Boys' Love, Cosplay, and Chinese Fandom: An Interview (Part 3)

What can you tell us about the status of fandom studies in the Chinese language world? Little of this writing is known here, so it would be helpful to map some of the key debates there.

LY: I know a lot more about the status of fandom studies in Mainland China than in Hong Kong and Taiwan, so I’ll focus on the situation in Mainland China. Chinese fandom studies more or less started with the phenomenal success of Super Girl in 2005. From 2006 to 2009, there were a whole bunch of journal articles, master theses, and one PhD dissertation, my own, centering on the Super Girl fandom. In 2007, Zhang Qiang, a Taiwanese scholar who obtained her PhD from Tsinghua University, published an article about Anglo-American fandom studies in a top academic journal in China, which helped Chinese scholars realize that fandom had already become the subject of serious academic research in the West.

In 2009, I co-edited Fan Cultures: A Reader with my PhD advisor, Prof. Tao Dongfeng. It is a translated volume of 23 English-language essays that cover research on media fandom, celebrity fandom, and sports fandom in the 1990s and early 2000s. This anthology has provided much-needed academic legitimacy and theoretical frameworks for the fledgling Chinese fandom studies and is probably still the most-cited publication in this field for better or worse. We have included two pieces of writing from you in the anthology, along with works from John Fiske, Matt Hills, Cornel Sandvoss, Constance Penley, Jackie Stacey, and Rhiannon Bury, just to name a few.

During the past decade, two issues have aroused great interest and controversy, if not debate, in Chinese fandom studies. One is about how to understand fans’ affective investment into their objects of fandom, especially their idols. Unlike Anglo-American fan studies that inaugurates with research on media fandom, Chinese fandom research has been fascinated by celebrity fandom, such as Super Girl fandom, from the beginning.

To both the general public and scholars, fans’ intense and “irrational” devotion to a remote media personality is culturally unintelligible and politically dangerous. Since traditional Chinese culture emphasizes the importance of family and filial piety, it is morally transgressive for fans to be more dedicated to a celebrity than to their own family members. Fans’ selfless and obsessive devotion is also viewed as incompatible with the modern process of individualization that espouses individual autonomy and reason. In other words, celebrity fans’ behavior cannot be justified by either traditional Chinese values or Western values, and their religious fervor often revives memory of the cult of personality during the Mao Era and the specter of totalitarianism.




The other issue concerns fan economics, which refers to fans’ growing economic clout in the media entertainment industry and the booming Internet economy. Due to the population base in China, some large fandoms could exert considerable power over the industry. TFBOYS is probably a good example. Although it is managed by a small private entertainment company, the enormously popular boy band gains its popularity mostly through the tireless promotional effort of its numerous dedicated fans. Unlike traditional entertainment celebrities who gain their fame and fans through well-known works, those fan-made idols achieve celebrity because they could attract a lot of fans through their appearance and personality, even though they might lack hit songs or acting ability.

Similar concerns could also be found in the so-called “IP (intellectual property) industry,” the Chinese equivalent of media franchising in the U.S. and media mix in Japan. To be considered as a valuable IP, the media content, usually hit novels and comics, must have already generated a stable fan base. One benefit of big data technology is that we could develop rather objective methods to gauge the popularity of a media product. This kind of evaluation has raised alarm for high-minded critics for prioritizing popularity or commercial value over genuine artistic value.      

JJZ: I don’t think there are fewer scholars and students who are interested fan studies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. For instance, a number of MA theses and Ph.D. dissertations discussing local or transnational Chinese-language fan cultures have been done in recent years at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Some scholarly papers about Taiwanese BL culture have also been published in Chinese or Japanese by young scholars recently. Moreover, some established media scholars in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia, such as Sinophone queer scholar Fran Martin (U of Melbourne) who contributes one chapter to our book, have published influential research on queer fan cultures and androgynous star images.

Yet, one of the biggest challenges for developing Chinese-speaking fan studies is to figure out effectively ways to bring these context-specific fan studies together and encourage meaningful, productive dialogue across linguistic, sociocultural, and geopolitical differences in these Chinese-speaking regions. Moreover, most of the existing Chinese-speaking fandom research, especially that done by students, largely relies on Western and Japanese fan scholarship and theories. The question of how to challenge Western or Japanese centrism in the field and establish Chinese-speaking fan studies is what we have been trying to answer in our research projects.

You note that the accounts in your book do not fit easily into “a polarized resistance/capitulation model of fandom.” Perhaps, negotiation is a better term. In what ways are Chinese fans negotiating a space for their pleasures in relation to powerful institutions and entrenched social norms that define the current Chinese context? To what degree has the shift towards a more consumer economy made fandom a possibility in China?

 JJZ: Yes, indeed. Throughout the book, we use different case studies to demonstrate the ways queer fans work within and against dominant commercial cultures and normative social structures. China’s liberalization of its media system and the development of digital tools and cyberspace in recent years have certainly empowered Chinese media consumers to actively participate in media industries and to express certain marginalized desires and fantasies. Meanwhile, the Chinese media industries have also realized business opportunities from these participatory practices and frequently displayed images or connotations of same-sex intimacies in order to encourage fans’ queer readings.

The audience cell-phone voting feature of the show Super Girl is a good example here. The show’s viewers and fans made use of this participatory feature to support their favorite participants, some of whom later became the most successful androgynous icons in the Chinese-speaking entertainment industries. A large number of fans formed queer communities online for further explicitly voicing homoerotic fantasies about their idols manufactured in the shows, which also discursively challenged the heteronormative contour of mainstream media and cultural industries.

Yet, contemporary Chinese society is still largely defined by (neo-)patriarchy, heteronormativity, and ideological and political authoritarianism, in which LGBTQ, feminist, and politically sensitive and sexually explicit information and content remained censored from time to time. Even in cyberspace, online communities and public discussions are still under political surveillance and self-censorship. Not to mention the fact that some queer fan practices, such as fansubbing and recirculating some Western TV shows that have never been officially distributed in China, violate copyright laws. Therefore, both queer fans and celebrities with gender-nonnormative personae have had to simultaneously embrace certain queer sentiments and craftily express dissatisfactions with local social-political systems while distancing themselves with socioculturally tabooed, censored identities and positions.

For example, as discussed in some chapters, Chinese fans use exaggerated, utopian queer imaginaries of non-Chinese nations and cultures to voice their disappointment at or critique toward local societies (e.g., Chapters 4, 9, and 10).

Meanwhile, in some of my own publications, I have also revealed that to protect themselves and their idols, some Mainland Chinese queer fans also tend to silence explicit LGBTQ-related discussions in the fandoms or to awkwardly differentiate the focus of their queer fan communities from real-life homosexual and feminist identities and issues. In Hong Kong and Taiwanese queer fan communities, there have been different ways to negotiate and contest official cultures, ideologies, and regulations, some of which might be more disruptive to the heteronormative logic of mainstream media industries (e.g., Chapters 7 and 10). These negotiative, sometimes compromising, strategies, to some extent, carve out and protect spaces for queer desire-voicing. Yet, they also create hierarchies, segregations, and tensions within queer fan communities and cultures.

The term, “globalization from below,” is a compelling one. So, explain what it means to think about fandom in the terms?

LY: Thank you very much for your interest in my co-authored chapter. Yanrui and I formulate the term “globalization from below” to describe the evolvement of Chinese BL from a marginalized and clandestine fan community to a popular web genre and powerful Internet culture. We want to use the term to draw attention to those cross-border media and cultural flows that have to lay low because of their conflicts with the legal system or official ideology of the nation-state, and at the same time we aim to differentiate those grassroots, fan-led transcultural appropriations from cultural exportations driven by corporate desire for profit or soft power ambitions of the state. 

The term might advance our understanding of fandom in the non-Western world in two ways. While fandom has been widely accepted as a harmless everyday thing and is at most threatened by copyright law in the West, it could be more risky and confrontational in the non-Western world due to legal, cultural, or religious reasons. For example, Chinese BL writers have to face censorship on a daily basis and a few of them have even been arrested by police on criminal charges of disseminating pornographic materials or illegal business operation.

Just last month [December 2017], a well-known BL writer was arrested for publishing novels in print without an official publication permit. This incident has stirred up a new round of panic in BL community, as many BL writers has published their works in print in this underground fashion to satisfy fan demand for collection. To circumvent the legal restrictions, Chinese BL fans have drawn on various resources--Internet technology in particular--to build their own communities and develop a rhizomatic and transborder network of production and distribution.   

Apart from reminding us of the complex and precarious existence of some non-Western fandoms, the term “globalization from below,” might also prompt us to rethink the transnational nature and radical potential of networked fandom in the age of globalization. Despite all the restrictions and obstacles, BL fandom has survived and thrived in China, and has helped bring about some progressive social changes, including contributing to the social awareness and acceptance of nonnormative sexualities, and carving out a lively public space for women to engage in discussion of social and political topics. The success of Chinese BL owes much to its gender, genre, and cultural inclusiveness.

Like slash fandom in the West and BL fandom in Japan, Chinese BL fandom is predominantly made up by young girls and women. Yet there is a significant percentage of young male fans, both gay and straight, in Chinese BL fandom, and one of the top BL writers in China is a self-identified gay man. As a result, BL writings often overlap with gay literature in China to the extent that a number of popular gay-themed novels are categorized as both BL and gay literature.

As mentioned above, Chinese BL has been influenced by both Japanese BL and Western slash fanfic. As a genre of Internet literature, it has also borrowed extensively from other popular genres and media. In societies where political expressions and social movements are severely hampered by the state, networked fandom might well become a major platform for civic engagements and social transformations.  

You’ve organized your book around specific national contexts -- Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Given the different political and economic systems shaping each of these contexts, not to mention different forms of cultural production, does it make sense to discuss them together? What do you see as the key similarities and differences in the ways fan culture operates in each of these cultures? 

JJZ: Although being situated in rather different social-political systems, the entertainment media and pop cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have been mutually shaping and borrowing from each other for decades. For instance, the Chinese government has been trying to intervene in media policies, productions, and celebrity images, especially the ones with heavy political content (e.g., anti-cross-strait reunification), in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nevertheless, the media and celebrity industries of these three regions have been in productive, continual conversations and collaboration. These intertwined cultural, political and ideological tensions and battles among these three regions are interestingly teased out in transcultural queer fandoms (Chapter 8) and co-produced queer media (Chapter 6).

Moreover, China was invaded by Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), while Taiwan has a history of being colonized by Japan. These geopolitical discourses are also manifested in the dissimilar attitudes toward Japanese people and cultural traditions between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese queer fandoms. As some of our contributors elaborate, while nationalistic sentiments are evident in Mainland Chinese queer fans’ imaginaries of Japan (Chapter 3), the postcolonial Taiwanese BL culture heavily draws on a Japanophilic affect (Chapter 9). Also, as a former British colony, Hong Kong’s LGBTQ movements and politics have been shaped by combined ideological, eco-political, and sociocultural factors and forces, such as traditional Chinese familial ideologies, the British colonial legacy, various religious beliefs, and Hong Kong’s contemporary social-political dilemmas as a post-colonial Special Administrative Region. These factors are also well manifested in Hong Kong lesbian celebrities’ star images and fan cultures (Chapter 7).

Both the editors and contributors have been fascinated by the diversity and productivity of queer fandoms in these regions resulting from their unique contexts. We are very excited about the scholarly dialogues that these queer fan phenomena generate and facilitate when being discussed together in the book. Therefore, we include rich discussion of queer fan communities and practices in diverse Chinese-speaking societies to highlight their interconnections, similarities, and differences in media productions, mainstream cultures, and grassroots activities.

By so doing, we hope to establish Chinese-speaking queer fandom as a promising field of scholarly inquiry and thus encourage future conversations and research that examine queer fan practices in other Chinese-speaking communities, such as cross-racial or Sinophone queer fandoms.

LY: I think one key difference between fan cultures in the three geographical contexts is the size and the role of the fandom in the media entertainment industry. Generally speaking, fandoms in Mainland China are larger and more assertive than fandoms in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s interesting to note that a few extremely big and well-organized Chinese fandoms have been described by the domestic media as “fan empires.” There is no media empire in China, but there are fan empires. Apparently, when the number of fans reaches a critical mass, it could drastically change the power dynamics in the relationship between the industry and consumers, and then maybe “a new day is on the horizon.”

(Ling Yang and Jamie J. Zhao are grateful to Maud Lavin for her wonderful input to this interview.)

Ling YANG is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Xiamen University, P. R. China. She is the author of Entertaining the Transitional Era: Super Girl Fandom and the Consumption of Popular Culture (China Social Sciences Press, 2012) and the co-editor of Fan Cultures: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2009, with TAO Dongfeng), A New Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (Beijing Normal University Press, 2011, with ZHAO Yong), Celebrity Studies: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2013, with TAO Dongfeng), and Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017, with Maud Lavin and Jing Jamie Zhao). Yang has published extensively on Chinese fan culture, BL culture, Internet literature, and young adult fiction. She is also the chief translator of Stardom: Industry of Desire (Peking University Press, 2017).


Jamie J. ZHAO is a PhD candidate in Film and TV Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. She holds another PhD degree in Gender Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her work examines queer-natured Chinese entertainment media, grassroots publics, and fan cultures in a digital age. Her academic writings can be found in a number of English-language journals, such as Feminist Media Studies, Intersections, Transformative Works and Cultures, Journal of Oriental Studies, The East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, Media Fields Journal, and MCLC. She is also a coeditor (with Prof. Maud Lavin and Dr. Ling Yang) of and a contributor to the anthology Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (HKUP, 2017). She is currently working on two English-language monograph manuscripts, tentatively titled From Super Voice Girl to The L Word: A Queer Occidentalism in Contemporary Chinese Pop Culture and A Queer Sensationalism of Post-2010 Chinese Formatted Variety TV.

Boys' Love, Cosplay and Chinese Fandom: An Interview (Part 2)

Let’s work through some core terminology here. Otaku and Cosplay are increasingly well known in the west, but may need to be defined again. Fujoshi is a less well known term. What does it refer to and what are its implications in terms of attitudes towards fan women?

LY: Fujoshi is a term originated in Japan. Midori Suzuki has published an English article  that traces the origins of the term. It first appeared on 2chanel, a massive Japanese Internet forum around 2000 to refer to girls or women who have a “rotten” mindset and would read everything in a yaoi fashion. Since the word fujoshi is written in kanji characters, it was quickly adopted by Chinese BL fans. The term seems to be more accurate than the earlier moniker for female BL fans, tongrennü, literally meaning girls and women who are interested in fan works, because many BL readers are actually more interested in original BL works than derivative BL fan works. With its increased occurrences in mass and new media, fujoshi was officially acknowledged as a “new Chinese word” created between 2004-2006 by experts who work for the National Language Resource Monitoring and Research Center in China. The word currently refers to all female fans of male-male romantic stories.

While the word fujoshi is a self-deprecating label that involves a certain sense of shame in Japan, it often evokes pride, empowerment, and joyful defiance in the Chinese context. Similar to “gay pride,” some female BL fans have also cultivated “fujoshi pride” and turned a shameful label into something self-affirming. It is not unusual to hear the older generation of fujoshi complain on the Internet that young fujoshi today are too flashy and that they want the whole world to know that they are fujoshi. For those young fan girls, to claim the identity of fujoshi is to claim authority on forbidden sexual knowledge, to rebel against conventional gender roles, and to be a sophisticated, well-informed cosmopolitan, as BL is connected to fan cultures in both Japan and the West.     

Ting Liu published one of the first English articles on Chinese BL in 2009. She observes that Chinese media coverage of BL and fujoshi from 2001 to 2008 is quite ambivalent, oscillating between praising BL’s positive impact on gender equality and denouncing its corrupting influence on minors. The image of fujoshi also alternated between radicals and perverts.

Over the past decade, I personally feel that fujoshi has been treated with more respect and tolerance in mainstream media, partly because the media has been infiltrated by fujoshi journalists, and partly because fujoshi has become a remarkable economic force that the media entertainment industry is eager to court and exploit. Consequently, queer baiting in popular cultural production has become a wide concern in Chinese BL community and the subject of a number of journal articles. The coverage of Chinese fujoshi in foreign media, for instance, the media hype of Chinese fujoshi’s obsession with the gay subtext in BBC’s Sherlock around 2014, has also contributed to their visibility at home.

Break down the term, “Androgynous Idols”, for us, starting with idols. How might we distinguish Idols in the Chinese-language world from celebrities or pop stars as we understand them in the west? What forms does their androgyny take and how central are these gender identities to the ways such Idols are packaged and sold to their consumers?

JJZ: The Chinese translation of the English word “idol” is ou xiang, which means “copy-image.” As Taiwan Studies scholar Teri Silvio noticed, the practices of idol worship and idolizing public figures and media characters rising along the capitalist and consumer economies in East Asian China can be linked to local religious rituals that has been prevalent since the 17th century. There are many kinds of idols in contemporary Chinese-speaking societies, including but not limited to film and TV stars who rise to stardom for their roles in entertainment media, self-made (DIY) stars online who have large cyber fan bases for digitized self-representation and performances, grassroots celebrities manufactured through performances in reality TV, and public figures who became famous for their achievements and virtues, or unique styles/personality, or economic power and social-political statuses.

There are many similarities in the contemporary pop cultural discourses surrounding “idol” between Chinese-speaking societies and the West. Yet, the rise of grassroots celebrity culture, the trend of manufacturing stars and idolizing ordinary people in Chinese-speaking contexts are not new phenomena. In particular, in Maoist China, there were political and patriotic idols that were iconized through media propaganda. In a sense, the construction of stardom in Chinese-speaking societies has always been closely intertwined with context-specific political and ideological progress and related discourses. Star images and celebrity personas have long been loaded with complex social-political meanings and often become battlegrounds for cutting-edge sociocultural debates. For example, media commentaries and public debates surrounding the gender-nonnormative stars manufactured by a series of Chinese-version Idol shows quite often concentrate on discussions about feminism, individuality, and cosmopolitanism, all of which characterize today’s Chinese-speaking public cultures and market logic. In today’s Hong Kong and Taiwanese media industries, many idols have had to carefully and craftily frame their political stances toward the Chinese government in order to “survive” in the Mainland entertainment industry or to please their Mainland fans and media consumers. 

While our book title uses the term “androgynous idols,” androgyny, in fact, is a gendered continuum instead of one rigid gender identity category. In today’s Chinese-language pop culture, there has been a term used to describe a similar yet more complex gender-nonnormative state—zhongxing (neutral gender/sex). In both queer pop cultural and fannish discourses, this Chinese term has been constantly used to negotiate queer and normative identities. It refers to a kind of unique, gendered style that can manifest in the stars’ performances, personality, and fashion senses. It is also possible to construct the zhongxing celebrity persona through the industries’ intentional blurring of the boundaries between same-sex intimacies (homoeroticism) and same-sex friendship (homosociality) of stars.

One of our contributors, Eva Li, has dedicated some of her major works to exploring the zhongxing style in Hong Kong pop culture. Meanwhile, there were numerous reality singing competition shows in Mainland China and Taiwan that exploited the zhongxing style of their participants to attract audience attention and make profits. For instance, in Ling’s, Maud’s, and my own publications on the Mainland reality show Super Girl, we explored the great number of visibly masculine female finalists of the show since 2005. These gender-nonnormative participants usually wore spiky hair, loose jeans, and large-size T-shirts. Their public personas were often characterized by normatively defined masculine or defeminized qualities, such as straightforwardness, innocence, intellect, and toughness. These qualities associated with the zhongxing style often help them accumulate more fans, both heterosexual and lesbian ones. Yet, after the end of the shows, some of the zhongxing idols went back to their “normal,” feminine gender style. A few even publicly admitted that they were asked by the show’s producers and directors to deliberately perform “androgynous” or “zhongxing” on stage. Some, though, continue to personify a zhongxing style—and we explore facets of this, too.

In particular, in some chapters of our book (e.g., Chapter 7), the term zhongxing and its social and political implications in Hong Kong are discussed in depth. Yet, here I would like to add that the zhongxing pop culture cannot be understood or generalized as a Chinese-speaking queer framework that can transgress the geocultural boundaries of diverse Chinese-speaking societies. For example, in Mainland Chinese industries, the term seems to have different meanings and implications when being used to denote androgynous idols. In my forthcoming publication in the journal of Celebrity Studies, I argue that when using zhongxing to describe Hong Kong and Taiwanese androgynous female celebrities in mainstream media and fandom, it implicates a close association of these Hong Kong and Taiwanese idols’ gender and sexual identities with female homosexuality, as, for example, in the cases of the Hong Kong zhongxing singer Denise Ho Wan-see who came out as lesbian in 2012, and Jin Dai, the famous 2007 zhongxing contestant in the Taiwanese reality singing competition show, One Million Star, who self-identifies as a T/tomboy (young, masculine lesbian). 

Though, zhongxing carries less stigmatized meanings than lesbianism or butchness does in Hong Kong and Taiwanese contexts. Many Hong Kong and Taiwanese zhongxing celebrities acknowledged that their “androgynous” personas aim to attract a wider range of fans, including those self-identified lesbian and gay fans. Yet, the zhongxing style of androgynous idols in Mainland China, such as the 2006 Super Girl contestants Liu Liyang, Xu Fei, and Fu Jing who were rumored to be butch lesbians, is a strategy sometimes deployed to “cover up” the potential non-heterosexual identities of these stars while packaging (or “arbitrarily explaining”) their gender nonnormativity as a form of fashion or star quality. In other words, the homosexual undertone of this style is mostly silenced, if not completely erased, in this discourse.

 Jin Dai

Jin Dai

 Denise Ho Wan-see

Denise Ho Wan-see


LY: One way to distinguish idols in the Chinese-speaking world from celebrities or pop stars in the West is to look at their relationships with fans. Chinese idols, especially those who gain their fame through fan voting in reality talents shows or fan promotion, tend to have a strong symbiotic relationship with their fans. Some Chinese fans like to imagine their idols as talented but vulnerable children who need steadfast nurturing from fan-parents. Like hardworking Chinese parents, those fans would do all they can to support their idols and take great pride in their idols’ success. Because of their extensive involvement in idols’ career, fans often run into conflict with the idol managers. Such conflicts often make headlines in Chinese entertainment news. 

Finally, talk a bit about “boys’ love”. How does it relate to, say, slash fan fiction as we know it in the west or for that matter, the Japanese traditions around similar themes? The Chinese world seems situated alongside popular culture influences from the west (especially the United States and the United Kingdom), Japan, and Korea. To what degree are fans absorbing these traditions and to what degree are they reworking them in ways that are specific to the Chinese speaking world?

LY: Thank you for this great question. This is an issue my research partner and co-author Yanrui Xu and I have been working on recently. We have contributed a conference paper on the impact of slash fanfic on original Chinese BL fiction to Queer Transfigurations: International Symposium on Boys Love Media in Asia organized by James Welker. In this paper we argue that Chinese BL has functioned as a productive contact zone where Japanese BL and Western slash fanfic interact. Chinese fans have appropriated useful elements from both genres and creatively mixed them to suit the needs of local readers. 

Briefly speaking, there are two major differences between BL and slash fanfic. First, in BL one partner is assigned the role of seme (top), the other, uke (bottom), and the roles are usually fixed. This top/bottom trope, however, is less prevalent in slash fanfic. Second, BL tends to portray the relationship between a strong and dominant seme and a weak and submissive uke, whereas slash fanfic often favors the relationship between two equally strong men.

Chinese BL used to be heavily influenced by Japanese BL during its early stage of development, that is, between late 1990s and the first half of 2000s. Early original BL stories often feature the combination of a strong seme and a weak uke and use rape as a common plot device. Later, influenced by the relationship pattern in slash writings, the strong-seme-with-strong-uke pairing has gradually become the mainstream coupling pattern in original BL works, and non-consensual sex scenes have also become less common. It is even impossible for readers to distinguish the seme from the uke in some works. For instance, in Running Wild (Saye), one of the most popular BL novels in 2017, the two male protagonists are equally tough and rebellious young men and they constantly switch sex roles in their lovemaking. Chinese BL writers have also borrowed some news tropes from slash fanfic, most notably the Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamics, or A/B/O in short. The A/B/O universe has offered Chinese BL writers and readers a unique angle to reflect on women’s experience under patriarchy and to explore ways to create an equal society in the face of irreducible sex/gender differences.

Of course, it would be too simplistic to claim that the generic evolution of Chinese BL is all caused by cultural influences from abroad. The blurring distinction between seme and uke, for instance, is also a result of Chinese government’s anti-porn campaigns. Due to tightening control of the Internet and the economic imperative to stretch their works as much as possible, many commercial BL writers would rather focus on the development of plot than the relationship between the two male protagonists. As the narrative function of the seme/uke trope diminishes, the seme/uke coupling pattern also becomes less distinct, especially in works set in the modern world.

Yanrui and I are currently working towards a paper for the Crossroads 2018 cultural studies conference on transcultural and translated feminism in the global queer fandom of BBC’s Sherlock. We want to examine how Chinese fans translate English-language Sherlock slash fics into Chinese, how they discuss those translated works in specific online fan communities, and how they create their own Sherlock fanfics that speak to local cultural contexts and concerns. Hope this case study, once finished, can address your questions in more detail.

Chinese response to western media sometimes makes the news here, and you have some examples here, but it is also important for us to better understand what forms of Chinese popular media are inspiring fannish responses.

LY: The 2005 Super Girl show, an Idol-format reality talent show that witnessed the androgynous idol Li Yuchun’s rise to super stardom (see Maud Lavin’s chapter in our book), is a kind of turning point in Chinese media entertainment industry. Since then, domestically-produced media content has started to rival Japanese ACG (anime, comics, and games), the Korean Wave, and Hollywood in its capacity to inspire fannish responses. Internet literature for one has gained a huge following in China.

According to the statistics released by China Internet Network Information Center in 2017, China currently has 330 million Internet literature readers. This readership is larger than the total population of the United States. Similar to the Harry Potter phenomenon, a number of popular Internet novels have grown into profitable media franchises that encompass books, films, television series, comics, games, stage shows, merchandising, and theme parks because of strong fan support.

I’d like to mention one interesting example here, The Graver Robbers’ Chronicles (Daomu biji) by Nanpai Sanshu. A modern adventure thriller that first appeared on the Internet in 2006, this series is a favorite among Chinese fujoshi and has inspired numerous BL-style fan works. Starting from 2015, dedicated fans of the series, nicknamed “Rice” (daomi), have organized an annual Rice Festival on August 17, the date when the two male protagonists reunite in the novel after a decade-long separation. The festival is held at Changbai Mountain, the place of the reunion in the novel. The festival soon gained approval from Nanpai Sanshu’s company and was warmly welcomed by the local government of Changbai Mountain as a way to promote tourism through cultural activities.

Web television shows, another realm of cultural production related to the Internet, have also become increasingly popular among younger generations of viewers. We mentioned in our introduction the wild success of the web series Go Princess Go in 2015 and Addicted in 2016. In 2017, The Rap of China, a reality talent show produced by and broadcast on iQiyi, the leading online video portal, has converted many young audience members into hip hop fans. Besides, social media platforms like Sina Weibo and live streaming websites and apps in China have generated a legion of micro celebrities, so-called “wanghong” or “Internet Celebrities” in Chinese. Papi Jiang, “The No. 1 Internet Celebrity" in China in 2016, has over 260 million followers on her Weibo account. A film director by training, Papi Jiang earned her fame through uploading funny short videos on the Internet. Her first live broadcast in July 2016 was supported by eight major live streaming websites and attracted more than 74 million views in one day.

