A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I've been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville's novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don't have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project's national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how "learning through remixing" can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative "What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?"


Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

A Tale of Three Quilts

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this passage sets up the contrast between folk culture (as it operated in 19th century America), mass culture (as it operated in the 20th century), and the new participatory culture (as it operates in the digital age). I argue in the book that digital culture often applies processes of cultural production we associate with folk culture to content we associate with mass culture. We can understand the relations between these three phases of cultural production by considering the example of three very different kinds of quilts. The first was made for my grandmother upon the occasion of her wedding by the women in a small town in Southern Georgia. The quilt was built up from scraps which each woman had left over from previous sewing projects. The cloth was commercially produced at southern textile mills, but its value here was sentimental - a token of each woman's affection for the young bride. The women didn't have a lot of money but by combining their scraps they could share what they had and express their support. As the quilt was being created, the older women were passing along their skills and experience to younger women, some of whom perhaps had never worked on such a project before. Quilting as a process and the quilt as a product both helped to shape the social relations between the women in that small town. The result was a one of a kind object, shaped by local traditions but also customized to the tastes of its recipient.

Now, let's consider a quilt at the end of the era of mass culture. This quilt is the product of one woman who runs a quilt-making business; the cloth was purchased in bulk as raw materials for a production process. The artist is no longer working collaboratively or drawing on local traditions; the finished work is seen as reflecting her distinctive artistic vision. It is her intellectual property to be sold as she wishes. Its recipient is unknown at the time of its production - the quilt was made to be sold to the highest bidder. In short, what had been an expression of the community has become a commodity in a privatized mode of production and distribution.

To some degree, quilting never becomes fully integrated into mass culture - it remains a hand produced (or sometimes machine stitched) artifact, but what it means to do crafts is still altered by the larger economic and communications context within which this quilt is produced and circulated. Let's imagine that the woman becomes more successful and seeks to proclaim her expertise beyond the local market. She prints a catalog which allows people to order her quilts by mail; she videotapes classes to teach others how to make quilts according to her techniques. When the web appears, she develops her own dotcom selling quilts over the Internet. Quickly, more people will encounter images of her quilts than will come into contact with the physical artifact. This is what Walter Benjamin told us about the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Now, let's consider what a quilt might look like in an age of media convergence. Communimage is a website launched by Johannes Gees and his partner, "calc," in conjunction with Expo. 02. Some 2,000 people from more than 80 countries have uploaded a total of almost 24,000 images to the site . Some of them upload images they have created - hand drawn pictures, photographs, or digital artifacts. Some of them upload images they appropriated from other places - stills from movies or television shows, images grabbed from advertisements, news photographs. The pattern created from all of these images is emergent, a product of a series of localized choices. Any individual juxtaposition may be meaningful - as images may compliment or contradict each other, as multiple panels may form a larger image, as a new image may ironically alter how we read what came before - but nobody would have known before the process started what the finished product would look like. Communimage returns the collective, collaborative, and democratic dimensions of traditional folk culture, yet it can no longer fall back upon shared traditions, since the participants come from multiple cultural backgrounds.

While the organizers initially planned to reproduce this collage as a mural, it has by now expanded to the point where it could not be meaningfully reproduced outside of a digital context. Neither a family heirloom nor a mass produced commodity, this new quilt was designed to be shared digitally with anyone in the world who cares to access it. There no longer is a physical quilt, only the image of a quilt which is itself built up from images. Yet, the shared process of creating the quilt has become, in the end, far more important than the product itself. It says something about the contemporary context of cultural production that the textile mills would not have objected if members of a folk community appropriated scraps of their cloth, yet the media companies might well object if participants in the Communimage project appropriate scraps from their mass media productions.

Political Reality

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this passage explores ways that reality television might become a vehicle for political education. The section was inspired in part by this passage from Joe Trippi's book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything:

"When Americans get the choice...they constantly surprise the producers and the celebrity judges. They go for gospel singers and torch singers and big band singers. They vote for fat people and geeky people and ugly people. They go for people like themselves....This is the most important thing that any business can learn from the first wave of this revolution and its impact on entertainment. We want the power to choose....In every industry, in every segment of our economy, the power is shifting over to us."

In one telling passage from his campaign memoirs, Howard Dean's campaign manager Joe Trippi imagines what would happen if the presidental campaign had presented itself through the lens of reality television: "

Send a camera out with the candidate every day to film the rallies and debates, everything going on behind the scenes and on stage. No secrets, no background dealings - open up the campaign and let the people see inside it, a running journal of a campaign, an all-access video blog. This is the opposite way that political campaigns generally function, of course. Most campaigns do everything in their power to control every element of the candidate's image and message, from the clothes he wears to each word out of his mouth.


Trippi's vision of "Dean TV" was something akin to Big Brother, where people, individually and collectively, would monitor the candidate's every word and gesture, comparing notes on the internet, bringing transparency to the political process. In the end, the campaign budget supported a much more modest effort, where supporters and staffers were given digital camcorders and produced a limited amount of behind the scenes footage for web distribution.

Documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler (The War Room) also saw reality television as the ideal vehicle for turning viewers into voters. In August 2004, Showtime debuted a Cutler-produced series, The American Candidate, modeled loosely after the similarly named American Idol. Cutler explained, "Reality television has borrowed so much from the world of politics, whether it's alliances or voting or the kind of strategizing that's done."

