Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Four)

There remains a strong emphasis within fan studies on issues of gender and sexuality, not to mention generation, yet there is still relatively limited focus on issues of race. One consequence is that the “whiteness” of fandom is often taken for granted, with very few examples here of the practices associated with fans of color. How might we expand current paradigms of fan studies to deal more fully with race or be more inclusive of diverse kinds of fan tastes and interests?

In the book’s conclusion I mention that there is much more work on fandom and race. There is a danger here, though, that we might essentialize “fans of color” and their practices, creating a kind of academic segregation by default. Instead, there are ways to explore fandom and race that might lead the discussion in fruitful directions.

The first is to explore fandom’s multiple implications within what we might reductively call “the colonial project.” After all, it is a type of blindness not to deal with race within its historical context of colonialism, production and labour. It would be a mistake here to see wider issues of identity and consumption as fully falling outside those concerns. Collecting has always been a means of defining identity. What therefore happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when electronic media became the context within which such practices were defined? Fans operated from within the orientalist ideologies that defined the colonial and postcolonial era. I have not seen very much work like this, but I think it would be interesting to explore the orientalism at play within fans’ collections of ‘exotic’ artefacts or ‘exoticized’ media genres.

A second approach might involve examining the implication of fandom within specific racial or ethnic cultures. Blackface, in its later incarnations, is an obvious example here. Researchers like Eric Lott have made clear that it was a mode of performance primarily organized to define whiteness. It continued in its vestigial forms into many of our own lifetimes. To identify as a fan of blackface was necessarily to implicate oneself in racial terms. Equally, we might explore dimensions of racial ownership around things like the chitlin’ circuit. How did fandom function within on-going histories of race relations, as a way to express ethic or racial identities at particular junctures?

A third way of examining race in the context of fandom is to examine moments when race made a difference within particular fan cultures. How are fans of a particular background treated when they constitute a minority with a particular fan culture? What does that say about perceptions of the object or the ethics of the fan community? Should, for example, one’s status as a ‘black Doctor Who fan’ always be a point of discussion? To what extent are people actively using fan cultures for particular objects as ways to build or deny inter-racial alliances? The recent discussion in the journal Transformative Works about racism in cosplay was instructive there.

Also, to what extent it unproductively generalizing and essentialist to explore why particular ethnic groups claim ownership over certain fan objects, some of which at first appear unconnected with their specific cultures? We can generate hypotheses at least, for example that Morrissey’s Chicano fans connect with his Anglo-Irish status as a white ‘outsider,’ but such theories hold absolutely no weight until they are subjected to thorough empirical assessment.

 

A final direction for the study of race and fandom might be to consider the racial implications of fandoms based around racially controversial objects. For example, how do the fans of the vulgar contemporary blackface performer Shirley Q. Liquor see the racial connotations of their object? This kind of research is a rather thorny area; using unsolicited material might give us some traction.


You suggest that academics writing about fandom often have a very static conception, not doing research on how people become fans or for that matter, how specific fandoms emerge. What do you see as some possible steps towards addressing these questions?

The answer to your query has two possible directions: one for collective communities and the other for personal fan passions.

The emergence of specific communities and fandoms is amenable to historical study. A substantial number of younger researchers still see the online world of the present as the main place to research fandom, but I expect to see more of this historicizing work as fan studies further expands as a field. In consequence, we might then be able to start developing a more elaborate understanding of the history of media fandom itself. To set the ball rolling we need a greater historicization of fandoms specifically as living cultures, communities that go through periods of expansion and decline. There has been some interesting recent work on this, including your piece for Boom about the San Diego Comic-Con.

The question of how people become fans is still something of an elephant in the room for fan studies. There may be some scope there for a project comparing ‘becoming a fan’ stories. As I explain my book, however, serious methodological obstacles await anyone who uses such material to explain the emergence of personal fandom. Longitudinal studies of individual fans – even autobiographic or auto-ethnographic ones – always have a reflexive, ex post facto element. People can keep diaries, but fandom is hard to anticipate. Serial or genre fans who predictably move from one object to the next are already fans in a sense, so their personal stories are not the same as those of new fans.

As new fans progress through the process of initiation, they change their perspective and commitment. Self-reporting afterward is not going to create the same data as might be collected ‘live’ at each stage. Asking individuals who already keep diaries to reveal their contents during phases of first initiation would move the question forward, but such individuals were not primed to talk about things that might help to address theoretical concerns. It is quite a thorny issue, but we need to start addressing it to fully understand fandom.

You write at the end of the book, “a master theory of fandom may never be found, but it remains a worthy goal to understand the phenomenon as a special bundle of processes that interact in contingent ways.” How does this push for a more general theory of fandom relate to the push, elsewhere in the book, for ever more particular accounts of specific kinds of fans and fan practices?

The concern that you raise here is in some ways like squaring a circle, because fan studies has expanded so rapidly as a field. Media technology has continually changed. More researchers have become interested. New fandoms and new ways of pursuing fandom have sprung up. Empirical work on fandom has now rather exploded. Beyond this, Understanding Fandom was deliberately rich in detail because I was disappointed by some other media textbooks: volumes that were well organized but rather low on information.

Because the value of some recent work is yet to be decided by history, the world of textbooks moves a bit slower that the field that they discuss. Although articles are referenced in Understanding Fandom and sometimes discussed quite extensively, I focused quite deliberately on the ‘classic’ texts of fan studies. My hope was to get a balance between theory and empirical detail, especially when particular examples could further illuminate theoretical concerns and point a way forward.

The challenge of creating a textbook is to be able to frame the work that has been done, and – ideally – explain a bit about what is missing or offer some fresh perspectives. One of the things that seemed missing to me from fan studies was much discussion about celebrity-following. I hope that the book begins a dialogue that will encourage us to widen our scope a little further, beyond a focus on fan practices and communities to think more carefully about on fan motivations. Of course, ‘textual’ fans follow auteurs and celebrity actors, so celebrity-following is a practice or set of practices, not a separate set of fandoms, but it is a practice that forces us to think about the “why” of fandom, not just the “how.”

The fascinating thing about media fandom, for me, remains that it affectively unites commercial culture, individual subjectivity and collective empowerment. My aim with Understanding Fandom was to explain it in an ethical way that might connect research on practices with a wider spectrum, if you like, of work on representations, identities and processes.

Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

 

Why Do We Need to “Understand”Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Three)

There has been ongoing tension in recent years over researchers who are interested in understanding the personal motivations of individual fans (who may have no strong social connections with other fans) and those who are studying fandom as a specific subcultural community with its own traditions, norms, and hierarchies. How do you negotiate this conflict in writing your account?

With respect, I think that the question begins from a false polarity. It is not so much that we have personal fandom on one side and the fan community on the other. Rather, we share in a conceptual separation of the private and public sphere that was never fully sustained in an age of electronic media and is even harder to discern in the digital era. If we can start to understand that the public constitutes, invades or invalidates the private – and also that versions of the private can exist in public – then I think we can get much further in this discussion.

In relation to fandom, reconsidering the validity of the full distinction means devising and embracing concepts that conjoin or embrace both spheres. Our traditional tools have been limited there. Psychoanalysis and psychology offer quite powerful explanations of individual behavior that often, I think, start to break down when we make collective generalizations. Equally, the transformative works tradition offered a way out of previous intellectual dilemmas, but it did not come with a strong conception of why individual people become fans (except, perhaps, as a kind of communitarian, ethical act).

If we ignore commonly circulating (public) assumptions that audience members take up, in some ways I think that fandom still appears to begin as a ‘private,’ personal interest – a kind of autonomous statement of personal conviction – but it can then become the basis of public collective activity. The question for researchers is how to think in ways that reduce the distinctions between private and public to order to approximate real life.

As a label, fandom broadly began as a way to define groups of people who built their identities around media consumption. Because fandom is, socially, about our passions and declarations of subjective interest, it has become a way to personally express oneself. Unfortunately, it has also become a term of abuse for our shared fascination with the products of commercial culture.

However, I don’t think that all humans are born fans. My humanity is more essential than my fandom, but what does that mean? I’d locate my fandom as a human response to a social and economic system that hijacks, reconfigures and transforms human relationships. What that means is that there’s no need – other than image management – to (re)locate fans as creative, political, active or social; all human beings have those qualities.

Rather than thinking about how we might redeem fandom socially by seeing fans as redeeming texts, I’d rather locate fandom as a set of human, social relationships emergent in an industrialized era of electronic mediation: an era where we electronic traces of others can prompt our emotional experiences. From that perspective, fandom is a form of human chemistry pursued within a context where it inevitably gets alienated, amplified and shaped or directed.

There is a danger that in talking about ‘human chemistry’ we are liable to essentialize arbitrarily posited needs. However, I think there are some absolute basics that we can talk about, like the idea that generally we like company and want to feel socially-valued as people, or that we appreciate great creativity. These are universal needs that happen to be expressed within fandom.

I’d therefore see the genesis of fandom – sympathetically – as an ideological process. Rather than suggesting that fandom is something that begins completely in private, it is important to remember that we all carry notions of the audience as a collective entity. When we watch someone on screen, we know that others are watching them too. In the case of live studio audiences, we can see actually them, but they are always implicitly there.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think that the Internet age has fully ended this kind of collectivization; by lowering the barriers of entry to public debate it may have allowed many of us find a low level of celebrity, but it has also created important new indices of mass popularity (YouTube hits, Twitter followers, etc). As a personally recognized, individual conviction, fandom begins within this context of our individual understanding of the wider audience. So, even if we consume and become fans in private, we are always in the matrix of something much more communal.

Indeed, when we are convinced by a performance, we are likely to know that others are convinced too. We recognize our connection with a dedicated fraction of the audience and locate ourselves as part of “the fandom” or “the fanbase.” This means, conceptually, that we don’t fully begin in private and go public. Instead, we always have assumptions about the public and our relationship to it.

Beyond thinking carefully about our prior understanding of audiencehood and concurrent notions of the fanbase, there are several other ways that I attempt to conceptualize that unified private-public fannish self in the book. One is the notion of a “knowing field,” which I’d locate as a kind of phenomenology of participation in the fanbase. This idea posits fannish conviction as a shared inner territory of emotional certainty: suggesting “knowing” almost in the carnal or mystical sense, rather than simply holding a stock of appropriate knowledge.

The “knowing field” becomes something that, as fans, we enter and/or move across, which I suppose makes it quite similar to Cornel Sandvoss’s notion of Heimat, the difference being that Sandvoss understands Heimat more through its linkage to personal safety or self-esteem. The idea of “knowing field” is more about conviction and does not posit psychological foundations, at least in the same way. You have sometimes located fandom as a kind of equivalent to sexual identity: inner, perhaps essentially felt, based on desire. I’d also see it, perhaps, as a bit like patriotism: a recognition of emotional commitment to something that we also know is shared with others.

A second bridging idea is to think about Durkheim’s notion of totemism: although not all fandom is the same or a secular substitute for religion, I do think that Durkheim’s notion of totemism can explain quite a lot about fannish motivations in relation to the the power associated with celebrities. Totems are foci of collective attention who gesturally return the energy of collective attention back to their individual followers through personal one to one transactions. The idea says quite a lot about notions of fame and human aura. It makes some sense to say that celebrity-following fandoms are an extension of totemism as a human process of attachment organized in a media age.

Another bridging concept I introduce in the book is the idea that we share “imagined memories” to describe socially prized moments of performance. Each imagined memory is based on a thing you wished you had experienced, but never did, like, say, being at Woodstock. It is not exactly a fantasy, because it really did happen to someone else. However, it is not your memory either, because it happened to someone else. By valorization in the media and more precisely in the narrative of history, it is therefore a kind of fantasy that authenticates itself as something like a memory.

The term points to the paucity of phrases like ‘cultural memory’ in describing the mediated past: for a few people these memories are real enough (although, even for them, the memories have been inflected by the subsequent story of the event). Imagined memories only matter because of what came after them and are therefore spaces of emotional investment that are necessarily contradictory. In a sense, then, they are commodity templates: they are both made to matter by stories and characterized by their own rarity value (not everyone has the ‘real’ memory). This is precisely why they become starting points for further commodities (media documentaries, heritage tourism, anniversaries, re-enactments, etc).

Each of those concepts – the “knowing field,” totemism, imagined memories – is deliberately partial and open enough to account for variety; each has its share of flaws, but does attempt to get beyond an artificially separated public and private sphere and to chart a course between personal and collective fandom. They attempt to talk about power, affect and communality without recourse to the usual generalizations.

Throughout, there’s an emphasis on exploring fandom as a “performed” identity rather than as a natural or essential one. What do we gain by this focus? What are some of the ways and contexts through which fan identity gets performed?

