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.

 

 

 

 

Hot Spot: Grass, Plastic, and Authenticity

From time to time, the Civic Paths Research Group in the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism releases a cluster of mini-blogs, written by participating PhD students and focused around a shared set of topics. We call these Hot Spots. If you’ve followed this blog over the past year or so, you will have seen previous Hot Spots focused on The Dark Side(s) of DIY, Election Season Revisited, and Civic Kickstarters.  Today, they have launched the fourth installment in the series, which looks closely at the concept of “Astroturf” and its relationship to grassroots activism, as PhD candidate Michelle C Forelle explains below . Enjoy.

 

Grass, Plastic, and Authenticity 

grassroots_astroturf2

Grass is an interesting plant.  When you look at a lawn from above, it looks simply like a very thick cluster of individual plants.  But when you get down to the roots, you realize grass is actually a very complex network.  This sophisticated root system makes grass a very hardy plant, able to withstand grazing, mowing and getting forever trampled underfoot while still continuing to grow.  It’s not surprising, then, that we use the metaphor “grassroots” to refer to movements that arise from networks of people who, working together, can share resources to reach a common goal.

“Astroturfing” flips this metaphor on its head.  Unlike an organic network of nodes that grow from the ground up, astroturf is a single, homogenous sheet of plastic that is laid over the ground.  It is inauthentic grass, made to look like the “real thing” while at the same time supplanting or even suffocating the real thing beneath it.

This Hot Spot will take us through some various considerations of astroturf to explore what it is we mean when we label something as such.  Kari discusses how transparency differentiates representative organizations and astroturf ones, especially in the world of politics and advocacy.  Andrew considers recent corporate and governmental attempts to create astroturf hacking events.  Xam writes a piece of advice for astroturf groups looking to use the Internet, using a Hong Kong group as an example, while Yomna takes us to Egypt to have a closer look at the movements that have shaken the country over the last few years, and blurred lines there between grassroots and astroturf.  Sam asks us why we even care about the distinction at all, arguing that maybe the issue of astroturf is actually distracting us from more important concerns.

These posts are just some brief attempts to explore the importance (or not) of authenticity in movements.  Here we begin to answer some questions, and provoke many others.  We hope these first steps inspire others to contribute their thoughts and experiences on astroturf and the many overt and covert ways it is changing civic society.

– Michelle C Forelle

[1] Mowing the Astroturf, by Kari Storla

[2] Turf Wars: What is a Civic Hacker, by Andrew Schrock

[3] Astroturfing 101, by Xam Chan

[4] Regime Activism, by Yomna Elsayed

[5] Getting to the Dirt, by Samantha Close

* HOTSPOT PHILOSOPHY: These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.  Check out our first hotspot intro to read more about the thought process behind these mini-blog posts.

 

Three Things that Western Media Fail to Tell You About Chinese Internet Censorship

This is another in a series of blog posts written by the students in my PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals, being taught this semester at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Strategic Censorship, Ambivalent Resistance, and Loyal Dissident: Three Things that Western Media Fail to Tell You About Chinese Internet Censorship

by Yue Yang

When talking about the Chinese Internet, what would first come to your mind?

The largest online gaming population in the world? A highly creative ICT (information and communication technology) community? An enormous e-commerce market? “Tu hao(土豪)”, “Watch and Observe (围观)”, “Er Huo (二货)”,”Jiong (囧)” ?

I don’t know about your answer, but I am sure most American media would say with alacrity “No, it is CENSORSHIP!” Indeed, “censorship” seems to have become their knee-jerk word to annotate the Chinese Internet. If you search “New York Times Chinese Internet” through Google, on the first page of search results, you would 9 out of 12 news stories related to censorship; for “CNN”, it is 9 out of 9 (with 3 urls linking to non-CNN websites), and for “Fox news”, it was 8 out 10.

Since American media is so interested in censorship on Chinese Internet, do they come up with good, objective censorship stories? As a native Chinese and a doctoral researcher studying the Chinese Internet in the US, I would say “yea” for “good storytelling” and “nah” for “objectivity”. Try to click on one of the top urls and you will see what I mean: this is an exotic digital world: on one hand, the iron-wristed Chinese government launches another round of censorship campaign. It cleanses criticism, cracks down dissident sites, and even puts political foes into jails. On the other hand, facing ruthless and stifling censorship, courageous and canny Chinese “netizens” (Internet citizens) use their ingenuity in various ways, to flit machine censorship and to mock the impotence of government. Be it a gloomy “Big Brother” story or an empowering “Tom-and-Jerry” story, a censorship story never lacks tension or a easy-to-follow storyline. However, these stories grounded only on partial facts are not qualified for universal validity they imply, and they are often too interested in drama to capture the plain truth. In short, current censorship stories in mainstream media are often too simplistic to inform western readers of the complex politics on the Chinese Internet. In the following part, I will talk about three things that western media do not tell their readers about Chinese Internet censorship.