So why not turn the lens around and use reality television to teach politics? Average (or not so average) citizens would emerge through a elimination process, acquire skills in political organizing, take their views to the American public, and gain public visibility for their issues. Host Montel Williams summarized the core concept: "What if you didn't have to spend millions of dollars to get elected? What if you didn't have to go to the right schools? What if your gender or the person you love or the color of your skin didn't matter at all?"

On the one hand, the series producers hoped to educate the public about how the political process actually worked. On the other hand, they wanted to encourage fantasies of reform which might broaden the range of candidates and expand the level of public participation. Noel Holston, a critic for Chicago Tribune, clearly read the series in those terms: "The most fascinating thing about these folks is that, like most of us, they can't be neatly categorized... The candidates' discussions among themselves repeatedly remind us how pigeonholed and polarized the debate we see on TV typically is."

As with other reality programs, the public was encouraged to turn these real people into the objects of their gossip and to evaluate their performances and ethics. In this case, they were being taught a new perspective on the political process. The candidates were coached and the public were educated by political consultants drawn from both parties, including Carter Eskew, Joe Trippi, Frank Luntz, Ed Rollins, Rich Bond, Bay Buchanan. As Cutler explained,

"We're going to draw the curtain back and show how the process really works. We're going to show just how challenging it is to run for president. We're going to show the difficult decisions that have to be made between your convictions and what is politically expedient. We're going to show how polling works. We're going to show how opposition research works."

Much as American Idol helped educate Americans about the criteria music producers used to assess new talent, American Candidate proposed to teach the public new criteria for assessing political candidates.

Cutler's original plan had been to film the series in real time and have the public vote on who remained on the ballot, similar to the way American Idol works. When the series shifted to Showtime from the USA Network, its public visibility was diminished and the decision was made to complete the series production before the first episode was aired. In the end, the program failed to make a dent in the ratings and drew very little media coverage.

Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape

The following text was written as part of the original draft for the MacArthur white paper about educating young people for a participatory culture. It was cut due to length considerations but it providees useful background for people reading the report. Most often, when people are asked to describe the current media landscape, they respond by making an inventory of tools and technologies. Our focus should be not on emerging technologies but on emerging cultural practices. Rather than listing tools, we need to understand the underlying logic shaping our current moment of media in transition. These properties cut across different media platforms and different cultural communities: they suggest something of the way we live in relation to media today. Understanding the nature of our relationship with media is central to any attempt to develop a curriculum that might foster the skills and competencies needed to engage within participatory culture.

The Contemporary Media Landscape is:

1. Innovative. We are the midst of a period of prolonged and profound technological change. New media are created, dispersed, adopted, adapted, and absorbed into the culture at dramatic rates. It is certainly possible to identify previous "revolutions" in communication. The shift from orality to literacy, the rise of print culture, and the emergence of modern mass media in the late 19th and early 20th century each represent important paradigm shifts in the way we communicated our ideas. In each case, a burst of technological change was followed by a period of slow adjustment. If, as Marshall McLuhan (1969) has suggested, "media are often put out before they are thought out," then there was ample time to think through the impact of one media before another was introduced. As historians and literary scholars have long noted, the explosion of new technologies at the end of the 19th century sparked a period of profound self-consciousness which we now call modernism. Modernism impacted all existing institutions, reshaped all modes of artistic expression, and sparked a series of intellectual breakthroughs whose impact is still being felt today. If anything, the rate of technological and cultural change has accelerated as we have moved through the 20th century and shows no signs of slowing down as we enter the 21st century. The turnover of technologies is rapid; the economic fallout cataclysmic; and the cultural impact unpredictable.

Today, the introduction of new media technologies sparks social and aesthetic experimentation. Anthropologist Grant McCracken has described the present moment as one of cultural "plenitude," represented by an ever-expanding menu of cultural choices and options. McCracken argues that "plentitude" is emerging because the cultural conditions are ripe for change, because new media technologies have lowered barriers to entry into the cultural marketplace, and because those traditional institutions which held innovation in check have declined in influence (what he calls "the withering of the witherers".) The result has been the diversification of cultural production. Each new technology spawns a range of different uses, inspires a diversity of aesthetic responses, as it gets taken up and deployed by different communities of users. Such transformations broaden the means of self and collective expression.

2. Convergent. Every major idea, image, sound, story, brand, and relationship will play itself out across the broadest possible range of media channels. As Henry Jenkins (2006) argues in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, convergence is being shaped top-down by the decisions being made by massive media conglomerates who have controlling interest across all possible media systems and who enjoy the power to insure that their content circulates globally. It is in their economic interest to move any successful media content from one delivery system to another in order to maximize profit and broaden market potential. At the same time, convergence is being shaped bottom-up by the participatory impulses of consumers, who want the ability to control and shape the flow of media in their lives; they want the media they want when they want it and where they want it. And, as a result, they pull media content into new spaces illegally if that content is not available for purchase in those formats. Moreover, these consumers are taking advantage of the new media technologies to respond to, remix and repurpose existing media content; they use the web to talk back to media producers or tell their own stories about fictional characters.

