The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part One)

Tessa Jolls has been a long-time advocate of media literacy education in the United States and around the world. I was honored to be able to attend an event last year at which she was presented with the Jessie McCanse Award from the National Telemedium Council in recognition of her lifetime commitment to fostering media literacy. Jolls was one of the very first media literacy advocates to welcome me to the field and to rally behind the work of our New Media Literacies initiative. Since 1999, she has been the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, where she has pushed hard to develop some shared principles and core questions that might inform a diverse array of media literacy initiatives, and where has shown consistent flexibility and vision in redefining media literacy for the 21st century.

Thus, I was troubled when she told me that she was seeing the Media Literacy movement and the Digital Media and Learning communities talking past each other, often failing to recognize and grab onto moments of potential collaboration. We decided it would be helpful to have a public conversation together which explored some of these issues. Our hope in doing so is that we can expand this discussion to include other media literacy/DML leaders and find ways to be more effective at working together around common concerns.

Across this five part exchange, we talk through core assumptions guiding our work, including dealing with the relationship between research, pedagogy, and practice, the importance of construction and representation as concepts in media literacy work, and how media literacy principles do or do not change as they confront new technologies and new environments. We both throw ourselves — heart and mind — into these e-mail exchanges this summer and we both learned plenty in the process.

 

Henry: When I and other researchers from MIT wrote the 2006 white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, we were very aware of building on the foundations of the Media Literacy movement as it had taken shape in North America over the prior several decades.

 

We made a number of gestures across the paper, which were intended to pay tribute to what had been accomplished, to signal the continuities as well as differences  our vision for the “new media literacies.” For example, early in the paper, we emphasized that the newer skills and competencies we were identifying built on the foundation of traditional print-based literacies, core research skills, core technical skills, and media literacies. We wrote, “As media literacy advocates have claimed during the past several decades, students also must acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world; the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated; the motives and goals that shape the media they consume; and alternative practices that operate outside the commercial mainstream….What we are calling here the new media literacies should be taken as an expansion of, rather than a substitution for, the mass media literacies.” (20).

 

Later, in the document, we do challenge whether some of the core frameworks of the media literacy movement have been adequately framed to acknowledge and take account of instances where young people are themselves producing and circulating media, rather than consuming media produced by others, but these were intended as fairly local critiques in recognition of the need to continually re-appraise and reframe our tools to reflect new developments and new contexts. This same passage flags what we saw as some of the core virtues of those same conceptual frameworks: “There is much to praise in these questions: they understand media as operating within a social and cultural context; they recognize that what we take from a message is different from what the author intended; they focus on interpretation and context as well as motivation; they are not tied up with a language of victimization….One of the biggest contributions of the media literacy movement has been this focus on inquiry, identifying key questions that can be asked of a broad range of different media forms and experiences.” (59)

 

If we flash forward to the current moment, it seems that there remain many mutual misunderstandings between advocates for media literacy (who come from these rich traditions) and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.

 

I am hoping we can use this conversation as a means of clearing the air and clarifying our mutual perspectives around these topics. I had felt at the time and rereading it now, I still feel, that it was very clear in signaling my enormous respect for all who have come before in promoting media literacy and Tessa, you have been an early and key supporter of my efforts. So, it troubles me to hear of some of the misperceptions you’ve encountered. Can you share with us some of the things that concern you?

 

Tessa:  I remember well the excitement that I felt when you published your white paper in 2006 (Confronting the Challenge of Participative Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century) — it was (and is!) a profound and significant examination of the new media emerging from the technology advances of our time, and a document that contributed great advances to understanding media literacy skills needed in our society.   Personally, I’ve always embraced your work because I see the added-value to the field and how it builds upon and is compatible with what has come before, and I’ve been puzzled as to why there seem to be rifts when it is far more beneficial to acknowledge our commonality and to leverage it to gain traction in the bigger world of education. Now is an excellent time to reflect and to see “where we are now” and where we might go.

 

I agree with you, that there are mutual misunderstandings between media literacy advocates who have long practiced in the field and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.  Maybe part of the friction comes simply from the words “new media literacies.”  By definition, what is not new is now old — and in our society, being “old” is often considered neither attractive nor cutting edge nor fashionable nor relevant.  But we need to continue to challenge and confront.   When you issued your white paper, It was like you were the town crier shouting, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”  Yes, the internet had arrived, along with (and these were cited in the report) Friendster, Facebook, MySpace, message boards, metagaming or game clans…Twitter was yet to come, as well as Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram and and and….

 

But in response to your challenge — beyond a small group of media literacy advocates and academic researchers and some concerned parents — most people in the education world particularly were saying “Why should we fight? and  “If it’s so important, where are all the troops?”  Thankfully, the fear surrounding using the internet, the need for tools of discernment — and the genuine opportunities that the internet and social media present to empower people — have helped instill in the public more of a sense of urgency that has propelled renewed interest in media literacy education.

 

BUT because media literacy education has been ignored and neglected in schools through the years, there was no foundation laid for why media literacy is important, for its foundational concepts and for how to deliver the pedagogy (more on the foundation needed later).  There were few if any troops to call on to be able to deliver media literacy education — very few had been taught, and no one could then teach it on the mass scale that is needed.  And efforts to penetrate the education system in the U.S. meet with resistance since the system itself is based on a 20th century approach emphasizing content knowledge over process skills and a factory model that is incompatible with the collaborative networks and new curricular approaches needed today.

 

One response to the frustrations of dealing with the education system was — and is — to put technology in the hands of the youth and have faith that they will figure it all out.   Using the technology approach, the iPhone is the “school” and anyone who uses it adeptly is the master and anyone over 30 is, well, handicapped at best.   New technologies enable this approach because now, hardware and software are available and production has been democratized — everyone is a producer, a collaborator, a distributor and a participant.  While experiential and project-based learning is truly exciting and an important component of media literacy, it is not synonymous because the outcome of the technology approach is often limited to technical proficiency without critical autonomy. Whether using an iPad, a pencil or a videocam, pressing the right buttons is important but not enough!   This is where many media literacy advocates, including myself, feel that the train has left the station because some researchers, educators and parents, too, think that just learning to use the technology is enough (they probably don’t know about or have access to  alternatives) and they pursue technology projects with no credible media literacy components.

 

Henry: What’s in a name? Nothing but headaches, it would seem.

 

MacArthur was pretty committed to the phrase, New Media Literacies, so we worked hard to try to figure out what kind of meaning to attach to it. We grappled with the issue of whether the emphasis should be the New Media Literacies, the New Media Literacies, or the New Media Literacies. I did want to signal continuities with the Media Literacy movement, so it did not seem altogether a problematic term, but I was also worried about the connotations you describe here. This is one reason why I was so explicit that we were not leaving behind traditional literacies, media literacy, research skills, or technical skills, but that what we were describing were an added layer or an extension of each that now needed to be factored into our consideration of what an ideal curriculum looked like. I did not want to imply that these skills were entirely new — many were things we should have and some of us had been teaching all along — nor were they exclusively about new media per se. We’ve always insisted that these were not technical skills but rather social skills and cultural competencies, and that these were things that can be taught in low tech or no tech ways (and should be, rather than waiting for low income schools to catch up in terms of their technical infrastructure before introducing these literacies into the curriculum.) Despite having spent much of my career at MIT, I have worked hard to avoid any and all forms of technological determinism.

 

Still, there’s some power to attaching yourself to the digital revolution rhetoric (as well as many pitfalls) insofar as it provides some urgency to the message, but ultimately I frame these skills in relation to the idea of a participatory culture rather than in terms of digital change. This is also why I have had reservations all along about MacArthur’s phrase, Digital Media and Learning, since it implies that we are interested only or exclusively in digital media, and that has never been my focus. Keep in mind both that I wrote the white paper in the wake of writing Convergence Culture, which was all about “Where old and new media collide,” and that it emerged from the context of the Comparative Media Studies program, which studied the interplay across media. We find that when we do workshops for teachers and students, they often anticipate that technologies are going to be much more central to our work than they are. Our first task is always to achieve that shift from a focus on technologies to a focus on culture.

 

I share your concern that in many cases, we are now bringing technologies into the classroom as if doing so would substitute for a more comprehensive approach to media literacy. As Liz Losh notes in her recent book, the focus on technology turns media education into something that can be sold — like getting whole school districts to buy iPads — and can be purchased from the school budget, rather than something which as the white paper suggests, should require a fundamental paradigm shift in the ways we teach all school subjects.

 

That said, I got into some trouble with the original white paper in reducing the rich kinds of conceptual models that surround, say, the Computer Club House movement to purely technical skills comparable to penmanship.  (Sorry Mitch) Most of the work which gets presented at the DML conference is about the fusion of hands-on technical processes, whether tied to hacking, games-based learning, the Maker movement, etc., with rich conceptual frameworks which are intended to allow people to understand at a deeper level how the constraints and affordances of digital media impact the world around us. To me, this is a kind of media literacy, though less tied to notions of representation or messaging than previous kinds of media literacy work has promoted. If one does not displace the other, they certainly can co-exist within a more comprehensive model which considers the nature of platforms and programming alongside the questions about who produces which representations for which audiences with which motives. 

In many ways, what we were trying to do with the white paper was to build a coalition which would include people interested in engaging with new media platforms and practices, people committed to promoting media literacy, and teachers seeking new ways to animate the teaching of their disciplines. Where our work has been successful, we have brought together these interests. Such an approach has tended as you suggest here to pull media literacy advocates into more active engagement with notions of media change and new technologies, but it also has the intent to draw people who want to teach using new technology to confront the participation gap, the transparency issues, and the ethical challenges we identify in the white paper and through doing so, to pull media literacy more actively into their teaching practice.

 

MORE TO COME

Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. She also founded the Consortium for Media Literacy, a nonprofit which provides research and a monthly newsletter publication. During her tenure at CML, she restructured the organization to focus, grow and change, preparing to meet the demand for an expanded vision of literacy for the 21st Century. Her primary focus is working in partnership to demonstrate how media literacy works through school and community-based implementation programs.

