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 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Made by Hand, Designed by Apple

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

Made by Hand, Designed by Apple

by Andrew James Myers

 

Apple’s recent release of two new iPhone models — the iPhone 5s and 5c — was heralded with a pair of videos celebrating the aesthetics of each of the devices’ design and physical materials. The first, a 30-second spot entitled Plastic Perfected played at the 5c’s unveiling and aired on national TV, shows abstract swirls of liquid colors against a white background, gradually molding itself into the form of the iPhone 5c’s plastic shell. Other components, like the camera and the small screws, emerge spontaneously from within the molten plastic, until the idea of the iPhone is fully materialized, having literally created itself.

 

 

The other video, a companion piece also shown at the company’s iPhone presentation, depicts a mass of molten gold against a black background, swirling elegantly and weightlessly to sculpt itself into the iPhone 5s. Hovering components gradually descend into place, and the phone spins to present its finished form.

 

 

Over this past year, in my research of Apple’s marketing, I have watched hundreds of Apple’s ads and promotional videos extending back to the 1980s. For me, these most recent iPhone promotional videos were a surprising addition to this research, as they embody the purest and most potent distillation yet of a longstanding trend in Apple’s marketing. Apple’s marketing texts have long been preoccupied with constructing a certain aesthetic myth for the creation of Apple products. This mythical origin story at its essence taps into notions of vision, creativity, and genius while obscuring the devices’ real-world material origins as the product of concrete human labor.

 

Apple frequently releases “behind-the-scenes” promotional trailers for each of its major product launches. In Apple’s (widely-accepted) view of product creation, the valuable labor occurs in the realms of engineering, design, executive leadership, and software engineering. This is reflected in two significant patterns in the visual rhetoric of its behind-the-scenes videos: exclusive focus on automated robotic assembly processes, and animated visualizations of components spontaneously self-assembling against blank backgrounds. In the narrative framing constructed by these three rhetorical patterns, human labor at assembly factories like Foxconn is completely erased, written out of Apple’s corporate self-identity.

 

 

For example, consider the above making-of video for the iPhone 5c. The first visual pattern, exclusively showing automated labor rather than human labor, is always accompanied by a verbal discussion of manufacturing innovation. As we watch Macs and iPads being built, we almost never see a pair of human hands; in fact, I have been completely unable to find a single instance where worker hands — much less a full body or face — are shown in an Apple video made after 2008. Hands as a visual symbol and touching as a ritual are instead reserved for the consumer (“The fanatical care for how the iPhone 5c feels in your hand”), with frequent close-ups of disembodied hands touching, gripping, manipulating the product’s glossy material glory.

 

Second, Apple’s particular imagination of creation is manifest through its animated visualizations of how components fit together inherently and effortlessly. In one major type of these animations, components float in layers in the air, slowly and gracefully layering themselves into a snug assemblage. The molten-plastic and molten-metal ads discussed at the beginning of this post are merely the most recent (and visually extravagant) iteration of this aesthetic. Designing how components will fit together into ever-shrinking cases is essential to Apple’s hardware aesthetic obsession over making products as thin and small as possible. The designers’ work of putting the jigsaw puzzle together conceptually is seen as the real feat; actually putting it together, on the other hand, is trivial.

 

The visual rhetoric embedded in Apple’s videos clashes intensely with how Apple’s production process has recently been covered by journalists. Beginning in 2006 and climaxing in early 2012, the popular media has actively worked to raise awareness of the labor conditions of the individuals who work in the overseas factories producing Apple’s popular iPods, iPhones, iPads, and Macs (along with, secondarily, the electronics of almost every other major brand). This sensational story gained wide exposure by juxtaposing the brand mystique of Apple — perhaps the most meticulously and successfully branded company in the world — with a dystopian behind-the-scenes narrative completely at odds with Apple’s image. In response to this narrative in the Media, Apple has responded with a number of public relations initiatives, including a few  laudable measures that have genuinely improved supplier transparency and labor conditions. Yet, as labor violations in Apple’s supply chain continue to surface, and as Apple’s publicity materials continue to gloss over the human labor involved in product assembly, it is clear that much more needs to be done to address these issues.

 

A few weeks following two high-profile reports in the New York Times and NPR in early 2012, Apple responded to the negative publicity with a press release announcing that it would for the first time bring in a third-party organization, the Fair Labor Association, to independently audit its suppliers.[1] Apple also exclusively invited ABC news to visit the audit, yielding a 17-minute story broadcast on ABC’s television newsmagazine Nightline.

 

The Nightline piece offered the first journalistic footage from inside Foxconn’s assembly facility, and the pictures produced were astonishing. Reporter Bill Weir expresses surprise at the magnitude of manual labor he sees, repeatedly suggesting that simply seeing the factory process at work will cause viewers to “think different” about their Apple products. “I was expecting more automated assembly, more robots, but the sleek machines that dazzle and inspire… are mostly made by hand. After hand. After hand.” On Apple’s historical secrecy about its product manufacturing, Weir offers one interpretation. “If the world sees this line,” comments Weir over footage of a long, crowded assembly line, “it might change the way they think about this line.” Cut to a shot of a huge crowd of American consumers lined up to get inside a New York City Apple Store at a product launch.

