclination to engage moral and ethical themes. Therefore, conscientious connectivity also involves an inclination to wrestle with dilemmas, to fully reflect on and consider competing interests and implications that may flow from an online choice.

 

As noted, our educational materials co-developed with your team and with Common Sense Media have been purposively designed to support the development of ethical thinking skills, sensitivity, and an inclination to engage digital dilemmas.

 

Ultimately, though, conscientious connectivity is most powerful when it inspires socially positive online acts rather than simply preventing harmful behavior. So I also talk about the importance of cultivating a greater sense of agency in young people, supporting them to participate in active ways to create counter-narratives to the more troubling modes of discourse they may see on social media and in other online spaces. A powerful first step towards supporting ethical agency is calling attention to the exemplary ways in which some young people have leveraged digital and social media. In closing the book, I write about Samantha Stendal, a college student who was incensed and inspired to act after hearing details emerging from the Steubenville rape case. Beyond the rape itself, perpetrators and bystanders had circulated photos and video of the assault, including a 12½-minute YouTube video featuring onlookers joking about it. Stendal created a short and pointed video called, A Needed Response, that is a powerful counter-narrative to the attitudes expressed by those involved in the assault. To date, the video has over 9 million hits on YouTube.

 

Your more recent research has shifted towards a focus on youth and participatory politics. Here, again, you are developing a mixed picture of what is working and what isn't working in the civic lives of American young people. Can you share some early findings from this research?

 

Your characterization of what we’re finding as a “mixed picture” is just right, I think. In our interviews with civically active youth, we’ve seen some truly impressive ways in which they are leveraging digital and social media in support of issues like AIDS awareness, youth violence, and marriage equality. The examples that are emerging from our work – and especially yours – have great potential to inspire other youth to participate in public life in new ways.

 

At the same time, we’ve been concerned about a set of findings that suggest that young activists are increasingly cautious about using digital means to engage in political and civic ways. Emily Weinstein, a terrific doctoral student on our research team, recently published a paper that describes how civic youth in our study managed the opportunities for civic voice afforded by social media in different ways. Most youth shared their civic and political ideas across social media platforms, while some differentiated by platform, holding back from talking about civic issues in some spaces while expressing in others. But some youth bounded their civic voices entirely online – that is, while they were actively involved in civic and political life offline, they purposively sought to keep evidence of their activities off the internet.

 

The reasons why some youth decided to bound the civic voice online varied. What was most worrying to us were the cases where youth reportedly held back because of concerns about uninterested or hostile audiences. To our minds, this suggests a need for supports to help youth manage uncivil discourse rather than simply opting out of online expression about public issues. As part of the Educating for Participatory Politics action group, we are collaborating with Facing History and Ourselves to develop educational supports to call attention to the great potentials of digital media for civic engagement. Supporting strategies for productive and meaningful discourse online is an important concern in this work.

 

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

Young People's Ethical Disconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Two)


Early on, you describe some of the concerns which motivate your work: "I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participation, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to moral and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues." What role do you think we as scholars and researchers can play in addressing those concerns?
 

Scholars and researchers in the digital media and learning space have an important role to play here. While a number of scholars attend to these issues in their work (e.g., Whitney Phillips forthcoming book), I've often perceived a lack of interest – and sometimes even push back – in the DML community about focusing on digital misdeeds or areas of concern. I do appreciate the importance of calling attention to the positive learning, civic, and other opportunities that the internet provides for youth. I also appreciate the need to push against media panics that often dominate the discourse around the internet.  But what sometimes feels like an over-emphasis on the "good stuff" is at odds with the reality that online spaces can be unfriendly, hostile, and aggressive non-communities for some participants (female bloggers and gamers are a case in point).

 

With those thoughts on the table, I think we can do more to support one another in doing research that attends to all sides of digital life -- from the very positive, supportive, and promising to the very troubling, disconcerting, and discouraging examples, and everything in between.

 

But research is really just the beginning, or only part of developing effective approaches to addressing negative behavior online. Scholars need to make their work accessible to parents, educators, and youth. We need to support them and, when appropriate, even partner with them to raise the status of these issues on the educational agenda. Some of this work is being done as part of efforts to stem cyberbullying. However, I worry about the emphasis on bullying and cyberbullying in the strict sense, which can exclude attention to more subtle acts of exclusion and meanness often propagated on social media sites, through apps and other digital means.

 

As noted, a big part of our work on the Good Play Project has been the educational piece. We’ve collaborated with your group and with Common Sense Media in the past to develop supports for conversations about digital citizenship in schools and other learning environments. Through our Project Zero summer institutes and offsite conferences, Katie Davis and I convene educators for workshops related to this work. In these sessions, we share ideas and tools for reflection on the ethical dilemmas that often arise online.

 

One of the most common misperceptions about youth today is that they have little to no interest in privacy. Yet your findings show something different. How would you characterize the attitudes towards privacy that emerged from your interviews?

 

When we spoke with youth even as young as 10 about online privacy issues, we found that they were keenly aware of and concerned about privacy risks online. For those of us in the digital research community, this is not news. A number of other studies have shown that youth care about privacy (e.g., boyd & Marwick, 2011). The misconception that they don’t is often based on cases where privacy isn’t perfectly handled by youth. Further, there may be misalignments between youth and adults about what should be private vs. semi-public vs. public.

 

Pushing beyond the question of whether or not youth care about privacy, I also sought to understand how they approached online privacy more generally. I wondered about their mindsets about privacy and, given the focus of my book, the extent to which their mindsets were attentive to the moral and ethical aspects of online privacy given the opportunities digital technologies afford for breaching other people’s privacy.

 

The findings here were quite interesting. Nearly all the youth we spoke with conveyed support in some way for the mindset that privacy is largely “in your hands” online. That is, they argued that it’s up to the individual to adjust privacy settings, to consider audiences, and to make thoughtful decisions about what to post or not. However, many of these youth also suggested that privacy is not fully in your hands online. This argument was part of the mindset that “privacy is forsaken” in a digital age – that full privacy is unattainable online, so one must be careful about what one posts or be resigned to fact that privacy lapses are bound to happen. Both mindsets are attentive in different ways to the privacy risks that exist today, yet they also contain blind spots. The privacy is “in your hands” approach, taken in absolute terms, can be blind to the numerous ways in which one’s privacy can be broken online, despite efforts to control it. The forsaken mindset is more realistic. Yet, we also observed that it sometimes went along with an “anything goes” attitude with respect to other people’s privacy. In other words, for some youth, the fact that everyone gives up some measure of privacy online justifies looking at, circulating, or leveraging any information found about someone online.

 

Given these blind spots, it was gratifying to find evidence of another mindset that attends more directly to moral and ethical themes: the “privacy is social” mindset. Here, youth spoke in eloquent terms about the need to be vigilant about other people’s potential privacy concerns online. Some youth spoke about routine practices of checking in with friends before posting any photos featuring them on social media. Others said they developed guidelines with friends, siblings, and parents for protecting and respecting each other’s privacy online. These measures are impressive in taking seriously that privacy is a social, moral, and ethical issue in an environment in which we can search and share freely about one another. Unfortunately, the privacy as social mindset, and explicit measures to achieve it, didn’t come up as often as the other attitudes. Related to this, messages from adults about online privacy almost always supported the privacy as forsaken and “in your hands” mindsets along with individual-centered (and ultimately insufficient) strategies for privacy protection. This is a front where educators and parents could be doing much more to shift the conversation in ways that support social, moral and ethical approaches to privacy.

 Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

 

Young People's Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part One)

Today, we begin the second in a series of interviews with members of the Good Play team at Harvard, a team headed by Howard Gardner and associated with the longstanding Project Zero. The following is excerpted from a foreword I wrote for Carrie James’s Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, and it serves as well as anything I could write here to provide a set up for the interview which follows.  

A working-class black woman lingered after I spoke about youth and digital media at Detroit’s Wayne State University. She pushed her way through the crowd to ask a simple question: “Will my boy be all right?”

 

Her adolescent son spent a great deal of time online, talking with friends, building his home page, playing computer games, doing his homework. She had heard conflicting reports-teachers claiming Net access fostered educational growth, and media reformers warning about teens “running amok” on the Net. And now, like so many other parents, she worried that she was wrong to let her son explore cyberspace when she knew so little about computers herself. She feared that she did not know enough to give him the guidance he needed and wondered if perhaps the only answer was to unplug the expensive device she had brought into her home.

 

This is one of many such encounters I’ve had with parents and youth (of all races and economic backgrounds) through the years as people asked some core questions about whether these new media platforms and practices are helping to make us better or worse people. Many parents were asking whether their children would be alright and often looking at particular choices their sons and daughters had made online and asking “what were they thinking?”

 

I’ve often wished I could give them a book like Disconnected to read -- a book which responded not with fear and panic, but spoke directly about how we might foster more responsible digital citizens, how we can encourage more participation and healthier communities. Over six years, a team of 14 researchers at Harvard’s Good Play Project has been interviewing young people -- both teens and tweens -- about their digital lives, the ethical challenges they face online, and the values which govern the choices they make about how to treat people they encounter on social media or web 2.0 platforms. What emerges here is a complex picture -- one which sees these emerging platforms and practices as “not either-or, but this-and-that,” both a “burden” and a “blessing.” Some of what Carrie James shares about young people’s ethical choices may alarm us, some may give us hope, but most of all, the book reveals what many of us have come to recognize -- the online world is neither an ideal society nor hell on earth, but a place where we go to conduct very routine aspects of our daily lives and often we think less than we should about the consequences of the choices we are making there.

 

As I’ve read this book, I’ve found myself thinking about its evocative title, about the various ways we might describe American youth as “disconnected,” even as they are more heavily wired than previous generations. Some of them are disconnected from any kind of online community, having little to no understanding of the participatory mechanisms or shared norms that apply to different forms of online social interactions. Some of them see little to no connection between what they do online and what gets valued by their parents or schools. Some seem not to be able to meaningfully connect what they do online with the consequences of their actions on others or to connect digital avatars with the flesh and blood people whose feelings may be hurt by their hateful words and actions. Some have little or no connection to adults who might provide them with meaningful insight into the situations they encounter and some have no real access to older ethical and spiritual traditions as they make decisions that can sometimes have serious implications for their lives and the lives of others.

 

Carrie James states early in the book that she is offering a “glass half empty” perspective: “I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participating, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to more and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues.” I share those concerns, even though I am a “glass half full” guy. James and I have had healthy debates through the years around many of these questions, but where we would agree is that we are still looking at half a glass and that more needs to be done to support our young people’s moral development in the digital age. Howard Rheingold warned some decades ago, “those who would prefer the more democratic vision of the future have an opportunity to influence the outcome, which is precisely why online activists should delve into the criticisms that have been leveled against them.” I care very much about the issues James raises here because I believe that our goal should be to expand who has access to the means of cultural production, circulation, and participation and the best way to realize those potentials is to soberly assess and meaningfully address the roadblocks we encounter along the path towards a more participatory culture.

 

 

      You open the book with a provocative quote from Neil Postman: "Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that." In what senses do you think digital technologies have been both a burden and a blessing to young people?

 

In quoting Postman at the outset, I wanted to make clear my view that digital technologies are not the direct perpetrators of the ethics gaps I write about in the book. Rather, as other scholars have acknowledged too, technologies provide affordances (Gibson, 1977) – they enable certain perceptions and actions, and constrain others. The ways in which we seize their affordances – our habits and norms of use – are key. (Related to this, my colleagues Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’s recent book, The App Generation, provides a nuanced account of the mixed blessings associated with digital life. They argue that the outcomes depend on how we use apps and other digital media.)

 

In my view, digital and social media are a blessing in the expansive opportunities they provide to young people – to explore and express their identities; to maintain social ties; to forge new connections with people with shared interests and passions; to access information and cultural goods; to participate in the creation of cultural content, and so on. To my mind, though, one of the most significant blessings of the digital landscape are the opportunities afforded to youth to be active participants in the public sphere – sharing their voices, showing support for and mobilizing others on behalf of social justice issues. (Our ongoing work with you and others as part of the MacArthur Youth and Participatory Politics research network is focused on that particular set of opportunities).

 

Yet, these digital age blessings are vexed in various ways. The invitation to participate on the web can feel risky given that one's contributions can be taken out of context, misinterpreted, and shared with a wider audience than intended. Add to this the persistent, replicable and searchable qualities of digital content that danah boyd has often written about and – per my point above about our norms of use – the ways in which employers and college admissions officers can (and reportedly do) leverage them to judge young people. These practices place a burden on young people to manage the digital trails they leave behind, as best they can.

 

As other research has shown, participation in some social media sites can feel more obligatory than engaging (Pew 2013), and can even contribute to low self-esteem, especially if one's news feed gives the impression that everyone else's life consists of non-stop happiness and success. Further, as I discuss in my chapter on Participation, along with the opportunity to participate comes the risk that one's contributions will be mocked or that one will become a target of subtle or explicit acts of cruelty or digital abuse. The public or semi-public nature of digital contexts can certainly magnify the sting of a negative comment or of an embarrassing photo posted by an online contact. EXAMPLE

 

Finally, as our recent work on youth online civic expression shows, backlash and other forms of uncivil discourse may have the unfortunate effect of quieting or even silencing youth voices on social network sites (Weinstein, 2014). A Pew study published in late August showed a similar alarming "spiral of silence" trend among adults, 18 and over.

