Spreadable Media and the Global South: Punathambekar, Shahani, Zuckerman

As of today, all of the essays we commissioned for our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, are alive on the book's website extension and we are hearing that people who advance ordered the book via Amazon are receiving their copies.  There is also NOW a Kindle addition available. I have an ambitious series of talks planned for the coming semester, including appearances at Tools for Change (New York City, where I will be on a panel with Brian David Johnson and Cory Doctorow, Feb. 14), The Society for Cinema and Media Studies (Chicago, March 7 with other contributors from the book) , South by Southwest (Austin, TX, March 8 with Sam Ford and Joshua Green), Digital Media and Learning Conference (Chicago, March 16), Transmedia Hollywood (Los Angeles, April 12), and most likely Media in Transition (MIT, May 3 ). So, be on the look out for Henry Sightings in your area. :-)


Meanwhile, I did an in-depth interview about the book with Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion. I had run an interview with Frank about his book through this blog a while back and he's been nice enough to return the favor.  Part one is up already and part two goes up on Tuesday and will be linked here once it does.


Today's selection furthers the project begun last time of expanding our discussion of spreadability to deal with transnational media flows and in this case, with what does and does not flow between the Global South and the Global North -- two dealing with India and one with Africa.


“Desi,” which means “from the homeland,” is a term that refers to people within the South Asian diaspora. It also signals the emergence of a dynamic and transcultural South Asian youth culture, speaking to a shift in the place of South Asians in U.S. public culture. No longer imagined simply as atomized immigrants nostalgic for a home elsewhere, South Asians in the U.S. are increasingly viewed as “public consumers and producers of distinctive, widely circulating cultural and linguistic forms” (Shankar 2008, 4).

This sociocultural and political shift has shaped, and been shaped by, the constructions of Desis as a sought-after marketing demographic, with the result that a growing number of media corporations have targeted Desi audiences over the past four or five years. These corporate media initiatives are all the more striking, given that the production and circulation of Desi media has been primarily shaped, since the early 1970s, by the efforts of enterprising individuals and families. Furthermore, we can draw an arc from the late 1970s to the current moment—from VHS tapes that circulated via Indian grocery stores to remix music events (DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra in New York City, for example), one-hour shows featuring Bollywood song sequences broadcast on public-access stations, performances on college campuses, and, now, vast pirate networks that make Desi media content available to audiences across the globe—to show that the notion of spreadability has always been a defining feature of Desi media culture.

How do media corporations understand and become a part of such a mediascape? Focusing on two recent media initiatives—MTV Desi, a television channel that sought to target South Asian American youth but only lasted about twenty-two months; and Saavn, a New York–based digital media company that has emerged as one of the most prominent distributors of Bollywood programming outside India—this brief study shows that responding to and participating in the cultures of media circulation that were already in place is crucial for media companies interested in diasporic audiences.



The fundamental question of development economics, my late mentor Dick Sabot taught me, is simple to formulate and hard to answer: “Why are some people wealthy and some people poor?” Why is the Democratic Republic of Congo, blessed with valuable minerals and timber, desperately poor, while resource-constrained Singapore is well off? (Birdsall, Ross, and Sabot 1995). In Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), geographer Jared Diamond suggests that the natural environment is destiny: people who had access to easily domesticated crops and animals were able to generate food surpluses and build complex cultures, while those less fortunate had to focus more on survival than on constructing complex societies. Looking toward the more recent past, statistician Hans Rosling (2009) sees reason to blame slow development on colonialism, observing that many postcolonial societies are only now showing improvements in life expectancy seen in colonial powers in the early twentieth century. Economist Paul Collier, in The Bottom Billion (2007), places the blame on bad governance, arguing that governments which find it more profitable to rob their coffers than to build infrastructure are doomed to underdevelopment.

We might think of these as helpful, but incomplete, answers to the question of uneven development. There’s another set of unhelpful answers that center around the idea that certain peoples are inherently, biologically smarter than others. This idea gained traction in the middle of the nineteenth century as racial anthropology or “scientific racism.” More recently, a variation on the idea has emerged in the pseudoscientific study of associations between IQ scores and race in books such as The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994). Critiques of Herrnstein and Murray’s association between IQ and race point out that massive differences in educational opportunities available to rich and poor people might explain these different test scores (Jacoby and Glauberman 1995). The time I’ve spent traveling in the developing world suggests that it’s dangerous to discount the significance of opportunity. In societies where daily survival is a struggle, it can be very difficult to tell who’s a genius.

My work over the past two decades in sub-Saharan Africa has convinced me that intelligence, creativity, and humor are evenly distributed throughout the world. People’s ability to express their intelligence, creativity, and humor are heavily dependent on local circumstances, and the odds that we will even encounter these traits across barriers of language, nation, and culture are profoundly constrained by infrastructure, geography, and interest.



When I consider India, the main question that comes to my mind about spreadability is what is being spread and what is not. But which India are we talking about? There are many. A popular practice is to differentiate between “India” and “Bharat,” the Hindi name for India. You could say that India is rich, while Bharat is poor; India is English speaking, while Bharat speaks in regional languages; and India is urban, while Bharat is rural. All of these would be partially true oversimplifications. (There are rich farmers and landlords in rural Bharat, just as there are poor slum dwellers in urban India, and so on.) I think of the divide as all of these but, most of all, as one between those who have for decades been able to avail of opportunities for growth and those who are now catching up.

“India” is on par with anywhere else in the world in terms of sophisticated technological practices. The mainstream media is becoming fairly savvy in seeding spreadable content. Indian telecommunications provider Bharti Airtel ran a contest in August and September 2010 inviting Indians to upload their own new “crazy” cricket fandom videos to an Airtel YouTube channel, with the makers of the most popular videos winning a trip to watch the Airtel Champions League Twenty20 Cricket competition in South Africa. Airtel’s channel became one of the top sponsored channels on YouTube from India in terms of subscribers as well as views.

Today, it can seem as though almost every actor in Bollywood tweets incessantly, from superstars Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan to newly famous directors such as Punit Malhotra and actresses such as Sonakshi Sinha. Bachchan was perhaps the earliest leader of the blogging trend among Bollywood stars. Each of his daily posts on his personal blog receives several hundred comments on average. Bachchan also has several hundred thousand Twitter fans, and his tweets and blog posts are amplified by the mainstream press that tracks him, as well as by his legion of fans, some of whom—for instance, Rahul Upadhyay—translate each blog post within a few hours into Hindi to further spread his message to non-English-reading Internet audiences. Bachchan also innovatively maintained a voice blog (that claimed to be the first of its kind in the world) called BachchanBol (Bachchan Says), where fans could dial into a number for 6 rupees per minute on their mobile phones and listen “in the most intimate and personal way about what he is doing, his thoughts and feelings, his experiences throughout his life—anytime and anywhere—at the push of a button” (OneIndia Explore n.d.).


  This is the last of the essays we commissioned for the book, but we hope that the conversation doesn't end here. We are going to be actively inviting others to share their responses to the book's framework both through the book's homepage and through this blog. If you have some thoughts you'd like to share, we'd love to hear from you. You can reach me at hjenkins@usc.edu, or simply send along your comments attached to this blog. And as always, please help us spread these essays.