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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

You can read the full report below.

Hotspot3 — Civic Kickstarters

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

HOTSPOT3 — CIVIC KICKSTARTERS

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

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

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

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

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

Veronica Mars Kickstarter

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

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

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

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

Enjoy, and we welcome your comments.

–Andrew Schrock and Samantha Close

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Crowdfunding as Neighborhood Storytelling, by Benjamin Stokes

[7] Kickstarting a Hackerspace, by Andrew Schrock

 

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

Videos for Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

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

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

Denise Mann (Moderator)

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

Rob Schuham
CEO, Action Marketing

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

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

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

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

Panel 2 Transmedia For a Change

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

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

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

Katie Elmore Mota
Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren
Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi
Founder, BoomGen Studios

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

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

Panelists:

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

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

Erick Huerta
Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh
Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

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

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

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


Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New Philanthropist

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

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

Sean D. Carasso
Founder, Falling Whistles

Yael Cohen
Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

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

Milana Rabkin
Digital Media Agent

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Spreadable Media…At It’s Best

by Elisabeth Shabi, Reinhardt College

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

red

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

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

For statistics purposes, it should be noted:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Untitled

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

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

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

 

obama

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

sotomayor

 

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

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

Is this not spreadable media at its finest?

Announcing Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television,
and
USC Annenberg School of Communication &
USC School of Cinematic Arts

Transmedia, Hollywood 4:
Spreading Change

Presented by The Andrew J. Kuehn, Jr. Foundation

Friday, April 12, 2013
James Bridges Theater, UCLA

9:00 am – 6:00 pm

 

Transmedia, Hollywood is a one-day public symposium exploring the role of transmedia franchises in today’s entertainment industries. Transmedia, Hollywood turns the spotlight on media creators, producers and executives and places them in critical dialogue with top researchers from across a wide spectrum of film, media and cultural studies to provide an interdisciplinary summit for the free interchange of insights about how transmedia works and what it means. Transmedia, Hollywood is co-hosted by Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins, from UCLA and USC, two of the most prominent film schools and media research centers in the nation.

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

Transmedia entertainment has been advanced within the Hollywood system primarily through a logic of promotion, audience building, and engagement, offering the ideal tools for capturing the imagination of networked audiences through the creation of immersive and expansive imaginary worlds. As transmedia has spread around the world, especially to countries with a much stronger tradition of public media, these same practices have been embraced as a means not of building fictional realms but of changing the world:

  • As advertisers seek to construct their own “brand communities” as a way of forging strong affiliations with their consumers, many are embracing cause-based marketing. In the process, these brand marketers are recognizing young viewers’ capacity for civic engagement and political participation, one of the hallmarks of the millennial generation. While sometimes these brand messages end up advancing cultural movements, in other instances, they simply coopt these shared generational concerns.
  • Educational approaches to entertainment, popular across the developing world, are now extending across multiple media platforms to allow fans to develop a deeper understanding of health and social policy issues as they dig deeper into the backstories of their favorite characters. Alternative reality games, which seek to encourage grassroots participation as a marketing tool, have shifted from solving puzzles to mobilizing players to confront real world problems.
  • Fan networks, organized to support and promote favorite media franchises, are taking on the challenge of training and mobilizing the next generation of young activists, using their capacity as thought leaders to reshape the attention economy by increasing public awareness of mutual concerns.
  • Nonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters.

Each of these productive, participatory, community-based activities have been facilitated over the past decade by a widening web of 2.0 social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. The millennial generation’s mastery of “play” has now expanded to include a growing number of apps, casual games, short-form digital entertainment experiences, and expansive alternate reality games. Millennials, who have been acclimating themselves with the tools of connectivity in times of play, now have at their disposal the means to harness a global community to solve such pressing issues as global warming, ethnic, racial or religious genocide, labor unrest, the inequities associated with class, and countless other modern-day assaults. Many of today’s thought leaders—baby boomers that witnessed an earlier social revolution during the late sixties—marvel over the subtle but pervasive shift that is underway in the web 2.0 era and beyond as social connectedness is becoming reframed as a means for large-scale community action.