JJZ: I would like to add that, the relatively, although intermittently, loosened, less repressive censorship system of online TV broadcasting and live streaming in China might have also encouraged the formation of fan communities, especially the ones with queer foci. There have been many online TV dramas, talk shows, and variety programs, especially in the post-2010 years, that either explicitly portray (or speak to) lesbian and gay groups, such as the gay-themed TV show Addicted, or feature openly LGBTQ celebrities, such as the online talk show You Can You Bibi. Moreover, many cyber celebrities also incorporate cosplaying into their daily live-streaming activities. As some of our book chapters point out (Chapter 2), cosplay itself is a very queer fan-based practice that often involves cross-dressing impersonations. 

Ling YANG is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Xiamen University, P. R. China. She is the author of Entertaining the Transitional Era: Super Girl Fandom and the Consumption of Popular Culture (China Social Sciences Press, 2012) and the co-editor of Fan Cultures: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2009, with TAO Dongfeng), A New Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (Beijing Normal University Press, 2011, with ZHAO Yong), Celebrity Studies: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2013, with TAO Dongfeng), and Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017, with Maud Lavin and Jing Jamie Zhao). Yang has published extensively on Chinese fan culture, BL culture, Internet literature, and young adult fiction. She is also the chief translator of Stardom: Industry of Desire (Peking University Press, 2017).


Jamie J. ZHAO is a PhD candidate in Film and TV Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. She holds another PhD degree in Gender Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her work examines queer-natured Chinese entertainment media, grassroots publics, and fan cultures in a digital age. Her academic writings can be found in a number of English-language journals, such as Feminist Media Studies, Intersections, Transformative Works and Cultures, Journal of Oriental Studies, The East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, Media Fields Journal, and MCLC. She is also a coeditor (with Prof. Maud Lavin and Dr. Ling Yang) of and a contributor to the anthology Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (HKUP, 2017). She is currently working on two English-language monograph manuscripts, tentatively titled From Super Voice Girl to The L Word: A Queer Occidentalism in Contemporary Chinese Pop Culture and A Queer Sensationalism of Post-2010 Chinese Formatted Variety TV.


Boys' Love, Cosplay and Chinese Fandom: An Interview

Throughout this academic year, I am trying to return this blog to its roots, showcasing emerging research in fandom studies, as the release of a significant number of new anthologies reflects the emergence of a new generation of scholars pushing our thinking in exciting new directions. Among a number of trends, this research is much more transnational than ever before as more translation is occurring across languages in this field. I know most of my own key works on fandom have now been translated for the Chinese market, and I am hearing from more emerging scholars there. 

Over the next few installments, I will be featuring an extended interview with Ling Yang and Jamie J. Zhao, the editors, with Maud Lavin, of Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017). They visited me at USC last fall, sharing the book as a gift, and I was so excited by what I read that I proposed this interview. Here, they offer an overview of how fandom fits into broader changes in Chinese culture, the specific forms that media fandom takes in different Chinese cultures, and the state of fandom studies in the region. I am certain that this exchange will be of interest to fandom scholars, not to mention fans, around the world.

Your opening sentence sets the stage for the book’s argument, “Chinese-speaking popular cultures have never been so queer as in this digital, globalist age.” How so? What factors have contributed to this change? What roles have digitization and globalization played in this process?

Ling Yang: As we have demonstrated in this book, there has been a proliferation of unconventional, non-heterosexual images, narratives, fantasies, and desires in Chinese-speaking popular cultures in the past two decades or so. As a person who works in the field of literary studies, I am often amazed by the tremendous amount of queer expressions in Chinese popular literary production in the new millennium.

Few canonical Chinese writers in the 20th century had ever dealt with queer sentiments or desires. Yet homosociality and same-sex attraction has become a prominent theme in contemporary popular literature that is produced by and for the younger generations. This kind of queer cultural production and consumption didn’t happen all at once. Some burst onto the scene by chance, like the androgynous idol Li Yuchun who took the Super Girl reality television show by surprise in 2005. Others, such as Boys’ Love (BL), or danmei, as it is commonly known in the Chinese-speaking world, has gradually made inroads into mainstream culture through decade-long expansion. This volume intends to offer a glimpse of this growing trend in the Chinese-speaking world and pull some of the related cultural issues together.

As implied in your question, digitization and globalization have been two of the key players in this process and they converge and contribute to each other. The development of the Internet, mobile technology, and social media have greatly facilitated cultural flows to bypass legal restrictions and freely cross national and linguistic boundaries. In China, for example, the distribution of foreign cultural products is all subject to government regulations and censorship. Without grassroots distribution of transnational cultural content on the Internet, it would be impossible for Chinese youth to access queer media products from overseas.

The Internet has also facilitated the building of fan communities and the emergence of new glocalized and hybridized expressions. For instance, early online Chinese BL forums were established to share Taiwanese BL stories and translated Japanese BL manga and novels. It is through consuming and imitating these cross-border BL works that Chinese BL fans learned the trick of the genre and embarked on creating their own stories.

Today, original Chinese BL novels and their spinoffs have won followers from all over the world. The low-budget, based-on-a-novel BL drama Addicted, briefly mentioned in our book’s introduction, is even one of the highest-rating Chinese dramas on the multi-lingual video streaming website 

The human flows brought by globalization has also been instrumental in the diffusion of queer popular cultures in the Chinese-speaking world. Chinese students who study abroad usually continue to engage with their fan communities back home and make use of their access to information outside the Great Firewall to bring new ideas back to China. Those overseas fans are particularly useful in Chinese slash fandoms of Western media, as they are more skillful at reading the gay subtext of Western shows and could translate Western fans’ reading on Tumblr or Twitter into Chinese. The rapid growth of slash fandom in China owes much to those fan cultural brokers.

Another factor I’d like to mention is the LGBTQ movement. The development of queer popular culture in the Chinese-speaking world cannot be separated from the local and global LGBTQ movement. While progress made by the movement in the real world, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. and Taiwan, has often been discussed in queer fan communities and bestowed more legitimacy on the production and consumption of queer fantasies, the iteration of queer fantasy has also enabled thinking outside the heterosexual matrix and fostered more acceptance of nonnormative sexuality.   

To what degree does this popular culture (and the fandoms that have grown up around it) contribute to shifts in social attitudes towards homosexuality in the Chinese-speaking world?

Jamie J. Zhao: Today’s Chinese-speaking queer pop culture and fandoms have very close yet extremely complicated relationships with the globalization, glocalization, and translinguistic and geoculturally crossing travelings of sex knowledge related to homosexuality. We actually used parts of the book’s introduction to explain the intricate connections between Chinese-speaking queer fan practices and the information flows within and about inter-Asian and global LGBTQ politics, subcultures, and movements.

For example, the English word “gay” was imported to Hong Kong in the 1970s and was later creatively reinvented and widely used in other Chinese-speaking societies. The commonly used term, “ji,” in Chinese-speaking BL fandoms to refer to queer reading positions or homosocial relationships, in fact, derived from the Cantonese (HONG KONG) transliteration of the English word “gay.”

We can also see a lot of “Chinglish” or “Sinophone” LGBT-related words being frequently used in today’s Chinese-speaking fan cultures, such as “zhai” and “fu,” which were appropriated from Japanese BL/GL fan cultures, and “les” or “lala” or “T,” which were “mutated” from the English terms “lesbian” and “tomboy.”

In addition, as some chapters in our book show, mainstream industries have been carefully tantalizing the audience’s queer desire by adding queer-loaded content in TV dramas or variety TV shows. Indeed, mainstream media practitioners, celebrities/performers, and media consumers and fans have either explicitly or implicitly explored LGBTQ cultures in these processes.

Yet, the flourishing of this pop culture does not necessarily indicate an enhanced public visibility or “acceptance” (or even “tolerance,” which might sound a bit like speaking from a heteronormative position) of LGBTQ communities in local societies and mainstream cultures. It also does not evidence a homosexuality-centered cultural imperialism or cultural homogenization. Instead, similar to the non-confrontational relationship between Chinese-speaking LGBTQ cultures and dominant, largely heteronormative societies, this queer-natured pop culture has always been in negotiation with mainstream capitalist logics and social-political powers on both local and global levels.

For one thing, while the scientific knowledge surrounding the term “homosexuality” and other related concepts and identity politics, such as “gayness” and “lesbianism,” was certainly imported from the West, there has been abundant evidence showing the wide existence of same-sex homoerotic and homosocial intimacies in traditional Chinese culture, even within heterosexual, polygamous familial-marital relationships during imperial China or in the gender-erasing, seemingly desexualizing period of the Cultural Revolution era of Modern China

 Although our book mainly focuses on the burgeoning digital (or cyber) Chinese-language queer fandoms, it should be noted here that in premodern and modern Chinese-speaking societies, literary and theatrical portrayals or connotations of same-sex homoeroticism and androgynous personas were quite common. The queer fan cultures rising along with these media representations back then were definitely not rare.

In this sense, there was a long tradition of queer culture and fan practices in Chinese-speaking societies before the rise of the Internet, yet I would not valorize this local tradition as a “homosexuality-friendly” or “queer-supportive” one either. More often than not, these queer cultures were highly class-based and the fans involved often belonged to the elitist groups. These same-sex fannish fantasies were certainly not labeled as homosexual but as “sentiments” or forms of artistic appreciation. They were “tolerated” or “ignored” by mainstream society and its heteropatriarchal familial system as long as the fantasies and intimacies did not disrupt dominant heteronormative structures at the time.

For another, during an era of new media and globalization, as some of the case studies in our book showcase, Chinese-speaking fans have been enabled to actively translate, revise, and recirculate Japanese and Western LGBT-themed media.

Moreover, there have been more and more Chinese-speaking androgynous celebrities manufactured in film, TV, and music industries, as well as a growing number of entertainment media texts that are queer in tone. In the meantime, homosexuality has been gradually depathologized and decriminalized in Chinese-speaking societies since the late 1990s. LGBT film festivals and gay parades have been held in major cities, while same-sex marriage has also become a possibility for some Chinese-speaking people. 

Against this backdrop, some of the Chinese-speaking androgynous celebrities are also brave enough to publicly come out and stand up for LGBTQ and feminist movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I do not deny the fact that many LGBTQ-identified fans of these celebrities (and of queer media in general) have been encouraged by this phenomenon and have found their own social networking, emotional support, and desire-voicing spaces through these processes. Nevertheless, we can also see many media productions use stereotypical representations of LGBTQ people as effective ways to draw public attention and create public gimmick. Same-sex intimate behaviors and androgynous personas have also often been performed in public by heterosexual-identified celebrities for entertaining their fans. Similar practices can be found in K-pop as a fairly common element in what is referred to as “fan service.”

This commercialization and fetishization of queer images in Chinese-speaking media industries, on the one hand, seem to imply a relatively friendly gesture of mainstream public cultures toward homosexuality. On the other, it also points to an intentional “depoliticizing” and “fictionalization” of LGBTQ-related images and performances as pure amusement. The struggles, pains, and difficulties faced by LGBTQ people within a heteronormative society are rendered even more invisible. Even within queer fan communities, some fans tend to differentiate queer fantasies (which is believed to be fictional role-playing) from homosexuality (a form of nonfictional sexual identification that carries derogatory meanings in mainstream society).

I agree there has been a greater degree of social awareness and acceptance toward homosexuality in Chinese-speaking societies, though to varying degrees. The rise of Chinese-speaking queer pop culture and fandoms, facilitated by the wide use of the Internet and digital media, and these relatively improved sociocultural situations for the survival of LGBTQ people have been mutually shaping each other.

Nevertheless, I would caution against a hasty galvanization of the general public’s attitude toward homosexuality as friendly. In some of my journal publications, I have termed this pop culture that proliferates queer representations yet differentiates itself from LGBTQ identity politics and realities in Mainland China as a form of “queer sensationalism.”

LY: Peiti Wang of National Central University in Taiwan did an online survey in December 2016 about BL fans’ reaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. She collected a total of 4,050 responses and found out that over 90% of BL fans support same-sex marriage. In comparison, only 54.2% of Taiwanese citizens are in favor of same-sex marriage according to the results of 2015 Taiwan Social Change Survey conducted by Academia Sinica. Some smaller surveys conducted in Mainland China have produced similar findings. For example, in a survey of 240 female undergraduate students of Yangzhou University conducted by Dai Fei in 2013, 77.9% of the 86 self-identified fujoshi (female BL fans) accept homosexuality, whereas merely 5.2% of the 115 non-fujoshi share the same attitude.

There have been debates about who are true fujoshi and who are fake ones within Chinese BL community. The true fujoshi must meet two criteria. First instead of valorizing male homosexuality in the fantasy world, they must also accept real-world gay men. Second, apart from BL, they must also tolerate Girls’ Love (GL), or femslash, and accept real-world gay women. However, fan attitudes towards homosexuality vary from fandom to fandom. Surveys about queer celebrity fandoms have yielded less optimistic results. We may need to discuss this issue case by case. 

Ling YANG is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Xiamen University, P. R. China. She is the author of Entertaining the Transitional Era: Super Girl Fandom and the Consumption of Popular Culture (China Social Sciences Press, 2012) and the co-editor of Fan Cultures: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2009, with TAO Dongfeng), A New Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (Beijing Normal University Press, 2011, with ZHAO Yong), Celebrity Studies: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2013, with TAO Dongfeng), and Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017, with Maud Lavin and Jing Jamie Zhao). Yang has published extensively on Chinese fan culture, BL culture, Internet literature, and young adult fiction. She is also the chief translator of Stardom: Industry of Desire (Peking University Press, 2017).


Jamie J. ZHAO is a PhD candidate in Film and TV Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. She holds another PhD degree in Gender Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her work examines queer-natured Chinese entertainment media, grassroots publics, and fan cultures in a digital age. Her academic writings can be found in a number of English-language journals, such as Feminist Media Studies, Intersections, Transformative Works and Cultures, Journal of Oriental Studies, The East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, Media Fields Journal, and MCLC. She is also a coeditor (with Prof. Maud Lavin and Dr. Ling Yang) of and a contributor to the anthology Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (HKUP, 2017). She is currently working on two English-language monograph manuscripts, tentatively titled From Super Voice Girl to The L Word: A Queer Occidentalism in Contemporary Chinese Pop Culture and A Queer Sensationalism of Post-2010 Chinese Formatted Variety TV.

Millenials, New Media, and Social Change (Part Three)

Are they worried about concepts such as their privacy?

It's a bit of a myth that this current generation doesn't care about privacy. Most contemporary research in the U.S. indicates quite the opposite - that young people are deeply concerned about privacy and control over information, but they don't always understand the mechanisms by which their privacy is being violated and they don't often feel that they have any means of altering trends in the society, which are leading toward a surveillance state on the case of the government and increased encroachment of businesses into their personal data sets online. They've come of age in a world of data mining and a post-9/11 society, and the two combined creates a kind of fatalistic sense that whatever concerns they have about privacy, they are going to be overridden by institutions much more powerful than they are. But for many of them, Edward Snowden is a hero.

I think one of the reasons young people's relationship to privacy is so often misunderstood is that they draw lines in different places. I don't think that we can think about privacy without also thinking about publicity. We can't think about information we exclude from public circulation without thinking about information we disclose, and the politics of disclosure has been central to many of the political movements over the last thirty or forty years. If we think about feminism and the slogan "The Personal is Political," the consciousness raising sessions of the 1960s were precisely moments when women spoke out about issues that had been locked away behind closed doors for so long - they talked about domestic violence, they talked about inequality of pay, they talked about sexual harassment in the workplace, they talked about reproductive rights,  and these issues were ones that made many people uncomfortable when they were first addressed in public, but were central to political agendas over the last several decades. The same would be true of the modern LGBTQ movement, with its "Silence Equals Death" slogan, and the idea of coming out of the closet about one's sexuality. Again this was about violating things people once felt should remain private, and insisting that they were public matters that should be discussed so that we could share collective experiences and form common cause around the process of social change.

So, young people today are simply embracing different notions of sharing, different ideas about what kinds of information can be discussed in public and why. They're more likely to disclose health related information, for example, as they seek out online communities of patients who are speaking behind the backs of their doctors and trying to identify and pursue their shared interest in the face of an increasingly bureaucratized and impersonal medical system. They're likely to be more open about transgender issues than their parents had been, and indeed are much more accepting of the idea of more gender fluidity in the restroom, an issue that seems to be a dividing line between the generations in the United States at the moment. So, publicity is part of the politics of privacy as they understand it. Privacy is not an absolute - no one wants to remain private to the point that they are invisible in a networked society. Rather, as danah boyd has noted, privacy is about control over information, knowing what information you're releasing, to whom, and under what circumstances. Being able to dictate the terms in which your information is used is central to the way this generation understands privacy. We might think of it as a transactional model. And so privacy in this case comes hand in hand with transparency, full disclosure - which groups are tapping our information, for what purposes, and what they're doing with it - and privacy comes hand in hand with mechanisms of control. They want opt-in systems, systems where they have to actively choose what information to disclose, rather than opt-out systems where if they don't know that their information is being tapped, they can be exploited without regulation. So that's where I think the issue of privacy has been going in recent years and why it is so central to understanding the millennial generation.


They appear to be a generation that uses and takes part actively in digital networks, but:  What do they think about intellectual property?

The first thing I think one has to recognize about the millennial generation is that they've come of age with an expectation of meaningful participation. I often talk in my work about participatory culture - by which I mean the culmination of several hundred-plus years of struggles for everyday people to gain greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation. In a participatory culture, people create media, tell stories, and produce culture together for the purposes of expressing their personal and shared interest. The line starts to blur between commercial media producers and so-called amateur media producers, and indeed as Yochai Benkler notes, a fully participatory culture has many layers of cultural production, including government, education, activism, religion, and various non-profit and semi-commercial producers. We're seeing some fluidity of young people who may start out as fans or gamers producing amateur content and increasingly becoming YouTube stars as part of this process that David Craig and Stuart Cunningham are calling community-based entertainment.

Young people have been central to the struggles for a more participatory culture, and they tend to see connections across issues such as net neutrality, copyright control, media literacy education, and surveillance by both corporate and governmental powers as all part of a larger struggle over the terms of their participation. We see different attitudes emerge among those who have become media producers and circulators of digital content and those who have not. They certainly are aware of a kind of double standard where corporations are expecting them to be restrained in their use of commercially owned intellectual property, and yet young people's cultural output is rarely understood as intellectual property, but, much more likely to be read as user-generated content, is often freely used by corporations in the service of their own ends. So as they are starting to assert their identity as producers, they want to opt into some form of system that protects their rights over the things that they create.

That said, they also have moved into a kind of folk economy where it is expected, as media properties circulate across the internet, that people will modify them, remix them, appropriate them and build on them in a variety of ways. It's a highly collaborative culture. It's a culture where one subcultural group's media properties can quickly be adapted for other purposes. Memes operate as a kind of shared language, where the same image gets recaptioned and recirculated many times for many different purposes and can often go back and forth across ideological divides in the course of its lifetime. They recognize as artists the need to build on a larger cultural reservoir. So I think copyright is understood as a much more fluid system for these millennials because of the forms of cultural production and consumption they've been part of, and this often frustrates or confuses corporate rights holders who want to be ever more expansive in the ways they regulate what people do with their IP.

We could look, for example, at struggles over fan filmmakers in the Star Trek community, where fans there are acutely aware of the economic value they generate for media producers and see their cultural output primarily as publicity rather than as infringement. Fan filmmakers for thirty years have made amateur Star Trek films with varying degrees of visibility, and only recently has the studio sought to regulate what kind of fan films might be produced and how they might be distributed. They were pushed to do so by the case of Axanar, a fan-made film which was highly professional in its technical qualities, which told an original story set in the Star Trek universe, and which was funded through crowdfunding via Kickstarter. Axanar becomes an issue when the amount of money being raised by fan media makers exceeds anyone's understanding of what the budget of an amateur film might look like. Axanar becomes the test case for a blurring of the lines between amateur, semi-professional, and professional media production.

So it's not that young people don't value the creativity behind intellectual property, it's simply that they have a different model of creativity than has governed the industry over the last few generations. Their assumption is that creativity is fueled by what we borrow from other artists, that appropriation is not exploitation, that appropriation is simply a natural part of the creative process, and that we need ways that we can build on each other’s work. I particularly note that if politics among the millennial generation of activists is shaped by a civic imagination informed by popular culture, then the right to appropriate symbols, characters, narratives from mass media and deploy them for political purposes is a fundamental free speech issue. Struggles over intellectual property and copyright control by corporations are completely bound up with struggles over censorship by government as it's understood by this generation.

Millennials' attitudes to copyright are also shaped by a strong sense of ethics having to do with sharing information and resources within a community. A networked society is one where people count on each other to be there to provide the information they need on an ad hoc or just-in-time basis, and things that block the flow of information, that block the exchange of resources within the community are seen in much more negative terms than might have been seen by a generation that saw all of this as more privatized, as more exclusive.

Secondly, it's shaped by a sense that they generate revenue, visibility, and support through other means beyond that of their purchasing power. Young millennials often feel like they don't yet have the fluid capital to be able to buy into the consumer system, but because of their social skills and their understanding of how networks operate, they both provide data to corporations that drive future design decisions, and they provide visibility for corporate products among their peers, which increase the circulation of that material. So, it's a different understanding of the economic value they bring to the relationship that I think is fundamental to the ways they are thinking about copyright.

A third factor is they often feel a much closer relationship to artists and have a common cause against corporate right holders, so as more and more artists go independent, as more and more artists directly court their fan base through what Nancy Baym calls "relational labor," or relationship-building labor, the alignment is with the artist and there is a growing sense that the middlemen merely get in the way. So it's not that they wouldn't support artists producing music, it's that they don't want the heavy tax on their income necessary to sustain the entire bureaucratic and corporate infrastructure that supported the music industry up until this point in time. So it's a different way of understanding how artists might relate to their public that drives a lot of millennial thinking about copyright.


In your frequent travels: Have you observed any noteworthy differences in attitudes across different cultures?

Most of my comments here have been focused on American youth. This is not because I don't care about global dimensions of youth culture, but because I'm reluctant as an American to make generalizations about other people’s cultures. Most of my own research has been US-centric, because that's where the funding from various foundations and other supporting institutions has come from, but in recent years, as you note, I've been traveling more and more around the world trying to engage with conversations about the forms participatory culture is taking elsewhere.

A big step in that direction occurred last summer, when I spent three weeks at the Salzburg Academy for Global and Media Change. The Salzburg Academy brings together young people from roughly thirty different countries around the world for three weeks of intensive focus on media literacy and civic change issues. We lived together, we worked together and we created media together all living in a schloss in Salzburg - and it was a profoundly moving experience for me and the other faculty that participated. We were of course dealing for the most part with the digital elites from those countries, people who had the financial resources to send their children to Salzburg for the summer, and it's worth keeping that in mind, but what was striking was the enormous fluidity with which these young people could instantly form relationships with each other, find common ground, discover shared culture and begin working together. Certainly, they brought some historic conflicts with them to the space, but they also brought with them a sense of a global youth culture that provided the frame of reference for the work that they were doing. In that context, the kinds of work my team was conducting around the civic imagination resonated particularly strongly, and there were moments of sheer transcendence. Sangita Shresthova, my research director, did a workshop on Bollywood dance, and watching students from the Middle East, from Latin America, from Europe, from Africa, dance to the beats of Hindi music was particularly powerful - the sense that the body transcended a lot of the borders that we try to erect around it.

Indeed, the focus this summer was on refugee and migration issues and it was striking how many of the young people were simply hostile to the very notion of fixed borders and boundaries, insistent that the freedom to travel from place to place was a fundamental right for the twenty-first century. And I think this may have been shaped by the degree to which they've come of age with a communication system which made it relatively easy to communicate with people elsewhere around the world. Within their social networks, they already had friends in other countries, already had regular contact with people outside of their own environment. They'd come of age consuming popular culture, not necessarily within national boundaries - so they grew up watching Bollywood movies, consuming anime and manga, dancing to K-Pop, watching telenovelas, and so forth. This is what I call pop cosmopolitanism, the idea that if previous generations turned towards art or music to escape the parochialism of their own culture, young people today are more likely to turn towards popular media to serve those functions, and for a variety of reasons popular media from other parts of the world is simply more readily available than it was before, whether it is music, comics, or television. These are not young people seeking out art movies, but they're young people watching transnational media content as a taken-for-granted part of their generational experience.

At the same time, I was struck by the sense that people in that space felt unequal entitlement to the resources of popular culture. There was a young woman from Argentina who felt that Argentina didn't produce popular culture, that it had folk culture and high culture but that the popular culture was culture imposed on it from outside, that popular culture was American, and that they had to define their identity in opposition to American mass media in order to gain a sense of what it was to be Argentinian. I also was struck by different degrees of hope or optimism among this generation. Many of the young people from the Middle East struggled with how to maintain any hope for political change, having had their expectations raised through the Arab Spring movements, and then dashed by the failure of most of those movements to bring about real democracy and real cultural and economic shifts within their borders. So I saw people there struggling with how they could become part of the mechanisms of social change I've been discussing throughout this interview. Just because they're global elites that feel some connection to each other doesn't mean that they have equal opportunities for participation, equal access to resources, equal sense of entitlement and empowerment, and equal access to mentorship and adult support for the kinds of learning they need to achieve their goals. So these are very real issues.

I've also had some encounters in recent years in some of the poorest communities in the planet, going into the slums in Mumbai and the favelas in Rio and watching young people there struggle to get access to the means of cultural production and circulation. I sat in a small one-room squat that had ten people living in it in Mumbai and talked to young people who had made their own videos and put them out via the web, talked to young people who were making their own online newspapers using WhatsApp to report on the activities of their own community. These are young people who against all odds are finding a means to become part of the emerging participatory culture that has been so important to many millennials around the world, and we need to do more research to understand the mechanisms by which they've been able to do this. Sometimes it's tied to family and cultural traditions. Sasha Costanza-Chock has written about the ways that young Mexicans have helped their parents figure out how to maintain contact with the families they left behind, producing home videos to share via the internet, and that through these means they acquired skills at media production and distribution that they then turned to their struggles for the rights of undocumented youth. Sometimes, it's illicit - the young people in Mumbai I met had produced a video paying tribute to one of their peers who had died of a serious poverty-related illness, and they had snuck into one of the young people's workplaces at night and used the office computers there to produce and circulate their video. Most often, they're creating together. It's not a do-it-yourself but a do-it-together ethos that shapes the participatory culture that so many millennials participate in. This is a case where those who have more skills and knowledge pass it along informally to those who are learning, and in that process the community is strengthened by its ability to share.

Millenials, New Media and Social Change (Part Two)

What cultural contents define Millennials in the United States? Which cultural events have had the greatest impact on them?  What cultural reference points does this generation have?

With all of the reservations expressed above, we still have to say that one of the defining markers of the Millennial generation is that since 2000 (and a bit earlier), we’ve been in a period of profound and prolonged media change, marked by the proliferation of new communication platforms and practices, which are impacting every aspect of our lives. These technologies are increasingly taken for granted and incorporated into the texture of our everyday lives. It is not that every Millennial has had access to these technologies but they have all lived in a world that is defined by the possibility of access, a world shaped by their presence. These technologies create new contexts for socialization and learning that may or may not be embraced. Class, for example, determines different degrees of access to the technological infrastructure -- what we call the digital divide -- and access to the opportunities and resources that enable meaningful participation -- what we call the participation gap.