 

What the Nightline piece lacks in the kinds of sensational details of other reports on Foxconn, it makes up for with the sheer visual impact of the startling images. We see exhausted workers collapsed asleep at their stations during meal breaks, the infamous suicide nets, the cramped 8-to-a-room dorms, and the apprehensive demeanor in the faces of prospective employees lining up outside the gates. The report even stages a moment in which the reporters visit a town and show an iPad to poor parents of Foxconn workers, none of whom have ever seen one.

 

After ABC’s first exclusive look inside Foxconn, other reporters were granted access to the factory, leading to a significant rise in video footage being broadcast and circulated online. More and more people were being exposed to the reality that iPads and iPhones are made by hand, by real humans struggling in almost dystopian conditions.

 

As I have researched and grappled with these issues, I have collected every relevant video I could find onto to my hard drive, which has over time become quite an exhaustive archive of Apple’s promotional material. At the same time, as I attempt to write about my research, I am frustrated at my incapability of fully conveying so many of the visual qualities of the videos I was analyzing in written form. My initial interest in the topic had sprung from an intangible, emotionally-entangled reaction I had to the aesthetic contrasts between Apple’s promotional videos and journalists’ Foxconn coverage — and I wondered whether it would be possible to make more impactful points through a visual essay rather than a written paper.

 

At first, I had in mind little more than a rather conventional expository documentary — nothing more than an illustrated lecture. But after taking Michael Renov’s fantastic seminar on documentary, I decided to try something a little more avant-garde. Inspired by documentary essayists such as Emile de Antonio, Jay Rosenblatt, Alan Berliner, Hollis Frampton, and Elida Shogt, I was interested in testing out these filmmakers’ innovative editing techniques for constructing original arguments by re-appropriating archival footage. I realized it might make a difficult and enlightening challenge to create a compilation documentary purely with archival footage — without voiceover, interviews, or text. I finished a 12-minute first cut of video essay this summer, and the result is below.

In contrast to the affordances of the written essay, one strength of the video medium that surfaced during editing was an ability to engage more directly with the kinetic and haptic experience of the body. In her essay “Political Mimesis,” Jane Gaines describes revolutionary documentary’s ability to work on the bodies of spectators, to move viewers to action. “I am thinking of scenes of rioting, images of bodies clashing, of bodies moving as a mass,” writes Gaines, suggesting that “images of sensual struggle” are a key element of a number of political documentaries. Gaines argues that certain depictions of on-screen bodies can produce in the audience similar bodily sensations or emotions, which inspired me to focus in my video essay on the concrete bodily attributes of sweatshop labor.

 

Gaines’s article brought me to formulate the central recurring visual motif of the film: a montage of close-up hand movements. I wanted to illustrate the corporeal vocabulary through which American consumers define their interaction with technology (moving and clicking the mouse, gesturing on a trackpad, tapping and swiping on a tablet), and offer in contrast the bodily relationship factory line-workers have to those same devices: repetitive, slight, monotonous movements.

 

As mentioned previously, the human bodies of workers — even their hands — are conspicuously absent from the footage Apple uses in their promotional videos about the making of their products. I tried to draw attention to this gaping corporeal absence with an extended montage segment of these fully-automated factory processes played simultaneously over an audio track explicitly addressing the harsh conditions for the factory workers we’re not seeing. I hoped that by explicitly cultivating a sense of mimetic identification throughout the rest of the film, the sequences of hands-free assembly would stand out as somewhat ghastly and unnerving.

 

Whether this film is successful in communicating its analysis is for others to decide; for me, I both enjoyed the novel experience of making it and feel like the video editing process forced me to think about the material I was working with in new ways. Focusing on making an argument through juxtaposition pushed me to look new contrasts and valences between bits of material I had not noticed before, to consider formal elements like timing and word choice with a new level of scrutiny, and to see my potential output as a researcher and advocate as perhaps not limited strictly to writing books and articles.

Andrew James Myers is a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California, and holds an M.A.
in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. He is post-processing editor for the Media History Digital Library, and
assisted in the creation of Lantern, an online search tool for archival media history. A former co-editor-in-chief of
Mediascape, his research interests include media industries and production culture, archival film and television history,
new media, and documentary.

 

 


[1] Apple Computer, Inc., “Press Release: Fair Labor Association Begins Inspections of Foxconn,” (2012), http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2012/02/13Fair-Labor-Association-Begins-Inspections-of-Foxconn.html.

What Do We Expect from Environmental Risk Communicators?

This is another in a series of blog posts from the PhD students taking my class on Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

 

What do we expect from environmental risk communicators?

by Xin Wang

A recent poll conducted by New York Times showed that although many Americans are dedicated in principle to the generic “environmentalist” agenda,  we — as individuals — stop short of enacting real changes in our habits and in our daily lives, changes that would help undo some of the ecological devastation we claim to be concerned about. For example, the alarm of global warming or climate change has been sounded repeatedly, but the society collectively and individually still generally turn a deaf ear partly because they assume the potential risks of sea level’s rising and glacial melting as chronic, diffuse in time and space, natural, and not dreadful in their impact. Continued exposure to more alarming facts does not lead to enhanced alertness but rather to fading interest or ecofatigue, which means we pay “lip service” to many environmental concepts engaging in the behaviors necessary to turn concepts into action, or we just become increasingly apathetic. In short, we are a society of armchair environmentalists.