Transmedia producers in Hollywood have much to learn from a closer examination of these other forms of entertainment and educational discourse, which we might describe as “transmedia for a change.” When is it appropriate for the big media companies to incorporate such themes and tactics into their pop culture franchises? And when should they tolerate, even embrace, the bottom up activities of their fans which have used their content as vehicles for promoting social justice and political change? What does it mean to produce entertainment for a generation which is demanding its right to meaningfully participate at every level — from shaping the stories that matter to them to impacting the governance of their society?

For more information, see http://www.liquid-bass.com/conference/

For conference Registration, see : http://transmediahollywood4.eventbrite.com/#

Also, that same weekend, 5D Institute, in association with University of Southern California, invites you to join us in The Science of Fiction, our first Worldbuilding festival. This groundbreaking event will take place on April 13, 2012 in honor of the unveiling of the new USC School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media complex. For more information, see http://5dinstitute.org/events/science-of-fiction

9:00—9:10 am: Welcome and Opening Remarks – Denise Mann & Henry Jenkins
9:10—11:00 am: Panel 1 Revolutionary Advertising: Cultivating Cultural MovementsIn the web 2.0 era, as more and more millennials acquire the tools of participatory culture and new media literacy, some of this cohort are redirecting their one-time leisure-based activities into acts of community-based, grassroots social activism. Recognizing the power of the crowd to create a tipping point in brand affiliation, big media marketers, Silicon Valley start-ups, and members of the Madison Avenue advertising community, are jumping on board these crowdsourcing activities to support their respective industries. In other words, many of the social goals of grassroots revolutionaries are being realigned to serve the commercial goals of brand marketers. In the best-case scenarios, the interests of the community and the interests of the market economy align in some mercurial fashion to serve both constituencies. However, in the worst case scenario, the community-based activism fueling social movements is being redirected to support potato chips, tennis shoes, or sugary-soda drinks. Brand marketers are intrigued with the power and sway of social media, inaugurating any number of trailblazing forms of interactive advertising and branded entertainment to replace stodgy, lifeless, 30 second ads. These cutting edge madmen are learning how to reinvent entertainment for the participatory generation by marrying brands to pre-existing social movements to create often impressive, well-funded brand movements like Nike Livestrong, or Pepsi Refresh. Are big media marketers subsuming the radical intent of certain community-based organizations who are challenging the status quo by redirecting them into unintentional alliance with big business or are they infusing these cash-strapped organizations with much needed funds and marketing outreach? Today’s panel of experts will debate these and other issues associated with the future of participatory play as a form of social activism.Todd CunninghamFormerly, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Insights and Research at MTV Networks.

Denise Mann (Moderator)      

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

Rob Schuham

CEO, Action Marketing

Michael Serazio     

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

Alden E. Stoner     

VP, Social Action Film Campaigns, Participant Media

Rachel Tipograph

Director, Global Digital and Social Media at Gap Inc.

 

 

 

11:10 am—1:00 pm: Panel 2 Transmedia For a ChangeHollywood’s version of transmedia has been preoccupied with inspiring fan engagement, often linked to the promotional strategies for the release of big budget media. But, as transmedia has spread to parts of the world which have been dominated by public service media, there has been an increased amount of experimentation in ways that transmedia tactics can be deployed to encourage civic engagement and social awareness. These transmedia projects can be understood as part of a larger move to shift from understanding public media as serving publics towards a more active mission in gathering and mobilizing publics. These projects may also be understood as an extension of the entertainment education paradigm into the transmedia realm, where the goal shifts from informing to public towards getting people participating in efforts to make change in their own communities. In some cases, these producers are creating transmedia as part of larger documentary projects, but in others, transmedia is making links between fictional content and its real world implications. 