Class matters not simply for the obvious economic reasons -- some can afford different degrees of access than others -- but also because of different underlying parenting styles and different access to the kinds of community resources that might provide youth with effective mentors and different degrees of understanding of how these online experiences do or do not connect to other kinds of educational and economic opportunities. So, at the risk of reducing things too much, there’s a distinction between the involved middle class parent who seeks to shape the world around their child in order to maximize opportunities for success and the working class parent who places greater obligations on their children to serve the collective needs of the family. There’s a difference between the kinds of schools -- public and private -- which middle class youth can access which often embrace more open-ended, more flexible, more innovative, and more accommodating forms of pedagogy and the schools that are more common in working class communities, which have a much more hierarchical and discipline-focused approach, that focus on workplace preparation more than on cultural enrichment or civic engagement as the ultimate goal of their digital instruction. All of these insights come out of the work of the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning research network which seeks a better integration of learning opportunities across all aspects of students lives and which is calling for more equitable access to the resources required to confront and overcome technological and cultural gaps.

What I observe when I meet Millennial students in my classroom at University of Southern California is that this generation has been caught between two totally contradictory impulses. On the one hand, there is the kind of learning which takes place within affinity spaces and participatory culture, and on the other hand there is the model of learning which has lead to such a strong emphasis on preparation for standardized testing. The opportunities on offer from the online world could have produced a generation of risk takers and game changers, students who are encouraged to set and pursue their own goals, who are highly motivated to learn based on their own interests and to apply what they learn in conversation with others who share those interests. This is what many of us saw as the promise of learning in an era of networked communication and participatory culture. On the other hand, the regime of standardized testing has produced students who are highly risk averse, who want to know the rules of the game going in, who want to be taught only what is required to succeed on the test.

But the Millennial generation is defined by more than their relationship to digital technology, having lived through a more or less equally tumultuous period of geopolitical transitions. This is the generation that has grown up post-9/11, living in a world marked by anxieties about terrorism, by a willingness to accept limits on privacy and observing the rise of new forms of surveillance, and by forms of racial and ethnic profiling, especially Islamophobia, which stems from a kind of “see something, say something” ethos that distrusts anyone different from us.  This generation has been more or less in a state of constant war since birth, although the war can often be so far removed from the everyday experiences of most Americans that it disappears from our thinking for extended periods of time. Their understanding of how democracy works has been shaped by a more or less permanent state of partisan gridlock and by some of the sharpest ideological divides in American politics since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Many older millennials cast their first votes for Barack Obama and thus their sense of whether or not government can work in their interest has been held hostage by the hopes and disappointments surrounding this particular political figure. For younger millennials, Obama has been the only American president that they have known (or at least been conscious of). 

They have, as such, been shaped by conflicting messages about race -- the claims of a post-racial society that surrounded Obama’s election, the struggles over immigration represented by the Dreamer movement on behalf of undocumented youth, and the sense of danger and risk for youth of color that has found its fullest expression in the Black Lives Matter movement. The Millennials are on the front lines of a major demographic shift in America, which over the next two decades will result in a Minority-Majority nation, and to confound things, a growing percentage are mixed race and of mixed cultural background so they are blurring the racial and ethnic categories through which we have historically organized our understanding of the society.  And they have been much quicker to embrace LGBTQ rights issues, such as marriage equality or transgender rights, than their parent’s generation had been. There has across much of this period also been a growing awareness of wealth inequalities, of limited opportunities and diminished expectations, which first found its expression through the Occupy movement and later through the campaign of Bernie Sanders, both of which have attracted massive numbers of millennial participants. Looking beyond the specifically American context, we would want to account for the impact of the Arab Spring movements, their short term success and long-term failure to transform governance in the Middle East, again, representing movements heavily shaped by the participation of youth in those countries and observed closely by young people elsewhere. 

Culturally, this generation has been shaped by the expansion of opportunities to create and circulate media -- what we call participatory culture -- and thus the breakdown of the monopoly of corporate producers on the kinds of media that they regularly consume. They are a generation whose expectations about what constitutes entertainment has been shaped by their access to computer and video games and not simply hard-railed games with limited options but the more open-ended forms of gaming represented by The Sims, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto at the start of this period and Minecraft at the current moment.  It is a generation that has been shaped by the kinds of heroic but often dystopian fantasies on offer through Young Adult novels -- that is, the generation informed by their shared engagement with Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and a broad array of other stories of often empowered young women who take on powerful social and political structures to change the world around them.

They have been shaped by what people are calling the plentitude of contemporary television -- a period of “too much good television,” even though many of them have cut the cords to cable and may watch television primarily via streaming and downloads on their computers. As we look back on television across this period, we would want to specify the emergence and sustained interest surrounding reality television, the popularity of cult serialized dramas such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, and the increased push to represent racial and ethnic diversity in both comedy and drama. Over the past year, some key markers of generational identity would include Hamilton and Beyonce’s Lemonade, both of which use hip hop, a style of music that has provided the soundtrack of their lives, to comment on racial politics in America.

Having recently seen Rogue One, I was struck by how many of the markers of Millennial popular culture it embodies. We can start with the fact that Millennials have been drawn to large transmedia franchises, which unfold over many different texts, over extended periods of time -- the return of Star Wars, yes, but also the Marvel Extended Universe or now Harry Potter, operate according to these principles. And Rogue One really represents a big step forward in terms of its play with backstory, its shifting of focus from primary to secondary characters, and its emphasis on world-building over narrative development. Second, Rogue One has an ensemble cast which is being celebrated for its inclusion and diversity as defined both by U.S. and global standards, including black, Latino, Arab, and Asian performers in key roles. Third, it has a “strong female protagonist,” similar to those found in YA novels, and reflecting a larger move in the Disney pictures towards heroic women who can handle themselves in action situations. And finally, the whole plot hinges on an act of  media transmission -- the uploading of the data files on the Death Star -- which brings us back to the centrality of digital media to the identity and experience of many from this generation. Other generations had stories about getting messages through in wartime, but not based on the kind of remote networked communication that is so central to this narrative. It’s not all about the digital where this generation is concerned, but the digital informs almost every other topic on their political and cultural agenda.


You’ve been looking closely at their political lives in recent years. How do these various factors shape the forms of citizenship and activism that has evolved there?

Over the last decade, I've been part of a multi-disciplinary research network created by the MacArthur foundation on Youth and Participatory Politics. Our mission was to better understand the political lives of American youth, combining quantitative and qualitative methods. My team's involvement consisted of doing ethnographic case studies of a number of different networks that have actively involved young people in the political process. The networks we looked at were mostly youth-centric, mostly started by people thirty or under, mostly spaces where young people could play very active roles in shaping the tactics and messages, and in many cases they were built around themes that really concern young people's entry into the political process. Altogether we interviewed more than 200 young activists, and what emerged there was a fairly consistent picture of the ways that a generation that had come of age in response to participatory culture was making the transition into political lives. For the purpose of the study we were dealing with youth defined in political terms -- we looked at people of an age who were too young to vote to people who were too young to run for public office - both very specific ages in the American context - people roughly seventeen to twenty-nine.

The first thing that emerged there was the idea that politics was being conducted by any media necessary. The phrase is a play on Malcolm X’s desire to bring about racial justice by any means necessary -- if you look at his speech defining this concept, he both calls for active recruitment of youth into the political practice and the use of a range of grassroots media to get protest messages out to the world. The tendency is to focus on the digital because that's what's new, and digital tools were certainly important in expanding who got to participate in the political process, and what participation meant for this generation, but the more closely we looked, the more it was clear that traditional tactics were also being used. Some of the young activists told us that they had access to very limited resources, and so they tapped whatever they had access to in order to get their message out. They also seemed conscious of the fact that a purely digital strategy would not help them reach older generation voters, and so the need to form coalitions meant they also worked with print media, with radio, did street protests, and used many other tactics that we might associate with other generations of political change. There are striking differences between the generations - research on African American youth, for example, finds much fewer of them engaging in boycotts, which had been a standard method of the Civil Rights movement, and a higher percentage involved in "buycotts," using their purchasing power to support groups that they think have made the right decisions and are doing the right thing. And that's a sea change, I think, in terms of what African American politics looks like in the United States.

What new media has meant has been an expansion of voice. Many of the young people we talked to had discovered their voice through largely cultural activities, participating as fans or gamers in online communities, but they were learning through these activist networks ways to translate those skills into new forms of political participation. So, for example, we were very interested in the work of fan activist groups, such as The Harry Potter Alliance and The Nerdfighters, that explicitly were seeking out young people who were culturally active but not yet politically active and helping them channel their energies into campaigns for social change. The Harry Potter Alliance is very interesting as large-scale organization, with more than 1,000 participants devoted to a range of different political issues, and with the variety to launch many different campaigns in the course of a year. They've involved everything from gay rights to hunger relief in Haiti to fair-trade chocolate to the labor rights of fast food workers in the South as well as issues of minimum wage and issues of environmentalism. So, unlike traditional activist groups, which tend to choose a single issue and focus on it, they tend to work with a shared cultural framework and deploy that to deal with a whole range of issues that their young people care about.

The Harry Potter Alliance led us to think very closely about what we're calling the "civic imagination." Building on a phrase from J. K. Rowling, they urge us to “imagine better,” by which they mean both do a better job imagining and imagine a better world and work to build it.  There's a tendency, especially on the Left, to think about policy in terms of facts, and that information will set us free, but we're seeing that imagination plays a crucial role in the political process. Before you can change the world you have to be able to imagine what a different or better world looks like. You have to be able to imagine what the process of change is, to imagine yourself as a civic and political agent capable of making change. You have to have a sense of an imagined community that you're a part of, a collective larger than yourself that is capable of being mobilized towards political goals. You often need some sense of empathy, or concern for people whose realities are different from your own. And for many who are marginal there is a leap of faith where you are imagining yourself as equal before you have had any direct experience of equality or reciprocity through the political process.

We find that these goals of the civic imagination get performed differently in different contexts. Historically, say, the founding fathers of the United States ran the civic imagination through allusions to ancient Rome and Athens, whereas the black civil rights movement in the 1950s conducted its business through the language of the black church and especially the story of Moses and the promised people's journey to freedom from the Egyptians. Young people today around the world are tying into the kinds of popular culture references we talked about earlier. They're fighting in the name of Harry Potter, they're using the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games as a sort of shared political marker across generations of activists around the world. They're dressing up like superheroes or putting on the Guy Fawkes mask, which in the United States really connotes V for Vendetta, to conduct their politics.

They do this because they're very invested in reshaping the political language. Many of the young people we talked to said that they found the language of contemporary American politics repulsive and exclusive. The rhetoric of American politics is repulsive in that it came in already encoded and partisan narratives that prevented people from finding common ground and common sense solutions, and exclusive in that if you were not already invested in policy discourse there were few points of entry for young people to enter into the political process. What we found was that young people wanted to actively shape the language of their political participation, that there was not a one message or one size fits all sort of rhetoric, and that the creation and circulation of memes is an important part of political speech for this generation. The meme is a shared language or discourse that many of them recognize and feel an affinity with. There's a kind of 'forthelulz' style of politics, which is a bit irreverent - all of which serves to increase their voice but doesn't necessarily increase their influence with earlier generations of political leaders. The messages that speak to millennials do not necessarily speak to the adult population, and so this where I think some of the crisis point is going to come for this generation. Lots of moments of misrecognition and misunderstanding across generations in terms of how people are pursuing their political agenda. It's important that these forms of activism are networked. Messages travel really rapidly from one site to the next, which allows success stories to be duplicated by activists not only around the United States but across the world, and many of the protests that have mattered for this generation do start out as global protesting. We can think about the Occupied movement as maybe the prime example of the kinds of politics that emerge in a global networked society.

Millenials, New Media and Social Change (Part One)

Last year, I was interviewed by José María Álverez Monzoncillo from the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos for a report he was preparing Telefonica, Millenials. La Generacion Emprendedora.  The transcription of the interview was published in Spanish so I asked him if I could reprint the English language original here for my readers, and he was happy to agree. This question about how digital media may or may not have shaped the first generation to have come of age with no exposure to a pre-digital world has generated interest from educators, parents, and policy makers around the world. The report makes some recommendations to business who deal with millennials as both consumers and employees.

You can get a sense of the report from what the back cover says:

Who is part of the Millennial generation? What differentiates them from other generations? Do digital natives have new skills? How are they informed and entertained? Have they buried the couch potato forever? Will your personal information become merchandise of data analysts? What vision do you have about life? What are your expectations? How do you define success? Do they have problems adapting to companies organized hierarchically and vertically? What do companies expect from them? How is the relationship between Millennials and Baby-Boomers? How do they face the clash between television and the Internet, rent versus ownership, passivity versus participation, transparency vs. privacy, together vs together alone? Are the environment and technology the keys that differentiate generations? How do they innovate? What do you want to be when you grow up? Are they as collaborative as they say or maybe the property does not interest them? Is flexibility their key? What are the key success factors of this generation? Do they have a hacker ethic? Who are they?

We are facing an ambitious book that reflects on these issues. There are answers, more questions and especially debate. Since William Strauss and Neil Howe coined the term "Millennial" at the end of the 1980s, to refer to the demographic cohort that would come of age in the year 2000, academics, consultants and institutions of all kinds have carried out studies that They try to understand this cultural group. The reader will find an in-depth analysis of the existing bibliography and three specific studies that offer original research results. For this we have focused on a concrete effect: the growing entrepreneurial current shown by members of the millennial generation in our country. To do this, the environmental factors are analyzed to determine if this effect could be conjunctural or was influenced by a structural change, but also intrinsic aspects of the generation itself.

The figure of the Millennials is approached with a central objective: to better understand the minenic entrepreneurial initiative. With a qualitative research approach, we conducted in-depth interviews with a group of Millennials, and subsequently, we developed a survey to expand our knowledge of some of the key success factors that were appearing during in-depth interviews. So the importance of knowing another language and having lived in another country, the motivation to undertake, the level of education or the impact of family support, mentors or acquaintances, were aspects that helped us to better understand how Generation Y undertakes in our country.

But this is a collective work. To complement the aforementioned nuclear study, this book has varied perspectives that significantly enrich the analysis: from the consumption of information, its level of training, its attitude towards unemployment and the new way of working, its capacity for adaptation, etc. To conclude, an interview with Henry Jenkins is offered, which offers a more international perspective of a generation that enters its maturity and that during the next decades will be of vital importance to understand how the present century evolves at the doors of the third industrial revolution and its socio-cultural and economic challenges.

In short, a book of great novelty and interest, written in a pleasant way. We wanted to be original, and offer a different vision of a generation often misunderstood in our country, and above all more committed and entrepreneurial than the topics imply.

The following quote (which was translated from Spanish) gives you some sense of the position taken by the authors of the report:

"It is a wrong perspective to think that the digitization of companies is to introduce the Internet in some of its processes, when, in reality, it linked to a change in corporate culture, and implies a constant process of renewal and improve to provide a better service or make a better product. The innovation involves intergenerational collaboration. Experience and a new impulse new in a technological paradigm shift is a good basis for restructuring many small and medium enterprises. Our analysis of the key factors of success (FCE) makes us think that there is a need to integrate the skills of different generations" (p. 364).

With this context, I will now share over the next few posts my responses to the questions these Spanish researchers posed to me.

A personal question: Why do you think you have connected so well with young people and have become a reference for them in spite of belonging to another generation?

My work has always focused on the ways that ordinary people deploy new media and popular culture resources in the context of their everyday life. This focus emerges from strong traditions in British cultural studies that have stressed that “culture is ordinary” and that forms of cultural expression are a normal aspect of how we interact with each other and with powerful institutions in our lives. These assumptions inform any work I do on children, youth, and new media. Often, there is an autobiographical dimension to my work -- my attention is drawn to forms of culture that are immediately around me, that have touched myself, my family, my students, or other important people in my life.

My earliest work on children and media, thus, involved me working through some of my concerns as a parent about the place that media played in my son’s life, starting with the ways that television programs became raw material for his play and social interactions with his friends and, in turn, thinking about what it means to play with television content as opposed to other kinds of cultural identities and traditional materials. I saw links between his backyard play and accounts in classic children’s novels which saw Anne in Anne of Green Gables, Jo in Little Women, Tom Sawyer, and others re-enacting stories that loomed large in their culture in the nineteenth century. I wrote about how video games might duplicate some of the processes of forging masculine identity through bonding via competition, risk, and mastery that had been identified by historians and sociologists looking at other generations of children at play. As my son got older, my interest shifted from children and media to adolescents and later college students as they interacted with new media. I was interested that his first girlfriend was an online relationship with someone who lived on the other side of the country, and later the other side of the world, or that his strongest social connections were with communities of shared interests that were not necessarily geographically bound by his school or neighborhood. These observations led me to read more deeply into work on learning and education, but also adolescent socialization processes and, more recently still, on how young people acquire political and civic identities.

A second source of my insights for much of the past twenty years came from my experiences as a housemaster in a MIT dormitory, living and interacting with some 150 undergraduates of diverse backgrounds, most of whom were well ahead of the adoption curve in their use of new media platforms and practices. Walking the halls and interacting with students offered me many glimpses of what they were doing with new media and why, and these encounters also inspired some key insights in my work. For example, watching international students share their own media traditions with their contemporaries, or for that matter, seeing murals on the walls of the dorm of anime and manga characters, inspired my interest in pop cosmopolitanism -- the idea that this generation is defining their identities in opposition to the parochialism of their parents’ culture by embracing popular culture from other parts of the world. At the same time, I was interested to see international students listening to podcasts or streaming radio from their mother countries, maintaining closer ties to the world they left behind than would be characteristic of earlier generations of students studying overseas.  Our dorm was  a place that accepted and embraced diverse subcultural, ethnic and sexual identities, so it was a place where I could learn more about goths and gamers, see new and emerging forms of fan culture, and develop a deeper appreciation of how these young people were communicating via social media even amongst people living side by side in the same building.

Part of what has allowed me to make such discoveries has been my openness to popular culture. I have always defined my identity in relation to fandom and so I do not dismiss forms of popular culture that are meaningful to the young people in my surroundings. Too many academics and educators are cut off from the realms of popular culture that matter in the lives of youth, do not appreciate why or how they are meaningful, and so often do not see what is right in front of their faces. As someone trained in cultural studies, we start from the premise that people do not engage in meaningless activities. We may not instantly understand why something is meaningful to someone else, but we have an obligation to identify its meaning and its fit in their cultural context, rather than simply dismissing it as trivial.

How do Millennials differ from other generations? How are Millennials similar to other generations?

I have to admit up front that I have a deep suspicion of the concept of the digital native, which runs through so much writing about contemporary youth around the world, and insofar as the concept of the Millennial becomes another way of expressing that same underlying paradigm, it produces a similar degree of discomfort. For example, consider the language framing a recent call for papers at an academic conference:

“Members of the millennial generation, or Generation Y, were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Therefore, most of them are offspring of the baby boomers. They are also known as the most technologically savvy generation. Even though Generation X’ers were known to heavily consume electronic media because they were born when the Internet was in its infancy, the millennials were born into a media-saturated and consumer-driven culture. Moreover, unlike the members of the previous generations, they were surrounded by digital media technologies since they were infants. In a way, they live in a digital media ecology and in fact are known as “digital natives”....Since they live in digitalized platforms, millennials are often disconnected from the members of the previous generations. For the most part, rather than being community oriented, they are self-centered and self-absorbed. Perhaps, this why they are known as the “Generation Me.” ”

This passage sums up all of my concerns in a nice package.

Initially, digital native had some use value insofar as it encouraged adults to recognize and value young people’s unique relationships with new media. It encouraged educators and policy-makers to question taken-for-granted preconceptions about what they might value about formal education, what forms of cultural expression and experience were meaningful, and what activities would prepare youth for their adult lives. Young people, we were told, learned differently as a consequence of access to and familiarity with different media platforms and practices, though here, the argument already starts to veer into a technological determinist argument that video games made them smarter or Google made them stupid. Insofar as the term opened our eyes and minds to new possibilities, it had some constructive impact, but quickly it has become a way of shutting down questions through making universal or general claims rather than being attentive to the particulars of diverse young people and their lives. 

We cannot generalize across all of the members of a generation even in the U.S. context, let alone a global context, and assume that everyone had equal access to the resources, experiences, and knowledge required to meaningfully participate in the new media environment. Access has in fact been unevenly and inequitably distributed across this generation just as other technological and cultural resources have been unevenly and inequitably distributed across prior generations. Not all millennials, even in the industrialized West, grew up with easy access to networked computers, high speed bandwidth, mobile technologies, or game systems. Not all of them spent time with social networking technologies or playing massively multiplayer games. Not all of them wrote fan fiction or mucked around with Minecraft. So a key concern here is that the language we use to talk about millennials or digital natives is not sufficiently attentive to the diversity and inequality in the ways different young people access and learn through these various new media platforms and practice.

A second concern is that the language of the digital native tends to erase the process of learning -- we need to be attentive to the ways that engagement with these practices and platforms enables people to actively master skills, acquire language, and not just assume that these skills come naturally as a consequence of being in the vicinity of computers. Researchers are more and more attentive to how different communities playing with the same technologies may have differing degrees of learning, may or may not be able to articulate what it is they have learned, may or may not be able to transfer that knowledge to other contexts, and may or may not be able to meaningfully deploy such knowledge and skill in relation to educational and economic opportunities. These have been central concerns animating researchers in the Connected Learning tradition that has come out of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative. No one lives exclusively in a digital environment, so the effects of these early experiences with new media get shaped through the larger context of young people’s lives, whereas the rhetoric of the digital native tends to exaggerate digital media’s influence and often dismiss the active agency of those who have sought to build meaningful lives for themselves in relation to the online world. At its worse, the digital native rhetoric tends to focus on what media does to young people and not what young people do with media.

A third set of issues centers around the implicit and often explicit contrast between the digital native and something else -- what sometimes gets described as the digital immigrant, the adult population that came of age prior to the widespread introduction of networked computing. This framing tends to deny the value of what adults bring to the table -- the kinds of skill and knowledge they can transmit to the younger generation. In reality most of the sites of informal learning that have excited educators about the online world are places where adults and youth participate together, often with different, more fluid relationships than those found within traditional families, schools, churches and other institutions. Here, learning is more reciprocal than hierarchical. Adults learn from youth as well as the other way around. Researchers tell us that most youth lack access to adult mentors who can help them understand the ethical choices, risks and opportunities that they encounter in their online lives, and this lack of adult mentorship has consequences in terms of their ability to fully integrate learning with educational and economic opportunities. We should be encouraging more fluid intergenerational experiences online rather than seeing digital literacy as the natural byproduct of a generation that has come of age as the feral children of the Web 2.0 wolf pack.

The use of generational terms to describe media literacy potentially blurs another set of questions we should be asking about whether what we are observing reflects a particular life stage which shapes what people do with networked computers at particular ages as opposed to some permanent traits of a generational cohort that grew up at the same historical moment. For example, someone writing about the Baby Boomer generation in the 1960s might have defined it around the counter-culture and campus protests of the period, which certainly was one formative set of experiences for this generation, but fifty years later, we’ve seen that generation develop other traits and identities over time, and often, see the protests as specific experiences of adolescents and students living in a particularly charged period of American history. It is too soon to make lifelong generalizations about who millennials are, what they value, what their personality type is, etc. Does their media literacy reflect generational differences or simply the kinds of opportunities offered them as people in their teens and twenties in a specific historical and cultural context? It may tell us less than we think about long-term dispositions that come out of this early access to media.

Finally we need to be attentive to the commonalities across generations created around shared experiences of class, race, religion, geographic location, nationality and ethnicity, etc., all of which shape us in powerful ways, perhaps even more powerfully than can be accounted for by generational differences. At the end of the day, these young people share much in common with the older generations in their families and communities.


Ed Tech and Equity: An Interview with Justin Reich


From time to time, I have featured here the work of Mimi Ito and others from the Connected Learning Research Network. Along with danah boyd, Mimi and I wrote Participatory Culture in a Networked Society and we've collaborated on a broad range of education-related ventures. So, when Mimi flags something to my attention, I listen and respond. Last October, Ito sent me the copy of From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Technologies, a report she had written with Justin Reich, currently in the department of Writing and Comparative Media Studies at MIT. Having featured Ito several times here, I wanted to put the spotlight on Reich, all the more so when I learned he was now teaching through the program I helped to establish at MIT.

What he has to say here gives some provocative glimpses into what these two researchers found, challenging the discourse of technological disruption and inevitability, which shaped so much early thinking about the ways new media would impact education. In a classic meeting between technology and culture, they find that the culture of schools, much more conservative than even many skeptics imagined, wins out most of the time, resulting in a world where lowered expectations and diminished resources for some youth keep them from enjoying the benefits imagined by those who introduce new media tools and platforms. But, what he shares here scratches the surface. There is no substitute for doing what Reich urges at one point: "Read the report!"


Your report identifies three core myths about technology and education. What are they? Each of these seems to boil down to a form of technological determinism. How do we help people to understand the social and cultural forces that shape our relations with technology?


To provoke people’s thinking on edtech and equity, we argue that there are three myths out there that are worth rethinking

The first is that technology disrupts systems, when very often, culture domesticates technology. From Clayton Christensen on down, we have a whole mythology about the power of technology to reorganize human systems, but what we see over and over again is that schools and other learning ecologies are great at taking new technologies and putting them in service of existing goals and intentions. From slate to chalkboard to overhead projectors to document cameras to projectors to smartboards, we’ve had nearly a dozen display technologies in classrooms and overwhelming they are used to display notes that students are supposed to copy or summarize. I was at Google recently and someone involved in the Classroom team was explaining how they were so successful at scaling up so quickly, and the “secret” turned out to be helping the system do everything it was doing anyway. Generally speaking in schools, it’s a good bet that if you introduce a new technology, it will be used to extend existing practices, and it won’t be a catalyst for disruptive innovation. 

The second myth is that open equals equitable, but more commonly, free technologies disproportionately benefit affluent folks with the financial, social, and technological capital to take advantage of free innovations. I’ve studied this in several contexts now, at the end of the 00s I was studying classroom uses of wikis, and found they were used more often and for more interesting purposes in affluent schools. In the last few years, I studied MOOCs, and found that U.S. residents lives in neighborhoods about a half of a standard deviation more affluent that typical Americans. 

If you want to make a safe bet about any new tech in schools, bet that it will be used to extend existing practices, and most adoption and most of the interesting practices on the margins will happen in affluent schools or in the upper tracks of schools with more affluent kids. 

The third myth is that we can close some of these digital divides through expanding technology access. In reality, social and cultural exclusions are much more difficult to overcome. This is an old lesson, but we understand it better with each passing year. I was first exposed to some of these ideas from the sociologist Paul Attewell’s work on the two Digital Divides: the divide of access and the divide of usage. You can wire everyone up the same with the same devices, and young people from more affluent neighborhoods will have more opportunities to use tech for more creative and production-oriented uses with more support from adults and mentors. Henry, your own work on the Participation Gap—the gap between who has access to new technologies and who actually participation as producers in creative networks—is another source of inspiration for this kind of thinking. 

One overarching lesson from all this is that if you want to build great edtech, you ought to have folks with social and cultural expertise on your team. The tech is just table stakes, it’s really about the integration into the learning ecology. 

