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.

Digital Cosmpolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part One)

Ethan Zuckerman is one of the big thinkers, and doers who consistently inspires me. His Wikipedia entry identifies him as “an American media scholar, blogger, and internet activist.” All of this is true, but that’s just part of the picture. He’s also someone who consults regularly with major foundations, think tanks, NGOs, and policy-makers, as they try to understand the potentials, and risks, of networked computing. As the founder of GeekCorps and Global Voices, he’s put his geeky skills to work to try to change the problems which worry him the most about our contemporary culture. He’s someone who has a formed a network of other bloggers and digital activists around the world, and someone who travels often to parts of the planet that most of us could not point out on a map, in order to better understand the political, cultural, and technological conditions on the ground there. He’s become one of our best thinkers about “digital age civics” and through his work as the Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, he’s leading a team of graduate students as they seek to design tools which might empower activists and community leaders to be more effective at fostering social change. He does this while remaining mild-mannered, easy-going, modest, and open-minded, a model for what an engaged public intellectual might look like in the 21st century. I am lucky to be able to call him a friend.
Last year, he published an important and timely book, Rewired: Digital Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Connection, which should be required reading for all Americans. Zuckerman is asking us to think more deeply about how we learn about the world and whether our access to the WORLD Wide Web has done much to change the parochialism within our culture. Here, he draws on the full range of his experiences to bring us face to face with the blind spots in our information consumption, with the challenges in overcoming isolationist and xenophobic tendencies in our society, but also to propose alternative strategies by which some people are becoming “bridge builders” who embrace diversity and insure that we have greater access to alternative  perspectives. Zuckerman understands the complexities and contradictions of our current moment, adopting a position that is sometimes optimistic, somethings skeptical, but always feels  is in the service of building a better society.
In the interview that follows, Zuckerman spells out some of the core concepts from Rewired, including some consideration of what the book might have to say to fans, journalists, educators, and other citizens.
Much of the media discussion around the Arab Spring movements has centered on the fantasy of more person-to-person communications across borders via social media rather than through the more formal relations between nations or the mediated communications of traditional journalism. Why has this fantasy of a “Twitter Revolution” proven so compelling to people when their everyday practices often involve relatively limited communications outside of their immediate circles of friends and families?
 
Like many compelling fantasies, the Twitter Revolution myth has some roots in fact. Tunisia’s revolution had a strong media component. Protests in Sidi Bouzid would likely have been invisible to the rest of Tunisia and the rest of the world had they not been documented on Facebook, edited and contextualized by Nawaat.org and amplified by Al Jazeera. And there are deep ties between activists in Tunisia and in Egypt that helped spread ideology and tactics of those revolutions via social media. But any account of the Arab Spring that doesn’t focus on existing labor movements, soccer fanclubs, neighborhood organizations and other forms of offline social organizing misses the point.
 
I think Twitter revolutions are such a compelling idea because they allow us to inscribe ourselves on global events. If digital media is the key actor in a political event, and we’re participating by amplifying tweets online, we are part of the revolution, an exciting and compelling prospect. And there are times when this, too, is true – if an event is visible locally and invisible globally, and we take responsibility for translating and amplifying it, leading to global coverage, we might, in fact, share some credit for changing circumstances on the ground.
 
But this ability to be a participant in a minor way in a global event tends to blind us to our more ordinary use of these media. Very few of us are Andy Carvin, using our online presence to curate digital media and connect our readers to global events. Our use of these tools tends to be about connecting with friends and interests that are far closer to home. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it’s fine for social media to be a tool that connects us locally if we have other media that informs and connects us globally. What strikes me as dangerous is the illusion of connection, the compelling idea that we are encountering global perspectives via digital media when we’re mostly reinforcing local ones.
 
You write, “[New Media] tools help us to discover what we want to know, but they’re not very powerful in helping us discover what we might need to know.” This seems to be a central theme of the book, that we have opened up new channels of communication which might allow us to connect with others around the world, but that our use of those tools has been limited by a lack of motivation or understanding. We seek out information only about those topics we already care about, and a large part of the world falls outside of that zone of interests. What are some of the signs that our interest in the world is more limited than our technological reach at the present time?
 
