Bringing Fan Fiction Into the Classroom: An Interview with Francesca Coppa (Part Three)

HJ: Often, the claim is made that the power of fan fiction lies in our ability to imagine many different versions of the same characters and situations. For the most part, you stick here with one story per fandom, though some stories do show multiple conceptions of the characters. How might educators help to communicate the importance of this diversity in the classroom?


FC:  Oh, you don’t know how it hurt to only pick one story per fandom!  Believe me, I’m fully aware that it’s wrong: as I say in the preface to the book, it’s like eating one Pringle, one Dorito, or one Oreo--and you can’t eat one potato chip unless you’re some kind of monster! It’s why I was biased toward “5 things” stories and others where a multiplicity of interpretation is built in. And then I caved and put together a unit of three Harry Potter stories, figuring that could be a model for teachers and students to emulate if they wanted to. But there’s no way that this book could be anything but the barest scratching of the surface of fic; I’ve tried to be super clear that it is in no way a canon. Ideally this book is seen, as Steph Burt described it in the New Yorker, as an “on-ramp” to fanfiction, not a final destination!


HJ:  Fan fiction, as you note, is embedded within the conversations of the fan community, and we often face the challenge as educators that most of our students do not know the source material well enough to really appreciate the transformative uses fans make of it. You provide rich notes in front of each story designed to partially address these concerns, but they remain limitations anytime we bring fan fiction into the classroom. Thoughts?


FC:  It’s true; I’ve had the most success teaching fanworks as part of general transmedia courses where I’m also teaching at least some of the source material. So for instance, in my course Sherlock, James, and Harry, my students consider fanworks after exposure to both the textual canon and to professional adaptations: movies, TV shows, video games, etc.  In courses where I don’t have time or it’s not appropriate to teach source texts, I’ve found it useful to take a poll and see what students are actually familiar with: I’m often surprised.  One year, the Sherlock Holmes adaptation that the greatest number of students was familiar with was House--so great, I showed House vids!  I’ve had classes where nobody could identify Severus Snape. This is why I went for the biggest ongoing franchises I could think of: Star Trek, James Bond, Doctor Who, Harry Potter. Game of Thrones is the biggest show in the world right now, but will undergrads know it in a year, or in three? (Keep in mind those students are fourteen now; they’re probably not even allowed to watch it.) But Star Wars is back and is likely to be around for some time!


HJ:  Much work on fan fiction has stressed that it provides a space for its mostly female readers and writers to think through issues of gender and sexuality together. There has been growing debate in recent years about how well fan fiction has operated as a space for thinking about race, ethnicity and cultural difference. What do you see as the strengths and limits of fan fiction’s response to the more diverse cast of a franchise like Star Wars, which you use as your concluding example in the book?


FC:  It’s great that we’re finally talking more about race and trying to deal with racism in Hollywood and in fandom internally. There are some exciting academic projects on the horizon too, including a special issue of TWC on Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color edited by Gail De Kosnik and andré carrington. I do think that it’s particularly hard to talk about race in fanfiction because, as as genre, fanfiction is so embodied and identificatory and personal, and so often explicitly sexual. Fandom knows that there’s power involved in writing fanfiction: that it’s about taking control of a character and changing them as well as identifying with them. But, as in the theatre, as in transmedia, it’s precisely by having lots of different people engage with and inhabit a character that the character becomes iconic and broadly meaningful. So we need to find a way through. In the case of The Force Awakens, not only did we have the first juggernaut slash pairing of color in Finn/Poe (also called stormpilot), but we also we saw female fans identifying with Finn as a revolutionary figure--as someone who has consciously defied power and resistedboth his own oppression (Finn is basically a slave) and his role as a cog in a machinery that oppresses others (Finn is also a stormtrooper). So Finn’s narrative really spoke to fans in terms of race and gender both and promoted a broad and multivalent fannish identification with him. We see this on display in LullabyKnell’s story, “The Story of Finn,” in which an entire community is radicalized by Finn’s actions: he is a figure of liberation, inspiring an elaborate folk culture (a fandom, really) as well as an underground railroad for other escaping stormtroopers. And finding unusual and delightful points of identification like this is what fandom does best.

Francesca Coppa is Professor of English at Muhlenberg College and a founding member of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the nonprofit which built and runs the Archive of Our Own. She writes in the fields of dramatic literature, performance studies, and fan studies, and is currently writing a book about fan music video. She is a passionate advocate of fair use.

Bringing Fan Fiction Into the Classroom: An Interview with Francesca Coppa (Part Two)

HJ: Your book is organized around specific fandoms but also around distinctive genres of fan fiction writing which cut across fandoms. The status of genres in fan fiction always interest me, since some would argue that genres are commercial categories and sometimes depicted as constraints on the creative process. What insights do you get into how and why genres persist in fandom as a result of your process of mapping the territory to be covered in this book?


FC:  Genres are fascinating, I agree! In the case of fandom, I think that genres are a way of naming the things we like and giving new fanfiction writers a structure for reproducing them. So a fan says, I like slash, I like het, I like long, plotty gen; I like bodyswaps; this story is an mpreg crackfic. That naming also helps us sort through the huge wash of fanfiction that’s produced. That said, the AO3’s tagging system has really put all this labelling onto a new level, moving beyond fannish genres to a really granular listing of storytelling ingredients. I’ve talked about AO3’s curated folksonomy with professional librarians and archivists, and Casey Fiesler did a fantastic paper on the AO3as “A Case Study of Feminist HCI and Values in Design,” which describes how our tagging prioritizes inclusivity and user control. In this era of triggers and warnings, fandom is again ahead of the curve: fans don’t just categorize by genre but also create elaborate content labels for fic both as a way of both attracting the readers who’ll want what’s on offer and warning away the ones who don’t (and the AO3 also provides options to conceal this information from those whose first preference is to be surprised.) Most of the genres in the book are well established: crossovers and 5 Things and racebending and a very meta Mary Sue. That said, I had a definite bias toward stories that incorporated multiple interpretations within themselves, so a teacher could draw out that contrast. If I got to do a Fanfiction Reader: Volume II, I’d love to do two or three long stories that have a lot of elaborate worldbuilding: those kinds of stories are sadly absent from this book.


HJ:You define fan fiction, in part, as “fiction produced outside the literary marketplace.” How is this aspect of the definition changing as more and more fan fiction writing women are going pro or at least being courted as potential Pro writers following the success of 50 Shades of Grey? Does the commercial interest have implications long term for fan fiction regardless of whether any particular writer does or does not want to stay outside the marketplace?


FC: Well, fans have always gone pro, and some fans have always already been pro. What’s new is that more people are willing to admit writing in both worlds. And what we’ve seen is that many working writers also write fic precisely because they want to keep making things outside the marketplace - because it’s fun!  Another new thing is the publication of original work that shares some of fanfiction’s literary values and aims to produce a similar range of emotions: I’m thinking about, say, C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy (which are much better books than the 50 Shades books, IMO!) While Kindle Worlds was a scam that fans were rightfully wary of, Amazon’s self-publishing arm has let some fans sell their queer science fiction or werewolf erotica. Literary agents (many themselves fans) are soliciting work from their favorite fan writers. I think that’s all great; I’m 100 percent down with fans also writing for the marketplace if they want to, though realistically most things aren’t going to sell because most things just don’t sell.  


That said, I am not in favor of commercializing fanwork itself, whether through Kickstarter or Patreon or whatever; that’s the edge I fear, to be honest. I’m not against it for legal reasons - I think transformative works can be sold in certain contexts; witness this book! - but just because I think it’s bad for fannish art and bad for our culture. Money changes things and people make different things for money. Fandom is a place where people work together for love--but it’s different if at the end one person is cashing a check. It can poison relationships. Just to say: it was important to me with The Fanfiction Reader that all the stories remain online as they’ve always been, free to read. The authors didn’t get paid other than a trib copy; I didn’t get paid, either, and I’m donating the book’s royalties to OTW. So it’s a labor of love all around.


HJ: The term, “transformative use,” has really taken roots in fandom over the last decade or so, thanks in part to your work at the Organization for Transformative Works. There are some differences between the legal, academic, and grassroots understanding of this concept. But, at a core level, there’s some interesting friction between long-standing traditions within fandom which measure the value of a story based on how firmly grounded it is in the source text and a newer definition that stress what it changes or transforms as evidence of its creative contribution. How are fan writers today working through these competing pulls on their work?


FC:  Well, some fidelity to canon is important because that’s why we care: we read fanfiction because we have a pre-existing relationship to a story and its characters. But transformation is important because that’s the intervention that makes a fanfiction story worth reading: that’s how you fix things in the universe: alter and tailor and extend the story for your needs and those of your readers. So if you don’t recognize the characters, then it’s what slash fans call an “any two guys” story (which is the worst insult!) There’s no investment in the characters. But if you don’t transform the characters and the story, then you’re not satisfying your readers’ needs. You might as well just watch the original movie again, or go read a tie-in novel that colors within clear lines. Remarkably little fic actually replicates the source in terms of style or genre: like, go check out some Sherlock. Almost none of it has Sherlock solving mysteries! Captain America almost never fights supervillains or alien invaders. If you want that, go read a comic book: there’s plenty of that story out there already. We want to see Cap talk to Kim Kardashian at a party. Or  fight for workers’ rights.


HJ:  I have struggled a bit with your suggestion that “fan fiction is speculative fiction about characters rather than about the world.” For me, characters are part of how we define worlds, and conversely, for many fan writers, characters are defined in part by how they were shaped by the worlds they inhabit. Sure, we can write AU stories which move characters into different worlds, but these are as often as not about how these character’s lives and personalities would take different forms under different circumstances. Reactions?


FC:  Yes, I see what you mean; in some ways it’s a false distinction, in that worlds produce characters and characters produce worlds. For me, though, it’s like what happens in theatre, how a character becomes richer for being embodied by many different actors in different productions. We see something analogous with transmedia characters like Sherlock Holmes, who has been played by so many different people in so many settings. He’s been in World War II, contemporary London, Brooklyn, Harlem, he’s a mouse, he’s in the 22nd century, he’s a Muppet, he’s House--and yet he must still be Sherlock Holmes. The different worlds are typically interesting only to the extent to which they showcase and complicate the character; they’re not typically interesting in themselves, or innovative the way that speculative fiction worlds so often are. Sometimes fandom does invent interesting worlds, which often become tropes: I’m thinking of something like the A/B/O (Alpha/Beta/Omega) stories which invented an entirely new system of gender.  But then the fun is putting your favorite characters into that world and seeing who they are: so if it’s a Supernatural story, who’s the alpha, who’s the beta, who’s the omega?  But the characterization in fanfiction is almost always innovative; say what you like, you typically don’t see fanfiction characters outside of fanfiction. They’re still too unusual for prime time: queer or ace or pregnant or elves or socialists or winged or telepathic or werewolves or into bondage or what have you, even though in life, of course, real people are--all right, fine, not telepathic or winged or werewolves (mostly), but a lot more than the mass media lets us see.  (Even if you want to say that fanfiction characters are feminized, girly - in some undefinable way like girls - well, half the damn world is girls, so I say: bring it. It’s not the same old thing anyway.) And in fanfiction, our characters get even more interesting as we get deeper inside them, which we do because it’s prose and not a more external medium like film, television or theatre. We’re interested not just in a character’s actions and dialogue, but in their innermost thoughts and desires. That’s different than traditional speculative fiction, which tends to focus on confronting the external rules of a world rather than the endless internal landscape of the self. But fans are interested in subtle shadings of character and also in suggesting multiplicities and possibilities within the self. So there’s more than one kind of transformative work going on here, I think!


HJ: Real Person Slash was once one of the major taboos within fandom. Many had asked me not to mention the genre in Textual Poachers and I kept that trust. But now, it has become widespread and you even include an example in your collection. How do we account for this change? Are there any remaining taboos amongst fan fiction writers?


FC:  Yeah, the boat on Real Person Fic has pretty much sailed, at least for overtly performative celebrities: those who seem to be obviously telling a story about themselves through the entertainment media. It’s still not done to show that kind of work to the celebrities in question, though, and fans resent it when non-fans do it on talk shows to have a bit of a laugh at the celebrity’s (or fandom’s) expense. Right now we’re also having a flare up about darkfic, rapefic, and other genres that depict behaviors that everyone agrees are wrong in real life. Some fans tend to feel that any representation of rape, violence, child abuse etc. is wrong; others feel that writing (and even enjoying) these “problematic” genres can be a way of working through personal traumas; still others feel like you shouldn’t have to profess a history of abuse before writing or enjoying what are clearly fantasy scenarios. I’m anti-censorship and pro caveat lector, but I lived through Tipper Gore and the ‘80s and I don’t think sane people do terrible things because of Judas Priest or the Hydra Trash Party. The AO3 provides tools that help responsible people avoid seeing content that disturbs them. That said, this is an argument that probably has to come up in feminist circles at least once every couple of years, and it’s not a bad thing to have it, I guess, just as a moment of community reflection about speech and art and power and responsibility.

Francesca Coppa is Professor of English at Muhlenberg College and a founding member of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the nonprofit which built and runs the Archive of Our Own. She writes in the fields of dramatic literature, performance studies, and fan studies, and is currently writing a book about fan music video. She is a passionate advocate of fair use.

Bringing Fan Fiction into the Classroom: An Interview with Francesca Coppa (Part One)

Across the fall, I am sharing a number of different interviews showcasing the current state of fandom and fandom studies. Over the next year, a range of new books are going to transform the landscape of this particular corner of the academic universe, bringing new voices to the table, adding new approaches and issues to our research agenda, solidifying ground gained over the past few decades, and calling into question established wisdom. As I have in the past, I hope to use this blog to direct attention onto this scholarship and also illustrated how it is connected to a wider agenda of work on participatory culture, learning, and politics.

Today, I am welcoming Francesca Coppa, one of the founding board members of the Organization for Transformative Works, a long time fan and fandom scholar, and one of my favorite thinking partners on these topics. Through the years, she has served as an important advocate for fans in struggles over intellectual property and censorship; she's directed attention onto the historical roots of vidding as women's media practice; and now, she's helping to reshape what it might mean to bring fan fiction into the classroom. More and more academics are teaching about fan fiction, and more of our students come to college already having some experiences as writers as well as readers of fanfic. Yet, how do scholars, who may or may not themselves have roots in fandom, decide what fan works to put on their syllabuses and assign to their students? How do they give students, who may or may not have background in a particular source text, the preparation they need to read such stories thoughtfully and receptively? Given that fan stories emerge from the creative and critical conversations of the fan community, how do we help people to see the signs of that process at work if they are reading texts that have been isolated from that larger context?

The Fan Fiction Reader addresses these pedagogical and methodological needs, offering a carefully curated selection of fan stories drawn from a range of different fictional universes and reflecting a diverse set of fan genres. Each story is given a critical context in terms of its relationship to its source texts, to other works in the same genre, and to critical conversations within the fan community. A rich introduction provides an overview of current understandings of what fan fiction is, why it matters, and what motivates its study. One could not ask for a better guide than Coppa, whose many years of active participation as a fan and her authority as an academic, work together here to enable her to make meaningful statements about what we are reading. 

Over the next few installments, I will be talking with her about the project, its goals, and the compromises which have to be made to make such a book possible in the first place. For a long time, both commercial and academic presses would allow scholarship on fan fiction but would not reproduce the stories themselves.  I admire Coppa and her publishers for the courage they showed in challenging those taboos.

Henry Jenkins:  You have edited the first anthology of fan fiction for use in the classroom. Can you share some of the factors that led you to believe that such a collection would be valuable or necessary? In particular, what are the limits or risks of faculty members sending their students to read fan fiction “in the wild”? What kinds of background would teachers and students need as they engage with fan fiction in the classroom?

Francesca Coppa:  The truth is, the first person who needed a fanfiction anthology was me!  While many students discover fandom on their own - some of my students already have AO3 accounts and are suitably impressed that I’m one of the founders - you can’t count on any group of students sharing a fandom even if they know what fandom is. I tried having students go off and find stories based on their interests, but--well, it takes some expertise to find a good piece of fanfiction if you’re new to it. And then, even if students find stories they like, they have no shared, common experience. So one of my reasons for doing the book was to put together a collection of accessible texts that we could all read together. I picked stories in mega-fandoms that were likely to be culturally relevant for some time. I was also looking for stories that showcased fannish tropes and that would teach well. I tested a lot of fic in my classes at Muhlenberg and also as the Visiting Professor of Television Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  One of the things that I learned was that if a story got too sexually explicit, then that was all the conversation would be about: we just couldn’t get past it. It was like, “I saw Harry Potter’s penis!”  Okay, yes, but what else was going on?  So while I was committed to putting sexually explicit fanfiction into the book (sex and sexual relationships are such important themes in fic) I also had to choose stories where the sex wouldn’t bring class to a grinding halt. 


HJ: The legal challenges of producing such a volume were considerable, given long-standing debates about the legal status of fan fiction in contemporary Intellectual Property law. Can you share some of the process that you went through and what insights this might have provided as to the current legal status of fanfic?


FC:  You and I had a conversation at the 2008 DIY Festival (actually captured on film) where I told you I’d learned that you could do quite a lot in fandom if you were willing to tolerate a little uncertainty. The Fanfiction Reader is the result of me being willing to tolerate that bit of uncertainty--well, me and my editor Mary Francis, and the wonderful University of Michigan Press, and all the fanfiction authors who were willing to trust me when I said that I wanted to put their stories into a book. I believed this book was needed: there are so many courses that want to talk about fanfiction: in fan studies, remix, media and transmedia, audience studies, film and television studies, adaptation. I also believe that fanfiction is a transformative fair use, and so legal to publish in certain contexts (and in this I’m backed up by the Stanford Fair Use Project, who reviewed the manuscript and committed to defending it in case of any legal challenge.)  But really, all kudos to the University of Michigan Press, because it’s institutions being willing to defend fair use - institutions and their lawyers - that makes the difference. There’s a chilling effect out there, a culture of fear. But as my colleague Rebecca Tushnet likes to say: fair use is a muscle that needs to be exercised. So I think this was worth doing on those grounds alone, and I hope other people will use this as a model of fair use in practice. You really can do a lot!


HJ: There are also political and ethical issues within fandom that shaped what stories to select and how to approach these authors. Share some of your thinking process about the best way to deal with these fan writers through this process.


FC:  I’m lucky that between my own years in fandom and my time on the board of the OTW I’ve come to know a lot of terrific fanfiction writers and I have some ground on which to approach those I don’t know personally-- I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I started by soliciting stories from writers who I knew would be on board ideologically with the project of publishing a curated, academic collection of fanfiction with a university press - writers who’d be willing to tolerate a bit of legal uncertainty with me. But after that, I just approached writers cold, because I’d read and liked their stories!  “Hi, you don’t know me, but…”  Incredible as it is to say, I didn’t have anyone turn me down. Actually, I drew a lot on the practical experience I gained when Laura Shapiro and I made the “What Is Vidding?”  documentaries with you and the MIT New Media Literacies lab a few years ago, so thank you for that. Dealing with pseudonyms and releases and all that was easy because I’d done it before; I’d thought through issues of fan privacy.

Francesca Coppa is Professor of English at Muhlenberg College and a founding member of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the nonprofit which built and runs the Archive of Our Own. She writes in the fields of dramatic literature, performance studies, and fan studies, and is currently writing a book about fan music video. She is a passionate advocate of fair use.

Participatory Audiences in Elizabethian Theater: An Interview with Matteo Pangallo (Part Three)



Today, we talk about “fan service” in somewhat ambivalent terms -- the ways that creators compromise their own visions in order to be more responsive to audience feedback. What evidence do we have that these theatrical companies were responsive to the feedback of their audiences?

The nature of playmakers’ response to feedback from the audience depended greatly upon the nature of the audience providing the feedback. Obviously, if an aristocratic patron or the monarch responded with feedback, the playmakers would likely seek to satisfy their demands, especially if those demands were censorial in nature. If a single regular paying spectator sought a particular experience at the playhouse, though, there was likely little chance of that coming to fruition except in the case of the few playgoers whose own plays did manage to make it to the boards.

At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, if large masses of paying spectators wanted to see something specific, they could have a great effect. And that was, in some ways, a new phenomenon for cultural producers: Shakespeare’s theater was the first mass-market commercialized culture industry in England.

This commercialization of the stage gave rise to a tension among playmakers. Some believed that, as “professional” artists, they were beholding to no person but themselves and thus they were the ones to tell audiences what they should want, rather than the other way around. “To judge of poets is only the faculty of poets,” ordained Ben Jonson, who would have certainly shared in the modern ambivalence about “fan service”.

Other playwrights, however, display a responsiveness to what the audience wanted and even may have thought of the audience, not as a force requiring them to compromise their art, but rather a collaborative artist in its own right; interestingly, many of these were dramatists who had learned to write for the stage through prior experience as actors, including Shakespeare.

Today, lines from Shakespeare’s plays are sprinkled throughout our everyday language, become taken for granted figures of speech. Is there any evidence whether contemporary playgoers adopted and performed catch phrases from the plays to each other or otherwise claimed them as resources beyond the theatrical setting?

Playgoers and play-readers frequently borrowed phrases from the plays that they saw and read, both by Shakespeare and by other writers. We know about this practice from commentary (usually negative) from satirists and even professional playwrights who mocked amateur poets, would-be lovers, socially pretentious courtiers, and other textual consumers for stealing language from plays. Playwrights in particular repeatedly mention (again, usually negatively) playgoers sitting in the audience with notebooks, jotting down lines that they liked.

Because plays were performed in repertory and because audience members usually frequented the same playhouses, it would not have been uncommon for spectators to memorize parts and even know some lines better than the actors, who were often being exchanged between troupes and had to memorize even more parts. Ben Jonson, the consummate professional playwright, complained of the “idol”-worshipping playgoer who, while waiting for the star actor to enter, “repeats…his part of speeches and confederate jests in passion to himself.”

In one induction scene (a kind of short skit performed before the play proper and which usually provided metatheatrical commentary on the performance, the players and playhouse, or the audience), John Webster presented a spectator character who “hath seen this play [so] often” that he could “give [the actors] intelligence for their action.”

Many years after the Puritans’ 1642 closure of the professional theaters, Edmund Gayton wrote wistfully of a time when playgoers and playmakers came together in taverns, where the actors would stage impromptu repeat-performances at the playgoers’ requests and the playgoers would then go home “as able actors [of the material] themselves.”

The best direct evidence we have of how theatrical consumers borrowed from professional plays comes from surviving commonplace books (personal diaries in which textual consumers wrote down short passages from works they read or saw, organized under subject headings). Laura Estill’s 2015 Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century English Manuscripts is a fantastic study of how readers and spectators of plays copied down passages they liked and, at the same time, often altered the text in order to make it fit their own particular context or needs.

Today, the threat posed by audience discourse to the creative control of the author often gets reduced to concerns about “spoilers.” Were “spoilers” a concern in 17th century theater? If not, what other concerns did artists who increasingly saw themselves as professionals have about the public responses of audiences to their work?

The modern notion of “spoilers” did not seem to exist in the early modern period—probably because most plays were based upon already familiar narratives and sources, and because the repertory system ensured that most plays (at least the successful ones) dominated the performance schedule. In one play by Ben Jonson, two “audience members” from the induction scene return between each of the five acts to provide their own commentary on the play as it progresses; after the fourth act and before the fifth and final act, the more judgmental of the two suggests that the players end the play at that point because the plot is so predictable he knows already how it is going to end.

Perhaps the closest evidence to an early modern concern with the modern notion of “spoilers”, though, is in the prologue to The Roaring Girl, collaboratively written by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton. The play was based on the life of the celebrated contemporary cross-dressing pimp, fence, and thief Mary Frith (also known as “Moll Cutpurse” and “Tom Faconer”). Because of Frith’s fame, Dekker and Middleton express some worry in their prologue: “each [spectator] comes / And brings a play in his head with him: up he sums / What he would of a ‘roaring girl’ have writ; / If that he finds not here, he mews at it.”

Notwithstanding that example, most other concerns expressed by professionals focused, more prosaically, on audience members calling out or interrupting the performance (to the chagrin of many writers, King James was known to walk out of plays he did not like or even fall asleep during the performance).

More tellingly, some playwrights were also concerned about the “correct” interpretation of various conventions or devices. For example, when John Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess failed, the playwright accused the audience of misunderstanding what the genre of “pastoral tragicomedy” was supposed to include: “the people,” Fletcher remarked sarcastically in the preface to the printed edition, “having ever had a singular gift in defining, concluded [that, as a tragicomedy, it would] be a play of country-hired shepherds in gray cloaks, with curtailed dogs on strings, sometimes laughing together, and sometimes killing one another, and, missing whitsun ales, cream, wassail, and morris-dances, began to be angry.”

In a similar vein, when Jonson’s Catiline was hissed off the stage, the playwright complained that the problem was that audience members recalled “some pieces” of Roman history from their schooldays and were upset when the play did not include those bits. Jonson also fought a life-long battle to control how spectators interpreted any of his characters who could have been read as allegorical representations of real-life people—something with very serious ramifications at a time when playwrights were forbidden from presenting current political topics or politically important individuals on stage.

Overall, in their epilogue to The Roaring Girl, Dekker and Middleton provide a good general metaphor for professional playwrights’ worries about how consumers might influence, and thus ruin, their work. They tell the story of a painter who made a portrait and hung it out for sale; as passersby viewed it, they “gave several verdicts on it”, and each time the painter quickly modified the painting to suit each person’s opinion, “in hope to please all.” In the end, though, the painting became “so vile, / So monstrous and so ugly, all men did smile / At the poor painter’s folly.” If the playwrights also succumbed to such consumer creativity, Dekker and Middleton explained, “we, with the painter, shall / In striving to please all, please none at all.”

