On Race and American Television: An Interview with NPR’s Eric Deggans (Part Two)

Broadcast and Cable News is over-whelmingly presented by older white men. What do you see as the consequences of these casting decisions? Why does it matter who “presents” the news and does this matter more in an era where news and opinion are mixed so fluidly than it did in an era where news was presumed to be objective?

There’s two effects here. First, news reports are delivered by people that news producers believe are liked and respected by the audience. Anchors are authority figures on their programs. The best of them exude a sense of expertise, gravitas and believability. If the news is delivered mostly by white males, the audience gets a not-so-subtle message about who in life is considered authoritative enough to deliver the day’s news, and who is not.

Beyond that, I know from my brief stint as a guest anchor on CNN’s Reliable Sources, that TV anchors exert a lot of influence over the content of their broadcasts, particularly on cable news. So restricting the field of anchors to white males also helps lock out a wider range of perspectives when it comes to picking story subjects, guests for shows and strategies for telling stories. it’s no wonder that a recent analysis of five weeks of select cable news shows found 84% of the guests were white; 90% of O’Reilly’s guests were white.

 

Near the end of your book, you stress the value of media literacy as a means of combating some of the noxious trends you identify. Many of my readers are supporters of media literacy education. What are the key lessons would you wish media literacy educators to take away from reading your book?

The biggest lesson here is that profitability and moneymaking guide the lion’s share of decisions made in TV and media. Roger Ailes figured out that most consistent viewers of cable news are older and more conservative, so he figured out a cable news channel to cater to their perspective in Fox News. TV producer Mike Fliess figured out how to get huge ratings among female viewers by building a dating shows around a princess fantasy, so The Bachelor was born. CBS found powerful summertime ratings by building up young, white stars within its Big Brother reality show and exporting them to other reality shows. And because the American public isn’t very tolerant of people who fail, news outlets do a terrible job of covering poverty and the poor. That’s why modern advocates for diversity in media are trying hard to show that TV shows with more diverse casts make more money; because if you can show that a certain strategy brings profits, it is much easier to get media outlets to try that strategy.

I wanted to get your thoughts on a controversy around race in the media that erupted after your book was published — i.e. the #cancelcolbert controversy, which in many ways illustrates many key themes you discuss, both in the role of cable television and the role of new media. How do you think this controversy reflects the ways racial politics is playing out in the media at the current moment?

I wrote about it here. Part of the problem with the cancelcolbert controversy is that it is complex. Suey Park, the activist who started the protest, admits that she doesn’t really believe Colbert’s show should be canceled because someone who manages comedy Central’s Twitter account for the show tweeted a joke without context that has Asian stereotypes in it. Her point is that using such stereotypes in a joke — even when the real joke is that the person using the stereotypes is an idiot — is still offensive. And she rightly doubts that anyone would tell a similar joke like that on a major TV shows about black people — because black people are more likely to object and raise a stink in a way Asians often do not.

So I think Park started this controversy as a way to make comedians think more about the jokes they were telling — not because she actually thought Colbert was racist. But that creates a situation where activists aren’t being totally honest about why they are starting protests, which leave them open to charges of unfairly race-baiting. Park may feel she has achieved her goal by starting the national conversation about Asian stereotypes she wanted. But I’m afraid future protests may fall on more resistant ears if people feel they can’t necessarily trust activists when they say why they are objecting to something.

There seems to be some concerted effort with the casting decisions for this fall’s shows to try to change some of the trends we’ve seen in recent years in terms of the lack of racial diversity on prime time entertainment television. You’ve been raising lots of questions about how racial stereotypes may or may not be reproduced through these series. What should we be looking for as the public gets its first look at these series? A student asked me recently whether it was better to be represented on television in a stereotypical manner or not to be represented at all. Clearly, there are other more desirable options than this binary, but it replicates logics I have heard from entertainment executives, so I wondered how you would have addressed this query.

Look for characters that seem like people and not a collection of stereotypes. In comedies, look for shows where the humor springs from who the character is, not what ethnicity they are. If a person of color is the star of a show, look to see if any other people of color are cast around them as spouses, lovers, friends or relatives. Often, TV shows cast one non-white person in a prominent role and surround them with white characters. Look to see if the characters of color have real lives; often characters of color mostly used to move the plot along or to help the white characters, sometimes to the exclusion of their own well-being.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

On Race and American Television: An Interview with Eric Deggans (Part One)

I wrote in the spring to share some of my experiences serving as a jury member for the Peabody Awards. One of the real pleasures of this process is getting locked in the room with a dozen really fascinating people from many different backgrounds who care passionately about television and who make arguments for and against programs. By the end of the process, you either feel very close to the guy across the table for you or you are not on speaking terms. In my case, for much of the time, the guy across the table from me was Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full time television critic, and the author of the recent book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. Not only did I find myself either agreeing with or convinced by Deggans’ arguments throughout the process but I’ve also regularly been catching up with his journalistic work ever since.  I find him an essential voice as we see ongoing struggles over diversity within American media — from last spring’s #cancelColbert brew-ha-ha to  what it means that we are seeing some increase in the number of people of color on entertainment television this fall.

Deggans’ book provides a big picture of a news and entertainment medium under change — or in most cases, a medium that urgently needs to change and yet refuses to do so. His discussion of racialized politics in American media spans from talk radio and cable news to reality television and fictional programs. He not only goes after the usual suspects — Russ Limbaugh, Fox News — but also shows how some of the same logics and practices surfaces on networks such as MSNBC or even PBS which claim to be more progressive and should know better. This book should be required reading for every media student in the country — both those who will be entering the media industry in some ways and those who are seeking to become better critics and more skeptical consumers. Deggans asks hard questions and doesn’t back away from a fight, but he also brings an insider’s perspective to help us understand what’s taking place inside the news room and production studio as bad calls get made and offensive comments reach the air.