(1) Strategic Censorship: yes, Chinese people criticize the government on the Internet!

The first thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that average Chinese Internet users can and do express a lot of criticism about the party-government. In fact, such criticism attracts little interest from the government censorship.

It is a widely recognized observation by people who personally attend to political discussions on Chinese cyberspace, that online space of speech is expanding and people can criticize their government without seeing their unfavorable comments censored over time. This observation is contrary to what most media censorship stories are telling people, but recently it has been confirmed by a large-scale, big-data research report from a Harvard research team. By collecting, analyzing, and comparing the substantive content of millions of posts from nearly 1,400 social media services over all China, and distinguishing what gets censored from what remains online over time in discussions around 85 topics, the researchers have upended some popular stereotypes, and found that “negative, even vitriolic criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content”. Rather than remove any criticism against it, the Chinese government conducts strategic censorship, which “is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future”.

(2) What Chinese People Think about Censorship: infringement of rights or Moral Guidance?

The second thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that Chinese people’s attitudes towards censorship are actually divided and ambivalent.

In 2009, the Chinese government made various censorship efforts to make it virtually prepared for an extremely sensitive time period: not long ago, the famous dissident and later-Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo released the “highly subversive” 08 Charter; starting from March, the government was to anticipate several major political anniversaries: the 50 anniversary for Tibetan uprising, the 20 anniversary for Tiananmen Event, and the 60 anniversary for the foundation of People’s Republic of China. Although nothing except the 60-year national anniversary was to be publicly celebrated, the government was highly vigilant against any online-and-off commemoration or mobilization of other political anniversaries.

In such context, there was little surprise that the Chinese government demanded pre-installed censorship software called “Green Dam Youth Escort(Lvba Huaji Huhang绿坝花季护航)” on each new PC to be sold in the market, including those imported from abroad. The purpose, of course, was to protect the psychological health of the young from pollution through pornography and violence. But Chinese Internet users soon found that the software expanded censorship to political information. Worse still, the software had so many technical defects that it would severely hurt overall online experience and security.

Shortly after the installation plan was announced, a large-scale online protest occurred among Chinese Internet users, particularly among the younger generation. Young people soon launched an online carnivalist play-protest, characterized by a manga-style personification of the software called the “Green Dam Girl” (Lvbaliang 绿坝娘). At the same time, “2009 Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens” (“The Declaration”), a western-style manifesto against censorship appeared online.

Seeing such resistance, Chinese government canceled the installation plan, and the “Green Dam incident” became a typical case to illustrate Chinese emerging civil power countering the government’s blunt censorship decisions. However, when examining the online comments on “The Declaration”, researchers discovered wide expressions disagreeing with the anti-censorship declaration. In fact, there was considerable endorsement of the government’s filtering attempt during the incident.

Why was there public support for censorship? After looking closely at these for-censorship comments, doing interviews with their authors, and analyzing the collected data with reference to Chinese culture, the researchers made some very interesting analysis: unlike western people who conceive government as a “necessary evil” and censorship serious infringement of freedom of speech, the majority of Chinese people uphold Confucian state-society ideal, represented by the notion “custodian government(父母官 fuwu guan)”, which accordingly frame people’s understanding of censorship.

So what does “custodian government” mean and imply? Basically, it is a Confucian notion that proposes a state-society model in which the government maintains its authority through displaying exemplary virtue and parental care for people, and in return, people respect and obey the government like they respect and obey their own parents. When both government and people perform their roles properly, social harmony and ideal that would yield the best for the most can be materialized. Note that traditional Chinese culture does not challenge hierarchy or centralization, nor does it often raise government legitimacy questions as long as the administration is established in accordance with Confucian ethics.

In the case of “Green Dam”, a large number of people supported government censorship, because they expected a morally exemplary and custodian government to establish social norms and protect as well as regulate minors. In other words, to many Chinese, censorship does not necessarily mean violation of human rights or encroachment of individual interests, rather, it means moral measurements that are expected and accredited.