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Two)

Henry: I was struck as I read your description of the aesthetic practices of the surround that you are evoking many categories that also shaped the aesthetics of new media — including notions of interactivity, nonlinearity, immersion, multimodality, and transmedia. These links are implicit in the book, but I know you think about new media, so I wanted to see if you might be willing to speak about the similarities and differences in how these ideas operated in these two periods.

 

Fred: Happy to. In many ways, the book is an effort to write a genealogical history of the categories you’ve named. In the time I’m writing about, the essential distinction was between immersing audiences and surrounding them. Walt Disney and his team, for instance, designed media to be like carnival rides. They tried to immerse their viewers not only in narrative, but in kinesthetic experiences that would cause them to disengage their critical faculties and just go with the flow. In 1958 they sent a movie about the United States to the World’s Fair in Brussels. It was shown in what they called “Circarama” – eleven film projectors showing the moving in 360 degrees just over the viewers’ heads. Journalists who saw the show were thrilled to see the bodies of the spectators all swaying in time together. To the Committee for National Morale or Herbert Bayer and his Bauhaus colleagues, people swaying together would have smacked of hypnotic fascism. The whole point of aesthetic experience in their view was to awaken the reason, to individuate citizens by creating aesthetic conditions under which they could have unique individual experiences, but together, as an egalitarian group. In that context, it wasn’t just what was on the screen that mattered; it was how viewers moved between the screens. In the propaganda exhibitions that Bayer designed for the Museum of Modern Art in World War II, visitors could see pictures overhead, at their feet, and at various heights along the wall. They came in all sizes and interspersed with text. They were quintessentially multi-modal media – and that was key. Bayer and his team wanted viewers to practice doing the linking work themselves. They were to engage, even interact with the whole pattern of images and not just any one message they might contain.   Fig 2 Cage Prepping Piano John Cage preparing a piano, circa 1960. Photograph by Ross Welser. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.     The same thing was true later with John Cage’s soundscapes. You’ll remember that his most famous piece, 4’33”, features a piano player who sits down at the keyboard but never plays a note. Cage is asking his audience to see that they are surrounded by the sounds of their environment. He’s asking them to knit those sounds together in the way that would be most meaningful for them. No piano player, no conductor, no musical dictator demands their attention. The audience, like the sounds themselves, are meant to be free, interacting with one another on equal terms. In that sense, practices of interactivity, multimedia display and design, non-linear aesthetics – they were all tools meant to liberate and democratize the senses. They were meant to be alternatives not simply to commercial entertainment, but to the kind of media immersion that many – though not Walt Disney – still feared could produce authoritarians. The trouble is, these new modes for making liberated citizens also meant a new mode of management. In each case I’ve studied, a team of experts built an environment and selected an array – an often very rich array – of media for audiences to engage. Audience members moved freely, selected what mattered to them, congregated, dispersed – and based on all the archival records I’ve seen, many really did experience themselves as free in these spaces. But of course they weren’t. Or not completely. They may have had more control of their bodies and their senses and their reasoning faculties than, say, the swaying viewers of Disney’s Circarama, but the visitors to surrounds inhabited a thoroughly curated world. They could interact, but the terms of their interaction had been set for them, before they even entered the rooms. Even in Cage’s 4’33”, a designer hovered behind the experience – Cage himself. Today we’re surrounded by digital media and I think we’re just waking up to the quandary these experiences represent. On the one hand, we want the kind of individualized agency that surrounds seem to offer; on the other, simply entering those spaces opens us up to management and surveillance. Some of those modes are top-down – curators really can and do shape what we see, and some of those curators come from states and corporations with agendas that have little to do with democratizing our lives. Other modes are more psychological. If anything defines our historical moment, it’s the off-loading of the labor of production and self-management onto the individual citizen. You can see this in free-lancing and internships and any number of other places. But you can also see it in media. The modes of interactivity and multi-media storytelling that empower audiences to make their own unique sense of the media around them usually invite them to make sense of that media specifically – media which have often been pre-selected and pre-digested for them.   Fig 3 Moviedrome Interior of Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, Gate Hill Cooperative, Stony Point New York, circa 1963-65. Photograph by Stan VanDerBeek. Courtesy of the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.         You can see this to some degree online. But you can see it much more clearly in the ways that so many material environments are becoming multi-media experience machines. Think of airplanes, with TVs on every seatback. Or think of sports bars, with all the games on at once. Or think of the apps on your cell phone. We’ve entered a world in which the interactivity and multi-modality that once promised to free us from fascism has in fact brought us into ever closer relationships with large institutional forces. Now, just to be clear: I’m not at all arguing that corporations or states are necessarily authoritarian. I am arguing that we need to see that the terms of our media freedom these days are a lot more constrained than we may think.

 

Henry: The Democratic Surround explicitly seeks to push beyond some of the encrusted ideological critiques of the Cold War and the idea of domestic containment. You want us to understand that in many ways, the leading thinkers and artists of this period were pursuing a progressive, even multicultural agenda, for whatever blind spots or complicities they might seem to display. What do you see as some of the most significant misperceptions about American thought during the 1950s? What do you see as the value of rethinking this period?

Fred: The history of the Cold War that we’ve inherited has largely been written by a generation of scholars who grew up in the 1960s and came of professional age in the 1980s. They witnessed the Vietnam War, the recession of the 1970s, the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. Out of those times, their generation has carried a deep fear of the government, a faith in the power of self-organized networks, and a belief that personal expression, properly organized, represents the highest form of politics. These beliefs have made it harder for them to see the complexity of the 1940s and the 1950s and much harder for all of us to deal with the complexities of our own time. The canonical story runs something like this: After World War II, America settled into a pattern of ubiquitous repression in its foreign policy, its domestic race relations, and its family life. When a new generation realized how personal politics could be, they took to the streets, and only once they got there did political change begin. This story contains some large grains of truth, but it misses crucial distinctions. World War II, for instance, gave rise to the military-industrial establishment, but it also sparked a radical critique of American racism. That critique flourished not only among disenfranchised bohemians, but among elite intellectuals and public officials. By 1948 or so, large numbers of Americans supported a very radical vision of world government. It wasn’t the Communism of the 1930s, but it was a deeply collectivist vision of global unity. That vision has been read in recent years as an oppressive universal humanism, an effort to turn the entire world American, white and middle-class. In the 1950s, the United States would certainly leverage that vision in an effort to contain Communism abroad. But the vision itself, then and now, contained within it the seeds of our own celebration of human diversity. A second belief: that the personal only became political in the 1960s. This claim seems to have been born out by the host of identity-based political movements that emerged in the 1970s. But it’s not true. The effort to distinguish America from Germany at the start of World War II set loose a critique of racism, anti-Semitism, and even gender conformity – in the late 1940s and early 1950s – that has largely been forgotten. Figures like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict believed that the personalities of a given culture made that culture what it was. Democracy in their view was always simultaneously a political and a psychological phenomenon. Freedom consisted in the ability to be oneself; a free society empowered individuals to fulfill their potential, together. What matters here is not only that the personalization of politics that we associate with the 1960s began a generation earlier. What matters is that it lived in the epicenter of American intellectual and political life. Writers who grew up during the Vietnam War, as I did, remain deeply suspicious of the state, for very good reasons. Yet governments are not monoliths. As I dug into the archives of America’s premier Cold War propaganda agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), I found extraordinary arguments going on about the nature of democracy, about the degree to which Americans should impose their agendas on others, and the like. During World War II, members of the Committee for National Morale advised President Roosevelt and his cabinet; at the height of the Cold War, John Cage lectured at the same 1958 World’s Fair at which the USIA was promoting our national goals – and he spoke in terms that would have been entirely familiar and congenial to the most ardent American propagandists. I point this out to show that during the 1940s and 1950s, the American intellectual landscape had not yet been cordoned off into countries of ardent Cold Warriors confronted by equally ardent strivers after civil and human rights. Nor had the state as a whole become an exclusively oppressive force, internally or even internationally. I don’t mean to downplay the tensions of the time. I’m well schooled in McCarthy’s witch trials, the race riots of the 1940s, the very real gender re-segregation that took place after World War II, and the darkness of the Cold War closet. But I believe that if we can jettison the notion that only bohemian, expressive politics lead to social change of a personal kind, we can begin to see our own lives in a new light. In our moment, it isn’t our personal expression that’s under attack. On the contrary, we live in an era in which the mainstream mass media celebrate our array of sexual and racial identities. Think of the TV show Modern Family, for instance. Right now, it’s our institutions that are suffering. Have you looked up at a highway bridge lately? Have you popped into a public school and counted the number of kids in an average classroom? Have you looked at more than a decade of war and wondered how it is that the government has been able to keep troops in the field so long with nary a peep from the American public? And how has the left responded to these events? Well, we had Occupy – a movement organized around the collective expression of identity in public places and the building of mostly temporary networks. Meantime, the right has had the Tea Party – a movement anchored in already existing institutions, often churches, aimed at building new institutions, and it has already had an extraordinary effect on our government. Occupy has certainly framed the debate – it’s important know who’s part of the 99% and who isn’t. But it’s the Tea Party that has actually changed – or really, paralyzed – government policy. I’m hoping that if we can look back into the 1940s and the 1950s, we can see a world in which it is possible to work for radical political transformation within and around the most powerful institutions of our day – including the media and the government.

Henry: Anthropologists, Sociologists, and Psychologists (not to mention early Communication scholars) play key roles in shaping policies in the United States during this period. Why were these disciplines so central to the thinking of the American government during the war and post-war years? What factors have shaped a shift in the status of these humanistic fields in the subsequent decades? Today, many universities are closing down their anthropology programs, for example, and our educational policies are very much driven by a STEM agenda.