 

So there are many opportunities afforded by online spaces, but along with the promises come new risks to be managed, but also new responsibilities in relation to others. Henry, you've often quoted Peter Parker's uncle Ben who said that "with great power comes great responsibility." One of the key messages of my book is that we need to have more conversations about the moral and ethical responsibilities that go along with participation in digital cultures.

 

      You called the book, Disconnected, which seems ironic, since in some senses, young people today are more connected than ever before. In what senses do you see this word as an appropriate description of what you found through your research?

 

Yes, young people are more connected to one another than ever before. But what I found in our research is that youths' thinking about online situations can often be glaringly disconnected from the ethical dimensions. In other words, youth (and adults for that matter) were often not alert to the distant, potentially far-reaching, implications for others of the things they post and circulate online.

 

In the opening chapter of the book, I talk about two distinct types of thinking shortfalls that often characterized youth approaches to online situations: blind spots and disconnects. Drawing from Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel's work (Blind Spots, 2011), I describe digital blind spots as failures to be sensitive to the moral or ethical implications of one's tweets, Facebook status updates, or uses of online content. For example, when youth spoke about music piracy, their thinking and decision-making was typically keyed to self-focused concerns: how much (or little) money they had, the possibility of getting caught or downloading a virus. While some youth engaged moral or ethical arguments about piracy (either in support of it or against it), many of them evinced a blind spot to these dimensions of property issues – they simply didn’t consider how musicians might be affected by their choices.

 

I contrast blind spots with disconnects, which involve awareness and some consideration of moral or ethical concerns, yet a conscious dismissal of their importance. For example, one might acknowledge that a friend or stranger online might be offended by a misogynist online comment or tweet, but decide that the humor that others might see in the joke – and the resulting "likes" and praise – makes it worthwhile to post. Thinking of recent events, Perez Hilton's regrettable – and regretted – decision to circulate nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton is an example of the kind of disconnected thinking that concerns me. This case shows how disconnects aren’t just found among youth; indeed, adults’ thinking is often disengaged from ethical considerations. I emphasize youths’ thinking gaps, however, because youth were the focus of our research.

 

Certainly, I also observed, and describe in the book, mindsets about online life that are more sensitive to moral and ethical concerns. However, my aim was to call attention to and explore the nuances of gaps, shortfalls, and attitudes that sometimes thwart the development of socially positive online communities. Thus, my decision to call the book, Disconnected.

 

Can you tell us something of the context that this book came out of? What is the relationship between the Good Play Project and the earlier work done through the Good Work project? What methods have you deployed to develop a better understanding of the kinds of ethical choices young people are making in their online lives?

 

Great question. The Good Play Project was definitely informed by prior research my colleagues and I conducted as part of the Good Work Project (1995-2006). Our Good Work studies explored how professionals in different lines of work negotiated market forces and other aspects of social change impinging on the professions and strived to do work that was excellent in quality, personally engaging, and ethical. We refer to excellence, engagement, and ethics as the three e's of good work. Our studies included young professionals and those in training to enter fields such as journalism, genetics, and theater. A notable finding from our interviews was that young people felt an inordinate amount of pressure to succeed, and often in contexts in which their peers and even their role models cut corners in order to get ahead. Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Deborah Greenspan and Howard Gardner wrote about these issues in their book, Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work.

 

As Howard Gardner and I launched our studies of youth and digital life around 2007-2008, we were mindful of this prior work and its findings. We decided to focus our studies on how youth negotiated moral and ethical issues in new digital contexts, where codes of conduct are established more informally than in fields of work and can shift rapidly, and where participants may enter with radically different purposes, values, and investments in the community.

 

Our methods for exploring these themes were largely qualitative, also continuing the tradition of our prior work. We conducted in depth interviews with young people in which we elicited narratives about their online lives – including the bright spots and points of struggle.  We asked about how they got involved in different online communities; their goals and sense of responsibility; perceived norms and violations of norms; their role models, mentors, or other supportive as well as negative influences. We also presented participants with hypothetical scenarios that contained a moral or ethical dimension, and talked with them at length about their responses and connections to lived experiences they've had on the web. In my book, I open each thematic chapter with one of these scenarios and describe both typical and rare responses.

 

For example, I open the privacy chapter with a scenario in which Facebook photos posted by friends reveal that a college student athlete was attending a party in violation of a sports team policy. Our study participants were asked to reflect on how they might handle such a situation. Most youth responded that they would untag themselves and perhaps even ask the friends to remove the photos from Facebook all together. While such responses are expected and understandable, we were also curious to see the extent to which youths’ thinking pushed beyond consequences for themselves. Indeed, some youth did reflect on their responsibilities to their teammates, coach, and a wider community of students. Yet, on the whole, self-focused concerns really dominated youths’ thinking. Most youth connected the hypothetical situation to personal experiences they’d had or observed among friends. So the hypotheticals really stimulated deeper discussion of dilemmas they’ve lived out online.

 

Overall, these methods gave us tremendous insight into how the young people with whom we spoke think about their online lives, the considerations that guide their choices online, and their hopes and areas of concern related to the internet and other aspects of digital life.

 

Our activities on the Good Play Project were also informed by our commitment, as part of the Good Work Project and Project Zero, to creating practical tools and supports based on our research for educators and other important stakeholders. With encouragement from the MacArthur Foundation, we joined forces with your Project New Media Literacies team (then at MIT, now at USC) to co-develop a casebook of classroom materials called Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World. Our work with your group really pushed our thinking in new directions and helped us appreciate the great learning opportunities of the digital landscape for youth.

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Three)

My readers are apt to be especially interested in your discussion of creativity in the era of apps. You draw some interesting conclusions by looking at student artworks and how they have evolved over the past few decades. One of the counterintuitive trends you identify is a shift from fantastical subject matter towards more faithful reconstruction of everyday realities. This is surprising to me in part because of the stereotype, which is grounded in some reality, that this is a generation which grew up reading Harry Potter, but some research suggests that schools have tended to have a strong towards realist or at least naturalistic reading, especially in a world where we moved away from the study of literature and towards a focus on deciphering short fragments in preparation for reading comprehension exams. What factors might contribute to this emphasis on realistic rather than fantastical forms of expression? Perhaps the most innovative research in the book entailed the development of detailed coding categories that can be administered, blindly, to works of art and literature produced by young people between 1990 and 2011. The scrupulous application of these codes led to the conclusion that visual art by young people today seems more imaginative than art produced by young people in the early 1990s, while literary productions by today’s cohort are less imaginative, in our sample of creative works.

This is a single study and we’d be foolish to draw excessive conclusions one way or the other. We very much hope that other scholars and educators, both in the US and abroad, will make use of these or similar tools and see whether they come up with essentially the same findings.

With this disclaimer, we initially shared your surprise about the creative writing findings. It’s not what you’d necessarily expect from youth who grew up immersed in the extremely imaginative world of Harry Potter! But these youth are also growing up in a world of standardized testing, with its pressure to master the perfect five-paragraph essay;and in schools that, with the introduction of Common Core standards, increasingly emphasize nonfiction reading. These trends must certainly have an effect on their use of language.

Others have pointed out to us that young people may be more imaginative in the writing that they do online, for friends and in interest-driven communities, than in writing produced for school or for publication. That’s an interesting idea worth pursuing and one that Mimi Ito and colleagues in the Connected Learning Research Network are shedding light on. Of course, we are talking about general trends—no one would claim that there are no young people producing imaginative works. Indeed, perhaps in other areas—ranging from the visual arts to the creation of new businesses—they are more imaginative than peers in earlier eras. And it may even be the case that we come to think differently of creativity in a digitally-suffused era.

Many of us have argued that contemporary remix practices can encourage certain kinds of critical and creative responses to the culture around them, but you seem to be siding a bit more with Jaron Lanier that such forms of creativity are limited or constrained in so far as they build upon pre-existing cultural materials. Can you explain your position here?

Early in their careers, artists are always producing in relation to the works around them and the works that are most valued—either emulating them or consciously rejecting them….or both! We see mash ups, remixing, and sampling with digital media as an extension of an age-old practice of artists. And, like you, we recognize exciting new opportunities for youth to create, share, and receive feedback on their creative productions. Indeed, we observed these opportunities firsthand in our study of young fan fiction authors on LiveJournal. At the same time, perhaps it is easier in an app world than it was before just to keep remixing, with the constraints already present in the current technologies; and if so, perhaps, fewer individuals will go out entirely on a limb.

To illustrate the effects of technological constraints on the artistic process, we draw on the work of computer scientist and cultural critic Jaron Lanier. Lanier uses the expression “lock-in” to describe the limited range of actions and experiences open to users when they interact with computer software. As a result of a programmer’s (often arbitrary) design decisions, certain actions are possible—indeed, encouraged—while others don’t even present themselves as options.

Lanier’s primary example of lock-in involves MIDI, a music software program developed in the 1980s to allow musicians to represent musical notes digitally. Because its designer took the keyboard as his model, MIDI’s representation of musical notes doesn’t encompass the textures found in other instruments, such as the cello, flute, or human voice. Lanier argues that something important is lost when one makes explicit and finite an entity that is inherently unfathomable (or, to invoke another lexical contrast, when one seeks to render as digital what is properly seen as analogue). Moreover, since MIDI was an early and popular entrant into the music software industry, subsequent software had to follow its representation of musical notes in order to be compatible with it. As a result, the lock-in was reified. MIDI is a good example of how early design decisions can circumscribe subsequent creative acts.

Drawing on a well-known distinction within the study of creativity, we have suggested that there may be a new trend at work. In the past, scholars made a distinction between little c creativity (the way that most of us show some originality in how we plan a meal or a holiday) and BIG C creativity (the radical innovations that we value in an Einstein, a Virginia Woolf, a Steve Jobs). Perhaps going forward, there will be more “middle C creativity”—individuals working together online to push the envelope in certain directions, but perhaps less dramatically.

Steve Jobs is an interesting case-in-point here. On the one hand, he had as much to do with creating the “APP world” as anyone. And yet, Steve Jobs was the least likely person in the world to be constrained by the apps that anyone else had created.

You make clear by the end of the book (and now in the new preface) that you are not opposed to all apps. Can you share some of your criteria for judging what constitutes a good or bad app? What are some examples of apps which you think have indeed fostered greater creativity, more exploration of identity, and more prospects for intimacy with others?

We’re often asked for examples of apps that are enabling and apps that promote dependence. Our response is that any app can be used in a more enabling or more dependent way depending on what one does with it. Consider the drawing app, Doodle Buddy. In one setting of this app, users select a drawing implement and proceed directly to fill their canvas in a free-form way, much as they would an actual canvas. Another setting in the same app presents the user with an array of pre-fabricated images and backgrounds, which users select and arrange on their canvas in a paint-by-numbers way. In the first setting, users are encouraged to engage the app in an open-ended way, with few constraints imposed on them. In the second setting, users’ actions are highly constrained by the limited range of choices given to them.

In our review of various apps, we’ve found that many educational apps lean toward the app-dependent end of the spectrum—drill and kill apps for memorizing times tables, spelling, and state capitals that reward students with virtual smiley faces, candy, or pets that have little or no meaningful connection to the learning task at hand. So, when we judge an app—whether it’s an app used for educational purposes, self-expression, communication, or creative production—we judge it based on the degree to which it encourages users to engage with it in an open-ended way, as non-constrained as possible. Some promising examples of apps that promote open-ended exploration include Minecraft, Scratch, and Digicubes.

 

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on "youth and participatory politics"', he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents' academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV's digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Two)

You mention myself, alongside danah boyd, Cathy Davidson, Clay Shirkey, and David Weinberger, as “unabashed enthusiasts of the digital world,” suggesting that for us, “a world replete with apps is a world in which endless options arise, with at least the majority tilted in positive, world-building, personality fulfilling directions.” For the record -- and I can’t speak for the others -- I saw the potential and value of the web in terms of a range of different communities, which had gained greater communication capacity by their ability to create and deploy their own digital spaces. For me, the mechanisms by which Apple regulates which apps can be distributed with corporate producers and commercial logics prevailing over grassroots creators and our tendency to go regularly to apps rather than search the wider array of what’s out there on the web has made the rise of apps to be as big a threat to the generativity of the web as the decline in net neutrality. In that sense, we would agree that a defining feature of apps is the constraints they impose on human creativity. This is not really a question but Thoughts? We both appreciate this comment and are very much on the same page. We discuss the constraints associated with apps at length in our chapter on creativity. These constraints are embedded in the coding and design decisions of app developers, the decisions made by corporate entities like Apple and Google, and laws and regulations passed by governments. While it may be true that ‘creativity loves constraints,’ we bristle at the idea of an individual’s creative expression being shaped by Apple’s bottom line or a politician’s bid for reelection.

