Should I Cornrow My Beard? and Other Questions at the End of 2006

This will be my last blogpost of 2006. By agreement with my family, I am going to take next week off, spending as little time online as humanly possible, and relaxing after the end of a term which has included at least 16 talks outside my home institution (and quite a few inside) as well as a period of six months during which I have made more than 165 blog posts. I think I have earned a short break. But have no fear, I will be back ready and rearing for conversation by early next year. I've already lined up some great interviews and have some cool topics in mind. There will also be some cool new announcements from the Comparative Media Studies community. Never a dull moment around here. I want to use this last post to provide a few updates and announcements -- especially concerning the podcasts of our events --- and then share a few thoughts about my recent venture into Teen Second Life thanks to the help of Barry Joseph and the other fine folks at Global Kids. (And I promise to answer or at least explain the title question by the end of this post).

CMS Announcements

We now have all but one of the webcasts of the Future of Entertainment conference up on line. That last one should be up soon.

We promised a while back that we would have a webcast version of Jesper Juul's talk, "Half-Real: A Video Game in the Hands of a Player" and that podcast went up earlier today. We are experimenting here -- and in the Futures of Entertainment content -- with video podcasting. All feedback on these efforts would be welcome.

I wanted to flag an upcoming event. For the past eight years, the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program has worked with Sony Imageworks and various local games companies to produce a workshop on Transforming Traditional Media Content into Nonlinear and Interactive Formats. The course, in the MIT context, runs intensively for five days during a week in January. I run this workshop in collaboration with Sande Scoredos from Sony Imageworks. This year, we will be assisted by Ravi Purushotma, the technological advisor to the Education Arcade.

The dates for this year's event will be Jan. 29-Feb.2.

Our students include undergraduate students from MIT and Wellesley College, graduate students, visiting scholars, staff, and other members of the MIT Community. While we offer a limited amount of academic credit for participating in the program, most of our students opt to do it purely on a volunteer basis. We also would welcome outside participants. If you are interested in joining us, contact me at More details will be coming early next year.

Now About the Beard.

From the start, my beard seemed to be the object of fascination and speculation among the teens at Second Life. Barry Joseph told me about this interest following my participation in the MacArthur Foundation's announcement event earlier this term. And it was one of the reasons why I wanted my own avatar so I could enter Second Life and interact with these youth. One of them wanted to know how long it took me to grow my beard. In truth, that's not an easy question to answer. I have had a beard since I left the University of Iowa to start my PhD work at the University of Wisconsin. This means I have not shaved it off completely in almost 20 years. We have watched it grow from black to salt and pepper to grey over that time. Yet, since hair continually replaces itself, it is hard to know how long I have been growing the particular beard follicles which are currently attached to my face.

At one time, we even jokingly discussed making my beard available for distribution on Second Life, though so far this hasn't happened. Part of the issue is to figure out which beard length might be most popular -- the tightly trimmed Henry beard at the start of the term or the long and shaggy one by the end when my schedule has kept me from getting to a barbershop for a trim.

Last Wedsday night, I made my live public appearance on the Global Kids island in Teen Second Life to talk about games, learning, and popular culture. I wasn't surprised when one of the first questions I got asked was when and if I would have my beard put up in cornrows. It is an interesting question -- and one I am pondering deeply as I enter into the Holiday season. So, here's the heart of my response: I welcome any and all attempts to digitally doctor photographs of my beard. I especially throw this out as a challenge to teens in Second Life. If you want to use Photoshop to cornrow a picture of my beard or if you want to fix the beard on my avatar to have a funkier do, then it's fair game. And I promise to share the results here on the blog early next year. Think of it as a technical challenge: how to cornrow Henry's Beard.

My students have long tested their skills against the iconic quality of my persona --dressing up in Henry's costumes (complete with "suspenders of disbelief"), using Barbie Fashion Designer to put me in drag, doing graffiti on photographs of my bald head. So I welcome anyone from Teen Second Life to do their stuff!