I do question essentialism in the book, but I’m not sure that I entirely replace it with performance. Personal fandom is, in my view, something that is neither essential nor, exactly, performed: it is not at the root of one’s very being, but it does begin as something internal.

When I talk about fannish subjectivity, I tend to locate its origin in a form of self-recognition (a kind of “I realized I was a fan…”): an inner recognition of connection and subjective fit rather than an outer attempt to persuade anyone else. However, I know that performative elements come into play once we start to look at social communications. I am therefore partly reporting on what existing writers like Matt Hills have said – performance, after all, is something that shows fans are active.

Beyond that explanation, I also think that we could do with more bridging concepts. The term “performers” is used quite a lot in the book to allow me to keep the register open and not narrow down to specifically speak about fan objects as “actors” or “singers.” Performance is, nevertheless, a powerful perspective precisely because it has the potential to easily make connections between our existing repertoire of ideas.

If used it with understanding, it allows us to begin mediating between issues of textuality, spectacle, identity, communication, empirical situatedness, temporality and history, creativity, agency, style and affect – all of which are relevant, I think, to discussing fandom. How can one discuss cosplay, for instance, without talking about performance?

One of the issues here, though, is that performance studies research has been seen as a separate scholarly tradition emerging from theatre studies and slowly integrating itself with cultural studies approaches. Scholars like Phil Auslander are beginning to integrate that tradition with the study of media cultures.

 Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Two)

You argue here that anti-fandom is not necessarily always a totally outsider or oppositional perspective, that under some circumstances, the industry or individual performers actively “invite” the anti-fan response. At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive since the industry clearly hopes to attract the largest number of consumers. So, what are some of the reasons why producers might court or encourage anti-fan responses?

The idea that the industry hopes to attract the largest number of consumers assumes a monolithic entity (the media industry) with one market place and one audience, ignoring notions of consumer targeting or niche marketing.

This is one of the areas where popular music studies might productively contribute. I cite Bob Dylan as a clear example of invited anti-fandom in the book. Courting controversy has been both a catalyst for publicity and a form of audience segmentation, particularly in rock. Controversies have expressed social change at certain points in time and have also been a familiar part of the production process. From around 1956 to 1976, some of the most commercially successful music was based on the idea of a generation gap that articulated, at its mildest, a kind of autonomy and permissiveness, and at its extreme represented a push towards obscenity. Allusions to sexual debauchery became a genre convention in rock and the knowing evocation of moral opposition was characteristic of whole subgenres – notably punk. Individual artists, from Jim Morrison and GG Allin to the Dayglo Abortions, continually at pushed the boundaries, sometimes without any other recognizable cultural project.

In his foreword to Understanding Fandom, Matt Hills seems to suggest that the process might be unique to popular music, but I am not so sure. Certain forms of exploitation or art cinema purposely push at boundaries and violate concerns, like Christianity, that groups in society hold dear. It’s clear that Srdjan Spasojevic’s movie A Serbian Film (2010), for instance, was designed to shock and provoke offence.

Perhaps what we need to think about the relationship between invited anti-fandom and different industrial regimes. One point here is that products that seem to deliberately evoke anti-fandom regularly go on to become ‘cult’ phenomena. Another is that parent corporations can treat them at arm’s length, signing independent producers to distribution-only deals so that they can skim profit but avoid the risk.

I don’t, therefore, fully see anti-fans as a kind of free-floating audience; perhaps they too can be ‘courted’ by the industry as a marketing strategy. Perhaps we can even talk about ‘anti-fanagement.’

You argue, at places here, that academics miss some of the picture when they define fans in relation to political ideologies or corporate interests, suggesting that fans are never simply compliant or oppositional, but rather fans are “relatively indifferent” to the industry. Explain.


Fans use economic mechanisms for cultural purposes, while media industries use culture for economic ends. Both parties interact and are, to some extent, merged. They each, however, have distinct priorities. Fans are inspired by media products, but their concerns and practices cannot – as the Fiskean tradition demonstrated – be reduced to industrial planning.

The words I use quite a lot to talk about fans and their concerns in relation to the media industries are “tangential” and “collusive.” By this I mean that fans can be relatively indifferent, co-operative or oppositional, depending on which fan culture we decide to examine and when we decide to examine it.

While I have no doubt that fans can act collectively as ethical communities, I also think that is a danger that we tend to forget the “business as usual” aspect of fandom – that television fans were, for instance, generally more interested in watching the final episode of Breaking Bad than contesting High Bridge / Sony Pictures. This does not mean that they were pawns in someone else’s game who bought into hype. It means they felt that the show spoke to them, they enjoyed it, and they were engaged by its narrative. They became fascinated and dedicated.

As I think you noted in Textual Poachers, such fans may well “rescue” a series after the network stops broadcasting it – although, of course, networks themselves now often help to facilitate that. So maybe there is a kind of goal towards which fans are heading that can be further facilitated, either by agents in the industry or those outside it.

I think, though, that because our academic traditions work to ignore or reject a focus on the enjoyment of commercial culture, we are in danger of forgetting that win-win situations are part of this spectrum of relationships. Rather than searching for the dramatic moments where fans contest media producers, to understand fandom it seemed a greater challenge to me to start providing non-generalizing, non-reductionist frameworks within which we might explain why fans are sometimes complicit in doing what they do.

I should add, however, that “business as usual” is not static and also includes fans organizing into communities, creating different factions, and acting collectively. I do not necessarily see it as a term that excludes group ethics or politics, but rather one that encompasses ordinary activities and motivations.

Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Deciphering Black Masculinity: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part Three)

You describe Stringer Bell in The Wire as the “thinking man’s gangster,” seeing him as a powerful illustration of the “cosmopolitan” qualities you ascribe to this acclaimed series. What is it that The Wire was able to achieve in terms of breaking with black masculinity? Some have similarly celebrated Orange is the New Black as a series which offers a broader range of alternative constructions of femininity (including black and Latino characters) than we typically see on television. Would you agree with that assessment? Why or why not?

Think that for David Simon and Ed Burns, these men were real to them—composites of folk they had interacted with in some way.  In that way, their experiences covering Black Baltimore in the 1980s made them aware of the diversity of Black men that existed.  Give HBO some credit for allowing them to fully explore that diversity throughout the five-year run of the series.  Beside opening up for  range of expressions of Black masculinity and Black femininity, The Wire and Orange is a the New Black has also cultivated a space for the performance of “Female Masculinity,” to draw on Jack Halberstam’s work.  It is in those moments that one can see the fluidity of Black identity, in ways, rarely, if ever, explored in mainstream entertainment.