Fred: These are pretty tough questions! I’ll do my best. I think the answer to the first question has to do with the kind of country America was at the time. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States was not yet a global hegemon. In a lot of ways, it was a somewhat backward place – largely rural, racially divided, and not yet even fully unified geographically the way it is today by the highway system. Within this world, anthropologists especially, but also psychologists and sociologists, seemed to offer a window on the world beyond our shores. They seemed to understand how things really worked – in far away Asia and Africa, in the urban jungles of our own cities, in the tropics of our minds. They also shared an understanding that individual personalities and cultures mirrored one another and that communication – mediated and interpersonal – shaped both. When World War II began, scholars in these fields seemed to have a uniquely sharp-eyed view of the international field in which the United States now felt compelled to play. They also seemed to understand how to motivate the American people to go to war. But that’s not quite enough to explain their appeal over time I think. For that, we need to acknowledge the technicist character of some of their analyses. Mead, Bateson, Allport, Fromm – they were humanists. But many of their colleagues committed acts of highly technicized social science – field and laboratory experiments for instance, quantitative content analysis, and the like. These sorts of scientistic activity produced the actionable results that government leaders needed. And even where they didn’t, they produced the image of social scientists as men of action (and yes, they were almost all men). How did such scholars lose their place at the table? Vietnam. One of the most painful moments I had researching this book came as I read through the history of the Center for International Studies (CENIS) at MIT. CENIS was a social science think tank funded partly by the CIA. In its papers, you can see social scientists like Walt Rostow and Ithiel de Sola Pool turning the pro-democratic tools of the 1940s into instruments for crushing Asian communism. It’s horrifying. I don’t think American intellectuals have quite forgotten what happened there. Some of the best and brightest social scientists of the 1950s and 1960s, working with the very best of intentions, helped mastermind a national atrocity. This is part of the reason that the historiography of this period remains so stark. The generation of scholars who grew up during Vietnam identified with personal liberation movements here and with post-colonial liberation abroad. Some even tended to conflate the two. This has created a slow-burning identity crises within several fields. If a field is designed to map more or less universal rules of social engagement and if the application of universal rules is an essentially oppressive, colonizing endeavor, then what is the proper job of a social scientist? You can see the legacy of Vietnam in the anxiety for scholars of culture, and particularly anthropologists of the 1980s and 1990s, to be “reflexive” in their work – that is, to so thoroughly disclose the biases of their own social position as to inoculate themselves against charges of intellectually colonizing the Other. For what it’s worth, I don’t agree that the social sciences have faded from view. I do see that the lion’s share of funding from the government now goes to STEM disciplines. I think that happens because the outcomes of training in those areas can be so clearly linked to things Congressman care about – jobs, profits, economic growth. But the power of STEM per se isn’t new. The space race and the Cold War drove research in that area to a level of funding and creative abandon that would be hard to imagine today except perhaps in the privately funded stratospheres of Google and Apple and Microsoft. Even with government funding down, the social sciences remain intellectually pretty hardy. Psychology in particular remains very strong. Communication has been reinvigorated by the rise of digital media. Anthropology’s role has certainly shifted — partly I think because America has changed. After World War II, we became a much more cosmopolitan nation, and as we did, we no longer needed anthropologists to manage our first contacts with foreign peoples. Sociology has split I think into a more technicist, campus-bound wing, and a more public-facing style. Just think of the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell – not a social scientist, but certainly a purveyor of sociology.

 

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Three)

You talk a bit in the book about some of themes we tackled in Spreadable Media — the degree to which more and more media comes to us because it is passed along by our friends rather than through mainstream distribution. How does this impact the challenges we face in developing a more “cosmopolitan” perspective on the world? What do you see as some of the limitations of “social discovery”?
I see social discovery as a third paradigm in how we find information online. In the early commercial internet, we saw a lot of curators from an earlier generation of media taking their place in the digital world. These curators are very helpful in guiding us to unexpected discovery, pointing us to media we might not have otherwise found, but they have been challenged and unseated by an internet-age suspicion of “gatekeepers”, who silence some voices and amplify others.
For much of the development of the consumer internet, search has been a dominant paradigm. In search, we look for precisely what we want, and we often find it. It’s a very rewarding experience, but it’s one with some complicated implications. It’s possible to surround ourselves with information that confirms our existing biases and prejudices, and to filter out voices that might challenge our preconceptions. And search demands that we know what we’re looking for, which is problematic, because we don’t always know what we want or what we need.
Social discovery has emerged in part as a way of reintroducing serendipity into online discovery. It gives us signals about what our friends are interested in that we’ve not yet discovered, which allows us the experience of novelty and discovery. But what we’re discovering is what our friends knew, which means our horizons are limited to those of our friends. If we’re blessed with a broad and knowledgeable set of friends, this can be a very profound discovery mechanism. But for many of us, our friends have similar backgrounds and similar perspectives, and discovering the world through their shared media may reinforce our existing worldviews, not only telling us what we want and expect to hear, but persuading us that our perspectives are universal ones, because our friends share that perspective.
I think that spreadable media escapes some of these limitations in that fandoms often bring together people from very different backgrounds around a shared media experience. Sharing a fondness for sumo gives me a point of encounter with people in Japan, Mongolia, Bulgaria and Brazil (four countries well represented in sumo at present) and the possibility to discover new perspectives through the encounter. But it’s possible to imagine other experiences of sharing an interest that leads you back to people you already encounter in your daily existence – I’m not sure my experience as a Red Sox fan broadens my social or global perspectives very much.
You draw heavily across the book on your experiences with Global Voices. What has this project taught you about the kinds of human resources, processes, and technologies needed to facilitate meaningful exchanges across national borders?
Global Voices has taught me two major lessons: the importance of face to face relationships, and the idea that cross-cultural communication is a skill. Global Voices is celebrated as a virtual community that somehow manages to bring 1400 people in 100 countries together to work on a common project. While that’s true, the secret of the community is that we invest heavily in face to face contact. The project started at a meeting at Harvard, and most of our important decisions have been made when many of us are able to be together in the same space. It’s ironic that a project about connection through digital media is so physically mediated, but I think that just reinforces how significant in person encounter remains in a digital age. I think a lesson learned from our experience is that it can be very valuable to combine short burst of face to face encounter with use of digital media to prepare for and deepen relationships. We’re big fans of introducing people online, bringing them together in person for a few days, then asking them to work together virtually for years at a time.
Most of the people involved with Global Voices are bridge figures, brokering ideas and information between two or more cultures. I’m increasingly persuaded that this sort of bridging is a skillset that can be developed and cultivated. People in our community who are committed to some other form of cultural bridging aside from blogging or writing – living and working outside their home culture, working across different socioeconomic groups – tend to be our strongest and most productive community members. And people who work with us through the years, particularly people who work in different positions within the organization, develop a very strong suite of tools that allow them to mitigate conflicts and build new connections.
As for the technological piece: we’re almost luddites at Global Voices. We used IRC for many years for internal conversations, and mailing lists. We’re reluctant to embrace technologies until they are very widely usable. But we’re starting to make some shifts. GV Faces is my favorite new project – it’s a panel discussion on an issue in the news, held via Google Hangouts and recorded for broadcast on YouTube. When we started Global Voices, it was hard to imagine that we’d see technology advance to the point where we could do a global video talking heads show, but that’s where we are, and I’m loving the outcome.
You also draw on your experiences as a fan of certain forms of global pop music. To what degree might music circulate across borders that it is harder for news to cross? Does this movement pose a risk that the music will be exoticized, decontextualized, and misunderstood or does it potentially spark interests and connections that can lead to thicker forms of communication down the line? Might the same thing be said for other kinds of cultural products — Japanese Anime or Bollywood films, for example?
Music is the easiest route into a new culture for me – I’ve listened to and collected global pop music since my teens, and my first trip in any new city is to the record store. There are many countries where I know nothing about the politics but something about the music. For me, knowing something about a country’s music opens me to learning something about the news or the politics – when I follow the rebellion and civil war in Mali, I’m thinking of the wealth of amazing songwriters in Bamako, and about the guitar playing of Tinariwen and other Tuareg musicians.
There’s no doubt that music can be a space for appropriation without exploration. I examine Diplo’s use of Brazilian dance music in Rewire and conclude that he’s skating right up to the line, if not crossing it, in his work with MIA. But I also consider how a blatant, naked appropriation – Deep Forest’s use of “Rorogwela”, a Solomon Islands lullaby, which they repackage as “pygmy music” from the Congo – leads internet artist Matt Harding to seek out the creator’s family in the Solomon Islands and make a deep and significant personal tie. Harding found a piece of music he loved, learned the complicated story behind it and it ultimately led him to make personal connections behind the music.
I think cultural media like music, movies and food are often a shortcut around the caring problem. I may know little about the Uighur and their ongoing struggles with the Chinese government, but I know – and dig – the music of Zulpitar Zaitov, and so I’m inclined to pay more attention to Uighur news than I otherwise would. I see no reason why this couldn’t work around anime or Bollywood, and suspect it probably does.

 

You are now heading up the MIT Center for Civic Media. How might the projects you are developing there help to further address the challenges you’ve identified throughout your book?
I talk in Rewire about a set of tools that can help us monitor our individual use of media and decide whether or not we are getting the diverse picture of the world we need. We’re building some of those tools at Center for Civic Media, using the Media Cloud software that I’ve been working on for years with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Tools like Catherine d’Iganzio’s Mapping the Globe are designed to help us visualize the concentrations and biases of media coverage. Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavits have built a tool called Follow Bias that helps show how many women, men and brands you’re following on Twitter and, perhaps, make a decision to change your behavior and follow more (or fewer) women. We’re also building tools that look at how ideas and culture spread globally, as with a tool like What We Watch, which maps global audiences for YouTube videos. Finally, we’re starting to build tools that help you add serendipity to your media diet. Catherine is working on a Masters thesis called Terra Incognita, which helps you monitor where in the world you pay attention to and discover sources from parts of the world which are unknown to you.

Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Two)

The word, cosmopolitanism, is often used and often misunderstood. What does the term mean to you? What do you see as the core values or virtues of adopting a more cosmopolitan perspective?
I debated whether or not to use the world “cosmopolitanism” in the book, as it evokes a sense of globe-hopping placelessness that’s not what I wanted to evoke. But I ended up using it because I found Kwame Appiah’s thinking about cosmopolitanism so helpful.
Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.
I’m struck by how personal a response Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is. He navigates two very different cultures in his life – his academic life in Princeton and his family in Ghana – and aspects of that life, notably his homosexuality, can be very controversial in one environment and uncontroversial in another. The solution he proposes, it struck me, is one of the more thoughtful approaches to life in a world where we continually encounter other ways of thinking and living. A cosmopolitan approach offers us the encouragement to discover other ways of solving a problem while accepting the idea that we may choose to continue living in ways we have in the past. What we are not free to do is to dismiss other ways of living out of hand, or to fall back on a narrow, tribal definition of obligation. It strikes me as a responsible reaction to a world that is connected in ways large and small, in ways we rarely see or understand.
 You discuss across the book the symptoms of an “incomplete globalization.” Is it incomplete in the sense that it is broken or incomplete in the sense that it is still in process? 
One of the criticisms I’ve received about the book is that it’s insufficiently critical of contemporary global capitalism. One reason critics have brought up that objection is that I’m enthusiastically pro-globalization, though not in the ways most people use that term. I’ve been involved with global economic development for the past two decades, and it has persuaded me that what developing economies need is more globalization, not less. Nations that have the hardest time educating their populations and giving them economic opportunities tend to be those most detached from global trade and migration flows. This doesn’t mean that I support exploitative globalization, and I think that a great deal of what happens at the WTO and other international trade fora is rigged against developing nations. But the enemy isn’t globalization – it’s bad, unfair globalization.
I use “incomplete globalization” as a way of describing a tension between three types of movement. Atoms are quite free to move across global borders – we’ve built trade systems that allow low-cost sourcing of raw materials and manufactured goods from across continents and oceans. While trade in atoms isn’t barrier free, it’s far less restrained than the flow of people, which has been dramatically restrained in the 20th century, to the great detriment of many in the developing world. I am deeply influenced by Lant Prichett’s arguments which make the case that increased migration would be the single biggest step taken towards economic development in poor nations. My contribution to the debate is to note that globalization of bits often lags behind globalization of atoms, closely following the globalization of people. I am concerned that a world where we globalize atoms and not bits is a dangerous world – we are dependent on other parts of the world without understanding local circumstances. So I would argue for a more complete globalization of atoms, bits and people, in ways that are careful, fair and focused on human development. So “incomplete globalization” is both broken in some ways, and incomplete, though my focus is one the ways it is incomplete and imbalanced between globalization of atoms, people and bits.
 
You make a productive distinction in the book between Xenophiles and bridge figures. What are the differences between the two? What kinds of functions do they each serve in connecting people together across national differences? How do they both fit within a larger vision of a more cosmopolitan culture?
For me, bridge figures are the cultural brokers and translators who work to make cultures understandable to each other. Bridge figures have deep attachments to two or more cultures – they’ve usually lived and worked in different parts of the world, and they’ve chosen to champion those cultures, identifying the good parts in one and introducing them to the other.
If you’re going to have an advocate for a culture, they need someone to advocate to. Xenophiles are people who seek inspiration and new ideas in different cultures. They don’t have the background in the different cultures to build new bridges, but they can cross the ones that bridge figures build.
For the project of increasing global understanding and connection, both types of figures are critical. I probably emphasize the function of the bridge figure more thoroughly in Rewire because it’s hard for me to imagine much global connection without bridging. But xenophiles – particularly xenophiles who wear their interests and passions on their sleeves, like Anthony Bourdain and his relentless search for interesting global food – are enormously important in promoting the possibility and importance of international connection. Not everyone can be a bridge figure, I argue – it’s an accident of circumstances as well as a choice of perspective and temperment – but xenophilia is a choice and one I hope more people will make.
 What steps might educators take to foster a greater interest and engagement with the kinds of global communication flows that you value? Is it simply a matter of encouraging Americans to learn foreign language or beefing up geography teaching, or does it require rethinking the curriculum at a deeper level?

Languages, geography, history and travel are all powerful tools to encourage engagement, but I think we need a more fundamental change in educational systems. We need much greater awareness of interconnection so that the importance of understanding the wider world is far more apparent. We’re lousy about teaching students the complex systems that hold the world together – trade, financial flows, shipping, migration – so it’s not a surprise that complex stories that require us to understand interconnection are hard to develop audiences for.

Near the end of the book, you discuss “cognitive diversity” and its value in contemporary organizations. How do you define this concept? In what sense is it different from “Identity diversity”? What steps can organizations take to foster and sustain greater “cognitive diversity” in their operations?
Cognitive diversity and identity diversity have some common ground, but do not fully overlap. Cognitive diversity recognizes different ways of thinking about problems and tends to track to differences in cultural upbringing and education. Two people who have different ethnic and religious backgrounds might think very similarly if they were raised in the same geographic community and attended the same set of schools and trained in the same ways.
Near the end of Rewire, I argue that teams benefit from cognitive diversity and may need to look for it both through identity diversity and above and beyond identity diversity. This likely requires changing how we recruit talent, looking at broader pools of individuals with different paths towards qualification. It also means making a commitment towards building teams to encourage diversity and accepting some conflict over more comfortable, homophilous teams, possibly trading some degree of comfort and harmony for creative tension.
Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Digital Cosmpolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part One)

Ethan Zuckerman is one of the big thinkers, and doers who consistently inspires me. His Wikipedia entry identifies him as “an American media scholar, blogger, and internet activist.” All of this is true, but that’s just part of the picture. He’s also someone who consults regularly with major foundations, think tanks, NGOs, and policy-makers, as they try to understand the potentials, and risks, of networked computing. As the founder of GeekCorps and Global Voices, he’s put his geeky skills to work to try to change the problems which worry him the most about our contemporary culture. He’s someone who has a formed a network of other bloggers and digital activists around the world, and someone who travels often to parts of the planet that most of us could not point out on a map, in order to better understand the political, cultural, and technological conditions on the ground there. He’s become one of our best thinkers about “digital age civics” and through his work as the Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, he’s leading a team of graduate students as they seek to design tools which might empower activists and community leaders to be more effective at fostering social change. He does this while remaining mild-mannered, easy-going, modest, and open-minded, a model for what an engaged public intellectual might look like in the 21st century. I am lucky to be able to call him a friend.
Last year, he published an important and timely book, Rewired: Digital Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Connection, which should be required reading for all Americans. Zuckerman is asking us to think more deeply about how we learn about the world and whether our access to the WORLD Wide Web has done much to change the parochialism within our culture. Here, he draws on the full range of his experiences to bring us face to face with the blind spots in our information consumption, with the challenges in overcoming isolationist and xenophobic tendencies in our society, but also to propose alternative strategies by which some people are becoming “bridge builders” who embrace diversity and insure that we have greater access to alternative  perspectives. Zuckerman understands the complexities and contradictions of our current moment, adopting a position that is sometimes optimistic, somethings skeptical, but always feels  is in the service of building a better society.
In the interview that follows, Zuckerman spells out some of the core concepts from Rewired, including some consideration of what the book might have to say to fans, journalists, educators, and other citizens.
Much of the media discussion around the Arab Spring movements has centered on the fantasy of more person-to-person communications across borders via social media rather than through the more formal relations between nations or the mediated communications of traditional journalism. Why has this fantasy of a “Twitter Revolution” proven so compelling to people when their everyday practices often involve relatively limited communications outside of their immediate circles of friends and families?
 
Like many compelling fantasies, the Twitter Revolution myth has some roots in fact. Tunisia’s revolution had a strong media component. Protests in Sidi Bouzid would likely have been invisible to the rest of Tunisia and the rest of the world had they not been documented on Facebook, edited and contextualized by Nawaat.org and amplified by Al Jazeera. And there are deep ties between activists in Tunisia and in Egypt that helped spread ideology and tactics of those revolutions via social media. But any account of the Arab Spring that doesn’t focus on existing labor movements, soccer fanclubs, neighborhood organizations and other forms of offline social organizing misses the point.
 
I think Twitter revolutions are such a compelling idea because they allow us to inscribe ourselves on global events. If digital media is the key actor in a political event, and we’re participating by amplifying tweets online, we are part of the revolution, an exciting and compelling prospect. And there are times when this, too, is true – if an event is visible locally and invisible globally, and we take responsibility for translating and amplifying it, leading to global coverage, we might, in fact, share some credit for changing circumstances on the ground.
 
But this ability to be a participant in a minor way in a global event tends to blind us to our more ordinary use of these media. Very few of us are Andy Carvin, using our online presence to curate digital media and connect our readers to global events. Our use of these tools tends to be about connecting with friends and interests that are far closer to home. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it’s fine for social media to be a tool that connects us locally if we have other media that informs and connects us globally. What strikes me as dangerous is the illusion of connection, the compelling idea that we are encountering global perspectives via digital media when we’re mostly reinforcing local ones.
 
You write, “[New Media] tools help us to discover what we want to know, but they’re not very powerful in helping us discover what we might need to know.” This seems to be a central theme of the book, that we have opened up new channels of communication which might allow us to connect with others around the world, but that our use of those tools has been limited by a lack of motivation or understanding. We seek out information only about those topics we already care about, and a large part of the world falls outside of that zone of interests. What are some of the signs that our interest in the world is more limited than our technological reach at the present time?
 
 I think the main reminder is sense of surprise that pervades much of modern life. The Arab Spring was a surprise, but only up to a point. For those few watching Tunisian social media, it became clear pretty quickly that something deeply unusual and transformative was taking place. At Global Voices, we were able to see the protests unfolding weeks before they received attention in mainstream American media. There’s a strong tendency in our contemporary media environment to pay attention to stories only when they’ve reached a crisis point – we’re always arriving in the fourth act, and we never stay through the denoument. It’s possible to imagine a form of media that’s scanning the horizons and giving us a better sense of what’s coming, not what’s already arrived.
 