How's this for the perfect narcissistic scenario: Last Saturday, I tried out my new avatar for the first time by beaming myself onto a desert corner of the Global Kids Island. I was going to stay for just a minute, try to work through some of the control mechanisms, make sure the connection works. There was no one else in the entire world that I saw on the screen. And then, out of nowhere, someone walks up and says "Are you really Henry Jenkins?" It turns out to be Mariel, a teenaged girl from Mexico City, who has been using some of her work for a school assignment. So, here we are: only two people in the whole world on a Saturday afternoon and one of them turns out to be a fan! It's probably the only time in my life that I hit 100% market recognition! It turns out that Mariel, who introduced me at the event on Wedsday, and asked really probing and intellectually sophisticated questions, is one of the closest readers of my work I've met in some time.


People have asked me why I wanted an avatar for my appearance on Second Life. This goes back to the meaning of the word, Avatar, which is a metaphor which has gotten lost as the word has taken on such common usage. Here's what Wikipedia tells us:

In Hindu philosophy, an avatar, avatara or avataram (Sanskrit: अवतार, IAST: avatāra), most commonly refers to the incarnation (bodily manifestation) of a higher being (deva), or the Supreme Being (God) onto planet Earth. The Sanskrit word avatāra- literally means "descent" (avatarati) and usually implies a deliberate descent into lower realms of existence for special purposes. The term is used primarily in Hinduism, for incarnations of Vishnu whom many Hindus worship as God.

I remind us of this meaning half-ironically. I don't mean to imply that I am somehow a divine being taking earthly form. Rather, I mean to critique what happens when adult speak to youth much of the time. I felt vaguely uncomfortable at the MacArthur event because we -- the panelists -- were speaking from another order of representation (cinematically) in a world occupied by virtual beings. I wanted to get down to the same level (socially, representationally) with the community I was talking with. I think this is a real issue. Too often, adults talk about kids, maybe even speak to youth, but they don't talk with them. And becoming an avatar seemed like the best way to signal my desire to speak on the same level with my audience. Anyway, it made sense to me.


The whole experience was amazing. I will let you listen to the actual exchange which has been recorded and put on line if you wish. There's also a really wonderful video of highlights of the event which is now in circulation on YouTube. Frankly, I come off sounding much more coherent in the video than I did at the time. There was something truly overwhelming about the whole experience.

For one thing, I really am a newbie and so moving around in that body -- and indeed, remembering to keep moving -- was a challenge for me. At one point, I accidentally flew up, planted myself on the top of a sign suspended over the event, and couldn't figure out how to get down. I've had embarrassing experiences speaking before but none like that. At another point, I just slumped over in my chair because I didn't remember to keep poking at my avatar. There's a high learning curve here and doing your learning in public eye can be awkward. My students are talking about creating an animation sequence which has my characteristic hand gestures. Nobody has ever seen me speak for long without gesticulating wildly. I've got a ways to go before I blend fully and comfortably into my avatar but I was really taken with the sense of presence I felt interacting with all of the people attending the event from remote locations.


I kept getting distracted by the sheer array of avatars in attendance -- characters from anime, dancing Pandas in Ninja costumes, a monster from Will Wright's Spore... At one point I made a reference to the struggles City of Heroes had with Marvel over the fact that players might use their character design tools to create a knockoff of the Incredible Hulk and then looked out a moment later to find someone in the audience had turned themselves into the Hulk. And I was blown away by the fact that my avatar has much better moves on the dance floor than I've ever managed to master. He's one cool dude and I am, well, not. So, all in all, it was an amazing experience but I was not at my most articulate as one thing or another distracted me mid-sentence.


Thanks to everyone who made it possible and to everyone who turned out to enjoy the show. I hope to have more chances to interact in Second Life in the coming year.

And to all of you who have read and contributed to the blog this year, thanks -- and best wishes on the holiday season.