Idris Elba has continued to gather public interest as he was widely promoted as a potential for casting as the new Doctor on Doctor Who (amid debates about whether or not the Doctor could be black). How have these more recent developments altered or confirmed your analysis of the performer in the book?  How might we imagine a black Doctor introducing themes of Afro-Futurism into this long-standing British series?

This is clearly the moment of the Black-Brit-Afropolitan actor.  If the question is,  is there an Afro-futurism for male Afropolitans actors, well yes, particularly if your name is Idris Elba or Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Not sure that a more “traditional” African-American or Afro-Caribbean actor, save Don Cheadle, would have those same opportunities.  Elba is really having the career that Calvin Lockhart and Delroy Lindo should have had.  Find it interesting that Ejiofor and Elba have been able to traffic in both more global and traditional African-American roles. I don’t think that is simply about their skill-set.

 

Entertainment Weekly had speculated that we might have had as many as four black actors in contention for the Best Actor Oscar this year — Idris Elba for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Forrest Whitaker for Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Michael B. Jordan for Fruitville Station, and Chiwetel Ejiofor for Twelve Years a Slave. How might we fit these black performers (and the characters they portray) in the trajectory of acclaimed black performances you traced between Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington? (This question was framed before the Oscar nominations came out)

I am happy for Ejiofor’s nomination—expected Elba to earn a nomination, especially after Mandela’s death.  Most disappointed that Michael B. Jordan didn’t get a nod, though I suspect that had much to do with his youth and the stark, un-sensational reality of Oscar Grant III life and death.  Washington had to break through the archetype that Poitier represented throughout his career.  I think this current generation, though Whitaker is a little older, has benefitted from Washington’s willingness to break ranks with roles in films like Training Day (most famously), but also He Got Game and American Gangster.

 

You end the book with a discussion of Barack Obama and Reverend Wright, suggesting the ways that the candidate has had to negotiate around assumptions about black masculinity identity. To what degree do you think Obama has been willing to explore the boundaries between Harvard and the Hood as he has responded to the politics around the Treyvon Martin Case?

Barack Obama is more of an enigma to me now, than he was at anytime during the 2008 campaign, when he was largely illegible to so many of us.  It’s not simply about how he has chosen to govern—from the Center, in reaction to the Right, largely dismissing legitimate critiques from his base of the Left—but his real silence on the ‘Hood, except as a lecturer of family values.  His calculated initial comments about Martin’s shooting—after checking for the winds of popular opinion—is the most obvious example.  I never forgot that the President took more than a week to comment on Michael Jackson’s death.  I always understood that the value of a Black President in the contemporary US was largely symbolic—albeit a powerful symbol—but what value is a Black President if he can’t even acknowledge the artistic legacy of a figure like Amiri Baraka.

 

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including New Black Man and Looking for Leroy.  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.

Deciphering Black Masculinities: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part Two)

You argue that Avery Brooks, as a performer, was, despite often being cast in stereotypical roles, able to “draw on the full range of black expressive culture, often in opposition to the intent of the show’s writers and producers.” This claim has strong implications at a time when black men exert much greater influence on our culture as performers than they do as “writers and producers.” Can you say more about the forms of agency that surface in this analysis?

 As I mention in the book, Brooks was granted agency around the character, because the writers and producers really didn’t have a sense of who and what the character (created by the late Robert Parker) was.  I think what Brooks’ did with the character spoke a great deal about both his classical training and his investment in Black arts—he was of a generation that was a direct product of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, he was deeply involved in the National Black Theater Festival, for example.  I think that in the last generation, Black performers have had more access to mainstream success and thus have had less need for the kinds of Black organizations that Brooks’ generation cultivated.  Whereas Brooks may have always been clear that his work was in conversation with a Robeson, Belafonte, or a Diana Sands and Rosalind Cash—to name just a few—contemporary artists don’t have the same relationship with previous generations of Black performers—and thus I think it limits their ability to really drawn fully and freely from “the culture” (whatever that means).  The irony is that in the era of Youtube, they actually have much more access to those earlier performers, than any other generation.  One of the things I appreciate about Beyonce’s art is that she has spent serious time in the “archive,” if you will, though she’s often criticized for not being original.  I see it as a real tribute to those folk, some of them obscure,  that come before her.

You express throughout the book some deep ambivalence towards hip hop culture which you describe in your introduction as “a cottage industry of problematic images of black masculinity” but refuse to dismiss altogether as a vehicle for exploring alternative forms of black masculinity. When and how have performers or audiences been able to escape or at least challenge the more problematic aspects of hip hop culture? What contemporary performers do you think offer the best source for alternative articulations of black masculinity?

There’s an “inside baseball” aspect to this re: “corporate sponsored” entertainment geared to American youth, and what some would deem more “authentic” (however problematic that term is) rap music and Hip-Hop culture. I will only say that the latter is far less accessible to young people and the former is far more visible. From a pedagogical standpoint, I find all of it of value, provided we can equip audiences—young folk in particular—with a critical framing that allows them to contextualize what they are consuming.  Looking for Leroy is largely about providing some of that framing and hopefully encouraging even more framing from others.  Of contemporary artists, I find the work of a Jasiri X compelling, because of his ability to humanize some of the political realities of Black life globally, but even he is challenged to not simply be seen as the “protest” rapper.  I think in a purely artistic sense, beyond his place in celebrity culture, Kanye West is pushing past some boundaries particularly in indexing trauma, mental health struggles, vulnerability and loss within Black male life.  Indeed, his willingness to find raw sonic material from beyond the typical pop music archive, speaks to his searching to find sonic examples that best represents his emotions.

You draw in the book on Manthia Diawara’s notion of “homeboy cosmopolitanism”, a phrase which seems intentionally oxymoronic, given the rootedness in a particular location or community implied by “homeboy” and what you describe as the “desires for physical, social, and economic mobility” implied by the concept of cosmopolitanism. How can we resolve these contradictions? What forms of culture best express this concept?

 Part of the genius of Hip-Hop culture is that when many of these artists began to travel globally, they brought the ‘hoods they grew up in and the “hood” that they are all perceived to be from, with them.  I don’t think any of them saw this as a contradiction, in part because many of their ‘hoods, were always/already cosmopolitan, if we consider immigration patterns from the Caribbean, West Africa and migration from the American south as challenging the concept of a monolithic “blackness” or Hip-hop, for that matter.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including New Black Man and Looking for Leroy.  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. 