Contemporary audiences have much access to behind the scenes information about the making of their favorite films or television series, not to mention box office returns and industry trends more generally, enough so that hardcore fans often consider themselves to be insiders. What kinds of access did audiences of this period have into the factors shaping how and which plays are performed as opposed to the dramatic fictions unfolding on stage?

The most direct and pervasive influence audiences had in the commercial theaters was exercised through consumer choice. From the record-book kept by Philip Henslowe, the financier behind Shakespeare’s rival troupe, the Lord Admiral’s Men, we know the daily box-office receipts for the company off and on from 1594 through 1609. In addition to telling us about which plays were staged when (including many lost plays), the record-book provides insight into how quickly the company adjusted their repertory in response to plays that were flops (if a play was unpopular at its premiere it might be tried one more time several weeks later, on a different weekday, but if it remained unpopular it was abandoned and often sold to a printer for a small amount of money) and plays that were popular (the play would be restaged at regular intervals every few weeks and would sometimes end up with sequels or prequels, resulting in serial performances over two or more days). Beyond this, though, there are anecdotal accounts of playgoer behavior directly shaping programming decisions in the playhouse.


In 1613, a Venetian visitor attending a play at the Curtain playhouse wrote an account of the experience, observing that after the play ended, “one of the actors…asked the people to the comedy for the following day and he named one. But the people desired another one, and began to shout ‘Friars, Friars’” (“Friars” was presumably Robert Greene’s highly popular 1594 comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay). In James Shirley’s 1632 play Changes, a character refers disdainfully to gentlemen in the audience calling out in the middle of a play for a jig to be danced at the play’s conclusion.

Perhaps most dramatically, Edmund Gayton—again, writing several years after the theaters had been closed—recollected: “I have known. . . where the players have been appointed, notwithstanding their bills to the contrary, to act what the major part of the company had a mind to—sometimes Tamerlane, sometimes Jugurth, sometimes the Jew of Malta, and sometimes parts of all these, and at last, none of the three taking, they were forced to undress and put [off] their tragic habits, and conclude the day with The Merry Milkmaids [a comedy]. Unless this were done and the popular humor satisfied . . . the benches, the tiles, the laths, the stones, oranges, apples, nuts, flew about most liberally, and as there were mechanics of all professions, who fell every one to his own trade, and dissolved [the] house in an instant, and made a ruin of a stately fabric.”

Gayton’s account (which is probably a bit hyperbolic) suggests an early modern playmaking process that was both more of a fragmented pastiche than the unified narrative modern audiences and readers are accustomed to and highly responsive to the threat, sometimes violent, of consumer intervention.

We do also have one play written by a playgoer in which the consumer imagines a playgoer efficaciously changing the performance plans of a professional troupe. In the induction to his 1635 Adrasta, John Jones has a playgoer get up on stage and interrupt the actor delivering the prologue; when he learns that the players plan on staging a satire, the playgoer chastises them for choosing something that will displease the audience (“Do you hear, prologue? Your author is a fool. Is he desirous to buy fame at such a rate that he will smart for it?”) and he goes backstage to explain to the players the kind of play that they should (and, in Adrasta, do) stage.

In my approach to the plays written by playgoers like Jones, I think of them as real-world manifestations of this interrupting playgoer, crossing the border between the audience and the stage and entering into the space of the professionalizing playmakers in order to shape (or, in

Dr. Matteo Pangallo ( is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Previously he was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and, before that, held teaching positions at Bates College, Mount Holyoke College, and Westfield State University. He received his M.A. in Shakespearean Studies from King’s College London and the Globe, and Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Dr. Pangallo’s first book, Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), uses plays written by some of Shakespeare’s original playgoers as early modern “fan fiction” providing evidence of what those playgoers thought about the theater and how it worked. His current books projects are Theatrical Failure in Early Modern England and Strange Company: Foreign Performers in Medieval and Early Modern England

Beyond his academic work, Dr. Pangallo has worked as a theatrical director and dramaturg, including as the founding artistic director for the Salem Theatre Company, assistant director for the Rebel Shakespeare Company, and research assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

some cases, re-shape) the kinds of dramatic content they were producing.



Participatory Audiences in Elizabethian Theater: An Interview with Matteo Pangallo (Part Two)


Scholars in the fandom studies tradition have noted the use of “fan” to refer negatively to women in the 19th century who went to see the players rather than the play, that is, who were obsessed with the actors. Here, you seem to suggest that playgoers were interested in the playwrights, in the techniques they used and the ways they constructed their stories. Can you tell us more about what drew these audience members towards such an avid fascination with theater during this period? To what degree might we call such participants fans?

To write a play while not a professional (that is, internal) member of the theater industry, one needed three things: time, literacy, and some interest in, if not understanding of, how theater worked. We have plenty examples of non-professional writers (many women and, again, mostly aristocratic) writing plays meant expressly for readers and not for performance. These so-called “closet dramas” usually conform to the model of classical drama, in both drawing their content from ancient Greece and Rome and following the style and structure of plays from that period.

The writers I work with, on the other, wrote very much in the tradition of the popular contemporary stage. They were not interested in obtaining a readership for their plays; they wanted a performance. They were also, however, atypical.

Most other dedicated playgoers of the popular theaters did not write their own plays. That alone sets them apart as “fanatics”. From their plays, as well as their paratextual commentary (in prologues and epilogues, dedicatory epistles, prefaces, and so forth), we often see them taking heightened interest in performance, both how plays were prepared for the stage and how they were enacted (and received).

So even if we accept the conventional wisdom that most playgoers merely went to the theater to experience some kind of emotional or mental escapism, these specific playgoers have left us evidence of their interest in emphatically not escaping the playhouse but, instead, seeing and understanding the artifice behind the art.

Each playwriting playgoer, of course, was unique in his own particular interests and motivations in writing a play, just as each individual playgoer was unique in his or her own particular interests in attending the plays. This, though, is one reason that I find their work so valuable.

As I mentioned, most earlier studies of the early modern audience rely on the aggregate view—either by looking at general demographics of who was in the audience or by taking a professional’s play (usually Shakespeare’s) and generalizing outward from what it contains in order to make broad assumptions about the audience. Each playwriting playgoer, however, provides a granular view, a single case study that recovers from the sea of cultural consumers the too-often overlooked individual.

In fandom studies, we often cite Shakespeare as the example of a literary figure who often borrowed plots and characters from other pre-existing works. How widespread was this form of dialogic or appropriative response to the plays of this period? Did your amateur writers build directly onto existing plays or did they tend to write within more broadly designed genres they thought belonged on the stage?

Professional playwrights, such as Shakespeare, routinely used existing works of history, prose, poetry, and drama, as well as, occasionally, real-life incidents for sources. The pressures on these dramatists to produce material that was both likely to be popular with audiences and relatively quick to write necessitated this kind of dependence on known sources (though some, including Shakespeare, did from time to time invent their own plots).

Occasionally, playing companies would even “appropriate” one of their own older plays by hiring a playwright to revise it substantively and update it for new audiences. Some playwriting playgoers also drew their plots from existing materials, though more of them came up with their own original narratives. In some instances, as with Walter Mountfort’s 1632 The Launching of the Mary and John Clavell’s 1629 The Soddered Citizen, the writer drew upon their own personal life experiences for incidents in their plays.

Most amateur playwrights closely followed specific generic, narrative, and even poetic conventions typical of the playhouses and playing companies that they patronized, though on occasion they would deviate from those conventions in potentially telling ways. For example, by the 1620s, the use of rhyme on stage was considered clumsy and old-fashioned; the professional playwrights who wrote for the elite, fashionable troupe known as Beeston’s Boys in the late 1630s not only avoided dramatic rhyme but actually mocked it in their plays.

But in 1639, the London lawyer and dedicated playgoer Alexander Brome wrote for the troupe a play called The Cunning Lovers, in which he filled the verse with innovative and often highly elaborate rhyming. Remarkably, Brome’s play was a great success, which suggests that sometimes the commercial writers were not always entirely in touch with what every member of their audiences wanted.

But as far as using professionals’ plays as sources for their own plays, there is little evidence of the practice in the period—which is perhaps the greatest difference between modern writers of fan fiction and early modern playwriting playgoers.

Sometime between 1622 and 1624, the antiquarian and politician Sir Edward Dering—famous as a lover of literature and the theater—adapted into a single play the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, evidently for one of the many private, amateur performances his family and servants staged at his home; the extant manuscript shows that he took a free hand in adapting the plays, cutting text, changing lines, and adding new lines. The extent of such appropriation and adaptation of professionals’ plays for amateur contexts, such as household entertainments or university performances, is not entirely known, though judging from the fact that Dering’s is the only surviving manuscript that records such a production, they were evidently rare.

Perhaps the closest early modern equivalent to the appropriative practices of modern fan fiction might be found in the “drolls” of the Interregnum period. When the theaters were closed by the Puritans, from 1642 to 1660, out-of-work actors would often stage short skits based on the old plays of the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries. These typically took characters and scenarios out of the plays and incorporated them into new, usually comic, sketches. The authorship of these skits is generally a mystery, but some were evidently written by people who had no formal, professional attachment to the old commercial theaters. For example, most of the twenty-seven drolls in the 1662 The Wits, or Sport Upon Sport (the frontispiece of which is the dust-jacket art for Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater), are traditionally attributed to the publisher and bookseller Francis Kirkman.


How did literary observers of this period write about and think about the role of the audience in the theatrical performance? Did they adopt metaphors of orchestration and absorption that imply a passive spectator or was there a more participatory model available to them? To what degree were they defensive about the audience’s interventions and to what degree did they embrace spectators as collaborators?

Just as today critics divide between views of audience experience as one of either passive consumption or active engagement, of either leaning back or leaning forward, in the early modern period playwrights, other writers, and even play consumers themselves had differing opinions about what the experience of playgoing involved, or should involve.

Some accounts of playgoing gentlemen emphasized their passivity and idleness in the playhouse, with playgoing as a mere pastime or even waste of time. In Sir Humphrey Mildmay’s diary, for example, he repeatedly refers to his attendance at playhouses as one of “loitering” and “losing a whole day”.

Antitheatricalists—commentators, usually Puritans, who opposed theaters in general—often emphasize the, as they saw it, dangerous tendency for audiences to succumb docilely to the experiences witnessed on stage, as if audiences were incapable of recognizing the fiction of the performance. One of these commentators, Stephen Gosson, who had once been a playwright and actor himself, wrote contemptuously of the raptly attentive audience falling into a kind of hypnotic stupor and being literally orchestrated by the events on stage as if they were mere puppets: when one of the actors in the play shouted, “the beholders began to shout”, when another actor rose up, “the beholders rose up…on tip toe”, when one swore, “the company [audience] swore”, and when two characters departed to bed together “the company presently was set on fire” to sleep with whomever they could find. (A more humorous, probably fictional, account related by Edmund Gayton describes a butcher at a play becoming so absorbed by the action of a play about the Trojan War that he climbed up on the stage, drew his club, and started beating the actors playing the Greeks.)

Some professional playwrights, too, argued that the “proper” mode of consuming a play was one of passive acceptance; Ben Jonson and Richard Brome, for example, frequently admonished their audiences to avoid any attempts to interpret or otherwise actively impose spectatorial control upon the plays that had been written for them. This was a kind of bid for occupational closure, a way to ensure that the field of playmaking, and playwriting in particular, became professionalized.

One of the most common ways of expressing this idea was in the form of the banquet metaphor: playgoers were likened to people attending a feast, each bringing their own different and often conflicting desires and tastes; because it would be impossible to satisfy each individually, the cook (the playwright) is invested with sole authority for preparing the meal and the consumers are required simply to accept what has been prepared for them.

For other playwrights and commentators, however, there were occasions when inviting collaboration from the audience was seen as advantageous. Some of these instances may have simply been deference to the paying consumers, such as publisher Richard Hawkins’s insistence that the actors of a play were only the “miners” of the material and the consumers (in this case, readers) were the “skillful triers and refiners” of that raw material. Dramatist Henry Glapthorne referred to his audience, not his actors, as the “skillful pilots” who were to “steer” the “untried vessel” of his play.

Just as the advocates for audience passivity employed the banquet metaphor, those who argued for audience engagement turned to a figurative image of their own, the “bee and spider” metaphor used by commentators on scriptural reading: according to these commentators, while both the bee and the spider drink from the same flower, the former makes from it sweet honey while the latter makes deadly poison. Similarly, it is not the playmaker who produces meaning for the playgoer, as theatrical apologist Sir Richard Baker put it, but the playgoer who produces meaning, just as “it is not so much the juice of the herb that makes the honey or poison, as [it is] the bee or spider that sucks the juice.”

Frequently used to refute charges from antitheatricalists that plays taught or instilled immorality, the “bee and spider” metaphor (though, of course, entomologically incorrect) essentially posited that it was playgoers themselves, not the play or its makers, who were responsible for what they took out of the content of the plays.

Another common metaphor used by those who believed in an actively engaged audience was the theatrum mundi commonplace, which, to quote its most famous usage, in Shakespeare’s ca. 1599–1600 As You Like It, stated, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” The playwright and fierce defender of the stage Thomas Heywood expanded on this in his 1612 treatise An Apology for Actors, arguing that “God and nature” are the playwrights who fill the “Theater” of the world with actors; crucially, though, God also “doth as spectator sit”, effectively creating what the critic Anne Barton described as “the double position of dramatist and audience”—in the theatrum mundi metaphor, the playgoer is also the playmaker.

But perhaps the best known expression of the idea that the audience has a crucial role to play in the active creation of dramatic meaning in the playhouse is found in the choral speeches that appealed directly to playgoers’, as Shakespeare put it in his ca. 1599 Henry V, “imaginary forces” in order to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Throughout the 1590s and early 1600s, there were a number of plays, including Shakespeare’s later Pericles, in which choral figures addressed the audience and, acknowledging that the limited materials of the playhouse were inadequate for representing scenes such as overseas travel or tremendous battles, requested that each playgoer individually use his or her capacity to imagine what could not be physically presented on stage.

Importantly, most of these appeals appeared in plays written by actors who had become playwrights; as the new generation of playwrights trained by apprenticeship took over in the 1610s and after—that is, as the field of playwriting became even more professionalized—these invitations to the audience to participate in the making of dramatic meaning vanished.

Dr. Matteo Pangallo ( is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Previously he was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and, before that, held teaching positions at Bates College, Mount Holyoke College, and Westfield State University. He received his M.A. in Shakespearean Studies from King’s College London and the Globe, and Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Dr. Pangallo’s first book, Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), uses plays written by some of Shakespeare’s original playgoers as early modern “fan fiction” providing evidence of what those playgoers thought about the theater and how it worked. His current books projects are Theatrical Failure in Early Modern England and Strange Company: Foreign Performers in Medieval and Early Modern England

Beyond his academic work, Dr. Pangallo has worked as a theatrical director and dramaturg, including as the founding artistic director for the Salem Theatre Company, assistant director for the Rebel Shakespeare Company, and research assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.


Participatory Audiences in Elizabethian England?: An Interview with Matteo Pangallo (Part One)

Thanks to several decades of research on the audiences for contemporary popular media, we now know much about various forms of fan engagement and participation. Yet, I am always hungry for more historical work that explores these same questions, if for no other reason, so we have a context for understanding what is distinctive about the current moment and what have been recurring issues around media audiences across a broader time span. I was, thus, very excited to learn of a new book, Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare's Theater, which provides deep insights into the forms of participation desired and achieved by theatergoers in Elizabethian England. Its author, Matteo A. Pangallo, has uncovered a range of original scripts written by amateur playwrights with fantasies (in many cases) that they might join the repertoire of the various theater troops of the era. Through careful readings of this archival material, Pangallo gains deep insight into the forms audience engagement and participation took during this formative moment in Western popular theater.

Given a chance to interview Pangallo, who contacted me because he was interested in the parallels and differences with contemporary fan culture, we were able to explore the historical roots (or lack thereof) of contemporary phenomenon, such as fan fiction, spoiling, catch phrases, and fan service. I appreciate his willingness to engage with my questions, since this interview offers a productive bridge between historians and cultural studies researchers writing about audiences. We both try hard not to get too anachronistic in describing these practices as an early form of fandom, a word and concept not in use during this period, but we can certainly see playgoers as forming intense relations with plays, characters, and performers, which encouraged them to return for multiple viewings, to share their insights with each other and the producers, and to create their own works in the same genres of the plays they admired.

This is the first of a number of interviews I plan to run through the fall, exploring the current state of fandom and fan studies. Keep reading.


You write about “an audience-stage relationship that was intensely dialogic, participatory and creative.” In what ways? What forms did audience participation take and what did the professional theater troops do to recognize this grassroots creativity?


Most fundamentally, as a commercial enterprise—indeed, England’s first regular, cultural commercial enterprise—Shakespeare’s theater empowered its audience with the ability to shape through consumer demand the kinds of content produced by the playmakers. If a particular genre, style of writing, or type of narrative were to fall from favor, attendance at those plays would fall off and the playmakers would have to shift the repertory away from that kind of material or risk losing paying customers to a rival playhouse or troupe.

This power of the purse created a dynamic in which playgoers came to understand themselves as collaborative participants in shaping the plays that they were watching and the repertory of the companies. And many of the playmakers acknowledged as much; often epilogues delivered at the end of a play would invite playgoers to identify what parts of a play they did not like, implying that the play could be revised and revived to align more fully with their desires (whether or not playmakers actually followed through on such promises is unclear). Playmakers frequently drew attention (some positively and some negatively) to the fact that each audience member individually had the capacity to imagine and interpret the fiction that they were watching.

But even beyond that kind of internalized participation, we have ample evidence of playgoers participating in an externalized fashion, making comments, both favorable and unfavorable, on plays in the midst of performance. These responses included shouting out their own ideas for lines, bantering with the clown, mocking bad actors, throwing objects, hissing villains, cheering heroes, calling for popular bits to be done again and again, asking for particular jigs or songs, and so forth.

In some instances, playgoers’ externalized responses during performance evidently prompted the actors to change or even abandon their original intentions (that is, the playwright’s script), though in other instances they likely ignored the outburst. Even when the outburst was ignored, however, in the context of a live performance, an unscripted response from any one playgoer necessarily informed for the rest of the audience their experiences and understanding of the play, with potentially radical results. There are a few accounts of a single spectator laughing at a tragedy or weeping at a comedy and, by virtue of their generically inappropriate conduct, changing how other playgoers thought about the play, subverting the playwright’s and actors’ generic intentions for the play and, in effect, undermining the supposed “authority” of the mainstream cultural producers.

We shouldn’t forget that Shakespeare’s playhouse, with its shared light and three-quarters seating (sometimes with patrons even sitting on the stage or on the balcony behind the stage), was a venue in which audience members were as much on display as the play they had come to watch. It was an environment that encouraged consumers to connect with the producers and even intervene in the act of production, rather than, as in the modern proscenium-arch theater, obediently disappear from view and observe silently.

You have stumbled onto such a rich mine of materials here that offer us perspectives on what audiences of Shakespeare’s time thought about the theater. Why are people just now writing about such practices?


Shakespeare’s audience has long been the subject of interest for scholars, though earlier audience studies—such as Alfred Harbage’s 1941 Shakespeare’s Audience, Ann Jennalie Cook’s 1981 The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare’s London, and Andrew Gurr’s 1989 Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London—focused less on audience experience and more on resolving the fundamental questions of who comprised those audiences, their demographics, playgoing habits, and preferred venues.

A separate branch of audience studies took an interest in audience desire and experience, but addressed themselves to recovering evidence of that desire and experience through the critical study of plays written by professional playwrights. These studies—such as Arthur Colby Sprague’s 1935 Shakespeare and the Audience, Ernst Hongimann’s 1976 Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies, The Dramatist’s Manipulation of Response, Jean Howard’s 1984 Shakespeare’s Art of Orchestration, Ralph Berry’s 1985 Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, and Jeremy Lopez’s 2003 Theatrical Convention and Audience Response in Early Modern Drama—center upon the reasonable premise that successful commercial playwrights (such as Shakespeare) were successful because they understood what their audiences wanted; furthermore, truly effective playwrights (like, again, Shakespeare) could even control, or orchestrate, audience experience and desire.

This approach, of course, does not actually study the audience itself; rather, it studies the playwright’s understanding of, and assumptions about, his audience—that is, it’s really a study about the playwright, which is naturally going to be of interest when the playwright you are talking about is Shakespeare. And, in the end, neither approach was really able to address the question of audience understanding of the theater and how it worked.

While all of this was happening in the world of early modern studies, a different approach to the theatrical audience was taking shape in the parallel world of modern performance studies, in works such as Keir Elam’s 1980 The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, Patrice Pavis’s 1982 Languages of the Stage: Essays in the Semiology of Theatre, Daphna Ben Chaim’s 1984 Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response, Susan Bennett’s 1990 Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception, J. L. Styan’s 1995 Drama, Stage, and Audience, and the 2003 essay collection Audience Participation: Essays on Inclusion in Performance, edited by Susan Kattwinkel. These scholars emphasized the idea of the playgoer as a collaborative playmaker, participating in the production of dramatic meaning and even the “play” itself (taking the “play” to be, not the script, but the performance of the script).

Within the past two decades, early modern audience studies has begun to catch up with this approach and a third way of thinking about the Shakespearean audience has emerged that is neither the old demographic approach nor the “orchestration” model. This new approach operates from the premise that early modern playgoers were participatory and engaged in the creation of dramatic meaning, both within their individual imaginative capacities and within the material ecosystem of playhouse culture. In this model, playgoers cannot be properly understood merely as just one part of a larger demographic group or as passive consumers simplistically “orchestrated” in their responses or desires.

One of the earliest works to employ what I refer to as the “new audience studies” was Cynthia Marshall’s 2002 The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts, but I think that the first to truly make the approach its central methodological framework was Charles Whitney’s 2006 Early Responses to Renaissance Drama. Since then the approach has been adopted by many of the essays in the 2011 collection Imagining the Audience in Early Modern Drama, edited by Jennifer Low and Nova Myhill, as well as in studies such as Allison Hobgood’s 2014 Passionate Playgoing in Early Modern England and Richard Preiss’s 2014 Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre, as well as in studies dedicated to subjects beyond the audience itself, such as David McInnis’s 2013 Mind-Travelling and Voyage Drama in Early Modern England.

The novelty of the contribution made to new audience studies by Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater lies in its emphasis upon the original creative work of playmaking playgoers; rather than looking only to how audience members responded to professionals’ plays, my interest is in their own authorial urges and how their agency (or, at times, perception of agency) within the playhouse ecosystem led them to both replicate and deviate from what they assumed to be the systems and conventions of professional playmaking.

Scholars have long known about the plays that I discuss, though they have yet to think about them as a group sharing a common point of origin (in the audience) and they have been hesitant to make much use of them, either for literary criticism (few are what a judicious reader might consider quality writing) or theatrical history, since, as works by amateurs, they are usually assumed to be “naïve” or simply “ignorant” about the mainstream industry and its operations.

While I wouldn’t presume to make an argument about the literary value of most of these plays, I do want to recover their value for theater history. Their position outside of the mainstream industry is, in fact, precisely why they have value. Like a work of modern fan fiction, each of the playgoers’ plays provides evidence of a particular, dedicated consumer’s perspective on the cultural industry that he patronized.


What has been the relationship so far between what you are calling the “new audience studies” in literature and the way cultural studies scholars have approached the audiences and fans of contemporary popular media? What might the two fields learn from each other?


I think there has long been a tendency in early modern audience studies to valorize the authority of the playwright—that is, the cultural producer—because that playwright was, for most scholars, Shakespeare. That valorization, though, usually came at the expense of the audience, which is so often imagined to have been dutifully compliant to the dramatic experience shaped for it by such a “genius”.

Cultural studies of modern audiences of popular media have much to teach historians of the early modern audience, as well as critics of early modern drama, because Shakespeare’s theater was definitively also one of “popular media”. How we typically consume Shakespeare in a theatrical context today—in a rarefied venue, with darkened house lights, surrounded by an obediently silent audience—is not how Shakespeare was consumed in his own day, nor was it the kind of audience for which Shakespeare wrote. There has been, in my view, too little engagement between early modern audience studies and studies of audiences of contemporary popular media.

In part, this disconnect is a product of the scholarly fear of anachronism; at the same time, however, the early modern audience was the first modern audience, just as Shakespeare’s mass-market profit-based theater was the first modern form of commercial cultural production. Scholars of the early modern audience could thus better contextualize the slender amount of evidence we have about actual playgoer experience by turning to the work done by modern popular culture audience studies. In particular, it would be helpful for early modern audience scholars to recognize the degree to which modern audience studies have established the extent to which the consumer of popular culture should be taken seriously as someone who could be highly engaged with, informed about, and participatory with mainstream, commercial cultural production.

Again, there is this notion—mistaken, in my view—that Shakespeare’s audience was reverentially and transfixedly passive in its consumption of theatrical entertainment. If we know anything about modern audiences of popular culture, it’s that they rarely sit still silently and just watch. The same was true, I maintain, for the dedicated members of Shakespeare’s original audiences.

What counts as amateur in an age when the status of professional playwrights has not yet been fully secured? As you ask at one point, in what ways do amateurs and novice professionals differ?

No definite line between professional and amateur existed in the period; at the time, the term “profession” referred to spiritual conviction and the term “amateur” did not exist at all (the word “avocation” did, but it, too, had religious connotations). Nonetheless, by the 1590s, a functional theater “industry” certainly came to exist: it had dedicated venues, regular materials, relationships with patrons and the government censor, staging conventions and manuscript conventions, standard business practices and models, repeat customers, investors, profits and losses, and both formal and informal methods for entering and working within it. This final category is perhaps the most important.