Deggans was nice enough to let me reverse the lens and interview him about some of the book’s core themes and about some recent developments in American television. As we get ready for the start of the fall television season, not to mention this November’s mid-term elections, I hope that his comments will give us plenty to think about.

Let’s start with the word, Race-Baiter, which is the title of your book. What do you see as the stakes in this term — for you, for others who use it — and what does it help us to see about the arguments you are constructing across the book?

The struggle over the definition of the term “race-baiter” is a microcosm of the way some media outlets and political movements have sought to redefine words to serve their current polemical and political interests. In the same way some conservatives managed to turn the word “feminism” into a derogatory term, even for women who clearly believe in the ideas of feminism, others have sought to re-define the word race-baiter from its early uses in describing white politicians who encouraged racial hatred among white people to further their political goals. Now, some idealogues use the term to refer to people of color and white liberals who make allegations of prejudice or racism; the presumption is that these claims are unfounded and unfair — made mostly to gain political or economic advantage.
This is really a different struggle; a way to invalidate the idea of institutional racism or prejudice without ever really arguing the concept directly. Conservative media outlets such as Fox News generally behave as if the institutions of American society are currently fair and treat everyone equally. So, absent overwhelming evidence, they are severely skeptical of any claims that people of color have less wealth, are incarcerated more often, have a tougher time getting good housing or have a tougher time getting into good colleges because of institutional prejudice or racism.
If the term race-baiter can be successfully shifted to refer to people who try to raise questions about institutional racism, then they have created an effective tool for silencing people without ever arguing the concept directly. Because they create a situation where the argument begins with the assumption that American society is fair and people who talk about racism are simply doing so for selfish reasons.
I made it the title of my book because Fox News star Bill O’Reilly tried to silence me in exactly that way, calling me “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country” for my work as chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ media monitoring committee. It’s a group which help develop suggestions of best practices when it comes to coverage of race by journalists and it also recommends nominees to the NABJ board for the group’s Best Practices and Thumbs Down awards. Guess which news outlet won the thumbs down award the year O’Reilly called me a race-baiter?    

For me, part and parcel of resisting such media outlets is redefining the term race-baiter and refusing to accept the new focus conservative media outlets have tried to attach to it. and that will mostly happen by educating the public on how race works in America, how media works, how political speech works and how some media outlets convert these prejudices and stereotypes in big profits.

 

The second part of the title, “How the media wields dangerous words to divide a nation,” implies a strong sense of intentionality. To what degree do you feel that the various media organizations in this book are intentionally seeking to be divisive,to what degree do you think they are indifferent to the choices they make? And does intentionally matter, given the consequences of this divisiveness?

I’m not sure intentionality is possible to discern or even necessary. One of the big problems in analyzing race-based controversies and issues, is that people too often try to peer into the soul of the person at the heart of the controversy and conclude whether or not they are a bigot. But such determinations are often impossible, requiring mind reading of one sort or another. What you can do is look at the actions of a person or institution and look at the results of their actions. If a news outlet consistently features a pundit who compares a black female congress woman to Whitney Houston and tells her to put down the crack pipe because he doesn’t like her political arguments; if another media outlet misidentifies a photo of a young, shirtless black man with his underwear showing flipping “the bird” to the camera, as slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin — and then has to admit the photo came from a white supremacist website — then you have to question how those media outlets handle reporting on racial issues.
Different media outlets are superserving the interests of their target audience in order to build loyal followings. But when those tactics include spreading stereotypes and misinformation to reinforce the worldview of one race over the perspectives of others, you have a problem — particularly in news coverage.  

You write early in the book about “the Tyranny of the Broad Niche,” suggesting that a key factor in how race gets depicted on television has to do with the ways some demographic segments are viewed as more economically valuable than others. Can you tell us more about how this “Broad Niche” logic works and what it’s consequences has been in terms of cultural diversity on American television?

Broadcast television in particular is struggling to maintain an audience and its advertising revenue. Advertisers pay most for audiences that are hardest to reach. So that means the most valuable audience in broadcast television per capita is young males, particularly young white males. That’s because more women watch TV than men and people of color watch TV proportionally more than white people.
This means a great many TV shows are aimed at the broad niche of young white men. So most late night comedy shows on TV are now hosted by white men popular with young white male viewers. Seth MacFarlane is a huge force at the Fox network because his animated comedy Family Guy draws a significant number of young male viewers. Unequal standard of beauty exist for women and men on TV shows. There is a lack of diversity among lead roles for network TV shows. In fact,  BuzzFeed featured a story showing that men are 49% of the population, but 57% of characters on the top four broadcast TV networks. White men are 30% of the population, but 50 percent of characters. Asian and Latino men are 11 percent of the population but less than 2 percent of the characters (there are as many robots and magical creatures on TV as Asian and Latino men). The perceived desires of this niche affect programming that everyone watches, giving us all a distorted idea of who gets to have a starring role in real life society, as well.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

 

 

 

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part One)

I was lucky enough to have gotten to know the social-cultural-technological historian Fred Turner during some time he spent at MIT at the start of his academic career, and we have stayed in touch off and on ever since. I have lost count of the number of times I have taught chapters from his landmark book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, or the number of times that I have ended up citing this book in my own research on participatory culture and politics. It came out in a moment when there was so much focus on new media that it was as if the world had developed amnesia — discussing everything as if it had been invented yesterday rather than understanding the ideologies and cultures that had led up to the digital revolution. Turner’s book helped to place the utopian rhetoric I was hearing at MIT around “new media” in a richer, more nuanced, and more historically grounded perspective. It quickly became essential reading in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, which I headed at the time, and indeed, it has been core reading at programs all over the world.