I’ve been teaching undergrads at MIT this semester, and most of them are Computer Science concentrators. A big part of how startups encourage developers to think is to focus very closely on a particular and well-defined interaction: think of how Uber tries to create the experience of tapping your phone have having a black car come pick you up and whisk you away like a celebrity. Focusing on a particular interaction makes design tractable, but it also means you aren’t paying attention to the large context and system.                                                   

It might be technological determinism, but even if it’s not the result of strictly deterministic thinking—maybe just a kind of techno-optimism—we think there are real limitations to how much technology alone can shape systems. 

As to your questions about how we help people understand more about how social and cultural forces shape tech, Mimi and I are starting a whole project related to this. Over the past year, we’ve had three meetings with folks from venture capital, philanthropy, and edtech trying to have a good old-fashioned consciousness raising conversation. I think the research on the challenges we face is pretty stable and robust at this point, and the more exciting work ahead is to figure out how we can learn from the exemplar projects out there that are doing great work to close opportunity gaps. 

An underlying argument is that despite our high hopes and best intentions, “evidence is mounting that these new technologies tend to be used and accessed in unequal ways, and they may even exacerbate inequity.” What are some of the indicators supporting this claim?

 I mentioned two of my studies on this, about wikis and MOOCs. Let me describe for a minute some commonalities of both of these studies. First, these technology platforms operate at a global scale and collect massive amounts of data. There are many serious privacy concerns about this kind of data collection, but if you want to understand edtech and inequality, you need to gather enough data to understand how subgroups use technology indifferent ways. In both of these studies we connect log data from the platforms with national datasets about demographics—in the case of schools we use school level data from the National Center on Education Statistics and for the MOOC study we used data derived from the Census. 

For the wiki study, we found publicly-viewable, education related wikis used in U.S., K-12 schools, and measured where they were created, how long they were used, and how rich and collaborative the learning experience was. We then gathered socio-economic status data about the schools themselves, so we could compare how wikis were used differently in school serving different populations. We found that wikis were more likely to be created in schools serving affluent kids, that wikis created in affluent schools were used longer and with more student involvement. 

For the MOOC study, we had all of the data about HarvardX and MITx enrollments and course completions, and we had folks’ addresses, which we could use to identify their census block group, a neighborhood of about 1200 individuals. If you know something about someone’s neighborhood, you can make a good guess about their own level of affluence, There, we found that people who register for MOOCs live in neighborhoods about ½ standard deviation more affluent that typical Americans, and for young people who register, students from more affluent neighborhoods are more likely to complete courses. 

There is lots of previous research on edtech and inequality, Paul Attewell did observational studies in homes and schools. Other researchers have used surveys; Harold Wenglinsky used NAEP surveys in the 90s to identify that Black and low-income students were more likely to use computers in math class for drill and practice than for more cognitively complex math work. For the methods nerds, the observational work had great validity, but problems with generalizability, and the surveys probably had low validity, but good generalizability. The virtue of some of the newer work examining whole systems is that it has high validity, since we can peer closely at exactly what people do, along with the generalizability that comes from massive, international platforms. But all this work points in the same direction- people with more financial, social, and technical capital have a greater ability to take advantage of new innovations, even free ones.  

This is a rather dire finding for people who have spent the last few decades trying to bring new media platforms and practices into schools. I can imagine it was hard won. Has it force you to rethink some of your earlier work in this space?

Hard won, for sure: I started working on this is 2008, and 2017 was when I felt confident to get together with Mimi and say “Look, we know what’s going to happen when the next piece of edtech comes out, and we have to start avoiding some of the same mistakes.” Each little brick takes years to stack up on the foundation, but at this point we have thirty years of work with computers, and 100 years of work on signals technology going back to radio—we can make good bets about how edtech will affect equity when in context. . 

I started my work in edtech in affluent private schools as a history teacher, and I thought teaching in 1-1 environments there was fabulous—16 kids, computers for everyone, batteries always charged, networks always working. When I started into research, I was pretty sure that the things that worked great for me in the world’s best teaching environment weren’t going to work other places. But that was the real start of the Web 2.0 era, and there were all kinds of calls that social media and peer production tools were going to democratize education, my instinct was that wasn’t going to happen because even though the tools were “free”, the infrastructure to make them valuable was very expensive. So I was right from the beginning.


What are some of the factors that result in this reproduction of unequal relations?

 My favorite story about this comes from an observation in a school in rural New Hampshire. The teacher was preparing a lesson using wikis, and all the kids had laptops, the batteries were charged, the broadband was coming into the building, the internet was reaching the wireless access points and connecting to the computers, the projector had a bulb, and the introductory slides were all ready to go. The teacher went to plug in the projector, and the electrical outlet fell behind the dry wall, and the teacher needed to rethink everything. Getting technology working in schools requires the maintenance of a complex logistical infrastructure, that includes outlets, wires, wireless access, power, batteries, policy, and pedagogy. It takes a big investment in staffing to keep all that running, and it’s easier for affluent schools to make those investments. 

Mimi’s student Matt Rafalow has some great research about how cultural perspectives at schools also reproduce structural inequalities. To oversimplify, when rich white kids play around with technology, they are treated as hackers, and when poor black and brown kids play around with technology, adults treat them as slackers. Adults can treat very similar behaviors differently based on the demographics of the students engaging in the behavior. 

Maybe one other important point is that there are some sectors where introducing technology does lead to certain kinds of reducing of inequalities. I’ve seen data about agricultural prices in rural parts of southeast Asia where before cell phones, prices are very volatile, and after the widespread introduction of phones, prices stabilize dramatically. Or even something as basic as cameras, which were the provenance of the elite for many years, but recently have played a crucial role in documenting police violence and so forth. So I understand why people might have an intuition that free technologies would be particular good for people without a lot of resources, and certainly sometime they can be, but it’s unusual in edtech for new technologies to disproportionately benefit low income students. When it happens, it happens because designers are very intentional about that as a goal. 

Even when educational materials are free and open to all online, they tend to draw the most use from those who are already educational and informational haves. I can imagine frustrated designers and educators throwing up their hands and saying, What more can we do? What steps can we take to decrease or even reverse this process of inequality in educational opportunity? Do you have some good exemplars of what this better practice looks like?

 So that’s the second part of our paper: From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes. There is great work that’s happening out there, and terrific researchers, developers, and funders and finding out all kinds of important strategies for making technology work for the students furthest from opportunity. 

There are a number of great strategies that folks have identified. Ricarose Roque’s Family Creative Learning and Boston’s TechGoesHome both get families involved in learning more about tech so they can support their kids learning… if it takes a village to raise a child, then let’s teach the village. The folks at OpenStax at Rice University realized that there were something like 20 college courses in the US that were responsible for over half of all enrollments in universities: Calculus I, U.S. History, etc. So they got donors to fund the development of really great open source textbooks books on these topics that they target at the community college market, where textbook costs are a substantial burden on student budgets. This seems to be a case where free things do the greatest benefit for the students furthest from opportunity. 

In the paper, we offer four types of strategies to get people started. First, co-design with learners and communities. Make sure that your development teams include people and have close relationships with the learners you most want to serve. Second, align home, school, and community—get parents and families involved and build their capacity alongside students. Third, building on all the great work in the Connected Learning community, leverage the interests that students bring from their cultures and backgrounds. Fourth, measure the impact of new technologies on different kinds of learners, and really try to understand how innovations get picked up differently by different communities. There is much more in the paper we released about each of these strategies, but what they have in common is the call for people to think about the context of edtech, not just the tech. 

Here’s one thought that I’ve been playing around with in teaching my undergraduates: one question that edtech developers and advocates might ask is: “What is the human-human interaction that you hope results from the technology that you are developing? Before, during or after an interaction with edtech, what kind of conversation will a kid have with an adult or with another kids because of the technology.” That might be a simple way to get people to start thinking more about the broader context of edtech. 

What advice do you have for people trying to develop ed-tech for use in the current cultural and educational climate? What should they do differently if they want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

Read the report! I guess that’s sort of a boring researcher answer, but we wrote the darn thing to help people find their first steps. 

We think that step one is getting a handle on the basic findings of 30 years of research into education technology and equity. If you are working on a project that’s trying to make education more equitable using tech, there is a long history to suggest that it’s really hard to do that. 

Step two is looking out there at the great examples out there, many of which we describe in the paper, that are finding creative and clever ways of partnering with learners and other stakeholders to build equitable edtech. 

Step three is getting your team together and saying, “OK, we haven’t done as well as we wanted to as a field on this over the last 30 years. From our own vantage, what could we be doing in the next 30 days or 30 years to make some improvements.” This New Gilded Age that we are in is a very difficult place to finds ways of connecting innovation and equity, but the challenge that we face shouldn’t dim our hopes. Education is a great place for people who maintain hope in the face of structural adversity. 

What are the next steps for you and the other researchers on this team?

Mimi and I have some schemes that we’re working on. We’d like to continue to find ways of engaging the venture capital, philanthropic, developer, researcher, and practitioner communities around this. There aren’t that many people in the US who are gatekeepers to what kinds of edtech projects get started and what gets adopted. If we could educate and engage a good portion of those folks, I think we could start a new conversation across many different actors in the field. 

While we have some good early exemplars of how to think about edtech and equity in sophisticated ways, there is much, much more work to be done. We’re hoping to find a way to have the technology industry come together to fund some of that research collaboratively, so it’s not just something coming out of one foundation or one research lab, but it’s something that the edtech industry takes on itself to better figure out how to serve all kids, especially those who need us most. 

Justin Reich is an educational researcher interested in the future of learning in a networked world. He is an Assistant Professor in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an instructor in the Scheller Teacher Education Program, a faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. The Teaching Systems Lab investigates the complex, technology-rich classrooms of the future and the systems that we need to help educators thrive in those settings. 

"I Have a Bad Feeling About This": Reflections on Star Wars, Fandom, and Transmedia

My wife, son and I are psyched to have tickets to see The Last Jedi tonight, all the more so because the early reviews have been so glowing. In hopes of helping others get into the Star Wars Christmas spirit, I wanted to share an excerpt for a  much longer interview I did as the foreword for Sean Guymes and Dan Hassler-Forrest, Star Wars and the History of Transmedia, out this holiday season from Amsterdam University Press. If you enjoy this, there's much more where it came from, including great essays from some of the world's leading scholars of fandom and transmedia. 


Dan: You’re probably one of the world’s best-known Star Trek fans – certainly within academia. Since you have always reflected on popular franchises from the dual perspective of the “aca-fan, it seems most appropriate to start with a question about your own relationship with Star Wars. What’s your own history with this franchise?

Henry: I grew up on Star Trek. It was a formative influence on my identity and my understanding of the world. On the other hand I was an undergraduate when A New Hope first appeared, so I necessarily have a different relationship to it. It took a while for Star Wars to win me over. When I saw the first preview in the movie theaters, I laughed it off the screen. From the highly generic and on-the-nose title to the dorky robots, it seemed to embody everything that I thought was wrong about Hollywood’s relationship to science fiction as a genre. It just looked laughably bad. Keep in mind though that that first trailer didn’t have John Williams’ musical score, so the tone would have felt very different for those of us seeing it for the first time. And keep in mind that it followed trailers for Logan’s Run and Damnation Alley, which were both releasing at the same time. What I really wanted was a new Planet of the Apes movie!

After I had seen that trailer, I was given the chance to interview three unknown actors, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, about the upcoming film as a young undergraduate journalist and declined, giving the assignment to another reporter. I was, down the line, able to have a one-on-one interview with John Williams about the music, which is ranked as one of my all-time favorite opportunities to see behind the screen.

So it took me a while to even go see the movie. By that point it had started to build up some buzz. And when I saw the film, I fell hard. It totally excited my imagination. It had such a strong sense of fun and adventure; its reliance on the Hero’s Journey would have been particularly resonant with me at the time since I was undergoing a period of undergraduate infatuation with the writings of Joseph Campbell.

I’ve gone out and seen every subsequent film on opening day with my wife. I wasn’t seeing her at the time the first Star Wars came out, but it is a ritual we have kept up down to the present day. My wife loves to tell the story of how we first met: she arrived for her first undergraduate film class, and saw this undergraduate standing around talking to anyone who would listen about the social significance of Star Wars. She rolled her eyes, and later in that afternoon wrote a letter to her best friend talking about this “pretentious ass” she’d seen in the class who had embodied everything that she was afraid a film class would be like. Two years later, by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, this “pretentious ass” was hers, and she never ceases to remind me of her first impression.

But the story from my point of view suggests just how deeply I was, at that point, engaging with the mythology around Star Wars. Subsequently, my fandom of Star Wars would wax and wane. I’ll talk about some of the twists and turns along the way, but I think that I, like many fans of my generation, was cranky when Star Wars becomes too much of a children’s franchise, and engaged when there is material there that works at a more mature level.

Dan: So as an highly engaged witness to the Star Wars phenomenon as it took shape, how would you place it within the larger framework of science fiction fandom?

Henry: In some ways I see it as a crucial turning point for the kind of media-centered fans, the mostly female fans that I wrote about in Textual Poachers. Up until that point, most of fandom had been organized around Star Trek, which had been a defining text for a generation of fans. Suddenly, you were seeing forms of fan expression that were taking shape around Star Trek expanded to incorporate new texts, including, first and foremost, Star Wars. We can see this as a move from a fandom centered around individual stories to a multi-media fandom, which would continue to expand across genres, across franchises, down to the present day.

So if we think about the text that defined fandom over time, Star Trek is certainly one of those, Star Wars is another, Harry Potter is another, Buffy is another, maybe Xena - these are the fandoms that represent a profound shift in the way fandom operates. It’s easy to understand, then, why some Star Trek fans saw Star Wars as a threat or competition. It certainly fell into the fault lines of what people thought science fiction was. Star Trek was seen as true science fiction – science fiction about ideas, about the future, about utopian and dystopian alternatives. Star Wars was seen as space opera, fantasy, bound up with spectacular special effects. But I never understood why you had to pick one over the other. Different tastes, different moments in our lives, but all representing exciting contributions to the larger development of science fiction.

Dan: Unlike most previous fantastic storyworlds, Star Wars was in many ways a transmedia experience from the very start: the comic books, the novelizations, the arcade games, the action figures, the soundtrack albums, and so on. While all the merchandising and transmedia spin-offs clearly contributed to the franchise’s phenomenal financial success and its impact as a cultural phenomenon, they also made the storyworld appear more childish, more frivolous, and more obviously commercial than other science fiction. But at the same time, its ubiquity also made it a gateway drug for millions of young fans who felt inspired to look beyond Lucas’s space opera and discover a whole universe of fantastic fiction. What is your take on the way Star Wars’ commercial success has colored its perception among fans of the genre? Is it less of a “cult text” because of its sheer scale?

Henry: There’s no question that George Lucas was a founding figure in the evolution of modern transmedia storytelling. A lot of this has to do with the deal he cut with Twentieth Century Fox around the production of the film, Lucas waiving his normal fees as director in favor of a percentage of the gross from ancillary products. Because the ancillary products became so central to his revenues, they became central to his interest in the stories. This arrangement created a strong incentive for those pieces – the comics, the toys, the novelizations, and so forth – to be more fully incorporated into the story system of Star Wars. Such experiences became central to Star Wars’ commercial success, and meant the experience of Star Wars extended off the screen and throughout the intervals between the releases of individual films. No other science fiction property had so totally saturated a generation’s media experiences. No previous science fiction film had gained this kind of blockbuster status. The summer blockbuster had only really been established as a category in Hollywood through the success of Jaws (1975) just a couple of years earlier. Star Trek barely survived on television, limping along through its three seasons, heavily backed up by two letter-writing campaigns from its audience, and only really regained the impact it had on the culture through reruns in syndication. As Star Wars achieves this kind of instant mass success, you could make the argument that science fiction was no longer a marker of subcultural identity, but something that could be a mass phenomenon.

It’s hard therefore to talk about anyone who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s for whom Star Wars and subsequent science fiction franchises weren’t a central influence on their lives. We could look toward Harry Potter as a similar mainstream niche success, a seemingly contradictory category, but one that seems earned in both cases. It’s a mass success because almost everyone in the culture would have gone to see these films, or read the books in the case of Harry Potter, as they were released; but at the same time, it’s also a niche success because there were so many subcultural practices that grew up around them. So each person’s experience of these mass hits would have had slightly different inflections and would have brought them into contact with likeminded communities. Liking Star Wars was no longer enough to gain fan street-cred, and various forms of fan involvement could still be seen as being too geeky. There’s not just one Star Wars but many Star Wars, which is why I think the ancillary properties or transmedia extensions become so interesting to study.


Dan: While the narratively self-contained original trilogy clearly wasn’t organized as a form of transmedia storytelling, the popularity of the early toys and videogames gave audiences at the time unprecedented ways of engaging with the storyworld outside the actual films. How did this affect the development of fan culture in the early years of the franchise, and how would you describe this constant interaction between immersion (in the films’ spectacularly visualized and richly detailed storyworld) and extraction (of toys, games, and other items into audience members’ lived experience)? 

Henry: There’s a tendency to underestimate how central the toys were to the Star Wars transmedia system. Academics, particularly those of us of a particular generation, are primed to dismiss toys in all forms as simple commodities that are ways of exploiting the markets opened up by individual franchises. In the case of Star Wars, as with many other contemporary media franchises, they play a much larger role. They are evocative objects that shape the imagination in particular ways. They are authoring tools that grant to the purchaser the right to retell and extend the story that they saw on the screen. The action figures suggest that there is more going on than can be captured in an individual movie, and that the background details of a fictional world can be as important as the saga of the central protagonist. Indeed it hints at a place where any given character’s story could be of central interest to us, and so in that sense we can see the action figures as paving the way for the kind of stand-alone films that are part of the new Star Wars transmedia plan. In many cases the action figures that mattered were not those of the big protagonists but those of secondary characters, background figures. In some cases characters that barely count as extras are given new emphasis and new life as they become part of the personal mythology of the fan. We often tell the story through the example of Boba Fett, who developed a fascination off-screen that far exceeded the amount of screen time granted in the films, and paved the way for Boba Fett to become a much more central character in the prequels. But I think you could tell the same kinds of stories around characters like Admiral Ackbar and Mon Mothma or Hammerhead, all of whom gained greater resonance through their extension in playrooms and playgrounds across the country.

I think this results in several different ways that one might read Star Wars. One is to see Star Wars as the Skywalker saga, which is grounded in the Hero’s Journey and which has a singular focus even as it expands outward over time and space. But the second would be to read Star Wars as a world, where many different parts can be explored, and where background details can be as rich and meaningful as anything that goes on in the lives of the protagonists. This logic of world-building, of extension, expansion, extraction, shapes all the other elements that would emerge around the Star Wars constellation. Each new extension of the Star Wars text adds potentially more depth or appreciation of the world depicted onscreen.

I’m particularly fond of a book called Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, which consists of a series of short stories, each centered around one of the aliens featured in the Cantina sequence in A New Hope. We learn who these characters are, what brought them to the Cantina that day, and in some cases what happened to them after the events of the film. So when you read this and then go back and watch the Cantina scene in the original film, you have a much deeper appreciation of every detail in the background. You come to understand the whole of what’s going on, and in some ways the central protagonists are dwarfed by all the other dramas taking place in the bar that particular day. Given how rich the background stories provided on these various characters are, it should be no shock that say, Rogue One, features several of those characters in a different setting, depicting earlier points in their particular journeys to the Mos Eisley Cantina.

I don’t know that there’s necessarily a friction between immersion and extraction. I know I originally described this as a kind of paradoxical relationship, one drawing us into the film, one drawing us out of the film. But in the case of Star Wars, the mastery built up through the extracted elements can result in greater attention or a greater sense of immersion into the world when we return to the film. Immersion involves kinds of recognition, mastery, built up investments in certain series’ elements that pop off the screen, the more we know about them and the more we appreciate them from the world off-screen. This is a sense of making Tatooine and other fictional spaces our own by making them the sites of our collective fantasies.

Dan: In the many years between the original trilogy and the release of the prequel films, Star Wars moved away somewhat from the cultural mainstream and became something that was more of a “cult text,” maintaining its core audience of fans through the production of novels, videogames, tabletop RPGs, comics, and collectables. At the same time, the growing popularity of fantastic franchises and the arrival of the internet contributed to fan culture’s dramatic growth in that period. How do you look back at this era from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, and how would you describe Star Wars’ position within science fiction fandom at that time?

Henry: Around the time that The Empire Strikes Back was released, George Lucas did what is now a notorious interview with Time where he described his vision for where the Star Wars franchise might be going. There he spoke about three trilogies as adding up to the full Star Wars saga. The first was the one initiated by A New Hope. Once that was completed, he had announced that he was going to go back and do a series of prequels which told the events surrounding the collapse of the Jedi knights, the Clone Wars, the corruption of Anakin Skywalker, and the breakdown of his relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi. After those were completed and after the actors had a chance to naturally age a bit over time, he planned to go back for a third trilogy, which suggests what happened to these ruling families as they were forced to hold the galaxy together. What I think none of us anticipated was quite how long the gaps would be between each of those three trilogies, even though the interview in some ways maps out precisely the future course of the Star Wars franchise.

As fans, we knew then what to expect from the prequels. They would be Arthurian, operatic, mythic, pick the word of your choice, but shaped by Lucas’ particular reading of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory. All of this pointed towards a more mature, darker conception of the series that would require strong performances to achieve the emotional intensity we wanted to see on the screen. This goes hand in hand with the degree to which fans of my generation embraced The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the three Star Wars movies, and the intensity with which they repudiated the introduction of Muppets and stuffed toys, especially the Ewoks, into the next Star Wars film and its spinoffs.

Part of what cemented that sense of a shared conception of the prequels was the beginnings of the internet fandom, certainly by the 1990s. Early internet fandom was marked by sharp divides, flame wars between different factions who had very different sets of expectations about what Star Wars, or any other media property, was supposed to do. But over time, online fan communities tended to develop very strong senses of consensus around what’s best and what’s worst about a particular media franchise, and that consensus becomes more entitled and empowered over time, so that by the time the prequels came out Lucas was facing a very intense and embedded sense of fan expectations, expectations which had been building over almost twenty years during the gap between the films.

You mention here that this fan interest is kept alive by the secondary production by the corporation, but it has also been kept alive by fan cultural production. Over the 1980s and 1990s you’re seeing the extension of the timeline of Star Wars as fan writers flesh out incidents earlier and earlier and later and later in the life of the characters, and then move beyond them to tell the backstory of the Sith or the Jedi, often in ways that extend across centuries. Fans sort through these, debate them, some become semi-canonical in the fans’ imagination, and these become central forces shaping what fans want Star Wars to become. During the same time period, we’re seeing both the increased visibility of fan-cultural production, and the first rounds of skirmishes with Lucas and the other producers over what the rules of our participation are going to be. Lucas early on seems to feel a very strong need to control what fans did with Star Wars, an issue I’ll come back to in response to one of your later questions. And so Star Wars became one of the central battlegrounds by which fan relations to intellectual property would take place.

The Multiplicity and Diversity of Fandom: An Interview with Fansplaining's Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel (Part Three)

You have argued against assuming that all forms of fan culture are transgressive or resistance, a position with which I strongly agree. The status of slash as a political expression has shifted as GLBT representations have become more mainstream and commonplace. Why do you think this transgressive reading of fandom has been so persistent? What do you see as the investments within fandom in seeing themselves in these terms?

Elizabeth: I have a lot of thoughts about this—I’ve written about it and we’ve had entire episodes on the topic. One thing I’d say from the outset is while I don’t believe that male/male slash is even remotely the act of transgression it once was, it’s undeniable that amongst the types of media that transformative fandom tends to gravitate towards, canonical queerness and queer relationships are still a rarity. Fans are queering texts in genres that still fail to deliver significant queer representation; that makes this conversation even more complicated. And from my vantage watching the way the media, dominated by straight men, talks about and engages with fans, there is certainly still an element of bafflement and even derision about slash. “Why slash?” A question that will not die!

That being said, in 2017, I think the way you characterize our stance on slash as political or transgressive is correct. I was chatting about this with Anne Jamison oh, maybe 18 months ago—some of our conversation made it into this article—and she had a theory that really resonated with me. Acafans talk about affect all the time, but fans rarely do, even using simpler language; how often do you see people arguing on behalf of their favorite show or character or ship by saying, “It just brings me a lot of pleasure.” If the act of shipping and romantic desires around a text is largely coded as female, there might be some subconscious internalized misogyny at work here; I ship these guys because it is Serious and Important and Vital for Gay Rights, not because it brings me pleasure, because my (female) pleasure is frivolous and foolish.

Flourish: I think you’re absolutely right, and I also think that the idea that your pleasure might be also serious and important is heady stuff to lots of people! It marches well with sex-positive feminism, for example. I think that it’s easy to think of it as—wow, I can have my cake and eat it too!

And you can have your cake and eat it too; it’s not wrong to say that slash can be important, serious expression as well as romantic, sexy, and/or fun reading. But that can become an armor against critique, against gay men saying “this seems like you’re fetishizing gay dudes,” against people pointing out that slash sometimes writes women out of stories entirely, et cetera. I think that that armor, that method of defending yourself against critique, is very important to some people. Humans find it hard to hold two or three ideas in their head at once: Slash is important in creating queer representation; it’s fun and pleasurable for many people and that’s important too; but slash can sometimes be regressive, sexist, or fetishizing.

Elizabeth: And I think that the limits of the “progressiveness” of slash shipping patterns also belies how flimsy the “it’s politically important” argument is to both of us. Rukmini Pande, a scholar who’s been on the podcast twice now, is the person who really clarified this for me: she talked about how slash so often means only specific sorts of bodies: white, first and foremost, but also cisgender, able-bodied, etc. Sometimes fandom seems to go out of its way to seek out white men to slash, stepping around canonical characters of color and thrusting background white dudes, especially ones who look and act certain ways, to the forefront of fanworks. It’s systemic, and it’s pervasive. And I think it’s impossible to have a conversation about queer fanworks without talking about it.

You have consistently brought in historical perspectives about fandom into the program. Why should fans care about the history of fandom? What have been the most interesting insights you've discovered along the way?

Flourish: To me, the history of fandom is most interesting where it helps us think about our fandom today. I’m interested in the way that supporters of the Blues in Byzantine chariot racing rioted, but the reason I’m interested is mostly that football fans riot today. And that’s not to say that there’s any sort of coherent lineage between chariot racing and Manchester United. It’s to say that humans are humans, and have always been humans. By seeing the patterns people fall into, we can learn something about ourselves, and about our fandoms.

At times, I’ve thought of fandom history as a way to establish a lineage or a hierarchy of authority. This is a pretty common way that people think about fandom history—go on Tumblr and search for “fandom grandma” or “foremothers of fandom” or something like that and you’ll see an infinite number of people over the age of 40 holding forth on how Kids Today Just Don’t Remember How Hard It Was When We Had To Mimeo Our Zines And Pay For Shipping Both Ways, And Mimeo Fades, Dagnabbit. There’s an implicit plea for attention, often: “this stuff is important, so lend me your ears (and don’t listen to those newbies, they don’t know shit from shinola).” Sometimes it seems like people are upset that fandom has moved on from their favorite sites, zines, or fannish practices, so they’ve turned to cataloging what it was like “in their day” and insisting that that’s really important. And sometimes I’ve fallen into this trap and claimed authority just because I’ve been in fandom longer than others. (Whoops.)