Such understanding was more popular among middle-aged Internet users, but it was not rare among the young either. In fact, researchers have found that quite an impressive percentage of Chinese Internet users are either unaware of or do not care much about the online censorship, stating that they are generally happy with the current cyberspace they have. In short, the general attitudes towards censorship are not as definite as most western media state.

(3) Subversive Dissident or Loyal Dissident?

The third thing that western media do not tell you about Chinese online censorship, is that Chinese Internet users are more of “loyal dissident” than subversive resisters, even if they were expressing criticism.
It was again in 2009, an Internet meme called the “Grass Mud Horse” (Caonima 草泥马) gained viral popularity in Chinese cyberspace. “Grass Mud Horse” sounds almost exactly like an abusive phrase, and it was originally invented by young Chinese gamers to dodge Internet censorship on obscene expressions. Soon the word play adopted the visual form of an alpaca, and put into different extension forms such as stories, animations, music videos, and T-shirts and dolls. Even a virtual Chinese character was later invented for it.

The phenomenal popularity of Grass Mud Horse attracted a lot of western media attention in its peak time. CNN, BBC, and the Guardian, for example, produce extensive report on it. Citing academics, these reports claim that Grass Mud Horse is not only a grassroots symbol of resistance against censorship, but also a “weapon of the weak” to challenge (the legitimacy of) the authoritarian government.

The statement that “Grass Mud Horse” is a play turned into politics, making creative resistance against censorship and authoritarianism is indeed interesting. However, when analyzing how Chinese Internet users actually engaged in the “Grass Mud Horse” carnival, how people actually used the words, pictures and related stories to expressed what intentions, research has found that Chinese Internet users tended to use “Grass Mud Horse” to vent personal frustration, criticize local corruption and bureaucracy, rather than make accusations against censorship or challenge the government’s legitimacy.

In a similar vein, through looking at the most popular and uncensored microblog tweets on Weibo that discussed political scandals during the Spring of 2012, some Swedish researchers have found that Chinese Internet users are more interested in criticizing certain activities of the Party than challenging its hold of power.

In fact, more and more scholars start to realize that consensus against the current regime in China is yet to be produced. More interestingly, despite pervasively expressed criticism of the government, in two highly respected surveys conducted by non-Chinese scholars (World Value Survey and Asian Barometer Survey), the rate of loyalty and recognition declared by the Chinese public to their government is much higher than those from western democratic societies. Instead of implying another uprising in China, these studies suggest that Chinese Internet users may become more critical and expressive, but they are not ready to demand fundamental democratization.

When creating Chinese Internet censorship stories, western media often fail with four things. First, it fails to look more closely at what is happening; second, it fails to avoid wishful speculations; third, it fails to account for complexity that disrupts clear storytelling; fourth, it fails to put incidents into the broad Chinese social and cultural context. With such failure, western media reduce the extremely interesting and complicated Chinese Internet to a monolith and create stereotypes.

I hope I have well explained some important aspects that go beyond the oversimplification of Chinese Internet censorship in western media, so that you, my dear readers, will not only have reservations next time you hear something about the Chinese Internet, but also suspend belief whenever you receive messages about a different society from the media. Bolstering critical thinking and avoiding stereotyping, that’s what media literacy is working at, and that is also what I am trying to do with this blog post.

Yue Yang is a PhD student at Annenberg School for Communication, USC. Being a native Chinese, she is constantly confused and therefore deeply fascinated by the complexity of her country’s culture and society, online and off. Her current interests range from Chinese people’s imagination of the West, to the tensional dance between the Chinese government, the grassroots and the intellectuals on the cyber arena (and she always hopes that one day she could write as fast as she eats and publish as much as she speaks.).

The Regulation of the Chinese Blogosphere

This is another in a series of blog posts produced by the PhD students in my Public Intellectuals seminar being taught through USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

image003

The Regulation of the Chinese Blogosphere

by Yang Chen

On September 9, the highest court and prosecution office claims that non-factual posts on social media that have been viewed more than 5,000 times, or forwarded more than 500 times, could be regarded as serious defamation and result in up to three years in prison.

This new law reflects the tense relationship between the government and the emerging and yet proliferating online public sphere. As one of the 500 million registered users on Weibo (the most popular tweet-like microblog in China), I feel a hint of nervousness. Normally my posts would be read around 500 times – which is far less than the 5000 quota – but Weibo is an open space where anyone can view and comment on any posts. Thus I have to be much more cautious about what I post in order to keep myself out of trouble.