Turner’s new book, The Democratic Surround:Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties expands the terrain even further, showing us how the counterculture itself emerged from the theories of media, culture, psychology, and political persuasion that took shape during World War II and achieved their greatest impact during the Cold War Period. As with the first book, Turner offers what might once have been considered intellectual history — a focus on key thinkers, who in this case, include anthropologists, psychologists, artists and art critics, musicians, communication scholars, photographers, curators, policy makers, and many others — but combines it with social, technological, political and cultural history. The book is full of fascinating people — from Margaret Mead, John Cage, Buckmeister Fuller, to Andy Warhol and Marshall Mcluhan — and he not only reminds us of their own contributions to society, but shows the strong connections across their work.

He shows us how the media (and especially museum and World’s Fair installations of the period) reflected larger aesthetic theories about the forms of perception required to foster a democratic personality, which were in turn shaped by new models of psychology and anthropology, all of which were put in the service of the Cold War. Beyond that, through, he transforms how we think about the politics of the period, pushing through the encrusted critique of the Cold War and the domestic containment of the 1950s, to identify the liberal/progressive impulses that inspired these thinkers, showing how they were more open to diversity, equality, and freedom than had been acknowledge by many recent writers. He doesn’t ignore the blindspots and complicity in their thinking, but he does help us to appreciate why Family of Man, say, was seen as such a transformative work at the time that it commanded the attention of audiences around the world. He challenges assumptions about the propagandistic use of media during the Cold War to focus on what people at the time understood as a more “democratic” approach to spectatorship and in the process, implicitly at least, he suggests some of the roots of the focus on interactivity, nonlinearity, multimodality, immersion, and transmedia in our own times.

Because of his journalistic background, he is an engaging, vivid writer, one who tells compelling stories, but he is also a first rate archival historian and a world class theorist and critic of media practices. His work is at once programatic — in that he now takes us on a history of media and politics from the World War II to the present — and also boldly original — constantly forcing us to look again at things we thought we already knew. I have no doubts that The Democratic Surround is going to be as important a book as From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  Everywhere I have traveled this summer, people have been reading and talking about this book, but if you have missed it so far, you are in for a treat.

I am proud to be presenting the following interview with Turner about the book and its implications for those of us interested in the contemporary media environment.

Henry: Let’s start with the title, The Democratic Surround. Can you explain this concept? In particular, can you speak to the connections your book makes between a political concept — democracy — and an aesthetic approach — the surround? How did these two concepts come together during the period your book documents?

Fred: Well, the book stretches from the late 1930s to the late 1960s and across that time, the thing I’m calling the “surround” took three forms: It was an actual, existing genre of mediated communication; a tool for producing more democratic citizens; and a model of how to organize a well-run democracy. To their promoters, surrounds could help Americans experience a deeply liberating alternative to totalitarian systems. Fifty years later, we can see that surrounds also gave rise to a new mode of management, a mode of self-regulation through media that dramatically shapes our lives today.
To see how the aesthetic and political came together the way they did, we have to go back to World War II. The story takes a bit to tell, but it’s worth it.

In the late 1930s, many Americans were terrified – and baffled – by the rise of fascism. Hitler had taken over Germany, Mussolini had grabbed Italy, Franco had overrun Spain, and Imperial Japan had invaded China. Everyone wondered: How had so many sophisticated nations fallen under the sway of dictators? And particularly Germany – despite World War I, Germany remained a beacon of culture for American intellectuals and artists. How had the home of Goethe and Beethoven fallen for Adolf Hitler?

A surprising number of Americans argued that it must have been mass media that had brought Hitler to power. First, Hitler had taken control of the German media and dramatically restricted what his citizens could see and hear. Second, many believed that the one-to-many dynamics of broadcasting and the print press themselves could turn people into authoritarians: Just being one of the many, tuned in to a single leader, forced you to practice being part of a faceless crowd.

If the problem was mass media itself, many feared could America go the way of Germany – especially because by the time Hitler invaded Poland, fascism had visibly metastasized in the United States. To take just one example, in February, 1939, twenty-two thousand Americans rallied in Madison Square Garden to support German-style fascism here. They cheered under a giant banner that read “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America.”

Fig 1 Bund Parade 10 30 39

German-American Bundists parade swastikas and American flags down East 86th Street, New York, October 30, 1939. Photograph from the New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-117148.

All of this left American leaders with a dilemma at the start of World War II: How could they use media to stir their citizens to take arms against fascism without turning them into fascists?

Two groups actually set out to answer this question, starting about 1941. The first consisted of about 60 social scientists who called themselves the Committee for National Morale. They were really a Who’s Who of American social science at the time — Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Gordon Allport, the list went on and on. Together they believed that every country drew its strength from the individual personalities of its citizens. And if mass media had produced authoritarian personalities in Germany, Americans would need to develop a kind of media that would that would produce a democratic personalities here.

In the Committee’s view, authoritarians were psychologically fractured, unable to reason, bigoted and obedient. Democrats, they argued, should be highly individuated and highly collaborative. They should reason and choose, and above all, embrace the diversity of American society.

To produce such personalities members of the Committee proposed creating exhibitions at museums and in other public halls, surrounding individuals with images and sounds, and freeing them to move among them. These aesthetic environments would give Americans a chance to practice doing the individual work of making meaning of the world around them, but they would do these things in person, together. Surrounded by images, they would collaborate in forming their own democratic personalities and at the same time, a mode of being together that was unified, not massified, American not German.

The members of the Committee didn’t know how to build these environments. But in the late 1930s, a generation of Bauhaus artists had just fled to the United States from Germany. They carried with them very sophisticated designs for multi-screen displays and immersive theaters, and they were more than happy to apply their skills to promoting American democracy. Throughout World War II people like Herbert Bayer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy designed museum exhibitions and media to promote the war effort. They created the spaces that the American social scientists had dreamed of – spaces in which Americans could practice moving their bodies individually together, looking high and low at the world around them, and arriving at a new mode of political unity in the process.