We’ve noted that Sherry Turkle initially saw the potentials for rich identity exploration in the digital world; but with the advent of social media, she also discerned the potential for premature identity consolidation and unrealistic ‘perfect’ publicly packaged identities. All students of media, including us, need to be aware both of the changing affordances of the current ascendant technologies and the other forces in society (e.g. pressures on the educational system, invasions of privacy) that also influence the ways in which individuals think and behave and how they interact with the current technological options.

We joke about a kind of “Moore’s law” that ought to be operative among commentators on the technological scene: we need to review our examples and arguments every 18 months so.

One of the more provocative passages here centers around what today’s students expect from teachers and education. In what sense might these students be looking at the university as a kind of app store? How might we see this attitude as reflecting the expectations about learning which were imposed upon them through regimes of standardized testing -- a particular kind of app -- as opposed to the kinds of affinity spaces that the Digital Media and Learning community has tended to embrace?

 A point we wish to underscore upfront: while we observed specific behaviors in students—such as a tendency to seek instant, definitive answers and discomfort with sitting for a while with questions that don’t suggest an immediate solution—we are by no means laying blame at their feet. For causes, we look to broader societal trends—and not just of the technological variety. The increasing emphasis on standardized testing in schools, unfettered market forces, rising income inequality—these trends predate Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and have no doubt contributed to the algorithmic thinking we observed among young people. Therefore, while we like the image of the university as a kind of ‘app store’ from a literary point of view, in this particular case, it’s clear that the notion of the student (and parents) as customers operating in a complex market is not due to apps, or even technology, alone. Accordingly, for the analyst, it is challenging to parse out what is due to a pervasive mentality in the United States (‘the business of America is business”), the increasing ubiquity of technological solutions more generally, and the specific effects of apps.

Where the ‘app metaphor’ may be more fitting is in the way that students actually think about courses—what is offered, what is expected, and how best to pass a course and navigate the curricula en route to graduation. Nearly every informant to whom we spoke brought up the ‘risk aversion’ among today’s youth; and in the book we actually quote a student who questions the need for formal educational institutions, when, as he puts it, ‘the answers to all questions’ can be found in his smart phone.

The three of us (Henry, Katie, Howard) have all been involved in the initiative of the MacArthur Foundation to encourage ‘connected learning’. Without question, the advent of powerful, networked technologies has opened up a myriad of possibilities for more individualized learning, more integrated learning, and more creative and collaborative uses of what one learns. But the educational landscape is a battlefield and many of the most heavily armed participants do not share our educational vision.

 

You argue that the rise of social media platforms has tended to result not simply in the “performance of self” in everyday life or the identity play which Sherry Turkle wrote about 20 years ago, but rather the “packaged self” as young people see their self-representation as a kind of self branding. You also suggest that this may be one of the more isolating aspects of today’s digital culture because young people tend to read other people’s “glammed up” self-representations as reality and assume everyone out there is happier than they are. I want to push you to say more about the “packaged self” in relation to the “performance of the self.” After all, when Goffman’s consumers encounter the smiling sales clerk, they did not necessarily assume that he was actually as happy as he seemed. Is there reason to think today’s social media makes us less skeptical about the construction and performance of social identity? Wouldn’t a constructivist argue that having been asked to make choices from an identity tool kit, we were likely to be more conscious of how identity is constructed not less? 

We would push back a bit on the idea that people don’t assume the sales clerk is as happy as he seems. While intellectually we may know this is true, it may not necessarily feel true in the moment of our interaction with him. When we spoke with youth about the way they and their friends present themselves on Facebook and other social network sites, they told us about the “glammed up” versions that they and their peers present online—the prettiest, wittiest, happiest versions of themselves. While they know intellectually that their friends aren’t quite so attractive, happy, or social, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they themselves somehow don’t measure up. We’re not saying that social media necessarily make us less skeptical about the construction and performance of social identity, just that there’s an important distinction between conscious reflection and knowledge, on the one hand, and one’s immediate, gut reaction to others’ online identities, on the other.

No doubt, in every historical era and in every culture, some people are much more aware of the roles that they are assuming, the options that they have, the ways in which others react; while other individuals (probably the majority) just do what one is supposed to do in a situation and do not think about options, including the option of “no way”.   Just like ‘free will’, the notion of an autonomous agent, with genuine options from which to choose, is not a natural way of thinking—it’s one that grows out of (or is suppressed altogether by) the kind of society in which one lives and the role models that are available and emulated.

What may distinguish our society today is both the pervasiveness of social media and their widespread use by kids when they are very young. These factors probably push against the kind of autonomous self for which you are calling. But as a society, we certainly don’t have to accept that state of affairs. As parents, educators, citizens, we can model non-reliance on devices, apps, and social media, and help young people see that they do have choices—and those extend way beyond which app to use on which occasion—the lowest common denominator of choices!

 

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on "youth and participatory politics"', he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents' academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV's digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part One)

A bit more than a decade ago, I met Howard Gardner for the first time. I had been aware of his work for much longer. My graduate mentor, David Bordwell, had assigned us his book, The Mind’s New Science when I was in graduate school, and the book had such an impact upon me that I had sought out his other works. When our paths crossed in the real world, I was a first intimidated, but also fascinated to find myself part of a conversation with him about the ways digital media was impacting how we thought and lived at the cusp of the 21st century. Gardner is of Harvard; I was then of MIT, and that sums up about as well as I can imagine the intellectual and philosophical differences through which we saw the world. What separates Harvard and MIT for me has always been more than two subway stops on the Red Line. I went to Harvard Square to buy my comics but I usually stopped short of entering its gates. It was a different world -- "the other place" -- and you either understood that or it was impossible to explain.

Yet, for all of his enormous accomplishments and intellectual rigor, Gardner is also an incredibly modest and generous man, someone I love to bounce ideas against, someone with whom I frequently but always productively disagree, someone who is connected in his personal biography to some of the great thinkers who passed through Harvard in the second part of the 20th century, and someone who has the vision to think through what it means to continue that great humanistic tradition into the 21st century. Over the past years, I have had many chances to collaborate with Gardner – first as a contributor to a book he was editing (and a conference he was hosting) with Marcelo Saurez-Orozco, Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millenium, then as collaborators (along with our entire teams) on the development of OurSpace:Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World, a curricular guide designed to help foster serious reflections on ethics in the age of participatory culture, and most recently, as fellow members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network.

I have always resisted trying to put a label on the various points around which we disagree. We wrote about it some in the introduction to OurSpace. But both of our thinking is too complex and layered to be easily described and to much at risk of being caricatured by those who only partially understand where we are each coming from. You will get some suggestions of points of convergence and divergence from the interview which follows, but you will also get a sense of the challenge we each have in putting the other in a bottle, since we are both prone to actively think and rethink our core assumptions on a regular basis, and open to being persuaded by new developments. What I hope you also will see is the tremendous respect and affection we have for each other.

Along the way, I have come to know many of the younger members of Gardner’s research team, including Carrie James and Katie Davis. I knew them as part of the “Good Play” and “Good Participation” projects, funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. They were part of the team that worked alongside my research staff and graduate students at MIT as we developed the OurSpace project, an effort led on the MIT side by Erin Reilly. I’ve watched James and Davis emerge as serious thinkers about youth, digital media, and learning in their own right, each carving out an identity for themselves as researchers, and each producing and publishing  significant scholarly works.

Over the next week and a half, I want to showcase some recent works to emerge from this remarkable research team, two books, both relatively new, each speaking to key themes of the Digital Media and Learning movement: first, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’s The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, which was released this month in a revised paperback edition, and second, Carrie James’s Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and The Ethics Gap, which came out only a few weeks ago. Gardner, Davis, and James have offered up thoughtful and substantive responses to my sometimes challenging questions, in the process offering us insights into the thinking behind these two books. The books are, as Gardner noted to me in a recent email, very different projects, and yet, each in their own ways shows the legacy of a particular way of thinking through problems  I associated with Project Zero.

The App Generation starts with a deceptively simple consideration: the ways that apps may be pre-determining what we do with computers and mobile devices. But, the focus on apps on the most literal level turns out to be a point of entry for what is a deeper mediation on the current state of education, curiosity, and creativity, in a world where such digital devices are taken for granted and often provide the most compelling models for how our minds work and how we relate to other people around us. Like a good conversation with Gardner and his team, the book shifts layers, sometimes expressing concerns or worries about the state of our world, yet never giving up hope; sometimes asking very pragmatic questions while at other times digging deep into their philosophical implications; all the while writing in simple, straightforward prose that can communicate effectively with a concerned parent, a dedicated teacher, a perplexed policy maker, or an overloaded undergraduate….

WE START OFF BY THANKING YOU, HENRY, FOR POSING THESE THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS. WE’VE LEARNED FROM PONDERING THEM AND BELIEVE THAT OTHERS WILL ALSO PROFIT FROM THE EXCHANGE HERE.

 

You end the book with a provocative sentence, “For ourselves, and for those who come after us as well, we desire a world where all human beings have a chance to create their own answers, indeed, to raise their own questions, and to approach them in ways that are their own.” How do apps fit -- for better and for worse -- into the world you desire?

We are enthusiastic supporters of a liberal arts education, but we recognize that it is currently under severe pressures in the US for various reasons, including growing costs and competition from online education services. Analogous to our arguments in other parts of our book, we see technologies as having both the potential to be a handmaiden of liberal arts education (as in a well run flipped classroom) and as an obstacle (e.g. students sit in class and pay only partial attention to the instructor and their classmates as they update their Facebook status, browse pictures on Instagram, and scroll through their Twitter feed).

Turning specifically to apps, they can certainly help students do research efficiently, collaborate with fellow students, and frame cogent answers to certain kinds of questions. But, consistent with our discussion of ‘the app mentality,’ apps may also convey the misleading impression that everything has a quick, definite answer and therefore nudge students to avoid issues that are complex and apparently not susceptible to app treatment.

We can also make apps themselves the focus of education. Apps are part of a broader technology landscape that requires a new set of literacies and skills, including computational thinking. An education in our time should help students understand how apps work, what they can and cannot do, how they may nudge you in certain directions and not others, and how to make your own apps or tweak those designed by others.

 

A striking feature of this book is the ways you draw on the life experiences of Howard and Katie, the two authors, and Katie’s sister, Molly, who each came of age during different moments of media evolution. What role do you see such autobiographical reflections playing in relation to the other kinds of research deployed in the book, whether focused interviews from your field work or larger statistical data sets?

As social scientists, we are well aware that anecdotes, no matter how powerful, are no substitute for, and do not add up to data. Most of our book is quite data driven, we have a methodological appendix in which we outline our methods, and we have also published several related papers in peer-reviewed journals or posted them on appropriate websites (e.g. here , here , here).

Except for scholarly monographs, books by scholars are meant to convey ideas and findings to a broader public. We hoped that, in addition to scholars of youth and/or digital media, our book would speak to educators, parents, and to that elusive category “the general educated public.”   For this kind of communication, stories, anecdotes, biographical reflections are often the most effective way to communicate the importance of the questions being raised and the nature of the ideas, frameworks, and explanations at which the authors have arrived.

In the particular case to which you refer, we did not have the idea of a trans-generational conversation until we were close to writing the book. The conversation with Molly, which allowed us to span three generations, elicited many useful points about the ways she and her peers use media; the story about the senior girls ‘marrying’ the freshmen boys on Facebook was an unanticipated bonus, since it offered a comfortable and vivid way of introducing the three Is of Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination.

The conversation with Howard’s grandson Oscar occurred even later, when the book was largely drafted. Again, what Oscar said captured beautifully the strengths and opportunities of digital media, as well as the distinct challenges they pose. And since Oscar represents the future, the conversation provided an opportunity, in the final pages of the book, for us to state—looking ahead-- what we admire, and what causes us serious concern.

There are times in the book where you seem to be using “apps” metaphorically to identify and describe certain dimensions of the current generation’s cultural and social experiences and other places where you seem to be making causal claims, suggesting that the presence of apps have result in certain shifts in social behavior. You also make clear that demonstrating causality here would be difficult if not impossible. So could you say a bit more about what status apps hold in your argument?

We should perhaps have made it clearer when we were talking about apps literally—for example, what it means when a young person has never gotten lost. We should have specified when we were talking about apps metaphorically—what we call an app mentality (expecting everything to be slick, efficient, and branded) or a Super-App (the belief that life can or should consist of ‘one damned—or glorious -- app after another’).

You and we both point out that one can never attribute a certain outcome confidently to the proliferation of apps or, indeed, to the effect of digital technologies more generally. We can’t do the experiment and we can’t eliminate the effects of other factors (e.g. the move toward high stakes, standardized testing in the U.S. and its possible effect on young people’s literary capacities, or the impact that economic uncertainty has on youth’s willingness to take risks in their education and career trajectories).