 I think the main reminder is sense of surprise that pervades much of modern life. The Arab Spring was a surprise, but only up to a point. For those few watching Tunisian social media, it became clear pretty quickly that something deeply unusual and transformative was taking place. At Global Voices, we were able to see the protests unfolding weeks before they received attention in mainstream American media. There’s a strong tendency in our contemporary media environment to pay attention to stories only when they’ve reached a crisis point – we’re always arriving in the fourth act, and we never stay through the denoument. It’s possible to imagine a form of media that’s scanning the horizons and giving us a better sense of what’s coming, not what’s already arrived.
 
I think a second reminder is our ability to turn on global networks at moments of crisis. The global response to SARS was quite amazing – within a week of identifying a new syndrome, the WHO had global videoconferences that allowed frontline medical personnel to identify symptoms and jointly diagnose new cases. Once those networks were set up, the spread of the disease slowed dramatically. When we need international connection, we’re capable of bringing it about very quickly.
 
One of the reasons the book has been challenging to describe is that this question you’re asking -what are we missing when we’re so tightly attached to local media – is a really hard one to answer. I tend to understand it in personal terms. I follow African media, particularly west African media, quite closely, due to my long personal ties to the region, and as a result, I see stories well in advance of their visibility in broader media. And while that sounds self-congratulatory, patting myself on the back for my global vision, the actual experience is more anxiety-producing, because it’s a perpetual reminder of how much there is to know and discover. The little I know about Nigerian politics that most Americans don’t is a perpetual reminder of how much else is going on in the world, and how little we encounter until it manifests as a crisis or emergency.
 
What roles does the news media play in shaping what we care about and conversely, to what degree does our lack of concern or interest impact what the news media is prepared to cover?
 

I think this relationship between caring and coverage matters much more than it did a generation ago. Newspapers include stories on a wide range of topics, local, national and international. Until recently, our sense for what readers wanted to hear about came from newsstand sales and letters to the editor, very inexact tools for understanding which stories were being read and which were being ignored. Now we have incredibly granular information, that shows interest on a story by story level, including readership and time spent per reader per article. Publishers are acutely aware of these statistics, and more editors and writers are becoming aware of these figures. It becomes harder and harder for authors to report on stories that don’t already have an audience, as there’s a very strong temptation to write what people want to hear, as they will reward you with their attention.

 
This becomes a circular equation, because people need help developing an interest in new topics. A fascinating story isn’t immediately apparent or comprehensible to an audience. Take the mortgage crisis a few years back – most coverage focused on the moment to moment details, featuring stories that were comprehensible to financial professionals and few others. This American Life made a major investment – an hour-long story called The Giant Pool of Money – that helped audiences understand the crisis and become better consumers of future stories on the crisis. If we wanted people to pay attention to protests in Sudan (people beyond those of us who are already watching those protests), we’d need to invest time, energy and reader attention in explaining the context and importance… and we’d be gambling that we were able to create an audience for that story in the future. 
 
The net result of this cycle, I fear, is that we get an enormous amount of information on stories we “know” are important – the minutia of US federal elections and the machinations of Congress  - and very little information on parts of the world we know little about, care little about, and care little about because we hear little about.
 
I’ve often thought that there might be a need to shift from a focus on international news (news about things happening elsewhere on the planet) to global news (news that shows the connections between distant events and people in our own communities.) Would such an approach help resolve the gaps you are describing here? Why or why not?
 
I think we’d gain a great deal from journalism that helped contextualize global events in local terms. The best newspapers and broadcasters have historically tried to do this – one of the losses we experience  when local newspapers cut international bureaus is the connection between global stories and local communities. 
We need something broader, I suspect, as not every event in Myanmar has an immediate local connection. Sometimes we need heroes and heroines – think of Malala in Pakistan and the ways in which her story has been a window into gender and educational issues in that part of the world. While we can go too far and turn a story about issues into a story about a single person, we often benefit from stories that let us feel like we know and care about an individual in another country or culture.
 
I think we also need to learn how to tell stories that look at local facets of global issues. A story like climate change is critically important, but extremely difficult to report. We might benefit from an approach to reporting that showed us the implications for different people in different communities, interweaving personal stories with the science and politics of the issues.
 
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.

Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics Webinar Series: Highlights from Sessions 3 and 4 – MAPP Situation Room Edition

Last week we wrapped up the 4-part webinar series on Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics organized by the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) team here at USC. The series was sponsored in partnership with Youth Radio, Connected Learning, and USC’s Media Arts + Practice . The webinars highlighted the practice of storytelling and how it can be used to connect the spheres of culture and politics. An amazing group of participants were convened for the series to discuss their innovative uses of storytelling for civic/political ends, and the result was a collection of fascinating and insightful conversations (see the full list of speakers for webinar 3 and webinar 4).