Deciphering Black Masculinities: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which I edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press.

Mark Anthony Neal’s weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced by Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center of International and Interdisciplinary Studies,  is a powerful example of the roles academics can play as public intellectuals, brokering important conversations  the culture needs to be having, highlighting key scholarly and cultural works that deserve greater attention than they are apt to receive from mainstream media, and asking the most urgent questions his regular fans want answered about race as embodied by both lived experience and contemporary popular culture. Among topics recently addressed on the series include the thirty year history of the Urban Bush Women dance troupe, the story behind “We Shall Overcome” and other anthems of the civil rights era, the role of black barbers and barbershops in constructing the black public sphere, and parenting in a “post-racial” America.

Neal brings his diverse knowledge and interests to bear on various performances of black masculinity in his newest book, Looking for Leroy. Here, he argues that many constructions of black male identity in American culture are far too “legible”, reproducing the same lethal stereotypes where black male bodies are rendered as criminal, needing to be subjected to police authority and containment. Yet, he’s interested in the ways that some performers construct personas which are less legible, which challenge our expectations and force us to think differently about identity politics. The book ranges from Jay-Z and R. Kelly to Barack Obama, with stops along the way to talk about The Wire, Star Trek, Fame, and the Oscars. The writing throughout is direct, engaging, witty, and broadly accessible, which helps to explain why his work is attracting readers and listeners far beyond the university book store circuit. At the same time, he is the master of close reading, offering interpretations that are nuanced in their attention to detail and yet encompassing in their ability to link the specifics of individual performances into larger career trajectories and into their political contexts.

Neal is one of the busiest people in the field of cultural studies today, so I am grateful that he could spare some time to address my questions.

Let’s talk about your title, “Looking for Leroy.” Can you share with us what it was about the figure of Leroy in Fame which inspired this particular path through black masculinities? In what sense are characters like Leroy “illegible” figures  when compared to more stereotypical representations of black masculinity?

 

My connection to Gene Anthony Ray’s character “Leroy” from the movie and series Fame was personal.  The series debuted just as I was developing a sense of who I was as a young man (I had just turned 16 at the time) and as the primary Black male character on the show I had a natural affinity for him.  Yet it was clear, at least to me, that the character or perhaps Ray were gay—this in an era when there were only a handful of gay characters on network television.  As a 16-Black kid from the Bronx, who was regularly “queered” because of my choice of clothing and the way I spoke—which was read amongst some of my Black male peers as both too soft and also too White (this was the era of the Preppie)—something about Leroy always resonated to me.  It was fitting that he would be one of the primary inspirations for the book and my own grappling with illegibility.

 

Given the harsh realities confronting many black men in this country, why should we be concerned with popular representations of black masculinities? In other words, what relationship are you positing between the constraints experienced by black men and the cultural construction of black masculinity?

As someone whose academic training is in Cultural Studies, I’m always concerned about whether my work addresses (in any way) the real crises being faced by young Black men in particularly.  Whether we’re looking at sports, the criminal justice system or even national politics, it’s clear that so many perceptions of Black masculinity are framed by media depictions of Black men and boys.  Hoping my work is but one intervention, poised to acknowledge the range of Black masculinities and also deconstructing (on some level) the most visible images of Black masculinity.  I think there is real connection between the limited view of Black masculinity available in US media and the limitations placed on Black men and boys in their everyday lives.

 

What motivated the choice of these particular case studies? What do these performers and characters, individually and collectively, help us to see about popular representations of black masculinity?

Virtually all the choices I make in the book with regard to case studies, represent figures that I had some personal affinity to. In the case of “Leroy” or Avery Brooks, they really were figures that impacted how I viewed Black masculinity as a younger man.  It was that affinity to Brooks’ “Hawk” that made Idris Elba’s “Stringer Bell” legible to me.  In the case of Luther Vandross and Jay Z, as a fan who had consumed so much of their art, they allowed the opportunity to do the kind of close readings that I wanted to do.  And admittedly, there are any number of other figures I wanted to bring into the mix—Kanye West, Erik LaSalle’s character on ER (though that will show up in a later project), Rob Brown 16-year-old character in Finding Forrester, and a whole host of “Queer” Soul and Gospel (which will also show up in another project)—but I’d still be working on the book, LOL.  What I hope I have presented is just an opening, for more work to be done, in terms of thinking about the publicness of Black masculinity.  In that regard looking forward to new books from Jeffrey McCune and C. Riley Snorton.

 

 Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003), New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005) and most recently, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013).  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Three)

Discussion of the internet is often polarized between those who stress the personalized or individualistic nature of net culture and those who see the network as a form of collective behavior. How might the idea of the meme clarify this discussion?

 

I think that the idea of internet memes is so powerful precisely because it bridges these two perceptions. While internet memes are all about individuals creating content, they are also all about individuals creating content with awareness of each other. Memes not only involve pervasive mimicry, they are also based on intense collaborative work and complex multi-participant choreographies. Moreover, studies conducted by Ryan Milner, Assaf Nissenbaum and Kate Miltner show that memes function as a type of cultural capital: knowledge about memes and the “right” ways to use them have become a marker of membership in some communities. In these contexts the duality of being both an individual and a part of a community is flagged on a daily basis: community members are expected to be original, but not too original, when creating memes.

 

Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on the visual nature of the meme as a mode of communication. What do you see as the implications of this shift towards the visual in contemporary net culture?

The implications of the visual turn are pervasive, going way beyond my somewhat narrow emphasis on memes. Within the scope of the book I discuss this issue mainly in the political context. I claim that visual display allows greater integration between politics and pop culture, as it becomes extremely easy to Photoshop the US president’s head on the body of a Jedi knight, for instance. A second implication of the visual nature of internet memes relates to their polysemic potential, that is, their tendency to be open to multiple readings. Whereas in verbal jokes the target of mockery and the scorn expressed towards it are often clear, the openness of visual images and the lack of a clear narrative may invoke contrasting interpretations.  A third implication relates to memes’ global spread: Images may potentially cross international borders much more easily than words. However, such international flows still depend on local norms and conversions:  In some cases, images need to be replaced or localized to make sense in new territories. For example, in the book I describe the migration of the American “Successful Black Guy” meme to Israel, which resulted in a local take titled  “Akivathe Humanist Ultra-Orthodox“.  I am currently exploring some other implications of this, focusing on photo-based memes. It seems that meme creators subvert some of the fundamental roles traditionally associated with photography, such as the notion of photographs as “windows to reality”. But I’ve just started thinking about these issues so I hope to have more to say in a couple of months…

 

 

Let’s talk a bit about what gets excluded in a meme culture. Are there some groups or individuals who are excluded — either implicitly or explicitly — from meme culture? Is it easier to use memes to support dominant frames of reference rather than to challenge existing structures of belief?