I think a second reminder is our ability to turn on global networks at moments of crisis. The global response to SARS was quite amazing – within a week of identifying a new syndrome, the WHO had global videoconferences that allowed frontline medical personnel to identify symptoms and jointly diagnose new cases. Once those networks were set up, the spread of the disease slowed dramatically. When we need international connection, we’re capable of bringing it about very quickly.
 
One of the reasons the book has been challenging to describe is that this question you’re asking -what are we missing when we’re so tightly attached to local media – is a really hard one to answer. I tend to understand it in personal terms. I follow African media, particularly west African media, quite closely, due to my long personal ties to the region, and as a result, I see stories well in advance of their visibility in broader media. And while that sounds self-congratulatory, patting myself on the back for my global vision, the actual experience is more anxiety-producing, because it’s a perpetual reminder of how much there is to know and discover. The little I know about Nigerian politics that most Americans don’t is a perpetual reminder of how much else is going on in the world, and how little we encounter until it manifests as a crisis or emergency.
 
What roles does the news media play in shaping what we care about and conversely, to what degree does our lack of concern or interest impact what the news media is prepared to cover?
 

I think this relationship between caring and coverage matters much more than it did a generation ago. Newspapers include stories on a wide range of topics, local, national and international. Until recently, our sense for what readers wanted to hear about came from newsstand sales and letters to the editor, very inexact tools for understanding which stories were being read and which were being ignored. Now we have incredibly granular information, that shows interest on a story by story level, including readership and time spent per reader per article. Publishers are acutely aware of these statistics, and more editors and writers are becoming aware of these figures. It becomes harder and harder for authors to report on stories that don’t already have an audience, as there’s a very strong temptation to write what people want to hear, as they will reward you with their attention.

 
This becomes a circular equation, because people need help developing an interest in new topics. A fascinating story isn’t immediately apparent or comprehensible to an audience. Take the mortgage crisis a few years back – most coverage focused on the moment to moment details, featuring stories that were comprehensible to financial professionals and few others. This American Life made a major investment – an hour-long story called The Giant Pool of Money – that helped audiences understand the crisis and become better consumers of future stories on the crisis. If we wanted people to pay attention to protests in Sudan (people beyond those of us who are already watching those protests), we’d need to invest time, energy and reader attention in explaining the context and importance… and we’d be gambling that we were able to create an audience for that story in the future. 
 
The net result of this cycle, I fear, is that we get an enormous amount of information on stories we “know” are important – the minutia of US federal elections and the machinations of Congress  – and very little information on parts of the world we know little about, care little about, and care little about because we hear little about.
 
I’ve often thought that there might be a need to shift from a focus on international news (news about things happening elsewhere on the planet) to global news (news that shows the connections between distant events and people in our own communities.) Would such an approach help resolve the gaps you are describing here? Why or why not?
 
I think we’d gain a great deal from journalism that helped contextualize global events in local terms. The best newspapers and broadcasters have historically tried to do this – one of the losses we experience  when local newspapers cut international bureaus is the connection between global stories and local communities. 
We need something broader, I suspect, as not every event in Myanmar has an immediate local connection. Sometimes we need heroes and heroines – think of Malala in Pakistan and the ways in which her story has been a window into gender and educational issues in that part of the world. While we can go too far and turn a story about issues into a story about a single person, we often benefit from stories that let us feel like we know and care about an individual in another country or culture.
 
I think we also need to learn how to tell stories that look at local facets of global issues. A story like climate change is critically important, but extremely difficult to report. We might benefit from an approach to reporting that showed us the implications for different people in different communities, interweaving personal stories with the science and politics of the issues.
 
Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathabekar (Part Three)

Despite your description of the range of media industries and practices which construct Bollywood today, it is clear that cinema remains the center around which all of these other media systems operate, and you also argue that cinema remains core to understanding the connections between Indian diasporic identity and media. So, what accounts for the continued centrality of cinema to the narrative you are constructing, given the other pressures towards transmedia and transnational logics you describe?

There are several reasons for the privileged position cinema occupies. The first is simply the enduring popularity of films and film music (mainly Hindi language cinema from Bombay) among South Asian families who migrated to the U.S. following changes in immigration law in 1965. From the late 1960s, when enterprising families began screening films in university halls and other venues, to the recent forays into film exhibition by Bombay-based media companies like Reliance Entertainment, Hindi-language Bollywood films continue to dominate the Desi mediascape.

These film screenings were usually held in university halls rented for a few hours during the weekend, with films screened off 16mm, and later, 35mm reels. These weekend screenings, with an intermission that lasted 30-45 minutes, were an occasion, apart from religious festivals, for people to wear traditional clothes, speak in Hindi or other regional languages, and participate in a ritual that was reminiscent of “home.”

During a period in which there were no cultural institutions in place, and little on offer in mainstream media that resonated with their emotions, nostalgic longing, and cultural values, leave alone addressing the difficulties of life in a new cultural space, these screenings were marked as an exclusively Indian space, away from mainstream society, where families could meet and participate in a ritual of sharing personal and collective memories of life in India.

A second reason that films and film music figure prominently in discussions of Desi youth culture relates to Desi youth appropriating and re-mixing film songs and dance sequences in college events, dance clubs, and so on.

Third, it is in and through cinema that diasporic writers and directors like Hanif Kureishi, Mira Nair, and Gurinder Chadha began addressing the complexities of claiming and defining South Asian identities in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.

But you’re right that we are beginning to see some major changes in the diasporic mediascape. One question to ask is: do we even have a space for diasporic south asian films?

Mira Nair’s The Namesake does deal with diasporic themes, but it is a Bombay-based company that produced and distributed the film. Further, we are not at a point in the cultural life of the South Asian diaspora where media from the Indian subcontinent is only one part of a very diverse mix. Finally, with a range of actors of Indian-origin making their way into American and British public culture, one might argue that the diasporic sensibility that marked the work of cultural producers during the late 1980s-mid-1990s has given way to engagement with mainstream media.

 You begin your discussion of Bollywood fans by setting up the contrast between grassroots forms of media circulation that get labeled “media piracy” and various forms of industry cooperation which get labeled “crowdsourcing.” Is there a meaningful “space in between” these two paradigms? If so, what does it look like?

Part of the difficulty involved in charting the terrain of participatory culture surrounding Bollywood, especially in an era of networked audiences and publics, stems from the sheer range of sites and modes of participation one encounters. And in the Indian context, our understanding of participatory culture remains tied to a very specific history of fan associations and their links to electoral politics in south India. This narrative of fan/cine-politics has been so dominant that other modes and sites of participatory culture have not been considered, leave alone studied in systematic fashion, for no apparent reason other than their seemingly “non-political” character.

In fact, the topic of fan activity has not even been raised in relation to Bollywood. So in the book, I drew on some research I’ve done on fans of A. R. Rahman to argue that we need to move beyond narratives of political mobilization. The major Rahman fan community online includes fans who are primarily interested in film music, fans based in Malaysia for whom participation in the Rahman fan community is part of a larger process of claiming a Tamil ethnic identity, fans in India who work with Rahman, some fans who are, yes, “pirates,” and some who go so far as to police music stores (makeshift stores set up on pavements in busy shopping areas, in shopping complexes, and so on), threatening to call the police if pirated CDs of Rahman’s music are not taken off the shelf.

This is, as you put, a very complex “space in between” piracy and crowdsourcing. And we simply do not have the critical vocabulary to describe and theorize what’s going on in this space.

While my own recent work has sought to map the emerging links between fandom and activism, you argue that these links have totally dominated discourse around Bollywood film fans to the extent that they crowd out understandings of film consumption in the context of everyday life practices. American fan studies has often been accused of not being sufficiently political, of being too interested in the personal, cultural, affective, and social dimensions of popular culture. What might these two groups of scholars learn from each other?

The crucial difference we need to first acknowledge is between film studies and TV/media and communication studies in the Indian context. Film studies is the disciplinary location within which there has been at least some discussion of fandom, even if it has been studied primarily in the south Indian political context.

TV/media studies in the Indian context is yet to take the question of participatory culture seriously. I do not know of a single book-length study of participatory culture surrounding television in India. This is beginning to change in part because the past decade in India has been marked by some very interesting instances of participation surrounding reality TV, for instance, that has intersected with larger political issues.

In my own work in this emerging area, I’ve tried to be very careful to not make easy ‘political’ readings simply because I know next to nothing about the sociable dimensions of participation. And this is what I admire so much about scholars’ work on pleasure and participation in the American context.

As I see it, what we have here in the US is a wealth of historically grounded material on audiences and fans that provides a necessary foundation for examining links between participation and politics. But despite this archive that we have to work with, I feel strongly that it is only when we fully comprehend how participation and everyday life – say, in relation to our current digital and mobile context – are braided together that we can meaningfully pose questions about political impact.

 Your final paragraph includes a very provocative statement, which I was hoping you might expand upon here: “to look broadly at fan participation is to imagine transnational media worlds that are intimately tied to, but not always constrained by, statist or industrial imperatives.” Do tell.

As I’ve already explained, fan activity surrounding cinema in India – south India, in particular – has always had very close connections to the realm of politics. This cine-politics take on fandom has tended to dominate our understanding of participatory culture in India.

However, this cine-politics frame has given way to an extent under the influence of the incredible expansion of the mediascape since the mid-1990s. One of the key changes that the proliferation of television channels engendered was a shift in how audiences were imagined. Television channels like MTV-India, Channel [V], Star Plus, ZEE, and others invited audience participation. Of course, audience participation was tightly controlled and managed expertly – from talent shows to programs like Lift Kara De that leveraged fan labor for ostensibly humanitarian ends.

