Civic Paths “By Any Media Necessary” Hot Spot

 

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

Hot Spot Overview: “By Any Media Necessary”

By Liana Gamber-Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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).

 

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.

 

“To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang”: Responding to Asian Stereotyping in Popular Culture

This is the second in a series of blog posts produced by the students in my Public Intellectuals seminar at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. We appreciate any feedback or response you’d like to share. 

“To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang”: Responding to Asian Stereotyping in Popular Culture

by Diana Lee

 

Awhile back, my friend and fellow graduate student sent me a simple email with the subject line, “Calling out the representation of Asian women in Harry Potter books,” and a short one-line message:

“Saw this and thought of you – the videos are really interesting!!”

I was immediately intrigued by her email because she is, as I mentioned, a respected friend and colleague, and I know she is thoughtful about her communication, but also because before clicking on the link, I wasn’t certain what she was referring to. Had she thought of me because of my love of the magical world of Harry Potter? My academic and personal interest in representations of Asians, Asian Americans, and gender in U.S. media and popular culture? Was it because of my deep appreciation of people who create counter-narratives that challenge stereotypes and forefront voices that are not frequently heard in “mainstream” dialogue? Or perhaps it was a show of support for my hopeful but yet-to-be-solidified desire to combine my enthusiasm for all of these things in academic life? The answer? Yes. Turns out she was pointing me towards something that exemplified all of these things, and much more.

 

In April 2013, the Youtube video of college student spoken word artist Rachel Rostad’s “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” went viral. In the video, she is shown performing a poem which challenges the representations of Asian women and other marginalized groups in the Harry Potter series and other popular stories (such as Ms. Saigon, Madame Butterfly, and Memoirs of a Geisha). Written and delivered in the style of many spoken word performances, Rachel uses a powerful, clear, strong voice, and the poem is filled with provocative examples artfully expressed to maximize emotional impact.

You can hear her frustration with the fact that Asians and Asian women in the U.S. are constantly misrepresented in shallow and/or stereotypical roles in books, movies, and television shows. You follow along as she exposes the subtle but sadly pervasive ways these caricatures are presented – with “Asian” accented English, with “foreign” names that may or may not make sense in actual “Asian” languages, as disposable minor characters used to set up the focus on the White, leading woman who is the “real” love interest, as sexually “exotic” Asian women who are submissive and/or hypersexualized, and only to be used and then discarded or left behind. And finally, at the end of the poem, through a story that comes across as her own, she draws a connection between why we should pay attention to these limited representations and speaks about an example of how they can influence our everyday interactions.

She makes the case that when we don’t see other representations of characters with depth and breadth that look and sound and think and love like real people, then the limited portrayals can impact not only the possibilities we can imagine for ourselves, but also what others see as possible for or with us. Rachel Rostad used this poem as a creative and powerful challenge to pervasive, potentially damaging, familiar portrayals, urging us to think critically about the stories, images, and identities we participate in consuming and perpetuating.

But that wasn’t all. She also did something else that we should highlight and celebrate.

The video of her spoken word performance went viral, generating a flurry of criticism and commentary. Instead of ignoring or dismissing these responses or getting pulled into destructively defensive or combative flame wars, she used the opportunity to reflect, learn, teach, and engage in a (public) conversation. She did this in a number of ways and across multiple platforms (e.g., YouTube, tumblr, blog posts, Facebook), but the most visible one is the follow-up video she created a few days after the first video was posted, which was called, “Response To Critiques of ‘To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang.’”

In the response video, Rachel speaks directly to the camera, beginning with “hey there, Internet!,” and point by point, articulately, sincerely, and calmly addresses the five main critiques that came pouring in to her through the various mediated forms she was involved with.

One point addressed the possibility that “Cho Chang” could be a legitimate name, despite what she articulated in her poem about “Cho” and “Chang” being two last names. Rachel admitted ignorance in Chinese and other naming practices, acknowledged that the line in the poem about Cho’s name was problematic, apologized for marginalizing and misrepresenting parts of a community she was trying to empower, and urged viewers to also focus on the other themes she draws on in the rest of the poem.