The burgeoning civic discourses about environmental issues must confront this apathy. Our perspectives on environmental issues are influenced by official discourses such as public hearings and mass-mediated government accounts: we learn about environmental problems by reading reports of scientific studies in national and local newspaper; by watching the Discovery Channel and listening to NPR’s Living on Earth; by attending public hearings or events. By nature, however, these official environmental discourses tend toward a monologic framework that obscures the diversity and suppresses, rather than elicits, the dialogic potential of any utterance.

So here is our question: what kind of environmental risk communicators do we really need?

One challenge to effective environmental risk communication is that the narrative of environmental apocalypse still dominates as a standard rhetorical technique in communicating environmental problems to the public. Apocalyptic prophets continue, however, to blow the whistle on existing and developing environmental problems. Films such as The Core (2003) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) suggest that our biggest threat is the earth itself. While scholars agree that such apocalyptic narratives can initiate public discourse about and intervention in impending ecological disaster, the overuse of fear discourse is highly controversial considering its euphemism, vagueness, and hyperbole, which often lead to procrastination and inaction. Those who are frightened, angry, and powerless will resist the information that the risk is modest; those who are optimistic and overconfident will resist the information that their risk is substantial.

Another challenge facing environmental communication results from difficulties in producing knowledge to support improved decision making. Undoubtedly, the society requires knowledge in engineering and natural sciences, yet this is apparently insufficient for producing a transition to more sustainable communities. To wit, in the traditional technocratic model where there is little or even no interaction between scientific experts and the public, scientists decide what to study and make information available to society by placing it on a “loading dock”, then waiting for society to pick up and use it. This process has largely failed to meet societal needs.

Environmental concern is a broad concept that refers to a wide range of phenomena – from awareness of environmental problems to support for environmental protection – that reflect attitudes, related cognitions, and behavioral intentions toward the environment. In this sense, public opinions and media coverage play a significant role in evicting questions, causing changes, resolving problems, making improvements, and reacting to decisions about the environment taken by local and national authorities.

On the other hand, under the social constructionist model which focuses on the flow of technical information and acknowledges the shared values, beliefs, and emotions between experts in science and the public, an interactive exchange of information takes place: it is an improved integration of invested parties, initiatives that stress co-learning and focus on negotiations and power sharing.

Trust or confidence in the risk communicator is another important factor to be taken into account where potential personal harm is concerned: if the communicator is viewed as having a compromised mandate or a lack of competence, credence in information provided tends to be weakened accordingly. Or if the particular risk has been mismanaged or neglected in the past, skepticism and distrust may greet attempts to communicate risks. Apparently, it is more difficult to create or earn trust than to destroy it. If people do not trust an organization, negative information associated with that organization reinforces their distrust, whereas positive information is discounted (Cvetkovich et al. 2002).

When the control of risk is not at the personal level, trust becomes a major and perhaps the most important variable in public acceptance of the risk management approach. The single biggest contributor to increasing trust and credibility is the organization’s ability to care or show empathy.

On the one hand, when experts refuse to provide information, a hungry public will fill the void, often with rumor, supposition, and less-than-scientific theories. Silence from experts and decision makers breeds fear and suspicion among those at risk and makes later risk communication much more difficult. On the other hand, information alone, no matter how carefully packaged and presented, will not communicate risk affectively if trust and credibility are not established first.

It is time to advocate a new environmental risk discourse as well as to develop a practical wisdom grounded in situated practice on the part of communicators. Risks and problems are socially constructed. While grave threats may  exist in the environment, the perception of such danger, rather than the reality itself, is what moves us to take actions.

Culture, social networks, and communication practices are nuanced, specific, locally based, and often highly resilient. Our objective of effective and productive environmental communication should be in democratizing the way control affects how people define risk and how they approach information about risk, and in “formulating the meaningfulness of conversational interaction to participants in terms they find resonant, important to them, and thereby opening portals into their communal standards for such action” (Carbaugh, 2005, p. Xiii).

Xin Wang, Ph.D.student at Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. M.A. in Mass Communication and B.A. in Russian language at Peking University, China. She has eight years of working experience in professional journalism, media marketing and management at the People’s Daily, a co-founder of a weekly newspaper China Energy News. Her current research interests concentrate on risk and environmental communication, nation branding, public diplomacy, and civic engagement.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Decreasing World Suck”: Fan Communities, Mechanisms of Translation, and Participatory Politics

Hi, guys. I have been taking some much needed down time this summer, putting the blog on hiatus, focusing on other writing projects, and putting in motion plans for new content in the fall. As a result, I am only posting when I have some major news to share.

Today, I am releasing a report from the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research group in the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. We are part of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and led by Joseph Kahne (Mills College). Our team is doing interviews with young activists, as well as field observations and media audits, to better understand the practices that have enabled successful networks and organizations to draw youth into greater political and civic participation. Our previous reports have included case studies of the DREAMer movement and Students for Liberty; a report on civic learning within the Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children; and a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures focused on the concept of fan activism.