But an important goal of social science is to create terms, frameworks, and theories that help us to make sense of our time—and, in this particular case, of the minds and behaviors of young people. This is what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson did when he wrote about the identity crisis; it is what sociologists David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny did when they were writing about ‘the other-directed generation.” Less grandly, our goal has been to help readers understand what might be distinctive about young people in the early years of the 21st century.

While we do not see ourselves as techno-determinists, we do call attention to the distinct qualities of apps and various other digital media, such as round-the-clock connectivity and the public, searchable nature of networked communication. These qualities do not in themselves cause people to behave in certain ways—the introduction of the first transcontinental railroad did not cause Americans to move Westward in the late nineteenth century, but it did facilitate this trend. When the distinct affordances and constraints of digital media play out in specific social contexts—with their own set of norms, values, and practices—we believe the interaction between technology and society encourages certain forms of behavior, self-expression, and communication at the same time as it discourages others.

 At other places, you seem to imply that we are making choices about what role we allow these apps to play in our lives, distinguishing for example between “app-dependent” and “app-enabled” activities. To what degree are these choices under our control? What factors help to determine what choices individuals make in their relationship to these technologies?

This question gets to the essence of our inquiry and our concerns. Howard is a strong believer in “free will,” but he does not believe that people are in any sense born as free agents. It’s the messages in society—personal but also technological—that determine whether we live in a relatively free society (to which the United States and many other countries aspire) or in a totalitarian society where free will is the enemy (the totalitarian societies of the 20th and earlier centuries, and also the dystopias portrayed by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Dave Eggers and other well- known literary figures).

The particular habits and practices that emerge in a society shape our relationship to other people, to ideas, to ourselves. In our research, we observed closely young people’s habits and practices around their use of technology and identified two distinct patterns. The app-enabled individual uses technology as a starting point, an introduction to new experiences, modes of expression, and social connection. App-dependent individuals, by contrast, look to their technologies first instead of looking outside to the non-technological world or examining their own thoughts and imaginative powers for a path forward—for these individuals, technology has become in effect a starting point, midpoint, and endpoint. We have the ability to shape our habits around technology and decide its role in our lives. But we must be deliberate about it, or we run the risk of abdicating our agency by outsourcing more and more of ourselves to our devices.

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on "youth and participatory politics"', he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents' academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV's digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Citizen Fan: An Interview with Filmmaker Emmanuelle Wielezynski-Debats (Part Three)

Many of the texts cited by the fans here are from the Anglo-American media realm or from the world of Japanese manga. Are there popular texts from France that has generated a fan-like response and if so, what can you tell us about them? From what I observed,  99% of the fans I met,  are in American or Japanese fandom. Only one or two mentioned working on French literature or French films. Natacha Guyot, for instance, is one of these exceptions. She worked at AO3 (for the Diversity showcase) and so she is very aware of this question. She practices vidding with French Canons such as"Angelique, Marquise des anges" or more recent French TV series. She uses French music, as well.

French canons do exist. Sometimes, we do not know the French origin of the canon : it is the case with Code Lyoko, or Dofus video games. In the past, there were always sequels to Alexandre Dumas’ works, but the thing is that nowadays, Fanfiction are often written in English, when it comes to canons such as Les Misérables, Le fantôme de l’opéra, Mademoiselle de Maupin, Les 3 mousquetaires, etc… I had the impression that there are more American fans writing fanfiction around Les Misérables or Dumas’ books, than French fans.

French fanfic writers probably want to have a large community of readers, they probably feel that would not be possible around French canons. They want their readers or their audience to know well the characters, the universe.

It is also possible that French culture would impress them too much to dare to write fanfic around it. Most of the fans I met told me they didn’t like our literature. They disliked reading at school. They have the feeling that classical books are boring. One of Citizen Fan's characters told me “Clearly in France,  we have the feeling that there is one culture that is worth it and another one that is worth nothing.”

In my opinion, our French authors have been sacralized, by our culture and by our laws as well,  meaning nobody is allowed to touch them. This might be the best way to kill them. Several fans told me “I would certainly never read Proust ! ” This struck me because these people read a lot and have a very large culture, including Japanese mythology for instance, but, from what I‘ve seen, they do not seem concerned with the French classics.

Now, Lionel Maurel reminded me that if you take the example of “Tintin”,  the society Moulinsart, which owns its rights,  defend them in a caricatural way: they attacked systematically fan sites. I wonder if , under the circumstances, Fandom can emerge or would survive. It is the same with “Le petit Prince”… And   “Arsene Lupin” is not as famous as “Sherlock Holmes”. Or should I write “Herlock Sholmes”, like Maurice Leblanc, father of Lupin, used to name a British detective involved in several Lupin’s adventures, providing us with some great crossovers! But Maurice Leblanc’s family would have blocked any Fandom’s crossovers. That’s for sure. Probably some fans know about that and do not want to take risk.

I have to put forward three recent French canons that have gathered around them,  very large fans communities, involved in fanarts, cosplays and fanfilms,  but yet not really in fanfiction writing. They are either TV or Web series. Their names are “Hero Corp”, “Le visiteur du futur” and “Noob”.

To what extent are these French fans engaging with fans from other parts of the world via the web?

From what I observed: a lot! Fans read and write in English. It is one of this things they seem to all share: English.

They engage with other parts of the world very easily. I met some who make collaborative vidding with Russians. Others challenge cosplayers from all Europe. Cosplayers send their pictures to American Video games editors via Facebook and intend to initiate conversations. They make digital fanzines with Canadians. They publish American fanart. They participate in conventions all over Europe.

Fandom is helping to erase difficulties. Some who had never left France, took the plane to join a convention or a festival, to get an interview of an actress. MLP fans organize conventions, thanks to crowd funding,  where MLP authors come from Los Angeles.

Manga fans learn Japanese, they travel over there. They have an expertise about anything Japan. Did you know that the main French fans convention is called "Japan expo"? Japanese video games producers usually send 50 of their top-management to attend this unbelievable event. France is the second largest market for Manga, after Japan. Some fanzine associations are big enough to invite Japanese authors to make a tour in Paris.

And also, very recently, NOOB team received an award in Los Angeles, as one of the best web-series. Funny thing is that French media gave this information but had never mentioned NOOB during the last years.

You talked to both male and female fans on the project and you often asked them about the gendered dimensions of fandom. Can you say something about what constitutes masculine or feminine modes of fan engagement in the French context?

A : Female fans are more numerous. In TV series, like Castle, there was 3 boys out of 70 contacts I made. I wanted to have boys in Citizen Fan, and so I clearly made efforts to have them.

Boys are gathered in My Little Pony fandom, where apart from one woman in the convention staff and maybe a few cosplayers, I’ve met only boys. I’ve seen a lot in the Video Games fandom, some in mangas and a lot in Star Wars.

When it comes to fanfiction, boys literally vanish, except for MLP, some video games and manga. During the Multi-fandom IRL fanfiction challenges, I attended, there was not any boy. Maybe one or two were online. When it comes to becoming a professional writer, only one person told me that was what he wanted and he is a boy. Girls never said so, they told me the opposite: they said they would never be a professional writer.

Fanart (drawings) seems more genre-balanced. For what I observed, maybe boys are a bit more numerous.

Cosplay is apparently also mostly feminine, except for Star Wars where 80% are male according to Arnaud Miralles, (the president of French 501st).

Fanfilms are totally different from boys to girls : for what I observed, boys gather 100 friends, with proper equipment and 4 cameras. Shooting looks like pro. Girls I have observed, gather 10 persons and 1 camera and the result seems less important than having a good time.

According to what I saw, Boys seemed engaging with a high degree of organization with clear objectives, they speak in public, they show themselves more, on Youtube or during convention panels. I observed that Girls have a high degree of personal engagement, they give more of their time and somehow are less concerned with what people think. They remain also more anonymous, they mentor and beta-read a lot.

But all this is very subjective and I must add that making documentaries, women are always more numerous and volunteer. So it might be that male fans avoided me.

American fans are increasingly struggling with the ways they are being entangled in the operations of the American media industry, as logics of engagement start to impact the way Hollywood interacts with its audiences. To what degree has this focus on engagement impacted the French media industries, which come from a very different tradition, one more grounded in public service and artistic enrichment than commercial success?

Manga:

A few years ago, one of the main French book publishers asked one of Citizen Fan's character belonging in the manga fandom, to give them some advice in choosing and publishing a manga. This fan helped them as much as he could. He helped them choosing the manga, having it translated but then the publisher didn't listen to what the fan said about the drawings, the jacket and several other "details". This manga did not do well on the market. The fan came out of this experience thinking there was no dialogue possible, because his expertise was not taken seriously.

Fanzine production in Manga is huge and very good and more and more numerous. People access printing technologies and produce faster. And yet they have not really a distribution circuit. The industry is probably keeping an eye on what fans produce.

Books: 1 - Publishers like Bragelonne are really well aware of fanfiction and they keep in touch with fandom. They released “Fangirl” here, in French, and for what I heard when I met one of their staff, Isabelle Varange, she had been a fanfic reader for a long time. This publisher is going to release Captive Prince in France.

2- There was once a fanfiction challenge, launched by Gallimard Jeunesse , following a book released : “A comme Association” ( P. Bottero & Erik L'Homme).

3 - Here is another example of an editor, Hachette, trying to catch the fanfiction practices. According to Fanfic writers, this s not truly fanfiction writing. In fact, they ask for original stories and they intent to control the texts.

Video Games : The Industry organizes a commercial event in Paris, (Paris Games Week) gathering 300 000 people during 2 days. The Image of this gathering is a very aggressive one. The video games are sold with Ferrari cars parked next to the desk, with scantly dressed women standing next to them… However, one of the organizers told me how much he would like cosplayers to come to this event. One of his reasons would be to please Japanese designers and producers, because they like cosplay and like to have Fans not to far from their games. For what I heard from fans, Paris Games week is very far from being the place to be. Are they going to manage a cosplay challenge ? We’ll see.

TV : I've heard of some transmedia experiment related to Plus belle la vie (France Televisions’ Hit ). This approach didn’t focus on fandom creativity. It was more like an online game to enhance the universe. There were not any fans contents produced. Fans were just involved as an audience. France Televisions, thanks to its channel “France 4” has done a great job around two French Canons Hero Corp and  Le visiteur du futur. They met the fans in conventions and there was a dialogue with the fandom. This might be the first example of French canons really active fandom, communicating with a Broadcaster.

Emilie Flament who has this fan culture and was part of Citizen Fan‘s team as well was in the staff that broadcasted both. Here is what she told me about Hero Corp :

“I have the impression that with the arrival of new media, industry realized that public participation was at stake. Passive audience was a disappearing specie. In front of the multitude of contents, in order to keep the audience, they had to really catch them. Traditional media are starting to understand it and they have engagement strategies more or less written and editorialized. The example of Hero Corp is a bit of a an UFO in French television. This comedy around super heroes universe gathered a large community of active fans during the first two seasons (2008-2010) It was aired on TV in a quite confidential way. When they realized there would not be a third season, fans mobilized online and IRL, going to see the producers and broadcasters, exactly the same way as Veronica Mars or Roswell fans did in the US. In 2012, France 4 ordered a season (and now they are in the 4th one). Fan mobilization clearly influenced this decision but it also provoked the launching of a totally new transmedia process for new seasons : the show runner, Alexandre Astier imagined a multi-supports narration, giving exclusive elements to fans, such as web series, bonuses, etc… through a dedicated application.”

 

The example of NOOB (the web-series) Noob is a French amateur web-series that is something like 9 years old. Video games characters inspire it. It has its own fans. These fans supported the crowd funding initiative launched one year ago that broke European records ( more than 500 000 euros in a few days) . They are now shooting a feature film. They became “Canon” or mainstream and yet the traditional media never talked about them.

To conclude on this, I would say that given the little knowledge our industries have of fans activities, their strategies are not yet having a strong impact on Fandom’s life, and are not “disturbing”. I agree on the fact that France has a strong tradition of public service ( Citizen Fan belongs to this), however, there is also the law issue, and the fundamentally elitist culture issue. All that stops the audience and tells them : stay quiet ! What kind of engagement will develop when the audience is expected to remain passive ?

In the end, what happens is that French fans engage mostly with American industries, naturally, since they are fans of American canons. They get to know about Amazon kindle worlds, they are Youtubers…

You've produced portraits of a number of fans which show us something of the world they inhabit -- their homes, their cultural practices, etc. What did you hope for people to see as you situated these fans in their social settings?

I asked what was the easiest for them. We chose the setting accordingly. They had to feel at ease and so I often let the choice to them. I also wanted the audience to identify with my characters, to have a genuine idea of who was talking. They are not "pirates" or "hysterical idiots" or whatever : they are everybody. They live ordinary lives. Yet, they are not filmed always in their home. Sometimes it was not possible, so I filmed them at my place or during conventions. It is a film about people. I hope the phenomenon of transformative works, in France, will have their faces, so it can be known, understood , and hopefully authorized by the French law.

You directly reproduced a number of examples of fan art and fan media within the project. Did you encounter any push-back over making some of this work as public as you do?