3. Everyday. The technologization of the American home has been an ongoing process across the 20th century. Our family rooms have become home entertainment centers. Our family hearths are now electronic. Media technologies are fully integrated into our everyday social interactions. In some ways, these technologies have been a wedge between family members; young people often deploy media to cut themselves off from the people around them. Yet, at the same time, these new technologies have enabled greater connection to more dispersed family members, helping to combat some of the forces which are breaking down extended families. The science fiction writer Bruce Sterling famously contrasted the monumental technical achievements of the early 20th century ("the great steam-snorting wonders of the past") with the more everyday and familiar technologies of the late 20th century ("the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens.") Contemporary technology "sticks to the skin, responds to the touch....pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us." There is a danger that as this technology becomes so familiar, so much a part of our daily routines that it becomes invisible to us: we can no more see the layer of media that surrounds us than fish notice the water they are swimming in.

At the same time, we can now take our media with us wherever we go. We are still coming to grips with the full implications of this latest shift in media access. Once again, this technology can be used to cut us off from our environment and isolate us from people around us -- the iPod is advertised as allowing us to create a soundtrack for our lives. In some cases, the availability of these media adds a sense of tentativeness to our real world interactions which can now be interrupted at any time by demands from elsewhere. We engage in what sociologist Linda Stone calls "continuous partial attention," shifting focus between mediated and face to face inputs as different needs arrive. We can also use these technologies to annotate our environment -- giving us access to information when we need it and thus to heighten our awareness of the world around us. As Mizuko Ito has described, we can use these technologies to maintain ongoing contact with the people in our lives who matter to us the most. And as Howard Rhiengold has suggested, we can use these technologies to mobilize quickly in response to urgent demands on our attention.

4. Appropriative. New technologies make it easy for people to sample and repurpose media images. We can now quote and recontextualize recorded sounds and images (both still and moving) almost as easily as we can quote and recontextualize words. Increasingly, our culture communicates through snippets of borrowed media content. Young people construct a mix tape to share how they feel with each other. They create a collage of images to express how they see themselves. Their webpages function as the digital equivalent of the old commonplace books, a heady mixture of personal expressions and borrowed materials. Artists have always borrowed and built upon earlier works in their tradition. As the new technologies has expanded who gets to express themselves through media, this practice of creative rewriting of previous works has also become more widespread. We still do not have a well considered ethics of appropriation. We are expressing ourselves in new ways but we do not yet have the conceptual resources to allow us to pull back and reflect on what we are creating.

New communications technologies, such as the digital video recorder or the DVD player, allow consumers to more fully control the flow of media into their homes. New modes of entertainment, such as computer and video games, depend on our active engagement: we do not simply consume them; we make them happen. Online fan communities and modding cultures are blurring the lines between consumer and producer. We want to become a part of the media experiences which matter to us; we want to create and share our own media with others. In some ways, mass media displaced the participatory impulses which characterized the folk culture of 19th century America: we moved from a country of cultural producers to one of cultural consumers. Amateur cultural production was pushed underground, hidden from view, through it was not totally destroyed by the rise of mass media. The Web has made this layer of amateur production more visible again, providing an infrastructure where amateurs can share what they created with each other: this ability to share media has helped to motivate media production, resulting in an explosion of grassroots expression.

5. Networked -- Media technologies are interconnected so that messages flow easily from one place to another and from one person to another. Communication occurs at a variety of levels -- from intimate and personal to public and large-scale. The one sender-many receiver model which dominated print culture and modern mass media is giving way to a many-to-many model in which any given participant can easily circulate their work to a larger community. The capacity to "network" has emerged as an important social and professional skill. Young people become adept at calculating the advantages and disadvantages of deploying different communications systems for different purposes -- trying to decide how to communicate their ideas only to those people they want to see them while maintaining privacy from unwanted observation.

6. Global -- Media content flows fluidly across national borders; people deploy the new communication networks to interact with others around the world. The global scale of this new media landscape changes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. We might imagine a progression from nations sending single diplomats to interact with each other over a distance to the modern era of international flight where many have the experience of directly visiting other parts of the world to the present moment when an increasing number of people interact daily, if not hourly, with people living on the other side of the planet. The long-term consequences of this experiment in global cultural exchange are still being discovered. Some have argued that this expanded communication will bring about greater understanding; others see the return to fundamentalism as a reaction against the threat posed by these global exchanges. Some worry that the most economically powerful nations will overwhelm the rest, insuring a homogenization of global cultures; others contend that such a world requires the constant production of cultural difference in order to satisfy a seemingly insatiable hunger to step outside the parochialism of our own culture.

7. Generational -- Historically, cultural traditions and norms were passed from one generation to another: these kinds of transfer constituted a primary focus of educational practices in these traditional societies. Throughout the 20th century, however, as the rate of technological and cultural change accelerated, young people adopted cultural styles and values radically different and often fundamentally at odds with their parent's generation. Recent research suggests that young people and adults live in fundamentally different media environments, using communications technologies in different ways and forming contradictory interpretations of their experiences. Adults know less than they think about what young people are doing on line and young people know less than they think about the values and assumptions that shape adult's relationship to media.

8. Unequal -- Some have suggested that this new media culture should be described as "elective," suggesting that people can opt in and out of different levels of participation. Roles are adopted and shed easily at least by those who have the access and skills needed to adjust quickly to new communities. Yet, in another sense, it would be wrong to describe these cultures as "elective." In so far as participation within them represents a new source of power, wealth, and knowledge, it also represents a new site of privilege and inequality. Participating may be elective for those who have the resources needed to belong in the first place but no such option can be exercised by those who are being left behind. Expanding access to cyberspace has the potential of empowering new segments of the public to become fuller participants in cultural and civic life, yet we can be concerned by the ability of these electronic technologies to render invisible anyone who is not able to participate. As British research Sonia Livingstone notes, ""teaching the skills required to produce content is more crucial than ever. Indeed, not to do so would be positively disempowering for citizens given the present rush to duplicate, or even to displace, our present social and political institutions online." .