This week, we are releasing “‘Decreasing World Suck’: Fan Communities, Mechanisms of Translation, and Participatory Politics,” which shares insights about the Harry Potter Alliance, Imagine Better, and the Nerdfighters. The report is written by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, an Annenberg PhD Candidate, who is doing her dissertation research on this topic.

We’ve written here about the Harry Potter Alliance before, so let me share a little of what she has to say about the Nerdfighters:

The Nerdfighters are an informal group, revolving around the YouTube channel of the “VlogBrothers,” two brothers in their thirties. John Green is a best-selling young adult author and Hank Green is a musician and entrepreneur, though both now engage in a wide variety of online projects. Inspired by video artist Ze Frank, the Green brothers launched the “Brotherhood 2.0” project in 2007, in which they pledged to cease all text-based communication for a year and keep in touch through publicly accessible vlogs (video blogs). In their vlogs, the brothers adopt the “talking head” format, facing the camera and chatting with the audience (and each other). Over time, they developed an elaborate repertoire of made-up jargon and inside jokes, which encouraged others to join their exchange. In 2007, YouTube featured Hank’s song “Accio Deathly Hallows” (calling for the release of the seventh Harry Potter book) on its front page, greatly increasing their visibility. The main focus for this case study is the community of Nerdfighters—the predominantly young followers of the VlogBrothers.

The name “Nerdfighter” emerged from one of the Greens’ vlogs; John encountered an
arcade game called “Aero Fighters” and mistook its name for “Nerdfighters.”. The brothers’ followers adopted the term to describe themselves, and the VlogBrothers address many of their vlogs to Nerdfighters or “Nerdfighteria.” The Greens define a Nerdfighter as “a person who, instead of being made of bones, skin and tissue, is made entirely of awesome.” Over time, the Nerdfighter community reached significant proportions—the average Vlogbrother video has over 250,000 views.  The “barriers of entry” to Nerdfighteria are kept low. As the VlogBrothers quip: “Am I too young / old / fat / skinny / weird / cool / nerdy / handsome / tall / dead to be a Nerdfighter? No!! If you want to be a Nerdfighter, you are a Nerdfighter.”

Based on their sense of agency and their real-world engagement, Nerdfighters go beyond being a mere “audience” to the VlogBrothers, and can instead be conceptualized as a “public.”

The pronounced goal of Nerdfighters is to “decrease world suck.” When interviewed, John Green explained that, to him, this goal is:

Very much at the center of Nerdfighteria and I don’t think that there really is a community without that commitment to decreasing world suck or, as Hank likes to say, “increasing world awesome”. I don’t think there’s a community without its values.

As the VlogBrothers enigmatically define it, “World Suck is kind of exactly what World Suck sounds like. It’s hard to quantify exactly, but, you know, it’s like, the amount of suck in the world.” This broad definition leaves much space for individual Nerdfighters to interpret what “World Suck” (and decreasing it) means to them. Examples cited in interviews have ranged from personal acts, such as being a good person or cheering up a friend, to collective acts that fit within existing definitions of civic engagement. For example, Nerdfighters are very active on Kiva.org, a non-profit organization enabling individuals to make small loans to people without access to traditional banking systems.Kiva.org features communities of lenders, and Nerdfighters are the largest community on the website with 34,773 members, topping “atheists, agnostics and skeptics” (23,795 members) as well as Kiva Christians (10,652 members). For several months, Nerdfighters ranked highly in the amount loaned, with a total of $1,771,025 disbursed. The Nerdfighters also support Project for Awesome (P4A), an annual event in which members are encouraged to create videos about their favorite charity and non-profit organization and simultaneously post those on YouTube. The first year the project was launched, its goal was to take over YouTube’s front page with videos of charities and non-profits for one day. In the 2012 P4A, Nerdfighters uploaded hundreds of videos and donated impressive amounts of money to the “Foundation to Decrease World Suck” (a non-profit created by the VlogBrothers). Nerdfighters could then vote on which charities should receive the donation. Finally, Nerdfighters decrease World Suck by collaborating with the Harry Potter Alliance.

 

In particular, Kligler-Vilenchik is interested in what she describes as “mechanisms of translation” where-by these groups tap into the passions and social ties that bring these networks of fans together and providing means by which they can be connected to debates around social change and public policy. In the course of the report, Kligler-Vilenchik explores the strategies by which these groups deploy elements of their content worlds as analogies for thinking about political issues; the ways they encourage their supporters to actively produce and circulate media content, sometimes in the service of their larger campaigns; and the ways that they provide a social environment that encourages people to reflect on politics and which provide varying degrees of support for diverse perspectives. These kinds of fan groups are only one model of the ways that participatory culture might build the scaffolding needed to help young people enter into their new roles as politically-engaged citizens, and we are eager to see other case studies identify a range of other mechanisms that fulfill these bridging functions.

You can read the full report below.

Hotspot3 — Civic Kickstarters

The Civic Paths Research Group, based at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, periodically issues “Hot-Spots,” clusters of short blog posts on related topics, which bring together as many of the members of our team as possible. I have shared previous Civic Paths Hot Spots around the “Dark Side of DIY”
and “Election Season Revisited“. Today, I am able to share the third in this series — this time focused around the civic implications of Kickstarter, a platform and process which has occupied a great deal of our attention this semester. The introduction is written by two of our PhD students, Andrew Schrock and Samantha Close. We hope that it will inspire further discussion among researchers. If it does, share what you are thinking with us. If you want to learn more about Civic Paths, you can do so here.