Panelists

Henry Jenkins (Moderator)     

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Katerina Cizek     

Filmmaker-in-Residence, National Film Board, Canada

Katie Elmore Mota     

Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren

Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi     

Founder, BoomGen Studios

1:00—2:00 pm: LUNCH BREAK
2:00—3:50 pm: Panel 3 Through Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY CultureA recent survey released by the MacArthur Foundation found that a growing number of young people are embracing practices the researchers identified as “participatory politics”: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” These forms of politics emerge from an increasingly DIY media culture, linked in important ways to the practices of Makers, Hackers, Remix Artists and Fan Activists. This panel will bring together some key “change agents,” people who are helping to shape the production and flow of political media, or who are seeking to better understand the nature of political participation in an era of networked publics. Increasingly, these new forms of activism are both transmedia (in that they construct messages through any and all available media) and spreadable (in that they encourage participation on the level of circulation even if they do not always invite the public to help create media content).

Panelists

Megan M. Boler     

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

Marya Bangee

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

Erick Huerta     

Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh

Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

Sangita Shreshtova (Moderator)

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

Elisabeth Soep     

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

 

 

4:00—5:50 pm: Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New PhilanthropistNonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters. While the boomers treated the cultural movements of the late sixties as a cause, today’s e-citizens are treating their social activism as a brand. They are selling social responsibility as if it were a commodity or product, using the same strategies that traditional business men and women used to sell products.

Sarah Banet-Weiser

Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity

 

Sean D. Carasso

Founder, Falling Whistles

 

Yael Cohen

Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

Milana Rabkin     

Digital Media Agent

Sharon Waxman (Moderator)

Editor-in-Chief, The Wrap

 

 

6:00—7:30 pm:RECEPTION

HOT.SPOT 2: Introduction: Election Season Revisited

A while back, I shared the first of a series of “Hot.Spot” blog posts created by my students and colleagues within the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism’s Civic Paths research group. The team’s back with another round, this one timed to respond to the Presidential Election and inauguration. I am happy to crosspost their efforts with you. I now hand this over to Liana Gamber Thompson, our post-doc and MC Extraordinare.

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.

Election Season Revisited (Inauguration Edition!)

Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates
On the Separation of Cable and State
Obama’s Back Problems
Where Voting Fits In for the “Self-Expressive Citizen”
#firsttimevoters
Nobody 2012
Crowns and Badges

I spent the bulk of Monday tuning in to President Obama’s inauguration and the coverage around it. I admit, no matter who is being sworn in, I’m a sucker for the pageantry, the tradition, and the ceremony of the inauguration. I love seeing the National Mall brimming with enthusiastic, if freezing, faces and studying the interactions of the political rivals, celebrities, and past presidents assembled on the stage. On that day, the campaign season that got President Obama here seemed but a distant memory, the blood, sweat and tears of staffers and volunteers receding into footnotes as the President took his oath over not one, but two historic bibles.

But as President Obama gets back to work, Michelle Obama ships her ruby red inaugural gown off to the National Archives, and the blogosphere descends into a tedious debate over Beyonce’s lip-syncing, the excitement of the inauguration fades. The significance of President Obama’s achievement, however, does not. That’s why, for our second Civic Paths hotspot*, we’ve decided to return our focus to election season and to the range of people and stories that made it such an interesting one.

Kevin [1] and Sam [2] consider the relationship between politics and entertainment during election season, while Raffi [3] dissects some of President Obama’s more perplexing campaign slogans. Neta [4] seeks to understand how the traditional civic act of voting is tied to more self-expressive acts of engagement. Kjerstin [5] also looks at voters, documenting the infectious joy behind many of the tweets of #firsttimevoters, while I [6] examine a group of young non-voters and some of their favorite memes. Lastly, Ben [7] brings us back to where we started—the inauguration—with his account of the symbols and spectacle surrounding it.