Yet I do think that fandom history can be really important for fans today, especially fans who feel like fandom is shameful. Lots of fans still feel that way, and feel very isolated, believing fannish behaviors to be some kind of weird, avant-garde thing that’s only come to be with the advent of Tumblr or the internet. They don’t need to feel that way, because people have been behaving like fans forever, long before we had the word “fan.” These behaviors are part of human nature! I hope that anyone who doesn’t know that has the opportunity to study enough fan history to be aware that they’re part of a glorious tapestry of people freaking out about how much they love things.

You often move beyond our stereotypical understanding of fandom in terms of the community of women who write fanfiction to include fans of sports, popular music, and gaming.  Again, academic writers have struggled to bridge between these different forms of fandom. What do you find they have in common? What are main points of difference? Does this help us to refine our definitions of fans and fandom?

Flourish: I think it’s easy to see the ways that these different forms of fandom connect. Is there really that much difference between a person waiting in line to see Harry Styles and a person waiting in line to see the Harry Potter presentation in Hall H of SDCC? Of course there are differences, but the lines in both cases are long; people camp out; people wear costumes; some bring fanfiction to read; everyone is thrilled if a celebrity comes by and visits the line.

Part of the issue here is really internet-enabled fandom. I believe that fandom has become more “same-ish” across different properties and different media types because the internet has enabled people to see more, to search for more, to find more types of people. The person who loves Harry Styles may write fanfiction because they read fanfiction about Harry Potter when they were a kid (or vice versa) (hey, it’s me!). But fifty or sixty years ago, the person who turned up for the Beatles was less likely to be the person who went to a Star Trek convention, not because people who like the Beatles don’t like Star Trek, but just because it was so unlikely that you’d ever find out about either a gathering of Beatles fans or a Star Trek convention. How? The newspaper? Rumors from your friends? Not so easy as just Googling or finding a trending hashtag on Twitter.

As far as points of difference, I think that the main point of difference is the way the wider culture treats these different types of fandom. Since time immemorial people have pointed out that if you come in to your Boston office on a Red Sox game day wearing your Red Sox gear, it’s normal and even team-building, but if you come in dressed as Captain Kirk on the day a new Star Trek movie comes out, it’s absurd and career-damaging. One of the reasons it’s easier to see the similarities, though, is how those differences are a little less stark than they used to be. People watch Game of Thrones like it was the World Series. Dressing up as Daenerys is still a big statement, but it’s not quite the brand of eternal nerd shame that it once might have been.

I wonder if this cultural difference isn’t the reason that academic writers have struggled to bridge between different types of fannishness. People don’t publish very much about sports in the Transformative Works and Cultures, even though (as we learned in our interview with Cecilia Tan) baseball fans cosplay, they re-enact historical games, they write what seems an awful lot like real person fanfic (but not called that, of course.) People who write about sports fandoms do it in their own journals, and they’re often (in my admittedly limited experience) more focused on marketing: those fandoms have been culturally recognized as socially OK and as a source of profit for longer, and in our capitalist system that’s one of the reasons they have more cachet, I think.

Flourish Klink is half of Fansplaining. She is Chief Research Officer and a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, where she develops entertainment franchises and helps companies and brands understand fan culture. She was formerly a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and led fan strategy for the award-winning Hulu Original show East Los High. As a teenager, Flourish helped organize the first ever Harry Potter fan convention and was a co-founder of She holds an MS from MIT and a BA from Reed College.

Elizabeth Minkel is the other half of Fansplaining. She's written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, and more. She's the audience development editor at Storythings, where she helps both foster and study communities of
readers. She's also the co-curator of The Rec Center, a weekly fandom newsletter she writes with fellow fan culture journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. She studied English at Amherst College and has an MA in the digital humanities from University College London.

An Interview with Fansplaining's Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel (Part Two)

You recently surveyed your listeners to get a clearer sense of how they defined fanfiction. What were some of the more interesting insights to emerge from this discussion?

Flourish: The survey was pretty provisional and unscientific! But for me, the most interesting takeaway was that the newer people were to fanfic and fandom, the less of a line they drew between fanfic and original fiction. Nearly everyone we surveyed agreed that it was really important that fanfic was based on a source text—that is, most people shared a formalist definition. But people who used a cluster of terms that we called “fanfiction is nonprofessional” (making statements like “fanfiction is unauthorized,” that it is “not written by the original creator,” that it is “not for profit,” that it is “distributed for free,” or that it is “amateur,” “unprofessional,” “noncommercial” or “nonliterary”) were more likely to have entered fandom earlier, often in the 1990s.

My unsubstantiated theory is that fandom was much more discrete in the 1990s, because the entertainment industry was more litigious. Today, companies like Wattpad have closed that gap. So people who have gotten involved with fanfiction more recently don’t believe that there is as much of a difference between fanfic and what older fans might call “profic.”

What I personally realized, more than any insights the survey gave, was how much I would love to do a properly representative study of the entire United States and learn about the wider public’s fannish behavior patterns and perceptions of fandom. The study we did, and nearly every study I’ve seen (with the exception of one completed by the agency Troika last year), involved only people who were tangentially aware of fandom or knew to call their own behaviors “fannish.” I’d love to see a study that was carefully designed to measure fannish types of behavior separate from the “fandom” label, and given to people who aren’t necessarily already part of fan culture.

I know when I was writing Textual Poachers there were certain topics which were basically taboo to discuss outside the fan community—at the time, real person slash was perhaps the biggest one of these. Are there still taboos within fandom? If so, are there any topics that you have discussed in the podcast that have drawn fire from people in the fan community?

Elizabeth: There are certainly topics that provoke a great deal of debate in transformative media fandom spaces these days—I’m not sure I’d describe them as taboo, since they are widely practiced and have strong defenders and detractors, but conversations about, say, whether people should be allowed to create explicit fanworks involving underage characters, or whether people should be allowed to depict rape in fanworks, are mainstays on my Tumblr dash these days. These are murky conversations, and we haven’t necessarily avoided these topics, but we haven’t devoted full episodes to them, just touched on them in passing.

Often complex intra-fandom discussions that we’ve devoted full episodes to include topics like racism in fandom and the intersections between queer shipping, queer representation, and queerphobia. I don’t want to call any of these topics taboo—at all. But they certainly are conversations that tend to be strongly critical of fans and fandom at large—the same critiques we have for the media and content creators extend to fandom’s consumption and creation as well.

For the racism conversations in particular we’ve worked to center as many fans of color, especially black fans, as we can; we’re extraordinarily aware of the limitations of two white women talking about race and fan culture. I definitely see a sort of defensive pushback from fans with these conversations about fandom and marginalized identities—the old “I’m just here to have fun” line—but the response to our fandom-critical episodes has been pretty positive. I mean, we’re not actively googling ourselves here, there could be plenty of hate out there for any of what we do, but we’re not getting angry messages in our inbox.

One topic we circle that I think tends to touch a nerve is the monetization of fanworks, specifically fanfiction—whenever we bring it up we get a good amount of pushback (often against things we aren’t even advocating—a fair bit of it feels like a knee-jerk response to another set of ideas). A few people have even included our podcast (and the work we do with fandom professionally) in their criticism: they disapprove of anyone “profiting off of fandom” in any capacity.

Perhaps tangentially related: we get a bit of pushback when we talk about the evolution of the culture of critique in a lot of fanfiction spaces, how it’s taboo (there we go!) in a lot of spheres to give critical or negative feedback on fanworks. Flourish and I are coming from tricky positions here: most of the work we put out in the world is in a professional context, but it’s also heavily scrutinized and critiqued. (I can tell you from editing Flourish that she actually expects—even welcomes!—her work being torn apart.)   

Flourish: I agree with what Elizabeth has said, and want to note that I think the reason why some of those taboos have broken down is because of the way that fan culture has come more fully into contact with capitalism. (Only slightly kidding.) Take, for example, Wattpad. Fanfic archives didn’t prioritize mobile reading and writing, because they were run by people primarily seeking to serve the needs of their existing community, not to imagine the needs of a possible larger community and innovate to draw them in. So people who prefer to consume and create stories on phones found Wattpad and began creating fanfic there. Wattpad took notice and, to their credit, began learning about fandom and trying to appeal to a segment of fanfic authors. But in so doing they discovered real person fanfiction and began to publicize it. In other cases fanfic authors were doing this themselves, as 50 Shades of Grey began to break down the idea that if you file the serial numbers off your fanfic you should have the courtesy to hide it.

In other words, money is what has made these taboos weaken, and I don’t hide the fact that I think this is an inexorable force that ends in the commodification of all parts of fan culture. My main hope is that fans can leverage this change to protect their rights, be taken more seriously by the culture at large, and preserve spaces in which fans can create transformative works for love and not money. But, of course, not everybody shares this view.

Francesca Coppa recently published an anthology of fanfiction for use in the classroom. What criteria would you use to determine which stories to include in such a book?  Do you have any general insights in terms of how fans assess the quality of fan works?

Elizabeth: I’m not 100% sure I would be publishing such a book! :-) But the question of how fans assess fanworks fascinates both of us—we devoted a whole episode to it, talking with my newsletter partner, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, another fandom journalist. Gav and I have been collaborating on The Rec Center for nearly 100 issues at this point: it’s a weekly newsletter where we share fandom-related articles, our favorite Tumblr and Twitter posts, fanart (with permission!), and a dedicated fanfic section, 5-10 recs written by one of us, a guest poster, or culled from our one-off submissions form that readers submit to every week.

Early on we sent out a survey to readers asking for feedback and trying to get a sense of preferences—were people fandom-monogamous when they read? Did they prefer certain types of fic over others? It was a relatively small sample—only a few hundred readers—but I was really surprised to see how many people said they would read fic without knowing the source material it was based on. I cannot do this; I actually have a hard time reading fic from fandoms I’ve been in but have drifted away from, even though I remember those stories as being technically good as well as emotionally meaningful. For me, fic is wrapped up in my feelings about the source material at the time, so much so that I wonder sometimes if it affects my critical judgement of a work.

So to put together an anthology would be to strip out all that context—which I know is not an issue for a lot of fanfic readers! But it certainly is for some: fanfiction separated from that active fannish feeling about the source material—a friend recently described this, for her, as a lightswitch that gets flipped on and off—can be, for some people, missing some integral part of the work. For others, fanfic divorced from the communal is similarly incomplete, whether this means actual dialogue with fic writers and other readers or simply a fic’s contextual position within fanon or a body of fanfiction.

Flourish: Like Elizabeth, I don’t particularly love the idea of reading fanfiction without the context of the original work. So while I really like Francesca’s book, and think it’s a good idea, I would prefer to assign students fanfiction based on something I can assign them to read or watch in the context of the class. It’s not enough to assign a class an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then give them Buffy fanfic to read, in my opinion. I’d rather give them an Inception story to read, after assigning them the movie to watch. In my experience, the new Star Trek movies have been a boon: students with Trek familiarity get a lot out of reading Trek fanfic, but even a student who’s never seen Star Trek can watch the 2009 movie and know enough to at least begin approaching fic.

I think emotional engagement with the source material is a significant part of fan reading and writing, but for me it’s only one of two pleasures I get from fanfic, and I don’t need every story to fulfill both pleasures. The other pleasure is the pleasure of seeing a clever argument made about the source material. This is the Wide Sargasso Sea model of fanfic and I think it’s much easier to teach. You can’t induce someone to feel a particular way about canon and so understand from the inside the feeling of reading a fic that is just perfectly about your OTP. But you can show someone a story that’s making a fabulously convincing and clear argument about a source text and they can understand that argument whether or not they have that affective response.

If I were picking stories to teach, I would certainly lead with that type of “argument story,” but I would try to include stories that are primarily valuable for emotional engagement reasons as well—tropey stories, stories that exist solely for shipping purposes, stories that are short and plotless and just drop you into a character like a warm bath. I think that these stories, which many people might dismiss as “bad” from an outsider’s perspective, actually get at the heart of a lot of what people love from fanfic, and so even if there’s not a hope in the world of getting that across, I’d like to talk about it. (Of course, this runs the risk of suggesting to students that fanfic stories are either great arguments or emotionally engaging, which is very far from the truth, but nothing’s perfect.)

Elizabeth: So to add on that, it’s my understanding that Anne Jamison, who teaches fic in the classroom, tries to choose works from very well-known source material—most of her students will have some knowledge of, say, Sherlock Holmes, or Harry Potter. So that gets to your understanding of the source text worry. But like I said, there are lots of fic readers out there who don’t care about the source text—maybe it’s a self-selecting pool of people who are really into fanfiction at large, but the fact that so many of The Rec Center’s readers don’t need source material knowledge was really telling to me—as is the popularity of things like high school and college AUs, soulmate AUs, Hogwarts AUs, some modern AUs for non-modern source material, and other intra-fandom tropes that often talk more to each other, across fandoms, than they do to the source material from which they’re derived.

And I know Flourish tried to backtrack a bit from creating a binary between “great arguments” and “emotionally engaging”—for me, a fic really needs to have both, so that blows the binary right there—but I also want to push back against the idea that “emotionally engaging” means things like “tropey stories, stories that exist solely for shipping purposes, stories that are short and plotless and just drop you into a character like a warm bath.” For me, a lot of the time that great argument is directly tied up in my emotional engagement with the source material.

But I think what Flourish writes here is directly tied up in how tricky it is to explain fic to non-fic people, and how difficult it is to talk about affect without resorting to “some stories make serious arguments and other ones are id-pleasing warm baths.”  A lot of my journey as a ~fandom professional has been, I don’t know, maturing out of my desire to prove that some fanfiction was very Serious Literature, and today a lot of my work is getting people to take the practice seriously, rather than trying to lift up the “serious stories.” But that’s easier to teach in the context of fan studies, where you’re looking at fans and their practices, than it is to teach in an English class, when you’re primarily looking at texts rather than readers and writers. Luckily neither of us are compiling these anthologies or teaching these classes, so I guess we’re safe for now!

Flourish: And now all your readers understand what it’s like when we record our podcast and get into arguments in which we basically agree with each other! (We can’t help it.)

 A central media narrative in recent years has centered around "toxic fandom", and in particular, white male fan backlash against diversity casting. Yet, we also know that many fans have been strong advocates of diversity and inclusion in popular media franchises. How would you characterize the current state of the debate within fandom around these issues?

Elizabeth: [long weary sigh] Fandom isn’t broken and fandom isn’t inherently toxic, but fandom is undeniably a mess right now. And the straight white male fan reactionaries are using the same channels, and often the same techniques, as the fans who are clamoring for increased diversity in pop culture media—I understand why people try to draw these parallels! But I also see “fans clamoring for more diversity” to be pretty muddled in practice: many, many fans are doing so in good faith (and the sort of pop culture texts that draw in fandom have a *particularly* bad track record on this front—has there been an explicit acknowledgement of any queer character in any of the superhero franchises onscreen? Don’t get me started on Star Wars...) but there are certainly fans who are using calls for diversity as a weapon to bludgeon other fans in ship wars, as justification for harassing creators who don’t validate their ship, etc.

Meanwhile fandom isn’t particularly good at cleaning its own house, as it were: within fandom, conversations about racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc, can be met with reactionary defensiveness.

People often suggest that when our screens become more diverse, when we actually see a broad range of queer characters, or characters of any given racial and/or ethnic background, or we finally dump the ratio of 7 dudes to 1 lady in every group teaming up to fight the bad guys, then a lot of this will die down. I’m skeptical, to put it lightly. Look at Harry, Ron, and Hermione: ship wars get ugly even when people are fighting about which white dude the woman should wind up with. (I’m feeling fairly cynical about all of this right now because my current fandom has a lot of queer rep, about half the main cast, and I still see the same fights and patterns replicated in fandoms where there are zero canonically queer characters.)

Fan/creator interaction remains one of the top things we discuss on Fansplaining, and it’s a fraught topic to explore right now—it’s easy enough to say that these are the “growing pains” of the mainstreaming of fandom and the exposure of both sides of that fan/creator divide to each other via social media, but in practice, it’s hard to see past that to a world where fans’ desires aren’t weaponized in the way they are now. Add on top of that my general sense that the “mainstreaming” only goes so far: people outside fandom only have a fraction of the whole picture, and wind up running with their assumptions.

I can see why fandom looks toxic to someone who hasn’t actually spent any time in the world. I can see why creators would be totally freaked out by the exchanges they see on Twitter. But I also see creators learning all the wrong lessons from these exchanges—and I’m not sure how we stop these cycles.

Flourish: And this goes both ways! One of the reason “toxic fans” are considered toxic, whether they are pro-diversity or not, is that they lash out directly at creators, many of whom don’t have the kind of power fans think they do. While I have more sympathy for the politics of some groups of fans that do this than others, the fact remains that whether you are sending threats to a creator for making a character queer or for not making a character queer, you are still sending threats.

But I think it’s wrongheaded to view this as “toxic fandom” alone. We see the same kind of behavior exhibited in politics and in every other arena of life. In my opinion, what we are really dealing with here is the result of the social media systems that shape our daily interactions, and these systems have the greatest impact on our behavior when we’re using them to connect with people we don’t know or rarely interact with in person. Most of the time we talk about this with regard to the increasing polarization of the public, not just in the United States but everywhere that social media exists (which is everywhere). But I think it has a great impact on fandom as well.

Unfortunately, neither fans nor anyone else seem to be talking about the structural problems that impact our behavior. It’s a lot easier to frame things in a personal responsibility narrative: “toxic fans need to not be such jerks,” “people who advocate for diversity but then use toxic tactics should be kicked out of fandom,” etc. But I don’t think that personal responsibility and good judgment alone will get us out of these cycles, which fundamentally continue (at least in part) because of the way our communities and communication methods are designed.

Flourish Klink is half of Fansplaining. She is Chief Research Officer and a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, where she develops entertainment franchises and helps companies and brands understand fan culture. She was formerly a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and led fan strategy for the award-winning Hulu Original show East Los High. As a teenager, Flourish helped organize the first ever Harry Potter fan convention and was a co-founder of She holds an MS from MIT and a BA from Reed College.

Elizabeth Minkel is the other half of Fansplaining. She's written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, and more. She's the audience development editor at Storythings, where she helps both foster and study communities of
readers. She's also the co-curator of The Rec Center, a weekly fandom newsletter she writes with fellow fan culture journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. She studied English at Amherst College and has an MA in the digital humanities from University College London.

The Multiplicity and Diversity of Fandom: An Interview with Fansplaining's Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel (Part One)

Throughout this year, I am showcasing work about fandom at a time when the field of fandom studies is once again reinventing itself, often in very dramatic ways.

People often ask me where I go to learn about contemporary developments in fandom and fandom studies. Much of the time, I don't have to go anywhere, because being who I am, many people come to me to seek advice on their projects in this space. I also might go to some of the academic journals, such as Transformative Works and Cultures or The Journal of Fandom Studies, or the great folks at the Fan Studies Network. But I also listen most weeks to the Fansplaining Podcast, which is one of the very best way to keep on top of new developments in this space.

Its hosts Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel get so much right with this podcast. It is, as they note in this interview, not the place you go to get fan theories about Game of Thrones, not that there's anything wrong with that. They are doing what fans call Meta, asking big questions about how fandom works, who gets included or excluded from fandom, how fans intersect with the industry or journalism, why fans do what they do -- in other words, it is about fandom culture and its practices, not about the shows fans love. They may have Orlando Jones as a guest one week and an academic studying race and fandom the next. They work hard to insure a diverse and inclusive representation of fandom, week by week, and in the process, they often help me to discover new and emerging perspectives in the field who had not crossed my radar in any other way. I do not know how they do it -- stay some far ahead on the trends and consistently call attention to new voices and new ideas. They often allow room for graduate students and junior scholars who are not yet being heard elsewhere, and in the process, they are helping to define the next generation of researchers in this space.

I've wanted for a LONG time to feature Flourish Klink (my former student) and Elizabeth Minkel on my blog and I could not be happier to finally be able to do so. 

Tell us something of your background in fandom and how it relates to your professional life. How did you come to start Fansplaining and what have been your goals for the podcast?

Flourish: I’m a long-time Harry Potter fan with a lot of involvement in the fan community—with fanfic archives, conventions, all of the things that require you to get off the internet and physically interact with lots of strangers. In my professional life, I work in audience research, basically combining the “big data” that's produced out of sales, website traffic, and social media tracking with qualitative research into individual fandoms. Another way to put it would be “explaining fandom to Hollywood,” and I got the job in fact because of fandom—Henry, you know this, but I got my start through studying fandom with you at MIT.

Elizabeth: I’ve been in fandom about as long as Flourish, but I’ve only been speaking up for the past half-decade: I was a lurker for my first decade-plus (most of which was also spent in HP fandom). I started talking in 2012: I was a book journalist—working both as a critic and writing about the industry and culture around books—and 50 Shades of Grey came out and book journalism did...a very bad job talking about its fanfiction-al origins. I had been warned against talking about fandom in my professional work, but I was too annoyed to stay silent (ha). I wrote a few explicitly fandomy pieces over the next few years, but it wasn’t until the third season of Sherlock aired and, once again, people had a lot of bad takes on the fannish reactions, that I felt compelled to speak up (there’s a pattern here). I started writing a regular column on fan culture not long after, both explaining fandom practices to a mainstream audience and standing up for fans as they clashed with both the media and content creators.

The podcast grew out of a panel at San Diego Comic-Con in 2015. Flourish and I had never met but we wound up on the same (too-large) panel of people who straddled the intersection between creators and fans. Our go-to line is that everyone on the panel was having a different conversation—but Flourish and I were having the same one. Afterwards she approached me about starting a podcast; I laughed and said sure, why not, assuming this was the sort of throwaway suggestion you make at a party. But Flourish was not kidding: a few days after we flew back from San Diego, we were having a long and very business-like call where we were setting up the whole thing

Flourish: I suggested the idea to Elizabeth because I felt like, in my professional life, I’d seen people working and talking in a register that was somewhere triangulated between academic discourse, fannish discourse, and journalistic discourse. But I didn’t know of any forum that used that kind of tone. Most places seemed to lean one way or another, or seemed to be very focused on a particular fandom, not on the phenomenon of fannishness.

Of course, our goals have evolved over the course of 60 episodes. Today it’s especially important to us that we feature a diversity of voices in terms of race, gender, sexuality etc., and partially as a result of so doing, to include a wide range of types of fannishness. There’s always more to do in these directions.

Elizabeth: I can think of two major themes that have emerged over the course of these 60 episodes. One is striking a balance between loving and critical—the same line that many fans walk as they talk about their favorite thing. We get messages from people, they leave reviews, etc, saying how grateful they are that we’re critical of fandom and fannish practices; I always feel like there’s a little bit of surprise in there, which is interesting, because I think a lot of meta-fandom posts within fandom are pretty critical. One thing I always feel frustrated by in my work for mainstream outlets is I when I stand up for fandom in my pieces, I feel like there isn’t a ton of space to critique while I defend. The podcast lets me do both.

The other major thing is what Flourish has already touched on—we’re talking about behaviors and ideas, not about the cultural products that fandom focuses on. We actually get a ton of requests like this—“Talk to my friend in X fandom!”—from people who don’t seem to be familiar with our work: at this point, it should be pretty clear that we’re talking about fannish practices, not about objects of fandom. We often lean on specific fandoms for examples—we worry sometimes we bring up Harry Potter too much, but it’s our only real shared point of reference, and, to be fair, it’s the place where we both have spent the most time in fandom. But we’re not interested in deconstructing Harry Potter itself, even through a fannish lens. (We save this for our patrons-only episodes, of which we’ve done a handful so far.) I think the fannish podcast landscape is only growing more crowded, but the vast majority of the podcasts out there are about specific fannish objects or fannish projects (watching every episode of a show, for example). Which is awesome! But it’s just not us.

You focused some of your early podcasts on the relations between fans and the media industries, in part because of Flourish's involvement there, so let's use that as a starting point. What do you see as some of the core ways that people in the entertainment industry misunderstand or mistreat their fans? What are some of the things fans misperceive about the way the contemporary media industry operates?

Flourish: These two questions are very interrelated. In both cases, the problem is often oversimplification. Fans don’t know all the roles or understand the power plays that go into making even the simplest decisions on a TV show (for example), so they often end up advocating for outcomes they want in ways that aren't going to ever succeed. (And, by the way, why should they know all the roles? The entertainment industry is purposely opaque. It’s a club you have to fight to get into and you can't really see what's going on except from the inside.)

Similarly, not every person who works on a TV show has the mental space or the inclination to immerse themselves in complex fan cultures (and the plural is important: it’s not like there’s a single fan culture, even for one property!), so they'll form simple “good-enough” ideas about what fans are into: “Trekkies are dudes who care about the blueprints of the Enterprise,” "Fans freak out with joy when the two male characters almost kiss so let's do more of that even though the characters aren't gay." These are simple assumptions that aren't completely unsupported, but they miss important aspects of the fandoms in question!

And those assumptions are the good assumptions, the ones that get made when people are invested in and trying to understand what their fans are saying. When you get into the upper echelons of the industry, many people don’t even try, because they don’t see hardcore fans as being a significant impact on their bottom line. Those people are the ones who say, “I can make Two and a Half Men and make money hand over fist without any ‘fan culture’ to speak of. Why should I bother?” When you mix someone like that with a property with a strong fan culture, it’s never pretty. But the core of it is that people with that attitude do not believe that fans are important to their bottom line (and fans are absolutely not the only group they feel that way about—not that that’s any comfort).

You have come back to some of these issues recently with some discussions of shipping and showrunners. How has the awareness of fan response started to shape the choices showrunners make, for better or worse? Is there such a thing as too much fan service and if so, can you point to some good examples?

Flourish: I’m not entirely sure how to answer this, because it can be very hard to know what decisions are shaped by fan input, what decisions were always planned (people prevaricate about this sort of thing all the time) and even what decisions aren’t decisions at all but are shaped by the paratext that marketing provides—for example, an official social media account run by a show’s marketing team may really push a particular pairing or reading that’s never been planned as “endgame.” Marketing departments are incentivized to do this because they notice particular keywords, often ships, getting traction, and their metric of success is clicks, shares, eyeballs. They’ll usually jump on any bandwagon quickly, no matter what the showrunner’s opinion or plan is, and not worry about the long term impact that might have on the way fans read a text. As a result of this stew, I’m hesitant to call out particular examples. I don’t know enough details about what goes on behind the scenes of any particular show.

Elizabeth: If I can jump in here with a little fan perspective, or maybe more like, perspectives on fandom: I think that many fans believe they are far more influential than they actually are, even in an era of heightened visibility on both sides of the fan/creator divide. My favorite example was after episode 3.1 of Sherlock, “The Empty Hearse,” a meta-textual commentary on fannish/viewer conversations on how Sherlock survived the fall at the end of the second season. In the two-year hiatus between seasons, this was a major topic of conversation in all sorts of fannish corners and amongst millions of casual fans in Britain—British newspapers published articles speculating how he did it, that sort of thing. The actual episode offered up a bunch of theories, some jokey, some serious, and the punchline of it all was that no solution would be as satisfying as the act of speculation itself.

On Tumblr after the episode aired there was a ton of commentary along the lines of, “OMG they are totally looking at Tumblr for their ideas!” And people dredged up headcanons, fics, metas, that shared themes or concepts with what wound up in the episode. This frustrated me; this isn’t rocket science. The idea that TV writers would need to mine Tumblr for ideas seems like a fairly egocentric way for fans to position themselves? Finally someone wrote a post that expressed exactly what I was thinking: I could never find it now, but to paraphrase, it was something like, “Folks, there are thousands of us generating ideas in exponential combinations; the odds that, amongst all those combinations, we will hit on the same ideas as the writers are fairly good.”