Once the Cold War began, the exhibition designs they created became cornerstones of two seemingly contradictory developments: American anti-Communist propaganda abroad and avant-garde art here at home. In the 1950s, America built a series of multi-media exhibition spaces abroad with the explicit intent of turning the psyches of potential allies and enemies in more democratic (meaning, pro-American) directions. The most famous of these was probably the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate. At the same time, artists such as John Cage opened up the soundscape and the world of performance, with an equally explicit desire to engage their audiences in a world of aesthetic democracy – a place in which every sound, no matter how lowly, would be equal to every other, a world in which the European hierarchies of the symphony no longer held sway. By the late 1960s, Cage’s experiments in particular had helped transform the pro-democratic propaganda aesthetics of the 1940s into the Happenings and the Be-Ins of the counterculture.

Henry: Many of my readers will know your groundbreaking work, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In many ways, this new book represents that infinite regress that historians are prone to do. In many ways, you could have called it From the Cold War to the Counterculture. How do you explain the relationship between the two projects?

Fred: I hope the historical regress here won’t be quite infinite!
I began The Democratic Surround as a way to solve a puzzle I first saw when I was writing From Counterculture to Cyberculture. I’d always been told that the generation of 1968 had rejected the culture of the 1940s and the 1950s. But when I was researching the Whole Earth Catalog crew, I saw that they were steeped in ideas and books from those periods. When they headed out to build their communes, the New Communalists of the 1960s tucked books by their parents’ generation into their backpacks. They read Norbert Weiner, Buckminster Fuller, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson – and I wondered why. When I went back to those books, I saw the appeal. These thinkers were far more radical than we remember. They and other leading liberal intellectuals of the period challenged the prejudice that ran through American society. They called for the United States to become much more egalitarian, diverse and accepting than it was. Some, like Mead’s teacher and friend, anthropologist Ruth Benedict, called loudly and publicly for racial equality in America more than a decade before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Mead herself gained national renown in part by urging American women to become sexually liberated. And all of these figures saw the personal as political in a way would suffuse the countercultural movements of the 1960s.

By going back to these figures, I’ve been trying to do a few things. On the historical front, I want to de-mythologize the sixties. We’ve labored for too long under the illusion that hippies represented a break in American history and an alternative to mainstream American life. As I hope my last book showed, the New Communalists were in many ways an opening wedge for the hyper-individualized, tech-centered ways many of us live and work today. On the contemporary front, I want to decouple our claims about the social impact of digital media from the dreams to which they’ve become attached. Those dreams flowered in the 1940s, and not only in the technical worlds that brought us computers. They flowered in social science, politics, propaganda – all across public life. Today, we inhabit a multi-screen world in which we manage our lives in terms set by any number of organizations that remain invisible behind the screens. We often imagine that it is somehow digital media that have brought us this world. But they didn’t, or at least, they didn’t do it alone.

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

Critical Making, Social Media, and DIY Citizenship: An Interview with Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (Part One)

In 2010, a group of forward thinking scholars, activists, media-makers, and citizen journalists gathered at the University of Toronto to participate in a conference which sought to explore the ways that the emergence of new media platforms and practices was impacting our civic and political lives. I was lucky enough to be asked to be one of the key note speakers at this event, which was organized by Matt Ratto and Megan Boler, and several of my USC colleagues (past or future) Anne Balsamo and Mike Ananny as well as a number of my USC graduate students Kevin Driscoll, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, and Lana Swartz, among them, participated.

In some ways, the discussions at that conference anticipated some of the top political stories of the past few years, from Occupy Wall Street to the “Arab Spring,” from “Binders of Women” to KONY 2012, as we grappled to come up with frameworks for thinking about how the public sphere was shifting in response to the emergence of social media, the ways that community based hacker and maker spaces were allowing people to envision new kinds of civic media technologies and rituals, and the ways that the “digital divide” and “participation gap” threatened the democratic potentials that many of us see within this new media landscape. The conversations at the event were critical — both in the sense that they asked hard questions and refused to accept simple solutions and in the sense that these exchanges were urgently needed if we were to hammer out together some frameworks for understanding how political life operates in the digital age.And the conference also provided hacker and maker space tools where people could work on projects together, putting their ideas into action.

Some years later, Ratto and Boler have released an important new book, DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, published earlier this spring, by The MIT Press, whose contributors are drawn from the conference participants, though in many cases, their arguments were updated to reflect the many ground-breaking stories of social media and political change we’ve seen in the past few years. The essays here could not be more timely; they represent a range of important theoretical and conceptual models, but they are also deeply grounded in concrete case studies and practical experiences. And the result is a book that should matter to anyone who cares about the future of democracy around the world.

I had asked the editors if they could share with us some core insights, specifically helping us to understand the central concepts of the book, and what they see as some of the most important developments to occur since the conference. I am happy to share this interview over the next two installments of my blog.

 

Let’s start by mapping out some of the keywords from your title. DIY citizenship, as developed by you and your contributors, seems to be an especially expansive concept. So, can you share with us a working definition. What relationship does it have to what I and others like to call participatory culture? 

 

Matt Ratto (MR): The concept of DIY Citizenship was originally used by Hartley to extend traditional notions of citizenship associated with civil, political, and social rights.  To these, Hartley added ‘DIY citizenship’ generally meaning the right to self-determine one’s own identity through engagements with the concepts and ideas on offer within the media. According to Hartley, the DIY citizen is one who creates their identity and individuality through a process of choosing from the semiotic material on offer.

While this was the starting place for the book and for the conference that preceded it, we also highlight issues with this definition. In the introduction, we note linkages between Hartley’s notion and the atomistic sense of self that is assumed within liberalism – this is most easily revealed in the obvious connections between Hartley’s ‘DIY citizen’ and the self that is typically assumed by marketing departments. This is namely a fluid, consumerist model of the self that presupposes that we are all equally free to choose from a set of options (nicely provided for us by social institutions) what kind of being that we want to be. It is increasingly obvious that this is not at all true and even, to take it one step further, that the various discourses of semiotic self-determination is often leveraged to hide or underplay structural restrictions that impinge on our ability to choose for ourselves our own identities.