I recently shared a blog post with highlights from webinars 1 and 2 selected by the behind the scenes team participating in the Livestream discussion and live-tweeting from the MAPP “situation room” during each webinar.*  This post captures some of the team’s favorite moments from webinars 3 and 4. You can also check out the full recordings of those webinars below.

Webinar 3: Spreading Your Story

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

 

The third webinar examined how participants spread their stories to others and how stories get circulated among a variety of audiences.  Some highlights include:

 

  • Rubi Fregoso, director for KCET Departures’ Youth Voices, and her student Raul describe how they turned a vacant lot into a dog park. Hear them explain at 13 minutes in how, through this experience and other civic projects, they encourage student leadership within their own community.

  • From 29 minutes in, hear the panelists discuss strategies for balancing the risk and the power of sharing personal stories. Nirvan Mullick, director of the Caine’s Arcade short film, makes a powerful statement: the more personal your story is, the more universal it is.

  • Thea Aldrich, community manager of Random Hacks of Kindness, emphasizes the power of the public that activists engage.  She advises others at 37 minutes in to “be comfortable with an idea or narrative taking on a life of its own…because it’s about the community, it’s not up to us to decide where it goes. Trying to control it limits its potential.”

  • Joshua Merchant of the Off/Page Project vividly demonstrates his poetry’s power to speak about his experiences as a black queer youth growing up in East Oakland. Check out his poetry performance at 49 minutes into the video.

  • At 39 minutes in, moderator Derek asks the activists how they measure success. Kat Primeau, from improv comedy outreach non-profit Laughter for a Change, cautions against relying solely on view counts and hits, saying at 54 minutes in that with improv comedy “you see success in the room when you see people having fun,” but that experience may get lost online.

 

Webinar 4: Considering Your Story’s Afterlife

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

 

The fourth webinar focused on how participants navigate their stories’ “digital afterlife” and lasting impact.

  • At 13 minutes in, hear Wajahat Ali explain how he became an ‘accidental activist’ and created Domestic Crusaders after a domestic violence murder case. He explains how something that starts locally may quickly grow into a national campaign.

  • Joan Donovan shares her experience with Occupy at 20 minutes in.  She explains, “We needed a space where Occupiers could speak to each other. Email was a terrific failure.” So participants created the interOcc digital platform to connect a lot of people quickly, allowing them to coordinate action, share ideas, and strategize.

  • Jonathan McIntosh, pop culture hacker and remix artist, points out that the media is often lazy: mainstream news organizations will usually reprint your story in whatever form it takes in the beginning, so he advises taking the time to write and frame it how you want it from the outset. At 29 minutes in, he explains how activists can use the media to give power to their words.

  • Pete Fein talks of his experiences as an internet activist, including being a former activist with Anonymous. At 35 minutes in, hear Pete explain why he never considers himself to be in control of the story.

  • At 41 minutes in, Jasmeen Patheja of Blank Noise responds to a question about the role of the audience in civic stories.  She urges activists not to think of those they reach as an audience, but as a community to engage.

  • Luvvi Ajayi of the Red Pump Project responds to a question about how civic storytelling on social media can encourage people to participate. At 48 minutes in, she advises activists to make sure their story is more about people than the stats so it rises above the noise and people are more likely to act on it.

  • At 53 minutes in, Wajahat responds “Hello, NSA” to a question from the Livestream chat about dealing with the possibility of surveillance.  He suggests looking at surveillance as an educational opportunity that keeps you on your toes and encourages you to be smarter in your activism.

We are thrilled with the depth and breadth of the conversations generated by the webinar series and hope the stories of all the panelists inspire you just as much. We thank our fantastic panelists and facilitators, along with Derek Williams, moderator for all four webinars, and look forward to utilizing their insights in the future. You can continue the conversation about storytelling and digital-age civics on Twitter via #civicpaths and #connectedlearning.

*The support team includes: Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar), Raffi Sarkissian (@rsark), Karl Menjivar-Baumann (@newclearistbau), Liana Gamber-Thompson (@lianathomp), and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (@Netakv).

Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics: First Sessions As Seen from the MAPP Situation Room

The following post was written by my Civic Paths research team, including Liana Gamber-Thompson,  Sam Close, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Raffi Sarkissian.

Last Tuesday, the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) team here at USC kicked off our webinar series on Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics in partnership with Youth Radio, Connected Learning, and the Media Arts + Practice Division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. This webinar series examines the role of storytelling as a practice that bridges cultural and civic/political engagement, particularly in the context of digital spaces. The webinars bring together participants from different groups which have been innovative at using storytelling for their civic and political goals. The webinars, co-hosted with Youth Radio, have gotten off to a great start, spurring some very thought-provoking conversations among a stellar group of diverse participants (Webinar 1 Speakers; Webinar 2 Speakers).

In addition to the awesome moderators and speakers, a dedicated team of researchers and graduate students affiliated with the MAPP initiative has been holding down the “situation room” , live-tweeting the event and participating in the Livestream chat.* The full recording of each webinar is embedded below.  But, if you don’t have time to watch the whole conversation, the behind the scenes team has included highlights here, often identified through moments we all tweeted at the same time!

The team hard at work in the “situation room” during Webinar 2

 

Webinar 1: Finding Your Story

 

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com
Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

The first webinar focused on how participants identify and frame stories that engage their communities. Some highlights include:

  • Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell tells how personal experiences in Uganda opened his eyes to the problem of child soldiers at 9:30 minutes into the video.

  • DREAM activist Erick Huerta uses the internet as a “message in a bottle” to reach undocumented youth and other Dreamers; see at 12 minutes into the video.

  • See Carol Zou from the public fiber arts collective Yarnbombing LA explain how story helps her group build their internal community.  Panelists explain the benefits of using story in activism from 20 minutes into the video.

  • Moderator Derek asks the activists about identifying target audiences in story-based activism at 27 minutes into the video.

  • Jason responds to some critiques of his organization’s largely white American audience, pointing out that stories are based on experience: “You write and create what you know and what you experience, and that creation or that story is a direct reflection of the audience that’s going to hear you.”  See at 35 minutes into the video.

  • Livestream chat participants pose an interesting question to the panelists: How do you protect your stories, prevent misappropriation, and counter hostile remix? How do you tell your own stories versus others’ stories? See their responses at 38 minutes into the video.

  • Starting from 43 minutes into the video, panelists respond to the suggestion that hard facts and data, not stories, create actual change. Monica Mendoza from Youthspeaks argues that “stories are what attracts people to issues” and are “the backbone to a lot of social movements.”

  • Hear Matt Howard from Iraq Veterans Against the War talk about how his group made sure mainstream press coverage included both them and their Afghani partners at a protest. At 48 minutes into the video, the activists share more thoughts about how to keep a story on track and negotiate telling the stories of others.

 

Webinar 2: Making Your Story

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

The second webinar examined how to best give shape to stories for civic purposes. Some highlights include:

  • Musical artist Dorian Electra and Tani Ikeda from imMEDIAte Justice Productions share notes on creating projects that use media as a catalyst to engage youth in “boring” issues like economics and health education.  Hear all the panelists describe a project their group has created from 5 minutes into the video.

  • “It’s pretty hard to explain to a freshman ‘you’re being segregated.’ It was something so complicated, but when they saw it on a map they saw that it was real.”  High school students Roxana Ayala and Uriel Gonzalez tell their story of using GIS maps to explain de facto segregation to fellow students and community members at 21 minutes into the video.

  • At 25 minutes into the video, activists discuss the skills they had to acquire to make stories that matter. For Charlene Carruthers from the Black Youth Project’s BYP100, a key skill is facilitating conversations with people with diverse views and creating a story that touches a diverse group.

  • Hear cartoonist Andy Warner describe how he uses story characters to create a call-and-response dynamic with his audience.  From 37 minutes into the video, the activists give advice on how to create narratives and use aesthetics to make stories resonate.

  • Ever heard of “cultural acupuncture”?  Lauren Bird from the Harry Potter Alliance explains how it helps her organization create campaigns with wide cultural resonance.  Panelists debate whether stories should be of the moment or meant to stick around from 46 minutes into the video.