HOTSPOT3 — CIVIC KICKSTARTERS

If you’ve ever wished for a trebuchet that could fire erasers at the cubicles across the aisle–or wished you had the capital to mass produce the one you made in your garage, crowdfunding wants to talk to you. The basic idea behind crowdsourcing, as coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 article for WIRED, is that a large task can be accomplished by parceling it out among a “network of people in the form of an open call.” Crowdfunding modifies this idea by making the “large task” the production budget of a project. People who answer the call for participation in crowdfunding, called backers, contribute small to large amounts of money so the crowd can collectively raise the needed sum. Yet, “crowds” are, ironically, probably the wrong way to think about what’s happening with crowdfunding in general and its most visible offspring, Kickstarter.com.  Rather, Daren Brabham, in his definitive book Crowdsourcing, links crowdfunding success to online communities, calling them “fertile sources of innovation and genius.”

To understand how all of this works, we need to meet Kickstarter.  Kickstarter.com hosts projects and campaigns by independent creators, organizing project pitches and facilitating payments. They also lay down rules for what kinds of things can be pitched. Backing typically takes place over a month, overt charities are not allowed, and projects must have a finite endpoint: producing an iSomething accessory, printing a comic book, or turning an abandoned house in New Orleans into a ball pit. Many types of goals and endeavors are therefore collapsed together as projects. Project backers are kept appraised of a project’s progress, consulted for key decisions, and get an exclusive channel to communicate with project creators through the Kickstarter site. Project creators become more committed to a project that they know has generated interest. This process is closer to co-creation, where  fans and producers come together with interest and enthusiasm around a shared culture.

Although a Kickstarter campaign invitation is open to anyone browsing the web, it takes a relatively small number of people to make a project successful: all funds donated (minus Kickstarter’s 5% fee) go to the project creator rather than being funneled through a foundation, production company, PayPal, or other edifice of red tape.  Kickstarter’s “crowd,” then, is more often an activation of a community or subculture than a random assortment of people on the virtual street. Once we re-frame Kickstarter as invoking community interests rather than those of a faceless crowd, we can start to more clearly think through how crowdfunding works.

Kickstarter.com argues strongly that they are not a store and designs their policies and site to avoid the appearance of being an online storefront. These are obviously muddy waters, particularly as one of Kickstarter’s most notable additions to the traditional investment funding model is a system of “backer rewards.”  These rewards vary tremendously from material to immaterial to symbolic to somewhere in-between, and are set up by project creators to thank backers who contribute different tiers of money.  Rewards can become an unexpected burden for project creators, who deliver them later than expected over 75% the time. The best rewards are intrinsically linked to the project at hand, rather than being unrelated additions that create unnecessary work rather than deepening the excitement among backers and commitment by creators.

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

The one particularly dedicated fan who found $10,000 to donate to Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars Movie campaign, for example, will get a small speaking role in the film.  The more modest $10 donation level (selected by a less modest 8,423 people) receive a smaller reward (a digital copy of the film’s shooting script), but one that is still tied to the making of the movie.  The Veronica Mars campaign raised the most money of any project, ever, on Kickstarter and ignited both controversy and a lot of useful debate about the crowdfunding model. Today’s hotspot* features Civic Paths members diving into the fray and continuing the crowdfunding conversation.

One theme across posts is to follow the money:  Where is it coming from?  Where is it going?  How does it get there?  Why does it go?  Kickstarter projects complicate a simple dichotomy of commercial goals vs. creative endeavors, which were previously compartmentalized and personalized by such terms as “fans” and “producers.” According to Samantha Close, Kickstarter lays bare tensions that were always there in the entertainment industry but hidden by layers of production and distribution. Liana Gamber Thompson unpacks the implications of the new Donald Trump-branded site, Fund Anything. In true Trump style, it’s an extreme caricature of crowdfunding where anything goes, from medical procedures to a party for kids displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Its emergence provokes difficult questions about what gets funded and why in the larger crowdfunding world. Despite the prominence of project hosting sites like Kickstarter, all crowdfunding also requires the backing of a payment system.  As Lana Swartz reveals, these systems can have politics of their own, resulting in funds being frozen, reducing trust in crowdfunding platforms, and frustrating all participants.

Spreadability, discussion, and debate that bridges communities is another theme of interest. Unlike Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, where the number of jellybeans in a bowl can be most accurately estimated by taking an average across a large number of observers, there isn’t necessarily a best solution to find in crowdfunding. Rather, projects spark conversations and debates that take place elsewhere, often necessarily as Kickstarter has a fairly strict moderation policy on the site’s discussion sections that, for example, frowns on negative comments. Kevin Driscoll connects projects focusing on saving media with the politics of preservation, noting how debates about stuff are also difficult conversations about what should be archived, how, and by whom. Mike Ananny questions how crowdfunding is being incorporated into news.  It troubles existing dynamics of journalism that evolved to promote the spread of meaningful information at the same time as some have taken the cue to openly and explicitly focus on underserved communities. Benjamin Stokes makes the point that feelings of community affiliation are imagined as well as geographically-proximate.  Thus, online projects can also directly impact offline civic well-being. However, both Stokes and Ananny point out that there remain significant participation gaps on Kickstarter that affect how networks of privilege are connected to isolated communities, exacerbating the politics of financial support. Andrew Schrock provides examples of success stories in the spread of Hacker and Maker Spaces (HMSs) that act as centers for informal learning and creativity in geographically-situated communities. These democratically-run collective organizations buck the stereotype of HMSs being confined to western male geeks more interested in picking locks than helping others.