Following that, Rachel’s next series of comments emphasized that she does not speak for all Asian women, and is not claiming to through her work. She apologized again for unintended mischaracterizations, especially to those who reached out to her saying they felt misrepresented by her poem. Rachel then used these interactions to encourage reflection about and reemphasize the importance of a wider range of media and pop cultural portrayals for Asians and Asian women, which was one of the main points of her spoken word piece, saying, “I’m very sorry I misrepresented you. But I don’t think either of us is to blame for this. I would ask you, what conditions are in place that make it so that you are so defensive that I, someone with a completely different experience of oppression, am not representing your voice? It’s sad that we live in a society where my voice is so easily mistaken for yours – where our differing identities are viewed as interchangeable.”

Continuing on the theme of advocating for a wider range of media representations and prompting us to think critically about the representations we do see, Rachel’s third point was about the realistic portrayal of a grieving character versus in-depth character development of Asian and White female lead characters. Yes, Cho was sad about boyfriend Cedric Diggory’s death and confused about her developing feelings for Harry so she was crying, pensive, and sad most of the time, but JK Rowling intentionally set up Cho as weak to make Ginny, Harry’s eventual love interest and a White woman, look stronger. This may not have been intentionally racially charged, but it is important to think about because discrimination and prejudice are oftentimes not only about intentionality. This is a theme that recurs in mainstream films and stories – women of color appear as minor, brief, undeveloped characters to set up the “real” relationship for the main White characters later in the narrative, and the more we see it repeated with no alternative portrayals, the more it has the potential to seem “natural.”

Similarly, her fourth point is also about different ways that problematic representations take form, describing why she talked about Dumbledore’s sexuality, which some argued seemed tangential to the main themes of the poem. Thinking about representation and whose stories are privileged is not only about who is invisible from the story, or the limited roles people are allowed to play, but it is also about considering that even when in prominent positions within stories, aspects of character’s identities aren’t developed in a way that illustrates the depth and complexity of our lived realities.

Rachel’s fifth point in her response video is about how she does not hate Harry Potter or JK Rowling (or Ravenclaw, I’m assuming!), but rather is a fan who grew up on the books and went to all the midnight showings, and importantly, is also able to think critically about and critique a world that she also enjoys.

And finally, she closes the response video with this message:

That’s it for now. I understand if you still disagree with me, but I hope you now disagree with me for the arguments I’m actually making, and it’s been humbling and amazing to watch people respond to this video. I think that the presence of so much passionate dialogue means that this is an issue that needs to be talked about. And yes, I made mistakes, and just as I think JK Rowling did with some of her characterizations. But what I hope people realize is that dialogue about social justice is not about blaming people for making mistakes, whether it’s me or JK Rowling. It’s about calling attention to mistakes, which I’ll be the first to admit, is painful, and using those mistakes as an opportunity to grow.

I personally have learned so much from the mistakes I’ve made in this process, and I want to thank the community for calling me out on that. Social justice is about holding each other accountable. And I hope as a devoted fan base and as an amazing community we can continue to use my piece as a jumping off point for further dialogue, growth, and reflection.

Thank you.

We should celebrate this as an exemplary instance of reflexivity, of praxis  – of the liberating power of reflection, awareness, and action. Of an intelligent, passionate young person invested in learning from and contributing to her community. Of the engaging, participatory possibilities available through working with popular culture and using technology, media, and newer forms of mediated communication as tools for transformative education. This is also a great opportunity for educators and families to unpack the pedagogical implications of what happens when you find something young people are excited about and engage in this kind of expression and communication with a larger community. And this is also an example of what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls participatory culture, specifically, in relation to new media literacies and civic engagement.