Of these eight traits, the only one which might describe our current educational institutions is "unequal." Otherwise, our schools have not kept pace with the changing environment around them. If we were to start from scratch and design an educational system to meet the needs of the culture we have just described, it would look very little like the current school system. Our schools doubly fail kids -- offering them neither the insights they need to avoid the risks nor the opportunity to exploit the potentials of this new participatory culture. Indeed, the skills kids need to function in the new media landscape are skills which are often read as dysfunctional and disruptive in the context of formal education. Kids are, for the most part, learning these skills on their own, outside of school, with the consequence that they are unevenly distributed across the population.

From Viewers for Quality Television to Television Without Pity

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this sidebar takes a look at two very different mechanisms by which audience members expressed their feelings about television programs -- Viewers for Quality Television and Television Without Pity. Each emerged, in part, in response to shifts in the ways the television networks conceptualized their viewership -- TQT reflected a new focus on demographics (and the recognition that middle class consumers were highly desired by advertisers) and TWP reflects a new focus on expressions, that is, on the emotional investments audience members make in the programs they watch. This originally appeared in Chapter Three of the book. The shift in the ways networks and advertisers think about consumers is reflected in the differences between the two audience forums which can be seen to characterize their respective eras - Viewers for Quality Television (in the 1980s and 1990s) and Television Without Pity (in the early 21st century). As Sue Brower notes, Viewers For Quality Television (VQT) was a product of a specific historic juncture, where Nielsen first began to provide information about audience demographics and media producers sought to exploit this information to sustain shows which had low ratings but attracted highly valued niche audiences. Shows, such as Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and St. Elsewhere, touted themselves as "quality television" because they attracted "quality audiences" and their producers formed alliances with fan groups to construct a case for keeping these series on the air.

Viewers for Quality Television emerged from these grassroots, but corporately supported, efforts to sustain programs that appealed to college educated and upper middle class consumers. The group regularly polled their membership to identify not only what shows they liked but who they were and what products they purchased. Evaluations of quality emerged through consensus within the readership of VQT monthly newsletter, though the group's founder and spokesperson Dorothy Swanson offered this definition: "A quality show is something we anticipate before and savor after. It focuses more on relationships than situations; it explores character, it enlightens, challenges, involves and confronts the viewer; it provokes thought and is remembered tomorrow. A quality show colors life in shades of grey."

While the group supported a range of shows, including sitcoms such as Frank's Place, Designing Women, or Brooklyn Bridge, VQT was most closely associated with hour long ensemble-cast serialized dramas, such as ER, Murder One or NYPD Blue. VQT held an annual convention where they announced their list of recognized shows for the year. Their rankings were widely monitored by industry leaders and media observers, who saw them as giving a boost, no matter how small, to deserving series.

If VQT embraced the ensemble cast drama, TWP has become central to building up and sustaining audiences for science fiction, fantasy, reality, and other cult programs. In the summer of 2004, featured series included 24, Alias, Joan of Arcadia, Gilmore Girls, Smallville and The Sopranos, not to mention Survivor and American Idol. Most of these series define their quality more in terms of their contributions to popular genres than in terms of the concept of "novelistic" television Swanson promoted.

If VQT became emblematic for the shift towards "high demographic" programming, TWP may become emblematic for this search for a more interactive, attentive, and committed consumer. The site offers recaps and discussion forums for 25 shows, most which fall into those genres which attract the highest viewer commitments, according to Initiative's research. While VQT asserted itself as an earnest and aesthetically-minded tastemaking community, TWP is an altogether more playful group as suggested by its motto, "Spare the snark and spoil the network." Swanson argued that the most active segments of the television audience were drawn towards quality and that fans of lesser shows wouldn't put the effort into sustaining such collective efforts. Yet, TWP demonstrates that shows which no one would call high quality may provoke strong emotional reactions and generate net chatter.

VQT sought the ear of network leaders and program producers; these same people are increasingly monitoring TWP as a window into their illusive younger consumers. If the networks had to wait a year to learn how VQT ranked their shows, TWP responds instantly and in a much more nuanced fashion: its professional recappers post a detailed and often scathing critique of each episode within days and sometimes hours after it aired; these reviews in turn generate extensive discussion among the site's readers. As the site's FAQ explains, "Our mandate is, more or less, to give people a place to revel in their guilty televisual pleasures. In most cases, we have a complex love/hate relationship with the show, and this site is a way for us to work through those feelings. If we plain hated a show, we wouldn't pay it any attention at all."

While VQT was about quality, TWP is about passion. Many production companies will assign an intern to monitor the TWP lists to see how the audience reacts to various plot twists and character revelations, though many producers, at least those with thick skins, have been known to lurk there themselves. According to Sep, one of the site's resident experts, "It's certainly a tool for networks to see direct and immediate fan reaction that is far more specific than the Nielsen system."

comics and convergence part four

This is the final in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide dealing with the ways that the comics industry is responding to shifts in the media landscape. This segment deals with how we pay for digital content. Reading back through this, this section felt less au current than the other excerpts on comics I have posted here. When he spoke at MIT last week, Scott McCloud, himself, conceded that micropayments have not so far taken off in the ways that he had hoped and that other business models were emerging to support online content. To bring us up to speed on the latest developments in this area, I have arranged to run an interview tomorrow with industry observer Todd Allen, about recent trends in the digital distribution of comics.