Kickstarter’s popularity has brought with it significant controversies and legitimate questions of who gets to contribute, how, to what, and who really benefits in the end. We hope that with careful consideration crowdfunding can be viewed as and truly become a way to connect backers and creators more closely over tables (made of robotically sculpted Zen sand or not) that are meaningful to all parties involved. Crowdfunded projects can drive awareness and, even in their imperfection, spark conversations about what needs doing across various communities. These emergent debates are vital for us to have in this moment of economic transition and cultural shift.

Enjoy, and we welcome your comments.

–Andrew Schrock and Samantha Close

[1] Why All Kickstarters are Civic Kickstarters, by Samantha Close

[2] Donald Trump and Dollar Bills: Crowdfunding for the Masses, by Liana Gamber Thompson

[3] Getting the Funds from the Crowd: The Politics of Payment Infrastructure, by Lana Swartz

[4] Crowdfunding an Archive: What’s Worth Saving and Who’s Gonna Pay for It?, by Kevin Driscoll

[5] Crowd-Funded Journalism and Dynamics of Visibility, by Mike Ananny

[6] Crowdfunding as Neighborhood Storytelling, by Benjamin Stokes

[7] Kickstarting a Hackerspace, by Andrew Schrock

 

* 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.

Videos for Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

On behalf of the conference organizers, I am proud to be able to share with you today the videos of our April 12 Transmedia Hollywood 4 conference. As many regular readers know, this event is run jointly by myself, representing USC’s Cinema School, and Denise Mann, representing our counterparts at UCLA and it is funded by a grant from the Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation. This year’s focus was on models of social change, and we were excited to see a conversation emerge across the four panels, starting with panel 1′s focus on the community outreach efforts of major brands and studios, panel 2′s focus on smaller scale transmedia projects and entertainment education, panel 3′s attention to grassroots activist efforts, and panel 4′s consideration of young entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Each of the panels is interesting in its own right, but those who attended the event agreed that there was something magical about how the parts came together as a whole this year. I want to specially think David McKenna who worked around the clock to get these videos up and out to the world in record time. Enjoy.

Panel 1 Revolutionary Advertising: Cultivating Cultural Movements
In the web 2.0 era, as more and more millennials acquire the tools of participatory culture and new media literacy, some of this cohort are redirecting their one-time leisure-based activities into acts of community-based, grassroots social activism. Recognizing the power of the crowd to create a tipping point in brand affiliation, big media marketers, Silicon Valley start-ups, and members of the Madison Avenue advertising community, are jumping on board these crowdsourcing activities to support their respective industries. In other words, many of the social goals of grassroots revolutionaries are being realigned to serve the commercial goals of brand marketers. In the best-case scenarios, the interests of the community and the interests of the market economy align in some mercurial fashion to serve both constituencies. However, in the worst case scenario, the community-based activism fueling social movements is being redirected to support potato chips, tennis shoes, or sugary-soda drinks. Brand marketers are intrigued with the power and sway of social media, inaugurating any number of trailblazing forms of interactive advertising and branded entertainment to replace stodgy, lifeless, 30 second ads. These cutting edge madmen are learning how to reinvent entertainment for the participatory generation by marrying brands to pre-existing social movements to create often impressive, well-funded brand movements like Nike Livestrong, or Pepsi Refresh. Are big media marketers subsuming the radical intent of certain community-based organizations who are challenging the status quo by redirecting them into unintentional alliance with big business or are they infusing these cash-strapped organizations with much needed funds and marketing outreach? Today’s panel of experts will debate these and other issues associated with the future of participatory play as a form of social activism.Todd CunninghamFormerly, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Insights and Research at MTV Networks.

Denise Mann (Moderator)

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Associate Professor, Head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Rob Schuham
CEO, Action Marketing

Michael Serazio
Author, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing

Alden E. Stoner
VP, Social Action Film Campaigns, Participant Media

Rachel Tipograph
Director, Global Digital and Social Media at Gap Inc.

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 1 – Revolutionary Advertising: Creating Cultural Movements from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 2 Transmedia For a Change

Hollywood’s version of transmedia has been preoccupied with inspiring fan engagement, often linked to the promotional strategies for the release of big budget media. But, as transmedia has spread to parts of the world which have been dominated by public service media, there has been an increased amount of experimentation in ways that transmedia tactics can be deployed to encourage civic engagement and social awareness. These transmedia projects can be understood as part of a larger move to shift from understanding public media as serving publics towards a more active mission in gathering and mobilizing publics. These projects may also be understood as an extension of the entertainment education paradigm into the transmedia realm, where the goal shifts from informing to public towards getting people participating in efforts to make change in their own communities. In some cases, these producers are creating transmedia as part of larger documentary projects, but in others, transmedia is making links between fictional content and its real world implications.