A profession is formally defined as a field of labor in which those who are currently practitioners exercise control over who may enter it and how they may work within it—what is often referred to as “occupational closure”. In Shakespeare’s theater, occupational closure over playwriting took three routes: some dramatists learned how to write plays while they were students at university (these writers were most active in the 1580s and 1590s), some learned to write plays by being actors themselves (including Shakespeare), and some learned to write by being apprenticed to an established professional and working collaboratively with him for a time (Shakespeare’s rivals, the Lord Admiral’s Men, did this often, but shortly before he retired Shakespeare did it too, collaborating with his successor, the young John Fletcher).

For the established playwrights, this last system was the preferred method for entering the profession. In Ben Jonson’s 1629 poem of praise for the play The Northern Lass, written by his former apprentice Richard Brome, he lauded:


I had you for a servant, once, Dick Brome,

And you performed a servant’s faithful parts.

Now you are got into a nearer room,

Of fellowship, professing my old arts;

And you do do them well, with good applause,

Which you have justly gained from the stage,

By observation of those comic laws

Which I, your master, first did teach the age.

You learned it well, and for it, served your time

Apprenticeship—which few do nowadays.

There were some playwrights, however, who did not follow these systems. As Jonson goes on to complain in his poem, “Both learned and unlearned, all write plays.” Best known are the aristocratic dilettantes of the 1630s and early 1640s who wrote a play or two for the professional actors to stage before the royal family or for elite audiences at one of the indoor theaters. These amateurs had no interest in entering the socially disrespectful profession of the theater; they wrote merely to secure attention, and some sense of influence or importance, at court.

My book looks at a group of playwrights who were neither aristocrats nor participants in any of the informal mechanisms for professionalization. Indeed, many of the playwriting playgoers explicitly stated that their intention was not to enter the profession. I define these amateurs, then, by both their socioeconomic status (because they were not courtiers, they did not have the same political motivations for writing as the aristocratic amateurs) and by their distance from the established producers’ understanding of playmaking. Importantly, however, and one of the findings that I emphasize, that lack of distance did not correlate to ignorance; rather, when we look at evidence in the plays, such as the categories that I cover in the book (stage directions, revising practices, and stage poetry), these amateurs repeatedly demonstrate diligent attention to (if sometimes incomplete understanding of) the way plays were made into performances.

Dr. Matteo Pangallo is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Previously he was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and, before that, held teaching positions at Bates College, Mount Holyoke College, and Westfield State University. He received his M.A. in Shakespearean Studies from King’s College London and the Globe, and Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Dr. Pangallo’s first book, Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), uses plays written by some of Shakespeare’s original playgoers as early modern “fan fiction” providing evidence of what those playgoers thought about the theater and how it worked. His current books projects are Theatrical Failure in Early Modern England and Strange Company: Foreign Performers in Medieval and Early Modern England

Beyond his academic work, Dr. Pangallo has worked as a theatrical director and dramaturg, including as the founding artistic director for the Salem Theatre Company, assistant director for the Rebel Shakespeare Company, and research assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.



Back to School: Transmedia Entertainment Fall 2017


Some classes are ever-green: the core texts change only a little bit from year to year. My transmedia entertainment class, on the other hand, has to be dramatically updated each time I teach it because there are so many rich developments both in terms of creative projects and scholarship that I want to bring to student attention. You can watch my approach to transmedia evolve from my first version in 2009 to this 2013 version to the one outlined below. I hope this syllabus will prove useful to others doing research and teaching in this space.


CTCS 482: Transmedia Entertainment Fall 2017
Tuesdays 2:00-5:50pm
SCA 316

4 units

Contact Information:

Henry Jenkins

Office: ASC 101C

TA: Laurel Rogers. Office hours on Wednesday from 1:30-3:30pm in SCA 221, or by appointment. Contact at

Please send all inquires regarding office hour appointments to Jocelyn Kelvin and questions

regarding the course to Professor Jenkins or Laurel Rogers.


We now live in a moment where every story, image, brand, and relationship plays itself out across the maximum number of media platforms, shaped top down by decisions made in corporate boardrooms and bottom up by decisions made in teenagers’ bedrooms. The concentrated ownership of media conglomerates increases the desirability of properties that can exploit “synergies” among different parts of the medium system and “maximize touchpoints” with different niches of audiences. The result has been a push toward franchise-building in general and transmedia entertainment in particular.

A transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of media platforms. A story like Heroes or Lost might spread from television into comics, the web, alternate reality or video games, toys, and other commodities, etc., picking up new audiences as it goes and allowing the most dedicated fans to drill deeper. The fans, in turn, may translate their interests in the franchise into concordances and Wikipedia entries, fan fiction, vids, fan films, cosplay, game mods, and a range of other participatory practices that further extend the story world in new directions. Both the commercial and grassroots expansion of narrative universes contribute to a new mode of storytelling, one which is based on an encyclopedic expanse of information which gets put together differently by each individual, as well as processed collectively by social networks and online knowledge communities.

Each class session will introduce a concept central to our understanding of transmedia entertainment that we will explore through a combination of lectures, screenings, and conversations with industry insiders who are applying these concepts through their own creative practices.

In order to fully understand how transmedia entertainment works, students will be expected to immerse themselves in at least one major media franchise for the duration of the term. You

should experience as many different instantiations (official and unofficial) of this franchise as you can and try to get an understanding of what each part contributes to the series as a whole.


  • Andrea Phillips, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012)

  • Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016) [Please feel free to use the Kindle version of this text, as the print version may be quite pricey.]

  • Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).

All additional readings will be provided through the Blackboard site for the class.


For the first assignment, you are asked to write a 5-7 page autobiographical essay describing your relationship to a media franchise that you have found to be personally meaningful. You should use this essay to identify the cultural attractors that drew you to this franchise, to discuss which variants of the franchise you experienced, and to describe any cultural activators that encouraged you to more actively contribute to the fan community surrounding this franchise. Be as specific as possible in discussing moments in the transmedia story that were especially important in shaping your engagement with the property. Where possible, make explicit reference to ideas about transmedia and engagement from the readings. This assignment is partially about getting to know you as a transmedia participant and partially about getting you to experiment with the critical vocabulary we’ve introduced so far for talking about transmedia experiences. (Due September 5) (10 Percent)


Write a 5-7-page essay examining one commercially produced story (comic, website, game, mobisode, amusement park attraction, etc.) that acts as an extension of a “core” text (for instance, a television series, film, etc.). You should try to address such issues as its relationship to the story world, its strategies for expanding the narrative, its deployment of the distinctive properties of its platform, its targeted audience, and its cultural attractors/activators. The paper will be evaluated on its demonstrated grasp of core concepts from the class, its original research, and its analysis of how the artifact relates to specific trends impacting the entertainment industry. Where possible, link your analysis to the course materials, including readings, lecture notes, and speaker comments. Students will be scheduled to do a short presentation of their case studies across the semester. (30 Percent)


Students will be organized into teams, which—for the purpose of this exercise—will function as transmedia companies. You should select a media property (a film, television series, comic book, novel, etc.) that you feel has the potential to become a successful transmedia franchise. In most cases, you will be looking for a property that has not yet added media extensions, though you could also look at a property that you feel has been mishandled in the past. You should have identified and agreed on a property no later than Sept. 12th. By the end of the term, your team will be “pitching” this property. The pitch should include a briefing book that describes:

  1. the defining properties of the media property

  2. a description of the intended audience(s) and what we know of its potential interests

  3. a discussion of the specific plans for each media platform you are going to deploy

  4. an overall description for how you will seek to integrate the different media platforms to

    create a coherent world

  5. parallel examples of other properties which have deployed the strategies being described

For a potential model for what such a book might look like, see the transmedia bible template from Screen Australia, available here:

Or visit: If you use either as a model, include only those segments of their bible templates that make sense for your particular property and approach. You can also get insights on what a bible format might look like from the Andrea Phillips book.

The pitch itself will be a group presentation, followed by questions from our panel of judges (who will be drawn from across the entertainment industry). The length and format of the presentation will be announced as the term progresses to reflect the number of students actually involved in the process and thus the number of participating teams. The presentation should give us a “taste” of what the property is like, as well as lay out some of the key elements that are identified in the briefing book. Each team will need to determine what the most salient features to cover in their pitches are, as well as what information they want to hold in reserve to address the judge’s questions. Each member of the team will be expected to develop expertise around a specific media platform, as well as to contribute to the overall strategies for spreading the property across media systems.

The group will select its own team leader, who will be responsible for contact with the instructor/TA and who will coordinate the presentation. The team leader will be asked to provide feedback on what each team member contributed to the effort, while team members will be asked to provide an evaluation of how the team leader performed. Team members will check in on Week Six, Week Ten and Week Thirteen to review their progress on the assignment. The instructor may request short written updates throughout the term to insure that the team is moving in the right direction.

Students will pitch their ideas to the panel of judges on November 28. They should expect to receive feedback from the instructor over the following few days, and then turn in the final version of their written documentation on the exam date scheduled for the class. (40 percent)


For each class session, students will be asked to contribute a substantive question or comment via the class forum on Blackboard. Comments should reflect an understanding of the readings for that day, as well as an attempt to formulate an issue that we can explore with visiting speakers. Students will also be evaluated based on regular attendance and class participation. (20 Percent)

Tuesday, August 22

Transmedia Storytelling 101

  • Henry Jenkins, “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling,” in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 93-130.

If you have already read Convergence Culture, review my concepts at:

  • Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 202: Further Reflections, “Confessions of an Aca- Fan, August 1, 2011,

Then dig deeper with some other scholars:

  • Colin Harvey, “A Taxonomy of Transmedia Storytelling,” in Marie-Laure Ryan and Jan- Noel Thon (eds.) Storyworlds Across Media; Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), pp. 278-294.


  • Elizabeth Evans, “Transmedia Texts: Defining Transmedia Storytelling,” in Transmedia Television: Audiences, New Media, and Daily Life (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 19-39.

All students should read:

  • Andrea Phillips, “What’s Happened to Transmedia?”, Immerse happened-to-transmedia-855f180980e3

  • Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia What?” Immerse 15edf6b61daa

  • Christy Dena, “Transmedia Performing Badly,” Immerse transitions-9c28ef2c5835

  • Caitlin Burn, “Transmedia: Art Forms Created in Real Time,” Immerse

Tuesday, August 29
A Brief History of Transmedia

  • Michael Saler, “Living in the Imagination,” “Delight Without Delusion: The New Romance, Spectacular Texts, and Public Spheres,” in As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 25-104.

Matthew Freeman, “Up, Up and Across: Superman, the Second World War and the Historical Development of Transmedia Storytelling.” in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 35. 2 (2015): 215 – 239.

  • Justin Wyatt, “Critical Redefinition: The Concept of High Concept,” in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994), pp. 1- 22.
  • Jonathan Gray, “Learning to Use the Force: Star Wars Toys and Their Films,” in Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010), pp. 177-187.

Senior Manager, Digital Strategy, Disney Junior, Kids Digital Media, Disney ABC Television Group. He is an interactive produer and digital strategist with over 15 years experience developin innovative kids content and products for new media. Working at the cross-section of new media, kids, and storytelling, his passion is to create new ways for kids to engage with the characters and stories they love deeply. His specialities are digital strategy, product development, business development, interactive television, game design, and music & sound design.

Tuesday, September 5
Producing Transmedia

  • Derek Johnson, “An Industrial Way of Life,” “Imagining the Franchise: Structures, Social Relations, and Cultural Work,” “From Ownership to Partnership: The Institutionalization of Franchise Relations,” in Media Franchises: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Creative Industries (New York: New York University Press, 2013), pp. 1-106.

  • Brian Clark, “Transmedia Business Models,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, November 7, 2011,,
  • Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, “Courting Supporters for Independent Media,” in Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2013), pp. 229-258.

  • Andrea Phillips, “How to Fund Production Costs,” “And Maybe Make Some Profit, Too,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 223- 239.

Guest Speaker:

Maureen McHugh’s most recent collection of short stories, After the Apocalypse, was one of Publishers Weekly’s Ten Best Books of 2011. She has been working in interactive storytelling since 2003 when she was a writer and managing editor for the ARG ilovebees. She worked on several major interactive projects including Year Zero for Nine Inch Nails. She’s written interactive narrative for second screen and VR. She teaches screenwriting and interactive writing at USC.

Tuesday, September 12
Media Mix

  • Otsuka Eiji, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” in Mechademia 5, 2010, pp. 99-116.
  • Marc Steinberg, “Media Mixes, Media Transformations,” in Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
  • Ian Condry, “Characters and Worlds as Creative Platforms,” in The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
  • Mizuko Ito, “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix,” in Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun (eds.), Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 97-110.
  • Mia Consalvo, “Convergence and Globalization in the Japanese Videogame Industry,” in Cinema Journal, Spring 2009, pp.135-141.

Guest Speakers:

Flint Dille is an American screenwriter, game designer, and novelist, best known for his animated work on Transformers, G.I. Joe, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, and his game-writing, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and Dead to Rights. Dille was the creative lead of alternate reality, geomobile game Ingress to change our relation to the city and "move us outside of our bubbles."and Transportopia, which he describes as turning the entire city of Los Angeles into a massively-multiplayer online game as an attempt

Dr. Larry Kubata was a Chaired Visiting Professor at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of International Strategy, and then as a Visiting Professor at Hitotsubashi’s Institute of Innovation Research. During that time he was also a personal consultant to the President of Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan, as well as President and founder of a digital production company in Japan in partnership with one of the original team members at George Lucas’ ILM. Now, as a tenured professor in Global Media Studies at Komazawa University in Tokyo, Dr. Kubota’s interests have focused on global “transvergence” — how cultures are encountering one another and forming entirely new species through digital media technologies.

Tuesday, September 19
Transmedia Logics: Learning, Activism, and Play

  • Meryl Alper and Becky Herr-Stephenson, “T is for Transmedia,” Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Annenberg Innovation Lab white paper. content/uploads/2013/03/t_is_for_transmedia.pdf
  • Fleming, Laura. “Expanding Learning Opportunities with Transmedia Practices: Inanimate Alice as an Exemplar,” in The National Association for Media Literacy Education’s Journal of Media Literacy Education. 5.2 (2013): 370-377.
  • Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Logics and Locations,” in Benjamin W. L. Derhy Kurtz and Melanie Bourdaa (eds.) The Rise of Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp.220-240.

  • Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, "Superpowers to the People!: How Young Activists Are Tapping the Civic Imagination," in Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (eds.) Civic Media: Technology/Design/Practice (Cambridge: MIT Press), pp. 295-320. 

  • Julia Sonnevend, “Global Iconic Events: The Five Dimensions,” in Stories Without Borders: The Berlin Wall and the Making of an Iconic Event (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp.20-34.

With a career spanning graphic novels, screenwriting, video games and augmented-reality, Dan Goldman is the creator of critically acclaimed works such as Shooting War, Red Light Properties, and the Priya's Shakti series. As founder of the narrative lab, he produces "stories galvanized for social change": research-driven fictions to be used as tools/weapons by their activist partners in the field to have maximum impact.

Tuesday, September 26
Multimodality and Intertextuality

  • Gunther Kress, “Reading Images: Multimodality, Representation and New Media,“

  • Victor Kaptelinin, “Affordances,” The Encyclopedia of Human Computer Interaction, interaction-2nd-ed/affordances

  • Dena, Christy. “Beyond Multimedia, Narrative and Game: The Contributions of Multimodality and Polymorphic Fictions.” New Perspectives on Narrative and Multimodality. Ruth Page (ed.). London: Routledge, 2009. 181-201.

  • Mathias Stork, “Transmedia Synergies – Remediating Films and Video Games,” Mediascape, Fall 2015,

  • Matt Hills, “Sherlock’s Epistemological Economy and the Value of ‘Fan’ Knowledge: How Producer-Fans Play the (Great) Game of Fandom,” in Louisa Ellen Stein and Kristina Busse (eds.) Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), pp.27-40.

Guest speaker: Geoffrey Long is a storyteller, scholar, designer, worldbuilder and consultant, as well as a doctoral student in the Media Arts & Practice program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Geoffrey was most recently the Creative Director for the University of Southern California’s World Building Institute and World Building Media Lab. Prior to that, Geoffrey served as the Creative Director and a Research Fellow for USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab and the Lead Narrative Producer for Microsoft Studios and cofounder of its Narrative Design Team (where his projects included the HoloLens, the Xbox One, SmartGlass, Quantum Break, Adera, Ruse and Halo).

Tuesday, October 3
Transmedia Engagement

  • Christy Dena, “Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games,” Convergence, February 2008, pp. 41-58.
  • Ivan Askwith, “Five Logics of Engagement,” Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium, Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007, pp. 51- 150.

  • Andrea Phillips, “The Four Creative Purposes for Transmedia Storytelling,” “Interactivity Creates Deeper Engagement,” “Uses and Misuses for User-Generated Content,” “Challenging the Audience to Act,” and “Make Your Audience a Character, Too,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 41-54, 110-126, 137-148, 149-182..

  • Alice Marwick, Mary L. Gray and Mike Ananny, “Dolphins are Just Gay Sharks”: Glee and the Queer Case of Transmedia as Text and Object.” in Television and New Media. 15.7 (2014): 627-647.

  • Louisa Ellen Stein, “Fandom and the Transtext,” in Benjamin W.L. Derhy
    Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp.71-89.

Tuesday, October 10
World Building Part 1

  • Goodman, Nelson. “Words, Works, Worlds.” in Erkenntnis 9. (1975): 57-73.

  • Derek Johnson, “Sharing Worlds: Difference, Deference, and the Creative Context of Franchising,” in Media Franchises: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Creative Industries (New York: New York University Press, 2013), pp. 107-152.

  • Mark J. P. Wolf, “World Structures and Systems of Relationships,” in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (London: Routledge, 2013), pp.153-197.

  • Henry Jenkins, “The Pleasure of Pirates and What It Tells Us about World Building in Branded Entertainment”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, June 13, 2007

  • William Proctor and Matthew Freeman, “The First Step Into a Smaller World’: The Transmedia Economy of Star Wars,” in Mark J. P. Wolf (ed.) Revisiting Imaginary Worlds: A Subcreation Studies Anthology (New York: Routledge, 2017), pp.221-243.

Guest Speakers:

Jeff Gomez, as CEO of Starlight Runner, has worked with The Walt Disney Company (Pirates of the Caribbean, Fairies, Tron Legacy), 20th Century Fox (James Cameron’s Avatar), Sony Pictures Entertainment (Men in Black 3, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Coca-Cola (Happiness Factory), Mattel (Hot Wheels animation universe), Showtime (TV network) (Dexter), Microsoft (Halo), Hasbro (Transformers), Nickelodeon (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Ubisoft (Splinter Cell), Pepperidge Farm (Goldfish), and others as a Transmedia Producer. Jeff Gomez is a writer and Transmedia Producer for the super heroic universe of Lucha Libre, an innovation of Mexico's AAA wrestling league for Mark Burnett's OneThree Media, in association with Robert Rodriguez and Factory Made Ventures for the Comcast El Rey television network.

Diana Williams is a member of the Lucasfilm Story Group, the team charged with developing narrative cohesion and connectivity within the Star Wars universe. She is also the creative development executive for ILMxLAB (, a laboratory for immersive augmented and virtual entertainment. The recently launched division that combines the talent of Lucasfilm, ILM and Skywalker Sound, ILMxLAB focuses on compelling storytelling, technological innovation and world-class production that will reinvent the way stories are told and experienced.

Tuesday October 17
World Building Part 2

  • Geoffrey Long, “Creating Worlds into Which to Play: Using Transmedia Aesthetics to Grow Stories into Storyworlds,” in Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie
    Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp.139-152.

  • Henry Jenkins, “‘All Over the Map’: Building (and Rebuilding) Oz,” Film and Media Studies: Scientific Journal of Sapientia University, 9, 2014, 7-29.

  • Dan Hassler-Forest, “Game of Thrones: Quality Television and the Cultural Logic of Gentrification,”

  • William Proctor, “Schrodinger’s Cape: The Quantum Seriality of the Marvel Multiverse” in Matt Yockey (ed.) Make Ours Marvel: Media Convergence and A Comics Universe (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), pp.219-348.

Guest Speaker:

Mark Warshaw is a co-creator and executive producer of the Amazon original series Lost in Oz and an executive producer of Hulu’s Emmy-nominated series East Los High. Warshaw was co-founder and co-president of The Alchemists Storytelling Company from 2008 to 2014. During that time, the US and Brazilian-based company helped develop East Los High, created Coca-Cola’s global storytelling policy, and consulted and produced for studios and Fortune 500 companies around the globe. Prior to that, Warshaw co-created and produced the first two seasons of the Emmy-winning transmedia experience for the NBC TV series Heroes. From 2001 to 2007, Warshaw wrote, produced and directed on the WB/CW TV series Smallville. He also co-created and produced the digital experience for the series.

Tuesday, October 24

Immersion and Extractability

  • Henry Jenkins, “He-Man and Masters of Transmedia,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, May 21, 2010,

  • Henry Jenkins, “Harry Potter: The Exhibition, or What Location Entertainment Adds to a Transmedia Franchise,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, December 14 2009.

  • Mark J. P. Wolf, “Immersion, Absorption and Saturation,” in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp.48-51.

  • Andrea Phillips, “Bringing Your Story Into the Real World,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 209-222.
  • Matt Hills, “The Enchantment of Visiting Imaginary Worlds and ‘Being There’: Brand Fandom and the Teritiary World of Media Tourism,” in Mark J. P. Wolf (ed.) Revisiting Imaginary Worlds: A Subcreation Studies Anthology (New York: Routledge, 2017), pp.244- 263.

Guest Speaker: Two-time Emmy Award winner Seth Shapiro is a leading advisor in business innovation, media and technology. He has worked with clients including The Walt Disney Company, Comcast, Intel, IPG, NBC, Showtime, RTL, Telstra, DIRECTV, Universal, Slamdance, Goldman Sachs, NGOs, and a range of new ventures.

Tuesday, October 31
Seriality and Complexity

  • Jason Mittell, “Transmedia Storytelling,” Complex Television

  • Neil Perryman, “Doctor Who and the Convergence of Media: A Case Study in Transmedia Storytelling,” in Convergence, February 2008, pp. 21-40.

  •  Mark J. P. Wolf, “More Than a Story: Narrative Threads and Narrative Fabric,” in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (London: Routledge, 2013) pp. 198-225.

  • Elena Levine, “‘What the Hell Does TIIC Mean?’: Online Content and the Struggle to Save Soaps,” in Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik, and C. Lee Harrington (eds.) The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2012), pp. 201-218.

  • Andrea Phillips, “Conveying Action Across Multiple Media,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 93-102.

  • Frank Kelleter, “Five Ways of Looking at Popular Seriality,” in Media of Serial Narrative (Ohio State University Press, 2017), pp.7-36.

Guest Speaker: Javier "Javi" Grillo-Marxuach is best known as one of the Emmy Award- winning producers of Lost, and as creator of the comic book and television series The Middleman. Javi currently co-executive produces the Jim Henson Company's upcoming ten- hour prequel to the classic film The Dark Crystal for Netflix. He is also co-host (with fellow writer/producer/Puerto Rican, Jose Molina) of the Children of Tendu podcast, an educational series which aims to teach newcomers how to navigate the entertainment industry with decency and integrity. As part of his ongoing efforts to support and encourage emerging writers, Javi is not only an avid participant of the WGA's Mentor program, but also teaches (also with Jose Molina) a monthly seminar for mid-level writers at the Writers Guild, and worked to institute the Grillo-Marxuach Family Scholarship, which provides financial aid and mentorship to students attending the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts Masters Degree in Screenwriting with a focus on the Latino experience.

Tuesday, November 7
Continuity and Multiplicity

  • William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, “I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise,” in Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (eds.), The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to A Superhero and His Media (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 182-213.

  • Sam Ford and Henry Jenkins, “Managing Multiplicity in Superhero Comics,” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 303-313.

  • Shawna Kidman, “Five Lessons For New Media From the History of Comics Culture,” in International Journal of Learning and Media 3.4 (2012): 41-54.

  • Benjamin Kurtz , “Set in Stone: Issues of Cannocity of Transtexts,” in Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016), 104-118.

Tuesday, November 14
Subjectivity And Performance

  • Henry Jenkins, “‘We Had So Many Stories to Tell’: The Heroes Comics as Transmedia Storytelling,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, Dec. 3, 2007
  • Andrea Phillips, “Online, Everything is Characterization,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 83-92.
  • Sam Ford, “WWE’s Storyworld and the Immersive Potentials of Transmedia Storytelling,” in Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp.169-186.
  • Matthew Weise and Henry Jenkins, “Short Controlled Bursts: Affect and Aliens,” in Cinema Journal, Spring 2009, pp.111-116.
  • Guest Speaker: Jay Bushman is a producer and writer, known for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012), Welcome to Sanditon (2013) and The Lydia Bennet!! (2012).

Tuesday, November 21 - Teams work on Final Presentations

Tuesday, November 28 (LAST DAY OF CLASS) - Final Presentations 

The USC Student of the Future



I was asked to deliver some remarks before the USC Faculty Senate a week or so ago. They were trying to inspire discussion about the future of education. Nothing I said here was specific to USC so I figure I would share my notes here. I draw heavily on insights from three MacArthur Foundation initiatives -- Digital Media and Learning, Connected Learning, and Youth and Participatory Politics. I am now working with them on their Civic Media Initiative.

I am often asked about the concept of the digital native. First of all, I think the opposition set up between digital native and digital immigrant is grounded in some really troubling assumptions. But bracketing that, the myth of the digital native profoundly misleads us as we think about this generation. Certainly they have come of age at a time when digital and mobile media has become taken for granted as part of the media landscape, BUT access to technology, resources, mentorship has been unevenly distributed both within the U.S. and around the world.  The digital divide refers to unequal access to technology, the participation gap refers to unequal access to opportunities and cultural capital. The result is a whole array of different degrees of access to digital and mobile media and the opportunities they represent for young people.