We hope these posts will bring some of the more compelling stories from election season back into relief. We also hope this hotspot inspires others to bring their own stories into the conversation because so much has yet to be explored from the 2012 Presidential election and the sometimes wild and woolly days that preceded it.

– Liana Gamber Thompson

*For more on the hotspot philosophy, see our first hotspot on DIY culture.

[1] — Kevin Driscoll, Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates
[2] — Sam Close, On the Separation of Cable and State
[3] — Raffi Sarkissian, Obama’s Back Problems
[4] — Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Where Voting Fits In for the “Self-Expressive Citizen”
[5] — Kjerstin Thorson, #firsttimevoters
[6] — Liana Gamber Thompson, Nobody 2012
[7] — Ben Stokes, Crowns and Badges

What’s All the Fuss About Connected Learning?

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation released a significant new report, Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, which should warrant the close attention of my regular readers, especially those of you who are strongly invested in thinking about the nature of education within a networked era. The report comes more than six years after the launch of the Digital Media and Learning initiative and represents an important re-assessment of what’s working and what’s not as institutions at all levels have responded to the changes which are impacting our information environment. The authors of the report include some of the most important American and British thinkers about youth, new media, and education:

Mizuko Ito…Kris Gutiérrez…Sonia Livingstone… Bill Penuel…Jean Rhodes…Katie Salen..Juliet Schor…Julian Sefton-Green….S. Craig Watkins 

The report is sobering in its acknowledgment of some of the real challenges confronting us, especially in its focus on the growing inequalities in terms of access not simply to the technological infrastructure but to the skills and opportunities required to meaningfully participate in the new media environment:

Despite its power to advance learning, many parents, educators, and policymakers perceive new media as a distraction from academic learning, civic engagement,and future opportunity. Digital media also threaten to exacerbate growing inequities in education. Progressive digital media users … are a privileged minority. There is also a growing gap between the progressive use of digital media outside of the classroom, and the no-frills offerings of most public schools that educate our most vulnerable populations. This gap contributes to widespread alienation from educa- tional institutions, particularly among non-dominant youth. Without a proactive educational reform agenda that begins with questions of equity, leverages both in-school and out-of-school learning, and embraces the opportunities new media offer for learning, we risk a growth in educational alienation by our most vulnerable populations….

This report is skeptical and hard-nosed, challenging some of the optimism which has fueled previous work in the Digital Media and Literacy tradition, raising concerns about what is happening to those who are being excluded from meaningful participation. The authors raise alarms about how all young people are impacted by an educational process which gives them few chances to pursue their own passions and interests within a regime of standardized testing and a fragmented media environment where children have much greater access to highly commercial sites than to those which speak to them as citizens and learners.

The report raises these issues while also recognizing the very real educational opportunities DML scholars have identified when we look at those communities which have proven rewarding for a growing number of young participants, communities which have a shared ethical commitment to encouraging and scaffolding their participation. The authors believe something valuable is taking place in many corners of the web (and in the context of young people’s everyday engagements with media.):

Young people can have diverse pathways into connected learning. Schools, homes, afterschool clubs, religious institutions, and community centers and the parents, teachers, friends, mentors and coaches that young people find at these diverse locales, all potentially have a role to play in guiding young people to connected learning. Connected learning takes root when young people find peers who share interests, when academic institutions recognize and make interest-driven learning relevant to school, and when community institutions provide resources and safe spaces for more peer- driven forms of learning.

Examples of learning environments that are currently integrating the spheres of peers, interests, and academic pursuits include athletics programs that are tied to in-school recognition, certain arts and civic learning programs, and interest-driven academic programs such as math, chess, or robotics competitions. These connected learning environments ideally embody values of equity, social belonging, and participation. Further, connected learning environments are generally characterized by a sense of shared purpose, a focus on production, and openly networked infrastructures.