In the part called EXPLORER, I had 5 persons out of 400 who said NO ! To tell the truth, I made a deal that was : you authorize me to show your work and I link to your account on Deviantart, Facebook etc... The webdoc probably was more easy to accept , for them, than a movie screened in theaters. They are used to share their arts online. In Le PHENOMENE, I had no problem, because the fact to show their work was always, from the beginning, something I wanted and they agreed. France Televisions is well respected, as a public service. They never doubted me or France Televisions.

Tell us more about the choice to make this a nonlinear documentary via the web as opposed to a more traditional kind of linear documentary feature? Why was this approach appropriate for this subject?

This approach allowed me to be where they all were and where their creations were. This is a segment of population that is no longer in front of TV. I would have liked to have a linear version on TV as well, for the larger audience, but it was never accepted. The webdoc allows me to put more information without really making a longer film : each character's video last about 10 minutes and I hope it brings enough information so the audience can think about it as representing fandom. If someone wants to come back and watch another character, it is possible 24/7, from every where in the world. This is a gift for the documentary maker. Usually, we meet the audience during screenings in festival. It happens once a month. Here, anyone can send me a message, and for instance the fan artists already gave me extremely valuable and gentle feedback.

I would add two more reasons to choose the webdoc : 1- The audience can enhance Citizen Fan by uploading new works. This is the least we can do dealing with fandom creativity ! 2- The illustrations surrounding the interviews, are the ones I also used in the videos. In the linear format, I could only thank them in the end credits. Nobody would ever remember them and where it comes from. They are like a dead illustrations. Unless you recognize the work immediately, which means it is something as famous as “la Joconde”, anything unknown remains unknown. Here, illustrations are "alive" : if you like that Pony, just click on it and see more of the same fanartist. Then, if doing so, you forget about Citizen Fan, never mind ! The aim of this documentary was to send you there...

 

Emmanuelle Wielezynski Debats was born in 1970 , she is married and mother of  one. Emmanuelle grew up in Algeria, Ivory Coast and France. She was always interested in films and originally wanted to be a scenario writer. She graduated from a Business School in France and attended Film Studies, aside from an MBA program, in Montreal. In 1993, she registered in Anthropology, in Paris VII (Jussieu) with a major in Visual Anthropology. In 1995, she directed a short film, La Voie Blanche. For 12 years, Emmanuelle has worked at various film production companies, as an assistant to directors and to an editor as well. She now lives in Normandy with her husband, Michel Debats, a film director ( Oscar nominated  Winged Migration). In 2007, together they launched their own production company, La Gaptière Production, focused on documentaries. (www.lagaptiere.com)

La Gaptière Production has produced 5 films, starting with School on the Move, in 2008, a feature film released in theaters, that was selected by 50 festivals around the World and won 14 awards, as anthropological documentary, in several countries such as China, Russia, as well as the US (Columbus, Ohio and in Missoula, Montana).  Then came out  three TV films, Femmes en campagne (about women in rural world), Une jeunesse en jachère (about being young in rural world) and Qu'allez-vous faire de vos vingt ans ? (about Jean Jaurès' s legacy). Emmanuelle has worked during 3 years on a more personal project : Citizen Fan, just released as a webdoc.

Citizen Fan: An Interview with Filmmaker Emmanuelle Wielezynski-Debats (Part Two)

What surprised you the most about fandom?  What surprised me the most about fandom is the fact that it is so big and yet so unknown, here in France. It is a bit like no one would notice the Eiffel tower! This is why I like Lev Grossman's definition of fanfiction, as "dark matter of culture". But I like also the resemblance with what I suppose was a folk culture. This liberty, this carnival atmosphere. It is so surprising.

When people write fanfiction , they don't do it as part of the "culture", they do it as part of their own every day life, as they drink and eat, they write or read, or draw etc... I thought I was part of the creative class of our society but I was wrong : they create more than I do, more than most people, do.

What do you think other media-makers get wrong when they try to capture the experience of being a fan?

For what I 've seen,  and there are not so many examples, I think that some media-makers, here in France, have an aggressive point of view. Some of them are very nasty. I was sad for some kids that were mocked badly. There was one video made by a famous newspaper, about bronys, that was really terrible. I observe that journalist often talk about fans’ sexuality but never about their creativity.

Here,  there is a link to the French brony’s community’s reaction when some private French TV channel tried to interviewed them. The bronys refused to have anything to do with this channel, but there was a debate inside the fandom.

http://perso.silouatien.fr/explications_silou/

 

A part of my work has probably been to let those kids express themselves and have some sort of revenge. Why is it that creativity is not a bonus ?

More generally, the media makers just don't think about the fans as the interesting element, but rather remain focused upon the Canon. This ends up in something very cliché. We do not need people in journalism or documentaries to tell us what is going on in Castle or Harry Potter, or in any series or manga...They are easily available on the net, so we can make our opinion ourselves. I find more depth and more beauty in searching and discussing fandom's creativity. There, you might find new interpretations, new development for the story. There you might see the real use of this canon, in people's life.

To capture what it is to be a fan, I think, is to capture an intimate part of the individual. This private part expresses itself through fanfiction or vidding or cosplay but it is not easy to read, when you are not a fan yourself. If you stand outside the fandom, most of the creativity is hidden and when it is visible, it is not always understood.

For those of us in the Anglo-American world, one of the things you film provides is a glimpse into French speaking fan cultures. What can you tell us about the status of fandom in France?

The status of fandom in France?  Well, I guess there is not yet any status.

We discussed this question with Sebastien François,  Lionel Maurel, Alixe and several fans. We all agreed : Transformative works are as numerous as anywhere else in the world, and technology has developed as much as anywhere else, but, because these practices take place on the web and also because the canons belong to the industrial culture, or Mass culture, the landlords of culture, those who vouch for culture, here in France, totally ignore them. This is a pity because such practices involve so many people in this country and so many young people.

I asked Emilie Flament, what she thinks about this Fan status. She is a specialist of fandom in France and belonged to  France Televisions’ team that produced Citizen Fan.  Here is what she answered :

Fanish spirit is very much stereotyped in France. Most of people think fans are at best a bit “illuminated people” but they do not even realize that they are themselves fans in a way. Beyond legal issues, fans creations are not even considered, either by the public, (who ignores their existence) or the professional (who when they know them, tend to denigrate them). This is a French cultural problem that doesn’t affect only fans communities : we judge by the title, the diploma, and hardly by the skills.

The same limitations apply to fans creations : they are not screenwriters, artists, directors, so what they do is necessarily bad. I think that in order to avoid these stereotypes, fans communities tend to hide. Media has, until now, never helped. They’d rather contribute in the stereotypes.

Citizen Fan is, in that sense, a real premiere and it is because of its friendly approach that fans certainly accepted to reveal themselves and their works in order to change the ideas people might have about them, including people the closest to them.”

When I started pitching Call Me Kate!, (Citizen Fan’s WIP title), I had to go over the whole story, every time. I had to say that fanfiction really existed. When 50 Shades of Gray came out, very, very few French journalist investigated fanfiction through this shining example. I was hoping the book would inspire real debates about money, about genre,  but nothing happened. One magazine, specialized in literature, which had the honesty to say something about fanfiction, said that there was none in France, because we had no sense of storytelling ! When at that moment, 35 000 fanfiction in French, were on FFNET, in Harry Potter fandom only !

But, things are changing thanks to academics,  who initiate research on series or video games, including their fan communities. They organize seminars, conferences. There are many fans conventions too. Fans themselves do “come out” as fans of both industrial and classical culture. That’s what I did. The next generation will not ignore anything anymore.

Lionel Maurel explained the limitation of French law in Citizen Fan : “in France, we do not have the Fair Use  tradition.  Fair use might not be perfect but at least it offers a shelter. From a legal angle, we can tell that Transformative Fan’s status doesn’t exist, here in France.  It can hardly be covered by our two very tiny legal “exceptions to the right of the author” :  « Parody » or « Quotation »  exceptions that is. These two particular cases do not apply to digital use  ! And even if they did,  they do not fit with most transformative works that are not either funny or simply quoting. French people have  to handle the weight of what is called the Author’s  “moral  right”. This “moral right” forbids any action modifying « the integrity of the work ». That means the shape of the work is supposed to be fixed by its author, forever. That means it is forbidden to add sequels, prequels, new chapters… Even if the transformative work is not a commercial one !

There was an experts’ Mission launched by the Ministry of Culture, a year ago. This Mission is supposed  to address these transformative works and to ask our deputies to change that part of our law. I am not sure it is going to happen. The Mission didn’t even published any report at all! This is not a very good sign. For the moment, everything is still forbidden here, and a very large number of French citizens are conducting illegal activities.

You are a country which takes its artistic heritage and the concept of the moral rights of artists very seriously, so I can imagine that fans are seen as a bit heretical in their relationship to culture. So, how much resistance has emerged around your efforts to get French audiences to rethink the status of the fan?

Silence is the main resistance. Access to French media is really difficult. It might take several years.

Another resistance is to denigrate.  I just read some recent articles about how “fanfiction writers do not have any sexual life”… I wonder where we are going. In which world do these French journalists live?

I've been told that Citizen Fan is doing well online for now. It has 3 good partners, such as France Televisions –nouvelles écritures, Rue89, which is a well known digital newspaper, and Culture Box, an online journal focused on cultural events. I sincerely hope this might be the beginning for the change. However, no "traditional" press has written anything about Citizen Fan. No TV channel has shown any sequences. I am sad to say not even on France Television.

Personally, I encountered a lot of resistance, from friends or colleagues. I was told : "why are they doing that ? they don't have anything else to do ? " or "They do not have the right to do what they do".  And also things like "When my nephew read Harry Potter, he was 9 years old. He didn't open it since. Those people have a problem." I often encountered people full of spite and digust. As if it was not tolerate to interfere with culture.

But, again, here in France, the main resistance to this subject is to ignore that the subject is the audience’s creation and not the canon by itself.

Being a fan is a journey, it is a way of life but it is not an objective per se. The objective is to share with others and enlarge the original universe.  This I always found difficult to get understood. Some people think culture is something they already know, it goes from here to there and anything outside this box doesn't exist. It is not part of our culture.

On the other side, inside fandom, I was slowed down as well. There was some resistance there too. Some people closed their doors on me, because they were afraid I would make a fool of them or because their activity is a secret.

Emmanuelle Wielezynski Debats was born in 1970 , she is married and mother of  one. Emmanuelle grew up in Algeria, Ivory Coast and France. She was always interested in films and originally wanted to be a scenario writer. She graduated from a Business School in France and attended Film Studies, aside from an MBA program, in Montreal. In 1993, she registered in Anthropology, in Paris VII (Jussieu) with a major in Visual Anthropology. In 1995, she directed a short film, La Voie Blanche. For 12 years, Emmanuelle has worked at various film production companies, as an assistant to directors and to an editor as well. She now lives in Normandy with her husband, Michel Debats, a film director ( Oscar nominated  Winged Migration). In 2007, together they launched their own production company, La Gaptière Production, focused on documentaries. (www.lagaptiere.com)

La Gaptière Production has produced 5 films, starting with School on the Move, in 2008, a feature film released in theaters, that was selected by 50 festivals around the World and won 14 awards, as anthropological documentary, in several countries such as China, Russia, as well as the US (Columbus, Ohio and in Missoula, Montana).  Then came out  three TV films, Femmes en campagne (about women in rural world), Une jeunesse en jachère (about being young in rural world) and Qu'allez-vous faire de vos vingt ans ? (about Jean Jaurès' s legacy). Emmanuelle has worked during 3 years on a more personal project : Citizen Fan, just released as a webdoc.

Citizen Fan: An Interview with Filmmaker Emmanuelle Wielezynski-Debats (Part One)

Once upon a time, there was a group of french fan boys, with names like Francois, Jean-Luc, Claude, Louis and Alan, who showed up day after day at the same movie theater, sat on the front row, and watched mostly American genre films. Sometimes they wrote about they saw, engaging in intense debates in their own publications. Soon, they began to make transformative works -- films that borrowed elements from their favorite genres, paid homage to their favorite directors, repurposed clips and remixed posters and book covers from works that had inspired them. These works were transformative in another sense -- they changed world cinema. These fan boys created the French New Wave, which has been a source of pride in French national culture ever since.

I am telling this story because I want to challenge readers to think about what it means to a fan -- a creator of transformative works -- in the context of contemporary French culture. I've been pondering this question lately because of a recently released web documentary, Citizen Fan, which may just be the best documentary about fan culture that I have seen. The videos are in French (with the option of English subtitles) and they take us deep into the world of contemporary fans of everything from Castle to Harry Potter, from My Little Pony to anime, manga, and video games. Each segment focuses on a different fan, tells their story, introduces their world, and through this process, we get a glimpse into the cultural context in which they work. The site is amply illustrated with examples of fan art. All of this was created as a labor of love by a French documentary filmmaker,  Emmanuelle Wielezynski-Debats.