Those who have access to digital and mobile technology have been part of a participatory turn within our culture. Many of them will have played active roles producing and sharing media, engaging in social networks online, and increasingly, using social media to mobilize around political campaigns and civic issues.  Most of those experiences have occurred outside of formal educational spaces and disconnected from, if not actively discouraged by, their teachers. In many cases, they have found their experiences as fans and gamers more intellectually challenging, more engaging, and more rewarding than their experiences with formal education.

If their online experiences have been participatory, collaborative, playful and exploratory, their classroom experiences have been regimented by our current obsessions with high stakes standardized curriculum, which often results in teachers teaching to the test, simplifying their expectations, and providing a precise map of what knowledge matters. The result has been a generation of students that is risk adverse and disassociates the learning that takes place outside of the classroom from the knowledge that will matter for their own success.

Formal education continues to promote the idea of the autonomous learner with most forms of collaboration seen as cheating. The informal learning environment is much more collaborative and networked, helping to promote the ideal of collective intelligence. The jobs they will enter will require strong collaboration across people with diverse knowledge, skills, and background. This is especially true as we confront so called wicked problems that are interdisciplinary by nature.

These youth will change jobs multiple times across their career and in many cases, will change careers more than once across their life. They will also move many times across their life, often shifting regions or even countries in search of career opportunities. All of this requires intellectual flexibility -- the ability to adjust to rapidly changing circumstances and the ability to remain open to new possibilities. This also requires life-long learning.

These students have come of age in an era marked by dramatic demographic shifts within the U.S. (leading towards a point where America is a minority-majority nation) and globalization beyond our borders (as patterns of migration result in an ever more complex set of relations between races, ethnicities, and cultures). This is going to require a cosmopolitan spirit as they again adopt to change and embrace diversity. And it is going require a deeper understanding than their parents have had about the circumstances bringing about those changes.

The next decade is going to see an increased politicization of American youth, a trend which began with Obama, intensified with Bernie Sanders, and now is reaching its boiling point in the resistance movements against Trump. Or, read in another way, has been shaped by the Occupy, Dreamer,  Blacklivesmatter and the Women’s March movements.

These are not Twitter Revolutions. Young activists are certainly using the tools and processes they have learned through a lifetime of using digital and mobile technologies, participating in online social networks, etc. but our research showed us that they are seeking to make change “by any media necessary,” taking advantage of a range of media-related tactics to get their messages out around an increasingly concentrated mass media and to be heard above competing messages in the social media space. The ability to move between the affordances of different media is necessary given the remaining inequalities of access represented by the digital divide and the participation gap.  

My research team interviewed more than 200 young activists and we consistently heard that the language of American politics as broken -- both exclusive and repulsive -- and they are seeking a new language which draws on elements of popular culture to enhance the civic imagination. This is one of many ways that young people have acquired skills through their play which they are now deploying for more serious purposes.

Summer Vacation!

As I do each summer, I am shutting down the blog for a while, so I can enjoy some much needed vacation time, so we can store up some material for the fall, and so we can continue to tinker with the redesign of the blog and the new platform -- Squarespace -- we are using. Here's hoping you have some grand adventures of your own and I will see you again in the fall.



Imagining the Future at Sankofa City


Sandra Knudsen has provided a translation of this entry for Czech language readers.

A few weeks ago, I shared a conversation which my Civics Paths research group had hosted at USC exploring diversity and science fiction, part of our ongoing exploration of the ways that speculative world building might foster a more robust civic imagination. Our focus on world building comes from many different directions, as science fiction prototyping has become a widespread concept here at USC and beyond. An important early member of our research team was Karl Baumann, who has been going out into the communities around Los Angles and putting some of these ideas about helping people to project alternative futures for themselves into practice. 

Karl Baumann has been working with artist/organizer Ben R. Caldwell in Leimert Park the past year to create a speculative community design project called Sankofa City. The project pairs community residents and artists with USC students, to create prototypes and short films about future technologies tied to local culture. Baumann and Caldwell have worked together for the last 5 years as part of the Leimert Phone Company, which they founded along with François Bar and Benjamin Stokes. 

This video shares some of the backstory for the Sankofa City project, while their final science fiction film is posted at the end of this article. 


Here's how they described their process in a recent academic publication:

The “Sankofa City” project worked with community participants to define their preferable futures, often tied to local African- American cultural norms and social practices. Their imagined futures can present alternatives to dominant techno-cultures, associated with Silicon Valley [9] or “The California Ideology” [10], which is characterized as socially progressive while economically neoliberal, using proprietary techno-systems to replace traditional government services or organized labor.

In contrast, the Leimert Phone Company (LPC) is driven by an ethos of developing public technology for the “commons” [where resources are shared by the community].  In the Commonwealth [11], political philosophers Hardt and Negri argue that urban centers present the most powerful potentials for establishing the “commons” through encounters across different populations, in order to combat the isolation and individualism of neoliberalist socio-economic practices.

The LPC process of design is based on deliberate encounters, or contact zones [8], particularly between outsiders and local residents. As the new subway will connect Leimert Park to the rest of the city, there will inevitably be an influx of outside populations. Rather than be defensive or self-victimizing, our projects seek to create public technologies that facilitate meaningful encounters or direct outsiders to engage with local cultural history and institutions. We have previously created a constellation [12] of designs around contact zones, while developing long-term strategies for capacity building and sustainable growth.

The “Sankofa City” project teamed USC students with local residents, musicians, and artists. All workshops took place at the Kaos Network art center in Leimert Park, with another workshop at the USC film school’s green screen stage to shoot a design fiction video.

The workshops were run as an experimental course, facilitated by Karl Baumann, who is a USC PhD student, and Ben R. Caldwell  who  owns and operates the art center.  Workshops met for twelve weeks, with a final public presentation at the end. The size varied from week to week, peaking at 16 participants in the early weeks. We had 4 regular students, 2 occasional students, 2-9 community participants, and 2-4 organizers. One unexpected participant/organizer was a design graduate student, who is developing public autonomous-shuttles. A wide range of guest speakers were also invited, including urban planners, local historians, an AR designer, a critical race professor, a game designer, a media theorist, and a multimedia designer.

The process included 3 phases, plus a final exhibition:

1.) Brainstorming – high level concepts organized around “what if” hypothetical questions and systematic imagining of the neighborhood. Groups rotated weekly.

2.) Prototyping – groups solidify to create personas and prototypes (wearables and urban objects) engaging the larger systematic concepts.

3.) Design Fictions –designs and personas synthesize into scenarios to create design fiction collages and a video.

4.) Presentation – groups present their collages and videos to a local planning committee of stakeholders.

This process began with a broad set of ideas and then syphoned down to a more focused set of particular designs, personas, and scenario collages/videos. Throughout the process, we intentionally balanced futurist provocations with local history and existing urban forms, as well as systemic approaches with human-centric design perspectives.

I was lucky enough to get a chance to attend one of the workshops and watch this amazing community, featuring participants of diverse racial, ethnic, and generational backgrounds, working together to create personas, imagine worlds, and construct narratives that might represent alternative futures for their community. In the process, you can see friendships form, bonds strengthen, voices emerge, and a shared vision start to solidify, all values we hope to foster through our own civic imagination work. 

In the end, the team created its own science fiction video, which has a distinctive afro-futurist spin, that helps to illustrate what one future for their community might look like, if they had access to the shared technological and economic resources to realize their dreams. 

 Here's the background on the two collaborators who set this amazing project into motion:

Karl Baumann is a designer, filmmaker, and researcher. His current work lies at the intersection of speculative design and community art. Working across cinema, games, and mobile media, his methodology is based on collaborative design and user participation that explores the future of civic engagement, urbanism, and networked technology. Karl holds an M.F.A. in Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) from UC Santa Cruz. He is currently an Annenberg Fellow in the Media Arts + Practice (MAP) Ph. D. program at the University of Southern California. Karl works with the World Building Media Lab (WBML), the Mobile and Environmental Media Lab (MEML), the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, and the Annenberg Innovation Lab (AIL). He is also working with Intel’s Global Production Lab and the Google News Lab’s R&D group.

Ben R. Caldwell is a Los Angeles-based arts educator and independent filmmaker. A native of New Mexico, Caldwell studied filmmaking at UCLA, at the same time as Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Billy Woodberry, as part of a group of young artists who were to change African American independent filmmaking — a cultural phenomenon sometimes called "The L.A. Rebellion" (also the title of a book on the topic recently published by UC Press). Caldwell’s work has been shown nationally and internationally, most recently at LAMAG and at the Tate Modern. Caldwell taught several years at CalArts and became a major force in CAP (Community Arts Partnership). In 1984, he founded KAOS Network, a community arts center dedicated to providing training on digital arts, media arts and multi-media, at the heart of Leimert Park, historic center of the Los Angeles jazz culture, now hosting a diverse multi-ethnic multimedia arts center. KAOS Network was designed to empower the youth of the community and is the only organization of its kind in South Central Los Angeles where inner-city youth can participate in hands-on courses in video production, animation, web-site development, video teleconferencing, CD ROM production, and use of the Internet. KAOS is also home to WORDshop, Project Blowed, and BANANAS, weekly workshop for musical artists, dancers, singers, and visual artists. Curator George Clark describes Caldwell’s idea of KAOS, “that artists should have the same role in the community as doctors or lawyers, they should be there on the street: you should be able to drop in and see them, interact with them.” Each week hundreds of youth participate in workshops and programs at the center. In addition to these workshops, KAOS Network has videotaped community events and produced documentaries for the state of California. KAOS Network is committed to creating a worldwide community of young people who are dedicated to learning and working in new media technologies.

Cheers! Lonely Otakus: Bilibili, the Barrage Subtitles System and Fandom as Performance

My book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, was released earlier this year in a translation intended for the Chinese market. My translator, Xiqing Zheng, also recently completed a dissertation, Borderless Fandom and The Contemporary Popular Cultural Scene in Chinese Cyberspace. Given my ongoing interest in transnational studies of fan culture, I asked if I might publish a small excerpt from that dissertation here -- in this case, dealing with a form of fan participation that has been taking many parts of East Asia by storm in recent years. 


Cheers! Lonely Otakus: Bilbili, the Barrage Subtitles System and Fandom as Performance

by Xiqing Zheng

Barrage subtitle system is started by the Japanese website Niconico douga ニコニコ動画 —a site for otaku community, the ninth most visited website in Japan in the year 2016. The comments on a barrage subtitle streaming website, instead of appearing under the video in a special “comment” section, appear directly on the video screen. Synced with the video, the comments would appear at certain playback time when the video is played. The default setting makes the comments displayed in black font and white color, flying over the video from the right to the left at a random height; but fonts and special effects can be specified in advanced settings.

The phrase “barrage” is popularized by several anime directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino富野由悠季, including Mobile Suit Z Gundam (機動戦士Ζガンダム Kidō Senshi Z Gandamu 1985-1986) and Aura Battler Dunbine (聖戦士ダンバイン Seisenshi Danbain, 1983-1984), in which a line “The barrage on the port side is too thin! What should we do?” grew viral in the otaku community. Besides, Toho project, a phenomenally popular shooter game since the late 1990s allows bullets to form complicated patterns—a barrage so complicated that it later becomes a spectacle in the gaming community (see Lin and Gao for more information). With such background, netizens on Niconico chose this word to describe heavily commented scenes on a Niconico video as “barrage,” that resembles a scene with flying bullets across the screen in video games. Later this name is given to all the comments on the screen.

Chinese otaku established several video sharing sites, directly imitating Niconico; the most influential ones are AcFun and Bilibili. Here I will primarily use Bilibili as an example. Founded in the year 2009, it is now the most influential and popular barrage subtitle website in China. “Bilibili” is the nickname for a popular female character Misaka Mikoto御坂美琴 in the light novel and anime, A Certain Scientific Railgun (To Aru Kagaku no Reirugan とある科学の超電子砲, 2009-2010, 2013). Since it was originally designed to be majorly catering to the Japanese ACGN otaku, Bilibili has a specific section for all new Japanese animations. Besides, it provides sections for the DIY fans to showcase their talent in singing, dancing, music performance, painting, fan video editing, video game playing, etc., all in the realm of Japanese ACGN culture (acronym of “Anime, Comic, Game, Light Novel”). Because of Bilibili’s growing popularity, it now reserves sections for all types of popular culture, including, for example, American TV series, films, talk shows, Chinese TV dramas, variety shows—the contents incorporated into the website actually reflect the diverse interest and versatile talents of the otaku community.

After the success of Bilibili, the barrage subtitle system became known to the mainstream. Many Chinese online streaming websites, including the mainstream Tudou, Tencent, now support barrage subtitles, yet “Site A” and “Site B” remain the most important websites for the otaku community. According to an interview, Chen Rui the manager of Bilibili says, that he is not worried about the mainstream websites adopting the barrage subtitle feature at all, because what matters is not the configuration, but the content. The content does not only refers to those videos uploaded, but also the interactive barrage subtitles posted by the viewers. The chemistry of these otaku-oriented sites comes from the videos, the viewers, and most importantly, the interaction between the websites and the otaku users.

 Otaku, as it is currently used in daily practice, refers to lovers and heavy consumers of Japanese manga, anime, games, and light novels. The word otaku is an honorarium word for “your house,” and thus “you,” was used by a group of Japanese sci-fi fans in the 1960s for addressing each other inside the community. The word gained wide public attention when a critic, Akio Nakamori, ridicules these heavy consumers of totally unrealistic and childish media products, with the word “otaku.” The otaku culture came to Chinese mainland together with the Japanese manga, anime and game, as early as in the 1980s. For a certain period of time, Japanese anime obtained a position close to mainstream children’s entertainment until in the mid-2000s, when the government shut down the legal broadcast of Japanese anime in children’s programs around the country. The boundary between the mainstream and the otaku culture is therefore blurry and flimsy in China, yet still tangible. Less mainstream ACGN products first came to China in the form of pirated copies of Chinese translations legally produced in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Then online fansubs and fan translators become the major cultural mediators, who translate almost everything in this area. Only recently that the Japanese anime are again screened legally in China, with online video streaming websites purchasing legal rights from the Japanese anime producers. It is not difficult to imagine that most Chinese young people are more or less familiar with the Japanese ACGN culture. Naturally, most of the earliest Chinese fandoms are built on Japanese ACGN culture, even the fandom structures and activities are imitated from Japan through Taiwan’s mediation. With such a heavy influence from Japan, the “popular culture” understood and accepted by young generations in China then automatically involves Japanese ACGN culture. Therefore, the community of ACGN fans in China is not as clearly defined as it is in English speaking countries, where Japanese media traditionally lies in a comparatively marginal and subcultural realm.

While Japanese ACGN culture had been influential, the title of otaku is not widely adopted until about a decade ago. Most early Chinese fan websites and forums are female oriented. Until around 2005, the internet is much friendlier to text than to other forms such as picture and videos. This could be an important reason that in China, male fan culture, which heavily relies on visual elements, becomes observable much later than the female fan culture, which is sustainable on texts. With the entry of the male fan culture, the otaku community gradually evolves into an interest-based community that loosely develops around a certain set of original media products (typically Japanese ACGN culture, but has certain deviation), a community that is inherently heterogeneous but also share a similar set of vocabulary, logic and virtual space for residing. Currently, the otaku community in the Chinese-speaking world relies on several central websites for information and interaction. Barrage subtitle websites are of the most important components of their lives. Gender matters in this community, as the dualism between otaku male and fujoshi female is always present in the daily conversation, but mostly, they coexist comfortably in the same space with their shared interest.

The barrage subtitle system is a perfect presentation and embodiment of otaku’s desire in community and companions. This system, if not intentionally disabled, does not only make communication possible when people watch videos, it makes communication obligatory. Once it is sacrilege to interrupt the flow of image and time on the film screen, now it is the urge to communicate over the image that draw the audience together at these websites. It is not exaggerating to claim, that barrage subtitle system creates a new mode of watching, as well as a new mentality and meaning of being audience. Activities on the barrage subtitle websites have constituted an affective social ritual, performance and interaction in a virtual space; the video watching experience is itself a performance that confirms the social identity of being an otaku. Far from being void, boring and nonsense, these performances build up an alternative community in the virtual space. Such communications are observable in every aspect of the internet culture, yet it is extremely important for online otaku culture because it is—at least in China—a youth subculture that still yearns for collectivity and identification. For a virtual community consisting of people with their own interests in front of their own small screens, the importance of instant communication in multiple voices can never be underestimated.

Ultimately, barrage subtitle websites deeply integrate users’ input for the final view of each video uploaded, much more than websites without such a system. Viewing experience then becomes literarily a process of inserting oneself into the streamed material and the audience community, rather than a silent voyeur in the darkness. In many ways, barrage subtitles convey comparatively little (if any) content that would add on to viewers’ knowledge. Explanation and “encyclopedia” subtitles and translation subtitles also exist, but very limited compared to the tons of seemingly meaningless and senseless subtitles. As Hamano Satoshi observes, many barrage subtitles on Niconico come not from reason, but direct affect. Since the configuration of barrage subtitle system ensures a direct link between the comment and the commented, commentators need not elaborate their feelings into a long sentence, but only need to type out their immediate reactions and feelings. Hamano suggests that such comments represent a fragmented, or in his words, modular mode of consumption (5). I suggest, however, that the fragmented comments towards the specific details inside the videos visualize immediate reactions and close reading, inherent in fans’ viewing actions, but usually hidden when viewers are supposed to give generalized impressions and evaluations of a video. In other words, the consumption process does not become fragmented because the barrage subtitle system, it is fully articulated and presented in a directly visible way, something repressed in a traditional video streaming websites as YouTube. The fully presented consumption process therefore easily take the reading strategies and community conventions, constructing a space of discussion for close reading details that the otaku community relies upon in reaching consensus for further elaboration. In many ways, once the hidden and repressed process of close reading visualizes, it could be the most representative narrative that generates pleasure and intensifies allegiance.

With the development of the new media, especially the internet, we as the audience are encountering screens with videos on a daily basis. Theatrical experience these days becomes somewhat a nostalgic ritual for cinephilia, or a bait of spectacle, designed specifically the high-grossing, visual and audio effect laden blockbusters. While barrage subtitle websites, just as other types of online video-streaming websites, belong to the multiple screen culture in the contemporary daily life experience, barrage subtitle system revokes the collective aspect of theatrical film viewing in an unexpected way. The word “pseudo-synchronicity” accurately grabs the artificial sensation that all the audience for the same video are able to see the comments made by other viewers as if all these people are viewing the same material together. The experience on barrage subtitle websites challenges the iconic image of a contemporary viewer sitting lonely in front of a computer screen. However, the watching experience on barrage subtitle websites is still drastically different from the experience of watching films in an old fashioned movie theater, because the general silence and awing respect for the material on the screen totally disappears. The shared experience of watching, and especially the sharing synchronicity is expressed not through the shared silence and more permissible reactions such as laughing, but rather through actions that deem very impolite in a film theatre experience: speaking (or typing), which means uttering something significant to one’s point of view at the specific moment of the media material. The sense of shared interest and community comes from uttering comments that would trigger other people’s reaction or add on to someone else’s reaction. The viewing experience on barrage subtitle website is intrinsically multitasking, because with the barrage subtitle flying over the video, one not only response to the video itself but also the comments made by other viewers. The amount of reading required on a barrage subtitle website is almost a blasphemy for the streaming content, especially for the heavily commented videos.

When I talk about the conversational experience in barrage subtitles, however, it does not mean that the comments necessarily correspond to one another logically. Sometimes the content of comments is insignificant compared to its visual existence. What matters is that there are people who also watched the video and feel also the urge to express themselves at a particular point in time. When it comes to exciting moments, or significant moments, viewers would collectively post comments, stylized or randomly, to enhance the emotional intensity of the particular moment, be it humorous, sadness, or passionate. I will raise two examples below.

A fan remixed video of the domestic Chinese animation film, Monkey King: The Hero Is back (2015), combined with a song titled “Wu Kong” by Dai Quan, is so popular that it has been played for about 2.7 million times in less than one year after it was posted in June 2015. As I examine the video in May 2016, during the three minutes playback time, one sentence keeps appearing in the barrage subtitles, “Qitian dasheng Su Wukong, shen ru xuantie, huoyan jinjing, changsheng bulao, haiyou qishi’er bian 齐天大圣孙悟空,身如玄铁,火眼金睛,长生不老,还有七十二变,” which means “Great sage Sun Wukong, Equal of Heaven, with a body like black iron, golden-gaze fiery eyes, immortal, and seventy-two transformations.” Numerous barrage subtitles containing this sentence scroll across the screen, or appear in a vibrant color at the center of the screen, or form a colorful screen of texts over the screen (Figure 1). Posting this sentence in barrage subtitles have become a ritual. This line is one of the most famous in the animation film, that a little fan of Sun Wukong, a little monk keeps repeating his own legend to the depressed Monkey King. The collective repetition of an iconic line directly refers to the high-grossing animation film, and towards the intertextual network consisting of numerous texts derivative from the ultimate source of the story, the vernacular novel Journey to the West, a book often dated back to mid-Ming Dynasty around the 16th century. In the animation film, the little monk and fan of Monkey King recites fluently this line, celebrating his personal hero in a mode that many Chinese children do. By repeating this line, the audiences are reprising the iconic scene of the film, referring to a similar childhood experience and impersonating the little monk in the film. The intertextual network that the fan video relies on goes far beyond the animation film, but to a collective childhood experience. Moreover, Monkey King is the all-time popular hero for Chinese children. Through several fandoms and fads since the late-1990s, including Stephen Chow’s The Chinese Odyssey (1995) and Jin Hezai’s Biography of Wukong, Monkey King himself through various metamorphosis, becomes a national hero that refers nostalgically to an almost nationally shared childhood as well as a national past and legacy. The target audience of the video and the community built up by the barrage subtitles are those who identify with this cultural nationalistic narrative told in the remix of the domestic animation and a song that borrows tunes from Peking Opera. 

Figure 1 Screenshot on May 6, 2016 of the Monkey King remix by Miaoxingrentingge at 02:56 as appeared on Bilibili

Figure 1 Screenshot on May 6, 2016 of the Monkey King remix by Miaoxingrentingge at 02:56 as appeared on Bilibili

Another example displays the ritual for commentators directly through the pictorial quality of barrage subtitles. There is a transformation process, which is ridiculously long, but is presented exactly the same way in every episode, in the anime Penguindrum 輪るピングドラム (2011). From a certain episode on, whenever this transformation process begins in the video, viewers start posting ASCII art of little rockets in the barrage subtitle in various colors. The screen will be covered by flying little rockets rapidly scrolling from the right to the left of the screen during the whole process of character transformation (Figure 2). Frequent viewers of a particular series of anime build up ritualistic conventions in barrage subtitles showing a sense of community and collectivity, or more straightforwardly, the ability to type exactly the coded language agreed by the fans of this anime and by the otaku community.

Figure 2 Screenshot made on May 6, 2016, of Ep 03 of Penguindrum at 04:47, uploaded by 96 Mao@141.2cm as appeared on Bilibili.

Figure 2 Screenshot made on May 6, 2016, of Ep 03 of Penguindrum at 04:47, uploaded by 96 Mao@141.2cm as appeared on Bilibili.

In both aforementioned examples, barrage subtitles have transcended the function of verbal communication, turning into a collective performance and spectacle. Daniel Johnson suggests that these comments are “counter-transparent writings,” by which he describes the heavily coded language that “disrupt the viewer’s ability to understand what is being written through their use of wordplay and movement between linguistic and pictorial registers of communication” (306). Barrage subtitles, according to him, are often written in the subcultural dialect indecipherable for outsiders. As a result, such writings play two roles simultaneously, one is linguistic communication, and the other is pictorial registration. Both functions lead to communication that is partly exclusive towards the language community. The comments in the Monkey King fan video show their direct registration towards the insiders of the fan community. Through the continuous repetition of one sentence, the barrage subtitles create a space of common knowledge and a visual spectacle.

Barrage subtitle websites including Niconico and Bilibili are a space of affect for otaku audience, who constantly experience a sense of community through pseudo-synchronicity and through a subcultural dialect consisting of counter-transparent language and memes. The videos streamed online could be understood metaphorically as a theatrical play that constantly invites, or even forces participation from audience. Audience’s performance in this play then add into the play, turning a play without the fourth wall into a carnival. Not to suggest that the community on barrage subtitle websites is a utopia outside the commercialized and globalized world, I only suggests that barrage subtitles have the potential for alternative socializing and communication. It is a new media and form; only the technophobia would read the doom for meaning from it.








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Miaoxingren tingge喵星人听歌. “Ran qilai! Tongbulü baobiao! Dang Xiyouji zhi dasheng guilai MV yudao Dai Quan laoshi yuanchuang gequ Wukong.” 燃起来!同步率爆表!当《西游记之大圣归来》MV遇到戴荃老师原创歌曲《悟空》. Online video clip. Bilibili. Bilibili, 29 Jun 2015. Web. 6 Jun 2016. <>.

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Wochong卧虫. “Danmu, he’ermeng, ciyuan qiang he zuowei yijia gongsi de bilibili” 弹幕、荷尔蒙、次元墙和作为一家公司的哔哩哔哩. Pingwan 品玩. 8 Dec 2015. Web. 6 Jun 2016. <>.

Xiqing Zheng is an assistant professor at the Literature Institute, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China. She received her doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington in 2016.  Her research interest includes fan culture, new media, Chinese cinema, translation, etc. Her current project is working on revising her dissertation, which is based on online fan subculture, mainly in China, but also in Japan and in the English speaking countries. She is the Chinese translator of Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers. She is also a consultant of the Internet Literature Studies Forum of Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University, and participated in writing a book of keywords on Chinese subculture, which will be published this year by Joint Publishing. An avid fan for more than ten years, she mainly serves as a fan translator online and occasionally creates fan fic and fan art.