These changes made it clear that fandom was now an integral part of the corporate media apparatus. What I tried to signal with that last statement is the need to look beyond these two dominant frameworks – politics/state and market – without ignoring their structuring effects. I wanted to make a case for approaching fandom in India from a position of trust rather than suspicion (as my friend and colleague Paddy Scannell argues, media studies tends to operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion). Or to draw on your work, I want us to hop on this realm of pop, not stomp all over it.

For e.g., there is a group of fans who have painstakingly collected and subtitled numerous videos – film clips, TV appearances, interviews, advertisements, etc. – of the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. For anyone who might not understand the Hindi language, this website – srkpagli.net – was a wonderful resource. To approach the work that these fans have done by – a) dismissing it as apolitical or b) as simply a part of the Shahrukh Khan/corporate Bollywood system – is too reductive. I simply wanted to clear the space so we can begin to acknowledge the astonishing range of practices that constitute ‘fandom’ in the Indian context, and in doing so, develop richer and more nuanced accounts of participatory culture.
Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books we have published through the PostMillenial Pop series which I co-edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. 

I have known Aswin Punathambekar since he was part of one of the first cohorts of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, where he did an ethnography/oral history of the experience of South Asian diasporic audiences in Boston as they impacted the reception of Bollywood films. He continued his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his dissertation focused on the online fandom around Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. He has made some key contributions to the project of expanding the study of fandom and participatory culture beyond its origins in Western Culture, as reflected by articles published in Transformative Works and Culture and Popular Communication.

In a relatively short period of time, Punathambekar has developed a scholarly profile that is at once programmatic (in that he continually  deepens our understanding of media production and consumption in India and its global diaspora) and expansive (in that he has used his expertise on Bollywood to bring a much needed non-western perspective to work on a range of topics, including fan studies, participatory culture, media convergence, narrowcasting, mobile media, and digital citizenship, which have been central to media scholarship in the 21st century.) Punathambekar  has expanded upon his initial focus on audience studies to develop a mixed methods approach, which is at once theoretically sophisticated and historically informed.

His new book, From Bombay to Bollywood is a tour de force, one which connects Bollywood decisively to larger conversations about our current moment of media change, one which moves incorporates close readings not only of texts but also of media rituals (informed by the best work in Production Studies), to explain the larger contexts through which Bollywood operates as a global media industry, one that moves backwards from Bollywood’s relationship to digital networks to explore the historic role in radio in helping to shape the circulation of Indian film music.  This expansive understanding of what once might have been treated purely through a lens of “national cinema” was anticipated by his Global Bollywood anthology, which he co-edited with Anadam P. Kavoori. Global Bollywood brought together established scholars with younger researchers, many of whom received their first publications under his leadership, to create an important and groundbreaking exchange around how Hindi Cinema reflects and drives larger developments in the global media scape.

In this interview, he situates Bollywood at a series of intersections between film and other media, between local, regional, national, and transnational industries, between domestic and diasporic audiences, and between producers and fans.

You begin the book with the suggestion that Bollywood should be studied across media rather than through more traditional paradigms of national cinema. What factors have contributed to making Bollywood a particularly rich case for understanding contemporary convergence culture?

I worked out this perspective of media convergence or inter-media relations in part by revisiting a question that several scholars have tackled: how did Bombay emerge and maintain its position as the pre-eminent media capital in India? Film and media scholars have identified a number of key factors: the city’s position as a center of trade and commerce, and the influx, through the decades, of mercantile capital into film-making; its status as a vibrant cultural center, with established theater movements initially providing the film industry with a range of creative personnel; the use of Hindi which accorded the Bombay-based film industry (located in a multi-lingual city and in a state where the official language is Marathi) ‘national’ status whereas film industries in cities like Madras and Hyderabad were ascribed ‘regional’ status; and the impact of India’s partition on other centers of film production, most notably Calcutta and Lahore, and the migration of a number of producers, directors, actors and technicians to Bombay during this period.

I argue that there is another important factor: the role played by new media—radio, television, the internet and the mobile phone—in enabling the Bombay film industry to consistently imagine and mobilize a national and now, transnational audience. Moving past a film-centric approach, the case studies of television and dot-com companies’ relations with the film industry that I develop in the book invite us to consider how various ‘new media’ have, historically, reconfigured the cultural geography of Bombay cinema and Bombay’s status as a media capital.

Considering the case of Radio Ceylon, which broadcast a range of film-based programs that reached audiences across the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, and even some cities in east Africa, encourages us to ponder how other technological and institutional developments influenced the circulation of films and film music, transforming the Bombay film industry’s spatial coordinates and engendering new sites and forms of consumption. This does not necessarily mean that we think only about continuities from the 1950s to the present. Rather, my goal is to open up a space for more grounded explorations of the interwoven histories of different media technologies and institutions and, in the process, expand our understanding of the histories and patterns of media convergence.

So at a basic level, the ‘national cinema’ paradigm isn’t productive given Bombay’s position as a media capital that has always been shaped by trans-national forces and factors.  I’ll say more about the limitations of a strictly ‘national’ framework as I answer other questions here. But I should also point out that film historians like Priya Jaikumar have argued very convincingly that we need to move past the national cinema framework to understand how aesthetics, regulation, and other dimensions of the cinema in India have always been worked out in relation to various trans-national forces and factors.


You note that most work to date within the production studies tradition has focused on western and for the most part, American contexts. So, what might production studies as an emerging paradigm gain from a more thorough exploration of media production in India?

 

This is a crucial question not only for production culture/industry studies but media studies at large. Too often, “global media studies” serves as a mere placeholder for media studies outside Anglo-American academic settings, with “global” gesturing towards studies of “Other” media ecologies. Such studies are often understood as mere case studies that test and refine theoretical concepts developed within media studies proper. In writing this book, I have tried hard to steer clear of fitting what I observed into existing theories of production culture while at the same time avoiding celebrations of local difference.

For instance, I take into account the enduring power of long-standing social and kinship relationships in the Bombay film industry and, equally important, the creative ways in which small-scale, family-run businesses have responded to changes in the global media landscape and calls for corporatization. Examining the impact that the discourse of corporatization has had on the film industry by analyzing the construction of industrial identities suggests that the narrative of transition from one established mode of production to a new one, say Fordism to post-Fordism, does not adequately explain the industrial logics and practices that characterize Bollywood.

In fact, Madhava Prasad’s observation that the Hindi film industry adopted a “heterogeneous form of manufacture in which the whole is assembled from parts produced separately by specialists, rather than being centralized around the processing of a given material,” troubles stagist narratives of media industries in the non-Western world catching up with those in the West. After all, the dominant mode of production in the Bombay film industry could be described using terms like flexible accumulation and de-centralization that theorists like David Harvey use to describe the logics of late capitalism in the West. In other words, the particular histories of capital in Bombay cannot be easily set aside.

But this does not imply documenting a set of practices that are somehow essentially Indian. A closer look at the operations of family firms suggests that production relations defined by mercantile capital and kinship networks are neither static nor contained within national boundaries. And when we move beyond family businesses to consider a wider range of companies and professionals, it becomes clear that every domain of Bollywood including production, distribution, marketing and promotions, and exhibition involves negotiations among actors and institutions enmeshed in multiple, asymmetric, and seemingly incongruent cultures of capitalism.

You link the global extension of Bollywood to shifts in national cultural and media policy in India over the past decade, policies which involved a greater state role in the financing of media production, the regulation and “corporatization” of the media industries, and a recognition of the core cultural mission which film plays in shaping communication between the South Asian Disapora and the mother country. During this same period, though, we’ve seen a growing crisis in state funding and support for cinema, television, and other media across Europe. What might we learn by looking at developments in India and Western Europe side by side as we think about the place of state funding for media production in the 21st century?

Situating the emergence of Bollywood within the socio-historical conjuncture of the past two decades helps us understand how the state worked out its relationship with the cultural industries. Let’s not forget that even though Bombay had emerged as major center of film production during the 1930s and 40s, the Indian state did not regard filmmaking as an important industrial activity or as central to the project of defining national culture. What changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s?

This was a period that witnessed a number of socio-cultural and political transitions engendered by the Indian state’s adoption and gradual legitimization of neo-liberal economic policies including the privatization of different sectors of the economy and, broadly speaking, attempts to integrate the nation into a global economy. Among other arenas of cultural production, Hindi-language films and television shows played a crucial role in mediating these concerns. So one way to understand the state’s overtures towards the media industries is in terms of the media industries having become useful to the state. This is, of course, a global story. For instance, we see this kind of strategic alignment of state-media relations in the UK and Australia under the “creative industries” banner.

But in the Indian context, the usefulness of the media and entertainment industries was articulated in more than just this economic sense. If we consider Bollywood’s presence in settings such as the World Economic Forum (at Davos), we can see that the transformation of the Bombay film industry into Bollywood was caught up in a larger process of the state re-aligning its understanding of ‘culture as resource’ away from well-worn developmentalist paradigms towards meeting the demands of new circuits of capital. While development-oriented media production had its own shortcomings, it wasn’t beholden to commercial mandates. If anything, it is all the more difficult now to imagine carving out a space for independent and public media production.

It is also important to keep in mind that this particular re-alignment of state-media relations ended up privileging Bollywood as the global (Indian) media industry. The Tamil and Telugu language film and television industries based in Chennai and Hyderabad, for instance, are anything but “local.” The use of the term “regional” to mark these industries’ position within the Indian mediascape and the Indian state’s material and symbolic investments in Bollywood underscore the continued relevance of the “national” as a scale where the politics of media globalization play out.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Two)

 

What do you see as the limits of the concept of transmedia storytelling for accounting for the range of different production practices you discuss in the book?