The report is skeptical, not cynical. It asks hard questions precisely so we can empower meaningful change. The authors do not fall prey to the paralysis which consumes so much academic writing, but rather they offer a number of concrete recommendations about what new kinds of educational structures and practices need to emerge. What I admire most about this report is this movement between critique and advocacy, between analysis of existing problems and the willingness to find concrete solutions. I have admired these pragmatic qualities in many of these authors individually in the past. See, for example, my previous interviews with Mimi Ito, Craig Watkins, and Sonia Livingstone, about their research.  

The report includes rich case studies, demonstrating the kinds of experiences some youth have enjoyed through joining the Harry Potter Alliance, enrolling in New York City’s Quest to Learn School, or participating in the after school offerings of the Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia Center. Such projects illustrate what happens when everything comes together. Here, for example, is a bit from a sidebar written by Sangita Shresthova and Neta  Kliger-Vilenchik, two researchers from my Civic Paths team at USC’s Annenberg School, dealing with the learning culture which has grown up around the Harry Potter Alliance:

Although fun and social in nature, involvement in HPA pushes young people to connect their recre- ational interests to social and political issues that they might not otherwise be familiar with. Because HPA turns its attention to many issues, ranging from net neutrality to fair trade and voter registra- tion, this forces participants to study up in a range of new areas. Almost every campaign is accompa- nied by a period of learning about the new issue and making sense of it. Chapter leaders will often educate the group on a new issue. Participants also talk about how involvement in HPA helped them see the political messages within Harry Potter. One chapter has gone as far as opening a 6-week study group on “Harry Potter as a tool for social change,” discussing links between the narratives and real-world issues. In other words, HPA is a site of hybridization and translation between political and fantasy-centered frames of reference.

Coincidentally, Andrew Slack, HPA’s Founder and Leader, also released a new TED talks video last week, which is a wonderful illustration of the HPA approach at work.

Here, Slack is very much in his element, speaking to a room of youth, giving himself over to his inner fan boy, and at the same time, encouraging critical media literacies and informed engagement with social issues. You also get a sense here of how Slack and others in his organization are moving beyond a focus on Harry Potter fandom and seeking to demonstrate how we might learn from a range of popular media and literary texts.

Such educational opportunities are exciting — they have sustained my own enthusiasm over the better part of a decade now — but they are not in and of themselves enough, not as long as many young people lack the kind of adult mentorship which might help them to identify meaningful online experiences or make connections between what they are learning in these communities and the demands of more formalized education.

The heart of the report seeks to identify design principles which might address these concerns:

Our hypothesis is that in order to develop these cross-cutting repertoires of practice, young people need concrete and sustained social networks, relationships, institutional linkages, shared activities and communication infrastructures that connect their social, academic, and interest-driven learning. It is not enough for young people to have knowledge “in their head” and expect that they can apply it appropriately and effectively in varied settings on their own. They need caring adults, supportive peers, shared cultural references, and authentic ways of contributing to shared practices in order to mobilize their skills and knowledge. In contrast to the voluminous literature and research on cognitive and individual models of transfer, there has been very little work that looks more ecologically at the relational, infrastructural, and institutional settings that undergird effective translation and transfer between formal instruction and varied practices.

I can’t begin to do justice to this report. You need to read it yourself, and then, we need to launch some serious conversations about its implications for our own practices.

 

The Cost of Engagement: Politics and Participatory Practices in the U.S. Liberty Movement

From time to time, I am sharing through this blog some of the research being generated by the MacArthur Foundation-support Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network. This team, headed by Joseph Kahne from Mills College, is seeking to map the ways that the practices associated with participatory culture and the technologies of networked computing are impacting the political lives of  youth, primarily in the United States but also in other parts of the world. See for example earlier posts about the YPP survey and about our case study of DREAM activists.