Unspreadable Media (Part Five): Back and Forth


It’s hard to believe that it has been almost a year since the four of us presented our research at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Despite us all having our distinct focuses, I remember it being particularly remarkable just how many criss-crosses there were across our presentations, when it comes to themes about the contemporary media landscape and the various facets of this idea of “un-spreadable media.” So I’m excited to have this opportunity to reflect on this work many months later.

For those reading this exchange, a quick bit of background. Leah and I met through some overlapping pedagogical interests in transforming the practices of the media studies classroom, while I first encountered Lauren’s work through the ways her dissertation asked critical questions of the ways in which campaigns aiming for spreadability framed participation, in reaction to the work Henry, Joshua Green, and I--and all those who were part of that broader Spreadable Media research initiative--were doing. Henry and I were fortunate to be brought into the loop as Leah and Lauren began brainstorming ways to tackle questions of “unspreadable media” in various contexts...and, in particular, how digital discourse, participation, and media text production gets framed by frameworks for success driven by the “breadth model” of spreadability--a logic that success is determined by spreading as widely as possible.

As we gathered in Atlanta last spring, and as I reflect on the work we’ve collected here for this series, it feels like there’s a conversation to be had both about how these logics are so deeply imbedded within the media industries, and then the various ways in which organizations, communities, and individuals who are not in the for-profit media industry are measured by these logics, have their work framed within these logics, and often even internalize these logics in ways that may run counter to their goals. My hope is that this series can help accomplish that.

Perhaps a good starting point would be a bit of background about what drove each of us to this work, and where that work has gone since last year?

Since my piece for the series is particularly reflective, I’ll aim to keep my part in this short, but I’ll kick us off. In my case, I wrote this while immersed in the media industries, in my role at Univision/Fusion Media Group. While I was running a group designed to be a couple of steps removed from the day-to-day, frantic nature of the newsroom, it nevertheless is particularly telling that the reason this dialogue is happening now, rather than last summer or fall, was largely because of my delays. That pace within the media organization--and the fact that industries like journalism and television are 24/7/365--is one of the key drivers behind media organizations having a difficult time being able to conduct deep reflection on how business is conducted and how success is measured. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of people thinking about these issues in media companies. But the day-to-day production demands make this most frequently the conversation in the hallways or before meetings start, and the first thing to fall off the radar as the demands-of-the-month pile up. And, as long as an impressions-based system remains the logic of the system, skewing from it is especially tough. Yet, the signs are everywhere that a breadth-based model of measuring success isn’t particularly tenable, even for the for-profit media industries. The question is just what point of distress, or breaking down of old models, we have to hit before new ones become enough of a priority to receive time and resources.


I made very little progress over last year in sharpening my thinking about the geographies of media circulation, interesting though this question remains to me,  and thus, I am eager to have the others push my thinking a bit on these questions.  I think it's safe to say that the 2016 election and its aftermath shook the stuffing out of a great many of us, forcing us to think more deeply about the mechanisms and logics shaping American politics today. Few presidential candidates have understood the dynamics of social media and its mechanisms of circulation more fully than the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has demonstrated the capacity to upend traditional journalism with a simple if high-intensity tweet.

From the beginning of the campaign, he dominated new cycle after new cycle, closing off the oxygen for anyone else in the race. It is scary to think about how effectively he was able to exploit the cable news networks’ 24-7 news cycle through his cagey exploitation of spreadability. Trump and his supporters often talk about the ways social media allows them to speak to the American public above the heads of (but not behind the backs of)  the major news organizations. Yet they also sought to actively discredit any group with the clout and resources to fact check their claims or challenge their underlying logic. It is not simply that they have found a way around editorial judgments but they have sought to dismantle the last trappings of legacy journalism.

At the same time, we are seeing the rise of alternative and niche-oriented media, whether the alt-right realm of Breitbart or the diversity represented by contemporary podcasts. And we're seeing the capacity of grassroots networks to rapidly mobilize large-scale protests against the current regime, such as the epic women's march on Washington. Sam asks about the breakdown of old models -- which seems to be happening much faster than any of us anticipated, and so we need urgently to understand how news and civic discourse is going to travel in this current environment.

My current  interest in the civic imagination pushes us beyond a focus on issues of circulation and mobilization to look at the way media messages reframe current debates to spark more intense commitments from potential supporters. My USC based research group, Civic Paths, seeks to better understand the roles that imagination plays in fostering civic engagement and inspiring struggles over social change. At the most basic level, before you can change the world, you have to imagine what a better world looks like, imagine a process to bring about change, imagine yourself as capable of making change, imagine a collective that shares  your interests and concerns, develop empathy and solidarity for others whose experiences are different from your own, and in the case of the marginalized and dispossessed, imagine freedom and equality before you experience it directly. We have been especially interested in how resources drawn from popular media resurface through grassroots media as part of the imaginary of various protest movements around the world. The kinds of “cultural acupuncture” that seemed extraordinary when we first began researching the Harry Potter Alliance now seems much more normative as we look out across the tweets and YouTube videos the document contemporary protest movements. These social movements are engaging with struggles with power while dressing as superheroes, plastering their signs with Princess Leia images, and flashing the three finger salute from Hunger Games.

Just as Trump uses social media to gain access to mainstream news organizations, these protesters are using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, using the attention economy generated by global mass media to create a new rhetoric that speaks to and for those who have far fewer resources. In my last book, we describe this approach as “by any media necessary”, stressing the ways that these groups deployed any and all resources within their grasp to spread their messages for social justice. Today we are more interested in the how worldbuilding and storytelling reshapes the ways people understand the issues and how they assess the potential for change.

We've been drawn to Stephen Duncombe's description of “the tyranny of the possible,” which recognizes that our perceptions of the current situation limit our ability to imagine the possibilities of change.  As current situations have become so dire around the world, post Trump, Post-Brexit, post the collapse of the Brazilian government, post the rise of right-wing governments across Europe, post the Syrian refugee crisis, we have by necessity needed to expand the scope of our imagination to maintain hope for the future.

Some of this new imagery circulates far and wide, having a very limited shelf life but an enormous reach. Some of it remains anchored in the local, like images on a hand-drawn protest sign or a flyer pasted on the wall. Much of it falls somewhere in between, reaching those who need to know, inspiring those who have access, but remaining hidden from view to mainstream audiences who get their news only from mass media channels.

What makes the current moment challenging to understand is the unpredictable porousness of this new media ecology, as so-called fake news produced in outer Moldavia enters our Facebook feed as if it emerged from American media, and our inability to know where some of this news is coming from tests our ability to discern credible from incredible information. We need to own up to the fact that the fake news phenomenon represents one of the darker aspects of the current spreadable media landscape, a byproduct of a culture where anyone can forward anything to anybody and where fewer people, even American presidents, take ownership over the reliability of the  information they pass along. Now more than ever, we need to be discussing whether spreadability is good or bad for democracy.


I am probably not the only person whose current research was turned inside out and upside down by the recent election cycle. Insert, if you will, a clip from the 1986 movie THE FLY. An orangutan surrogate for scientist Seth Brundle naively enters a time travel chamber. The door closes for moments and then opens to a dramatic reveal.  Guts everywhere. Immediate reformulation is needed should Brundle ever move forward in his research.

If you’ve seen the film, you know that despite Brundle’s best efforts to rectify his experiment following this disaster, when he finally enters the chamber himself, a pesky fly is hiding there, leaving Brundle ultimately transformed: part human, part fly. (Apologies if this is a spoiler—I am just assuming that the statute of limitations has passed on this particular text!).

For me, the recent election was like Brundle’s orangutan experiment. Just as I was about to hand over my book manuscript (which includes a chapter on the research I discuss above) for publication, my approach and argument felt like it had exploded in its 30,000-word compartment. Orange hairs coated the intestines and heart of my work. I recalibrated. And as I finally felt ready to remerge and finish my book, I realized that that both me and my topic had mutated on an ontological level.

The through-line of my research and teaching has been to critically examine empowerment discourse as it has been taken up in the study of participatory media culture. I have tended to focus on the places where this discourse pervades, such as the It Gets Better Project, which have typically been efforts emerging from more liberal individuals or groups. While I was seeking to recuperate more radical progressive uses of participatory media, the alt-right was mobilizing, using participatory media to promote Trump’s candidacy and ideological positions. LGBTQ youth safety and vulnerability has been infinitely compounded by this election, especially for those who are undocumented, Muslim, and of color. This has left me to question my choice to turn a critical eye in the direction of those seeking to support them in the first place. When I sat down to write again, I realized I had a fly in my chamber.

I had been examining participatory media culture as it emerged in resistance to power, but a blind-spot that I realized I have had as a researcher and perhaps as a teacher as well, is the ways in which the far right has imagined themselves as resisting power too. As Sam and Henry have noted, we are seeing shifts in how news and civic discourse are circulating in this moment, which many of us are scrambling to understand. Civic imagination and a focus on futurity in general may be central to these changes, but the players aren’t always oriented towards social justice. Yes, protesters are dismantling the master’s house towards social justice aims, as Henry’s research so nicely illustrates, and, at the same time, it’s becoming apparent that Trump supporters and the far right in general are using the same media to build and reinforce the master’s house too.

The new culture war is fought with memes and hashtags. When my filter bubble burst, it was too late. Is spreadable media “good or bad for democracy,” as Henry asks? This wasn’t even a question on my radar until a few months ago. But, perhaps the question isn’t altogether different than one that we raised as a panel at the 2016 SCMS conference as to the ways in which celebrations over spreadability are often short-sighted and mask the potential for harm through circulation. Since November I have been working to revise my book to include the various ways in which LGBTQ youth are using the tools and tactics of participatory media culture to produce particular forms of subjectivity and community that don’t necessarily require media spread. In the years since I first began this project in the form of a dissertation, critiques of the It Gets Better Project abound, to the point that youth themselves have in many cases become critical of the trap of visibility that very spreadable mainstream media projects engender. I am now asking ‘what are ways in which LGBTQ youth are activating and animating local publics through media to perform identity and community?’

If there is any silver lining I can find in the recent election cycle, it is that the tumult has made it much easier in my research and teaching to locate and illustrate the existence and power of participatory media culture and the complex political undercurrents that shape it.  

At the same time, though, let’s not kid ourselves, there are still a few inches of orange muck at my feet, and I’m looking to you all for strategies for how to pull up and out.


When I sat down to write this response, my head was thrumming with the low level of panic that news consumption has been causing since Comey’s “October surprise.” I drafted a short meditation on the guilt I have been feeling over what I was seeing as my own slacktivist culpability for the results of the election: my own blindness to the kinds of “vectors of customization and control” that I unpack in my presentation. The blind spots that Lauren describes are also my blind spots, and I was feeling particularly stupid for having spent last fall teaching news bias, aggregation, and propaganda during the day while spending my evenings forwarding, retweeting and liking within my deceptively like-minded media bubble. The gap between my critical apprehension and practical application of the issues surrounding spreadable media was wide before the election, and after the election the gap began to feel so great that most of the thoughts I mustered up around the topic seemed to rise up only to be sucked swiftly and decisively into that gap, never to be thought again.

So, while procrastinating writing this response, I got on Facebook (something I keep promising myself I will stop doing) and saw a post from We Are Seneca Lake, the activist group whose campaign to stop the storage of methane and propane in unstable salt caverns beneath Seneca Lake that I spoke about in my presentation. The post revealed that the gas storage conglomerate Crestwood Midstream has decided not to store methane at the Seneca Lake site. The activist community was hailed as “victorious.” The more than 650 arrested protesters and countless other supporters of the We Are Seneca Lake/Gas Free Seneca movement were cited as instrumental in the demise of Crestwood’s plan. The dedicated local activists showing up to block trucks in the snow, screenprint their own protest t-shirts, and post their DIY videos on YouTube had scored a victory.

Of course, it is an incremental victory. Crestwood Midstream continues to push for the storage of propane in the unstable salt caverns, and the work of the activist groups on this hyperlocal environmental cause is far from over. But, an incremental victory is a victory. And, it provides a model for the kind of strategy that Lauren is asking for above. As Henry points out in his reflective response, world building is taking place at the local level. And, as the We Are Seneca Lake/Gas Free Seneca activists have demonstrated, that world building continues to rely on an ever-evolving mixture of grassroots strategies and social media affordances. As a model, it’s not incredibly successful at mitigating panic or at pushing back against reactionary appropriations and mobilizations of progressive activist practices, but it is a model. And, in the example of We Are Seneca Lake/Gas Free Seneca it has had limited success.

The insights around spreadable interfaces, the politics of reach, and the potential for local change outlined in Sam, Henry & Lauren’s presentations make persuasive arguments about the radical potential of media distribution systems and structures. As I re-read our presentations and reflections and think about what to do next, I find I am thinking about the pink pussy hat that women and men across the globe wore on January 21st. The plan to wear the hat and the various patterns for knitting the hat are potent examples of spreadability: without Facebook and Twitter, we would not have the persuasive “optics” of millions of people resisting the rise of white supremacy and rape culture en masse on that day. Where the idea and image were virtual, global and spreadable the knitting and wearing were hyperlocal. The pink pussy hat is an instructive example of the possibilities that inhere to mixtures of traditional grassroots strategies and new social media affordances. The actions of the folks engaged in resistance practices reflect that potential. Perhaps one way forward is to find ways to forge what we might identify as a more intersectional spreadability: to amplify and engage with the potential of the mix, even where the mix, itself, pushes back against the message being spread.

Lauren S. Berliner is Assistant Professor of Media & Communication Studies and Cultural Studies at University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches courses on media praxis and participatory media culture. She is also a filmmaker and the co-curator of The Festival of (In)Appropriation annual showcase of experimental media. Her forthcoming book, LGBTQ Youth and The Paradox of Digital Media Empowerment, combines participatory action research with LGBTQ youth media makers along with textual analysis of youth-produced videos to examine how youth negotiate the structural conditions of funding and publicity and incorporate digital self-representations into practices of identity management.  Her latest research is a collaboration with medical anthropologist Nora Kenworthy on a project that seeks to understand the phenomenon of crowdfunding for healthcare, focusing on how Americans are utilizing participatory media to solicit new forms of care and support.

Sam Ford consults and manages projects with leadership teams in journalism, media/entertainment, academia, civic engagement, and marketing/communication. In addition, he is lead producer of the MIT Open Documentary Lab s Future of Work initiative and a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project  Sam serves as a research affiliate with MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and as an instructor in Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program. He writes on innovation in the media industries, fan cultures, immersive storytelling, audience engagement, and media ethics. Sam co-authored, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, the 2013 NYU Press book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.  In 2015, he launched and ran the Center for Innovation & Engagement at Univision’s Fusion Media Group (as FMG’s VP, Innovation & Engagement), which he ran through the end of 2016. He has also been a contributor toHarvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Inc.

Leah Shafer is an Associate Professor in the Media and Society Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where she teaches courses that explore the culture and history of television, film, advertising, and the Internet. Her criticism appears in journals including FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Afterimage, and Film Criticism as well as The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Media Quarterly, and Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier. A scholar/artist, she was recently awarded a research residency with the experimental media art collaborative Signal Culture, and her experimental documentary Declaration of Sentiments Wesleyan Chapel was included of the Iterations as Habitats exhibition of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.

Unspreadable Media (Part Four): The Broadcast Ghost

The Broadcast Ghost: The Persistent Logic of Traditional Media Industries Metrics

by Sam Ford

NOTE: Portions of this piece expand on issues I explore in “Public Diplomacy’s (Misunderstood) Digital Platform Problem,” written as part of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy’s May 2017 report, Can Public Diplomacy Survive the Internet?: Bots, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation, edited by Shawn Powers and Markos Kounalakis.

Last spring, I had the great pleasure to convene with a fantastic set of colleagues in Atlanta for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ annual gathering to hold a panel on the topic of “unspreadable media.” Alongside my Spreadable Media co-author Henry Jenkins, our esteemed host for this exchange as well, it was in part a chance to revisit our book in light of the directions our career paths have taken since then. And I had the great pleasure of getting a chance to speak for the first time alongside the fabulous Lauren Berliner, whose dissertation chapter on the “It Gets Better” campaign for LGBTQ youth provided some very productive critiques of campaigns focused heavily on spreadability of a message, and Leah Shafer, with whom I share a passion for carving out space for talking about pedagogy at academic conferences that too often undervalue it.

Without concentrated coordination, we found so many parallels across our presentations that we decided to take to the digital sphere to share our work and find some way to continue this discussion of “unspreadable media.”

The larger theme of this piece is simple: The “broadcast ghost” haunts my work. By that, I mean the lingering legacy of how media companies and marketers structured their business models in a previous era continues to heavily shape how they continue to approach success in a digital world. From my academic work in media studies/fan studies, to my consulting in the marketing and corporate communication space, to my work in the media industries, the most persistent frustration I run into—and sometimes find myself guilty of—is too easily letting the logics that defined the broadcasting world continue to persist, even when and where their logic has long become outmoded.

The Overvaluation of Spreadability

Back in 2014, Henry and I joined a fantastic panel of academics for a roundtable published in full in Transformative Works and Cultures, and excerpted for Cinema Journal, focused on discussing issues raised by Spreadable Media.

Melissa Click, one of my colleagues in the roundtable, writes, “So to be tongue in cheek with the phrase, are people who don't spread dead? I absolutely value Spreadable Media's recognition of everyday activities online and its suggestion that often we are active and passive in different places/times online. I think that's right on—but I'm concerned about reproducing a hierarchy between ‘folks who spread and those who don't.’”

In that roundtable exchange, I responded:

However, this question of whether people, and texts, are dead if they don't spread is one that is a vital corrective toward any overvaluation of spreadability. Despite the pithiness of the "if it doesn't spread, it's dead" mantra…we have to push back against that statement's oversimplification (and hope that we did, through the course of the book). One of my primary goals in cowriting this book was to challenge the notion that producing "texts" should somehow become the definition of participation and push back against the belief that less visible activities of sharing and circulation can somehow be defined as passive audience practice. In response, though, we also can't define value solely in terms of spreadability.

As Melissa points out in our roundtable exchange, we don't want to create new hierarchies that say that audience members who spread texts—or who spread them via certain (online, "surveillable," "monitizable") ways—are somehow more important than those who don't, or whose means of circulating are less visible. And, as Paul Booth writes in our exchange, “If the designers of technology are enabling the grassroots spreadability, is it a concept rooted in manufactured interactivity? Are we swapping the freedom to print whatever the hell we want in a zine and pass it out to 100 people for the ability to repost a clip of American Idol or Breaking Bad to a thousand?”

And, of course, we don’t want to forget that people are apt to have different types of relationships with different types of media texts, even those that they are intensely passionate about. People may find great value in reading their e-mail, watching pornography, or listening to international news but be more likely to share on Facebook that clip of American Idol or Breaking Bad that Paul writes about. While the former texts may have strong individual engagement, the latter may be perceived as having a greater degree of cultural/social value. We don't want to risk conflating the two.

The Overvaluation of Breadth

But, beyond concerns about prioritizing spreadability too heavily over other aspects of participation in and around media texts, there’s also the matter of what we prioritize within spreadability. Since the release of Spreadable Media, I’ve been concerned that our opening statement’s logic—taken too simply—implies success should be defined primarily by breadth…by reach…by impressions. Our goal was to argue for much more than that. Yet, in our desire to demonstrate that audience driven acts of circulation can often reach or exceed the traditional distribution capabilities of large media corporations, we perhaps made it too easy for media and marketing industries readers to focus on the spreadable soundbite opening phrase and ignore more nuanced points.

Perhaps no better illustration of this phenomenon is the ways in which many reactions to the book focused most heavily on replacing the word “viral” with the word “spreadable,” most heavily in the marketing/advertising/corporate communication space.

(Images above from here, here, here, here, and here.)

At its core, that debate of replacing “viral” with “spreadable” drove interesting discussion. It caused people to reflect on what the viral metaphor actually meant, and how it might be shaping their thinking. But, like Lurpak’s supposedly spreadable butter, it also too often felt like a “spreadable failure” to me. As I consulted in the marketing world, I watched some people switch out the terminology while forging ahead, emboldened by the same practice of valuing breadth/reach over all else.

But spreading widely is not the only way that material can be highly spreadable. Indeed, the ghost of broadcast haunts the media industries more broadly.

In Spreadable Media, we write about a 2007 example where CBS’ mantra of viewing “everywhere, anywhere” conflicted with statements from the network and from the producers of Jericho that the only way to “save the show” from cancellation was to watch live, because the industry’s continued reliance on having an immediate broad audience, in a way that could easily be counted by Nielsen ratings, was still the primary way they knew how to value a show. Ten years later, at the time I’m writing this, a letter from one of the creators of NBC’s Timeless is circulating, arguing that the only way to save the show from cancellation might be to “Watch live.” Even as Netflix introduces new models for thinking about how to value media texts over time rather than based on immediate reach (For more on that, see Amanda Lotz’s new treatise, Portals.), the problem still persists that media companies need audiences to bend to their inability to shift their business models to current reality, rather than the other way around, to keep shows which have audiences from getting cancelled.

The situation is especially dire in the digital publishing world. In his 2014 piece for The Atlantic called “The Internet’s Original Sin,” Ethan Zuckerman looks at how the longstanding logic of advertising-supported models have thoroughly seeped into supposedly “new” media industries. Writes Ethan:

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see.

In particular, Ethan says that online advertising “creates incentives to produce and share content that generates pageviews and mouse clicks, but little thoughtful engagement.”

Reflecting on My Experiences in the Media & Marketing Industries

For most of the past two years, I worked at Univision/Fusion Media Group, running a group called the Center for Innovation & Engagement, as VP, Innovation & Engagement. In that time, speaking with executives across a broad range of digital journalism sites, I saw a common refrain across the industry—a continued need to sell based on breadth and reach. To even get into the game of getting programmatic digital advertising buys, publications had certain traffic thresholds they needed to hit. So business models tend to set monthly goals for unique visitors and pageviews and then measure daily against hitting those goals. The result is websites focused on headlines that entice as many people as possible to click on an article, or share it. As media companies invest more in creating original video for their social media channels, they likewise focus on getting as many views as possible.

Nowhere in most of these calculations is a significant focus or accounting for depth of engagement, or bounce rate/completion rate (how quickly someone actually departs from a story or video). Instead, the writers/producers who create the content that gets the most clicks are held up as the exemplars in the newsroom, at the exclusion of other ways of valuing content.

As Lucia Moses at Digiday writes, “Many media plans have an arbitrary cutoff point for participating publishers. So publishers need to show big numbers. But this can in turn rewards tricks to inflate the size of their audiences and make them appear younger than they actually are.” And that leads to all sorts of strategies focused on making that reach number as big as possible.

One approach is for a big media company to handle the advertising inventory for other sites and then count those other sites’ pageviews as part of their ComScore listing for the portfolio of brands. (See, for instance, Brian Steinberg’s Variety piece on Vice from around this time last year, which notes that at the time half of Vice’s online traffic on ComScore doesn’t actually come from Vice.) Another regular tactic is that publishers are paying to promote their stories via promoted posts on social media and content amplification widgets on other publications, aimed at hitting those reach goals. If you can take out ads on your story to drive traffic for a nickel, and then sell that traffic to your advertisers for a dime, then you make a profit in the middle.

We can debate our feelings on these tactics. My point here, though, is that considerable human and financial capital ends up devoted to these types of activities above, to hit those numbers in order to get those programmatic ad buys. And that work comes at the exclusion of something else.

And it does little to build a brand to audiences who engage with those individual stories on a social media site, nor trust in that brand. As my former Fusion colleague Felix Salmon writes:

The result has been a rise in social teams, some of whom concentrate mainly on getting traffic from Facebook to their website, and some of whom concentrate on building stories which live natively within social apps. (That would include Instant Articles on Facebook.) All of this is good for boosting engagement metrics…But it’s not necessarily good for building a brand. In the news business, if you want to build long-term value, then you need to build a robust brand. Traffic is great, as far as it goes, but it isn’t enough. If you have lots of traffic but little brand value, then you can disappear more or less overnight.

When it comes to online video, consider this. If a 1 min. 45 sec. video produced for a publisher’s Facebook page is seen by 6 million people, that’s not only a bragging point and will lead to some cumulative monthly number for the publisher to brag about its overall reach to viewers.

Never mind if the video had, let’s say, an 18% completion rate, meaning that the average of those 6 million views stuck around for 19 seconds. (Many videos published on Facebook that rack up a lot of views have a lower average completion rate than that.)

A mentality built on total reach says, “Even if this isn’t the era of broadcasting anymore, we can reach a mass audience through spreadability.” The reality of the situation indicates rather, “Six million people started to check out our video and on the whole deemed that it wasn’t worth sticking around the less than two minutes before.” That sounds like a stat I would want to bury at the bottom of a report, rather than lead with.

But, as Ethan convincingly argues, these metrics aren’t there for accurate measurement. They are there for “storytime”: for investors and for advertisers. If reach keeps more investors happy, or attracts new ones, all the better. And, if big aggregate numbers can convince advertisers to spend with the right story around those numbers, then publishers will continue along these lines.

Look no further in how newsroom growth is being driven by creating more and more teams for social video, despite headlines from places like Nieman Lab and Poynter, like “Video Isn’t as Popular with Viewers as It Is with Advertisers.”