Join us for Webinar 3, “Spreading Your Story,” tomorrow, January 21st at 10:00 am PST and Webinar 4, “Considering Your Story’s Digital Afterlife,” next Tuesday, January 28th at 10:00 am PST. You can watch the webinars live and ask questions via Livestream.  Also join in the conversation on Twitter via #civicpaths and #connectedlearning. There’s sure to be even more interesting insights generated in the weeks to come!

*The support team includes: Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar), Raffi Sarkissian (@rsark), Karl Menjivar-Baumann (@newclearistbau), Liana Gamber-Thompson (@lianathomp), and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (@Netakv).

 

Participatory Poland (Part Two): Participatory Poland — An Introduction

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

 

Participatory Poland — An Introduction (Part Two)

Agata Zarzycka and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak

Department of English Studies

University of Wroclaw

Poland

 

PARTICIPATORY POLITICAL RESISTANCE

Throughout the 1980s, Orange Alternative , an overtly political movement formed in 1981 by Wroclaw students, with Waldemar Fydrych as its leader, successfully covered its resistance agenda with seemingly innocent activities, using surrealism as a weapon and the spontaneous involvement of the street crowd as a power source for actions that would later bring the organization international recognition. Those actions shared many features with other underground resistance initiatives of that period, yet were characterized by the cultivation of their anarchist roots and the employment of methods often verging on the absurd, as reflected by Orange Alternative’s trademark sign – a dwarf. Hana Cervinkova explains that the fairytale symbol, which soon lent its name to the movement’s activity, labeled as “Revolution of the Dwarves,” took its origin in a graffiti war against the militia. When the actual subversive inscriptions left by resistance activists on city walls were removed by the authorities, Fydrych, soon followed by more people, marked their previous locations with dwarf images (3). In 1988 the symbol was so popular that a demonstration of thirteen to twenty thousand dwarf impersonators in Wrocław attracted the general  attention and confused the regime forces unsure how to deal with the happening (3). Throughout the 80s, that and other humorous formulas enabled Orange Alternative to carry out numerous public performances (3-4), sometimes verging on a flashmob style and involving random passers-by.

Surrealism did not guarantee safety from repressions, but definitely encouraged the participatory support of regular citizens who gained a chance to get involved without becoming targeted resistance activists (“Orange Alternative: The Story” n. p.). The Orange Alternative activity, naturally suspicious to the regime protectors, was also criticized by fellow resistance movements for the light treatment of the political struggle (“Orange Alternative: The Story” n. p.). Still, initiatives engaging a broad circle of supporters, not all of whom would be ready to risk their lives and the wellbeing of their families for the political cause, created, as Cervinkova puts it, “a venue for symbolic action that was social and asso­ciational in nature, a performative and symbolic means for creating free space for deliberative democratic action” (5).

Cervinkowa sees Orange Alternative as a spectacular, yet not the sole example of what Matynia calls “performative democracy” – a phenomenon relying on the collective consideration and modification of the political and social conditions, which is enabled by seemingly non-political collective activity providing a forum for exploring and practising civic involvement. Such a platform in socialist Poland was, as pointed out by both Matynia (10) and Cervinkova (5) the Youth Theatre of the 1970s. The theatrical connotation seems to imply a participatory factor, especially in the light of Matynia’s argument that: “… just like carnival, it [performative democracy] happens, and when it happens, it releases a robust civic creativity, prepares conditions for backs to straighten up – and this is an achievement of lasting value” (9). It might even be claimed that Matynia’s definition offers an insight into the politically significant dimensions of broadly understood participatory culture when the author declares that “performative democracy can actually be joyous and affirmative dimension of the political, yet one that self-limits its passions by necessarily framing them into agreed-upon forms, genres, and conventions” (6). Indeed, the last years of socialism in Poland seem to have brought a growing importance of the carnivalesque and participatory factors in the public sphere. Marek Oziewicz follows Padraic Kenney’s A Carnival of Revolution in tracing the mass turn of informal social demonstrations between 1985 and 1989, not only in Poland, but also in other countries of the Eastern Bloc, towards spontaneous and often humorous initiatives motivated by a whole spectrum of inspirations, from universal ethical issues through artistic performance to actual fandom-based fascination with writers such as Tolkien or Isaac Asimov (Oziewicz 364).