These words – reflexivity, praxis, pedagogy, new media, media literacy, civic engagement – get thrown around in academic institutions and circles all the time. And we should continue to teach them and explore their philosophies and apply their meanings, but we cannot forget the importance of grounding them in concrete examples, not just for academics or practitioners, but also for people who may not use these same terms, but still find the practices empowering. Rachel Rostad’s two videos, along with her other critical engagement with this discourse, is a great, accessible example of what we hope that people of all ages are doing when they are participating in mediated communication, engaging with popular culture, and otherwise interacting out in the world. We hope that people are actively engaged with their media and popular cultural stories and artifacts, and with each other. We hope that people are thinking about ideas, sharing them, playing with and acting on them, challenging each other and working out responses, incorporating new information, helping each other to learn and grow, and then repeating that process again and again.

By following Rachel’s videos and active online engagement with a larger community, we can literally see and hear this messy, discursive, interactive transformative learning and teaching process unfolding. One of the key messages Rachel communicates is that she has learned a lot through the process of writing this poem, performing it, posting it online, receiving and engaging with all of the responses to it, and creating the follow-up video. She used these interactions in several ways. She apologized for areas where she made mistakes, where she misrepresented or silenced populations she was trying to empower. She clarified her perspective or points that either were not clear through the delivery of the poem, or could not be expanded on given the format of spoken word poetry. She used the experience as a way to take in and address critiques about areas she could have presented differently. And finally, she also spoke about the complexity of representation and tokenization both within the poem itself, which spoke about popular cultural representation via Cho Chang, but also in terms of her speaking about these topics from her positionality as a woman of color, who is considered “Asian” in the United States. She shared with us her processing and grappling with these issues, thanked all those that responded or commented, and kept the door open for future dialogue over these issues. She did all this, and publicly. What a courageous thing to do.

In one instance, for example, a blogger at Angry Asian Girls United (AAGU) posted a response to the original poem, calling Rachel out for her glaring misrepresentation of South Asians and for ignoring Pan-Asian solidarity and identity. The blogger also critiqued her for taking up the term “Brown” as an East Asian, and for conflating the varying meanings of the “Asian” label when you consider U.S. versus U.K. contexts (where Harry Potter’s world is set; because then “Asian” would refer to Indians or other South Asians, e.g., Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and people who look like Cho Chang would be referred to as “Chinese,” “Korean,” or another label associated with the East Asian country they hailed from). In the poem, Rachel speaks of “Asians” as if it equates to East Asian, and does not count Indian characters Padma and Parvati Patil when she speaks of “Asians,” a common issue when people have not fully unpacked the deeply ingrained, volatile, problematic U.S. (and global) race categorizations. In the poem, Rachel does include the Patil twins, as well as herself, as “Brown” and “minority.” I believe she used the term “Brown” as an attempt to empower and connect with discourses of identity politics that are possibly specific to U.S. cultural context, but whether (East, South, Central, Middle Eastern) Asians are included in that term, or whether she should or can use it can be saved for a separate conversation. The point is, the AAGU blog post called her out on her conflation, misrepresentation, and the silencing nature of Rachel’s use of these terms, and she heard them, learned from and engaged with the criticism.

This one relatively small but important part of this larger example shows how many people were actively engaged, challenging both their own and each other’s thinking processes through this topic, and in a public way, which allowed others (like me and you) to witness and/or participate in the discussion, even months later. Additionally, Rachel and the people commenting on her videos were engaged through the combination and use of multiple, networked avenues. In the example above, the video was first posted on YouTube, which acquired comments. Rachel was looking for a way to succinctly learn about and respond to the YouTube comments about the misrepresentation of South Asians, which she found through the Angry Asian Girls United blog post. Rachel then linked to this blog post and responded to it on her tumblr site, and also apologized for misrepresenting Asian women in her response video, which was posted on YouTube. And to begin with, both Rachel and the AAGU blog poster were familiar with Harry Potter, whether through the books or movies (or some other form, e.g., video games, news, conversations), and the conversation and rapid spread of the discussion were supported because of an already existing Harry Potter fan base. Through their dialogue, both Rachel and the AAGU blogger were pushing ideas of the fluid markers and conceptions of identity and how it impacts and is impacted by visibility, representation, and socio-historic context.