        In an era where everyone is discussing the proliferation of “fake news,” I believe it’s vital to look at how these industry practices, and this broadcast ghost, is leaving organizations destined to continue solving the wrong problems, and continue selling based on industry logics carrying over from an era where it was much harder to measure beyond broad reach and circulations. In a piece I wrote as part of Harvard Nieman Lab’s 2017 Predictions for Journalism, I argue that not much else matters if the journalism and media world can’t spend this year addressing “our awful metrics”:

The industry is running on metrics that serve no one well, but we continue chugging along because we all equally accept the lie. In the current model, publishers measure what’s easiest to capture, no matter how reflective of real engagement; production budgets go toward things that generate the best numbers for this so-called “reach” or “impressions” or “uniques,” even when they do little to create revenue or build a brand (especially when on platforms the publisher doesn’t own and can barely monetize); and advertisers accept inflated numbers industry-wide and continue putting the most funding behind stories which may have the least ongoing resonance.

Thus, audiences too frequently get served with unmemorable stories thin on nuance, heavy on provoking knee-jerk response, and with misleading packaging that causes them to bail two sentences, or fifteen seconds, into the piece (assuming the company doesn’t actively measure and talk about bounce rates, completion rates, and/or time spent on site).

 Of course, at least media companies have the excuse that they are still making money off the old model. Perhaps the most frustrating part of all is that the broadcast ghost still haunts marketers, organizations, and independent producers outside the media industries that publish media texts. These creators, despite not being saddled with needing to “monetize” that content, still often adopt breadth of views as the metric for success—no matter what the actual goal of their communication might be.

        In a 2016 essay I wrote for Public Relations and Participatory Culture: Fandom, Social Media, and Community Engagement, entitled “Public Relations and the Attempt to Avoid Truly Relating to Our Publics,” I argue that marketers/public relations professionals have in fact embraced these strategies of reach and data to measure success, rather than looking at depth of participation or impact, because—even though their “content strategy” may not be saddled by having to figure out how to make money off their media texts, but rather to get people to meaningfully engage with the stories they produce, they are likewise operating off metrics of success shaped by decades of the “broadcast mentality.” Advertisers determined success based on reach of their ads; PR professionals by the audience numbers of the outlets who covered stories about their company. Even when they have less direct business incentive to remain tethered to the metrics of yesteryear, these industries still gravitate to the impressive numeric aggregation of reach.

These questions even plague organizations focused on social impact. In a piece on “Measuring Success” on the Knight Foundation’s review of its Tech for Engagement initiative, the foundation writes, when considering the challenges of thinking about measuring the success of digital campaigns: “Digital technology generates lots of data sets…What gets counted becomes what counts…Engagement, however, is about being ‘attached, committed, involved and productive.”

In an era of Big Data, all the focus continues to be on the metrics easiest to gather, rather than those most meaningful for the media text.

Concluding Thoughts

The situation media and marketing professionals find ourselves in means a few things.

It means that media organizations’ metrics are not only set up to the detriment of their audiences and to producing the most meaningful material possible. I’d argue that they are set up to the detriment of their own financial success. The question is how much of a crisis mode media companies will have to enter before they find more meaningful ways to measure success.

It means that many stories aren’t being produced, because the metrics of media companies don’t know how to support them. Resources are diverted from stories that may have longevity, in order to continue building teams that are wholly focused on building short, quick, thin, and controversial material.

It means that, even if stories are being produced that may have a long shelf life, the machines that are built to support them too often focus on pushing new things out constantly, rather than supporting the continued shelf life of stories that might be relevant for years to come. In other words, organizations may spend nine months on creating a piece of content and one week on supporting its circulation.

And it means that organizations continue to be driven by getting as many passersby as possible, without much thought to audiences coming to them on purpose, and with purpose. To borrow a line from Nicco Mele, the director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, how do media organizations focus on a CRM approach rather than a broad reach approach?

My own thoughts are now on the types of spreadability beyond “spreading wide.” Perhaps the kernel of the answer lies in a provocation from Jonathan Groves I often return to, from 2014, on the importance of valuing the longevity of content.

How do media companies and other organizations prioritize models for content that might spread deeply within a particular community but not outside it? Often, the content that resonates most deeply with people is one specifically for them, that may mean little beyond their group. And, in return, the content that means the most within a community might be that which the community actively does not want to have spread beyond its original context.

How do organizations create metrics for success that prioritize content that spreads over time, rather than focusing on how accelerated the spread is? When organizations focus on what spread widely quickly, they lose out on material with a long shelf life that may eventually gain breadth, but through sustained traffic?

How do organizations consider content that might spread through its residual value—particularly stories that may actually be more valuable later than when they are first published? Media companies in particular do not have processes well-suited to resurfacing stories from the past that gain newfound relevance. In fact, if that happens, it’s often due to the ad hoc institutional memory of an individual who happens to be following the cultural/news trends of the moment and also happens to remember a story from months ago or yesteryear that ties into it—meaning lots of valuable content remains buried in the archive. In industry parlance, “lots of money is being left on the table.”

And how do organizations better value content that “spread drillability,” even if they don’t spread widely? In other words, how about stories that have a high rate of conversion to driving people deeper into following a publication, exploring a story world, etc.?

When I returned to the world of journalism two years ago, I heard people talking about “viral engines.” Media and marketing professionals are still chasing reach, even as it becomes increasingly transparent how little that often means and even as—in the journalism realm—we are seeing the erosion of trust and the various effects of what chasing those metrics mean for the long-term viability of news brands.

I once told a set of media executives that media companies can’t “make something spread,” but they can make sure something doesn’t spread. Media companies themselves are producing a lot of unspreadable media, because of all that’s wrong with the metrics governing their content producers. In chasing reach, media organizations are producing a lot of ephemeral content whose “spreading” doesn’t have much longevity, and producing far too little of—and supporting even less—the stories whose spreading might have not only ongoing worth to the community, but the potential for ongoing economic value as well, if the business models were optimized to support it. 

Sam Ford consults and manages projects with leadership teams in journalism, media/entertainment, academia, civic engagement, and marketing/communication. In addition, he is lead producer of the MIT Open Documentary Lab s Future of Work initiative and a co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project  Sam serves as a research affiliate with MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and as an instructor in Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program. He writes on innovation in the media industries, fan cultures, immersive storytelling, audience engagement, and media ethics. Sam co-authored, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, the 2013 NYU Press book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.  In 2015, he launched and ran the Center for Innovation & Engagement at Univision’s Fusion Media Group (as FMG’s VP, Innovation & Engagement), which he ran through the end of 2016. He has also been a contributor toHarvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Inc.

Unspreadable Media (Part Three): You Can't Stop a Frack Truck with Thumbnails

You Can’t Stop a Frack Truck with Thumbnails: YouTube’s interface and the “individually wrapped” viewing public

by Leah Shafer

On October 23, 2014 a group of protesters opposed to the storage of highly pressurized methane, propane, and butane in the abandoned salt mines beneath Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of NY linked hands and blocked the trucks of the Texas-based company Crestwood Midstream from entering their lakeside worksite. The act of peaceful resistance was organized by a diverse group of local citizens who had formed a coalition called “We Are Seneca Lake” to oppose gas storage in the historically unstable salt caverns. The We Are Seneca Lake movement is partly composed of a pre-existing network of citizens who’d been involved in New York’s successful anti-Fracking movement, so there was an organizational infrastructure in place to support the arrestees and to plan future actions. This organizational structure has yielded a group that employs both time tested old school grassroots techniques and the use of digital tools for activist activities. The group created a robust website ( that offers links to relevant environmental information and showcases photos of the nearly daily stream of committed activist citizens who are ready to get arrested in the name of protecting Seneca Lake’s supply of drinking water and the rural character of an area known for its organic farms, thriving wine industry, and agri-tourist attractions. The website also links to We Are Seneca Lake’s YouTube channel. As the We Are Seneca Lake movement has gained momentum, more and more self-produced videos have been posted on the YouTube channel where they remain, basically un-watched. These videos have not spread.

I teach at a college situated right on Seneca Lake. Several faculty and students are deeply involved in the We are Seneca Lake movement, so it seemed to me that the media produced by the group would be an excellent choice for inclusion in my Intro to Media and Society syllabus for our unit on amateur video.

When I pulled up the video “We Are Seneca Lake Teacher Arrestee” so we could screen it and talk about the different ways that the video frames the protesters and the ways that its amateur video aesthetics do and do not reflect the aesthetics of other amateur video we’d studied, several things caught my students’ attention. First, a student raised her hand and asked why the video had so few hits, given the robust activities of the activist community and the real threat to our local water systems, The second question I got was from a student who asked if we could watch the Stephen Colbert video after we watched the local activist video. So, what I thought was going to be a discussion about We Are Seneca Lake’s activist video aesthetics quickly became a discussion of the YouTube exhibition interface and the ways that targeted marketing shapes our experience of watching video on YouTube: especially video with activist content.

YouTube’s recommended video thumbnails appear to promote exhibition experiences with hyperlocal, affectively alluring, personal specificity. As there are roughly 20 recommended videos on each watch page, we might read the thumbnails as the metonymic appearance of the viewer’s hands within the interface. The sense of personal connection is obviously part of YouTube’s brand identity: it’s not called OurTube or GoogleTube. But, the figurative invocation of the personal, which is clearly meant to form an affective connection between the user and the tool is only a fractional part of the site’s actual organizational architecture. According to, a site that provides advice on how to get your video selected as a recommended video, suggests that only one or two out of the 20 or so recommended videos are actually related to the user’s viewing history. Most of the videos are placed there by YouTube’s algorithm that predicts which videos viewers will watch based on the length of time other viewers have spent watching them: because the longer folks watch a video the more advertising revenue is generated by that view.

So, the larger question here is: what happens to activist content when it is framed by an exhibition interface organized by advertising architectures that present themselves as archives of personalized recommendations. My experience in the classroom is anecdotal, but it brings to the foreground a constellation of issues raised by the YouTube interface, and I will spend the rest of this brief post teasing out what I see as the preliminary implications of these issues, all of which circle around spreadability versus unspreadability, but which apply those terms less to the actual content of the videos and more to the way that algorithmic marketing shapes the YouTube interface in a way that I am now thinking of as the unspreadable, or, individually wrapped exhibition experience of interacting with the YouTube interface.

The phrase “individually wrapped” originates in some research I was doing for an unrelated project on Amercan television advertising of the 20th Century. While working on that project, I came across the patent filed by Arnold Nawrocki in 1956 for an “apparatus for producing individually wrapped cheese slices” – this apparatus was meant to counteract the stickiness of processed cheese slices by providing a method for wrapping a “slicelike slab of cheese in a transparent, pliant wrapper.”

When Sam Ford, Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green write about spreadability in Spreadable Media, they note that the idea “originated in relation to ‘stickiness’” (3) which is a term that they trace to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point which “uses ‘stickiness’ to describe the aspects of media texts which engender deep audience engagement and might motivate them to share what they learned with others.” (4) In the case of my students’ responses to the We Are Seneca Lake watchpage, they were sharing information about their own media consumption habits and engagement, but they were not paying attention to the activist content and, due to the lures of the interface’s apparent personalizations, they were primarily experiencing distraction, rather than attention. If you will forgive the logic of the pun here, instead of being rapt, the interface made the students wrapped: like Nowrocki’s transformation of the slab into the slicelike, the packaging of the activist video made it less sticky.

When the students were presented with the YouTube interface, they looked across the surface of the page to the thumbnails of recommendations. They looked with what Jinying Li, in her essay, “"From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls," calls “an animated shopping gaze.” (203) Li suggests that the animated shopping gaze reflects the “heightened experience of consumerism” of a visual field dominated by walls and windows. (214) As Li points out, monetized personalization creates a visual field in which our gaze is “databased and computerized:” a visual field “in which our identities are nothing more than a list of products that the computer, or the website, decides we’d like to purchase.” (216) The YouTube interface forms an exhibition space that draws our gaze to its synecdochal representation of our person: the siting of our hands and our algorithmically generated preferences alongside the primary video.

YouTube’s interface appears to suggest that it offers a limitless archive of related materials with the added function of personalization, and that appears to reduce the effects of what John Ellis calls “choice fatigue.” But the appearance of transparency and actual transparency are quite different. YouTube closely guards and makes invisible the systems and algorithms that determine which videos are added to the recommended thumbnails. As Lauren Berliner has pointed out in her essay “Shooting for Profit: The Monetary Logic of the YouTube Home Movie,” “the invisibility of these systems helps to naturalize the appearance of YouTube as a democratic platform driven by users’ tastes and interests.” (293) But, of course, the architecture of the site is neither “natural” nor “democratic.”  YouTube’s architecture uses personalization as a way to control user attention, and as a way to generate data that can be monetized.

YouTube’s superflat, monetized design is not precisely an invention of the digital age. As Jeremy Groskopf point out in his study of “Silent Era Precursors of Online Advertising Techniques,” in 1916 Frank C. Thomas patented the design for a “collection of light diffusers flanking a movie screen that would allow for the stacking of advertisements along the screen in basically the same way that YouTube’s thumbnails of texts that are ‘recommended for you’ appear on the right side of the YouTube interface.” (86)

Of particular concern to early advertisers was the creation of an easily viewable system that added to the theatergoing experience without annoyingly distracting viewers from the primary cinema content and which offered a way to distinguish not only between the primary content and the advertisements, but between the advertisements, themselves. On YouTube, this two-pronged directive (to focus on primary content and to distinguish between different ads) is accomplished through scale and with visible metadata, though the advertisers’ imperative to not annoy, distract, or mislead the viewer is no longer a primary (or even secondary) concern. In fact, the interface’s display of metadata and its emphasis on personalization appear to be designed precisely for distraction and misdirection: two things that are not plainly useful to the site’s tertiary function as an exhibition space for activist video.

The interface appears to offer transparency – it is very indexical about its personalization, and it offers phrases like “recommended for you” in order to forge an affective connection between the viewer and the data being produced by their immaterial labor.  But it is precisely the customization, the “individual wrapping,” of the YouTube interface that marks its slicelike-ness. The deck is stacked. Where it appears to offer unlimited avenues for viewer choice, the YouTube interface is, instead, ordered by what Daniel Chamberlain, in his essay “Television Interfaces,” calls “vectors of customization and control” (85)

When YouTube was established in 2005, they identified themselves as a personal online archive with their tagline, “Your Digital Video Repository.” To be certain: the existence of an easily accessible archive with free storage and a professionally designed interface is of great use to activist organizations. For We Are Seneca Lake, for example, it offers a “free” space for the archiving of their videos. Since the advent of Web 2.0, activists have used consumer-oriented social media tools to mobilize viewing publics and to archive their labor. Further, as Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory of Internet Activism posits, “Internet tools designed to let ordinary consumers publish non-political content are often useful for activists because they are difficult for governments to censor without censoring innocuous content.” Videographic activism that employs consumer tools for its spread, for example, has the ability to reach larger audiences and does not have to rely on untested technology for the spread of its media. So, the members of We Are Seneca Lake who are working tirelessly to protect the Finger Lakes region from becoming a fracked gas transportation and storage hub for the entire Northeast, use YouTube as a repository for videos that chronicle their movement.

YouTube switched its tagline from “Your Digital Video Repository” to “Broadcast Yourself” the year it was purchased by Google. The switch from emphasis on being an archive to being an exhibition space is reflected in the changes to its interface and its emphasis on recommended videos. Even as the site has become more invested in the promotion of revenue-generating personalization features, it has provided a space for the circulation and distribution of activist video content. And, the availability of that space facilitates activist labor in the digital age. But, the consumer-oriented, individually wrapped, exhibition interface with its ingratiating and coercive targeted personalizations affects the viewer experience of activist content by fragmenting attention and by offering the suggestion of curatorial choice where that choice is limited at best. It models a type of viewing that anticipates pliant consumers rather than activists. If we look to the protests of the We are Seneca Lake activists as a model of vital activism, we see the way that the YouTube interface’s promotion of ad-driven thumbnails drives attention and intention away from activist-driven linked hands.

Leah Shafer is an Associate Professor in the Media and Society Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where she teaches courses that explore the culture and history of television, film, advertising, and the Internet. Her criticism appears in journals including FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Afterimage, and Film Criticism as well as The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Media Quarterly, and Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier. A scholar/artist, she was recently awarded a research residency with the experimental media art collaborative Signal Culture, and her experimental documentary Declaration of Sentiments Wesleyan Chapel was included of the Iterations as Habitats exhibition of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.  

Unspreadable Media (Part Two): The Best LGBTQ Youth Videos are the Ones You’ll Probably Never See

Lauren S. Berliner

The Best LGBTQ Youth Videos are the Ones You’ll Probably Never See

My current research began in the fall of 2010, in the wake of the highly publicized suicides of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, and several other teens who had been bullied because they were perceived to be gay. At the time I was working with LGBTQ youth in a media production program that I had designed and was facilitating at a local teen center and was paying close attention to the rise of anti-gay-bullying discourse, and the ways in which spreadable youth-produced video was being exalted by educators, activists, and other allies a potentially emancipatory practice for LGBTQ youth.

Most notable has been the It Gets Better Project (IGBP) online video campaign, started by columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller, in which participants give personal testimonies that encourage struggling youth to believe that their circumstances will eventually improve. The premise of each video is that life as an LGBTQ youth is inherently filled with pain and oppression, but if you just hold on, it will get better.

We can see from the high numbers of views of IGBP videos and its derivatives that participation in this form of production means sharing the virtual stage with the likes of Pixar employees, celebrities, and even President Obama. .And when reviewing videos on YouTube we can see that some of the most circulated by LGBTQ youth around the world follow in the step with the IGBP narrative formula. 

Across the hundreds of related videos that exist online, there are striking consistencies in the message (‘stop bullying!’ or ‘hold on if you’re being bullied, life will get better!’), the positive tone, the call to action, and the digestible approach to the topic of violence and oppression. I will be referring to these kinds of videos as pedagogical videos, which I define as pedagogical. Pedagogical videos share the following characteristics:

  •  Social value is located in the content
  • Message-oriented (similar to broadcast PSA campaigns)
  • Aimed at enhancing LGBTQ visibility
  • Often based in oppression-based narrative
  • Aim to be highly spreadable

At present, the “success” of LGBTQ youth-produced pedagogical videos is measured by the extent of its circulation. When videos circulate widely through peer networks and achieve notoriety on a global scale, as many of the most famous LGBTQ youth videos have, one might assume there to be a straightforward connection between the video content and its social, cultural, and personal significance.

But one particular video, made in 2011 by 14-year-old Buffalo native Jamey Rodemeyer, prompted me to question this logic.

So, how to read this video? Jamey’s words claim empowerment, but perhaps you’ll agree that there is something unsettling here too, as if he is trying to convince himself that it gets better. Sadly, it’s hindsight that confirms this reading because just five months after posting the video, Jamey took his life.

Why would someone like Jamey produce a video like this that didn’t reflect his lived experience?

Jamey’s video prompts us to ask how the prerogatives of spreadable media shape, and potentially impede, a maker’s narrative and expressive possibilities. I would like to suggest that video production that is intended from the outset for wide circulation in the pursuit of visibility encourages youth like Jamey to participate in a particular set of production practices that risk masking their emotional and resource needs. 

If we examine the guidelines the It Gets Better Project provides its contributors we can see content normalization explicitly encouraged. These guidelines outline the visual and narrative parameters of successful (posts that won’t be blocked) video contributions. These sanitizing guides and requisite “positive tone” are likely motivated by practical concerns, such as a perceived danger of posting videos that suggest justifications and techniques for LGBTQ youth suicide. 

Contributors are offered advice on how to achieve the highest quality sound and lighting for their video. These aesthetic suggestions are based on a normative framing--the testimonial, seated, medium shot documentary style that Savage and Miller first initiated. It is assumes that contributors will be shooting in a similar fashion and tacitly encourages such emulation. In addition, the IGBP website suggests “talking points” that contributors should cover. The broad categories include “’Positive Messages of Hope for LGBTQ Youth,’ ‘Using Safe Messaging Practices,’ and ‘Suggested Resources, Help, and Support.’ The campaign requests that contributors seek to “inspire” young people, while staying “positive” and “uplifting” and avoiding any “language that could be interpreted as negative or that specifically mentions self-harm.”

Disqualified subjectivities or pathologized subject positions cannot be contained by this dominant narrative form. One’s participation in such a video, therefore, inevitably becomes a performance of a particular position with regards to the pain associated with (LGBTQ) youth and suicidal ideation. When one films, views, or circulates a pedagogical video, one identifies as the “not-bully,” “the ally,” or “the survivor” while also furthering a master narrative about LGBTQ experience. The dominant narrative circulating on YouTube about LGBTQ youth describes this demographic as especially vulnerable to violence (particularly bullying) and suicidal ideation, in part due to the ubiquity and reach of LGBTQ youth pedagogical videos like the It Gets Better Project. These videos eclipse other types of videos by and for LGBTQ youth that achieve less visibility online.

Yet when we disentangle the spread and mainstream visibility that pedagogical videos enjoy from the sheer number of videos that exist for and about LGBTQ youth, we begin to see a profuse and diverse representation of LGBTQ youth life that effectually counters the homogenizing, oppression-based narrative that the IGBP campaign and its derivatives further.

A second category of videos can therefore be characterized as more informal, improvisational, and typically posted for an already-invested local public of viewers (rather than an imagined, homogenous LGBTQ youth public). These videos, which I call performative, are characteristically disjointed, non-linear, and work against any particular script. In so doing, they direct the viewer away from notions of any essentialized interiority associated with being LGBTQ. So rather than describing a universal narrative of what it means to be LGBTQ, as pedagogical videos are apt to do, performative videos actively enact LGBTQ publics. Through a multiplicity of narratives, styles, tone, and genres, the sphere of LGBTQ legitimacy and identity is cast much wider. This is not to say that LGBTQ youth contributors to YouTube always produce videos with the explicit intention of providing counter-narratives, but rather, that the sheer range of content produced, in aggregate, provides a multiplicity of narratives and representations that in effect contradict any attempts to homogenize LBGTQ youth experience. Indeed the filming styles, content, metadata, and circulation of performative videos consummate LGBTQ youth publics online, and in turn complicate the proscribed, teleological narrative that the It Gets Better Project and similar pedagogical videos further. It thus moves us away from monolithic narratives rooted in violence and oppression and towards multiple narratives of possibility.

Here are some of the kinds of performative videos we can expect to find online:

Emo boy hair swoop and my coming out story

 They range from from local community collaborations, informal peer-education video blogs, videos shot in the home mode of production, to what I call “slam-book videos” based on the middle-school fad of group journaling to a set of open-ended questions. Taken together, performative LGBTQ youth videos confound the narrative of a singular public that IGBP seeks to cohere. In so doing, they point to different forms of queer sociality and futurity, evidencing multiple queer publics that are responsive to change and invested in transformation. To wit, these videos encourage alternative ways of thinking about the potential role of participatory video in the lives of LGBTQ youth. As the sheer variety of performative LGBTQ youth videos illustrate, YouTube is a site where marginal positions, narratives, and experiences are performed and circulated. These appear to emerge from local publics that have pre-existing audiences and knowledges that are embedded in the production process.

It is for these reasons, such videos rarely circulate beyond an already-invested viewership. This is in part due to the sheer ubiquity of videos online, but also because most of these videos do not follow the templates that seek to ensure spreadability, as the pedagogical ones do. 

But as local LGBTQ youth publics continue to utilize YouTube, the multiplicity of narratives, coalitions, symbolic representation and mimetic re-imaginings they create can help form the basis for transformative social change. These videos realize a world in which many other possibilities and ways of being LGBTQ emerge; de-emphasizing bullying, violence and suicidal ideation as the most legible, shared narrative.

Pedagogical videos require spreadability because their social value is imagined to be located in the content (a message). Performative videos, on the other hand, are typically more directed towards representing community and LGBTQ diversity, while activating local publics. Performative LGBTQ youth videos take many forms, reflecting the overall diversity of existing online production genres.

If pedagogical videos work to reinforce cohesive narratives about LGBTQ lives, LGBTQ youth video blogs (vlogs) and webcasts confound them. Whereas pedagogical videos ultimately work to fix particular kinds of understandings of what it means to be LGBTQ youth, performative videos reflect varied and sometimes even contradictory ways of identifying as LGBTQ. The range of video representations produce a diverse set of meanings about what it means to be LGBTQ and in effect, realizes the potential for joy, connection, and social action, often precluded by pedagogical videos that center around violence and oppression.  While violence and suicidal ideation are indeed very real concerns for the LGBTQ youth population, they are not necessarily central to, or definitive of, the experience of being a young LGBTQ person. In this way, performative videos challenge the pedagogical video genre’s ability to speak to and about LGBTQ youth. Performative videos position themselves less as panacea for LGBTQ youth pain, but rather as just one of many possible outlets for expression, social cohesion, and perhaps even reflexivity. These videos perform the narrative multiplicity that exists among and between LGBTQ youth and in so doing, encourage us to divest in the master narrative of oppression-based experience that is proffered by pedagogical videos such as those of the It Gets Better Project and recognize the heterogeneity in LGBTQ youth experience.

Lauren S. Berliner is Assistant Professor of Media & Communication Studies and Cultural Studies at University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches courses on media praxis and participatory media culture. She is also a filmmaker and the co-curator of The Festival of (In)Appropriation annual showcase of experimental media. Her forthcoming book, LGBTQ Youth and The Paradox of Digital Media Empowerment, combines participatory action research with LGBTQ youth media makers along with textual analysis of youth-produced videos to examine how youth negotiate the structural conditions of funding and publicity and incorporate digital self-representations into practices of identity management.  Her latest research is a collaboration with medical anthropologist Nora Kenworthy on a project that seeks to understand the phenomenon of crowdfunding for healthcare, focusing on how Americans are utilizing participatory media to solicit new forms of care and support.