 It’s often very appropriate to talk about franchising in terms of transmedia storytelling, but as I understood the concept in my reading of your work in Convergence Culture, I felt that transmedia storytelling represented a kind of aesthetically ideal case of franchising, where every element is designed to work together in a coordinated, coherent, integral way, without elements that seem unimportant to an overarching story.  Often, a way to do this is to ensure that your franchise is being guided by a strong authorial, editorial, or managerial vision.  I may be reading what you originally wrote a bit strictly, and I really love how you have since extended the concept to account for a greater range of multiplicity—where one-off interpretations and “what if?” spins on the franchise still make an integral contribution to the whole through their unique take on the formula.  I’m not always sure that creation under a centralized vision is the most interesting or ideal, so I think that acknowledging the pleasures of multiplicity and divergent interpretations really enhances our understanding of transmedia storytelling.

But where I think transmedia storytelling cannot fully account for the full range of franchising is in the inherent messiness of franchising and its push away from integrated forms of collaboration.  I think that all transmedia storytelling is a form of franchising, but not all franchising manages to count as transmedia storytelling.  The industrial relationships of franchising across boundaries of corporation, media form, and production community lead to a resistance to the kind of collaborative creativity transmedia storytelling implies.  For many in the industry who have embraced the idea of transmedia storytelling, I feel that franchising is the “bad” object they want to move away from.  I think franchising is very much with us still, and I’m interested in it a little more because I want to understand the persistent tensions and struggles and unevenness that the ideal of transmedia storytelling often seems to want to move away from.

 

I have often seen Marvel celebrated as an example of the successful and creative management of a franchise. What do you think Marvel has done that has won over fans, even as it has also been commercially successful? How do you see the new SHIELD television series fitting within the history of Marvel media production you trace within the book?

This speaks not just to the world of comics, but also the world of film, television, and video games that Marvel has colonized over the last fifteen years (where I see its success touted most often in a comparative sense against the failure of competitor DC in similarly trying to build franchises around its characters, Batman excepted).  Coming back again to the idea of authority, I think the way that Marvel has won over fans in this effort over the last five or six years in particular is based in some part in reaffirming the idea of centralized control and authorship against the multiple authorship of franchising (similar to the transmedia storytelling ideal vs. franchising bad object described above).

The Marvel case study in my book actually stops at the moment that Marvel starts to move away from licensing Hollywood studios to produce Marvel films, as has been the case in the 20th Century Fox X-Men and Sony Spider-Man series.  But in a parallel article in Cinema Journal, I explored this new moment where Marvel starts to self-finance and self-produce its own films, starting with Iron Man and of course leadings to last years’ The Avengers.  This involved a shift in the way Marvel executives talked about the company, the (gendered) identities of its talent, and its relationship with Hollywood; Marvel singled itself out as the only entity that truly had the experience and expertise to deal with these characters.

What was needed, this suggested, was not the licensing-based franchise model they had been relying upon, but a more centralized form of creativity where the ideas remained under the control of the entity that originated them.  This was a more authority-driven idea that connected with common sense notion about creativity—of course Marvel would do a better job making Marvel movies.  Of course 20th Century Fox would be less desirable than the originator.

I’m not trying to identity who does and doesn’t make more objectively good comic book films, so much as illustrate how the celebration of Marvel (and the much-repeated suggestion from fans that Marvel try to buy back X-Men and Spider-Man rights from its old studio partners) is in some ways tied to our continued investment in the idea that “real” or “the best” creativity lies with the originator, not the licensee or franchisee.  Marvel’s success, then, lies beyond the screen in tapping into our continued investment in creative authority.

Agents of SHIELD though represents an even newer moment.  With Avengers already planned as the culmination of a multi-year production sequence before Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, I think we’d have to be careful about characterizing the build-up to that 2012 film as truly indicative of how Marvel operates under Disney.  Agents of SHIELD is perhaps one of the first high profile projects to come more fully out of the new relationship with Disney, and its subsidiary, ABC.

One of the big fan concerns about the Disney deal was what this would mean for Marvel’s autonomy, and Marvel is now in the position of needing to assert that autonomy in the face of not just Disney, but also the TV network.  At the same time, you have producers like Joss Whedon working to create as much distance as proximity to the familiar success of the film, suggesting that the series will have a different, more everyday focus and that recognizable superheroes won’t be doing cameos every week.  Much of this is about managing fan expectations, I’m sure, but I also feel some dimension of it must be about assuring audiences that this project has a creative raison d’etre of its own, as well as an executive independence.

 

Where-as others speak of “world-making,” you write extensively here about “world-sharing.” What are some of the challenges of constructing a world that will be “shared” by many industry participants (not to mention diverse fan communities)? Does this phenomenon of “world-sharing” mean that the idea of a transmedia experience as coherent and coordinated is a practical impossibility given the current structure of the entertainment industry?

 

I think I hinted at this above when comparing transmedia storytelling to franchising, in that there are definitely structural obstacles to making world-sharing happen in a coherent and coordinated way.  When media producers operate within different markets and corporate cultures, or even just in different silos within a single parent company, it is logistically difficult to manage collaboration—which is why companies like Starlight Runner have emerged to perform that labor, and we see new transmedia producer credits for those working to push production past those hurdles.

What I want to emphasize though is that the obstacles aren’t always structural and/or economic—they are often social and tied to a sense of production culture and identity.  World-sharing in a coherent and coordinated way is a challenge because there is often no economic incentivize to do so.  But it is also a challenge because there is sometimes no creative incentive to do so (in the sense that creativity is a type of identity and not just an aesthetic trait).

Think about television spin-offs where two or more related series are in production at the same time.  In that case, the shared world makes it possible for characters from one show to pop up on another, but it rarely happens because of both practical scheduling matters and corporate concerns about dilution and confusion of distinct sub-brands.  At the additional level of production culture, however, producers often resist these kinds of stories, identifying one series and set of characters as “theirs”, and others as belonging to another creative community.  So in the 1990s when you had multiple Star Trek series in production under a single franchise manager (Rick Berman), but with each under the pen of a different writing staff, there was a sense of intra-franchise competition, not cooperation.  Each writing staff and crew had duties specific to one part of the shared world, and they often wanted their contributions to be seen as the best, competing for accolades and attention.  So there were occasional crossovers, sure, but producers just as often resisted coordination because each staff wanted to generate its own identity and culture.

I don’t think that the tensions involved with “world sharing” make transmedia storytelling a practical impossibility, however.  It’s just requires working against these factors, and my own concern is more about the desirability of doing so, the unchallenged privilege we might accord the idea of central authority over sharing, and whether these competing creative visions and tensions may have some alternative value beyond their failure to always produce coherent narratives.

In the process of discussing “over-design” as an industrial process, you’ve developed what I see as one of the richest account of the production design process within contemporary entertainment. In many ways, contemporary stories are as much constructed by decisions made by art directors and costume designers as they are by decisions made by screenwriters. Yet, our critical discussion of these productions lags behind, often grumbling about products being overly dependent on “special effects” as if these choices could somehow be isolated from the overall experience of the fictional world. To what degree is it important to see these new franchise properties as “designed” rather than “authored?”

Based on how many times I’ve brought it up already, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that authorship isn’t important, since that idea is often the terrain of struggles over creativity in cultural production.  But the idea of design helps us get past the question of who the author is, and more toward how multiplicity, collaboration, and competing claims to authorship can be supported in creative practices.

I like the framework of “design” because it points to the creation of a system or context in which other things will happen.  That’s how I see a lot of the creative energies of franchising at work, where the creativity that occurs in one instance becomes the context for creativity in another.  It might be a little easier to see these dynamics when comparing different entries in a franchise—the way in which the new Star Wars films will be produced in relation to the design of those that have already been produced, for example.  But even outside of franchising, design could be a useful framework for reconceptualizing authorship more generally, in that we might think about how the creative work of many different labor categories (from directors to production designers to foley artists) occurs in relation to a shared context for designed for collaborative creation.

 

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

“Media Mix Is Anime’s Life Support System”: A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part Four)

As both of you mention, Walt Disney’s work as an animator and as an industry leader exerted a strong influence on the development of the Anime system. What did the Japanese learn from Disney and how were his practices localized for the specific Japanese context?

Ian: Tezuka watched Bambi, 80 or 100 times, depending on which story you believe. He made fanzines of Disney characters. In his manga, “Metropolis,” one of the characters escapes from an evil-doer’s prison by sewing himself inside a giant irradiated rat that looks suspiciously like Mickey Mouse. Anime fans often note that remarkable similarities between Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion” and the much later “Lion King” by Disney.

Then again, as Otsuka Eiji noted at conference that Marc organized at Concordia University: “It’s true that Disney’s Lion King stole from ‘Kimba.’ But that’s OK because Tezuka stole from Bambi.” That got a laugh.

In his 2004 book, “The Complete History of Anime” (in Japanese, Nihon no anime zenshi), the anime historian Yasuo Yamaguchi identified a range of influences that reach from aesthetics to labor and business practices:

• The use of exaggerated expressions—for example, the “squash and stretch system” of deforming characters to emphasize their personalities.

• The storyboard system, which allowed Disney to use a variety of sequential pictures to convey the story and the feeling of the scenes to the animators.

• A curriculum for training new talent, which was necessary because with each hit production, animators would be hired away from Disney at higher salaries. Disney responded by developing a system to train new workers.

• The division-of-labor system, which allowed the Disney studio to work on animated shorts and feature-length films at the same time.

• Establishment of the Disney brand—for example, by describing all works as “Walt Disney presents” and polishing the brand image by having Disney himself personally introduce the works.

• The development of merchandising, whereby the licensor of animated characters would receive 3–7 percent of the sales price of goods related to those characters, which was necessary to offset the deficits incurred by animation production (Yamaguchi, Nihon no Anime Zenshi, 2004: 36–38).

The big adaptation of Disney’s ideas comes from relying increasingly on limited animation to make anime more cheaply, and by relying on already-popular manga characters to ensure a wide viewership.

Henry: One of the things many of us think we know about Anime and Manga is that its readership extends well beyond children, that it is much more diverse than would true of similar productions in the west. How is this diversity managed? Some forms of cultural production seem structured around generational or subcultural niches, while others get discussed in terms of their ability to enable transgenerational communication. What can you tell us about the relationship between niche and mainstream as they operate in this context?