I thought about this, too, when I saw people discussing Korrasami, the f/f ship from the Legend of Korra, becoming canon in the show’s finale. “It was because fans shipped it!” I saw flying across my dash. “They listened to us and made it happen.” A quick Google led to an interview with the creator saying he’d planned it from the start, long before there were any fans to ship these characters. I think this sort of underscores the trend of shipping fandom thinking of themselves as detectives solving a case: when a writer is planning on bringing characters together, they likely leave some subtextual clues and build-up along the way.

Again, this is not rocket science: if you pick up on subtext that then becomes text, it’s likely because the writer did a decent job? And these are exceptions—most of the time, fans want something, and are even picking up on very real subtext, but it will never become text. What can feel like secret clues to a master plan often don’t amount to anything more than that. A lot of the biggest dust-ups in fan/creator interaction in the past few years have been over ships (not) becoming canon; I do think creators are seeing fans talking about this stuff—but that doesn’t mean they’re following fans’ wishes. If anything, I can mostly think of examples where the opposite is true.

Flourish: I always tell fans to assume that the Powers That Be are half as together and aware of fandom as you think they are. That’s not an insult directed at any individual writer or showrunner; it’s just that when you get a lot of people working on a TV show together, things get lost the cracks, and collective intelligence doesn’t always function as smoothly as one would hope.

Now, let's slide this over to Elizabeth's expertise—how would you assess the current state of reporting on fans and fan related issues? Have we made progress over some of the stereotypical and dismissive representations in the past? What role have fan blogs and podcasts played, if any, in challenging dominant media narratives about fans?

Elizabeth: It’s funny—I’ve been a fan culture journalist for five years now, and I’d have given you a wildly different answer at the end of each of the past five years, from everyone’s favorite trend of talk show hosts mocking fanworks to the misunderstandings on all sides as fandom became more mainstream. But at the close of 2017, here’s what I’m observing:

A few weeks ago I gave a “fandom 101” talk at a conference largely for professional content creators. To take the temperature of the room, I asked the crowd of about 150 people a series of questions. “How many of you consider yourselves in fandom?” Only a couple of hands went up. (It was at this moment when I realized that I needed to make things far more 101 than I thought I would!) I continued: “How many of you know the term ‘transformative work?’” Roughly the same hands—just a few. But when I asked, “How many of you know what ‘fanfiction’ is?” the majority of people in the room raised their hands. “And finally, the term ‘shipping?’” The same: most people in the room said they knew it.

After the talk, multiple people came up to me and said something along the lines of, “I didn’t raise my hand when you asked who was in fandom, but after your talk I realized I totally was in fandom.” This really struck me, as did the disparity between the “who’s in fandom” question and the number of people who said they know about fic and shipping.

I think this reflects the way that fannish practices and terms have only sort of seeped into mainstream culture—lots of people have heard of shipping, or can give a rough definition for it, but they don’t actually understand it, and often fill in the gaps in their understanding with a lot of (bad) assumptions. Tons of people are out there assuming they understand these fandom terms—and maybe gatekeeping themselves out of fannish practices based on poorly-informed assumptions, like those people who didn’t raise their hands during my talk.

The other big trend I’m seeing—which overlaps a bit with the half-formed fandom assumptions—is the conflation of “geek culture” with fandom. This is partly driven by these mainstream conceptions, partly driven by the entertainment industry (take a stroll through SDCC or NYCC and you’ll see “fandom” used as a quick-and-dirty stand-in for a relatively narrow set of cultural products rather than behaviors or communities, specifically SF/F, comics, and superhero media), and partly driven by media outlets: the past few years have seen a proliferation of geeky news outlets that reference fans and fandom constantly without any real connection to or acknowledgment of fannish practices.

This is particularly tricky for me—my personal fannish interests don’t really align with the big pop culture geeky properties, and while it might seem like there’s a proliferation of fannish media out there, it so often falls within these constructs: places for fans of certain types of media to read and write about those types of media. If I had to place bets on the next few years, I’d say associations between “geek culture” and “fandom” will only grow stronger. In a way, with superhero and SF/F blockbusters, this actually helps fight some of the mainstream’s dismissive ideas about fans and fandom—Marvel, Star Wars, they’re all hugely popular, and let very casual fans get super fannish around new installments. But I worry that this doesn’t do much to disabuse mainstream assumptions about the rest of fandom—there’s not a lot of crossover understanding. I might be proven wrong, but this is the way things have been trending, in my view, in my years covering fan culture in the mainstream media.

Oh, and to address your final question: I think that fan blogs and podcasts give more people entry into fandom, but only certain types of fandom, or fannish practices. I remember when Westworld came out, there were like 9,000 fannish podcasts about it, many from mainstream media organizations. “Non-fans” on my timeline—people who don’t self-identify as “being in fandom”—were rushing to figure out which of these podcasts were the best and following along with the show and various accompanying fan theories and analysis in a way that was pretty damn fannish. I think fandom podcasts in particular give people a route into fannishness that they might not otherwise take. But that’s not going to change their knowledge or assumptions about a lot of preexisting fannish practices—I’m thinking specifically of those in female-dominated transformative media fandom. I think there are a lot of female-led pop-culture-oriented podcasts and blogs that kind of skirt up along the edges of fandom, but in my mind, there’s a difference between shared enthusiasm and shared practices. And when it comes to stuff like fic, fanart, meta, shipping conversations, and the other stuff that fills my dash, I still don’t see a ton of crossover in this realm.

Flourish Klink is half of Fansplaining. She is Chief Research Officer and a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, where she develops entertainment franchises and helps companies and brands understand fan culture. She was formerly a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and led fan strategy for the award-winning Hulu Original show East Los High. As a teenager, Flourish helped organize the first ever Harry Potter fan convention and was a co-founder of She holds an MS from MIT and a BA from Reed College.

Elizabeth Minkel is the other half of Fansplaining. She's written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, and more. She's the audience development editor at Storythings, where she helps both foster and study communities of
readers. She's also the co-curator of The Rec Center, a weekly fandom newsletter she writes with fellow fan culture journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. She studied English at Amherst College and has an MA in the digital humanities from University College London.

Japanese Idols, Celebrities and Fans During The Time of Disaster (Part Two)

Idols, Celebrities, and Fans During the Time of Disaster (Part Two)

by Rio Katayama

Celebrity Citizenship, Social Media, and Risk Management

The scholar Lynn Spiegel considers celebrities’ political involvement after 9/11 and describes “celebrity citizenship” as the “self-referential Hollywood public sphere of celebrities”[1] who spoke up for the deceased as “an ordinary citizen.” Spiegel describes the fifty-third Annual Emmy Awards held on November 4th, 2001, where celebrities in Hollywood fulfilled their public service by dropping their identity liberal politics and showcased themselves as one united group under the name of patriotism.[2] Similarly, in 9/11 Culture, Jeffrey Melnick analyzes how the telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes was aired on September 21st, 2011. Melnick argues that celebrities contributed to the mobilization of nation for the impending war, directing the audience about how they should feel as “we” (celebrities) feel.[3] There are similarities between the deployment of celebrity influence with 9/11 and idols’ charity involvement after 3.11 when there was a reaffirmation of social status as those who worked for/helped the victims. In fact, there was some criticisms that the idols or celebrities were participating in humanitarian works to increases the value of their image as a humanitarian activist.

 In the Japanese context, Jason Karlin provides an insightful example of the ways in which celebrities and idols reacted to disaster and reaffirmed their social standing. According to Karlin’s analysis, it was the suspension of regular TV programs and commercials and loss of public appearances after 3.11 that caused celebrities and idols to use the social media platforms to exercise their celebrity citizenship.[4] For instance, the celebrities’ reactions on Twitter varied from messages letting fans know that they are safe,  sending the victims prayers and encouragement, sharing their emotions of helplessness and despair, to sending messages to their fans/followers with advice to donate, save electricity, and refrain from over-buying.[5]

Lucy Benett highlights proximity and intimacy that social media creates, making fans feel as if the celebrity is talking to them in person. Benett further examines the sense of closeness that “even if a simple illusion, that (social media) enables artists who use this tool to mobilize their fans so effectively.”[6] Celebrities take advantage of social media as they often use the platform to spread their campaigns using hashtags and retweets on Twitter. As for the case of 3.11, celebrities who supported victims through donation or direct actions were regarded highly and their tweets were later archived online as “celebrities’ memorable tweets.”[7]

The information on the group of celebrities who moved away from their residence due to the radiation threat had also been gathered and archived in personal blogs and online-community bulletin boards. Some of those evacuees tweeted or wrote on their personal blogs that they were going further away from the nuclear plant, but information of other celebrities was either leaked or obtained from random sources. Those who self-evacuated from Tokyo were seen in a very negative light. These celebrities were often called “traitors” or “cowards” and described as having overreacted when people in the affected area were still stuck or decided to stay behind.[8]

While many celebrities and idols were active on social media engaging with the public even during the suspension of regular programing, mainstream media gradually returned to their regular schedule. As all the sponsors requested to pull out their commercials from their allocated slots, commercials were also temporarily replaced by PSAs (public service announcements) produced by AC Japan, a NPO specializing in producing PSAs.[9] This is due to push for “self-restraint”, and the advertisement sponsors became reluctant towards taking risks, or making challenging/controversial content. Even the temporal PSAs received criticisms for “being ‘inappropriate’ and ‘too repetitive,’”[10] which led AC Japan to create different versions of PSAs that specifically met the need of post-3.11 context. The newly released PSAs featured male and female idol groups, asking the public to persevere (Photo below top: titled “I believe in the strength of Japan” with SMAP) and refrain from excessive consumption (Below bottom: titled “What Can I Do Now [to help] with AKB48).[11]

SMAP p13.png
AKB p13.png

Idols not only provided familiar faces which helped the audience return to their normal daily lives but also became a safety net for the advertisement providers, as the providers were assured of the steady support of loyal fans through the appearance of idols. Galbraith and Karlin observe the inherently conservative nature of idols to appeal to the mass audience. “What is important is that idols can be political commodities in much the same way as they are economic commodities. They produce the issue and are produced by it; the audience consumes the issue with and through idols. […] They tend to avoid deep meanings and lasting associations, which are divisive (and bad for business). Maybe idols can only express moral truisms (e.g., killing is evil, life is beautiful) and sufficiently general principles (e.g., we should help others).”[12]

Considering that the idols need to maintain their “clean” image, their activism is constantly negotiated with the social expectation of the celebrities/idols remaining unpolitical. Although their activism had been criticized as boosting their own public image, meeting their favorite idols is likely to bring comfort to the fans who went through the horrifying disaster. Also, the relationship may be more mutual than it may seem at first, as the victims (either their fans or not a fans) are hopeful that the experience may educate the idols about the disaster and the situations in the affected areas or the media would feature the affected area with the presence of celebrities which prevents victims from being forgotten. Many celebrities and idols who supported 3.11 victims used their knowledge and experience and continued their humanitarian works. For the more recent earthquake that struck Kumamoto on April 14th, 2016, celebrities were back at work, proving hope to the victims while heightening their moral images.


Going political: Celebrity-driven Fan Activism

Although most celebrities and idols themselves never spoke up about political issues, the rock singer Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi was among the few celebrities who vocalized his frustrations towards the government and electric company Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), who was responsible for the nuclear disaster. Nagabuchi has been known for his patriotic messages, and 3.11 contributed to consolidating this image as he held free concerts not only for the victims, but also to the self-defense forces praising their efforts in rescue missions. The Ministry of Defense awarded him for his contribution of the self-defense forces.[13] His political views resounded with some fans and led to an anti-nuclear protest. In October 2014, about forty Nagabuchi fans marched around Tokyo protesting the resuming operation of the Sendai nuclear plant in Nagabuchi’s home prefecture, Kagoshima. One fan even said “Mr. Nagabuchi has already been active enough. As a fan, shouldn’t we be active too?”[14] Nagabuchi’s fans used a truck with mounted speakers to air Nagabuchi’s songs while they chanted his lyrics and anti-nuclear messages.

Nagabuchi p15.png


Top: Nagabuchi being awarded at Ministry of Defense   Bottom: Fans’ anti-nuclear protest

Anti-nuclear protest p15.png


At the march, the fans waved Japanese flags and used Nagabuchi’s lyrics as slogans for their signs and banners. This resonates what Louisa Ellen Stein argues in her article on Rosewell fans and their reactions after 9/11. She stated that although some fans resisted Rosewell’s online communities from becoming a political place, some participants saw “a smooth transition from her ‘rosewell family’ (what we might call Rosewell citizenship) to her national citizenship.”[15] Similarly, with Nagabuchi’s case, fans used Nagabuchi’s image and song, and took the form of “speaking on behalf of their icon” to demonstrate the fans’ own anti-nuclear message and nationalism.

 Stephen Duncombe claims that fans’ fascination towards celebrities drive political responses; however, it is not a personal political stance developed independently, but merely a response to celebrities.[16] Duncombe also states that generally engagement with a celebrity is an indication of fantasy for leisure, wealth, and an escape, which can be understood as an activity without responsibilities and consequences.[17]

In the Japanese context, Tominaga Kyoko points out that because younger generations tend to make friends within their age group, it is no surprise that they bond over common interests, such as their hobby or preference for subculture, which could lead to participation in the same social movements.[18] It is difficult to assess how “serious” these fans are when they participate in political movements inspired by their favorite celebrity. Despite the increasing numbers of demonstrations after 3.11, especially against the use of nuclear energy, the social stigma and anxiety associated with political activism remains common in Japan. In April 2017, the Huffington Post published an article highlighting how young people do not even want to follow political figures on social media, because they are too afraid that the corporates would judge them for their political standpoint during the time of job hunting.[19]  Also, whether it is true or not, there are many online rumors that former members ofpolitical groups struggled to get a steady employment. In particular, Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALs) members, the most renowned college students’ political group that voiced anti-Abe sentiment and resisted his push towards constitutional change, were subjected to online criticism and bashing for not thinking towards their own future.[20]

Although Nagabuchi’s core fan base is in the thirty to fifty-year-old age group,[21] regardless of the age-group, the public reaction towards political activities and protesters seems to be negative. In the online newspaper Shirabee, 55.6% of the interviewee answered that they find demonstrations annoying and only 10% of the 1,400 interviewees answered that they have participated in a demonstration in the past.[22] The survey also showed that the number of salary men who found the demonstration annoying was one and a half times more than that of students.[23] The reason for this negative light was reported to be “disturbance caused by limited traffic or traffic jam.”[24] This result may be the reflection of the tendency of the Japanese general public prioritizing social order as a whole. In the case of Nagabuchi’s fans’ demonstration, the organizer stated in the interview that he had been involved in a right-wing anti-nuclear movement before this occasion.[25]

 Unfortunately, since there have not been official interviews of other participants, it is unclear whether the group protesting used Nagabuchi’s name for their own cause to mobilize other fans or was acting on behalf of their idol. In either case, the protest group relied on the political influence that Nagabuchi held over his fans. In the past, there have been multiple cases where celebrities were “dried out” (“hosareru” in Japanese meaning being deprived of one’s role) from media or were terminated from the commercial contracts because of their political statements. Unlike Nagabuchi who heightens his value as a rock star by vocalizing political opinions, silenced celebrities present a reverse example as they (or their agent) take precautions not to spread any political views in order that their image remains politically neutral.

Taking the collective social fear and the negative image towards political activism into consideration, fans take risks participating in political activism. On that note, however small the minority may be, fandom not only shapes the characteristics of political activism, but it could also operate as an impetus to mobilize fans. Moreover, fan-led activisms share the same performative aspect with idol/celebrity-led activism. As well as being aware of media attention when they use the idol’s name for their activism, fans construct their identity through celebrity citizenship (the idea of “I am acting on behalf of my idol and the victims”) and affective intimacy shared with the idol and his/her fans (“as a loyal fan, I understand how he/she [the idol] feels” “we [fans] need to unite for the sake of our idol”) to appeal to a larger audience. Thus, the nature of idol/celebrity-led activism and fan-led activism is in fact very similar in that they stress the performativity of being an idol/celebrity, fan, and activist.



Having caused an enormous shock on Japanese society, the political and social impact of 3.11 reflected on popular culture. Both the top-down idol/celebrity-driven activism and the bottom-up fan-driven activism were united and strengthened by empathy and affective intimacy. The disaster did not necessarily trigger an alternative identity to emerge. It is, rather, that both types of activism highlighted the existing social tendencies of idols, celebrities, and fans through the emphasis on mutual affective intimacy.

Fan-driven activism indicated that fandom plays a crucial role in shaping the identity of the group, but here one needs to clarify the social implications and reactions of political activism and humanitarian activism in Japan. Because humanitarian works do not carry the social stigma of that of political stances, it tends to be easier for fans to mobilize and actualize their goal. Due to the high social hurdle for political activism in Japan, fans are more cautious of initiating their actions.

There was a significant increase in the population that participated in political and humanitarian activism after 3.11, and yet there were few cases directly related to fandom. Even though this paper only examines a limited number of examples, they offer a glimpse of the complex relationship between fandom and activism. The examples reveal how activism was negotiated through performance when political opinions were intentionally muted or self-restrained in the show business (geinôkai in Japanese) during the post-disaster period. Although the public interest surrounding 3.11 has been declining over the years, the issues with the decontamination and the excessive amount of nuclear waste in Fukushima as well as the future use of nuclear energy in Japan are still far from being resolved. This ambivalent situation is reflected in media as there is a general tendency to avoid controversial statements and taking a political stance. As a country with frequent natural disasters, one can anticipate the emergence of similar activism in the future, but whether we will reach the day where the celebrity-driven activism addresses political issues and is no longer restricted to a minority, especially among the younger generations, remains questionable.

Rio Katayama is a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at USC. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese cinema and media studies, Japanese literature, and transnational cinema in East Asia. Her current research looks at the ways in which the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster (collectively known as 3.11) have influenced Japanese cinema, especially through the depiction of trauma and memory, nationalism and regionalism, and individualism vis-à-vis collectivism. 


Rio Katayama is a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at USC. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese cinema and media studies, Japanese literature, and transnational cinema in East Asia. Her current research looks at the ways in which the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster (collectively known as 3.11) have influenced Japanese cinema, especially through the depiction of trauma and memory, nationalism and regionalism, and individualism vis-à-vis collectivism. 












“Aidoru shijô ga ôkiku kakudai kôrei ‘otaku shijô’ cyôsa” (“Idol market showed significant growth, customary ‘otaku market’ research”) IT Media Business Online. Last modified December 7th, 2016.


“Aidoru tokushû – aidoru no rekishi- (Idol special issue – History of idols-). Asian Last modified June17, 2011.


“AKB48 Group ga kakuchi no gekijo de shinsai hisaichi fukkô shien ‘dareka no tameni’” (“AKB48 supported the affected areas of the earthquake at their concert venues through ‘What Can I Do for Someone’ project”) natalie. Last Modified March 12th, 2017.


Alexander, David. “Celebrity Culture, Entertainment Values … and Disaster” in Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, 2015.


Aoyagi, Hiroshi. 2005. Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Sym- bolic Production in Contemporary Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center.


Bennett, Lucy. "Fan Activism for Social Mobilization: A Critical Review of the Literature." Transformative Works and Cultures 10, (2012).


“‘Dareka no Tameni’ Project.” (“‘What can I do for someone?’ Project”) AKB48 Official Website.


Duncombe, Stephen. “Recognize Everyone: The Allure of Celebrity.” Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New York: New Press, 2007.


Duncombe, Stephen. "Imagining no-Place." Transformative Works and Cultures 10, (2012): 13.


Earl, Jennifer, and Katrina Kimport. “Movement Societies and Digital Protest: Fan Activism and Other Nonpolitical Protest Online.” Sociological Theory, vol. 27, no. 3, 2009, pp. 220–243.,


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“Nagabuchi fan tachi ga demo! Sendai genpatsu saikadou hantai o uttaeta.” (“Demonstration by Nagabuchi fans! Appealed against resuming operation of Sendai Nuclear Plant.”) Nikkan Spa, 19 October. 2014,


Nishi, Kenji. Aidoru/Media ron kôgi. (Idol Culture Through the Prism of Media Theory) Tokyo: Tokyo University Publishing, 2017. 139.


Nishijo, Noboru, Eita Kinouchi, and Yasutaka Ueda. “Aidoru ga seisoku suru ‘genjitsu kukan’ to ‘kasou kukan’ no nijukouzou – ‘Kyarakuta’ to ‘Guzo’ no gacchi to kairi’” (The Double Structure of Idol’s Real Space and Virtual Space – Consistency and Estrangement of Character and Idol), Bulletin of Edogawa University (26), 199-258, March, 2016. 


Ôta, Shôichi. Aidoru shinka ron: Minami Saori kara Hatsune Miku, AKB48 made. (Idol’s Evolution Theory: From Minami Saori to Hatsune Miku and AKB48) Tokyo: Tsukuba Shobô, 2011.


Richardson, Matthew Wm. "Marketing Affect in Japanese Idol Music." ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016.


“‘SEALs’ kokkai demo no keireki wa shukatsu ni furi ka yûrika?” (“‘SEALDs’ Is personal history of demonstrations at the Diet beneficial or unbeneficial for job hunting?”) Daily Shinchô. Last modified April 26th, 2017.


“Shinsai de hyoka o agata hito sageta hito.” (“People Whose Reputation Went Up and Down Due to the Disaster.”) Last modified April 13th, 2011.


Stein, Louisa Ellen. "Subject: `Off Topic: Oh My God, US Terrorism!: Roswell Fans Respond to 11 September." European Journal of Cultural Studies 5, no. 4 (2002): 471-491.

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Ueda, Yasutaka, and Yuri Hirota. “Ongaku ichiba ni okeru WTA o jitsugensita AKB48 no ecosistemu” (Ecosystem of AKB 48 that enabled WTA in the music industry), Edogawa University Departmental Bulletin Paper, vol.24, 2014.,




[1] Spigel, Lynn. "Entertainment Wars: Television Culture After 9/11." American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 2, 2004. 251.

[2] Spigel, Lynn. "Entertainment Wars.” 251-253.

[3] Melnick, Jeffrey Paul. 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ;Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 63.

[4] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11: Television Advertising in Risk Society,” Media Convergence in Japan, Kinema Club, 2016. 33.

[5] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11.” Media Convergence. 34. and Kokoro ni nokoru yûmeijin no tsubuyaki [Higashi nihon daishinsai] (“Memorable tweets of celebrities [Great East Japan Earthquake]”)

[6] Bennett, Lucy. "Fan Activism for Social Mobilization: A Critical Review of the Literature." Transformative Works and Cultures 10, (2012).

[7] “Kokoro ni nokoru yûmeijin no tsubuyaki.” (“Memorable tweets of celebrities”)

[8] “Shinsai de hyoka o agata hito sageta hito.” (“People Whose Reputation Went Up and Down Due to the Disaster.”) Last modified April 13th, 2011.

[9] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11.” Media Convergence. 38-40.

[10] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11.” Media Convergence. 42.

[11] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11.” Media Convergence. 43-44.

[12] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 26.

[13] “Bôeishô, Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi ni tokubetsu kansha-jô o zoutei” (“Ministry of Defense gives special thanks award to Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi”) BARKS Japan Music Network. Last modified December 21st, 2011.

[14] “Nagabuchi fan tachi ga demo! Sendai genpatsu saikadou hantai o uttaeta.” (“Demonstration by Nagabuchi fans! Appealed against resuming operation of Sendai Nuclear Plant.”) Nikkan Spa, 19 October. 2014,

[15] Stein, Louisa Ellen. "Subject: `Off Topic: Oh My God, US Terrorism!: Roswell Fans Respond to 11 September." European Journal of Cultural Studies 5, no. 4 (2002): 471-491. 477.

[16] Duncombe, Stephen. “Recognize Everyone: The Allure of Celebrity.” Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New York: New Press, 2007. 105.

[17] Duncombe, Stephen. “Recognize Everyone.” Dream. 121.

[18] Tominaga, Kyoko. Shakai Undô to Wakamono: Nichijô to Dekigoto wo Ôkan-suru Seiji. (Social Movements and Youth in Japan: Young Radicals of the 21st Century) Tokyo: Nakanishiya Publishing, 2017. 67.

[19] Izumiya, Yuriko. “Seiji aka no follow wa shukatsu ni furi. Togizen kôhosha ga wakamono no kaisetsuni ‘sorya seiji banare suruyo’” (“It is unfavorable to follow political Twitter accounts. A Tokyo assembly election candidate hear the young person and says ‘No wonder why they don't assosociate with politics’”) The Huffinton Post.

[20] “‘SEALs’ kokkai demo no keireki wa shukatsu ni furi ka yûri ka?” (“‘SEALDs’ Is personal history of demonstrations at the Diet beneficial or unbeneficial for job hunting?”) Daily Shinchô. Last modified April 26th, 2017.

[21] Josei fan mo miryo suru Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi, Kashi no Chikara. Oricon News. Last modified June 25th, 2014.


[23] Ditto.

[24] Ditto.

[25] “Nagabuchi fan tachi ga demo!” Nikkan Spa, 19 October. 2014

Japanese Idols, Celebrities and Fans During the Time of Disaster (Part One)

Last spring, I offered a PhD seminar on Fandom, Participatory Culture, and Web 2.0. This year's crop of students was the most diverse to ever take the class, with a healthy crop of international students, primarily from Asia. As a consequence, issues of transnational and transcultural fandom loomed large in our discussions. I wanted to share with you one paper produced for the class, which spoke to my own current obsessions with fan activism and the civic imagination. In this case, the focus is on how Japanese Idols performed and built support in the wake of the 3/11 Earthquake. 

Rio Katayama is a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at USC. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese cinema and media studies, Japanese literature, and transnational cinema in East Asia. Her current research looks at the ways in which the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster (collectively known as 3.11) have influenced Japanese cinema, especially through the depiction of trauma and memory, nationalism and regionalism, and individualism vis-à-vis collectivism. 


Idols, Celebrities, and Fans During the Time of Disaster

by Rio Katayama


The Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11th 2011 and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster that followed (collectively known as 3.11) have left a significant impact not only on the victims and politics but also on the society as a whole. The disaster originated from a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which preceded a huge tsunami, becoming the biggest national crisis since the Pacific War. The impact of the disaster quickly spread to the sphere of popular culture. Slogans that encourage endurance, perseverance, and national and community bonding, such as “Ganbarô Nippon!” (Persevere together, Japan!!) “Tsunagarô Nippon!” (Let’s get connected, Japan!) “Kizuna” (Bond, tie), were repeatedly used in the media surrounding Japan’s disaster recovery. Although entertainment was made secondary due to the self-restraint that media promoted right after 3.11, after a few days of endless news reports, entertainment, such as variety shows gradually resurfaced to the public through television and other media. What partially supported the return of entertainment was the news report that showed footage of celebrities’ involvement in humanitarian work. This trend moved the general public’s activism from volunteer work to political protest. Moreover, celebrity involvement impacted many citizens that had never taken an interest in activism before the disaster.