 

POLISH FANDOM AND POLITICS

It is no wonder that in the turmoil of the public life in socialist Poland, the development of fandom movement, focused at first around science-fiction, had a special political significance. The relationship of Polish science-fiction with the official political system was ambivalent and dynamic in the period between the 1950s and 1980s. According to Jacek Inglot, a recognized writer and fandom commentator, the 50s brought on an awkward parallel relationship between speculative fiction and official political demands of “socrealism” which included, among others, a socially involved protagonist; a discrediting depiction of middle-class individualism contrasted with the affirmation of community as the source of empowerment; and an emphasis on the superiority of socialism over capitalism (62-63). Inglot tracks down three categories of speculative fiction’s reactions to the imposition of the above-mentioned criteria: marginal acknowledgment; “servitude”-induced political statements included in the text, but having little to do with the actual plot and possible to ignore; and finally genuine ideological involvement (63).

As argued among others by another prominent author and critic, Maciej Parowski, speculative fiction proved to be a good way of misleading censorship. because sketching a fictional vision that drifted away from the immediate reality was often enough to enable implicit attacks on regime philosophies (n.p.). A person who embodied the bonds between Polish fandom and political resistance was Janusz A. Zajdel, a recognized author of dystopian SF, who was also a Solidarity movement activist. In 1985, during Polcon, the first (and since then the biggest) Polish convention, he received an award for his contribution to the growth of speculative fiction in Poland. Since his death in the same year, the award has been called by his name and constitutes both the major Polish distinction for writers of speculative fiction and the most spectacular symbol of the fandom’s tribute to the political cause.

It is to be emphasized that even without such direct connections with resistance, fandom in socialist Poland promoted politically significant activities, such as informal, grassroots organization and free exchange of thoughts, not to mention the frequently unofficial influx of Western literature with the focus on science-fiction, a genre not only characteristic of imperial culture, but also interested in the exploration of political and social doctrines. Since the fall of the Eastern Bloc and in the new, post-communist popular culture of the 1990s and beyond, the relation between politics and media-oriented participatory movements in Poland has been more complex.

On the one hand, it is possible to observe the continuity of Nowa Fantastyka’s political orientation, though in the new reality the echo of the magazine’s once liberating and progressive character discourages some readers with its right-wing affinity. On the other hand, communities centered around various forms of participatory entertainment, from particular fandoms through historical reconstruction to LARP and RPG practice, which since the 1990’s have continued their dynamic and growingly diversified development, have been affected by a broader cultural and political shock connected with the exposure to contemporary Western political and civic discourses preoccupied with collective identities.

As Joanna Tokarska-Bakir writes in the introduction to the first Polish edition of Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity from 2005, “the isolation of Polish humanities in the communist period resulted in the emancipatory discourse initiated in the 90s being far ahead of Poles’ social education . . . . In the Polish discourse of difference, ‘excess’ has in a way preceded ‘lack,’ and as a consequence, various postmodern strategies of stigma management are faced not with emphatic critique, but indifference, arrogance or even overt hostility” (7, translation ours).

Today, eight years later, civic identity politics is a visible and more or less familiar element of Polish political and social landscape, but its functions, practice and reception in particular environments remains far from balanced. That is why “Participatory Poland” report aims to consider several examples of the civic practices and policies developed, challenged or objected to by Polish participatory culture movements. We hope to show the ways in which those movements, although by definition open to global ideas and co-creating “pop cosmopolitanism” with similar environments from all over the world, simultaneously reflect and cope with Poland-specific issues.

 

COMING UP NEXT

The series of the upcoming blog entries, which will offer an insight into several dimensions of the “participatory Poland,” is opened by Michał Mochocki’s essay on the participatory culture of historical reenactment, combining specifically Polish phenomena with inspirations from the West. The essay presents the origins and development of historical re-enactment movements in Poland, their political dimension and impact on regional identities. Michał’s special focus is on the dynamics of conflict and cooperation between re-enactment-connected grassroots organizations and state-run institutions.

The next entry, co-authored by the research team composed of Justyna Janik, Joanna Kucharska, Tomasz Z. Majkowski, Joanna Płaszewska, Bartłomiej Schweiger, Piotr Sterczewski and Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel, reflects upon the impact of historical, political and social factors on the development of collective identities and their representations within Polish fandom. Relying on sociological research carried out specifically for the needs of the report, it will focus on identity politics within the contemporary young-generation fandom.