Unspreadable Media (Part One): The Geographies of Public Writing

At the 2016 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Atlanta, I participated in a panel, “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead?: Finding Value and Meaning in Unspreadable Media”, which was chaired by Sam Ford and included perspectives by Lauren Berliner and Leah Shafer. The discussion which emerged there was highly generative, allowing Sam Ford and I to clarify and revisit some of the key assumptions behind our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society, and introducing us to the work of a new generation of researchers exploring the politics of circulation as it relates to civic and activist media. We hatched a scheme to translate the panel into a series of entries for my blog, where we could share and discuss our work. It’s taken longer than expected to get to this point, but over the next four posts, I am going to share the original papers presented at the conference, and then, we will share some reflections from the panelists about how their thinking has or has not shifted over the intervening months, especially in light of the election results this fall, which shook up so many of our assumptions about the state of American politics. I would welcome hearing from other researchers who are exploring some of these same questions through their work, as would the other panelists, so let us know what you think.


The Geographies of Public Writing: Genres of Participation and Circulation in Contemporary Youth Activism

By Henry Jenkins 

This essay is intended to map points of intersection between two of my books -- Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society (With Sam Ford and Joshua Green) and By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism (with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman). My goal here is to show the relationship between the concept of circulation discussed in Spreadable Media and the concept of mobilization discussed in By Any Media Necessary.

This essay is also inspired by John Hartley’s now classic essay, “The Frequencies of Public Writing,” which first appeared in my edited collection, Democracy and New Media.

“Time in communicative life can be understood not merely as a sequence but also in terms of frequency…Time and news are obviously bound up in each other. The commercial value of news is its timeliness.”-- John Hartley

John Hartley’s “The Frequencies of Public Writing” maps the different time scales upon which communication operates, with public writing being deployed to describe a broad range of forms of cultural production which seeks to inform and mobilize public thought. In the essay, Hartley defines “frequency” in terms of: 

  • The Speed of Creation: How long a text takes to be produced
  • Frequency of Circulation: Intervals between publication
  • The Wavelength of Consumption: How long before the text is superseded.

Hartley charts a spectrum of communicative frequencies which runs from the instantaneous to the eternal, a scale inspired in part by the focus on temporality and spatiality in the writings of Harold Innis.

Frequencies of public writing

  • Before the Event Previews, Leaks, Briefings, PR, "Spin"
  • High Frequency 
    • Instant/Second Internet, Subscription News: e.g., Matt Drudge; Reuters Financial TV,
    • Minute "Rolling Update" News: e.g., CNN, BBC-24/Choice, Radio 5-Live
    • Hour Broadcast News: e.g., CBS/ABC/NBC, ITN/BBC, Radio 4
    • Day Daily Press: e.g., The TimesNew York TimesSunNew York Post
    • Week Weekly Periodicals: e.g., TimeNew StatesmanHello!,National Enquirer
  • Mid-Frequency
    • Month Monthly Magazines: e.g., VogueCosmopolitanThe Face,Loaded
    • Quarter Scientific and Academic Journals: e.g., International Journal of Cultural Studies
    • Year Books, Movies, Television Series: e.g., Harry PotterStar WarsAlly McBeal   
  • Low Frequency  
    • Decade Scholarship, Contemporary Art: e:g, "definitive" works, textbooks, dictionaries, portraiture, fashionable artists  
    • Century Building, Statue, Canonical Literature: e.g., Sydney Opera House, war memorials, Shakespeare
    • Millennium Temple, Tomb: e.g., Parthenon, Pyramids
    • Eternity Ruins, Reruns: e.g., Stoneh

Innis, as we discussed in Spreadable Media, identifies the “biases” of different historical cultures in terms of the ability to spread information rapidly across large distances (those based around Papyrus) and the ability to preserve information unchanged across large spans of time (those based around marble). Hartley’s model, on the other hand, is based on genres, with contemporary cultures developing a broader array of different forms of communication which allow them to circulate information over different geographic scales and preserve information across different chronological scales.  

Hartley’s use of the term circulation above reflects a classical understanding of the concept which stresses the intended or achieved audience for mass-produced content. In Spreadable Media, we adopt a somewhat different use of the term to refer to the hybrid systems --partially top down, partially bottom up -- through which content spreads within an era of social media, a term we use in contrast with distribution, which describes the now mostly corporate and planned mechanisms for spreading content.

Hartley is interested in the ways that different genres of public writing contribute to the development of core civic identities and basic social agencies, the ways that our ability to act as citizens is bound up with the circulation of information. Hartley writes, “Once virtualized, a sense of civic or national identity is also rendered portable.  It can be taken to all comers by contemporary media, which is centrifugal, radiating outward to find spatially dispersed addresses—the ‘imagined community’—at any moment.”

 Hartley’s use of the term, “imagined community,” here is helpful, evoking Benedict Anderson who also had developed a conceptual framework for thinking about acts of publication and forms of collective identification. His best known example is the ways that the London Times developed a collective sense of belonging across the British Empire. For now, we can think of the global reach of the British Empire, then, as representing perhaps our most expansive understanding of the scale on which public writing can occur.  

To adapt a more recent example, we might think about Michelle Obama’s participation in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign directed against Boko Haram. Here, the first lady of the United States deployed social media, participating in a popular form of hashtag activism, in order to send a message to a terrorist group operating in Nigeria, relayed along the way informally via social media platforms and formally via more traditional news media.

Write here...

As we suggest in By Any Media Necessary, such exchanges, which require the active mobilization of large communities of people and often creative acts to repurpose and reframe existing memes, might best be understood in the more active sense of imagining communities rather in Anderson’s more passive formulation, imagined communities.

Another spectacular example of global or at least transnational circulation of information was Kony 2012, a public awareness campaign conducted by the organization, Invisible Children, in order to call attention to the activities of an African warlord known for his ruthless efforts to kidnap children from villages in Uganda and turn them into soldiers in his resistance movement. As Sangita Shresthova discusses in By Any Media Necessary, Kony 2012 helps us to understand the consequences of a dramatic shift in the geographies of public writing. The campaign’s organizers had estimated that the video might reach as many as half a million viewers over roughly two months of circulation; instead, it spread to more than 100 million viewers during its first week.   

The organization was in no way ready for this level of circulation, which had destructive effects in both the short run and the long run. In the short run, the expanded circulation crashed their servers, brought the messages to many unintended audiences, rushed ahead of their efforts to build web resources around the campaign, lead to the nervous breakdown of the organization’s leader. As the group’s leaders circled the wagons to deal with the crisis, many of the more outlying participants were ill-prepared to respond to the backlash the video would generate. The group had felt so strongly that their message was “common sense” that they did not train members to anticipate and respond to objections. In the longer term, the high visibility of this one message led many to imagine the group was more fully established than it was, and as a consequence, donations slowed as many assumed the group no longer needed their support.

The example of Kony 2012 illustrates two potential negative consequences of the unpredictable nature of today’s circulation practices: The Digital Afterlife,a term coined by Lissa Soep, refers to media content that remains in circulation longer than intended and thus re-emerges in unanticipated contexts. For example, in the case of Kony 2012, photographs of the IC leaders taken during an earlier trip to Africa and showing them holding machine guns were rediscovered and turned into a meme that was deployed to ridicule their self-aggrandizing tendencies. We might think of this problem as arising from shifting temporalities of communication. On the other hand, danah boyd and Alice Marwick, among others, have used the term, “context collapse,” to refer to what happens when a message travels beyond its intended audience, a problem having to do with the geographies of public writing. In this case, IC had intended the Kony 2012 message as helping to mobilize a community that they had already initiated into their movement through previous grassroots recruitment efforts at schools, college campuses, and churches. As the message reached many more who did not understand the group’s history and mission, there were questions raised the group was unprepared to answer. Or consider, for example, what happened when the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, posted on line to be shared with worshippers in his congregation, became more widely spread and surfaced as a divisive issue in Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency.  

There has been a tendency, as people have read Spreadable Media, to assume that the only communicative acts that matter are those which occur on this most expansive scale -- in part because, as Sam Ford suggests here, we still tend to measure success according to the standards of the broadcast or mass media paradigm. Yet, in fact, meaningful communication can occur on the hyperlocal scale -- so imagine a high school newspaper or a website focused on sharing the news of people living in a particular apartment building or neighborhood. Here, the scale of circulation is much more limited, but still reaches the local audience for which the information was intended, and this exchange can have the desired result of mobilizing people to act on their shared interests and producing a collective civic identity. So, rather than assume all public writing today is designed to reach the largest possible audience, we might assume organizations are making choices about how wide a geographic reach they hope to achieve, albeit choices that can not be enforced upon those circulating their content given the dual threats of digital afterlife and content collapse. 

Such intentions about the scale and speed of circulation, about temporal and geographic dimensions of public writing, might be understood as one aspect of what social scientists have begun to describe as “genres of participation.” As Marie Dufrasne and Geoffrey Patriarche tell us, genres of participation refer to “a type of communicative action recognized by a community…as appropriate to attain a specific objective.” Genres of participation express “collective convictions” by describing particular sets of actions (in this case, communicative practices) which provide templates that can be performed by diverse sets of participants. These genres of participation address central questions regarding why, how, what, who/m, when, and where. These genres of participation provide those who join these actions with a sense of shared purpose and practice, increasing their sense of collective civic agency.  Consider, for example, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which offered a script to participants in terms of what actions should be taken, what messages should be delivered, how this media should be directed towards particular networks, how to motivate those who receive the message to re-perform and recirculate the message, etc. As a result, this communicative action reached very large scales of participation and raised massive amounts of money for its cause. While there was some degree of social embarrassment built into the Ice Bucket Challenge, it was ultimately designed to be understood and embraced across diverse communities and networks.

By comparison, in her research on the Nerdfighters, a youth movement that grew up around the online personalities, John and Hank Green, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik encountered examples of much more localized genres of participation. For example, young people often produced videos addressing political topics while spreading peanut butter on their faces, a gesture meaningful within their subculture but that limited the comprehensibility of the message to the outside world, especially in terms of institutionalized authorities who might have the capacity to act upon their social concerns. This is a genre of participation, then, which strengthens ties within a community but does not serve its cause as it spreads beyond its intended context.  

Of course, the expansion of genres of participation do not always bring about negative effects or insure incomprehension. #Itooamharvard was initially a hyperlocal genre, as Harvard students of color were photographed holding signs that shared negative, stereotypical, and hyper-aggressive comments directed against them on the basis of their race, gender, or sexuality during their time on campus. The goal was to stir debate about campus climate at a specific location, but the template for this activity has proven highly generative (resulting in similar efforts on many different college campus), especially at a time when campus climate issues are gaining greater visibility across the country.  

This concept of genres of participation helps us to distinguish between campaigns which are directed inward towards would-be participants who already see themselves as part of a specific community and those which are directed outward towards a more generalized public. For example, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik’s account of fan activism in By Any Media Necessary makes a core distinction between fannish civics (where elements of fictional storyworlds are deployed in ways that depend on the deep expertise of the fan community) and cultural acupuncture (where campaigns tap more broadly recognized aspects of popular franchises in order to create more generalized interest.) She locates examples of both sets of practices within campaigns conducted by the Harry Potter Alliance, Imagine Better, and the Nerdfighters.

Some groups increase their leverage the more visible their public writing becomes, often seeking to expand beyond an initiated dedicated core to signal more widespread support (through retweets, for example) as they seek to move a more powerful institution. Consider, for example, #iftheyshouldgunmedown, a protest effort that emerged in the wake of the Ferguson shootings.

The group wanted to call out the news media for choices it made in how it chose to represent the victims of police violence, in particular the tendency to use “thugish” images to illustrate their stories, images selected from a broad range of representations of these young men and women found within their social media flows.  This effort provided participant with a clear template for what they were meant to do: each participant selected two photographs, one that might be seen as grubby, the other as more respectable, which were tweeted together to illustrate that the same person might adopt a range of personas across their everyday interactions. The goal was to let the news media know that there was broad disappointment across their community about their selective bias.

Yet, for many activist groups, there is also a risk that comes from expanded circulation.  Arley Zimmerman and Liana Gamber-Thompson have documented in By Any Media Necessary the efforts of the DREAMers, undocumented youth fighting for greater educational and citizenship rights, to use confessional videos to expand their reach. As their movement began, many potential participants did not know each other because they were hiding their immigration status, so the practice of “coming out” via a video and in the process, telling their stories, was seen as an effective tool for fostering solidarity. The videos also had a positive impact in that they could be circulated within a range of other communities and networks to which these youth claimed affiliation. Most Americans did not know they knew anyone who was undocumented so hearing stories of people who shared their interests or backgrounds, people who they might already know, helped to pull many new supporters to the cause.

But the more widely the videos circulated, the more likely they were to have negative effects, since coming out exposed undocumented people to greater scrutiny from immigration authorities or left them vulnerable to third parties who might report or harass them.  Here, expanded circulation, then, is a mixed blessing, and the group hoped to direct the flow in such a way to maximize benefits and minimize risks.

Sangita Shresthova identifies similar tensions between the desire to bring their message to more diverse audiences and anxieties about forms of surveillance brought about by such exposure that shaped the communication practices she observed amongst American Muslim youth  (another case study in By Any Media Necessary). Often, the result was a series of lurches as participants pushed for expanded reach during what they felt were relatively safe times and more constructed circulation during times of heightened risk and scrutiny (for example, following the Boston Bombing).

Just as the same culture may support communication with different degrees of frequency, each serving different functions, the same social movement may develop practices intended to reach different geographies of circulation, sometimes even using the same platforms to post and spread their content. So, a recent study of the Occupy Movement’s use of social media, found tens of thousands of videos posted on YouTube and publicized through Twitter and Facebook. In some cases, these videos reached only a small number of viewers, since the movement was using YouTube, in these instances, primarily as an archival media rather than as a mechanism for publicity. Videos might be posted to allow people at different Occupy sites to share practices or report on outcomes, thus the scale of exchange was modest, reaching only people already known by the video’s producers. In other cases, though, YouTube videos reached a much wider circulation, since the movement was using the platform as an alternative mechanism for reaching the public at a time when their protests were receiving only limited attention through the mainstream media. Many of the videos fall someplace in between: the potential of broader reach, of context collapse and digital afterlife, surrounded all of these videos, but in practice, only certain videos broke free of their intended spread.

Much more research and reflection needs to take place before we can develop a map of the potential geographies of media circulation that are as robust as Hartley’s chart of the frequencies of public writing. I hope that in tapping some of the cases we’ve identified around our book, By Any Media Necessary, I’ve modeled what such an analysis might look like. The first step is recognizing that people intend their public writings to reach communities on a variety of scales and that negative consequences can occur when they move beyond their intended audience. 

The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part Three)

Late in the book, you consider Trump and his alt-right supporters. What can the book’s approach teach us about the newly elected American President and his often trollish conduct online and off. Even his supporters are telling us we should not take what he says, for example, in his tweets “literally” and suggesting that his words might better be understood “symbolically,” phrases that evoke the questions around authenticity and sincerity that run across your book.

Fun story: we hadn’t set out to write much about Trump. In fact in the book’s first draft, due to the press in June 2016, he was merely one among many public figures in the chapter on public debate. But as we revised the book during the late summer and early fall of 2016, Trump’s campaign took one bewildering, ominous turn after another. Trump’s behavior had always been…Trump’s behavior, but the things he was doing and saying were aligning more and more conspicuously with our underlying arguments. 

So we felt we had to carve out more space for his campaign, even if revisions at that point were meant to be light. We’re sure this drove our editor crazy, since we were making updates—often major ones, including discussion of the infamous Access Hollywood tape—as she was busy making her own editing passes of our manuscript (sorry Leigh). 

Working frantically to keep up, we asked if we could turn in the final edited draft by noon on November 9th (one day after the U.S. election, and one day after our original deadline) because we wanted to include the results. And then we all know what happened next. Trump the candidate—and we readily admit that we were writing about him assuming he would only ever be a candidate—became Trump the President. But that was it; we were out of time. We were also at a point in the process where we couldn’t impact existing pagination, or else we’d risk missing our spring publication window. Our compromise with the press was to change a handful of verb tenses, tinker with the structure of a few paragraphs, and insert a shellshocked footnote. And that’s how we accidentally wrote a political time capsule. 

Of course, subsequent months would reveal just how much overlap there was between Trump the President and the book’s main points. The most striking of these, as we’ve since argued, is the fact that Trump takes Poe’s Law to the highest office of the land; Trump is the Poe’s Law president. Who knows if he’s saying things because he believes them to be true, if he’s sowing calculated disinformation, if he’s just ranting about whatever’s on the television, or if he is, and we say this with some trepidation, “just trolling.” The fact that what Trump says may or may not be a lie, or at least may or may not be earnestly meant in the moment, is what makes figuring out how to respond to him so difficult. 

For us, and just as it is when confronted by Yiannopoulos’ logical gymnastics (“We’re obviously just joking, so the joke’s on you if you take us seriously, but also, please take us seriously, because the entire joke hinges on you not thinking it’s a joke”), the trick isn’t figuring out what Trump really means. Whether Trump and the administration more broadly is, to quote a recent game (“game”) played by Foreign Affairs, “stupid or nefarious?” (alternatively, “Veep or House of Cards?”), the result is the same. And so the result should be the focus. 

What do you see as some of the core tensions or fault lines within online political discourse? How does this reflect structural and systemic issues in contemporary democracy in this country?

As we maintain in the book, many of the tensions cited as unique to online spaces are so much bigger and so much older than the internet. The overlap between then and now, online and offline, is particularly striking when considering online political discourse. It is tempting, for example, to argue that online hostility, presumably caused by anonymity (or at least the ability to hide behind a computer screen), is why, to quote the title of Phillips’ book, we can’t have nice things

Before Twitter was even a gleam in the President’s eye, however, the American political system had long been marred by precisely the kind of antagonism, impoliteness, and incivility presumed to be the purview of internet pot-stirrers, as politicianspundits, and private citizens alike stooped to a whole spectrum of identity-based antagonisms and schoolyard absurdities. It is also tempting to argue that the 2016 election was evidence of, to quote Milner’s book, a world made meme

On this point, we actually agree. But as we explained in an essay directly following the election, it wasn’t internet memes—like Ken Bone’s sweaterMarco Rubio’s baby chair, or Ted Cruz’ alleged serial murders—that most conspicuously characterized the election. It was age-old memes—regressive stereotypes, blinding misogyny, blanket anti-elitism, and good old fashioned fear of the other—that made 2016 the meme election. Digital media certainly influenced what people were able to share with whom and how, and what the stakes of that sharing might have been. 

But overestimating the role the online plays in online political discourse, in this election or any election, overlooks the fact that these discourses are, first and foremost, a reflection of the broader world that contains the internet, not a reflection of the internet that is somehow detachable from the broader world. Underscoring the point that incivility and misinformation are people problems, not strictly platform problems, a recent Pew report found that a whopping 40 percent of Trump voters cite Fox News as their main source of election information. 

Given the network’s obvious role as a right wing spin machine, its dominance suggests that even if it were possible to eradicate fake news online, there are much deeper wells of misinformation. Failing to address those wells, and further, failing to address the reasons why certain stories resonate with certain audiences, means concerns over fake news online can only ever be concern over symptoms, not causes. 

Of course, online political discourse is also subject to its own specific tensions; the “brave new world” side of the “nothing new under the sun” coin. Digital spaces and tools—from entire social networking platforms to these platforms’ specific affordances to the overall ability to search for indexed content, and on and on—have an immediately democratizing effect, allowing people from across the globe to connect with the issues, media, and people most important to them. These spaces and tools also have an immediately destabilizing effect, as they allow antagonists to find what they want, and who they want, often as quickly as they want. 

Ditto for the flow of information: the same online communication channels that can shed light on an issue or clarify the facts, the same channels that allow average citizens to participate in unfolding news stories, not just consume them, can utterly muddle the facts through the spread of false information and targeted media manipulation (see Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis for their analysis related to the 2016 election). 

This results in an internet that is equally capable of empowering and diminishing not just voice, but a basic sense of grounded, shared truth. Donald Trump and #ResistTrump, white nationalism and Black Lives Matter, falsity and truth—online all can correspondingly thrive, as participants use the same platforms, the same tools, the same materials, the same memes, the same everything, to accomplish their objectives. The only consistent difference is what impact these behaviors have, outcomes themselves dependent on an audience whose bounds can’t easily be parsed, whose identities can’t easily be tracked, and whose motives can’t easily be known.

As you note, some groups have different access to power and privilege which shape what gives them Lulz and what they can and do say online. A high percentage of the jokes you reference here are misogynistic, suggesting how often online culture gets directed against women, issues that have surfaced especially powerfully around recent online trends such as #gamergate. How might we apply your theories and methods to understanding the kind of popular misogyny that fuels this movement?

To appreciate the full impact of misogynist hate and harassment campaigns like Gamergate, you have to consider just how far back misogynist hate and harassment goes. This speaks, again, to the kinds of narrative seeds that folklore has cast across the generations. Pre-internet urban legends—stories presented as true accounts of things that happened in another town over, or to a friend of a friend—are one outcropping of such culturally normalized sexism. As we explore in the book, many urban legends are outright misogynist, for example the countless stories (some with direct ATU prototypes) of women and girls meeting gruesome fates for not adhering to expectations for how “good girls” behave, namely demurely—itself echoing a millenias-old injunction against women asserting themselves, especially in public

Other motifs are more subtle, but still maintain rigid gender hierarchies, including the tendency for women in these legends to be punished far more often than their male counterparts for stepping out of line, to be placed in constant danger, often requiring protection by men from the men that seek to harm them, and to be sexually pathologized at almost every turn, exponentially more often than men, whose sexual appetites are framed as natural. In short, what unfolded during Gamergate is much, much older and much, much deeper than Gamergate. Gamergate, like the memes Trump successfully harnessed, is a genetic outcropping of all the seeds that have come before. 

Claims about the pervasiveness of misogynist motifs, whether subtle or explicit, online or off, might seem at odds with earlier claims about the difficulty of positing the meaning and intention of folkloric expression. Our analysis is not a post-structuralist free for all, however; you don’t lose the ability to make claims (in our case, explicitly feminist and anti-racist claims) just because some of the data is unavailable. Personal meaning might be impossible to universalize, individual motives might be impossible to verify, but even then it is possible to extrapolate broader collective resonance from what is most frequently shared by individuals; if it doesn’t spread it’s dead, indeed. 

It is also possible to show how the recasting of these old seeds further clog the atmosphere with misogynist (or racist, or xenophobic, or anti-Semitic) messaging. This brings us right back to the claim that folklore is always a reflection of the culture in which it flourishes. It is critical to focus on the specific unfolding folkloric traditions themselves, and to explain as much about these traditions and their audiences as possible. But the question folklore ultimately addresses is what ends up being reflected, and how the reflections of today are rendered all the brighter, all the harsher, all the more revealing, when considered alongside the reflections of the past.

Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies,and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University’s Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.

The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part Two)

Much academic work on digital culture focuses on questions of meaning, yet as you note, it is often hard, if not impossible, to determine meaning and intent within online spaces and some of the groups you study refuse to ascribe meaning or sentiment to their otherwise overwrought content. So, if meaning is not your focus, what is?

Not being able to objectively confirm meaning or intent—even in individual instances of remix or sharing, to say nothing about the assessment of an entire memetic life cycle—might seem like a research roadblock. It certainly can be frustrating, particularly when the goal is to push back against a false claim or expose (what appears to be) a coordinated hoax, like the White Student Union Facebook groups. At the same time, not knowing who created what, what the(se) creator(s) meant to accomplish, or what a given text “really” means, forces one to stay empirical and focus on the things that can be known and confirmed. These questions can focus on logistic issues, like where the participation occurred and over what time period the resulting folklore traveled. 

Most critically when considering identity-based harassment, these questions can also focus on political and ideological issues. For example, who was empowered to speak as a result of an action, and who was silenced or minimized? Was this speech an instance of punching up, in which underrepresented groups were empowered to speak truth (and/or snark) to power? Or was it punching down, in which members of dominant groups further minimized already marginalized identities? What existing cultural norms were reinforced and what cultural norms were challenged? 

These questions are particularly helpful when attempting to unpack antagonisms that are—or seem to be, or are claimed to be, big question mark—couched in irony. White nationalists operating under the euphemistic banner of the alt-right as well as fascist apologists like Milo Yiannopoulos are conspicuous proponents of this approach. We don’t buy it, though. Whatever someone is trying to accomplish, however thick the layers of “lulz” they claim to be antagonizing under, does not matter to the final analysis. 

What matters to the final analysis is what seeds a person casts into the air. In the case of white nationalist antagonisms, these are seeds of bigotry and hatefulness. The more of these seeds there are, for whatever reason they may have been thrown, the more clogged the atmosphere becomes. And the more likely, in turn, that everyday people will end up with an itchy eyeful. 

Ultimately, this is the benefit of the ambivalence frame, and employing agnosticism when considering  motive. Saying that something can go either way, or has gone either way, or could go either way, might be true, but such a framing doesn’t—such a framing can’t—posit any further universalizing, broad stroke conclusions about any inherent personal or textual meaning. Whatever conclusions there are to draw hinge, necessarily, on what happens next. 

You explore throughout precedences for contemporary digital culture genres and practices within earlier moments of the history of folklore, but there is also a sense here that it matters that this is taking place through digital media. In what ways does the digital matter? What would surprise Alan Dundes were he to be able to read your book?

We’d frankly be surprised if any of the case studies we featured in the book surprised Dundes, who justified his 1966 analysis of latrinalia, i.e. anonymous bathroom scrawlings, by asserting that “the study of man must include all aspects of human activity.” Nor can we imagine he’d be surprised by the similarities between contemporary internet folklore and the folklore he collected in the latter half of the 20th century. People exhibited very familiar WTF-ness long before they were making internet memes. Indeed if there’s one thing that remains true across eras, it’s that human beings are pretty strange creatures, however or wherever this humanity unfolds.