This is a crucial issue which I address only briefly in the book. It would certainly appear that many groups and individuals are excluded from meme culture.  Ryan Milner’s current work on memes traces some of the racist and misogynist modes of discourse emerging in 4chan and reddit—prominent meme hubs that seem to be governed by white, privileged men.  He shows that both gender and race representations in these websites are dominated by familiar hegemonic stereotypes. The framing of these stereotypes as ironic lulz is used in many cases to whitewash exclusion. At the very same time, Milner notes that at least in relation to gender, misogynistic framings are often resisted and attacked by many participants.  It is extremely important to continue thinking about these issues and broaden our scope of investigation beyond the major meme hubs. Phenomena such as “Shit X says”, which generated heated debates about sensitive issues, may constitute interesting cases for further research.

My main assertion in the book is that we should take memes seriously. And doing that also means – to a large extent – critically examining the power dynamics that constitute memes and that are constituted by them.

 Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

 

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Two)

What motivates people to participate in a memetic culture, either in terms of generating new meme content or simply passing along content that has been framed in terms of a meme?

With regards to generating new content, I believe that three main types of motivation are at play—economic, social and cultural. The economic logic behind meme creation relates to the attention economy governing contemporary societies. In short, it claims that the most valuable resource in the information era is not information but the attention people pay to it. Creating memes seems to work well in this kind of economy: an emulation of a famous video may get attention because it will appear in YouTube’s suggestions bar or pop up as a highly relevant search result when one is looking for the original video. The second, social logic of meme creation can be related to what Barry Wellman and others describe as “networked individualism.” On the one hand, by uploading a self-made video or a Photoshopped image people are able to express their individuality: they signify that they are digitally literate, unique, and creative. On the other hand, the text that they upload often relates to a common, widely shared memetic video, image, or formula. Through this referencing, people simultaneously construct their individuality and their affiliation with a larger community. Finally, the cultural logic of meme creation suggests that it actually represents the continuation of norms that are rooted in the history of pop culture genres and fan cultures, as you discuss extensively in “Textual Poachers” and subsequent works.

I think that the second logic – the social one – is also extremely important when passing along content that has been framed as a “meme”. Spreading a meme signifies that someone is “in the know”, thus reflecting positively upon her personality and (often) perceived sense of humor. 

While there is a tendency to think of the content of memes as trivial or playful, there have also been some powerful examples where memes were used in the service of political speech — Pepperspray Cop and Binders of Women come to mind as examples from your book. Often, the same meme may blur the lines between entertainment and critical commentary.  In my essay, “Photoshop for Democracy,” I argued that such remixes might function as the people’s editorial cartoons, offering vivid and memorable representations of complex issues which broaden the language through which we discuss politics. Is this a legitimate description of what you’ve observed in terms of looking at memes as a form of political participation? Are there risks involved in the simplification of ideas required to produce an effective meme?

Your argument about remixes as the people’s editorial cartoons is absolutely pertinent to the ways memes function as forms of political participation. The main new element that has been added in recent years, with the labeling of many of these Photoshopped images as “memes”, relates to our previous discussion about meme genres. The tendency to create memes in particular formats turns memes into powerful bridges between the personal and the political: people express their personal opinions while consciously joining larger pleas or patterns. A striking example of this quality is the “We are the 99 Percent” meme. Born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it featured an individual holding a handwritten text depicting his or her gloomy story, leading to the shared motto, “I am the 99 percent.” This combination of repetition and variation conveyed the message that people’s miseries are not just personal problems: they stem from systemic economic and political illnesses.

As to your second question about risks—I believe that simplification is indeed a problem, yet what worries me more is the depoliticization of many memes, which come into the world as pointed political commentaries yet at some point turn into fluffy balls of amusement. For instance, alongside the political versions of the Pepper Spray Cop meme (featuring, for instance, officer Pike pepper-spraying iconic American symbols such as George Washington crossing the Delaware or the Constitution itself), other versions presented him spraying figures who are perceived as annoying, such as Keyboard Cat or Rebecca Black. In such instances, the original meaning of the meme as critical of Pike would appear to be reversed.

You make a distinction between virals and memes in the book. Explain. Why do you think these terms are so often conflated in popular discourse on the internet?

 The main feature that separates memes from virals, in my view, relates to variability:

while the viral mostly comprises a single cultural unit that propagates in many copies,  an internet meme is always a collection of texts. Therefore, a video such as “Leave Britney Alone” can be depicted as a viral video that spawned user-generated engagement and thus became part of an internet meme. Even so, this example shows that the border between memes and virals is fuzzy: Indeed, many memes started out as viral photos or videos.  This fuzziness is perhaps the reason for the constant conflation between the terms and the tendency among many people to use them interchangeably.  But I still think that even if the borderline is murky this differentiation is important: the simple act of “forwarding” or “sharing” is not the same as more creative modes of engagement with content. Moreover, the motivations associated with these two forms are not the same: the factors that lead us to share content are not the same as those that lead us to recreate or remix it.  In the book I chart some of these motivational differences, but I believe that much more work should be invested in this direction.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

 

A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part One)

I have to be honest that the concept of meme is one which sets my teeth on edge. Sam Ford, Joshua Green and I spent a fair chunk of time in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, seeking to deconstruct the concept of “viral media” which has become such a common metaphor for thinking about how things circulate in digital culture, and along the way, we side-swipe Richard Dawkins’ conception of the meme for many of the same reasons. Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, but I don’t buy the concept of culture as “self-replicating”: such a concepts feels far too deterministic to me, stripping aside the role of agency at a time when the public is exerting much greater control of the content which spreads across the culture than ever before.

So, when I first met Limor Shifman at a conference held last summer by the London School of Economics, she knew I would be a hard sell in terms of the ideas being presented in her new MIT Press book, Memes in Digital Culture, but by the time our first conversation was over, she had largely disarmed my objections. She’s done her homework, reviewing previous claims which have been made about memes, and reframing the concept to better reflect the practices that have fascinated many of us about how contemporary digital culture operates.