The filmmaker had reached out to me as she was beginning her work on this film, which was originally intended to deal with French fans of the American series, Castle, but as she describes below, expanded outward and shifted its focus along the way. She had shared with me her own sense of discovery as she fell hard for Castle and from there, fell into the world of French fandom (a community, as she notes, that has strong connections with fan cultures elsewhere around the world.) When I visited Paris a few summers ago, she asked me to do an interview, which we shot in a screening room at the Pompidou Center.

What I recall most vividly about the interview was being surrounded by French fan artists and writers who had shown up to hear my perspectives and provide potential links to the vignettes in her documentary.

I was delighted to learn that this material was now available on-line and could be accessed by those of us whose French would not be strong enough to keep up with what is being said. Unlike other documentaries about fandom, which always feel the need at some point to distance themselves and often fall into various traps of exoticizing, eroticizing and otherizing fandom, this film starts from a place of total respect for the value of what fans create. There have been other documentary projects from within fandom itself, often produced on very low budgets, often with limited production skills, but this is the first one I have seen made by a self-proclaimed fan, growing out of the fan world, and made with professional competency.

I had known France had produced some of the most intense cineastes in the world, who had helped to identify and name, for example, film noir, in the post-war period and I also knew that France has one of the most intense comics culture to be found anywhere, again suggesting a people often intensely invested in its high culture and literary traditions, but also popular culture. But I also knew that it was a country which provided very little protection for fair use and transformative works. So, I had questions about how a culture built on transformative cultural production would thrive in this particular national context. At a time when many of us in fandom studies have been calling for more work in the global and transnational dimensions of fan culture, it's exciting to have access to this rich database of how fandom operates in France.

In the three part interview which follows, Wielezynski-Debats shares with us her experiences in making the film and her observations about how French fandom navigates a culture that seems especially hostile to their identities and cultural practices.

She has been nice enough to share with us some clips from the documentary, but to have the full experience, you need to visit and explore the Citizen Fan website.

You've shared with me that part of what inspired this film was your own relationship to Castle. How did those experiences change the way you thought about what it meant to be a fan and what did you want to share about those experiences with the people beyond fandom who might be watching your film?

I didn't know what a FAN was. The word was not part of my vocabulary. What happened is that I started watching Castle. I started watching it beyond reason. I was under the spell of Castle. Yet, I didn't think to use the word FAN, which is so familiar now.

The term FAN could have been at that moment, in my opinion,  only related to the pop singers' groupies. Obviously, I had no idea of transformative fans.

The internet had never played a central part in my life before that fannish time. I discovered internet because of my addiction. It probably made it stronger. I was surprised by this invasion of my privacy.  I knew Castle's intrusion had something to do with my 20's, when I used to see two screwball comedies per day, in Paris theaters.

There was quite a long moment where I felt weak, because of the addiction, a bit ashamed. At that moment, if I had to call myself a fan, I would have said something like "being a fan is a self introspection through the image of an imaginary character". I didn't think that might be a pattern shared by others. I had not found a way to be creative. I didn't even know that creativity was the key. When I first discovered fanfiction, it was a shock. These people dared to do by themselves what I thought had to be made by the author.

I always had a strong respect for authors. When I read a book, I like to imagine the author behind the story. But I had to admit that reading fanfiction was more than pleasant. I could tell it was healing something. I liked it. Later,  I discovered there was an audience reading those fanfiction, making comments. These people were providing themselves and others with what they needed, they were entering into the storyworld and sitting at the author's table. I thought something in the society was changing and I started to admire this phenomenon.

So yes, my encounter with French fans has changed a lot of things.  They claim being a fan is an identity, they gather in a community and they create things. I suspected none of this when I was on my own. When I started, I was excited with what I had just discovered. I felt very necessary to share with people beyond fandom the different steps:  being a fan, being addict, sharing, creating, feeling better.

You, Henry Jenkins, said in Citizen Fan,  "the fan doesn't only raise questions, he provides answers". This is something important. The answers are not only about the Canon but also about ourselves.

I had the impression there was another French society , other than the one I used to know. Another creativity. Another relation to media, therefore to culture...and especially to American culture. I wanted to share this insight  through a documentary.

Tell us more about your journey in creating this project.

I was able to meet about a hundred transformative fans, thanks to two people: BlackNight, founder of the Castle French Boardhttp://castle.frenchboard.com/;  and Alixe, who writes fanfiction in Harry Potter. She created www.ffnetmodedemploi.fr">a guideline in French in order to help people post upon Fanfiction.net. I think most of French fanfiction writers know this website. These two women are highly creative. They have made several websites, written fanfiction, and fanzines and they have great skills. They are leaders. These two women are also quite different. One of them lives in the rural world and is unemployed, and she is in her mid 20's;  the other one made long studies, has a full time job in Paris and is in her 40's.  Their networks are very different. Both impacted Citizen Fan a lot.

In January 2012, I started meeting Castlefans all around France. I traveled by train. Fans would come to the railroad station to pick me up and we would spend the day together, discussing the documentary itself, how much it was needed and also obviously sharing views about Beckett and Castle. I enjoyed the fan-"brotherhood" or fan-"sisterhood". I was for the first time feeling the warmth of the fandom.

As I met them IRL, they became the faces of what a fan is. This word went along with people. Very nice people, easy to become friends with, especially since they were welcoming me as a fan too. They were never foreigners not one second. From the first minute, we knew each others. This close relationship was always an asset for the film and remains the same now. I interrogated them about their creations. I was not filming. We were talking for hours. I took notes about how we were going to show these creations to a larger audience. In France, as in many places in the world, writing is a noble art, so fans who write would be considered. So I thought.

In November 2011, I had contacted France Televisions online services. Boris Razon, who was the head of this department, was interested in the project. I worked with Christophe Cluzel who is really fond of the fandom activities, and Emilie Flament, who had been a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and had written Fanfiction. However, it took almost two years to convince the rest of the staff and to have the definite "Go".  We tried to have a linear version of Call me Kate! (Citizen Fan's working title)  on TV. Unfortunately,  France 2, the channel that airs Castle, didn't want anything about Castle fans. They didn't see this phenomenon as a legitimate subject.

The Web-doc is a new genre. I had to understand new techniques and new priorities, that were totally different from traditional documentaries. France Televisions organized several development seminars, where Sébastien François (@sebastien_fr)  a French Sociologist who made his PhD on Harry Potter Fanfiction in French, Lionel Maurel (@calimaq) a whistle blower as well as an expert of our law and Natacha Guyot (@natchaguyot) a former AO3 staff, involved in vidding as well as in academic research on Video games,  took part. We tried several ideas. Nineteen groupe, the web agency that put Citizen Fan online, was here from the start, including during these development seminars.

It was decided that Citizen Fan had to be ready to upload what fans would send us. It had to meet all the requirements of France Televisions' complex digital network.

When everything was settled with France Televisions, after two years work, I learnt that the CNC (French Ministry of Culture) would not fund us, at all. Half of the budget was gone. They stated that this subject was not "sound" enough. After meeting French fans, I wanted to meet some French academics working on Fandom or Folk culture, or Fanfiction. I had very few names, and received very few answers. The first ones I contacted didn't give me the names of any colleagues. There were several dead ends.

Until I met Sébastien François, who was finishing his PhD at TELECOM Paris Tech and who is now assistant researcher at Universités Paris 13 and Paris Descartes. He is a specialist of French Fanfiction. He accepted right away and helped me during all the process of making Citizen Fan.

During all that time, I had been reading your books, as well as Hellekson and Busse‘s and Michel de Certeau’s. I watched documentaries such as Remix manifesto, IRL the Bronze, Trekkers etc... It seemed to me obvious that I had to interview you. You had the kindness to accept. Your  interview was the first one I conducted, but I had already met with all my characters and I knew them well. So, I questioned you with the idea that your answers might enlighten what fans would tell me, describing their life and creative process. I constructed your interview accordingly.

I had chosen 22 fans which I found were representing, the different issues in Fandom. I always kept your answers in mind, while I was interviewing them. It helped me leading the interviews. Because of the budget cut, we ended up editing in my flat, totally out of the traditional circuit of the audiovisual production in Paris.

The editing was the longest part. I had to ask 400 people, one by one,  for the authorization to use their artworks. I wanted to illustrate Citizen Fan 99% with fanarts. This was my choice. Yet, I was and remain in the uncertainty, as far as French law is concerned. Do I have the right to show transformative works, in a country where transformative - even for free - is forbidden ? I kept worrying about that, all along. And no lawyer could give me any piece of advice.

Emmanuelle Wielezynski Debats was born in 1970 , she is married and mother of  one. Emmanuelle grew up in Algeria, Ivory Coast and France. She was always interested in films and originally wanted to be a scenario writer. She graduated from a Business School in France and attended Film Studies, aside from an MBA program, in Montreal. In 1993, she registered in Anthropology, in Paris VII (Jussieu) with a major in Visual Anthropology. In 1995, she directed a short film, La Voie Blanche. For 12 years, Emmanuelle has worked at various film production companies, as an assistant to directors and to an editor as well. She now lives in Normandy with her husband, Michel Debats, a film director ( Oscar nominated  Winged Migration). In 2007, together they launched their own production company, La Gaptière Production, focused on documentaries. (www.lagaptiere.com)

La Gaptière Production has produced 5 films, starting with School on the Move, in 2008, a feature film released in theaters, that was selected by 50 festivals around the World and won 14 awards, as anthropological documentary, in several countries such as China, Russia, as well as the US (Columbus, Ohio and in Missoula, Montana).  Then came out  three TV films, Femmes en campagne (about women in rural world), Une jeunesse en jachère (about being young in rural world) and Qu'allez-vous faire de vos vingt ans ? (about Jean Jaurès' s legacy). Emmanuelle has worked during 3 years on a more personal project : Citizen Fan, just released as a webdoc.

 

Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Three)

  There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the role of comedy news programs such as the Colbert Report and The Daily Show, with skeptics expressing outrage that young people may learn more about world events through such comic sources than from traditional journalism. Yet, you argue that Will Rogers performed similar functions for Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. How might these contemporary programs fit into a longer tradition of using comedy to work through change in American society?

Jon Stewart’s show uses a series of “senior correspondents” representative of women (Samantha Bee, Olivia Munn), Indians/Muslims (Assif Mandvi), black women, (Jessica Williams), black men (Larry Wilmore; Wyatt Cenac), that satirize the notion of any one person(s) as representative of any of these ethnic/racial/religious groups.

If you look at Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire for example, satire as political critique has been with us. The sociopolitical has a long history in comedy since commedia, Roman Comedy, and Old Comedy of Aristophanes. The significant difference is that with global media platforms, this form of satire in the early twenty-first century, is accessible and readily available to anyone who can understand the English language, and has access to a computer or i-phone. It cuts across class, race, and gender lines in a universal way. And this “danger” that holding the “news” media’s feet to the fire has become a critique of American society and culture and its intervention around the globe, makes the mainstream news media afraid that they are irrelevant and only representing the interests of the corporations that own them and the advertisers who pay the bills. Therefore this satirical critical humor, as with Will Rogers and Fred Allen before them, keeps the media in check in the way that journalism was meant to at the turn of the twentieth century.

Personally, I am not a twenty-something or even a thirty-something, and I still get my news from Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They are more scandalized and critical of the corruption of government, corporations, bigots, racists, and homophobes, than any legitimate “news” outlet. They also cover topics that the news media simply won’t. If news is tied to corporate profits then that will dictate what is considered newsworthy, and there goes freedom of the press and the public’s right to know out the window. Comedy only works when it expresses the freedom to satirize and comment on world affairs. It gets at the truth as Larry David and Ricky Gervais have noted.

 

You write in The Comic Offensive about the ways that Dave Chappelle was almost crippled by the fear that many whites were laughing at his comedy for the “wrong reasons” and that he was helping to keep alive a tradition of the black minstrel which many associate with earlier moments of racism. Is this necessarily a trap which contemporary black comics have to confront? Are there elements of the Minstrel tradition that can be reclaimed to allow other kinds of voices to be heard?

When I ran the New Theatre in Boston (we produced the work of playwrights and performers of color) in the mid-1990s, I went to The Strand Theatre in Roxbury to see a “chitlin” circuit show starring Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, who played the character of “Freddie Boom Boom Washington” on the 1970s sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter. I was amazed at how the audience embraced the minstrel aspects of the show from racial and gender stereotypes, horny old men, lazy and indigent black men who could not take care of their children etc., and how the audience did not reject these stereotypes as offensive but the predominantly black audience of 2,000 or so brought the house down with laughter and call and response that a director/playwright colleague and friend, Lois Roach, said would happen.

I think blackface/whiteface comedy is quite powerful and anything that incendiary should still be used in comedy since it crosses the line of what is “acceptable” and that is what comedians claim they want to do if they are effective. So, if it offends, so much the better. Context is everything. As Spike Lee observed in Bamboozled corporate interests and the pursuit of fame and fortune has reduced black performers and sports figures to enact minstrel-like behavior are very clear representations of how minstrelsy is embraced in order to make money even today. So comedians have more control over the use and misuse of minstrelsy by enacting it. Dave Chappelle’s brilliant commentary on racism in which he portrays a black man who is a white supremacist – because he is literally blind to his own skin color – is still one of the strongest commentaries on how absurd and superficial racism really is in the end. If you “look” white you will be treated differently than if you “look” black. Again context is everything.