In this paper, I explore how activism is negotiated by both idols/celebrities and their fans at the time of national crisis. There are two modes of activism that emerged during 3.11, under the influence of popular culture: top-down idol/celebrity-driven activism and bottom-up fan-driven activism. Top-down idol/celebrity-driven activism was widely covered by the mainstream media, and as a result, idols and celebrities not only solidified their branding and expanded their fan base, but in some cases, they also influenced their fans to act “on their behalf.” At concert venues, TV programs, and on social media, idols and celebrities mentioned advocated charity works and encouraged fans to donate to the victims. Bottom-up fan-driven activism refers to grassroots activities that began among fans in which popular culture seemingly functioned as a catalyst for encouraging activism. Based on the examinations on the nature of idols/celebrities and fans as well as the circumstances surrounding politics and activism in Japan, I argue that both idol/celebrity-driven and fan-driven activisms stressed the standing characteristics of idols and fans, instead of allowing a new identity to surface. Performative aspects of their activism can be observed from the ways in which both celebrity-driven activism and fan-driven activism embrace the idea of “celebrity citizenship” proposed by Lynn Spiegel as well as affective intimacy shared among idols/celebrities and fans. Nevertheless, the fact that their activisms appears performative does not necessarily mean that they care less about the issue, nor that their activisms are superficial. For activism in general, performativity plays a crucial role in appealing to the mass audience. In fact, due to the extensive media coverage, this performativity reminds the general public of the current situations in the affected areas as well as the fact that the disaster is still not over for the victims. Although there are significant numbers of idol-related research and 3.11-related research, the research that bridges the two has been few. Through my project, I aim to examine the intersection of celebrity/idol fandom and activism, and how the activisms were performed under various social expectations and pressures during the disaster recovery process.




Idol Culture and Industry in Japan

            Idols have a long history of being prominently figured in the Japanese media industry. Although idol-like figures in entertainment (theaters and films) had existed long before the term “idol” was first introduced in Japan, Aoyagi Hiroshi states that the public was first familiarized with the term when a French film Cherchez l’idole was screened with the Japanese title of Aidoru wo Sagase (In Search of an Idol) in 1963, and the female stars of the movie became very popular among the Japanese audience.[1] Since then, the term “idol” is used to refer to both male and female performers who often start their career at a young age (often they are still in junior high or high schools) and may pursue their career across multiple different media and genres. Since the 1970s, idols have become familiar faces in households via television programs, such as Sutâ Tanjô! (A Star is Born!, 1971-83), which birthed many well-known idols through the broadcasting of auditions.


With the emergence of shin-eitai (親衛隊, literally meaning bodyguards), fans formulated the synchronized use of paper streamers and call-and-response to cheer on their favorite idols’ performances.[2] The idol boom reached its peak in the 1980s in alignment with the start of CD production in 1982. The 80s was called aidoru no ôgon jidai (idol’s golden age) with 40-50 new idols emerging every year.[3] Due to severe competition in the industry, idols tended to identify with certain traits (acting-out type, pure innocent type, cute-type, etc.) to differentiate themselves among others. Also, in the mid-80s, onyanko kurabu, the large-scaled girls’ group with more than fifty members was produced by Akimoto Yasushi and set the trend for the large group idols and their business schemas.[4]


With the development of bubble economy and entertainment industry, idols’ exposure across various genres became more apparent as the idols frequently appeared on advertisements, fashion magazines, films, and diverse television programs such as music programs, TV drama, and variety shows.[5] Although the idol boom went through ups and downs, this business model has been passed down through the 90s and 2000s, and the large-scaled groups – such as AKB48 and Morning Musume (Morning girls) – became the mainstream model for female groups. The popularity does not only apply to female idols as male idols are just as popular. Male idols’ business models are very similar to the female idol model as they tend to construct images through various media contents and genres. Since the 1970s, the talent agency Johnny & Associates has been the primary source of producing male idols, mostly marketed in groups.

AKB group photo p4.png

Arashi p4.png

Top: AKB48 produced by Akimoto Yasushi         Bottom: Arashi from Johnny & Associates

According to data released on December 2016, the profit of the idol industry has expanded two fold since 2015 and now marks about 380 million to one billion American dollars.[6]  Idol fans showed a tendency to spend the most money amongst all the different kinds of otaku (nerds).[7] When observing as to why the idols consistently gain huge popularity and have a concrete fan base in Japan, Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin point out the commodified nature of idol in the capitalist society, stating “They are not expected to be greatly talented at any one thing, for example singing, dancing, or acting […] idols are produced and packaged to maximize consumption.”[8]

This “idol of what” question seems to have become more prevalent now than the past when idols generally referred to those who were skilled at singing and/or dancing. If their popularity does not depend on their talents, then what attracts so many fans to the idols? Galbraith and Karlin mention the frequent exposures of idols across different platforms (not only the “normal” TV programs but also celebrity-gossip light-news program called wide shows that are also broadcasted every weekday) allows idols to develop intertextuality within their image and build their “real life” persona.[9] Furthermore, many idols retire (or they often use the word “graduate”) in their early or late 20s for various reasons and either focus their career on acting, become a solo singer, or retire from the entertainment industry completely. This temporal characteristic seems more prevalent among female idols than male idols, partly due to the general expectation by fans that the female idols are not supposed to openly date while they have the title as an “idol” since they are supported by fans’ affection. Nishi Kenji finds this nature comparable to reality TV as idols presents a fiction-self through their self-constructed image in media through embodying fans’ fantasy of a loyal and ever-growing character.[10] Matthew Wm. Richardson describes that the audience’s reception of the idol’s persona creates “affective closeness,”[11] claiming “coming across as not untouchable stars but average flawed humans, they [idols] position themselves ideally for fans to feel affectively close to them.”[12] Whether it is intentional or unintentional, because the idols are so integrated into Japanese popular culture, watching idols becomes a part of daily routine for the general public audience, and that contributes to construct familiarity as well as affective intimacy.[13] Because of high familiarity with the public, idols have become an effective party of activism as they provide a point of intersection for otaku and the general public, where the idol functions as liaison.


Idols and Affective Intimacy During 3.11

After 3.11, news and wide shows (celebrity-gossip light-news programs) would frequently broadcast idols and celebrities visiting the affected areas as they delivered crucial supplies, participated in volunteer activities, and performed for the victims who were still in the evacuation centers or temporary houses. For instance, female idol group AKB48 visited different locations of affected areas more than sixty times as of November 2016.[14] Although they were already popular before 3.11, their dedication towards charity solidified their image as “national idols.” The project by AKB48 and their sister groups are named “Dareka no Tameni Project” (“What can I do for someone? Project”), and they donated more than eleven million dollars of their profits from CDs and DVDs in two years to disaster recovery efforts.[15] This includes all the profits of the digitally released song Dareka no Tameni – What can I do for someone? as well as the money donated by fans at charity events and handshaking events.

AKB donation p7.png
AKB handshake p7.png

Top: AKB48 asking for donation at AKB theater    Bottom: AKB48 visiting the affected area

It should be noted that AKB48 was one of the most successful idol case studies where the idols used “proximity and connection between fans and group members”[16] as a marketing scheme to achieve more CD and DVD sales.

AKB48 is known for their concept of “ai ni ikeru aidoru” (idol that you can meet) as they have the home theater in Akihabara, Tokyo, where selected members perform daily. Also, their CDs include tickets for events where fans have a chance to meet their favorite idol in person and shake hands. For special occasions, such as the AKB Election, fans buy CDs that have ballets inside where fans can vote for their favorite idol, and the idols with the most votes get to sing and release an upcoming song. By adapting this more participatory, interactive fandom, AKB48’s business scheme makes fans feel as though they are rearing the idol-in-makings to becoming top idols.AKB48’s humanitarian works aligned perfectly with their image of “idol that you can meet” and that image accelerated media to even claim idols as “saviors” after 3.11.[17] Due to their popularity, the huge scale of the donation, the frequency of their visits, and media coverage, AKB48 was the most well-known idols for their humanitarian works; despite this, many other idols also visited the affected areas and held charity events.

 The presence of idols not only generated affective intimacy between idols and the victims in the affected area, but also gave the general public and fans a sense of escape and hope. Also, as aforementioned in the last chapter, idol fans are known to be more financially dedicated than other areas of otaku. It makes sense that idol fans can be dedicated to support the charity in exchange for their favorite idol’s favor. During the time of self-restraint right after 3.11, entertainment was perceived as something unnecessary for living and not appropriate to enjoy when considering the victims’ sufferings. In the book 3.11 to aidoru (3.11 and Idol), being both a loyal idol fan/writer and a family member of disaster victims, Kojima Kazuhiro states that he felt guilty consuming idol culture while everyone was encouraged to moderate their consumption due to the energy shortage. However, because idols started their humanitarian works, Kojima claims that it justified the idol’s existence as a source of entertainment.[18]

In relation to science fiction examples, Stephen Duncombe explains how fans are well-aware of how the fantasy of the world is presented, yet “most propositions insist upon their possibility: positing an imagined future or alternative as the future or the alternative.”[19] His observation can be applied to the case in which fans create a “real” image of an idol from something unreal, but this notion was particularly important during the time of nuclear disaster when Japanese people lost faith in the government and media for their inability to provide the “right” information and felt uncertain about what is real or unreal.

Although idols do not say anything that is politically controversial, Kojima states that fans felt encouraged by the “realness” of the effort that they pour into their performance and raw emotions that they express on stage.[20] Kojima also mentions that compared to politicians who rarely visit affected areas, the victims appreciated that idols “remember” the victims, and victims believed that the idols saw the reality of the affected areas and perhaps learned from the experience.[21] Because idols are relatively young, older fans tend to feel as though they are care-takers for the idols. According to Ôta Shôichi, since the audition reality TV show Sutâ Tanjô! (A Star is Born) in the early 70s, what attracts fans to the idol has always been the concept of “in process” that reflects in-betweenness of youth and adult.[22] AKB48 directly embodies the idea Nishi Kenji describes as being the incomplete “project” rather than the complete “product,” which emphasizes room for idols’ growth.[23]

AKB’s humanitarian project showcases to fans how idols mature as a person through learning about the disaster and interacting with victims. Nishi points out that fans could also learn from the reactions of idols through the ways in which the idols cope with unexpected or unconvincing circumstances.[24] Kojima also states in his book that even though idols might have come to the affected area to comfort the victims, some victims were glad not only because they could meet the idols, but for the fact that visiting the site would be a valuable experience for the younger generations and the idols might be able to influence their young fans.[25]

For instance, at the concert held on the March 11th 2017 in the AKB Theater of Tokyo, the AKB48 led a prayer at 2:46 PM, the exact time when the earthquake occurred, sold charity T-shirts, sung songs related to 3.11, and stood behind donation boxes to collect contributions from fans.[26] This is a common example of the top-down approaches that the idols employ. It is undeniable that activism among idols is somewhat performative: their activism was reported by media in a way that the reactions of fans and idols were beautified.

However, even if their activism is a response to certain social expectations, it does not mean that their effort holds less value as an indication of disaster recovery process. As the memory of 3.11 has gradually faded particularly in the capital, their continuous efforts remind fans of the event and prevent 3.11 from being forgotten. In a way, their humanitarian project works both ways for idols and fans as the project allows fans to observe and experience idols’ emotional journey and growth and idols to solidify their image.



[1] Aoyagi, Hiroshi. 2005. Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center. 4.

[2] “Aidoru Tokushû – aidoru no rekishi- (Idol Special Issue – History of Idols-). Asian Last modified June17, 2011.

[3] Galbraith, Patrick, Jason G. Karlin, and Ebooks Corporation. Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. doi:10.1057/9781137283788. 5.

[4] “Aidoru Tokushû – aidoru no rekishi-” (Idol Special Issue – History of Idols-). Asian

[5] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 5.

[6] “Aidoru Shijô ga Ôkiku Kakudai Kôrei ‘Otaku Shijô’ Cyôsa” (“Idol Market Showed Significant Growth, Customary ‘Otaku Market’ Research”) IT Media Business Online. Last modified December 7th, 2016.

[7] Ditto.

[8] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 2.

[9] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 11.

[10] Nishi Kenji. Aidoru/Media ron kôgi. (Idol Culture Through the Prism of Media Theory) Tokyo: Tokyo University Publishing, 2017. 139.

[11] Richardson, Matthew Wm. "Marketing Affect in Japanese Idol Music." ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016. 9.

[12] Richardson. "Marketing Affect.” 8.

[13] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 9.

[14] Maki, Izumi. November 22nd, 2016. “AKB 48, Ôfunato-shi de ’10 nen zakura’ shokuju 3.11 ikô no kanyu membâ mo” (AKB 48 including members who joined AKB after 3.11 planted 10-year Cherry Blossom Trees), Excite News

[15] “‘Dareka no Tameni’ Project.” (“‘What can I do for someone?’ Project”) AKB48 Official Website.

[16] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 21

[17] Kojima, Kazuhiro. 3.11 to Aidoru. (3.11 and idol) Tokyo: Core Magazine, 2014. 12.

[18] Kojima. 3.11 to Aidoru. 73,79.

[19] Duncombe, Stephen. "Imagining no-Place." Transformative Works and Cultures 10, (2012): 13.

[20] Kojima. 3.11 to Aidoru. 91

[21] Kojima. 3.11 to Aidoru. 95-97.

[22] Ôta, Shôichi. Aidoru shinka ron: Minami Saori kara Hatsune Miku, AKB48 made. (Idol’s Evolution Theory: From Minami Saori to Hatsune Miku and AKB48) Tokyo: Tsukuba Shobô, 2011. 44, 273.

[23] Nishi. Aidoru/Media ron kôgi. 108.

[24] Nishi. Aidoru/Media ron kôgi. 111.

[25] Kojima. 3.11 to Aidoru. 97-99.

[26] “AKB48 Group ga kakuchi no gekijo de shinsai hisaichi fukkô shien ‘dareka no tameni’” (“AKB48 supported the affected areas of the earthquake at their concert venues through ‘What Can I Do for Someone’ project”) natalie. Last Modified March 12th, 2017.

Rio Katayama is a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at USC. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese cinema and media studies, Japanese literature, and transnational cinema in East Asia. Her current research looks at the ways in which the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster (collectively known as 3.11) have influenced Japanese cinema, especially through the depiction of trauma and memory, nationalism and regionalism, and individualism vis-à-vis collectivism. 

Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part Three)

We might expect a book called The Dialogues to be fairly text-heavy and we certainly have much conversation here, but some of the more surprising moments come on pages which have little or no dialogue. What role does silence play in your exchanges?




Oh, I love silence in comics! I love the whole business of leaving the reader alone with their thoughts, just providing fragments of a narrative through images that they can embellish in their way. I really wanted this book to breathe, with lots of space for the reader to reflect, or perhaps to prepare for the next set of ideas after finishing the last. I designed every element to facilitate this. This includes pauses in the conversation. Sometimes you need to stop talking and think about the points being made, or just back off from an approach and try another. I wanted to show that aspect of a conversation, for sure. Generally, my publisher (MIT Press) was very generous in allowing me control of every aspect of the design, right down to the cover, even though they were doubtful about one choice. Once a chapter/conversation ends, there’s the notes, and then there’s a double page spread separating chapters that’s a blank page on the left, and then just a simple number (with a window to the next chapter) on the right. A number of editors questioned that blankness, and suggested either skipping it or putting a splash of colour on it. But I resisted. I wanted this as a palette cleanser. A bit of silence before diving into the next chapter. And then in some cases, even after you start the chapter there’s a lot of visuals before you get to the conversation, so you ease in gently, perhaps wondering what concept you’re going to be thinking about next. Actually, since a lot of those opening visuals involve drawing what felt like thousands of windowpanes in skyscrapers, I did find myself cursing my love of architectural detail, telling myself that people are just going to flip through those pages until they find speech bubbles anyway. I briefly considered having a narrator help move the reader through some of it, and maybe act as a connector between stories too, but I did not want to break the silence, and then the narrator risks being seen as me, and there’s the whole voice of authority coming back in. Everyone is so rushed these days but I do hope some people take the time to linger through the silences, and glance at some of the details. I actually went out there into the world and measured the heights of those parking meters! And in some cases completely (after lots of research) constructed the interiors of certain spaces so that I could use them as settings.




I was amused by your opening segment which depicts a conversation between a man and a woman both dressed as superheroes. This seems to be a wink and a nod towards the expectations many have about the kinds of content appropriate for comics. Yet you soon shift towards other comics genres and keep changing ground across the book. In what ways did you play here with audience expectations about comics as a medium?



Yes! You saw that, great! That was exactly the joke. I find myself frustrated, still, that in 2017 people are still mixing up comics with genre. So you see it all through the culture. It is something that affects this very book, since it really belongs with non-fiction science books, but I'm going to have to fight for it to be on those shelves. Instead it's just going to be lumped with comics and graphic novels. It'll be alongside (if if I'm lucky enough to get shelf space at all!) wonderful comics about history or graphic memoirs, etc., and that’s great, but those books should be in the history and memoir sections of the bookstore. But anyway, I could rant about this a lot more. In any case, I thought I would at least amuse myself (if nobody else) by having the book open with everyone in superhero costumes (since that’s what most people are expecting form a comic)… but then you look closer and see that the costumes fit badly, and it becomes clear that it's just regular people in costume at a party. And they are at a museum, and they start talking about science because of the superhero context. I started that story a long time ago in the process, before the ubiquity in people's consciousness of cosplay at conventions and so forth. If I were starting to write it now, I consider just setting it as a conversation in a line at some ComicCon, with costumed people everywhere.  Or maybe I wouldn't, since I've learned from bitter experience to try to avoid crowd scenes, along with lots of skyscrapers and their endless rows of windows.


This was not your first experience working with superheroes, since you provided technical advice to Agent Carter’s producers. How did you become a technical advisor for this superhero series and what motivated you to participate in this process?


Oh, yes. I worked on Agent Carter, season two. Actually, I've worked on a lot of other superhero things you might recognise, like Agents of Shield, The upcoming Avengers movies and Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out around now. I think I started getting involved in Science advising for movies and TV well over a decade ago because I’d talk about science and film on my blog, and word got around. Also, I got a reputation as a good explainer from my work as a guest expert on various TV documentaries like PBS’s Nova, The History Channel’s The Universe and so forth. People from the industry started getting in touch. Motivation? I really think that it would be a massive mistake to not use the most powerful and pervasive storytelling tools ever invented - TV/Film - in getting people interested in, or at least familiar with, science and scientist characters. And it shouldn’t just be in documentary. Science is (or should be) part of our general culture, so you should see it everywhere. But anyway, the connection to Marvel in particular really began in earnest because a few years ago the Science and Entertainment Exchange (a nonprofit set up by the National Academy of Sciences to help connect scientists to entertainment people) started to suggest my name to some of Marvel’s producers as someone who can help with big physics stuff like space, time, energy, and so forth. Just what gets played with a lot in the Marvel Universe. The collaboration with the Agent Carter people was particularly successful because they called me in very early, before they wrote much. This is unfortunately still unusual - science advisors are wrongly mostly thought of as fact-checkers to be brought in near the end. I was able to help give them a lot of physics ideas (or fanciful ideas inspired by real physics) underpinning for a lot of the universe they were trying to create, and from that comes not just good visuals and buzzwords, but entire story ideas, character ideas, and so forth, that have the science embedded in them. It was a true collaboration that made that season really strong, in my opinion, because you might recall that her agency was the Strategic Science Initiative, so it made sense that the science needed to be up front. 

Clifford V. Johnson is a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern CaliforniaHere's how he describes his research on his home page: "My research (as a member of the Theory Group) focuses on the development of theoretical tools for the description of the basic fabric of Nature. The tools and ideas often have applications in other areas of physics (and mathematics) too - unexpected connections are part of the fun of research! Ultimately I (and the international community of which I am a part) am trying to understand and describe the origin, past, present and future of the Universe. This involves trying to describe its fundamental constituents (and their interactions), as well as the Universe as a dynamical object in its own right. I mainly work on (super)string theory, gravity, gauge theory and M-theory right now, which lead me to think about things like space-time, quantum mechanics, black holes, the big bang, extra dimensions, quarks, gluons, and so forth. See the research page for more, or look on my blog under the "research" category (here). I spend a lot of time talking about science with members of the public in various venues, from public talks and appearances, various intersections with the arts and media (you might catch me on TV and web shows like The Universe, Big History, or Fail Lab), to just chatting with someone on the subway. I love helping artists, filmmakers, writers, and other shapers of our culture include science in their work in some way. Check out my blog for more about those things, and occasional upcoming events. Get in touch if you are interested in having me appear at an event, or if I can help you with the science in your artistic endeavour."

Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part Two)

In your Preface, “Space and time and the relationships between things are at the heart of how comics work: Images (sometimes contained in panels, but not necessarily) arranged in sequence encourage the reader to infer a narrative that involves the sense of time passing, of movement, and so forth. In this sense, fundamentally, comics are physics! Put this way, upon reflection it is stunning that this graphic form has not been used more to talk about physics, and to communicate what’s going on in the fascinating world of physics research.”  What are some of the ways you are taping this insight in your visual storytelling across the book?



I use it in some fairly obvious ways in some places, like just having characters moving from frame to frame while actually discussing the whole business of movement. In other cases, I get to do much more subtle things with the form. For example, at one point in a conversation two people are discussing ideas from contemporary research about what might happen to space and time inside a black hole. Without going into detail with me just say that space and time can get rather jumbled up inside – maybe even lose their meaning entirely. So one of the ways I show this is by messing with the order in which you conventionally read the comic frames as you are watching the discussion delve into the black hole. I'm deliberately playing there, deliberately inviting confusion in the interior of the black hole in a way intrinsic to the comic form itself.



In other places I have characters talk about the breakdown of space and time entirely, as might happen at the birth of the universe. There, as they talk about this, I completely dissolve the panels containing the characters and the backgrounds. Frankly, I wish that I had realised this connection between subject and form earlier in writing the book. I would have played with it a lot more than I actually do in this book. I almost want to immediately start work on a second volume of dialogues and cast many more contemporary ideas from physics in this form. If I don't do it, I hope others may try.


One of the real strengths of this work is your focus on particularized locations for the exchanges. Many dialogic texts in the past have been abstracted from any specific physical space, but your drawings are rich in architectural and geographic information. Why? What do these locations, such as Los Angeles’ Angels Flight, contribute to our experience of your work?


Thank you for noticing this! Yes. This is all about being able to show - because I chose this graphic form - that science takes place out there in the world. Everywhere there are people present, science, and conversations about science can take place. It's not just with the experts and it's not just to be left in labs and research centres. From pragmatic perspective, I also have the feeling that readers can get drawn into the book by wondering who and where these people are. I hope they might have fun recognising details of places that may be familiar. The richness you so kindly pointed out is also my weakness by the way. I obsess over details in my drawing. Is one of the reasons why it took me seven years to finish this thing. One of the other reasons is that I was teaching myself more or less from scratch how to draw at the required standard, and how to draw for this medium. It will take a lot more time than I had to also learn the kind of distillation and economy that a true master has. Perhaps I will one day.


Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe has been widely cited as an example of what it might mean to do science through comics.  You adopt a very different approach. Can you say more about the pedagogical choices you made in how to present this material?


I have a confession to make. I've never read that book, although I know of its existence, and of course I have a lot of respect for it. I’ve glanced at some pages from it online and so I know enough about it to put in that class of wonderful books out there about science which are essentially illustrated lectures. I did not want to write an illustrated lecture about physics. Obviously, by being a physics professor writing/drawing about physics,  I am still trying to illustrate physics ideas, but I want to get away from the tone (which is not to everyone’s taste) of an expert coming out of the ivory tower and giving the public the benefit of their wisdom. I felt that having the reader eavesdrop on dialogues about science gets the ideas across any different way. And that’s even if some of the people in the dialogues are scientist themselves, as is the case. They're not talking directly at you, and I think that makes a difference. I don't know why. That's probably for my colleagues in the psychology department to tell you.


Often, documentary or instructional comics -- Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics comes to mind -- are monologues in which the author represents themselves on the page lecturing us, albeit in a playful way, about the content. Why did you chose to communicate more through character interactions with accompanying notes?


McCloud’s book is wonderful. I spoken a bit about the choice to avoid lecturing and use character interactions already, but let me say a bit more about the notes. The great thing about conversations is that they are imperfect. I know that sounds a bit odd, but I like that imperfection. In representing conversations on the page then, I get to visit lots of topics, because conversations seldom stay exactly on track. And that ends up allowing me to show the connectedness of science ideas. You can go off in one direction or another. Inevitably there for that means that, unlike a carefully prepared lecture, a conversation won't stay on topic and is less likely to go very deeply into one particular topic. Instead there are notes at the end of each chapter where I list books for further reading on some of the topics that popped up on the conversation. So the dialogues end up being an invitation to, or maybe a tasting menu of, various ideas. And then the reader can dive in more deeply by getting some of the many wonderful books that other writers and scientists have written.


Nick Sousanis, creator of Unflattening, has suggested that thinking through comics about his subject matter fundamentally changed his understanding of his topic. Is the same true for you? What did you learn doing physics through comics?


That book is fascinating, by the way. I finally got to reading it this Fall, and I can see that we’d have a lot of ideas to discuss if we met. I hope to meet Nick one day. (I feel bad that I did not cite his work in my book, but it appeared too late, and in any case my notes are mostly pointers to physics texts. I stumbled on it in a bookstore when I was just at the end of finishing the writing and layout of the dialogues, and about to embark on final art. I had to stay away from it, like I did all books at that time so that I could just focus on the coming year of finding time to frantically complete over 200 hundred pages of final art.)


But to your question. I would love to give some spicy story in answer to this question where at the end I point to some scientific paper I published that owes its insights to my investigations of comics. Maybe I will one day. But I cannot right now because it did not happen. Nevertheless, I am quite sure that my research is helped, overall, by my work on this book. Many scientists will tell you that the process of finding good ways to explain even the most basic concepts feeds positively into their research. It encourages clarity of thought. Also, sometimes, tackling a research problem is a dialogue with yourself or with your collaborators. You are reviewing what you've already done, sometimes explaining it back to yourself to glimpse a pattern or a theme. So, trying to explain concepts about relativity or the nature of time to non-experts (as I do in the book) can be useful. Also trying to explain a character’s principled  position on some controversial scientific issue, as I do in the book, helps me clarify my own position. I hope that goes some way to answering your question.



Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part One)


Clifford V. Johnson is the first theoretical physicist who I have ever interviewed for my blog. Given the sharp divide that our society constructs between the sciences and the humanities, he may well be the last, but he would be the first to see this gap as tragic, a consequence of the current configuration of disciplines. Johnson, as I have discovered, is deeply committed to helping us recognize the role that science plays in everyday life, a project he pursues actively through his involvement as one of the leaders of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (of which I am also a member), as a consultant on various film and television projects, and now, as the author of a graphic novel, The Dialogues, which is being released this week. We were both on a panel about contemporary graphic storytelling Tara McPherson organized for the USC Sydney Harmon Institute for Polymathic Study and we've continued to bat around ideas about the pedagogical potential of comics ever since.

Here's what I wrote when I was asked to provide a blurb for his new book:

"Two superheroes walk into a natural history museum -- what happens after that will have you thinking and talking for a long time to come. Clifford V. Johnson's The Dialogues joins a select few examples of recent texts, such as Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, Nick Sousanis's Unflattening, Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, or Joe Sacco's Palestine, which use the affordances of graphic storytelling as pedagogical tools for changing the ways we think about the world around us. Johnson displays a solid grasp of the craft of comics, demonstrating how this medium can be used to represent different understandings of the relationship between time and space, questions central to his native field of physics. He takes advantage of the observational qualities of contemporary graphic novels to explore the place of scientific thinking in our everyday lives." 

To my many readers who care about sequential art, this is a book which should be added to your collection -- Johnson makes good comics, smart comics, beautiful comics, and comics which are doing important work, all at the same time. What more do you want!