Her approach is direct, deceptively simple, but surprisingly subtle and nuanced: she recognizes that people are making active and critical choices about what content to pass along to others in their networks, but she also recognizes that they are making tactical decisions about how to design content in order to increase the likelyhood it will circulate beyond their immediate circles. She represents the new generation of digital scholars, who came of age with the net, and have largely absorbed (and thought through) some of the core assumptions shaping its many subcultural communities and their practices.

A part of me remains skeptical that given its historic roots, the term, meme, can be redefined as fully as Shifman wants to do — or more accurately, as she claims has happened organically as 4 Chan and other net communities have applied it to their own cultural productions. Yet,  I found much of what she wrote in her book convincing and think that this project adds much needed clarity to the conversations around memes, viral media, spreadable media, call it what you wish. If nothing else, her book provides an essential introduction to the ways genres operate in a more participatory culture.

I welcomed the chance to talk through some of these issues with her as part of this interview for my blog.

Let’s start with something basic. :-) How are you defining meme within the context of this book? How does your use of the term differ from the original conception of meme proposed by Richard Dawkins and his followers?

Basic question, complex answer… There is clearly a gap between the meme concept as it was defined by Richard Dawkins back in the 1970s and the term meme as it is used in the context of digital culture.  My aim in this book is not to redefine the meme concept in its general sense, but to suggest a definition for the emergent phenomenon of internet memes. In other words, I limit myself to discussing memes in the digital world. I suggest defining an internet meme as (a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users. So, for instance, I would treat the numerous versions of “Harlem Shake” as manifestations of one, particularly successful, internet meme. It is important to note that this definition does not equate internet memes with jokes – While many memes are indeed humorous, some of them (such as the “It Gets Better” campaign) are deadly serious.

This definition departs from Dawkins’ conception in at least one fundamental way: Instead of depicting the meme as a single cultural unit that has propagated well, I treat memes as groups of content units. My shift from a singular to a plural account of memes derives from the new ways in which they are experienced in the digital age. If in the past individuals were exposed to one meme version at a given time (for instance, heard one version of a joke in a party), nowadays it takes only a couple of mouse clicks to see hundreds of versions of any meme imaginable  (try, “Heads in Freezers”, for instance J ). Thus, memes are now present in the public sphere not as sporadic entities but as enormous groups of texts and images.

 

If you are going to change Dawkins’ original formulation so dramatically, what is the continued use value of the concept?

The first answer to this question is that the term meme is a great meme. While widely disputed in academia, the concept has been enthusiastically picked up by internet users. It is flagged on a daily basis by numerous people, who describe what they do on the internet as creating, spreading or sharing “memes”.

But there is also a deeper rationale for using this term. I think that internet users are on to something. There is a fundamental compatibility between the term “meme”, as Dawkins formulated it, and the way contemporary participatory culture works. I describe this compatibility as incorporating three dimensions.

First, memes can be described as cultural information that passes along from person to person, yet gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon. This attribute is highly congruent with the workings of contemporary participatory culture. Platforms such as YouTube, Twitter or Facebook are based on content that is spread by individuals through their social networks and may scale up to mass levels within hours.  Moreover – the basic act of “sharing” information (or spreading memes) has become – as Nicholas John suggests in recent articles – a fundamental part of what participants experience as the digital sphere.

Second, memes reproduce by various means of repackaging or imitation: people become aware of memes, process them, and then “repackage” them in order to pass them along to others. While repackaging is not absolutely necessary on the internet (people can spread content as is), a quick look around reveals that people do choose to create their own versions of internet memes, and in startling volumes. People repackage either through mimicry (the recreation of a specific text by other people), or remix (technology-based manipulations of content, such as Photoshopping).

Finally, memes diffuse through competition and selection.  While processes of cultural selection are ancient, digital media allow us to trace the spread and evolution of memes in unprecedented ways. Moreover, meta-information about processes of competition and selection (for instance “like” or “view count” numbers)  is increasingly becoming a visible and influential part of the process itself: People take it into consideration before they decide to remake a video or Photoshop a political photo. In short, while the meme concept is far from perfect, it encapsulates some fundamental aspects of digital culture, and as such, I find it of great value.

In Spreadable Media, we make an argument against viral media — and by extension, some hard versions of meme theory — for their reliance on ideas of “self-replicating culture” which strip aside the collective and individual agency involved in generating and circulating memes. What roles does cultural agency play in your analysis of memes?

I could not agree more with the assertion underpinning your question. In my opinion, the problem is not with the meme concept itself, but with some of the ways in which it has been used, and especially those that undermine the role of agency in the process of memetic diffusion. In this regard, the argument that I develop in book largely follows the criticism that you raise in Spreadable Media. I call for researchers to jettison some of the excess baggage that the term has accumulated throughout the years, and to look at memes as cultural building blocks that are articulated and diffused by active human agents. This does not mean that people do not live in social and cultural worlds that constraint them – of course they do. Yet what drives processes of cultural diffusion is not the “mysterious” power of memes but the webs of meanings and structures people build around them. 

 

Part of what I really value in your account is your stress on remixing and intertextuality within meme culture. As with all remixed culture, there’s a tendency for some to dismiss the lack of originality and “creativity” involved, yet you see these cultural practices as generative. Why is it significant that these shared genres or reference points keep recurring across a range of different communities and networks?

I’m glad that you raise this issue as I find it fundamental to the way that memes work. While people are completely free to create almost any form of content, in practice most of them choose to work within the borders of existing meme genres. This ostensive rigidity may in fact have an important social function: following shared pathways for meme production is vital for creating a sense of communality in a fragmented world. Moreover, these emergent recurring patterns – or “meme genres” – often reflect contemporary social and cultural logics in unexpected and interesting ways. Let’s take, for instance, the “Stock Character Macros” genre: a set of memes featuring images of characters that represent stereotypical behaviors accompanied by funny captions.  This list of characters includes, for example, “Scumbag Steve” (who always acts in unethical, irresponsible, and anti-social ways) and his antithesis, “Good Guy Greg” (who always tries to help, even if it brings him harm); “Success Kid” (a baby with a with a self-satisfied grin, accompanied by a caption that describes a situation that has worked out better than expected); and “Successful Black Man” (who comically subverts racist assumptions about him by acting like a member of the middle class bourgeoisie). While each of these memes may be of interest in its own right, it is their combination —or the emergent map of stock characters that represent exaggerated forms of behavior—that may tell us something interesting about contemporary digital culture.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Three)