Today, I am proud to share a new report, a case study of the political and cultural experiences of young Liberatarians, as they seek to find their own voice, forge their own community, in a space defined both by participatory dimensions of their own informal networks and by the influence of powerful conservative think tanks and funding organizations. This report was prepared by Liana Gamber Thompson, a Post-Doc who has been working as part of my USC-based research team, Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP), as we develop ethnographic case studies of innovative organizations and networks that have been successful at increasing civic engagement and political participation amongst youth.

 

 

 

 

HOT.SPOT: The Dark Side(s) of DIY

From time to time, I have written here about the work of the Civic Paths research team in the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California. I helped to start this research group when I arrived in Los Angeles three and a half years ago; it has been the seedbed for our Media Activism and Participatory Politics project which has generated a series of case studies of innovative activist groups (and will be the basis of an upcoming book). But, the group has become something more than that — a space where students and faculty gather to discuss the participatory turn in contemporary culture and politics. Such discussions thrive on our internal discussion list, and we’ve been experimenting with various ways to get these ideas out to the world both formally through op ed pieces and informally through blogging.

The team recently launched a new project — HOT.SPOT to encourage as many of the members as possible to write short blog posts around a related theme — think of it as a mini-anthology. Lead by my journalism colleague Kjerstin Thorson and our post-doc Liana Thompson, the first of our “HOT.SPOT” blogs deals with the “Dark Side(s) of DIY.”  Our work has been so focused on the values and practices of participatory politics, it seems inevitable that reservations and concerns would rise to the surface. If only Nixon could go to China, perhaps our group has an obligation to also call out the abuses, misuses, and failures of DIY culture and politics.

So, let me pass the microphone over to Kjerstin Thorson who will set up this special issue, and you can follow the links out to the individual posts.

 

Hotspot Philosophy

Welcome to the first of what we hope will be a series of Civic Paths “hotspots.” These collections of mini-blog posts 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.

Kicking it off: The Dark Side(s) of DIY

Don’t get me wrong: I love DIY. I muddled through the acquisition of basic sewing skills (thanks, Internet) to make a much-loved, crooked crib skirt for my daughter. My now-husband and I navigated the complexities of his immigration to the U.S. without hiring a lawyer, relying entirely on a discussion board about fiancée visas. Last year, we even put a fountain in our backyard (it was crooked, too).

In fact, I venture to say we all love DIY—and are genuinely excited about the role of new media technologies for amplifying the possibilities to make stuff, share stuff, spread stuff and generally participate in public life in a million different ways. But we also believe that DIY (or at least the mythology of DIY) has some dark sides.

Liana [1] and Sam [2] remind us that just because you do it yourself doesn’t mean that what you make will find an audience, or even that what you make will be any good. Kevin [3] considers the often-fraught relationship some DIY practitioners have to potentially dubious funding streams, and Lana [4] points out that the business of DIY can often be the selling of awful. Andrew [5] looks at what happens when crowdfunding goes awry and DIY communities try to mete out justice online. Rhea [6] also examines online communities taking matters into their own hands, highlighting the misunderstandings and mishaps that get created in the process.

Neta [7] and I [8] share an interest in the ways that beliefs about DIY political knowledge—everyone should be a fact checker! Figure out everything for yourself!—may shut down possibilities for political engagement. Mike [9] takes on the contradictions behind the idea of DIY news, and Raffi [10] wonders whether the race to make and spread the pithiest, funniest political nuggets is taking away from other forms of online political talk.

With these posts, we hope to collectively shed light on some of the difficulties that arise from an otherwise celebrated mode of creation and engagement. And while we all love DIY and its range of possibilities for civic life, we think pulling back the curtain to show when it goes wrong is an important step in figuring out how DIY can take us even further in the future.