Long touted as an alternative economic model for the web, micropayments (small incremental charges for accessing content) may be ideally designed to support webcomics. In 2003, Scott McCloud joined forces with BitPass, to test the viability of this economic model, posting "The Right Number," one of his most interesting webcomics and charging consumers a quarter to access each installment. Subscribers go to the BitPass homepage, enter their credit card information one time and buy the digital equivalent of a debit card, which can be used quickly and easily with any of the affiliated venders. McCloud argues that a micropayment system would allow media producers (recording artists, independent game designers, web comics artists, authors) to sell their content directly to the consumers, cutting out many layers of middle folk, adjusting prices for the lowered costs of production and distribution in the digital environment. Such a system helps both consumers, who can sample from a range of different media producers without being locked into a subscription, and artists, who can collect a reasonable return on their work.

So far, content providers are using micropayments to set their own prices at a level they think their market will bear. In some cases, where consumers want to build an ongoing relationship with a particular content provider, subscriptions will represent a better alternative, whereas in others, we may prefer to pay for only the content we want to access. Most readers subscribe to some magazines and purchase others off the news stand when they have content which seems interesting or when they have time to read.

Most will subscribe to a finite range of web content - just as most of us subscribe to only a few (if any) premium cable services. An economy based exclusively on subscriptions will evolve over time towards media concentration. Only rarely do alternative artists get their acts together to form subscription-based services. In the case of web comics, for example, a number of independent artists have teamed up to create Modern Tales, a subscription based service which for $2.95 a month provides unlimited access to the work of more than 30 alternative comics creators. Micropayments, however, would support the fragmentation and diversification of web content, allowing a broader range of producers to compete for our entertainment dollars.

People who like comics tend to read a broad selection and are often willing to try unknown artists if the content is cheap and accessible. One can imagine micropayments thriving within niche media communities: hardcore gamers can use micropayments the way they use tokens in an arcade; techno fans might think of themselves as plopping quarters in a well-stocked jukebox and for digital movie fans, this could represent a return to the nickelodeon era. Micropayments will be most attractive where a range of small scale producers are trying to service the needs of committed and motivated consumers, where the reputation of certain pioneers (such as McCloud) will generate an initial market and create coat-tails for other less well-known artists, and where the price point remains lower than can be accommodated by traditional credit cards.

By early 2005, Bitpass had attracted a range of different content providers - from experimental filmmakers to comics artists and rock groups, from online games to educational software. The little company had not taken over the web, to be sure, but it was showing that the micropayment model worked in a range of different contexts.

For some counterperspectives on Micropayments, see Todd Allen and Clay Shirkey.

comics and convergence part three

This is the third of a series of out-takes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide which centers on convergence within the comics industry. This segment explores the ways that online communities are altering the ways that comics readers and publishers interact. A small portion of this content found its way into the book's conclusion in a significantly altered form, but the rest of it is appearing here for the first time.

Shortly before Ang Lee's feature film version of The Incredible Hulk was released, USA Today ran a front page story about the expanded power of internet fans in shaping the production and promotion of cult movies. Avi Arad, the head of Marvel's film production unit, explained, "I used to hate the Internet. I thought it was just a place where people stole our products. But I see how influential these fans can be when they build a consensus, which is what we seek. I now consider them filmmaking partners." USA Today recounted the emergence of so-called "superfans" - opinion-makers within the fan community who are actively courted by movie producers. Production companies will pay to fly these "superfans" out to the set to talk with stars and directors about a forthcoming release and in some cases, consult with them to insure fidelity to the original source material. Avad acknowledged that he sought casting advice from these fan communities: "These are people who grew up with their heroes in mind. You won't ever get everyone to agree on one actor, but they can tell you if you're going in the right direction." The most influential sites receive more than 5 million visitors per month. In some earlier cases, the studios have gone head to head with these sites, sticking by unpopular decisions, only to sustain box office damage. Now, the article suggested, fans were having more influence than ever before.

Kurt Busiek, the writer of Marvels and Astro City, argues that these online discussion groups represent an extension of traditional forms of publicity and criticism within the comics fan community: "It used to be that the two areas of communications among comic fans were the fan press and word of mouth. Somewhere in the community around every comic book store would be the guys in the know. They'd talk about comics in the store and whatever they thought was cool would filter into the rest of the audience... The internet has taken the mechanisms of fandom, word of mouth, and commercial reactions, intensified it, increased the speed of it, and made it much, much more efficient.... Instead of having to wait for a couple of months to read something like the Comics Reader to cover some comic news, it hits the internet news sites as it happens. The Friday Mark Waid was fired from Fantastic Four, there was a news article on the web and being discussed by Sunday and by Monday morning, the people at Marvel Comics came to work and they had to react to it." When fan reaction emerges this quickly and spreads so far, it commands much greater attention within the industry. Increasingly, internet response is shaping publisher's decision making.