Here we can see one connection to the simplistic notions of participatory culture that were previously to be found in early work on Free Libre Open Source Software that emphasized open participation by all. While the rhetoric was about freedom and openness, the communities themselves were often anything but – and for sometimes good reasons since the work involved often required very specific forms of expertise (e.g. the writing of Linux device drivers.) This is one connection we might draw between DIY Citizenship and Participatory Culture –both are manifested and driven forward by a central contradiction that exists between openness and closedness, between a reliance on a sovereign, DIY self and the self that is imposed upon us.

 

Megan Boler (MB): More specifically, examining the characteristics of participatory culture (Jenkins 2006), it becomes apparent that indeed many of the projects described in this edited collection exemplify quite precisely ‘participatory culture’ at work:

‘1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement 2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others 3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices 4. Where members believe that their contributions matter 5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).’ 

We suggest that beyond its reiteration of the practices of participatory culture, the notion of DIY citizenship pushes us to ask questions about self- and collectively-determined political affinities, coalitions, and aims – and how we work to construct both them and ourselves. One can conceivably have all sorts of DIY activities that are not explicitly seeking political voice or membership or effect.

 

MR: Exactly, Megan, and many of these activities do seek to intervene in the semiosphere and in this sense can be understood as political activity. This aspect of participatory culture is emphasized in our use of “DIY citizenship” but equally in the development of “critical making” that occurs within the collection. Whereas DIY citizenship emphasizes the dialectic between sovereign and structured self, the term critical making emphasizes the reflexive, praxis oriented engagements and interventions that emerge from diverse indy or collective energies. Critical making is about reflecting on how we build ourselves, our cultures, and our institutions through processes of material engagement. Thus the ‘critical making’ is key to distinguishing the “politics” of culture as well as an extension of participatory culture.

 

One of the challenges that have historically clung to the word, DIY, is the focus on individualism. You in English is especially slippery since it can be both singular and plural. So, the you in YouTube and its slogan, “Broadcast Yourself,” has often been read in terms of personal expression, where-as most notions of the civic start with the idea of shared interests and collective action.  Some have suggested a shift to talk about “doing it ourselves.” How have you and the other contributors to the volume addressed this issue? 

 

MB: Yes, the very term “DIY” ideally provokes debate of this sort.  “DIY” was chosen for the title and the common referent because of its more common usage, but the underlying question is not of small consequence.  As suggested increasingly in diverse scholarly works about social media and networks, there are genuine questions about how best to describe the contemporary experiences of “self” and “individual,” — whether a coherent notion of the individual is indeed even possible any longer;  whether and how this individual is distinct from the liberal individual — all questions that poses  a persistent challenge to many critical scholars. Yet–at the same time–the notion of ‘yourself’ cannot be avoided, and will always be overdetermined. To substitute DIO or DIT loses a signifier that has much broader connotations in our contemporary culture.  In our Introduction we address this fraught question, and outline alternative conceptions such as  “DIT” (Do it together), DIY as in the plural, DIO (do it ourselves). My own research suggests that we may need to develop a new concept like “collective individualism,” to try and capture the  collectivity of the You so distinctively featured in this mediated era of pluralistic self-expression.  I come to this having been intensively studying the recent shifts from “collective” to “connective” action, a shift which arguably is closely tied to the growing  role of networked connectivities that increasingly constitute our globalized collective identities. Social media and networks encourage new forms of connectivity, which are distinct from a collective identity but not solely an aggregation of individuals.

 

One of the striking features of the original conference you hosted and now of this collection was the ways you were exploring a way to bridge between new forms of activism and the emergence of Maker culture, which has not always been understood in political terms. What might this collection teach us about the political and civic dimensions of the Maker movement? Another way to ask this would be what is “critical” about “critical making.” 

 

MR: Yes,  this bridging is definitely an important part of the overall project – and to explore the bridge between maker culture and academic practices as well! This occurred more at the conference where we supplemented more standard academic talks and plenaries with a HackSpace where other kinds of projects could be encountered. (The academy still need to work on incorporating such forms within our larger scholastic practices – but this is a longer term project…). More importantly, an obvious aspect of maker culture today is that it increasingly follows a larger social trope of innovation and entrepreneurship. While there is nothing wrong with this, this move does de-emphasize some of the more overtly political maker actions of the past. In some ways, the move from ‘hackers’ to ‘makers’ mirrors the move from Free Software to Open Source. Both discursive developments are about depoliticizing the processes while maintaining their pragmatic effects – a sort of stripping away of the value-laden aspects while keeping the utilitarian. Despite this, there are still makers who remain focused on moving beyond the linguistic to other forms of political activity. Understanding making as critical – whether the making of gardens, of new forms of media– is a key focus of the collection.  As we note in the Introduction, “Critical making signals the ways in which productions–whether of video, web-based communications, gardens, radio transmitters, or robots–are understood as politically transformative activities….Critical making invites reflection on the relationship  of the maker” to processes of production.

 

Megan Boler is Professor of media and education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her books include Feeling Power: Emotions and Education (Routledge 1999); Democratic Dialogue in Education (Peter Lang 2004); Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (MIT Press, 2008); and DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media (eds. Ratto and Boler, MIT Press, 2014). Funded by Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council for the last ten years, her previous research “Rethinking Media Democracy and Citizenship” examined the motivations of producers of web-based challenges to traditional news.  Her current funded research “Social Media in the Hands of Young Citizens” is a mixed-methods study of women participants’ experience in the Occupy Wall Street movement, including interviews with women in seven North American cities. Her web-based productions include the official study guide to the documentary The Corporation (dirs. Achbar and Abbott 2003), and the multimedia website Critical Media Literacy in Times of War. More at: www.meganboler.net

Matt Ratto is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and directs the Semaphore Research cluster on Inclusive Design, Mobile and Pervasive Computing and, as part of Semaphore, the Critical Making lab. His work explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world, with a particular focus on new developments that trouble the divide between online and offline modes of production. He coined the term ‘critical making” in 2007 to describe work that combines humanities insights and engineering practices, and has published extensively on this concept. A current project involves the development of a cost-effective software and hardware toolchain for the scanning, design, and 3D printing of lower-limb prostheses for use in the developing world.