Third on the list is a text by Michał Jutkiewicz and Rafał Kołsut, considering the genesis and consequences of a striking social and cultural separation of the comics fandom from the more uniform speculative media fandom in Poland. While numerous Polish fans share several fields of interest, from media consumption through live or computer gaming to historical reenactment, the fact that they also tend to read comics does not prevent the Polish comics environment from functioning as a rather independent community. The authors investigate the reasons for this situation and establish the extent to which it is specific of and significant for the fandom in question.

Katarzyna Wasylak’s essay on the Polish manga scene offers an insight into a participatory movement building up from the scratch and sinking into the Polish socio-cultural context. The essay uses the “pop cosmopolitanism” perspective to consider the origin and growth of the Polish manga and anime fandom, its inter-cultural potential, as well as its fusions with Poland-specific phenomena and representation of Polish identity within the fandom worldwide.

Finally, the report by Aleksandra Mochocka considers bra-fitting, a recent phenomenon that represents not the fandom-fuelled, but economy and marketing-related side of participatory social practice and has grown in Poland to be transported to other countries. The essay depicts the bra-fitting movement as related to the construction of femininity and the body image issues and as initiated by means of grassroots Internet communication. The rapid development of the bra-fitting community has contributed not only to an emancipatory change in socially acknowledged beauty standards, but also to a modification of some lingerie companies’ production strategies and their successful debut on the American market.

We are aware that these relatively brief presentations of selected participatory culture aspects are likely to reveal further blank spots, questions or directions begging for more extended research. We are also aware that the “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” readers are well-phrased in all things participatory and may find a lot of what we have to say more than familiar. Still, we hope that the combination of a nation-specific perspective with that embracing participatory culture as a global phenomenon proves useful to others, just the way it has proved challenging and thought-provoking to us.

 

WORKS CITED

 

 

Cervinkova, Hana. “The Kidnapping of Wroclaw’s Dwarves: The Symbolic Politics of Neoliberalism in Urban East-Central Europe”. East European Politics & Societies 20.10: 1-14.

Frąckiewicz, Sebastian. “Wywiad z Maciejem Parowskim: 30 lat ‘Fantastyki’ – Rozmontować karabin i sprzedać jako wózek” [An Interview with Maciej Parowski: 30 Years of Fantastyka: Disassemble the Gun and Sell it as a Cart]. Polityka.pl. 26 October 2012. 31 October 2013. http://www.polityka.pl/kultura/rozmowy/1531337,1,wywiad-z-maciejem-parowskim-30-lat–fantastyki.read

Inglot, Jacek. “Soc Fiction (1): Rzecz o fantastyce polskiej pierwszej połowy lat pięćdziesiątych”[Soc Fiction(1): On Polish Speculative Fiction of the early Fifties]. Nowa Fantastyka. March 1991. No. 3 (9/102): 63-65.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York and      London: New York University Press, 2006.

- – -, Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robison and Margaret Weigel. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MacArthur Foundation, 2009.

Koczanowicz, Leszek. Politics of Time: Dynamics of Identity in Post-communist Poland. New York : Berghahn Books, 2008.

Lessig, Lawrence. “Re-examining the Remix”. TED. May 2010. 28 October 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/lessig_nyed.html

Matynia, Elżbieta. Performative Democracy. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2009.

Orange Alternative. “Orange Alternative: The Story”. Orange Alternative official website28 October 2013. http://www.pomaranczowa-alternatywa.org/orange%20alternative%20overview.html

Oziewicz, M.C. “Dwarf Resistance in Communist Poland: Fantastic-Ridiculous Dwarf Esthetic as Political Subversion in the Orange Alternative Movement and the Movie Kingsize. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 22.3: 363-376.

Radziejewski, Bartłomiej. „Sarmacja – niedokończona przygoda” [Sarmatia: An Unfinished Adventure]. Fronda.pl. 12 July 2009. 31 October 2013. http://www.fronda.pl/a/sarmacja-niedokonczona-przygoda,2444.html

Tischner, Józef. Etyka solidarności oraz homo sovieticus [Solidarity Ethics and Homo Sovieticus]. Kraków: Znak, 2005.

Tokarska-Bakir, Joanna. “Wstęp do wydania polskiego: Et(n)ologia piętna” [Introduction to the Polish Edition: Stigma Eth(n)ology]. Erving Goffman, Piętno: Rozważania o zranionej tożsamości. Trans. Aleksandra Dzierżyńska and Joanna Tokarska-Bakir. Gdańsk: Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne, 2005. 7-26.