The Sequential Tart has emerged as a central site for women in comics fandom, serving as an advocacy group for female consumers frustrated by their historic neglect or patronizing treatment by the comics industry. Started in 1997, by a group of female fans of Garth Ennis ( Preacher), the group expanded its focus, seeking to provide a female-written alternative to what they saw as the locker-room humor and ogling images found in most of the publications aimed at predominantly male comics fans. Marcia Allas, the current editor of Sequential Tart, explained , "Essentially our goals were to provide a magazine that would have content to appeal across as broad a spectrum of new or established comics readers as possible, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, or individual taste...In the early days we also wanted to change the apparent perception of the female reader of comics. It seemed that there were a lot of misapprehensions about this audience, such as that female comics readers either didn't really exist, or that they only followed one or two titles. Where they were acknowledged to exist, there were some bewildering stereotypes of what they would read, what they would dislike, and so forth. We wanted to show what we already knew - that the female audience for comics, while probably smaller than the male audience, is both diverse and has a collectively large disposable income."

In her study of Sequential Tart, Kimberly M. De Vries argues that the group self-consciously rejects both the negative stereotypes about female comics readers constructed by men in and around the comics industry but also the well-meaning but equally constraining stereotypes constructed by the first generation of feminist critics of comics. The Sequential Tart is, in that sense, a Third Wave feminist cultural intervention, defending the pleasures women take in comics even as it critiques some of the negative representations of women through the medium. De Vries sees this as asserting a politics of consumption as much or more than a politics of production.

The webzine combines interviews with comics creators, retailers, and industry leaders, reviews of current publications, and critical essays about gender and comics. They sought to showcase industry practices which attracted or repelled women, to spotlight the work of smaller presses which often fell through the cracks, to skewer sexist writing or images, and to help readers find books which were better geared to their own tastes and interests. The Sequential Tart are increasingly courted by publishers or individual artists who feel they have content that would be of interest to female readers and have helped to make the mainstream publishers more attentive to this often underserved market. The Sequential Tart, in turn, have provided a model for a range of other comics fans webzines and discussion boards who have been inspired by what a small team of writers had been able to accomplish.

Allas contends that they would never have been able to have this same degree of impact if they had relied on print rather than digital media. She cites, for example, the geographic dispersion of the core group of editors and writers, not only across the United States, but globally. The web provided a platform for them to share what they knew and to form a community which was grassroots without being geographically local. She also notes that they were able to launch the webzine with almost no financial commitment, reflecting the lowered costs of production and distribution in the digital environment. These savings allowed them to operate independently of any corporate interests. It also allowed them to get their ideas out quickly and widely and to publish on a more regular basis. All of that made it possible for The Sequential Tart to become, almost upon launch, a force to be reckoned with in comics fandom and in the comics industry more generally.

comics and convergence part two

This entry continues the series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Again, the primary focus is on comics. Here, the focus is on the ways comics content is moving into film and television as well as the ways that television and film content increasingly is moving into comics.

Paul Levitz, President of DC Comics, characterizes comics as having a "permeable membrane" to the other sectors of the entertainment industry. It is easy for comics's highly visual content to be translated into film or television series. Because the pay is low, comics represent a recruiting ground for new talent which, in turn, get absorbed into other media industries. Increasingly, comics are a playground where writers successful in other media - such as Kevin Smith in film or J. Michael Straczynski and Joss Whedon in television - can do creative work that would be harder to be funded in those other media.

From the beginning, comics content has moved into other media sectors. In the 1910s and 1920s, the popularity of Buster Brown, one early comic strip character, spilled over from the daily newspaper into live action films, stage shows, popular songs, toys, and advertising. Today, if Buster Brown is known at all, it is through the shoe company which still bears his name and image.

Similarly, within five years after the initial introduction of Superman, the character could be found in movie serials, animated shorts, and radio dramas, and subsequently, on television, stage shows, and computer games. This flow of comics content into other media is in many ways a prototype for our contemporary franchise system of media production.

Over the past few years, comics content has been increasingly in demand. Many recent comic-themed movies, including Spider-Man and X-Men, have become box office successes, and comics content has also influenced production in independent cinema (Ghost World, Road to Perdition, American Splendor, Sin City).

DC Comics, the company which controls Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and The Flash, among others, is owned by Time Warner, one of the major transmedia companies. DC Comics President Paul Levitz has outlined what he sees as the advantages of that relationship: "You gain the ability to work for the long run, you gain the ability to exploit creative properties across many different platforms, and at the same time, to be able to take the economic position in them that allows a single entity to brand and manage the assets so they can be deployed sensibly. You get a company that understands the line of work you are in so that you can take the appropriate creative risk, look for opportunities....There is no character in American culture who has been in as many media as Superman...It is difficult to name an entertainment medium that Superman has had no presence in....Did we benefit from having most of those assets stay under one roof? Yeah. We are still able to control rights to the George Reeves Superman shows...We are able to keep the Christopher Reeves movies on or off the air, according to our view of how they support the current initiatives whether Smallville, the new movies, an animated series, the comics, what have you. Our competitors are usually not able to do this."

By contrast, Marvel, the publisher of Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four, among others, subcontracts with studios to produce media versions of its franchises, while increasingly maintaining creative control over the process. As Avi Arad, the head of Marvel's film division explains, "we pick the studio that will best nurture the product because basically they all want the Marvel brand." Arad's division emerged as Marvel began to reconceptualize itself less as a comics publisher and more as an intellectual property company which would generate the bulk of its revenue from licensing its characters for movies, games, television series, and toys.

