Unspreadable Media (Part Five): Back and Forth


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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