Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part Three)

On the documentary side, the American public has probably never had access to as many different documentaries as they do now — more are playing on television, more are getting theatrical runs, more are playing on the festival circuit, more are available through online platforms. So, how has this context impacted the ways documentary producers work today? How do they stand out in a cluttered environment? They are under increased pressure from funders to demonstrate their impact, but how do they insure impact in such a complicated media environment?

It’s been a curious time for the documentary form. It’s being pushed on one side by the interactive, immersive, location-based forms that our report explores, where the boundaries are being redefined through new technologies, techniques, and empowered users. And on the other side, the traditional linear form is blurring thanks to a broad spectrum of reality television, from Animal Planet’s programming to series such as MythBusters. These predictably formatted programs technically hew to Grierson’s definition, but for the most part seem like extreme dilutions of documentary’s capacity to engage meaningfully with the world.

Meanwhile, there is indeed a lot of excellent linear documentary out there – I’ve been to a couple of remarkable festivals over the past few months – but sad to say, very little of what I’ve seen will ever be seen again, unless it’s at another festival or by very adventurous uses of Netflix. The more socially critical and engaged, the poorer the opportunities for theatrical or televisual distribution … and it’s still early days in terms of the various modalities of internet distribution.

The developments that we’ve been tracking address the ‘attention’ problem in a couple of ways. First, they are in many cases designed for the viewing platforms that seem increasingly dominant: smart phones and tablets, that is, relatively small mobile screens with touch interfaces. In this sense, they are digital native productions, making use of links, user interventions, etc. already well understood from everyday encounters with these technologies. They take the form of a new vernacular, rather than repurposing the older forms of dramatic narrative film, television and the long form story.

Secondly, in a number of cases, they attempt to be immersive. This might take as extreme a form as Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy, which uses Oculus Rift to bring an interview to life; or as simple a form as Question Bridge (Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair, Chris Johnson and Bayeté Ross Smith) which lets users follow their interests by controlling the configuration of questions and answers.

Question Bridge: Black Males – Project Trailer from Question Bridge on Vimeo.

And as this suggests, thirdly, a high degree of customization is often possible, as users make decisions about what they want to see, which characters or perspectives they want to follow, or where they want to dive more deeply.

These approaches to attention also, unfortunately, make the lack of attention quite visible. Whereas linear documentaries continue to flow along regardless of whether one is watching, asleep or in the next room making a sandwich, interactives usually stop cold the moment that one has stopped interacting with them. And in a world of data tracking, that is not always good news for interactives. Attention can be more sharply measured, but the metrics regimes between linear and interactive aren’t necessarily compatible.

This gets to your second question: impact. I find this a fraught area in general, and in particular in the case of interactives, where we have tended to extend the logics of assessing fixed linear texts to texts with a very different set of conditions and affordances. There has been a recent spate of impact assessment studies that have essentially (and often unknowingly) worked in parallel with the television industry, where, as Philip Napoli puts it, interest in exposure has been replaced by interest in engagement.

That is, the vast proliferation of program options has weakened the market share of any one program and therefore logics of economic value; and at the very same moment, new and more fine-grained tools are available, encouraging the industry to shift from quantitative to qualitative arguments. Nielsen’s partnership with Twitter, and the importance of social media as a site of ‘engagement’, are all about this shift.

Anyway, in the more refined world of academics and foundations concerned with social change, the same basic shift in thinking is underway. How can we use the new tools available to us (Twitter feeds and Facebook mentions) better to understand engagement, impact and social change?

It’s a fair question, of course, and there are good reasons to ask what kind of impact a documentary had and what we can learn in order to improve down the road. But at the moment, we seem caught up in defaults that largely extend the thinking of the broadcast past and its obsession with comparative metrics and standardization, redoubling it with the data trails users of digital media leave behind. And that, it seems to me, does a great disservice to the affordances of the interactive forms we’ve been investigating.

There is a world of difference between, on one hand, taking a guided tour of a city, where one sits back and listens to an informed and compelling tale, and on the other, wandering through the city on one’s own, where there is much greater latitude in terms of where to direct attention and different requirements for engagement. I’m not (yet) convinced that the latter experience can be measured on the same standardized customer satisfaction form as the former. So while I am by no means adverse to assessment, I guess I’d say that the verdict is still out on best impact assessment practices for the interactive space, though many of my colleagues seem comfortable with tweaking the tools developed for fixed linear experiences and porting them over to interactives.

With support from the Fledgling Fund, the MIT Open Documentary Lab partnered with the Tribeca Film Institute to bring together leading social impact assessment researchers and practitioners to examine how participatory and interactive media can be used to enhance social justice initiatives. The goal of the Media Impact Assessment Working Group was to provide common strategies and frameworks for the measurement and assessment of documentary media-based engagement campaigns – including both long-form films linked to cross-platform campaigns, and interactive, participatory, or non-linear forms of storytelling. As I said, there is a lot of work out there – reports galore – but I think there are still more compelling questions than answers in these early days of interactive, immersive and participatory forms.

Your lab is focused on “open documentaries.” What does this phrase mean to you and what are some examples of how these techniques have been deployed?

Open…. We use this term for a couple of reasons. One important cluster of motives comes from our institutional setting: MIT.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, Ricky Leacock, probably best known for his work with direct cinema, was increasingly involved in developing a film technology that would put the tools of documentary production into everyone’s hands. His work with sound Super 8mm was, we now know, doomed by the soon to emerge technology of portable video, but his endeavor was right on target: how can we take the next step from ‘direct cinema’? how can we empower the documentary subject to take up the means of representation and tell their own story? how can we enable widespread participation in the documentary project, opening up the filmmaker-subject dynamic in important ways?

A second factor is the work of Glorianna Davenport’s group at the Media Lab. Starting in the 1980s, Glorianna and her team developed some remarkably sophisticated interactive platforms – conceptual equivalents of what we are still doing today. The difference was that projects like Elastic Charles involved stacks of computers and laser disks to implement – they were technology intensive in the worst way. But they opened up the user’s ability to explore an issue, to assemble the parts in ways that made sense to them.

A third MIT-related invocation of ‘open’ comes from the legacy of people like Hal Ableson, Gerald Sussman, Richard Stallman and others who were instrumental in founding initiatives such as the free software movement and Creative Commons. With a goal of opening up code and creative work for sharing and creative reiteration, their work helped us to appreciate the importance of opening up the processes, techniques and even tools behind the screen, and of incorporating the principles of sharing and participation into the bones of the documentary project.

Together, Leacock’s participatory technology, Davenport’s interactive texts and Ableson et al’s sharing and learning economy all contributed key elements to our work. Sure, today’s widespread and networked mobile technologies and a tech-savvy population are important, but more important are the underlying principles. Understanding them and fighting the good fight to keep and expand them is essential, especially if we seek to enhance critical engagement and encourage widespread participation in the project of representing and changing the world.

Beyond ‘open’ as an adjective, we also use it as a verb, since our lab’s task is to open debate, to open the documentary form to new participants, to explore the possibilities of new technologies, and to understand the expressive capacities of new textual possibilities. It’s a big agenda, and in part means revisiting documentary’s past to ‘liberate’ it from the film medium (the documentary ethos, we argue in Moments of Innovation , has been around for centuries and taken many different media forms).

And finally, consistent with the spirit of CMS that binds your and my histories together, we do our best to open our lab’s doors and ideas to anyone who might benefit from our work … and at the same time, to be open to and learn from the many different experiences out there in the world.

This all hits documentary in several ways. First, more people than ever before are equipped to make documentaries, to reflect on and give form to their ideas and observations. High definition video cameras are built into most smartphones, and Vine and Youtube upload rates suggest that producing moving images is increasingly the norm. Second, networked distribution enables unprecedented global reach. Third, the tools for designing interactive and participatory texts have never been so accessible, both in the senses of easy and free. And meanwhile, interactivity has been increasingly normalized in our encounters with situated texts, that is, we have become comfortable navigating our way through texts and contexts, effectively constructing our own meta-texts (whether our mobile devices, audio-visual systems, or DVDs). This all adds up to an incentive to think about newly enabled users, new ways of telling stories, and new ways of connecting with one another.

William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at


Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part Two)

You argue that the story should dictate the form, yet many aspects of the form of American journalism — the inverted pyramid for example and the core shape of the lead paragraph — have remain fixed without regard to the story. Some traditional journalists would argue that these formulas allows for quick production of news and for interoperability amongst collaborators. So, how do you make the case to such traditionalists for a broader range of different kinds of news stories?

Journalistic form has changed continually over the centuries, some elements sticking and some new ones displacing old. Things like headlines and the inverted pyramid appeared for the reasons you mention, plus enabling readers to orient themselves and, when required, make quick work of the day’s news. They work well and seem to be sticking in the digital environment, arguably a predecessor of the ‘listicle’.

We are witnessing an evolutionary process, but one that is accelerated as much because of a change in the use of media technologies as because of a change in the larger information situation of the user and her attendant expectations. The move from print and broadcast to digital platforms has brought with it many new affordances, and while traditionalists can stick with techniques that have proven effective with the printed page or news clip (rightly arguing that the digital can easily incorporate the page and the clip), digital media technologies – including the small mobile screens that currently loom large in most user experiences – have been put to many other uses that could enhance both journalism and user engagement.

To be honest, I don’t know of any journalistic organizations, no matter how traditional, that have failed in their digital operations to make use of embedded links, or auto-generated links to past stories, or an array of user tracking applications. These have changed the presentation of news and relationship to the user, just as digital processes have changed the workflow within the newsroom. Their impact can be read as subtle or profound, depending on one’s point of view. But even the most traditional journalistic organization is acutely aware of Vice, Buzzfeed and Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative, their fast-growing market share, and appeal to younger readers.

Our report’s conclusion that ‘story dictates form’ simply means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ convention for storytelling. The digital has brought with it an expanded set of approaches, has offered new – and digitally relevant – options. The report says that now that we have more choices, we should use them critically and strategically – not just jump on the bandwagon of the new (or stick fetishistically to the old). A data-rich story might benefit from visualizations and even personalization through interaction; whereas the same techniques would add little to a personal profile. The new is no more a panacea than the old, but it does offer expanded choice.

But at a moment when the media ecosystem is fast changing, with consequences financial, informational, and generational, we need better to understand the affordances of the new. This by no means entails discarding lessons hard won over centuries of journalistic practice, but it also means not necessarily sticking to paper and broadcast-based habits just because they happen to be well established. And particularly as the role of the user continues to grow, journalists and documentary makers need actively to consider the fit of form and content rather than slipping into inherited defaults.

You correctly note that one of the strengths of legacy media is that they have such deep archives of materials that rarely get used. I am often struck by the ways that comedy news media dig deep into news archives to juxtapose current and past statements by political leaders, for example, and thus show contradictions in their positions over time. But even though such context can be very helpful in understanding current events, we rarely see it used by mainstream journalists. Are there good examples of how news organizations are tapping their archives?

The archive issue is a crucial one, both as you note, for giving depth, context and added meaning to a story … but also because it is something of an ‘ace in the hole’ for most legacy organizations. The very fact that these organizations have persisted over time usually means that they have perspective, memory, and archives.

The archive is an asset that results from long-term involvement with a beat, community, or nation, and as such is one of legacy journalism’s key distinguishing features from digital start-ups. Archives offer ways of telling stories that potentially differentiate and give a competitive advantage to legacy journalism organizations. As journalists intensify their efforts to contextualize and explain rather than just report, archives offer low hanging fruit.

Users, for their part, seem increasingly active, using Google or social media to supplement what they read in a given report, getting more information about a place or person or event. And — to make it a trifecta — digital technologies offer solutions for the space constraints that have long plagued print and broadcast journalists and the contradictory demands of readers, some of whom may want a short experience while others want a deep dive.

Wouldn’t it be great to give readers access to the documents referenced or summarized in a story, or to earlier versions of a story, or to see more than one or two images? While not for every user, it allows journalists to have their cake and eat it, too: a tightly formed ‘traditional’ story can be accompanied by in-house resources, accommodating both those users who just want the facts as well as those who want to discover them for themselves. And if we’re right about the move of journalism to become more of a curator of a public conversation, expanded use of the archive offers a terrific transitional tool. All to say, it’s never been easier nor more important to incorporate archival holdings into everyday journalism.

One of our case studies, Kat Cizek’s A Short History of the Highrise – a joint endeavor by Op Docs at The New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada – is a terrific example. Part of Kat and the NFB’s Emmy Award-winning Highrise series of interactive documentaries, A Short History’s partnership with the Times made brilliant use of the Times’ photo morgue to tell the story of man’s many experiments with vertical living. The interface is described as ‘a visual accordion’ allowing the viewer to ‘dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and miniature games.’ The viewer can simply watch an archive-based video overview, but can also stop the video flow to explore the individual photos, listen to interviews, and even turn the photos over to see the traces of their history at the Times. The project accommodates both casual and serious viewers, makes brilliant use of the largely overlooked photo morgue, and in the process offers an insightful look both into the high-rise and how we (and the Times) have looked at it over the years.

A Short History picked up Emmy, Peabody, and World Press Photo Awards, so it’s an exceptional example. As with many of these early experiments, quite a bit of time and money go into developing a robust and user-friendly interface. But one can imagine that more examples will yield greater efficiencies, whether in the form of re-usable tools or even modifiable templates.

For example, back in 2009, the New York Times used a tool to slide back and forth across two photos taken from an identical position, but years apart. Called “Before and After”, it was used to good effect in a piece called “The Berlin Wall 20 Years Later: A Division Through Time.” The same basic device is still in use, for example in The Guardian’s “The American Civil War Then and Now”, offering an effective way to showcase the photo archive.

Another great example of the creative use of archives and tools comes from The Guardian’s “The Counted”, an ongoing, partially crowd-sourced, interactive report on people killed by police in the US. It’s an archive in the making, a living archive, piling up the sad details case-by-case, day-by-day, and doing something that only an archive can do: contextualizing historically the incidents that seem to happen three or four times a day across America, helping us to see the bigger picture.

Bottom line: archival resources allow today’s fact-based storytellers to harvest the riches of the past, bringing new life, context, and meaning to their findings. And digital media offer journalists the means and space and users the flexibility to make the most of these affordances.

Some of the more interactive elements you describe take time to develop and this means slowing down the pace of news production and taking a long view perspective of social issues. How can we reconcile this with the 24 hours a day news cycle and other factors which are speeding up the production, circulation, and consumption of news?

Temporality is one of the most intriguing dimensions of today’s journalism scene. On one hand, Twitter and other services have reduced the lag between event and report to just about nothing. OK, these aren’t traditional fact-checked reports, but in the aggregate they tend to give a first heads-up about breaking news, and even legacy journalism is making increasing use of tweets in their coverage. On the other, in a world bubbling with reports of all kinds and qualities, the need for context, perspective and plain old pattern recognition has never been greater.

The traditional 24 hour cycle is under siege from both sides: it can’t keep pace with networked digital sources, and has generally left the reflective contextualizing work to occasional investigative and feature stories or to specialized venues such as magazines and programs like Frontline. All to say that the time cycles that have worked for the better part of a century no longer seem to be addressing public needs.

The Guardian was quick to try to redress this, embracing breaking news (even minute-by-minute blog reports of the Republican and Democratic presidential debates or the Academy Awards), carrying on with the traditional 24-hour cycle, and redoubling its feature work. And it’s in this last context that they have carried out much of their interactive work. The verdict is still out on how legacy organizations will deal with this challenge – having it all, Guardian-style – won’t necessarily work for everyone.

The Guardian’s experimental stance has yielded some great innovative work that blurs the divide between immediate and long-term journalism. “The Counted”, that I’ve already mentioned, hews to the 24 hour cycle, but aggregates the daily updates, encouraging readers to look for patterns (age, ethnicity, location, etc.) as the data collects over the course of the year. It harvests the daily news, folds it into a larger context, offers analytic tools, and in the process renders the normally hyper-local into something of national import. In fact, it reveals that many incidents are not reported, or are reported so locally that the rest of the country has no idea of the scale of the problem.

So experiments like these that complicate the familiar temporalities and logics of journalism offer signs that multiple news cycles can intertwine, and actually contribute to one another to deliver a powerful set of insights that would otherwise be missed.

More generally, though, you are right: most interactives are like feature stories, ‘evergreens’ capable of drawing in users well after the initial publication date. And in this, they are particularly good at contextualizing, explaining, and offering multiple points of view.

For the moment, they are labor-intensive, but developers are sharing bits of code and tools among themselves, flexible content management systems  and even templates are beginning to appear, and in general the process is accelerating. Some thought leaders fear that these efficiencies could go too far, that the innovation that has driven new kinds of user experience will reify into rigid one-size-fits-all templates. And indeed, the front office has a habit of thinking about the bottom line and these are still early days in terms of expanded story form. But I mention this simply to say that it’s clear that these efficiencies can and will speed up the process, even though it is essential for leading organizations to continue exploring and building innovative story technologies that work with the platforms most familiar to the public.

William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part One)

Profile: William Uricchio of MIT’s Open Documentary Lab from Submarine Channel on Vimeo.

For the better part of a decade, William Uricchio and I worked side by side, partners in crime, as we forged the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. I came to lean heavily on his diplomatic skills, his zen-like temperament, and especially his broad range of knowledge and interests, as between us, we touched every student who came through that masters program. The expansive intellectual rationale of our approach to Comparative Media Studies was as much his as it was mine, especially as he made the case for why we should understand contemporary developments in relation to their historical antecedents and as he made the argument for bringing more transnational perspectives to bear on the processes of media change.

I returned to Cambridge during my academic leave this fall, after being away for most of the past seven years, and it was a chance for me to develop a stronger sense of what the program has become, how it operates today.  What I found was a program that was thriving — fantastic students doing ground-breaking work, a expanding and strong intellectual community, a solid focus on social justice and media change, and a real commitment to research that is going to have impact beyond the academy. Amongst many new research initiatives, there has been the emergence of the Open-Documentary Lab, a vibrant community that has drawn together researchers and documentary producers from around the Boston area who want to explore the future of nonfiction media-making. And the Lab has begun to attract active interest from around the world from people at places like the Canadian Film Board or the BBC who share their interest in understanding how documentary is being reinvented in the context of today’s participatory culture and transmedia production.

Here’s how the lab describes itself on its home page:

“Drawing on MIT’s legacy of media innovation and its deep commitment to open and accessible information, the MIT Open Documentary Lab brings storytellers, technologists, and scholars together to explore new documentary forms with a particular focus on collaborative, interactive, and immersive storytelling. The Lab understands documentary as a project rather than as a genre bound to a particular medium: documentary offers ways of exploring, representing, and critically engaging the world. It explores the potentials of emerging technologies and techniques to enhance the documentary project by including new voices, telling new stories and reaching new publics. A center for documentary research, the Lab offers courses, workshops, a fellows program, public lectures, and conferences; it incubates experimental projects; and it develops tools, resources, reports, and critical discourse. These activities, and the partnerships with artists, journalists, technologists, and media makers that they have enabled, aim to push documentary’s boundaries and deepen the impact and reach of innovative reality-based storytelling. In the spirit of MIT’s open courseware and open source software movements, the Open Documentary Lab is inclusive, collaborative and committed to sharing knowledge, networks, and tools. ‘Open’ in its understanding of documentary’s forms and potentials, the Lab is catalyst, partner and guide to the future of reality-based storytelling.”

This fall, the Lab released an important white paper, “Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism” that MIT’s Open Documentary Lab prepared with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Under the supervision of the lab’s Principal investigator, William Uricchio, the team developing this report included Sarah Wolozin, who directs the Open Doc Lab, and Lily Bui, Sean Flynn and Deniz Tortum, who are CMS grad students.

The report is rich in front-line perspectives, describing the behind-the-scenes debates that took place around the production of some of today’s most significant examples of immersive journalism and interactive documentary, and sharing some core insights about best practices for doing such work. The report is visionary in its scope yet it is also deeply grounded in the perspective of documentary producers and journalists, who live in the imperfect and transitional state of the here and now. I believe this report is going to open up some important conversations amongst many people who both fear and embrace the changes that are impacting the closely related worlds of news and documentary. I am therefore happy to have a chance to showcase this significant undertaking here, especially insofar as it has given me yet another chance to interact with my longtime friend and colleague, William Uricchio. What emerged through this interview is something really special to me as William thoughtfully and thoroughly responded to my probing questions, and certainly gives as well as he got throughout this exchange. I am bringing this interview to you in four installments across the next two weeks.

Most recent accounts of the state of journalism in the digital age have emphasized the bad news — describing all of the risks and challenges — but your report also describes some of the new opportunities and the ways that newspapers and other legacy media organizations are restructuring themselves to take advantage of the changing media environment. So, what do you see as some of the opportunities for new kinds of news and documentary production emerging at the present moment?

Yes, lots of doom and gloom out there! It helps to take a more analytical approach to the problems facing quality journalism and that has indeed resulted in finding a number of opportunities that can be of tangible use to legacy organizations at a moment of change.

I’d like to begin by invoking what’s always struck me as one of James Carey’s great insights into how we think about communication. Carey notes that we too often focus only on the transmission of information – and by we, I include academics as well as journalists. And with this narrow focus, we often neglect communication’s ritual dimension. Carey’s notion of ritual entails much more than the habit of reading a newspaper with breakfast or closing-out the evening news broadcast with tomorrow’s weather (yes, no matter how dismal the news, there will be a tomorrow!). Instead he understands ritual as creating shared concepts and habits by drawing on participation, sharing, association, and fellowship.

Facebook and Buzzfeed, while a little erratic on the transmission side, understand this and they and others like them have hard-wired ritual into their systems. And their user-base understands it as well. At a fundamental level, the opportunities for new kinds of journalism and documentary production turn not so much on the availability of new technologies, but rather on the use of those technologies to bring ritual into the picture. In other words, simply putting news content, no matter how good, online with the hope of expanding audience reach and engagement misses the point. Instead, finding ways to enhance user participation, to intensify immersive experiences, and to encourage sharing and community building all help to embrace the ritual dimension noted by Carey. It’s not so much about the de-professionalization of the news (in fact, our study focuses on quality journalism), as it is the expansion of news as a process that includes a community of participants, expanded textual forms, and a reconfigured production pipeline. Participation leads to greater engagement, inclusiveness, relevance … and better-informed communities.

Despite its rock-solid appearance, journalistic convention has transformed over the past several hundred years, and today we face an accelerated rate of change. Whereas for much of the 20th Century, journalism served as a definer of truths, today’s high-connectivity and intensive information flow have enabled new expectations and given journalism a new agenda, helping it to inform the connection between publics and sources, shaping conversations in addition to defining truths.

Our report approaches this shift by looking at concrete examples in recent interactive and immersive documentary and journalism. The past decade has seen some remarkable experimentation in fact-based storytelling (the Open Documentary Lab’s docubase  is the go-to place to see this work), some of which encourages users to explore multiple sides of a given issue, interacting with the material gathered and structured by journalists and documentarians. Our report basically takes a deep dive into lessons-learned and best practices that can be of use as journalism continues to transform.

Whether looking at how individual organizations such as The Guardian or Frontline have responded to these new demands, or looking at collaborations across organizations, or looking at the new workflows and interactions that appear on the individual project level, the report offers case-based insights into the developments that are changing the faces of documentary and journalism.

In some ways, your report is bringing together two forms of media production — journalism and documentary — that have historically been understood as distinct, even though they have both sought to get the public to be more aware and more responsive to urgent social conditions. These two fields often operate according to different professional ideologies and different standards of ethics. Why have they stayed separate for so long and in what ways are we starting to see some convergence between them?

If I had to boil the difference between the journalistic and documentary traditions down to a caricature,  I’d say that since the mid 1920s, journalism has been bound by a commitment to ‘facts’ and documentary by a commitment to ‘truth’. OK – both are slippery words, and the two are not irreconcilable. But an insistence on the ‘facts’ as journalistic fact-checkers define them can sometimes leave a larger truth hanging in the balance; and the pursuit of ‘truth’ can call upon innovative and imaginative strategies that would be nixed by any fact-checker worth her salt.

The distinction between the two is deeply rooted in institutional history, with the several hundred-year-old ‘fourth estate’, as Carlyle called the press, finding a protected niche in places like the US constitution and playing a fundamental role in governance in most cultures. In this context, an insistence upon verifiable data makes sense.

Documentary, by contrast, at least if we stick to the classic telling of the tale, emerged in the film medium in the form of a re-enacted, character-based drama that strove for a greater truth (Flaherty’s 1926 Moana), or what John Grierson later called ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.

Journalism has been long bound by professionalization, certification, codes of behavior and rules; while documentary has thrived as an eclectic intention-based assemblage of experiments (mostly formal), techniques (mostly narrative) and effects (mostly generating insight and empathy). Epistemological differences, institutional differences, media differences … even differences in which part of the academy they are studied … no wonder the two traditions seem to be worlds apart!

As I said, this description is something of a caricature, and these two non-fiction storytelling traditions have at times overlapped, especially in the domain of essayistic journalism or places like Frontline, where documentary makers hew to journalistic rules, and The New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist, all of which have in-house documentary units. But even here, an insistence on fact provides the bottom line for a story to count as journalistic, even if drawing heavily on documentary notions of story, character and engagement.

So what changed, and why do these two forms now seem more open to sharing with one another? The steady shift of users of both forms to mobile, digital platforms; the emergence of interactive and visually immersive forms of telling stories; and the popularity of operations like Facebook, Buzzfeed and Vice, have all put pressure on those who simply wanted to put the printed page, television feed or 16mm film online. Traditional newspaper readership and news viewership, like documentary viewership, are not only declining … but aging. And while troubling from a business perspective, this decline is of far greater concern to the needs of an informed public and the civic process.

True, the just-mentioned digital startups have embraced ‘news’ as part of their remit (and in the process, raided legacy journalistic organizations and made some very impressive hires), and some of them can claim vast communities of young users, but the quality, context and mission of that embrace is neither clear nor consistent. Indeed, the surfeit of information and the poor ratio of signal to noise that we are experiencing ‘out there’ makes the work of the tried and true legacy journalistic operations more important than ever.

It’s here that the new documentary provides a valuable set of assets for the journalistic endeavor, offering ways for it to keep core values while embracing a more user-centric and participatory ethos that makes the most of the new media ecosystem.

Documentary’s relative freedom from institutional constraint has enabled its makers to experiment in ways that are difficult for traditional journalists. Moreover, as journalism becomes more of a curator of information and shaper of conversations, documentary’s demonstrated ability to contextualize and explain through well-chosen instances has proven newly relevant. The interactive documentaries produced to date offer a compendium of approaches, interfaces, user experiences, tools and even strategies for working with crowd-sourced and co-created content all of which journalists can assess, draw from and transform.

So I guess I would say that by finding themselves in the same boat, both journalists and documentarians have discovered commonalities of purpose and technique. Interactive documentary is fast developing a repertoire of techniques that work well in today’s ‘digital first’ and increasingly participatory environment and digital journalism still commands considerable reputation and audience reach.

The dust has not settled, of course, but as we work towards journalism’s and documentary’s next iterations, the one thing that is clear is that they have more in common now than at any other point in their histories. And the best indication of this commonality takes the form of the many interactive features, data-driven stories and even immersive approaches to information organization that have been appearing with increasing regularity on the digital sites of leading journalism organizations.


William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at




Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part Three)

What do you see as the biggest challenges confronting transmedia producers today as they seek to adopt these practices towards promoting social justice?

Funding. Financing these projects, and moreover financing the work necessary to create stakeholder engagement that is long-term and leads to lasting impact, is a major challenge. I’ve seen projects that falter in terms of actually reaching impact within communities because their funding runs out after production.

But transmedia projects for social change must be stewarded and communities need to be managed. You of course need an exit strategy because these projects can’t necessarily go on forever, but too often funding doesn’t sustain the actual community-building or mobilization work necessary for impact.

The other challenge is the ability to let go of control, and hand back the narrative over to communities. I find this most challenging when working with organizations and institutions, who often want a more managed and streamlined message, instead of a community-led story.

Tell us more about Priya’s Shakti as an example of how fictional storytelling can also be used for social change. What motivated this project? What did you hope to achieve? Why did comics turn out to be an effective resource around which to base such a campaign?

Priya’s Shakti is one of the few fictional projects I’ve worked on and it was simultaneously challenging and fun. (Well, as much as you can have fun with the issue of gender-based violence). The motivation of this project was the 2012 bus rape in New Delhi, India, and the aftermath protests, which amplified and intensified decades of activism in India around women’s rights. It was a seminal moment for the country to come together around the issue of gender-based violence.

The project’s creator, Ram Devineni, was there to participate, and he came back with the idea of doing a project that would start exploring cultural patriarchal tropes through popular culture and new media that would engage youth. Graphic comics with embedded augmented reality turned out to be a unique and engaging method for youth to come to the material.

More importantly, we were able to embed real stories of rape survivors within the AR components, aimed at increasing the reach of our nonprofit partner Apne Aap into new audiences. And it set the stage for a series of workshops held with disadvantaged school-aged children to let them create their own comics.

In an essay for Huffington Post, you describe the ways you want to challenge some of the stereotypes surrounding the representation of women’s issues in India via mainstream and global media. In what ways does Priya and her story challenge such stereotypes?

It was very important to me, as a feminist and a person of Indian origin to not have the project be a part of the narrative that “India has a rape problem.” While not attempting to whitewash what was happening on a societal level, I was unsettled by the narrative, both because it misrepresented Indian society, but also because it pushed aside the reality that GBV is a global problem. And by and large, Indian feminists were deeply offended by the manipulative and unbalanced representations in western press and in projects such as the BBC film India’s Daughter.

The rape and protests afterward were a defining moment for Indians and Indian feminists, marking a point in time for all their decades of struggle and really good work. It was important to me to honor and support the work that activists and development professionals were already doing in India, while still presenting an engaging story appropriate for young people, and more importantly to tie the story to grassroots and community-driven action in the face of a waterfall of international attention. It was a difficult balancing act, and one I’m still evaluating.

There are of course limitations to using a comic book as a vehicle. It’s a simple narrative, aimed at a young demographic. In our case, the book was also centered in Hindu goddess mythology, which was risky on a number of levels. But it was also imagery that we, the creative team (most of whom were of Indian origin or sensitive to Indian culture), had all seen throughout our lives and that was instantly recognizable – and we thought we might be able to subvert into a story of self-determination.

And I think, ultimately, Priya is a subversive character. She is framed as an everywoman who reaches beyond her tragedy and circumstance by tapping into her own sources of power to reframe herself as a leader on her own terms, and one that challenges existing norms through art and love. She is an everywoman who becomes a superhero of a sort. And if she’s a superhero, her super strengths to fight the patriarchy are song, nonviolence, and compassion.

In some ways, Priya’s story merges together the mythological tradition in Indian popular culture and the superhero genre. Why did these seem to be particularly effective building blocks for this project? I am struck by the parallels and differences with the Burka Avenger Project in Pakistan which also uses the superhero genre to speak to the rights of women, in this case, the rights of Islamic women to education.

South Asian societies, rich and wonderful though they are, do still carry patriarchal challenges to female self-empowerment and self-direction. While I would argue that Priya isn’t a traditional superhero while the Burka Avenger is (and she’s a fantastic character in a great storyworld), the superhero genre is both an innovative and a safe space in which to explore and advance strong, empowered, independent females as role models for young girls.

When we spoke, you said you were turning your attention more and more towards building up the creative sector, so that projects may have greater sustainability. What do you see as some of the most urgent needs in terms of helping to provide voice to media creators around the world?

As I wrote above, there needs to be more attention paid to business models and financing of these projects, and I’m very excited that I’ve started exploring ways to make the creative impact sector more vibrant and sustainable. I’m building out a strategy for how to do that through my company in partnership with social enterprise experts. And while I’m not intending to become an investor, I’m excited to say I’ve just made my first angel investment in a creative social enterprise in Haiti.

There also needs to be more training and project incubation opportunities for creatives in lower- and middle- income communities and regions, which requires donor and investor education. Similarly, another need is to actively develop audiences for these projects. This requires a critique infrastructure, more robust distribution opportunities, and frankly more trust on the part of distributors that people will come to see or interact with this content (even if it is perceived to be “foreign”).

Finally, as I’ve said various ways above, we need to let go of some of the control over who tells whose stories, and let creators tell the stories of their own communities – and be there to partner with them, and explore their experiences.

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.


Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part Two)

You have been especially concerned about “the ethics of telling other people’s stories.”  What do you see as some of the most common ethical failures that occur when human rights advocates attempt to mobilize around stories from the field, stories that deal with the real life struggles of real people? What kinds of ethical frames should such campaigns adopt to make sure they are being fair to those people whose life stories are entrusted to them? How can filmmakers and activist avoid making “poverty porn”?

We have to stop treating other people’s stories as if they are ours for the taking and shaping. We have to recognize that agency and self-representation are crucial to social change and people’s perspectives of their own situations matter. As Darren Walker recently said in a discussion at the Ford Foundation, cultural narratives drive why inequality and exclusion persist.

We may believe that our colonial period is behind us, but neocolonialist perceptions persist in our institutions and in our cultural narratives. Media outlets trade in savior complex stories to audiences who consume simplified stories that allow them to feel good and ignore structural inequities, a relationship which leads to an ecosystem of cultural narrative that continually misrepresents poor, marginalized, and at-risk communities. And it’s very easy to fall back into these tropes.

A few years ago, I wrote a post criticizing the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless.” It’s a phrase I dislike quite a bit, and while I hear it a bit less these days, it still manages to encapsulate the way we sometimes perceive other people we are seeking to “help,” especially if they are poor or seen as poor (e.g., the way we in the west still see most of Africa). I said:

“If we seek to truly collaborate with people… to advance positive social change, we need to shift our thinking about who contributes to the “project.” It’s much more helpful to think of each other as equal partners who bring to the table various assets… For example, one partner might bring access and resources, while the other one brings local learning, stories and knowledge [cultural assets]. I’m not naive enough to believe that in our current system…there isn’t a power advantage in being the one in control of the financial resources and of the avenues that distribute information. But we have to learn and teach a different perspective on what is contribution, what are valuable assets and resources, and who plays what position on the team?… [C]alling people “voiceless” discredits their ability to contribute. All of us need to recognize participation and contributed assets as valuable tools… as leverage to effect positive change.”

As artists and storytellers, we have an ethical responsibility to understand that we cannot impose “voice.” I will acknowledge that there is power in engaging audiences through language that we know, through tropes we are used to, through allowing us to feel good about the work we do—and when done well, it can contribute to both effective change and to good storytelling.

But as change agents, we are not speaking for someone else. We are primarily serving one of two functions in relation to people in an affected community: either acting as their proxy or working in collaboration with them. We might be providing access to avenues that disseminate their voice, and that’s our role in the project, but we have to interrogate how our position may be affected by privilege or top-down perspectives.

As artists, it is our obligation to open up new frames of reference. In the realm of transmedia, each piece of work related to an issue can transform audiences’ frames of reference and it’s our role and within our reach to use story to put pressure on existing frames that dehumanize subjects and to shift the angles to expose humanity in the form of lived experience and cultural context.

What criteria should we be using to measure or assess the impact of transmedia activism campaigns?

The primary focus should be on the impact of a campaign within the affected community. I prefer qualitative assessments which explore the place of the campaign within political, social, or cultural context. Often impact metrics in media campaigns in general are weighted toward audience engagement as opposed to longer-term monitoring and evaluation on the ground.

Concentrating on the effect on audiences is a lesser criteria, not to be ignored, but in my opinion not to be given primacy unless the audience is itself a target of the campaign (e.g., in public health or consumer choice campaigns, rather than in human rights).

For transmedia particularly, as we’ve discussed, one of the many advantages of interactive storytelling is that of “contribution” and setting a cultural stage for action and change — and to tailor layers of story and participation to the desired change. It is important then to measure each project on a case-by-case basis with concentration on qualitative or semi-quantitative metrics that also evaluates participation by key stakeholders, and how that participation led to shifts in perception or directed action.

The late Brian Clark initiated a consideration of what one might call transmedia locations. He argued that transmedia projects took different shapes, followed different goals, depending on what kinds of media systems and cultures they come from. You’ve done work which straddles across multiple cultures and societies. What differences have you observed in terms of the forms transmedia takes in these different contexts?

Before I answer that, I wanted to recognize Brian’s immense contribution to these fields. He was an incredible influence on so many of us, and he was one of my dearest friends. It’s strange to think about having this conversation without him.


Brian was an activist at heart, in part, and a cultural agitator. He and I used to have charged and dynamic, and funny, conversations about so many things – and in the last years, our conversations turned to his exploration of phenomenology, as he started deepening his inquiry into the experience of the media as opposed to the media itself. He understood that the form of media, the form of story, and the form of engagement had to arise from an understanding of what a local audience would perceive.

This ties rather directly to the way I conceive of transmedia for social change — that in order to create sustainable change, we first have to understand the context in which communities (or, in Brian’s frame, audiences) interact with the story.

My observations are that, by and large, transmedia forms in different societal context are affected by a few things: first access to technology, particularly in terms of digital or online storytelling; second, the political landscape a community resides in and what their experience is within political power structures; and third, a community’s or a society’s indie culture. The form of transmedia will, if most effective, follow the forms creatives are experimenting with already.

Many of your projects are connected with documentary productions, where-as often transmedia is understood in relation to fictional storytelling. What added value comes from expanding the scope of documentary productions through transmedia? Who do you think has done good work in terms of transmedia for social change? Transmedia documentary?

There is value in increasing the surface area through which you can engage stakeholders and partners on issues, which you can do by creating multiple entry and participation points through transmedia. In my mind, when I start thinking through strategy, I see the expansion of the core story almost like a taffy pull – you can expand the scope of your story to encompass both the multiple perspectives I mentioned above and also the ways in which stakeholders can take effective action that proceed from the story.

There are quite a few good transmedia projects in social change and documentary from which to choose. I wrote a playlist last year for MIT’s Docubase that mentions quite a few I think are worth study. To that list, I would add the recent project Notes on Blindness and The Enemy. I’m also looking forward to a forthcoming project I’m working on, Traveling While Black.

On a related note, I work with nonfiction content more so than fictional because in the realm of social impact, truth is often far more resonant than fiction. Or looking at it another way, who needs fiction when truth is strange enough?

I will say that, I am wary of pop fiction that is spectacle and gesture and political theater simply for the sake of itself. I do think, however, that fictional content is underused in social impact and that there is much more scope for transmedia producers and artists to experiment with strategic audience engagement and impact. I think CEL does great work, and hope to see more of that.

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.


Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part One)

As my student Geoff Long likes to say, transmedia is an adjective, not a noun, and as such, it needs something to modify. Much of the conversation here has centered around transmedia entertainment, transmedia storytelling, or perhaps transmedia branding and transmedia learning. But, when the word transmedia modifies activism or mobilization, there is no more important voice in the world today than Lina Srivastava. In her hands, transmedia becomes a verb — something we do to make a difference in the world.

I first met her in Madrid several summers ago when we were both speaking at a gathering of thinkers and makers from around the world who were trying to deepen our understanding of what transmedia was and what it could do. I knew her by reputation far before that, and I’ve continued to follow her closely through podcasts, videos, blog posts, op-ed pieces, and projects, ever since. We reconnected not long ago after I got back from India because I knew she had worked so extensively in that region and I wanted to know more about the transmedia campaign she helped to develop around Priya’s Shakti, which we will discuss in more detail in the third installment of this interview. But, our conversation was far reaching, touching on ethical dimensions of the work we do, exploring the challenges of producing media for social change, dealing with how to build structures of participation around documentary and fictional projects alike. When the exchange was over, I asked if she’d be willing to cover some of this same territory for my blog, and she agreed.

So, what follows over the next three installments is a small sample of her passionate and cogent advocacy on behalf of making media that can make a difference in the world.

The term, transmedia, is one which has become increasingly expansive, meaning somewhat different things to different thinkers. Through your work, you’ve talked about transmedia activism. How do you define that concept? Why do you think transmedia is especially valuable as a model for thinking about activism and mobilization?

It’s the combined core of story, community, and collaboration that I seized on the first time I heard and understood the term transmedia. As I thought about the methodology of creating and distributing stories through this framework, I realized the potential for effective social action that emanated from co-creating stories through multiple perspectives that illuminate social, political, and cultural context.

I’ve been working in social impact for fifteen years. The work I do centers primarily with nonprofits and institutions that focus on human rights and international development, or with individual artists and filmmakers who create socially relevant art. Through this intersection, I’ve found that at the very foundation of social change are stories.

And while it appears to me we’ve hit peak noise on discussions of the role of storytelling in social impact, creative expression and culture are still, in my opinion, very underutilized in the social impact fields. We rely heavily on data and policy frameworks, and when we do bring in story, it is still more often to communicate the impact of a program than it is for using it as a strategic driver of change.

You need narrative to spur social action that resonates with and is relevant to communities that are fighting for positive change. You need to know what’s happening at the blood-and-guts-and-feelings level for people – and you need to know what the possibilities and costs to actual human beings are of our policies and actions.

Otherwise, what are we fighting for?

So storytelling, and transmedia in particular, lets me, as a storyteller and a social change agent, illuminate the human side of things.

Activism and mobilization, two distinct ways of effecting social change, at their core rely on community, participation, and collaboration. There’s more to activism or social impact work than these things, of course, but these are essential – and when they are absent, we often get top-down, simplistic, and paternalistic interventions that are ultimately unsustainable because they don’t emerge from perspectives that are based in local contexts.

Beyond that, transmedia has the advantage of allowing for people to travel among multiple entry points and for immersion, both of which are key in allowing for multiple narratives and for complexity.

And transmedia answers the question “how do you tell the story of a system?” There’s a danger in social change when you tell a story from one perspective or from one node in the system. For example, when one thinks about, say, water issues, you may have to think about infrastructure, climate change, safety and security for those getting the water, privatization vs. public access, or sanitation and health, etc. You may work only on one of these aspects, but you have understand how one issue affects the rest and how one shift in the system can change things throughout the system. And you have to know how to tell that story.

True social change comes when solutions are systemic, and transmedia itself – however we define it — has been a social innovation that allows us to view our ecosystem of issues and create stakeholder engagement around systemic change. And one that allows to get into the heart and soul of how these issues affect people and their lives.

So I coined the phrase “transmedia activism” in 2009 to describe this process: The coordinated co-creation of narrative and cultural expression by various constituencies who distribute that narrative in various forms through multiple platforms, the result of which is to build an ecosystem of content and networks that engage in community-centered social.

Another way of saying this is that we use story to effect social change by engaging multiple stakeholders on multiple platforms to collaborate toward appropriate, community-led social action. (And I note, the phrase may specify “activism,” but the framework is meant to be used for various types of social impact or mission-driven work.

I should have been broader when I thought of the term, but this one sounded better than say, “transmedia impact” and I acknowledge its linguistic limitations. And I also will acknowledge here that I don’t always use the term “transmedia” at all when describing my work, as sometimes it’s more appropriate to use alternative terms that will be more easily understood.)

When we build a story universe for social change under this framework, we think first in terms of an ecosystem of issues, social and cultural conditions, communities and solutions– and not only about the narrative arc of the story.

I’m not sure whether my definition works for other thinkers or not. I’ve rarely been one to indulge in discussions around the definition of transmedia, because to me the debate was always a distraction from what I thought to be the core utility of the term, which was to map out a new way of exploring the ways communities were already working together and the ways they were already using culture for to effect social change.

At the time that I was working on the “transmedia activism” framework, about eight years into my work in social impact, discussions around multi-platform narrative as a strategic tool were still fairly nascent in the social impact world, but storytelling per se is not an original concept in social impact.

People had talked about storytelling for years (primarily as an external participatory media was a well-established methodology, and the success of story- and culture-based feedback loops were well-documented. So I wasn’t establishing anything new. I was putting a frame around narrative in a way that plugged into numerous emerging discussions, including social innovation, human-centered design, and digital media, and package those discussions under one frame.


As I read your writing, your concept emphasizes multiple contributing authors working with shared assets, as opposed say to a single author working across media. Why do you find this idea of collaborative authorship important for thinking about social action campaigns?

Collaborative authorship opens up possibilities as I discussed above for multiple perspectives, which is crucial to social action that is grounded in both local context and in larger political or cultural trends. On the creative or artistic side of transmedia, we hear a great deal about the dissolving of boundaries between artist and audience or creators and fans. The analogy for social impact is not one of the taking down of boundaries between various communities and stakeholders.

If we accept that story and media are powerful tools to influence the way people understand issues (knowledge), experience the issues (engagement), see themselves and others in relation to the issues (perception), and what they do to cause these issues to shift (action), then we can see that NGOs and activists who commit to a process through which their various stakeholder communities and influencers take shared ownership of their mission-related story and media, they build an advantage of shared support for their goals, activities and outcomes.

By identifying the narrative underlying the full spectrum of engagement to action, and then by collectivizing ownership of that narrative, transmedia bears the potential to break down the unidirectional construct – “us” helping “them” – that is often at the heart of many traditional aid and international development efforts, instead creating a network of change agents that use narrative as a tool to work toward shared goals, activities and outcomes.

This has the added benefit of having the potential to shake up existing power structures and to move away from paternalistic, patriarchal narrative and design. Transmedia strategies, in allowing diverse and multiple authorship, have the potential to create better streams of participation for community-centered design or “local voice”– i.e., voices coming from an affected community, to tell its own stories and participate in or lead solutions-building.

As an example of this, we took a community-centered and multiple authorship design process for Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a film and social impact campaign about migrant rights related to the U.S.-Mexico border. We’ve laid out our methodology and impact evaluation here, people can view multiple streams of content here, and those in the migrant and refugee rights movement can use any of our content for their work, as detailed here. As of this writing, I am working on expanding our platform and strategy to the global migration crisis.

A Death You Could Die By? from marc silver on Vimeo.


Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.


How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture: An Interview with Tracy Van Slyke (Part One)

In 2014, Tracy Van Slyke,the Director of The Culture Lab, wrote what has turned out to be an important white paper, “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture,” which outlines a series of strategies by which popular culture can be deployed as a tool for campaigns in support of social change. I should have read this report as soon as it came out, given my own interests in, among other things, fan activism and the civic imagination, but it took me a while to get around to it. But, when I did, it was clear we were very much on the same wavelength and that I wanted to use this blog to draw attention to some of Van Slyke’s core insights about activism and entertainment-education.

The Culture Lab — part of a larger Citizen Engagement Lab initiative — has developed this helpful diagram for mapping the key points where they feel meaningful interventions can and are taking place in relation to popular media.


Many of the most heated debates impacting the worlds of fandom and gaming in the past few years have been struggles over representation, including how the media might do a better job reflecting the experiences of women and people of color. We are seeing more and more progressives recognizing the ways that popular media can and does, at least sometimes, speak for them, even as we are also seeing backlashes against “social justice warriors” from groups who are threatened by the inclusion of such perspectives in entertainment media. None of this is new, but my own sense is that we are engaging in such conversations with a growing consciousness of what is at stake in these struggles over the civic imagination.  What Spoiler Alert does, then, is bring together a wealth of examples, showing different sites where these struggles are taking place, and develops a conceptual vocabulary for talking about these examples that allows activists and community organizers to draw on the best practices of people working towards other related causes.

Over the next two installments, I will be running an interview with the report’s author, Tracy Van Slyke, as we probe deeper into the implications of her findings and as we encourage her to reflect on more recent examples of these principles at work. But there is no substitute for reading the report itself.

You begin your report Spoiler Alert with the idea that our attachments to and investment in popular culture need to become more central to social change movements. What are some of the different ways progressives might be able to achieve those goals?,

This is a ripe and rich time to work at the intersection of social and culture change.

An increasing number of artists working in popular entertainment are making people laugh out loud, get lost in a story, and gasp at dramatic plot twists (which they have always done)—while also tackling society’s most pressing social and political issues: race and gender equity, reproductive rights, voting rights, and more. One recent example: Aziz’s Azarni’s new Netflix series Master of None, especially the third episode, which unabashedly calls out racism in the television industry (and really, society at large), while managing to stay funny and entertaining. Other highlights are the winter finale of Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, which included a storyline on abortion and reproductive choice, and the latest season of Inside Amy Schumer, in which Schumer wrote a 30-minute parody of 12 Angry Men that skewered the power dynamics of men and their relentless judgment of women’s bodies.



We’re also seeing more moments in which celebrities throw down the gauntlet, like Jennifer Lawrence speaking out against gender-based pay disparities in Hollywood and Viola Davis’s Emmy speech about diversity in Hollywood. Celebrity energy sparks social network energy, and social media buzz and digital platforms can create both celebrities and pop moments.

Social change leaders are eager to connect to these compelling stories, these fires of public attention, because they are contending for people’s hearts and minds. Through organizing, policy, and communications efforts, progressives are constantly blocking the rhetoric of hate and divisiveness. They are fighting policies that reinforce inequality in race, religion, and gender and grow the power of the one percent over our economy and democracy. But defense is not enough. With our societal soul at stake, they need to proactively introduce and reinforce visions of equity and diversity, as well as an economy and democracy that works for all, not just an elite few.

They know that from television shows to sports, from movies to music, from video games to hashtag trends, pop culture is where people are already paying attention, where myths are shaped, and where hopes and fears take root. Culture can influence a single person and be disruptive enough to move large-scale, transformative change. And as culture turns, so does the social and political landscape—for example, the long-term approach to culture change that the LGBT community took is now seeing huge legislative and policy effects.

Now, the opportunity and need is for a long-term, extensive investment in culture. If the correct investments are made, progressives can:

  • Seed stories and narratives through and with a wide array of culture makers;
  • Develop and mobilize our communities to influence cultural content and products; and
  • Spread those stories and values to new communities.

Together, this can create new cultural experiences, moments, and over time, long-lasting values shifts.

As progressives focus on infrastructure needs, as Spoiler Alert articulates, they specifically need to:


  • Understand that culture is not about a communications strategy but about how and why people communicate to and with each other. By putting people at the center, we prioritize their needs, motivations, and identities, not just messages we want to deliver.
  • Tap into the cultural pulse by tracking pop trends, storylines, audience/fandom conversations to drive and increase the impact of campaigns. Progressive organizations invest heavily in influencing and tracking the daily political news cycle, but so far we’ve largely failed to use entertainment news and storylines to advance our goals.
  • Create a clear road map for investing in culture that drives their social and political work: Are they using cultural opportunities to help win campaigns or to bring about long-term culture change?
  • Build working partnerships with creatives and pop culture makers to inspire the stories, portrayals, and experiences we want to see in the world.

Over the past year as CEL Culture Lab director, I’ve seen increasing numbers of progressive groups that want to hook into pop culture, but don’t have the infrastructure and knowledge they need to make that happen. The Culture Lab is working to help fill in these gaps. For example, we have built a new service, called the Cultural Pulse, which tracks pop culture news and storylines, adapts the audience­-listening strategies and tools used by marketers, and combines that data with action tips that help progressive changemakers use popular culture to advance political and societal change.

Many on the Left have been taught to see corporate media as the enemy—something to be deeply distrusted—and they also are often fearful of emotion and pleasure as mechanisms that are pit against rationalism. Are they wrong to have these concerns? Are there ways that one can embrace the emotional power of popular culture without giving up the value that many progressives place on rationalism and science?

It’s not wrong to have concern about corporate control of pop culture—but it’s not strategic to dismiss pop culture because of it.

The basic principles of political organizing apply to our work in culture: power analysis, targets, and demands. This means knowing what you want to have happen and understanding who has the ability to give you want you want. For progressive changemakers, that includes the purveyors and consumers of popular culture.

Many social change organizations have pivoted off of pop culture, creating campaigns that advance their larger goals. For example,, an online organizing group dedicated to fighting for the rights of Black Americans, has won multiple campaigns over the last few years, including forcing Fox to stop airing its exploitive show Cops after 25 years and making the Oxygen Network cancel the show All My Babies’ Mamas for its stereotypical and racist depiction of Black families. The Harry Potter Alliance—a network of thousands of Harry Potter fans banding together to work for human rights and equality—ran a four-year campaign that resulted in all official Harry Potter chocolate products being fair trade.


Focusing on popular culture doesn’t mean we have to set aside science and data. In fact, translating data into narrative, giving it a values-driven voice, and embedding knowledge into the DNA of a character that fans follow through books or screens or control through games can be effective in both reinforcing and disrupting subconscious beliefs. Studies show that when they’re presented with simply statistics, people may feel like they are powerless to make a difference. A story has the opposite effect: it inspires empathy. “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry—and that’s what it means to be a social creature,” says the neuroscientist Paul Zak.

Storytelling can also influence an individual’s sense of agency. In “The Power of Story,” Elizabeth Svoboda writes:

Using modern technology like functional MRI (fMRI) scanning, scientists are tackling age-old questions: What kind of effect do powerful narratives really have on our brains? And how might a story-inspired perspective translate into behavioural change? … The Ohio State University psychologist Lisa Libby studied a group of people who engaged in “experience-taking,” or putting themselves in a character’s place while reading. High levels of experience-taking predicted observable changes in behaviour, Libby and her colleagues found in 2012. When people identified with a protagonist who voted in the face of challenges, for instance, they were more likely themselves to vote later on.

That’s why progressives should not think they can just create their own cultural content. It should be a priority to work and partner with artists and media makers—people who are actual experts in narrative creation and storytelling—to bring data, story, and experiences together so that people want to watch, talk about, and be inspired by the storylines and characters, instead of cynical about the latest soundbite.

And that’s the trick. Pop culture is fun! It’s escapism, it’s relaxing, it takes us to new places, even new worlds (for the sci-fi and fantasy geeks in us). When we are at work as community organizers, social change advocates, we all-too-often focus on the serious in ways that are disconnected from the places in the cultural environment that we go to play. We forget that people don’t want to be fact-finding, hardline policy geeks on a Thursday night binge watch or Sunday sports day. We need to find ways to reach people where they are—instead of trying to get them to come to us.

Tracy Van Slyke is the director of the the Culture Lab at Citizen Engagement Lab. The Culture Lab works to increase the ability of social change organizers to engage people by tapping into the energy, creativity, and reach of culture. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it develops the services, knowledge-building products, and relationships that help changemakers design and evaluate cultural strategies that move systemic political and societal change. As an Opportunity Agenda fellow in 2014, she wrote the report “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture.” Van Slyke was previously the director of the New Bottom Line, an alignment of economic justice organizing groups; director of the Media Consortium, a network of independent media outlets; and publisher of In These Times magazine. In 2010, she co-authored the book Beyond The Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics (New Press).

How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture: An Interview with Tracy Van Slyke (Part Two)



You cite Glenn Beck who said, “Culture is the lead. That’s the dog. The news is the tail.” What might progressive activists learn from the Right in terms of how to use cultural change as the “lead” in their efforts to reshape how the news frames public policy issues? Many on the Right also construct an argument that popular culture already reflects a leftist agenda, one they see as counter to traditional family and national values. How do we understand their very different perception of what’s going on in popular culture?

The right wing continues to complain about liberal bias in the news media and Hollywood because it works: It’s guaranteed to rile up their base and leave the targets of their attacks on the defensive. But the truth is that the Right is not suffering from a lack of access to pop culture. Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump’s hosting of SNL brought in almost 10 million viewers and the show’s highest ratings in nearly four years.

Conservatives are expanding their coordinated influence beyond the news/media industry of Fox News, radio networks, and the online Breitbart News and Drudge Report. They are entering the realm of entertainment by building interconnected, long-term, political and cultural strategies. Reporting nearly $3 million in funding in 2014, the nonprofit Moving Pictures Institute is churning out films with far-right policy agendas. Projects like the comedy website WeTheInternet promote strategies for “freedom in film” to conservative think tanks, foundations, advocates, and organizers.

As I discuss in Spoiler Alert, right-wing commentator Glenn Beck (whose estimated earnings are around $90 million per year) is now throwing down with all his might in the culture sphere: He has three movies in the works; his internet TV network, TheBlaze, has more than 300,000 paid subscribers; and his online portal draws more than 25 million unique visitors per month. He even launched his own line of jeans after Levi’s produced an advertisement that he found too progressive.

Every piece of culture Beck touches has an embedded political and social agenda.

How do we make arguments that explain why the contents of popular culture matter without falling into the traps of traditional media effects or propaganda arguments? What assumptions are you making about how popular culture shapes or influences the ways we perceive the world? What room does your account allow for the agency of audiences to reshape popular messages to reflect their own agendas and interests?

The Hollywood storylines, the celebrities that dominate magazine covers and social media feeds, the multibillion-dollar sports industry, the individual and community experience of game play, the spiritual connections made through faith communities—these all exercise enormous influence on what people buy, how they vote, what social and political issues they support, and how they interact with their family, friends, and neighbors.

Popular culture reflects the complex, messy, and beautiful nature of our society. It is also the place to move societal change forward. In Who We Be: The Colorization of America, award-winning author Jeff Chang writes:

Here is where artists and those who work and play in culture enter. They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.

For those who are fighting for a more just, equitable, diverse, and sustainable world, it is imperative to give people the experiences to read, watch, interact with that vision. And that’s where entertainment comes into play.

What really makes pop culture exciting is that it’s a two-way street. There’s an interchange between the industries that mass-produce experiences, content, and products, and the individuals they reach. Fans who create their own subcultures and networks, and artists who build and inspire their own communities, can and do influence popular culture beyond themselves.

The growth of digital platforms—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube—is breaking the constraints of advertisers and traditional show formats. YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, and other platforms are boosting opportunities for storytellers, artists, and fans to experiment with content without corporate influence (which is not always ideal in the ongoing struggle for financing!) allowing them to push the boundaries in the stories they tell and how they tell them, as well as directly reach and build their own fanbases.

We can and must intervene and influence popular culture—to break down negative stereotypes, to introduce and inspire new portrayals and storylines, and to organize to change the infrastructure and decision-making systems that control access and creation of content. We, as changemakers, thought leaders, and organizers, can:

  • Work with and support the artists and media makers who are producing great values-aligned stories.
  • Support and expand efforts such as the Harry Potter Alliance to organize and work with fandoms.
  • Invest in experimentation, tools and services (like the ones Culture Lab offers) to build infrastructure that supports long-term culture change strategies in the progressive movement.

As you discuss how activism and creative might work together, a key insight is that “creatives think in terms of narratives.” What kinds of practices would social movements need to adopt to respond productively to the creative’s desire for compelling stories?

Both socially conscious artists and social justice organizers seek to change hearts and minds. From disrupting current internal biases to introducing new ideas to inspiring millions of individual actions, added together can make seismic political and social change.

Movements of people advancing social change are by nature cultural experiences, historically and around the world movements generate songs and heroes, symbols and fashions. But too often, organizers and changemakers think of narratives as a one-way message delivery tactic. Social movements are made up of people whose identities are more than just organizing hooks: worker, youth, women, people of color. They—we all—have complicated, rich lives. Advocacy groups have to do more to go beyond just thinking about the messages we want to relay, to connecting with the lives, identities, and interests of the people we want to reach. Those identities are often shaped, defined, and magnified through narratives and immersive experiences in cultural spaces. To both expand the number of people in our movements and to build the power of movements, we need to understand that narrative and culture is not a communications ploy. It actually is a fundamental part of organizing.

To strengthen and expand our movements, organizing groups and changemakers can:

Shift from thinking about people’s love of entertainment as a waste of time to recognizing the immense value of reaching and engaging people through narrative and culture: whether it be high-concept art or commercial escapist pap.

You know the Cyndi Lauper song, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? Well, yes. And so does everybody else. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, United States and Canada theatrical releases totaled $10.9 billion in 2013. In addition, 227.8 million people—68% of the population of the U.S. and Canada—attended a movie in a theater at least once in 2013. Meanwhile, according to Nielsen’s March 2014 cross-platform report, overall time spent watching TV in households that own TVs was 155 hours and 32 minutes per month. The average adult spent 5 hours and 4 minutes per day watching TV, and 32 minutes per day watching time-adjusted TV via live streaming, video on demand, DVR, and mobile devices. And just a couple years ago, YouTube reported that more than 1 billion unique visitors access the platform every month, and users watch over 6 billion hours of video every month.

Many of the millions of people consuming cultural content have also become cultural producers—making videos via YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, creating and distributing their own music, self-publishing their own books.

If we actually start to take “fun” seriously, we can influence and inspire the narratives that are being created and consumed across different pop culture and entertainment sectors.

Invest in learning more about the cultural intake and production of the people, communities, and networks that they want to reach, engage, and activate. Culture is not a one-size-fits-all muumuu. Individuals, communities, and networks have different and overlapping cultural interests. For the communities and networks that we want to reach, dig into learning about what they are watching, playing, listening to, and reading. What fictional characters resonate with them? What conflicts on nighttime soap operas are they talking about with their friends? What videos are they watching on their phones and sharing on social media? What are their spiritual practices? This knowledge can offer amazing insights into the narratives and cultural spaces that influence and matter to them. And then we can take that knowledge to help us find the right artists and influential media makers to support and partner with in order to shift hearts and minds.

As I write in Spoiler Alert:
… [T]o expand to new and targeted audiences, and to insert ourselves into the cultural conversation, we need to think about the kind of stories that they would relate to, be excited about, and want to be a part of. Even the world of wrestling is doing this. Perkins Miller, former Executive Vice President of Digital Media for the WWE, said a brand must tell a story. “We’re in the business of telling stories, 52 weeks a year. When our talents get out there and our fans watch their stories, they just flock to Twitter to continue the conversation.”

Learn how to build strong relationships and working partnerships with artists and media makers. Working with RaceForward and JustFilms to bring together filmmakers and advocacy groups, we found that there are “natural alignments between organizers and storytellers that play to each other’s strengths. But right now, both groups lack the deep understanding of each other’s work that’s necessary to effectively move the needle on social issues.” Artists who have worked within social movements point to the need for advocacy groups to change how they typically engage artists. Payment is important, but in a generative collaboration that goes beyond a transactional “communicate this message for us” approach. Collaboration also means we can’t try to control all the outputs. (This maybe the hardest thing for an organizer to do.)

In terms of compelling stories, advocates need to provide access to real stories and people, not talking points. Favianna Rodriguez and the CultureStrike network teach the importance of seeking and supporting artists from within the communities we are organizing for and with, and the need to bring creatives to the table from the beginning and throughout a strategy and campaign process. Beka Economopoulos of the strategy shop Not An Alternative, suggests: “If you are mapping out campaign strategy and messaging, and you have options between different tactics and one lends itself to more visual messaging and storytelling of what’s happening within the culture—go with the cultural and visual strategy. This allows us to develop a multimedia, multipronged campaign that plays out across media and on the ground with grassroots pressure.” (There are other specific artists’ recommendations in the Spoiler Alert chapter on collaboration with creatives.)

Overcome fear of pop culture by connecting with strategists who can provide trusted analysis. I’ve heard from political organizers who are worried they’ll “get it wrong” when trying to hook to culture and it might backfire. But just as there’s people in the progressive movement who are really skilled at figuring out how to, for example, move a policy through legislation, there’s a growing number of cultural organizing specialists who can co-create strategies that allow a campaign to authentically hook into the cultural and narrative worlds of the people we are trying to reach.

It’s been interesting to watch, and participate, over the past 15 years as this emergent community of practice—”cultural strategists”–has been asserting itself (ourselves) more clearly as a defined component of  the public interest, social change ecosystem. There are more and more examples of funder conferences, peer networks, reports, and the like that indicate that “culture change” may be becoming a “field.” In the year since “Spoiler Alert” came out, I started the Culture Lab at CEL and we launched a series of research, training, and tool-building projects. I’m also really excited about new initiatives from leaders like Bridgit Antoinette Evans (now a Nathan Cummings Fellow), Andrew Slack of Harry Potter Alliance and now the Star Wars Dark Money Campaign Rebel Alliance, Rashad Robinson, Color of Change, and Ai-jen Poo of Caring Across Generations, projects like Halal in the Family and LadyPartsJustice, among many others.

I see 2016 as a year when progressives will be increasingly hooking into pop culture—so we soon should have even more evidence about the practices and models that are worth replicating.

Tracy Van Slyke is the director of the the Culture Lab at Citizen Engagement Lab. The Culture Lab works to increase the ability of social change organizers to engage people by tapping into the energy, creativity, and reach of culture. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it develops the services, knowledge-building products, and relationships that help changemakers design and evaluate cultural strategies that move systemic political and societal change. As an Opportunity Agenda fellow in 2014, she wrote the report “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture.” Van Slyke was previously the director of the New Bottom Line, an alignment of economic justice organizing groups; director of the Media Consortium, a network of independent media outlets; and publisher of In These Times magazine. In 2010, she co-authored the book Beyond The Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics (New Press).


What We Talk About When We Talk about Star Wars

This blog post might be subtitled “The Pretentious Ass Strikes Back.” Here’s a story we tell in my family.

In 1977, Cynthia Ann Benson, an undergraduate at Georgia State University, has signed up for a class on film theory and criticism, with some nervousness about whether it will take the pleasure out of going to the movies. On the first day of class, the instructor — Jack Creech — is late, and a group of students are gathered outside the classroom. This guy — you know the one — another undergraduate student  is standing around making assertions about gender, race, and technology in the recently released Star Wars movie to anyone who will listen and to many who would probably rather not be listening. She goes off after class and writes a letter to her best friend describing “this pretentious ass pontificating about the social significance of Star Wars” as summing up everything that made her fearful of cinema studies.  It took me several years to overcome that unfortunate first impression and get her to go out on a date with me. We’ve now been married for almost 35 years.

So, it was some ironic glee that I accepted the invitation of the media relations folks at USC to be put on a list of experts who could talk to the media about Star Wars. I found myself doing some dozen or more interviews with reporters all over the world in the week leading up to the release of A Force Awakens, filling them in about the impact which the Star Wars franchise has had over the past few decades.


If you have a low threshold for pretentious asses pontificating about the social significance of Star Wars, you may want to skip this post. If you are worried about spoilers, the first chunk will be spoiler free and I will give very clear signals when you should stop reading.

In the years, in between, much has happened. One thing my wife and I had in common was that we were not impressed with the first trailers we saw for the original Star Wars. I recall rolling my eyes and laughing it off the screen. In fairness, the original trailers were singularly bad, lacking John William’s music, and using a hooky pitch that we had felt science fiction cinema had overcome by that point.

Keep in mind that there were also trailers at this particular show for more serious science fiction movies such as Logan’s Run and Damnation Alley. (Okay, time has not been kind to these particular films).  I was a young reporter for the campus newspaper at the time. I was offered the chance to interview three unknown actors — Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill, and someone named Harrison Ford — and I turned it down. Some other classmate got to take what turned out to be a really plum assignment. By the time I saw Star Wars, for the first time, there was enormous press and I was pumped, but bad first impressions all the way around.

Cynthia and I would see every subsequent Star Wars film together, on opening day, with the latest one being no exception. We were dating by the time Empire opened, we were married by the time Jedi opened, and we had a son by the time we saw Phantom Menace. In fact, we had an adolescent son given the long wait between and we had practiced some miserable child abuse, because we had forbidden him to watch the Star Wars films on a small screen and they had not released them on the big screen in more than a decade. We did take him to see the digitally “enhanced” versions (he has never seen Star Wars in its original format). And this go around we huddled, as fifty-somethings, under umbrellas in the rain, waiting with all of the undergraduates, to see A Force Awakens for the first time. One of the reasons that I do not think Star Wars has been over-hyped, though God knows Disney and the media have tried, is that so many people have stories like this one, where this saga has become central to the ways they tell their family and personal history. More on this point in a minute.

Along the way, other things linked me with Star Wars. I curated a screening of Star Wars fan films at the Art Institute of Chicago; I wrote a chapter about Star Wars and its troubled relationship with its fans for Convergence Culture; I appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the documentary, The People Vs. George Lucas; and I ended up getting hired by the University of Southern California  (where Lucas was a film student) and teaching sometimes in a building where Lucas’s name is carved in marble over the entrance. So, Star Wars has, hell yeah, been an important aspect of my life since the late 1970s. And though I was nervous after my disappointment with Phantom Menace and its sequels, I went into this one with a new hope, sorry couldn’t resist, about the future of the franchise. For me, the best news about Disney buying and revitalize the franchise was that George Lucas was going to have nothing to do with the new films.

Don’t get me wrong. I will always value Lucas for giving birth to the Star Wars mythos. Lucas, like L. Frank Baum before him, set out to create an American Fairy Tale and he pulled it off with flying colors. We can make a number of claims about the origins of Star Wars. Joseph Campbell, the mytholographer, would credit Lucas with tapping into the “monomyth,” his model for the core themes and narrative elements of global mythology, and updating it for the 20th century. If Lucas did not intentionally tap “the Hero’s Journey,” he may have been the last writer in Hollywood not to have done so, since Campbell’s model, especially after Star Wars’ success, has been encoded into many of the core texts for training screenwriters and remains the template for most of the big budget blockbusters released each year. Lucas was inspired in part by his own childhood, watching serials at Saturday morning matinees, and especially by Flash Gordon, which he had intended to remake, but failed to get the rights to do so. So, he created an original story in the spirit of those classic serials, and crammed it with as many pulp genre elements as he possibly could. He also raided countless other films from around the world, including The Hidden Fortress and Battleship Yamamoto (Japan) and Dam Busters (UK), cutting together key sequences as a means of pre visualizing his movie (as Bob Rehak has pointed out). And out of this primordial soup of borrowed elements emerged what has become the most popular film franchise of all times.

Of course, Lucas did not get there without some real collaborations — with Marcia Lucas (his wife, the film’s editor, and what many believe to be the one person who could tell him no), the classic SF writer Leigh Brackett, the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and of course, the composer John Williams, each of whom played key roles in shaping the core DNA of the Star Wars universe, as did many others (auteur theory be damned). And yes, USC’s Cinema School deserves some credit: Lucas was one of the original “movie brats,” the first filmmakers in America to come out of film school. They had absorbed many classic films — including The Searchers upon  which one of the original film’s most emotionally compelling moments was based — and they knew how to think about the full range of cinematic techniques. Above all, they knew how to communicate with the various technical collaborators and create an audio-visual style that was intensified compared to any previous films to come out of Hollywood. For more of my thoughts on Star Wars‘ impact on contemporary Hollywood, check out this piece. 

Lucas made what turned out to be a key move when he rejected a higher salary of the film in favor of greater control over and more profit from the unfolding of Star Wars as a media franchise. From the start, Lucas saw the ancillary materials as a vital aspect of how he would build up this fictional universe, just as from the start he understood this as something which could unfold across multiple installments. I don’t believe, as is sometimes claimed, that he knew the exact shape of that narrative from the start. I doubt he would have constructed Luke, Leia, and Han as a romantic triangle in that first film, if he knew at the time that Luke and Leia were siblings. But the development of the extended mythology of Star Wars represents a major breakthrough in the emergence of today’s transmedia entertainment. Here’s a good piece tracing some of the contributions that the extensions have made to the Star Wars saga. 

From the start, Star Wars was conceived not so much as a story about the dysfunctional Skywalker family as it was a world with many movable parts that can be explored through a variety of different media — comics, novels, games, toys, animated series, radio dramas, etc. By the second and all subsequent films, we are given glimpses of different corners of the Star Wars universe on screen precisely so that material can be mined and developed through these other platforms. And these other creative developments sustained audience engagement across the long years when there were no new Star Wars films on the big screen and the original versions were not even available for VHS or DVD release.

And of course, the other thing that sustained Star Wars through the years was the intense fan activity it attracted from the get-go. If you trace the history of media fandom, Star Wars ranks alongside Star Trek and Harry Potter as perhaps the most influential fandoms. There’s so much one could say here about the role of SW fandom in the development of fan fiction, fan music, fan cinema, fan vidding, cosplay, role play, and model-building. But, as I wrote in Convergence Culture and testified to in the People vs. George Lucas, Lucas had, from the start, a contradictory relationship with his fan base. His personal mythology relies heavily on stories of his experiences as a Super 8 filmmaker, but he was openly hostile to most other forms of fan production, and his company has modeled a series of different strategies by which studios might bring fans more fully under their control through the years. 

The mainstream media has tended to read Lucas’s comments about the new film as positive. I read a bit more subtext behind them. Read them again in light of the history of animosity between Lucas and his fans: “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” How we read this comment depends on whether Lucas wants the same things as his fans want and it is pretty well established by this point that they were opposed on almost every development around Star Wars 1-3.  

Moving Lucas’s hands off the reigns of the Star Wars empire is what needed to take place for the revitalization of the franchise we’ve seen in recent months. Ironically, the best way to return Star Wars to its core was to put someone else in charge. And in many ways, Disney, scary thought though it was when it was first announced, was probably the best studio to take control. There are plenty of bad things you can  say (and probably have said) about the Disney corporation. It’s record for fan relations is no better than Lucas’s, but they have made some decisive steps to turn this around in recent years, including sustained outreach to adult fans, rather than basing everything on an appeal to “children of all ages” or writing off the adult fans the way Lucas did implicitly and explicitly around The Phantom Menace. By the early sound era, Walt Disney had created the Mickey Mouse clubs, organizations at movie theaters across the country, which encouraged audience engagement and participation with its properties. These organizations would provide the template for the later Mickey Mouse Club television series. The creation of Disneyland as a theme park and as a television series helped to lay the foundations for transmedia entertainment, and the company has been in the forefront ever since in exploring how to extend and deepen stories across media.

In many ways, the plans for the new Star Wars franchise, with stand-alone films about individual characters sandwiched between contributions to the larger unfolding saga, comes straight out of the playbook that Disney has developed around the extended Marvel universe. All of this makes sense to me.

Putting J.J. Abrams in charge of the new film sent a mixed message. As a Star Trek fan, I did not like what has ultimately happened to the big screen reboot of Star Trek: I had mixed responses to the first film (in which I had an unrecognizable cameo role that is included in the dvd extras — look for the shadowy figure of the Klingon on watch) and HATED the second (another story for another day, but mostly having to do with his total lack of understanding of the core character relations and themes that make Star Trek into a distinctive SF franchise.) So, after Phantom Menace and after Into the Darkness, there were good reasons to be twitchy heading into this film, even though otherwise, there were plenty of great elements already visible in the trailers to set my fanboy heart at ease.

So, what did I think about the film?




It took me probably a good ten to fifteen minutes into the film before I could start to breathe in a normal fashion as the realization set in that this film met the first criteria for being the flagship for a major media franchise: It doesn’t suck. And by the time, Han and Chewbacca show up on screen, I realized that I was loving it. I have still only seen it once, so I am going to avoid making too many grand interpretive claims here, but I will say that the film did what it needed to do to set Star Wars on the right path for the next decade or so.  Here’s some of the things I think it accomplished:

The Force Awakens Revitalizes, but does not reboot, Star Wars. This goes back to the J. J. Abrams issue. I had no objection to Abrams recasting the leads on Star Trek, but I did not think he needed to spend the entire first film setting up an elaborate time paradox in order to explain why and how he did so. I also felt like if he was going to call these characters Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc., he needed to respect some core aspects of their personalities. It is one thing to provide a new interpretation of those characters, as happens whenever a new actor tackles Hamlet, say, but another to fundamentally shift who they are, and by the second film, he was showing a total disregard for those characters. If you can swap out Spock for Kirk in Wrath of Khan, and have it make no difference in terms of how the story plays out, you are not grounding your storytelling in the characters.

This time around, Abrams does show obvious respect and affection for the original characters, both big and small. Clearly, he reminded us of how central Hans Solo has been to the spirit of Star Wars, but there were also great moments featuring Chewbacca who has always been a personal favorite (the scene with the nurse was a highpoint of the film for me), and there are so many minor Star Wars characters hidden like Easter Eggs in the background of various scenes, suggesting a fully populated universe which continues on from the elements we valued from the original trilogy. This looked and sounded like Star Wars.