When thinking about social justice or civic engagement, we often look for big things – movements, large groups mobilizing many people – but sometimes we should shift our perspective a bit and focus in on the incredible things small groups of individuals are doing. They can also have a big impact. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.

In the end, it all comes full circle. Rachel shared her performance and reflection with communities in person and on the internet, my friend shared the videos with me, and now I’m sharing my thoughts with you. I will join both Rachel Rostad and my friend and echo their sentiments. Hi. I saw this, and thought of you. The videos are really interesting! I hope we can continue to use these conversations as a jumping off point for further dialogue, growth, and reflection. Thank you!

For more information on Rachel Rostad, visit her tumlbr or facebook pages. Rachel is currently a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In keeping with voicing diverse stories about Asian Americans, she also has a great poem, “Adoption,” which is about identity, belonging, and family, from the perspective of a Korean adoptee growing up with a non-Korean family in the U.S., and one of her latest poems is about her Names.

Diana Lee is a Ph.D. student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her work explores representations of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and other aspects of identity in U.S. media and popular culture. Specifically, she focuses on media portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans, implications of stereotypical and limited representation, and the educational and empowering nature of counter-narratives. Of particular interest are counter-narratives created through networked, mediated expressions, as well as participatory experiences and communities.

 

Between Storytelling and Surveillance: American Muslim Youth Negotiate Culture, Politics, and Participation

Over the past several years, my Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research group at USC has been doing case studies of innovative groups, organizations, and networks that have been effective at increasing youth engagement and participation within the political process. We’ve been sharing our preliminary research findings here as a series of white papers that have addressed the DREAMer movement to gain greater education and civic rights for undocumented youth, Students for Liberty and the movement of “Second Wave Libertarianism” more generally, and the forms of fan activism associated with the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters. Today, I am proud to be releasing the final report in this series — a study into the political and cultural lives that American Muslim youths have been defining for themselves within the context of post-9/11 America. This report was prepared by Sangita Shresthova, who serves as the Research Director for the MAPP project.

This research has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of the work of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics network. Having released all of our initial case study reports, the team is now turning to drafting a book which looks comparatively across these various examples of participatory politics, and seeks to address larger debates about the role of new media in contemporary political struggles.

The new report, which is shared below, centers on activists and community networks affiliated with the Muslim Youth Group (MYG) at the Islamic Center in Southern California and the Young Leaders Summits program at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), but Shresthova casts a larger net, describing a range of participatory projects through which American Muslims have sought to reshape the ways they are represented through mainstream and grassroots media.

While she is attentive to the new possibilities for voice that these youth have found through new media, she also stresses the substantial risks they face as a consequence of both formal surveillance by governmental agencies (as part of the new security establishment whose scope becomes more alarmingly clear with each new revelation) and informally through the chastising responses they received from older Muslims about the ways they represent their personal and religious identities. As a consequence, the communities she describes here constitute precarious publics, ones that can be empowering or can put participants at risk, perhaps both at the same time.

As we’ve been doing this research, our research team was struck, for example, by the “chilling effect” these youths experienced in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings, as the participants felt a renewed risk of retaliation on the basis of the color of their skin, their national origins, or their faith. We hope you will share our sense that it is urgent for us to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American Muslim and how these youths are battling against prejudices that have surfaced with greater intensity over the decade plus since September 11.

Sangita Shresthova‘s work focuses on the intersection between popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. She is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins’ Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project. Based at the University of Southern California, MAPP explores innovative youth-driven media-centric civic engagement and studies youth experiences through groups and communities that include Invisible Children, the Harry Potter Alliance, and American Muslim youth networks. Sangita holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures and MSc. degrees from MIT and LSE. Bridging between dance, media and her Czech/Nepali heritage, Sangita is also the founder of Bollynatyam’s Global Bollywood Dance Project. (www.bollynatyam.com)

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.