– Kjerstin Thorson (Assistant Professor of Journalism)

[1] On Finding an Audience, or Why I’m Not a Rock Star, by Liana Gamber Thompson

[2] Producing Poop, by Sam Close

[3] Makerspaces and the Long, Weird History of DIY Hobbyists & Military Funding, by Kevin Driscoll

[4] Blogging and Boycotting in the “Schadenfreude Economy”, by Lana Swartz

[5] Gatekeepers of DIY?, by Andrew Schrock

[6] The Role of Japanese & English-language Online Communities in the Mitsuhiro Ichiki Incident, by Rhea Vichot

[7] DIY Citizenship & Kony 2012 Memes, by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik

[8] Figure It Out for Yourself, by Kjerstin Thorson

[9] Why “DIY News” Could Be a Contradiction in Terms, by Mike Ananny

[10] Memed, Tumbled, & Tweeted, by Raffi Sarkissian

Futures of Entertainment 6 Videos (Part One)

Over the next few installments, we are going to be sharing videos of the panels from this year’s Futures of Entertainment conference, now in its sixth year, and developing a really strong community of followers who come back again and again to participate in our ongoing conversations. For those who do not know, FoE is a conference designed to spark critical conversations between people in the creative industries, academics, and the general public, over issues of media change. The Futures of Entertainment consortium works hard to identify cutting edge topics and to bring together some of the smartest, most thoughtful people who are dealing with those issues. It is characterized by extended conversation among the panelists in a format designed to minimize “spin,” “pitch” and “pontification,” and in a context where everything they say will be questioned and challenged through Backchan.nl, Twitter, and (this year) Etherpad conversations.

As someone noted this year, one of the biggest contributions of the conference has been close interrogation of the language the industry uses to describe its relationship with its publics/audiences, and this year was no exception, with recurring concepts such as “curation” getting the full FoE treatment. And we came as close as we’ve ever come to a Twitter riot breaking out around the “Rethinking Copyright,” session on which I participated.

The conference, traditionally, opens on Thursday with a Communications Forum event. This year, the focus was on New Media in West Africa, part of our ongoing exploration of the global dimensions of entertainment. There was much discussion of what we could learn from Nollywood (even hints of the coming era of Zollywood) and a spontaneous live performance by Derrick “DNA” Ashong.

New Media in West Africa
Despite many infrastructural and economic hurdles, entertainment media industries are burgeoning in West Africa. Today, the Nigerian cinema market–”Nollywood”–is the second largest in the world in terms of the annual volume of films distributed, behind only the Indian film industry. And an era of digital distribution has empowered content created in Lagos, or Accra, to spread across geographic and cultural boundaries. New commercial models for distribution as well as international diasporic networks have driven the circulation of this material. But so has rampant piracy and the unofficial online circulation of this content. What innovations are emerging from West Africa? How has Nigerian cinema in particular influenced local television and film markets in other countries across West Africa, and across the continent? What does the increasing visibility of West African popular culture mean for this region–especially as content crosses various cultural contexts, within and outside the region? And what challenges does West Africa face in continuing to develop its entertainment industries?

Panelists:
Fadzi Makanda, Business Development Manager, iROKO Partners
Derrick “DNA” Ashong, leader, Soulflége
Colin Maclay, Managing Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University
Moderator: Ralph Simon, head of the Mobilium Advisory Group and a founder of the mobile entertainment industry

Opening Remarks from FoE Fellows Laurie Baird and Ana Domb

Listening and Empathy: Making Companies More Human
Media properties have long measured audiences with Nielsen ratings, circulation numbers, website traffic and a range of other methods that transform the people who engage with content into that aggregate mass: the audience. Meanwhile, marketing logic has long been governed by survey research, focus groups, and audience segmentation. And, today, executives are being urged to do all they can to make sense of the “big data” at their fingertips. However, all these methods of understanding audiences–while they can be helpful–too often distance companies from the actual human beings they are trying to understand. How do organizations make the best use of the myriad ways they now have to listen to, understand, and serve their audiences–beyond frameworks that aim to “monitor, “surveil,” and “quantify” those audiences as statistics rather than people? What new understandings are unearthed when companies listen to their audiences, and the culture around them, beyond just what people are saying about the organization itself? What advantages do companies find in embracing ethnographic research, in thinking about an organization’s content and communications from the audience’s perspective, and in thinking of “social media” not just as a new way to market content but a new and particularly useful channel for communicating, collaborating and conducting business?