Other smaller comics companies or independent artists will sell the rights to their work on a case by case basis. Dark Horse Comics, Inc., for example, has been the launching pad for several recent media properties, including Men in Black, The Mask, and Tank Girl. In this context, even relatively obscure titles can attract industry interest. Steve Niles's and Ben Templesmith's Thirty Days of Night, a horror comic about vampires in Alaska, published by IDW Comics, was optioned for film production before the first issue hit the stands.

Throughout most of this history, the number of people who would encounter these characters in films or other media has remained significantly higher than the percentage who read comics; filmmakers assume that many viewers had little or no previous exposure to these characters; the films had to operate outside the complex continuity and back story which shapes contemporary comics productions; and in many cases, the characters had to be reintroduced or significantly reworked to reflect the tastes of a mass audience as opposed to those of a niche readership. In turn, it is often the look and feel of the character in the movies which shapes other media spin-offs, such as video games, because the movie reaches far more people than will see the comics. Comics publishers often coincide the debut of new plotlines in the comics to these releases so that readers, turned on by what they see on screen, can find a jumping on point to the series.

As content flows across media, it is often accompanied by creative talent who got their start in comics. For example, Brian Michael Bendis, the creator of Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man series, was hired to be script editor for an animated series based on the character for airing on MTV and to help direct the production of games set in the Marvel universe. In some cases, creative talents move fluidly across media. A notable example there would be Neil Gaiman who has been successful not only as the creator of The Sandman comic book series, but also has written English language scripts for Japanese anime films (Princess Mononoke), published best-selling novels (American Gods) and children's books (Coraline), and written original series for British television (Neverwhere). His short stories have, in turn, been adopted into comic book form by other writers and artists and into radio dramas.

Extension works in the other direction as well, with comics becoming a low cost, low risk means of expanding existing media franchises. Kevin Smith, the filmmaker who created Clerks and Chasing Amy, has been a long time comics shop owner and fan. He has developed a series of comic books which extends the stories of the characters he introduced in his so-called New Jersey films, in many cases, using them to provide back story or motivation for actions we observed on screen. Similarly, Joss Whedon, the creative producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has used comics to fill in gaps between episodes and perhaps more interestingly, to expand the time line of the series. Tales of the Slayers, for example, depicts the adventures of previous vampire slayers ranging across the full span of human history, while Fray depicts a slayer several hundred years in our future, battling demons and vampires in a world reminiscent of Bladerunner. Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which dealt with the early history of the American comic books industry and introduced a range of original superhero characters. Chabon subsequently worked with comic book writers and artists to develop a series focused on The Escapist, Luna Moth and his other original characters.

Comics and Convergence Part One

This is the first of a series of outtakes -- passages written for Convergence Culture, but ultimately cut for reasons of length. Each represents a snap shot of convergence culture at work. Most of these sections were intended as side bars. Those of you who have read the book will know that it is structured around a series of core case studies that are developed in depth and sidebars which suggest other dimensionhs of the topic. Sidebars seemed like the most effective way of juxtaposing these other examples to the core discussion and seemed appropriate given the book's focus on the way we pull together information from multiple sources. What I like about the sidebars is that readers will engage with them at different points in the reading process as their own whims dictate and thus each reader's experience of the argument will be slightly different. Some will read them as they go; some will wait to the end of the chapter and then go back to read them, and so forth. This section introduces comic books as a particularly rich site for understanding media change. As regular readers will note, I find comics a particularly interesting and relatively underexplored medium. Experiments in new approaches to popular storytelling often take place in comics -- the risks are relatively low both because of lowered cost of production and because of the fringe nature of their readership. At the same time, comics content is being drawn into the commercial mainstream. More and more recent films have been based on comics -- not simply predictible superhero fare such as X-Men, Batman Begins, or Spider-Man, but also off-beat independent films, such as American Splender, Ghost World, Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, and V for Vendetta, among others. I am a hardcore comics fan so you will be seeing lots of examples of trends from comics coming under my analytic gaze as this blog continues.

For those of you who own Convergence Culture, you can always print out these sections and tap them inside your book to assemble your own director's cut edition. :-) For the rest of you, these will give you a taste of the style and structure of the book.

Once mainstream, comics are increasingly a fringe (even an avant garde) form of entertainment, one that appeals predominantly to college students or college-educated professionals. While few read comics, their content flows fluidly across media platforms, finding wide audiences in film, television, and computer games. Something like twenty times the number of people went to see the Spider-Man movie its opening day than had read a Spider-Man comic the previous year. As Avi Arad, the head of Marvel's film division, explains, "You can't do $155 million with just Marvel geeks." Comics creators are torn between the desire to create content which will attract mainstream interest ( to sell it off to other media companies and to broaden their own readership) and producing content which appeals to and retains their hardcore readers.

Comics have entered a period of experimentation, testing new themes, adopting diverse styles, and expanding their genre vocabulary. Because the cost of production and thus the price of experimentation is much lower in comics than in any other medium, film and television monitor comics, searching for material which can be brought from the fringes into the mainstream. The turnaround between conception and distribution is much shorter in comics with the result that they will be among the first media to respond to new cultural developments. Comics now function, as longtime DC Comics editor Dennis O'Neil has commented, as "The R&D Division" for the rest of the entertainment industry. And for that reason, many dimensions of convergence are felt first in comics.