Panelists
Henry Jenkins (Moderator)
Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Katerina Cizek
Filmmaker-in-Residence, National Film Board, Canada

Katie Elmore Mota
Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren
Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi
Founder, BoomGen Studios

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 2 – Transmedia for a Change from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 3: Through Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY Culture
A recent survey released by the MacArthur Foundation found that a growing number of young people are embracing practices the researchers identified as “participatory politics”: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” These forms of politics emerge from an increasingly DIY media culture, linked in important ways to the practices of Makers, Hackers, Remix Artists and Fan Activists. This panel will bring together some key “change agents,” people who are helping to shape the production and flow of political media, or who are seeking to better understand the nature of political participation in an era of networked publics. Increasingly, these new forms of activism are both transmedia (in that they construct messages through any and all available media) and spreadable (in that they encourage participation on the level of circulation even if they do not always invite the public to help create media content).

Panelists:

Megan M. Boler
Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education OISE/University of Toronto

Marya Bangee
Community Organizing Residency (COR) Fellow, OneLA, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)

Erick Huerta
Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh
Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

Sangita Shreshtova (Moderator)
Research Director of Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism

Elisabeth Soep
Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio-Youth Media International

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 3 – By Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY Culture from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.


Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New Philanthropist

Nonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters. While the boomers treated the cultural movements of the late sixties as a cause, today’s e-citizens are treating their social activism as a brand. They are selling social responsibility as if it were a commodity or product, using the same strategies that traditional business men and women used to sell products.

Sarah Banet-Weiser
Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity

Sean D. Carasso
Founder, Falling Whistles

Yael Cohen
Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

Ann Pendleton-Jullian (Moderator)
Professor, Knowlton School of Architecture, The Ohio State University, and Distinguished Visting Professor, Georgetown University

Milana Rabkin
Digital Media Agent

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 4, The e-Entrepreneur as the New Philanthropist from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Seeing Red: How and Why “Red Equals Equality” Spread

This past week’s debate in the Supreme Court over marriage equality inspired users of social networking sites to engage in a kind of symbolic politics — swapping out their profile pictures for some variant on the theme, Red Equals Equality. Some of these could be as basic as turning their own pictures pink or using a red equals sign, but this “meme” became attached to a wide array of pop culture icons, such as Charlie Brown, Yoda, the Super Mario Brothers, the Bronies, George Takai, and of course, Burt and Ernie. In return, this phenomenon quickly developed a familiar backlash — the dismissal that such activity can have any meaningful political effect at all.

 

Over at the blog for MIT’s Center for Civic Media, this issue inspired a really provocative discussion between Molly Sauter, Matt Stempeck,and others, which took up some key concepts from Ethan Zuckerman’s much acclaimed opening remarks at the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Conference:

Matt: Going pink may actually be tied to a theory of change, in that it changes norms and clearly establishes which side you are on in a cultural debate. Many of these oft-criticized ‘voice’ efforts are directed not at those with the power to change things directly, but at those who follow us on social networks and thereby know us. No one taking these actions is expecting a direct response from the Supreme Court.

Yet this action, taken by many, can matter. We know that support for gay marriage is linked with how likely it is we know someone who is openly gay. And we know that people care deeply about societal norms. Ever-increasing support for gay equality, generated at the interpersonal level, is only strengthened by a mass outpouring of support on social networks. People may be smarter than slackademic critiques allow.

Matt & Nathan: In the case of gay equality, the focus of change is also social itself. By going pink, people are standing up as allies and creating the perception of a safe space within their own friendship communities online– spaces where gay people may face stigmas and bullying. That’s another reason going pink may be meaningful: it was, for many people, a more difficult social decision than going green. Going green may have produced some indirect changes, in terms of raising awareness, or signaling a broader US audience for news from Iran than was previously assumed, or establishing affinity for the Iranian people at greater levels than we previously broadcast to our friends. But going pink was still, in many individuals’ social networks, an act requiring some degree of bravery, because it’s a more controversial topic, closer to home, and likely to alienate at least one social contact.

For those who missed Ethan’s talk, check out the embed below.

One of the more thoughtful responses I read to the Red Equals Equality campaign came from Elisabeth Shabi — an undergraduate student at Georgia’s Reinhardt College. Shabi is a student of my old friend, Pam Wilson, who has been teaching Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture. Wilson shared the post via Facebook, appropriately enough, and I was impressed enough by what she had to say that I asked her if I could repost her comments here. At a time when more and more young people are getting their news, not from traditional journalism, but from items passed them by their friends on social media, this is a beautiful account of how “seeing red” might inspire young people to seek out additional information about issues. Thanks Pam and Elisabeth!

 

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Spreadable Media…At It’s Best

by Elisabeth Shabi, Reinhardt College

Fifty years ago, 20 years ago even, our grandparents and parents woke up and read the paper or turned on the television for a morning news show to get a glimpse on the current state of social affairs. Mygeneration wakes up and checks Facebook. And as social media and spreadable media would have it, Facebook has become a decent glimpse of the most updated happenings in the social/political sphere.

