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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

S Is For Storytelling: A Primer for Future Activists

As the Spring term ends here at USC, and we enter into the summer months, I am being asked about my plans. While I have a few away missions, I am mostly staying in Southern California where I and my research team (Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik) are going to be drilling down on our research on Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics, a project funded by the MacArthur Foundation and part of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics Network. Our hope is to come out of the summer with a completed draft of our collectively authored book, By Any Media Necessary. If you read this blog with some regularity, you will have seen an increased focus on this work over the past year or so and you may have seen my coverage of our webinar series of Storytelling in Digital Age Civics, featuring young activists. Our post-doc Liana Gamber-Thompson, who recently became a mother, has been reflecting deeply on what we learned through those webinars and has come back with this thought piece about our research. Enjoy!

 

S is for Storytelling
Liana Gamber-Thompson

There are a lot of things you miss out on when you have a sixth month old baby: sleep, personal hygiene, eating meals with two hands. But for all the bleary-eyed diaper changes and spit up-stained shirts, there are a million moments that fill your heart to the brim, countless simple pleasures that make the daily challenges dissolve quickly into the depths of your memory. One of those simple pleasures is reading to your child.

Part of our bedtime ritual includes rifling through the box of board books and choosing just the right story to tell. I often land on a small, colorfully illustrated book called A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara (it should probably come as no surprise that the son of a postdoc with a sociology degree and a high school English teacher would be gifted such a thing upon his arrival). Nagara mixes a recitation of the alphabet with explanations of different types of activism, taking his reader on a journey from A to Z with stops like “F for a feminist who fights for fundamental rights,” “G for grassroots sprouting from below,” and “Z for Zapatista (of course).”

The entry for D reads:

Little d democracy.
More than voting, you’ll agree.
Dictators detest it. Donkeys don’t get it.
But you and me? We demand equality!

The last time I leafed through the story from the comfort of the nursery rocking chair, baby boy propped on my knee, I lingered on this page. “I guess even children’s books are kind of over institutional politics these days,” I thought to myself. I thought also about the stuff that occupies the corner of my brain that’s not devoted to keeping a tiny human alive: my academic work on youth and politics.

True democracy isn’t really about voting or parties or any of the other trappings of “Big P” politics at all. That sentiment as been echoed time and again by the young people I interact with as part of my research for the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics, an effort made possible by the MacArthur Foundation’s research network on Youth and Participatory Politics.

In 2012, I interviewed young libertarians from across the country about their views on partisan politics and how their political identities connected to their digital lives and experiences online. What I found was a passionate group of young people who were interested in political issues but who were not so interested in getting involved in politics.

Part of their disillusionment stems from the perception that politicians on both sides of the aisle lack the ability to communicate effectively, compromise, or engage in civil discourse. Zachary Slayback, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and self-identified libertarian, explains:

I think people from both sides, both within and outside politics, can look at the youth libertarian movement, see its breadth of views and intellectual perspectives, and see how we all are still able to get along and have rational, civil discourse, and take that as a general lesson.

If anarchists are able to sit in the same room as classical liberal bleeding heart welfarists and have a reasonable discussion on the proper role of government, then surely two people who disagree over 2% in budget cuts should be able to do the same.

Kaja Tretjak, a postdoctoral research fellow at SUNY Buffalo Law School who has done extensive research on the student liberty movement, says that young libertarians are interested in creating a “dynamic grassroots presence to transform society…rather than using a political system that is seen, by many people in the movement, as inherently corrupt and ineffective for their purposes.”

And it’s not just libertarians who are feeling disenchanted with politics as usual; we’ve heard young people from across the political spectrum express their frustration with the seemingly limited options for effecting change through traditional mechanisms, and recent studies bear this out as well. A March 2014 Pew report on Millennials entering adulthood suggests that half of all Millennials choose not to identify with either political party and only 31% say there is a “great deal of difference” between Democratic and Republican parties.

Still, the story is not all one of doom and gloom (and besides, I’m not really in the business of inciting moral panics about the kids these days). But if young people are bypassing traditional politics more and more, how do they engage in meaningful change in 2014?

Media scholar Ethan Zuckerman has used the term “participatory civics,” the use of digital media to engage in political discussion or share civic media, to talk about the kind of contemporary engagement that continues to grow and flourish in the absence of faith in the political system. He argues, “It’s not that people aren’t interested in civics. They’re simply not interested in feeling ineffectual or helpless.” In light of that sentiment, young people in particular are turning to more “participatory” modes of engagement, relying on their familiarity with participatory media platforms to effect change.