 

Civic Paths “By Any Media Necessary” Hot Spot

 

Henry Jenkins introducing “By Any Media Necessary,” the Spring 2014 Civic Paths Hotspot Vimeo.

Hot Spot Overview: “By Any Media Necessary”

By Liana Gamber-Thompson

How do we foster a civic imagination? That’s the question Professor Henry Jenkins asks us to consider in his video intro. Of course, there is no one answer to that question. That’s why we’ve kept the topic broad for this Hot Spot, our semesterly collection of mini-blog posts organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group.

We’re calling this collection of posts “By Any Media Necessary” because it gets at the myriad ways that social and political change happen in the age of digital media. Henry explains:

At the heart of the phrase “By Any Media Necessary” we’re building upon Malcolm X’s famous phrase “by any means necessary,” but we’re saying today change will come, not through a single media platform, but by the ability to coordinate your message across many different channels, to reach many different publics with multiple messages, all serving some shared vision of what political change needs to be.

In that spirit, we invite you to explore the multiplicity with us through this collection of posts that touches on many interpretations of what it means to effect change “by any media necessary.”

First, Andrew Schrock draws parallels to previous generations of “ethical engineers” to describe how “civic hackers” attempt to bring about institutional change through community-based work and technological production. He argues that civic hacking serves as a mode of political participation closer to civic engagement than hacker cultures aligned with activism or software production.

Diana Lee looks at the recent “I, Too, Am Harvard” Tumblr campaign to shed light on the ways young people are using online spaces and new media platforms to take a stand against their everyday lived experiences of racism as well as institutionalized structures of inequality.

Kari Storla examines how survivors of rape are using a variety of media forms to talk about their experiences of sexual assault and to communicate about a subject matter that is often rendered invisible in public discourse and cultural representations. She considers how humor is employed to open up conversations about rape and rape culture.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik provides her account of a recent workshop, “Think Critically, Act Creatively,” at the 2014 Digital Media and Learning conference. She draws on her experiences to think about how tapping into our civic imaginations and engaging in acts of “critical utopianism” can broaden our conceptions of what’s possible for social change.

Raffi Sarkissian shares several case studies of queer activism and shows us how the web is just one arena in which queer-identified and LGBT youth are exerting their voice and garnering visibility. He looks at both on and offline strategies used in contemporary queer activism, urging us to look at the variety of ways LGBT youth are asserting their influence.

Lastly, Yomna Elsayed describes the shifting nature of popular representations of American Muslims, examining their reception both within and without the Muslim community. From the appearance of a veiled Muslim woman in a Super Bowl Coca-Cola ad, to one Muslim woman’s attempt to normalize her experiences as a “Muslim Hipster,” she describes how such representations, however fraught, continue to broaden the national conversation about Muslims in America.

We hope this collection inspires you to think critically about what a kind of activism that relies on “any media necessary” might look like in 2014. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section because we believe you can’t have a theory of change unless it’s also constantly growing and evolving.

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part Three)

Many adults discourage youth from creating and sharing media online because of what they see of the “risks” involved. How realistic are these risk framings? How have the youth and their parents included in your study thought about these issues?

Concerns about posting materials online are logical, because posting personal material may lead to unfortunate consequences. People have gotten fired or been denied diplomas because of things they themselves posted online. We know that government organizations and businesses such as operators of social network sites are using our data for their own ends, such as for profit or to maintain forms of power. Many families continue to post images of themselves and their loved ones online without necessarily stopping to reflect on the consequences of their acts.

As I argue in my book, people often hold varying or even conflicting representational ideologies, or ideas about what is ethical to post. In some cases, people may be unaware of how their data is being used. I asked one mother how she felt about advertisements being posted to her videos, and she said she really had not yet formed an opinion. In other cases, people are more than happy to post human images, arguing that the tremendous benefits, social connections, and self-actualization that they have achieved ultimately outweigh the risks involved in being so public with their personally-expressive media.

I would expect to see many more of the type of media skirmishes that I describe in my book as people argue over who has control or ownership of their own images or images that others have taken of them. As some scholars have suggested, we may need new terms that include more collectively-oriented versus personally-generated media making, so that we can understand in a more fundamental way what collective image production entails.

Mechanisms might be developed to reduce risks such as current experiments with short-term media that is automatically deleted after a certain time. Yet, the problem with those mechanisms is that once something is mediated, it always has the potential to continue to be copied, circulated, downloaded, remembered, and viewed in perpetuity. Long ago, Kitzmann (2004) used the example of a diary left on a city bus to show how even the most quiet and personal mediation always holds the potential to become public. Think of how diaries may be used after someone’s death to understand their personality, when in reality it is only one piece of the identity puzzle.

I can envision this explosion in media potentially leading to two trends. On the one hand, the proliferation of private images online may be a kind of equalizer, in that most everyone will have pictures of them posted by their families and friends. The potential for everyone to have at least one embarrassing picture may be too common to cause serious harm to a particular individual.

On the other hand, though, we could see the emergence of a two-tiered image-based society in which those families and people who have been more cautious about circulating public media will have a status-advantage over those who have “gone Kardashian” and posted every moment, even unflattering or unethical ones, of their lives online. Unlike the Karashians however, people without financial resources who post too much of their lives online may find themselves in a digital-image-based lower class, and they may struggle to obtain access to jobs and education because of what they have publicly shared. Knowing what to post is beyond a doubt a crucial digital literacy in today’s self-image-laden media environment.

 Home movies were historically an archival medium, much like amateur photography — a way of recording the stages of the child’s growth into adulthood or the ongoing life of the family. What has changed about the kinds of media being produced in families today? What new genres of production are emerging and why?