Comics are media hybrids, combining words and images (including both representations and symbols). Not all comics have words and some artists pride themselves on telling stories purely through images. The relative prominence of words and images shifts across the history of the medium with early comics being much more text-centered - though some argue that this reversed itself when the size of newspaper comics shrunk, making it harder for readers to process more detailed images. At different moments in the medium's history (and at different companies), scripts emerged first from writers and were subsequently illustrated or scripts emerged by artists drawing panels which were subsequently retrofitted with dialogue. And in some cases, the same artist writes and draws the comic, often creating a greater integration of words and images.

Pictorial storytelling has been ignored within common periodizations of media history which discuss a general evolution from orality to literacy, from literacy to print, and from print to mass media. Less gets said about the way that pictorial media supported oral storytelling (as is currently believed to be the case with cave paintings or in the sand paintings done by some Arab storytellers to illustrate their tales) or helped to mediate between oral and text-based cultures (as in the case of stainglass windows and tapestries during the middle ages). Most of us have a fairly narrow definition of what we mean by comics - the short strips focused on cute children and funny animals found in the daily newspaper and the longer stories focused on superheroes found at a comic book store. Scott McCloud, the comics theorist and practitioner, has argued for a more expansive definition: "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence."

McCloud argues that there is nothing preordained about the current selection of genres which dominate comics. Indeed, comics took on different kinds of content, built on different aesthetic traditions, reached different audiences, and achieved different cultural status in Japan or in France than in the United States. Moreover, comics are not inherently bound to print culture and McCloud identifies a range of different delivery mechanisms for sequential arts: "A close reading of various ancient works yielded far more than a passing resemblance to comics. Whether decorating the walls of a painted tomb, spiraling in bas-relief up a stone column, parading across a 230-foot tapestry, or zigzagging across an accordion-folded painted deerskin, such works were, despite their exotic styles, comics to the core, telling stories in deliberate sequences of pictures....Ink on paper is just one of the physical forms comics can take, but it's the one form many feel most comfortable calling 'comics'."

Comics, then might be characterized less as a medium than as a mode of expression, cutting across not only different delivery mechanisms (the newspaper supplement, the printed comic book, the carved column, the tapestry) but also across multiple media (print, digital). In that sense, comics share something in common with poetry, which has moved across oral culture, print culture, and digital culture while preserving its own distinctive traditions.

Many familiar aspects of comics - such as panel borders or the left to right and up to down reading protocols or the use of word balloons or the continuation of protagonists across multiple stories - emerged from the specific properties of print culture. These protocols have a certain inertia, in so far as we think about emerging media through the filters of older media practices but they are also subject to change, in so far as each medium creates different working conditions and different markets. On one level, comics have enjoyed enormous continuity with some recurring characters - Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, for example - appearing more or less continuously for sixty years or more. On another level, little else remains the same in comics across that period. Changes in how comics are published, where they are distributed, who reads them, and how they are regulated, have an enormous impact on how the stories of these characters are told.

In his book, Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud argues that digital media may be the best - and perhaps the last - hope for comics to find a larger reading public, having cut themselves off from mainstream visibility through their dependence upon specialty shops as their primary distribution venues. McCloud imagines a world where independent comic artists sell their products directly to the consumer without confronting any middle men or gatekeepers, where more diverse comics content can find audiences well beyond the hardcore comics readers, and where the formal vocabulary of comics can expand, freed from the limits of the printed page. McCloud's book embraces elements of supercession and liberation. As McCloud argues, "Not every creator can expect to strike it rich in the new market, but every individual vision of comics will at least get its day in the sun. Comics designed to reach out to non-fans will no longer have to hide where only fans will see them but instead will connect with their true market and in time, comics can begin to earn the diverse audiences it so desperately needs."

The web has emerged as an important publicity and distribution channel for comics - though ironically, so far, the companies making the most money have been local specialty shops, such as Denver's Mile High Comics, which have seen cyberspace as a means of expanding their market. 75 percent of its sales come from online visitors to a site that receives 12 million hits per month. Such sites put comics in the reach of many who do not live in close proximity to comic shops, though they are also forcing some local shops out of business. As they reach a national market, these online retailers are particularly good sources for back issues, buying them from one consumer and marketing them to another. The major comics companies - Marvel and (the now defunct) CrossGen in particular - have experimented with making some of their comics content available on the web. Marvel boasted 1.3 million downloaded "dot-comics" per month at the peak of the site's success. Most established comics creators use their home pages to communicate more directly with their fans and to get immediate reactions to their work. The discussion forums on such sites are so popular that many comic books have discontinued their longstanding practice of publishing readers' letters, feeling that these missives will go out of date by the time they are printed.

By some estimates, as many as 3000 independent comics artists have chosen to begin their careers in digital comics. In some cases, they target readers who would not typically enter a comic shop. Tak Toyoshima's Secret Asian Man, for example, is one of a number of comics which targets the Asian-American community. In some cases, these comics have proven their market value and been picked up by a comic book publisher. A notable recent success was Scott Kurtz's PvP,/ a web comic on role-playing and computer games, which is now being printed. Others become successful in web-based syndication. Astounding Space Thrills (currently off-line), for example, appears on more than 3000 web sites, each of which pays to support the production of new content. Most such comics are labors of love or designed to pave the way for commercial success, yet, so far, comics artists have had difficulty getting paid for the work they distribute online.