As part of their engagement in participatory civics, young people are increasingly tapping into the power of storytelling to assert voice and influence in an age when trust in partisan politics is at an all-time low. Storytelling has become an essential tool in the era of digital-age civics.

In a recent webinar series on the topic, sponsored by our research team in partnership with Youth Radio, Connected Learning, the Black Youth Project, and the Media Arts + Practice division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, more than twenty young activists came together to think about the affordances and challenges of digital media for civic action and discuss how political narratives are created, produced, spread and recontextualized through their “digital afterlife.”

The participants in this convening showed how, even in the face of swirling public debate on young people and “slacktivism,” or “armchair activism,” the simple act of storytelling can create big change. Take, for instance, the case of Tani Ikeda, founder of ImMEDIAte Justice, an organization that provides girls with the resources and training to tell their own stories about gender and sexuality through film; or Jonathan McIntosh, a pop culture hacker who has reached a wide audience with his video remixes (like “Buffy vs Edward” and “Donald Duck meets Glenn Beck”) to spark critical conversation about topics ranging from gender representations in popular culture to politics and news media.

For many of the webinar participants, telling their stories was a way of asserting (and sometimes finding) their voice. As Zuckerman argues, “voice begets voice,” meaning that it’s easier for people to talk about tough issues or share their personal experiences when others are doing it, too. Erik Huerta, who blogs by the name, El Random Hero, describes how, after he “came out” as undocumented online, he started sharing personal stories via his blog and other social media platforms about how his undocumented identity shaped his everyday experiences. He characterized the process as akin to putting out a “message in a bottle” to reach others, and as something that, in time, gave him the confidence to get involved more actively in organizing around immigrant rights.

The reach of the storytelling practices like those employed by Huerta can also extend beyond voice; sometimes those practices lend themselves to political influence in the traditional sense as well. Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children, participated in the first webinar in our series on “finding your story” and described how storytellers often start small by taking inspiration from “inciting incidents,” or small kernels of revelatory knowledge. Russell explained how his inciting incident was finding out about child soldiers in Uganda ten years ago; he went on to produce a series of films about the conflict in Uganda, including Kony 2012, the most “viral” video of all time.

Kony 2012 garnered a great deal of controversy, with critics questioning the organization itself, the potential impact of the film, and the seemingly weak level of engagement it invited. Still, despite the criticism, the film spurred the proposal of a bipartisan resolution in Congress condemning the acts of Joseph Kony. Invisible Children’s other films also sparked more instrumental change, with President Obama signing the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010.

University of Arizona Professor of Sociology, Jennifer Earl, has suggested that it’s time scholars begin to think about what a digital “repertoire of contention,” looks like, a term Charles Tilly used to describe the set of movement tactics available to social actors in any given historical period. Based on the evidence we’ve uncovered, it seems storytelling should be included as a key component in such a digital repertoire because all signs point to the fact that young people today are particularly adept at using storytelling for change–and that’s something we can all be hopeful about.

Young people’s creative use of storytelling to enact civics—to get us one step closer to that “little d” democracy Nagara describes in his children’s book—is not only an inspiration, but a testament to the power and enduring nature of stories more broadly; it seems almost too obvious to say that stories are, at their core, elemental to the human condition.

But these stories mean nothing if they fall on deaf ears. Joan Donovan, co-creator of InterOccupy.net, observed, “Most [people] focus on social media as a way to broadcast our own lives, but these platforms are also a place to receive stories.”

One day, sooner than I can likely imagine, my baby will outgrow my lap and our rocking chair, and he’ll probably grow tired of all my stories. But I hope by the time my sixth month-old is grown up enough to be telling his own stories, I’ll be wise enough to “receive” them with an open mind. Because the most important thing we can do (as adults, as educators, as activists ourselves) when a young person says, “Let me tell you a story,” is listen. And I’m all ears.
This essay is reposted from Medium.

 

Liana Gamber Thompson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate working on the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She also facilitates the Civic Paths graduate research group at Annenberg. Her fields of interest include popular culture, identity and authenticity, and gender and feminism. She is currently investigating how youth engagement in participatory cultures, online networks, and new media leads to civic engagement more broadly. Specifically, she is looking at how libertarian youth organizations participate in these processes and their various strategies for achieving particular political goals, both electoral and discursive. Liana earned her PhD in Sociology and Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2010. There, her research focused on teenage girls’ social and affective uses of popular music and the transgressive nature of fandom. She has also taught courses on popular music and cultural politics, community and social justice, the sociology of emotions, and new media and technology.

 

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.