In prior eras in the United States, home movies were, as Chalfen (1987) observed, about preserving memories and charting personal progress. The things that were recorded were often important events or milestones in a person’s life such as weddings, graduations, and the arrival of a new car.

Although those functions have not gone away, we’re seeing more experiential-type videos where people record an experience of even small moments such as going to a coffee shop or going on a walk. Part of the fun of the experience is the recording and posting of the video. The phenomenology of the mediated moment, or how we experience recording and circulating media, includes more instances in which people experience something in a way that is deeply intertwined with the delight and anticipation of sharing the media to potentially wider audiences. In some cases, people post videos for people who cannot attend the event or experience, and so the video helps friends and family go along for the ride. Posting the videos helps self-select an audience (in Warner’s [2002]) sense for those viewers who interpellate themselves as interested parties.

People often wonder why such small moments get recorded and circulated so publicly, and critics tend to see these activities as narcissism on the part of the video makers. But as some pundits have observed, it is often rather the reverse; it is narcissistic of audiences to assume that they are the central viewing target of a video that is quite clearly not at all intended for them. YouTubers and video bloggers have told me that their sense of humor or personality tends to shine through in their videos—both the planned and experiential varieties—and they often attract like minded viewers who may eventually even become friends in the traditional sense (as opposed to the casual social media sense).

Experiential videos are about cementing friendships when people cannot be physically present and attracting new friends who happen to share similar interests or worldviews but who are not physically co-located. As my ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media shows, YouTubers have continued a long Internet tradition of making an effort to meet the people with whom one has established interesting or meaningful connections online.

 There’s a tendency to talk about the public circulation of these videos in terms of self-branding or self-promotion. Is this an adequate explanation for what motivates these young people to post their works online?


Although it is certainly part of many people’s online experiences, self-branding is not the only game in town in online spaces. Social media and YouTube offer plenty of fuel for critics to express concern about how rampant self-promotion complicates authentic dialogue.

But at the same time, people share media for many reasons, often related to aspects of friendship and sociality. Sometimes, the point of making a video is to share an experience with people who are there, and with people who cannot be there. The moments may be small and unimportant to most viewers, but they hold meaning to the people who make and post these videos.

Flashy self-promotional videos may attract attention and receive more criticism in mainstream professional media because focusing on this aspect of media making, rather than the myriad other forms of socially-driven media, becomes another way of creating delineations between vernacular video and professionals. However, many kids are quite capable of shining a light on important problems that are difficult to tackle.

It is also important to keep in mind that self-promotion has long been seen as important for cultivating future job opportunities. “Networking” for jobs and opportunities is considered an essential skill, and has long been a necessary part of successful professional life. Judging young people negatively for self-promotion sometimes smuggles in a moral judgment about who should have the permission to break beyond the sometimes closed doors of professional media making, when in fact these skills are broadening across the population.

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part One)

Not long after I launched this blog, I featured an interview with Mimi Ito and the graduate students from USC and Berkeley who worked with her on the Digital Youth Project. One of the first projects funded by the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative, this project did a large scale,multi-site ethnography to try to understand mechanisms of informal learning and the contexts where young people were encountering digital media. From this research came the now classic typography of “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” to describe different modes of engagement in and through networked technologies, a framework which has now informed everything from the design of public libraries to the development of curriculum.

Looking retrospectively, Ito and her co-P.I., the late Peter Lyman, had assembled and shaped a team of some of the top digital scholars of their generation, as becomes clearer as they have begun to publish their solo works. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know many of them through their work on this project and to have maintain contact with them through the years, watching them develop their own distinctive strands of research.

Later this month, Patricia Lange, one member of the Digital Youth team, publishes her first solo book,  Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies. I recall having her interview me for her video blog after one of my very first meetings with this group; she later shared with me a rough cut of a documentary she produced about the culture of video-blogging, and more recently, she’s shared drafts of the chapters for what has become an outstanding book about how childhood and parenting is playing out differently in an era of video sharing and other forms of participatory culture.

Patricia Lange’s Kids on YouTube raises important issues about the ways that our current participatory media practices intersect contemporary family life and help to shape the ways that young people form their sense of themselves and the world around them. Through vividly drawn accounts of the roles which media-making and sharing plays in the lives of particular families, Lange convincingly demonstrates why these activities matter in terms of fostering new literacies, enabling new social relationships, and sustaining new forms of civic engagement.

Lange has immersed herself into this culture of video production and sharing, asking core questions, and making contributions to central critical debates around participatory culture, connected learning, the risks and rewards of online publishing, the hacker ethos, gender and technology, and the development of young citizens, all of which she speaks to in the course of this extended interview.

 

We first met through your work on the Digital Youth Project. Looking backwards, this project’s report, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, has proven to be a landmark in the emergence of the Digital Media and Learning movement. Reflecting backwards, what do you see as the legacy of this project and what impact did it have on your own intellectual development?

The Digital Youth Project was a joint effort between teams of researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley who were interested in studying informal learning in digital environments. Participating in the Digital Youth project was truly an honor. I am deeply grateful to the MacArthur Foundation, and to Mimi Ito and Peter Lyman, whose vision about reformulating education through informal learning inspired the research. I think the Digital Youth Project reinforced the benefits of teamwork in conducting contemporary research in digital environments. The researchers came from many different backgrounds, and that brought advantages and challenges. But it was interesting to compare the findings of numerous projects operating under one research umbrella.

Media ecologies are complex and shifting, and it is instructive to know, are the findings gleaned by studying any particular set of technologies or websites limited to those sites, or are there patterns that reach across different theoretical lenses, methodological approaches, technological platforms, and research populations? This amazing project gave us the opportunity to explore those questions in a way that is more difficult when researchers are conducting separate projects on their own.

It was also quite exciting to see our research applied to the design of educational efforts such as the YOUmedia after school space in the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago. Drawing on the findings of the Digital Youth report, the YOUmedia space acknowledges the way that youth engage in varied ways with media and technology.