Ian: Perhaps the key to the diversity around manga is that it is not well managed, at least not from above. What is managed is incorporating reader responses.

As I discuss in my book’s chapter 5, some writers have pointed out, correctly I think, that manga represents a kind of “democratic capitalism,” in the sense that the most popular works are also the best. They contrast this with music and film, where heavy-handed marketing can make somewhat mediocre productions become big hits. Not so, they argue, with manga. People who love manga read a lot of it. You can read it for free standing in a convenience story, and even manga that is purchased generally gets passed around to at least a few friends.

I’ll never forget when I met one of the founders of Comic Market (the enormous manga fanzine convention), and I asked him what manga I should be reading. He said, “All of it.”

I think that’s the attitude of the serious fans. They go through a tremendous amount of material. Each weekly-serialized magazine comes out with about 20 stories, and the readers are asked to send in postcards evaluating the best and worst three. The major publishers receive about 3000-4000 postcards a week. Popular series keep going, and less popular ones are removed to make way for a few of the legions of amateur artists hoping for their big chance.

Indeed, the diversity makes it difficult to characterize the links between niche and mainstream. Put simply, however, that niche series become mainstream often do so the old fashioned way, by building an audience.

Marc, you draw a useful distinction between toys which replicate the characters and toys which help the consumer to become the character. How central are forms of role-play to the cultural and economic processes you are both describing?

Marc: It’s a complex issue. In my book I note how there’s a shift from characters that you can be or play to characters toys that you can play with. In the late 50s costumes for the various characters were the rage, and children imitated their favorite characters, they became them. For a number of reasons including growing urbanization, the decline of play space and time, and the general rise in income that gave children greater spending power, the 1960s saw the rise of toys that can be played with. Children no longer bought the mask, the gun and the gloves, they bought the Astro Boy replica toy. In that moment they were cut out of a certain kind of play that allowed them to be the character – they could only play with the character.

This was followed closely after by the kaiju monster toy explosion that extended this. What I don’t talk about in my book is that the 70s sees a different shift: the rise of video games, where the character appears on screen. In some ways this was an extension of the character you play with, but it was also an opening towards that earlier form of play: you could feel like you are the character onscreen.

Another space we can see the return to being the character is in cosplay, where you build and inhabit the character for particular periods of time. I think it’s in these moments that you find the collaborative energy that Ian discusses. The character becomes the nexus for a kind of creative, or community-forming activity on the part of the cosplaying fans, and a kind of excitement for the surrounding people too.

 The concept of “moe” has been central to the study of Japanese anime, but it may not be familiar to many western readers. What is “moe”? What role does it play in shaping production and reception?

Ian: “Moe” (pronounced “moh-ay”) is a very unusual term. It generally refers to an affectionate yearning, often for young, female characters, and there’s a lot of debate about whether there is a sexual element to this longing or whether it is more about an innocent desire to nurture and protect.

“Moe” also has the same sound, though different kanji character, as “burning.” So, there can also an implication of raging flames of desire.

More precisely, however, “moe” refers to a kind emotional response to visuals, with or without a storyline or world around it. People publish photo books on “factory moe,” for example, aimed at those who respond to the elaborate architecture of refineries or manufacturing plants.

The point of using the term, I think, is to acknowledge the enormous diversity of fascination and desire that can arise from visual elements. Hiroki Azuma, who Marc mentions above, offers an extended discussion of moe in his book Otaku. He makes the point that moe is another departure from the emphasis on story, and even character, focusing instead on elements of characters, like cat ears, a tail, or glasses.

Indeed, the science fiction writer Mari Kotani organizes a regular club event in Tokyo for women who are fascinated by eyeglasses (megane moe). Their response is to the eyeglasses, not the personality of the person behind those eyeglasses. Talk about post-gender!

 Many of us have turned to Japan in search of alternative models for consumer-producer relations. What insights did you gain from your research about the ways that fans have sought to insert themselves in the production process around Anime? To what degree do Japanese media producers solicit the active participation of their audiences?

Ian: This is a really interesting question. My experience is that there is a sharp generational difference among Japanese media producers. The higher-ups at major manga publishers and anime studios begrudgingly admit that fan appropriation is something that they have to accept. The manga publishers I spoke to, for example, hate the idea of Comic Market amateur producers using their characters without permission or recompense. But they don’t really fight it either.

Some say that’s because the Japanese legal system would be harder to navigate successfully. I like to think it’s because deep down, they recognize their need to let fans have their spaces of participation.

As I mentioned already, manga publishers very much do solicit the feedback of fans and work these responses into their selections for future issues of their magazines. Anime producers don’t have this luxury because they have to start work six months in advance of broadcast, so they have a much more difficult time incorporating fan ideas.

But when I interview younger media producers, they seem to be aiming to create a very different kind of media object. They want to produce something that can be a “platform” rather than a narrative or some kind of “content.”

They are learning from the success of Miku, Japan’s crowd-sourced virtual singing idol. Miku started as voice synthesizer software that Crypton Future Media released, along with a free-to-use image of her as a blue-haired, 16-year-old pixie. Fans made the music, elaborated on the illustrations, and created their own videos, such that Miku has become one of the leading singing stars today, even though, technically, she doesn’t exist. Or rather, she exists as the social energy of fans that bring her to life.

In this, younger media producers see that openness, not control, can be the key to success. (Isn’t it interesting how copyright control no longer seems the key to making money?) When I spoke to a recent college grad with his own media startup, he similarly spoke of his desire to follow the path to success of the Toho Project, a vast transmedia phenomena that started as an amateur video game.

In both cases (and we could identify others), the success arises from creating something—a character, a world, a certain kind of premise, or a participatory space around something completely different—that others can build upon. To me, this represents a further shift from thinking about media in terms things internal to a world (story, character, premise) and more about creating figurative platforms that others can build upon.

This perspective has the potential to completely transform what we think of as media, and I think it offers some fascinating possibilities for thinking of the politics and pleasures of media. I guess it simply remains to be seen how spreadable these practices can be.

 

 

Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo’s studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on “globalization from below,” that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.

“Media Mix Is Anime’s Life Support System”: A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part Three)

The term, “character goods,” is often attached to cultural productions from Japan. What does this term suggest about the centrality of character to Japanese media mix? What ideas about character shape these productions? What factors led to this focus on character (as opposed to, say, story or world, or simply style) in the Anime system?

Ian: I see characters as operating in a space somewhere between celebrities and brands. Pikachu can act like a brand logo, standing for the Pokemon franchise when it’s plastered on the side of an airplane. Pikachu is also a character that can be active, like a celebrity, doing things in the Pokemon universe.

I think the dominance of Hollywood in the US makes Americans like myself more accustomed to viewing celebrities as pinnacles of human renown. Yet in Japan, characters, more than brand logos, are commonly used for even very serious organizations. I feel I know the FBI logo from all those DVD warnings to stop illegal copying. But Japan’s National Police Agency has a cutesy character.

In the end, maybe the ubiquity of logos in the US and characters in Japan have the same cause. In the US, if I was starting a new company, or trying to rename my academic department, I would naturally think: What should our new logo be? In Japan, I’d have to ask, what should our character look like?

Popularity breeds more popularity, and we learn those forms from all around us.

In the United States, there’s a tendency to speak of toys, candy, and other tie-in products as “ancillary” yet they seem to have at times exerted very strong influences on Japanese popular culture. How would you define their roles here?

Marc: The more I looked into the practices around the media mix, the more it seemed that every part played an important role. The work “ancillary” just doesn’t do justice to the significance of the sticker in the popularity of Astro Boy in the 1960s.

Or, to take a more contemporary example, Pokémon is not first a game, and only secondarily comics and animation series. It is all of these. Sure, some media have more weight than others, but what’s so fascinating about the media mix is the way the addition of each new element reconfigures the entire ensemble.

Jonathan Gray does a great job of pointing out the centrality of the “ancillary” in the North American context in the wittily titled Show Sold Separately. I think we have to do the same for the Japanese context where actually it’s more difficult to say what is primary to begin with.

Again, taking the case of Astro Boy, the TV show acts back on and influences the comic, the logic of replication found in the stickers work their way back into the theme of replication in the comic, character designs developed for the anime inform the toys, and so on. There’s a way you can write the history of Japanese pop culture from the point of view of candy makers (I was initially tempted to do this), or toys (with video games flowing naturally out of the character-centrism of manga and anime, and toy makers like Bandai becoming major anime producers), or freebees.

Marc, you especially make a point in your book that practices of fragmentation, multiplication, and dispersal, central to the media mix practices, precede the emergence of digital networks. What are some of the roots of these practices then and why do you think that these logics have been so influential on Japanese media?

Marc: The roots of these practices are difficult to pin down exactly. But I’d say the most two important elements here are an intensified serialization and transmediation that occur in the early 1960s.

First, we have a serialized narrative running in a monthly comic magazine. The long-form narrative serial really started in the 1950s. (There were pre-war and wartime serialized manga, but these were more like what television studies calls “series”: sit-com like formats that don’t have any narrative progression.) Then this narrative is transposed to another medium like television, or the character is transposed to another medium like the metal or plastic toy. So there is a further fragmentation of an already fragmented narrative. The more series develop out of the initial one, the harder the consumer has to work to chase after them all.

Granted, 1960s serials hadn’t yet formalized the transmedia storytelling approach where different narratives were told in different media. It’s really not until the 1980s that this approach becomes formalized. But still, I see the early transmedia serialization of 1960s TV anime as an important precursor to the fragmentation and dispersal we find with digital media.

Some media mix producers like Otsuka Eiji have even remarked on this, saying digital tools make the narrative experiments they were doing in the 80s all the more easy to pull off. So while there is an intensification of the fragmentation and dispersal with the rise of digital networks, the serial and transmedial format of the anime media mix already contains the logic of digital networks in nascent form.

 

Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo’s studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on “globalization from below,” that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.