Since 9/11, we have seen more and more comics coming from the American Muslim community, seeking to use laughter as a means of challenging existing stereotypes and gain mainstream acceptance. What do you think these performers might learn by looking more broadly at the relationship between immigration and comedy in the American tradition?

Intolerance of immigrants is shockingly similar to the early twentieth century with the influx of over 13 million southern and eastern European immigrants. The rhetoric toward middle eastern (particularly Muslim) and Mexican and Central American refugees and immigrants, has replaced the southern and eastern European xenophobia of the early twentieth century but otherwise the condemnation of “amnesty” and “they will take away our jobs, our women, and our American dream” and that “real Americans” will be somehow denigrated and degraded by the influx of this new generation of immigrants is still very much with us. Identifying ethnic and racial groups as “all the same” is debunked when we see comedians take on race and ethnicity and religious identity as fluid and not fixed. The global world and mixing of race and ethnicity is creating a new world in which the younger generation is witnessing these borders and definitions as being fluid and more integrated. I think 9/11 put the US back into the rest of the world as not being separate from, but as part of, what makes human beings part of a global village. Tragically it takes an act of terrorism to bring Americans into the global community but it also was necessary in order to confront the notion that the “enemy” is subjective depending on where you stand.

Assif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart relates stories of always being cast in the role of Muslim terrorists in Hollywood (he was born in India and is a US citizen for the record), but in comedy he can confront this stereotype by satirizing the racial types that the willfully ignorant and bigoted take seriously. Mandvi in the New York Times has said “I’ve always said I’m the worst representative of Muslim Americans that’s ever existed, because I’ve been inside more bars than mosques. But I recognize this has nothing to do with me. There are very few people representing the moderate American Muslim voice on television, and I happened to fall into this thing. The fact that I get to do it is an unbelievable blessing for me.” (New York Times, April 20, 2012)

Comedians through their humor connect all of us when they “put it over.” We are all in on the joke, and those who don’t “get it” will always be offended, because their xenophobia, bigotry, and racism has been exposed. To finish with a comic callback, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen

Comedy Is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Two)

You spend a good deal of time discussing the Marx Brothers, who remain perhaps one of the best known of the comedy teams to emerge from the Vaudeville stage and go to Hollywood. What might contemporary audiences be missing when they watch the Marx Brothers’ movies if they do not understand their roots in vaudeville?  

Since my late teens when I became aware of the Marx Brothers I have always enjoyed their movies and their perspective of the underdogs who get the better of those in authority. As a working class kid from New Hampshire, I was inspired by the fact that they could break down the doors of the powerful and elite by mocking them and creating chaos in the halls of respectability; a place I never thought I certainly could ever access or influence personally.

When I started to research the Marx Brothers more in depth as performing artists, I became aware that many of their plots and gags were taken directly from their twenty-plus years in vaudeville. They had not made their first picture until they were in their early forties. This was a revelation to me. The Marx Brothers movies were translations of the vaudeville stage and the Broadway musical revue on film. Not films in and of themselves, but stage shows and routines that had been honed and crafted over many years on the road on the third-tier vaudeville circuit.

The seemingly improvisational feel of the films was not improvisational at all. But they made it seem as if it were happening in the moment for the very first time, and I think this still resonates with me each and every time I watch these films. How fresh, accessible, and alive they feel in that relationship between audience and stage (that notion of “putting it over” as mentioned before), seen in the asides that Groucho makes to the camera as if he were talking to a live audience. This still works for me and that feeling of the servants putting it over on the masters even after I know that it was well rehearsed and staged over many years of their careers, always amazes me.

Once the Marx Brothers let go of the formality of their vaudeville act in the 1910s of a singing and dancing act, and started in on their special brand of comic subversion through making nonsense out of authority and the rules of upper-class decorum, then they began to thrive as a comedy act both on stage and screen.

 

The status of women in comedy remains a controversy today, despite the fact that female comics have been disrupting gender roles on stage since at least the turn of the last century. What would we understand about today’s female clowns, such as Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman, if we traced their roots back to the “rank women” of the early vaudeville stage?

The notion that female comedians are somehow dirtier and more obscene simply because they are women is still an issue in contemporary comedy. In my book The Comic Offense From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy (2014), I cite an incident that Tina Fey writes about in Bossypants (2011), Fey’s memoir, when she recalls a story in which fellow Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler was in a meeting with a predominantly male group of writers and cast members, doing a “dirty and loud and ‘unladylike’” comic bit. Jimmy Fallon, the de facto male star of the moment, mocked Poehler for her crudeness saying, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.” According to Fey, “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.”

This notion that Poehler was offending her fellow male comedians simply because she was a woman telling an offensive story is ironic given the fact that this is what the male comedians admire in each other; the notion of crossing the line.

A female student of mine who is studying comedy and wants to be a comedian, was shocked that Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007 an article titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The institutionalization of comedy by men in the early twentieth century was an attempt to marginalize women as comedians and comic writers in a self–created “boys’ club.” And this “boys club” is alive and well today. Hitchens thought women didn’t have to be funny because women didn’t need to attract men, and humor according to him, was necessary for men to attract women. Of course this is overly simplistic and Victorian in its outlook on male/female relations (not to mention the fact that it discounts lesbians entirely), but it persists in the twenty-first century.

And although Tina Fey was the first female head writer in the thirty-nine year history of Saturday Night Live, she is still the only female head writer in their history even after her leaving the show eight years ago in 2006. Personally I think men are threatened by funny women since they appear to relate it to masculinity and some kind of mating ritual. Admittedly humor is attractive, but certainly men are attracted to funny women, and women are attracted to funny women as well, no?  

I think the main problem is that women being considered “dirty” or “obscene” or “crossing the line” somehow puts them in the category of being what the turn of the twentieth century reformers saw as “rank ladies.” Mae West, May Irwin, Marie Dressler, Eva Tanguay, and Kate Elinore were seen as “tough girls” who were too aggressive physically and verbally and lacked the demur refinement of middle-class women of “respectability.” Sex jokes in particular somehow signaled to the primitive male mind that women are sexually available and promiscuous, and ultimately morally bankrupt. And this brings us back to the virgin/whore binary that women still can’t seem to shake.

 

The vaudeville tradition fed film and television comedy for generations, but there are few if any performers with roots on the variety stage who are still working today. Today’s clowns come from the standup circuit, Improv comedy troops, and television sketch comedy programs. In what ways do these newer forms of comedy mirror the traditions of earlier forms of popular entertainment?

It was very surprising to me when I was researching these books that the techniques used all the way back to the commedia dell’arte of the sixteenth century Italy have always been inspirational to comedians. Comedians sincerely study and are influenced by performers from comedy history. There is a real respect for the craft and for those comedians who came before them.

The term slapstick itself, as an actual noise maker that emulates the slapping and punching associated with Punch and Judy puppets, was used in silent film shorts – giving it the name slapstick comedy – and of course is still used in the comedy films of Judd Apatow and Mike Judge – look at The Hangover franchise as a prime example. But just the notion of pain and getting into trouble as being funny, watching someone slip and fall or get hit by various objects as in the Three Stooges, never seems to get old.

Also the idea of improvisation—of being in the moment and making jokes that can be tailored to the audience is fascinating to me and embraced by comedians. You can change the jokes according to who is in the audience and whom you want to offend (or not) as the case may be. This is very important to the notion of “putting it over” as well. Knowing your audience and what is “killing” and what is “dying.”

The stage is the only place where this immediate response and in-the-moment improv is possible. Even though there are improv television shows, they can be edited (and are certainly) after the fact in case there is anything said in the moment that offends or satirizes advertisers or the television network. SNL and other “live” shows have that two-three second delay just in case someone crosses the line. You can’t censor or edit a live performance, or let me correct that, you can shut it down, or stop the act, as in the case of Lenny Bruce, who was literally arrested onstage, but that in itself made a statement that couldn’t be edited from the minds of the audience.

The notion that comedy is and was dangerous, and threatening to authority figures, governments, corporations, and the ruling classes, is truly what connects the vaudeville generation to contemporary standup and improvisational comedy. To paraphrase Moliere who has been quoted as saying about his incendiary play Tartuffe, which the Catholic church of the seventeenth century was attempting to ban and threatened to imprison its author, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

 

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen

Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part One)

Last spring, I was asked whether I might be willing to blurb a book called The Comic Offensive, From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy. This was something of a blast from the past for me! My  dissertation book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, was also focused on the ways that vaudeville had influenced other forms of popular comedy. My story remained focused in the 1920s and 1930s, where-as Rick DesRochers has brought the vaudeville tradition into the 21st century through the imaginative pairings between different comic performers – for example, Will Rogers and Stephen Colbert or the Marx Brothers and Larry David -- in order to show how certain styles of comedy have persisted over time. DesRochers contends that 20th century American comedy has always allowed the expression of critical and often minority perspectives before a more mainstream audience. Since reading The Comic Offensive, DesRochers has shared with me his other new book, The New Humor in the Progressive Era, which provides more of the historical context for how this style of comedy emerged and what roles it played in the early 20th century.

The two books, together, complete a historical framework for thinking about popular theatrical performance and humor across the span of the 20th century, the ways it differed from 19th century predecessors, the ways it responded to social, political, economic, and technological change, and the ways that it has often challenged the way the culture saw itself. DesRochers does all of this in a fashion that is grounded in original source materials, including perhaps the fullest discussion to date of the theatrical work of the Marx Brothers before they went to Hollywood, and is presented in a vivid, engaging, style that would be highly accessible to undergraduate students.

I invited DesRochers to do an interview for my blog, and I am delighted to share it with you today. His substantive responses, his reflections on comedy -- both past and present -- should give you plenty to think about and may even provide some encouragement to seek out comic performers who might have escaped your attention before. I hope you will enjoy the experience of forgotten laughter.

 

What was "New" about the "New Humor"? How did it differ from more established traditions of humor and comedy in American culture?

The playwright and librettist Edward “Ned” Harrigan, co-author of the popular Mulligan Guard series of light comedy revues, warned in 1900 that “there’s been a great change in the sense of humor in New York, the great influx of Latins and Slavs—who always want to laugh not with you but at you—has brought about a different kind of humor. Vaudeville historian Albert MacLean Jr., called this notion of Harrigan’s “the new humor.” What was “new” about the new humor was that it challenged Anglo-American authority and the belief that the ruling classes’ notion of highbrow culture could be made fun of and even defied. You could laugh at the abuses of authority and Anglo-American dominance, as well as with the attempts of southern and eastern European immigrants trying to assimilate into the Anglo-American way of life. The irony of this xenophobia of Harrigan’s was that the Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants were discriminated against in the very same way only two decades earlier, and now Harrigan, along with Tony Hart, was affectionately writing musical revues that featured those same Irish immigrants that were once perceived as morally inferior and culturally lowbrow.

The contemporary version of the new humor can be witnessed in the work of comedian and writer and co-creator of Seinfeld, Larry David, when he discusses with Ricky Gervais, “We all have the bad thoughts. We just think them and don’t say them. But the bad thoughts are funny.” In Dave Chappelle’s comedy, being offensive through the new humor becomes necessary to create meaningful conversations that cannot happen otherwise. His interview with James Lipton of the Actor’s Studio concludes with “I’m a comedian, man. That’s how I look at the world. . . . The only way to know where the line is, is to cross it. What is life if nobody’s crossing the line?” This notion of crossing the line by laughing at authority and mocking hegemonic ideology and culture was known as the new humor. The new humor is still very much with us in the work of Chappelle, Larry David, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Louis C. K., Sarah Silverman, and Jon Stewart.

One of the ways that the New Humor pushed back against older standards of taste and decorum was through its emphasis on emotional immediacy, on provoking overt displays of emotion from the audience. You devote a chapter to the concept of “putting it over.” What did that mean to the vaudevillians? What kind of relationship did they seek to establish with their audiences?

“Putting it over” was the comedians’ way of saying that they had a connection with the audience, and that their comedy was getting over the footlights as a form of dialogue between audience and performer. You could put it over by singing, dancing, telling jokes, playing comic characters, or combining any number of these performance skills, but the real talent lay in understanding how the comedian related to the audience and made them feel as if they were complicit in the subversive nature of humor. I am very interested in the vaudeville notion of “putting it over” as a way of getting jokes across to audiences as a coded way of telling the audience that they are in on the jokes, and share something that the world outside the theater isn’t in on. This is very much in the spirit of the sixteenth century Italian commedia dell’arte where servants like Arlecchino would “put one over” on their masters like Pantalone, not just to make fun of them, but as a means of survival. If I can trick the master out of food and money, and at the same time make him look like a fool all the better, and there are those in the audience going through circumstances. In The New Humor in the Progressive Era (2014), I see it as a class conflict where comedians from impoverished immigrant backgrounds were able to make a living by putting over their act and therefore making money to survive, and in some cases actually rise to the upper classes (at least economically) themselves.