Dundes’ and Carl Pagter’s 1975 study of Xeroxlore—jokes and images spread between and across American offices via copy machine in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s—provides one example of this overlap. A year before Richard Dawkins even coined the term meme, Dundes and Pagter were describing precisely the same kinds of memetic processes underscoring the quirky, crass jokes that have become so prevalent online. Like memetic jokes shared on the internet today, the humor of Xeroxlore stemmed from its resonant reappropriation. Office memos were cut and pasted together to mock incompetent bosses; existing “dumb blonde” jokes evolved into  “dumb secretary” jokes with the intent of demeaning a specific coworker, entire gender, or both at once; and sexually explicit drawings of pop culture staples like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, or Charlie Brown and Lucy, were traced, retraced, photocopied, and passed around with great aplomb. 

Trust us, anything you’ve done to PBS’s Arthur has been done by your memetic forebearers.       

But of course there’s an equally strong counterpoint (ambivalence and all). Age-old folk practices, and the age-old ambivalence that characterizes these practices, are sent careening into overdrive thanks to the affordances of digital media. The fact that it is exponentially easier now to find, modify, and share a specific text or image, coupled with the fact that more people have more access to the tools required for remix and poaching (these days you don’t have to be a white-collar office worker to degrade Wile E. Coyote), exponentially accelerates the spread and audience of ambivalent folkloric expression. For example, as prevalent—and potentially scandalous—as prurient Looney Tunes Xeroxlore may have been in certain offices in 1960s and 70s, lewd Arthur content become so prominent so quickly across so many different social media platforms in the summer of 2016 that the show’s producers had to issue a statement asking people to cut it out

People, of course, did not, and news stories about the statement only amplified the practice further. Such amplification also affords rampant decontextualization, in this particular case and more broadly. Xeroxlore certainly ripped texts from their original contexts, but still tended to ground those reappropriations within smaller, more insular, word of mouth collectives. 

Internet memes, on the other hand, can very visibly and very publicly turn someone from an actual person into an abstracted, fetishized object of laughter. Just ask anyone who’s ever become “internet famous” by virtue of someone else taking the wrong photo of them at the wrong time. That notoriety can spiral out in frightening ways, sometimes instantaneously. That is the one thing that might come as a surprise to Dundes, or any folklorist who worked in a pre-internet context. 

Embodied folklore like latrinalia, denigrating jokes, and workplace hijinks certainly had their own problems—ones Dundes assesses thoroughly—but the ethical stakes shift when those practices can spin hopelessly out of control with a few clicks of a button.

Are people often too nostalgic in their understanding of traditional folklore, given what you tell us here, that 80 percent of it is obscene? What are the consequences of this overly romantic conception of the folk?

When people talk about traditional folklore, a few things tend to happen. First, the word “traditional” is often used interchangeably with “old” (rather than with the act of passing down cultural elements to the next generation, which technically can happen across era and media). Second, these traditions—from dances to foodways to oral traditional tales—are frequently lauded as being purer or at least more authentic than contemporary mass mediated culture. This contrast is especially pronounced alongside assumptions about digital media, and how thanks to the internet, or anonymity, or Facebook, or whatever, everything is terrible now. 

The fact is, things were just as ambivalent back in the presumably halceon pre-industrial days as they are in our contemporary world. Yes the tools of communication are different. Yes these tools affect ethical stakes. But folklore didn’t suddenly get obscene or weird or harmful because it was mediated through a screen. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale-type index, a massive collection of the most successful narrative elements in the history of human storytelling. As we discuss in the book, much of the content collected in the ATU—including stories of violence, murder, corpse-eating, assaultive sentient skulls, and various sexual grotesqueries—would be right at home on any 4chan thread. Much of the content collected in the ATU would also be immediately recognizable as the basis for literally every Disney princess movie (here’s some background on Beauty and the Beast, one of countless “animal as bridegroom” narratives collected in the ATU). 

Placing pre-modern folklore in its own little box risks downplaying these points of continuity. Again, yes, there are significant differences between folklore now and folklore from two hundred years ago. But as much as ours is a brave new world, there is also nothing new under the sun. The same tensions—between formal and populist elements, between the laughing us and the marginalized them, between those whose voices carry the loudest and those who fight every day to be heard—remain as pervasive as they ever were. 

Considering how and why helps isolate the cultural elements that are truly new, and what the implications of that newness might be. Folkloric nostalgia has a much more insidious consequence, however. The assumption that pre-industrial folklore was reflective of a simpler, purer past overlooks the kinds of regressive, damaging seeds—from racism to xenophobia to homophobia to breathtaking levels of paternalism and misogyny—these stories cast. 

Not just then, however, but now; contemporary stories across a variety of media continue to employ regressive folkloric elements, even those—like Disney’s latest crop of seemingly more progressive princess movies—that don’t as obviously forward problematic ideologies. These seeds are so densely concentrated, yet are such a common sight, that it is easy to mistake them for air. When restricted just to fictional narratives, these clouds might seem like nothing to worry about. 

Just whiffs of folkloric tradition; how quaint. Narratives aren’t just the stories we tell, however. Narratives are how we see the world. So when someone like Donald Trump shows up with the political equivalent of a box of Miracle Gro, feeding into too many people’s fears of the other, the different, the screw-em-they’re-not-me, then suddenly all these clouds of seeds take on a much darker cast.      

Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies,and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University’s Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.

The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part One)

Two of the most promising young scholars writing about digital culture today -- Whitney Phillips (This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture) and Ryan M. Milner (The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media) -- have collaborated to produce an important new book that is being released this week -- The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online. They are making a case for why folklore studies might provide us the conceptual tools we need to make sense of some of the most peculiar, twisted, perplexing, and problematic dimensions of contemporary online culture. I feel a certain sense of pride in what Phillips accomplishes here, having first met her when she was a somewhat befuddled graduate student, featuring her work on my blog and via our Spreadable Media website, and having provided her with mentorship off and on through the years. With her first book, Phillips has already displayed a nuanced understanding of people and practices that others would have dismissed with a well situated swat of the hand: instead, she helps us to understand what motivates trolling, how it is integrated into a much larger set of media practices (including those shaping professional journalism), and why it matters. This work seems all the more urgent as Trump and his minions, who in many ways embody aspects of the trolling subculture, has taken over the White House, with his disruptive tweets and outrageous claims.

I am just getting to know Milner but I am definitely going to keep my eyes on him from here.  Milner's work on memes as political speech is every bit as subtle and every bit as urgent, so I was excited to see what would happen as they join forces.

The resulting work is accessible to a broad range of audiences (including, of course, our undergraduates) so it is sure to be widely adopted as a textbook: it combines a rich gloss on existing literature in folklore with case studies drawn from the two researchers' own research.

In the interview that follows over the next three posts, I will grill them about both the larger methodological implications of this project and some of the particulars of their case studies. Both brought their A-game to this exchange, so look forward to some thinky responses.

The concept of ambivalence seems to be cropping up everywhere in contemporary cultural theory and appropriately it gets used to mean a wide variety of things. What aspects of ambivalence do you mean to evoke in the title of your book?

Our use of the ambivalence framework evolved out of what we thought we wanted to write a book about—online behavior that wasn’t entirely positive or entirely negative. We were thinking the title would be something like Between Play and Hate, to reflect that in-between nature. But as we started sifting through possible case studies, both online and off, we realized that so much of what we were looking at wasn’t cleanly falling within those bounds. Much more often, the behaviors in question were positive (world building, identity-reinforcing, fun) for those participating, and negative (alienating, identity-antagonising, upsetting or just plain annoying) for outsiders. And a whole range of reactions along that good/bad spectrum, as different groups encoded different meanings onto different texts for different reasons, for better and for worse and everything in between.

The simultaneity of these reactions, and fact that one couldn’t be designated as the definitive account, brought us to the concept of ambivalence. Not the colloquial sense of the term, which is more closely aligned with indecision (“Meh I’m ambivalent about going out to dinner; I’d be fine either way”) or ambiguity (“I’m not sure what they mean; it’s a pretty ambivalent message”). Rather we approached the term etymologically, with particular emphasis on that Latinate prefix ambi-, meaning “both, on both sides.” Coupled with its valeo root, meaning strong (think “valor”), ambivalence as we employ it is strong tension between opposing forces. So when we say that a particular behavior, message, or tool is ambivalent, we mean that it is equally capable of helping and harming, making laugh and making angry, and being both vessel for diverse expression and hindrance to diverse expression. In a way it takes on a verb’s role, implying a polysemic social process. This framing underscores our broader point that, when it comes to digital media, there are no easy solutions, and no simplistic, one-size-fits-all answers to pressing questions about free speech, collective participation, and basic safety—because these media don’t just go either way, they can go any way all at once, depending who might be participating, how, and why.

You also suggest here that the internet researcher needs a certain amount of ambivalence to pursue their work, suggesting the ethical choices that get made about what content to discuss often fall at fault lines between concerns about amplifying content that can cause harm or pain and the desire to critique and explain content that might otherwise be taken for granted. What insights does this work offer about how researchers navigate those ethical challenges? On what basis did you decide which cases to discuss here, what images to use, etc., issues you flag consistently across the book?

First, we’d back up and say that these questions aren’t solely the purview of internet scholars. Researchers exploring fully embodied folk practices have faced similar kinds of conundrums in their studies of bigoted, offensive, or otherwise ambivalent cultural content, for example Alan Dundes’ analyses (one conducted with Thomas Hauschild in 1983 and another with Uli Linke in 1988) of Auschwitz jokes popular in post-WWII Germany. As Dundes concedes, publishing these kinds of jokes continues their circulation, and risks further normalizing their bigotries. But not publishing would mean that the jokes couldn’t be held up to the full light of reason, with the implicit assumption that fresh air disinfects.

The same sorts of debates unfold around digital content, though with markedly heightened stakes: unlike the paper-copy, somewhat access-restricted academic studies Dundes was describing (i.e. his own articles, which no offense to Dundes weren’t exactly the hottest new trend for America’s teens), potentially destructive folklore can travel so much further and so much faster online than in embodied contexts. More problematically, this folklore is so much more easily unmoored from its original analytic context, whether academic or popular press; any published account collating and critiquing bigoted expression can be instantaneously employed as remix fodder for further bigotries. This is the main problem with listicle-type articles that collect the best (i.e. worst) examples of specific racist memes or disaster jokes or instances of antagonism. It puts the content in front of so many more eyeballs, and such a range of eyeballs at that, allowing for an equally broad range of remix and play.

As a result, we maintain (surprise) an ambivalent perspective on issues of amplification. We emphatically maintain that identity-based hate, harassment, and violence—and we’ll go right for an objectivist moral claim—is wrong. Not speaking out against these kinds of injustices risks signaling complicity (“you folks are on your own”), and might even facilitate further injustice. Buying into either option is morally irresponsible. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know when and if and how amplification, even with the very best, most earnest intentions, will ultimately make a problem worse, say by extending the half life of a story, or attracting more participants to a coordinated harassment campaign, as was Phillips’ concern in the wake of the sustained attacks against comedian Leslie Jones.

In short, by amplifying hateful content, particularly online, you never know whose water you might inadvertently end up carrying—a fact that should give everyone, and not just researchers, pause about how or if to respond to hateful content. As this relates to the book, we did our best to weigh the potential costs (amplified exposure or harm) against the potential benefits (amplified pushback against injustice) of including specific examples. And when we felt that discussing a case was warranted, like the attacks against Jones, we were careful to approach the people affected holistically—not as dry case studies to analyze, but as fully fleshed out individuals with friends and families and feelings. We may not have struck this balance perfectly every time, but we did our best to pay attention.

This book can be read as an introduction to core concepts in folklore studies and a demonstration of how they can be applied to digital culture. What do you see as the value of this disciplinary approach as opposed to, say, one grounded in cultural studies?

First and most basically, what’s happening on the internet—all the situated vernacular, all the creative expression, all the remix, all the slang; every in-joke and hashtag and portmanteau—is folklore; it’s exactly the sort of traditional expression (that is to say, expression that communicates traditional cultural elements, i.e. passes traditions along) that folklorists have focused on for over a century. Because folklore is what’s happening on the internet, folkloric approaches provide an obvious lens for exploring the internet—an opinion many folklorists share, as illustrated here by Lynne McNeill and here by Robert Glenn Howard. There are, as a result, all kinds of useful folkloric tools to employ when analyzing online behavior, including Dundes’ discussion of amplification, Toelken’s twin laws of conservatism and dynamism, Brunvand’s multiple variation, Oring’s appropriate incongruity, the list goes on and on.

The usefulness of folkloric tools runs much deeper than their applicability to online spaces. They are useful, much more significantly, because of why these tools were developed in the first place—namely, to contend with the fact that the lore of the folk has always been deeply, intractably, often head-explodingly ambivalent. At the most basic level, folklore is ambivalent because, to quote the ubiquitous folklorist Alan Dundes, it’s “always a reflection of the age in which it flourishes,” for better and for worse and for everything in between.

This isn’t the only source of folklore’s ambivalence. Because folkloric expression falls outside of or stands in some degree of conflict with formal culture, a significant percentage of this expression is quite literally not safe for work (or school, or church, or any other seat of institutional power); American folklorist Barre Toelken, for example, estimates that up to 80% of folkloric content is obscene, or at least would be regarded as such by outsiders looking in. Toelken wrote this in the 90s, and was referring to fully embodied behaviors. But the fact that folklorists have been exploring subversive, difficult, profane, and, sure, weird* behavior for generations, and furthermore, because these studies have focused specifically on the ebb and flow of traditions between and across social collectives, the discipline of folklore is uniquely equipped to deal with the ambivalent contours of the internet.

*With the gentle reminder that one person’s weird is another person’s Tuesday.

For example, most work in cultural studies might rely on the notion of subculture and of resistance, yet neither word has a very strong presence here, despite Whitney’s earlier work on the Troll subculture. So, how do you define the space where these forms of cultural expression emerge and the ideological positioning of these provocative works?

One of the main reasons we didn’t focus on subculture or resistance was because we couldn’t have been sure when those words were even applicable. These complications hinge on one of the book’s primary theoretical concepts: Poe’s Law, an online axiom stating that online—particularly in contexts where participants are unable to fully contextualize others’ messages—it is often difficult, if not impossible, to definitively parse sincerity from satire. This doesn’t just complicate questions about who is actually resisting what, but who is actually doing what, what their messages are even meant to mean. Something might appear to resist something, or appear to cast off “subcultural batsignals,” a term Phillips used when describing the (at the time) bounded community of subcultural trolls. And maybe it does for some participants. But maybe it’s doing the opposite for others. Maybe both things are true simultaneously. In any case, it’s just not possible to make universal claims about where subcultures end or begin, or where earnest subversion gives way to ironic play. What ground can you even point to, when it’s ambivalence all the way down?   

One example of this shakiness is 2015’s rash of White Student Union Facebook groups. As we discuss in the book, these groups—the first of which was purportedly affiliated with NYU—might have been the handiwork of real racists really enrolled at NYU and the other universities who were really concerned about creating “safe spaces” for (what they described as) historically trodden-upon white people, whose lands have been unfairly usurped, and whose heritage has been minimized (again, that’s their professed argument, not ours, dear god). But because the group emerged just as contemporary white nationalism—and critically, pushback against that white nationalism—was reaching critical mass, it was difficult to say exactly what was happening.

The groups could have been the handiwork of, or at least been amplified by, anti-racists eager to make white nationalists look as stupid as possible, or sincere white nationalists (maybe college students, maybe not) employing ironic rhetoric as a sincere send-up of so-called PC culture, or good old fashioned shit-stirrers (also maybe college students, also maybe not) looking to exploit emerging concern about white nationalism for laughs. Without knowing which was which—and allowing for the possibility, if not likelihood, that each possibility could have been true simultaneously—it’s not possible to say anything definitive about what was being resisted or what subculture was being represented. And so we didn’t try.


Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies, and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University's Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.

Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell (Part 3)

Samantha Close: So, thank you all so much for coming. This is really interesting. So, we’ve talked a lot about what we may call it primary texts and primary authors and originators. But one of the things that’s always interested me a lot about the science fiction and fantasy genres is the fandoms and the way that readers become writers and start to interact. And there’s been a lot of conversation in fandom recently about, you know, issues of what does it mean if you take a character and change their race, what does it mean, you know, to reimagine worlds this way, why is this something that hasn’t been done. If we can imagine alien biology, why not a character of a different skin color? And so, I was wondering about the fandoms around these kinds of works. Nalo: And what specifically about the fandoms are you wondering?

Sam: I guess, we talked a certain amount about this being kind of more underground and more, you know, artistically focused. And so, is that kind of more the mode of fandom where people are reading text and analyzing them or are people kind of transforming, is there interchange between the artists and with the writers and the readers?

Nalo: Some of them, some of them not. They’re not, as far as I have found a lot of people in fandom doing fan writing based in my work. I have found people doing illustrations. And that’s always cool to see how somebody else imagines your work. But it’s also a bit of a shock. What I like about fandom in the science fiction is the ways that it can -- they don’t have to have breaks. So, saying earlier that they can imagine stories into places that we might feel we might not want to or might not be able to get published or -- and when I first discovered what the term slash came from, which was a fan writing Kirk/Spock fiction where Kirk and Spock were lovers. It made so much sense, I almost stopped breathing. It was, oh my God, of course, I’ve never seen it that way. Of course, that’s what’s going on.

So, I value that. I have to say for myself there is also the reaction of often there isn’t the type of craft I would -- that I prefer.

I like the energy of the discussion that happens because they don’t have to deal with the kinds of considerations a published author does. I remember when the last Bordertown anthology came out, it’s a shared world anthology. The world is established and writers are invited to write stories in it. The creative board of talents specifically says, you can write fan fiction, listen, I have no problem with that, you’re not allowed to publish it. And finding a fan discussion board where they’re saying, well, why not, what’s the difference. The writers we’ve invited are writing fan fiction. And they’re getting paid for it.

William: I think the indigenous film and literature sci-fi genre is already so marginal that there’s not a lot, I think, that might be categorized exactly as fan fiction. But I think going back to the idea of imagining and the image, there’s a lot of parody through art. So, if anyone knows Bunky Echo-Hawk, he’s an incredible artist and he’s got a lot of takes on Star Wars. He has this image of Yoda which is titled “If Yoda was an Indian he’d be chief.”

He also engages Darth Vader as Custer, and the mustache works right with his mask. The imperials are the Americans, are the Europeans. So, he plays on that imagery to take it one step further than metaphor. And Walking the Clouds is just great compendium of lots of indigenous science fiction literature. It’s not fan fiction, it’s the canon.

And then there are some things that are parodies, like we watched earlier, the Star Blaks which is from the show Black Comedy in Australia, which is a parody of Star Trek. I think you have more fandom when there is a center to be marginal from.

Muhammad: There’s a lot of re-imaging of familiar western sci-fi. Many things like that are going on in the Muslim world. So, one that I would highly recommend is -- there’s a series of paintings by this Turkish artist, Murat Palta. He reimages a lot of western movies like Star Wars, Scarface, Inception, but done in the style of Persian or Ottoman miniature paintings. And those are really amazing. You should -- I highly recommend checking them out.

And also in Turkey, I’m not sure if that was intentional, but Turkey -- in the 1970s and 1980s, Turkey has this tradition of -- reimaging is, I guess reimaging not necessarily the right word, but they re-made some of the western movies like Star Trek and Star Trek, and they have this quality of it’s so bad that it’s good. Those are really interesting to watch.

More recently, there’s a -- they just came out just a few months ago. There’s a British-Pakistani artist who reimages Superman but the difference is that his pod lands in Pakistan instead of Kansas. And he actually takes, one could argue that Superman closer to his original looks as compared to what we have been seeing in Superman lately. So, for example, the one thing that -- it becomes a political commentary on the Pakistani society as a whole.

So, one thing that Superman -- this version of Superman does is that -- he does not actively use violence, for example. But during the drone attacks on Afgan-Pakistani border, he actively destroys those bombs which are going to hit civilians, for example. So, it becomes interesting commentary in its own right.

Audience 2: Yeah. I had a question actually for William. And it kind of jumps off a little with Professor Jenkins’ asking regarding the colonizing of genres. And it has to do with whether you could talk a little bit about the circulation of skills like production skills in one of your book that you’re working. And I was wondering about kind of the emergence not only of stories or scripts for the films that people are making but whether they are also envisioning kind of aesthetically a different way of telling them or whether they’re kind of like quality and patterns and it’s like western aesthetics or -- basically whether the idea of creating science fiction is also -- does it come with kind of like a visual kind of reimagining also of how to tell the stories or is it just --

William: Yeah. It’s a good question. This gets into my dissertations, which followed the social life of film projects in indigenous organizations in Australia. There were two outlets, one outwardly focused on production values and end products, and one by, for, and about remote Aboriginal communities.

And so, there’s a long answer. But to quickly answer, when people are making sci-fi films, they’re high budget productions. They usually come out of a Sundance or an imagineNATIVE initiative. But these are unsual and sleek productions. And so it’s not necessarily that people are making anything they want. It has to be discernibly science fiction, perhaps as utopian, dystopian, alien—recognizably in that genre even if it’s radically departing from it as well. So, in the sort of world of indigenous media, these are anomalies in that they’re highly funded and that’s a reason that most of them are very short.

These programs have been very successful in general. People who made these shorts tend to go on to make features, and not necessarily more sci-fi films. At the very least it’s a great career launch pad because people love sci-fi. And I think that they end up having the more freedom after they do these projects to make other media. I can’t think of anyone whose career hasn’t been significantly furthered after producing one of these sci-fi films.

Audience 3: I’m a film director. I just finished a feature-length animated film called Birds Like Us. And it’s inspired by a 11th century Persian poet Farid al-Din Mohammad 'Attar -- and the book that it’s based on is called Conference of the Birds. And I come from Bosnia, from Sarajevo. And I’m raised as a Muslim. I was also growing up in a multicultural society, multi-religious place. I actually had been exposed to all kinds of religions. And my actually first comic books was a comic version of The Bible.

And for me, growing up in a religious environment, I always have felt that the ultimate science fiction actually comes from the holy books where you have a creature who is reaching out to you and saying here I am, your all-seeing, omnipotent creator of everything, every living thing and you can be like me and this is how. And then, in these books, there are set examples of King Solomon who ruled everywhere and there are -- where I’m going with this, there is so much of inspiring fiction, and beyond physical evidence of ideas in the holy books, in religious writings.

But somehow we have the communities, the human mankind actually colonized the race color that -- and created actually these smaller parts while the higher idea is actually a very inspiring and moving form from -- between asking yourself what is actually science fiction and what’s the difference between the fiction, science fiction and the fantasy and all that. Well, it’s purpose is to inspire and move forward and explain, provide a better living inside of your senses, with your perception of the world.

And do you think that your role as writers and contributors to this vision, is it possible to set yourself free from the boundaries of being Islamic science fiction or Jamaican or native Aboriginal or -- can you maybe, I don’t know --

Nalo: I do have an answer and that’s that it does -- whatever we identify -- whatever particular cultural, ethnic or racial version of science which we’re interested in has no boundaries. It’s talking to things that we all care about. So, I don’t feel like I’m boundaried. I mean, I can write whatever I want and do. But I think it’s not as boundaried as you’re fearing that there’s -- I want so -- Sherman Alexie was at a literary event and somebody in the audience asked him if he ever felt limited. The wrong thing to ask Sherman Alexie. He blasted her. But his basic answer was any great story you can imagine is happening in my community, I can write it.

And that’s been useful for me to think about. So, no, I don’t feel that there is a boundary. I feel that there is this particular set of interest in philosophies and aesthetics, but it’s all over.

Muhammad: Right. And then to that I’ll add that -- continuing on same line of thought that there are certain modes of thoughts, philosophies, aspirations, fears that all human cultures and religions throughout space and time that they share. It’s just that in the concept one must include who indigenous people, are Muslims, are Christians, are atheists. It’s through their life experiences, their histories that that’s the metaphors that they use on their cultures to describe those ideas. So, that’s not necessarily the limiting factor. It just shows where they come from.

So, just may we take the example of Farid al-Din 'Attar’s Conference of the Birds. Although at one level it’s the cultural product of newly Islamized Persia, and the method to express was using metaphors. But that’s a product of its times but at the same time, it also speaks to universal human feelings of, for example, longing for the divine, for example, which regardless of whatever culture we are in, we can share and appreciate.

William: I think that radical assumptions provides a good definition for science fiction in this realm. I’m thinking of my own family not that many generations back, subjected to genocide in German gas chambers—radical assumptions are sometimes as simple as making it to the next year. It’s very relative and science fiction helps you define what radical is by giving the filmmaker the power to normalize things strategically.

But also, driving from the airport and seeing those Hollywood signs was exciting to me. It made me think about how there’s all of this money in Hollywood. There’s endless money and more that I can imagine. And while I like being on production teams with large projects, the biggest film anyone I ever worked on had a $100,000 budget, and that’s just a rounding error in Hollywood.

Yet, despite the endless money in Hollywood, somehow that can’t find a good script. They’re making the same movie a thousand times, with some notable exceptions. But in Aboriginal communities like the one I was working in, there are endless incredible stories to tell, though there’s very little funding.

It’s interesting just how different what the limited resource is in different places. And I think in a lot of Indigenous communities around the world, people have such complicated histories, and very difficult but incredible lives that it is no surprising just how many stories there are to tell. The problem is that there are not enough hours in the day because there’s so much. And while at the genre level there are sybolic boundaries, when people are making things on the ground, I don’t think that many worry about those boundaries and just follow the story.

Nalo: One more thing to add to that in that as somebody creating it, one of the things that science fiction fantasy teach you is if that place that you’re thinking you don’t dare to go, that’s where you should be going. So, if you think there’s a boundary there, what happens if you break it? And see what happens.

Henry: That’s a perfect note to end this session on. So, go on and break some boundaries.