Our report found that kids’ engagements range from casual, socially-motivated encounters to highly-geeked out ways of making media. Recent reports in the media seem unaware of how academics contribute to the design and improvement of everyday spaces and processes. I am proud of this implementation of our research and I am hopeful that these and other spaces that draw on our research may facilitate the kinds of educational change that many of us in the field of informal learning are trying to re-imagine.

The project began by focusing on the rubric of “digital youth.” At that time, it was obvious that kids and youth were growing up with a range of technologies that even the younger members of the team did not have access to in their own childhoods. However, as the project progressed and was completed, it became quite clear that “digital youth” were quite a varied bunch. Not all digital youth were created equally. While operating under this rubric, the research also simultaneously challenged it, which I think is also an important legacy of the project.

My project on YouTube pushed back on conceptions of “digital natives.” It became apparent that kids exhibited vastly different media dispositions with regard to how comfortable they felt sharing videos of themselves to the world. Further, my analysis of how people perform affiliation to technologies showed dramatic variation in terms of family background in technical expertise, kids’ interest in technology, and professional aspirations.

Terms such as “digital natives” imply that all kids are equally well versed in all technologies, and such was not the case in my study. In the same household, an older brother may be far more technically-oriented than a younger brother, and in some cases, it was technically savvy parents who encouraged kids to develop video blogging skills. Yet, not all kids adopted their parents’ enthusiasm for messing around with computers and creating videos. Some kids’ outright rejection of their parents’ video interests severely challenge the concept of kids’ digital autochthony. Not all kids emerge into the world ready to make videos in a seriously geeky way, and making that assumption is problematic for creating strategies to nurture diverse youth’s digital skills and interests.

I also observed bifurcated technological skills. Some kids even saw themselves as being so much more expert than some of their peers that it was difficult to mentor their less tech-savvy friends. They did not even share basic technical vocabulary, which led to a break down in informal learning opportunities. Wide gaps in technical abilities in kids urge us to question and challenge how ageist rubrics obscure the investigation of important nuances that could be instrumental in improving informal learning dynamics, which are not guaranteed to work simply because they occur among peers.

For me, one of legacies of the Digital Youth Project was to show the advantages of challenging and even pushing back on initial research rubrics, and questioning their assumptions. The project reinforced the idea that it is advantageous to ask critical questions about any research paradigm one is operating under at a given time. Rather than wait till the project is over, it is reasonable to keep an open-mind as research is being conducted. I believe the project models how it is possible and desirable to step back, even during the research process, and question a rubric while simultaneously contributing to it in a fundamental way. These kinds of self-reflective questions are challenging but ultimately healthy.

 

In your introduction, you challenge some of the established categories we use to talk about these forms of productions — including the notion of “amateur”, “grassroots,” and “Home Mode Media.” Instead, you propose a category of “personally expressive media.” What do you see as some of the limits of these more familiar categories? Why do you put such an emphasis on “personal expression”?

Years ago, Robert Stebbins (1980) wrote extensively about how “amateur” and “professional” categories are not as neatly divided as they are often assumed to be. Although he was writing generally about amateurism and professionalism and not media creation, his lessons apply in the video realm as well. We need to dust off our Stebbins and reacquaint ourselves with his ideas! Failure to do so risks aligning researchers with media discourses that seek to minimalize so-called “vernacular” accomplishments.

During my investigation, I saw a kaleidoscopic of media ontologies. In other words, videos came from many different people with a variety of backgrounds and skills. For example, I interviewed a former television producer, Ryanne Hodson, who was a champion of video blogging. She believed that making videos was another type of literacy that people should cultivate in order to spread their message. What status should her video blogs have?

She was quite literate in professional media production, but her personal blog was not operating in a professional context. She had control over her own video blog which was not produced under the auspices of traditional media institutions.

How should we categorize the work of teenagers whose family members had attended film school, or had family members who had a television show on a local cable access station? Are these creators operating in some kind of vernacular innocence? No they are not. I found that the amateur/professional divide became slippery and not particularly helpful for understanding people’s phenomenological experiences of their mediated moments of video creation.

“Home mode” is another category that is often misunderstood in research. When anthropologist Richard Chalfen (1987) initially introduced it, he was attempting to address a gap in the anthropological record on everyday media. Many people tend to wildly over-generalize anything they see on YouTube as “home mode,” because it was made at home or with friends. But home mode referred to a specific type of intimate media that was made for a relatively small group. People who made the media knew who were in the pictures and vice versa, generally speaking.

But examining his work more carefully shows that Chalfen bracketed out anyone who was trying to distribute his or her media to widespread audiences. He specifically stated that he was not interested in media created in camera clubs, or in academic settings, or by anyone else with aspirations to become more knowledgeable about making media. His research had an important theoretical purpose; it made sense to study everyday media makers at home who did not have professional or even advanced amateur aspirations.

But the people studied under the Digital Youth project, and in my study of Kids on YouTube varied tremendously with regard to their goals, skills, and what I refer to as their media dispositions. Some of them loved making videos with a passion, while others found it simply odd to make videos to show to the world. Some people may have captured home gaffes and put them online with the intention of becoming a YouTube partner and trying to make money with their “innocent” videos.

Rather than attempt to adjudicate complex questions of amateur/professional media ontologies using arbitrary criteria, I found it more useful to see this media as a form of personal expression that might shift status within and across attention and money-making economies. A video maker’s status might also depend upon their dispositions and future desires with what they hoped to gain by making media.

My research goal was to find some way of talking about media with complex or ever-shifting ontological statuses in ways that did not pre-judge videos. Such divisions are often used to minimize so-called vernacular abilities and elevate professional statuses, a binary discourse which simply does not theoretically hold when analyzing media made by so many different people, who often have direct experience of or are influenced by knowledgeable mentors in professional media-making contexts. Exploring how and to what degree people were able to develop skills to convey their personal message seemed to be a far more fruitful project.

 

 

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.

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.