Panelists:
Lara Lee, Chief Innovation and Operating Officer, Continuum
Grant McCracken, author, Culturematic, Chief Culture Officer
Carol Sanford, author, The Responsible Business
Emily Yellin, author, Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us
Moderator: Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategy, Peppercomm

The Ethics and Politics of Curation in a Spreadable Media World–A One-on-One Conversation with Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova and Undercurrent’s Joshua Green
We live in an environment where the power of circulation is no longer solely–arguably, even primarily–in the hands of media companies. However, if that means we all now play a role as curator and circulator of content, what responsibilities does that bring with it? How is curation becoming an important aspect of the online profile of professional curators? And, for all of us who participate in social networking sites or who forward content to family and friends via email, what are our obligations to both the creators of that content and to the audiences with whom we share it? If we possess the great power to spread content, what are the great responsibilities that come along with it?

The Futures of Public Media
Public media creators and distributors often face a wide variety of strains on resources which impact their ability to innovate how they tell their stories. Yet, in an era where existing corporate logics often restrain how many media companies and brands can interact with their audiences–or how audiences can participate in the circulation of media content–public media-makers are, at least in theory, freed from many of the constraints their commercial counterparts face. How have the various innovations in producing and circulating content that have been discussed at Futures of Entertainment impacting public media-makers? How do the freedoms and constraints of public media shape creators’ work in unique ways? How have innovations happening in independent media, civic media, and the commercial sector impacting those creators? And what can we all learn from their innovation and experiences?

Panelists:
Rekha Murthy, Director of Projects and Partnerships, Public Radio Exchange,
Annika Nyberg Frankenhaeuser, Media Director, European Broadcasting Union,
Andrew Golis, Director of Digital Media and Senior Editor, FRONTLINE
Nolan Bowie, Senior Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Moderator: Jessica Clark, media strategist, Association of Independents in Radio

From Participatory Culture to Political Participation
Around the world, activists, educators, and nonprofit organizations are discovering new power through their capacity to appropriate, remix, and recirculate elements of popular culture. In some cases, these groups are forging formal partnerships with media producers. In other cases, they are deploying what some have called “cultural acupuncture,” making unauthorized extensions which tap into the public’s interest in entertainment properties to direct their attention to other social problems. Some of these transmedia campaigns — Occupy, for example — are criticized for not having a unified message, yet it is their capacity to take many forms and to connect together diverse communities which have made these efforts so effective at provoking conversation and inspiring participation. And, as content spreads across cultural borders, these activists and producers are confronting new kinds of critiques —such as the heated debates surrounding the rapid spread of the KONY 2012 video. Are new means of creating and circulating content empowering citizens, creating new forms of engagement, or do they trivialize the political process, resulting in so-called “slactivism”? What are these producers and circulators learning from media companies and marketers, and vice versa? What new kinds of organizations and networks are deploying this tactics to gain the attention of young consumer-citizens? And, for all of us, what do we need to consider as we receive, engage with, and consider sharing content created by these individuals and groups?
Panelists:
Sasha Costanza-Chock, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, MIT
Dorian Electra, performing artist (“I’m in Love with Friedrich Hayek”; “Roll with the Flow”)
Lauren Bird, Creative Media Coordinator, Harry Potter Alliance
Bassam Tariq, co-creator, 30 Mosques in 30 Days
Moderator: Sangita Shresthova, Research Director of CivicPaths, University of Southern California

Closing Remarks from FoE Fellows Maurício Mota and Louisa Stein

And for your added entertainment pleasure, check out Dorian Electra’s new music video, “FA$T CA$H: Easy Credit & The Economic Crash” which premiered at this year’s conference.