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This morning as my newsfeed loaded, I began to see red. Profile pictures, cover photos, likes, links, posts, etc. all gone red for marriage equality. I never once turned on the news or read a paper, but I knew exactly why this day was so important by reading the dozens of posts on my newsfeed. Today, March 26, 2013, Proposition 8 went to the Supreme Court for debate.

As of about 10:30pm, 21 of the first 100 posts on my Facebook feed had to do with the marriage equality events of the day. I counted profile picture changes, likes, links and blatant status references to the marriage equality debate.

For statistics purposes, it should be noted:

  • One post of the 21 was a joke post merely playing off the concept of the changed profile photos.
  • One post of the 21 was irrelevant but showed a comment from another person (not my “friend”) that had changed his/her profile pictured to the red equal sign.
  • If a person changed their profile picture and then later posted material irrelevant to the debate, this was not counted as part of my 21 posts.
  • In addition to this support on my newsfeed, 10 out of my 262 friends had the red equal sign as their profile picture and 16 out of 50 posts on the instant newsfeed pertained to the marriage equality debate.

This article by The Shorthorn paper of University of Texas Arlington campus gives a summary on the technicalities of today’s debate and also discusses the social media campaign created to support marriage equality.

Human Rights Campaign, a group that supports equality for gay, lesbian and transgender rights began a recent Facebook and Twitter campaign. The campaign’s page changed the colors of their traditional blue and yellow equal sign logo and began telling people to wear red to gain supporters online as the Supreme Court begins hearings for the next two days about gay marriage rights.”

 

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An interesting side conversation of the above mentioned article brings up the topic of newsfeed content. One student interviewed for the article mentioned that he didn’t know what the red/pink equal sign being used for profile pictures meant until he researched it. I also saw a post appear on my personal newsfeed with a legitimate inquiry as to the meaning of the equal sign – and that was a 11 o’clock the night of the first day of debates.

This immediately made me think about how people personalize their Facebook newsfeed. I asked myself how I knew what the equal sign meant. My answer? The first post I read this morning – and one of the first I saw with the equal sign – was a news article posted by a friend discussing the Supreme Court’s upcoming challenge. Several posts later, a blog link appeared from my favorite magazine discussing a local author’s view on the topic. Granted several of the profile picture changes did not provide an explanation, but several others were accompanied by a supportive or explanatory status. These posts, coupled with several news articles, images, memes, and pages that were posted and shared just on my morning newsfeed gave me no doubt as to the day’s significance.

What does this mean for these people who had no idea of the campaign’s significance? Of the day’s historical events? Of course it could simply be that they are less frequent users of Facebook; however, I am more inclined to question the contents of their newsfeed. If one chooses not to be associated with people who are more inclined to share and post on these important social and political topics, or if you – for whatever reason – don’t tend to “like” the Facebook pages of agencies or news providers that will generally post or comment on these events, then your newsfeed may just contain friend-to-friend activity.

I hesitate to critique this “state of newsfeed” because after all the platform is social media and at its most basic Facebook is intended for “friend” and social interaction. For people such as myself however, since I am completely and disturbingly aware of my lack of daily news intake, I make it a point to diversify my Facebook newsfeed to the point where I can get at least a glimpse of important social and political events – especially when they are as popular as the marriage equality debate.

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Returning to Henry Jenkins’s concept of Spreadable Media, it is worthy to note that we live in a culture where one of our main platforms of communication – the Internet – is a willing and receptive host for the spread of news and information. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, etc. make it easy to share, link and connect content. Within 24 hours of a significant event, memes are created and news reports are published.

What effect does this spreadability have on campaigns, movements, and social change? For this current issue, it seems to have quite a weighty affect. The exposure alone is significant for the campaign and its supporters as relevant and influential content is reworked, manipulated, shared, linked and absorbed by social media audiences and co-creators. This goes beyond the platform of social media, in fact, as news sites and shows begin mentioning it simply for the wave created on the internet.

This MSNBC article as well as this article from the Wall Street Journal give details of the campaign’s effect on Twitter and Facebook. The WSJ article notes that “Two posts on the organization’s main Facebook page encouraging people to change their avatar were shared over 70,000 times.” Even President Obama tweeted his stance on marriage equality:

 

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Another wonderful aspect of our spreadable media culture is the ease of access to direct information. The Human Rights Campaign blog provides an accessible link to the PDF transcript of the Court’s proceedings as well as a link for access to audio recordings. People have taken direct quotes from the Judges and created images, memes, etc. with the information. This article on Upworthy.com is a perfect example as it provides the following image as well as the actual audio clip of the exchange.

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Not only is this content appealing to the eager eye and news absorber, but it provides truth and promotes an atmosphere of digital democracy. The internet is simply swarming with coverage. DigitalTrends.com calls the emergence of the symbolic red and pink equal sign the “Birth of the Marriage Equality Meme.”  Articles such as this one from ThinkProgress.org show signs from the protestors and supports outside the Supreme Court.

The internet is alive with the exchange of news articles, photographs, blogs, images, etc. that hold opinions, commentary, facts, beliefs, updates, reports – everything you could ever desire. One thing is for sure: we have not seen the last of the now-famous, “viral,” and highly spreadable marriage equality meme.

Is this not spreadable media at its finest?