You argue that vaudeville humor “brought unconventional ideas and the rejection of conformity to middle-class audiences, who were sheltered from and fearful of new concepts, cultures, and ethnicities at the beginning of twentieth century America.” What were they afraid of and how was comedy used to address their “bogeys”?

I think the central fears or “bogeys” – a term I appropriated from Walter Lippmann – were very much centered around the idea of keeping the working poor in their place; to stifle creativity, innovation, and radical sociopolitical notions of equal opportunity for all, at bay. By insisting that the underclasses conform to middle-class standards of morality –  for example, women get married and take care of children; school as a place of assimilation and conformity to middle-class Anglo-American values of patriotism and duty to ones superiors; and simply fear of sex and other vices that the middle class felt the new immigrants brought with them from their presumably “uncivilized” peasant backgrounds –the middle class could stem the bogeys that the new immigrants were trying to take their jobs and their daughters away from them through infectious immoral behavior. The idea of “association” – in other words who you associated with – would influence you in either a good way with strong middle-class values, or in a bad way through vice and sin that was perpetrated on the comic stage. The bogeys of “foreignness” still permeate the US today; the fear of immigrants from say Mexico and the Middle East.

The rhetoric of Vaudeville’s promoters emphasized the notion that they were offering “refined entertainment,” yet it is not hard to find contemporary critics who were shocked and outraged by what they saw being performed. You cite, for example, an American Magazine author who proclaimed that Vaudeville had “done more to corrupt, vitiate and degrade public tastes in matters relating to the stage than all other influences put together.”  This has led to debates about the cultural status of variety entertainment during the period. How have you approached this question?

I think the idea that Lawrence W. Levine promotes in Highbrow Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) and David Savran more recently put forward in Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (2010) about the 1920s jazz era, that there was a real effort on the part of cultural critics like Sime Silverman at Variety or later George Jean Nathan with the canonization of American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill to create an American stage literature that rivaled that of the Western European theater, influenced cultural critics as tastemakers to consciously create a consciously “highbrow” theatrical culture in the US. Therefore the critics and upper-class patrons of the performing arts promoted forms of American culture that would emulate and be considered of cultural significance, especially on the stage through plays as literature that has still remained with us to the present day. Popular entertainments were considered by critics and progressive reformers alike as leading to degeneracy, immorality, and ignorance of the value of high culture with vaudeville in particular. The idea that the unwashed masses would be corrupted by simply being in the presence of vaudeville comedians, jazz musicians, and musical theater performers, was something to reject and ultimately correct through the fine and performing arts like ballet, symphonic music, and plays. Ultimately “refined” vaudeville was promoted by mangers and entrepreneurs like B. F. Keith, that took “high class” acts from the legitimate theater, opera, and classical music to include in vaudeville bills in order to “clean up” vaudeville; this was known as “the Sunday School circuit.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post.  He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen 

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Three)

Henry: I really appreciate the work the CML does in translating research into awareness and action, in trying to build a more sustainable and scalable movement for media literacy. As someone who sees themselves first and foremost as a researcher, I am deeply committed to translating our research into language that can be broadly accessible and providing resources which can be deployed within important conversations; I see this blog as part of the work I try to do to broker between different groups of people who should be talking to each other. My team through the years has done a fair amount of applied work with educators, trying to get our materials out in the field. We've come to the same conclusion you have that media literacy is at least as much about rethinking education as it is about rethinking media. We found very early on that developing resources were never enough unless you also helped to train the teachers who would be using those materials. This took us down the path of developing and running teacher training programs in New Hampshire and California, and then publishing a series of white papers which dealt with what we saw as best practices in fostering participatory learning, practices that both dealt with how to integrate the new media literacies into school curriculum but also how to couple them with progressive pedagogies that are very much in line with those that Masterman describes above -- pedagogies that are very much informed by thinkers such as Dewey and Freire. See, for example:

 

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/play-participatory-learning-and-you.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/shall-we-play.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/09/designing-with-teachers-participatory-approaches-to-professional-development-in-education.html

 

We are back in the trenches again with the latest phase of our work, this time emerging from extensive research (interviews with more than 200 young activists) about the political and civic lives of American youth: We've now built an archive featuring videos produced by young activists around a range of causes, many of them appropriating and remixing elements from popular culture, many of them using tools and tactics associated with participatory culture. This time, we are testing these materials in collaboration with the National Writing Project, and working with their teachers (as well as the organizations we study) to develop activities and lesson plans which might allow educators to integrate our materials and insights into their teaching. One thing we've learned through the years is that our core strength is ultimately in cultural theory and research and thanks to my move to USC, coupled with media production capacities; we have some understanding of core pedagogical issues; but we do better working hand in hand with classroom teachers to develop the actual activities that make sense in the public schools. And we count on the power of various networks -- including both the Media Literacy Movement and those folks involved with the DML world -- to get word out about what we've created. This is why I place such a high priority in building partnerships which can help us work together to achieve our shared goals.

 

The issue of whether representation remains the core of contemporary media literacy is a complex one, it seems to me. Representation is a powerful principle, one which helps to explain the ways we use media to make sense of ourselves and our lives, and it remains very pertinent in a world where we are encouraging young people to develop a stronger sense of their own public voices, to tell their own stories, to create their own media. Looking critically at existing representations, thinking ethically about the choices they make as they create their own representations as media producers remain core to any understanding of media literacy, but young people are also participating in media which are more focused on social exchanges and personal interactions in which the creation of texts is secondary to the cementing of social bonds.  If we were developing media literacy in response to the telephone rather than television, would we be asking different questions, have different priorities?

 

Representation is itself a process, to be sure, but we also often use it to refer to a product or text: a representation. The disciplines which do much of the heavy lifting on media literacy education -- especially language arts but also arts education -- tend to focus heavily on texts, and so as the term representation gets translated into their vocabulary, it is not surprising that it comes to circle around texts. This focus on texts can lead us to think in terms of readers and writers/producers but not in terms of participants in an ongoing communication process. And this is a key reason why my vocabulary tends to place a greater emphasis on notions of participation than on notions of representation.

 

TESSA:  Ah...and so down the rabbit hole we go. And we are going on a slippery slope because as you said, it’s complicated.  I'm enjoying the ride!

Which universe are we describing? The physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive on a local and physical level -- the world that surrounds us with physical media like logos and traffic signs and billboards and movies and music and candy wrappers -- or the alternative global village or digital media that we access only through the assistance of hardware and software media like the internet in general or Instagram or Facebook or games?  In each case, the media are man-made, which means that men (and oh yes let's be sure to be inclusive and say women too) construct these media messages and devices. Construction always calls for decisions on the part of the creator(s), who sets the initial limits and boundaries through which we may experience his or her creation -- media construction, whether digital or not, is a physical representation of the creator's intention.

So fundamentally, construction and (implicitly) representation must take place before participation is possible.  And participatory culture (whether we participate online or off) is both an input to and an outcome of construction/representation -- and the fusion constantly changes the nature of and the expression of the construction, which always has emotional, social and cultural implications. There is a chicken-or-egg quality to the cultural issues and their intersection with media, but it can also be argued that an individual's mind and group culture itself are also constructions/representations.

But back to media...As an example, let's think about video games.  The games are media constructions and they provide a software "box" in which players operate, and this software box is constrained by the hardware platform.  The creator of the game designed the game intentionally -- to share a worldview and/or to profit from game purchases. Players engage with the game text itself and interact with each other to experience the game in a myriad of ways -- visual, verbal, social, emotional -- and often players invent new ways of experiencing the game through mods or hardware and they amplify their experiences together.  But because the construction itself is constrained, there are inevitably frames and experiences that are included and excluded.

So much depends on how we parse the world we live in!  But at the same time, to take a scientific approach towards media literacy, we need boundaries and concepts that define and describe a specific field of inquiry -- that of media, in this case. While the cementing of social bonds through media use may be a primary goal for youth or adults, media are still the means toward an end, while also acknowledging that digital spaces (constructions) multiply possibilities for and the nature of social engagement exponentially.

I agree with you, Henry, that the focus on the word “texts" -- because of its traditional association with physical media -- generally limits people's perceptions about participating in an ongoing communication process that digital media enable.  In today's context in the global village, the notion of text expands so that "text" may become the entire "box" that encompasses the digital world itself, and the cultural representations within the box and outside it. We now have the physical world and the digital world and their intertwining and as Steve Jobs famously espoused, we need to "think different."

 

Henry: Your phrase above, "construction and (implicitly) representationmust take place before participation is possible," hints at the core hesitation which I am trying to flag here. I absolutely agree on the term construction in this sentence and with your discussion of the many different ways that construction takes place on the level of technological constraints and socio-cultural conventions. I have always been drawn to Lisa Gitelman's definition of media: she argues that a medium is a technology that enables communication and also a set of associated 'protocols' or social and cultural practices that have grown up around the technology. She writes, "Protocols express a huge variety of social, economic, and material relationships. So telephony includes the salutation 'Hello?' (for English speakers, for example) and includes the monthly billing cycle and includes the wires and cables that materially connect our phones...And protocols are far from static." These features change over time, work differently in different cultural contexts, and are influenced by the other media that intersect with them at any given moment. So, our models of different media and of the media ecology have to be very nimble to respond to those transitions. But, all of this can be described in terms of the construction of media messages, audiences, and contexts. I would just expand contexts to include not simply forms of production but also the terms, the social norms, that shape our participation.

 

However, I do have some questions about whether "representation" can stand in for the totality of the communication process. We might start with the distinction art critics might draw between representational and abstract art: surely, an abstract painting is a media text, but does it fall under the category of representation. Sure, in an abstract or "implicit" way, such a painting represents the artist's vision  but at some point, we need to agree either that representation is not the only thing going on here or that the word representation has been stretched so thin that it no longer serves a useful purpose.  So, I would absolutely agree that representation is an important concept to draw into discussions of media literacy, especially given the links between representation (as a mimetic process) and representation (as a political concept) so that we can speak of the struggles of marginalized groups to gain media representation as a struggle that impacts their power in society.

 

But, if we go back to my earlier question about what would have happened if media literacy had taken shape in response to the telephone rather than radio, film or television (depending on which strands we are discussing), we should think about the properties of the telephone (as Gitelman invites us to do here). We do not talk about telephone calls as texts -- unless of course we are talking about transcripts or recordings of them. We might ascribe to phone calls a broader range of motives besides power and profit. We do not talk about telephone calls in terms of authors and readers -- but rather in terms of participants. There are certainly all kinds of representations involved in telephone calls -- from Goffman's performance of self in everyday life to the narratives we are recounting with each other -- but we might well argue that the call allows for communication that operates on other levels and that perhaps the most important thing going on through the call is the establishment of interpersonal relations between the participants. When we say to each other, "I just wanted to hear your voice," we are speaking about the telephone call as something much closer to pure expression -- like the abstract painting -- than representation (in much the same way that Marshall McLuhan argued that the light bulb was a medium of "pure information"). Not quite, of course, which is why this is complicated.Yes, there is interpretation involved in the telephone call and definitely construction. In no sense do I mean to imply that the telephone call is somehow transparent. But the media literacy skills we need to understand the telephone call may focus much more on the social relationships being performed and the ways they are embodied through Gitelman's protocals than they have to do with any notion of texts or audiences which seems to go hand in hand with representation as it is being discussed here.

 

As we turn towards digital media, some of it does generate texts in the classical sense of the term -- a podcast or a YouTube video or a blog post, though it matters that these are forms which we can directly engage and respond through the same medium to the same audience and that these tools enable many-to-many forms of communication. Some forms and uses of digital media are much more important because of the communication processes they enable than they are in terms of the product of that communication -- text messaging, for example, or Twitter, come to mind, as having more in common with the telephone than with television. So, what I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy's historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.

 

I know in doing this I am edging back towards the idea that you are obejecting to, the idea that media literacy has historically been framed in terms of mass media literacies -- and this is somewhat unfair on the conceptual level. Yes, media literacy covers a broad array of different media in theory but the fact remains that if I went to a media literacy conference at the time that our white paper was first published, the over-whelming majority of talks would have centered around various forms of mass media, including film, television, advertising, and print based media, with some noteworthy exceptions. What gave Media Literacy its urgency throughout most of its history was the pervasive role of television in American culture just as the digital is what gives new media literacies their urgency. When I looked at the production projects being proposed, most of them were modeled on the public service announcement, itself a product of the one-way communication practices of broadcast media, rather than the kinds of dialogic production practices we are finding on Youtube or Tumbler. I like Jessica Clarke's term, "public-moblizing media", which stresses a different dynamic between those participating in these media exchanges.  This has changed dramatically over the past decade, we are seeing more work done on the participatory dimensions of media, we are seeing more projects that involve remix practices, though there is still a tendency to think about media in terms of texts rather than process, practices, or to use your word above, relationships that are being mediated through various kinds of communication technologies. Organizations like NAMLA have more than caught up with the changing media environment, but I would argue there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions as we work through what if anything is different about the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced.