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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

My readers are apt to be especially interested in your discussion of creativity in the era of apps. You draw some interesting conclusions by looking at student artworks and how they have evolved over the past few decades. One of the counterintuitive trends you identify is a shift from fantastical subject matter towards more faithful reconstruction of everyday realities. This is surprising to me in part because of the stereotype, which is grounded in some reality, that this is a generation which grew up reading Harry Potter, but some research suggests that schools have tended to have a strong towards realist or at least naturalistic reading, especially in a world where we moved away from the study of literature and towards a focus on deciphering short fragments in preparation for reading comprehension exams. What factors might contribute to this emphasis on realistic rather than fantastical forms of expression?

Perhaps the most innovative research in the book entailed the development of detailed coding categories that can be administered, blindly, to works of art and literature produced by young people between 1990 and 2011. The scrupulous application of these codes led to the conclusion that visual art by young people today seems more imaginative than art produced by young people in the early 1990s, while literary productions by today’s cohort are less imaginative, in our sample of creative works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

You mention myself, alongside danah boyd, Cathy Davidson, Clay Shirkey, and David Weinberger, as “unabashed enthusiasts of the digital world,” suggesting that for us, “a world replete with apps is a world in which endless options arise, with at least the majority tilted in positive, world-building, personality fulfilling directions.” For the record — and I can’t speak for the others — I saw the potential and value of the web in terms of a range of different communities, which had gained greater communication capacity by their ability to create and deploy their own digital spaces. For me, the mechanisms by which Apple regulates which apps can be distributed with corporate producers and commercial logics prevailing over grassroots creators and our tendency to go regularly to apps rather than search the wider array of what’s out there on the web has made the rise of apps to be as big a threat to the generativity of the web as the decline in net neutrality. In that sense, we would agree that a defining feature of apps is the constraints they impose on human creativity. This is not really a question but Thoughts?

We both appreciate this comment and are very much on the same page. We discuss the constraints associated with apps at length in our chapter on creativity. These constraints are embedded in the coding and design decisions of app developers, the decisions made by corporate entities like Apple and Google, and laws and regulations passed by governments. While it may be true that ‘creativity loves constraints,’ we bristle at the idea of an individual’s creative expression being shaped by Apple’s bottom line or a politician’s bid for reelection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

A bit more than a decade ago, I met Howard Gardner for the first time. I had been aware of his work for much longer. My graduate mentor, David Bordwell, had assigned us his book, The Mind’s New Science when I was in graduate school, and the book had such an impact upon me that I had sought out his other works. When our paths crossed in the real world, I was a first intimidated, but also fascinated to find myself part of a conversation with him about the ways digital media was impacting how we thought and lived at the cusp of the 21st century.

Gardner is of Harvard; I was then of MIT, and that sums up about as well as I can imagine the intellectual and philosophical differences through which we saw the world. What separates Harvard and MIT for me has always been more than two subway stops on the Red Line. I went to Harvard Square to buy my comics but I usually stopped short of entering its gates. It was a different world — “the other place” — and you either understood that or it was impossible to explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of the texts cited by the fans here are from the Anglo-American media realm or from the world of Japanese manga. Are there popular texts from France that has generated a fan-like response and if so, what can you tell us about them?

From what I observed,  99% of the fans I met,  are in American or Japanese fandom. Only one or two mentioned working on French literature or French films. Natacha Guyot, for instance, is one of these exceptions. She worked at AO3 (for the Diversity showcase) and so she is very aware of this question. She practices vidding with French Canons such as“Angelique, Marquise des anges” or more recent French TV series. She uses French music, as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Manga:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

What surprised you the most about fandom? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us more about your journey in creating this project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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