I hope you won’t ridicule my timidity. Everybody has to be cautious, because the first account user who got arrested for violating this new law was an ordinary 16-year-old schoolboy, whose posts questioned the police’s negative act in a case and a conflict of interest in the court (Further information, go to China detains teenager over web post amid social media crackdown). But other than this poor boy from Junior School, there are a group of people who are much more nervous towards this law – the Big Vs.

Who are the Big Vs? Big Vs are the opinion leaders who actively engage in the discussion of political, economic, and social issues online. These prominent figures are followed by more than a hundred thousand netizens on Weibo. Unlike other grassroots users’ hidden identities, these users are verified by the website with their real names and occupations, and there is a gold “V” mark beside their account names that stands for “verified.”

image004

Because these Big Vs are followed by a considerate number of Weibo accounts, their posts or reposts can reach a much larger audience than that of grassroots user accounts. As a matter of fact, though verified accounts only represent 0.1% of the Weibo accounts, almost half of the hot posts (posts being commented more than 1,000 times) were written by them. Thus instead of a We-media platform, Weibo is more like a “speaker’s corner” for the Big Vs; their posts easily get reposted and commented more than ten thousand times. Although everyone has the same rights of free speech on Weibo, some people like the Big Vs speak much louder than the others.

Of course, with real identities and huge popularity online, they are also much easier target for this new law. Let’s take a brief look of what happened to some of the big Vs recently.

image005

Most Big Vs are Chinese venture capitalists and investors; they would put their properties at risk if they go against the government. Thus not surprisingly, there has been an inclination that the Big Vs chose to cooperate with the government.

image006

After an account is verified and branded with a “V,” the website fits the account into categories such as education, entertainment, business, and media. The verified account enters the “House of Fame” under that certain category, and be recommended to general accounts which are relevant to that category. This move leads to closer connections among the people under the particular category and would simultaneously distance people in the other categories.

Earlier this year, the website has asked all users to fill in their education backgrounds and the newcomers to register with their phone number. This move would also allow the website to identity users’ background information and recommend them to people who have similar backgrounds. As a result, highly educated individuals are communicating with other highly educated individuals; individuals with lower education, with lower educated individuals.

Due to this classification, a user who follows a verified Weibo account will recommend the verified account to members within their groups, so people end up following the same verified accounts. This system creates information barriers. For instance, the likelihood that a high-educated member will recommend a verified account with lots of helpful and accurate information to a lower educated member who is in another group is slim. The lower educated member may never be given the chance to increase his or her access to information, although both are using the same networking service.

Users are also separated by geographical location. Individuals from northern regions are speaking to individuals also from northern regions; individuals from southern regions, to individuals from southern regions. Each user is matched into groups based on the user’s characteristics and is subject to an environment where the user can only meet other users similar to the user. From this process, these groups are drifting further and further apart from one another.

Not surprisingly, I have found out that users from outside the country also are segregated from domestic users as well. When I first come to US, I have registered a Weibo account using my U.S. mobile phone number. I found out my posts have been deleted very often secretly without any explanation from the website. It is even more ridiculous that on my personal page, everything looks fine, but on my followers’ page, these posts secretly disappeared. If my friend had not told me, I would never have known.

A screenshot from My follower’s page

image009副本
The Screen Shot from My Page

As I have shown, the post in the red circle was shown on my personal page, but deleted in my follower’s page. I found the similarity of my “deleted” posts: all of them having the common word “activity,” since I were spreading the information about USC’s upcoming events – some of these events are not even related to China or Chinese regime. Because some of these posts were deleted the second after I posted them, I guessed that a strong automatic filter system was applied to my account – maybe because my U.S. mobile put me into a more sensitive position. I was right! After I changed my mobile number into a Chinese domestic number, I never encountered another deletion. The segregation is really simple, yet effective; there’s no doubt that the censor system creates more information barriers.

The big Vs constitute the verified accounts that each followed by millions of people, that make them serve as the “links” among different groups. Controlling these links means further isolating the different groups and getting a tight grip on the information flow on Weibo.

The purpose of the policy maker is to develop a regulated and peaceful internet public sphere. However, we should bear in mind that the word “peace” doesn’t equal  “quietness” or “weakening voices.” There are obviously problems to be solved, voices to be heard. If tears were burried deep in one’s heart, it doesn’t mean the wound is not there anymore. I will end this blog with an old saying in China, “防民之口,甚于防川:” it means if you trap water in a stream, there would be a disastrous flood; if you shut up voices from the public, a worse disaster would be waiting ahead.The old saying is from thousands of years ago, but the words transcend time and still apply today; the Chinese regime should still take lessons from the wit of our ancestors.