In the interviews that follows, we explore more fully what motivated this particular comics and how approaching comics as a theoretical physicist has helped him to discover some interesting formal aspects of this medium.


The Dialogues seeks to call attention to everyday conversations about science. Why? What are the stakes for you as a scientist in calling attention to the ways everyday people think about and talk about science?

It goes back a long time, actually. Many people have liked the way I explain scientific concepts to non-experts, and several kept asking me when I was going to write that non-expert level book that people who do a lot of public science explaining usually end up writing. I was stumped for a good answer. I did not feel that the world urgently needed another of those books…not from me anyway. There’s nothing wrong with those books, they are wonderful resources - it just did not feel urgent, and so I carried on with my other work, doing research, and connecting to the public through various other media. Then 18  years ago (!) I had an idea. What was missing from the literature are science books that focus on the reader being able to see themselves as part of the conversation. As part of the joyful, delightful dance that science can be. So the core idea was to make the entire book a series of conversations.  Conversations of a type that any reader may have had, or can be a part of - any time they choose. This takes away some of the tone of the expert telling you what you’re supposed to think, and emphasises participation more. The engagement with science should not be left to the experts - its open to all kinds of people.


What do you want your readers to learn about science over the course of these exchanges? I am struck by the ways you seek to demystify aspects of the scientific process, including the role of theory, equations, and experimentation.



That participatory aspect is core, for sure. Conversations about science by random people out there in the world really do happen - I hear them a lot on the subway, or in cafes, and so I wanted to highlight those and celebrate them. So the book becomes a bit of an invitation to everyone to join in. But then I can show so many other things that typically just get left out of books about science: The ordinariness of the settings in which such conversations can take place, the variety of types of people involved, and indeed the main tools, like equations and technical diagrams, that editors usually tell you to leave out for fear of scaring away the audience. I also get to emphasise (sometimes in microcosm) the dialogue between theoretical work and the experimental work needed to connect it with reality. In one story, two kids theorize about a cooking process and devise an experiment to test their ideas. The experiment is designed well enough to sharply distinguish between two perfectly good theories.  This might not seem to be connected to fancy ideas about multiverses and quantum entanglement and other buzz-words people come to contemporary science books for… but that process is core to science.



Why did comics emerge as the best way to share these conversations with your readers? What has been your relationship with comics as a medium?


I said earlier that I had the idea to do dialogues about 18 years ago, but the idea for it to be a comic came years later. There was a visual component in the original idea, yes, but it was mostly to show at the end of each story a bit of what might have got scribbled during the conversation. As though you’d eavesdropped in a cafe, they’d left, and you picked up a scrap of paper they’d written on. Well, years went by and I’d occasionally take the idea off the shelf, tinker with it, and then put it back. But I still did not start on the book. Then around 2006 or so I realised that every time I tinkered the visual component grew. I wanted to show more of the things they’d scribbled… Maybe the order in which the scribbling happened. Then I wanted to show who was having the conversations. Maybe that would engage the reader - we’re social animals, so we tend to be pulled into things that way. Then I thought it would be nice to show that these are happening in everyday circumstances. Cafés, sure, but also trains, buses, museums, on the street, in the home. And then it hit me - the visuals had entirely eaten the prose aspect of the book. What I was working on was a non-fiction graphic novel about science. I realised that there was really nothing out there like it, and then I just had to make it and get it out there into the world. It marked a return to the medium for me. I’d read superhero comics a lot as a kid, and into my early college years, and I was always interested in the art, but not at the level I would become later, for this project. In the early 90s I’d almost fully put them aside for various reasons. I’d dip in from time to time, but did not really become a regular reader again. But around the time the book ideas properly crystallized into a graphic book, I returned to reading the form, discovering that a lot of wonderful expansions into storytelling in a wide range of subjects had happened, and I began to consume many examples. By 2010 I took a sabbatical semester and devoted it to (secretly) studying the form in earnest to learn if I could do it, teaching myself art and other production techniques and so forth from books and lots of trial and error.

Clifford V. Johnson is a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern CaliforniaHere's how he describes his research on his home page: "My research (as a member of the Theory Group) focuses on the development of theoretical tools for the description of the basic fabric of Nature. The tools and ideas often have applications in other areas of physics (and mathematics) too - unexpected connections are part of the fun of research! Ultimately I (and the international community of which I am a part) am trying to understand and describe the origin, past, present and future of the Universe. This involves trying to describe its fundamental constituents (and their interactions), as well as the Universe as a dynamical object in its own right. I mainly work on (super)string theory, gravity, gauge theory and M-theory right now, which lead me to think about things like space-time, quantum mechanics, black holes, the big bang, extra dimensions, quarks, gluons, and so forth. See the research page for more, or look on my blog under the "research" category (here). I spend a lot of time talking about science with members of the public in various venues, from public talks and appearances, various intersections with the arts and media (you might catch me on TV and web shows like The Universe, Big History, or Fail Lab), to just chatting with someone on the subway. I love helping artists, filmmakers, writers, and other shapers of our culture include science in their work in some way. Check out my blog for more about those things, and occasional upcoming events. Get in touch if you are interested in having me appear at an event, or if I can help you with the science in your artistic endeavour."

Revisiting the Concept of "Sharing": An Interview with Nicholas John (Part Three)





How might we think about the social mandate to share in today’s culture in relation to ongoing concerns about the loss of or disrespect for notions of privacy? What relationship do you see between sharing and privacy?


Online sharing would certainly seem to present quite a challenge to privacy: the more we share, the more Facebook et al. know about us. So on the face of it, sharing and privacy stand in opposition to one another. However, there are interesting parallels between them which lead me to see them not necessarily as subsisting in a zero-sum game but rather as giving different expression to a kind of self that took shape during the 20th century.

If I may oversimplify somewhat, the modern right to privacy, as formulated by Warren and Brandeis at the end of the 19th century, emerged in response to modern technologies of representation and reproduction, specifically, the use of photographs in newspapers. The right to privacy has as its object the discrete individual. On one account, privacy is necessary so that the individual may make authentic decisions (for whom to vote, or what to purchase).

Paradoxically, the contemporary injunction to share (as a type of communication) also addresses the discrete individual who expresses her authentic individuality by making it public. In their work on reality TV, Andrejevic and others have shown how self-exposure and its subsequent scrutiny are taken as a guarantor of truth, and I see sharing on social media as an extension of this. Of course, I’m aware that many social media users feel that others are not being authentic in their self-representation, but the rhetoric of sharing on these platforms, and especially Facebook, is all about connecting with others and being your most authentic self. (It has been interesting in this regard to follow Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about apps for anonymous communication, which also claim to offer users the opportunity to be their most authentic self.) Moreover, there are sanctions against not sharing. For instance, refusal to use Facebook can be perceived as deviant; and if we think about interpersonal relationships outside of social media, it seem obvious to me that you will not be able to sustain a romantic relationship without talking about your emotions.

Perhaps the term that points to failure in managing these seemingly competing demands – to share and for privacy – is “oversharing”. This is when we are given too much information, when the boundary between the public and the private – which is always shifting and negotiable – leaves too much in the public sphere. When we accuse someone of oversharing, we are not only saying that we did not want to know that, but that they should not have wanted to tell us in the first place, that they should have had a better sense of their own privacy.

Which term has more moral and emotional weight in our culture -- sharing or piracy?

I haven’t studied the metaphor of piracy per se, though it clearly is a meaningful cultural resource for those more deeply involved in the community (that is, it may not be a term that resonates with everyone downloading the Game of Thrones finale, but it is important to the people who contribute to the file sharing forums I analyzed). The metaphor of piracy is, I think, seen as more subversive among the file-sharers I studied. It’s more edgy than sharing, though one does come across “sharing is caring” slogans and images in members-only file-sharing sites too.

In terms of our broader culture, I think I’ve nailed my colors to the mast pretty strongly here: after all, the book is called The Age of Sharing. I think that the term, sharing, is an extremely powerful term today, both morally and emotionally. Part of the evidence for this is actually provided by people who strenuously oppose its application to practices that they say are “not really sharing”. Sharing, for them, needs to be protected from appropriation by commercial entities (among others).

Your conclusion stresses the unfulfilled promises of the concept of “sharing” in contemporary culture, which is often used to mystify far more traditional kinds of economic relationships. But we could turn this around and say the persistence of the concept of “sharing” across the various contexts you discuss suggests an ongoing desire, amid large chunks of the western world, for an alternative set of economic and social arrangements that does not look like capitalism. Can we deconstruct the abuse of the concept of sharing while keeping alive the radical potential of these shared social values? As you ask, “if the promise is extinguished, what are we to do?” (155)


What are we to do? I wish I had an answer.

Were I asked to present a blueprint for the Good Society, I have no doubt that it would include sharing: my good citizens would share resources; relationships would be built on openness and honesty. But in fact this blueprint says a great deal about my cultural circumstances; perhaps more than the desirability or attainability of this Good Society. There certainly is an ongoing desire in large chunks of the western world for an alternative to capitalism – an important wing of the so-called sharing economy is trying to present such an alternative – but our ability to imagine this alternative is defined, or at least shaped, by our present-day culture. I certainly think this is the case when we imagine a past in which people shared and drew inspiration from that past, and I think this is what Benjamin was intimating with his notion of an ur-past, a mythological past of harmony. With the help of anthropologists, in the book I argue that our conceptualizations of hunter-gatherer societies as grounded in sharing are anachronistic and misplaced. We imagine a better past (and future) from our place in the present. How could we do otherwise?

It is from this perspective that I refrain from talking about the abuse of the concept of sharing. Culturally speaking, the concept and its “abuse” have common roots. I suppose this is another way of saying that we cannot get outside the system. This isn’t to say we should critique the system (whatever we perceive that as being), but it is to suggest that arguing about whether this or that is “really” sharing isn’t going to get us very far. If there is a problem with certain parts of the “sharing economy” it isn’t that it is called “sharing”, it is that people’s labor is being exploited.

Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.

Revisiting the Concept of "Sharing": An Interview with Nicholas John (Part Two)


To what degree was sharing part of the early hacker and counter-culture ethos which shaped our understanding of cyberspace? To what degree might it have emerged from the science and technology culture of research institutions such as MIT and Caltech which also placed a value on the open exchange of information?


It was absolutely part of the early hacker culture, and indeed of early computing culture. However, I find claims that the internet, or cyberspace, has always been about sharing to suffer from the same anachronism as claims that prehistorical hunter-gatherer societies were about sharing. This is because I’m interested in the use of the word, and the word did not come to represent the internet until the mid-2000s. The key text on the counter-culture’s role in the cultural signification of the internet is Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. What I find worthy of note is that nowhere in the book does he talk about sharing as value of the internet; nor, incidentally, does Howard Rheingold in The Virtual Community. Today we understand cyberspace in terms of sharing, but we did not thus understand it even as recently as the early 2000s.

The second part of this question is, in my reading, an empirical question, which one would answer by looking through the archives of those institutions. Did they talk about sharing? Is that how the open exchange of information was discussed? I don’t know, but it could be interesting to look into that.

Why has sharing become the prefered language for talking about what we do when we participate on social media? What other potential frames might we consider for thinking about these activities?

There are three main reasons for this. The first sees “sharing” as emerging organically from the field of computing, where it has long been a term in use (as I mentioned earlier in relation to time sharing).

The second is that the term, sharing, covers so much. It refers to both the distributive and communicative aspects of sharing, and it incorporates a wide range of other terms that might be used in describing social media activities, such as “express yourself”, “post”, “connect”, “socialize”.

The third reason is that “sharing” has such positive connotations, encapsulated in the phrase, “sharing is caring”.

Taken together, these reasons point to a term that is both an organic part of the world of computing, and that has been leveraged by social network sites’ PR people. If you look at the front pages of the major SNSs over the first decade of the century (something I have done so that you don’t have to), you can see the word “sharing” becoming more widespread over that time, but particularly between 2005-2007. Facebook played an important role in this. They adopted the concept of “sharing” in 2006, which seems to have pushed other companies to present themselves in that terminology too.

This suggests that the term, sharing, came relatively late to digital culture, which begs the question, what other frames were used prior to that point?

One significant frame was that of “gifting”, but I see “gifting” and “sharing” as quite different. First, I would note that “gifting” and “sharing” are different in that the former was a theoretical concept used by scholars to describe activities they were witnessing (making music files available to others on Napster; creating websites), while sharing became the term used by social network sites to describe participation on them. So actually “gifting” wasn’t the term used by participants, but rather by observers.

Be that as it may, gifting refers to the distribution of goods, even if they are immaterial goods. Sharing refers both to the distribution of goods and to a form of interpersonal communication. Because sharing as a type of communication implies honestly, openness, authenticity, and more, it is far wider than the notion of “gifting”. To say that someone is sharing is to suggest that they are giving something of themselves. More than gifting does, it implies caring, perhaps even altruism.


The phrase, “the sharing economy,” has been applied to everything from Uber to Wikipedia. How can we make meaningful distinctions between the different forms of “sharing” involved here and the ways what gets shared does or does not become part of a larger “economy”?


There have been plenty of attempts to make this distinction. Lessig talks about me-regarding and thee-regarding economies, and about thin and thick sharing economies; Belk talks about sharing in and sharing out, and also about sharing versus pseudo-sharing; in a slightly different context Haythornwaite talks about crowds and communities. There have also been other efforts to shift the terminology, perhaps most notably Hillary Clinton’s promotion of the term “gig economy”.

I think, though, that the horse has bolted, and that the term “sharing economy” is here to stay. More than that, I think that the very word “sharing” may get another layer added to it. When attending a sharing economy meet up in Manhattan, one of the panelists spoke of different models – sharing for free, and sharing for money. None of those in attendance objected to this (perhaps they were being polite), which raises the possibility that “sharing” will also come to mean something like “using an app to rent out possessions”. If this happens, does that mean that there will be no more sharing (the “good” kind) in the world? I don’t think so, but I’ll save my thoughts on this for the final question.

You discuss sharing in the context of a therapeutic discourse, which links it to notions of individual wellness and social health. Yet, could we also see the concept at work in political movements, like the feminist consciousness raising sessions of the 1960s or the giving of testimony in a range of social movements across the 20th century? This political notion of sharing involved recognizing commonalities in social experiences as the basis for framing larger critiques of the current order.

I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment on the feminist movement of the 1960s or the giving of testimony in other contexts. What I can say is that in these contexts it seems that the authentic individual experience is given voice. By hearing others’ voices, one may feel empowered – it’s not just me! – and by giving voice one may also feel empowered – this is who I truly am! These instances, then, seem to belong as much to the therapeutic discourse, which extends far beyond the therapist’s clinic.

I would add here that my investigations into the origins of the therapeutic sense of “sharing” lead back to an evangelical group that was active in the US in the 1920s and ‘30s. Called the Oxford Group (no relation to the university), its key practice was as follows: members would sit together in someone’s parlor or drawing room and take it in turns to publically confess their sins. This practice was called “sharing”. Two alcoholic members of the Oxford Group adapted this practice to allow other alcoholics to talk about their experiences in a non-judgmental setting. This became Alcoholics Anonymous (where participants are famously thanked for sharing), which, to the best of my knowledge, is where the ideas of sharing adopted by countless other groups and organizations – some of them more psychologically oriented, and some of them more political – were institutionalized.

Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.

Revisiting the Concept of "Sharing": An Interview with Nicholas John (Part One)

Today, I want to share with my readers an interview with the author of a smart new book, The Age of Sharing -- well, I wanted to share it with you, but Nicholas John does such a great job in this book of drilling into and complicating my understanding of the very concept of sharing that I am now not certain that's what I want to do after all. I will post it. You may recirculate it. But should we call this sharing?

The central project here is to understand how the meaning of sharing has shifted over time, the ways the term has been dematerialized (no longer about material relations) and made to stand in for all kinds of social interactions, the ways the term has become central to our understanding of the digital age and yet it continues to mean somewhat different things to producers and consumers in an era of social media. I learned a lot in this book about the history of sharing as a concept and a set of practices, and it sets us on a path to a more nuanced deployment of the term as we talk about what it is we are doing with each other in an era of spreadable media content. 

I hope this interview captures your interest so that you will pick up a copy of the book for yourself.



You write, “When we -- English-speakers in western societies -- hear talk about sharing today, we understand the concept differently from both our grandparents and their grandparents.” (20) How so? Can you characterize what the term, sharing, meant in each of these periods?

Obviously the answer may depend somewhat on how old the reader is, but what I’m getting at here is that new layers of meaning have been added to the word, sharing, giving it its current set of connotations and meanings. (Of course, today’s constellation of meanings is just as unstable as any set of meanings in the past.) Today, obviously, sharing refers to digital participation. I have called sharing the constitutive activity of social media to highlight how it has become the key word for describing our online participation. It covers the whole range of digital activities: updating statuses, uploading videos, sending messages, posting pictures – all these are called sharing. More than this, though, a crucial aspect of the meaning of sharing today is its sense of fairness and caring, which are tightly linked to sharing as a specific type of talk about our emotions. This association of sharing with rainbow colors and intimacy is new – when my 92-year-old grandmother was a young woman, this sense of sharing would not have been accessible to her. In the 1940s and ‘50s, she would not have come across the idea that “sharing is caring”. Needless to say, none of the digital implications of sharing would have been available to her either.

She would, though, have understood sharing as a kind of talk about emotions. This had been emerging particularly since the 1930s as part of the secularization of romantic relations, especially those between husband and wife.

My grandmother’s grandmother, living around the turn of the previous century, would not have understood sharing to be a type of talk at all. The metaphor of sharing one’s troubles would have been accessible, and obviously one shared one’s troubles by talking about them, but the talk itself was not called sharing. We can understand this best by going further back in time, to the 16th century, when sharing meant dividing – this is the pre-metaphorical sense of sharing. Consider the similarity between the words “sharing” and “shearing”: this is no coincidence; “to share” used to mean (and sometimes still means) “to divide”. In fact, the old English word from which “sharing” evolved, namely, scearu, had two meanings. One referred to the groin, that part of the body where the trunk of the body divides into two legs; the other referred to a monk’s tonsure, where his hair had been sheared off. Sharing one’s troubles, then, meant dividing them in two, and giving a portion to your collocutor, thereby reducing your burden. The metaphor here is still physical. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the word sharing started being used to refer to the talk itself, taking another step away from the rather material, pre-metaphorical sense of the word.

Looking back over how the concept of sharing has changed over the last 100 years or so, I would say that it has added layers of meaning that take it further away from its material sense of sharing as dividing. This has included the institutionalization of sharing as a type of talk, and also the notion of sharing as morally desirable, exemplified, for instance, in the way parents (especially American parents) teach their children to share nicely.

As I read you, part of what has taken place has been the dematerialization of the concept of sharing -- from an early emphasis on cutting into parts or cutting off -- to the contemporary sense where the exchange of information also often involves the exchange of feelings and may play an active role in shaping the social ties between parties. How do you explain these shifts over time?

Yes, the concept of sharing has been dematerialized. This is a useful way of thinking about it. But we should remember that the development of many metaphors is about dematerialization, or perhaps even more specifically, decorporealization, as so many metaphors – including sharing – have their origins in the body.

I think that there are two broad paths to the current meanings of sharing. One is related to shifting conceptualizations of the self throughout the 20th century. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it is related to the emergence of the specific idea of the self that we have today. This is a self with a coherent core, that is accessible to us through talk, and conveyable to others through talk. This is the Freudian, therapeutic self. The emergence of this sense of self is concurrent with secularization and urbanization, and what T.J. Jackson Lears calls a thinning of life and a consequent “quest for self-realization”. This is the path by which sharing, as a type of communication, becomes related to authenticity, self-understanding, and the basis for the conduct of intimate relationships.

The other path remains closer to the pre-metaphorical sense of sharing as dividing, and can be traced through the brief history of computing. When time-sharing was invented, and named, it was a technology that divided up a computer’s computational capacities among multiple users; the computer’s time was being dividing up and allocated to different users. Later, disc sharing was developed. Here, the “sharing” part of the term referred to the fact that the disc was shared by more than one user; it was held in common. Likewise the idea of file sharing, at least in its first instantiation: file sharing meant making a file accessible to others (not duplicating and distributing it, as most people understand it today).

The conjunction of these two paths came surprisingly recently, not much earlier than 2005, in fact. This is when social network sites recruited the concept of sharing to describe and promote what we do there. Some of this was no doubt opportunistic, harnessing their businesses to the pro-social implications of sharing; some of this was organic, as for computer scientists the idea of sharing files, images, and so on, was already common currency, though lacking in a normative dimension. 

Your references here to the Care Bears is a good reminder that those of us coming of age in western society are taught to share our toys, our feelings, at an early age. When we use sharing in relation to other practices -- for example, in the phrase, “the sharing economy” -- we tap something very primal. Some authors you reference go so far as to assert that sharing is a fundamental aspect of human nature -- hardwired into our very being -- but we are often required to unlearn those sharing impulses to operate within competitive capitalism and its struggle over resources. How might this reliance on a concept so bound up with childhood development render us blind to hidden agendas at play within the “sharing economy”?


The terminology around the sharing economy has been under scrutiny for a while, and my position on this is not a simple one to lay out. To be sure, there are companies within what is called the “sharing economy” that want potential customers to associate certain values with them (the values of sharing) while operating according to the logic of capitalism. To be sure, there are exploitative practices afoot within the “sharing economy”, and they must be criticized and rooted out. Also, it cannot be denied that the word, sharing, is an important weapon in the marketers’ arsenal. Accordingly, one could, if one wanted, compile a list of practices that are compatible with sharing, and a list of practices that are not. Then, one could confidently say whether a certain service is “really” about sharing or not. For instance, one might want to argue that if money changes hands, there is no sharing going on.

This, though, is not my approach. Partly this is because language is dynamic and I do not find it useful to say that this or that practice is “really” sharing, which is to reify words (in other words, my approach is a pragmatic one). For instance, I have not read a critique of sharecropping (where the tenant pays the landowner by giving him a share of the crop) that says it is not really sharing.

More than that, though, I think that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What I hope the book shows is that there is much to be gained from pushing beyond the question of whether practices are “really” sharing. I try to historicize and culturally contextualize our present concept of what sharing “really” is, and I think an outcome of this is the realization that uses of the word, sharing, that are critiqued for not “really” referring to sharing, and those very critiques themselves, have common cultural origins. In other words, when I read that something is not really sharing because it involves money and is not an authentic type of communication, say, I recall that the type of authentic communication that we call sharing emerged, and was called sharing, as part of the formation of a self that was suited for modern, capitalist society. The word, sharing, today has a distinct set of meanings that quite simply was not enacted previously when the word was used. Thus, in the book I argue at some length that to apply the word “sharing” to prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies is to be anachronistic.

Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.


What Do You Mean By "Culture Jamming"?: An Interview with Moritz Fink and Marilyn DeLaure (Part Two)

The case studies in the book also help us to map some other kinds of borders, as culture jamming rhetoric and practices are absorbed by Madison Avenue on the one hand and the art world on the other. The tendency is to read such examples primarily as a form of co-optation, but are there also ways that these border-crossing help to spread countercultural messages to new publics?

Definitely so, yes. Co-optation is certainly the buzz word here. The ad world makes use of culture jamming practices because they are rhetorically powerful. At the same time, some talented designers who work on Madison Avenue moonlight for organizations like Adbusters; so, if there ever existed a firm boundary between the subcultural domain of culture jamming and the media industry, it’s not there anymore. Yet this doesn’t necessarily need to be negative. Think of the Truth campaign by professional ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Michael Serazio’s chapter in our book describes how traditional anti-smoking campaigns often failed to move their target audiences, because they only strengthened the attraction of that which is forbidden. So CP+B took an alternative route by using the rebellious feeling of culture jamming tactics in its Truth campaign—for instance, by dumping a thousand body bags outside a tobacco company’s headquarters.

Moritz, your contribution here comes out of your larger project of providing a cultural-history context for thinking about The Simpsons. What does this particular example teach us about what happens as countercultural practices enter the commercial mainstream? Can The Simpsons still be subversive if it gets produced and marketed by Fox? Or is it another example of “the conquest of cool”?

You’re pointing to the old dilemma, Henry ;-) Can a cultural phenomenon as commercially successful as The Simpsons be at once a commodity, and thus subject to the logics of capitalism, and still be considered subversive? Well, in contrast to “the conquest of cool” argument which echoes the Frankfurt School’s cultural skepticism, I would argue it can. Subversion isn’t exclusive to productions operating below the radar of mainstream culture, especially at a time when we see how mainstream culture seeks to integrate virtually everything that connotes subcultural appeal. I’d say that what counts is the effect a certain cultural artifact has. So, yes, The Simpsons is definitely another example of neoliberalism’s cashing in on the cool, but, on the other hand, within its unusually long history, the show has had so many moments where it has torpedoed the dominant capitalist culture, albeit in the form of media representations. There is one episode where the show depicts a “Sprawl Mart” store to satirize the consumer culture and labor conditions disseminated by big box stores such as WalMart; in another instance, The Simpsons has humorously critiqued the plastering of public space with Starbucks coffee shops. The show’s viewers understand this as subversion and appreciate this element of the series. My favorite example here is when The Simpsons featured the social media platform Facebook on the series in 2010—at a time when the show became quite edgeless, Simpsons fan-critic Charlie Sweatpants complained about how uncritical this representation was. He found their show lacked in subversive intensity, a quality he and many other Simpsons fans previously found to be there.



Marilyn, one of your contributions was to interview or otherwise solicit responses from some of the artists and activists currently practicing in this space. How useful did these practitioners find the theory of culture jamming for explaining what they are doing through their work?

I sought out the interviews, work and commentary by these artists and activists to help flesh out and illustrate the concept of culture jamming, rather than the other way around.  Most of the people I talked to have a long history of developing their artistic practices, and whether they explicitly conceived of themselves as “culture jammers” didn’t matter that much to me.  Some saw themselves primarily as pranksters, others as artists, political activists, or alternative community builders.  We believed that including the voices of artist-activists in our collection—in addition to those of academic theorists and critics—would offer valuable insights to our readers on the range of practices that we consider culture jamming.

Some critics have argued that culture jammers substitute a symbolic or semiotic polics for actual efforts to change the world. How valid do you think this criticism is? Are there examples where culture jamming has, in fact, led into more immediate forms of social action and political change? What might we learn from those examples?

Ascertaining the immediate effects of activism is a thorny affair.  While there may be some value to the warnings abou semiotic play (including “clicktivism”) substituting for political action, several of our authors explore ways that participatory culture jamming can form a sort of on-ramp to other forms of activism.  Furthermore, as Rebecca Solnit explains in this recent piece,  we can’t know precisely what effects any kind of protest action or intervention will have on future movement work.  Take, for instance, Occupy Wall Street, which was initially sparked by a call from Adbusters, but was then taken up by organizers in New York City and later around the world.  Some argue that OWS failed, because it didn’t issue clear demands, or change laws, or elect any candidates.  And yet, as Jack Bratich explains in his chapter, OWS was a powerful meme generator, and it left us with lasting terminology (“We are the 99%” and “Wall Street vs. Main Street”) that has informed public discourse in the US since. OWS also created or strengthened community ties that were later activated, such as the “Occupy Sandy” citizen relief efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Moritz Fink is a freelance media scholar and author. He holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Munich, and has published on contemporary media culture, popular satire, and representations of the grotesque. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017).

Marilyn DeLaure is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Francisco. She has published essays on dance, civil rights rhetoric, and environmental activism, and is co-editor of Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017).