Lucas with Phantom Menace and Abrams with Star Trek had made a big deal out of needing to throw out the past in order to appeal to a younger generation . But this time, my generation of fans were not sacrificed to pave the way for the younger ones. That scene with Han and Leia, talking to each other about their mature relationship, and their troubles as parents, was directed straight at all of us who had led adult lives while still maintaining a fascination with this franchise. Our mastery over the mythology was valued, even if they did streamline much of the extended mythology built up through the transmedia through the years, and the film returns to classic themes that have made the Star Wars films work as a shared mythology. Some have argued that the film spends too much time looking backwards, not enough time looking forward, but when you compare it with the Star Trek reboot, it is clear that Abrams made a different set of choices this go-around (or was forced to accept them, given how much Disney had running on this one!).

A Force Awakens paves the way for the next phase of the story. There are a whole new cast of characters, each born of the archetypes of the original (literally or not — in some cases it remains to be seen), but each representing new energy and interests. Rey is the female protagonist that Star Wars fans have wanted for decades. Ironically, one of my claims when talking about Star Wars in that GSU hallway so many decades ago was that Princess Leia did transform the vocabulary of the female sidekick in SF adventure stories — she does pick up a blaster and proves a better shot than Han, she does deliver some withering one-liners which cut Luke down to size, and she does exercise some power over the rebellion forces. But, today, I think we would say that the roles offered to women in Star Wars are limited. I assume many of you have seen the recut of all of the lines across the original trilogy delivered by women other than Lea.

Rey ranks alongside Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road), as the archetype for the next generation female action hero. Lucas always saw the young boys as the true audience for Star Wars and had deep ambivalences about its appeal to women, so it is great to see women of all ages get the protagonist they deserve. I am outraged by suggestions that Rey is a Mary Sue character — certainly no more so than Luke himself — and it is not “political correctness” to think that we can have a broader range of characters front and center in these kinds of stories. It is also not “political correctness” to protest when the studio released a set of action figures which features all of the boy characters and does not include the chief protagonist. 

They get enormous credit for making a blockbuster where the white male is at best the third most important character, but come on, for all of the progress this film makes, it really still doesn’t have a clue of how central women have always been to the fan community around this franchise, or why many of us would want both our sons and our daughters growing up with admiration and respect for Rey’s mad chops and self-confidence.

I would argue that the film is still struggling with its racial politics — Finn spends far too much of the film in a state of utter terror and ends up coming pretty damn close to being another dead black guy in an action movie by the final credits. I know he overcomes his fears to be there for Rey, but come on, he doesnt need to hold her hands, but we also do not need to diminish him in order to make her look stronger.

Poe doesn’t spend enough time on screen — he’s got some real potential, but I need to get to know him better. I fell under the charms of Maz Kantana who is not a puppet like Yoda, not too cute like the Ewoks, not a cartoon character like Jar Jar Binks, but really does show the expressive capacities at the hands of contemporary CGI artists in creating alien characters. (I will note that this last is a split decision in my household: my wife and son think I am crazy). BB8 is legitimately cute without being cloyingly so and without relying on racist stereotypes.  And as for Kylo Ren, we have someone as compelling as Darth Maul who is allowed to last for more than one sequel, and someone who shows what a good actor  (and frankly a better director) could have done with the Anakin Skywalker storyline. I don’t love everything about him — the temper tantrums seemed to come from a different movie and one that I do not like at all. But, the emotional core here provides strong fundamentals that can sustain the series moving forward.  

The casting was across the board brilliant, including a deep back bench of performers who still haven’t shown everything they can do with these parts. I left the theater wanting to know more about all of these characters and above all, wanting to know what happens next (the true test of any serialized entertainment).

The Force Awakens was fun. That surely has to be the top criteria for evaluating a Star Wars movie. It is not going to provide overt social commentary — if you want that, go see Spotlight or any of a dozen other films released this Oscar season, with varying degrees of quality and impact. 2015 will go down as the year when Hollywood rediscovered its liberal core — as if the entire industry went back and binge watched the complete works of Elia Kazan and Stanley Kramer. But Star Wars has cool action  sequences, great character moments, witty one-liners, everything that felt so fresh when the original film hit the screen in 1977. The actors look like they are having a good time, even Ford, and the characters clearly like each other. There are enough mythic themes to make us care what is getting blown up next, which is more than can be said for many other big budget movies of the past year.

So, is this the best film ever made? Certainly not. As a Star Wars fan, there’s a lot to nit-pick and a few things that contradict core mythology: how exactly was Finn able to get Luke’s light saber to work for him? (Keep in mind it was previously –even in this film — suggested those light sabers need to be keyed to specific individuals.) What exactly did Han think Ryo was about to do? What nonsense about the maps!)  

Is it the best Star Wars film ever made? I am seeing fans debate whether it is the second or third best Star Wars film — the dust needs to settle and we need to dig around in the new elements before any of us can know — but I’ve seen few assert that it is the best.

Is it a worthy addition to a classic series that has sustained audience interest across multiple generations? Absolutely. It cleared the bad taste out of our mouths, and it paves the way for what promises to be a long run of Star Wars stories into the future. Keep in mind that there was a new Oz book released each year at Christmas time for the better part of the 20th century, a transmedia franchise which was valued by generation after generation.

I want to see Star Wars films that center on characters who are not named Skywalker. I want to see films which provide back story for Han and Chewie, that explore different corners of the Star Wars extended universe, that draw on different mixes of genre elements,  that push the story backward and forward in time. I want to see what happens to the new characters introduced in this film. And it sounds like I will get my chance.

More-over, this film is certain to generate new kinds of fan responses.  I’ve written here often about the amazing work being done by the Harry Potter Alliance and Imagine Better in using popular mythology to inspire a new generation of young activists. (We write extensively about those efforts in our forthcoming book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism). Andrew Slack, the co-founder of that group, has moved onto a new campaign which uses the Star Wars saga to call attention  to the role of dark money in American politics. He’s asked me to serve on the Jedi Council, advising him on these efforts. Here’s an example of the early press coverage of these efforts and below, you can watch a video which explains about the Jedi pledge you can take to help fight to help reform today’s broken campaign finances system. So, yeah, social significance after all!

Your friendly neighborhood pretentious ass signing off for 2015. See you next year.

A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rea (Part Three)

You draw some interesting connections between humor and other culture practices, such as amusement parks, fun house mirrors, photographic manipulations, and games, many of which speak to technological shifts in perception impacting China and the rest of the world during this period. To what degree were such devices a means of responding to the emergence of modern mass media and modernity more generally?

To a great degree, I believe. During the late Qing dynasty, especially during the 1900s, you have a lot of futuristic novels that include looking devices, like the “character-examination lens,” which is a kind of moral X-ray. These writers found China’s present to be unwatchable and preferred to look ahead. In the book I include one 1909 cartoon showing a hand-held X-ray device revealing that the only thing in an elected representative’s heart is money. This 1909 “allegorical illustration” from Shanghai’s Illustration Daily uses binoculars to represent Chinese and foreigners’ tendency to view each other as either larger or smaller than life (figure below).

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In the 1910s, you have the ha-ha mirror, as they called it, being installed in front of big-city amusement halls (figure below) to draw in passersby. And in 1920s films you have plenty of glasses, binoculars, windows, mirrors, lenses, and other optical devices. Not all of this play was comedic—some illustrations of flying machines from the 1880s are more fantastical than anything else—but I do see irreverence being connected to this modern mode of positive exploration, unconstrained by past ways of doing things.

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Postcard of Shanghai’s Great World amusement hall (est. 1917)

To what degree did these comic genres survive the Second World War and especially the rise of Communism and the Cultural Revolution?

Big question, which I hope to answer in a future book called The Unfinished Comedy. In 1957, the prominent filmmaker Lü Ban made a film, Unfinished Comedies, in which a pair of slapstick film stars from the Republican era—Han Langen and Yin Xiucen, playing themselves (figure below)—reunite in New China. In the film, they make a trio of film comedies, only to be berated at the advance screenings by a censor called Comrade Bludgeon. Unfinished Comedies was never released and the political backlash ruined Lü Ban’s career, but fortunately the film survives, and with it the comedian’s cri de coeur.

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To me, the film expresses the resilience of modern China’s comedians in trying circumstances…which are pretty much the only circumstances they’ve ever known. Each era had different constraints and opportunities, including the Anti-Japanese War (1937-45), the Civil War (1945-49), the early Mao era, (1949-65), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The early Mao era, for example, ushered in a new period of didactic comedy, in which satire and eulogistic comedy were the only two modes explicitly endorsed by the Party-state. Nowadays, the government censorship apparatus is more active, and by some accounts more effective, than ever before. But all of the comic genres survive in some form, even as new genres and terminology continue to appear.

Near the end, you talk a bit about forms of internet humor in China, which you connect back to earlier examples of “crowdsourcing” jokes for Chinese publications. To what degree were the styles of humor you identify a popular or grassroots phenomenon as opposed to one reserved to the literary elites? To what degree do you see contemporary web culture as introducing a new “age of irreverence” into China?
Well, people who could read and write were in the minority in China at the turn of the twentieth century. I did come across a few joke books compiled by scribes working with illiterate comic performers. But with the exception of amusement halls, photographs, and films, most of the types of humor I discuss are written, and thus were to some degree products of “elite” culture.

Of course, the Chinese literary sphere had its own pecking order. Most of what I would consider to be the best humor writers of the Republican era were scholars of the Chinese tradition as well as multilingual and cosmopolitan—writers like Lao She, Zhou Zuoren, and Qian Zhongshu. The “humor movement” of the 1930s was an elite one that ended up getting some traction in popular culture, and it’s the moment scholars know best. I make a point of also spending some time with the hacks, the amateur enthusiasts, and the entrepreneurs.

You once talked about “Web -10.0,” referring to earlier iterations of participatory culture—people using mini presses to publish ‘zines in the 1850s, amateurs staffing their own radio stations in the 1920s, and so on. An entrepreneurial ethos also developed in China ca. 1890s-1930s, which involved a lot of sharing. Tabloids, literary journals, cartooning magazines, and small film companies shared labor—moonlighting was the norm—and content, like jokes.

Xu Zhuodai, who became one of Shanghai’s most popular comic writers, founded a slapstick film company in 1925 with a second-hand camera and a bunch of buddies from his theater troupe (figure below). He called their opportunistic, shoestring approach to the business “cigarette butt-pickup-ism.” Wu Jianren, one of the most prolific joke-writers of the 1900s, claimed that people in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia kept retelling his jokes. So he republished his favorites. Cartoonists were even more welcoming of new talent, and solicited contributions from readers.

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A still from Cupid’s Fertilizer (1925), produced by Xu Zhuodai’s Happy Film Co.

My impression is that, as a whole, Republican Chinese humor, while relentlessly exploratory, was still nowhere near as egalitarian as contemporary web culture, if only because of the breadth and speed of access today. I’ve written before about online video spoofs known as e’gao or kuso, which became popular in the mid-2000s, and generated the most famous comic Chinese meme, the Grass Mud Horse.

I do think that the web has facilitated a new virtual age of irreverence in China (figure below). But the authorities have a chokehold on print publishing and mass media, so, at the moment, we’re hearing much less laughter out of China than we should.

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Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.