You talk a bit in the book about some of themes we tackled in Spreadable Media – the degree to which more and more media comes to us because it is passed along by our friends rather than through mainstream distribution. How does this impact the challenges we face in developing a more “cosmopolitan” perspective on the world? What do you see as some of the limitations of “social discovery”?
I see social discovery as a third paradigm in how we find information online. In the early commercial internet, we saw a lot of curators from an earlier generation of media taking their place in the digital world. These curators are very helpful in guiding us to unexpected discovery, pointing us to media we might not have otherwise found, but they have been challenged and unseated by an internet-age suspicion of “gatekeepers”, who silence some voices and amplify others.
For much of the development of the consumer internet, search has been a dominant paradigm. In search, we look for precisely what we want, and we often find it. It’s a very rewarding experience, but it’s one with some complicated implications. It’s possible to surround ourselves with information that confirms our existing biases and prejudices, and to filter out voices that might challenge our preconceptions. And search demands that we know what we’re looking for, which is problematic, because we don’t always know what we want or what we need.
Social discovery has emerged in part as a way of reintroducing serendipity into online discovery. It gives us signals about what our friends are interested in that we’ve not yet discovered, which allows us the experience of novelty and discovery. But what we’re discovering is what our friends knew, which means our horizons are limited to those of our friends. If we’re blessed with a broad and knowledgeable set of friends, this can be a very profound discovery mechanism. But for many of us, our friends have similar backgrounds and similar perspectives, and discovering the world through their shared media may reinforce our existing worldviews, not only telling us what we want and expect to hear, but persuading us that our perspectives are universal ones, because our friends share that perspective.
I think that spreadable media escapes some of these limitations in that fandoms often bring together people from very different backgrounds around a shared media experience. Sharing a fondness for sumo gives me a point of encounter with people in Japan, Mongolia, Bulgaria and Brazil (four countries well represented in sumo at present) and the possibility to discover new perspectives through the encounter. But it’s possible to imagine other experiences of sharing an interest that leads you back to people you already encounter in your daily existence – I’m not sure my experience as a Red Sox fan broadens my social or global perspectives very much.
You draw heavily across the book on your experiences with Global Voices. What has this project taught you about the kinds of human resources, processes, and technologies needed to facilitate meaningful exchanges across national borders?
Global Voices has taught me two major lessons: the importance of face to face relationships, and the idea that cross-cultural communication is a skill. Global Voices is celebrated as a virtual community that somehow manages to bring 1400 people in 100 countries together to work on a common project. While that’s true, the secret of the community is that we invest heavily in face to face contact. The project started at a meeting at Harvard, and most of our important decisions have been made when many of us are able to be together in the same space. It’s ironic that a project about connection through digital media is so physically mediated, but I think that just reinforces how significant in person encounter remains in a digital age. I think a lesson learned from our experience is that it can be very valuable to combine short burst of face to face encounter with use of digital media to prepare for and deepen relationships. We’re big fans of introducing people online, bringing them together in person for a few days, then asking them to work together virtually for years at a time.
Most of the people involved with Global Voices are bridge figures, brokering ideas and information between two or more cultures. I’m increasingly persuaded that this sort of bridging is a skillset that can be developed and cultivated. People in our community who are committed to some other form of cultural bridging aside from blogging or writing – living and working outside their home culture, working across different socioeconomic groups – tend to be our strongest and most productive community members. And people who work with us through the years, particularly people who work in different positions within the organization, develop a very strong suite of tools that allow them to mitigate conflicts and build new connections.
As for the technological piece: we’re almost luddites at Global Voices. We used IRC for many years for internal conversations, and mailing lists. We’re reluctant to embrace technologies until they are very widely usable. But we’re starting to make some shifts. GV Faces is my favorite new project – it’s a panel discussion on an issue in the news, held via Google Hangouts and recorded for broadcast on YouTube. When we started Global Voices, it was hard to imagine that we’d see technology advance to the point where we could do a global video talking heads show, but that’s where we are, and I’m loving the outcome.
You also draw on your experiences as a fan of certain forms of global pop music. To what degree might music circulate across borders that it is harder for news to cross? Does this movement pose a risk that the music will be exoticized, decontextualized, and misunderstood or does it potentially spark interests and connections that can lead to thicker forms of communication down the line? Might the same thing be said for other kinds of cultural products — Japanese Anime or Bollywood films, for example?
Music is the easiest route into a new culture for me – I’ve listened to and collected global pop music since my teens, and my first trip in any new city is to the record store. There are many countries where I know nothing about the politics but something about the music. For me, knowing something about a country’s music opens me to learning something about the news or the politics – when I follow the rebellion and civil war in Mali, I’m thinking of the wealth of amazing songwriters in Bamako, and about the guitar playing of Tinariwen and other Tuareg musicians.
There’s no doubt that music can be a space for appropriation without exploration. I examine Diplo’s use of Brazilian dance music in Rewire and conclude that he’s skating right up to the line, if not crossing it, in his work with MIA. But I also consider how a blatant, naked appropriation – Deep Forest’s use of “Rorogwela”, a Solomon Islands lullaby, which they repackage as “pygmy music” from the Congo – leads internet artist Matt Harding to seek out the creator’s family in the Solomon Islands and make a deep and significant personal tie. Harding found a piece of music he loved, learned the complicated story behind it and it ultimately led him to make personal connections behind the music.
I think cultural media like music, movies and food are often a shortcut around the caring problem. I may know little about the Uighur and their ongoing struggles with the Chinese government, but I know – and dig – the music of Zulpitar Zaitov, and so I’m inclined to pay more attention to Uighur news than I otherwise would. I see no reason why this couldn’t work around anime or Bollywood, and suspect it probably does.

 

You are now heading up the MIT Center for Civic Media. How might the projects you are developing there help to further address the challenges you’ve identified throughout your book?
I talk in Rewire about a set of tools that can help us monitor our individual use of media and decide whether or not we are getting the diverse picture of the world we need. We’re building some of those tools at Center for Civic Media, using the Media Cloud software that I’ve been working on for years with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Tools like Catherine d’Iganzio’s Mapping the Globe are designed to help us visualize the concentrations and biases of media coverage. Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavits have built a tool called Follow Bias that helps show how many women, men and brands you’re following on Twitter and, perhaps, make a decision to change your behavior and follow more (or fewer) women. We’re also building tools that look at how ideas and culture spread globally, as with a tool like What We Watch, which maps global audiences for YouTube videos. Finally, we’re starting to build tools that help you add serendipity to your media diet. Catherine is working on a Masters thesis called Terra Incognita, which helps you monitor where in the world you pay attention to and discover sources from parts of the world which are unknown to you.

Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.